A quartet of vignettes from around the Empire and its Colonies.
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton, Seth Mason, and Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Sins of the Father, Part 3
Before the sun broke over the woods surrounding Shizuka Toshi, Ichigiku strung her yumi and went to the forest. The mists of the morning still clung to the wooded floor like gaussian webbing. Her mind was a fog as well; since Kinaro foiled the attempt on their lives nearly two months ago, she’d felt as though she were surrounded by a sort of sensory cotton. The incident had left her Tiger without balance. In the woods, she could appease it with the blood of game.
She found her deer trail with little effort. It was far into the woods, but when one followed the winding creek and knew what to look for, it was impossible to miss. She took position downwind and settled into an optimal spot. There, she crouched in silence and patiently waited.
In the past, such trips to the woods were often fruitful. Still and quiet, she would focus on her breathing and fall into a meditative state, empty and keenly aware. It was easier for her to reach the state of mindfulness while readying the yumi, waiting for her target. Yet today, her mind would not empty. Even though he’d long left for the colonies, Kinaro was lingering. Her mind replayed the events of the investigation without heed to her desires for stillness, even in her dreams. Dreams that were, as of late, troubled.
Three images repeatedly conjured themselves to her mind. The first was Kinaro; each time, he was doing something different. Pouring tea, drumming his fingers on the table, reading the play. Smiling at her. Laughing. The second image was that of her superior, Kakita Kazan, as he read her account of the incident in the market district. She’d watched carefully for dismay, but his face maintained a flawless On, a faint smile that was impossible to understand. That he’d remained silent on the matter this long was all the more troubling. She knew there would be consequences for her failure to capture Hiro’s killer, and as the days passed, she wished more and more that it would be over with.
The final image was that of their suspect, the moment before his death. He’d told her to enjoy her last days before the dart sank into his neck, foiling any chance they had of taking his testimony. His words echoed in her skull. Enjoy your last days.
It meant his partner would be coming for her.
The forest wind drew her from her reverie. Near the creek, she spotted a lone deer that had stopped for water. It was a young male, brown and covered in white spots, with immature antlers that Ichigiku knew had medicinal qualities. Slowly, Ichigiku readied her yumi and drew an arrow from her quiver. The top of the bow towered over her, steady but gently swaying, like one of the surrounding trees. Her breath came calm and soft, and she focused on the sound, the sensation of air filling her lungs, and the rustle of the forest canopy. The world beyond her senses faded away. Balance, found once more at the tip of her arrow.
The deer looked up in her direction. She halted. She’d made no sound, no movement. The wind had not changed. She’d done nothing to alert the deer to her presence. Why, then, did it startle?
Heragei answered. She drew a soft breath, knowing that she would have to strike suddenly or her prey would escape. She could not let that happen; she was committed, whether she’d intended this or not. It would run, of course… they always ran when the arrow sank. But even so, the game would be over. It would be decided in the space of one breath.
Ichigiku exhaled, spun around, and fired.
The arrow struck a humanoid figure. It reeled, surprised, and then began a stumbling run towards city. Ichigiku dropped her yumi and sprinted, running a winding pursuit through the foliage, sword drawn mid-step. She closed in and saw that the figure was a woman, donned in the same plain kimono and straw hat as her previous attacker. The woman spun suddenly, arm flung in the telltale thrust of a dagger-throw. Ichigiku was on the woman before the dagger could leave her palm. The sword flashed in a beam of light, and the hand fell severed to the forest floor, its dead fingers still clutching the knife.
The woman tumbled backwards, landing roughly to the dirt. Ichigiku held her blade to the woman’s chest. Their eyes met; through the veil of fresh pain lighting the assassin’s eyes, Ichigiku recognized her attacker as the one that had served the poisoned tea nights ago. Protruding from the woman’s obi was a blowgun and two familiar-looking darts.
Ichigiku’s eyes narrowed. “Got you.”
The woman glared a mixture of anger, pain, and defiance. Ichigiku allowed herself a victorious smile. In this victory was redemption for her previous failure. She savored this for only a moment before pressing the tip of her blade closer to the would-be assassin’s chest.
“Why did you kill Hiro?” she demanded. The woman did not reply. Ichigiku began again, “Who are-”
Before the second question could form, the woman leapt from her sprawled position, hitting Ichigiku with all of her weight. It sent the Crane sprawling, and she hit the ground, pinned under the body of her attacker. Ichigiku felt the pangs of panic fill her limbs, knowing she was helpless in this position. But her attacker did not press advantage. With widening eyes, Ichigiku realized that the woman was not moving. Her weight was solid and dead, a sensation of warmth slowly spreading from the woman’s belly, where Ichigiku’s sword had run her through. It was standing, vertical, out of her attacker’s back.
Ichigiku wrenched herself from under the dead woman. She was smiling in death. The Crane shivered in the forest wind, with a glistening red-stained kimono and hands. But her wide eyes did not see the body of the dead woman, nor did her mind think of the stain that marred her kimono and threatened her soul. Time had folded, and she’d returned to a moment in her past, after a headed exchange of words, her Tiger’s roar, and a corpse laying fresh amongst a cluster of swaying grass…
* * *
The door of the house burst open as armed doshin poured in. They spread throughout the simple dwelling, lanterns and weapons in hand. They poured from room to room, sliding shoji doors open without announcement, casting their lantern-light throughout the dim surroundings.
Ichigiku entered moments later. She was donned in full magistrate’s appointments, her pointed hat, hakama, and kataginu. With the confidence of authority, she strode over the threshold and raked the room with her gaze. The house was pristine and ordinary.
A senior doshin approached and bowed. “My lady,” he said, “the house appears to be empty.”
Ichigiku nodded. She’d suspected as much… there was no one left to occupy it. After they’d found someone to identify the body of her attacker, a chain of testimonies led to this dwelling. Whereas before none could say where the man who died in the merchant district had once lived, now others came forward to affirm that the two were living together under this roof. Ichigiku was not sure what she expected to find here, but it seemed to be the next logical step.
“My lady?” The doshin were filtering back to her from the unoccupied rooms. “Your orders?”
She looked around her. The dwelling was painfully ordinary. Nothing out of place.
“Search everything,” she said. “Tear it apart.”
They did not hesitate. The dwelling resounded with overturned tables, cupboards flinging open, and furious rapping upon wooden floors. The older doshin checked the walls for hidden shoji. Ichigiku stood serenely as the doshin tore the dwelling apart.
Eventually, one of the doshin returned to the senior, a scrap of paper in his hand. The two exchanged words, and then the senior spun, presenting the scrap to Ichigiku, who eyed it curiously.
“This was discovered in among the ashes of the firepit, my lady,” he said.
Ichigiku took the scrap with surprise. “How did it survive?” she wondered.
The doshin shook his head. “Will of the Fortunes, perhaps?”
If the paper had survived burning, then it had done so just barely. It was singed along the edges, a fragment of a much larger document. Of what she could read, it appeared to be part of a letter, intended to be destroyed.
Little could be discerned from what survived. “…remain in secret…” “…has become a liability…” “…take care of it.” The final sentence: “…let none discover the three of you.”
When Ichigiku’s eyes widened, the doshin exchanged concerned looks. “My lady?” asked the senior. But she did not hear him. She read the final sentence again and again, her face growing paler and paler.
“…Let none discover the three of you.”
“…Discover the three of you.”
“The three of you.”
Ichigiku drew her gaze over the top of the document. “There’s one more,” she whispered.
The doshin jerked alert. “Here?” the senior asked, “in the city?”
“No,” she said, staring out of the open doorway and into the street. It faced west, the direction of the colonies. It was as the dead man had said… her partner would not see what was coming.
She grimaced. “He’s gone after Kinaro.”
* * * * *
Flame & Scales
Tamori Yayu and his yojimbo rode in silence through the western plains past the Scorpion lands. The whipping, cold air made the journey less pleasant than it might have been in the spring, but the young shugenja’s mood was not soured by the temperature. As the two Dragons rode on, Mirumoto Ezuno dared the limits of protocol and spoke, “You seemed quite eager to meet with the Yogo before we journeyed to stay with the Kuni family, Yayu-sama,” he said, looking over at his master. “Perhaps I do not understand what changed.”
Yayu smiled bitterly, “I was eager to meet the Yogo until I actually met the Yogo,” he replied in low tones. “I was under the apparently mistaken impression the Scorpion and Dragon Clans were allied.”
Ezuno shrugged. “The Mirumoto and Togashi enjoy a friendly relationship with the Bayushi. However, the Shosuro likely have a dim view of our cousins in the Kitsuki, as would the famed Soshi magistrates. As for the Yogo,” the large Mirumoto looked back to the northeast, towards the Yogo mountains unseen far, far in the distance. “Well, I will say it was interesting.”
“‘Interesting’ does not do this justice,” the shugenja said, his mood remaining dark. “I asked for their assistance, not… well. Whatever it is that we are now doing. I do not envy the Bayushi family for having to deal with them so often. Perhaps I should remind myself to ask the masters of a clan famed for its loyalty exactly why it is they see fit to harbor a family cursed with betrayal. I find it all very interesting,” he frowned at the last, indicating to his yojimbo that he was not, in fact, interested in the least.
“The Kuni will likely be of more straightforward assistance,” Ezuno offered. “They are a plain spoken people, and well-disposed to the Tamori, if I understand correctly.”
“You seem oddly well informed of politics for a warrior,” Yayu observed with a smirk. It was a sarcastic comment, but the shugenja was actually somewhat pleasantly surprised. His yojimbo seemed to have no end of unknown qualities.
“Agreed. I think we may have been in Toshi Ranbo too long,” came the retort.
The two Dragons looked at each other for a moment, and Yayu’s laugh broke over the sound of the wind as Ezuno merely smiled to himself.
Yayu’s laughter died down and he looked back at his companion to find the man had placed a hand on his sword. With his other, he held up an open hand in a gesture of warning. The Tamori didn’t know what Ezuno had heard, but he knew better than to question the man’s instincts.
From seemingly nowhere, six large, humanoid figures burst from the snow and reared up on their tails.
They were all roughly fifty feet away from the Dragons, just far enough that the bows they had drawn on their quarry could have easily killed the two men before they mounted any successful escape or charge. They were in a semi-circle around them, to the north.
“Disarm yourselves!” one of the Naga called out in broken Rokugani. “You are to be taken prisoner unless you refuse to cooperate.”
“What is the meaning-” Ezuno began, but an arrow flew by his head; an obvious warning.
“You are to be taken prisoner,” the Naga repeated. “Our master wishes to understand what it is you think you know. You will be killed if you do not surrender your weapons now.”
Yayu looked over at Ezuno. “It seems the Yogo were more help than I believed,” he said with a slight smile, shifting his legs a little and raising his hands. “I am unarmed!” he called out to the attackers. “And my guard has not drawn his swords. Do you really wish him to reach for them now?”
“Discard them in the snow!” the Naga yelled back. “This is your last opportunity to live.”
“You heard him,” Yayu said with a sigh.
With that, several things happened almost simultaneously.
Tamori Yayu almost lazily kicked out one of his legs, and a glowing green bottle rolled off his foot into the air towards the Naga.
Mirumoto Ezuno drew his swords in a blur, moving the blades in a sweeping upward and outward arc from his body as he watched the eyes of the archers who had focused on him.
Three of the Naga fired at each of the Dragons, the arrows being let loose as quickly as Ezuno had grabbed his weapons by the handle rather than the saya.
Two of the arrows meant to kill Ezuno met the sweeping curve of his swords, while the third one grazed the left side of his torso as he turned aside.
Yayu’s bottle exploded in the middle of the air, sending a wave of fire and force out that persisted in the air for seconds, knocking the arrows harmlessly away.
Ezuno and Yayu rolled off of their mounts as the Naga were readying another shot, and turned to run back the way they had come. While Tamori shugenja as a rule were not very well-liked by the air kami, Yayu had always had a slight affinity for them. He suspected that the spirits of air found him unusual and amusing for a typical Tamori, and thus he was more able to beseech them for favors now and again. With a whisper, the whipping winds of the cold day seemed to focus in a swirl in the air behind the two retreating Dragons, and the next volley was neutralized. “Do you remember the cave systems the Yogo told us about?” Ezuno asked quickly, glancing back to calculate how much time they would have before the Naga caught up to them.
“Yes,” Yayu replied, trying to concentrate on feeling through the earth as he ran. He didn’t know exactly where the entrance was – neither of them had seen it during their ride – but the earth spirits could guide him. “There!” Yayu said as he saw the Naga moving faster than most humans could manage. He pointed to a flat, featureless part of the ground in front of them that seemed unremarkable.
After an instant, Ezuno saw a slight depression and darkness. A rocky opening large enough for perhaps a rabbit. “Yayu-sama, I do not-”
“THERE!” he repeated, making a wide gesture with his hands as if he were pushing aside something. In response, the earth lurched and the opening widened as rock and dirt came up and away from it. Inside the newly-widened tunnel, there was little but darkness.
Ezuno ran to the entrance and turned, waiting for Yayu. The shugenja rushed past him into the tunnel just as one of the Naga caught up to them. The towering opponent reared up on its tail to strike with a spear, but the Mirumoto simply stepped forward and made a series of circular strikes with his blades. The Naga was caught off guard, obviously used to an opponent backing away from the motion, and fell to the ground with a cry. Ezuno then fell to his back on the snow and kicked out at the flailing torso of the Naga, sending him sliding backwards into the rocky opening Yayu had made and narrowly avoiding a strike from another Naga’s spear. The bushi barely had time to return his swords to their saya before he tumbled end over end down the sharply declining hole.
Ezuno quickly regained his footing and ran to catch up to Yayu, who had stopped running and turned back to look at his yojimbo. They had found the cave system, but Yayu had opened their way into a chamber where the other exits were too small for them to leave. “I cannot risk altering the earth in a place like this. I could bring the cave tumbling down on us.”
The noise of rocks rolling down the tunnel caused both men to look at the approaching Naga.
“No escape, then,” one spoke, obviously having heard Yayu.
The shugenja looked again at their dead end, then back at the Naga, but this time with a broad, wide smile. “Yes,” he said, bringing his hands together. Behind the two Naga that had managed to get through the tunnel, the opening closed, quickly cutting off the surprised hisses from the three that were trapped within. The sunlight from the surface was now completely gone. “No escape,” Yayu repeated in the complete darkness of the cave. “It seems the Scorpion’s information about you hunting around this region was correct after all. I am flattered that it turned out you were here for us. ”
Light flashed through the room as Ezuno’s swords began to crawl with bright fire. The bushi nodded in appreciation to Yayu, who made a gesture and created a blade of pure flame in his own hands. “Remember what the Yogo told us, Ezuno. We need one to survive.”
* * * * *
The decades that have passed since I last looked upon you have not in any way diminished the fires that burn in my heart. Each day I think of you and each day I mourn the loss of what we once shared. It can never be again. I resolved myself to that stark reality a very long time ago, but I cannot help but think that perhaps if I achieve sufficient greatness, then… well, that is a matter for playwrights and poets I suppose.
I have not written in a great length of time, I know. I believe it may have been more than a year. It is difficult to tell, sometimes. I know that regardless of what I write to you, you will not write me back. I have accepted this, but I hope that somewhere within you, you can feel some vestige of pride over the accomplishments of your husband. It is my great pleasure to inform you that I have been promoted to the rank of taisa within the unconquerable legions of the Spider Clan.
My unit was deployed some months ago in a pitched battle against the massed forces of our great enemies, the Cult of Ruhmal. These blasphemous, filthy gaijin had hidden from us for more than two decades, but the inevitability of our victory could not be denied. Their most secret temple, hidden away in the farthest and most remote regions of the Colonies, was finally laid bare before us, and we laid waste to it. My commander was slain in the fighting, and I was forced to assume command. Our unit’s valor in the battle was such that I was permitted to retain the post after our victory was finalized. The craven fools counterattacked even as we decimated their temples, and we lost many in the defense of our home, but it was worth it to crush an enemy utterly.
We discovered something amid the ruins of the temple, my love, something utterly unbelievable. I cannot say more about it, save that it is something that can change the balance of power in the world as we understand it. Perhaps one day, should my rank continue to increase, you will deign to write me. I wait only for that day.
At the beginning, let me be clear: understand that I only refer to you as father so that you will know without question who this letter is from, and because I cannot stomach even putting to paper the name by which you currently are known. Everything you are and everything you have become is a disgrace. Imagine my surprise to discover, when called home upon the death of my beloved mother, that you have continued to correspond with her these many years since your banishment. I can only imagine the pain this caused her, honorable woman that she was. Of course you care nothing for such things, concerned only with yourself as you have ever been.
Since childhood I have wondered a simple question: why did you not simply take your own life when you were claimed by darkness during the Destroyer War? What a simpler existence it would have meant for the ones you allegedly loved. Certainly the Empress’s decision to permit the Spider to travel to the Colonies is above reproach, but you were a member in good standing of another clan. To abandon your oaths and embrace the Spider in a pitiful attempt to salvage a life for yourself destroyed your wife, a woman you claimed to love. So great was her honor and devotion that she had no choice but to become ronin rather than live a life of shame among her former clan. That she was pregnant with me at the time only increased her resolve; she was determined that I should not grow up in disgrace.
Perhaps you are surprised to receive this. Perhaps you thought I had perished, or that I was unable to reach you. You would have been more fortunate in either of those cases, I think. I am currently making my life by selling my meager talents in the Crab lands; they have need of warriors to assist in rooting out the last few pockets of the plague-dead that hide within theTwilightMountainsor, failing that, to serve as practice for their more over-enthused warriors to beat upon. I imagine the work will not least more than a few more seasons. When that time comes, if I am able to save enough, I will travel to the Colonies, I will find you, and I will kill you.
It is now all that I have to live for.
* * * * *
Kitsuki Yataku grimaced with distaste as he pulled yet another in a seemingly endless series of tomes from the shelves. The Phoenix library within the Temple District of the Second City was perhaps the largest repository of recovered lore from the now-lost Ivory Kingdoms in existence, and it was something of a coup that he had been able to gain unlimited access to its contents; for all their wisdom and prowess, the Phoenix were ruthlessly covetous of all manner of secrets. The similarities to the Scorpion Clan were utterly lost on thePhoenix, in Yataku’s opinion, but it was one he had never shared with anyone else. He doubted anyone would receive it particularly well.
The table where Yataku was working was already heavily laden with massive tomes, many of them clearly damaged in a variety of obvious ways: some were singed, others suffered from apparent water damage, and many were simply damaged from age and neglect. Their bindings were different, the dialects of the characters that appeared on their covers wildly varied, and every other indication given that they were from different ages and regions within the former Ivory Kingdoms. And yet despite this, Yataku had found intensely disturbing similarities within each of them. Even more troubling, he had discovered the similarities he expected from the reports of the clans’ expansion into the previously unexplored territories that had occurred earlier in the year.
The magistrate’s fingers played over the cover of one of the first tomes he had examined. “Children’s stories,” he said softly to himself, as was his custom when reevaluating his progress. “Tales of a shadowy nightmare, used to scare misbehaving children into obedience. Stories of an evil sorcerer who stole sinners away to serve him.”
A second tome. “Military history,” he continued. “Five centuries ago, a warlord rises from a lesser family among the noble caste. He carves out a fiefdom from within the heart of the nation itself. His rebellion, his insurrection, lasts for more than a decade before his forces are broken and he flees into the north, across the Wastes. His name is struck from all histories, his family cast out for giving rise to such a monstrosity.”
A third tome. “Personal journals. Two centuries ago, a being from the north came to conquer the Ivory Kingdoms. Unprecedented sorcerous abilities. Immediately reclaimed areas previously held by the outcast warlord. Reported killed many times, each time returned quickly and without apparent handicap. Military campaign to oust him lasts for nearly twenty years. Ultimate fate unknown.”
A fourth. “A treatise on the dangers of sorcery. Accounts from an investigation into an unidentified temple. Records recovered from the scene indicate the scholars there discovered some form of arcane artifact in the form of a living human heart, existing outside a body. All members of the expedition found violently murdered on the scene. No artifact recovered.”
Finally, his hand drifted to a mere scrap of paper, something that had clearly been recovered but which was not part of a greater work, or at least none that survived. It was battered, singed, and covered with markings that might have been made by a child or perhaps a madman. It was incoherent, with nonsense and occasional drawings of terrible things, but amid them all was a single word repeated over and over, a lone piece of consistency among the gibbering madness.
Yutaka’s finger trailed the parchment. “Boyoh,” he whispered.
Discuss the events of this fiction in our Story Forum!