This collection of vignettes includes all the results of the Kotei tournaments held around the world over the month of May.
The Age of Exploration, Part 3
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The southeastern corner of the region that was known colloquially as the Empty Plains was the least desolate area of its expanse, but as Mirumoto Yumaru had come to realize in the handful of days she had been traveling the province, it was no less of a spiritual challenge to deal with the sheer emptiness. The duelist did not find this disagreeable, of course; it was the very reason she had chosen to travel in this area in the first place, but even she was forced to admit that the challenge was greater than she had anticipated. She had not heard another human voice, or even the simple song of a bird, for several days. In the absence of all else, her thoughts seemed almost deafening.
At present she was crossing a region of low hills, although the term was quite relative. In any other region of the Colonies or the Empire, this would be considered flatlands, but in the Empty Plains, they loomed like tiny mountains over the landscape. Yumaru wondered at their composition, for the sandy soil was unlike most she had crossed. But of course there were deserts far to the north, and there was virtually nothing to impede the wind carrying such sand all the way to the south, where it would be deposited in such low hills as the land finally gave way to the random rises and falls of the jungle in the south. The change of pace was simple enough, but pleasant regardless. Yumara exalted in the sense of exertion as she scaled even these meager inclines, struggling with her traveling sandals in the thick sand-like soil.
As loud as a thunderclap in the empty air, the wood of her sandal clacked loudly against something buried in the soul. It was not the simple sound of wood on stone, with which Yumaru was quite familiar, but rather sounded more like wood against wood, almost as if she had dropped a sandal against the wooden floor of a home as she entered. It gave her pause, and she kicked absently at the sound with her foot. The sound came again, louder this time, and she struck something that would not move, regardless of how much force she exerted against it. Her curiosity aroused, the duelist knelt and began to dig the sand away with her hand.
Hours later, Yumaru stopped and looked at what she had unearthed. It was a wagon of some sort, strange in many ways but similar somewhat to the traveling caravan wagons used by the Unicorn in others. There was an inscription on its side, but the characters were not from any language that she recognized. She dug more of the earth away, trying to get a better picture of the whole inscription, but her hands froze when she encountered, amid the strange characters, kanji that she recognized from her historical readings.
“Asahina Sekawa,” she whispered.
The old man walked out of his home, a very pleasant and comfortable home despite that others might look upon it and see nothing more than a simple cave, into the bright midday sunlight. The middle of the day was perhaps the least physically pleasant time for anyone to be about in the open, for the heat from the northern expanses drifted down and made things quite uncomfortable even in the Empty Plains. Most living creatures sought the comfort of a bit of shade and rested, waiting until the cooler afternoon hours to do their business in the world. But that was why the old man chose that time for his daily walks: he preferred to maintain his solitude, and it ensured that he did not have to deal with the inconvenience of predators, few though they might be in this particular corner of the world. As the old man walked, his worn, gnarled walking stick in one hand, he listened to the world around him, and sought wisdom in what he heard. It was a strange, birdlike whistle that caused him to pause, for it was not a sound that he was familiar with, and he knew all of the types of birds that frequented this region. What might it be, he wondered?
As if summoned by the sound, a horse came galloping down the path. Horses were not common in this region. Indeed, the old man had not seen one in more than a decade. This horse had strange, worn patterns in its fur, as if parts of its beautiful hide were compressed from long-term use by a rider. The old man considered these facts. The horse. The sound. The unusual timbre of the wind near the ridge where he always walked. Deciding quickly, the old man turned and walked away from the ridge.
Something landed roughly in the soil behind him, and the old man turned to look, utterly unafraid. A fearsome warrior stood there, having dropped from the top of the ridge in what he assumed was an attempt to surprise him. “You thought to find me on horseback!” the warrior said in one of the old foreign tongues that the old man’s father had taught him.
“No, not especially,” the old man answered in the same language. “Do many people make that mistake?”
The warrior halted, clearly taken aback by his simple question. “Uh… it… more than you would think, I suppose,” he finally managed. He frowned and shook his head as if remembering his purpose. “I have claimed this region for the Lion Clan! You are trespassing!”
“How do you know that?”
Again the warrior seemed confused by the question. “Well, I… I have claimed this land for the Lion,” he repeated. “You are not Lion.”
“You do not know who I am,” the old man answered. “How do you know what I am not?”
“I know you are not Lion!” the warrior replied. “I am Ikoma Tsukasa.”
“Well met, Master Tsukasa,” the old man said. “It is quite hot. Will you walk with me a bit? There is a cool spring not far ahead. I would hear more of your Lion Clan.”
Many among the Mantis Clan felt that it was foolish to make use of the small, one-man craft that marked the smallest of all kobune, but Yoritomo Tarao found them incredibly useful, and always had one available whenever he needed to travel. Granted, he found the privacy afforded by such things much more important, particularly because he frequently indulged in business that most would find dishonorable or perhaps even criminal, but in his mind such things had very fluid definitions, and he liked to think of himself as both resourceful and adaptable. There were doubtless many who would consider him a disgrace to the position of magistrate, which he held, but he preferred to think of it in another manner. He had never allowed anyone guilty of a serious crime to escape justice, but those who were guilty of lesser offenses? Of minor acts that would only clog the justice system of the Colonies? Individuals such as those he was content to permit to continue, so long as they granted him a portion of his profits. Crime was inevitable, after all. Why not ensure that what crime took place was carefully monitored? And he always ensured that part of the profits he garnered from his activities, activities that he was careful to ensure could never harm the Mantis, always returned to the clan’s coffers. Others might call him a disgrace, perhaps, but in his mind he was a patriot.
The irony was that larger vessels, those most frequently employed by virtually every seafaring clan along the coast, could never skirt this close to the cliffs as he was sailing presently. There had been some conversation among the Mantis about placing another watchtower in this region, primarily because it was so dangerous; any ship that sailed too close to the shore would be hopelessly broken on the reefs that lurked just below the surface. His ship, however, sailed harmlessly over the top of them, with only a few handspans of clearance between the two. More than enough for him to make a safe and much faster trip! Unfortunately the proximity of the cliffs to the Crane port, the Aerie, was such that the Mantis ultimately decided the danger to their own ships was small enough to avoid offering any benefit to Crane ships in the area. Politics were always terribly entertaining.
Something amid the reefs looked strangely out of place, and attracted Tarao’s attention. He put away the coin he had been flipping absently to peer a bit closer over the side. His instincts were telling him this was important, and he always followed his instincts. There was some sort of discoloration beneath his vessel. He could not make it out exactly, but the coloration was similar to wood, long since reclaimed by the sea. And there, a glint of metal.
Tarao grinned and stripped off his outer coat. There were no records of any Mantis ships lost in this region, so it was either another clan’s ship, which was highly unlikely, or a gaijin vessel. Either way, there would surely be plenty for him and the Mantis Clan as well. Today was going to be very profitable indeed.
The evening hours brought some blessed relief from the terrible summer heat of the Colonies, but the humidity still rendered the air like a damp, smothering blanket that exhausted everyone who walked the streets of the Second City. Shosuro Tanzaki idly reflected that he almost preferred the monsoons to this sweltering nightmare. But he had at least grown relatively accustomed to it, and his suffering was not as significant as it was when he had first arrived. Fortunately, there were many things going on that could distract him from his environment.
Bayushi Manami fell in step with Tanzaki as he walked along. It was the magistrate’s custom to meet with the courtier during his walks from one place to another in the city. Whatever business he had to discuss he could always sum up in a handful of moments, making him one of Tanzaki’s favorite associates in the entire Scorpion Clan. “Good evening, Tanzaki-sama,” he said pleasantly.
“Good evening, my friend,” the courtier replied. “How go your efforts in the southern reaches?”
“Splendidly,” Manami replied. He offered a scroll. “I completed a rudimentary map of the region you indicated was of interest. I would be especially intrigued by whatever source offered you the information to search that area.”
Tanzaki smiled. “Oh? Whatever for?”
“Well, if you have sources that can locate resources such as this,” Manami indicated the offered scroll, which Tanzaki took, “I should love to make their acquaintance.”
Tanzaki chuckled. “You cannot expect a man of court to divulge all his secrets, surely! Tell me about it, if you would.”
“It was quite well concealed, as you might imagine. Without the information you supplied, I would never have located it in the first place. I imagine no one would have.” He paused and presented Tanzaki with a small piece of crystal. “There are numerous markers of this material in the region. I found this one dislodged inside the perimeter, so I brought it for examination.” Manami paused again. “You know, it really is quite interesting. Which is the thing, do you suppose?”
Tanzaki glanced at him sidelong. “What do you mean?”
“From my studies, these… creatures, typically only take on aliases when they have accomplished something spectacular, or spectacularly disgraceful. Which do you suppose it is?”
“I am sure I have no idea,” Tanzaki replied. He was not certain but he thought perhaps the magistrate was smirking beneath his mask. “Is there anything else?”
“The lair of this ‘Crystal Wind’ was re-secured,” Manami said. “There is no danger of anyone else stumbling across it, although there was little danger of that to begin with. I will leave the remainder of its oversight to you, of course. Do you have anything else that requires my attention?”
“Not presently,” Tanzaki said. “Will you be in the city long?”
“Not if I can help it, no,” Manami replied. “But you should be able to contact me through the normal channels, if you discover that you require my assistance for anything.”
“Excellent,” Tanzaki said. “Manami-san, it is always a pleasure.”
Now it was Manami’s turn to chuckle. “Indeed it is, Tanzaki-san.”
Nijugun grumbled to himself as he crept along the stones, sniffing for anything out of the ordinary. If he had his full powers, this task would be much simpler and so much less irritating. But then, if he had his full powers, than that wretched Kuni back in Rokugan would have lost control over his shadow, and then he would not have to do this in the first place. He despised the Kuni, all the Kuni, but especially that horrendous windbag who was their chieftain. The man was arrogant, pompous, and completely irrational. Also he was terrifying. Completely terrifying. Nijugun hated him above all other humans.
The mujina sniffed the ground carefully. The humans that were crabs and the ones that were insects had decided to use this region as a home for their alliance in these new, strange-smelling lands. Nijugun did not understand the concept of a long-lasting alliance. What was the benefit for such a thing? Two mujina decided to be allies only if they had some target for their tricks and they both needed help making them work. Other than that, they were just as likely to trick one another as anyone else. Why would any being rob themselves of such a wonderful joy by agreeing not to trick someone else forever? It was insane. Humans were insane.
Hmm. The ground here smelled a little bit different. Nijugun sniffed around a bit more. Yes, there was definitely something different here. It was a familiar scent, and one that made him excited. Quickly he began to burrow into the ground, throwing handfuls of dirt in different directions as he looked for the object of his quest. He dug two heights worth into the ground in just a few moments, and then he found what he was looking for. The mujina hefted one of the stones and felt its weight in his hand. He smelled it carefully, as if it were a delicacy, then popped it into his mouth and rolled it around a bit, clicking it against his teeth. Finally, he spat it back out in his hand. Yes, this was what he was looking for.
These stones were curious things. They were very, very hard, and almost nothing outside of powerful magic could break them. That made them excellent for playing tricks, since something that couldn’t be broken could always be useful. Hiding it in an ogre’s food, for instance. But humans liked to polish them up and make them all shiny, which just made them easier to notice. Still, they thought they were valuable, and would be pleased at him for finding them even if they did make them useless for tricks.
Nijugun cackled. Humans were so stupid.
The cliff overlooked the sea, which he was quite sure some fool of a poet would call soothing or relaxing or some other idiotic thing. In the experience of Kuni Shinoda, most poets and their ilk were absolute fools, coddled by a life of luxury into thinking that their idle ramblings were actually important. Even setting aside the fact that these individuals were allowed to live such lives purely because of the sacrifice of generations of Crab warriors, which incidentally was not something Shinoda was particularly interested in setting aside, it still did not address the fact that only a completely oblivious ignoramus would look at the sea and not contemplate the destruction of which it was capable. Poets did not read a great deal about Suitengu or things like orochi, Shinoda had decided. Which was not to say that the sea did not have bounties that were of great interest and value, of course.
The sea beneath the cliff where Shinoda sat was never calm, of that he was quite sure. It crashed against the breakers like a horde of angry demons against the Carpenter Wall. The sound was dreadful, but one could become accustomed to it. What was more of interest was how deep the water was. As near as he could tell, and he had confirmed as much with the earth kami, the cliff continued nearly a thousand feet beneath the surface of the sea, meaning that even the largest koutetsukan could sail right up to the cliff itself, were it not for the few breakers that might rend even its mighty hull. More to the point, however, one of the earth kami had said something that had piqued Shinoda’s interest, and after an hour of painful, slogging conversation with what was surely the most literal and least verbose spirit Shinoda had ever encountered, he had found enough to form a real suspicion about what might be beneath the waves. He was simply waiting for the lowest point of the tide to attempt to confirm his suspicions.
Shinoda had not sought permission for this particular endeavor, because he knew it was unlikely to be granted. What he was about to do was both foolish and dangerous, and could very well end in his death. However, in his mind, the risk was worth taking. Back in the Empire, the Dark Naga was no better understood than it had been when the accursed creature had first kidnapped Hida Fubatsu and the others. New insight was needed, and Shinoda believed that the pearls he was convinced were found deep beneath the surface of this inlet would provide the clues his family needed to locate and combat the threat of this Dark Naga.
With every protective enchantment he could conjure placed upon him, Shinoda whispered a prayer to his ancestors and dropped off the face of the cliff, disappearing into the dark depths of the water below.
The workmen seemed somewhat less apprehensive than Doji Kazuo would have expected as he walked among them. They were suitable respectful and deferential, of course, answering any questions he had and halting their work only long enough to bow very deeply in respect as he passed. Still, when he had been around such men in the Empire, they had seemed terrified at his very presence, as if he might spring into motion and kill one of them at any moment. These men seemed to lack that fear, which the duelist found both interesting and slightly disquieting all at once. He had been in the Colonies only a relatively short while, and his exposure to the lower castes during that time had been quite limited, as was of course fitting for a man of his station. The Crane had little to do with such rabble, after all. It was still curious. He made a mental note to ask his lord about it the next time he was inTwin Forks City.
“How goes the construction of the dojo?”
Kazuo turned and bowed before Bayushi Shibata, master of the Imperial Explorers. “All seems to be progressing well, my lord,” he replied. “It seems we may be somewhat ahead of schedule.”
“These men are among the very best at what they do,” Shibata said, nodding to the workmen and receiving low bows in response. “I am not surprised at their efficiency.”
Kazuo thought it curious that a man like Shibata would have more than a passing familiarity with peasants, but said nothing about it. “How do you anticipate the expansion of clan holdings will impact the role of the Imperial Explorers, Shibata-sama?”
“The clans can expand as they wish,” the old man said gruffly. “When they seek to hold on to what they claim in the face of unknown threats, then they will call upon us to assist in the taming of said lands.”
“I will enjoy that tremendously,” Kazuo said, smiling broadly.
“Will you?” Shibata mused. “Yours is a political appointment, I trust you understand that.”
The Crane frowned. “I do not understand, my lord.”
“That does not surprise me,” Shibata said. “I have struggled for years to keep the Imperial Explorers from becoming yet another component of the bloated, political nightmare that is Rokugani politics,” he said frankly. “I do not regard your appointment as a step in a positive direction.”
Kazuo managed to keep from stammering, but it was difficult. Never had he been spoken to in such an impolitic manner. “I… I intend only to serve,” he finally said. “I wish to earn honor and glory for my clan through the fulfillment of my duty. Politics have often been part of my duties for the Crane, but for now my only duty to my clan is to serve you in whatever capacity you desire.”
Shibata scrutinized him carefully. “Interesting,” he said. “I almost believe you.”
Ikoma Shinju did not particularly mind when the native guide she had been assigned to use ran away screaming. It was odd, of course, but certainly not an insurmountable obstacle. To tell the truth, she had greatly resented the implication that she had required such assistance. Was she not one of the finest Ikoma scouts currently serving in the Colonies? The idea that a man’s circumstances of birth could somehow bestow upon him some greater degree of proficiency than her lifetime of training was both ridiculous and offensive, and she was secretly pleased to see the man retreat back the way they had come at such high speed. True, his apparent, abject horror was of mild concern, but then again, Shinju was Lion. What did she care for things that frightened foolish gaijin?
Endlessly pleased at the guide’s departure, Shinju returned her attention to the region the two had been surveying before she had been so rudely interrupted. The vegetation in the area had changed somewhat abruptly, from the dense, crawling undergrowth of the jungle to a lighter, wavier grass that seemed more at home on the plains of her clan’s provinces than in the midst of the Colonies. The ground was more predictable as well, with slow, rolling ridges rather than the jumble of random drops and jutting outcroppings that was the chaotic and unpredictable jungle.
Shinju stopped suddenly, noticing that something was different. It was not something immediately obvious, but her instincts picked up on it just the same and caused her internal sense of alarm. After only a moment, she identified the problem: there were absolutely no wildlife sounds in this region. There were no birds, no insects, none of the strange calls that normally filled the jungle. Here, there was only silence. It was unnatural, somehow, and it gave Shinju a deep sense of unease. As she contemplated the implications of such a thing, there was a slow, very subtle shift in the ground beneath her feet. At first she feared that a sinkhole was forming or perhaps the earth beneath her feet was giving way to quicksand, but it only shifted slightly and then stopped. She remained very still for several minutes, waiting to see what would happen. Would it continue?
After almost five minutes, just when Shinju was beginning to relax, the movement came again. The ground shifted the precise same amount, only in the opposite direction, as if returning to its previous position, and then holding once again. It was an intensely perplexing phenomenon, and one that Shinju had never experienced before. Her instincts screamed at her to follow the guide, but her curiosity was more powerful. What could cause such a thing? When the answer finally came to her, she was both horrified and astonished that it was something so simple.
Something was breathing, of course.
Utaku Lishan stared at the massive grey beasts that lumbered about, picking up the hay given them and stuffing it eagerly into their large, disturbing mouths. They were such unattractive, ungraceful creatures. How could anyone consider such a thing to be a suitable mount? An elephant was something a Crab might ride. It was slow and ponderous, just like the sons of Hida, good for nothing but its raw, brute strength. There was another comparison to the Crab in that, she thought, but she would not give it voice, not even to herself. The Unicorn’s longest standing allies deserved better than that, even if she personally considered them little better than shaved apes. It would not suit her adherence to the code of bushido to voice such things, but even the most pious could occasionally indulge in the rogue thought if it did not affect their actions.
The elephants, much though Lishan did not care for them as mounts, were invaluable as beasts of burden. In the Empire, it would take at least a dozen oxen to accomplish the same amount that a single elephant could accomplish in the same amount of time. To Lishan, they were a symbol of the Colonies, and of the relationship between the Colonies and the Empire. Those from the Empire, she had observed on multiple occasions, did not consider the elephants suitable for even simple labor. Some had gone so far as to suggest that the beasts were unclean remnants of a gaijin land and should be put to death, that the resources used to maintain them could be devoted to more proper beasts from Rokugan. Lishan had devoted herself to the cause of bushido, lived and breathed it every moment of every day as best she was able, but even she regarded such nonsensical opinions as hidebound and foolhardy.
It vexed Lishan greatly that so many, even among her own clan, would so callously dismiss the accomplishments that she and others like her had achieved in the Colonies. If it was different from what they knew, from their narrow range of experience, they condemned it out of hand without understanding it. Nothing about bushido demanded such foolhardy adherence to close-minded notions. If they embraced bushido without reservation, without pre-conceived foolishness, they would understand. It caused her tremendous frustration, but of course it would be untoward of her to offer such observations to others, and so she kept them to herself.
Lishan clucked her tongue and patted one of the beasts, Chiisai, on the flank. The huge monster was a terrible mount, surely, but had many wonderful uses. It was to be traded to the Crab later in the week, and she was sure that its temperament, which was somewhat harsh, would mesh well with its new masters.
It was decidedly strange, Kitsu Fukui had decided. The entrance to the… well, tomb was the only word that she could fathom would apply to a situation such as this, but it seemed oddly out of place. The entrance to the tomb was concealed, and it seemed not merely by the passage of time but also by deliberate action on the part of someone else. That seemed odd to the young librarian, but far more curious to her was the nature of what she assumed were the tomb’s guardians. They were clearly old, decades at least, possibly older, but the singularly curious part was that they appeared to be of Rokugani origin. Fukui was not intimately familiar with the ritual used to create clay soldiers, as these terracotta warrior constructs were known, but she had read enough about them to recognize them when she saw them, and there could be no doubt that these were, in fact, clay soldiers. It was possible that they had been constructed according to the ritual by gaijin, and therefore their appearance was merely an aspect of their creation, but they bore many hallmarks of Rokugani craftsmanship. And there were so many! Not just a handful, which might be understandable, but dozens of them! Fukui walked among them in wonder, gazing at their immobile forms and noting every detail, every slight variance. She would need to enter all this information in her journal later, that it might be returned to the Ikoma records in its entirety.
Fukui reached up to brush away a bit of debris from one of the guardians, and her sleeve fell down, revealing the tattoo of her grandfather’s personal heraldry that she had on her wrist. Ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, the eyes of the solider she had been about to touch shifted to look at her wrist. The librarian drew her hand back in alarm, but there was no further movement from the statue. It was almost as if it had been examining her, however briefly, and had not discovered whatever it had been seeking. Was it possible that these things were enchanted in such a manner that they only responded to a very specific sort of threat? Fascinating. Eager to discover what the soldiers might be guarding, Fukui pressed onward.
It was not what she had imagined. Beyond the chamber that contained the soldiers was a second, small room. At first Fukui thought it to be empty, but that was merely because of the dim lighting. No, it contained one item of note, one terrible thing that horrified her and offended her every sensibility: on the ground of the second chamber was a corpse, blackened by some unknown force, perhaps merely fire, and left to dry and wither in the cool tomb air. Even through the darkness of its charred flesh, however, she could make out several elaborate tattoos covering its body.
What manner of tomb is this? she wondered to herself.
The tiger crept through the dense jungle growth, its massive padded paws making no sound whatsoever on the ground beneath it. Its fierce eyes penetrated the darkness like a torch on a moonless night. Its prey was near, crashing about in the jungle like a wounded beast. It would be a simple kill, and then the cat would feast. Already it could taste the fresh blood in its mouth, the greatest of all sensations, and feel the flesh rent beneath its claws. There would be no suffering, merely a quick and clean kill, and then the meat would be consumed. The beast coiled for the pounce, shifting its weight from one paw to the next, ready to spring. In a moment, it would all be over.
The prey turned to look at it. Something within the tiger withered and shrank, and suddenly it knew that it was not facing prey, not at all, but a much deadlier predator than itself. The beast turned and fled, its hunger forgotten.
Iuchi Shunshi smiled beneath his cold iron mask. Even a beast could make a wise decision when faced with the power of a Doomseeker. And it was that very tradition, a tradition that he embodied with every fiber of his being, that had brought him to this godforsaken place to begin with. Unlike many of his predecessors, Shunshi was not merely a priest and a warrior; he was a scholar as well. He had spent many years in careful examination of the records that survived the death of the Ivory Kingdoms, scouring them for any trace of the practitioners of the Doomseeker tradition in these lands. He knew that the foul rakshasa, demons of unparalleled deceit and self-absorption, were closely tied to this land. He felt sure that the Doomseekers from other lands would have taken an interest, even given the distaste that the people of the Ivory Kingdoms had for sorcery.
And he had been right.
There was a single document that he had discovered, one account of a fearsome sorcerer with an iron mask who had fallen in battle after defeating a terrible demon from the worst recesses of the Ivory Kingdoms’ realms of evil. A man born not of the Kingdoms, but honored by them with a sacred tomb that was hidden away, so that evil could never find and desecrate it. Shunshi had worked for years to discover the truth, and much of what he knew was conjecture, but now he believed that he had deduced its location. It would doubtless contain a great deal of artifacts from the order, important information that he could use to bolster his own understanding and his own power.
But for today, the Doomseeker Iuchi Shunshi had come only to pay his respects.
Doji Yoshitada dismounted and patted his horse affectionately on the flank. He was no Unicorn, and had none of that clan’s unseemly affection toward their steeds, but he appreciated a trustworthy steed. He nodded to one of the nearby attendants, who quickly stepped forward to take the reins. Yoshitada checked the balance of his blades in his obi, confirming that they were in the perfect position for an iaijutsu draw if such were necessary. It almost certainly would not be, of course, but that was not a chance that Yoshitada ever took.
A woman approached, wearing perhaps the most diplomatic smile that Yoshitada had ever seen. She was approaching middle-age, perhaps even passed it, but she was vibrantly beautiful, and Yoshitada felt the stirring of desire for her. He had never been able to resist a woman of Imperial blood, but he shoved that aside. This was not an opportune moment by any means. “Miya-sama,” he said, bowing deeply.
“Welcome, friend Doji,” she replied, returning the bow. “How does the day find you?”
“Better now that I have arrived here,” Yoshitada said, smiling. “It is extremely pleasant to see you once again. I see that the construction was finished since my last visit here.”
“It has been,” Miya Masatsuko said. “It is much larger than our present needs require, although if the Empress wills it, we will be expanding our operations here in the near future.”
“Oh?” Yoshitada feigned surprise. “I was not aware that the Imperial families might increase their presence.”
“With the dramatic expansion of the clan holdings in the Colonies, we will need more heralds to ensure that the words of the Empress and her servant the Governor can reach all her servants in a timely manner.”
“Of course,” Yoshitada said. “That is a most sensible approach. As with the construction of your new outpost, you know that the Miya have the complete and unwavering support of the Crane in all things. Whatever you require, we are happy to assist in providing.” He paused just for a moment. “Not that the Imperial families would not or could not supply ample resources of course, but we are close at hand and somewhat more expedient.” He smiled again.
Masatsuko smiled, and this one was more generous. “Your assistance has been and continues to be greatly appreciated. I assume your visit has more purpose than simple assurances, however?”
“Well, any excuse to enjoy your company would be sufficient,” Yoshitada said, flashing his most roguish grin. “However, you are correct. I wanted to speak with you about the current state of affairs with the movement of your family’s goods through Twin Forks City.”
“Has there been some difficulty?”
“With the Miya? Not at all. In fact, my lords have asked me to seek your approval to lower the rates of any business your family does within the city.”
Masatsuko frowned. “How will you recoup such a loss?”
Yoshitada smiled. “We have plans, my lady.”
It was astonishing how heavy a crate full of sake bottles could seem when one carried it far enough. It was one of those little details that never seemed to come up in the dojo. But of course, neither had it come up in the dojo that sake might one day be used as a form of currency to purchase the favor of a nigh-incomprehensible and yet incredibly powerful prophetic water spirit. That looked like an unkempt, unwashed ape, no less. It was enough to make Kitsuki Jakuei consider sitting down and drinking all the sake himself. Which, he mused, would make his load much lighter to bear, but ultimately defeat the purpose of having carried it this far in the first place. He also considered kicking it down the rocky path he had just climbed, but that might startle his hohrse where it waited at the bottom, and that would not do. He had no intention of walking all the way back to the Aerie. Grunting with effort and not a little dismay, he took the last few steps to where the cliff finally leveled off.
“You bring good water?”
As usual, the shojo simply appeared at some point when Jakuei was not looking. It had disturbed him the first few times it had happened, but he had long since stopped caring about such paltry things. In the grand scheme of things, it was a very minor affair. “I brought a great deal of the ‘good water,’ yes,” he replied. “I think you will find the blend is much finer than last time.”
“Blend?” the shojo demanded. “What is blend?”
“It is a matter of… you see, when the particular technique used to… ah, never mind. I think you will find it tastes magnificent.”
The shojo was called Yu’phen, or at least that was what it had told Jakuei to call it. He had no idea if that was its name, or if they even understood what a name was. Regardless, Yu’phen promptly seized one of the bottles, broke the cap off, and emptied it in one fell swoop. “Good,” it decreed. “Blend is very good.”
“I could not be happier to hear that,” Jakuei said, still irritable from the climb. “I assume, based on our last meeting, that this quantity is more than enough.”
“Enough,” the spirit said, discarding a second empty bottle. Its eyes had taken on a mirthful sparkle. “Barely,” it added, drawing a scowl from Jakuei.
“So you can see, then?”
The spirit nodded.
“Outstanding,” Jakuei said. “If you do not mind terribly, then, what I would very much like you to look for is a man whose name was once Mirumoto Mareshi. I need to know where he is, as precisely as you can tell me.”
The extent of Matsu Koyama’s displeasure at being within the Colonies was without measure. He understood his duty, and he would fulfill it without question. His Shogun required a man he could trust to take stock of the situation in the Colonies and determine a suitable location for an outpost for the Shogunate. It was only just and fitting that the Shogun’s influence over the dominion of the Empire of Rokugan was far-reaching. Koyama felt at once privileged that the Shogun trusted him enough to send him on a mission of such importance, and dismayed that he would be absent from the Shogun’s endeavors in the Empire during this absence, however brief. A soldier should be at his commander’s side.
The Lion warrior struggled to shove such thoughts aside. They were tantamount to disobedience, and that was something Koyama could not tolerate. He was Matsu. He was Lion. He was Shogunate. He would not betray three so glorious blessings with his personal troubles. He had a duty to fulfill, and he would do so, no matter the cost, no matter his reservations.
The region that cartographers had labeled the Empty Plains was a miserable nightmare of a place. It was all to easy to imagine that this is what the Lion provinces might look like, were they ever laid to waste and left with none to tend them. The Destroyer War might very well have accomplished exactly that if the Lion and the other clans had not managed to destroy the gaijin devils trying to trod the Empire into blood-soaked mud. He wondered if this place was not so similarly wretched due to some victory the Destroyers had experienced here before coming to Rokugan. It seemed likely that it was. This was precisely the fate that the Empire had avoided, and all because of…
Something very peculiar caught the warrior’s attention. At first he thought perhaps he had suffered some form of heat exhaustion or perhaps was witnessing some form of celestial phenomenon. Indeed, it seemed like the latter might be the most appropriate explanation, because there could be none other. It appeared that there was some point somewhere on the plains ahead of him from which no less than seven rainbows were arcing up into the sky in various directions. And there, at the point where they touched the mortal realm, a spot of verdant green, standing out amid the sea of brown and tan that was this unpleasant place.
Koyama stood looking at the thing for several moments, wondering if he was imagining it or if such a thing could be possible. It seemed like something out of a child’s tale or a ridiculous play. But no, as he watched, there was no shimmering or alteration. Everything seemed complete stable, which was in and of itself quite odd.
With nothing else to do or look at in this place, Koyama spurred his horse forward toward this oasis of rainbows. Perhaps it would make a good site for a Shogunate outpost.