A trio of vignettes from around the Emerald Empire, and beyond.
Scenes from the Empire
By Nancy Sauer, Yoon Ha Lee, and Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
Shortly after the defeat of Kali-Ma, somewhere in the Tsuruchi Provinces
The celebration at the House of the Golden Squirrel was noisy, but he had heard noisier: Unlike the Crab, the Spider did not go in for indiscriminate destruction of sake houses. Not tonight, at least.
Saharawalked across the street and slid aside the door. The elderly peasant man who sat collecting swords for polishing looked relieved to see someone bearing the mon of the Emerald Magistrates.Saharahanded over his blades without comment and entered the main room. The noise dipped as people turned to see who the newcomer was and then died away as they took in the mon he wore.Saharasmiled slightly. “I amSahara,” he said. “Daigotsu Sahara.” It was a name he hadn’t claimed for years, even in his dreams.
A murmur ran through the room and from somewhere off to his leftSaharaheard the boom of laughter. “You were thatSahara? You won the Emerald Tournament?” The questioner walked up toSahara, smiling broadly. He wore the mon of the Empress Guard over his heart.
“You must be Gahseng,”Saharasaid.
“I am!” he said loudly.Saharasuspected that the other man’s volume was fueled by sake. “I thought I was the highest ranking of the Empress’s servants here, but I think you have me beat.”
Saharamade a dismissive gesture. “We all serve Daigotsu as we are able.”
“Well said!” Gahseng roared. “Come, sit with Setsuko and I and drink with us. We have much to celebrate.”
* * *
Shiba Erena looked up from the report and gazed at the man who had brought it. Bayushi Hirose met her eyes calmly; whatever emotion he was currently feeling was locked behind mask and discipline. “This is terrible,” she said. “Gahseng, a Spider? A tainted man, serving in the Empress’s Guard?”
“It is indeed unfortunate,” Hirose agreed. “Doubly so, as he has been a fine guard–perhaps a position of responsibility can be found for him among those being sent to the Ivory Kingdom.”
Erena considered the matter dispassionately. Gahseng had been recommended to the Guard by an Otomo courtier, but no blame would attach to him: his family would see to that. The blame would fall on her then, and her decision now was how to face that fate. “I will ask for a meeting with the Voice at his earliest convenience,” she said, “and offer my resignation.” And request permission to seppuku, but some things were too obvious to need saying.
“Shiba-san,” Hirose said, “I do not think that is necessary.”
“I am first of the Guard,” Erena said. “It will not come to dishonor by my action, or lack of action.”
“Your determination is a guide for us all, but I do not think you are considering the entire issue. The Spider are a Great Clan now, by the Empress’s command. Why should they not have members in the Empress’s Guard? The life of Daigotsu’s son depends on her good will, which should give them excellent incentive for keeping her safe.”
Erena considered this for a moment. “It does not matter. The scandal of allowing Gahseng in will be immense.”
“One Spider is an embarrassment,” Hirose said. “Two is a policy.”
“That–” Erena broke off what she had been about to say and tried to reorganize her thoughts. “You are surely joking.”
“Not in the least. There will be talk, of course, and outrage, but no one can outright condemn their presence without criticizing the Empress’s decision.” Hirose shrugged. “Some will attempt to use it to remove you, but it will be nothing Iduzki and I can’t deal with.”
“You are working very hard to save me, when my removal would clear the way for you to lead the Guard.”
Hirose looked hurt. “You have held the Guard together and maintained its morale throughout this long, terrible year. To abandon you would be as unforgivable as abandoning the Empress.”
Erena gave him a sharp look, trying to will truth out of him. “Aren’t you supposed to take your mask off when you say something like that?”
“A heartfelt gesture ruined by generations of bad playwrights,” Hirose said. “You must believe all the days we have served together, or none of them.”
Erena was silent for a long moment, thinking. “Even if one accepted your logic, the plan would not work. We cannot simply grab a random Spider samurai and add him to the Guard.”
Hirose smiled. “Even with an Otomo’s backing, it is not easy for a ronin to attain an important post. Gahseng was investigated by one of the Emerald Magistrates before he was forwarded to you. The approval was written by Suzume Sahara, who had been a ronin himself before the Sparrow had offered him fealty.Saharais in a sake house this evening with Gahseng, celebrating the creation of the Spider Clan.”
“Susumu, Gahseng,Sahara–who next?” Erena wondered aloud. Silently she concluded thatSaharamade Hirose’s actions explicable: Appointing him would draw attention away from the fact that Shosuro Jimen had given a Spider a high-ranking position in the Emerald Magistrates. It made her feel more secure about accepting his counsel on the subject.
“I am reasonably sure the rest of the Empress’sChosenare who they say they are,” Hirose said.
“Comforting,” Erena said, getting up. “I must see the Empress and learn what she thinks of this.”
“The Empress, and not her Voice?”
Erena winced. “I already know what Togashi Satsu will say about this.”
* * *
Saharahurried towards the building that currently served as the barracks of the Empress’s Guard. He didn’t know why Shiba Erena needed an Emerald Magistrate, and he could only pray that his hangover wouldn’t get in the way of his service to her.
A member of the Guard was stationed at the door and after seeing Erena’s message he ledSaharainto the building. The magistrate followed him down a hall and into a large room that appeared to be holding every member of the Guard not currently on duty guarding the Empress. Shiba Erena herself was standing at the back of the room, flanked by Bayushi Hirose and Kakita Idzuki. Erena looked perfectly calm, Hirose was inscrutable, and Idzuki was scowling. Gahseng was there was well, standing among–no,Sahara’s mind corrected–surrounded by–a number of Guards. Something that wasn’t his headache started clamoring for attention.
“Shiba-san, I came as soon as I got your message.”Saharabowed and offered the note that had summoned him. The hairs on his neck prickled as he did so, reminding him that to bow was to put oneself at another’s mercy.
“Your promptness does you credit, Daigotsu-san,” Erena replied.
Sahara’s first impulse was to argue–he had prepared for something like this long ago, and had several speeches rehearsed for it. His second was to wonder if he was going to die here, and how many of the Guard he could take down with him, and if that were the point: a bloody, sacrificial plot to discredit the Spider. “What do you wish from me, Shiba-san?” he asked instead.
“You do not deny the name,” Erena said.
“I see no reason to,”Saharasaid. “My lord had ordered me to hide my true allegiance and seek service with another clan. I obeyed his commands, as any samurai would.”
“I think many samurai would argue the point, but that is not my business today.” Erena gestured at Gahseng. “Daigotsu Gahseng,” she laid only the slightest stress on the name, “has been found to be Tainted. As the Empress has commanded, he will be sent out to the Ivory Kingdoms. You will take his place in the Empress’s Guard.”
There were several thingsSaharahad expected her to say: this was not any of them. He was being ordered to take up a station that most samurai would kill to attain. It was his loyalty to Daigotsu that had made this possible,Sahararealized, and a fierce joy awoke in him. “I am at the Empress’s service,” he said. The Empress’s, and Daigotsu’s.
* * * * *
A Skewed Path
A few years after the Destroyer War…
It was no use. Tamori Emina washed out her brush, taking no pleasure in the small ritual, and set it out to dry. The back of a miscopied page of tanka was covered with her wandering brush strokes, lines undulating from thick to thin and back again. She had tried to use the ink before it dried on the brush, but had failed to come up with the words she desired. Painting squiggled squirrels and orchids would have been a better use of her time.
Two months ago, a Scorpion courtier had asked if she would be willing to write an introduction to a collection of romantic stories. The Scorpion had been at pains to make clear that the collection was a personal project, meant to cheer up a lovesick friend who was stationed at the Scorpion Wall. Emina didn’t believe a word of it, but it was true that the courtier had excellent taste in literature, and since Benten had blessed her, she felt it was part of her duty to help.
Emina had read each story three or four times. One of them, for instance, was about a ronin who saw a gathering of yuki no onna on a winter journey. Afterwards he spotted their faces in every drift of snow, every pane of ice or still water. No matter how long he searched, however, he never met them again. He died without realizing that his very wanderings, the skewed path of his footsteps across the wild woods, traced out one of the favorite dances of a particular yuki no onna: a covert benediction. Emina liked this one, although it was difficult not to look behind her as she made the ordinary trek to the garden for meditation and wonder what her footsteps traced out.
Not all the stories were so melancholy. The improbable one about the courtship between a horseless Utaku and a shipless Mantis had many fine comic moments, including the one where the two realized that they could turn an abandoned hut upside down and sail it down the river to an uninhabited isle for a tryst, bailing water all the way. It only got funnier once the lovers discovered that the isle was the back of a very bored orochi.
Emina stared at the manuscript. She had been reading the same sentence for the past fifteen minutes. It was a perfectly good sentence, well-balanced, beautifully teasing in its description of the lovers’ ardor. But Emina couldn’t make herself care.
I am an unworthy vessel for your blessing, Emina thought to Benten. The Fortune gave no sign that he had heard. She stood up and went to the garden, for once forgetting to glance back at her footsteps.
The garden shivered with pale yellow and dry green: the first signs of approaching autumn. Emina meditated in the shade of a maple whose leaves were veined red, but her thoughts kept circling back to Tamori Shaitung and Tamori Nakamuro, to the spell-blast that had consumed them and their enemies.
They had died together, complete in their union.
They had still died.
Emina gave up her pretense of meditation and laughed bitterly. What had she expected? Both shugenja had known their duty. She should be celebrating their honorable deaths.
Instead, all she could think of was the first time she had attended Shaitung at a play. Shaitung had had to be talked into the diversion, but at the end they had both agreed it was worth it, despite–or perhaps because–of the antics of a certain irrepressible stagehand. She wondered sometimes if Shaitung and Nakamuro had ever had the leisure for such entertainments.
Two magpies chattered at each other from a nearby tree. Emina looked up, wondering if they were paired. She knew a sister who took an interest in the habits of birds. Perhaps she should ask about magpies the next time they saw each other. But in truth she knew that she would do no such thing. The matter was no longer of any great interest.
After a while, Emina went back inside, frowning. She should have been moved by the devotion shared by her mistress and her mistress’s chosen husband. Instead all she could think of was the hard truth of duty. The importance of their death was not in the love that they had shared, but the fact that they had been willing to sacrifice everything to kill their attackers.
She ground her inkstone and mixed it with water, still frowning. The empty sheet of paper was still there. This time she began writing not an introduction to the collection of charming stories, but an apology.
Shosuro-san, she began, I regret to inform you that I will not be able to write the introduction that you desire. However, I wish you the best in your endeavor, and I would like to recommend that you contact a Crane courtier of my acquaintance who will surely be able to do justice to your project….
The words fell dryly from her brush. She wished she had something better to offer. But she did the Scorpion no favors by writing a few thousand dead and insincere words.
Emina washed out her brush and stared at the wall as the ink dried. Then she looked back down at her calligraphy. Every stroke was perfectly formed in the style that her sensei had taught her years ago. Some quality had gone out of the writing, however. She was no master calligrapher, but the best examples of her work had a certain lilting rhythm, a sense of balanced passion, and now both were gone.
Benten’s blessing had gone out from her. Even so, Emina could not find it in herself to regret it. She had helped bring Shaitung and Nakamuro together, but the end of their story had shown her a more important path.
Emina didn’t go into the garden for a long time after that, and she wouldn’t have recognized the particular skewed path of her footsteps in her own handwriting in any case.
* * * * *
When she found him, he was in the archery range, maintaining the oblique stance, arms raised, bow drawn tautly. Though his back was to her, she knew he was concentrating on the target with his one mortal eye. His arms were relaxed; the burden of the yumi’s draw was squarely on his back. He exhaled, sending the arrow to its mark. In the way of practiced archers, he did not merely pull the bow and release. He pushed the arrow. The technique was flawless. It took her breath away.
He turned his head. His jade eye flashed from over his shoulder, and he smiled. “Musume,” he said, lowering his bow, “welcome home.”
She bowed low in her white gi and black hakama. “Father,” she said.
He returned his attention to the target, maintaining the oblique stance. With quiet, practiced movements he drew another arrow, seizing it with his thumb and the ring around his middle finger. “How did you perform?” he asked. She waited until he released his arrow to reply.
Her eyes lowered shamefully. “I failed you, father,” she said softly. “I did not win the tournament.”
She left her eyes lowered for the long silence that followed. When she heard another arrow strike the target, she looked up again, wondering if he had not heard her. Her father was still smiling, reaching for the last of the four arrows for his set.
“I am told,” he said, “that you suffered only one batsu in three rounds.”
“It was not enough,” she replied.
He sent his last arrow to the target. Dead on. He smiled again. “I was twice your age before I could accomplish that,” he said. “I am impressed.”
Her eyes widened with surprise, and she felt heat come to her face. He dropped his stance and grinned. His eye twinkled playfully in opposition to the seriousness of its jade partner. “I am proud of you,” he said. “You are the future of the Shinjo, Musume. You will redeem our family.”
As he turned back to the target and bowed in respect, she watched him from her obedient seiza and felt her heart swell. Perhaps one day she would redeem the Shinjo, but it did not matter to her. She wanted only to be worthy of him, her father, the greatest man in the Empire…
Min-Hee opened her eyes. The sunlight reflecting off the pearl-white sands burned the memory away. She was four days from Journey’s End Keep, accompanying the latest of many caravans to the colonies. A long line of oxen-pulled carts and wagons stretched beyond and behind her, peppered with Unicorn sentries.Monsof many clans, many families, fluttered in the sand-hewn breeze. From on her horse, she could see in the distance sands churning through a wide path in a rocky canyon. Her burlap cloak billowed around her.
“My lady?” the voice repeated. Min-Hee looked to her side; Iuchi Yupadi, her trusted Lieutenant, had snapped her from her reverie. For a moment, the Khan spotted the crease of concern on the youthful woman’s brow, but it was banished the instant Min-Hee’s eyes fell upon her. “I apologize for interrupting your meditations,” she said, lowering her head.
Min-Hee returned her gaze to her surroundings. “What have the scouts found?”
“As you suspected, my lady,” Yupadi replied, her voice cold in contrast to the oppressive heat of the sands. Of the entire caravan, her brow alone was free of sweat. “An ambush awaits us. The scouts spotted a small raid party taking positions within the center of the canyon. They are well-concealed from that vantage, but they did not bother to hide their flanks.”
The Khan allowed a brief smile. “Is that so?”
“They are armed with Oyumi, it seems.” Yupadi paused as her Khan absorbed this information. “Your orders?”
Min-Hee crossed her arms and nodded. “The information corresponds with the reports. Tell the others to abide by the primary plan. Wait until the signal to strike.”
Yupadi bowed in her saddle. “Hai,” she replied, then spurred her horse to carry the Khan’s orders.
”So these are the pests that are troubling the caravans,” she murmured. “Let’s see what manner of warriors they are.”
* * *
When the caravan was fully entrenched within the canyon, the raiders struck. They knew their craft well; they waited until the first of the wagons crossed the brief canyon before attacking mid-line. The centermost wagons, flanked two-by-two, were cut off and helpless. They rose from rocky hiding places and fired bolts into the guards beside the wagons. The Unicorn soldiers, wrapped in long canvas cloaks, tumbled sideways, the bolts protruding from their sides. The wagons stopped as the raiders leapt from their hiding places, drawing blades and charging the fallen guards. Wearing scraps of bronze armor over their sand-colored tunics, they bellowed an inscrutable war-cry, eyes glinting with murderous intent.
When they were but twelve feet away, the sound of a humming-bulb arrow split the canyon. As one, the guards stood, seemingly shrugging off their wounds. With one fluid motion, they cast aside their canvas cloaks, revealing wooden plank-shields they’d hidden beneath. The raiders skidded to a halt, their surprised expressions shifting to horror. The Unicorn charged, dropping their planks and drawing their swords. The scouts appeared from within the centermost wagons, raining bow-fire.
In less than one instant, the raider’s attack was shattered. Those furthest from the Unicorn turned and fled, scrambling up the rocky outcroppings. Those that did not fall from the hail of arrows met their ends on Unicorn blades. The skirmish was short and brutal.
Min-Hee walked among the dead scattered along the canyon floor. Her eyes moved from one body to the next. They were men with weathered features and skin bronzed from sun. Their tunics were short-cut, as if they did not mind the sting of wind-borne sand. Their armor bore no markings, and their weapons were scavenged and of various sorts. As Yupadi approached, Min-Hee cast her a quiet look.
“I do not recognize these men,” she said.
Yupadi shook her head. “They are not Rokugani,” she affirmed, “but I do not know much else. The kami are confused.”
“That will make it difficult to interrogate the prisoners,” Min-Hee said.
“That is the least of our obstacles, my lady.” After a pause, Yupadi added, “It seems they are dead.”
Min-Hee frowned. A wordless command.
“We successfully isolated a small group, as you planned,” Yupadi explained carefully, “but regrettably, when we closed in, they cut their own throats.” She bowed. “It couldn’t be helped. Our apologies, my lady.”
Yupadi had accepted the blame, as per etiquette, but as far as Min-Hee was concerned this was her own miscalculation. She had not predicted that dishonorable raiders would evade capture through suicide. Like samurai. Her gaze returned to the corpse at her feet. “Then we have learned nothing.”
“You defended the caravan,” said Yupadi, “Your counter-offense was flawless, my lady. The raiders will not dare to attack again.”
“No,” said Min-Hee, her voice betraying a hint of alarm, “It is not done here. If we have not uncovered their identity, then we have failed.” She gestured to the corpse at her feet. “Look. Their armor is crafted from scraps. It is unmarked. Their attack was coordinated. They used Oyumi, which are difficult weapons.” Her eyes narrowed. “These are not simple bandits. They were outfitted for this purpose. They were trained.”
“They were still no match for you, my lady,” Yupadi remarked, a hint of pride in her otherwise cold voice.
Min-Hee closed her eyes against the sand-strewn wind. “It was not enough,” she replied.
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