Within the Emerald Empire and its Colonies, influential samurai make decisions that will have tremendous impact on the future of both realms, although few but the Lion recognize the enormity of their actions at the time they are taken.
Defenders of the Empire
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Empty Plains, as the northwestern-most region of the Colonies had come to be known, was very aptly named in the opinion of Akodo Kamina. He had spent some time on maneuvers there, shortly after he had received command of his own scouting patrol. It had been a miserable existence, those few short weeks, and yet now he found himself longing for those days. The Empty Plains might be well-named, truly, but the Western Wastes above were so much more desolate and miserable that the plains seemed luxurious by comparison. Kamina’s patrol had been here for just short of two weeks, and he had thus far discovered nothing more exciting than barren soil and scorched shrubs. There was an occasional oasis, but even those were wilted and depressing. If he had not already desired with every fiber of his being to find the mysterious raiders who had been plaguing the Ki-Rin’s Path, then this place would have stoked that fire within him. “What have the scouts discovered?” he asked his second-in-command.
Kitsu Tamasine bowed quickly. The young man was very formal and, as near as Kamina could tell, perfectly competent. How he had ended up in the Colonies after a stint in theImperial Courthe was unsure. “The tracks we have been following ended up belonging to a desert nomad, my lord. The scouts questioned him, but it seems clear from his responses that he knows nothing. A harmless old man, my lord.”
Kamina cursed. “Is there anything else?”
A haggard scout appeared almost on cue and handed Tamasine a scroll. The priest quickly read it. “There is a report of an encampment to the west, my lord,” he said excitedly. “Large enough for several dozen men!”
Kamina’s warrior heart surged in his chest. “Break camp,” he ordered at once.
* * * * *
The horse stomped about the grounds as if ready to run again despite the length of the exercise that it had just completed. Utaku Ji-Yun smiled. He was a magnificent beast, and never seemed to grow tired no matter how long a ride they took together. She dismounted smoothly and rubbed his neck affectionately. She thought he seemed vaguely disdainful that she did not want to ride any longer, but that was not entirely true. She did want to ride longer, very much so. But her time was ever at a premium, and she could not afford to spend any more time on leisurely pursuits. “Tomorrow, old friend,” she said, her tone remorseful. The horse somehow managed to seem unconvinced.
The Emerald Champion turned to the subordinate that she knew would be waiting. One was always waiting for her upon her return from her daily ride. This particular one was a young woman from the Scorpion. She did not recognize her and so avoided using her name. “There are messages?”
The young woman bowed sharply. “Yes, my lady,” she said. “At your convenience.”
Ji-Yun concealed her surprise. Most of her bureaucratic underlings launched right into the diatribe of the day’s affairs, assuming that she had nothing better to do and was desperate to hear them. Desperate she was not, but sadly, it was true that there was nothing more important at the moment that she could reasonably distract herself with. “Proceed,” she said.
“As per your request, I have the compiled accounts of all identified Naga activity throughout the Empire over the past month. I also have three requests for officer promotions from your current commanders, a request for a personal audience from the Otomo daimyo, and a report concerning the present state of affairs in the Colonies.”
“The Colonial report if you please,” Ji-Yun said.
The Scorpion nodded and presented a particularly thick scroll. The Emerald Champion unfurled it and skimmed its contents, frowning as she did so. The two said nothing for several moments as they walked through the streets of the Imperial section of Toshi Ranbo. Finally, she stopped, and then read a bit more. “This will not do,” she said finally. “Has a replacement been found for the commander of the Ninth Legion?”
“A list of suitable candidates has been drafted as per your request,” the young woman replied. “It awaits your attention.”
Ji-Yun rolled up the scroll and handed it back. “I need to see this month’s disciplinary report for all the Legions,” she said.
Ji-Yun was sipping tea, savoring a moment free of audiences and paperwork, when the man she had summoned to speak with arrived. She sighed at word of his arrival, then gestured for her attendant to admit him. The young warrior entered without the normally subdued air. He offered a cursory bow, then looked around the room in a disinterested fashion. “I would have thought that I would be dismissed by a lower ranking officer,” he said. “Are you in the custom of releasing all unsatisfactory soldiers personally, or was my offense so unacceptable that it warranted your personal attention?”
The Emerald Champion did not immediately respond, and the warrior said nothing more. After a short time of reviewing the scrolls on her desk, she looked up at him. “You have been reprimanded twice in the past six months for failing to follow orders during training exercises against other Legions.” Her gaze did not waver. “Why is that?”
“The orders were hopelessly misguided, and would have ensured that our Legion lost,” Shinjo Kinto replied flatly. “If you review the accounts of the battle, I have no doubt that you will agree with my assessment. I am a unit commander, and it is my duty to make adjustments in the field to ensure that my men survive and that my commander gains the victory, even if I must save him from himself to do so.”
Ji-Yun nodded slowly. “You are consistently described as brash throughout all of your evaluations, yet your tactical scores are higher than any outside the Akodo legionnaires.”
“Then why not summon an Akodo instead?” Kinto demanded.
“Because the Lion tend to become conflicted in certain situations, and I have need of an officer who can stay the course regardless of the circumstances. Are you such a man or am I wasting my time?”
Kinto considered it and nodded. “If you have an objective that you need taken, my lady, then I am your man.”
Ji-Yun nodded and slid another, much thicker scroll toward him. “This is a report on the present state of affairs within the Colonies and, more specifically, theSecondCity. There are many questionable items included, not the least of which is the apparent embrace proscribed texts, the rampant claiming of non-sanctified lands, and skirmishes between the clans. I find this unacceptable. These samurai are not acting in the name of the Empress, and I would know the reason why.”
Kinto grunted. “I think you may have misjudged, my lady. You ask for a task beyond the capabilities of my unit. You need a captain or perhaps a shireikan.”
“No, I need the commander of an Imperial Legion.” She handed him a formal badge of authority. “Effective immediately, I am promoting you to command of the Ninth Legion, contingent upon your agreement to accept this assignment. You are to assess and report, but above all, you are to restore proper order to the Colonies. Is that understood?”
“As you command, my lady,” Kinto said. “An entire Legion, though? That will take some time. It will be months before we can even depart, perhaps.”
“The logistics will be quite difficult, I am certain,” Ji-Yun said. “I feel I have selected a man for the job who can engage in proper motivation, however.”
One corner of Kinto’s mouth tugged upward. “That you have, Emerald Champion.”
* * * * *
Akodo Kamina’s grip on the handle of his blade was so tight that he felt the finely carved metalwork biting into his flesh, but he did not relinquish his grasp. He felt certain that all color had drained from his face, and he felt the same horrible coldness in his stomach that he had felt on the day that the herbalist had told him his oldest son had contracted the green fever. His son had lived, but Kamina was not certain that the Empire was going to survive. “Are you absolutely certain?” he asked quietly.
The priest nodded slowly. “There can be no mistaking the heraldry that the scouts described, my lord. The greetings offered them by the gaijin, the equipment they bore, the banners… it all matches perfectly with my studies of the treatise. The gaijin are an expeditionary force from the Yodotai Empire.”
Kamina closed his eyes and exhaled. Every student of theAkodoWarCollegehad been in at least one lesson where the possibility of the Yodotai setting their sights upon Rokugan was the subject. None of the scenarios that the tactical masters of the Lion Clan had ever formulated ended well. The enemy was simply too enormous, too monolithic, to be overcome by any tactics that the Lion had ever employed. It was one of the reasons that they continued to endorse and embrace study of the gaijin treatise that they had captured decades earlier. “What do we know?”
“The encampment appears to be approximately three dozen men,” Tamasine continued. “The scouts believe that the Yodotai may be lost. Before approaching, they investigated the region around the encampment. There is no indication of recent movement, and the Ikoma believe they have been engaging in long-range scouting. They appear to be separated and unaware of their precise location. That is the only reason they remain in this area.”
Kamina licked his lips nervously. “Do they appear to have any priests or other religious garb among them?”
“Nothing scouts saw in their initial survey, my lord. If I may, from my studies, it would be exceptionally rare for a unit of such small size to have access to their spirit forces. Of course we cannot know for certain, but I do not believe it is likely.” The priest glanced outside the tent. “Their leader approaches, commander.”
The elder Lion nodded and adjusted his weapon to ensure it was in the precise position. He gestured for the priest to precede him, and the two emerged from the tent. There was a dozen of the Yodotai entering the camp’s perimeter, the leader immediately obvious from his elaborate golden armor. His jet black hair was swept forward on the sides, drawing attention to his sharp, gaijin features. Just looking at him made Kamina somewhat uncomfortable, but he did not shirk. He did not bow either, but he did nod in recognition of the newcomer, who made some strange genuflection that the officer did not immediately recognize. The leader said something in his strange language, and Kamina glanced at Tamasine inquisitively.
The Kitsu cleared his throat. “The Yodotai leader brings you greetings in the name of his Empire and wishes… uh… the blessings of Conquest upon you.” He paused. “That is their most revered deity, I believe.”
Kamina nodded. “Tell him I bid him good day in the name of the Divine Empress and wish him good fortunes as well. Ask him how he came to be so far from his people.” The older Lion waited as his message was translated, watching for any hint of reaction from the other man.
Tamasine frowned at the reply. “He says that his unit was on maneuvers when they encountered an old enemy. They were cursed by,” he frowned and asked something, seeking clarification. “He uses a word I am not familiar with, a name I think,” Tamasine explained. “It translates to ‘thieving travelers,’ he says. I do not know to whom he refers. Regardless, they cursed the Yodotai and caused them to be lost. Something about their deceitful magic, I think?”
Inwardly, Kamina felt a rush of relief, despite that he allowed nothing to show on his face. These men did not know where they were, and thus were not the vanguard of an advancing army. That much, at least, was very much in their favor. What happened next could make the difference, however. “Ask him if there is anything he requires.”
Tamasine did so, and then listened as the gaijin officer explained something. It took some time, with a great deal of gesturing, much of which appeared to be ritualized. Tamasine seemed increasingly distressed as the conversation continued, but only nodded in response. Finally, he turned to Kamina. “My lord,” he said quietly, “the commander of the Yodotai expeditionary force has formally initiated the ritual of first contact with a gaijin culture. This is a… I suppose you might call it a custom. It is a customary practice of theirs whenever they encounter a new civilization. From my readings, my lord, it is a means of establishing an alliance through which, inevitably, they conquer a new land. The Lion would be elevated above all others, and likely appointed as the vassals to oversee the Empire under their direct governance.”
Kamina closed his eyes.
* * * * *
The man called Boto laughed uproariously, pounding one fist on the table with such force that the shoddy, chipped cups there leapt a bit, sloshing their contents. No one really cared. The drink and even the cups in which it was served were of such low quality in this seedy establishment that he could have demolished the entire table and everything on it and he would be able to replace it all with a single coin from the bag he had just received. It was good to be well paid. It made even his partner’s pitiful jokes seem hilarious. “Good one, Toru!” he said, wiping a tear from his eye.
His partner Toru was a much smaller man, slight of build and perennially nervous. Even now he glanced around the dim interior of the sake house anxiously, laughing only a little bit. “Well, you know… I hear things, I guess.”
Boto gave one last chuckle and clapped his partner on the shoulder, nearly spilling his drink. “So! The shipment arrives next week, then?”
“Shh!” Toru insisted, glancing around again. “Yes, it arrives next week. We’ll both be very wealthy men, as long as you don’t give away all our secrets!”
“Bah,” Boto weighed the sack of coins he had just received as an advance. “When we sell the Scorpion cargo next week, we’ll be able to buy off anyone who ever wants to cut in on our action, or just pay off the magistrates and have them killed!” He glanced around contemptuously at the others in the sake house, fully aware that most if not all of them had their own schemes and crimes underway. “I will see you at the dock next week, then, partner. Try not to get yourself caught before then.”
The big man crossed the room and opened the door, tugging his hat down against the glare of the midday sun. It was for this reason that he did not see the obstacle in his path, and ran directly into someone standing in the doorway. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, instantly irritable. “Get out of the way!”
His threats died as he looked on the man in the doorway. His chest was bare, and his expression completely calm. He surveyed the room with only the barest hint of distaste, then returned his gaze to Boto. Somewhere behind him, he heard the sounds of many men getting to their feet, and the panicked cry from Toru. “Asako Karachu!”
Boto’s eyes widened at the name, but he did not let it slow him down. His knife was in his hand at once, and he was lunging forward. It was far too little, however. A foot hit him in the chest and it felt for all in the world as if a mountain had fallen on him. The last thing he felt before unconsciousness claimed him was the tables shattering beneath his weight as he was thrown an impossible distance back through the sake house.
The last man in the sake house sipped at his tea while thePhoenixmonk evaluated the room. More than a dozen men lay on the ground in varying stages of consciousness. The monk turned toward the last man. “You did not reach for your weapon,” he observed. “I thank you for that. I have no wish to engage in violence.”
“You are remarkably talented at it,” the man noted.
“We all have our unfortunate gifts,” Karachu said, his tone genuinely remorseful. “It does not mean that we must enjoy them.” He glanced around the room for a moment. “I am familiar with the crimes of these individuals, but you are not someone I recognize. May I ask why you find yourself in this den of iniquity if you have no ill intentions?”
“It is my duty to remain informed,” the man replied. He removed his straw hat, letting his long black hair fall free. He reached slowly into his battered traveling cloak and withdrew a small object, which he placed on the table and slid across for the monk to observe.
“The Ivory Champion?” Karachu said. “Am I to understand you are Shinjo Tselu?”
“That is correct,” Tselu said, sipping the tea again and grimacing. “That’s enough of that, I think. The fare here should be a crime in and of itself.”
“If I have disrupted some operation of yours, my lord, you have my humblest apologies,” Karachu said, bowing very low. “That was not at all my intention.”
“My only purpose here was to observe you,” Tselu said. “I heard word that you were on the trail of these men, and my agents located them first. It was quite fortunate, really. I understand you are a very gifted hunter of men.”
The monk’s expression fell. “It is not my preference, but it is the destiny that has been chosen for me. I serve the Inquisitors, and it is their desire that men of such low character, criminals of all sorts, be brought to justice. I excel at that, I am afraid.”
“So I have been given to understand,” Tselu answered. “I have need of a man with such talents. I do not wish to increase your burden, but I believe you can accomplish a great deal for theSecondCity.”
Karachu blinked in surprise. “What would you have me do, my lord?”
Tselu sighed. “I am frequently dispatched from the city on business of a somewhat… shall we say, capricious nature? It is the will of the Governor and I must fulfill it, but I consider the defense of this city among the greatest of my priorities, and I cannot fulfill it if I am absent. I need someone working for me whose sole responsibility is looking after the defense of theSecondCity.” He looked at the monk carefully. “I believe you are that man.”
Karachu looked around the room at the results of his actions. “What must I do in pursuit of such a goal?”
“I will leave that to your discretion,” Tselu said. “As long as you are pursuing the interests of the city, I will be content.”
Karachu nodded slowly. “I would enjoy serving you, my lord.”
* * * * *
Tamasine was making every effort to appear composed, but the dismay he felt was obvious on his face despite his efforts. For all his skill and usefulness, Kamina could see why he had been assigned somewhere else than his original post at theImperial Court; a man who could be so easily read would be a liability there, but perhaps a strength elsewhere. The elder Lion hoped that this was such an instance, or else all might be lost. “Are you absolutely certain about this?” Tamasine asked, his tone somewhat forlorn.
“Of course not,” Kamina replied calmly. “The actions I take in the next few moments could doom me to be the Lion Clan’s greatest traitor, even if it results in the salvation of the clan. Can you imagine certainty in the face of such a thing?”
“Then why proceed?” Tamasine insisted. “Surely there is another option.”
“I can think of none,” the commander replied. “We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation with absolutely no favorable outcomes. We must do what is best for all parties considered. We are Lion. We must think of our clan above all else.”
Tamasine closed his eyes and nodded slowly. “Of course, commander.”
Kamina looked sidelong at the priest. “Are you certain? If you have reservations, you are duty-bound to speak them.”
Tamasine thought for a moment, then met his commander’s eyes. “I am Lion,” he said. “I believe in the wisdom and the authority of my commander. Your choice is mine, my lord.”
Kamina smiled slightly. “Then let us do that which must be done.”
The Yodotai approached the Lion delegation, their leader walking in the front. A pleased smile graced his gaijin features. He spoke in his foreign tongue, looking to the priest questioningly. “Very little preamble today, it seems,” Tamasine sighed. He turned to Kamina. “He asks if you have reached a decision.”
“I have,” Kamina replied calmly. He gestured toward a dozen of is men, who stepped forward and bowed very sharply. Each of the men stepped forward again to form a line. They knelt in perfect unison and slowly drew their blades, inside the saya, and offered them, saya first, to the gaijin. “I am not the student of Yodotai culture that you are,” he said to Tamasine, “but I understand that the number twelve has great significance in their culture.”
“More or less, yes,” the priest replied.
“Very well then,” Kamina replied.
The gaijin leader looked at the Lion offering their blades and his smile broadened. He nodded to his men, who sheathed their weapons and stepped forward to take the blades of the Lion. His eyes sparkled with a light that Kamina recognized; it was the look of a man pleased to have held some strategic secret from a rival. “Do you understand the offer of acceptance that has been extended to you by the agents of the Yodotai Empire?” He spoke in flawless Rokugani. Tamasine gasped in surprise.
“I do,” Kamina said, his voice utterly unsurprised.
“And your answer?” the commander continued in Rokugani.
Kamina bowed. In an only slightly accented variant of the Yodotai language, he answered. “I reject your offer utterly.”
The twelve samurai instantly drew their blades, leaving the gaijin holding the sheaths. The gaijin soldiers were well trained, and went for their weapons at once, but the seconds that the tactic cost them were more than enough for the Lion. The twelve were cut down in an instant, and the Lion charged the remaining gaijin. The commander snarled in rage and drew his blade. “You have doomed your whole people!” he roared at them, and leapt.
Tamasine was faster. The priest summoned and unleashed a torrent of water that erupted from the ground and struck the man in the chest with the force of a charging bull. He was thrown backwards off his feet, his weapon falling from his hand as the gaijin released an involuntary shriek of panic. “Does water alarm you?” Tamasine asked calmly. “My apologies.”
Kamina drew his blade. “If you please, cousin,” he said. Tamasine nodded and summoned a wave of earth that crashed into the midst of the remaining Yodotai, scattering them and causing disarray in their ranks. The charging Lion struck them at precisely the correct moment, ensuring absolute effectiveness. “When this is over, we must destroy every trace that they were ever here. It will be unpleasant. Can I count upon you?”
“Without question,” Tamasine replied. “It will be good to see this finished.”
“Finished?” Kamina asked. “Oh no. I doubt that it will ever be finished.”
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