The Shadow’s Embrace: The Crane
By Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
The westering sun painted long shadows through Twin Forks City, but the streets still seemed to shimmer with the afternoon’s heat. Daidoji Sosuke fanned himself idly as he looked out over the city, eyes searching out the river docks that formed the city’s heart. “The Trading Council is sympathetic to your situation,” he said. “And it is my intention to do something about it.”
Kakita Sasa gave him a curious look. “The tension between us and the Mantis has been building for months, years,” she said. “Exactly what do you think one courtier can accomplish?”
“It is not my place to lecture a Kakita duelist on the power of one perfect strike.” Sosuke crossed the room to sit next to her. “As the chief magistrate of this city it is easy to become bogged down with the details of management. Inevitable, perhaps. But being new to the area, it seems obvious to me what is needed. Things are building to a crisis. We need to trigger it ourselves.”
Sasa considered this. On the surface it was an appalling idea, but Sosuke had a point: time was unlikely to improve matters. “What did you have in mind?”
“Nothing much,” Sosuke said. “A little bloodshed.”
* * * * *
The shout rang through the room, silencing all conversations and causing several courtiers to turn and bestow cool looks at its source. Yoritomo Minhiko ignored them all as he strode among them. Daidoji Sosuke didn’t allow himself a smile, but he did savor the feeling: Sasa had clearly picked a cooperative target. “Yoritomo-san?” he said mildly. “I assume you are speaking to me, and not one of the guards.”
“A guard would have sense, so yes I’m talking to you.” Minhiko stopped at the edge of a polite distance and glared at the courtier. “You tried to raise the tariffs on my cargo.”
“You are mistaken. I did raise the tariffs on your cargo.”
“You can’t do that!”
“You are again mistaken,” Sosuke said. “I am a representative of the Daidoji Trading Council. The Council administers the docks in this city, and has the power to set tariffs. You have underreported both the amount of cargo you are carrying and its worth: I have adjusted your tariffs to reflect the truth.”
“Are you saying that I lied?” Minhiko’s voice had become very calm.
“That is, in fact, exactly what I am saying,” Sosuke replied, his voice equally calm.
“I am a Mantis samurai and I don’t have to put up with your insults,” Minhiko said. “I challenge you to a duel, and because you have accused me of violating the Empress’s laws I demand a duel to the death.”
A ripple of reaction went through the assembled courtier at this, but Sosuke’s expression did not change. “Challenge accepted,” he said. “As I am an ornament of the court, I will call for a champion to represent me.”
Minhiko smiled. “Fine,” he said. “As I am a ship captain I will also call for a champion.”
“Tomorrow morning. In the public gardens.”
“Done,” Minhiko said. He turned around and strode out of the room.
* * * * *
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Yoritomo Emoto asked. “That Daidoji is living in Sasa’s mansion–he’ll go straight to her, and she’ll appoint someone out of her guards. She’s Kakita-trained herself, so she’s attracted more than a few good duelists to her household.”
“All the better,” Minhiko said. “Have you met my nephew, Tsang?” He indicated the third person in the room, a young man with steady eyes. “His mania for dueling made him something of a disappointment to my sister, but I’ve found ways to turn it to our clan’s advantage.”
Tsang didn’t speak, but he smiled and held up his katana. Emoto counted five tassels dangling from the sheath, three of them in the sky blue of the Crane. “So you plan to get both the pompous peacock and whoever Sasa sends to defend him,” he said.
“Exactly,” Minhiko said. “They try to push us: We push back harder.”
* * * * *
Emoto looked around the garden, noting the numbers of the spectators and what clan they belonged to. The total absence of Crane samurai was immediately obvious. “He’s late,” he said, feeling vaguely disturbed.
“Putting the finishing touches on his hair,” Minhiko said.
“The tactics of a weak swordsman,” Tsang said. “One arrives late, hoping that the delay will anger your opponent and cause him to lose focus.” He sounded disappointed.
“I can’t imagine Kakita Sasa being that obvious, or letting one of her vassals be that obvious,” Emoto said. He was about to say more, but stopped as Daidoji Sosuke entered the garden, accompanied by Sasa and a small crowd of Crane samurai and courtiers. Emoto was looking them over, trying to guess who would be representing Sosuke, when Sasa herself came forward.
“Loyal subjects of the Empress,” she said, “this is a duel between Yoritomo Minhiko and Daidoji Sosuke, to be fought by their champions.” She paused for a moment. “As Daidoji Sosuke is a guest in my home, I will be acting as his champion.”
Emoto looked over at Minhiko. Minhiko looked at his nephew. “Tsang–”
“Don’t worry, Uncle,” Tsang said. His eyes were still calm and he was smiling slightly. “The storm never dies.” He turned away and moved to the center of the dueling area.
Sasa also moved forward, and after the formalities had been observed she moved into the traditional Kakita dueling stance. Tsang assumed his own stance, and the moment grew long as the two opponents locked gazes. When the strikes came Emoto saw only a confused blur of motion. “You are very fast,” Tsang said to Sasa, and then he collapsed in a heap, blood pooling around him.
Sasa stepped back, flicked the blood off of her sword and then swept her gaze out over the crowd. “Daidoji Sosuke’s charges against Yoritomo Minhiko have been born out by this duel,” she announced. “Further, it seems to me that Minhiko-san is not the only captain with lamentable errors in his paperwork. Therefore from this day on all Mantis ships will be charged tariffs at a higher rate.” She sheathed her blade but kept a hand on the hilt and smiled. “All protests of this action will be dealt with appropriately.”
* * * * *
The river was broad here, with more than enough room for two boats to pass abreast. That, Yoritomo Raidon thought, explained why the captain of the Crane kobune down river was paying so little attention to the approach of Raidon’s kobune. The river was also swift and steady, which explained the general laxity he observed among the Crane crew. “Are we all ready?” he asked.
The clipped nature of the answer told him that something was wrong, and he glanced over at his second. Kitsune Naoko’s face had the blank look she used to indicate that she profoundly disapproved of what was going on, but was too disciplined to raise a fuss over it. Over the course of their service together Raidon had seen it a lot. “Yes?”
“Captain,” she said, “they have to have been on the river for several days now, and they probably have no shugenja. They have no way to know what has happened, no reason to suspect us.”
As far as Raidon was concerned, no one anywhere ever needed to scruple against ambushing a Daidoji, but convincing Naoko of this could take hours. He decided to try a different approach. “A true samurai is always ready for death,” he said.
“Well,” Naoko said thoughtfully, “there is that.”
“Go talk to the river,” Raidon said. “We move on your signal.”
Naoko nodded. Moving without any visible urgency she made her way to the back of the kobune, seating herself so that she was not visible to the Crane vessel. Softly she began to chant a prayer to the water kami in the river. One moment the kobune was drifting with the current, a hundred yards from the Crane, and the next they were flying towards them, water spraying out from their bow with the speed of their passage. The Tsuruchi members of the crew grabbed their bows from concealment and started firing. By the time the Mantis had come even with their target half the Crane samurai were down. The survivors began to shake off their surprise as the grappling hooks were thrown over to bind the ships together, but by then it was too late. The Mantis stormed on to the other kobune, easily overwhelming the Crane.
“Quickly, quickly,” Raidon bellowed as he walked across the deck of the captured ship. “Give them their prayers and then give them to the river!” Naoko nodded and began offering up the proper prayers for the dead. “Nakoshi!” Raidon went on, “you and your crew get ready!”
Soon the deck was clean of bodies and blood. The ropes binding the ships were undone and Raidon watched with satisfaction as Nakoshi directed the other ship away. He figured they could hit three more Crane ships before word got out. Emoto would be pleased.
* * * * *
“Min-Hee-sama,” Shunya said, “may I have a word with you?”
Min-Hee gave him a cool look. “Save your time and mine, Doji-san,” she said. “I am not interested in your love poems, no matter how pretty your calligraphy is.”
Shunya smiled and bowed his head. “I have no intention of offering you love poems, my lady,” he said. “You do not play the game.”
“Love,” Shunya said. “You do not play the game, so I will not.”
Min-Hee considered this for a moment. Shunya had an established reputation as a romantic, which had led her to dismiss him as a fool. The idea that he regarded his affairs as another form of shogi opened up other possibilities. “Then what do you wish to speak of?”
“Many things,” Shunya said. “The insult that Mirumoto Shikei has offered your Champion, in submitting their betrothal agreement for a ruling, would be the most pressing.”
“Insult. It is a hard word.”
“The word no more than the deed,” Shunya said. “Who really needs the judgment of the Imperial families on this? Who really believes that Shinjo Reborn should leave her clan?”
“The man who is in love with her,” Min-Hee said, wondering how Shunya would respond.
“Love.” He made a dismissive gesture with his fan. “We know it exists, and that is powerful, for Benten is one of the Seven Fortunes. But what do we have here? A samurai who expects another to abandon her clan, when it is so clearly Heaven’s will that she should lead it? Shikei doesn’t love Naleesh. He loves the idea that he has besotted a goddess.” Contempt ran thick in his tone.
Min-Hee felt the urge to snarl, not in anger at Shunya’s words but in agreement with them. She crushed the impulse: he was clearly trying to lead her somewhere, and until she figured out where she wasn’t going to help him. “Neither clan wishes to lose its Champion,” she said. “The betrothal was made before Naleesh’s destiny was known.”
“There was no need to make a public scandal of this,” Shunya said. “There are two obvious ways to honorably break that contract. There are two more if you consult an Ikoma historian versed in the proper precedents. I can send you a report on it, if you would like. I am afraid I will have to use scented paper–I have an image to maintain.”
“That will not be necessary,” Min-Hee said. “You are a Crane: you would not lie about social propriety.” Shunya bowed slightly, as if accepting a compliment. “What, then, is your interest in this? It does not involve the Crane.”
“No, the Crane had no hand in the betrothal. A pity, for the whole mess might have been resolved discretely before now, before it reached the stage of insult. But it does involve you, Khan of the Unicorn, for Naleesh is both your lord and your friend. Are you going to let this pass unavenged?”
“I repeat, what is it to you?”
“In the realm of war you are very powerful, Min-Hee-sama, but you have little skill in the courts. I could be very useful to you, and being useful to you could be useful to me.”
“You are very blunt.”
“You are a blunt woman,” Shunya said. “I see little point in annoying you by being indirect.”
Min-Hee considered this. Shunya’s judgment of Shikei paralleled her own, and his cold-bloodedness intrigued her. A courtier ally who wouldn’t worry if he had Naleesh’s approval could be very useful. “You will serve my vengeance against him,” she said, her eyes fixed on Shunya’s.
“I will be a knife in your hand,” Shunya said. His eyes never wavered.
“Come to my rooms tonight and we will discuss this further,” Min-Hee said. She started to walk past him. “Come in through a window–you have an image to maintain.”
* * * * *
Doji Dainagon examined the pile of clothing with a critical eye. Every ensemble told a story, and as an artist of fashion it was her goal to make all of her stories concise and meaningful. “The obi,” she said. “Take it away and bring me the striped one I found last spring.” Her servant hesitated just slightly before complying, and Dainagon gave her a quizzical look. “You disagree, Unohana?” Dainagon didn’t normally care what servants thought, but Unohana had been her dressing-maid and seamstress for years, and had shown herself to have a good eye for color and pattern.
“Not disagree, Dainagon-sama, but that obi will clash ever so slightly. Perhaps you really want the brocade in the Falling Waters pattern?”
“It would go beautifully, but no. I want that tension.” Unohana bowed and made the switch, and Dainagon stared at the new arrangement for a moment. “Just as I imagined,” she said. “I will get dressed now.” As Unohana helped her put on and arrange the various layers Dainagon began to prepare her spirit for the coming meeting. Otomo Kinmochi had been so impressed by her during Winter Court that he had made her one of his staff. Normally she spent her time drafting letters or meeting with persons who had legitimate need to see Kinmochi, but who were nevertheless not important enough for him to bother with personally. But today had been different. Today she had met with Kitsuki Daisuke, a magistrate who was far more important than her usual visitor.
Dainagon gave her head an experimental shake to check the placement of her hair ornaments. “Perfect,” she said. After choosing a fan and picking up a bundle of papers she left her rooms and swiftly made her way to Kinmochi’s unofficial office. The guards admitted her at once.
Dainagon laid her bundle of papers down and offered Kimnochi a full, formal bow. At his acknowledgment of her she arose, picked up the bundle and held it out to him. He accepted it and laid it on the desk without looking. “So what did he want? Is he still fussing over the matter of the silk merchant?”
Dainagon didn’t allow herself to react. Daisuke had earned the ill-will of the Doji family in general and Dainagon in particular for his brutish handling of the scandal, and she rather suspected that Kinmochi had given her this assignment as a test. “No, Otomo-sama,” she said. “As you suspected, he wished to discuss the betrothal.”
“The betrothal”, Kinmochi said with a sigh. “We could all have been spared a great deal of trouble if Naleesh’s parents had consulted a competent astrologer when she was born.”
“I believe the Lady Akasha did consult the astrology of her people. The reading revealed that she was unique, and destined for a life of great strangeness, by Naga standards.”
“Terribly unhelpful when husband-hunting,” Kinmochi said. “Still, I commend your research: I had not known that.” He gestured at the bundle. “Please, summarize what Daisuke wants me to know.”
“He wishes you to know that the Unicorn will scarcely miss Naleesh’s absence, while the loss of Mirumoto Shikei will be a disaster without parallel for the Dragon Clan.”
“Indeed? I wonder what Shinjo Min-Hee would say to that. We could ask her–she’s here this week, trying to help make sense of the madness dear Suikihime has touched off.”
“I had heard that from my friend Shunya. He seems to have developed a fascination for her.”
“Shunya and Min-Hee? A weirdly appropriate pair.” Kinmochi poked at the bundle of papers. “I suppose I shall have to glance over this before passing it along.” He looked up suddenly and fixed his gaze on Dainagon. “And you? What do you think of this?”
“Me? Dainagon said. “It is not my place to decide such things.”
“And if you were? Humor me.”
“They should have broken off the engagement when Naleesh was discovered to be Shinjo Reborn, and she was declared the Unicorn Champion,” Dainagon said. “Then each of them could have married advantageously and continued their affair covertly, like sensible people.”
Kinmochi gave a short bark of laughter. “Oh, Dainagon – always the cold voice of reason. Very well. They refuse to be sensible people: what now?”
“Then Shikei should leave the Dragon,” Dainagon said slowly. “I pity the Dragon for it: I would be devastated if Doji Makoto were to leave the Crane. But in the end Shikei is just a man, like any other. Naleesh is a Kami reborn into her clan. Truly she is unique.”
“He has no siblings, and only distant cousins. His departure would leave no clear successor.”
“So far as I can tell, in all the centuries of its existence the Dragon Clan has had only one normal succession. I am sure they will think of something.”
“Your grasp of history will not win you friends in Shiro Mirumoto,” Kinmochi said. “Still, you have a point. The Unicorn are models of tradition and decorum in comparison.” He made a dismissive motion. “You will be coming with my family to summer court in Kyuden Seppun?”
“If it is your will, Otomo-sama.”
“It is. I will need you to keep my daughter away from those scandalous Second City fashions. And I will have use for your cold, cold eyes.”
“It is always an honor to serve one of the Imperial families, Otomo-sama.” Dainagon bowed deeply, and receiving Kinmochi’s dismissal withdrew from the room.
Walking back to her rooms, Dainagon paused to lean over a balcony and study the lengthening shadows in the garden below. She disliked how the random untidiness of the moving shadows clashed with the carefully crafted untidiness of the garden itself, but she had to admit that even the most brilliant landscape designer was unable to do anything about the sunset. At any rate, it was a temporary problem: soon the light would be gone and the shadows would cover all. She smiled and promised herself a walk in the garden later in the night. Thing were going so well, she could allow herself that much.