By Shawn Carman and Maxime Lemaire
Edited by Fred Wan
As he entered the main chamber of the court, Iuchi Daitoru took a sweeping look at those assembled there. Many had come to attend the coronation of the new Emperor, currently known as Iweko Seiken. Others were there to celebrate his birthday and the accompanying tournament. The Gift of the Emperor was usually offered once per reign, and many Clans rejoiced at the opportunity to vie for it. With so many guests, the court was packed full with samurai of high and low status, from Champions and daimyo to simple yojimbo. As a Clan magistrate, he found himself in the lower strata of attendees, and was fully aware of it. While he personally would rather have been on the roads hunting criminals in the name of the Unicorn, refusing an invitation to attend such an event would have been both offensive and foolish. Spotting someone who seemed to be there more as a result of duty than desire, Daitoru walked to her.
“Matsu-san,” Daitoru said as he bowed. “My name is Iuchi Daitoru. Would you have a moment for me?”
The Lion samurai-ko took a quick look at Daitoru's mon, then bowed and answered. “Greetings, Iuchi-san. I am Matsu Karoko. As it appears I have somehow failed to attract the attention of any other conversationalist, so I suppose I do.”
Daitoru politely chuckled as they walked to a nearby table and sat down. “Would you care for a game of go?” he asked, pointing at a nearby board and stones.
“By the Fortunes, yes,” Karoko nodded. “Go is the only entertainment I care for at court.”
“I am not particularly skilled, but will do my best to entertain you.”
“I am in your debt. It is an honor to be participating in the Gift of the Emperor tournament. Still, I can't help but think of my sisters fighting the Scorpion.”
“I'm much the same,” Daitoru nodded as he set up the board.
“You?” Karoko raised an eyebrow. “How can a shugenja long for war?”
“I don't long for war. But if is fought for the honor of the Unicorn, I want to assist my Clan mates as much as possible. Besides,” Daitoru added as he stared Karoko in the eye, “I might be a shugenja, but I am also a samurai, and a magistrate. Do not underestimate the quality of my service to my Clan.”
Karoko sustained Daitoru's gaze. “My apologies, Iuchi-san. After so much time fighting the Scorpion, I almost forgot there were honorable samurai outside the Lion.”
“I have heard stories from other members of your Clan. It reminds me why the Scorpion are tolerated, but never trusted. I find both them and their tactics deplorable.”
“The Scorpion smile and bow here in front of the courts, then murder honorable samurai in their sleep while the Empire looks away.”
“Murder?” Daitoru raised an eyebrow. “That's even worse than I thought. Is there nothing that can be done?”
“My delegation has been looking for a Clan to volunteer observers. But they all seem to come up with convenient excuses. The work of the Scorpion, no doubt.”
“My Clan is well used to their lies. I will transmit your request to my lord, with my full support.”
“Thank you, Iuchi-san,” Karoko bowed. “There is little I can offer, except to reciprocate. The Phoenix walk the path of honor, but the Lion can help ensure remains that way throughout their dispute with you.”
“Lion observers? That would be an honor. Now, should we play?” Daitoru asked as he picked up a bowl of stones.
“I think, Daitoru-san, that we were already playing.”
A short distance away, in the gardens, Kitsune Gorikki was looking at flowers. It was not an uncommon pastime – the imperial gardens were famous for their beauty, tended by the best Crane artisans. But while the various shades and fragrances of the flowers attracted many visitors, Gorikki was more interested in the other form of life around them. Bees and flies danced around the flowers in an intricate ballet. Sparrows and other small birds came and went, looking for a quick meal of seeds or bugs. In another garden, one might have worried at the presence of small birds or insects. But the harmony of the place was such that the animals only contributed to its beauty, rather than harming the plants.
So enraptured was Gorikki by the beauty of the flowers that it took him some time to notice someone was standing next to him. A young man in Crane colors with the bearing of a warrior, and the scars marking him as one he had seen battle. Gorikki bowed low.
“Forgive me Daidoji-san. I tend to daydream too easily. It is one flaw I have failed to get rid of, despite the best efforts of my sensei.”
“No apologies necessary,” Daidoji Yurei said as he returned his bow. “Gardens are a place of peace, where one can escape the violence of the world.”
“Do you find much violence in court, Daidoji-san?”
“Always,” the Crane nodded. “It only takes the form of marriages and treaties. But when the Matsu Family is involved, you can be sure violence will follow.”
Gorikki threw a quick look around, making sure no Lion were nearby before continuing. “So it is true? Mirumoto Shikei is to marry the sister of the Matsu daimyo.”
“It is. Why would any man alive reject a marriage offer from the Doji Family is beyond me. But then the Dragon are famous for their eccentricity, and Shikei-sama has again shown that the Dragon lack clarity of thought.”
“Daidoji-san, I also do not understand. I enjoy the company of your kin. The Crane appreciate the beauty of the world, and through it the deeper meaning of the natural order. The Lion are honorable, of course, but their views are much more... limited.”
“Good to know the Crane still have friends in this world, Kitsune-san. The coronation of a new Emperor is often followed by sweeping changes in Rokugani society. In times like these, one needs allies to thrive.”
“Thank you, Daidoji-san. I am flattered you would consider me an ally. But if times of change are difficult for the Great Clans, imagine how it must be for those of lower status.”
Daidoji Yurei raised an eyebrow. “You mean the Minor Clans? I rarely think about them.”
“Few do,” Gorikki nodded. “I don't blame anyone, as we all have duties to take care of. But so do they, and their resources are far fewer than ours. Forgive me for mentioning their plight, but you can understand it is one close to my heart. After all, my ancestors were members of a Minor Clan themselves, until quite recently.”
“One should never forget the accomplishments of their ancestors,” Yurei nodded. “If I can help, I will.”
“My thanks, Daidoji-san. A small delegation of Tortoise courtiers will be present for the Emperor's birthday. If you could arrange a meeting between them and the courtiers of your Clan, I would be greatly indebted to you.”
“True servants of the Empire owe me no debts,” Yurei shook his head. “As long as they stand with me against its enemies.”
“But who are our enemies, in a time of peace?” Gorikki asked.
Daidoji Yurei didn't answer, but turned his gaze to a group of newcomers in the garden – a Lion courtier, and a Spider samurai. Gorikki couldn't exactly tell which one Yurei was looking at, and it only served to worry him more.
Kitsuki Kira straightened his kimono once more. Everything was perfect, but to address the Emperor was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and more than anything he did not want to shame his Clan. One by one, they had come to offer Iweko Seiken their gifts, to celebrate his impending coronation and birthday. Each Clan had tried to impress the Emperor in their own way, but Kira thought the most noteworthy gift so far had come from the Phoenix. Asako Sadaki, a member of the Chukan vassal family, had brought one of the legendary tears of the first Hantei on behalf of his Clan. More than a priceless artifact, it connected the soon to be Emperor with the first ruler of Rokugan. Kira's interest had also been piqued by the Unicorn gift: a chronicle of the ancient fighting techniques and military tactics of the Clan of the Ki-Rin, from before their original departure from Rokugan. Any documents on the original Ki-Rin Clan were tremendously hard to find, and Kira would have loved to see them for himself. Compared to such lavish gifts, however, the Dragon had little to offer. Tamori Katsumi, the shugenja attached to the Dragon delegation, had told him the spirit of Hitomi Reju was guiding the Emperor. Because of this, the Dragon and the Crane – as Reju was also once known as Doji Reju – were the last two Clans to offer their gifts to the Emperor. Kira found it a dubious blessing at best, as to come after seven other Great Clans meant the Dragon would be compared to all of them. Rather than offering a paltry item, the Dragon delegation had decided to offer the Empire to Iweko Seiken, symbolically renewing the oaths which tied Rokugan to its leader. It was a dangerous gambit, which required careful phrasing lest it come across as presumptuous.
As the Lion delegate Ikoma Chosha walked away from the dais, having offered the Emperor a collection of ancient stories, Kira stepped forward and prostrated himself. After being instructed to stand up, he launched himself into a tirade, dedicating the Empire to Iweko Seiken. His training as a courtier took over, and Kira uttered sentence after sentence without thinking about it. Like a warrior striking with no thought, he gave his speech with instinct borne of countless hours of practice and honing his craft. This was the only way to speak clearly in front of such an august personage. Kira noticed, in spite of his efforts, that the Emperor was beginning to look displeased at the gift being offered. Kira redoubled his efforts, pouring his focus into his words.
Such was his concentration that Kira didn't notice at that the Emperor had stopped looking at him outright. He ignored it at first, finding himself unworthy of the Emperor's attention, but then realized the courtiers behind him were whispering in more alarmed tones than usual. Taking the risk to turn around, Kira found one of the Mantis courtiers had collapsed. He knew the man as Yoritomo Goichi, a minor diplomat. He was lying on the floor with blood at his mouth, and a broken teacup was on the floor next to him. Kira couldn't see what the courtiers said behind their fans but he instantly knew what was on their minds: poison. Seeing an opportunity for him and his Clan, Kira immediately turned back to face Iweko Seiken.
“Divine One, I apologize for halting my speech. The Dragon Clan wanted to offer you the Empire, but it appears your enemies were intent on robbing you of one of your servants. Your hallowed mother was once the lord of the Kitsuki Family, from which I have the honor to hail. With your permission, I will investigate the matter of Yoritomo Goichi's death. If it was natural, I will find out quickly. If not, I will ensure that the murderer is brought to justice. The Lion and Crane Clan are your hands, Divine One, but let the Dragon be your eyes.”
A quick nod from Iweko Seiken was all Kira needed, and he immediately went over to Goichi's corpse. He knelt by it and started taking in all potential clues, from the man's posture on the floor to the coloration of his lips and skin. Yet at the same time Kira had to repress a smile. To lead an investigation for the Emperor was an incredible honor, and should he succeed, would bring glory to his Clan. He did not dwell on the consequences of failure.
The streets of Toshi Ranbo were always packed on any day, as the young capital of the Empire was almost always under construction. Even in the previous days, the Crab had offered to bolster the defenses of the capital, something Iweko Seiken would be considering in the near future. But today the workers and artisans were nowhere to be seen, although they would be celebrating the coronation in their own manner, in the districts which were reserved for their kind. Only samurai were allowed to witness the actual event. Even for the ruling class of Rokugan, to see a member of the Imperial Family was a momentous occasion. Just to be present was an honor which would be remembered for generations. As Iweko Seiken made his way to the specially constructed dais where he would be formally consecrated as Emperor, all samurai prostrated. Marching along him were priests of the Seppun Family. They were the keepers of the coronation rites, kept intact since the first days of the Empire. Next to the dais stood Mirumoto Tsuda, the Emerald Champion. As the favored vassal of the Emperor, he would stand guard during the ceremony. More than that, he would serve as a symbol for the entirety of Rokugan, which the Emperor would swear to rule fairly and protect. This was only a small part of the ceremony itself, of course. The Emperor had spent the whole morning privately praying to his ancestors, to inform them he would be taking the throne today. Later today, he would be communing with the Celestial Heavens themselves, to receive their guidance and strengthen his links to the divine. But those were private ceremonies, which only a select few were allowed to witness.
As the Emperor reached the dais and sat on his chair, all assembled samurai rose. They stood silently, eyes turned toward the Emperor, as he began reciting the oaths which would formally confirm his position. One samurai, however, was focused on the crowd. Shosuro Sakura found observing her fellow samurai much more interesting than the coronation ceremony itself. Even in such a ritualized environment, she could spot small clues which pointed at the various events of the Imperial Court. For example, she found Ikoma Chosha kept well away from the Crane delegation. The Lion storyteller had not appreciated the attention of a Crane jester, which led to a duel. Although it was only to first blood, Daidoji Yurei jumped at the chance to fight the Lion, and won. This had put the Lion in a difficult position before the Gift of the Emperor tournament, and now few expected them to win. The Crane were making new allies however, as they had arranged for a Doji to marry Asako Sadaki. As the Phoenix courtier had gained great glory from his gift to the Emperor, the Crane stood to gain much from establishing a connection with him. As for the Phoenix, a small Clan currently embroiled in a costly war, any wedding in which the bride joined them was a treasured opportunity. Not to be seen favoring one side over the other, the Crane had simultaneously arranged for an exchange of fostered children with the Unicorn. The prestige of attending Crane schools would serve the Unicorn well, while the Crane created new ties with one of the most commonly misunderstood Clans in the Empire.
But while the Crane were busy making friends, the Scorpion had been striking at their enemies. Sakura had been delighted when she received the order to poison Yoritomo Goichi. She was passionate about her art, and relished every opportunity to practice it. The fact that her superiors had requested for the effects to be intimidating and visible had been an interesting challenge. She could have thought of a hundred ways to kill Goichi discretely, without anybody ever suspecting foul play. But the Scorpion needed to send the Mantis a clear message. Their Clan had brazenly interfered in Scorpion affairs, acquiring some precious resources which did not belong to them. They needed to know the Scorpion could strike back at any time. That was why Goichi had been chosen. He was completely inconsequential, a fool of a courtier who loved sake more than any political games. His death was a warning, that even in the presence of the Emperor, the Mantis weren't safe from the Scorpion. To cover up appearances, the Scorpion had a document forged which incriminated one of Goichi's underling. The idea was that the investigation would be led quickly. Thanks to some corroborating testimonies the Scorpion would arrange, Goichi's vassal would be executed, while the Mantis would know the truth. It was a beautiful plan.
Unfortunately for the Scorpion, however, the Dragon had decided to meddle into their affairs. Kitsuki Kira's enthusiastic outburst was not something Sakura had expected. The Dragon investigator had quickly understood which poison had been used, and easily identified the documents incriminating Goichi's vassal as a forgery. Now the Scorpion were putting in place a new plan. One of their own vassals would receive the same poison which had been used against Goichi. This would complicate the matter for Kira, who would then have to investigate two murders at the same time. While the Dragon would probably see through the ruse, he would be hard pressed to profess so publicly. The Kitsuki method had some merits, Sakura grudgingly admitted to herself, but politics would protect the Scorpion against all accusations. At the very least, Kira's efforts should prove entertaining. During her morning prayers, Sakura had heard the voice of Bayushi Aramoro, one of the greatest heroes of the Scorpion. He had once won the Gift of the Emperor tournament himself, and was surely watching over his Clan in the days before the contests started. But he was also famous as the yojimbo of Bayushi Kachiko, the second Scorpion Clan Thunder. Born in the Shosuro Family, Kachiko had been a seductress like Sakura, and her brother a poison master, so she felt connected to the illustrious Scorpion. One of Kachiko's greatest enemies had been Kitsuki Yasu, daimyo of his family. Was it any surprise then, than Kira was shaping up to be Sakura's nemesis?
Turning back towards the dais, Shosuro Sakura smiled. The future would be glorious indeed.
A short few days after the coronation, the celebrations of the Emperor's birthday began, and with them the Gift of the Emperor tournament. As opposed other contests in the empire, the Gift of the Emperor was a more free form competition. Various contests of skill and artistic skills were held during the days of the tournament, and the Emperor himself would declare the winner. This led samurai of all kinds to try and display their own skills, and they sometimes added challenges of their own to the list of events. One such contest this year was a contest of endurance, an idea which the Crab had sponsored. The participants were to run around the castle until they couldn't keep pace anymore, and the winner would be the last samurai standing. This was a novel idea, and as such attracted the attention of many courtiers. Assembled outside the imperial palace, they watched as the participants ran for hours, their ranks slowly thinning over time. In the end, only two remained: Hida Taisho, and Daigotsu Shaoru. The two warriors kept going long after anyone else, either unwilling to yield to the other. In the end, Shaoru stumbled only moments before Taisho, who was declared the winner. The Crab rejoiced as they had not only won one of the tournament events, but also defeated the Spider, which they hated above all.
Their victory was short lived, however, as the two men met again later that night. In front of the whole court, they exchanged bitter insults, the kind of which demanded reparations. With the assent of the Emperor, a duel to death was agreed on, one which the Crab expected to win as well. Kuni Yairao, a shugenja attached to the Crab delegation, whispered a prayer as the two men prepared to face one another. Hida Taisho struck first, and for one moment Yairao thought the duel was over. But Shaoru narrowly avoided the Crab's blade and immediately struck back, killing him in one blow. As the Spider cleaned and sheathed his blade, he turned towards the imperial dais and bowed low, dedicating his victory to the Emperor. Seeing this spectacle enraged Yairao. Knowing better than to call the result of the duel into question, he stormed out of the court, clenching his fists. This late in the evening, Yairao expected to find himself alone there, and able to vent his fury. This was not the case however, as he found a Mantis gazing at the night sky.
“Are you looking at the stars, Kitsune-san?” Yairao asked.
“Not at all, Kuni-san. I'm trying to spot bats.”
The Crab frowned. “May I ask why?”
Gorikki smiled as he looked back to Yairao. “Bats are an uncelebrated blessing of the Fortunes. They eat large quantities of insects which would otherwise fill the air around us. Similarly, bat spirits are the guardians of the mortal realm, protecting it against hungry ghosts. It is no coincidence that the first Mantis to be awarded his own Minor Clan chose the Bat as his symbol.”
Yairao scoffed. “Pity none of his kind are here. The mortal realm needs greater protection against rapacious spirits.”
Gorikki smiled. “I take it you're referring to the Spider?”
“Who else?” Yairao grumbled. “To see them parading in front of the Divine Emperor, pretending to be samurai of a Great Clan, makes me sick. I hope the Emperor sees the wisdom in crushing them before it is too late.”
“He has made no secret of his distaste for them, that is certain. Do you think the Spider will turn against the Empire?”
“Assuredly,” Yairao nodded. “It is only a matter of when. Their ploy to put Shibatsu on the throne failed, and at this point I expect them to move against us anyway. I already hear reports from the Wall of increased activity of the Shadowlands. When they strike, the Crab will stand alone against the Horde, as always.”
“Not alone,” Gorikki shook his head. “I was consulting with my superiors, and was given the authorization to offer our support to the Crab. We will send one of our legions to bolster your numbers, and to fight alongside your own troops should the Wall come under assault. In addition to the already agreed financing help, of course.”
Yairao's eyes widened. “I am most grateful, Kitsune-san. But also surprised. Forgive my directness, but I thought you a friend of the Crane, not the Crab.”
Gorikki chuckled. “I most definitely am a friend of the Crane, Kuni-san. But I am also a defender of the natural order. The Shadowlands corrupt this order, and though I may tolerate the Spider, I have no wish to see them turn their Tainted troops against us. When the soul of the Empire is imperiled, we must stand as one.”
“Well said,” Yairao nodded. “What can I do to repay you? I am no well-connected Crane, but I will do my best.”
“I only seek to further understanding among the servants of the Emperor, Kuni-san. As it so happens, I have a friend in the Bat Clan who's expressed interest in the Kuni school of magic. If you would be willing to meet him, I would greatly appreciate it.”
Yairao nodded. “With a bit of luck, we will get to crush them together.”
“Well said,” Gorikki smiled. “Now will we rejoin the court? I hear the Phoenix are about to showcase a grand display of sumai wrestling.”
“I wouldn't be a Crab if I missed that!” Yairao said. “Let's go, Kitsune-san. Perhaps some good can still come out of this tournament after all.”
Daidoji Yurei stood perfectly still as he waited for the gates of the throne room to open. Another samurai in his situation might have felt pride, having just won the Gift of the Emperor tournament. But he knew what he was about to do could cost him his life, if not worse. His Clan Champion, Doji Makoto, stood next to him and smiled. That he could still appear relaxed in such circumstances amazed Yurei. But the man known as the Smiling Blade was famous for keeping his on at all times, so there was no way of telling what was going on in his mind. However, this did little to make Yurei feel better.
As the door finally opened, Yurei took a deep breath and stepped forward, matching every step of his Champion. They both prostrated themselves in front of the dais. Iweko the Second had already adopted his mother's habit of remaining hidden from sight, and his throne was surrounded by curtains. Next to him however stood Hida Kozan, who served as his Voice. That a Crab would hear was Yurei was about to say only made the whole thing more difficult.
“Rise,” Kozan said. “The Emperor welcomes Doji Makoto, Champion of the Crane Clan, and Daidoji Yurei, winner of the Gift of the Emperor tournament. As is the tradition, the Emperor will grant you a single request.”
“Thank you, Hida-sama,” Yurei said as he rose. “It is my great honor to speak in front of the Emperor. As part of my request, I seek an opportunity to cleanse my family of shame. I humbly ask for the privilege of seppuku.”
Kozan frowned but said nothing at first, instead leaning towards the dais. “The Divine Emperor demands an explanation.”
Yurei bowed again, then continued. “As you are well aware, the Daidoji are sworn to protect the Crane Clan as a whole. The vast majority of us do so by serving in the armies of the Crane, or as yojimbo to our courtiers. It is a duty which has brought us great honor and glory over the generations. In the past, however, a handful of us thought this was not enough. They resolved to use any means necessary to defeat the enemies of the Crane, sacrificing their honor without the knowledge of the rest of the Clan. This included many underhanded methods, but the worst of all might have been the use of gaijin pepper.”
Kozan's eyes widened in anger. “Explosives? Their use is high treason, Daidoji-san. How dare you speak of such things in the presence of the Emperor?”
“We are fully aware of the gravity of the issue,” Doji Makoto said, his smile never leaving his face. “But you will notice Yurei-san mentioned those as practices of the past. My honorable mother, Doji Domotai, put a halt to the use of gaijin pepper as soon as she learned about it.”
“My ancestors only did what they thought was right for their Clan,” Yurei continued, his head bowed low. “But a crime is a crime, and I have come here to cleanse the honor of my family. Before I do so, however, I must ask the Divine Emperor to consider the matter. The enemies of the Empire lack our honor and methods. They will use any and all weapons against us. Gaijin pepper is the weapon of a coward, yes, but it is also an effective one. As my request for winning the Gift of the Emperor tournament, I would ask that the Daidoji Family be allowed to continue studying the use of explosives. With the assent of the Emperor, we will make sure this terrible weapon is available for him, should he ever wish the Crane to use it. Then, if the Emperor deems it suitable, I shall perform the three cuts.”
Kozan leaned again towards the Emperor, his painted face betraying his indignation. Yurei held his breath.
“The Divine Emperor has agreed to your request,” Kozan said at last. “The Daidoji Family, and them alone, will be allowed to study the use of gaijin pepper. They are to keep their studies a secret. Use of explosives will remain forbidden against any servant of the Emperor, regardless of their status. Only against outside forces will it ever be allowed. Should any inappropriate use of gaijin pepper occur, your clan will be held accountable. Should any other clan discover your studies, the Emperor will not protect you from the natural results. The Divine Emperor will not tolerate any infractions to his laws.”
Yurei and Makoto prostrated themselves again, and as the Crane Clan Champion profusely thanked the Emperor, Yurei suppressed a sigh of relief.
“Additionally, the Emperor finds that your conduct, and that of your clan, has brought him embarrassment.”
Yurei fought to maintain his composure.
“The Emperor grants your request to seppuku. He accepts your life as payment for the deeds your clan will commit. But for those who came before you, who betrayed the Empire, their shame is not forgiven. They are traitors to Rokugan, and the Throne will remember them as such.”
Yurei exhaled. Judging from the past, some in his clan would seek to use explosives, regardless of honor or law. His hope was that there would never be a time when the use of explosives would come to be seen as necessary. But at least with this arrangement, the Daidoji would use their skills in service to the Empire, rather than against it. His request had not been idle, and his life was a small price to pay for the honor of the Crane.
The listing of storyline event results portrayed in the above fiction is coming shortly!