A quarter of quality vignettes from around the Emerald Empire and its Colonies!
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton, Yoon Ha Lee, Seth Mason, & Brian Yoon
Edited by Fred Wan
At the first touch of the Jade Sun’s morning rays, the great doors of the Forbidden Cityopened to an Imperial capital in jubilation. A storm of vibrant colors crashed in the streets beneath a dome of taiko drumming. The paper lanterns, which remained lit throughout the night of festivities, now swayed with the chorus of grateful voices. The heavens had again blessed the Iweko dynasty. Another son had been given to her people.
A path was made for the procession of the Heavenly Sovereign, swept by the feet of dragon dancers. These wood-and-paper serpents came alive amidst falling jade-toned ribbons, bobbing on a centipede-train of costumed legs, their mouths roaring with taiko-thunder. The five miko of the oldest shrine in the city met the swaying dragons at Toshi Ranbo’s center. They bowed, and the paper dragons curled into suspended towers above them, bowing in return.
Interwoven with disciplined marching rows of emerald-armored Imperial Legionnaires, the Great Clans carried their banners throughout the streets of the city, their ancient mons proudly mingling beside symbols of the new dynasty. Artisans in blue and white danced gracefully, flanking stoic kenshinzen. Red-cloaked and smiling shugenja whispered blessings as their courtiers scattered the crowd with lush petals. Warrior maidens wreathed in lavender silk rode strong, cantering warhorses the shade of ivory. All of the Clans were represented, all of the mons displayed above. Crab. Dragon. Lion. And Spider.
They marched in a grim procession, cold and colorless among the vibrant hues of the Great Clans. They were a scar of pale ash spilled across a patterned kimono. Their banners rippled with the grey-white of spent coals. Dipped below the emerald standard, the black mon of the Spider seemingly eyed the Imperial Chrysanthemum. They were a band of shadows cast by the great clans in the light of the amber dawn, parading openly among the true servants of the Empress, the mon of their clan mingling with that of the others. And they were smiling. Always smiling.
Kisada could not turn his eyes away from them as the procession marched beneath his vantage point, except to flick his glance towards his mother, who frowned at them from the edge of the balcony. She gripped the railing as surely as the handle of her tetsubo. For a moment, she turned her head and met his eyes. Then they both returned their gaze to the blight of gray amidst the parade of colors. No words needed to be said. They were of the same mind. They watched the Spider pass through the streets in the quiet of their shared anger. Mother and son. Crab champion and heir.
“We will never forgive this insult,” Hida Reiha whispered. Kisada felt his fingers tighten on the railing of the wooden balcony.
* * * * *
The chamber silenced instantly when he passed through the shoji doorway. Hida Kisada, Champion of the Crab, levied his gaze upon his gathered generals and advisors. Their bows of respect were met with pleased silence, and Kisada took his seat before them on the raised dais. Beside him, a scribe prepared to record the events of this meeting, the same military briefing he’d held every seven days for the entirety of his time as Champion. Any other clan would have questioned the purpose of these meetings. There was, after all, no war in the lands of the Crab, and the Shadowlands had long been silent. But this mattered little to the warriors gathered in this room. They were not just any clan. They were the Crab.
As his advisors readied themselves to deliver their reports, Kisada’s trained eyes spotted a new face among them. Seated far to the back of the room, a man with sharp features beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. The man wore the moon of the Yasuki, and the Little Bear was certain that he’d never seen the man before. But he knew the Yasuki would not be here if he didn’t have the blessing of the guards, and so he drew no attention to it. For now.
“Report,” he said.
The first was an older Hida veteran who stared at the dais with a milky eye. “It is still quiet at the Kaiu Wall,” he said. “Even so, your loyal samurai remain as vigilant as always.”
Kisada grunted. “I have no doubts. I understand Lord Kakeguchi has seen fit to distribute samurai to our allies’ waystations.”
“He has reconsidered,” the veteran said, only a hint of a smile on his face.
The Little Bear nodded and looked to the next advisor. “And the new wall?”
A Kuni answered him. “Attacks are sporadic and infrequent. The Scorpion learn quickly. Within a generation, they will be capable of handling it on their own.”
“Which is not to say that they will,” another said, eliciting a ripple of amused chuckles.
Kisada allowed the moment to linger before addressing a Hiruma Rikugunshokan. “What is the state of our search for Fubatsu-san?”
The Hiruma looked grim. “We are now certain that naga were behind his disappearance. They are difficult to track. Some of the men grow impatient. Even so, Nikaru-san believes that we are getting closer.” He paused briefly. “We received a message from a Jade magistrate offering assistance in our efforts to combat them-”
Kisada silenced the man with a shake of his head. “The Crab are capable of tending to our own affairs.” Nothing more was said on the matter. Finally, he looked to a younger warrior carrying the mark of an Imperial Explorer. “I trust matters in the Colonies are going well.”
She nodded. Inexperienced, she nonetheless showed all proper reverence when speaking to her champion. “Your explorers have claimed a vast stretch of land, my lord. Our territories in the Colonies have dramatically increased, along with our yield of resources. We have the guidance of Renyu-sama to thank for this.” She paused, as if discovering sour words on her tongue. Reaching into her obi, she produced a tightly bound scroll, offering it to her champion. “There are some who protest our methods, however.”
The scroll was marked with the mon of the Spider.
The room grew tense. Kisada made no motion to accept the scroll, but his eyes burned at the sight of it. “Explain this indignity,” he said.
The warrior flushed. “I fulfill my duty as your advisor, my lord. This letter comes from Daigotsu Kanpeki, and it is meant for your eyes.”
“The Spider are offended by our progress.” The voice came from beneath the straw hat of the Yasuki. All eyes turned to him. Slowly he lifted his head, revealing sharp, angular features and clever eyes. “They say we undermine their duty.”
Kisada assessed the man for some time, then motioned for him to continue.
“I am Yasuki Jekku,” the man said, bowing his head, “A servant of the Yasuki Daimyo. At his command, I have made myself an expert regarding the Spider, in an effort to refocus our… relations with that clan.”
Kisada frowned, but he did not stop the man from speaking.
“Kisada-sama,” the man continued, “our progress through the unexplored territories of the Colonies has proven fruitful, which is an embarrassment to the Spider. They are seeking intervention from the Ivory Champion.”
The Little Bear furrowed his brow. “What in Jigoku is an ‘Ivory Champion’?“
“A man entrusted with the authority of the governess.” Jekku shrugged. “In the end, the Spider will do what they can to hinder our progress in the Colonies.”
“Unacceptable,” Kisada replied. “I depend on the Yasuki family to foil their efforts.”
Jekku grinned. It was an unpleasant expression. “My lord, might I suggest a direct approach?”
When no answer came, he continued, drawing a scroll from his sleeve that bore the heraldry of the Emerald Champion. “My lord, are you aware of the situation currently between the Mantis and Crane?”
Kisada nodded. “I do not see how it is relevant.”
“My lord,” Jekku said, “the Crane sought the mediation of the Emerald Champion to cease what they said was warfare between themselves and the Mantis. The Mantis, however, claimed it was simply retribution for a slight to their honor… the honor of the entire clan.” His grin widened impossibly, his eyes twinkling. “The Emerald Champion decided that this conflict therefore could be permitted, as long as it was maintained outside the borders of the Empire proper. In other words, the Mantis may legally seek satisfaction from the Crane, so long as they do so only in the Colonies.”
At first, Kisada seemed prepared to dismiss the man. The affairs of the Crane and Mantis, while entertaining, had little or no bearing on the matter at hand. But then, something occurred to him, and he began to realize the implications of what the Yasuki was saying. One by one, the eyes of his military commanders lit up, and a few exchanged calculated glances.
“Is that so?” Kisada stroked his chin. “So what you are saying, Jekku-san, is that the decree banning warfare between the clans may not apply within the Colonies?”
“Only in matters of honor,” Jekku replied.
“Interesting,” Kisada said. “The very existence of the Spider Clan is an affront to our honor.”
He stood, rising before the ancestral armor of the Crab displayed from the dais. He turned to the untested warrior, accepted the scroll with the Spider mon, then threw it upon the floor, stamping it with an ardent foot. It was a wordless order, one all of his warriors recognized. His generals sprung to their feet, eyes bright, faces eager. They called for their heralds. Word would spread throughout the ranks, renewing the spirit of the Crab throughout the Empire. Their prayers had finally been answered. There was a chance for war. A chance for retribution.
Kisada lifted his katana from its place on the daisho, gripping the handle and exposing an inch of the blade from the saya. The light caught the steel edge, and in the reflection, he saw the crushed scroll upon the floor. The black mon of the Spider.
“We will never forgive this insult,” he whispered, and snapped the blade shut.
* * * * *
The attack was not entirely unexpected, yet foreknowledge did little to lessen its damage. The Spider immediately began to reposition to defend against the ambush, but it was the cultists who drew the first blood of the battle.
The onslaught of arrows and slings crossed the air from all directions as the trap unleashed. They were not accurate by Rokugani warfare standards, yet the sheer amount of fire felled several samurai before they could even react. The Spider responded with precise efficiency, taking cover from the ranged assault from any source they could find. They slid behind wounded horses and wagon wheels and patiently waited for the ranged assault to abate. A few more ineffectual volleys flew out, then the bloodthirsty Ruhmal cultists could no longer hold out. Dirty faces twisted with bestial anger emerged from hidden alcoves as the Ruhmal cultists rushed the caravan from all sides.
It was exactly what the Spider samurai were waiting for. They let loose an ear-splitting kiai as one and charged toward their attackers. The cultists were enthusiastic but unskilled. They fell in droves to the Spider’s blades, yet they seemed to pour out endlessly from the brushes. They pushed onward with the weight of numbers, and the defenders slowly began to take involuntary steps back toward their wagons.
“Drive them back!” Daigotsu Arakan bellowed as he leapt out from one of the wagons. He fell into the thickest part of battle with his ancient katana clasped in both hands. He struck with inhuman strength, and the cultists fell in droves before him. The rhythm of the battle pounded in his veins as he ducked blades and struck out in a beautiful and deadly dance.
The battle was over too quickly and the outcome unquestionable. The cultists died to a man, with none retreating from the slaughter.
Arakan wiped the blood from his blade and spat on the corpse in disgust. He turned his attention to the wagon in the center of the procession. The cultists had known exactly which one to attack, and they had concentrated most of their assault against it. He quickly made his way to the back of the wagon. The worry in his heart faded as he took in the sight.
A slender young man stood in the center of the wagon, his segmented chain staff arrayed menacingly around him. The blades on the ends of the staff were thick with blood, and the wagon showed evidence of great battle. The man had not survived unscathed – several arrows were still embedded deep within his legs – yet the container was all that mattered. The box was untouched.
“How is it, Kenta?” Arakan asked. “Is the weapon harmed?”
The monk slammed the point of his weapon into the ground and shook his head. “Many tried to sneak into the wagon in the confusion. None of them lived to regret their mistake.” He gestured downward. The dismembered pieces strewn across the floor of the wagon barely resembled the crazed fanatics they had once been.
Arakan suppressed his surprise. He had placed the slender young man in charge of the Blood at direct order of his superior. Now he knew why. The monk barely seemed winded despite his valiant defense.
“Take care of your wounds. We have many miles to cross before we reach our lord,” Arakan ordered. Kenta looked down and seemed to notice the arrows embedded in his legs. He blinked in surprise. He bowed and began to dismount from the wagon when an alarmed shout rang out from the edge of the recent battlefield.
“I shall remain with the item,” Kenta began to say, but Arakan did not wait to hear it. He immediately leapt out into the fray, his katana in hand.
The battle cry died in his throat as he recognized the banners fluttering in the wind. He slammed his katana back into its saya with disgust. It seemed he had protected his charge through one battle to immediately face another.
Only the pompous fools from one Clan would march with heraldry that towered above them in the uncharted wilderness. The Lion formation seemed to dwarf their own numbers as they marched into the clearing. Their polished armor seemed to glow in the sun as they marched directly toward the heart of the Spider caravan. They kept formation as they approached, and the Spider slowly formed a semi-circle in front of them. Arakan took his place at their head and met their leader.
“Our scouts alerted us to the battle, yet it seems we have arrived too late to offer our aid,” the Lion commander shouted in cheerful greeting. “It seems the wilderness still hides dangers for us all!”
“Nothing the Spider cannot handle,” Arakan responded. He bowed stiffly enough to avoid giving offense. It seemed the Lion did not recognize him, and he had no intention of aggravating them by delving into his own past. “We can take care of our own.”
“I am Akodo Furu, son of Akodo Junpachi and Ikoma Jirei. My father fought at the side of the Lion Clan Champion during the Destroyer Wars. My mother served with the Ikoma Elite Guardians for decades.” He paused in his litany and grinned rakishly. “Perhaps my formal introduction can wait for now. Please allow my men to help reinforce your defenses for your trip back to safer territory.”
“I am Daigotsu Arakan, leader of this expedition. Your help is unnecessary,” Arakan replied. “We planned out the defenses for the journey with these pesky cultists in mind. Thank you for your offer, yet we will not need your assistance.”
“I did not mean to imply a lack of strength on your part, Arakan-san.” Furu continued. His rakish grin seemed to state otherwise. “Who knows what else may lie within these uncharted lands? It would be beneficial for us all to move together, at least until your wounded are back to safety.”
Arakan looked around at his men. The ambush had not been their first since their departure from the temple, and his men showed evidence of their multiple encounters. “Strength of will comes through adversity,” Arakan said. “We of the Spider are accustomed to these bruises. They will fight with deadly skill when force is needed.”
“I ask to be able to treat your men as I treat my own,” Furu said.
“I thank you for your kind offer, yet we cannot inconvenience you in that manner. We shall proceed along our path,” Arakan answered with finality ringing in his voice.
“I understand,” Furu replied. The grin never changed, yet Arakan could sense a shift in the Lion’s tactics.
“These cursed cultists have not been very active of late, and never in these numbers,” Furu said. “What do you carry within those wagons that would provoke their ire so?”
The warriors around Arakan stiffened, and he stifled a grimace. He could only hope the Lion did not see. “The cultists are mad,” Arakan said dismissively. “We carry supplies from the outskirts of this island for our lord. It is nothing that would interest a cultist. It must be coincidence that drew them to us.”
“I see,” Furu said mildly. He tilted his head and raised his voice. “Did it look to be coincidence to you, Shuji?”
“No, Furu-sama,” a reedy voice said from within the foliage. Several Spider warriors whirled to face the sudden noise as a small man crawled out of the brush. He was clad in light armor darkened by the mud smeared across its entire front. The scout did not give the Spider a single glance as he headed straight for the Lion contingent. He bowed deeply before continuing his report.
“The cultists struck with precision and purpose. They were after something, and they waited for
“I see,” Furu repeated. He turned to look at Arakan without further comment.
Arakan gritted his teeth. How long had the scout watched them undetected? How much did he hear? How much did they know? “Nothing about these crazed fanatics seem sensible, Furu-san. They may have caught wind of our slow wagons early on and decided to strike them on a whim. I try not to delve deeply into the minds of maniacs.”
“Neither do I,” Shuji said, “yet no matter how much I consider it, I cannot figure out why your men defended that wagon with such gusto.” He pointed directly at the wagon in front of him – the wagon carrying the Blood.
Elation filled him. The arrogant scout had given him the perfect way out of the situation.
“Do you consider my men maniacs, Shuji?”Arakan said quietly.
Shuji paused, caught off guard by the comment. “I did not mean—”
“Do you doubt that my wagons are filled with supplies?” Arakan continued. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Shuji bowed his head but his gaze never left the Spider’s face. “I only report what I have seen with my own eyes, Arakan-san,” Shuji answered.
“What exactly is in the wagon, Arakan-san?” Furu asked, his voice equally laced with danger.
Arakan spared a single glance away from Shuji. “Supplies,” he replied curtly. He turned back to the scout and glowered at him without speaking. The man paled.
The scout’s social mistake had been the lynchpin of the situation. He could play the role of insulted brute and avoid all the unpleasant questions he wanted. The other option was to fight his way out, and his outnumbered men were too tired to conclusively defeat the Lion.
The silence grew for another uncomfortable moment before Arakan decided to end the sham. He turned to Furu. “For the sake of peace, I will not cut this man down where he stands,” he said. “Leave us now, Furu-san, and we shall forget this encounter ever happened.”
Furu’s eyes had sharpened to points. He studied Arakan’s face for several heartbeats before his face illuminated in a rakish – and false- grin.
“Very well. We shall not keep you further, Arakan-san. I wish you safe travels,” Furu said. He gestured to the silent shadow by his side, but the scout seemed to turn away only with great reluctance. His intense, suspicious gaze met Arakan’s one last time before he walked away. The Spider sullenly watched their arrogant departure with cold eyes.
Arakan’s eyes narrowed, but he let the insult pass without comment. Duty stopped his hand now, yet one day soon he would answer it. Arakan motioned the caravan forward. The Blood of the Destroyer needed to reach his lord’s hands unscathed. He would suffer every insult and every indignity if it would
Once his duty was fulfilled, he vowed, those fools would die by his hand.
* * * * *
Agasha Kodo folded her hands in front of her slowly and stared at them for a moment. “This is, of course, some manner of joke?” she asked earnestly. “Unfortunately, I’ve been told that sometimes I miss more subtle humor.”
The messenger in the doorway shook his head. “Ah… no, Agasha-sama. The orders from the Master of Air were quite explicit. As a representative of thePhoenixin the courts and one of her personal emissaries, she sent the man to speak with you about his inquiry.”
“I see,” the woman replied quietly. “To my knowledge, Mitsuko-sama has no sense of humor at all regarding these issues, so I will take it at face value. Well,” she continued, adopting the radiant smile that was the most remarkable of her stunning features, “I suppose we have to all do our part for the clan. Please do show our guest in.”
The man nodded and stepped out of the room where Kodo had been preparing letters and schedules for the next few months. After some quiet discussion, some of which seemed sharp and surprised for a moment, there was silence again.
And that is how a Tamori came to stand in the doorway of an Agasha.
“Come in,” thePhoenixsaid pleasantly, indicating a place for Tamori Yayu to sit opposite her. “I was informed you came with a yojimbo, is he not present?”
Yayu took a cautious step in and smiled weakly. “No, Mirumoto Ezuno is elsewhere in the estate. Overseeing the servants who are tending our horses, I believe. He is as careful of a guardian as one could hope for.” The Dragon took another step into the room and hesitated. “I apologize, but when I was directed by Isawa Mitsuko-sama’s attendant to speak with one of her functionaries, I was… well, I did not expect…”
“You did not expect to deal with one who is not a shugenja, I am sure,” Kodo said helpfully.
Finally taking his final steps into the room, Yayu sat down opposite his host and looked her up and down for just a moment, but not fast enough to escape Kodo’s notice.
“You seem wary, Tamori-san,” the Phoenixcourtier said with concern. “Perhaps you might be reminded that it is your family that clings to the old hatreds, not mine.”
Yayu frowned, “I suppose it is easy enough for the betrayers to forgive the betrayed.” As soon as the words left his mouth, the Dragon looked surprised at himself, then cast his eyes down. “Or so some among the family would say,” he added in a frustrated tone. “You are correct, though. The old hatreds are hard to put aside, but they will not last forever, I’m sure.”
Kodo tilted her head to show her curiousity. “You speak as one who does not share the feeling, despite your immediately recent behavior otherwise. I suppose such intriguing contradictions are typical of your clan?”
“I speak as a Tamori, and as a Dragon,” Yayu said. “As a Tamori, I understand patience. As a Dragon, I understand myself. So if I am to have my failings, it is worthwhile to know what they are and that they will not endure as my will does.”
“And as a Jade Magistrate? I believe you have come to speak as that,” she said, looking at the missive she had been handed moments ago.
“I was hoping to ask as a fellow shugenja, or at least a fellow scholar and samurai of the Empire before I would have to assert my authority as an emissary of the Jade Champion, Kodo-san.”
Kodo smiled sadly and looked to a painting that hung on the wall. “I am afraid that the last will not gain you any influence here. Mitsuko-sama’s inquisitors do not answer directly to the Jade Champion, and I suppose it is no secret that thePhoenixhave developed little love for the authority and office of that position over the years. I could, of course, cooperate with the letter of Asahina Nanae-sama’s request, but it would be easy enough to protect the sensitive information you truly wish to see.” She turned to look back at the Dragon. “So, Tamori Yayu, it seems you cannot find common ground with me due to our families, nor due to our station, nor can you do much with your authority from where you sit. Why should we be compelled to open our libraries to you?”
Yayu narrowed his eyes, “I was hoping the obvious answer of assisting a magistrate of the Throne to combat an enemy of the Empire would be sufficient.”
“The threat can be met by us with information we already have, Yayu-san. What you seek to do can be accomplished without me betraying the Agasha’s oaths of secrecy to the Phoenix Clan.”
The Tamori nearly spoke again out of frustration, stating what he thought of the Agasha’s sense of loyalty, but bit the comment back. She was toying with him, Yayu began to see, or testing him. It was unclear which. “What I have set out to accomplish is something beyond what has been attempted by thePhoenixbefore. That is why I need to see your research, and that of the Kuni, and the Yogo. I am myself bound to serve the Jade Champion in this, and there is no fear of what I learn falling into the hands of others.” Yayu took a shallow breath, and continued, “The Phoenix are interested in peace, and I seek to end a threat to the security of the Empire. Perhaps this is aligned with the purposes of your clan more than you realize.”
“Yes, thePhoenixare interested in peace, as are the Agasha,” Kodo agreed, nodding. “So, I will have you swear an oath to me.”
A soon as the words left Kodo’s lips, Yayu’s hands clenched. “What?” he almost hissed.
“The Agasha are interested in peace, Tamori-san. And we are interested in settling old feuds. Swear an oath to me not to betray the Agasha and the Phoenix. Certainly such a thing would be very minor for you to so swear if I were, say… an Iuchi, or a Kuni. But an Agasha? Can you swallow your pride and swear such to an Agasha, on your honor? Can you take a step with me towards peace between our houses?” Her dark, beautiful eyes never left Yayu’s as she spoke. “You ask me to authorize a great deal and risk much in the name of peace, Tamori Yayu. What are you willing to do in its name as well?”
Yayu leaned back, and his hand went to his wakizashi. His breath went in and out for what felt like minutes as he met the unwavering gaze of Agasha Kodo. “Very well,” he finally whispered. “I will take this step with you, Kodo-san.” His grip on the sword loosened, but did not end. “I, Yayu of house Tamori, son of Tamori Shiki, swear to safeguard the secrets of the Phoenix Clan entrusted to me in this duty to the Throne.”
Agasha Kodo smiled warmly at the man, and reached for her ink.
“An easy oath to make, I suppose,” Yayu observed out loud. “I imagine all of this is going to end with me on the wrong end of a Naga spear regardless.”
* * * * *
It had once had a name, a woman’s name, although that was long ago and far away. Its master liked to designate it with a woman’s name, a different one. For its part, it simply thought of itself as the Red Woman. It wore a black kimono and a red obi and a lacquered red hairstick along with its porcelain mask, not to please its master–that wasn’t possible anymore–but as a reminder of the clan they still served. Even if the clan didn’t yet realize the value of their service.
The master didn’t speak in words, but the master didn’t have to. The Red Woman thought of the master as a man, which was as fallacious as thinking of itself as a woman, but it was an imperfect world. It was also just as well that neither of them had a sense of smell anymore.
Today it came back with one sleeve in tatters. The courtier’s yojimbo had fought hard, but the yojimbo had not been a Crab, and sometimes that was all the advantage it needed. The courtier herself had been easy. Even now the Red Woman forgot its own strength, which derived in part from its close relationship with the master. Because the two victims had been Scorpion, the Red Woman had pieced the bodies back together so they could be burned properly by the eta. It assumed the eta would show up eventually, anyway. They had for all the other corpses.
The master’s current stronghold was a place of crags and clandestine frost. The Red Woman knew the approaches, knew where to pause to look for intruders. So far none had come, which didn’t mean they didn’t exist. But the master wished not to be found yet, and the master’s cunning in these matters was deep.
This time the master was alone, contemplating his maps. The Red Woman knew the maps intimately. It had scratched most of them into the stones under his guidance. Every general knew that it paid to study that which you intended to attack. By now, the master had a reasonably good working knowledge of the defenses the Crab had erected around the Second Pit. The Crab had not been terribly cooperative in furnishing this knowledge, but the master had enjoyed a few successes on this front.
The Scorpion and the Crab weren’t the target, of course. The Pit was. Its very presence, the compromise it had forced the Empress herself into, pained the master.
The Red Woman bowed deeply to the master. He nodded at it. It indicated to him that the Scorpion Champion was as well as might be expected, and that he was more determined than ever to locate his father. It added, although it probably shouldn’t have, that the son was an opponent that even the father shouldn’t underestimate.
It didn’t escape its notice that he had written another letter. It had brought him ink and brush and paper on one of its many forays. He had the dexterity for such pursuits, sometimes, although it would have been beyond its abilities. In times past, it had written haiku to commemorate duels, and it had wielded the katana with a duelist’s singing grace. Many things were beyond its abilities now, but so long as they did not keep it from serving the master’s purpose, it was content.
Sometimes the letters were addressed to the woman whose name the Red Woman bore. This time the letter was addressed to the Scorpion Champion. The master had left it incomplete. A single streak of ink ended in a blot traveling down the page, a punctuation mark of frustration.
The Red Woman explained to him that the Scorpion Champion was not ready to receive his father’s wisdom. An old argument, but one worth having again.
The master turned away from the maps. The eyes behind the porcelain mask were flat and dark and very cold. I failed once, they said. I will not fail again.
That was all very well, the Red Woman replied, but sooner or later Bayushi Nitoshi would notice his courtiers going missing. Getting impatient would profit them nothing. Was he certain that it didn’t make more sense to find some corruptible living people and use them as spies? If there was one thing the world had no shortage of, it was corruptible living people.
The master had resisted this course of action for a long time. The living could not be trusted. Even the Scorpion would show loyalty to their living champion, not the dead one. He had punished a number of them for this, like the courtier and her yojimbo, with slow, tearing death at his followers’ hands. The walking dead, at least, could be relied upon.
The Red Woman pointed out that he was nearing the point of involving his son, who wasn’t a zombie the last anyone had checked, and that this was pure hypocrisy. Not that “hypocrisy” was a useful argument either among zombies or Scorpion.
The master had his mind on another matter entirely. He wished to know if Nitoshi had found a wife yet.
The courtier had known of no existing arrangement, it told him, which didn’t mean anything. Truth to tell, it worried about this, too. Nitoshi might be in excellent health, but this was Rokugan and accidents happened all the time.
The master instructed the Red Woman to find out when Nitoshi planned on remedying this matter. The Red Woman wasn’t able to conceal a sigh. It couldn’t conceal much from him, although they maintained certain polite fictions the way all samurai did.
What, it inquired, did he want to do about this nonexistent wedding anyway?
The master was smiling behind his mask. I plan to give a gift.
It didn’t feel the cold anymore, but it remembered terror. It looked at the maps, and especially at the notations the master had made of subtle weaknesses in the Crab-built defenses. The Crab had done their job with commendable thoroughness, and ordinarily the best thing to do would be to leave their work intact. But the Pit was an affront to the Scorpion, and a Scorpion had to remedy the matter, even if it meant betraying the clan.
There were places in the defenses where people who were only mortal would falter sooner or later. Paths that people who were only mortal couldn’t travel because the Pit would devour them.
The Pit couldn’t gnaw out the hearts of those who no longer had hearts.
The Red Woman didn’t know if the Pit could be conquered and bent to the master’s will, but he certainly intended to try.
Discuss the events of these fictions in our Story Forum!