A trio of vignettes from the Emerald Empire and its Colonies!
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton & Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
My Esteemed Lady Sukihime,
It has been some time since we spoke last, and I find that in the midst of the unpleasantness we both face in our respective duties, it is important to maintain treasured friendships. After all, what good is strife when there is no one to share in your eventual victory? Winter is soon upon us in the lands of my ancestors, and Kyuden Doji will soon be resplendent with the winter court that my family has always been known for. While it is unfortunate you will be unable to attend, I often wonder what we might do to grant you some reprieve from your duty – if only for a time – so that you may return and visit with your old companions.
My own days of late have been filled with the conflict my clan faces. The Mantis pursue their agenda of avarice and chaos despite the honor of our claims and destruction they cause. I can think of nothing more ironic than the fact that the Yoritomo family being exposed as thieves and pirates is somehow an offensive act on our part. The Mantis have always been an unusual sort, I suppose. It may please you to know that our efforts in the courts of the Empire have borne fruit, though – even the Lion have voiced their disgust with the Mantis in these acts. The Dragon do not outright condemn them, but it is clear they find fault with the actions of Yoritomo Hiromi and his vassals. While the Scorpion do not enter into the fray, the fact that they can seem to find no way to profit from working against us even when we are embroiled in war is a clear sign the Mantis have no ground to stand on.
But enough of dark matters. We find the war well in hand, all things considered. And with that in mind, I look to the future. Even as I write this letter, the most opportune thought has struck me. If you cannot come to visit the Empire for a winter court, perhaps I could convince my vassals and allies to winter in the Second City next year. There will be doubts and protestations, of course – the travel is a great burden, the lands are dangerous and hostile, and they might find little to gain spending a season in your court. However, with the right motivation, I am certain you and I might be able to convince them otherwise. Perhaps if they felt some reason to be indebted to you or in awe of your friendship with the Doji.
What that motivation could be escapes me for the moment – as I said, I merely came up with this idea as I write – but I am certain the two of us could think of something. As you contemplate that, I will contemplate my clan’s affairs with the Mantis.
I am certain we will figure out something.
As ever, your friend,
Yoritomo Sakuma entered the court chambers of the Second City Governor and immediately recognized his day had just taken a turn for the worse. As the Imperial Governor, the Ivory Champion, some unknown Kitsuki, and Doji Rengetsu waited to greet him, the Mantis knew nothing good was about to happen.
Sakuma took in a short breath and drew himself up. He enjoyed a good fight, but wondered if this was going to be a fight at all.
“Yoritomo Sakuma-san, son of a powerful branch of the Yoritomo family,” Otomo Sukihime said grandly, waving him in. “I am delighted you accepted our invitation to sit down and speak on these matters.”
“My apologies, Lady Governor,” Sakuma said with a smirk and a bow, “I was not aware I was here to testify about anything in particular. Your summons said-”
“I am aware of what my missive said, Sakuma,” Suikihime interrupted casually from her seat. “I wrote it.” She glanced at the assembled samurai and smiled thinly. “However, if you feel that you are unable or unwilling to speak to certain matters, I am confident we could send for Yoritomo Emoto.”
Sakuma frowned openly. The threat of Emoto being recalled from the lines away from the Crane conflict was, of course, not something to be taken lightly. “Not necessary, my Lady,” the Mantis responded, smiling fiercely at Doji Rengetsu. “Though if Rengetsu-san prefers his company…” he trailed off, letting the rest remain unsaid.
The Crane woman raised one eyebrow slightly. “Whatever do you mean, Sakuma-san? Your testimony and presence will suffice.” She quickly turned to regard the Dragon near Shinjo Tselu and said, “Perhaps you have not met our friend from the Kitsuki family, Jakuei, a magistrate of the Dragon Clan.”
Sakuma inclined his head as a greeting, but internally he tensed immediately. “Jakuei-san,” he said simply.
“Yoritomo Sakuma,” Jakuei began, obviously about to ask something, “were you aware that the Imperial Governor gave an order to Yoritomo Emoto to cease his strikes against the Crane until such time as certain investigations could be conducted by agents of Kitsuki Fujimura?”
“You get right to business, Jakuei-san,” Sakuma replied with a smile. “I appreciate that in a man of the courts. Yes,” he said with a bit of an obviously forced sigh, “we were aware of the order that was somehow issued countermanding the judgment of the Emerald Champion. Though we felt it was possibly proper to wait until sorted out the bureaucratic mess of why the Governor believed she had higher authority than the Empress’ personal champion, it seemed to be taking too long. So we took action.”
Rengetsu shook her head, “Sakuma-san, you must be confused.”
The Mantis snorted. “Confused? I am not the one attempting to go against a very clear matter of law.” He looked at Jakuei, “Curious behavior for the Kitsuki, I think.”
“Only if you do not understand the law,” Jakuei said darkly. “And in this, I am afraid you are in fact the one who is mistaken. But I appreciate your forthright testimony about your clan’s guilt in this matter.”
“You see,” Rengetsu said, pacing around the room, “The Governor never said the Mantis could not make war with the Crane. No, I believe the order was to stop harassing the Crane’s ships, as it was causing both the Mantis and the Crane to fail in their duty to bring resources back to the Empire.”
“You are trying to twist the truth, Rengetsu-san, and making a very poor attempt at it,” Sakuma said, frowning. “The order was in fact to cease all hostilities with the Crane, which is in direct opposition to Utaku Ji-Yun-sama’s order. Secondly, you would do well to remember that the Mantis was only having problems carrying out their duty due to the interference of the Daidoji at Twin Forks City.”
“Such strange half-truths and incomplete memories,” Otomo Suikihime said airily, looking at the Ivory Champion. “Truly, Tselu-san, is it not a great shame that we have such fallible men and women trying to carry out the will of the Divine Empress?”
Tselu nodded, but said nothing. He seemed as if he was holding back something he wished to say.
“Tell me, Tselu,” the Governor continued, “what was the order I issued?”
The Ivory Champion waited, and then pulled a scroll from the folds of his kimono. “I have the copy you gave me here,” he said evenly. “By your hand, it is written that the Crane and Mantis would cease all warfare that risked the sacred duty given to all samurai in the Colonies by the Divine Empress.”
Sakuma’s jaw clenched, but he said nothing.
Rengetsu nodded to the Governor and then looked at the Mantis. “The Crane acted in good faith with the Governor’s orders, Sakuma-san, and only retaliated at Twin Forks City when attacked.”
Suikihime spread her hands out before her, “There you have it,” she said simply. “I apologize if my intention was not clear. Perhaps if you believed I was in disagreement with the Divine Empress, you would have done better to bring your argument to my court,” she said with a dangerous edge to her words. She laid her hands back in her lap and leaned back. “Do you perhaps now have something you wish to say on the matter?”
The Mantis’ face reddened as he contemplated his options. He looked to Kitsuki Jakuei, who gave the Governor a wary glance, but looked away. Clearly the Dragon did not appreciate the woman’s obvious toying with the law, but had no grounds on which to contradict her. Sakuma himself was in a similar situation – he knew Yoritomo Emoto’s interpretation of the decree was valid… but there was little to do. It would simply be his insistence of the Governor’s mistake against the word of the Otomo and the Crane.
“What of it?” Sakuma finally said. “The barricade at Twin Forks City is broken, the Crane have few ships upon the river as it stands. Perhaps if the Doji and Daidoji had not chosen to arm their transport ships as extra combat vessels against us, it would not be a problem at all. Are we to be blamed when the Daidoji strike at us with cargo vessels and we then begin to sink them? And even now, I hear the Crane have begun to harass the waters near Kalani’s Landing, obviously in contradiction of what Suikihime-sama says is her word.”
“An interesting point, Sakuma-san,” Rengetsu said. She faced the Governor, “In response to the Mantis’ insistence on brazen destruction over more honorable behavior, the Doji family has established ties with several of the local remnants of the former Ivory Kingdoms. They have been more than happy to assist in our conflict with the Mantis. Their insight into what the Yoritomo ships are capable of was… enlightening.” To Sakuma, she added, “You might learn this lesson, Sakuma-san: the Mantis seem to be excellent at making enemies, but the Crane ever excel at finding friends.”
Sakuma ignored the jab, saying to the Governor, “The Crane are, once again, at fault, and you cannot-”
“Cannot?” Doji Rengetsu interrupted him, pointing her fan at him. “Sakuma-san,” she said lowly, “I understand your clan has enjoyed a great many advantages in the Colonies due to their presence and resources here. However, this is not the personal parade grounds of the Yoritomo family. How dare you state that the Crane’s efforts to defend themselves is some manner of improper retaliation? You were fortunate that the Emerald Champion looked favorably upon your clan’s decision to escalate their folly into a war. However, I think it would be wise if you did not insist to the Imperial Governor of the Second City, in her own court chambers, what she can and cannot do.”
Otomo Suikihime stood, and raised a hand in Sakuma’s direction. “The Mantis have defied the authority of the Governor, and through that action they have defied the Empress herself. Yoritomo Sakuma, your family and clan is banished from the walls of the Second City, save for those appointed by myself or other agents of the Empress in official Imperial business and duties.” She smiled again, and Sakuma’s blood went cold at the sight. “Perhaps when you and yours learn respect, you will be permitted to return.”
“This is outrageous!” Sakuma cried out, taking a step towards the Governor.
In a swift motion, Shinjo Tselu took three long strides and brought his elbow into the Mantis’ chest, knocking the wind from him. The Ivory Champion twisted Sakuma’s arm behind him and forced him to the ground. The grappled man groaned and struggled, but Tselu leaned down and whispered quietly into his ear, “You are a fool to think you can win this.”
Sakuma turned his head to look at Tselu. The Unicorn’s eyes were pleading, “Go. Now. You will only make it worse,” he whispered.
The Ivory Champion released the man, who stood to see several other guards from around the room had advanced on the scene with their weapons drawn. Sakuma cleared his throat and straightened his kimono. “This is not over, Crane,” he growled at Rengetsu. “The Colonies are large, and a woman like that,” he waved dismissively at the Governor, “is always caught in her own web.”
“Assaulting the Governor and then impugning her honor?” Rengetsu said with mild shock. “Is there no end to the dishonor you will bring upon yourself and your family, Sakuma-san? You should be grateful she is letting you leave with your life.”
“Another thing the Crane will soon regret,” Sakuma replied, turning to leave.
The remaining samurai watched Sakuma go, and Otomo Suikihime turned to Tselu. “You were swift, my Champion,” she said. “You are to be commended. Now, let us dismiss the Dragon and talk about how we can avoid this nasty problem of the Emerald Champion being seen as having an authority higher than yours in these lands.”
“Suikihime-sama,” Kitsuki Jakuei began.
“That is all, Kitsuki-san,” she replied, dismissing him with a wave. “Please see that the guards close the chamber behind you,” she added before sitting back down and arranging her kimono.
Kitsuki Jakuei did not bother looking at the woman, but exchanged a meaningful glance with the Ivory Champion before he departed, making sure he closed the door himself to avoid hearing any of it at all.
* * * * *
Iweko Setai was not a man who had difficulty separating his personal feelings and his duty. When he was a Deathseeker among the Lion, he wished only for vengeance against those he felt had wronged him, but knew his place. When he was given a chance by his Champion, Matsu Nimuro, to regain his honor, he chose to request a clean seppuku, as he felt was proper despite his own yearnings. After the Champion assigned him to the Imperial Court, he befriended a man among the Crane to further the Lion’s cause in the courts, despite his distaste for the Doji family and their clan. Finally, when the Child of Heaven chose him as her Imperial Consort, he felt unworthy but trusted in the judgment of the Empress.
So as he sat next to his wife and watched Bayushi Nitoshi toy with the current Champion of his former clan, Setai found it easy to maintain a passive face and easy disposition. However, somewhere in his heart, he would have happily cut the man down if protocol allowed it.
“My Empress, it is perhaps out of my great ignorance that I bring this matter to your attention at all, so that that I ask your forgiveness. You see, it has been my sad misfortune to have little time to speak to the Lady of the Akodo since her brother’s… rather, I mean since her appointment as Champion.” Bayushi Nitoshi’s practiced voice rang out through the Empress’ court chamber, and the mention of Dairuko’s brother caused a whispering stir among the assembled nobles.
Standing next to the Empress, Togashi Satsu gave the Scorpion Champion a passive look, “The Child of Heaven believes you levy a serious charge against the Lion, and would know what Akodo Dairuko says to the insinuations you make,” he said.
“Insinuations?” Nitoshi said, adopting a look of mild confusion. “I am certain I have made myself quite clear. There should be nothing left to guess or deduce by insinuation.”
“What you have done,” the Champion of the Lion said, not moving from her place mere feet from the Bayushi daimyo, body facing the Empress but her eyes on Nitoshi, “is charge my commanders with murder and dishonorable conduct, Scorpion. You should play less with words and spend more time thanking the Empress for this audience. If it were not for her intervention, I would likely have chosen a much less diplomatic option.”
Nitoshi raised an eyebrow, and his face twisted slightly as if he were smiling beneath his mask. “Indeed, Dairuko-san,” he said lightly. “What would you have done? Terrorized one of my provinces and murdered one of my legions without provocation? That does seem to be the Lion’s choice of response these days.” He looked back at the Empress for a moment before looking away, and his face returned to a neutral state. “Of course,” he continued before Dairuko could voice her reply, “that is why we’re here, is it not? The Unicorn and Lion seem to have come to blows in the northern Colonies, and there seems to be no explanation as to why.”
“Lord Nitoshi,” Setai asked, raising a hand, “is it my understanding that the daimyo of the Bayushi house has come to seek a reprimand on behalf of the Unicorn? I find that most unusual.”
“The Scorpion know little else than how to meddle where they are not welcome,” Dairuko responded. “The Unicorn sought satisfaction among the court of the Second City, and they received the mediation of the Kitsuki family per the Governor’s orders. What further do you want, and why would you want it?”
Nitoshi smiled again and turned to face the myriad members of the Imperial Court. “It is true that the attack has been investigated by the peerless scrutiny of those trained in Kitsuki’s Method,” he agreed. “However, the Governor sought only to see if the Lion struck without provocation by the Unicorn. It still remains a mystery as to why the Lion attacked.” He looked back at the Imperial Consort. “Let us say, Iweko Setai-sama, that I do not have the Dragon’s fondness for unsolved mysteries. They have attacked the Spider without much of an explanation, as well. If the Lion are merely declaring war on whomever they wish in the Colonies now, I find that I might have to prepare my own resources for their eventual incursion.”
The Empress folded her hands in her lap, and looked at Dairuko.
“The Child of Heaven would hear your explanation, Lady Akodo,” the Voice of the Empress spoke. “We are aware of the Emerald Champion’s judgment and support it, but it does seem the Lion are exploiting it shamelessly.”
“Of course, Divine One,” Dairuko said immediately, bowing her head. “My vassals in the Colonies have already submitted our case to the Kitsuki family, as they have become the Governor’s agents of mediation and judgment of late. We are confident they will show that we have ample grounds for our attack.”
“That is not an acceptable answer,” Nitoshi said quietly.
The Lion Champion turned to face him. “Your estimation of anything I say or do means less to me than a breeze means to a stone.”
“That is enough,” Satsu interrupted. “What of the Unicorn?”
Dairuko looked at the Scorpion Champion for a moment and then back to the Voice of the Empress. “If I may, lord Satsu?” she asked, indicating a position closer to the Imperial Throne.
Satsu looked to the Empress, who nodded ever so slightly, but also looked at Nitoshi.
“Both of you, approach the Divine One,” the Voice of the Empress commanded.
Dairuko took several slow, respectful steps closer to the Empress and her Consort, and said quietly, “My Empress, I believe you know the reason for my clan’s patrol of the northern areas near the Colonies and along the northern parts of the Ki-Rin Path.” Her voice was much different now, clearer and calmer.
Nitoshi looked around the room as he saw the various courtiers and attendants whispering to each other but all focusing their eyes on Dairuko. He gave the Lion Champion a considering look and then chuckled. “Well done, Dairuko-san,” he said with what sounded like genuine amusement. “You have changed the battlefield on me. I was worried you would be an unworthy opponent. However, my true purpose here still stands.” He looked at the Empress for a moment and then cast his eyes down. “My Empress, it is the purpose and charge of the Scorpion Clan to stand against secret and unknown threats to the Empire. If the Lion are to be privy to such a threat, is it not our duty to share their burden?”
It was Dairuko’s turn to give her opponent a calculating glance. After a moment, she smiled broadly. “You truly do not know, do you, Nitoshi-san? Interesting. I suppose you might be too busy with…” she glanced to where several Spider representatives stood together, stone-faced, “… other matters.”
Bayushi Nitoshi looked at Dairuko blandly and in a soft tone replied, “The Lion have something of a reputation and I was not certain anything of note lay behind the attack, Lady Akodo. Until this moment, that is.”
The Empress said nothing, but seemed to shift in her seat somehow, and Togashi Satsu nodded. “The purpose of the Scorpion is to protect the Empress and the Empire from hidden threats, Nitoshi-san. You would do well to allow the Lion to do their own duty without interference. It is not needed at this time for your clan to assist Lady Dairuko in her endeavors.”
The Scorpion Champion bowed his head, “Your will, Child of Heaven,” he said with perfect deference.
The two daimyo took several steps back from the Throne and Satsu’s voice rang out through the room again, “That will be all for today. The Empress and Consort will retire for the evening, and we will resume tomorrow.” All in attendance knelt to the floor and pressed their heads down as Iweko the First stood and left the chamber, her Voice and husband in tow.
As the Imperial procession walked out, Dairuko could hear Nitoshi’s quiet whisper next to her. “A pity, I believe I will have to step up my efforts to find this out through less polite means. It was interesting to meet you in combat, Akodo Dairuko. Give your brother my regards.”
With the Empress finally out of the room, both Champions stood along with everyone. Dairuko looked Nitoshi directly in the eye and replied in an even voice, “Keep mentioning him to me with such familiarity, Nitoshi-san, and I will give him your regards and your head. Good evening.”
The Scorpion Champion watched the Steel Lion go, and he smiled yet again. Everything was becoming so very interesting.
* * * * *
Sins of the Father 3, Part 2
“Aren’t you hot in that?” Makubesu’s tone was closer to curiosity than concern.
Kinaro wiped a sweat-bead from his brow. “I am managing,” he replied. He wore only two layers, like the Bayushi walking beside him, but the silk and mulberry textiles of his kimonos were ill-suited for the colony’s heat. He’d originally found the denizen’s kimonos distasteful; they were too billowy and light, the unique cloth wrinkling and creasing unattractively, always cut short, showing bare arms, legs, and occasionally even shoulders! Within days he understood the necessity of their fashion.
He’d thought his silks were adequate for the climate, but the weave was too tight. It clung torturously to his hot skin. Yet it was not the heat that grounded Kinaro’s mood. He did not like being wrong.
“We have uneru-ki specifically for visitors,” Makubesu suggested. Uneru-ki, “billowing garments,” clothing of the colonists. “I could get you one.”
Kinaro sighed. “I am already in your debt,” he replied. No need to go deeper.
“It would be no trouble,” Makubesu insisted. “A simple request, sent by servant to a servant of the Assistant of the Attendant for Honored Visitors, enclosed in regulation envelope for the Ministry of Ceremonies, submitted during acceptable hours and allowing ten days for reply.” He smiled. “Really, no trouble at all.”
Compared to Scorpion Kinaro knew, Makubesu was an anomaly. Cheerful, optimistic, straightforward with an air of honesty. The man was often joking, which also meant he was often talking. Though well beyond retirement age, he seemed an endless well of energy, defiant of his grayed hair and wrinkled eyes.
After arriving in the Second City, Kinaro’s days were consumed by propriety. He registered his arrival with the city magistrates, submitting a report and lobbying for the freedom to continue his investigation. He’d discovered that all investigations originating from the mainland required the Imperial Governess’ approval to continue. It’d taken a month to receive the required paperwork. The next day, Makubesu sought him at the Dragon embassy.
How Makubesu had learned of the investigation eluded Kinaro. Somehow, he’d seen the report and taken an interest. He recognized Ichigiku’s name; their first meeting was dominated by stories of Ichigiku’s uncle and depictions of an Ichigiku that Kinaro did not recognize. One that was much younger. After pleasantries, Makubesu offered to aid Kinaro’s investigation. There’d been the implication that the old Scorpion had hurried the approval process somewhat, and so Kinaro felt obligated to accept. Since then, Makubesu had not left his side. For good or for ill had yet to be decided.
“Ah, this is it!” Makubesu halted before a cluster of peddler’s tents. Beyond, a gambling house peeked above the cacophony of colors and wares. The sign read: Fortunes and Fortunes.
Kinaro looked skeptical, but Makubesu nodded. “Of all the ill-reputed merchant throngs in this city… this is certainly one of them.” He pointed. “The sculpture I mentioned should be at the vendor closest to the entrance.”
Kinaro allowed Makubesu to lead. As they passed between tents, merchants shamelessly called out to them, offering their wares. He felt a swell of distaste. On the mainland, these vendors would have been silent.
Together they approached a simple trinket vendor. Bracelets of stone beads, good-luck tokens, and other such things were spread evenly across a cluttered counter. Kinaro’s eyes darted to a statue flanking the cart; tall, carved from stone, it depicted a smiling cat. At its feet were dozens of skillfully carved flowers, invoking a very specific memory of Shizuka Toshi.
The merchant behind the counter smiled as they approached, but his expression melted and grew pale when he recognized the Scorpion. “M-Makubesu-sama!” he stammered, “B-before you do anything, I-I’ve done just as you said-”
The Scorpion raised a friendly hand. “Now, now, Koto. I’m not here for that.” His eyes smiled. “I’m just showing a friend around the city.”
The merchant was weary, eyes flicking between the magistrates. He seemed ready to dart at any moment. Makubesu didn’t seem to notice, introducing the Dragon. “This is Kitsuki Kinaro.”
The merchant bowed obediently. “Am am honored, Kitsuki-sama,” he said cautiously. “Perhaps a trinket interests you?”
“I am interested in art today,” Kinaro replied, pointedly looking at the statue.
“The statue is not for sale,” he said apologetically, “I had it commissioned specifically for my business.”
Kinaro nodded. “I would like to know where I can find one like it.”
The merchant thought. Kinaro saw wheels turning behind the man’s eyes, as though he calculated how he could profit from this exchange. In the end, he gave the information freely. “I am certain the artist still accepts commissions, Kitsuki-sama. Her name is Kakita Maratai.”
Makubesu flashed a triumphant look. Inwardly, the Dragon admitted that the old man had known what he was doing after all. He turned to the merchant. “Where might I find her?”
A few of the other vendors glanced their way. This was how rumors began. The merchant revealed where Maratai lived; a small shack in a clearing on the outskirts of the artisan district.
As he spoke, Kinaro looked back at to man’s wares. Something caught his eye: a length of white ribbon brushed with lucky kanji, adorned at the center with a pale blue crystal. The stone was smooth and mostly transparent, but pale veins layered between sea-shaded hues. He’d never seen a jewel in that shade before. The merchant followed his eyes and his face lit up with opportunity.
“You like this one?” he offered, gesturing to the trinket. “It’s a stone unique to the colonies, quite a unique crystal. I am told that threading the ribbon around one’s tsuba is good luck.”
Kinaro stared at the pale gem and recalled of the icy shade of Ichigiku’s eyes. His mind lingered on her for a moment, watching him in the theatre, eyes that matched the blues of her furisode…
“I think I will buy this,” he said, “for a friend back home.” He drew two zeni from his pouch, the marked price of the trinket, and laid it on the countertop. The merchant did not take the money right away; he would wait until the patron had left before counting, lest he risk insulting a customer’s honor. As they finished their business and left, Kinaro tied the ribbon to his tsuba for safekeeping, catching an amused glance from Makubesu.
“It is not that I believe in luck,” he said.
Makubesu shrugged. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” He released a gentle sigh, eyes fixed before him. “In these interesting times, one accepts luck however it comes…”
They found the wooden shack in a bowl-shaped clearing at the bottom of a grassy hillside. Marble bodies littered the clearing, standing incomplete, like some bizarre stone garden. The sound of chiseling echoed as Kakita Maratai toiled at her latest work.
She was thin beneath the billowing folds of her kimono, smudges of dirt on her hands and face. The sun had browned her skin to a farmer’s shade, her hair pulled into a practical ponytail. Her high birth was not apparent until closer, when the features of the kuge, the soft nose and sharp eyes, showed more clearly. The two magistrates watched her for some time, not speaking, until at last she paused, looking up from her work.
She stared at them, unmoving. In her face, Kinaro saw a sort of world-weariness that was unsuitable for it’s youth. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I am not taking commissions at this time.”
Makubesu stepped forward. “Forgive the intrusion. My name is Bayushi Makubesu, and this is Kitsuki Kinaro. We’ve come to ask you a few questions.”
She did not seem concerned. Her hammer and chisel hung limply from her arms. “Now is poor timing,” she replied. “I am on a deadline. Perhaps in a few days.” She turned slightly, as if to resume her work, but simply stared blankly at the unfinished stone. She was waiting for them to leave.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” Makubesu said patiently. “My friend came all the way from the mainland just to see you.”
Brown eyes flicked to Kinaro. He bowed. “I’ve been wanting to speak with you, Maratai-san.”
“What does this concern?” Still unalarmed, she watched him carefully.
“It’s about your father. Kakita Hiro.”
At his mention, there was a flicker in her eyes that were like a beacon to the Kitsuki. “What about him?” Her voice was suddenly cold.
Kinaro had suspected that Maratai would not know of her father’s fate. Word did not travel quickly from the Empire to the Colonies. He doubted anyone had even bothered to write her a letter. Though prepared to give the news, a sudden uncomfortable sensation gave him pause. He looked away. Her eyes widened.
“Makubesu-san,” he said softly, “may we be alone?”
He seemed hesitant. “Of course,” he finally said, “let’s meet tomorrow.” He bowed and left. Kinaro waited until he was gone.
But Maratai spoke first. “What happened?” she asked.
“Your father… has passed on.”
At first, Maratai gave no reaction. But then her eyes gathered a sheen, and Kinaro saw her tremble. He pointedly admired an incomplete statue until she recomposed.
She bowed, calm again. “Thank you.” Kinaro felt a strange knot in his stomach as she rose. “You’ve come a long way to tell me this,” she said. When he did not reply, she asked, “There is more?”
Kinaro drew a deep breath. “At the time of his death, your father was working on a play. I believe it is a sort of memoirs. I’ve come to ask…” Kinaro’s voice trailed as he watched her demeanor shift, her fists tightening and her body squaring against his.
“I have nothing to say about my father.” Words spoken coldly.
“Nothing at all?” he pressed.
“We have not spoken in years.” She frowned. “I want nothing to do with his affairs. I cannot help you. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Your father was blackmailed, right?”
Maratai’s tools slipped through limp fingers.
Kinaro kept his voice plain. “You knew he wasn’t writing his own plays. By accident, you witnessed him in conversation with his blackmailer. You tried to do the right thing, but your father denied everything and you only succeeded in shaming yourself.”
She grew very quiet. “Who told you that?” she asked.
“Your father,” he replied, “in his last play.”
She stared into the distance. The conflict was plain in her eyes.
“Your father was murdered, Maratai-san,” Kinaro continued. “I am trying to find out why.”
Her eyes lowered to her calloused, dirty, overworked hands, as if seeing, for the first time, the toll that this secret had taken from her. Her mouth gave the slightest twitch. She nearly chuckled. “No one believed me,” she whispered.
“I believe you,” he said. “And I believe your father wanted to make amends. But I need to know if there’s a connection between his death and the play. I need to know what you saw.”
After long moments, Maratai turned towards her shack, gesturing for Kinaro to follow.
It was dusk before Kinaro left, bowing to the artisan before beginning his long walk back to the Dragon embassy. The cloaked figure watched from afar as they parted, the door of the shack closing gently. He turned to his companion.
“Kill the woman,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of the magistrate.”
The other faded into the long shadows of the swaying grass. The man drew his cloak around him, obscuring the Mon of his clan. Within moments, he was also gone, no trace that he’d ever been there to begin with.