In the Colonies, the Spider Champion makes agreements necessary for the survival of his clan. Meanwhile, in the Empire, the ramifications of the Empress’s bargain with Daigotsu continue to be felt by the members of the Great Clans.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The ramifications of the Imperial Governor’s proclamation concerning the exploration of the Colonies were far-reaching, and during his travels, Daigotsu Kanpeki could see firsthand exactly how unfortunate the situation had become. He could scarcely ride more than an hour or two without running into some sign of so-called civilization. Mostly it was a random scattering of clan holdings in the midst of the wilderness. The other clans were fools if they believed that merely building an outpost, a stable, a temple, meant that the land they had claimed was actually tamed. None save perhaps the Mantis had any true understanding of the dangers in the wilderness in the Colonies. There had been deaths already, of course, but what the others did not understand is that there would be many, many more to come. The land was coming awake after a generation of slumber, and there would be consequences.
Not that Kanpeki particularly cared, of course. He had very few among the other Great Clans that he would consider allies, and even among them, if one acted as a fool, one deserved to suffer the fate of the foolish.
The lord of the Spider Clan brought his steed to a halt and dismounted. A gesture indicated that his two yojimbo, hulking warriors who lurked forever at the edge of his perception, should remain behind. They would not be pleased, of course, but they would never give it voice. Doing so would be a terrible mistake. He forged ahead, departing the already barely perceptible path on which the three traveled, walking until he reached an area he recognized from the subtle change in the atmosphere.
Primarily, the difference was one of sound. From behind him, there was the cacophony of the jungle: birds, insects, monkeys, and all manner of other creatures, known and unknown, making the noises that accompanied their normal day. From ahead of him, however, there was only a strange silence. As he looked down, the breeze made it seem as if the blades of grass were reaching toward his foot, trying to draw him in. But of course there was no breeze.
Somewhere ahead of him, there was almost but not quite a rustling sound. It was more a sense of something moving rather than him actually hearing something. There was nothing he could see, but he knew that there was awareness present. “Tell your mistress I wish to see her,” he said gruffly.
The awareness withdrew, and Kanpeki was left alone with his thoughts. Was this a wise course of action? It was not the first time he had asked himself such a question. Unfortunately, since the loss of the traitorous Chuda, there was little option left. The one he had come to see possessed resources he required, and he would never lower himself to request assistance from the Great Clans. This was his only alternative.
This time the shift was more palpable. There was a sudden increase in humidity and an almost overwhelming sense of a predator lurking nearby. The plants seemed to part, as if by the wind or some other natural force, and a small woman appeared. “Kanpeki-sama,” she said pleasantly. “It is always a pleasure to enjoy the company of such a respected visitor.”
“Thank you,” he replied plainly. “I apologize for not sending word of my arrival. I have no wish to appear rude.” In truth he had no intention of ever sending a herald prior to his arrival again, not after what had happened to the last one.
“Nonsense,” she replied. “My garden is always open to you.”
Kanpeki smiled slightly. Kinuye’s Garden, as this region was known, was among the deadliest places in all of the Colonies, as far as he was concerned. If representatives of any other clan had ever discovered it, he was quite sure they had not survived to tell the tale. “Regrettably, I have little time for pleasantries. I fear that the situation in the Colonies is changing rapidly, and I find myself in need of the service of more of your students, if you would be willing to permit it.” He paused for a moment, then thought perhaps he might offer some additional compliment. “Your form is amazing, by the way. I hope that Yajinden’s aid has proven helpful.”
The thing that had once been known as Asako Kinuye smiled and looked down at its smooth, remarkably feminine arm. “Thank you,” she said, smiling. “Yes, your vassal is quite brilliant. He assisted me in overcoming a few rather difficult problems. Our arrangement has proven most beneficial for me, and I thank you for it.”
“I am pleased that you have found it agreeable,” he said. “I hope that my request for additional assistance is not overstepping my boundaries, but without the Chuda we find ourselves with extremely limited resources when it comes to shugenja.”
“Of course not,” Kinuye said. “Three additional acolytes will report to your home at Steel Soul Dojo in two days time.” Her smile returned. “And of course, as always, please feel free to use them in any way you see fit. You may trust them implicitly.”
“Naturally,” Kanpeki said, knowing he would never trust anything Kinuye sent to him. He was not entirely convinced, despite her assurances, that her students were completely human. And besides, with all the strangeness and insanity that seemed to be plaguing the Colonies of late, skirmishes and heated arguments breaking out over seemingly inconsequential affairs, the number of people that he felt comfortable placing his trust in could be counted on his fingers. “It is always a pleasure to see you, Kinuye-sama.”
The thing that was once Asako Kinuye smiled. “And you, lord Kanpeki.”
* * * * *
Winter had arrived in theImperialCity. Snow was falling, not for the first time of the season, but it had not yet covered the ground, and that at least was a blessing. An older Dragon, bearing the robes of a Mirumoto assigned to the court, walked slowly through the gentle snowfall, his eyes ever on a large temple that was situated between an inn and a large silversmith’s storefront. The stone was quite dark, which set it in sharp contrast to the other buildings around it. It was the fourth time today that the samurai had walked past the unadorned temple, and this time, finally, he stopped and looked at it for a long time. With a shaky breath, he stepped across the threshold and into the temple’s dark interior.
The air inside was still crisp with winter’s edge, but the countless torches and altars burning incense increased the temperature significantly. There were others milling about within, most of them wearing feature-concealing basket hats or something similar. The samurai had a moment to consider whether or not he should have worn something of the same sort, but he quickly discarded the notion. Never in his life had he hidden his face out of shame, and he would not do so now.
“You seem lost, cousin.”
The Dragon turned to see a priest of the Isawa family smiling at him. “Come in,” the shugenja said. “The wind is still quite cold here at the entrance.” He gestured toward the temple’s interior, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Dragon followed. “My name is Isawa Tanaken,” the priest continued. “I will not ask your name, for many who come here prefer to remain anonymous. There is no shame in not answering an unasked question, true?”
“I… yes, I suppose so,” the Dragon answered. He looked around. “I did not expect to see so many others,” he confessed. “I imagined the temple would be empty.”
“A popular misconception,” Tanaken said. “The proscription of worship for the Dark Lord does not extend to the Dark Fortunes, as many erroneously believe. The Dark Fortunes are just as accessible to mortal prayer as their divine counterparts, and perhaps even more eager to answer them and thus secure mortal adherents.”
The Dragon stared at him curiously. “Forgive me for saying so, but I find it… odd… to discover aPhoenixpriest in theTempleof the Dark Fortunes.”
“Something else that I hear frequently,” Tanaken said. “Tell my, my friend, do you think it would be wise to permit a new and strange incarnation of religion to be practiced in the Empire without understanding it properly?”
“I suppose not,” the Dragon agreed.
“The Isawa deemed it appropriate for a small number of our number to be acquainted with the practices of Dark Fortune worship. I was one of those selected.” He glanced around the temple. “I cannot say that I have found it an unpleasant duty, to be honest. There is much to be learned about the workings of the Heavens and the other spirit realms.”
“Can… can the Dark Fortunes withdraw their blessings?” the Dragon asked tentatively.
The priest frowned slightly, considering the question. “The answer is not a simple one,” he said. “If a Dark Fortune has indeed offered its blessing, then of course it could be revoked, just as a Fortune could. Do you believe that one has blessed someone?”
“I do not know the difference between a Dark Fortune’s blessing and curse,” The Dragon said. “I only know that I fear for my son. I fear he has fallen under their sway.”
Tanaken smiled sympathetically. “Explain to me what has happened, my friend. Perhaps I can help.”
The Dragon nodded. “I had a daughter. She was my youngest child. She was beloved by everyone. I could deny her nothing and her older brother… Kyoshiro could not bear the thought of her unhappiness. When she fell in love with a Crane, he did all he could to ensure that his sister and her beloved could be together.”
“Unfortunately,” the Dragon sighed, “not everyone felt the same way. The Crane’s older sister was intent on seeing to it that her brother was elevated to a higher station. She loved him as Kyoshiro did his sister, you understand. And she was successful. She arranged his marriage to a high-ranking Imperial. It was the sort of match plays are written about. It would have changed his destiny forever. But she misunderstood the depth of his feelings for my daughter. The two of them… they succumbed to youthful passion. They took their lives so that they might be reincarnated together.” He paused for a moment. “The disgrace to both our families was significant. Doji Iza, the sister, she mitigated the largest part of it, perhaps out of guilt or a desire to restore peace between us, but Kyoshiro… he could not let it go. His rage, his hatred… it has no limit. I sent him to the Colonies in hopes of tempering it, but now I have learned that Iza is there as well. I fear I have only made things worse.”
“And what is it you wish, then?” Tanaken asked.
“Kyoso, the Dark Fortune of Obsession,” the Dragon said. “Can she help my son? Can she end his suffering? Would she, if she could?”
Tanaken drew a deep breath and released it slowly. “Truthfully, I do not know. Let us pray together, my friend, and perhaps we can find the answer.”
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