In the Emerald Empire, concerns turn from the conflict with the Naga toward recent events within the Colonies.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Regardless of the season, the air in the Dragon mountains was rarely warmer than what might be called mild. The rocky, arid lands were so far above the rest of the Empire that the frigid winds that dipped down from the Heavens seemed to keep the mountains perpetually cool, at least in the highest peaks. Mirumoto Masae exulted in the sensation of the air as it coursed around her, but even in such a moment of elemental harmony, the thought that the physical separation from the Empire had created a cultural separation among her comrades within the Dragon Clan weighed in the back of her mind, immune to the winds like a stone that never eroded. It was a familiar concern, one she was able to put aside but never completely forget.
“It is always freezing here,” an old, familiar voice grumbled from along the path leading to Masae’s position. She smiled at the sound of it.
“We could travel to the Kami’s Vengeance, if you prefer,” another equally familiar voice replied, its tone somewhat playful. “Perhaps you might find all that lava comforting. Personally I enjoy the fresh air of the mountaintop.”
“I am not uncomfortable,” the first voice replied. “It was merely an observation.”
Masae rose from the lotus position. “Hello, friends,” she said warmly. “It fills my heart with joy to see you again.”
Doji Jun’ai smiled and bowed, followed shortly by Kakita Tsuken. “It is our pleasure as well,” she said. She glanced down the path behind them. “The others are close behind.”
“Excellent,” Masae said. “It will be good to see them again.”
True to Jun’ai’s word, a quartet of more figures appeared in a handful of moments, walking in pairs. The first two included a diminutive woman with brilliant blonde hair and wearing Crane colors, and a tall, gaunt man with an unusual headdress clad in the colors of the Unicorn Clan. Jun’ai bowed to the newcomers, wincing slightly as she often did in the presence of the Keeper of the Void. “The water spirits in your presence seem even more agitated than usual,” she observed. “I cannot hear them, but I can sense their presence.”
Iuchi Abodan shrugged, but it was not an overly apologetic gesture. “My magic is of the water,” he explained. “It is my soul that is of the Void.” He turned to Masae and bowed. “I greet you on behalf of the Moto, my lady Masae.”
“I welcome you on behalf of myself, for I can speak for no others,” she replied. She turned to the little Keeper of Thunder. “Welcome, Sakiko.”
Asahina Sakiko knelt so deeply it was almost kneeling. “Greetings, lady of the Keepers,” she replied. “It is always an honor to answer your summons.”
Masae smiled. “It was not a summons, Sakiko. You are a Keeper. You are my equal. I asked for us to meet, nothing more. You owe me no deference.”
“I choose to defer to your wisdom and experience,” Sakiko said, smiling.
Masae chose to let the matter drop; it was clear the young girl had no intention of overcoming her idolization any time soon. Instead, she looked to the other pair, the Keepers of Earth and Jade. As always, she was struck by how they were at once different and similar. “Greetings, brothers.”
Daidoji Ebizo, the steel-eyed Keeper of Earth, bowed. “Masae-san,” he replied. In Masae’s experience, he would speak little else unless it proved absolutely necessary.
Masae turned to the final arrival, a masked man clad in a strange mixture of black, crimson, and vibrant green. His mask rendered his expression an utter mystery, but his kimono bore an assortment of symbols, including one proclaiming his allegiance to the Scorpion Clan, another to the kuroiban, a once-secret and still little-known order of inquisitors, and finally one for the Jade Hand, a predominantly Crab order devoted to purity and the service of a mysterious woman also known by the name Jade Hand. “Soshi Nikaro,” she said warmly. “Welcome, my friend.”
The Keeper of Jade bowed reverently. “It is ever an honor, lady Masae.”
Masae looked around at the others. It was rare to have so many in one place, but they were together to discuss important things. “Perhaps we should begin.”
“Begin?” the tiny Keeper of Thunder asked. “But we are not all here, my lady.”
“Thankfully,” Tsuken muttered under his breath.
Masae smiled at the young Crane maiden. “There are times when we are not all able to attend for whatever reason,” she explained. “It is our custom to proceed if the Keepers of the five elements are present.”
“This is not to say that your counsel is not welcome, cousin,” Jun’ai added. “Your presence is a blessing and your thoughts of great importance. We simply must proceed despite the absence of some of our comrades. You understand?”
“Yes, Ju’nai-sama,” the young woman said with a bow.
Masae nodded. “Let us begin.”
* * * * *
Moru, the Imperial Advisor of the Divine Empress, could not help but smile as he rose to greet his guest. The doorway slid open, and his two sentries bowed. He acknowledged them respectfully, the notion of Imperials showing deference to him still alien after all these years, but his true respect was reserved for his guest. He bowed very deeply. “Yung, my old friend,” he said happily. “I was so delighted to hear that you were in the city. Please, will you join me for tea? I have prepared a blend I know you are fond of.”
Yung, a monk so worn by the years that his true age was impossible to discern, smiled warmly. “You honor me, Moru-san,” he said. The old monk had never used the subordinate honorific with him, and it relieved Moru greatly. Too many old friends now treated him as some distant superior.
“I hope that your presence in theImperialCityindicates that you have accepted the order’s offer,” Moru said optimistically.
Yung frowned. “What offer is that?”
Moru’s heart sank. “I was informed that they were going to offer you the position as head of the Brotherhood of Shinsei,” he explained.
“Fortunes, that again?” Yung waved the notion away dismissively. “I have no time for such frivolities.”
“Frivolities?” Moru said incredulously. “Surely you jest!”
“Frivolities,” Yung repeated solemnly. “I took up the duties of a monk to seek wisdom and achieve harmony with the universe, not serve as some bureaucrat.” He paused for a moment, looking at Moru. “I mean no offense to your most august position, of course,” he added. “You offer wisdom to the Divine Empress. That is a sacred task, to be sure.”
“A task no less sacred than that of leading the Brotherhood,” Moru pressed. “You could share your incredible wisdom with so many.”
“Let us assume for a moment that I have some modicum of wisdom worthy of being passed on,” Yung said, adopting an indulgent tone. “When I speak with one, I impart what little can be passed on by an old fool like myself. When I speak with two, however, I must take that little and divide it between them. If I speak to a dozen, then each receives practically nothing. You would have me seek to teach hundreds or thousands at a time? They would only grow more ignorant in the process. No, leadership is not a burden I desire.”
Moru sighed lightly, but his smile returned shortly. “It is a pleasure to see you regardless,” he said. “Would you take tea with me?”
“Of course!” Yung said. “I have only just arrived from Outsider Keep in the Unicorn lands, and let me assure you that while the lands are beautiful and the people virtuous between here and there, the tea is quite mediocre.”
Moru paused. “Outsider Keep?” he repeated.
“You were present for the exodus?” Moru asked. “I thought that you opposed it.”
“Oh, I did. I still do. But the fact that I find fault with a course of action does not mean that it will not occur, or that I should ignore the details of its execution. Would you not agree?”
“I would agree,” the Advisor replied. “I admit I am surprised, however. Your opposition was particularly impassioned, I felt. I think you convinced a number of prominent brothers that your viewpoint was the right one.”
“Not enough of them, it seems,” Yung replied. “The exodus took place just the same. Nine of our greatest members sent to the Colonies in hopes of stemming the influence of Fudoism.” He shook his head. “Such a waste.”
“A waste?” Moru was puzzled. “You do not consider the resurgence of Fudoism something worthy of our intervention? I have never understood your position on this matter.”
“Telling someone that the path they have chosen is wrong is not going to make them decide to change,” Yung explained. “These are adults, not children. Insisting that they have done something incorrectly is just as likely to make them cling to their path as it is to change it.”
“It is too dangerous not to attempt it, unfortunately,” Moru said.
“Perhaps,” Yung acknowledged. “I only hope that we do not inadvertently make things worse.”
* * * * *
“Though I have not been a Keeper for a great deal of time, I have learned to perceive paths. It is not the supernatural ability of a shugenja, nor the wisdom of a monk. Perhaps it is some combination of the two, but I rather think it is merely the ability to perceive the world and make connections that perhaps others might miss.” Abodan regarded the Keepers of Fire, Air, and Water. “Those of you who have held such a position for many years must surely have some similar intuition. This is immaterial in the face of our greater concern, however.” He paused, regarding the distant mountains. “The path on which the Empire currently travels is wrong.”
“The entire Empire travels a single path?” Masae inquired. “How can you make such a determination?”
“The path of the Empire is the sum total of the paths of its people,” Abodan countered. “Can you speak with all honesty and say that the state of affairs does not alarm you? That you see nothing amiss that gives you cause for grave concern?”
The Keeper of the Air considered for a moment. “There are many choices being made by those in positions of power that I would not have chosen,” she finally said. “That their choice is a different one does not make it false.”
“It is not now nor has it ever been our duty to set others on a path. We simply offer our guidance and understanding to those who seek it. We do not insert ourselves into the affairs of those who do not seek our counsel,” Abodan said. “I have no desire to see that changed.”
“What is it that you advocate?” Jun’ai asked.
“I sense an unknown hand involved,” Abodan said. “I have concerns that events are being manipulated. Just as we have ever taken pains to avoid unduly influencing the path of the Empire, I fear some other influence as yet unknown is doing precisely that.”
Tsuken frowned. “Are we discussing a potential supernatural threat?” he asked. “Such a thing seems a tremendous leap of logic.”
“I have not considered the source,” Abodan replied. “It seems premature to attribute an as yet unknown quantity to the supernatural simply because it is unknown.”
“Agreed,” Nikaro said. “That is a fool’s errand.”
“I only seek your counsel on the matter, and offer caution that we should all be aware of the potential ramifications.” He paused for a moment. “There was also the possibility that we could consult an expert in such matters as well, but that does not seem possible.”
“The Keeper of Shadow?” Tsuken asked incredulously.
“Not a true Keeper,” Ebizo replied.
“Agreed,” Nikaro said.
“Regardless, only the Keeper of Obsidian can contact him.”
Abodan regarded Tsuken with disdain. “Refraining from naming someone out of dislike for them is an intensely juvenile act.”
Tsuken sneered at him. “The point stands.”
“Please excuse Kakita Tsuken,” an old voice said. “He struggles with anything more complex than the notion of hitting someone with his sword.”
Tsuken turned toward the voice, a look of intense, naked disgust on his face. “The Keeper of Obsidian graces us with his presence.”
“Tsuken, please,” Jun’ai said softly. “Do not exacerbate the situation. Things need not be this way.”
“They do,” Tsuken insisted.
Jun’ai sighed and turned to the newcomer with a faint smile. “Hello, Hideo.”
* * * * *
Shinjo Sanenari scanned the horizon, looking for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. He had heard the report of the sentry, and he trusted the man, but the notion of a small number of people out on their own in the empty lands between the Empire and the Colonies seemed ridiculous. Perhaps the sentry had been in the sun too long, or perhaps…
Wait, no. There was something moving. Sanenari stared in shock for a moment. It did appear to be a small number of people. Walking. He urged his horse forward and gestured for the others to follow. They moved forward at a gallop, closing the gap between them quickly. Only a moment later, Sanenari pulled his horse up short and called out. “Who goes there?”
Two among them stepped forward, a woman and a man. Both bore the trappings of a monk, as did their comrades. “We are representatives of the Brotherhood of Shinsei, traveling to theSecondCityat the behest of our order,” the woman said, her voice like spun silk hanging in the air. “May I ask your name, noble samurai?”
“I am Shinjo Sanenari of the Unicorn, one of the guardians of Journey’s End Keep,” he replied. He looked around. “Where… is the rest of your caravan?”
“We have none,” she replied.
“You traveled alone?” he said incredulously. “Without provisions?”
The man grunted. “The universe provides,” he said simply.
“Asukai-san speaks truthfully,” the woman says. “However, the universe does provide rather sparsely in some cases. Would it be possible for my colleagues to have some water?”
“Of course,” Sanenari said, removing his water bottle at once, as did the others. “There will be ample provisions at the keep for you.” He stared and counted. “Hmm. There are eight of you. Might I inquire as to whether or not a ninth may have traveled by a different route?”
“You might indeed,” the woman said. “One of our number, Sengmai, chose to travel the most direct route possible, along the south. He is somewhat inflexible in that regard.”
Sanenari nodded. “I have read reports of a monk who emerged from the southern jungles. He would have traveled through the Shadowlands and the jungles there. It is not a journey I would envy any soul making.”
“What is his condition?” the one called Asukai inquired.
“He is wounded, battered, sickened slightly, but ultimately…”
“Unbroken,” Yunmen the Whisper finished, smiling slightly.
* * * * *
The Jade Champion retired to her personal quarters long after the sun had set. It seemed in years of late that the hours of daylight were impossibly brief. This was, Asahina Nanae felt certain, the perspective of one slipping into their twilight years. It seemed ridiculous, of course; had she not been a young maiden only a short time ago? But then it was likely that everyone of her age felt the same way. As she removed the mantle of the Jade Champion and placed it reverently upon its stand, she caught the whisper of a mountain breeze and smiled. “Sakiko, is that you my child? I had not expected you for another day or two. You must have traveled swiftly indeed.”
“Indeed,” said a voice that was not that of Sakiko. “One might say I traveled as quickly as the river flow, would one not?”
Nanae turned slowly and smiled. “Hello, Jun’ai-san.”
“Hello, Nanae-sama,” the Keeper of Water said, bowing. “It is good to see you, cousin.”
“And you, although this visit is unexpected.” She paused for a moment. “How did you know?”
“The benefit of having a grand-niece such as little Sakiko, as you do, is that she is utterly without guile,” Jun’ai said. “She thinks nothing at all of speaking with her beloved great-aunt and discussing the events of things such as meetings between the Keepers. The drawback is that her utter guilelessness makes it a simple matter for others such as myself to discern something of that nature is taking place.” She shook her head. “You should be ashamed of yourself. She is a pure soul and a credit to our clan, and you use her as an unwitting pawn.”
Nanae seemed genuinely disappointed. “You fail to understand. As a group, the Keepers possess not only noteworthy mystical power, but significant political influence as well. It is my duty to maintain knowledge of such groups and ensure that nothing untoward is permitted while I stand as Jade Champion.”
Jun’ai regarded her frankly for a moment. “I believe you believe that,” she said at last. “I obviously disagree with your particularly paranoid stance.”
“Do not consider the years we have known one another as suitable cause for you to be disrespectful,” Nanae warned. “It is inappropriate.”
“Inappropriate,” Jun’ai repeated. “That is a word for young women, not us. You speak such things and yet you know full well what is happening in the Colonies.”
“Of course I know,” Nanae said. “What do you even mean?”
“The library, of course,” Jun’ai said. “I know everything about it.”
Nanae said nothing for a moment. “And?”
Jun’ai stood and bowed. “I take my leave of you, Jade Champion. You have nothing to fear from the Keepers. If you wish to know of our activities, then ask. I will not tolerate manipulation of your great-niece any further.”
“Is that some sort of threat?”
“No,” Jun’ai said emphatically. “It is simply a summary. Good day, Jade Champion.”
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