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Spring Kotei Fictions 2015 - Act 3: Complications - Part 2

By The L5R Story Team | September 08, 2015

Spring Kotei Fictions 2015

Act 3: Complications - Part 2

By Chris Hand, Maxime Lemaire, Mari Murdock, Fred Wan, and Robert Denton

Edited by Fred Wan

Continuing the 2015 Spring Kotei Fiction series


The Lands of the Dragon…

Some said the first step to enlightenment killed one’s parents. This was interpreted to be a metaphor for letting go of one’s identity, as a way to distance oneself from the past and start learning. As Togoshi Noboru achieved the climb to Kyuden Togashi, he found himself wondering if the last step of his trip was in fact the first step of his journey. He had returned from the Colonies, where he had spent tremendous time and resources to establish his influence, due to the death of his father, Togashi Satsu. Noboru had done his best to come back to his ancestral homelands as fast he could, but due to the distance from the Second City it had already been weeks since his father had passed. Noboru had ordered for the funerary rites to be administered in his absence, and he had only come back to pay his respects. The two had never been close. Although Noboru respected his father, their views of the world could not be reconciled. Satsu always had his face tilted towards the heavens, while Noboru kept his own gaze straight ahead. They were separated not only by age and worldly perception, but also by Satsu’s proximity to their divine heritage. While Noboru was a potent warrior and bore the magical tattoos of his family, he couldn’t compare himself to Satsu, who was once able to adopt the form of a dragon. Even after his death, his legend persisted. While disease had presumably claimed his life in his old age, Noboru had already heard rumors of Satsu simply abandoning his body to join Hoshi and Togashi in heaven as the last of the Togashi Champions.

Noboru spent his first few days in prayer and reclusion. He reflected upon the legacy of his father, and honored him in death despite their differences in life. In between his prayers, Noboru noticed the High House of Light was as chaotic as it ever had been, with monks coming in and out without anybody taking note. Although he had already been daimyo of his family for a while, with his father gone Noboru was the sole authority of the Togashi, and didn’t like what he saw. While he understood the need for freedom in pursuit of enlightenment, he also felt they had duties as members of the Dragon Clan. To better grasp the situation of his family, Noboru ordered for a list of members of the Togashi orders to be compiled, together with their present situation. It was an impossible task, of course, but he had to start somewhere. The first few days were actually quite productive, as many monks rarely left Kyuden Togashi if at all, and Noboru was quickly able to collect information on them. He also had extensive knowledge of the Dragon presence in the Colonies. The Togashi who lived there were similar to him in attitude, and reported at least semi-frequently on their activities. The rest were the most difficult to track down: wanderers, in search of enlightenment or serving the Clan in their own unique ways.

Noboru frowned as he read through the list of local residents, and immediately called for one of his attendants.

“My lord?” a young tattooed woman said as she entered the room and bowed.

“I think there is a mistake with the list of monks currently living in Kyuden Togashi, Tameko-san. I do not see Togashi Kasuru mentioned.”

“Kasuru-san left us shortly after your father’s passing, my lord.”

“He’s gone wandering?” Noboru shook his head. “I would have thought he was well past the age to do so.”

Tameko blinked. “You misunderstand me, my lord. Kasuru-san has left the Dragon Clan. He has renounced the Togashi name and taken asylum in Unicorn lands.”

Noboru stared at his vassal in disbelief, yet she didn’t retract her statement. “The Unicorn?” he said as he crumbled the scroll in his fist. “But Kasuru is one of our greatest artists! He tattooed my father! He has served for Clan for decades! Why would he suddenly betray us?”

“He left a scroll in his quarters,” Tameko answered calmly. “He told us only you could read it, and we decided to honor his wishes.”

“Bring it to me at once,” Noboru growled. Within moments, Tameko was back and delivered the scroll to him. Noboru quickly opened it, and his eyes widened as he discovered its contents.

“This cannot be true,” Noboru let the scroll fall to the floor. “Kasuru writes that when Togashi Yokuni died, the reserves of his blood needed for our tattoos ran low. He says that all tattoos since have come from Hitomi, who developed a new technique based on teachings from… Kokujin?” He glared at Tameko. “You’re one of the artist apprentices here. Tell me this isn’t true?”

“I believe it is,” Tameko said.

“Why was I not told of this? This is a danger to our entire order, if not our entire Clan!” Noboru screamed.

“I asked about it during my first few lessons,” Tameko shrugged. “My sensei didn’t seem worried. Mostly, they thought us above corruption.”

Noboru gazed at his own tattoos in horror. “I do not share your sensei’s arrogance. No one is to be tattooed for the time being. I want to confer with all the senior tattoo artists, as soon as possible, and review their techniques, their ink, their blood supply. You will assist me in this. Understood?”

“Yes, my Lord,” Tamako bowed. “Anything else I can do to assist you?”

Noboru frowned. “Find Kasuru.”

***

Like most cities in Unicorn lands, Shiro Moto had dozens of stables, from the largest ones dedicated to the steeds of the Khol, to the small ones found in the heimin district. It was in one of these that Kasuru was currently plying his trade. He had protested, at first, but the woman he was now tattooing insisted. The lighting was not perfect, but given his age Kasuru had to keep his eyes close to the skin anyway. And the place was much cleaner than he had initially thought. As he pulled back his needle one last time and wiped off the excess ink and blood, Kasuru contemplated his work. It was a Ki-Rin. A good omen, and a symbol of luck. A nice start for him, he thought. With her blood, this new tattooing technique of his would be pure.

As he put away his tools, Moto Naleesh smiled at him.

***

Gisei Toshi, The Seven Temples

Isawa Akime stared wide-eyed, her mouth open as a chill shivered through her body. She sank to her knees, the bizarre horror overtaking her. Isawa Mochiko stood over her, gripping her shoulder to steady her.

“Stay strong, Akime,” he said, his own voice raspy in shock. “This is the moment where we witness a revelation.”

However, no explanation came. The two of the stood before the Seven Temples of the Seven Fortunes, the rising sun at their backs, their minds awhirl with confusion as they stared into the faces of each of the Seven Fortunes – Ebisu, Hotei, Daikoku, Benten, Fukurokujin, Jurojin, Bishamon – their usual peaceful, wise faces warped into the fearsome fanged snarls and flaming eyes of their wrathful aspects.

“What can it mean, Mochiko-san?” Akime whispered, her spirit stiffening with some resolved curiosity. “What evil calls such faces from stone?”

Mochiko tightened his grip on a slender string of talismans that hung from his obi, searching the morning-washed sky for answers. He muttered a prayer, communing with the water kami that pooled and settled in the dew around them. Akime followed suit, wildly stumbling through her own prayers to the air kami, her mind still reeling through her questions and fears. A strange hollowness filled the air, billowing the air kami around her. She locked eyes with Mochiko.

“Void,” they both said together. Immediately, several small forms materialized, shadowy figures sculpted from the Void itself. They wore form-fitting armor over nearly transparent flesh and flowed in and through the air, tiny faces pinched in anger.

“The Children of Isawa’s Last Wish,” Mochiko murmured. He nearly dropped his talismans in surprise. “How could this be?”

Several of the Children flew before the statues of the Seven Fortunes, and the stone faces hardened with deeper lines of anger.

“You did this?” Akime asked, pointing to the statues, her initial fear of the omen vanishing.

“Our acts bespeak our interests,” one female Child sang in response. She spoke in long, vibrant tones, the language of the kami, and Akime struggled to understand.

Mochiko’s face split with rage. “You dare disrupt the sacredness of this place with your whims? This is sacrilege, defiling the aspects of the Fortunes in this sacred city.”

“And we shall do more,” a male Child answered, raising his hands in a threatening gesture, “unless our demands are met.”

“What do you want?” Akime asked hurriedly.

“Isawa Genma,” the Children all answered.

“You have neglected one of your own,” another female Child hissed. “Isawa Genma has been missing from your walls for over a week, and none of you have sought to find her.” 

Mochiko huffed in impertinence. “None know where she has gone. She vanished, leaving no trace, so we believed she dishonored herself by breaking the sacred oath to never leave Gisei Toshi’s walls.”

“Genma found Isawa’s Last Wish!” one Child shrieked, flitting through the air in fury. “She followed the calls of the Wish to her doom!”

Akime grimaced, suddenly feeling the full weight of a guilt she had sought to conceal. She had seen Genma, just before she disappeared, and they had quarreled. She had never liked Genma, the absent-minded day dreaming, the brooding silence, the claims to hear voices. She was always wandering between temples listlessly, whispering strange prayers to herself. However, Akime had never conceived of Genma actually breaking her vows, leaving Gisei Toshi altogether.

“Genma… I should not have told you to go…” she muttered.

“Go where?” Mochiko demanded, his brow furrowed in anger.

Akime bit her lip.

“Genma kept saying she heard a voice,” she said, worry riddling her tone. “A child’s voice, calling to her. I thought her mad. However, she continued on and on about it, and in a moment of…” Akime swallowed, “…impatient anger, I told her to follow it to hell.” 

“Only she heard the Wish,” another Child said. “My brothers and sisters followed her to her death, and now all of Gisei Toshi will suffer for its loss!”

“No!” Mochiko said. “This must not be. Gisei Toshi is hallowed, blessed by the Fortunes and kami themselves. We shall not let a lesser feud based on the broken oath of a weak-minded shugenja take precedent.”

“The Wish is our sacred charge!” one Child countered. “And we shall unleash our fury in its absence!”

“You dare threaten this sacred city with your selfish…” His voice trailed off as a female Child cast him a baleful glare. Mochiko’s arms and legs tensed, his eyes rolled back into his head, and his back arched, threatening to snap. He writhed, slashing at the air with tortured fingers and let out a scream of agony as the Child disarranged the harmony of his soul.

“Stop!” Akime shouted, her face flushed in shock at what she was about to say. “Please, be still. I will go recover Isawa’s Last Wish. Please. Leave Gisei Toshi in peace until I can recover what has been once again been lost to you.”

Mochiko staggered to his feet, taking an enraged step forward. “No, Akime. You vowed, as we all have, to live and die within Gisei Toshi’s walls. Do not recommit Genma’s sin.”

“I must,” she answered. “The Wish is our clan’s greatest link to the kami, and it should be all the more precious to us if Gisei Toshi feels the affliction of its loss. If Genma left our sacred city to follow the Wish, then so shall I.”

The Children floated silently, waiting for Mochiko’s response. The old man winced, his mouth awry in disapproval. He looked from Akime to the statues of the Seven Fortunes. Then he glared at the Children of Isawa’s Last Wish.

“Her death be on your heads,” he said at last. “Akime, you may never return should you leave Gisei Toshi. You know this to be the consequence of your decision. And I cannot bless you in your journey as your path is one of blatant transgression against your sacred vows.” He again tightened his grip around his string of talismans. “However, your sacrifice is noble, and may the Fortunes, whose temples in this sacred city you champion as you leave, see you safe in their own ways.”

Akime nodded, the burden of her choice suddenly starting to sink in. She looked around her at the beauty of her city. Gisei Toshi. The morning light sparkled on the city walls, yet the air was still fragrant with the crispness of mountain shadow. This was where she was born. This was where she hoped to die, where the treasures of wisdom and the ages lay hidden, safe from a dismal, superficial world.  She turned to look at the Children, who still hovered, their anger assuaged for the moment.

“I do this for my city,” she said, “And to atone for my actions toward Genma.”

“For Genma,” one Child said.

“For the Wish,” said another.

“For Gisei Toshi,” said Mochiko.

***

The Umi no Jikoju…

  Yoritomo Hiromi stood at the bow of his ship and stared into the eastern horizon. The amber sky was pristine and cloudless, the firmament cast gold with the setting sun. He knew that the fading light of the day would finally touch the glittering torii arch of the Shrine of Lost Sailors; the time was nearly here. In a circumference around his ship, his escort The Thunder Dragons bobbed gently on the motionless sea. Seeing them conjured a quiet smirk. The irony was not lost on him.

A gentle wave rippled the sea. The ships bobbed along the surface like small toys.

“It is time,” Hiromi whispered.

The sky darkened. It was as though a great curtain had been pulled across the horizon. The world became grey as the ocean churned. The waves grew fierce, slapping the hull with white, foamy hands. Dark water splashed onto the deck. Sailors scurried to fight the storm as the ship rocked helplessly in the sudden storm. A flash of light broke the sky and the deck shook with thunder.

As sailors scattered and the accompanying ships became clouded in thick fog, Hiromi did not move. The deck was a frenzy of activity, a storm of its own making, men barking and following orders. Hiromi alone was unconcerned. At the bow of the ship he tilted his head towards the veil obscuring the heavens and felt the sheets of rain falling on his bare shoulders and face. Another flash of lightning illuminated the world, sending frenzied sparks dancing across the waters. The chlorine smell of ozone replaced the salt of the sea.

Above Hiromi, the clouds grew especially thick. The panicked sounds of the crew seemed so distant in that moment. There were lights within the clouds, arcs of green and blue lighting dancing from nimbus to nimbus, deep within the churning black air. As the Mantis Clan Champion watched, a pair of glowing yellow eyes appeared within that cluster of iron clouds, and the vague hint of a massive coiled body seemed to unfurl within the storm. It never broke through, those eyes suspended above him, seeming like hidden moons, slowly blinking.

  Hiromi bowed, placing his knuckles on the deck of the ship. The rain pummeled his body as the wind stole his words from his wet lips, but he knew they would be carried to the entity. “Ryu Kaminari no Kami,” he spoke, “I bow humble before you.”

The yellow eyes behind their black clouds narrowed. A voice thundered within Hiromi’s mind, a woman’s voice that came from without. Son and leader of my people, I greet you.

“I have come as summoned,” Hiromi said. He waited the space of a breath. “How may the Yoritomo and their vassals serve a glorious child of the Heavens?”

For some time, there was only the rain and wind, the churning of the sea, the crashing of innumerable waves, and the shouting of his men. Hiromi dared to open his eyes and look up into the blackness of the clouds. The Thunder Dragon was only visible by its eyes and the hint of its massive body. It still stirred there, but it did not speak.

Hiromi’s brow furrowed as the boat rocked violently. He did not flinch, maintaining his eyes upon the imprisoned god before him. “Great Keeper of the Tide Jewels,” he said, using an ancient and rare honorific for the dragon, a title used long before the fall of the Hantei, “in what way may we serve you?”

This time there was no pause. The eyes seemed to lift, and Hiromi felt himself beneath the scrutiny of the dragon. A great trial is coming for the Mantis Clan, said the thunderous voice within his skull. The eyes narrowed. You are not prepared.

Hiromi’s jaw clenched. He disregarded all else, even the constant barrage of rain and wind, and came ever-closer to the lip of the deck. “What trial?” he asked. “What is coming?”

There are dark seeds within the clan, the Thunder Dragon warned. I have seen it. Where centuries of defeat had made the Yoritomo strong, their greatest victories have now made them weak. They turn against the wind. There are many who can no longer hear the call of thunder. Among the gold and conquered castles of their enemies, spiders have been allowed to spin their webs and now they are too close. You will be betrayed. It cannot be stopped now.

 

  “Yet we stand with the Thunder Dragon,” Hiromi said. “With you beside us, what could possibly challenge us?”

The yellow eyes closed. For a moment, Hiromi believed the dragon had left, but he saw the faint outline of the dragon’s body and he knew it was still within those clouds. Then came the voice again. There is a visitor who has come to my sacred bay. She has come from a far corner of the Empire. She knows it not yet, but she will serve a greater purpose there. When she leaves, I must follow.

The implication sank slowly into Hiromi’s mind, and his face hardened. “You will abandon us.”

The yellow eyes opened again. Hot wind tore the sails of the ship. A massive wave cracked the side, showering the deck with churning water. Panicked screams arose from the deck as men and women were dragged into the sea.

The Mantis must face this test alone. I cannot interfere.

“A test.” Hiromi’s eyes were cold. “Another test from the heavens, then?”

The dragon did not reply.

With a deft move, Hiromi drew his kama. He pointed the sickle towards the sky. “The priests at my birth said I had your blessing,” he shouted into the storm. “Perhaps heaven thinks nothing of their mortal servants, but we are as kin. Humbly I beg you, demonstrate your sincerity, so that you might dwell with us in spirit!”

Show me your blades.

 

  The Mantis Champion extended his pair of kama. The night sky broke. Electricity torrented around the hull, and before Hiromi’s eyes, the arcs of lightning touched his blades. All was white before his eyes.

When the thunder faded, the twin kama of Yoritomo, the ancestral weapons of his clan, glowed gently in his hands. The metal seemed brighter somehow, lighter and more graceful as he wielded them.

I have kissed the arc of your blades. So long as my influence dwells in this realm, and my sacred bay remains pure, even Jigoku cannot take them.

  The sea began to calm. Every wave seemed softer, gentler, than the last. A ray of sun broke through the clouds and shone upon the deck. The yellow eyes behind the storm slowly faded.

Your trial comes, the dragon’s fading voice spoke. The mettle of man will be tested.

 

  And then the sky was silent and untroubled once more.

Hiromi bobbed with his ship on the surface of a pristine sea. The sun sunk beneath the horizon. Behind him, the crew called out to gather those who’d fallen from the ship. The mast had broken in the storm, and now they struggled to reclaim it. The canvas floated on the sea, bearing the mon of the Mantis Clan facing skyward, gently smoldering from where lighting had graced it.

Hiromi looked upon the burning mon of his clan as it floated on the ocean’s surface. “What is a man,” he whispered, “if not a bolt of lighting?”

***

Kyuden Togashi

In the top room of the High House of Light, Togashi Noboru sat in silence, contemplating yet another report. The recent revelations regarding the tattooing techniques of his family had taken most of his attention of late. Coupled with the overall business of organizing his vassals, or even just obtaining a complete list of them, Noboru had been left with precious little time to rest. When he heard a buzzing sound in the distance, he thought he had finally lost his mind, as no insects of note were ever found that high in the mountains. But the sound grew louder and louder until a tattooed monk came crashing through his room through the paper wall. Noboru jumped to his feet and his hand instinctively reached for his sword, but he stopped as he recognized the man. This was Togashi Taiki, one of his advisors in the Colonies. On his bare back, Noboru spotted a centipede tattoo, the magic of which enabled one to travel long distances in the span of a single day. More worryingly, Taiki’s body sported several bruises and cuts. Noboru helped his fellow monk back to his feet.

“Taiki-san. What happened?”

“My lord,” Taiki nodded, too wounded and fatigued to bow, “the Spider attacked me.”

“Why?” Noboru said, holding him by the shoulder.

“To cover their tracks, would be my guess,” Taiki looked Noboru in the eyes. “They are preparing for something. Many overseers have disappeared. Others have simply lost track of their charges. I had known the men who attacked me for years, but their strength was more than I could face. I’m sorry I have failed you, my lord.”

“You haven’t,” Noboru shook his head. “Any idea where the Spider are headed?”

“Hard to say. Most of their colonial strongholds have been deserted or put to the torch. The only pattern I could discern was that they seemed to be headed East from the colonies.”

“East,” Noboru repeated. “To the Shadowlands.”

***

Several days later, at the northern border of Crab lands

“Back in Crab lands again,” Tamori Yayu said as he rode forward, his yojimbo next to him.

“Indeed,” Ezuno agreed as he halted his horse a respectful distance away from the Crab patrol. “Although this time we have brought a little more company.” Behind them stood a variety of Dragon troops, most of them cavalry, and with a sizable contingent of tattooed monks as well. It was a hodgepodge force, but luckily the Dragon were used to mixing different types of units. Altogether, their numbers amounted to a little more than a full legion. It was a small force, but it was all Togashi Noboru had been able to send, lest they lose too much time.

Facing them was a small cavalry unit of Crab samurai. If for some reason the Dragon decided to force their passage, the Crab wouldn’t have been able to do much to stop them, and yet they sat confidently atop their horses. One of them, a bearded samurai who seemed to be in command, rode forward to meet Yayu and Ezuno.

“I am Hida Iguchi,” he said with a short bow. “May I ask what the Dragon are doing so far from their mountains?”

Yayu exchanged an awkward look with Ezuno, and presented his travel papers to Iguchi.

“Pleased to meet you, Hida-san. I am Tamori Yayu, and this is my yojimbo, Mirumoto Ezuno. We seek passage within the lands of the honorable Crab Clan, to conduct a mission of the utmost importance in the Shadowlands.”

Iguchi scoffed. “You and the hundreds behind you, eh? I don’t have time to review all of their papers, you know.”

“Mine will hopefully suffice,” Yayu answered, struggling to maintain a smile. “You will notice I am a Jade Magistrate, fully in my right to investigate spiritual issues. My yojimbo will in turn command the force accompanying me.”

“And what would this issue be then?” Iguchi handed the papers back.

“I’m sorry Hida-san, but I am not at liberty to say. Only the highest ranked members of your Clan can be informed.”

“For all your concerns, I am as highly ranked as Hida himself, since I stand between you and the lands of my Clan.” Iguchi spat on the ground, and Ezuno’s posture ever so slightly shifted. “So you’d better explain yourself, if you don’t want me to chase you all the way back to your volcanoes.”

Yayu sighed, but continued. “Fine. I trust your discretion in this matter, for while the honor of the Crab is above doubt others might relay sensitive information to our enemies before it is too late. We have reason to believe the Spider are currently mustering their forces for a dark purpose. As such, it is our appointed duty to check upon their holdings, to gather information. One of these is the City of the Lost. “

Iguchi laughed out loud. “You think the Spider are up to something? Really? Trust the Dragon to take thirty years to ‘discover’ something we knew for centuries.” Ezuno frowned and Iguchi held up his hand as a sign of peace. “Don’t worry though, we won’t stop you in your mad quest, given for once you are pointed in the right direction. I assume you have brought jade with you?”

It was Yayu’s turn to frown now. “Do you imply we are not honorable men and women, and as such unworthy of the Empress’ protection?”

“Who knows what the Divine Empress thinks of us,” Iguchi shrugged. “I carry jade on myself at all times. Easier than contemplating my sins.”

“I see. We brought jade as well, for our own security. At great cost, I might add. Now can I please request you let us through? Time is off the essence.”

“Of course,” Iguchi smiled as he moved out of the way. “And in case any of you makes it back, please tell your lord he has Kuni Renyu’s regards.”

Realizing the Crab probably knew all along why they had been here, Yayu repressed a sigh and hurried his steed onwards. Part of him looked forward to finding himself beyond the wall. Dangerous as they might be, most creatures there at least didn’t talk.

***

The City of the Lost

Yoritomo Saitsuko sipped her sake, enjoying its delicate flavor. She would have never expected to find anything of such quality this deep in the Shadowlands, but even among the Lost, there were some who had taste. The trip to the City of the Lost had been long and arduous. As the daughter of a decorated officer of the First Fleet, she had been sent to learn the ways of Shourido with the Spider Clan. She was, of course, well past her gempukku and nobody would call her a child. But the Mantis had included a few young samurai like her in the group of one hundred children, to ease their transition to a new home and ensure their safety. The Spider didn’t object, particularly as the assistance of seasoned Mantis samurai had helped them bring the children to destination. After sailing to the coast of the Shadowlands, they had been brought to the City of the Lost, where they would begin their learning before eventually moving to the Colonies. Or so was the plan.

When a gong rang the alarm in the city, the Spider samurai present in the inn with her ran outside. They told Saistsuko to remain inside, but as she heard the characteristic sound of flaming arrows, she decided against it. Stepping outside and climbing atop a nearby house to get a better point of view, Saitsuko was shocked by what she saw. An army of Dragon samurai was closing in on the City, and hostilities had already begun. The Mirumoto archers were raining fire upon the City.

With its largely diminished population as the bulk of Spider forces remained in the Colonies, there was no hope of saving the city itself. Flames raged from building to building, quickly consuming the many abandoned houses. As the Dragon closed in the fight turned into a bloody mess, small units vying for the control of the city’s streets. Even from her high ground, it was hard to understand what was happening, or who had drawn blood first. She saw the Spider evacuate the Mantis children to the South, and breathed a sigh of relief. Yet she couldn’t help but admire the discipline and courage of the Dragon soldiers. They fought with no thought of self-preservation, dedicated to destroying the city rather than let the Spider continue to use it.

As flames drew closer to her she returned to the streets. She stumbled upon a pair of Dragon samurai laying on the ground, one a shugenja and the other a bushi. They were both lying in blood, but the dozen Spider corpses around them proved how well they had fought until then. As she got closer, she was surprised to find the bushi was still alive. He gestured for her to come closer. His bald head had received a serious injury, and blood was running down his face, covering one of his eyes. Perhaps, Saitsuko thought, he thought her a Dragon, his senses betraying him in his last moments. He sheathed back his blades and handed her his daisho, which she accepted. 

“Bring it back,” he said with difficulty. “Don’t let the Spider have it.”

She took the blades from him, and his head fell back as his last bit of strength left him. Staring down at the daisho, Saitsuko didn’t notice anything particular about it. She weighed her options for a bit, but then decided to bring them back to the Dragon. Making her way through the city, making sure to stay out of sight of the Spider, she found what remained of the Dragon forces. They had regrouped at the northern gate, their force a fraction of what had come to the City of the Lost. But considering the raging inferno at her back, it was fair to consider the Dragon victorious.

The Dragon commander frowned as Saitsuko approached, but noticed her casual approach and kept his blades sheathed.

“I am Mirumoto Reiji. May I ask what a Mantis is doing in the heart of the Shadowlands?”

“You may not,” Saitsuko smiled, “though you might be content to know I remain pure. The only reason why we are talking is because I was told to bring you this,” she said as she handed him the daisho.

Reiji's eyes widened as he accepted it with reverence. “These are Togashi-no-Kami's swords! We thought them lost when Enzo-sama failed to return. You've done us a great favor, Yoritomo-san.”

For a moment, Saitsuko’s demeanor changed, open surprise showing on her face. But she recovered with a broad smile. “How lucky for you I have no use for swords.”

Reiji bristled, but Saitsuko smoothed the edge of her words with a bow. “I am glad to have aided the Dragon in this way. Ancestral swords are so easy to lose these days.”

Calming, Reiji carefully tucked away the swords on a nearby horse and mounted. He considered the woman looking up at him. “We are going back to Rokugan. Will you join us, Yoritomo-san?”

“I'll pass,” She shook her head. “My path lies elsewhere.”

***

The Imperial Palace

It was evening when the servant came to Demiyah’s chambers. She was ready; her face was painted white and red, her long hair pulled into the traditional shimada hairstyle, wings and a graceful bun folded and held by an elaborate hairpiece. She wore three layers of kimono, carefully chosen for their contrast, and a brocaded outer-kimono that served as a formal jacket. Every part of her ensemble was carefully selected for obscure meanings. It was her finest wear. Nothing less would do for the Son of Heaven.

She wasted no time. Taking her things, she made for the audience chamber, her flawless garments soundless as they brushed the polished floor. The halls were empty; the festival was ongoing outside in the courtyard, and she suspected only servants remained in the keep.

The audience chamber was and empty, amber light filtering through the thin sky windows above her, the Imperial Dais rising on the far wall to become the focus of the room. At the far side, framed against the glow of the evening sun, stood Iweko Seiken himself. He was resplendent in his broad-shouldered kamishimo jacket, the grand daisho of the Iweko line on his hip, and adorned with various trinkets from the Great Clans. He was as a warrior that would soon be a god.

Demiyah kneeled with great reverence. “Son of Heaven,” she breathed, “your humble servant presents herself.”

With the light cast at his back and above him, she could not see through the shadows of his face. Only his eyes and the faintest outline of his features were visible. “Otomo Terumoto tells me that you were the prime administrator of the Otomo Family during his illness. You were effectively the daimyo, all told.”

She closed her soft eyes. “I am prepared to pay for my presumptions, my lord.”

He shook his head. “The Otomo required a leader. You gave them one. There is no need for anything else.”

Demiyah allowed herself an inward moment of relief. Then, she returned to business. “How might I serve you, Son of Heaven?”

Seiken turned his gaze to the window behind him. Outside, the nine banners of the Great Clans curled in the evening breeze. “I wish to speak to you on a matter regarding the Clans.”

She’d anticipated as much. She collected herself and prepared to make her ultimate gambit.

“My lord,” she began, “I am glad you have asked for my council in this matter, for I must speak to you plainly on behalf of the Otomo. Such is our duty.”

Seiken paused. She could see that he watched her closely from the corner of his eye, but she could not read his face. He nodded for her to continue.

“The Clans present a face of unity,” she said, “but it is a false face. We have testimony suggesting that the Clans maneuver against one-another. They are conducting war behind your back.”

His eyes narrowed.

She continued, “A certain amount of such behavior is expected… indeed it is virtuous, for it makes the Empire stronger. However, the Otomo must speak with some concern in regards to how they present themselves to the Son of Heaven. They undermine the authority of the throne and your closest servants, the Imperial Families. They even dare to intervene in Imperial affairs. They attack us openly. Although I cannot say which one, we know that a Great Clan attacked an Imperial caravan.”

Now she met his gaze, so that he might fully comprehend the depth of her conviction. “My lord, the Great Clans cannot be trusted. They covet the power our family holds. They believe they can manipulate you to their own purposes. At the slightest provocation, they betray one-another for their own fleeting agendas. They are incapable of unity, my lord. They are children fighting over rice cakes.”

She paused to lend weight to her words. “Even now, the Clans politick to present a bride to secure your bloodline. But this is not done altruistically. Even in this, you are only a means to an end for them. Not long ago, some among them even presumed to suggest that your brother should be our ruler. Some were even Clan Champions! Now, they protect those traitors who dared to speak against you.” She paused. “They have no respect for Imperial authority. For your authority.”

Seiken crossed his arms, turning fully and engulfing Demiyah in his shadow. “Is that so?”

“They are not capable of true loyalty, my lord. History has proven this. They fight even now in open defiance of Imperial Law, and yet in your presence they will claim they are united. You cannot trust them. The only ones who are truly loyal to the Emperor are his Imperial Families.” She bowed once more and closed her eyes. “On behalf of the Otomo, we recommit ourselves to you. I ask, how might I demonstrate my sincerity?”

When Seiken finally spoke, his voice was devoid of emotion. “I am well aware that the clans fight against one another. After all, the Otomo have been quite busy as of late.”

Demiyah slowly lifted her head. The amber light revealed a look of great displeasure on Seiken’s features. She made an internal calculation.

“How easily do you think I am manipulated?” Seiken growled. “Do you think I am blind? Do you think I am a simple warrior, unaccustomed to politics?” He lowered himself, bringing his eyes level with hers. “Do you think I did not see what you were doing?”

Silence long dominated the chamber. Behind her unmoving On, Demiyah carefully measured dozens of possible responses. All the while the Emperor watched. In the end, there was only one way that she could reply.

“When you ascend to Emperor, Son of Heaven, you will become enlightened to many uncomfortable truths. Among them is this: in every period of history where the clans were truly united, they threatened the Imperial Throne. That is why it is the duty of the Otomo to ensure that such a thing never again comes to pass.” She paused. “It is an uncomfortable duty, a dirty one, but it must be done for the good of the Empire. I only sought to show you just how fragile the Clans’ allegiances are. Now you see how easily they are distracted from their duties. Such men cannot be relied upon. I implore you to understand, but if it is your desire, I shall fall on my blade before you.” She lent strength into her gaze. “But I do not apologize for performing my duty to your family. It is the same duty my ancestors performed for every Emperor. It is the same duty we performed for your mother.”

Seiken nodded. “This is true. That is an uncomfortable duty. Just as it is my uncomfortable duty to remove threats to my mother’s Empire. And now that I have seen what the Imperial Bureaucracy is fully capable of, I have no doubts in my mind that it must be dismantled.”

Demiyah clenched her jaw.

“You have only proven my point,” he continued. “There is too much power in a system that is so impenetrable. It must be reduced in size, significantly, lest it turn the Empire against itself.” He raised his head. “A divided Empire is what allowed The Ninth Kami to rise. A united Empire is what defeated the Destroyers. Like my mother, I trust the Great Clans. They are the Empire.”

You are the Empire,” Demiyah insisted through clenched teeth. “Not them, my lord. You!”

Seiken frowned. “You are quite bold, Demiyah-san. Daring to correct one who will soon be Emperor. Makoto’s assessment of you was truly accurate.” He turned away. “I wanted to thank the Otomo for finalizing this difficult decision for me. As thanks, I give them the chance to redeem themselves.” He paused. “I wish you good fortune in doing so.”

Demiyah stood. Her fists shook. For a moment, she allowed her face to fall, and she opened her mouth to speak. In that very moment, the Emperor turned. He caught her. There was fire in his eyes.

“Get out of my sight,” he hissed.

Demiyah bowed low and exited, not trusting herself to speak again.

Seiken set his jaw as he looked out of the window. The flags of the Mantis and Scorpion had become entangled in the breeze, and they wrestled, knotted, in the air. The flag of the Lion had become unfastened in one corner; it grasped again and again at the pole holding the flag of the Crane. The flag of the Unicorn seemed to reach for that of the Phoenix, until it was violently buffeted by the banner of the Crab. The winds grasped each flag, threatening to tear them down from where they flew and to scatter them to the five corners of the land.

Only the flag of the Spider seemed serene in the evening light. It stood tall, casting its oppressive shadow over the banners of the other clans. Among them, the flag of the Mantis was completely engulfed.

Seiken stared at the mon of the Spider as the sunlight slowly died, Otomo Demiyah’s warning softly echoing in his ears.

You cannot trust them, it whispered.

“We’ll see,” Seiken replied.

***

The Actions of the Clans Unfold…

The Unicorn save the Utaku Stables - Carlos Saez

The Mantis save Broken Wave City… albeit by accident… - Hans de Moel

The Mantis save Amaterasu Seido - Nicolas Altomonte

The Crab save the Yasuki Courtiers - Chris Martin

The Crane save the Doji Courtiers - Pavlos Toufidis

The Phoenix save the Temple of Gisei Toshi - Merlin Floyd

The Unicorn adopt the Tattooing Technique from the Dragon Clan, saving it from the coming darkness - John Seals

The Mantis save Yoritomo’s Kama - Carriere Francois

The Dragon siege the City of the Lost to punish the Spider - Greg Wong

The Mantis save Togashi’s Daisho and return it to the Dragon - Filip Burakowski

Seiken’s first act as Emperor will be to begin the dismantling of the Imperial Bureaucracy - Kotei 2015 Player Vote

The Moto and Shinjo will war over leadership of the clan - GenCon 2015 Unicorn Clan Dinner Vote

Look for these Kotei winner choices coming soon in “Evil Portents:”

The Lion take Sleeping Lake from the Scorpion Clan - Milosz Wierzchoń

The Scorpion save the Susumu Courtiers - David Rodriquez

The Scorpion save the Scorpion Wall - Steve Palumbo

The Crane save Shinden Asahina - Chris Chubb

About the author: The L5R Story Team
Bio: The L5R Story Team is the awesome group of writers, led by Shawn Carman, whose words bring the story of Rokugan to life!