Months ago, in the Second City…
Shinjo Tselu brought his beloved steed to a stop, his jaw clenched in barely controlled rage. He dismounted in a smooth movement, absently stroking the horse’s jaw as it huffed from its short but intense run. He glowered at the men and women swarming over one of the shrines in the Temple District. “Excuse me,” he said loudly, fury seething in his tone. “Exactly what do you think you are doing?”
The various Crab workers and their vassals stopped briefly to regard Tselu with expressions that ranged from fearful to indifferent to amused and everything in between. Then they simply resumed their work, not speaking. Tselu felt heat rise in his chest, and he took a step forward. “Be at ease, friend Unicorn,” a slightly musical voice said. “There is no cause to be so angry.”
Tselu turned toward the voice. Under different circumstances, perhaps the sight of the woman would have shocked him, but in his wrath he was only superficially aware of her striking appearance, the obvious strength of her form, and the enchanting yet infuriating lilt of her smirk. “No cause to be angry?” he said, forcing himself to remain calm, in tone if nothing else. “I find that statement extremely odd, given that these men are defacing one of the oldest shrines in the city.”
“I think ‘defacing’ might be a strong term,” the Crab woman replied. “My kinsmen are simply correcting a mistake. The architecture of this place, the features used in its creation, the overwhelmingly gaijin appearance, it is all…”
“Unique?” Tselu interjected. “Sacred? Sacrosanct? It is all those things and more.”
“I was going to say ‘horrific,’ but I suppose opinions will vary,” the woman replied. “My name is Kaiu Akemi, by the way. Since you cared enough to ask.”
“A distinct and abiding pleasure,” Tselu said through clenched teeth. “Now tell your men to stop.”
“I cannot do that,” Akemi replied. “I have my orders and they step from an authority greater than your own. I do apologize if our work here offends you, however.” She smiled gain and looked up over. “Perhaps you would join me for a cup or two of sake and we could discuss the reasons for your concern.”
“Forgive me if I do not make it a habit to drink with those who blaspheme holy sites.”
“Oh my,” Akemi said. “Look at this. A Shinjo with fire in his belly. I think I like you.”
“The feeling is not even vaguely mutual,” Tselu insisted. “You will tell your men to stop, or I will begin killing them. I have absolutely no desire to do that, but I give you my word as Ivory Champion that I will. Take that as you may.”
Akemi tapped her finger against her chin for a moment. “You know, I think you may be serious. How dreadful.” She made a show of giving a big sigh and rolling her eyes. “Very well, then. But our mandate is to remove any and all gaijin symbols from the city, and our authority, you will find, will swoop in and ensure that you don’t stand in our path. Prepare yourself for that. I would hate for you to succumb to wrath and make a waste of all you have accomplished thus far.” She paused and smiled. “I am familiar with your accomplishments, you know. Quite the warrior, you are.”
Tselu frowned at the flattery, unsure of its purpose. “You are new here, I should think. Your name is unfamiliar to me.”
“Just a newcomer who was something of a disappointment in court,” Akemi said with another flourish. “Apparently the men and women of court enjoy writing their little love letters but have no patience for someone who actually speaks what they think when it comes to matters of love.” She shook her head. “Ridiculous, the entire matter. But this place,” she spread her arms to encompass the city. “This place actually makes some degree of sense. Or it will, at least, once we have purged all the unpleasantness from it. And that,” here she pointed at the massive Fuan-ti Tower near the city’s heart, “will be the final piece to fall. So please, ensure that your kinsmen vacate in a timely manner, would you?”
* * * * *
Toku Hikaru tried to still his nerves as he approached the court chamber. He was several years into his duties as Imperial Chancellor and still he felt a significant amount of anxiety before the beginning of each new Winter Court. It was not a character trait he was particularly proud of, and he knew it marked him as weak, so he tried to suppress it as much as humanly possible. Nevertheless, he absently wiped the sweat from his palms as he strode toward the chamber. This would be most unpleasant, and he had an inkling that something unseen was lurking beneath the surface, waiting to spring upon him. His mother had always told him he was a dour, pessimistic child, but life as an adult had only verified what he had known since childhood: there were no pleasant surprises in this world.
The crowd was murmuring as usual as Hikaru entered the chamber, and they parted as he walked toward the dais. He stood atop it and regarded the assembled courtiers. They seemed pleasant enough, but he knew the truth: they were predators and scavengers, merely waiting for any scent of weakness so that they could rob him of his influence. Was it any wonder he was so dreadfully anxious about his duties?
“The Winter Court season will be upon us in a matter of days, my friends,” he heard himself saying. It was as if someone else entirely was speaking, and he had no real idea from whence the words sprang. “Today the Voice of the Empress wishes to address the assemblage with news of our impending session.” Gratefully, he gestured toward the Voice without any indication of the loathing he felt for the younger man.
Hida Kozan, Voice of the Empress, took the dais. His face was painted white, as was often his custom, and he surveyed the assemblage with barely concealed contempt. “In my duty to the Divine Empress, her grace has bid me bring you a message. I see no reason to mince words, so listen well and gossip later. Her Divinity will not be in attendance at Winter Court this season. She has chosen, after much communion with the Celestial Heavens, to withdraw to seclusion and meditate upon the matter of her sons, to determine who is best suited to rule the Empire of Rokugan when her time upon the Emerald Throne has come to an end. Toward this end, she has selected a regent who will oversee the court in her absence, and that information will be revealed to you at a time of her choosing, but presumably sometime within the next few days.” He arched an eyebrow and surveyed the room. “I trust you will treat this news with the pettiness to which I have become so exhaustingly familiar over the past year.”
As Kozan stepped down, the murmur returned, elevated to a clamor. Hikaru sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, closing his eyes. “What have I done to deserve this?” he asked himself quietly.
* * * * *
Iweko Shibatsu walked slowly as he made his way through the depths of the vast Mantis estate at Kalani’s Landing. The winter season in the Colonies was nothing like that of the Empire, so much so that upon his periodic returns to Rokugan proper, he found the cold climate of that region almost unbearable. Here, there was no true winter, merely a milder season that he enjoyed a great deal. Unfortunately, he could take little comfort in the temperate nature of the day in these months. The conflict between his supporters and those of his brother weighed heavily upon him, and yet he felt utterly powerless to do anything to prevent it. If he were to try and curtail his supporters, there was no assurance that Seiken’s followers would do the same. Then he would lose all consideration by those who had placed themselves in harm’s way on his behalf, and any hope he might have had for sitting upon his mother’s throne would be lost.
It was curious that he now even considered the notion of sitting upon the throne. It was something he had never desired, something he had never even thought about more than the occasional fantasy as a child. And now, with all his supporters constantly telling him what a superior ruler he would be, now the idea did not seem quite so ridiculous. It was curious, and terribly troubling.
Without turning around, Shibatsu knew the voice. The tone was one that he could not mistake, not under any circumstances. “Hiromi-san,” he said, bringing a smile to his lips. “I was on my way to speak with you.”
“It pleases me to have saved you the trouble,” Hiromi replied, although as always, he did not sound particularly pleased. “I had hoped to speak with you concerning the dispensation of my resources throughout the Colonies.”
Shibatsu nodded. “I suspected as much.” He folded his hands in his sleeves and continued walking. “I know that the Mantis have borne a disproportionate share of the burden when it comes to... to our efforts.” It felt strange to describe them in such a manner. “The Unicorn are stretched desperately thin, as you well know, and there is precious little else that we can do at the present other than lean upon the Mantis.” He reached out and placed a hand upon Hiromi’s shoulder. “Know that I and the others are aware of all that you and yours are doing, and that it is greatly appreciated.”
Hiromi frowned, but nodded in acquiescence. “I understand that,” he acknowledged. “I do not like it, but I can at least appreciate the situation for what it is.”
“Know too that I hold your tactical acumen in high regard,” Shibatsu said. “If I have not been clear about that, then you have my most sincere apologies. Much of what has been… accomplished, could not have been done without your aid.”
This seemed to please the Mantis Champion, and he bowed. It was only then that he seemed to notice Shibatu’s disquiet. “Does something else trouble you, my lord?” he asked. “I know that you are greatly bothered by the conflict with those loyal to your brother, but this seems something more.”
“Astute as always, my friend,” Shibatsu replied with a sigh. “You are familiar with the present state of affairs with the Scorpion and the Crab, yes?”
“Of course,” Hiromi answered at once. “The Scorpion support Seiken largely because of their close ties to the Crab, who are among your brother’s most vehement supporters and your own most vocal detractors.” Here the Mantis Champion paused and glanced down the corridor before continuing. “I am given to understand that there are certain… assets that the Scorpion have made available to us as well, however.”
“Yes,” Shibatsu confirmed. “To what extent we can trust them is unclear, but so far they seem dedicated enough to our cause. More so of late due to the relegation of the Crab forces to the defense of the Second City by my brother, whose tactical acumen has apparently determined that they are best suited to a defensive action.”
Hiromi chuckled. “I suspect they do not care for that.”
“No,” the younger heir confirmed. “It seems they do not, and without the Crab playing an active role on the battlefield, it seems the Scorpion are more comfortable providing us with more sensitive information.”
Hiromi halted in place, causing Shibatsu to turn and regard him frankly. “What do you mean, exactly?” the Mantis Champion asked of the Imperial scion.
“The Scorpion have provided information on a massive attack planned by the so-called traditionalist forces,” he answered. “If we take them at their word, which I am not completely convinced we should, then we have all the information necessary to strike a devastating blow against those forces loyal to my brother’s agenda. On the other hand, if we fail to act, then the traditionalist forces will arrive here in Twin Forks and will arrest those loyal to our cause, on whatever terms they wish to contrive. All those who have demonstrated loyalty to me will suffer. I cannot permit that to happen. No matter what becomes of the situation with my brother, I cannot see others suffer for no reason other than that they placed their faith in me.”
“This could end the conflict,” Hiromi said, “but can we afford to trust the Scorpion’s information?”
“That is a very interesting question,” Shibatsu said with a sigh. “And perhaps a more interesting one might be, can we afford not to do so?”
* * * * *
Matsu Chizuki strolled along the lines of the formation grounds, idly scratching the ears of a lion cub that she carried in her arms. The cub purred loudly and kept batting at the long braid that hung down from her head, occasionally grabbing it and biting the thick cloth she used to bind it at the end. She would pull the braid away and tickle the beast under its chin before the entire process started all over again.
“It is quite cold,” she said, nuzzling the cub. “I wish I had your fur, little one. It will be colder by week’s end. We should see snowfall in significant quantities very soon, not just these little flurries.” She sighed. “Unfortunate, is it not?” She glanced at the subordinates following her. “We cannot risk sending any significant force through the pass to take vengeance upon the accursed Scorpion without the distinct possibility of Shamate Pass freezing over and stranding them there.” The Matsu daimyo chuckled lightly. “It might be great fun to spend a winter fighting against overwhelming Scorpion odds, but the chances of long term survival are minimal and to throw away our men for no tactical gain is unnecessary.”
“Has a winter offensive been considered, my lady?” one of the officers asked.
“The Ikoma tactical advisors suggested it to Lady Dairuko,” Chizuki replied. “She rejected the notion immediately. I believe her exact words were that such a tactic was ‘worthy only of Chagatai himself.’ I must say I was pleasantly surprised at her response. Much though I would like to see the northern Scorpion lands trod into a swamp saturated with their blood, I do not wish to see us lower ourselves to the level of savages like the accursed Khan of previous eras.”
Matsu Karoko bowed as a sign of respect. “Your words speak for us all, my lady.”
“When the spring thaws come, on the first day that the ice turns to water, the Kitsu will blow the pass open with all the vengeance in their priestly hearts, and we, the Matsu, will end the Scorpion.” Chizuki smiled and flipped the cub over to scratch its belly. “I expect you will all spend the winter training your troops. When winter ends, our victory begins.”