Spring 2015 Kotei Fiction
Act 2: Troubled Waters - Part 2
Chris Hand, Maxime Lemaire, Mari Murdock, Fred Wan, and Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
The Garanto Province of the Ide
Iuchi Namida filled her lungs with the crisp air rolling off the surface of Chrysanthemum Petal Lake, drawing so deeply that her ribs ached from the fullness of her lungs. She held it there for long moments until the air was stale and leeched of life by her body. She released it in a quiet sigh, returning it to the world. The breeze of her breath mingled with that of the lake.
This was the way of mortals, she thought. It was second nature to drain a thing of life and then return it fully dead. Only a handful could truly master life, but all humankind were already masters of death.
Her fingers graced the smooth surfaces of her string of pearls, one-hundred and eight spheres of varying grays and whites. Her other hand lingered on the small rosewood charm that dangled from her slender neck, fingertip tracing the subtle groove of the carved rune. Although she sat in meditation, eyes closed, back straight, and legs folded in the lotus position, she could not help but fidget with her many trinkets. Perhaps that was why her mind could not be still.
The sound of galloping hooves reached her ears, and she opened her midnight eyes to look over her shoulder, away from the shore of Chrysanthemum Petal Lake, in the direction of Shiro Ide. The pristine violet-capped rooftops of Great Day Castle towered above the surrounding structures in the distance, dwellings both permanent and nomadic. She spotted the source of the sound: a lone rider, adorned in purples, blues, and golds, his tea-brown hair pulled into a topknot above his head. She turned her gaze back to the glittering surface of the lake, smiling knowingly in a direction he would not see.
The rider stopped a short distance from her, dismounting by a vibrant cherry tree. “Namida-san,” he called to her, breaking the silence of the lakeside shore.
“Good morning, Hideshi,” she replied. She kept her gaze on the waters. “You’re early today.”
“Festival preparations,” Ide Hideshi explained as he approached, leaving his horse by the tree. “The Emperor’s coronation is in two weeks. Takeru-sama was very explicit regarding the timing of the festival. We must finish the grand walkway tonight.” He came to her side and plopped down, heedless to his finery. From his saddle-bag, he produced a swollen waterskin. “Lychee water. Drink.”
“I’m fasting,” she replied, smiling. “Why so much emphasis on the festival? The Iweko will not come all the way here, surely.”
“It is not so far,” Hideshi said. “He could well come this way, and the Ide would not offer insult. After all, is this lake not famous for capturing the hearts of Emperors who gazed upon its surface?” He gestured with the waterskin again. “Drink. It’s not cheating. You will shrivel up without something.”
She shook her head. “It would be rude to consume your only rations.”
He grinned. “I brought it for you. It would be rude not to drink.”
At last she looked at him, a sideways look with a knowing smile. She accepted the offering and drank deeply.
“It’s been two days,” he remarked.
“Has it?” She wiped her mouth with her forearm. “I lost track.”
“You will starve.”
She returned the waterskin, empty. “I have done this before. You fret over nothing.” She looked back to the lake. “Chisato fares well?”
“He is happy as a foal,” Hideshi affirmed. “Plenty of space to run, all of the grains he can eat. He will prefer me to you by the time I am done.”
She smirked, wrinkling her nose. “You could dress him in gold and feed him figs every day, and he would still prefer my company.” She cast him a smile. “Thank you for taking care of him. It should not be too much longer.”
Hideshi’s lips parted and he took a short breath. She expected him to ask what was on her mind, but he thought better, sighing instead of speaking. “Of course,” he said. “Whenever you are… finished here, Chisato will be ready.” His eyes softened. “I am sure he is eager for you to return. Perhaps he wonders why you have chosen to live by the lake, away from those who… care about you.”
Namida’s gaze tilted back to the waters. She said nothing. To explain would be fruitless. The mockingbird could not explain his song to the sparrow, nor could a firefly explain her dance to the bee. They were from different worlds. There was no foundation upon which understanding could be built.
Hideshi rose. “I must return. They will be waiting. Someone must judge the dragon dancers.” He paused, looked one final time upon the pristine waters. “It is beautiful,” he said. “The surface of the lake is a mirror turned upwards to heaven. A face that does not move can conceal many emotions.”
The shugenja looked up at him. He was fixated on the lake, face devoid of expression, and yet the wind seemed to whisper of his sadness.
A moment more, and then he bowed. “I will return tomorrow. Rest with the Fortunes, Namida-san.”
And then she was alone. Iuichi Namida closed her eyes and tried to resume her meditations, but soon her fingers stirred again, clutching the charm that dangled from her neck. She could not concentrate. Her heart warred with her mind, reminding her of Hideshi’s manner. She broke her reverie to lower her head and whisper towards the waters.
“Why am I here?” she asked. “Why do you call to me?”
There was nothing, not even the wind to answer her. She raised her voice, but it was still soft. She carried it over the waters. “Spirits of the lake, you invaded my dreams. I have come as summoned. I have fasted for two days. Is this not enough?” She looked out upon the mirror of heaven. “Why am I drawn here? What is required of me?”
In the distance, there was a quiet rumble, like thunder.
She sat up, drawing a breath at the sound. The sky was pristine, the air mild and warm. The leaves of the cherry trees had not turned upwards. No sign of a storm. And yet it rumbled again, the voice of thunder, carrying over the plains. This time, it was accompanied by a troubling of the waters. Her reflection rippled beneath her. She found herself looking into the lake’s depths, leaning forward as the water stirred. It was as if rain was falling on the lake, but nothing came down from the pristine sky.
One without a priest’s training would have shirked from such an oddity. Namida clutched her string of pearls, wrapping them around her palm as she whispered a sacred mantra. Perhaps this was the sign she sought. She recalled an image from the dreams that led her here, dreams of troubled waters and dark clouds, dreams of long, coiled bodies in the sky. She felt oddly disconnected from her body, leaning forward, looking into the waters. With her pearl-wrapped hand, she reached out and touched the surface. The waters churned around her fingers.
“Spirits of the lake,” she whispered, “guide me. What would you have me-“
She felt herself pulled, as if by an undertow. The ground was gone beneath her. She crashed into the lake and sank, her breath a stream of bubbles trailing behind her. Her world was hostile and dark, something heavy coiling around her.
She broke the surface with a gasp, suspended in waters that were far too deep for the shore of the lake. Coughing, she tasted salt and her eyes burned. Her heart raced as she reached for the lakeside beach, her hand slapping rolling waters. Disoriented, she felt herself rise, as if suspended on the surface of an ocean wave.
The sky above was grey. It was not the sky of Garanto province, nor any sky that she had before seen. Thunder echoed around her, and briefly, the sky was lit with arcs of white light. She coughed again as she cast about. She was floating on dark waters. There was no lake. There was no land. She bobbed up and down on an endless plain, suspended far above ground and far below sky.
The ocean. She’d never seen it, but she knew she was there. As she flailed, her heart told her this was only a vision, only a dream. Surely the kami of the lake was speaking to her. And yet it felt real with danger. Her limbs ached as she coughed and sputtered mouthfuls of salty water. No, she decided. This was real. Somehow, the world had displaced her.
Namida felt herself begin to drag downwards. Her water-logged kimonos weighed heavily on her. She kicked off her sandals and unraveled her outermost obi, letting the ocean take all but her innermost robes. She tried to calm her mind, casting about for salvation. The spirits of water would not let their servant drown. The heavens would not forsake her…
There! In the distance, a thin line of shore. She could see green on the horizon, the only land in any direction. She swam for it, an imperfect attempt against an unwilling sea. But she quickly saw the futility. Her clothing was dragging her down, her untrained limbs not strong enough to fight the ocean. She was not made for swimming. Tired and water-logged, she reached for the rosewood amulet around her neck and immediately found it. Surprised and thankful that it was not lost, she lifted it from her neck and held it high above her head.
At the apex of a wave, pushing herself high as possible, she let the incantation fall from her lips. It was not a prayer to the kami, nor an offering to the sea. They were words of true magic, a command to the elements. Meishodo. The amulet crumbled in her grasp, leaving only a string of twine laced between her fingers.
At once a great wave swelled. It picked her up and pushed her, faster than she’d ever rode on the back of her beloved Chisato. The churning sea propelled her like a kobune in a single wave that carried her, bringing the distant shoreline closer and closer. Details began to appear. Palm trees. A sandy beach.
Aware of the pearls in her hand, she held them up and closed her eyes. “Kami of the ocean,” she beseeched, “just bring me to that island safely! Save your servant, and the pearls are yours!”
The wave stirred and fell. When it crashed, she felt herself somehow suspended above the water, like a piece of cork. The momentum pushed her all the way forward, swift as a flying bird, until the waters beneath her were not so dark, and the pale shore of the island gradually rose from the depths to meet her. Now moving slowly, she washed upon the beach, soaked, shivering, coughing. But alive.
She lay there for a long time, unmoving, the gentle tide washing around her and then pulling back. Then, she rose. Sand clung to her last kimono, her bare feet digging trenches in the sand. She stood on shaky legs, her hair already stiffening in the air. It was far warmer and more humid here, wherever she was. She turned around slowly to face the ocean. The horizon stretched forever beyond. In the break of the grey clouds, she spotted the sun, and determined that she’d come from the west. It was as if she was staring at the edge of the world.
She broke the string of pearls and let them fall to the beach. Then she bowed to the ocean. “Arigato.” The tide rose around her ankles and claimed the pearls, carrying them far into the sea.
Namida turned slowly. Beyond the beach was a teeming forest. Palm trees and unfamiliar ferns dotted the landscape behind her. She could see other islands now, south and north of her. She was in some western-facing bay, but whether this was the Empire or some other place, she could not say for certain. She saw no signs of civilization. Absolutely nothing she recognized. A breeze brushed against her shivering frame, and she pulled her robes tighter.
“Where am I?” she whispered.
In the grey sky, a distant rumble of thunder answered.
Ryoko Owari Toshi
Shosuro Takumi stood at the sound of the gong in the scarlet-lit sitting room. His long, naturally white hair glistened with the bloodied tones though the softness of his smile disarmed any intimidating qualities he might have expressed. He wore a red and black kimono with a delicate spray of embroidered bone-white flowers, each petal the shape of a scorpion’s stinger. He lowered his blue, knowing eyes fell upon the door, awaiting his guest.
“Remember the manners we decided upon, Takkun,” Shosuro Jiroko whispered, her old, flabby face delicately dusted with white and red powders. Her hair was intricately woven around several golden hair pins with cascading metallic beads. The wicked glint in her eye remained unchanged despite her years. “Our guest knows us well.”
“Yes,” he acknowledged, the learned politeness already soddening his voice. “A liar always knows another.”
Attendants in red silk kimonos opened the ornately carved lattice door and bowed as the fearsome visage of Daigotsu Kanpeki entered the room. Takumi and Jiroko bowed, a sincere and dignified gesture, as Kanpeki’s entourage and guards filed into the room.
“We welcome you, Daigostu Kanpeki-sama,” Takumi said, raising his eyes to dote on the Spider clan champion. “Ryoko Owari Toshi is honored by such an illustrious guest. I am Shosuro Takumi, newly appointed governor. I am sure you already know Shosuro Jiroko, retired governor.”
“Please be seated, Kanpeki-sama,” Jiroko said with a congenial smile, her hands beckoning him toward a black lacquered sitting bench piled high with lavish cushions. She clapped her hands, and servants brought sumptuous bowls of chilled fruits and spiced meats along with an assortment of wines.
Kanpeki nodded to the old woman but his face hardened in Takumi’s direction. “You’re too delicate to be a Scorpion, Takumi-san,” he said, sitting. “And you aren’t exactly hiding that white hair of yours.”
Takumi smirked, taking his own place across from the Spider champion. “You discover me, Kanpeki-sama. However, my story is trifling. It would bore you.”
Jiroko chuckled, but Kanpeki seemed unamused. “Do not presume to know my mind, Takumi-san,” he growled, his tone icy. “As I came to your city to be entertained, I demand your story.”
Takumi bowed his apology at the affront. “Yes, Kanpeki-sama.” He toyed a moment with a white lock of his hair and looked to Jiroko for an instant before speaking again. “Many Scorpion wear masks, as you know, a disguise or imitation, hinting at deception or illusion, encouraging fear on the battlefield or mystery in the court. I was born wearing the visage of a Crane, a part of the Children of Doji in fact, and I was sent to the Scorpion as a fostered child in the hopes of strengthening Crane alliances in strange but necessary locations. I’m afraid I was sent here, Journey’s End city, aptly named for my tale. Here, I learned my Crane heritage was merely a veneer, my own mempo if you will, my heart being thoroughly Scorpion. Jiroko discovered this in me and convinced me to stay.”
“The Doji know art and audience better than anyone in the Empire, Kanpeki-sama,” Jiroko chortled, pouring wine for her guest. “A child with Doji taste and a Scorpion soul is truly a great asset for a pleasure capital. No one waits months and months to see a Scorpion kabuki play or wades through crowds to see Scorpion paintings. I could not let him get away, not when he would bring so much allure and refinement to our city.”
“Refinement?” Kanpeki mused. “I thought this was the City that Dung Built.”
Jiroko laughed out loud, her musical voice unashamed at the loud noise. She lifted her sleeve to her face.
Takumi smiled as well, the warmth of his expression again sincere. “Kanpeki-sama has a good knowledge of our reputation. And yet, despite the repute…” His voice grew quiet and his smile wily. “You find yourself among us.”
Takumi stood and opened a window out into the city. The midday sun flashed into the room, dispelling the sleepiness of the dark, red-lit bower. The cityscape rolled beneath their palace, its sounds and smells wafting in. People from all walks of life – local, visitor, and foreigner – could be seen scrambling about its labyrinthine streets and hives of buildings.
“Our city is a strange place, Kanpeki-sama,” Takumi explained, his hands resting on the window sill and his eyes lost in the mess before him. “I knew that long before my appointment to this station, but Ryoko Owari is a beautiful city. We boast more visitors than any other, save the capital. We have magnificent trade agreements with domestic and foreign powers. We have grown prosperous due to every manner of vocation working freely amongst our denizens, even the most unsavory professions carrying their weight to make our city what it is...” He turned to Kanpeki and stared him in the eyes. “I shall be honest with you. We house murderers, criminals, gangsters, and whores. We deal with thugs and cheats, gamblers and winebibbers, pleasure-seekers and secret combinations. Our reputation precedes us in every corner of the Empire as the Reeking Scorpion Cesspool, and yet, we thrive, the Fortunes smiling down on the vice and victims this city breeds.”
Kanpeki joined Takumi at the window, staring down at the glorious squalor. The city glistened, perfumed with the faraway scent of filth and opium. “You know your city well, Takumi-san,” he said, leaning out the window to stare more closely. “Seiken may burn it to the ground.”
Now it was Takumi’s turn to laugh. “Seiken-sama surely would if he were presented with the opportunity, but I fear nothing of that nature. We are the City of Lies, Kanpeki-sama, and the Empire needs us. We live in a different reality than that of the Empire. We fulfill the dreams and desires of the men and women who frequent our walls, men and women who wish to forget the sorrow and discipline of the world where Seiken-sama rules. They want to be lied to. Is that not why you are here, Kanpeki-sama? To forget?”
Kanpeki stood still, contemplating Takumi’s words, a strange amusement playing at his lips. “Again, you presume upon my intentions.”
“Perhaps I am,” Takumi said. “Or perhaps I am merely reciting the mantra of the city I govern. The outside world musters no power here, Kanpeki-sama. Hearts and minds are bought and sold every day in Ryoko Owari.”
“Spoken like a Scorpion indeed, Shosuro Takumi,” he said. “You are right. This city is beautiful. If I were to destroy everything in this Empire, I would allow Ryoko Owari Toshi to still stand.”
“A great compliment, Kanpeki-sama,” Takumi said bowing, pretending to take no note of the strange, speculative statement the Daigotsu daimyo just made. “Perhaps, you would care to see it more closely? I can arrange a guide for you.”
Kanpeki agreed and gathered his men. “I am sure I shall see you again, Takumi-san,” he said before leaving.
“I shall remain your humble servant,” Takumi said, bowing again.
As the door closed, Jiroko rose and shut the window Takumi had opened. The room grew dark again. “You seemed rather candid with Kanpeki,” she said, a slight scowl on her old face. “You exposed us a little too much, perhaps.”
“Jiroko-san,” Takumi said, sincere warmth still tinging his eyes and smile. “You scold me without cause. You heard him. Kanpeki might destroy everything one day…” His smile soured into a sneer. “But our city shall still stand.”
Yoritomo Teppei shuffled into an audience chamber, unsure of what to expect. He could hear the frightened pace of the four other envoys shuffling behind him, and he wished he felt as brave as he pretended to be. The sun had set only moments before, bleeding fiery red light into the room, and the paper lamps lining the hall added to its hellish look. He shuddered, struggling to keep his feelings to himself as the shoji screens shut behind them.
Daigostu Kanpeki sat at the head of the room, his eyes piercing through each of them. A white-haired Scorpion stood behind Kanpeki and nodded to them as they approached the dais, and an old woman with her hair twisted with silver pins knelt before a low scribe’s desk, her hand poised over a brush and ink set. Teppei swallowed, steeling his nerves before bowing low to the three of them.
“Thank you, Kanpeki-sama for seeing us at so late an hour. You do us and our Clan a great honor…”
“…Spare me your honey-tongued placations, Yoritomo Teppei,” Kanpeki said, his hand waving away the words. “This is no longer about honor. Your clan has stolen from me, and I feel an explanation is due. Tell me why I should not have your delegation sent back to your clan in pieces.”
Teppei bowed again, trying to calm the pounding of his heart so he could remember his message. “Kanpeki-sama, I know that some members of my clan have gravely offended you, and I offer our deepest apologies.”
“You have offended more than Kanpeki-sama, I’m afraid,” the old woman said, a strange smile crinkling the wrinkles on her face. “Stealing the sword offends matters of imperial and celestial tradition, not to mention the memory of Kanpeki-sama’s family.”
“Yes,” Kanpeki said. The darkness of his expression lightened briefly as if a thought suddenly entertained him. “Why have you risked coming here after such a grave offense to both my family and heaven?”
Teppei clenched his teeth and bowed a third time. “We sought no offense toward you, your family, nor the blessed heavens and their servants. The motives of my clan… followed another path…”
His voice trailed off as Kanpeki stood, towering over the Mantis envoys. Teppei could hear the others draw breath in fear. He held his breath and squeezed his fingers tightly, digging his nails into his palms. He planted his feet and stood firm, ready to brave the wrath of the Spider Clan Champion. Bracing himself, defiance in his eyes, he forced himself to stare at Kanpeki.
However, instead of anger, Kanpeki’s expression looked more amused. “Another path, you say? What… appropriate wording. Tell me of your motives, Mantis, and perhaps I shall not be sending you home with your legs picked off.”
Teppei bit his lip, unsure of the ploy at hand. “As I said, we had no intention of dishonoring you or your clan. We merely…”
Kanpeki’s eyes narrowed though his lips curled into a smile. “Go on.”
“We sought retribution against the Otomo,” Teppei said, his voice clear in his conviction. “They have meddled in our affairs, and as a clan, we will do what we must to punish slights and defend our own.”
“Even if that means dishonoring others?” the old woman said, setting her brush to the paper and beginning to write.
Kanpeki waved his hand at her to be silent. “So you see yourselves justified in this. This was no mistake, then? No foolish accident?”
“No, Kanpeki-sama. We made no mistake. Again, I apologize on behalf of my brothers for what they have done against you, but we did not consider this personal. This was a stand. We took charge of our own matters, and we mean to see them through.”
Kanpeki nodded, as if in agreement, before reseating himself. “Will, strength, determination,” he said, smiling.
“Shourido,” the white-haired Scorpion muttered under his breath.
“Excuse me?” Teppei said, unsure of the significance of the exchange.
Kanpeki waved at him to be silent. “Never mind. Jiroko, you can stop writing that ridiculous gossip letter. I have changed my mind about executions. You Mantis have given me sufficient reasons to accept your account. Your intentions were honorable, so the sword is yours.” His eyes winked with a dark smile. “However, other clans must not be allowed to interpret your actions against me, my family, and our traditions as an easy slight. There must be some form of reparation.”
Teppei breathed easily for the first time all evening. “Of course, Kanpeki-sama.” He pulled a scroll from his sleeve and handed it to the Spider Clan Champion. “In order to make amends for any harm our actions might have caused, the Mantis shall send you the children of 100 Mantis bushi to be fostered in the ways of the Spider.”
“Such an education would prove a wise continuation of the choices their fathers have made,” Kanpeki said. “This entire series of events has helped me see that the Mantis have already embraced the ways of the Spider, so I accept your offer as sincere and, in fact, insightful. I demand the children be delivered at once, and we shall leave the affairs at that.”
Teppei bowed again and politely took several steps back. “You do us great honor, Kanpeki-sama. We shall send them immediately.” He turned to leave.
“Oh, and Teppei,” Kanpeki said, again his face darkening with a strange smile. “I suggest keeping my sword close. It might serve you better than you think.”
“Of course.” With that Teppei led his procession out of the audience chamber, his mind at ease, and he mumbled a prayer of thanks to the kami for his preservation and luck.
One delegate tapped him on the elbow as they marched away down the hall. “He took that better than any of us could possibly have hoped for, Teppei. There must be some kind of trick. Who trades their family’s ancestral sword for hostage children? I think we might be stepping into a spider’s web.”
Teppei did not stop to address the issue, waving away his comrades fears. “There are no snares here for us,” he said. “Kanpeki made his intentions quite plain.”
“And what might that be?”
Teppei’s eyes grew sharp, and wise resolution returned to his face. “We have started down a path of very different virtues, and Kanpeki knows that Shourido is not a road from which one returns.”
The Actions of the Clans Unfold…
The Crane save Tsuruchi Bounty Hunters. Wojciech Olszewski
The Crane steal the Ancestral Standard of the Lion. Paul Ashman
The Crane save the Kakita Technique. Daniel Nagy
The Mantis save the Tsuruchi Technique. Jon Palmer
The Mantis steal the Ancestral Sword of the Hantei. James Balthis
The Scorpion save Ryoko Owari. Borja Claveria
The Phoenix save the Ishiken. James Donniethorne-Tait
The Mantis embrace Shourido. Chris Medico
The Mantis steal Isawa’s Last Wish. Chris Justice
The Unicorn steal Thunder Dragon Bay. Andrew Young