The second of three fictions detailing the events of the Embers of War expansion.
Embers of War, Part 2: the Lion
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Western Wastes were a misbegotten place, a seat of misery and unpleasantness that most samurai wished to avoid at all costs. Even among the stalwart Unicorn, respected for their hardiness and their ability to adapt to new and unusual surroundings, few braved the Western Wastes by choice, and those few who did only did so for very short periods, always eager to leave them behind.
Ikoma Shinju imagined that she was the only soul in the mortal world that found the Wastes enjoyable. How could the others not see it? It was flawlessly barren, with resources so meager that only the most skilled and industrious of all warriors could derive sustenance enough to survive in its desolate expanse. It was the ultimate test of skill, the greatest challenge of a samurai’s will to survive. It thrilled her to test her training so completely, forcing her to fall back on the most essential teachings of her sensei back at the Ikoma dojo. This morning she had made a meal of eggs, a small clutch she had discovered after tracking a lizard through the loose soil. It was the first time she had eaten in two days, and the sensation of it still thrilled her. She felt the strength flow from the eggs into her body, restoring power to her limbs. She called upon that strength to allow her to move across the plains at remarkable speed.
The sun glinted off of something in the distance, bringing Shinju to an abrupt halt. Her breath was coming quicker now, but she did not permit fatigue to weaken her. She shielded her eyes from the sun, trying to make out whatever might have caught her attention from this distance. The stones in the Wastes were dull and flat, having been worn down over centuries of exposure to the winds that tore through the area much of the year. She frowned. Her supplies were long since gone, and even as gifted as she was, she knew very well that taking unnecessary risks was a dangerous and foolhardy game. If she deviated from her path and added too much time to her travels, she could risk her life. But then, Shinju reflected, risks were the spice that made a bland dish palatable. Shifting to face the new direction, she resumed running.
There were many things that could have caused the glinting Shinju had noticed, but she had not expected anything like what she actually found. Every Lion knew the remains of a battle when they saw it, and this was surely the results of a battle. There was approximately one square mile of carnage that resulted from what she would estimate was a total force of approximately two hundred troops embroiled in desperate combat. She found signs everywhere that the Unicorn were among those embroiled in the battle. There were corpses, both man and horse, clad in the clan’s colors, and even a lone war banner that appeared to have fallen during the course of the fighting. Shinju could see no sign that other Unicorn had yet discovered the site of the battle, and indeed, it appeared as though the conflict had concluded only a matter of hours ago. If there was any point to the battle, Shinju could not easily determine what it might have been, for there were no signs of the caravans that the Unicorn frequently escorted through the Wastes. She would backtrack and check for signs of such things after she was finished, but for the moment, she felt the need to better understand exactly what she was seeing.
Everywhere, Shinju found signs that bodies had been taken away. Whomever the Unicorn had battled, regardless of whether the clan had been victorious or defeated (and here Shinju felt sure she knew the answer even in the absence of testimony or evidence), it appeared that the dead had been carried away. For what purpose she was unsure, but she found the notion quite troubling. For some time, she scoured the battleground, searching for any trace of those who might have done such a terrible thing, and after some time she found only a blade. It was much shorter than a katana, shorter even than a wakizashi, but longer and heavier than a tanto. It was completely straight, and tapered to a centered point at the end. It was surprisingly heavy as well, and had little in the way of an edge. It was a strange weapon, a gaijin weapon, but Shinju knew that it might give some hint as to the nature of those who had done this thing. The Lion had no particular love for the Unicorn in these days, of course, but Shinju knew she was not alone in that she would die before she allowed a single samurai’s life to be extinguished by a gaijin when it was within her power to stop it.
The master scout rose, carefully wrapping the blade to prevent losing it or, to be honest, having to touch it more than absolutely necessary. Then she turned toward the Empire and began the trek back toward the Lion lands.
This time her pace was more urgent.
* * * * *
Kitsu Miro discreetly glanced out the window to gauge the position of the sun. Judging by the length of the shadows she could see, it was growing nearer to the hour of evening meal, and certainly well into the late afternoon. The court session would, she imagined, last only a short while longer. For that, she was grateful; she had been unable to visit her preferred shrine in the Temple District for the past two days due to the requirements of her duties, and she imagined that there was a growing spiritual pall over her that she needed to expunge with prayer and meditation. Her daily prayers had not ceased, of course, but it was necessary to reinforce such things with true acts of devotion, and time spent in the temple was the finest of such methods.
“The hour grows late,” Moro heard the Imperial Governor say, her tone somewhere between propriety and boredom, as always. “There is but one more matter that must come before this court, and then we shall adjourn until the festival three days hence.” Miro sensed a stir from those around her at these words, for like she, they had believed the agenda for the day concluded. She was unaware of anything further to come before the court, and it seemed that there were others like her. The Imperial Governor exuded a glimmer of amusement at their discomfit, although it was possible this was merely Miro’s imagination.
One of the Governor’s functionaries stepped forward and bowed. “The Governor is pleased to recognize the delegation of the Phoenix Clan at this time.”
A member of thePhoenixstepped forward. She was a particularly pale woman, wearing a strange mask that appeared for all intents and purposes to be a blindfold, but Miro knew that to assume aPhoenixcould not see was folly; likely some manner of enchantment permitted it. Such masks were something of a fad among manyPhoenix, in honor of their Champion. “ThePhoenixare grateful to the Governor for permitting such a last minute addition to her already hectic schedule,” the woman said, her voice a harsh whisper that nevertheless carried perfectly. “I am Asako Kaitoko, representative of the Council of Elemental Masters and the ranking member of the Asako Inquisitors within the Colonies. As many of you may know, I recently experienced something of a personal difficulty during exploration of the unmapped regions of this splendid land, an endeavor that resulted in a costly wound to myself, and the even more costly loss of a great comrade among my clan.”
There was a murmur among those assembled. The tales from the unexplored lands were circulating rapidly among those of the court, many growing in the telling. For one who had actually participated in such endeavors to return to share their story was something new, and it seemed many were excited by the possibility. “I have witnessed first hand, far more closely than I would have preferred, in retrospect, the dangers that this land presents to those who choose to dwell within it. And I speak here only of the physical dangers; I consider the danger the secrets this land presents to the souls of its denizens an order of magnitude more dangerous. It is the concern of the Phoenix Clan that the good and honorable people of theSecondCityare at risk during this time of exploration. New discoveries and secrets are being uncovered each day, and the potential for dangers to the spirit of even the most honorable samurai is very real.”
Miro frowned. There were others around here, not Lion of course, who seemed as if they were in agreement. “To safeguard the denizens of theSecondCity, thePhoenixwish to petition for the right to create a new temple within the Temple District,” Kaitoko continued. “Further, we wish to formally inform the Governor of our intent to staff this temple with a significantly increased presence of Asako Inquisitors, whom we sincerely hope the Governor will make use of to ensure the proper protection of her vassals is continued with our expertise made proper use of.”
Again, a murmur rippled through the court. A court of similar importance within the Empire proper would be free of such weak-willed utterances, Miro thought absently, even as she felt herself stepping forward. “My lady Governor,” she said, only recognizing that it was her voice as if in a dream, “this is a grave affront to the honor of the Lion Clan.”
“Oh?” Otomo Suikihime said, arching her eyebrows in mock surprise. “That is a most interesting observation. Please, tell me how exactly this is an attack upon the Lion, because that is certainly not the first thing that entered my mind as Kaitoko was speaking.”
All eyes turned upon Miro, but she did not permit herself to shrink from it. “The Lion are responsible for a minimum of half the forces currently serving in the forces that defend theSecondCityfrom all attacks,” she said. “The head of the venerable Second City Guardsmen is among our most celebrated heroes. This city is virtually free from crime or violence, thanks in large part due to the efforts of the Lion Clan. To imply that the city will come under some sudden onslaught of danger that only the Phoenix are fit to protect it from is a slander against the efforts of hundreds of honorable Lion warriors over the course of more than two decades.”
“Your assertion is by and large correct,” Suikihime said. “I trust that the Lion, ever the greatest of warriors, are still not arrogant enough to presume that they can overcome any threat? Even those that they are completely ignorant of?”
“It is the duty of the Lion to stand against any and all threats, no matter what their nature or origin,” Miro said proudly. “I have all faith in my kinsmen. The inevitability of our victory is as sure as that as fact that the Jade Sun shall rise each morning, and the Obsidian Moon each night. There is room for nothing in my heart but certainty.” She glanced at thePhoenix.
“Most curious,” the Governor said. “I seem to recall that the Lion failed to anticipate and protect my predecessor from the threat posed by the Dark Naga.”
The sound of fans popping open throughout the chamber was like the harshest of all whispers, and Miro felt her face grow hot. “For that mistake, atonement has been made,” she said quietly. “Tsudoken-sama offered his seppuku, and it was denied by the Imperial families. To condemn a single soul for the actions of an inhuman monster…”
“Would be to condemn all who were victimized by its nefarious actions, yes,” Suikihime said, affecting an air of slight disinterest. “I recall the edicts of my family rather clearly. Still, I should think that the Lion would wish to thank the Phoenix for such efforts of such a nature. After all, if thePhoenixwere permitted to perform such a duty, it would only ensure that further such embarrassments were far less likely to occur in the future, would you not agree? It is not as if the Lion are particularly well known for their knowledge of or expertise in countering spiritual threats, after all. Present company excluded, of course.”
Miro attempted to overlook the obvious slight. “My presence and the others of my family who dwell within the city were deployed here for specifically this reason, my lady: to ensure that such surprises could not occur again.”
“The Lion were wise to take such precautions,” the Governor said with a nod. “Perhaps others will say the same about me when I take steps to ensure that there are additional precautions in place.” She nodded to thePhoenixdelegation. “Permission is granted for the construction of a new temple for the Asako Inquisitors within the Temple District.” The Governor rose from her seat atop the dais. “I believe our agenda for the day is complete. I will see you all again after the end of the festival celebration. Please enjoy your respite.”
Miro stood fuming, aware of the smug glance she received from Kaitoko. “This will end poorly for you,Phoenix,” she muttered under her breath.
* * * * *
Akodo Uehara grimaced as he entered the library. The weather outside was abominably warm, as was to be expected at this time of year, and his shoulder ached miserably. The wound he had suffered as a young man had healed long ago, but only partially, and it seemed he would go to the next world with it troubling him, assuming that the summer’s heat or the winter’s could in the realm his soul eventually reached were as extreme as they were within Rokugan.
As Uehara replaced the scrolls he had taken for the evening, his eyes wandered as they so often did to the small table that held the library’s single copy of De Bellis Yoditorum, a treatise on gaijin tactics that was often found in libraries throughout the Lion land. Uehara felt quite confident that it was the only gaijin work found anywhere in the entire province, quite possibly the whole of Lion territory. It was in a format called a book, which the elder samurai found distasteful, yet respected it for its ability to contain a great amount of information in a relatively portable manner. No, he did not take offense from its existence or its physical form, but rather its necessity.
De Bellis Yoditorum was a work that detailed the strategies and tactics of a vast Empire of warriors known as the Yodotai, who existed far beyond the boundaries of Rokugan. If the information on them from the book was accurate, then they were a threat the likes of which no one had ever even conceived. The thought that they continued to exist out there somewhere was far from comforting, and privately Uehara hoped that they would never encounter Rokugan or any of its Colonies.
A chill ran through Uehara suddenly. It caused his shoulder to ache terribly.
TO BE CONTINUED
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