A pair of scintillating scenes from the Emerald Empire and its Colonies!
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton & Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
Legend of the Golden Monkey Temple
For a string of seven nights when Komori Taigo was only a child of the colonies, the fireflies lit the fields of the Fuzake Farmlands. It was a significant event; the shugenja of the nearby temple recorded the dates in which the fireflies appeared, and letters were dispatched to the SecondCity to consult the Abbot of Fukurokujin’s Library to determine if the occurrence was an omen. On the third night, the villagers held their first Hotaru Matsuri, the first Firefly Festival ever held in the colonies. For the older men and women of the village, it was a comforting reminder of the homes they’d left behind in the distant Empire. To the new generation, who had never seen a firefly, it was a night of new and marvelous wonders.
But this event was not why Komori Taigo would remember this night even into adulthood. He did not know that the third night of the “Fuzake Firefly Occurrence” was the night that would determine the course of his life.
Equipped with an empty ceramic sake jar, Taigo’s mother sent him to the fields with the other children to catch fireflies for his paper lantern. His evening was filled with barefoot running in tall grasses, trying to catch living embers. He returned with two blinking creatures at the bottom of his jar. His path took him to the outskirts of the village, where the villagers had erected a great bonfire. He watched, both awestruck and confused, as the adults danced around the flames, wearing their masks and striking their massive drums. The shugenja oversaw them, hands clamped together, the firelight dancing in his amused eyes. As Taigo passed, he saw a string of prayer beads hanging from the shugenja’s fingers, and a medallion showing the Mon of the Bat. The priest spotted Taigo and smiled warmly at him.
Nearest to the bonfire, a small group of travelers sat together. They wore the colors and mons of many clans and wore daisho tucked into their obis. Taigo knew they were samurai, warriors, like his father. They all wore the Mon of the Imperial Explorers. Most of them also wore the Mon of the Spider; Taigo knew he was not allowed to speak to anyone who wore that.
As he walked by, he overheard their words. They were telling stories of their exploits. He caught snippets of tales in the pauses between them, descriptions of terrifying creatures and how they’d killed them, strange wonders and how they’d found them. He found himself walking between them, unnoticed, as they recalled their travels.
Of them all, one caught his attention and held it, as surely as the firelight hunt only minutes before. It was a man cloaked in the black and white of the Spider. As Taigo approached, the man recounted his tale with a tone of desperation. The others were waving him away, and some even outright laughed as he spoke.
“It is true!” he said, “I saw it with my very eyes! A massive temple, built from tanned stone and lined with silver and copper! Massive stone heads with jewels set into their eyes! Crystal waters flowing from their gleaming spires! Soil rich with sapphires! Conquered by the jungles, surrounded by banana trees!” His eyes were wide as he spoke, hands outstretched, as if he were conjuring the temple just beyond the horizon.
A man with the Mon of the Unicorn wiped his mouth and smirked. “Tell us again,” he said, “who did you say lived in this temple?”
The Spider frowned. “Not who! What!” He held his arms up. “Monkeys! Hundreds of them! Thousands! An entire city’s worth!”
“Oh yes, how could I forget?” The Unicorn grinned. “That’s why you couldn’t get any of those sapphires or treasure you were talking about, why your company went missing. You were chased off by a bunch of sword-wielding, kiho-mastering monkeys. Isn’t that right?”
The Spider leapt to his feet, shouting. “They had spears! Not swords!”
At once his face went pale as he realized his mistake. The others erupted into derisive laughter. He endured their mocking with an angry stone face, slowly lowering himself back to his seat as they finally turned away from him. Another began to tell his tale as the Spider stared quietly at the bonfire flames.
Taigo tugged his sleeve. The Spider jerked in his direction, his face at first angry, but then taken aback. The child stared up at him with wide, wondering eyes.
“Is it true?” Taigo whispered, “Does that temple exist?”
The Spider was silent for a time. Finally, he nodded, the hint of a smile coming over his features. He reached into his obi, found something, and then extended his closed hand towards the child. Slowly, he unwrapped his fingers. Resting in the palm of his hand was a small carved figure, hewn crudely from a deep blue stone. It was a monkey, wrapped in a monk’s robes, an ape-like hand held in a warding position.
Taigo’s eyes gleamed when he saw it, and he gasped with wonder. The Spider placed the trinket into he child’s hands, and Taigo held it up and watched it sparkle in the bonfire’s light.
“It’s true,” the Spider whispered, “every last word.”
* * * * *
Komori Taigo sat just beyond the entrance to the Ministry of Taxation, fidgeting with a tiny crude carving of a monkey in monk’s trappings. His brow furrowed deep as he stared, absently, at the little simian carving between his fingers.
Rounding the entrance of the Ministry came Bayushi Shibata, the Head of the Imperial Explorers. Flanked by his yojimbo, he wore the same fine layers of silks he reserved for meetings with the Imperial Governor. At once he spotted Taigo hunched on a marble bench before the rock gardens, with his rugged features and black kimono cut in the style of the colonies.
Shibata’s eyes widened with alarm, and his pace quickened as he attempted to pass the man unnoticed. As he passed, he looked directly at the rock garden, turning his face away from the Komori, Shibata’s yojimbo wisely standing between the two. But then the shugenja looked up as the two Scorpions passed, and his eyes lit with recognition.
“Shibata-sama!” he called out, standing.
The older man halted, cursing under his breath, his back to the Komori. Then he turned, making a warm smile that touched his eyes. “Taigo-san,” he greeted with false warmth, “how… pleasant to see you! How long has it been?”
“A few weeks,” Taigo replied, approaching after a quick bow of greeting. His smile carried his youthful enthusiasm over thick stubble and long black hair. “I sent a few letters,” he added, “I hope they were well-received.”
“Ah, the servant must have… misplaced them.” Shibata gestured to his right. “Well, no matter! We can talk on the way to my office. Join me for a moment, won’t you?”
Taigo beamed, falling into step beside the older Scorpion. Shibata’s yojimbo eyed the Komori cautiously.
“Did I see your name on the guest list for the Governess’ Winter Court?” Shibata asked.
Taigo nodded. “You did.”
“Congratulations are in order,” Shibata said, “you must have won some high esteem.” That, or you simply amuse the Governess. Naturally, Shibata assumed the latter.
“My last expedition,” Taigo explained. For a moment, he beamed with pride. “It proved quite fruitful! We now know that the canopy of the west-most jungles hides a vast canyon, and that hostile naga forces are camped there.” His smile softened abruptly. “Not exactly what I was looking for, perhaps, but at least it is a step closer.”
“A commendable discovery nonetheless,” Shibata said.
“I intend to attempt another,” Taigo said.
Shibata’s grimacing memo momentarily became a reflection of his own face. Ever since the Governor removed the limits on exploration, proposals for expeditions and requests for explorers stacked his desk. Every Clan backed different groups of explorers, and while it was the place of the Clans to fund these expeditions, ultimately they still required the aid of the Imperial Explorers.
As the Head of the Imperial Explorers, sending Spider Clan samurai to their sure deaths in the jungle was one of the most enjoyable parts of Shibata’s job. This was not so for other samurai, and he felt that failed expeditions would come to reflect poorly on him. Those whose expeditions proved fruitless were soon blacklisted. Taigo had attempted four thus far; in nearly all, he was the only survivor.
If he’d been anyone else, Shibata would have suspected the man of purposefully killing members of his failed expeditions. After all, the success of an expedition was determined by testimony; if there was only one testimony, then it was easy to call an expedition a success. But Shibata knew that Taigo was not capable of such a thing. It wasn’t in his nature to act so ruthlessly. Taigo was not returning to the jungles to seek treasures, not offing his subordinates to claim glory. His motivations were far simpler than that; he wanted to find a temple that did not exist.
“The Temple of the Golden Monkey.” The tale of a drunkard turned local legend.
Shibata turned his head and met the serious face of the younger man. “Taigo-san,” he said gently, “must we do this again? I commend you for your passion, but this will mark the fifth time that you’ve attempted an expedition. I mean no insult, but it is becoming difficult for me to justify diverting the resources to entertain your flights of fancy.” He gestured towards the walls of the military district. “And in case you haven’t heard, there is a rogue army camped outside our gates. No one is leaving the city for any reason, much less for expeditions. I’m sorry, Taigo-san, but I just don’t see how a fifth expedition for this… ‘MonkeyTemple’… can be attempted.”
Taigo bristled, but did not reply. Instead he reached into his satchel and withdrew a scroll, capped on both ends with the Mon of the Bat. Wordlessly, he offered this to Shibata, face serious.
Shibata halted, regarding the scroll with narrowed eyes. He accepted it, unfurled it, and began to read. All the while Taigo watched silently.
Shibata looked into the Komori’s eyes. “How did you manage this?”
“The Bat Clan will fund all expenses,” Taigo said. “I have the endorsement of my daimyo, and of-”
“Otomo Sukihime,” Shibata finished, eyeing the Governor’s personal Mon. “So I see.”
“The siege will be lifted eventually,” Taigo continued, “perhaps soon, thanks to the Governess’ wise choice of negotiators.”
“And I am gathering volunteers!” Taigo added, “I have several names already! Horiuchi Utaeru! Tonbo Kitai! Tsuruchi Kosoko! Yoritomo Kenji! Isawa Teiko!” He stopped at this last name, then guiltily rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, she has not promised yet, but she will soon!”
Shibata nodded at the scroll and quietly began to roll it up again. “You have had a busy court season, I see.”
Taigo grinned. “I might even get the ronin. You know the one.”
“Tomoe?” The name came from Shibata’s yojimbo. The older man glanced at his yojimbo coldly, who immediately bowed his head in apology. Turning back to the Bat, Shibata looked thoughtful.
“You’re covering all the angles, are you?” He tapped his memo’s chin. “Even if you are funding this yourself, even if you have the blessing of the influential, even if you do not require any of the Imperial Explorers and you are manning it entirely with volunteers… you still require my permission, Taigo-san.” Shibata smiled. “You think you are clever by attracting the attention of Otomo-sama, but the Governor is fickle. This could be your last chance. Fail to uncover anything of use to her, and I suspect your clan will have to find another place for you.”
“It’s out there, Shibata-sama,” Taigo said. His eyes twinkled. “It’s real. I’ll find it this time.”
Shibata stared at him for a long time. Finally, he waved the man away. “I will consider it,” he said.
Komori Taigo bowed, a medallion of the Imperial Explorers swinging from his collar as he did. “That is all I ask, my lord.”
When he was alone with his yojimbo in his office, Bayushi Shibata laid the scroll on his desk beside his other papers. He sat, stuffed his kiseru pipe with kizami, and lit it. Through the narrow slot of the Mempo’s mouth, he took several long draws and then exhaled a thick ring of smoke into the room. HIs eyes rested again on the Komori’s scroll.
He unrolled it again and stared at the space beside the Mon of the Imperial Governor.
The lone survivor of four expeditions, multiple naga encounters, and at least one subterranean cave-in. Perhaps he was misjudging the Komori. Perhaps he was underestimating him.
“Ritoru-san,” he asked his yojimbo, “Let me ask you something.”
The short man nodded in acknowledgement.
“Which would you rather be?” Shibata asked, “Gifted and intelligent, or supremely lucky?”
His yojimbo thought for a while. “I doesn’t matter,” he finally concluded. “Either way, I would be a dangerous enemy.”
Shibata considered this. “Excellent point,” he finally said. With a swift motion of his brush, he applied the kanji of his name to the paper, then scooted it forward across his desk.
“I am approving Komori-san’s request,” he said. “May the Fortunes have mercy on his followers.”
* * * * *
Matsu Hachiro smiled widely as he wiped the blood from his katana. Years prior, he would have reveled in the bloodshed and let himself be carried away on the wave of fierce joy that came with striking down an enemy. That felt like a lifetime ago, though. He still enjoyed the fury and pace of war, but now it simply filled him with a sense of purpose, reason, and completion. Where he had once been a brash warrior killing in the name of the Lion Clan, his heart and mind finally understood bushido and the true satisfaction that came from service.
That, however, did not stop him from grunting in disapproval as he looked down at the black-clad samurai who had died under his blade. These Spider were an interesting foe, to say the least. Hachiro had never dealt with the Scorpion Clan himself, but he had heard many complain they were honorless and managed to evade retribution by playing on the law and the honor of others. The Spider, though? They were just as despicable, but they were at least willing to meet their enemies in the field of battle.
The Matsu looked over at his second in command and let out a thoughtful sigh. “I like these Spider,” he declared finally, standing in front of his own men and standing opposite of the remaining Spider forces. “They are unafraid to die. And I am glad to kill them.”
Near his fallen commander, the Spider chui bristled at the comment but made no motion for his own weapon. “It is as agreed, then,” Daigotsu Yutaka said with a sneer. “As my commander bargained, we will withdraw. But know this, we regroup to the forces of Lord Gyoken, Lion, and we will return. You have only bought you and your men a few days to draw breath and cower.”
“Gyoken?” Hachiro said, that familiar feeling returning to his soul. “I have heard of this man, the one who has struck so deeply into the lands the Lion have claimed.” The Matsu looked again at his sword, his smile widening. “It is unfortunate that I must hold this position for my own general. I would very much like to follow you to him and carry that man’s head back to the SecondCity today.”
Yutaka laughed bitterly. “You wish so fondly for your own death,” he said quietly. “My lord will be happy to deliver this to you and all of your forces. He has turned so many proud Matsu into nothing but ash… or shambling front line fodder.”
Matsu Hachiro’s eyes snapped up to the Spider and his smile vanished instantly. “I was surprised that the Spider are so willing to uphold the word of their commander, who died honorably. However, you should withdraw before you bring shame to his last moments and ruin upon your own ranks.”
Without a further word, Yutaka signaled for his men to fall into ranks and march.
Hachiro watched the Spider retreat and turned slightly to his chui. “See to repairing the damage done to this outpost. If the Spider are so easily able to bring our military posts to ruin and rubble, I am not certain why their attack here took long enough for their commander to challenge me to single combat. I can only imagine whatever weapon or force they have under their command is with this Gyoken. I want to make sure we are prepared for it when it comes.”
* * * * *
Hours later, Daigotsu Yutaka struggled to regain his footing as he spat the blood and dirt from his mouth. Daigotsu Gyoken towered over him, his hand still extended from the blow that sent the other Spider to the ground.
“You… retreated?” Gyoken asked incredulously, his face unnaturally menacing in the dim firelight of the war camp.
“Commander Ryuto determined that the attack on the Lion’s outpost was a failure,” Yutaka replied, not letting his voice betray any of the pain or fear he felt. “They were simply too well fortified and prepared for an attack. Your strikes have drawn attention to us, and they were ready. We now have the Lion prepared to engage us on sight, as well as reports of the Crab’s attacks only increasing in frequency elsewhere.”
Yutaka paused, assuming the commander would have some response, but Gyoken simply stared at him.
“Ryuto-sama decided that he wished to test his mettle against the Lion commander rather than die to the arrows and defensive advantage of the enemy,” Yutaka continued. “Ryuto died, and by this we have lost a weak commander and the Lion allowed us to spare our troops to fight another day. They did us a great service.” Yutaka straightened up and looked Gyoken directly in the eye. “Now, if you would have preferred we died charging against impossible odds over a point of honor like the Matsu, that can yet be arranged.”
The hulking commander looked at the smaller man for a second, then nodded once. “You did well enough, I suppose. Ryuto remarked several times that you had an excellent mind for logistics and strategy. I will give you command of his remaining troop. If you impress me, Yutaka-san, perhaps I will even let you kill this Matsu who turned your men away.”
Yutaka shook his head, “I have no personal need for vengeance, Gyoken-sama. I am satisfied to see the man and his soldiers reduced to sludge and ash,” he said, motioning vaguely at the commander’s tent. Both men knew what he was indicating.
“Ah yes,” Gyoken said, looking back at the tent. “That. It is a marvel, is it not?”
“It is,” the other man agreed. “When do you plan on returning to Daigotsu Kanpeki-sama to report your findings on the effectiveness of the weapon?”
Gyoken seemed annoyed by the question, but merely looked away, staring into the fire. “I will return to my… master… when I find we have enough worthwhile information to share. It is a joy to use, and a sight to behold.” The Spider’s voice grew distant as he continued, “You should see it, Yutaka-san. Men and women reduced to nothing as they are simply… destroyed. I cannot describe it. Life itself recoils from it. And there is so much that remains unanswered.” He turned to look at Yutaka, but the other Spider felt like the commander wasn’t actually looking at him at all. “Sometimes the Blood does more than just destroy. We made a prisoner take some in drink – just a very little bit – and the results… I have no words. It was glorious.” Gyoken’s eyes cleared, and Yutaka knew he was talking to him now. “He killed ten of my men,” the commander said in appreciative tones. “He is out there, still, bringing ruin to whatever he touches. I forbade my men from hunting him down. What he is doing is… glorious…”
Gyoken’s voice trailed off, and Yutaka said nothing as the other Spider simply turned to stare into the fire again. He dared not speak, for he felt that this time he could not mask the unnamed fear growing in his stomach.
* * * * *
Doji Hakuseki didn’t realize she had grown used to the deference of others. Her position as First Magistrate – so close to the office of the Emerald Champion – had earned her a great deal of respect and not a small amount of fear in many discussions. Where she had once been a mid-level magistrate more used to having to convince others to cooperate, the position of First Magistrate had meant she often had her orders or wishes carried out quickly.
So when the woman before her had spoken to her, she was confused for a moment before regaining her composure. “I appreciate you have taken a long journey, Ikoma-san,” she said evenly. “But I am afraid your report is unacceptable.”
The Ikoma looked to the side, giving the impression she thought her duty was over and she was wishing to be done with the whole exchange. Hakuseki’s temperament was swiftly moving from surprise to anger.
“I apologize that you are disappointed, Lady Hakuseki, but there is little I can do for it. If I may be excused-”
“You may not,” she said through a tight frown. Her harsh tone carried over the courtyard of the Emerald Champion’s estate, where Hakuseki conducted a great deal of her business these days. “I am not entirely certain how the Ikoma family manages the affairs of reporting and command, Masumi-san, but you were given an edict by an agent of the Emerald Champion. If you have failed to comply, I would know why you have delivered such failure.” She emphasized the last word just enough to get the Lion’s attention back to the matter at hand. While Hakuseki had experienced enough to know that not all members of a clan were the same, there were some similarities to be counted on. For the Lion, that word was apparently quite grating.
Masumi straightened up, lifting her chin slightly, and nodded. “Very well, Hakuseki-sama,” she said with exaggerated formality. “Your office requested any information on strikes that could be attributed to the forces of the Naga, and we have supplied all new such information. Which is nothing.” She paused for a moment and looked down, possibly in an attempt not to seem overly disrespectful. “We have already submitted all such information previously to one of your attendants.”
“You mean to tell me the Naga attacks have ceased for the past two years?”
Masumi frowned now, “No, my lady. I mean to say that the reports of attacks we have been submitting regularly every month are as accurate and up to date as one could hope for.”
The First Magistrate was silent for a moment as she let the implication sink in. “Come with me,” she said quietly, turning and going.
The Lion hesitated for only a moment, then fell in step behind the Crane. Hakuseki led her into one of the buildings on the estate, passing dozens of men and women who were conducting various administrative duties. The Ikoma looked a little overwhelmed at the sight of it all.
“Is something strange, Masumi-san?” Hakuseki asked as they continued.
“I suppose I never thought about it,” the Lion admitted, “but I never imagined the Emerald Champion would require such a staff.”
“She manages laws, petitions, and coordination for all Imperial magistrates across the Empire. It is not a small task.”
Hakuseki stopped when they reached a series of rooms that were set away from the main hub of activity. Masumi could see that these were offices where a clerk or functionary of some manner sat and worked with documents of one kind or another. Hakuseki stepped into one of the offices and Masumi followed quickly.
The man at the desk in this particular room looked up, annoyed, but quickly removed such a look from his face when he saw who had entered. “Hakuseki-sama,” he said quickly, standing and bowing.
“You are relieved, Shiba Hotaru-san. Please leave.”
“I…,” the man stammered. He rubbed his wrinkled hands together. “My Lady, I was appointed by the Emerald Champion herself. I do not mean to be rude, but you cannot-”
“Hotaru, I am doing you a favor,” Hakuseki said quietly, motioning to the papers in a corner of the room. “I am to assume those reports – laying there unopened – are in regards to the matter of the Naga?”
“They are summary reports of accounts that come in from the rest of the Empire, yes,” the man confirmed. “They did not require our attention yet, so I have set them aside in favor of other, more pressing matters.”
“Were you not specifically set to the task of assisting me in coordinating the effort of gathering this information?” Hakuseki’s eyes narrowed. “Were you, at any particular time, asked to use your own judgment about how important the information was? Or were you told to simply compile and present this information?”
Hotaru opened his mouth to answer, but the First Magistrate continued.
“So where is my report? Was there one? Or did you, as I recall, tell me month after month that there was no information of significance?”
“Compared to the happenings in the SecondCity, and with the possible war between the Dragon and Unicorn, the rise of the worship of the Dark Fortunes, this nonsense about Fudo, the reports of unrest in the Scorpion lands-”
Hakuseki cut the man off with a wave of her hand. “If you tell me,” she said in a voice that had lost any of its warmth or civility, “that the very thing you were ordered to do somehow lost importance to some other matter, I will strongly reconsider merely dismissing you back to your homeland. I am doing you a favor,” she repeated.
Behind the Crane, Masumi found that she had snapped into a perfect pose of attention without even thinking about it.
Shiba Hotaru stood unsteadily and opened his mouth.
Hakuseki spoke first. “Get. Out.”
Once they were alone, Hakuseki turned to the Ikoma. “I imagine you have time to spare assisting me?” she asked, motioning towards the unsealed reports. “I have a feeling that the attacks by the Naga are much more serious than is widely understood.”
The deference and small bit of fear Hakuseki saw in Masumi’s eyes was, fortunately, exactly what she had grown accustomed to.
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