A pair of vignettes from the Second City!
Scenes from the Empire
By Robert Denton & Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
At first, no one realized that the SecondCity was burning. Their minds were on the Imperial Legion as it pressed through the Military District, their stoic hearts united in a desperate defense. It wasn’t until the still pause after the initial assault that the defenders saw the ash in the sky, and felt the dry heat of flames on the wind. The shared realization was sobering. Fire was a tactic used against bandits and heretics, bakemono and cursed bloodlines. Not samurai. To set fire to a city meant one didn’t care if it survived the battle or not.
Then came the source. Two serpentine heads of blackened metal screamed trails of fire from their gaping maws and blank eye sockets. They were dragon-faced canons pouring oil and flame into the city streets, like a drooling beast directed by Legion masters. The Kaiu siege engine was unmistakable, as was the insult. Engines such as these had not seen use in years—and the last time the Crab fielded these was against the beasts of the Shadowlands. That it would be used against samurai was unthinkable.
That was the only reason that Akodo Toshigure set aside his anger and stood with the ronin, Tomoe, as she organized an assisted defense against the invading Legion. While he could not overlook the slight she’d offered him at the Ivory Court, it ultimately mattered little. Samurai had to cast aside their feelings from time to time, to do what had to be done in defense of honor and duty. It was a matter of regret to allow the moment when one should die to pass. As Toshigure stared into the fiery maws of those blackened serpent faces, he knew that his moment had come.
Tomoe laid a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” she said. Around her, the defenders of the square, all guests of the Second City’s Winter Court, drew their weapons and faced the bottlenecked entrance. Samurai of the Legion were entering the square, the engine of destruction rumbling behind them. Toshigure nodded at her, then drew his blade, holding it up to the sky.
“I go to destroy the siege engine!” he shouted. “And to liberate my brother! Those who would follow me, come!”
A loud cheer rose from the crowd, a blurred shouting of ancestor’s names. Emboldened, Toshigure turned to face the Legion…
…and spotted a thin, masked figure standing between them.
Her feminine shape was unmistakable, cloaked in long blue kimonos and white hair that cascaded down her shoulders and to her hips. Her kimonos were embroidered silk as if intended for court, but they were hiked up in preparation for battle, with tied-back sleeves exposing her slender arms, and tucked into black hakama. A katana hung from her hip. The mask that hid her face was a demonic wolf depiction, white-furred with wooden ears, a mempo blood-red and black painted on a glazed porcelain surface so moon-white it nearly glowed. Toshigure froze in the path of this warrior, even as the wave of defenders rushed around him to meet with the charging Legionnaires.
The world around them was a chaotic swarm of flashing steel and frenzied bodies. They were at the eye of the storm, unmoving. For a moment, she seemed familiar to Toshigure, and he vaguely recalled that he’d seen the warrior march beside the defenders. Why, then, did she oppose him now?
She spoke suddenly, her voice reverberating inside the mask. “Toshigure,” she said, “What do you think you’re doing?!”
Toshigure lowered his sword. That voice.
She spoke again, this time emotion bleeding into the hollow tone beneath the wolf’s cruel face. “You can’t! You mustn’t!” It was concern. Fear for his life. As she approached, he felt as though he were coated in frost. He’d been prepared to die alone, just as any Lion could. But in front of her?
She stood just within arm’s reach. The mask looked up into his face. “Why?” she asked.
“For honor.” It was the only answer.
She tore the mask from her face. Her Crane features were intense with an expression of anger, heightened by black paint, kabuki-like, around her fierce green eyes.
“I won’t let you,” she growled. Her hand darted to her sword. “I challenge you, Akodo Toshigure! For your sake and those who trusted you, those you are about to betray!” She shook with a fury unlike any he’d ever seen, eyes burning like the fires of siege engine. “For your honor! I challenge you!”
* * * * *
When he first noticed her, she was out of breath from running. Her slender hands were on the knees of her hakama, and she panted, like a storm-ravaged wolf, at the dojo floor. At the time, Toshigure was focusing on his opponent, a friendly duel with a young man named Kakita Isao, yet another guest of the Governess’ court. He was a different man then, a dour man with little else on his mind than his haunted past and the fire in his heart. He lived only to draw his sword and to prove his enemies wrong. He wanted little more from this life than just that.
It was pure chance that he followed Isao’s gaze and noticed her. He’d seen her once before then, true, but not with the eyes of assessment, the mindset just before a duel. When he looked at her, he saw that her eyes were tilted just-so, and they met with his in an akward moment of accident. But those green eyes didn’t look away, as etiquette would dictate. She smiled. Then she turned to her friend Natsume, who was also here to witness the friendly duel.
He’d been prepared to duel in front of anyone. But not her. She was not like anyone he’d ever known, but he didn’t know that quite yet.
Her name was Doji Moro.
* * * * *
Toshigure paused at the defiant Crane as she slid into a balanced stance. His heart was hard stone at the start of the season, but like the ocean, she’d worn it down. He felt conflicted, for the first time, and regarded her with a mixture of confusion and sadness. How could she do this? How could she ask him to be anything other than the man who sacrificed his life in battle? It was always on his thoughts, never far from his intentions. He could die without thinking. It was the Way of the Lion. That she would stand in front of him, cause him to hesitate… How could he ever forgive her for that?
It wasn’t fair. She knew he couldn’t refuse a challenge.
He stepped back, laying his hand on his sword. “Fine,” he whispered, and prepared to harden his heart once more.
* * * * *
They ran together in the morning, before the birds had ceased their dawn-conjured cacophony. Abandoning all preamble, they raced one-another through the mostly-empty streets, past still-assembling merchant-carts and confused city guards. He, maintaining a sprint in his tan-and-black hakama and gi. She, a full pace behind him, full-faced grinning in her eerie white kendogi.
When he slowed so that she could flank him, Moro cast him an icy look of disapproval. The gesture stung her, and Toshigure was amazed when he felt a pang of guilt. The two had begun almost every morning since the start of court in this way, makeshift training partners paired by necessity. Yet he did not mind her company at all, and she seemed content with their arrangement. As they slowed to a walk, her eyes twinkled with amusement, and they made their way around a block before pausing before the entrance to a public gardens.
Toshigure looked to her, his face serious. She was mismatched for his expression, smiling and panting.
He said, “Your brother is dead, isn’t he?”
She stopped. The smile faded from her face and she stared, blank-eyed, at his question.
“Yes,” she finally said. It was only a whisper, and it was masked well. But the sorrow was unmistakable.
Toshigure nodded and looked back to the gardens. “I understand,” he replied. “So is my wife.”
And for a moment, silence was all that stood between them.
* * * * *
Moro’s eyes were racing as she settled into her duelist’s stance. Toshigure felt that she was sizing him up, seeking anything that he’d managed to conceal from her, something that could allow her to win the duel. But then, when he let the world fade around them, he saw that she was conflicted. Thirty days ago, we would have taken the advantage. Now he loathed himself for thinking of it.
What kind of samurai were they? What warrior spurned the thought of drawing his blade, and embraced anything but the inevitable end?
She spoke. “Be warned. I will not kill you, Toshigure. If I win, you will be a prisoner of the Crane.” It was worse than death, an indignity that would undo him. “But if I lose…”
She paused. If she lost, she was unmade. In her eyes, he saw that she was trying to save him. He was betraying the Emerald Champion, defending a city that he loathed. “If I lose,” she said, “my life is yours.”
Toshigure nodded. “I accept.” Nothing more needed to be said.
They assumed their stances. The battle seemed to slow around them. There was only the duel.
And then there was only the moment of drawing their blades and leaping at one-another…
* * * * *
They sat, side-by-side, in a quiet corner of the larger common room of the Crane Embassy. There were many others here, a mingling of the Crane and Lion delegations, shared sake, stories, music, and laughter. Yet none seemed to notice how Toshigure and Moro sat just inches closer than propriety might have preferred; that if she’s dared to settle her head on his shoulder, she could have, and if he’d dared to set his hand on hers, he might have.
For a moment, he allowed the ache of his heart to reach his eyes, that she might see it. She said nothing in reply, but in the match of his eyes, she knew.
There was nothing else but that moment. Nothing else.
* * * * *
Doji Moro stood on legs that were failing. Her eyes were wide, breath lost. The warmth of blood ran down her cheek. His strike had landed true.
Akodo Toshigure lost his On in a wave of shock and disbelief. He maintained it, even as his grip loosened around his sword, the skin on his cheek split, and fresh blood poured from his open wound. Her strike had landed true.
They both won. They both lost. In that moment, there was only the flash of blades as they both struck at the same time.
For a moment, they stood there dumbly, blinking at one-another. Around them, the defenders were falling back, the Legion striking down any stragglers. Unheeding, they lowered their swords.
“It seems I am your prisoner,” Toshigure said.
“And my life is yours,” Moro replied.
All around them, the city continued to die.
* * * * *
Kakita Maratai rounded the corner of the ruined building, almost tumbling into the street. Kitsuki Kinaro held her back with a gesture. “Hold on,” he said, casting a weary glance, “I don’t think it’s safe.”
The sculptor shook her head. “Tamori Chikyu said the Legion passed through here already,” she assured him, “we’ll be fine.” The words felt odd to say, but so many uninvolved in the feud between the Governess and the Legion had died, none could be assured of safety, not even from their so-called sword protectors.
As they moved into the street, Kinaro looked around him. The square was devastated. The siege engines had torched everything. The stone was scarred. Blackened wooden frames stood naked and ruined in the place of buildings, like stripped bones. The eta had long dragged the bodies from the streets, but red stains marked where warriors on both sides had fallen. Kinaro shook his head. There was seemingly no order to this war. It was shameful.
“Look!” Maratai said. She stood within a small circumference of the square, looking towards the Dragon. Kinaro noticed at once that it was somehow untouched by the devastation around them. No scarred stones, no imprints of bodies.
“This is where Doji Moro and Akodo Toshigure dueled,” she said. “They stood here, opposed, in the middle of the battle. They each swore to become a prisoner of the winner. Fate intervened.” She paused, visibly amused. “A karmic strike. They both lived, now each a prisoner of the other. War is an odd thing, isn’t it?”
He said nothing. His eyes could not look at the untouched circle around her. He was staring at the ruined square.
Maratai looked disappointed. “Do you understand?” she asked.
Kinaro watched a plume of smoke rise from the ruins within the district. “No,” he said, “I don’t.”
* * * * *
Kitsuki Nakai wiped his sleeve, dislodging a small shower of dust and sand that, despite his best efforts, he had not yet been able to fully rid himself of. The Western Wastes that had been crossed in order to reach the Colonies had left their mark upon him, and he was becoming more certain that he would have to burn his traveling clothes if he was to have any hope of being rid of it once and for all. At least for now he was free of the dust and the traveling, but the sweltering heat was something he had never encountered, at least not like this. And from his understanding, this was not even the hottest part of the year. It was going to be a difficult place to live, this SecondCity.
“Nakai-san?” an unfamiliar voice called.
The magistrate turned to find two men he had never seen before approaching. One bore the colors of the Crab, the other the Unicorn. The younger of the two, the Crab, offered a smile. “You are Kitsuki Nakai, are you not?”
“I am,” Nakai replied. “I believe you have me at something of a disadvantage.”
The Crab nodded and bowed slightly. “I am Kaiu Onizuka. This is my associate, Shinjo Tae-Hyun.”
The Unicorn nodded. “Welcome to the Colonies,” he said flatly.
“We had heard that another of our select fraternity was arriving,” Onizuka said. “We wished to greet you and offer any assistance you might require.”
“Select fraternity?” Nakai frowned, then it dawned upon him. “You are former Topaz Champions as well, then.”
“Indeed,” Tae-Hyun said. He did not seem to talk a great deal.
“You are not the first Topaz Champion to find yourself in the Colonies, my friend,” Onizuka said, still smiling. “Obviously. We can aid you in your endeavors here, whatever they may be, or we can find a position for you, should you require such.”
Nakai inclined his head respectfully. “Your offer is both kind and appreciated, but I have a task set before me already, and I must complete it. I would never presume to require you to set aside your own agendas in pursuit of mine.”
“As you like,” the Unicorn said.
Onizuka glanced sidelong at his companion, then back to Nakai. “You won some years ago, obviously,” he added, studying the Dragon magistrate carefully. “I have made something of a study of former Topaz Champions, but your duty posts have been somewhat… obscure. Would it be inappropriate of me to inquire as to your business here in the SecondCity?”
Nakai considered it for a moment. “I have no reason to conceal my purpose here. Since the time of my appointment as Topaz Champion, I have been in the service of my lord, Matsu Hachiken.”
Onizuka seemed taken aback. “The younger brother of the Matsu daimyo?”
Tae-Hyun grunted. “You would have been offered a number of very prestigious posts. That’s the way it works when you are Topaz Champion. You agreed to be the vassal of a governor in the Lion lands?”
“And you serve him well, no doubt. Why did you accept that particular assignment? There must have been more glorious duties.”
Nakai shrugged. “Some of us care less for glory than others.”
“Everyone cares about something,” Tae-Hyun pressed.
The Dragon nodded. “Yes,” he admitted. “Lord Hachiken was the only one who could ensure my betrothal the woman I loved. I gladly entered his service for that favor.”
“Huh,” Onizuka said. “Not what I would expect from a Dragon. But still, we all have those things we desire, do we not? And it seems a Matsu lass was yours.”
“Kitsuki Anjera,” Nakai corrected. “That is my wife’s name.”
“My apologies,” Onizuka said with an apologetic bow. He considered for a moment. “I have family connections to your lord’s elder, I believe. My cousin is Hiruma Tomiro.”
“The duelist,” Nakai replied. “The one who suggested in court that my lord’s sister, the Matsu daimyo, was actually the result of a tryst between the venerable Matsu Kenji and Ikoma Otemi.”
Onizuka’s smile seemed slightly embarrassed. “The same.”
“How fares your cousin?”
“He has learned to use his left hand quite well,” the Crab replied. “It is clear that you have your own agenda to pursue while you are here, and that of course is to be expected. However, if Tae-Hyun-san and I may be of any assistance to you, I hope that you will inquire. We are, as I said, of a brotherhood.”
“You are kind to offer,” Nakai repeated. “It is somewhat ironic, given the topic of our conversation thus far, but my lord was tasked by the Lion Champion to ensure that the clan’s most revered Fortunes were properly paid homage here in the Colonies. One of those I am to see to is Otemi, the Fortune of Recovery.”
“I see,” Onizuka said. “Please forgive me, I am more a historian than a theologian. I did not realize Otemi was a Fortune. That rather compounds my cousin’s disgrace, I think.”
“The Festival of Ascension,” Tae-Hyun said. “On the tenth anniversary of Empress Aweko’s coronation, she rewarded the Great Clans for their service by permitting each to choose one of their venerated ancestors to be elevated to the position of Fortune. It was quite the celebration. You two were probably too young to remember much of it. Anyway, the Lion selected Ikoma Otemi, hero of the Winter of Red Snow.”
“Did he not commit seppuku over the Empress’s decision to permit the Spider to become a Great Clan?” Onizuka mused. “A bold if somewhat controversial choice. Who can say what motivates the Lion Clan?”
“It would not be my place to do so, certainly,” Nakai said.
“Well, we shall not keep you any longer, brother,” Onizuka said. “Know that whatever outcomes you experience here, we are at your disposal if you find yourself in need of aid or allies.”
“Thank you,” Nakai said sincerely. “I am grateful for your offer, more than you know.”
Tae-Hyun withdrew a badge from his obi. Nakai recognized it at once as the one given to all Topaz Champions as they surrendered their trappings to their replacement. Only those who had borne the honor carried them. He and Onizuka both produced theirs as well. “We will see you again, soon,” the taciturn Unicorn said.
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