In the era of Emperor Edition, this fiction examines the activities of a handful of the Empress’s most powerful and influential vassals, the Jeweled Champions.
Jewels of the Empire
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Utaku Ji-Yun returned to the preparation chamber and sat down heavily upon the bench there. She said not a word upon her return, but merely sat, almost oblivious to the sensation of the blood running down her arm. There was an unbearable clamor as almost a dozen attendants were scurrying around, clucking their tongues over the state of her kimono, her wound, her weapon, her armor. It was more than she could tolerate in this moment, this most incredible, unbelievable moment. “Leave me, please,” she said quietly.
“My lady,” one of them began, “your wound obviously needs attention, and your attire needs to be repaired as well. Not to mention your weapons…”
Ji-Yun looked at the servant, the entire room coming into sharp focus, which she then directed at the man. He recoiled from her gaze as if he had been slapped. “Leave me,” she said, her voice more forceful. “Now.”
Although she had not raised her voice, the eyes of every servant turned toward her. One look at her expression and they all departed instantly, without saying another word. The room was emptied in a heartbeat. Ji-Yun exhaled shakily. She looked now at the blood that stained her ruined sleeve. Without thinking, she drew her blade and laid it across her lap. There were still flecks of blood on its tip. The blood of her opponent. Her hands were shaking more than she could ever remember. “What have I done?” she whispered softly.
“You have won the Emerald Championship, of course,” a musical voice came suddenly.
Ji-Yun looked up in surprise to see a radiantly beautiful middle-aged woman standing in the room where no one had been a short time before. “Oh!” she said sharply. “Forgive me, Nanae-sama, I did not know you were even here.”
“There is no reason for the honorific, Ji-Yun,” Asahina Nanae said, gliding across the floor like an apparition and taking the younger woman’s hand in hers. “We are equals now. Let me see your wound.”
“The Emerald Championship,” Ji-Yun repeated. The words made her tongue feel numb. “It was all I wanted for most of my life. Now… now it seems almost pointless. How can I hope to prove worthy of the position after… after what I have done.”
“You have done exactly what I said,” Nanae replied, carefully tearing away the ruined, bloodied cloth. “You were victorious, and now you will assume one of the most powerful positions in the entire Empire.”
“I have wounded the Imperial heir!” Ji-Yun blurted out, tears in her eyes. “I have caused injury to the most honorable scion of the Iweko dynasty! How can I hope to retain any semblance of honor in the face of such disgrace?”
The older woman smiled knowingly. “Iweko Seiken knew the possibilities that existed when he chose to enter the tournament.” Her smile became something closer to a smirk. “I imagine he thought that his opponents might simply concede rather than face him. More than one did. But in the end, he faced an opponent whose honor simply would not permit her to stand aside.” Nanae withdrew a number of things from the pouch at her belt. “I, for one, am glad.”
Ji-Yun stared at the Crane in horror. “You are the Jade Champion,” she said. “You cannot speak ill of the Imperial heir.”
“Oh, I certainly can,” Nanae replied. “I should not, and choose not to, but it is possible to do it if I were to change my mind.”
Ji-Yun slumped slightly, allowing the other woman to dress her injury. Iweko Seiken’s blade had sliced neatly into the flesh of her forearm, but not too deeply. The wound bled, but was not serious. The wound she had inflicted during the final moments of the Emerald Championship, however, was more severe. “Will Seiken recover?”
“I am quite sure he will,” Nanae replied merrily. “I saw the strike. It will take a month or two for his shoulder to heal completely, and he may have a slight scar on his cheek from the last bit of your blade, but nothing particularly disfiguring. I imagine the ladies in court will find him even more fetching.”
Ji-Yun covered her face with her uninjured hand. “He will never forget a slight to his honor of this magnitude. I have complicated the lives of my family with my victory.”
“His reputation is fearsome, there can be no question of that,” Nanae agreed. “However, I do not think he is as wrathful as his demeanor suggests. Serve his mother well and you will earn his respect. If he resents you for this victory, then it is his problem and not yours.”
“That… that seems… very naïve,” Ji-Yun said. “I mean no offense.”
“You are far from the first to say such a thing to me,” the Crane priestess laughed. “I am a pacifist and yet I have held the position of Jade Champion for ten years. You can imagine that the contrast between my methods and those of my predecessor is quite significant.”
Ji-Yun shook her head. “What am I doing?” she suddenly demanded. “This is no way to honor my ancestors, or my position. Please forgive my childish whining, my lady. I am honored by your assistance.”
Nanae’s smile seemed to radiate warmth. “Now that is the proper attitude for a young woman of honor. It is my pleasure to meet you, Ji-Yun. I hope that we can work well together.”
“We will, I am sure,” Ji-Yun said, flexing her newly bandaged arm. “If for no other reason than that I will make Seiken-sama proud to have lost to me on this most sacred day.” She looked back to Nanae. “May I ask you to bless me before I accept the trappings of my office?”
The Crane woman bowed. “I would be honored, my friend.”
* * * * *
Yoritomo Hama swore colorfully under his breath the entire time he stormed through the hallways, breaking into a trot periodically before remembering that he needed to appear composed and calm when he arrived and forcing himself to walk. The attendant who had arrived in his chambers only a few moments earlier had carried news of the absolute worst kind, the sort of thing that could lead to absolute ruin and, perhaps even worse, completely distracting him from the many other things that currently required his attention. But there was absolutely nothing that could be done for it in this instance, and that was perhaps even more irritating.
Hama waved away the guards who bowed as he entered the receiving chamber, his most gracious smile appearing automatically on his face. It was a practiced response, and one that he rarely thought about. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said in his most gracious tone. “We were not expecting a guest of your importance this afternoon.”
Asako Izuna raised an eyebrow curiously, one corner of her lips twisting up in an expression of amusement. “Well, how interesting would it be to allow everyone to know when and where I will be traveling? It seems contrary to purposes.”
Hama did not permit his smile to falter. “I suppose not,” he admitted. “I have to apologize that the city’s governor is not present today, however. He is attending a function with the Mantis Champion on the home islands. My name is Yoritomo Hama, and I am one of the ranking magistrates here in Broken Wave City. How may I assist you?”
“My duties as the Amethyst Champion are to represent the interests of the Imperial families in those courts where the Imperial families cannot be present.” Izuna was admiring one of the lavish tapestries from the Colonies that was hanging on the wall. “Why do you think I might have chosen your quaint little island for my purposes today?”
Hama cringed inwardly. The reputation of Izuna did not fill him with confidence, and nothing he had seen thus far in this limited exchange gave him any reason to believe this exchange was going to be pleasant, not for him, not for the city, and not for the Mantis Clan. “I am afraid I do not know, my lady,” he said.
“Oh well,” she said, “perhaps it is simpler to explain from the beginning. Are you familiar with a vassal of your clan named Yoritomo Toritsuko?”
Hama considered for a moment. “An artisan, is she not? From the Imperial City?”
Izuna glanced over her shoulder at him, here severe gaze softening ever so slightly, scanning him up and down once in an appreciative manner. “Impressive,” she acknowledged. “Yes, you are correct. To be more precise, she is a poet. A student of the Yoyonagi method, if I recall, for all that entails, both positive and negative.”
“Has Toritsuko proven problematic in some fashion?”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking,” Izuna replied. “From my observations and the reports of my agents in court, Toritsuko is engaged in a rather torrid affair with a prominent member of the Crane delegation.”
Hama shrugged. “You will forgive me if I say that such things are hardly rare in Toshi Ranbo, even if they are rarely acknowledged.”
“I concur,” Izune said, taking a seat and gesturing for Hama to do the same. “Unfortunately, it is rarely as simple as that. In this particular instance, the affair is of such intensity that the Crane in question is giving indications that he seeks a means of escaping his arranged marriage.”
“Ah,” Hama said. “I was unaware of that.”
“It is not common knowledge,” Izuna said. “But then, my agents are not common, and I certainly am not. This is not normally something I would concern myself with, for obvious reasons, but you are doubtless unaware that the Crane in question is betrothed to a member of the Otomo family.”
Hama could not stifle a slight wince. “That is… problematic.”
“Indeed it is.”
He considered it for a moment. “I will have her transferred away from the Imperial City at once, of course, but I suspect that will not be sufficient, else you would not have seen fit to come in person and address it.”
“The simplest solution is rarely sufficient, in my experience,” Izuna said.
The magistrate was quiet for a moment, trying to choose his words very carefully. “The Imperial City is a very dangerous place,” he finally said, his one utterly casual.
“Do not be so crude,” Izuna said, waving the comment away. “Such things are completely beneath the honor and status of my position.”
“Of course,” he said, bowing his head. “My apologies.”
“And while the Amethyst Champion would never consider such base methods to resolve a problem, the favor of the Heavens shines upon the servants of the Iweko Dynasty, and if it were beneficial to my purposes, I am quite sure fate itself would have arranged for her demise already. Not that such a thing would be beneficial. The Crane would pine for his lost love and the situation would remain unsatisfactory.”
The woman’s words filled Hama with a cold dread. “Of course,” he repeated.
Izuna gestured to one of her attendants, who provided a cup of tea. She appeared deep in thought as she sipped at it. “I understand the Mantis recently lost a rather valuable cargo to pirates,” she finally said. “That is quite unusual.”
Unsure of her intentions, Hama nodded slowly. “It is, my lady. Few pirates dare attack Mantis vessels for fear of attracting our patrol vessels. The Fourth Storm is quite feared upon the seas, as you doubtless know.”
“Yet these pirates managed to avoid all patrols and capture a very valuable shipment of materials en route from the Colonies,” Izuna observed. “Have you determined how such a thing was possible?”
Hama frowned. “We believe that the pirate leader was once a ronin who served aboard one of our vessels, and he may have been able to intercept a courier message that detailed…” his voice trailed off. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but are you suggesting that you know how this might have occurred?”
“I am saying that it came to my attention only this morning that my agents have located an individual prepared to offer testimony that Yoritomo Toritsuko was responsible for passing the information to the pirates.”
The magistrate considered her statement. “That would of course result in her execution for treason,” he said. “Did you not say her death was not a solution?”
“She would be disgraced and dishonored,” Izuna said, sipping her tea again. “Once that happens, her fate is no longer of interest to me. The problem will be resolved. No Crane, no matter how smitten, is so detached from his clan that he would consider personal yearnings above the honor of the clan by pining for a disgraced criminal.”
“This will be a significant and public dishonor for the Mantis,” Hama said. “My Champion will be greatly displeased.”
Izuna gave a slight shrug. “Unless a Mantis presents the testimony publicly and deals with the matter quickly and decisively. There would be some scandal, to be sure, but such an act would reinforce the Mantis Clan’s devotion to their duties upon the sea and demonstrate their honor before the people of the Imperial City. I believe the scales would be balanced in your favor. Don’t you think?”
Hama grimaced. “Distasteful, but manageable.” He forced a smile. “I will see to it at once, my lady.”
“Why thank you,” the Amethyst Champion said, smiling. “How pleasant to find such an agreeable host. You will do well, I think, Hama-san.”
* * * * *
Bayushi Shibata absently plucked a speck of leaf debris from the lapel of his kimono and flicked it away, glancing irritably at the subordinate standing on his left. The man was fidgeting noticeably. “Be still, man,” he scolded. “This is no time to act like a student new to the dojo.”
“Hai, sensei,” the man said with a curt bow. “Forgive me.”
“Melodrama,” Shibata scoffed. “No use for it.” He looked through the open gate toward the approaching horses. “I expect I shall be receiving an Emperor’s portion of it today, however.”
The honor guard of the Imperial Governor fanned out and positioned themselves both outside the gate and within, carefully scrutinizing everyone and everything within the compound as if as a potential threat. It was perfectly reasonable, of course, but it did not irritate Shibata any less for all that. “Welcome, honorable Governor of the Colonies,” he said, surprising even himself with the pleasant tone of voice. He bowed sharply, as did his subordinates. “We are honored to have you in our dojo.”
“You are gracious to say so,” Otomo Suikihime said, smiling as she dismounted with the assistance of her chief guardian, the Ivory Champion. “I regret that I have taken so long to visit your dojo. Unfortunately things have been quite busy over the winter season in the Second City.” She glanced around curiously. “It seems strange to me that your facility within the city itself is so small. Why is your primary dojo not located there?”
“It was, at one time,” Shibata answered. “The previous governor believed that the political environment at the time was such that the Imperial Explorers were in danger of becoming a pawn in some manipulative game played by the courtiers there, and moved the dojo to prevent such a thing.”
“Interesting,” Suikihime said, nodding. “What are your feelings on the matter?”
“I have none,” Shibata said flatly. “Other than that I feel the previous governor was a very wise man.”
“How diplomatic!” Suikihime said with a chuckle. “I believe you know my Ivory Champion, Shinjo Tselu?”
“It is an honor to be back in the dojo, sensei,” Tselu said with a bow.
“One of my finest students,” Shibata said, feeling a moment of genuine pride. “You will be well served indeed.”
Tselu’s smile was impossible to hide. “Thank you, sensei.”
“It is most pleasant to see such mutual respect at the highest levels of society here in the Colonies,” Suikihime said. “It is something of a departure from the Empire, I can assure you.” She paused as she strolled idly around the courtyard, examining the various training implements throughout the compound. “Have you experienced any difficulties with your expanded charter?”
Shibata shrugged in a non-committal fashion. “There are always some adjustments necessary when so many new resources are brought to bear, but nothing we were not able to manage.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” she replied. “If I may, what has been the most problematic?”
The sensei did not hesitate with his response. “The expansion such as you authorized with any organization inspires thoughts of prestige in others,” he said. “Anticipating your predisposition toward the Imperial Explorers, the clans inundated us with a variety of potential applicants, many of whom were ill-suited to the task. Glory-hunting upstarts, political appointees, and sycophants.”
“I see,” the Governor replied. “You are strikingly straightforward for a Scorpion, if I may say so.”
“I am an old Scorpion,” was Shibata’s only response.
“Be that as it may, I am here to inform you that your duty is about to become more complicated.”
Shibata felt a moment of weariness at her words “Surely you are not expanding our charter again,” he said. “My lady,” he added, as an afterthought.
“No,” Suikihime said, “I do not feel that would be productive. Would you disagree?”
“I would not.”
“I am pleased you agree, then,” the Otomo lady replied. “No, my plan is not to make further changes to the Imperial Explorers. You are an efficient and effective branch of the Imperial bureaucracy and changes might imperil that efficiency.” She hesitated for a moment, trailing one fingertip across an elaborate carved map of the Colonies. “I intend to open exploration of the frontier and the unknown lands to all clans, as opposed to merely the Spider and Mantis.”
There was a moment of absolute silence. Shibata noticed that his attendants seemed to have stopped breathing and were staring at him in anticipation. Did they expect him to erupt in fury? How foolish. “Do you feel that is wise, my lady?” he asked calmly.
“I feel it is necessary,” she replied. “In twenty-five years, what has been accomplished here? A quarter, perhaps a third at most, of the Colonies have been properly brought to heel. Vast sections of the land still remain unexplored or occupied by hostile forces of one form or another.” She turned to the sensei. “My predecessor valued prudence, but I value productivity. I want to see this land made ours, to become a true reflection of the Empire, and I believe this is the most effective way to make that happen.”
“I understand your intentions,” Shibata said. “I trust that you understand many lives will be lost.”
“Progress rarely comes without cost,” Suikihime said. “I have accepted this unfortunate truth, and I am willing to see it paid in the name of the greater good.”
Shibata stifled a sigh. “As you wish, my lady.”
“Excellent!” Suikihime clapped her hands like a delighted schoolgirl. “Now, if you please, I would very much like to see the rest of your dojo.”
Shibata smiled behind his mask “If you will follow me, my lady?”
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