Spring 2015 Kotei Fiction
Act 2: Troubled Waters - Part 1
Chris Hand, Maxime Lemaire, Mari Murdock, Fred Wan, and Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
As Otomo Mizuki entered, Otomo Demiyah turned away from the window to face the interior of the room. “How is Terumoto-sama feeling today?” she asked, attempting to fully mask her anxiety.
Mizuki gave a slight smile on her painted face. “He does well,” she said. “He is eating more since he woke. Today, he had a long conversation with Seppun Ibu. I believe he will make a full recovery.”
Demiyah nodded absently. “A long conversation, you say?”
“Is everything alright?” Mizuki asked. They were alone now, not even the servants had lingered after Mizuki entered.
Demiyah thought for a long time. “I should prepare my apology,” she remarked. “Get my affairs in order. It will not be long before I have to explain to Lord Terumoto the full breadth of the audacity of my presumptions.”
Mizuki took a step closer, casting her lady beneath a sympathetic eye. Even so, she still remained as poised and graceful as ever. “He will see that you did what needed to be done. In the absence of a leader, someone had to step forward. In the light of what you sacrificed to do so, my lady, no Otomo would turn away from your words.”
The length of Demiyah’s hair covered one half of her face. With her exposed eye, she looked directly into Mizuki’s gaze. “Do you think I acted out of desire for self-advancement?”
Mizuki’s smile crooked oh-so slightly. “I think sometimes it is better not to act. But when having acted, it is always better to finish.”
Demiyah nodded. She turned her gaze back to the window, looking out at yet another festival celebration unfolding in the courtyard below. “I have heard rumors that the Mantis and Scorpion relations are strained. All Mantis have been denied traveling papers in Scorpion provinces.”
“I have heard such as well,” Mizuki remarked. She joined Demiyah by her side, looking nonchalantly at the festivities. She lowered her voice. “Equally disturbing, I heard there are resumed tensions between the Matsu and Kakita. Such things could inch the Lion and Crane into conflict.”
“Inch them closer,” Demiyah whispered.
An exploding firework flooded the room with red light. Mizuki smiled.
An Archery Competition
A warm wind flew over the Gyousha province, bringing a smile to Daidoji Kinto's face. The provinces of the Kakita were second only to the Doji in their beauty but had a more natural charm to them. As Kinto stood atop a hill, watching the tall grass flutter in the wind and breathing in the smells of spring, he enjoyed this small moment of peace. After a tour of duty in the Colonies, it felt good to be home.
Kinto redirected his attention to the assembled samurai and heimin downhill from him. As part of the celebrations that grasped the Empire's attention in recent days, the Kakita had arranged for an archery tournament to be held in their lands. Such was not an unusual occurrence, as the way of the bow was seen as one of the most essential arts a samurai could master, celebrated in times of peace and war alike. However, a victory in the lands of the Kakita would bring the winner much glory, as the many artisans present would no doubt spread the news of the victor. Kinto counted himself as one of the finest archers of his Clan, and, Fortunes willing, he would see himself victorious on this day. There was only one thing which would guarantee his defeat, but as he scoured the assembled crowd, Kinto found no evidence of the green and black of the Mantis.
“Has the competition started?” a man said behind Kinto. “I would hate to have arrived too late.”
Daidoji Kinto turned around and felt his heart sink as he realized the samurai behind him bore the mon of the Wasp, the symbol of the Tsuruchi Family.
“It has not, Tsuruchi-san,” Kinto answered with a short bow. “You are just in time to register and win, one would assume.”
“Win?” The Mantis raised an eyebrow. “That sounds quite pessimistic of you, Daidoji-san.”
“I've seen what your archers can do. First hand, I must add.” Kinto shook his head. “Archery is second nature to your kind. One cannot hope to compete.”
“And yet you carry a bow, so one must assume you train in its usage as well,” the Tsuruchi said as he pointed to the bow strapped to Kinto's back. “Why is that?”
“Because my lord doesn't need the best of archers. Just very, very good ones,” Kinto smiled.
“Well said,” The Mantis chuckled. “I am Tsuruchi Taito.”
“Daidoji Kinto. Now shall, we join the tournament? I can't wait to come in second.”
Taito's chuckle turned into a full laugh as he walked downhill with Kinto.
Kinto wiped his brow after the second round of the tournament, drinking a cup of water he took from a nearby table. He saw Taito nearby and waved him over.
“Water, Tsuruchi-san?” Kinto said as he handed him a cup.
“Yes, thank you.” Taito gulped down the water, and noticed Kinto's smile. “Something funny, Daidoji-san?”
“It's just that I had never seen a Mantis actually drink water,” Kinto chuckled. “I guess the stories weren't true.”
“Hilarious,” Taito said with a grin. “Pass me a second cup, before I get offended.”
“Here you are,” Kinto said as he handed him another cup. “What did you think of today's events?”
“No one is really close to us in skill,” Taito answered as he scratched his chin. “The look of sadness on the Phoenix's face when he lost made my day, though.”
“You're too cruel,” Kinto objected. “His composure during the actual shooting was admirable. It almost made up for the loss of face he suffered once the results were announced.”
“I must admit his technique wasn't bad, but he failed to properly account for the wind. He’s probably practiced in a dojo more often than not,” Taito shrugged.
“While we both have plenty of actual experience in the field,” Kinto said, nodding. “Against each other's clan mates, even.”
“Indeed. I hope you won't be offended by that, in turn,” Taito said with a raised eyebrow.
Kinto shook his head. “Not in the least. Such is the nature of war. If anything, it left me with a greater respect for your kind.”
“And I, for yours,” Taito nodded. “The Daidoji are impressively hard to kill.”
“Maybe I would have a better chance of winning this event if I was the target, then,” Kinto sighed.
Taito grinned. “Maybe. Shall we get back to it?”
“Two bottles of sake,” Kinto said to the innkeeper as he stopped by his table, handing him a handful of coins. “I would pay my respects to a worthy adversary.”
“I thought Crane only drunk pure water from the coldest mountain streams,” Taito said as he smiled from across the table. “I guess the stories weren't true.”
“Who says the bottles are for me?” Kinto answered. “Maybe I'm just buying you a double gift for your impressive victory.”
“I would gladly welcome that. But you and I know I only won by a narrow margin. You did your family proud today, Daidoji-san.”
“I appreciate you saying this,” Kinto nodded. “Regardless, you were the victor. The poets of the Kakita family will write of your victory for weeks to come.”
“And then return to singing the praises of their own clan,” Taito said, shrugging. “I mean no offense, Daidoji-san. I truly appreciate the praise, but the volume of art your clan produces each year is phenomenal, enough that my victory will be but a drop in a sea of compliments.”
“I understand your concern,” Kinto nodded. “Everything is ephemeral in this world, but I would like for your triumph to have a longer impact on the relationship between our clans.”
“And how do you propose we do this?”
Kinto thought the issue over for a moment before continuing. “I will motion for the archery tournament to be held yearly, and renamed 'The Festival of Tsuruchi.' Your family will be extended a permanent invitation, in honor of its superior archery techniques.”
“That is... most generous of you, Daidoji-san,” Taito said as he took the two bottles of sake from the returning innkeeper's tray and placed them on the table, then poured a cup for Kinto before handing him the bottle. “But pardon me if I ask – do you really have the political influence to make such a thing come to pass?”
Kinto accepted the bottle and poured a cup for Taito. “A warrior I may be, but a Crane I remain. I know the right person to ask for such a favor. Besides, I am an honored war veteran, and the highest placed Crane in the archery tournament. Who could refuse such a humble request?”
“In that case, I owe you greatly.” Taito said as he gulped down his sake.
“Funny you should say that,” Kinto said as he sipped his sake. “I have a small request for you. There is a man in the Colonies which I would like to be found, and...”
“Say no more,” Taito said. “It will be done.”
“But I haven't told you who?”
“It doesn't matter. If you need them found, the Tsuruchi Bounty Hunters will find them.”
Kinto stared at Taito for a while and saw his conviction was real. “Maybe once you have found him, we can create another festival in your honor.”
“I'll drink to that.”
Isawa Genma heard the voices calling out to her for months. At first, she thought they were the kami. Then she wondered if it was a spirit, a ghost, or the words of a minor fortune. Days turned to weeks and in her rational mind Genma knew it was none of these things. She began to think herself mad, one of those whose connection to the Void broke them somehow.
But the voices kept on calling her, pleading in a haunting whisper that Genma realized was not many voices, but just one, repeating and overlapping. Light laughter sliced through chaotic mumblings, but most disturbing were the cries. The voices – no, the Voice – was lonely. It was afraid.
Genma ventured out alone unwilling to drag another into her nightmare. She could not trust to rational methods to find the source, so she simply allowed her body to follow the sounds. She let the Void guide her and one day found herself at the ruins of Morikage Toshi. She climbed through the ruins and rubble and she found it. She found the child.
“I thought you were the Void, little one.” When the boy turned to face her Genma felt her legs give way. Her knees slammed down painfully. Her shock overshadowed the broken brick which dug into her flesh and tore apart her kimono. Her blood flowed onto the earth as she watched the boy smile up at her. He lifted up two flat rocks and clacked them together with a giggle.
Genma’s hand pressed tight to her stomach. She felt phantom pain and a moan of agony tore free from her lips. Her eyes were hot and wet. Her vision blurred. A tear splashed across the back of her fingers.
“You can’t be here.” Genma knew now she had gone completely mad.
It was a child, a boy, but not just any boy. It was hers, her Akemi. The bright and shining boy she saw inside her mind during those precious months. But she had lost him before he had ever seen the light of this world.
Genma crumpled the thick cloth at her stomach and her shoulders shook. She reached out with her left hand. In this heightened state the Void told her everything. It spoke to her of pain and the musty smell of stone. It echoed the scraping rock as she slid forward. Each tear that splashed down resounded hollowly in her ears. It was all muffled by the insanity of the situation.
“You cannot be real. This is a trick. Some wicked trick!” Genma straightened sharply and withdrew her hand. Her neck and jaw clenched, tendons bulging. Her face strained to hold back the floodgate that so desperately sought to flow.
The little boy rocked back and forth on the ground. He clacked the stones again and giggled where he sat. His teeth, skin, even the whites of his eyes glowed in the starlight. He dropped the rocks then and with palms splayed flat on the ground, his butt shot high into the air. He pushed with all his might to stand on wobbly legs. For a breath Genma was certain he would fall. But though he rocked on unsteady legs, he managed to remain upright.
Hear me? See me? The boy’s grin split his face and he clapped. The sound did not echo. Yay! Happy!
It took everything Genma had not to flinch when the toddler started walking her direction. Something was off about his gait. Instead of slipping over broken terrain and crashing to the ground like any other baby this one floated across an unseen surface just above the earth. Where his chubby feet fell the air rippled like water, but held firm. Genma felt the playful kami of air reach out to aid the boy.
Moonlight sliced the shattered roof. The boy passed under the silver glow and a nimbus of energy crackled around him. Genma was so transfixed that it took her another second to see the tanto. It was golden and queerly designed. She recognized it instantaneously, recalling the knowledge from her studies of history and esoteric lore.
Wind whistled overhead through the broken slats. Then, the boy was upon her.
Scared! Shadows scary! The boy, her Akemi, threw himself into Genma’s chest, tiny hands holding on like she was his only source of hope. Razor-sharp baby nails dug into her scalp. She felt the pain as a flash of lightning, but like the words, the pain was hollow. Genma’s arms surrounded the boy, protecting him from the world. In that connection a flash of insight flew into her mind. In his fright, the boy’s power charged through Genma’s body like a storm. He was no ghost. He was her wish. He was the Wish, or perhaps just a remnant of Isawa’s greatest creation.
“Oh, child,” Genma said, body shuddering as she lost all composure. “I won’t let them harm you.” She embraced him with all the love a mother could express, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I won’t let anything harm you. I will take you back to where you will be loved and cared for and you will never have a reason to fear again.”
“Who in Jigoku are you talking to?” The gruff voice shocked Genma out of her reverie and she spun. Jagged rocks tore into her flesh and Genma felt one dig into bone and tendon. She reached out to the Void, the elements around her.
“No,” was all she heard before thunder crashed down. The world exploded into bright light and pain. Genma flew backward. Air erupted forcibly from her lungs as she landed. Her temple flared with pain. The blow left her dazed. She could hear new voices, real voices of gruff men and harsh soldiers.
“She is a shugenja. Take her satchel. Bind her quickly and search her. Now!”
Rough hands flipped Genma and smashed her face into the rock. Her arms were yanked back at agonizing angles. Her obi was torn away to tie her hands and feet together. They were taking no chances.
A heavy wood crate dropped beside her head full of stolen taxes. A single koku bounced out and fell atop her back.
“What are we going to do Minoro? If she’s a shugenja, she’s important. Someone will come looking.” Genma heard a sharp intake of breath. “Someone might be nearby already!”
“Shut up!’ Genma saw Yoritomo Minoro’s face as he leaned down to pick up the stray coin. His eyes grasped at the gold like a drowned man reaching for a raft. He flipped the coin over the backs of his fingers and dropped it with a clink into the chest of stolen goods. Minoro studied Genma as a tax collector gathering the season’s take. “If she had a yojimbo, we would have seen him. He would be on us by now. No, she came here alone.”
“But she was talking to someone.”
Minoro sniffed. “Must have been the kami. You doing some kind of research here in these ruins? Stupid Isawa don’t know when to leave well enough alone. What were you–” Minoro halted mid-sentence when he saw the flash of gold. The dagger had fallen beneath Genma when she was thrown, but its hilt was gold. Only the barest hint of lantern-light had touched it, but that glint was more than enough for Minoro’s sharp eye. Genma saw his eyes flicker to something nearby. The boy! He would take the boy! Genma panicked and started to thrash about, but Minoro planted his sandaled foot on her back, driving her into the unforgiving stone.
“What is this?” Minoro reached over Genma. She could not see what lay beyond his greedy grasp. In her mind’s eye she saw the boy grabbed, thrown down, taken. She would not allow it. She reached out to silently to the Void.
“This is a remarkable specimen. It would fetch a fair price on – what are you doing? Stop it! Stop her…ahhhh!” Minoro staggered back as a rush of energy filled his mind. The world went black. Minoro felt the world slip away, mind reeling from power poured forth in an act of desperation. Genma lashed at him with her will again, and again, and again. She would save Isawa’s Last Wish. She would not let them take away her Akemi!
“NO!” Minoro plunged the tanto down with both hands. He felt the satisfying thud of steel in flesh and the darkness flew from his mind. The world lit anew. Minoro saw blood pour from between his fingers, across the golden hilt. He had stabbed her through the spine.
“Ah, look what you did you stupid woman.” He stood up on shaky legs and risked a kick. His sandal connected with her ribs hard. “You got blood all over my new toy. Fortunes curse the Phoenix.” Minoro hocked back phlegm and spit then spat into her face.
“You killed her. You killed a shugenja. We’ll be cursed for sure!”
“We will be no such thing. She was trying to kill me, you idiot. Stop trying to think and leave that up to me. We will take her with us and toss her over the side when we’re far enough from shore. Then, we’ll dock again at Kaigen’s Island and a shugenja will purify our sins.” Minoro spat again and shook his head to clear it. “Gather the treasure. We’re leaving. And don’t forget her scrolls. Some ronin will pay handsomely for those.”
Genma listened to it all but could do only bleed.
She couldn’t feel her legs. Beneath her a wide, warm puddle spread. The copper stink mixed with salty tears and musty stone. Jagged rocks bit into her cheekbone. Wind screeched through slats overhead.
Genma turned her head with unimaginable effort and watched the Mantis gather their supplies. They came out of nowhere, from the darkness, and to it they would return.
There was her Akemi, the remnant of Isawa’s Last Wish huddled in a corner. The Mantis did not see him. Or could not.
Scared, he called to her. Genma tried to reach out but couldn’t lift a finger.
Minoro stepped over Genma’s body and tossed the golden tanto into the chest of stolen goods. The boy’s eyes widened in terror as the lid of the box was closed and locked. Her child, Isawa’s child, vanished. Genma couldn’t turn her head again, but she heard him pound and scream begging to be set free.
Yoritomo Minoro’s brow pinched in consternation. “Let who do what? You know what, Isawa, nevermind. I don’t care.” He turned to the crew. “Are you waiting for an invitation? Pick her up, grab the box. Let’s go!”
Isawa Genma bled out along the way. As they carried her away with the box, she heard with each step the pounding inside the chest grew more frantic. With each labored breath, she heard the boy’s horrified and muffled screams. The Mantis were deaf to his plea.
Isawa Genma died.
Yoritomo Minoro’s chuckled. “That dagger’ll fetch a high price indeed.”
The Kintani Valley
Doji Ichikuro no Tsume, daimyo of his family, stepped away from the front gate of Shiro Kyotei. He wore no armor - armor would imply an intent to fight - but he kept his daisho by his side and his short-spear strapped to his back. He kept his son by his side. His mother had protested; it was well before the boy’s gempukku, but Ichikuro felt he should witness this. The boy needed to learn the difficulties required of daimyo. He kept his eyes away from the boy, trusting that with his training, he would maintain a neutral on.
He led with measured steps, approaching the small party of mounted officers and the army beyond them. The pointed tips of their pikes gleamed in the morning sun, flawless and deadly beneath the waving banner of the Matsu family. It was not a vast army, but there were more than enough ashigaru to lay siege to the castle and at least enough samurai to hold it. The officers watched as Ichikuro and his son approached, still as statues in their pristine, tanned armor.
Ichikuro stopped just within speaking distance of the officers. None dismounted, to his disdain. He was expected to speak upwards to them, another subtle indication that his situation was hopeless, but it was not necessary, to Ichikuro’s mind. He wasn’t going to fight. “Welcome to the Kintani Valley,” he spoke. “Have you eaten this morning?”
“We have,” spoke one of the officers from the saddle. His yari was unstrapped; it could be equipped in moments. “You are Daimyo of the honored Tsume?”
“I am Doji Ichikuro no Tsume, steward of the Kintani Valley.” He looked from one officer to the next, scanning for an identifying mon. “Who among you is the leader of this army?”
“I am,” the same officer spoke. “Matsu Iwoshi, honored retainer of the Matsu Daimyo herself.” He paused. “You have kept us waiting, daimyo of the Tsume.”
“My apologies,” Ichikuro said with a bow. “We saw your approach only yesterday, and I required the evening to prepare to receive you. With some advance notice, perhaps the long wait would have been avoided.”
The commander did not falter. He simply produced a scroll from a case by his side. Unfurling it, he began to read. The officers flanking him stared passively at the Crane as their commanding officer spoke.
“It is with deep regret that the Matsu inform the Tsume of an error in their cartographic surveys,” Iwoshi said. “Recent study of border maps and superior cartography techniques have regrettably clarified that the northern portion of the Kitani Valley is the rightful property of the Lion Clan, falling within the purview of Seizuka Shiro. To this effect, and acting on behalf of the Lion Clan, the Matsu family have taken the necessary steps to claim Shiro Kyotei as a holding of the Lion. An apology has been issued to your Champion.” The commander looked up from his scroll. “In the spirit of friendship between our clans, I extend the offer to help vacate the castle and avoid needless unpleasantries.”
Ichikuro felt his son’s gaze rise up to him. He kept his face calm and his posture relaxed. “We are grateful for this offer. We accept. I have already made the preparations.” He paused. “It may take some time to completely vacate, however. Our population is significant.”
“You have two hours,” Iwoshi spoke.
The time passed slowly. A vast column of servants, artisans, and bushi vacated Shiro Kyotei beneath the watchful eyes of the Lion army. They carried everything they could as they abandoned their home, roughly two-hundred in number, virtually the entire Tsume family making an exodus from their ancestral lands. They would follow the northern road to Mamoru Kyotei Toshi, accept the hospitality of the Phoenix, and await instructions from the Doji family.
The entire time, the Lion forces stood motionless. The ashigaru less so, but the samurai were armored sentinels, the fabled discipline of the Lion showing through. Ichikuro detected a hint of disappointment on the faces of their samurai as they clutched their spears. He thought they’d wanted to test their style of sojutsu, “spear-fighting,” against the famous style of the Tsume Pikemen, but such ideas could have been his imagination or his own desire to fight for his homeland. He knew better than to fight, however. There were plans for occurrences like this one.
“Your time is nearly up,” Matsu Iwoshi remarked, just as the last of the Crane occupants were leaving the castle.
“It was more than enough,” Ichikuro replied.
Iwoshi cast him a focused look, as if searching for some hidden meaning in Ichikuro’s words, but the Tsume Daimyo’s on was stone-like, giving the officer nothing. The Matsu nodded at him. “The Lion can be generous at times, Doji-san.”
Ichikuro sent his son away to catch up to his mother who waited beside the open gates of the castle. When he was gone, he turned to the Matsu commander and his officers. “You realize there will be repercussions for this insult.”
“You have Kakita Daitsu to thank for this,” Iwoshi said. “Tell him that if he wanted to leave something for the Scorpion to deface, he should have left the cartography records.”
The Tsume Daimyo did not know what Iwoshi meant, but he did not need to. That this was a matter between the Kakita and Matsu was enough for him. He turned his gaze back to the retreating column of his vassals and in that moment saw another group of Lion approaching. From the north, he recognized the banner of the Matsu Daimyo. It seemed Matsu Chizuki herself would soon be here.
“Do me only one favor,” he said, “as one samurai to another. Do not damage the plum garden. It is my favorite place.”
“You’ll never see it again,” Iwoshi remarked.
Ichikuro turned his head so that the commander could see his profile. For the first time, he gave the man an expression. A smile. “Is that so?”
Iwoshi’s eyes narrowed. The Tsume daimyo bowed and left, the last Tsume to leave their homelands. He passed the command group of the Matsu Daimyo as he left, offering her a respectful bow as he did. She cast him no glance; she was not armored, but her command group was with her, and she was mounted, seemingly ready for war. He could not believe how green her eyes were.
By the time she reached Iwoshi’s command group, the Lion had already begun their march into the castle. He bowed as she approached, his officers following his lead. “My lady,” he said, “Shiro Kyotei is now under your control. We await further orders.”
“What have you done?” she growled.
He looked up, momentarily confused. She looked furious, the light of her green eyes glazed with barely-contained anger. He felt his officers exchange glances. He opened his mouth but could say nothing.
She sneered, exposing a canine that seemed slightly too long. “Who ordered this? Which fool ordered this action?”
The officers blanched. They avoided her face. Iwoshi swallowed hard, preparing to see the end of his career. His voice came soft in answer. “You did, my lady.”
Beneath her astonished gaze, he produced the orders. She snatched them and raked the surface with her emerald gaze. “You are idiots,” she hissed. “This is an obvious forgery.”
“It has your chop, my Lady.”
“I would never willingly create another front to defend!” she barked. “There is no strategic value in this move! It is a waste of resources and…”
She did not finish, dismissing her own reasoning with a wave of her hand. “It was a Scorpion trick,” she concluded, voice full of certainty. “Who else could it have been? They seek to embarrass us now… while we are focusing on saving our face here, they seek to unmake our advance into their lands.”
“How did the Scorpion know about Kakita Daitsu?” Iwoshi asked.
Chizuki had no answer for that.
The sound of a signal arrow broke their conversation. They turned as one to a horseback herald, riding break-neck from the west. Judging from his heraldry, he was a part of Seizuka Shiro’s standing forces. He called out to Matsu Chizuki. She answered by riding out to meet him, the others shortly behind her.
“Shiro no Yojin,” he blurted the instant she was within earshot. “Attacked, my lady. Just this morning.”
Her eyes widened as the officers blanched.
Rather than continue, the herald handed Chizuki a scroll. She took it and read the contents. It seemed the Tsume had sent a carrier pigeon to Kyuden Kakita once the intentions of the invading Lion were known. The Kakita had scoured their own maps and records for verification of the Lion’s claims and found a map that confirmed that the northern part of the Kintani Valley was indeed a part of Lion provinces. However, the map had come from an age where Shiro no Yojin was still under control of the Crane. Thus, if this Imperial map was to be used to draw the border between their lands, then the Kakita would act accordingly.
“We received word by carrier pigeon,” the herald said. “Just this morning. I rode as fast as I could, my lady… I did not know you would be here…” He cast an apologetic look at Iwoshi.
Chizuki was speechless, so it was Iwoshi who asked the herald to explain.
“The Kakita arrived with significant numbers,” the herald said. “They offered to allow our soldiers to vacate the castle. Naturally, this offer was declined. However, the Crane were able to-“
“They seized Shiro no Yojin,” Chizuki finished for him. “There would not have been enough there to adequately defend it, given our peace with the Crane and attentions to our western lands.”
“We can retake it,” the herald spoke. “However, I should mention that the Kakita Daimyo has made an offer. He will give back Shiro no Yojin if the Lion relinquish their claim to the northern Kintani Valley.”
Chizuki growled. It would be impossible to save face now. She cast the herald a look and noticed that the man was avoiding her eyes. She sensed something in his face…
“What are you holding back?” she asked. “There is something else, isn’t there?”
The herald hesitated. “My lady… forgive me. It is just… a complication.” He took a deep breath. “An Akodo Honor Guard was passing through Shiro no Yojin on their way to meet with the main forces gathering at the Hall of Ancestors. They were at the castle when the Crane attacked. They… they had something in their possession…”
“What?” Chizuki demanded. “What did they have?”
The herald gritted his teeth and gave a pained expression.
At that very moment, two day’s ride south from Shiro Kyotei, Kakita Ujirou stood on the high tower of Shiro no Yojin, surveying the lands around him as his army mobilized their defenses around the castle. He cast a look of great satisfaction on the remains of the shattered gate to the castle, the great wooden doorway that was now completely demolished, as broken and torn as the very door that led him to this perch. He was flanked by his command group, releasing a messenger bird to the south - doves, a symbol of war. He turned from this and cast his look north, in the direction of the Kintani Valley.
An officer bowed to him. “Do you think they will trade this castle for the home of the Tsume?”
“I think they will,” Ujirou said, voice obscured by his wooden mask. “But I do not mind. Even if they regain this castle, I think we have something better.”
The officers nodded in agreement. Together they smiled at the ancestral banner of the Lion Clan.
Shiba Myoushi’s voice echoed through the chamber of the Elemental Masters as he gave his report. He still wore his crimson armor, even in this sacred place, but if the Masters were offended by this, they gave no sign. He kept his voice even and calm in spite of the growing urgency he felt inside. His place was by the side of his Champion; Shiba Tsukimi would need her heralds and trusted advisors, and Myoushi was both.
Each Elemental Master was present, at least by varying degrees. Norimichi didn’t seem to be paying much attention, and Koiso was relaxed in kimono layers that revealed much of her shoulders and neck. The Master of Air was inscrutable as always; Tsumaro had chosen a woman’s appearance today, floating above her seat while dozens of butterflies swarmed around her glowing robes. Asako Miyabi looked mildly concerned by every word, even those relating to what Myoushi considered good news. And then there was the young Master of Void, who stared ever-forward with a distant expression, as if his eyes were looking through the room at something far away…
“Please continue,” the Voice of the Masters insisted. Asako Chukage leaned against the far wall, cupping his chin in a pinched hand. He did not advise; it was not his place, but the Masters seemed to want their Voice to listen in regardless.
Myoushi took a deep breath. He did not relish having to report this next part. “The Crane have withdrawn their support,” he said. “They have ceased their supply deliveries and have withdrawn their troops from Tanima Sano Futatsu Taisho.”
The Masters exchanged looks. Even Norimichi’s attention seemed diverted from his inward thoughts.
Koiso sprung up from her relaxed position. “What!? Why?” She cast the messenger a concerned look. “I spoke with a Crane diplomat only days ago. Everything was fine. What has happened?”
“The Imperial Winter Court,” Myoushi answered. He kept his eyes on the circular stone table, avoiding the faces of his masters. “Word has come from the courts. The Crane have not explained, but it was plain to our advisors. The Crane seek to consolidate their political influence. They have withdrawn from the war entirely… They will support neither side and have closed travel through their lands to Phoenix and Unicorn alike.”
The Master of Fire rose from her seat. She was an imposing figure when her anger was stirred. “Which delegation is to blame for this?” she demanded. “Who has dared to make an enemy of the Phoenix?”
“Our own delegation is to blame,” Asako Miyabi remarked. She looked sad. “Their disunity was obvious to anyone who was paying attention.”
Myoushi said nothing.
If Koiso could have appeared any more displeased, she might have morphed into a bakemono right there. “I knew I should have said something when I saw Taisho’s name on the list for the delegation. That man could make a fresh pear turn sour! He may be a hero, but he knows absolutely nothing about diplomacy.” She huffed. “He is out-shamed only by that stubborn fool Maemuki.”
“Leave Maemuki alone,” Miyabi spoke quietly. “What is done is done.”
Norimichi sighed. “It is reasonable to be against a needless war. But with their open dissent undermining our efforts, they have now killed as many Phoenix as they intended to save.”
“We still have the support of the Crab,” Norimichi said, her masked voice chiming like morning bells. “They decided against their promise to remain neutral in this war. They risk the Unicorn’s ire for this slight, so we must recommit ourselves to properly demonstrating our gratitude.”
“I am grateful to the Crab, but their aid may come too late.” Koiso shook her head at the Master of Water. “You were too easy on Maemuki, Miyabi-san. His insubordination has given our enemies a path to victory. If he had his way, the Phoenix would be nothing more than a tatami to the other clans! When Nakesake burns due to lack of supplies and allies, be sure all survivors know that it was the traitor Maemuki that cost them the lives of their loved ones!”
“That is enough,” Norimichi shouted, rising even higher in her seat. Her robes darkened like a coming storm. “You are talking about a honored mediator and a direct descendent of Lady Asako herself! Maemuki is misguided, and perhaps incapable of seeing the bigger picture, but he does not deserve to be put to death for acting in accordance with his own nature! Perhaps you should re-dedicate yourself to peace, Koiso-chan.”
Koiso spun. Her hands smoldered. “The Phoenix are the Voice of the Heavens. We speak for the Fortunes. To apologize for performing our duty is unthinkable.” She smirked. “But perhaps you agree with him anyway, little kodama. If so, you are welcome to crawl to the Unicorn on your hands and knees and beg them to forgive you!”
Norimichi’s eyes began to glow. “What did you say?”
Asako Miyabi’s quiet voice carried to all present. “To see how unified the Phoenix are, one need look no further than their Masters.”
Koiso paused. Tsumaro hesitated. The full weight of Miyabi’s words settled into their minds. At last, Tsumaro lowered her arms, and Koiso looked away, ashamed. They both sat, hostilities gone.
“He should be punished,” Koiso whispered.
“He was,” Miyabi replied. “I took care of it. He would rather have died, I think.”
That seemed to placate the Master of Fire, at least for the time being.
“What else?” Norimichi asked the Shiba with an air of boredom. “Have you news of the Unicorn’s siege at Kyuden Agasha? How bad is the damage?”
If Myoushi had been affected by the brief display of the masters before, he gave no sign. But now, he smiled. “The siege has been repelled, my lord. Our army was victorious. The remains of the attackers are pinned in the Mountains of Regret, cut off from the main forces.”
Norimichi raised his head. The Masters exchanged glances. This was a significant, if perhaps unexpected victory for the Phoenix. In truth, they’d already assumed that Kyuden Agasha would fall, but none spoke this out loud, lest they dishonor the Shiba defenders.
Only Miyabi seemed worried. “What happens next, then?”
Myoushi paused. “My lords… in sword fighting, when you have disrupted the balance of your opponent, it is best then to press the attack. One fourth of the Unicorn’s forces are now trapped in Treacherous Pass. They do not have permission to encroach on the lands of the Moshi; if they do, they will vindicate us in the eyes of the Empire and invoke hostilities from the Mantis. They surely would not dare.” The Shiba lifted his head. “If pressed now, they will either collapse in the valley or be forced south, even farther from the rest of their forces. We can effectively remove them from the war effort altogether. We should counterattack now and scatter them, before they can reform effectively. We should give them no rest, my lords.”
Miyabi frowned. “Counterattack? I… am uncomfortable with this notion.”
“Up to now, we have merely been defending ourselves,” Tsumaro said. “We have been able to minimize the damage of the Unicorn’s offense. The Fortunes support those who defend the position of the Heavens. But if we go on the offensive ourselves, then we are actively participating in the war. We will be just as bad as the warmongers in the Unicorn.”
“Agreed,” Koiso spoke. “However… it could end the war faster.”
“At the cost of our principles?” Tsumaro shook her head. “I agree with Miyabi.”
“So do I, actually,” Koiso insisted. She frowned at the table as she crossed her arms. “I don’t think we have a choice, if ending this conflict is our ultimate goal. The Heavens will intercede for their champions on earth… We cannot ignore this opportunity to stop the fighting.”
Myoushi did not speak, as it was not his place, but his opinion was clear from his expression. Norimichi regarded him curiously. “What is the opinion of Shiba Tsukimi?”
The Shiba thought for a long while, the masters patiently waiting for his reply. “My lady believes it would be strategically unwise to allow this moment to pass with inaction. Now that the Crane have withdrawn their support, we cannot afford to wage an extended war.”
Norimichi smirked. “How ironic. Though his intentions were to promote peace, Asako Maemuki has ultimately forced us to consider the opposite.”
Miyabi did not reply. Instead, she regarded the only master who had not said anything. Isawa Shunryu was looking straight forward from his seat, not seeming to regard anything in the room in particular.
“Shunryu?” she asked. “What do you think?”
The Master of Void blinked. His reverie broken, he looked to the other Masters and saw their expectant faces. Even Asako Chukage watched him from the corner. All waited to hear the opinion of the Master of Void.
Shunryu’s face burned. “Sorry, I… what were we talking about?”
As one, the Masters deflated. Koiso rolled her eyes. “Daydreaming, Shunryu-kun? Really.” A slight smile tugged her lips. “Thinking about Iweko Miaka? It is too bad you were not selected as her consort. I thought you two would be a most suitable pair.”
The boy’s blush spread to his ears.
Miyabi smiled warmly. “Shunryu, I am wondering if we might speak for a moment.” She rose, gesturing for him to follow. “Something has occurred to me.”
The Master of Void had the manner of a student who’d been caught displeasing his sensei. Red-faced, he obeyed, rising to shadow Miyabi on her way to the gardens outside the masters’ chambers. Behind them, the discussion between the Masters continued as Myoushi awaited their decision, obedient and quiet. Just before he left the chamber, Shunryu glimpsed back, meeting the Shiba’s eyes, and in a rare moment of honesty, they both exchanged condolences in their glance.
Outside, Miyabi regarded the younger boy curiously. “Something troubles you, Shunryu?”
The Master of Void hesitated. He was no more accustomed to his title than he had been on the first day. When he spoke, it was in a whisper. “I have… had dreams lately.” He waited until Miyabi nodded before continuing. “It is always the same. I am flying over a vast desert. Somehow, I know it is in the Colonies. I see cities rising from the sands, many cities, but I don’t recognize them. They are familiar yet elusive. They are overstuffed with people.” He paused again to measure her expression. “I think… I think I’m supposed to go to the Colonies.”
Miyabi stared at him blankly.
“…But of course I will not,” he quickly said, waving his thoughts aside. “A Master shouldn’t leave the Clan during wartime, and I know I have obligations here. Please, forgive my foolish notions. I did not mean-“
“-You should go,” she interrupted softly.
He stopped, taking a breath.
“You should go,” she repeated, smiling. “You say you feel as though the Colonies are calling out to you, yes?”
“It’s just a dream,” he whispered.
She shook her head. “No. The Void is speaking to you. Everything is interconnected. Nothing is inconsequential. You have a destiny there. It is calling for you. You should go.”
He thought. It didn’t make sense. Yet, in his heart, he felt the gentle tug westward, a strange sensation that he didn’t understand. “I should go,” he agreed.
“I’ll make the arrangements,” Miyabi said. “Don’t worry about anything here. Follow the Void. Whatever purpose it has in mind, it will prepare you for it.” She gently laid her hand on the boy’s shoulder and met his eyes. “You should trust your instincts, Shunryu-kun. There is more to your story than even you are aware.”
She left him wondering in the garden, alone with the dandelions and butterflies.
The Halls of the Kakita
Once, there was a man.
No, that is a poor way to begin. Our story is one of glory echoed across the generations, a resounding inspiration that must be told in the hushed tones of a baby’s breath, whispered to the eager ear. To do otherwise risks deafening the listener to their own destiny, overshadowed by the weight of history.
This is the tale of destiny seized upon by zealous hands and handed down a line of descendants. So yes, at the start there was a man, but he was more. Kakita Toshimoko was an entity of power, a vessel of destiny. We call him the Grey Crane, Emerald Champion, duelist, and sensei. A man of such remarkable skill that it was only he who could impart the teachings of iaijutsu to Doji Hoturi, Crane Thunder, and his brother Kuwanan, both Crane Champions. Toshimoko blessed the Phoenix as well. No Shiba duelist could compare to the level of his skill, so Toshimoko took upon himself the task of training Shiba Tsukune, Phoenix Champion. Such benevolence and grace!
This is a tale told in parts, and Toshimoko is but one. The Grey Crane bore a weapon with a destiny of its own. Kandaisa, a Kakita blade, the Kakita blade tested first upon the great stone to hear its song ring true. So pure was its voice that all such blades after mimicked this final act in their creation. Kandaisa was the silver feather in that Master’s hands, each feeding upon the other’s glory, enhancing both beyond measure.
Greatness cannot exist without an enemy, and in the Grey Crane’s final hour, Kandaisa in his hands, he stood back to back with his nemesis at Oblivion’s Gate. Dairya, a ronin who longed to repay Toshimoko for the loss of his eye, fought the Shadow until he could no longer withstand its distressing whispers. In an instant, our ronin enemy drew steel against our hero and betrayed him. In that instant, Toshimoko’s vision expanded beyond all mortal ken. He allowed himself to fall, but before death’s final strike, he beheld one last glimpse of wisdom and snatched it from the stars. What wisdom you ask? Oh, but you must wait!
Such was the greatness of Toshimoko that even as his spirit departed this world, his bloodline thrived. Toshiken, another Emerald Champion, wore the mantle of his father’s history through an age of darkness. Noritoshi, Toshimoko’s own grandchild, lived a tragic life, yet one resplendent with accomplishment. Perhaps the greatest of them all was his own child, great-grandchild of Toshimoko, our great Lord Ikura.
Here our tale plucks from the gardens of glory the ripened fruit of promise, but can it be eaten? Our Lord Ikura, the embodiment of distilled history, child of a line of iaijutsu masters…is cursed!
O agony! Oh anguish! With sorrow on my lips, I tell you that this descendant of warriors is forbidden from ever drawing steel. To do so would damn him, damn his family and his clan for he was born behind the closed gates of Kyuden Kakita. He must never draw steel, never take up the righteous heritage of his forefathers, must never use Kandaisa to its full potential.
Is not Lord Ikura a master of other arts? Is he not a man of honor, wisdom, and glory in his own way? Yes, of course, you speak the truth and speak it well. But you do not know all. Destiny cannot be stifled, not by closed gates nor curse. It was destiny that Kakita Ikura would become the greatest iaijutsu master of his generation. Destiny was forestalled, but not forgotten. Never lost.
Destiny cannot be ignored.
Such tragedy weighs upon Kakita Ikura that he must express it through other art and spread his sorrow. To listen to him strum, to play, to speak is to hear expectation of dreams deferred. Yet Ikura-sama does not allow his pain and anguish to slow the wheel of destiny. Instead, he fosters it to productive measure. Toshimoko’s final vision held tight to Kandaisa and whispered to Ikura, “I have secrets,” in the Grey Crane’s voice. The blade must be used, must be gifted to another and our lord found the perfect servant.
He found her, his protégé, his yojimbo, his new vessel of destiny, and he made her his own. Kakita Mitohime saved his life from deadly assassins, and instantly, Lord Ikura knew she must be the one. The blade whispered. The Grey Crane demanded from across the veil of life to share his secret wisdom. Kakita Ikura could have been the greatest duelist of his generation, but he was not the only great duelist, and he would not let a simple curse bar this path of greatness. Our lord has the eye of a prophet and foresaw the raw material of Mitohime for what she could be, not merely for what she was.
Mitohime, no foreigner to tragedy, unsurpassed in skill by even the most remarkable students of our age. Mitohime, faster than the falcon with a wit sharper than the cold north wind. Even in her training, she was a master of Kakita’s technique and could be seen correcting the flawed stance of rising students such as Shinichi and Daitsu. Like Toshimoko and Dairya, her glory connected to these brothers, each enhancing each, glory courting glory.
Mitohime, master of iaijutsu, yojimbo to the Kakita lord, risen up to the position of an Emerald Magistrate and in this very year the newest Crane to attain the title of Kenshinzen! It is Mitohime who will bear the weight of destiny through our Lord Ikura. Though he felt an ache at being unable to take on the task himself, he knew this was the only choice.
Lord Ikura knew he could not impart the secret knowledge of his dreams, but he could lead her. He could count on her to take the final steps.
In Lord Ikura’s obi were two blades, both bound. A wakizashi held in chains of iron, never to be drawn, a symbol of his status. And the katana, Kandaisa, Toshimoko’s steel…not often seen at Ikura’s side. He offered it not as a gift but as a burden. Mitohime saw its delicate golden chains. She heard in their clinking rattle the wisdom of the past. She saw in their radiant glow the path of the future.
“It is your burden now,” said Lord Ikura. “I give it because I see in you what I could be, unrestrained. I will lead you on this next path, but I can only take you so far. You must take the final steps yourself to uncover my ancestors’ wisdom. You must find a way to impart it upon us all. Are you ready to learn?”
She was not ready, but Mitohime knew she could not shame him with indecision. “Yes,” she called forth and with one smooth motion she drew forth Toshimoko’s blade. Kandaisa’s song range out as the purest note of silver even as the meager chains of gold snapped and clattered, tinkling bells shattered upon the floor.
Mitohime felt the power, the wisdom, and the will of destiny pour forth from that draw into her soul. She could hear the faint whispers of a long-dead sensei. She could not yet understand him, but knew in time that Ikura would teach her to listen.
On that day, with that sacred draw, the echoed music of broken golden chains and ringing steel flowed forth into the hearts of all Kakita masters. In their soul, their deepest center, they knew a step had been taken down a road of discovery and power. Toshimoko’s lost technique would flourish. The line of destiny would not be denied.
The Roads of the Empire
Seppun Fusazane kept a careful eye on the surroundings as his convoy progressed on the road to Toshi Ranbo. He didn't expect any danger, as the road was one of the main paths leading to the capital and was both frequently patrolled and saw heavy traffic at all times. This was even truer now, due to the impending coronation and the festivals which preceded it. Regardless, a Seppun never abated in his vigilance, and Fusazane would not be one to shame his family. He was more worried about one of his younger counterparts, a samura-ko who had just joined his unit. She had seemed nervous since their departure from the port in which their cargo had arrived.
“Something the matter, Mariko-san?” he asked without looking at her, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Nothing, Fusazane-sama,” the young recruit answered immediately, with too much enthusiasm to sound sincere.
“No need for formalities, please,” Fusazane answered. “You are one of us now, and we are your brothers and sisters. Speak freely.”
“Thank you, Fusazane... san. I am just worried about the nature of the item we are bringing to the capital, in such auspicious time.”
Fusazane sighed. “How ironic. Once, there would have been no place for the Ancestral Sword of the Hantei but in the Imperial capital. Now, we are worried to bring it there.”
“I blame the Spider,” Mariko said, her disgust obvious in her voice. “Because of them, the legacy of the holy Hantei line has been forever... marred.”
“Were you about to say Tainted? This is the whole point, though. The sword is brought to the Empress once a year, to guarantee its purity. Besides, this shouldn't concern you,” Fusazane said as he nodded towards the palanquin ahead of them. “This duty falls to the Otomo.”
“Forgive me, Fusazane-san,” Mariko shook her head. “I highly respect our cousins in the Otomo Family, but they are not known for their expertise in matters of dark magic. Why not have our brothers and sisters in the Hidden Guard keep watch over it?”
“Tradition,” Fusazane answered, struggling not too sound tired with Mariko’s constant questioning. “The Otomo have escorted the blade every year since the Spider were declared a Great Clan. And we escort the Otomo. They have their duty, and we have ours.”
When Mariko failed to answer, Fusazane was initially relieved but then realized something was amiss. As he looked to her, he saw she was grasping the handle of her blade, nervously watching the road.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
“We’re alone on the road,” she pointed out. A look around made Fusazane understand what she meant: for the first time in their trip, their caravan was on its own, other convoys having left in one direction or another without any new ones following. On such a busy road, this was an unexpected event. Fusazane realized his conversation with Mariko had distracted him and cursed inwardly.
Before Fusazane could warn the rest of his unit, warriors erupted from both sides of the road and were upon them in an instant. Fusazane drew his blade and defended himself, keeping his back to the cart in which the blade was carried. It was only after his first enemy fell that he noticed the attackers were wearing the colors of the Mantis. However, he had no time to ponder why samurai from a Great Clan would attack an Imperial convoy, as more enemies kept attacking him. His blade fell again and again, and the bodies of the defeated men and women started piling up at his feet, but the superior numbers of the attackers were starting to pay off for them, and Fusazane saw Mariko on the ground, blood running from under her.
The next warrior to face Fusazane was an imposing man, whose heavy armor included a garish display of gold in its design. Fusazane moved to engage him, but the Mantis carefully parried every one of his blows with his own sword. The Seppun attempted to disarm his opponent, but to his surprise, the Mantis simply let go of his sword, letting it fall in the dirt and avoiding the blow altogether. Capitalizing on Fusazane’s loss of balance, his opponent rolled forward and drew a kama, slicing Fusazane behind the knee. As he fell, the Seppun samurai had no chance of avoiding the following blow, which crushed his armor and pierced through his belly. Pain registered at the edge of his consciousness, but he was momentarily distracted by the sight of a figure emerging from the palanquin.
“That’s enough!” Otomo Akemi ordered, her voice tolerating no disobedience. All assembled stopped fighting at once, captivated by the imperial’s presence. “This convoy is under the protection of the Otomo Family, and you are betraying the Empress through your actions! Stand down immediately, and you may yet be allowed to die an honorable death!”
The Mantis in the golden armor stared at Otomo Akemi for a brief moment until an arrow came whistling above him and found its way to her throat.
“Thank Yoritomo-no-kami for the Tsuruchi,” he chuckled to himself. “They really are our best negotiators.”
The battle around him resumed, but it was only a formality now, as the Mantis clearly had the upper hand.
“Mmm, this one doesn’t appear to be dead yet,” the large warrior said as he approached Fusazane. He kicked the fallen samurai in the ribs, eliciting a groan of pain in response. Clutching his side, the fallen Seppun looked up at his victor.
“Why come after the blade?” Fusazane barely managed to ask.
“Two reasons,” the Mantis said as he knelt besides him. “First, because we don’t trust the Spider, and recent events have led us to wonder if they are going back to their former, unsavory ways. Second, and most important,” the warrior continued as he took away Fusazane’s coin bag and plucked a golden coin from it, “because the Otomo are useless parasites meddling in affairs which do not concern them, and now, they will be shamed for failing to provide the Hantei sword for inspection.”
“There will be repercussions,” Fusazane coughed through his own blood. “The Mantis will be punished!”
“Will we?” the large warrior said as he stood up. “But there are no real witnesses to the assault. A pity how busy merchants were spending the koku we provided them with. Otherwise, there might have been passersby. There is only you, the sole survivor of a failed security detail. What good is the word of such dishonored samurai? Not much, not much indeed.”
As the Mantis warrior walked away, Fusazane realized he was right, as the Mantis were removing any proof of their presence while retrieving the blade for themselves. He had failed in his duty, and his word would be of little value against the courtiers of the Mantis, who would no doubt protest his accusations and paint his claims as the desperate lies of a failed samurai. As he faded into unconsciousness, Fusazane found himself hoping for death, for he knew his life as a respected member of the Seppun Family was over.