Shenanigans abound at the Winter Court of the Second City!
By Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
Moshi Yokohime awakened with a scream, darting up from her bed. Her hand went immediately to her neck. She held it there for long moments before breathing a quiet, relieved sigh. It was only a dream. A nightmare. Nothing more.
But it had seemed so real! She tried to recall any details, but the shadowed memory of her nightmare retreated into the far corners of her darkened room. The afterimage faded before her eyes. She could remember nothing but an impending sense of dread.
Had it truly been a dream, or was it a vision?
Outside, thunder echoed throughout the city. A storm was coming. She shivered.
* * * * *
Asako Shoji was but one courtier of many in the Winter Court of the Second City Governor. His connections and the reputation of his sensei earned him a place within the Phoenix delegation, the honor of attending the most important court in the colonies. He was an expert at the tea ceremony, knew the constellations by heart, could speak at length on the varieties of fish that populated the colony coastline, and could recite long sections of the Tao. He dressed well, kept an adequate On, and studied law. Yet in spite of these talents, Shoji was but one of many courtiers in an undersized court. Plain-faced and forgettable, virtually no one knew his name.
The day had begun as all others. After his morning ritual of meditation and a meager bowl of miso soup, Shoji arrived in court donned in his finest silks. Yet he could not outshine the lovely Doji Moro, a Crane prodigy who drew eyes in her patterned blue kimono and magnificent winged obi. Nor could he match the graceful taste of the former Topaz Champion, Shinjo Tae-Hyun, nor that of the Jade Magistrate with whom he conversed, a member of the sparse Lion delegation named Kitsu Satoshi. As he passed these men and women of influence, none looked his way or took notice of him.
A sigh escaped his lips. Perhaps it was better this way. Although in his heart he’d always longed for courtly attentions, to be wanted and valued as an important peer among the influential, he knew that he was only “just adequate.” There was no point in competing against the others. He was good, perhaps. But not good enough.
The eruption of conch-shell horns heralded the arrival of the governor to court. Otomo Suikihime rose majestically on the dais, watching impassively at the cascade of steep bows and other obeisances. The governor’ eyes took stock of those present, passing over Shoji without pause. He was used to this, though. He had a forgettable face and no distinguishing characteristics. If only he’d been sent to a lesser court…
Suikihime wasted no time in addressing them. “As you are aware, the Imperial Legion has arrived and surrounded the City. It has done so without any preamble, and continues to rebuff any attempts at parlay.” Murmurs worked through the crowd, and the gathered courtiers exchanged glances. “Now, while an impressive array of military might, this Legion simply does not have sufficient force to attack the SecondCity directly, nor does it have the resources to sustain a lengthy siege. We, in the meantime, have many months of supplies available to us, virtually inexhaustible supplies of fresh water, and sufficient force of our own to readily repel any attempts that may be made to force the city’s defenses.”
Shoji held his On as trained, but in his mind, he wondered. Why would the legion refuse to negotiate? Why were there no demands? There was something about the scenario that seemed incomplete. As these thoughts came to him, he caught the concerned eyes of a fellow clansmate, a man named Isawa Kojiki, and wondered if his thoughts were similar.
The governor continued, “We have taken measures to monitor them and to inform the Empress about the situation, but otherwise, we will not attempt any overt action against the Legion. We remain willing to believe that only its leadership has been subverted or corrupted, and that the vast majority of its members remain loyal, if misguided, subjects of the Empire. Accordingly, our intent is to…simply wait. As has already been demonstrated, the Heavens have judged the rightness of our cause-” she paused, glancing significantly at the Scorpion present, “-and the business of governance must, therefore, go on.”
Shoji stifled a wince. It was a quiet reminder of an occurrence a few days prior, where a rash bushi named Bayushi Ryoku had challenged the authority of the governor in open court. In a sanctioned duel to the death, his clansmate, Bayushi Waru, had silenced him. The Scorpion had shown themselves unwavering in support of the governor ever since.
And so had the others. In the days prior, there’d been the occasional mention of Suikihime’s eccentricities… her odd tastes in paintings and poems, the trumpeting of horagai announcing her arrivals and departures, her abrupt proclaiming of yet another new office in a government that was already confusing and bloated with titles, and her apparent lack of concern for the impending legion waiting outside the city gates. Now and again, one would speak of such things with an air of concern. In the days after the duel, none took notice of these oddities. As the blade of Bayushi Waru silenced Ryoku, so had it silenced all others.
“There is one other matter,” she said, her voice growing serious. “Several heimin of the City were caught attempting to communicate directly with the Legion, in direct violation of my decree forbidding such attempts.” There was an odd a gleam in her eye. “They have been summarily executed by the City Guard. Their heads will be displayed above the various gates of the City, as a warning against violation of my edicts, until such time as they become unduly unsightly. I thought it worthwhile that all know why these vile remains would be put on public display…although, and of course, no samurai would transgress in such a manner. This display is intended for the benefit of the commoners, that they make no further such errors in judgment.”
“A wise decision,” someone uttered. Others murmured their agreement. Shoji concealed his horror beneath a plain expression. If anyone felt as he did, none betrayed it. All was normal as the delegates continued their business. One would never think that an army camped just beyond the city gates.
Asako Shoji left the court, his heart no longer in his appointed tasks. None noticed him.
* * * * *
“I would not have advised this,” the old man said. He sat in disciplined seiza, even as it pained his arthritic ankles.
“Fortunate that I did not consult you,” the governor replied. She adjusted her collar in the mirror as the servants finished the braid in her long hair.
“A greater display of contacting the Legion would have been preferable.” The man kept his voice calm, but his eyes betrayed his dismay.
“I know what I am doing,” she hissed. She cast him a look that would freeze ice. “Or are you having trouble adjusting to the climate, Uncle?”
Otomo Nishige lowered his head respectfully. “I understand my place, Suikihime-sama.”
Her smile returned, and ensemble finished, the governor nodded and proceeded out of the room towards one of her many appointments.
The old man slowly rose, his eyes on her as she advanced down the long hallway, finally vanishing around a corner. A sad sigh escaped him. “I understand my place,” he whispered, “do you still understand yours?”
* * * * *
“Listen, all!” The voice of the monk Yamazaki echoed throughout the Artisan district. Though it was sparse since the previous day, he nonetheless drew a small crowd from the passersby. More seemed to pointedly ignore him, increasing their pace to avoid him.
“Last night, darkness came!” He rose his hands as he spoke. “It came bearing fear, faceless and unknown! There was once a man who had no face, who struck fear into many and harvested lives as a farmer harvests rice: through pain, hard work, and steel! I say this because I knew that man, and when he did not kill me, he made me stronger for it!”
The crazed monk held his arms wide, his eyes wild like fire. “Now I stand before you, a child of horror, one who had embraced the darkness and lived! Lived knowing fear! And in knowing it, held power over it!” He threw his head back and faced the heavens, his voice loud and echoing throughout the district. “Shun not the dark! Bask in the glory of your harvest, be it blood or rice! Hail Daigotsu!”
“You talk too much,” came an unimpressed voice. His reverie broken, the monk levied his gaze on an approaching ronin. She didn’t regard him fully, focused instead on the task of digging into her ear with her pinky. He recognized her as Tomoe, the ronin duelist and a local legend. The crowd’s eyes shifted and widened as they all slowly recognized her.
Unconcerned, she ambled towards him. One arm poked from the collar of her dusty kimono leaving a fluttering empty sleeve. With this hand she flicked the debris of her ear. The other rested nonchalantly on the pommel of her sword. “I think the people here have had their fill of screaming, especially on such dark matters, ne?” She finally looked at him, and her eyes narrowed. “Why don’t you take your sermon somewhere else?”
“A critic!” Yamazaki announced, thrusting a finger. “One whose will is to the destruction of ideas! But what will she create in its place?” His eyes smiled. “I shall indulge her and seek an answer!” Dropping into a cross-legged seat on top of his crate, Yamazaki focused fully on the ronin. “To answer your question, I can think of no place better than the epicenter of this…” he paused with reverence, “…event.”
Another voice lifted above the crowd, this one belonging to a tall, muscular man with a scarred face and dour expression. “A woman went missing here last night,” Hida Toranosuke said, “she may even be dead. These villagers have had enough of dark lectures. Now is not the time to extoll the ‘virtues’ of the Dark Lord of Jigoku!”
Yamazaki sneered. “I see no better name to invoke than the one who cowed the darkness to his will, Hida-sama. In but one generation, he tamed the power that others could not slay in a thousand years! It’s a feat more impressive than, say, slaying merchants because they dared to make an honest living.”
A direct jab at the governor. As the conversation escalated, guards began to form on the outermost ring of the gathering. The more astute of the heimin watchers began to calmly take their leave, even as voices began to raise in defiance and anger.
Asako Shoji left as well, unwilling to see the confrontation to its completion.
* * * * *
To escape the echoes of Yamazaki’s words, Asako Shoji climbed the steps of an observation tower and stepped onto a sturdy balcony. From there, he looked over the city ramparts and witnessed the surrounding legion. Tiny camps dotted a landscape of glittering spears and fluttering flags. Shoji stared at them with his arms tucked into his sleeves, sniffing in the sudden breeze. The damp air of the colony winter caused his nose to run.
Happening to turn his head, Shoji saw that he was not alone. A slim Crane in light fabric stood at the far side of the balcony, young hands resting on the railing, seemingly unaffected by the weather. The man’s blue eyes were not directed at the threat looming beyond the city gates. Instead, he seemed to be watching the patrols of the city’s guards below him.
“Forgive me,” Shoji said, “I did not mean to impose.” He made to leave, “I will find another spot.”
“Nonesense,” the Crane said, his voice a musical tone typical of his clan. He calmly turned his head to cast the Asako a gentle smile. “You interrupt nothing.”
Shoji bowed. “Asako Shoji.” Straightening, he managed a smile of his own, burdened immediately by the inferiority of his gesture. “I have seen you in court. You are Daidoji Mikado, correct?”
The man only smiled.
Shoji approached the banister, keeping his arms tucked into his sleeves. “I should congratulate you on the excellence of your delegation’s gift. The governor seemed taken by such an unusual and rare flower.”
“A fortunate find,” Mikado agreed. “Even with the robust exploration, there are still many undiscovered wonders to find in these lands, it seems.”
Shoji tilted his head to watch Mikado’s expression. Again, the man looked not at the horizon, but at the patrols of the street beneath him. After a moment, the Crane spoke again. “Asako-san, what do you think of the governor?”
Long moments passed before the Asako could formulate an answer. Even as he came to it, he knew that a wilier man would have responded instantly. “The governor is an admirable woman and a strong leader. She does what is best for the city.” It was a sincere answer, at least.
“Interesting,” Mikado mused, “you do not answer my question.” A long moment passed. “Never mind,” he said. “It is unimportant.”
Shoji felt a twinge of disappointment as the Crane bowed to excuse himself. Casting a final look at the patrols below, he made to the door. “Strange,” he said, speaking to himself as if the Asako were not there, “I wonder if this is what the Empress intended.” Then he was gone, leaving Shoji by himself on the balcony.
Shoji waited for several minutes. He was hesitant, almost unwilling to go forward with his plan. He felt as though he stood before a wide cliff and was contemplating jumping over. At last, he unfolded his arms from his sleeves and opened a hand, revealing a tiny origami bird. A prayer tumbled from his lips, and the paper bird took flight, as if under its own power. The prayer finished, the Asako watched as the empowered bird fluttered towards the army, wondering when they would receive his message. He felt uneasy for the rest of the day, and avoided all guards and colony magistrates.
* * * * *
“It has been days, Shimada-sama,” the aged shugenja said, “have you learned anything since we last spoke?”
“A few notes of interest,” he replied. Shoji could only hear their voices, his meditation within the shrine interrupted even though they were a few rooms away. They finally came into view, entering the gardens and standing before the still reflection pool. The shugenja was an Isawa from her Mon, elegant in spite of her considerable age, although she moved slowly. The other was Kitsuki Shimada, the equally old ambassador of the Dragon to the SecondCity. Shoji recognized him by his personal mon displayed at his shoulder. They did not seem to notice Shoji, but then, he was used to that.
The surface of the reflection pool was dotted with white camellias, an import from the mainland. From home. The woman reached for one as she spoke. “I take it you saw the Mantis delegation’s play?”
Shimada shook his head. “I did not have the pleasure. But I have heard interesting things. I understand it went over… poorly?”
“If I were to guess,” she replied, “I would say it was sabotaged. I cannot imagine that a handful of Mantis delegates who were permitted to remain in the city by the grace of the governor would make such a mistake. Or present something so insulting on purpose.”
Shimada smirked. “We are talking about the same delegation that granted samurai status to a mere geisha at the start of the season.”
The Isawa’s eyes twinkled. “I had not heard this! How… humble of them.” She began to chuckle. “You have heard some interesting things! What else have you heard?”
The old man tucked in his arms. “Yuzuki-san, I wonder if this cruel gossip is the only reason you even bother with me.”
Not answering, the woman watched Shimada with pointed interest, holding fast to her smile. At last, he spoke again, regarding her with amusement. “It seems the Kuni daimyo is spending much time in the company of a younger woman. Kuni Itsuko… perhaps you have heard of her?”
“Ah. The stalwart darling of the court. Who has not heard of such a remarkable woman?” She paused. “Except perhaps for Kuni Renyu’s wife, that is.”
“I can’t imagine Renyu will mention their meetings,” the Kitsuki said slyly.
The old woman laughed. “How terrible. Of course, it speaks volumes of the young woman if he managed to catch the stubborn mule’s eye.”
“Careful, Yuzuki-san,” Shimada advised, “the walls have ears.”
She cheerfully waved the comment away. “I am an old woman. No one listens to me.” She sat carefully before the reflection pool and gestured for the other to join her. “What else? With all these bodies sequestered in the courts, there’s bound to be a few more.”
Shimada sat beside her, oddly close for their respective stations. “Apparently the great commander Shinjo Tae-Hyun has his eyes on another conquest. None other than the Toku girl.”
“Toku Makoto?” The woman’s eyes sparkled. “I heard of her from Teiko-chan. How amusing! I would never have expected those two. Now Makubesu and Makoto, perhaps.” She grinned. “Makubesu and anyone, really.” She laughed, eyes twinkling.
“You are enjoying this too much,” Shimada teased. “Perhaps the court is only a play meant to entertain you.”
She shook her head. “This is the only shard of enjoyment I am allowed. Nowadays, the rest of my hours are filled with pointless nonsense. Just the other day I mediated an argument between two young, foolish samurai. One idiot had the audacity to suggest that all were obligated to worship the so-called Dark Fortunes, and the other idiot had the audacity to take him seriously.”
“Theology can be confusing,” the Kitsuki reasoned. “And these days, the rules seem to be changing. Why, if one such as Moto Chagatai could become a Fortune-”
Abruptly, the woman hushed him, startling him to silence. She drew a length of beads and whispered a prayer of forgiveness before settling him with a frustrated glare. “Don’t ever say such nonsense again!” she warned. “Where did you hear a ridiculous thing like that?”
The ambassador blinked at her for a long while. “It isn’t true?” he said at last.
“Of course not!” she said. “Chagatai is no more a Fortune than I am!” Exasperation overcame her, and she shook her head sadly at her reflection in the pond. “Perhaps it is not your fault. You are not the first to utter such things to me. But rumors of this sort do measurable harm. They risk angering the Fortunes! Where such a blasphemous rumor began I can only guess.”
The two were quiet after that. Asako Shoji rose from his mediation, realizing too late that he would have no peace here. As he left, he spotted the ambassador sneak his hand to rest it on top of the hand of Isawa Yuzuki. She glanced at him softly.
“Really, Shimada-sama?” she whispered. Shoji heard her nonetheless.
He smiled back. “It is a shrine to Benten,” he reasoned. “I thought she might approve.”
Shoji left swiftly, then, not wanting to hear or see any more.
* * * * *
The next day began similar to the last. Morning meditations, but no breakfast. Shoji had not felt like eating for some time. He dressed in his finest, the same outfit as the last few days, making his way to what the others were calling the Ivory Courtroom.
The voice was unfamiliar, both in tone and in that it was directed at him. Shoji paused in his steps, the crowd of courtiers parting like fish around him as they entered the courtroom. Shoji turned slowly towards the source of the voice; an elderly man in the colors of the Scorpion, a grimacing mask set upon his face. Shoji recognized him at once as Bayushi Shibata, the head of the Imperial Explorers. By his side were four guards.
Shoji froze. The eyes of the five men were set upon him, and for a moment he thought perhaps he was imagining them. So alien was the weight of so many eyes. The crowd around him showed no notice, filing into the courtroom and leaving him alone in the hallways outside. Alone, but for these five men.
Bayushi Shibata walked towards him, eyes inscrutable. “You are Asako Shoji, yes?”
“Yes,” he said, “I am.”
Shibata smiled. “Ah. Good. I have come to return something to you.” Extending his hand, Shibata offered a small origami bird. Partially unfolded, the mutilated bird exposed vertical lines of careful writing.
Shoji did not know how they’d found it, much less how they’d brought it back to him. He hadn’t signed his name, and the kami would never have betrayed him. Perhaps they had agents hidden among the Legion outside? Vaguely, he recalled the words of the governor days before: “We have taken measures to monitor them.”
His eyes widened with understanding. The guards moved forward, surrounding him. Shoji felt himself tremble with dread, an uncontrollable shaking taking the strength from his legs. He struggled to maintain his On, but he just wasn’t good enough. He felt it crumple like the paper in the Bayushi’s open hands.
“Well?” Shibata said softly. “Go on. Take it. It’s yours, right?”
Shoji lowered his head, defeated. Helplessly, he accepted the origami bird, and made no resistance as the guards advanced towards him.
* * * * *
His robes were white. He was kneeling on a tatami mat in the castle gardens. Before him in the lacquered box sat the long knife. He could feel the presence of the Seppun guard behind him, heard the sound of steel leaving its sheath. He knew that none among his delegation would act as his second; they had to distance themselves from his actions. For the good of the Clan.
Wordlessly he held the knife to his stomach, feeling the point prick through his white silks and touch the flesh below his sternum. Yet he hesitated, holding the blade there for long moments of silence. He lifted his head, looking out over the crowd of courtiers surrounding him. There was the ronin duelist. There was the Hida. There was the Daidoji, the Shinjo, the Toku. He saw the Dragon ambassador and the aging shugenja. And beyond them all, the governor stood watching him. Her eyes were cold, her face impassive. But her eyes were locked into his. Cold and cruel.
Asako Shoji smiled. He smiled because his last moments were filled with joy. As the Seppun guard took note of his hesitation and dropped his blade into the back of Shoji’s neck, his last thoughts were on the governor standing before him. At last, he thought, before the darkness came, at last, you noticed me.
Moshi Yokohime awakened with a scream, darting up from her bed. Her hand went immediately to her neck; her head was still attached. She breathed a sigh of relief. It was only a dream. A nightmare. Nothing more.
But it had seemed so real.
In the dark, she tried to recall some details of the dream. But all she could remember was the last thing she’d seen through the eyes of the doomed Asako Shoji, just before the sword fell; looking up and seeing the face of the governor, the faces of all who watched the seppuku from the gathered crowd. Fortunes have mercy upon her… they’d had no faces.
Then, even this shadowed memory of her nightmare retreated into the far corners of her darkened room. Outside, thunder echoed throughout the city. She shivered.
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