The first in a series of three fictions, detailing the events and factions of the Seeds of Decay CCG expansion!
Seeds of Decay: the Dragon
By Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
The Second City, Temple District
Togashi Osawa strode slowly through the courtyard as the assembled monks went through the poses of the form they were practicing. Under the sensei’s careful eye, members of the ise zumi, the Order of Venom, and even the Asako order moved together in a beautiful pattern of movement and serenity. As always, the aging Dragon kept his eye closest on the Spider, but this was more out of habit than any true apprehension. It had taken years, but the sohei of the Order of Venom truly respected him and it was unlikely that they would dare cause a disturbance during his instruction.
“Moriko, raise your knee,” Osawa instructed lightly as he passed by one of the newer arrivals at the Second City. The old monk tried to recall how the young woman had managed to arrive in the Colonies at all – between the Unicorn’s hostilities towards the Dragon and the Mantis’ war with the Crane, it was difficult for the clan to travel between these lands and the Empire anymore.
Osawa moved on, not bothering to count out loud, as the students were accustomed to the rhythm of the exercise that he used to instruct. One of the benefits of teaching in the Second City, the tattooed man mused to himself, was the relatively static nature of the students. They had no far-flung part of the Empire to see, no obscure monastery to study at. As he watched one of the Togashi quietly correct one of the Spider monks, he believed it was only under such conditions he could have fostered this understanding between his clan and the followers of Daigotsu Kanpeki. And, of course, created an environment where even the Phoenix could not deny the worth of the Spider as evidenced by their behavior.
As he raised his hand to call an end to the form, he caught sight of an unusual movement from the south, where the entrance to the temple’s courtyard opened. Osawa turned to face the newcomers, and was a little surprised to see Togashi Noboru, the leader of the ise zumi order, walking purposefully towards him. Beside the man was a smaller samurai in the traditional kimono and armor of the Kitsuki family, but Osawa did not recognize him.
“Noboru-sama,” Osawa spoke as he bowed to the elder monk. “I am pleased you have chosen to join us, but this gathering was about to be dismissed.”
Noboru smiled and returned the bow to the other monk. “So much the better,” he said pleasantly. “I did not come to join your well-regarded lessons, brother, though I have resolved myself to do so soon. Instead, I must speak with you and several others here, so I am glad my timing is appropriate.” He looked over the gathered students and made a sweep of his arm. “Dismiss them all except the Spider,” he asked. “There is a matter we must talk about.”
Osawa found the request unusual, but turned to the group and placed his fist into his open palm. “The class is over for this afternoon. Please see yourselves to the exit, though the brothers inside have mentioned they might use some assistance with the maintenance of the woodwork in the shrine if you are interested. Nishimura, Ohaba, Sutigu, please remain behind.”
The three Spider monks looked at each other questioningly, but complied as the rest of the students filed out in various directions. In less than a minute, only Osawa, Noboru, the Kitsuki, and the three Spider remained.
There was a silence in the open area before Noboru strode up to the Order of Venom sohei and took a moment to look each of them in the eye in turn. “Brothers, I come to you seeking aid. There is something of a riddle proposed to me, and I have no answers.” He motioned to the Kitsuki, who handed him a scroll. “Three encampments of Spider soldiers have been attacked by the Lion. Two encampments by the Crab. It is of no surprise to me that the Crab have chosen the path of self-serving gratification and struck at your clan, and for that I give my condolences. I assume this will eventually be addressed in the courts and that you, as ever, have our support.” The large Togashi looked at the scroll in his hand for a moment, then continued. “However, the Lion’s strike is a complete enigma. Several of our advisors and warriors among your men have died in these attacks, and we have no idea as to why this has happened. So I ask… what have you done?”
Again, the three Spider looked at one another, but this time the glances were different.
Instead of confusion, they looked as if they were trying to verify one another’s silence.
Noboru glanced at them one by one. “I ask again, in the spirit of cooperation between our clans: what have you done?”
Osawa stepped forward, “Noboru-sama, perhaps if-”
Noboru raised his hand to silence Osawa, and the other monk complied. Silence fell over the courtyard again, and the Togashi daimyo sighed. “I see. Very well.”
With that, the man spun his body and snapped out a vicious, lightning-fast kick to Ohaba’s chest. The Spider monk flew back several feet and tumbled backwards, rolling several times before coming to a low stance on his feet. The sohei seemed stunned and unsteady, but ready for a fight.
The other two Spider monks assumed a combat posture, but uncertainty was shown on their faces. It was clear that they were not afraid, but instead completely confused.
“Noboru-sama!” Osawa cried out, rushing to the man’s side. “I demand an explanation for this!”
Noboru glanced over at Osawa, “You demand? Brother, these may be your students and your grounds, but I am your superior,” he replied, his tone calm and even, as if he were discussing the weather. “You demand nothing from me. However, I choose to explain. The Spider respect strength, Osawa-san. I gave them a chance to reason and speak as proper members of the Empire, and they declined. So I have now chosen to reason with them in a way more familiar to them. All of your lessons have perhaps improved their attitudes and demeanors, but they are still what they are.” He looked back to Nishimura and Sutigu. “Now, do you wish to fight me, or do you wish to answer my question?”
Ohaba staggered forward to stand with his comrades as they narrowed their eyes and stepped to the side in an attempt to flank the Togashi daimyo.
“Unfortunate,” Noboru said, smoke drifting out of his nostrils and quick licks of flame escaping his mouth to punctuate the word.
* * * * *
One week earlier, in the Imperial District…
“… and for this reason, of course, it is obvious the word of the Ide is suspect,” Matsu Yoshito finished, giving the Unicorn he spoke of a cursory – but neutral – look.
Kitsuki Fujimura steepled her hands in front of her, resting her elbows on her desk. “Perhaps,” she replied, “but your personal opinion of Ide Kin is not the matter at hand, Yoshito-san. Do you deny that the Lion attacked the Unicorn in the plains north of the Ki-Rin road?”
Yamahatsu folded his arms and gave the Dragon a slight glare. “Of course I do not, that much is on record as my own testimony, however-”
“Then we are agreed, the Lion are the aggressors here. Now, what remains to be proven is the reason for the attack and if it is just or not. Was this skirmish a response to some insult, or some other manner of sanctioned reprisal? Or was it something else?” Fujimura looked down at the documents on her desk, which were next to several items. “These were brought to us by the Shinjo family, who suffered the most during this conflict. They lost several seasoned warriors and no less than three well-respected samurai. Do you recognize them?”
The Ikoma warrior took a step towards the desk, irritation plain on his face, and leaned down. After taking a moment to look, he raised his eyebrows at the Dragon. “They are arrowheads, Kitsuki-san. Steel, perhaps. Are you unfamiliar with such things? Many armies use them to fire at enemies over a distance.”
Fujimura raised an eyebrow at the Lion’s sarcasm, but said nothing about it. Instead, she indicated a small symbol on the side of one arrowhead. “Indeed, and do you recognize the stamp on this particular weapon used to fire at enemies over a distance?”
Recognition flickered in Yoshito’s eyes for a short moment, but it didn’t escape the Kitsuki’s notice. Realizing that there was no point in attempting to avoid the truth, Yoshito simply nodded. “Yes. These seem to be arrows brought by Ikoma scouts to the colonies. The mark is a weaponsmith in Lion lands.”
“You say they were brought by Ikoma scouts, but the smith was in ‘Lion lands’, which could be any of the families. How are you sure?”
“Well, due to the…” Yoshito stopped himself, but not soon enough. Fujimura had asked the question so earnestly, so innocuously, that he responded without a second thought. Inwardly, Yoshito realized that perhaps courtiers had their purpose after all. He took a breath and continued, knowing there was no stopping at this point. “Due to the mark. I am familiar with the smith that the detachment sent here from the Ikoma family uses. I have served among the Ikoma scouts since my assignment to the Colonies”
Ide Kin stroked his grey beard as he regarded the arrows. “Interesting, Fujimura-san,” he remarked, “but I’m not certain what this has to do with our petition.”
Fujimura smiled a little at the Unicorn diplomat. “I find it curious that you have such short patience with me, Ide-san, despite the fact this matter was turned over to the Kitsuki for judgment by the Governor herself. Well, perhaps it is not so curious. After all, the Unicorn do seem to be extremely upset with the Dragon at the moment, is that not so?”
Kin made a vague motion in the air with his hand, “Perhaps,” was all he said.
“I imagine Matsu Yoshito believed that such hostility would work to his advantage here, as the Dragon would be all too happy to rule against the Unicorn to push a political point. However, I want to make it very clear to the two of you that the Kitsuki are not interested in politics. We are interested in duty and truth. This must be quite a disappointment to you both.”
To this, neither Yoshito nor Kin seemed to have anything to say.
“The matter that was brought to our attention by the Governor’s agents was simply a disagreement between the Lion and Unicorn. A skirmish happened in the north, apparently over a dispute about how far north the Unicorn should explore from here. What is interesting is that while Yoshito-san has admitted there Lion instigated the fight, he has not said why.” Fujimura leveled her iron gaze at the Lion and asked slowly, “Matsu Yoshito, is there some reason the Lion believe we should limit our expansion north of the colonies and the Ki-Rin Path?”
Yoshito, to his credit, did not waver. “It is not a matter for me to discuss,” was all he said.
Fujimura continued to look at the Lion, and Yoshito was certain the eyes of the Kitsuki did not miss anything. He was convinced that if the woman kept staring at him, she would eventually deduce his entire personal history starting at birth somehow.
Finally, Fujimura looked to Kin, “Regardless of that, these arrows are from the Ikoma scouts. They are famous for two things, if I am correct. Stealth and ambush tactics.”
Yoshito was silent.
“The Ikoma scouts would have not fired as a group into an existing skirmish, Yoshito-san. They are few and they are trained to strike with precision. In an ongoing conflict, they would have perhaps attempted to make their way to the command unit and instead disable it. That is the standard tactic of your training, is it not?”
Despite his annoyance that the Kitsuki was correct, Yoshito remained quiet.
“The use of these arrows supports Ide Kin’s testimony that the Unicorn were assaulted without warning or provocation. The Ikoma began the attack on an unprepared enemy – in this case, the forces of the Shinjo family – in order to further some end that remains yet unknown.” Fujimura looked at the papers on her desk, “And, to add a personal note, that unknown end does not concern me in the least. The matter that was brought to our attention to be resolved has been decided. I will draw up my resolution for the Governor this evening.”
Ide Kin bowed deeply, the smile on his face clear. He gave Yoshito a nod before leaving without a word.
Only Yoshito and Fujimura remained. The Lion scout frowned at the Dragon, “Does it please you to wield such authority, Kitsuki? Your little family’s methods were a joke only a generation ago, but now the Heavens have blessed us with an Empress from your blood, and it seems almost fashionable now to have Kitsuki mediate matters within the Second City.”
“It is not fashion, but an edict from the Governor. Do you have a point to this, Yoshito-san?” Fujimura replied, rearranging her papers to prepare for the next visit.
“Akodo wrote that the surest trap was victory, Fujimura-san,” Yoshito said, his anger fading into an air of condescension. “You and yours have spent centuries attempting to get your methods of law accepted by the Empire to no result. But suddenly you have had such such great success that you cannot manage all the requests for your time.”
Fujimura looked up, narrowing her eyes at the Matsu.
“Oh yes, we know, Dragon,” he continued. “Your family is stretched to its limit. Disputes over the titles and ownership of these lands have taxed your resources. Mediation between families and clans in conflict burdens it further. And, have you heard? The Crab march to war against the Spider. What will the Kitsuki do with that, I wonder? You will have to refuse some manner of request for your extremely useful talents at some point, Fujimara-san. Who will it be? Will you scorn the Unicorn again? Perhaps the Crab? Your family has many admirers for its kinship with the Throne, but little genuine respect. Can you afford to turn away anyone at this point? How does victory taste, Kitsuki? Is it sweet?”
“We care not for victory, Matsu-san,” Fujimura replied, sounding almost bored. “If that is all…”
“Ah yes, you care only for duty and truth, as you have said.” Ikoma Yoshito reached into his obi and produced a small scroll. “I am curious, then, what would you do if duty and truth were to oppose one another?” With a casual motion, he tossed the scroll on Fujimura’s writing table.
“What is this?” she asked, her patience with the man’s crude behavior reaching its limit.
“The Lion have attacked the Spider,” Yoshito said with a smirk. “Or was it that the Spider have attacked the Lion? I forget which, unfortunately. I am, after all, only a low-ranking scout among the Lion. Good only for ambushes and stealth, as you say. In any case, I believe it is the Dragon’s duty to nursemaid the Spider, is it not? Ensure the Spider are behaving and that brash samurai of the Empire have not forgotten the Empress’ edict. Is that not the case?”
“What have you done, Matsu?” Fujimura asked evenly.
Yoshito snorted out a quick laugh. “What have I done? Is the first assumption that I have done something wrong? Or that the Lion have made a misstep, rather than the Spider? What manner of samurai are you and your kin, I wonder, to automatically assume the guilt of the Lion and the innocence of the Spider?”
At that, Fujimura was at her feet, and her hand rested on her katana. “I apologize, Yoshito-san, but I believe you were just questioning the worth of my entire family as samurai. Is that correct? Would you like to make a formal petition?
Yoshito’s glance went to the Dragon’s sword then back to her eyes. He took a slow breath and realized this was not his battlefield. Perhaps he had overstepped himself. “I apologize, Kitsuki-san,” he said, not bothering to sound barely sincere. “I believe my disappointment at your unimpeachable ruling has overtaken my good sense. I will, of course, abide by this and inform my daimyo.” He turned to leave, but stopped. “As for what has happened… Figure it out, Kitsuki,” he added, and then was gone.
Fujimura watched the man go and then opened the scroll. It was a report from the
lands outside the Second City, detailing the myriad losses the Spider had suffered from both the Crab and the Lion. She thought for a moment, and realized that these attacks were independent of one another. Were the Lion and Crab coordinating their strikes on the Spider, the damage would have been much greater.
Despite her dedication to the truth, Kitsuki Fujimura knew what needed to be done, but found herself hesitating to do it. There was no use in avoiding it, though. If she was to deduce what was going on, she would not avoid questioning anyone, even one so disgraced.
“Jakuei!” Fujimura called out to her assistant in the next room. “I must locate Mirumoto Ichizo. Recall him from the Spider with haste. Also, we must draft a letter… no, several. There is a matter of great import and we must find the truth of things quickly or this whole region will descend into war.”
If it hasn’t already, Fujimura thought darkly to herself.
* * * * *
Togashi Noboru stood over the unmoving forms of the Spider sohei. He flexed and stretched his right arm, which had received a notably painful strike during the battle. For the most part, though, the man was largely unhurt – several glancing strikes and throws he was able to cope with.
Osawa looked on in open horror. He had not joined the battle, as there had not been a point where he feared for his master’s life, but he could not bring himself to raise his hand against the Spider without such motivation. Beside him, Kitsuki Jakuei stared impassively.
“The sohei, are they…” Osawa began quietly.
“They will endure this, and learn from it,” Noboru replied lightly. He seemed slightly disappointed. “They are remarkably strong and resilient, but I would expect little else from the legendary warriors of the Order of Venom.”
Jakuei looked at the Togashi daimyo searchingly. “I believe you knew they would not give you the information we seek. Even at the threat of such a defeat.”
Noboru shook his head, “Yes,” he agreed. “But I owed it to them to give them the chance, just as I gave them the chance to speak with me reasonably. So we know nothing more than what we knew a week ago.” The monk turned away from his defeated foes, a frown on his face.
“Not true, Noboru-sama,” Jakuei argued.
Both tattooed men looked to the Kitsuki for some manner of insight they may have missed. “What do you mean, my friend?” Osawa asked.
Jakuei regarded the fallen Spider. “Before, we merely had an accusation. But they clearly wished to suffer at your hands rather than speak, Noboru-sama. So now… now we know they are hiding something. And, when the Susumu or Daigotsu families lodge a complaint for this incident, we will have the chance to speak with them. An opening to see what more we can learn.”
Noboru bowed again to Osawa with a slight smile. “Perhaps the Kitsuki is correct. We have gained something from this after all. It is excellent to hear, is it not?” he asked the older monk.
Osawa said nothing, only staring at the still sohei on the ground as his daimyo walked away.
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