Spring Kotei Fictions 2015
Act 3: Complications
By Chris Hand, Maxime Lemaire, Mari Murdock, Fred Wan, and Robert Denton
Edited by Fred Wan
Continuing the 2015 Spring Kotei Fiction series
The Imperial City
A fleet dash brought the breathless Miya Herald just within the foyer of the Imperial palace. He halted there, eyes wide, hunched, catching his breath. His arrival drew the eyes of the milling courtiers. His immaculate appearance was marred only by a dirty scroll case hanging from his obi. With practiced glances, they saw it without truly looking. The Mons of the Otomo, Seppun, and Spider were together on the surface.
A door opened and closed. Otomo Demiyah, accompanied by Otomo Mizuki and a group of courtiers, entered the foyer. With only a glance they scattered all others, until they were alone with the herald, Demiyah’s personal retainers, and the Seppun guards. The herald bowed.
“Is that word from the caravan?” Demiyah asked, not bothering to return the herald’s gesture. She made a carefully displeased face, one she’d honed to perfection over the course of years. “Explanation for their tardiness?”
“Hai,” the young Miya replied. “It is for the Otomo Daimyo.”
Wordless, Demiyah extended her hand.
The herald hesitated, glancing at the nearby Seppun. Only now did he notice they were armed, their hands hovering oh-so close to the hilts of their blades. He felt a bead of sweat trace a glittering path down his temple.
“I will see that he hears this news,” Demiyah spoke with narrowed eyes.
The Miya surrendered the scroll. Although his eyes were questioning, he dared not speak his mind. He bowed again and was gone.
Demiyah tore the cap from the scroll case and dumped the report into her waiting hand.
“You’ve grown bold,” Mizuki whispered. She checked the halls for anyone who may be watching. “I see you no longer care what the other families think.”
“It was I who kept order in Terumoto-sama’s absence,” Demiyah replied softly. “He will suggest that I continue to handle these affairs until he fully recovers. They had best get used to me.”
The courtiers did not flinch. A few even smiled. Mizuki raised an eyebrow. “You have taken my advice to heart.”
Demiyah unfurled the scroll and read. She frowned.
“My lady?” Mizuki asked.
“Akemi is dead,” Demiyah whispered. “The Hantei Sword is gone.”
A long silence dominated the foyer.
“Who would dare?” Mizuki demanded, for once her curated indifference faltering.
“There is no reliable testimony to say,” Demiyah continued, rolling the scroll and returning it to the case. “Only the word of a disgraced guard. But it is obvious one of the Great Clans is behind this, seeking to humiliate us for this failure.” She ensured that all eyes were upon her. Every attendant wore a serious face. Demiyah straightened. “The first Great Clan to speak of this in court is likely the culprit behind it. To that effect, mention this to no one.” She tucked the scroll case into her obi. The gathered courtiers bowed to Demiyah as they would to a personal daimyo. “Dismissed,” she spoke.
As they left, Demiyah extended a hand to Mizuki. “Wait a moment.” When they were alone, Demiyah’s expression softened, her mouth crooking upwards. She was pleased. “At last, the Fortunes smile. I am impressed that it was that the Mantis who openly challenged us first. I would have expected the Crane, or perhaps the Scorpion.”
“The Mantis?” Mizuki furrowed her brow. “Is that who the disgraced guard identified?”
Demiyah’s smile widened.
“We cannot use his testimony,” Mizuki said.
“We do not need it,” Demiyah replied. “All that matters is that a Great Clan attacked an Imperial caravan. That is all I need.” She paused. “You said Iweko Seiken was returning to the capital to oversee the inspection of the Hantei sword?”
Mizuki nodded. “He arrives this evening.”
“Arrange a meeting,” Demiyah said, a calculating gleam in her dark eyes. “I will tell him myself.”
The Utaku Stables
Four voices whispered within the child’s body as they waited at the doors of the stables.
She comes, whispered Umakorn.
Her strength grows each day, Hachiman said.
Takakan agreed. Events conspire to draw forth what has been hidden.
She is here, said Aranat.
“She is here,” Utaku Zo Sia said. The child’s voice startled Utaku Sakiko. She followed Zo Sia’s gaze, but glanced sideways at the strange girl.
Riders approached. At their forefront, the Unicorn Champion rode atop a glorious steed. Zo Sia smiled.
Hello cousin, four voices whispered as one.
Moto Naleesh received Zo Sia’s letter as she entered Manaka province requesting her presence at Shiro Utaku Shojo, the vast stable complex of the Utaku. She considered putting it off, but Naleesh felt a tug at her soul, a dissonance radiating pure need.
The two Utaku flanked the entryway of the birthing stables. Zo Sia held a clay jug dripping over with silky white kumis, the fermented mare’s milk. The alcoholic drink was popular among the Unicorn, but the Utaku drank it with something approaching religious zeal.
“What is wrong, Zo Sia?” Naleesh cut through protocol as she dismounted.
The compassion and concern of our Mother shines through.
Zo Sia bowed. She gestured for Sakiko. The battle maiden spoke with a clarity that hid her nervousness.
“There has been a problem with the herd,” Sakiko began.
“A death,” Zo Sia interrupted. Naleesh frowned.
“Naleesh-sama,” Sakiko started again. “You know of the bond an Utaku forms with her mount. It brings us closer in body and soul.” Sakiko hesitated. “One of our number has recently attempted to forge that bond. At first, when she could not, she felt the failing was on her. She tried again. And again. Each time the connection was absent. She would not succeed.”
Naleesh could sense the horror of what was coming.
“She could not live with the failure, my lady.” Sakiko’s eyes filled with tears. “She realized that it was not her, but them both. The horse was born with a dead soul.”
“They are both dead,” Zo Sia finished. “They will not be the last.”
“What do you mean?” Naleesh said. “We shall all grieve the loss, but the herd and school shall endure.”
“Would that were true. It is not.” Zo Sia stared up at her Champion, unflinching. “The bond comes in part from the purity of the blood within the Utaku steeds. But now that blood has thinned. They are a mere shadow of their ancestors, less strong, intelligent, and fertile with each generation. Centuries have passed and despite careful breeding techniques this was bound to happen. It is truly a surprise that the touch of the evil realm upon our world has not advanced this issue already.”
Naleesh eyed Zo Sia with concern. “What can I do?”
“You can save them.” Zo Sia smiled cryptically and held out the kumis. “It is time for the reborn Kami to awaken.”
Before Naleesh could protest, the child pushed the drink into her hands. “There is little time. Each moment wasted another soul reincarnates into a wasted shell. Diluted blood fills their veins. Drink the kumis. Feel their connection as the Utaku do. You must go now.”
Naleesh looked at Sakiko, at the jug, at the door. I am not what they want me to be, she thought.
She tilted the jug to her lips and drank. Zo Sia motioned and the doors opened. As Naleesh walked, no one spoke. The doors clapped closed. Familiar smells of manure and hay washed over her and she felt a little dizzy, the fermented milk sluicing through her veins with supernatural rapidity.
As she passed the first stalls two Utaku steeds stared back at her. She felt nothing. I have failed them again. I am not what they want me to be. Another set of stalls, two more pairs of eyes. No, three. In the stall on the left she saw a young colt beside a mother. A tender longing flowed through her and she remembered Zo Sia’s words: wasted shells.
Naleesh sensed movement behind her and turned. A stallion stared at her with strangely perceptive eyes. It tossed its mane with a whinny.
Then it kneeled.
One leg bent and its head bowed low. Naleesh felt confusion and heat, the dizziness threatened to overwhelm her.
She turned back to the colt and mare and they too knelt. The Champion moved quickly, rapid footsteps taking her deep into the stables. They all knelt. Each great beast fell low as she passed and the warmth spread through her.
Naleesh realized she was running and stopped. “Be steady,” she whispered. Her eyes watered. Her body was on fire. A neighing sound drew her to the powerful mare nearby. It was fat with child. Naleesh could sense its heartbeat.
She reached out a hand and the horse pushed its nose forward. Naleesh felt an electric jolt and the warm glow flooded outward from her palm. Her eyes shut tight. She saw the horse’s outline in her mind’s eye surrounded by a fiery halo. The sound of a hundred thousand trampling hooves washed over Naleesh and she fell to her knees, but she did not take her hand away.
Outside Sakiko saw Zo Sia slump against the side of the building. She reached out to help, but the child pushed her away and knelt, head to the ground. She shook violently for a time and then calmed.
Within, Naleesh saw an image of four unicorn race across the sky. One turned and suddenly it was barreling down from the heavens straight for her. The thundering grew louder, heavy bass steps pounding at her soul. The glorious creature ducked its head and charged with a trail of fire in its wake. Just as it was about to collide, Naleesh’s eyes opened with a gasp. She fell into the mud and dropped the empty jug.
The stables were aflame with the fires of the Ki-Rin. Naleesh heard screams. The doors slammed open. Sakiko and others ran inside. They had seen the fire from without. How could they not? It washed over each steed, each unborn foal, and filled the Utaku Stables with the glory of the heavens.
Naleesh felt the power rush out of her and then passed out on the ground.
Hours later the Unicorn Champion stood with her back to the stables, eyes on the horizon. Where indecision and uncertainty had nagged her every thought, now a terrible hope fell heavy on her soul.
What would you say to this, Shikei? How does one become a god? She pushed the thought away. It would not do to dwell on that man, even if he was the only one capable of seeing her for who she was, not some goddess on a pedestal.
She heard steps on the grass. Not for the first time, she pushed away old thoughts.
“The Iuchi confirm the blessing.” The barely restrained excitement in Ide Okinomi’s voice bubbled with joy. “They say you have imparted the touch of the Kami upon the entire herd. Your power protects them, it wards against corruption from the Realm of Evil. Their bloodline is as strong as it was at the Dawn of the Empire! Not a single Utaku steed shall fall to Jigoku’s touch.”
Such was her enthusiasm that she didn’t even balk at mention of that dark realm.
“This will end the meaningless conjecture and put all gossip to rest.”
Naleesh turned slowly, face a mask of calm. “What gossip?”
“Ah,” the Ide wrung her hands. Naleesh waited. She knew already. How could she not? Her closest confidants drew silent about the subject when anyone dared whisper about her blood. That silence spoke volumes, but it was best to hear such things stated aloud.
Okinomi realized she would not be spared. Eyes flickered to the vast grasslands. “Some have been, ah, uncertain as to the portents surrounding your birth, my Champion. Not I, of course!” She blurted in a rush. “Some whisper that perhaps the seers were wrong and it was not you, but Shinjo Min-Hee who is the true Kami Reborn. No one will believe that now!”
Naleesh shifted her gaze. Utaku Zo Sia approached with slow, deliberate steps. She looked exhausted; drained. Naleesh felt a hot glow and heard a whisper of the distant sound of thundering hooves.
“Do you think she is right?” Naleesh said. “Have you all been hoping for such a sign?”
Utaku Zo Sia frowned, eyes distracted. Myriad voices spoke within her mind.
Should we tell her, Aranat? The stern voice of Takakan echoed. She knows we are power, but not the truth of our blood.
Deafening silence was the only response.
Umakorn addressed the obvious. He has gone.
We are diminished, Hachiman said.
Our Mother needs our guidance. Her soul cries out. I will speak for us now. Takakan spoke with finality.
Zo Sia lifted her head. Naleesh noticed a subtle change in her posture. Shoulders fell back, jaw set tight, body became rigid in militant stance. She looked older, somehow. Their eyes met and not for the first time Naleesh saw an unfathomable depth of age in those eyes.
“Some will believe. Many do already.” Zo Sia’s voice was stilted as if she were just learning to speak. She learned quickly, each syllable more confident than the last. “But gossip digs deep and its tendrils reach out to older pains.”
“The Shinjo,” Naleesh said.
“Yes. They want Min-Hee to be the true reincarnation. It would put right the shame of their past. If the Khan were the savior of the Unicorn it would mean…”
“Yes.” Naleesh cut her off and turned back to the setting sun. She should not feel this way. The day was joyous. Old worries had been set to rest.
Why did she feel like the troubles had only just begun?
Broken Wave City
Yoritomo Teihiko stared into the iron-gray water, his thoughts muddled and his eyes bleary from lack of sleep. The ship creaked beneath his heels as it rocked back and forth next to the pier, a mocking gesture in his insomniac state. A week had crawled by since his crew had returned from their secret coastal reaving excursion. Everything had gone according to plan. No Mantis Clan officials questioned their absence or their activities. They left no survivors as witnesses. They had all returned rich men. And yet… He squeezed his swollen eyes shut and tapped his temple with the rounded edge of his hand hook.
Nearby, he could hear Yoritomo Shotsuo absent-mindedly brushing the deck with a stiff broom, his sweeps limp with lethargy. Along the dock, the dull murmur of activity barely droned above the sea spray, the merchants and laborers all toting their wares in silence, and the city beyond that lay hushed in the same bitter reverie.
“Hey Shotsuo! When is Minoro coming back?” Teihiko asked. “All we need are the water barrels before we can set sail.”
“Don’t know,” Shotsuo mumbled, his usually jovial voice weak with apathy. The sailor turned away and dropped his broom against the ship’s railing, staring out to sea with glum features.
Teihiko sighed in response, unsure why he cared little that they were so behind schedule or that all their preparations for departure had been delayed by one event or another. He thought about returning below to his quarters and trying to sleep. The drear of the weather made a departure unlikely anyway, or perhaps that was merely Teihiko’s headache talking. He was not sure.
He watched a few women strolling along the docks under painted kasa, umbrellas, ready for the rain that no one was sure would fall. One in a sea foam green kimono had red-rimmed eyes, as if she had been weeping. Another woman, clad in midnight green, walked stiffly, her face twisted up as if in deep throes of indecisiveness. Her eyes wandered from the city to the shore, back and forth, her grip tight on the handle of her umbrella.
“What is she worried about?” he wondered, but upon realizing that he did not care enough about the answer to seek it, he shut his eyes again. He just wanted some reprieve.
A heavy hand clapped upon his shoulder, and the belligerent boldness of Yoritomo Minoro’s voice pounded in his ears.
“What’s the matter with you, Teihiko! Wake up!”
Teihiko stood to attention though his chest grew heavier with sorrow at the sight of the captain. Minoro’s eyes flashed with energy, his hand stashed at his side where a brilliant tanto hung. Minoro stroked it as he would a pet, fingering its curved sheath and brightly gilded hilt. Teihiko thought he saw the dagger shiver almost but was not sure as a strange intensity of grief gripped his heart. He closed his eyes again.
“Why haven’t you set sail yet, you hook-handed halfwit?” Minoro demanded. “Trade means gold! There’s money to be made! You are behind schedule!”
Teihiko cocked his eyebrow in suspicion. “We were waiting for you.”
Minoro laughed, still gripping the tanto in one hand, refusing to let go. “I’m not going anywhere. Broken Wave City has proven exceptionally lucrative,” he said, his smile growing larger. “I’ve had a lucky streak! Everything I could have wished for has been mine for the taking. Gold. Silver. The gambling houses are full of sobbing fools these days! No one seems to have the yaruki to win against me. I may never leave again!”
Again, Teihiko thought he saw the dagger shiver with a melancholy light in Minoro’s grip, as if struggling to escape. His eyes were playing tricks. It must be his headache.
“Minoro, the men who were to replenish our water barrels haven’t arrived yet. The dock laborers only brought half the food supply, claiming that the farmers haven’t harvested anything in the last week on the island. The merchants whose goods we are shipping barely dropped off their cargo without a word, forgetting to sign their final contract. Even half the crew is still asleep and refuses to come above deck.” Teihiko pointed toward the city. “Some ill tide of mourning has fallen all around us. These are bad omens, Minoro.”
“Bah!” Minoro spat, turning his back. “What is it to me? The laziness of the farmers and the idiocy of the merchants? You are to set sail the moment the water arrives. Is that clear? I will not lose a coin because of your pathetic fancies.”
Minoro drew the tanto from its golden sheath and greedily inspecting its blade. “My good luck charm,” he laughed. Teihiko again felt the leaden heaviness of his chest grow. Shotsuo slumped down to sit on the deck, his head in his hands. Out of the corner of his eye, Teihiko saw the woman in the dark green kimono break away from her companions, her knuckles pressing deep into her chest. She approached the ship and nearly ran up the gang plank. Minoro scarcely minded her, lost in the glitter of his treasure, but Teihiko nodded to her.
“Are you taking passengers?” she demanded, her dark eyes blazing with a strange anger. “I need to get out of this kami-forsaken city as soon as possible!”
Teihiko looked to Minoro, who, uninterested, didn’t hear the question.
“Not at this time, I’m afraid,” he responded, briefly searching the docks for any sign of the water barrel delivery. “We have yet to replenish our stores, and-”
“-Please,” she insisted, her eyes squeezed shut in strange mental anguish. “I need to get out of here.”
“Excuse me,” Teihiko said, his eyebrows knitting together as he lost his patience. He pointed his hook at her. “We don’t even know who you are, and we are not inclined to carry anyone on board without proper references-”
“-I have gold!” she snapped, hanging a large, silken purse onto Teihiko’s hand hook. “That’s usually all you pirates need, right?”
“We are not pirates,” Teihiko snapped, trying to shake the purse from his hook. However, Minoro lurched forward and snatched the purse away from him. He peered inside, counting the coins with his gold-greedy eyes.
“Gold!” he laughed, triumph sparkling in his eyes. “Welcome aboard, miss.”
“But-“ Teihiko started, but Minoro had already drawn the purse closed, stuffed it into his sleeve, and began disembarking.
“Teihiko, leave the moment the water arrives,” he ordered and waved his hand over his head in farewell, the tanto still glimmering in his belt.
Teihiko stared at Minoro’s back as the captain wandered back into the city, unaware of the people who trudged pitifully around him. He thought he could feel his body relax, but the dull ache of melancholy still gnawed at his mind. The woman huffed in visible anger, but despite her furrowed brows, she also seemed relieved. She folded up her kasa and pulled a small mirror out of her sleeve, checking her make up. Teihiko thought he saw a small spider tattoo on her neck, but she immediately covered it with a flourish of powder. It must have only been a birth mark.
“What’s your business?” he demanded her suspiciously. “You have no luggage or traveling companions, and you haven’t even heard our destination.”
Her eyes narrowed. “This damned city has tortured me enough,” she muttered, continuing to hurriedly powder parts of her neck. “I need to get out. That should be good enough explanation for you.”
Teihiko turned back to look at Broken Wave City. The women who had walked with the new passenger had scarcely noticed that one of their number had fled. They lumbered along, their heads drooping and their eyes full of blankness, trailed by a dozen more merchants, laborers, sailors, and fisherman who all wore the same pallid mask of ill fortune. Only Minoro seemed unscathed by the malaise, Minoro and his shining lucky charm.
“Damned mission,” the woman murmured under the breath, shuffling away to find a place to sit. “Damned city. They all have no idea how lucky they are. Damned mission. May this forsaken city stay standing forever in its misery.”
Teihiko didn’t understand her words, but he felt some relief set in as he spied some water barrels rolling down the pier in their direction. Despite her shrewishness, he couldn’t help but share in the strange woman’s sentiment to leave Broken Wave City. The last week had been tortuous indeed. The image of Minoro and his tanto burned into his brain.
“Lucky fools in their little city,” he heard the woman mutter again. She spat overboard into the sea.
“You can take one of the guest cabins below deck,” Teihiko called to her. “Shotsuo can show you to-“
“-I can show myself,” she hissed, turning away from him and nearly running below deck in an evident struggle to get further away from the city she loathed.
Teihiko sighed and trudged toward the laborers who muttered and cursed as they rolled the water barrels up the gang plank. They each looked diminished, one pale and wane like an invalid and another whose frown nearly creased his face in half. Something had put them all in a foul mood, explaining the delay.
“Sir,” Shotsuo said, tugging on Teihiko’s sleeve to stop him in his tracks. “That woman dropped this.”
Teihiko turned to the sailor’s pointing to a slip of black paper that lay crumpled on deck. He saw an unmistakable white spider printed on its surface. Teihiko stabbed at it with his hook and proceeded to unfurl it, only to feel the blood leave his cheeks as he skimmed its contents.
“… act in the shadows to establish the foundation for the destruction of the city… not a single citizen is to survive…”
Teihiko recalled the spider mark on the woman’s neck. “Infiltrator,” he whispered, his voice sharp with malice. He grinned wickedly, feeling better than he had all week as his hatred burned through the apathy and despair. The woman was a Spider agent.
“It seems as if Minoro’s lucky charm brought good fortune to the city as well,” he said, crushing the black missive in his sea-worn fist.
“What’s that?” Shotsuo asked.
“Tell the men to start setting sail,” Teihiko said, drawing a large steel file from his belt and beginning to sharpen his hook with it. “I am going to speak with our guest.”
Valley of the Centipede
Chiyoko scrambled for purchase on the slippery rock. She slipped, face smashing into the wet earth. Her last remaining sandal ripped free in the force of the stream, wet mud holding tight as her heart hammered in time to the thunderous roar overhead. She held tight to the stone, fingernails raked across the unforgiving surface. A flash above brought deafening thunder and the nail snapped, ripped clean, and in that long moment between action and pain she could hear individual raindrops. The shock stabbed up her spine. She set her jaw in silence.
They would hear. If they heard, they would tear her apart.
She strained to listen. Through the storm she saw the fleshless horde rise inevitably up the slope. A vice seized her heart as she remembered their rasping groans. Her shoulder twitched with the echo of pain. Bony fingers had snatched away the left wing of her kataginu. The torn shoulder covered in a smear of blood and filth that hid the fire and gold colors.
Chiyoko wrenched her foot free. She was almost at the top. One sinking step after the other, the endless trudge mocked her, but she could feel the comforting embrace ahead. The light of Amaterasu Seido was close at hand.
The fire shugenja paused. A distant sound seized her attention. Amid the cacophony she heard a cry. Through hazy rain she saw Moshi Karuiko, a child of thunder. The other woman’s arms rose to the heavens. She implored the kami of the great storm to destroy her enemies and the spirits were doing just that. But the monstrous horde was too many. Lightning ripped them apart. Thunder scattered bones in explosive disarray and a dozen more took their place.
Chiyoko was struck by indecision. Abandon Karuiko and try to get help from the temple? Or throw herself back down the slope in a suicide gesture?
Her body moved of its own accord. Honor made the decision her rational mind could not. But before she took a single step the world exploded with radiant dawn. Golden fire bathed her in a protective glow. The storm ceased in a wide circle and she looked up.
High above floated the daimyo of the Moshi on fiery wings like some avenging fortune. Moshi Ikako was dressed in the dozen folds of a junihitoe, layer upon layer of the heavy kimonos pulsating with the red, purple, orange, and yellows of the sunrise. Her hair floated in a halo untouched by the storm. Wrapped in cascading fire and blinding sunlight she reminded Chiyoko of nothing less than Amaterasu herself.
Ikako looked down and Chiyoko felt her gaze pierce her soul. Her eyes filled with white light.
“You are saved. Run. This blessing cannot last long.”
Chiyoko ran. The earth solidified under the heat of the sunlight and it clapped beautifully against the soles of her feet. She reached the top. She fell on her knees before Amaterasu Seido and collapsed. Ikako descended slowly and the fiery wings vanished.
Only then did Chiyoko look back to see Karuiko fall.
The thunder shugenja had no chance. She was overwhelmed. Lightning continued to stab and destroy, but ceased as they ripped her apart. Her screams were short.
Chiyoko’s spun back to Ikako in shock. “Why?”
Ikako regarded her with a disembodied glare that made Chiyoko go cold.
“I had time to save one. You follow the old ways.” Ikako blinked slowly. Silence stretched. “Thunder must protect its own.”
Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. The storm roared in fury and Ikako’s vision ended. It wasn’t real. It had yet to happen.
But it would. Of that the Moshi daimyo was absolutely certain.
Her eyes snapped open in the present and weariness slammed into her. For a moment, Ikako felt crushing disorientation. She had seen the whole event through the eyes of Chiyoko. Watching herself through someone else’s eyes was dizzying.
Yet, such clarity. Divinations were rarely detailed. Ikako saw herself filled with the power of the Sun, the old Sun, the Lady. Amaterasu possessed her, would possess her. As that image fell away the old pains returned. She had been in her meditative pose for hours.
“My lady, are you well?”
Ikako jerked, startled by the voice. The vision had distracted her from the present to such an extent she forgot she was not alone in the room. The young Moshi Karuiko, one of the naïve youth, had been waiting in a punishing seiza, legs gone numb beneath her.
I saw you in my vision, child, Ikako thought. Why were you fleeing with a daughter of light? Why will you die?
“I am fine. I thank you for your concern.”
Karuiko beamed. “How fared your meditations? Were you able to consider the matter of rededication?”
Ikako did not respond at first. Every blink brought back flashes of the prophetic dream. She knelt in the chamber of the Hand of the Sun Goddess. Its series of complex mirrors and lenses sat atop a raised platform high in Amaterasu Seido. The room awash in glorious sunlight and in the center of that mass of complicated architecture the Moshi daimyo knelt atop a stone slab.
In the past others had been placed here healed by Lady Sun. Now, Ikako used the sacred ground to reach deep for answers to a difficult question.
The younger Moshi, servants of Thunder, pressured Ikako. Whispers from the spirit realms foretold a time of struggle and pain ahead. The youth proposed to rededicate Amaterasu Seido in the name of the Jade Dragon to show they were not mired in tradition, but willing to change for the future.
Ikako wanted none of it.
“I have meditated on the matter at length. I hoped to be visited by the Voice of the Jade Sun, but instead was blessed with clarity of a different sort.”
“Then we can begin preparations, Ikako-sama?”
“I think not.” Ikako’s gaze shone with the unflappable belief of the righteous.
“No?” The hesitant voice pleaded.
Ikako moved carefully off the slab and straightened her robes. She walked from the room certain the vision would fade. It remained steadfast, locked in her mind.
“Tradition is what binds us. We honor the past and wrap ourselves in the warm embrace of our ancestors. What greater ancestor do any of us have than Lady Amaterasu herself? She lives within the Jade Dragon still and we, her most devout servants, will never turn away.”
“But a storm is brewing. We must be prepared, Ikako-sama. We must –”
Ikako halted. A nagging thought returned unbidden. If I do nothing, the ways of the Moshi will be lost.
She spoke in a quiet voice.
“Let the storm build. The true Moshi are protected by the Sun. The rain will fall. Not a drop will touch us here.”
Warmed by her clear vision, Moshi Ikako prepared for the future.
Doji Natsuyo stood alone in the courtyard of the Crab embassy in Toshi Ranbo. Invitations to a hunting party outside the city had removed all martially inclined samurai. Others used the lull in the court to pursue private agendas. Natsuyo was no different.
The Doji studied her opponents’ home away from home and was not shocked by the décor. The embassy was made primarily of stone and common, dark wood. The main garden was sand and stones tended by a lone monk. Shrines to the ancestors and grounds for training dominated. Yet, it was not devoid of artistic appeal.
Symbols of the Iweko house, the offices of Imperial Advisor, and the Voice decorated the entrance. Reminders of the Crab’s connections and subtle mockery to her own clan. And there, in the center of the open courtyard, a tremendous taiko drum Natsuyo knew could be heard halfway across the city. The Crab edged slowly, but certainly into the realms of culture and politics.
“Your yojimbo would have been welcome.”
Natsuyo turned with careful grace and bowed her head. Yasuki Umi-Ushi, First Magistrate of the Emerald Champion, stood at the bottom-most of the central building. His pose was casual, but his tremendous body and perceptive eye granted him the air of a general surveying his terrain pre-battle. He lifted a large cabbage and took a hefty bite.
“I put my faith in the clan that has protected the Empire for over a thousand years,” Natsuyo said. “They could not fail to provide safety for one mere servant of the Crane.”
“Ha!” Chunks of cabbage and spittle flew. “You Doji, every meeting a chance to flatter. You couldn’t just say you wanted the conversation to be private?”
Natsuyo’s smile radiated warmth. “What do I have to keep from my clan? They know I am present. The entire court will know I came, alone, by end of the day. A chief diplomat of the Doji visiting the Crab during tense negotiations over the future Imperial bride? What rumors will they whisper?”
Umi-Ushi took another bite and gave Natsuyo a knowing smirk. He gestured with the vegetable. “They’re waiting.”
Despite herself, Natsuyo was impressed at the Crab’s preparations. The central chamber permeated with the scents of fresh flowers. She couldn’t help but feel at ease when she recognized the scent of juniper, a favorite of hers.
“It’s almost as if you are skilled at this game,” she whispered.
Umi-Ushi led her into a large room filled on all sides by scrolls, ledgers, documents, and empty desks for scribes. Seated in the center was the daimyo of his family, Yasuki Tono. He did not look up from his writing as she entered. Natsuyo thought it peculiar that he was wearing gloves.
Next to him was a beautiful young samurai-ko, Kuni by her mon, but unlike any other Doji Natsuyo knew. She wore a slim, lightweight kimono which revealed exactly as much as she desired and the bright white kabuki makeup of her family. Except…Natsuyo had to laugh.
“You find my vassal amusing?” Tono glanced up over the rim of his strange spectacles. Kuni Sango tilted her head questioningly.
“Why yes. I expect better of myself then such direct language, but I had not expected such subtlety from a Kuni.” Natsuyo gestured with her fan. Sango’s makeup was a simple white background dominated by a black star around her eye. The same eye over which Hida Ayameko wore a patch.
“A sign of solidarity. It is hard to believe you were not trained by the Crane nakado, Sango-san.”
Kuni Sango bowed, smooth and slow. “I’m certain you mean that as a compliment. The Crab have learned, Natsuyo-san, and we have never been the imperceptive brutes others make us out to be.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” Natsuyo sat before Tono. Umi-Ushi stood at the back of the room, chewing loudly on his cabbage.
“No matter how much I tell myself not to be surprised by your clan, I am constantly disappointed. Or quite impressed.” Natsuyo spoke to Tono, but her eyes slid over Sango with care. “The Kakita have the greatest artisans in the Empire tasked to portray the virtues of Kakita Kae, yet I find that for every Crane artisan, half a dozen from other clans as well as several talented ronin crop up to support Ayameko-san. Someone uses vast resources to, shall we say, flood the market with competitors.”
Tono smiled and remained silent.
“I wonder at the impossible task of convincing Lord Kisada to spend such wealth on a political matter. Along with the Voice and Imperial Advisor, as well as the Office of the First Magistrate, well,” Natsuyo gestured, arms wide, “the Crab are a force to be reckoned with.”
“You didn’t come here to praise, Natsuyo.” Tono put down the scroll and removed the gloves with great care.
“In fact I did!” Natsuyo exclaimed. “You see, Crane are perceptive as well. We see the subtle ebb and flow and read its waves like a Mantis sailor. The Crab will prevail. Hida Ayameko will be the Iweko bride. Congratulations.”
Natsuyo did not turn, but watched Tono. Behind her, Umi-Ushi bent to pick up his snack.
“The Crane wish not to waste resources when other matters require our focus. Instead, I come to you with a promise. Kakita Kae will openly support Ayameko in court.” Natsuyo looked to Sango. “The clans will know the Yasuki and Kuni have defeated the Doji.”
Umi-Ushi stepped forward. “You wouldn’t do this even if you thought you could not win, unless you have some ulterior motive. The Doji can’t be seen to surrender to the Yasuki.” He took a bite to emphasize his point.
“You are not and have never been our enemy. The Doji seek to aid our allies,” Natsuyo arched a brow. “We hope you will see us as such.”
The Crab were silent, waiting for the expected request.
“On an unrelated matter, I would like to discuss the Otomo.”
Tono smiled, removed his glasses, and eyed her while he rubbed them with a cloth.
“You must be privy to the whispers regarding the Imperial Bureaucracy. The Otomo rule through a calcified system of procedure. Its complexity is by design, unwieldy to all others. They are confusion, intimidation, and fear,” Natsuyo held up one hand. “Ayameko’s future husband, our Emperor Iweko II, seems unwilling to allow their meddlesome ways to continue.”
“You want to hasten the fall of the Otomo?” Umi-Ushi rolled his eyes. “Cozy up to us because you think we want to help in that? What do the Yasuki stand to gain?”
“We fill in the gaps.” Tono’s voice was a whisper.
“Well stated.” Natsuyo held up her other hand. “The Otomo system is cracking. It will collapse under its own weight. By and large, it will not be missed. However, there are key positions that must be filled else the necessities of Imperial law cannot take place. Where the Otomo are fear, Doji are love and respect. Fear failed. Respect deserves its chance.”
Kuni Sango spoke in a voice of quiet reflection. “We help the Doji by seizing key positions from a weakened Otomo House.”
“Where the Otomo have failed the Iweko, the Doji and Yasuki will not.” Natsuyo nodded. “Key positions in the Treasury must be filled. Other positions overseeing marriages, the arts, and aspects of protocol and culture need someone to step in.”
“I think there is room to share in matters of culture,” Tono countered.
“Perhaps you are right, Lord Tono,” Natsuyo conceded.
“We become indispensable,” Umi-Ushi rushed in, the ragged leaves of his cabbage forgotten, “Cut off avenues of power to the other clans. Give you the ability to slip closer to the positions of power we have taken?”
“The Crane are never far from the halls of power,” Natsuyo glanced to the symbols of Imperial Advisor and the Voice. “I’m here now, aren’t I? We will be there with or without you. In this way, the Doji owe you favor. And since we no longer expend resources pursuing the bridal position, we have more to give.”
There was a long silence as the Crab considered the matter. Finally, Tono glanced to his retainers. Each nodded. The deal was done.
“Excellent,” Natsuyo beamed. “Now, two other minor matters. We should discuss the Empress’ House Guard. I am certain you want to fill it with Hida, but the Doji have experience. Could you give us two positions?”
Tono arched a brow. “The other matter?”
“We wonder if you might tell us everything you know about the Dragon, their handling of the Spider, and their… encounters with the tainted.” She smiled warmly. “We have a greater interest in the Dragon these days and the information will be helpful.”