In this series of vignettes, we meet several of the Emperor’s Chosen, some of the most powerful individuals in all of Rokugan and beyond.
Chosen of the Emperor
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
It was yet winter in the Imperial City, but the enchantments that protected the Imperial Palace of the Divine Empress ensured, among a great many other things, that the terrible chill of the season never truly permeated the interior. That was the way it was supposed to work, of course, but in recent years it seemed that perhaps the enchantments were weakening. The Phoenix could be summoned to inspect them, naturally, but Togashi Satsu had never done so. If, by some strange happenstance of fate, the Phoenix were to offer him assurances that the enchantments were in fact working properly, then he would have no alternative but to accept that it was not the fading magic, but rather his own age that caused him to suffer such stiffness and discomfort in the first few moments of each day.
The old monk rose and stretched, grimacing at the chorus of creaks and pops from his joints, and he began his preparations for the day. Despite decades in service to the throne without obligations to his clan or family, he had never broken the habit of rising with the sun. Many did, of course, but he could not recall a time when he had not done so. Other than the servants and the always-silent sentries, there were rarely others about in the palace, as court sessions did not often start until mid-morning on most days. Perhaps it was for this reason that Satsu so enjoyed his morning walks in the palace’s expansive garden. It was when he most felt at peace, although lately even that was not complete sanctuary from his concerns.
“Good morning, Satsu-san.”
Satsu turned and smiled as a familiar face approached. “Good morning, Moru-san. How does the day find you?”
The other man smiled. His robes were immaculately folded and pressed, as they always were. Moru was, in Satsu’s opinion, the most fastidious monk he had ever known, but then he supposed that such things were to be expected from a monk who held the position of Imperial Advisor. “It is good, as all days are,” he said.
“I have not seen you since court adjourned for the festival,” Satsu observed.
“Indeed,” Moru said. “I have been studying at the temple to Ebisu near the western wall,” he said. “They have a surprisingly robust selection of ancient scrolls.” He stepped into stride along his friend as the two men walked. “I was hoping that you had heard word from the Dragon provinces.”
“I have,” Satsu said.
“Ah,” Moru observed. “I assume it was not what you had hoped, then.”
“My son will be heading to the Colonies to assume oversight of certain activities on behalf of the Dragon Clan, sometime before the end of this year,” Satsu said.
The older monk frowned slightly. “I know it is not what you wished for, my friend, but take heart. Your son is surely made of the same stern stuff you are. The Colonies will be better for his presence, and he will not be changed by them.”
“My son is a good man, of that I have no doubt,” Satsu said. “The Colonies, however, I feel are a dangerous influence on the minds and souls of a great many samurai. There are things there that tax the strength of a man’s spirit. I would spare my son such hardship.” He smiled. “We all wish for a better life for our children, I suppose.”
“I know a great many things, my friend,” the Brotherhood monk replied, “but about having children, I fear I know absolutely nothing.” The two men walked in silence for a short time before another man approached, and they both bowed sharply. The Imperial Consort smiled tersely and nodded in return, then proceeded in the opposite direction. After a moment, Moru added, “If you wish to speak of the difficulties of fatherhood, I imagine Setai-sama would be amenable to such a discussion.”
Satsu nodded sadly. “I know Setai-sama has great concerns about both his sons. I hear that Seiken is recovering from his injuries, however.”
“He will be as good as before, if not better,” Moru said. “Perhaps the experience will teach him the value of humility.”
Satsu frowned slightly. “We have known the man since he was born,” he said. “I do not wish to seem disrespectful. I am certain that Seiken will be a great man in time. He merely needs to find his inner peace.”
“Inner peace is a great commodity that is far too rare in the Empire today,” Moru said. “Previous dynasties have suffered from a lack of it, if history teaches us true understanding. Perhaps Seiken and his brother will show us that their mother’s strength will not be lost one day.”
“His brother,” Satsu said. “I hope that my fears regarding the Colonies will be dispelled upon Shibatsu’s return. Although the potential influence of the Spider could yet be a concern.”
“Destiny will unfold as it must,” Moru said. “The Empress seconded her second child to the Spider to ensure that there would be no fear of succession by a corrupted scion. Perhaps that is why such effort has been expended to ensure that Seiken is so well acquainted with the various clans, and is so martially powerful. No attempt to overthrow him could ever be successful, I imagine.”
“We can but hope.”
* * * * *
The succession of papers seemed endless. For every one he finished, it seemed as though there were at least two more to take its place. Even after three years of his duties, the enormity of the tasks before him never failed to daunt him when he first undertook them at the beginning of each season. It had only been a few hours since he had begun, but already Toku Hikaru felt absolutely exhausted. He placed the brush down and stretched before picking it up again. He reached for the paper, but hesitated. He stared at it for what must have been ten minutes before finally putting the brush down and deciding to go for a walk. “A man cannot work properly without a clear mind,” his father had often told him, and he decided to heed his father’s wisdom.
The section of the Imperial Palace that was appointed for use by Hikaru and others of his rank was often quiet. There were frequently reasons for the Imperial Advisor to be absent from the palace, even more so for the Treasurer, and Hikaru could honestly not recall ever seeing the Shogun make use of his chambers. The Voice of the Empress was frequently around, but Togashi Satsu was a peculiar man with peculiar habits, and he was often absent from the area for reasons that were completely inscrutable to anyone else. Hikaru often felt as though the entire area was exclusively for his benefit. He certainly put it to much greater use than any of his colleagues. He enjoyed the solitude of the hallways, but it was always inevitable that he would run across someone. Fortunately, this time, it was a close friend. Hikaru smiled, pleased at the opportunity for distracting conversation. “Tanzaki-san!” he called out in a cheerful tone. “What brings you to the palace on a day without court?”
Shosuro Tanzaki turned and bowed sharply. The smile on his mask was mocking, menacing, but the warmth in his eyes diffused it. “Good day to you, Hikaru-sama,” he said. “I did not expect to find the Imperial Chancellor in attendance today either. I was asked to bring some personal correspondence from my lord to the Voice of the Emperor.”
“I believe Satsu-sama is in the city today, but I am sure there are servants about who will oversee the delivery of the message for you. I could do it myself, if you prefer. As for my attendance,” he shrugged slightly. “I sometimes feel that there are no days when I do not have court.”
“I could not ask you to take time from your day for something as mundane and unworthy as correspondence,” Tanzaki said, tucking the scroll back into his obi. “And I am dismayed to hear of your schedule. The Scorpion have strong ties to your position, as you well know. We can appreciate the difficulty. If there is anything that I can help you with, I would be more than pleased to do so.”
“You are very gracious to ask, my friend, but unfortunately there is very little that can be helped with. It is primarily a matter of scheduling, and it seems that there is never a shortage of people demanding time and attention in court.”
“Indeed,” Tanzaki said, nodding knowingly. “Most of them have nothing of importance to say, I would wager.”
“You would win that wager resoundingly,” Hikaru said with a bitter laugh. “The minutia of it all is so… discouraging.”
“Well hopefully there must be some things of importance enough that they take center stage for your duties,” the Scorpion said. “That makes scheduling simpler, I imagine.”
“When there are indeed matters of import, then yes,” Hikaru said. “You might be surprised how rarely that takes place these days.”
“I suppose that the scale is different when you see things from the perspective of Imperial Chancellor,” Tanzaki nodded. “From a simple courtier like myself, of course, things that seem important are probably inconsequential to you.”
“I miss that perspective,” Hikaru admitted. “At least there are matters of a simple nature, like the reports from the Colonies.”
“The Colonies?” Tanzaki seemed confused, then rapidly bowed and adopted a neutral expression. “Forgive me, I did not mean to question.”
“I did not take it as such,” Hikaru said. “I am curious, however… would you find issue with the Colonies as part of the court agenda?”
Tanzaki seemed reluctant. “I would not feel comfortable speaking my ideas on that, my lord,” he replied. “I do not wish to seem as if I am trying to influence you.”
Hikaru laughed. “I am having a conversation with a friend, Tanzaki-san, nothing more. Please, speak your mind.”
The Scorpion hesitated for a moment. “Well, I myself have wondered at the value of reports from the courts in the Colonies. The samurai being sent by the clans are hardly the finest in the Empire. Devoting more than a few minutes to the goings on there seems like spending time assessing the events of lesser courts.” He shrugged. “I hope that is not an offensive comment, and I certainly do not mean to question you. It is merely one foolish courtier’s opinion.”
“I can see your point, somewhat, I must admit,” Hikaru said, rubbing his chin. “What would you consider a more pressing issue, if I might ask?”
Again, the Scorpion hesitated for a moment. “I would probably give additional time to the airing of grievances between the clans. The Lion and Unicorn, of course, and the Mantis and Crane. Perhaps others.”
“Bah,” Hikaru scoffed. “Tiresome topics. Are you not weary of hearing about them?”
“To some extent, certainly,” Tanzaki said. “I think that your allowance of them to speak the matter in court has prevented the exacerbation of military conflicts, however.”
Hikaru stopped in his tracks. “Really?” he pondered. “That is an interesting viewpoint, and one I had not considered.”
“Oh, certainly,” Tanzaki said. “I believe you provide an essential outlet for their frustrations, and have prevented a great deal of difficulty. I admire you greatly for that, and I think many owe you thanks.”
“Interesting,” Hikaru repeated. “You know, I think I must get back to work a bit. I have much to think about, and I think your advice has helped me sort out a scheduling issue that I have had for some time.”
Tanzaki smiled broadly and bowed. “It was my distinct pleasure, Chancellor.”
* * * * *
The tiny village was on very few maps, secluded as it was from any major roadway or thoroughfare of any importance. Tax collectors knew of its location, of course, because it seemed that there was nothing anywhere in the Empire that escaped their notice, but other than that very few people had ever taken notice of it. Or at least, very few people that the villagers wished to take notice of them. Today, it seemed, was a rare exception to that rule.
A military force, one hundred men strong, rode toward the village. There were a number of carts along with the procession, but they were already filled. The air in the village was one of alarm and confusion. The village elders walked out slowly to meet them, their very gait expressing caution. It was not until the procession drew closer, when the banners of the men riding behind the leader were more clear, that the villagers realized who approached, and their demeanor changed dramatically. One among the elders looked back to the village and called out, then there was cheering from the assembled peasants. The leader among the elders stepped forward and knelt on the ground, and the others followed suit. “The Heavens rain their favor upon us!” the old man said, his voice choked with emotion. “They have sent the greatest of the Empire’s servants, the Shogun, to alleviate our suffering!”
Moto Chuko, the chief shireikan of the Shogun, glanced to his lord. The Shogun did not speak, nor gesture, but he did not need to; the two men had known one another since childhood, and could often communicate with no need for words or movement. “Can you tell us, grandfather, if this village has been the victim of bandits?”
“Yes, noble samurai,” the leader said again. “Almost a month ago. They took a great deal of our supplies and possessions. We are almost out of food, and the winter has not yet ended.” He choked, wiping at his eyes. “We had almost given in to despair!”
“There will be no need of that,” Moto Taigo said. The Shogun’s voice was as deep and gruff as the man’s appearance suggested. “We have collected nearly all that was taken, as far as we can tell. This village will continue to serve the Empress, as it has in the past.”
“Praise the Heavens!” the leader continued. “With starvation looming and the sighting of the Naga in the south, we feared…”
“Naga?” Chuko’s attention was instantly gained. “Where were Naga sighted?”
The old man seemed confused. “To the south,” he replied. “One of our younger men rode south a few hours in hopes of finding some manner of food to feed the children. He saw them from a distance, moving through the forest.”
“Thank you, grandfather,” the Shogun said, and beckoned for his command staff to draw closer. “Take the elders and inspect the carts, old man. Make certain you have all you need.” To his officers, he adopted a more grim expression. “There have been rumors of small squadrons of Naga active near important fortifications throughout the southern reaches of the Empire,” he said. “If this is one such group, we may be able to intercept them or to gain some insight as to their purpose.”
“Do you wish the men made ready to move out?” Chuko asked.
Taigo considered it for a moment. “Yes, but not immediately. We cannot risk alerting the enemy to our presence. We must send in a small unit to investigate the matter first, and then act only when we know exactly what we face.”
Chuko nodded. “I will get Kenrao’s unit,” he said. “They are the finest scouts.”
The Shogun considered for a moment, then nodded. “They can track the beasts, but we need to understand their motives. We need some assessment of their tactics.”
“Send me, my lord,” Matsu Koyama said at once. “I can perform this task.”
Again, the Shogun nodded. “None is better suited, Koyama. You have command.”
“I will not fail you, Shogun,” the Lion said at once, and spurred his horse to gallop back toward the greater bulk of the formation.
Chuko watched the other man go. “Do you think the Matsu can resist the temptation to destroy the Naga on sight?”
“Koyama knows his duty,” Taigo replied. “I am not concerned.” He shifted in the saddle. “Frankly I am almost glad to hear about the Naga. We have been inactive far too long. This group of bandits was even more pathetic than the last. Remember them? Those thieves who stole the herald’s gift?”
“Pitiful,” Chuko agreed. “The Tao says a soldier’s greatest joy should be unneeded.”
“The Tao says a great many things,” Taigo observed, “a number of which are ridiculously stupid.”
Chuko winced at the comment, but chuckled just a little all the same. He was still feeling conflicted when the village elder approached tentatively, looking a bit confused. “Forgive me, noble warriors, we are extremely grateful, but… there… ah…”
“Feel no fear, old one,” the Shogun said. “Speak your piece.”
“Well, my lord, there is… actually more than was taken. We do not wish to take that which does not belong to us.”
“You are wise to be so cautious,” Chuko observed. “The Shogun has supplemented your stolen goods with supplies from those of the Shogunate. Take them and enjoy prosperity. It is his wish.”
The old man looked at his saviors with awe. “We can never thank you enough for this,” he said in a cracking voice.
“Remember my father,” Taigo said. “He believed that all those who toiled for the Empire deserved to be rewarded. That all those who knew the value of true work should know the fruits of their labor. His teachings led me to this point.”
“Your father,” the old man said. “He must look upon you from the Heavens and know such pride!”
Taigo smiled. “Thank you, old one.”
“We shall build a shrine to his honor!” the old man continued. “Honorable Shogun, may I know your father’s name, that it might be properly consecrated?”
“Of course,” Taigo said. “My father’s name was Moto Chagatai. You have my thanks for this, old one. I will remember this village for all my days.”
The old man nodded happily and hurried off to oversee the unloading of the carts Chuko watched him go. “The unaligned lands will be filled with shrines to your father, at this rate,” he observed. “Not that anyone could be more deserving,” he added hastily, aware of how touchy his friend was on the subject of his father.
Taigo was impassive. “He will be remembered across the Empire as the hero he was,” he finally said. “I shall see it before I die. This I have sworn, this I shall see done.”
* * * * *
The building that housed the Toshi Ranbo offices of the Imperial Treasury were surprisingly unassuming, with only a few indications of their function adorning the exterior. It was sensible, of course, for what samurai of appropriate sensibilities would wish to be reminded of such base concerns? Seppun Jinsai clucked his tongue in distaste at the very thought. As was his custom, he took a moment to inspect his garments before entering, to ensure that they were in order and that they were appropriate for the business at hand. It was a habit he had cultivated during his youth, when he had been a magistrate in service to the Seppun and Imperial families, and one that had served him well in the many years since he had ascended to serve as part of the family’s administration. Today’s attire was formal but understated; he did not wish anyone to mistakenly believe he considered today’s business to be overly important, and thus his robes were somewhat more muted than normal.
With his yojimbo following closely, Jinsai swept into the building. The samurai who worked within bowed low at his arrival, of course, and he acknowledged them with the barest nod of his head. To do less would have been inappropriate, of course, but he did not wish to seem even slightly impressed by their work. None attempted to bar his path, surely recognizing his importance and the magnitude of his presence in such a place. Inwardly, Jinsai was somewhat surprised at the number of people toiling within the treasury. He was saddened by it, to tell the truth. How could so many samurai become embroiled in the monotony of such base pursuits? Unfortunate, but he supposed such things were necessary. He approached the center of the chamber, where a dais contained a single desk overlooking all the work being done in the room. A woman was there, busily inscribing a scroll with a calligraphy brush that seemed well-worn by similar efforts over a long period of time. She did not look up right away, which irritated Jinsai, but it did give him an opportunity to take stock of her.
Seppun Ritisharu had always been a lovely woman, but not in the sense that most found ladies of the Imperial families attractive. She was physically appealing, yes, but she possessed a quiet certainty, an unflappable intensity and devotion to the task at hand, that seemed to inspire adoration in others. There had been no shortage of suitors in her youth, but she had married a similarly quiet and self-assured man, the captain of one of the very few Imperial ships that sailed upon the sea, and in doing so chosen affection over advancement. It was ridiculous, of course, but then so was her interest in and acceptance of the position of Imperial Treasurer. Jinsai had first thought that Ritisharu had accepted the position as a benefit to the Seppun family, sacrificing her personal honor to dirty her spirit with concerns of commerce, but it rapidly became evident that she was actually interested in the job, and quite proficient at it. In the years since her appointment, she had been called the only one worthy to replace her predecessor, the infamous Yoritomo Utemaro. The Seppun had indeed enjoyed the benefits of having one of the Emperor’s Chosen, but Jinsai sometimes wondered if it was worth it for what he regarded of the shame of the position being passed to one of his own.
Ritisharu looked up and offered a slight smile. “Good day, lord Jinsai,” she said, rising and bowing. “I was not told to expect you. I apologize for not making ready. May I offer you refreshment?”
“Oh no, thank you,” Jinsai said with his most sincere smile. “I do not wish to tarry any longer than necessary. How goes your grand work, Ritisharu-san?”
“Well, thank you,” she replied. “I am certain you did not come to simply socialize, however, and I know how robust your schedule can be, so surely there is something I can help you with?”
Jinsai chuckled. “Ever direct. I enjoy that about you, I must say.” Jinsai made a show of surveying the room and the goings-on there. “I have heard an interesting rumor that I wished to address with you. I have heard that you are planning another trip to the Colonies. Is that an accurate statement?”
“Mmm,” Jinsai intoned. “You have been on more than one occasion, have you not?”
Ritisharu’s expression was annoyingly inscrutable. “I have been several times, yes.”
“For what purpose?”
She looked at him in such a way that evoked the same emotions as a wayward student gazed upon by a knowing sensei, and he hated her a little bit for it. “The Empire has been rebuilt over the course of two decades, thanks largely to the resources constantly coming out of the Colonies. The wealth of supplies that comes to use from there must be carefully examined and catalogued if we are to ensure it is used properly and for the purposes the Empress desires.”
Jinsai was unable to keep from scoffing. “Money. How wretched. Not unlike the Colonies themselves, I say.”
“Dislike them as you may, but as the Imperial Treasurer I can ill afford to simply ignore the process of importing such vast quantities of material. Doing so would permit anyone involved in the process to simply divert huge amounts of wealth for their own purposes. I think you would agree such a thing is unacceptable.”
“Of course,” Jinsai said, regaining his composure instantly. “However, I would also say that it is unseemly for particularly high-ranking members of the Imperial families to be overly familiar with the Colonies and the goings-on there. “
Ritisharu’s eyebrows arched. “I presume you mean other than the Imperial Governor?”
“Bah,” Jinsai said, waving the comment away like a bothersome insect. “We are all better off without Suikihime with us here in the Empire. Such an irritatingly provocative woman, always questioning and challenging convention.”
The Treasurer seemed unfazed by the conversation. “Regardless, my duties require me to visit the Colonies periodically, and that is what I must do. If that gives you offense, then I can only apologize. I will not forsake my duty in the name of courtesy, however.”
“If the Colonies cannot be sustained without the direct intervention of people such as yourself, perhaps they should be permitted to fail and the entire experiment abandoned,” Jinsai said. “What good has come of them?”
Finally, Ritisharu expressed some emotion. In this particular case, to Jinsai’s shock, it appeared to be exasperation. “I assume you mean other than the revitalization of the Empire, of which we were just speaking?”
“The Empire would have endured. The clans would simply have had to make difficult adjustments.”
“It is quite difficult to adjust to having no rice to eat, I would imagine,” Ritisharu countered.
Jinsai smiled and shrugged. “Let them eat barley, then.”
Ritisharu returned his smile. “This has been a wonderful visit, my lord, but I regret that my duties must pull me away. I will, if you wish, submit an itinerary of my travel plans regarding the Colonies.”
The Seppun lord frowned. “Do not make me remind you that you are sworn to serve me, Ritisharu,” he cautioned.
If the comment disturbed her, she gave no sign. “Do not force me to remind you that my position grants me autonomy, and that my duty to the Empress is vastly more important than your close-minded, hubristic concerns.” She paused for a moment, then thought to add, “My lord.”
Jinsai was aghast at her temerity. “How dare you!” he barked.
Ritisharu returned to her papers. “I believe we are finished here, my lord. Thank you for your time, and I apologize for being unable to offer you greater hospitality. As I said, you will receive my itinerary before the end of the day.”
Jinsai scowled and turned to leave. “This is not over,” he said over his shoulder.
Again, the Treasurer did not look up. “I assure you it is, my lord.”
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