A pair of vignettes from the Emerald Empire and its Colonies.
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton, Shawn Carman, & Yoon Ha Lee
Edited by Fred Wan
The Little Things
For the fifth time, Ichigiku sat back and rubbed her eyes. She’d been staring at the same passages for hours, until the bent forms of the kanji themselves had lost all meaning. But she had to read closely and carefully. The slightest variations in tone, the choice of certain kanji over others, the flourish of the brushwork, all these things could have implications to the author. It was easy to miss the little things. That was what Kinaro had said.
She looked once more to the final play of Kakita Hiro unfurled before her. His blood, soaked through each sheet, was darkened to a dull brown. It was nauseating to handle; as she completed each massive page, she would search for an unstained corner to pinch before carefully turning it over. Even the briefest sessions of contact required a trip to the shrine for purification, long baths for her arms and hands scooped from a blessed wooden ladle, and prayers that by now she had memorized.
It was possible that she was merely nauseated by the narrative. The play so far was completely fanciful and without point, a fairy tale better suited for a child audience. The main character lacked any sense of personality, and the love interest was portrayed in a way that she was almost obligated to return his affections, in spite of how completely uninteresting he was. Ichigiku found it insulting. It was a student’s understanding of romance, at best. Was this truly the work of a famous playwright?
She released a frustrated sigh at the crumpled pages before her. This was more taxing than a first draft should be. The blood stains obscured the text and provided a constant revolting distraction. There were many parts that were underdeveloped. The calligraphy was sloppy, causing her to have to re-read several passages. Her gut said there would be some insight into the playwright’s mind offered in these pages, but so far she had only yielded frustration and a tale unfit even for pillowbooks.
Of course, now that she knew his death was not a suicide, his mindset at the time of death might not be a relevant consideration.
She sat up at the voice of Kitsuki Kinaro as he entered the room, announcing his arrival with the abrupt swing of the shoji door. Her partner in this investigation (although she was reluctant to call him this) was smiling as always, eyes brimming with enthusiasm. His fingertips were dark from ink, having completed his report to his lord, announcing the death of the commissioned playwright.
She gestured to the pages scattered on the table as he approached. “It needs revisions.”
He hunched over the play with narrowed, inquisitive eyes, laying his hands on a wide page. His inky fingers and palms left smudges. Ichigiku’s left eye twitched.
“Calligraphy looks sloppy,” he mused.
“He was rushing,” she explained.
He nodded. “What is it about?”
“I’ve only read the first two acts,” she confessed. She gestured to three massive sheets folded on a far side of the desk. “The first unfolds like a fairy tale. It’s about a playwright named Hachirou, who falls in love with a woman of a higher station. His feelings are unreciprocated. While walking through the woods, he meets a tree spirit, who in exchange for a favor, gives him the script to a play that he uses to win the hearts of both the lady and the Empire.”
Kinaro tapped a finger on his cheek, leaving a smear. “Sounds complicated,” he said.
Ichigiku’s eyes darted to the smear, and unlike the papers, this one conjured a smile. “In the second act,” she continued, “a man with no name is introduced, who knows Hachirou didn’t write his masterpiece, and proceeds to blackmail him.” She shook her head. “It’s a mess. There’s virtually no structure at all. It’s a wonder that his other plays were so masterful.”
Kinaro shrugged. “As you say, he was rushing.” He leaned in again, eyes spotting something. “Did you notice anything strange about his calligraphy?”
“It is very sloppy.” Indeed, the kanji was poor, rendered with thin and bent strokes, as if they were starving.
Kinaro drummed the table with ink-stained fingers. “Interesting.”
They’d only been cooperating on this investigation for a week now, but Ichiguki already knew of her partner’s habits. He drummed his fingers whenever he was thinking. His eyes darted from one corner of the paper to the next. Widening. Narrowing.
“What do you see?” she asked.
He pointed to kanji cluster. “These brushstrokes are not sloppy, like the rest. In fact, they seem very deliberate.”
She followed his finger to a single kanji. Indeed, it was not rushed. It was the delicate, deliberate work of a man with decades of experience. It suddenly occurred to her that there were many kanji on the page that were like this, peppered throughout the script, seemingly at random.
“Curious, don’t you think?”
Ichigiku shook her head. “I had not noticed.”
“Sometimes we miss the little things,” Kinaro replied. He smiled. “One wonders why he would dwell upon certain kanji and rush through the rest.”
“We must meditate upon this.”
“Ah!” Kinaro’s eyes brightened, “to do that, we need a place of seclusion! I know just the place!”
* * * * *
“The Kitsuki have an odd definition for ‘meditation.’”
Kinaro smiled. They sat in a small private room within The Kaorikaze, Shizuka Toshi’s most reputable sake house. The shoji separating them from the common room was decorated with a magnificent depiction of Osari Mori, but in the dim light it was hard to appreciate. The clinks of porcelain and jovial laughter emanated dimly from behind the ricepaper door.
Kinaro poured sake from an earthenware bottle into a small cup, pushing it toward Ichigiku. “You’ve worn out your eyes staring at that script all day,” he remarked. “You deserve a break, wouldn’t you say?”
Ichigiku looked to the cup, then back to Kinaro. “And what have you done to earn this… ‘break?’”
He grinned. “I brought you here.”
Ichigiku smiled. It was an icy smile, perhaps, but Kinaro took it as a personal victory, extending his cup. “Kampai.”
She lifted hers, seeming more relaxed. “Kampai,” she replied softly.
The sake was good. After they’d enjoyed a few cups, she looked at the bottle. “Maneki Neko Sake,” she read. “Interesting.”
“Brewed by an Asahina,” Kinaro said, “if you can believe it.”
“I do not recognize this string of kanji,” she pointed at the label.
“That is ‘Shizuka.’ It means ‘to drip.’ It refers to the filtering process.” He poured her another cup, which she accepted readily.
“Shizuka Sake is filtered in a specific way,” he continued. “Instead of filtering through a layer of ash, the rice mash is scooped into burlap sacks and suspended over a wide container. The sake drips through the burlap and leaves the sediment of the mash behind.” He traced a line down to the table, imitating the path of a droplet. “The result is a more pure-tasting drink. Thus, ‘drip-sake.’ ‘Shizuka.’”
He cast her a glance. She was smiling, amusement brightening her features. He raised an eyebrow. Perhaps the sake was having an effect.
“It seems you missed your calling,” she joked. Her smile made her tone brighter. Warmer.
“The process interests me,” he explained.
“You considered that path instead?”
He closed his eyes and leaned back. The motion caused a sigh to escape his lips. “Not really. I always wanted to be a magistrate.” He paused. “Ichigaku-san, have you heard of ‘Kogoro?’”
“Of course,” she replied. “He is famous. I studied one of his cases as a student.”
“My mother used those tales to teach me my kanji. I was awestruck by those tales. He was the greatest magistrate in the Empire!”
She chuckled. “Kogoro wasn’t real,” she said. “He’s just a character. Doji Ranpo created him to obscure the sources of his crime stories.”
Kinaro shrugged. “What does that matter? He was still the greatest.” His expression softened, head tilted to the celling. “He could always tell what others were thinking. No detail ever escaped his notice. He knew every implication of law, considered the practice to be an art! When I read those stories, I promised myself that I would be like that one day.”
“I wanted to be a magistrate too,” Ichigiku said. “I was inspired by my uncle Ranmaru. He married into a magistrate family. At the time, there was high demand for magistrates in the Empire due to lawlessness, but he only ever had one big case.”
“Oh?” Though he kept his gaze on the ceiling, Kinaro’s attentions were focused entirely on Ichigiku’s words.
“He once assisted an Emerald Magistrate in an investigation. Bayushi Makubesu was his name. He required my uncle’s assistance for a case from the Emerald Champion himself.” A pause. “It was quite an honor, although my uncle often spoke of his eccentricities.”
“Eccentricities are common amongst Emerald Magistrates of that time,” Kinaro remarked. “So I have heard it said, anyway. Perhaps it is because the Emerald Champion himself was an eccentric man.”
“Uncle often said that of Shosuro Jimen,” she agreed. Kinaro had the impression that she left further thoughts on the subject unspoken.
“So justice runs in your family, then?” he said. “I admit, I did not know that. Genshin said your father was an artist.”
A long pause. “You were asking about me.” Her voice was low.
“Don’t be offended,” he said. “I simply wish to know more about my partner.”
“Yes,” she said softly, “he was an artist. He became a Sensei near the end of his life. My brothers carry on his teachings.”
“Interesting,” Kinaro said, “You took up his brother’s profession. I’m sure your father was very proud.”
“Come to think of it,” she continued, “it was father who helped me decide to follow this path. I’ll never forget what he told me when I was accepted by the magistrate school.”
“Oh?” Kinaro chuckled. “What was that?”
“He said, ‘if you decide to become a magistrate, don’t come back home.’”
Kinaro pulled himself out of his lounging. It was then that he realized Ichigiku was not smiling. She watched her cup, half-lidded and quiet. Gone was her friendliness, the wall of ice restored. The light had dimmed from her voice, but his focus was on her words. He had not noticed the change. His chest tightened from waves of shame, and guilt pushed him, helpless, to their surface. He wanted only to drown.
Sometimes we miss the little things. He apologized softly, and refilled her cup.
* * * * *
A Questionable End
The Empire, years ago
The Dragon warrior sat quietly. The monotony of the hours stretched onward, seemingly without end, but he could not bring himself to wish for his solitude to end. He knew very well what the outcome of that would be. And so he sat, alone with his thoughts. Alone with the enormity of his crime. Alone with his shame.
It had been necessary, he told himself. It had been right. It was justice. And it had doomed him, perhaps his whole family, with the ramifications it would bring to bear. It was a thought that had come to him before, and now as then, it threatened to overwhelm him. He bowed his head and prayed to the Fortunes, to his ancestors, to anyone who would listen, for guidance and forgiveness. He doubted either would be forthcoming.
When the sound of the shoji screen sliding open shattered his solitude, he was afraid to look up. He knew it would be a representative of the Imperial families bearing the news of his ultimate disgrace. “When is it to be done, then?” he asked, wondering if the men who stood there were his executioners.
“That is a matter of some discussion,” a woman’s voice replied. “Traditionally, however, a seppuku must be conducted in a timely manner to ensure the sanctity of the ceremony is preserved.”
The warrior looked up in astonishment. “My lady Awako-sama,” he said, kneeling. “It is my great honor to… wait… seppuku?”
“Seppuku,” the Moshi family daimyo affirmed. “That is to be your fate.”
“How… how can that be?” he asked, his relief almost more than he could comprehend. “My lady, the enormity of my crime is such that I cannot imagine how that right has been extended to me. I took the life of an Imperial.”
“You won a duel.”
“An illegal duel,” he corrected. “I… I allowed my emotions to get the better of me. The man was an arrogant, tyrannical fool, and I grew unable to endure observing his excesses.”
“The man deliberately provoked others into confrontations so he could kill them, and he used his status and his political connections with the Crane to avoid the consequences of his actions. You were his yojimbo. You were sworn to protect him and instead you killed him. You failed your duty in a spectacular manner.” She paused. “Yet one of the individuals this man killed was my cousin, and so I find it difficult to condemn you.”
“You would be alone in that, my lady.”
“Not alone,” Awako corrected. “There are not a great many of us who look upon you favorably, that much is true. Even the Lion, who have more reason to hate the man than another other clan, have condemned your actions. The Crane also have been most unforgiving, given their relationship with the Otomo.”
“Then why have I been spared the shame of execution?”
“The Empress herself commuted your sentence to seppuku.” Awako shrugged. “Perhaps it is a rare moment of favoritism toward her former clan, or perhaps simply a subtle rebuke toward the Otomo for not curbing the excesses of their own. Who can say? Regardless, it shall be seppuku.” She smiled. “I have asked your Champion for the right to stand as your second, if you would permit it.”
His jaw fell open for a brief moment. “I would be honored,” he finally said.
The priestess bowed. “Very well then. I believe we have arrangements to make.”
The Colonies, present day
The Crane looked around for any potential exit, but of course there were none. “This is a mistake,” he said, his tone carrying an undercurrent of barely restrained outrage. “This will destroy your career. You know that.”
Kitsuki Daisuke smiled, or came as close as he ever did to such an expression, which was not particularly close at all. “Destroy my career? Is that what you think a justicar is? A career? Some petty fulfillment of ambition and scrambling for position, like you and your people?”
“I have done nothing wrong!” the Crane hissed.
“Are you certain?” Daisuke asked. “I have ample evidence to indicate otherwise.”
“Do not mock us both with this façade,” the man answered. “You know what this is about. My father shamed your uncle into seppuku. This is your petty vengeance, nothing more.”
The impression of a smile faded at once. “Are you suggesting I would dishonor my duties?”
“I am suggesting that you desire vengeance upon me so badly that you looked and looked until you found evidence that supported precisely what you desire.”
“If you are so absolute in your insistence that you are innocent,” Daisuke said, “then submit yourself to justice. Accompany me to theSecondCity. But only do so if you are certain, absolutely, unquestioningly certain, that there is no one anywhere who can offer testimony that what I know about you is the truth.” He paused for a moment, letting the silence of the night fill the void between them. “But if you aren’t certain… then by all means, go for your steel.”
The silence between the two men continued, grew heavy. The two looked into one another’s eyes for what might have been an eternity. Then, there was the sound of steel, the clash of metal, and a soft thud that might have been nothing more than a tree limb falling to the earth in the moonlight.
Kitsuki Daisuke tore the ripped cloth from his sleeve and pressed it against his side. The blow had been deflected, but had grazed against his fourth rib. It was a painful wound, but not one that would impede his work. The Dragon flicked the blood from his blade and stared at the dead Crane in the dirt before him.
“Guilty,” he whispered.
* * * * *
Pupils, Part 3
There is a curious Yodotai maneuver that I have been thinking about lately. It goes by a nigh-unpronounceable name, something like “quincunx.” (One wonders how the gaijin ever achieved civilization when they are weighed down by words that you practically have to grind out.) I assume that an honorable Phoenix would have no reason to study gaijin tactics, but the annoying thing about the Yodotai is that they are capable of a certain kind of cleverness. We Lion have learned the hard way not to underestimate them in battle.
In any case, the Yodotai sometimes like to divide their forces into three lines–I will spare you yet more cumbersome and unpronounceable gaijin terms–but arrayed thus: The first line has gaps, the second line organizes itself behind the gaps of the first, and the third organizes itself behind the gaps of the second, creating an unusual checkered formation. It was said that units could shift to the left and right into the gaps to create lanes–useful, say, when charged by elephant cavalry, who are not particularly known for their maneuverability.
Gaijin accounts are a little confusing on this count, but it also appears that the three-line system served them in another fashion. The first line would take the brunt of the attack, as you might imagine, but when they began to falter, they would fall back through the gaps to the third line and the second line would come take their place at the forefront. I have to confess, despite the fact that we are talking about barbarians who wouldn’t recognize a proper cup of tea or a good sake, I find myself admiring the elegance of the concept.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that it would take a well-drilled, highly-disciplined army to pull off such maneuvers. Not as well-drilled and highly-disciplined as the armies of the Lion, of course, but there is no shame in acknowledging the occasional worthy opponent. Indeed, I would give much to face such a Yodotai army so we could demonstrate the superiority of Akodo’s ways.
I would apologize for boring you with stories of gaijin tactics, but I am convinced that the enemies we face are up to something like this, only on a strategic scale. Still no luck getting the Unicorn to talk to us. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, to find out that they have suffered more raids, and that the raids fall into a general pattern of ambushes followed by retreats, leaving them unable to track down the enemy’s bases. For that matter, I imagine the Yodotai are hardly foolish enough to stay in one place for long, even if supply considerations permitted it. An interesting puzzle, and one that I wish the Unicorn would allow us to help them with. Alas, my letters to them go ignored.
By the way, it occurred to me the other day that, based on your descriptions, the gaijin seem to prefer board games that are played in the squares, whereas we Rokugani play on the intersections. But a quincunx would only occur to people who play on squares. How disconcerting!
My go move is on a separate sheet of paper, so that you can ponder your doom. I say that in the friendliest way possible, of course.
Would you think less of me if I admitted that, as children, my cousins and I made up games to play on a go table, but using the squares rather than the points? My mother had a good laugh when she first caught us at it. Of course, we also used the go stones to form pictures. My mother only intervened when one of us (you will understand if I refuse to say who) got into some red paint so we could make a proper phoenix. I believe she diverted us into painting lessons. To this day I wince whenever I remember the number of times I had to copy Ide Aniaka’s “Goose at Sunrise.”
One is used to saying certain things about how certain clans fight when one is in Rokugan. The Crab with their berserkers and their builders of walls, the Crane with their duelists, the Mantis with their profusion of ships and, if one is feeling unkind, the occasional drunken brawl. We think of ourselves as very different from each other. Certainly no person of discernment would mistake a Lion bushi for a Phoenix one.
One has to wonder, however, whether the gaijin think of us as distinct clans? One thing that is becoming clear to me here in the Colonies is that even gaijin who look very similar and wear very similar clothes consider themselves to belong to different groups of one sort or another. They can be very prickly about this when you get it wrong. Not, of course, that we Rokugani have any history of less than amicable relations between clans.
I can’t say that I have noticed anything different about the behavior of the Unicorn here in the Second City, but my contact with them remains limited. I could almost envy them their ease of adaptation to this strange place, but then I caught myself the other day thinking that I would miss some of the curries when I go back home. It’s a disconcerting thing to realize.
I also must confess that it is a little awkward not knowing what to say about the conflict between our clans in the Second City over the arrival of the Inquisitors. I am too low-ranked to have any say in how things go, but I continue to hope for some kind of amicable resolution. I am sorry things have come to this pass. It is difficult when two honorable clans come to conflict like this.
I see that that group I was trying to fortify is comprehensively dead. Nevertheless, our go match is not foregone. I hope my riposte at least provides you a moment’s amusement.
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