Scenes from the Empire

A quartet of scintillating scenes from the Empire and its Colonies!

 

Scenes from the Empire

By Robert Denton & Seth Mason

Edited by Fred Wan

 

Misgivings

 

Asako Jirou walked through the bustling movement of TwinForksCity, peasants and samurai alike parting quickly as the shugenja strode by. The man wasn’t certain if it was the mark denoting his status as an Inquisitor that inspired such behavior, or the Crane’s generally friendly attitude towards the Phoenix, but he didn’t much care. If the lower ranking nobles and peasants were intimidated by him, so much the better. If they were being accommodating, it was just as well – someone of his status should be so accommodated.

He noted the tension in many of the people he passed, and realized it was not the sort he was used to. These men and women were not necessarily wary of him, they were simply cautious. It made sense, Jirou thought to himself, as the city had been all but declared the anvil upon which the Mantis would strike again… and soon. Those who lived here had probably spent some weeks with such a thing hanging over their head. Where it was cold back in the Empire, this region seemed to care little for having a proper winter – and so the conflict between the Mantis and Crane would continue without the customary pause.

The Inquisitor pushed such musing out of his mind as he approached the modest temple he had been seeking. A well-kept but unassuming structure built in honor of Fukurokujin stood before him. He nodded respectfully to the two monks he passed as he entered, and knelt quickly before the main shrine to the Fortune of Wisdom. Fukurokujin, Jirou thought plainly, I would do well to emulate your understanding and foresight.

What he was about to do could be considered treason, or even blasphemy. But ever did an Inquisitor walk a fine line to combat such things.

After he had given the proper amount of time in meditation and prayer to the shrine, Jirou continued on to one of the side chambers in the temple, where an aging man in red robes sat with an assistant, scribbling quickly on one scroll among the many that were scattered all about. Jirou had the opportunity to meet the previous Master of Water once, and he found that Asako Chukage reminded him a great deal of Master Bairei.

“Master Chukage,” Jirou said aloud, kneeling to the floor. “I am here per our exchange.”

The bald Phoenix looked up from his writing, confusion crossing his face for a moment before it relaxed into a smile. “Oh, yes, Inquisitor Jirou-san,” Chukage said, as if reminding himself. “Yes, yes, we did agree at this time and date. I am glad I was here on other business, I am afraid I may have overlooked our rendezvous otherwise.” He absently handed one of the pages to his assistant, who nodded and began to gather up several more to arrange together.

“You are a busy man, executing a great deal in the name of the Phoenix,” Jirou replied, standing. “I understand that one so low as myself might be seen as a nuisance, and I apologize.”

“Nonsense,” Chukage said, waving a hand in the air. He looked back at another page and began to write again as he spoke. “This report to your superiors and for the remainder of the Council is of the utmost importance. I find I am so engrossed in recounting its details, however, that I might have forgotten now is the time it is to be sent.” The Master of Water stopped for a moment and looked at Jirou directly. “Tell me, Inquisitor, how goes your own investigations?”

The younger Asako smiled thinly and adjusted a minor wrinkle on his obi. “As well as I could have hoped,” he said almost remorsefully.

“You do not sound pleased by that.”

Jirou nodded. “It is the work of an Inquisitor to find questionable and blasphemous things, Master. We live an existence that if we execute our duty well, we find it. It is not exactly something to be pleased about, sometimes.”

Chukage frowned sympathetically. “I believe I understand. I suppose this report, then, is of some worry to you.”

Neither man was a trained courtier, but Jirou knew he was excellent at hiding his reactions. Nonetheless, he found himself stiffen a little at the words. “Yes, Master,” he said almost too carefully, and cursed himself for it. “Might I ask what is in it, in general, before I review it and submit it to your fellow Masters?”

“Unfortunate truths,” Chukage said enigmatically. After a sigh, he continued, “As I have told you, I believe there is some dark force at work, Jirou-san.”

Jirou nodded, but said nothing. His eyes moved to the assistant, who remained silent as he gathered up the report.

Chukage followed the man’s gaze and smiled a little. “Do not mind my scribe, Oku. He is a trusted advisor, and he understands what is at stake as well. As to the matter at hand, I am not sure of the source, but it is a guided phenomenon. It seems that, after listening to reports from across the Colonies, the attitude and behavior of those weak of mind or spirit have been … affected. There is little to tell exactly what this change is coming from, though – I cannot fathom how to determine who is being influenced and who is simply being undisciplined. It also seems that those more in tune with the elements or the spirit worlds are more susceptible.”

The Inquisitor drew a short breath, “I am hesitant to ask this, Master, but in your letter, you said-”

“That such a thing touched my mind?” Chukage interrupted, bringing the man’s statement to the point quickly. “Yes, I fear that’s true. Which is why I have secluded myself here for the time being. I believe I am, in the end, unharmed, but my report to the Masters and their collected wisdom will bear out the truth. It was an unusual thing, Jirou-san,” the Master’s voice became slower and quieter. “I cannot explain it, but it was almost like an urge… another mind that was close enough to my own that I could not tell the difference between myself and it.”

“Do you think it has something to do with the ancient Fudo texts that have been surfacing?” Jirou asked.

“There is no way to be certain yet, Jirou-san,” Chukage admitted. “But I do not think so.”

Silence dominated the room, with the exception of the slow whispering noise of the scroll pages being placed one on top of another by the assistant. The idea of something completely unknown causing this problem was the worst possible scenario to Jirou.

“I see,” the Inquisitor said finally, looking at the ground.

After a moment, the scribe assistant came over to Jirou with the collected writings bound properly and ready for travel. “Thank you, Oku-san,” Jirou said formally. The man was worth showing respect to, as he was an assistant to one of the Masters. Jirou looked at the scroll case for a moment and bowed to Chukage. “Thank you for your assistance in this, Master Chukage. I will return this report to the Empire as swiftly as I can.”

“Of course. Have a safe journey, Jirou-san.”

Jirou turned as if to go, and then stopped. “One last thing, Master,” he said. His voice betrayed only the slightest hint that it was not a casual thing he was about to state, but it went unnoticed by the Master of Water. “I am sorry to hear that your Mantis host from your previous trip has gone missing. I was hoping you would be able to foster closer relations between the Moshi and the Phoenix.”

Chukage picked up a rag nearby and began to wipe the ink from the side of his hand and fingertips. “I do not understand,” he said, not looking up.

“Moshi Sasako, Master,” Jirou said. “It seems she is unaccounted for. None are certain what might have befallen her.”

Chukage looked at the stains on his hand for a brief moment, unmoving. “That is extremely sad to hear,” he said lowly. “She was a bright woman, full of life and potential. The Colonies seem to constantly remind us how little we have truly tamed them.” After a long breath, he looked up at the Inquisitor. “Please make sure the Masters read that report as thoroughly as they can. You do a great service to the Phoenix, Lord Inquisitor.”

“Do not worry, Master,” Jirou said, turning to go finally. “I fully intend to.”

Chukage watched the man go, then looked to his assistant. “Thank you, Oku-san,” he said absently. “I think that is all for today.”
Oku bowed deeply to the Master and left, carefully hiding a bundle of papers in his obi. The bundle was, curiously, the exact size of the report Jirou had left with a moment before.

 

* * * * *

 

Negotiations

 

Doji Makoto stood on one of the balconies of what was, he admitted to himself, an extremely impressive estate. He had never had occasion to visit the Imperial Treasurer before, and thought that the official’s residence would be as utilitarian as the position itself. He was pleasantly surprised the moment he dismounted at the entrance, and the estate had continued to seem remarkable in every regard.

“Genshi-san,” the Champion of the Crane called out lightly from the balcony. “Do you see here,” he indicated with a slight wave of his hand, “where the bushes have been arranged near the pond? It makes the whole garden appear as if it simply grew this way naturally. Astonishing.”

Behind him, the placid and keen eyes of Makoto’s assistant glanced over the area. “Indeed,” she replied with her low voice. “It seems so effortless. I will take notes, my lord, and see what can be done to improve upon the idea.”

“Well, we should be certain to give credit-” The young Champion’s voice stopped when he heard a noise from just outside the chamber. He turned and smiled, stating quickly, “It seems the Imperial Treasurer’s other guest is here, my friend. Please allow me to greet him. Excuse me.”

Doji Makoto had barely walked back indoors and sat at the table in the center of the room when the sliding door opened to reveal an immediately annoyed Yoritomo Hiromi. The samurai who had showed Hiromi to the waiting room gave a nervous flick of his eyes from one man to the other, and then bowed deeply. “My apologies, Hiromi-sama,” he said quickly. “I was not made aware that this chamber was occupied. Perhaps the lord would require another place to wait on the Divine Empress’ servant?”

Hiromi folded his arms and regarded Makoto thoughtfully for a second before shaking his head. “No,” he said in a somewhat resigned tone. “I suppose there’s no point in putting this off,” he waved the man away with a curt gesture and stepped into the room.

“Lord Yoritomo Hiromi, patriarch of the noble house of Yoritomo and master of the Clan of the Mantis,” Kakita Genshi announced, standing off to the side of her Champion. “I present to you Lord Doji Makoto, lord of the ancestral line of Doji-kami, Champion of the Crane Clan, master of the Kakita Technique, grandson of-”

Makoto raised his hand to silence her, “I think that will be sufficient, Genshi-san. Lord Hiromi is not here to listen to things he already knows, I think.”

“No,” Hiromi agreed, “I’m actually here to speak with the Imperial Treasurer directly about some matters of trade and taxation, after a long journey back from the Colonies.” He stood in the room and gave the other man a considering look. “You, on the other hand, are here because you learned I would be meeting with the Treasurer and would not be able to simply leave the estate if I wanted to. So, you suddenly found a need to meet with her as well.”

Makoto smiled a little and raised his eyebrows, as if he heard something slightly odd or amusing. “That would be a clever way to get your captive attention, I suppose. I wish I had thought of it myself, Hiromi-san. I am flattered you think me capable of such maneuvering. No, actually I was here to speak with the Treasurer about certain trade matters, as well. We have already had our meeting, it seems just prior to your arrival. I was resting some before the journey home.” He motioned to Genshi, who came to kneel at the table and poured tea for her Champion. “Would you like some, Lord Yoritomo?” Makoto offered. “I believe last time you were unable to join me.”

Hiromi looked on at him impassively.

“More for me, I suppose,” the Crane said, and then tilted his head as if he just thought of something interesting. “That saying, ‘more for me’,” he repeated, “it reminds me of something I admire a great deal about the Mantis. Your people have always had a keen eye for opportunity and understanding what does and does not have value. It is something I believe we have in common!”

The Mantis Champion broke his silence with a terse rumble. “Get to the point, Makoto-san.”

“Your dedication to what serves and interests you does you credit, Lord Yoritomo,” Makoto replied, “but I feel you miss out on a great deal of the world if you do not stop to enjoy it.

Driven like the rain,

We move to our duty’s pace

The water so cold.”

Hiromi smirked a little at the words.

“Unknown in the sea

Ever the high flying bird

Cannot see beneath.”

A slow smile spread across Makoto’s features. “I knew you were not the brute others have assumed you are. I am truly impressed now, Hiromi-san. Truly. I insist you take tea with me.”

“You haven’t come here to trade poems with me, nor discuss leaves in a pot, Makoto-san. Your little ambush here has set me on edge, but I think now you wish to discuss terms of surrender and peace.”

“No, I am afraid I have not come to do that, either,” Makoto spoke with a slightly sad tone. “Genshi, if you please.”

Kakita Genshi removed a document from her obi and unrolled it. In a clear voice, she read, “It is the wish of the Lord of the Doji Family, Champion of the Crane, master of the-”

“Genshi, if you would…” Makoto winced a little as he made a subtle hurrying motion with his hands.

“Yes, of course,” the woman replied. “Lord Doji Makoto wishes his respected vassals to know that the trading ports of the Crane will be officially deemed unavailable for this season and possibly seasons in the future as the Doji family oversees the construction of new structures and assigned personnel to accommodate the vast imported resources coming from the Colonies. During this time, it is the wish of House Doji to maintain their friendship with the clans of the Empire who serve the Empress and will approve minimal use of these ports for those deemed in need.”

“There you have it,” Makoto said, nodding to Genshi in thanks.

“You came all this way to let me know that you’re going to shut down your ports to the people you don’t like? This is hardly the bold or clever move I was worried about. I have to say I’m a little relieved. We have allies among the Crab and our own ports on the eastern coast. You have to know that.”

The Doji daimyo took a sip of his tea and nodded. “Yes, of course I do, but it is good of you to remind me of a potential oversight,” his voice was perfectly cheerful. “But do not worry, I believe those ports will be unaccessible to your clan shortly, making me look perhaps a little less foolish. You see, I believe that by exposing the… miscommunication between your kobune captain in the Colonies and the tax collectors, it is possible the Treasurer here might now have reason to believe there are similar oversights in your ports in the mainland. They will, naturally, see minimal traffic as agents of the Imperial Treasurer proceed to check up on each such location.” Makoto laid a finger to his mouth, appearing to consider something as Hiromi’s face grew darker. “I do suppose you could rely on your friendship with the Hida and the Yasuki,” the Crane admitted. “But from what I understand, they have begun shipping a great deal more resources back from the Colonies in the past year. I doubt they will have the energy or manpower to deal with taking on the bulk of your trade as well.” He gave Hiromi a sincerely apologetic look, as if he was disappointed he could not figure out a way around his own plot. “I am truly sorry, Lord Yoritomo.”

“We are not without our own allies among the Imperials,” Hiromi said quietly.

Makoto raised one eyebrow and nodded, “It is true,” he said. “And I have to say that I congratulate you on not immediately trying to threaten me or similar nonsense. Your dedication to the Emerald Champion’s insistence on not letting this war spill into Rokugan itself is to be commended.”

The Mantis Champion’s eyes narrowed until they were barely visible. It was unclear if the Doji’s machinations or his unwaveringly friendly attitude was wearing on him, but the man’s patience was clearly at its limit. “I don’t know why you’ve chosen to tell me what you’re about to do, Makoto-san, or what you expect to get out of it, but I don’t think you’ll like what comes next.” A tight smile, more predatory than joyful, appeared on his face. “I had considered delaying the final strike on TwinForksCity, you’ve made that choice easy for me. And as for you, personally…”

Makoto shrugged, “Send anyone to challenge me, and I will kill them. If you wish to contest this in the courts, I welcome the exchange. You are a powerful man, Hiromi-san, and if you are anything remotely like your predecessor, I would dislike to meet you on the battlefield. However, I do not think I have to worry about that at the moment.” His voice was, once again, deeply sympathetic and apologetic. “Regrettably, it seems your options are limited.”

The chamber door slid open once again, and the attendant from before bowed deeply. “Lord Hiromi, Ritisharu-sama will see you now. She was able to make an exception to see you quickly given the… circumstance.”

Hiromi looked down at his hands for a moment, as if considering something, then back to the Crane Champion. “You misunderstand, Crane. As you say, I would not be so stupid as to attack you and defy the Empress. You’re smart, Makoto-san,” he said quietly. “But I don’t think you have the stomach for any kind of war. Between soldiers or a war of trade.”

“You are a perceptive man,” Makoto returned the compliment, “so I will not dismiss your estimation lightly. I suppose we will both see if it is correct.”

The Mantis Champion turned and walked away without a further word.

Silence dominated the room as Makoto quietly finished his tea. “It really is excellent,” he remarked. “Hiromi-san certainly did miss out.”

Genshi cleared her throat. “My lord, I do not mean to question you, but I must echo Hiromi-sama’s sentiment. Why would you detail your plan to your enemy?”

“We already know what the Mantis are obviously capable of, Lady Genshi,” Makoto replied thoughtfully, looking at his cup. “Now we will see what they are possibly capable of. And as your illustrious ancestor wrote, it is better to defeat an enemy soundly and fully rather than merely best them in some minor way.” He stood and turned back to the balcony. “Now, please do excuse me while I enjoy this garden a little while longer. I am afraid Hiromi may be right about something. I would much prefer there was no war at all.”

For the slightest moment, Doji Makoto’s perfect visage showed a slight tinge of sadness before he allowed himself to be soothed by the scene before him. “However, it is our duty to see this done and the Mantis’ dishonorable actions stopped with finality.”

 

* * * * *

 

Sins of the Father: Followed

 

Kakita Maratai sat up in the darkness surrounding her bed. Her tired eyes were already adjusted to the gloom. She was familiar with her latent symptoms; tonight, there would be no sleep. So she stood, donned a new layer of long-sleeved kimono, and walked out into her moonlit sculpture garden.

It wasn’t really a sculpture garden, but in the time she’d adjusted to life in the SecondCity, she’d come to regard it as such. In truth, it was simply a place where her incomplete or discarded sculptures resided, littering the small patch of ground surrounding her tiny hut. She was always moving on to new projects, her attention flitting away long before completion. The territory of her house was littered with pale marble bodies. Armless, headless torsos stood incomplete like over-sheared trees. Arms and faces extended from shapeless marble prisons, as if desperately reaching for escape. Hands, open and wide or clutching objects, littered the ground. Her stone-sculpting workspace during the day, at night it was some manner of macabre garden for bodies.

Maratai stood at the far end of her meager land and looked up at the moon. It was winter, and the air was moist but warm. At home… her former home… the snow would already have begun, and specks of cold white would already litter the sky. But she did not miss the snow like she missed her home. The warm night air, and staring at the moon, was the only remedy for her insomnia. In silence, she shut out the world around her, focusing only on the pale disk glowing above her.

She did not see as one of her statues stepped off its pedestal with a soundless step. She heard nothing as it approached, darkness flooding from its cracked skin like soundless steam. An arm sprouted from its shoulder, human at first, but then its fingers elongated into four blades. It moved slowly, trailing a trench in the earth, like a finger tracing itself through wet clay. Its face was smooth and pale. Like the moon.

With her back to the creature, she never sensed its approach, nor the flash of its claws above her head…

 

***

 

The arrival of the Imperial Legion outside the city walls put a considerable damper on the SecondCity nightlife. But not for Bayushi Makubesu. His frequent walks through the city districts at night were not about to be halted on behalf of samurai denounced by the Governess. Were they inside the city, perhaps, but as far as he was concerned this was just another night.

Thunder above him threatened another winter rain, and he was about to consider returning to the shared embassy of the Scorpion and Crab, when he spotted a familiar face approaching from the lamp-lit Artisan District.

“Makubesu-san!” The voice confirmed this man was Kitsuki Kinaro as surely as the man’s broad smile.

The older man paused to bow, and for the young investigator to catch up. “Nice to see you again so soon, Kinaro-san. I trust your visit with the sculptor went well?”

Even in the gloom, Makubesu could detect something awry with the young man’s smile. “Oh, it went as expected. Say, do you have any plans for this evening?”

The Scorpion paused. Kinaro wasn’t an unfriendly chap, but was he usually this outgoing?

“Not particularly,” Makubesu replied, watching him carefully.

Kinaro clapped his hands. “Good fortune, then! You spoke well of the North Wind Izakaya.” The sake house. “I was headed in that direction. Perhaps you’ll join me?”

Makubesu stared at the young man for several moments. At last, his eyes crinkled with a genuine smile. “Of course!” he said happily.

The two made their way through the Merchant District and into the izakaya in short order. The two ronin guards gave no second glance as their weapons were relinquished to the sword-polishers. To Makubesu’s surprise, Kinaro chose not a secluded table as suspected, but a well-lit table near the biwa player at the center of the room. They were surrounded by noisy and jovial patrons, eager to forget the army camped just outside their gates.

Attached to the table by a length of rope were two wooden planks detailing the selections. Makubesu settled in as Kinaro gave them a look. “The sake here is served chilled,” he explained, “it is quite a treat!”

Kinaro grinned. “I was followed here.”

The statement came with a cheery nonchalance, as if mentioning one’s favorite color. Makubesu’s smile did not leave his eyes. “I guessed as much,” he replied, lips hidden by his silk mask.

“It’s the man two tables away. Across from us.”

Makubesu pointedly cast about, found a servant, and waved her over. After he whispered something in her ear, she retreated to the kitchen, face puzzled. When she was gone, he said, “The one with the gray kimono?”

Kinaro maintained his cheery face.

“Ah,” Makubesu nodded. “He means to kill you.”

“You think so?”

“One cannot hide a killer’s intent.” Makubesu considered something. “Shall I make a scene?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Kinaro laced his fingers together and rested his chin against his hands, casually hiding his lips. “I want to speak with him.”

Makubesu chuckled. “What is your plan?”

“I haven’t got one,” Kinaro admitted.

“I see.” Makubesu’s smile returned to his eyes. “Fortunately, I do. Allow me to do you a favor, Kinaro-san.” As he spoke, the servant returned with two ceramic sake bottles and two cups. Makubesu’s eyes twinkled. “You can repay me later.”

 

***

 

“I have another one,” Makubesu announced, quieting Kinaro’s inebriated laughter. He did not seem to notice his own stumbling, or the slur of his own words. It did not matter that it was nearly the Hour of the Rat, the two spoke loudly, their laughter echoing at the cusp of the Artisan district. As they walked, they leaned somewhat on one-another, unable to stand on their own.

“Once, a Togashi was meditating by a river,” Makubesu said, “and a fish leapt out and landed in his lap. And he said, ‘Thank the Fortunes! They have given me a decent meal!’ But then, the fish leapt out of his lap and back into the river. And he said, ‘The Fortunes will smile upon me, I have benevolently spared the life of that fish!'”

Makubesu laughed loudly, seemingly not noticing that the other did not join him. “I didn’t like that one,” Kinaro said. “Tell one about the Scorpion.”

“I don’t know any about the Scorpion,” the older man said, waving the comment away.

“Convenient,” Kinaro replied. It looked as though he was going to say something else, but instead he halted in his steps. The two magistrates were standing in an alley, their path blocked by a stack of crates. Kinaro looked to the Bayushi. “Are we lost?”

Makubesu squinted. “Hm. Perhaps we turned too early.”

A voice called from behind them. “Kitsuki Kinaro.”

They turned. A man in a gray kimono and cloak stood in the alleyway’s entrance. His arms were crossed, and at this distance, they could not see his face. Kinaro straightened, but swerved a little, like a reed in the wind. “Do I know you?” he called out.

“We have met before,” the man replied. A pause. “But you would not remember me.” The sound of chains rattled in the alley as the man revealed a kusarigama, which he began to swing over his head. “After tonight, it won’t matter,” he said, and then released the kama in mid-swing.

The two magistrates dove. Makubesu hit the ground and lay still. Kinaro felt a moment of panic as the blade struck the ground where he’d stood. With a jerk, it darted away, and the grey-cloaked man leapt forward, flashing his kama-blade in the moonlight. Kinaro rolled onto his back and then to his feet, barely able to duck beneath a melee strike. He saw a flash of surprise in the eyes of his attacker, but there was no hesitation there either. Kinaro reached for his blade by instinct, realizing, too late, that in doing so he was placing his hand directly in the path of the man’s downward strike. The moment drew slowly as Kinaro tensed, unable to stop in those frozen moments of horror, his own mind faster than his body could react. He’d underestimated his opponent, and it was about to cost him his hand.

But the strike never came as the attacker twisted away at the last moment, deflecting a strike at his flank. Makubesu was on his feet, sword in hand, moving far faster than a man of his age would suggest. The unbridled fury in his eyes shone like the relentless light of the moon. With a savage blow, he sent the man’s weapon flinging from his hand. With another, he lacerated the man’s chest, spraying an arc of red against the stone wall. Nearly nose-to-nose, he kicked the man in the gut, sending him to the street. It had only been the space of three breaths, Kinaro’s hand still suspended inches from his katana’s pommel.

Makubesu nodded and pointed his sword’s tip at the would-be assassin. He was breathing heavily, but looked otherwise refreshed. “Good thing I was here, eh?”

“This was your plan,” Kinaro reminded him, regaining his composure. Under his breath, he thanked the Fortunes for the Dark Sword of Bitter Lies.

Confusion wrecked the face of the fallen man. “How?” he uttered, “I watched you drink four bottles of sake! You should be…” Realization dawned on the man’s features, and then a slow smile. “Of course. It was water. Water in sake bottles.”

“An old trick,” Makubesu admitted. “At least as old as I am. Still effective, apparently.” He glanced at Kinaro. “Do you know this man?”

“I do not,” Kinaro replied.

“Well I recognize his stance,” the older man said. “He is the product of a Spider dojo.”

Kinaro’s eyes narrowed. He spotted something in the man’s eyes, something in the intense glare, the way he was staring at Makubesu’s sword pointed at his chest. It was a killer’s intent, Kinaro realized, just as Makubesu had said. Sadly, he did not realize to whom it was directed. Not until after the man sprang up, impaling himself on the old Scorpion’s blade.

Makubesu blinked at the man as he lay dying on the street. Kinaro frowned. “That was a pointless gesture,” he said, “I already know enough. Your death wins you nothing. I spoke with the sculptor, and she told me all that she knew.”

The dying man smiled. “Perhaps…” he rasped, “…but… she won’t… be telling… anyone else… will she?” Grinning, he died.

Kinaro’s face melted into a look of horror. “Fortunes!” he swore, “Maratai!”

And then he ran. Abandoning the scene and a puzzled Makubesu, he ran into the Artisan District, heedless of anything around him. The streets became a dizzying array of purple and orange lights. His topknot loosened and he kicked his sandals away. He didn’t stop for anything, not even to explain himself to the rare late night straggler that gawked at his mad run. His throat grew sore from rolling damp breaths and his heart thundered in his ears as the sky did above him. He didn’t think. He just ran.

And when he broke into the clearing that contained her tiny hut and the moonlit forms of incomplete marble bodies, his eyes caught sight of something. He screamed.

With her back to the creature, Maratai never sensed its approach, nor the flash of its claws above her head. But she did hear Kinaro’s cry as he approached her gate, and watched, with widening eyes, as he hurled his wakizashi, falling to the earth with the motion.

Had he just thrown his sword at her?

She stepped back and struck something solid she had not known was there. Spinning, she saw a cloaked form looming over her, arms outstretched with razor claws. Its face was featureless and smooth, like an egg’s shell, except in the space where Kinaro’s sword-handle protruded.

All at once, the thing began to blur, as if it was vibrating very quickly. It’s thin arms snapped unnaturally as it reached for the handle, twisting and segmenting like a spider’s legs. Its fingers split, divided, multiplied into twitching arachnid legs, clawing at the handle with frenzied desperation. It tore at its marble-hued flesh, shadows pouring from the cracks of its skin, shaking and spasming inhumanly as if trying to escape, to scramble away. No voice pushed mouthless from its inhuman throat, but a scream nonetheless echoed darkly from within her mind.

“IT! HURTS!”

Her eyes widened as the faceless mockery arched its back. For a moment, the world swam before her eyes, from one incomplete marble form to the next, missing faces, missing limbs. It was a garden of pale-fleshed humans growing twisted from parched soil. No eyes. No faces.

The last the two samurai saw of the thing was the nearly invisible twitch of slender limbs against the night, like the gentle swaying of naked branches. Then, it was gone. Kinaro’s sword lay on the ground. The crystal charm he’d bought that morning was still tied to its tsuba.

She stood there, shocked and in silence, until Kinaro approached. She tilted her head towards him and recognized her own shock and horror reflected on his features. Quiet exchanges of “what was that?” seemed brittle and pointless. He didn’t know. Neither of them knew.

So instead, he asked, “Are you alright?” And she mutely nodded, although she wasn’t certain.

Together, they swallowed their fear. Although they didn’t fully understand what they’d witnessed, that mattered little. They were still samurai. Kinaro picked up his sword and fed it to his saya. “Come,” he said, “it’s not safe.”

Stoically, she agreed. She grabbed a few things and they left together. The scattered forms of her unfinished sculptures stared as they went away, reaching numbly, senselessly, towards the moon.

 

* * * * *

 

Uncover your Face

 

1198, Month of the Rooster

The smile of the Dragon Champion was warm, like the steam rising from the two cups of tea. He nudged the first along the table, towards his guest. “I know it was short notice,” Shikei said pleasantly, “but I am truly grateful that we could meet like this, Takeru-san.”

Ide Takeru nodded impassively as he accepted the offered cup. He inhaled the vibrant scent and identified it as a dried oolong. He’d expected Silver Nettle; as he sipped, he took it as a reminder that meetings with the Dragon were unpredictable, and wondered if Shikei was trying to tell him this.

At the first taste, Takeru abandoned his line of thinking. The truth was far simpler. “You remembered,” he remarked, nodding at the cup, “after all these years.”

Shikei’s smile broadened. It was the same tea they’d had at their last meeting. Shikei replied with a knowing look and a tilt of his head. “It is rare for my tastes in tea to be complemented,” he said, “so naturally I would remember.”

And there was the legendary charm of the Dragon Champion, alive in the twinkle of his eye and the part of his lips. It was the look that had disarmed countless trained courtiers, won his Lady’s heart, and turned aside the hurt pride of the Lion Champion nearly ten years ago. No amount of training could replicate a look so instantaneous, so effortless, so stirring. As a sword-strike splits a wooden mempo, so did his charm shatter even the most skillfully crafted On.

You should have been a courtier, Takeru thought. This path is wasted on you.

They spoke of personal matters. Shikei asked about Takeru’s family, the condition of the foals his sister was raising, whether his gift of plumb trees for Kyuden Ide had borne fruit this year, and other such subjects. He joked and laughed easily as he talked, all the while offering nothing of himself. Had Takeru been younger, less experienced, the easy conversation would have lowered his guard. Instead, he indulged the Dragon Champion, and waited.

At last, Shikei lowered his cup, spurred by a pause in the room. They were alone, the guards dismissed moments after Takeru arrived. “But perhaps we should speak of business,” Shikei said, his expression fading into something less jovial, “the reason that I have called you here.”

Takeru nodded, setting aside his own cup. “I am ready to hear you speak,” Takeru said.

Shikei nodded and sat back. His eyes closed; he appeared to be sorting his thoughts. This was the moment he’d prepared for. He already knew what he wanted to say to the Dragon Champion, but he wanted to give Shikei the opportunity to explain himself. The Ide were about diplomacy, first and foremost. For this reason only, he would hear Shikei out. But if he did not like what the Champion had to say… he had the Khan’s orders.

At last, Shikei opened his eyes. “My grandmother is dead,” he said.

Moments passed before the statement fully registered in Takeru’s mind. His brow furrowed. Shikei calmly reached for the teakettle and refilled their cups, saying nothing more. In the long silence, Takeru held his face, trying to conceal his puzzlement at the Champion’s words.

“I’m… sorry,” Takeru finally said. They were words of consolation, but sprang from the confusion of his own mind. What, exactly, did that have to do with why he was here?

“I have seen her in my dreams,” he said. His eyes lifted to the window, narrowing, as if focused on something. “Her visits began some time ago, shortly after my father’s disappearance. At first, I thought she was trying to reach me somehow, but now I know that she is simply gone.”

Takeru frowned. “Shikei-sama, I must confess, I am not entirely sure why-“

“Lately,” Shikei interrupted, “I have heard the voice of another.” He turned his gaze back to the Ide. There was a seriousness there that Takeru had never seen before. Something unsettling in the samurai’s eyes.

Shikei continued. “At first, it was only at the cusp of waking, but now I hear it whenever I quiet my mind. I would not have noticed it were it not for my training.” He paused. “Are you familiar with the purpose of our Clan’s meditation practice?” Not waiting for an answer, Shikei continued, “To the Dragon, the goal of meditation is to achieve serenity of mind. In this state, thoughts arise and fall naturally. One does not spark a thought into being, nor encourage their coming. They and go as they will. It was in this state that I began to notice that some of these thoughts in my mind were not my own.”

“What are you saying?” Takeru felt his heart quicken, although he did not fully understand why.

“The naga maintain a state they call the ‘Great Sleep,'” Shikei continued, heedless to the Ide’s questions, “My father spoke of it often. He also spoke of their ability to speak to one-another using only their minds. He said grandmother’s words sometimes echoed in his dreams.” He paused, as if measuring Takeru’s reaction. “I believe I am experiencing the same thing. The blood of the naga runs through my veins, and my grandmother reaches for me through the realm of dreams. But something else was speaking to me as well, concealed by the undercurrent of my thoughts. Trying to reach me. I believe… it was trying to influence me. Although I am not sure to what end…”

Takeru steadied his courtier’s gaze, searching for anything in the Champion’s words or manner that hinted at deception. But the man was transparent; he hid nothing. For a moment, his Lady’s feud with the man, and his Khan’s anger, were forgotten. “I would hear more,” he said.

Shikei nodded. “Several days ago, while meditating within my family’s shrine, I felt the presence again. This time, allowed it to come close, to touch my mind.” His eye twitched. “I saw its face, Takeru-san. In its eagerness, it allowed me a glimpse. And as it looked into me, I looked into it.” He frowned. “It is a naga, Takeru-san. Like my grandmother. Yet different… something darker. It has no name, but I have named it Kurai no Naga. That is the thing that is whispering to me. That is the thing that took my father.”

Shikei sat back. “Tell your Khan it hides at the heart of the Shinomen.” There came a hint of a smile. “Tell her she’s been protecting our enemies.”

Again, Takeru detected no deception. Shikei was telling the truth. He shook his head slowly. “I don’t understand. Our clans stand opposed, on the cusp of conflict, and you offer me this. Why?”

“For the sake of your champion,” Shikei replied.

Takeru’s eyes widened with understanding. There was only one other person he knew that could claim the bloodline of a naga, and that was the Unicorn Champion. Moto Naleesh.

Was this Dark Naga whispering to her as well? Would she know it, if it was?

“There is a Jade Magistrate approaching the Shinomen,” Shikei explained, “His name is Tamori Yayu, and he will be accompanied by an Imperial Legion. He seeks proof of the attacking naga’s corruption. It would be beneficial to aid him.” He paused, then added, “The forces of the Dark Naga may attempt to waylay you. You should probably take those Unicorn warriors, the ones you brought into our lands unannounced. Just to be safe.”

You should have been a courtier, he thought again, and accepted the scroll. “My kin will be wary of a Dragon command approaching the Shinomen.”

Shikei waved this away. “Yayu is merely escorting them. The Legion is at the command of an Akodo. You have likely heard of him. Akodo Kano?”

The Lion Champion’s brother. Takeru felt his own smile tug the corners of his mouth. “The Unicorn hold the esteemed Akodo Kano in high regard.” A fact Shikei likely already knew. Takeru wondered how long the Dragon Champion had been planning this.

Shikei nodded. “I entrust this to you,” he said. “My Grandmother is dead, but the monster still has Hida Fubatsu. He has my father, and I believe he has Naleesh’s mother. He disgraces the noble blood of the naga, his existence an insult to the Empress. I will not allow him one more breath than necessary! I will not let him threaten my belov-“

He stopped. The word hung, suspended, unfinished, between them. At last Takeru saw a flash of the man behind the mask, behind the carefully constructed On of the Dragon Clan Champion. He was wrong… Shikei had been hiding something, but not what Takeru had expected to see. It was only a glimpse, a moment of weakness at the invocation of his Lady. But then it was gone, lost in the recovery of Shikei’s smile. “Threaten your Lady,” he finished, any hint of his stumble instantly forgotten. Had he been trained as a courtier, it likely never would have happened.

And then Takeru finally understood the words of his Lady, and what it was to have compassion for one’s enemy. He realized then that Shikei still loved Naleesh. In his heart, nothing had changed.

Shikei stood, tucking his arms into the long sleeves of his kimono, suggesting that the meeting was over. Takeru knew this would be his final chance to speak. He stood.

“Shikei-sama,” he said, his face as urgent as his voice. Shikei watched impassive, patient eyes, as if he already knew what the Ide was about to say.

Takeru continued regardless. “We were friends once,” he said, “and no one in the Empire was as happy for you and my Lady than I. I have to know, Shikei-sama. I have to know why you walked away.”

Shikei’s plain expression did not change. Any hint of wistful emotion in his eyes was surely just a trick of the candle’s flame. “It was fifteen years, Takeru-san. Fifteen years I waited for Naleesh to change her mind. It wasn’t until something she said to me on her birthday, on that night in her mother’s gardens, that I realized her mind would never change.” He paused, and his next words came as though speaking of the color of the sky. “She cannot leave her people. Just as I cannot leave mine.”

Takeru shook his head. “You had the blessings of the Otomo,” he reasoned. “You’d even asked them to-“

Shikei interrupted with a cock of his head. “I am not sure what you have heard, Takeru-san, but it seems you are misinformed. I asked the Otomo to determine if the agreement could be upheld under the current circumstance. They ruled that it could not. Thus, I ended it.” His brow wrinkled. “What, exactly, is so confusing to you?”

Takeru stared into the eyes of the Dragon Champion for a long time. Then he tucked the scroll into his kimono and bowed.

“The Unicorn thank you for this gift,” he said. “In this endeavor, you have our cooperation.” Straightening, he allowed Shikei a glimpse of fire. “But this will not erase the insult you have offered my Lady, and it will not satisfy my Khan. For now, we will leave this where it is. But some day, soon, you must answer for the damage you have done.”

Shikei replied with the voice of a mountain wind. “I know,” he said, “And I am prepared.”

 

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Author: Shawn Carman View all posts by