In Rokugan, a simple priest of the Dragon Clan finds himself embroiled in the battle against the Dark Naga, the sinister serpentine threat to the entire Emerald Empire.
Finding the Balance
By Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan
1198, Month of the Monkey
Tamori Yayu watched the eta work meticulously over the corpse and found his usually indomitable resolve wavering. The Dragon was not certain if it was the sheer volume of dead, bloody flesh that was being worked with that was causing his revulsion, or the naked glee on the face of the man next to him. Yayu had seen combat before – he had even killed several of these things just recently – but something about the entire procedure was disturbing to him. Perhaps it was the way Kuni Shinoda treated the flesh of a formerly living thing like so much meat and material. Like it was a broken Kaiu mechanism to be studied or an ill-fitting kimono to be taken apart and re-used.
“Lord Magistrate,” the deep voice of Shinoda snapped the Tamori from his reflection, “you seem to have let your focus wander. Are you listening?”
“My apologies, Shinoda-san,” Yayu replied, trying to control the look of mild disgust on his face. “I am afraid I expected our prisoner to… well, still be a prisoner.”
Shinoda smiled faintly and flicked his eyes to the corpse. “I understand. Perhaps you had further questions for it? I apologize if you feel your interrogation was incomplete, but you brought this specimen to me for the expertise of the Kuni family. So please trust me when I say it was of no further use to us alive. So it is now dead, which makes it much more open to our further investigations.”
Yayu was accustomed to the plainly-spoken members of his family and those trained by the Tamori shugenja order. But by comparison, his blunt daimyo, known for his rough demeanor, seemed like a careful Doji when held next to Shinoda’s display. The man was casual – almost callous – about the idea of killing one of the Naga and desecrating its body so thoroughly. However, the Crab was right – Yayu had come to the Kuni family for their insight. It would be pointless and insulting to balk at their methods now. “As you say, Shinoda-san. Perhaps I should leave you to this, so I am not getting in the way. I can ask my questions when you are done.”
The Kuni nodded absently, already having turned his attention back to the Naga and making indications to his eta about what to do next. “Certainly,” Shinoda said, obviously only half listening.
Yayu walked out of the dark, stone-walled room and up a flight of stairs. The cold winter wind blew lazily through the city surrounding Shiro Kuni, though the warmth of the Jade Sun shone through the clear sky. Winter in the Crab lands was markedly different than those in his home, Yayu observed. There was hardly any indication that it was winter at all, besides the temperature itself. There was little green life in this area, so nothing had died or shed its leaves. While the Dragon mountains were not particularly hospitable or warm even in the middle of summer, there were definitely changes to be seen between the seasons. Here, it seemed as if everything would look the same no matter the day, season, or anything else. Like the Kuni themselves, the city seemed uninterested in the outside world and preferred to be left to its own devices. In this, the Kuni and Tamori seemed similar, though the Crab lands seemed to simply ignore change where the Dragon moved more in harmony with the earth.
Near the entry to Shinoda’s… study area (Yayu admitted to himself the term ‘torture chamber’ seemed fitting but extremely rude), Mirumoto Ezuno stood watch, as if he expected an attacker to emerge and assault the Kuni’s study at any time. Hearing Yayu’s approach, the yojimbo turned to regard him and bowed his head slightly. “I assume our prisoner is dead?” he asked blandly.
“Yes,” Yayu sighed. “Shinoda-san seems to think the Naga would be easier to study while dead.”
“I trained with the Tamori for a year,” Ezuno said quietly. “Like many who study the technique of Mirumoto, it was important that we learned what we could of the shugenja’s art. Shinoda is employing a great deal of the spirits’ aid to uncover what you are looking for, Yayu-san.”
The Tamori nodded, “I felt it, too,” he said, glancing back to the entrance. “I understand why they perform these… studies underground. The spirits of earth can be easily called to dispel reckless magic gone wrong or contain something else gone awry.”
“You seem uneasy,” Ezuno observed.
“I am at home among the stone and earth,” the shugenja replied, folding his arms. “But the spirits here are much different than the ones back home. They are blunt and workman-like, even for earth kami. Among the Tamori lands, the spirits are wild and even almost friendly. They are elemental earth in its natural form. Here, it is like the earth spirits themselves have been chiseled into tools by the Kuni.”
“And a Kitsune might say the Tamori turn the wild spirits of earth and fire into weapons of war, and that makes them uncomfortable.”
“Indeed,” Yayu nodded. “It is one thing to study the differences in philosophies between the shugenja orders,” he said, frowning, “but another to experience it firsthand. I imagine that you understand the difference between Mirumoto’s technique and the style of the Akodo, Ezuno-san, but you would be likewise uneasy stepping into their dojo and merely having to observe a technique that felt so alien.”
Ezuno smiled slightly. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said, then turned back to his vigil.
After the two Dragons observed the small section of the city in silence for a few minutes, Kuni Shinoda ascended the stairs and joined them. His face, painted as it was in the fashion of the Kuni, showed obvious disappointment. “There is no trace of the Taint,” he stated without preamble. “But there is something reaching out to this one. Or there was, up until the point of its death. It is unlike the natural connection the Naga share… but also like it in some ways. Dark magic may yet be involved, but I cannot understand it.” He sighed tucking his hands into the sleeves of his kimono and frowning deeply. “I am used to facing unusual questions, Yayu-san, but I am not used to having to admit I will be of no help answering them. I am sorry.”
Yayu bowed slightly to the man. “You have not been unhelpful, Shinoda-san. We know the Naga themselves remain untainted. I imagined it was unlikely, but it was good to have the idea confirmed by an irrefutable source. This changes how we might deal with the problem. You have my gratitude for your help, however inadequate you think it is.”
“I am being unclear, Yayu-sama, and I apologize,” Shinoda replied, frowning. “I mean to say that I will be of no help, but I believe I know where you might gain further information. The clans of the Crab and Unicorn have ever been close, and part of my own training was basic knowledge of the Iuchi and Horiuchi families.”
It was now Yayu’s turn to frown and cross his arms. “Yes, of course,” he muttered. “The Unicorn have patrolled the Shinomen and guarded the sleeping Naga for generations. The shugenja of that clan will undoubtedly have a greater understanding of the Naga shared consciousness.” He let out a long breath. “I suppose I will just have to find a way to ask for information from a clan which is on the edge of war with my own.”
Ezuno moved his hand to his sword and touched it lightly. “Are we to depart for the lands of the Iuchi family, then?”
“No,” Yayu said smiling a little. “It would be stupid to ask them this as a Dragon. I must report back to Lady Nanae and then make this request as one of her agents.”
“If you do not mind a personal observation, Lord Magistrate…” Shinoda began.
The Dragon looked at him and nodded, indicating he should continue.
“It is not typically the way of the Crab Clan to counsel peace, but the Kuni family has enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Tamori for some time, now. I personally feel there are many kindred spirits between our shugenja orders, as well. But the Unicorn are ancient allies of our clan. It would not do the Tamori – or the Dragon – well to make the Crab choose between these friendships. Your lord Shikei would not enjoy the answer we give.”
Yayu sighed again, but nodded. “I know,” he said quietly. “I would try and speak with you about this, but my duty to the Emerald Champion bids that I should place the matter of the Naga ahead of political concerns, Shinoda-san. Perhaps you should think about that yourself.”
Shinoda looked as if he would retort angrily for a moment, then bowed his head. “Perhaps, Jade Magistrate,” he replied simply. “I will see to your arrangements for passage back to the ImperialCity. I should finish my report for you this evening, and you will have it to review before you depart.” With that, he bowed and returned to the chambers below the surface.
“Do you think the Crab would engage with the Dragon, if war came?” Ezuno asked his master.
“Who’s to say?” the shugenja replied darkly, his demeanor becoming less formal after the Kuni had departed. “This whole matter has been forged in misunderstanding and needless threats,” he muttered. “Why would that stop now?” After a moment’s pause, he shrugged. “Let us get a midday meal, Ezuno-san. I skipped breakfast for this.”
“Would you care to sample some of the Crab’s meat dishes?” Ezuno said with a smirk, his eyes flicking towards the entrance to Shinoda’s study.
Yayu cleared his throat a little and pointed a finger at his yojimbo in a mock threat, “You joke, but I would believe Crab practicality would probably allow them to eat anything that wasn’t Tainted.” He, too, looked at the entrance and repeated, “Anything. Let’s find something less… topical to eat.”
* * * * *
Two weeks later…
Soshi Yoshihara’s mask was one that actually concealed little, and Tamori Yayu was not certain if that made her look more or less intimidating. The young Dragon had dealt with the Soshi family very rarely, but he had learned quickly that if any Scorpion was attempting to make themselves look less complicated or honest, it was usually a warning. Despite that, he found he was glad to see the woman was in a good mood.
“It is excellent to see you again, Yayu-san,” the Scorpion said, bowing to the Tamori. Yoshihara had sent an emissary to greet Yayu and his yojimbo at the edge of the ImperialCity, and they had brought him to the estate where they had all met months ago. “The Lady Nanae will see you shortly, but I wished to greet you myself.” She indicated the entrance behind her with a wave, and then turned to walk.
Yayu fell in step beside the Jade Champion’s advisor, and Mirumoto Ezuno took up a pace several steps behind them. “I was not expecting so immediate of an audience, Yoshihara-sama,” Yayu said, “but I am glad to see you, as well. After all of this travel, I appreciate a familiar face.”
“Nanae-sama sent me to fetch you the moment she learned you were returning to Toshi Ranbo. The Jade Champion has followed your progress with interest, Yayu-san,” Yoshihara replied, leading them into the inner waiting chambers.
The idea made Yayu nervous immediately. “I find that both comforting and alarming,” he said before he could stop himself.
The Champion’s advisor turned and raised an eyebrow at him, then laughed lightly. Yayu found he enjoyed the sound – it had been months since he had heard anything other than demands, dire omens, and plans regarding the safety of the Empire. “Then you are a smart man, Tamori Yayu,” Yoshihara said, still smiling. “If a bit of a loose tongue,” she added.
They walked further back, to the chambers Yayu had met with Asahina Nanae before. Though they were guided by the Champion’s personal assistant, two guards stationed nearby looked warily at Yayu’s sword. Yoshihara followed their gaze and laughed again. “Do not waste anyone’s time,” she said to one of them. “The Jade Champion has indulged their strange habit already – I fear it has emboldened the little Dragon even more.”
Yoshihara slid the doorway open, revealing the Jade Champion quietly sipping tea. The faint scent of incense, somehow concealed until the door had moved, wafted through the air. Yayu realized in an instant that Nanae looked concerned… or perhaps she had always looked that way and he simply was too intimidated to notice before.
“My Lady,” Soshi Yoshihara intoned, “Tamori Yayu and his yojimbo, per your request.”
Asahina Nanae wordlessly waved them in, giving Yayu an unwavering stare. Yoshihara moved to stand behind her Champion, and the two others walked in. Before the two Dragons could give the proper greetings, the Jade Champion simply said, “Your report preceded you by two weeks, Yayu-san. I was most interested in what you had to share. I have managed to see a great deal of unusual things in my tenure as the Empress’ Jade Champion. I suppose I eventually began to think myself beyond surprise, so I will thank you and your clan for expanding my horizons once again.”
Yayu cast a confused, sideways glance to Ezuno as they both knelt to take their place across the table from Nanae. Ezuno seemed slightly confused as well. “My Lady,” Yayu said carefully. “If I have given you any offense or cause for concern…” he trailed off. He knew he was useless when it came to carefully crafted apologies or clever wordplay.
“Do you recognize this chop?” Nanae asked with an almost annoyed tone to her voice as she indicated an unrolled paper on the table.
Yayu leaned forward to examine it and then immediately straightened up, snapping his eyes back to the Jade Champion. His movements were so quick, one could have mistaken him for someone who had been caught looking at something he shouldn’t. “Yes, Nanae-sama. That is the mark of the Champion of my clan, Mirumoto Shikei.”
“The Dragon and Scorpion are alike in more ways than the Empire would care to admit, I think,” Nanae mused aloud. “One of their great similarities is that they tend to gather and protect secrets, even when it is perhaps in all of our interests to share them.” She paused for a moment and then looked Yayu straight in the eyes. “Have you been keeping something from me, Yayu-san?”
The young Dragon knew immediately he had not, but the piercing gaze and tone of authority in Nanae’s voice made him think that somehow he was. “No, Jade Champion,” he said immediately, almost without willing himself to do so.
Nanae continued her calculating look at the other shugenja, and then looked away. “Read it, if you please,” she commanded.
Yayu reached for the letter.
Lady Nanae, Jade Champion –
I have information that a certain vassal of mine will find interesting, but believe it is best if I deliver this information through you. Forgive me my indulgences as the lord of the Dragon Clan, but I fear it is best for us both if I am brief.
Yayu will find his hunt for the Naga must take him to the Shinomen Forest. The force behind these attacks has made his base of power there, and is holding several Rokugani of shared Naga descent hostage. I understand you have one Tamori Yayu under your conscription, hunting down evidence of the Naga’s disturbance. It is my belief his efforts – and those of any you are also directing – would be best spent in that area. How I came by this information is something we may discuss one day, but for the time being, I hope that my honor and the word of a Clan Champion recognized by the Empress will be enough.
Carry the Fortunes,
“The Shinomen…” Yayu muttered to himself thoughtlessly.
“Yes, the ShinomenForest,” Asahina Nanae agreed. “Which, oddly, your own report seems to indicate you should move to investigate, with the Imperial Legion I said I would appoint under your authority when we first met. While that region is not technically held by the Unicorn Clan, they patrol it regularly. And it would be a brilliant way to attack them through a second front, if war were to break out between the Unicorn and Dragon. Quite the coincidence.”
The Dragon looked at the letter and took a calming breath. “My Lady,” he said plainly, “you are right. This is no coincidence.”
Nanae’s eyes narrowed in anger, and Soshi Yoshihara frowned deeply.
“Many people think of fate as a force of coincidence, Nanae-sama. They see things happening together without association and decide that it is the hand of fate. But the Dragon know differently – we know fate is simply the natural order of the universe driving things towards a necessary path. If Lord Shikei counsels that we look in the Shinomen, and Kuni Shinoda says the same, this is merely fate. Not coincidence.”
The Jade Champion studied Yayu for a moment, and a slight smile broke her anger. “Indeed, Yayu-san,” she said with a hint of amusement. “I suppose your appointment as one of my magistrates was also fated, then. You have done surprisingly well, given your task. I think many others would have faltered on the path you had to walk.” She relaxed her posture some and took another sip of her tea. “Your reports indicate that there is little to no chance we are dealing with a case of the Taint, so I have shared your information with Utaku Ji-Yun. Her First Magistrate has been monitoring the incidents with some interest, but seeing how this threat is now becoming more apparent, I believe she will make it her top priority once I send word we have sent a Legion to the Shinomen.”
“There is one problem, my Lady,” Yoshihara interjected. “Do you think that a Dragon leading an Imperial Legion to the ShinomenForest will be taken well by the Unicorn? Certainly they will recognize your authority, but they would likely protest such a movement and appeal to the Empress’ court. Lady Naleesh would be within her rights to do so.”
Nanae looked at the Scorpion for a moment and sighed. “Yoshihara-san has the irritating habit of being correct at the worst times, my Dragon friend,” she said.
“I cannot lead an Imperial Legion,” Yayu said. “That is the other thing I wished to speak with you about. If we need to go to war against these Naga, we need a commander of great tactical acumen.”
Nanae thought in silence for a moment, then smiled again. “We require a commander of great leadership and battlefield cunning. One with an unquestionable sense of honor and duty to the Empress. Someone the Unicorn will respect. I believe I have the solution for all of us, then.”
* * * * *
A week later…
“It has been a long journey, and I think it is unfortunate we have talked so little,” Tamori Yayu said, looking over at the commander of the Imperial Legion. To his right, Ezuno rode on in silence, but glanced over at the commander as well.
Akodo Kano looked ahead as he rode at the fore of the Eleventh Imperial Legion. He had, indeed, spoken little beyond his formal introduction by the Jade Champion’s advisor. Neither Yayu nor Ezuno found him particularly antisocial – he had merely kept to himself, spoke only as needed, and spent most of his time studying the terrain of the Shinomen and the documented knowledge of the Naga. Yayu, for his part, found the idea of trying to make conversation with the brother of the Lion Clan Champion somewhat intimidating.
“Is there something you require, Lord Magistrate?” The Lion asked earnestly.
“I am simply surprised at your taciturn nature on the march, Kano-san,” Yayu replied. “I understood the Akodo to become very engaged and interested in the matter of war. I had thought you would wish to discuss possibilities or tactics.”
Kano looked at the Dragon with a puzzled expression for a moment, then looked down and away. “I apologize, my lord,” he said. “I am the commander of this Legion, but you are a ranking Jade Magistrate of great experience. It is my place to concern myself with the details of the possible conflict and the logistics of traveling through the oncoming winter so that you can focus on the… Matters you must attend to. I am not fully aware what a shugenja of your wisdom and power-” He cut himself off as he spied Mirumoto Ezuno smiling slightly at the Lion’s words. “Ezuno-san,” Kano said sharply. “Have I said something amusing?”
“Ezuno probably finds your estimation of my abilities somewhat interesting, Kano-san,” Yayu said quickly, worrying his yojimbo might have offended the Lion. “I am a shugenja in service to the Jade Champion, yes, but I am not of unusual insight or status among my own order.”
The Akodo frowned in consideration for a moment. “I see, then your expertise in perception and deduction must be exceptional to have earned your…” he trailed off as Ezuno’s smile grew larger. Kano cleared his throat and looked up, almost to the Heavens. “So am I to understand I have been placed under the command of a relatively inexperienced shugenja and untested magistrate?”
“It is not so bleak, Kano-san,” Ezuno offered. “Shinsei taught that fresh eyes and an unbiased mind may add the insight that education and experience would otherwise ignore.”
Kano nodded thoughtfully. “Akodo’s teachings have a similar stance. Experience can work against a general in some regards.”
“Exactly,” the MIrumoto agreed. “So it is perhaps not so unfortunate that Yayu-sama is so inexperienced and fresh.”
Tamori Yayu sat upright on his horse and sighed. “Yes, I’m glad we’re all getting along so much better now.” He patted the steed absently and added to hismelf, “I do not know if I am more worried about the prospect of accidentally sparking a war between the Dragon and Unicorn, finding the Dark Naga forces too late, or traveling with two Ezunos.”
It was, Yayu would reflect months later, a statement he would come to regret deeply.
Discuss the events of this fiction in our Story Forum!