The Seppun’s arrival was hasty, affording no time to pause at the door, nor announce himself to his master. The room was little more than a large balcony; the railings between each corner column overlooked the harbors of the Second City and the slowly progressing re-construction of that district, allowing the warm colonial breeze to enter freely. Even so, a shoji had been erected against one of the three exposed sides. A recessed hearth sat at the center of the room, surrounded by cushions for seating, and a chain descending from the ceiling rafters that suspended an iron kettle above the hearth’s coals. The only wall was decorated with various scrolls and woodblock prints.
Iweko Shibatsu looked up from the letter he was writing as the Seppun entered. His yojimbo, a Daigostu samurai cleaning a massive no-dachi, paused in her work.
“Lord Shibatsu,” the Seppun said with a bow, “you have a guest.”
Shibatsu cocked a handsome brow. “A guest? I was aware of no such appointment.” He shrugged and resumed his work. “Tell our guest that I am unavailable. We can meet at some other time.”
The Seppun did not move. After a moment, Shibatsu looked back up at him, noting the Seppun’s urgent expression.
“Forgive me,” he said, “but… I’m afraid I am unable to dismiss this guest.”
The yojimbo shot him a glance. Intrigued, Shibatsu slowly set his brush down.
Then came footsteps from the hallway beyond. Passing through each band of window-light, the man from the hall entered the open balcony-room, bypassing the Seppun who deftly stepped aside. He wore emerald green and a trim of gold. His blades swung from his hip; they had not been surrendered. None had dared to take them. The man was older than Shibatsu and had stern features, accented by a vertical scar that ran down the right side of his face. Accompanying this man was another, one in stark blue and white kimonos, the Mon of the Kenshinzen instantly recognizable on his right shoulder.
The yojimbo’s eyes widened and she rose to her feet. Shibatsu stood as well, facing the newcomer evenly.
“Seiken,” he said.
Iweko Seiken crossed his arms from the doorway. “Shibatsu.”
For a moment, neither spoke nor moved. Then Seiken took a step forward into the room. His serious face broke into a friendly smile as laughter erupted from within him. Shibatsu extended his arms. Before the stunned witnesses, the brothers warmly embraced.
“Brother!” Seiken laughed, “How long has it been?”
“Ages,” Shibatsu replied through his smile. “Too long! Let me have a look at you!” He extended his arms, holding Seiken out at length. “Looking more like an Emperor than the last time.”
Seiken grinned. “It’s the climate here. I think it favors me.”
Letting go of his sibling, Shibatsu gestured for Seiken to enter. “I did not know you were coming,” he said, “or I would have tea ready. I will make us some.”
As Shibatsu knelt by the hearth, Seiken nodded approvingly at the surroundings. He walked to the far banister and looked out into the city. “I approve of your quarters,” he remarked. “You have done well.”
“You think so?” Shibatsu looked around his study as if for the first time. “It’s a bit esoteric, I admit, but sleeping outside has a certain charm. I wanted to try combining elements from the colonies with what reminded me of home.”
“It suits you,” Seiken chuckled. “Oh, I meant to tell you, I am staying for the winter.” He looked at the reconstruction taking place on the distant docks. “There is still much to do here.”
Shibatsu beamed. He clapped his hands. “Excellent! I have you for the entire season, then! Just you try to slip out of a riddle contest this time!”
Seiken smirked. “Only after our rematch at Go. That is, if you can bear another defeat.”
“I have been practicing actually, and I’ve learned a few new things. I think I’ll surprise you.”
“You’ll need all the help you can get, I’m afraid!” Casually, Seiken’s gaze came to rest on the papers on Shibatsu’s desk, and for a moment, he looked concerned. “Oh. I have interrupted your work. Forgive me, brother. I can come back another time when-“
“Nonsense!” Shibatsu protested, motioning for Seiken to sit opposite of him at the hearth, “That can wait! We never get to talk. There’s catching up to be done.” He turned to the Seppun. “We will take our lunch now, Karugi.” Back to his brother, eyes gleaming. “There is a fruit here that, when sliced, is shaped like a star. It tastes faintly of citrus. It complements the tea.”
Seiken rubbed his chin. “Well… if it’s no trouble…”
“It is no trouble at all!”
Nodding, Seiken accepted the seat across from his brother. He gave his yojimbo a dismissive gesture. “Privacy,” he said.
Shibastu nodded and turned to his own yojimbo. “Yes, you are dismissed. Return after two hours. Leave us until then.”
One yojimbo looked at the other. Each one stone-faced and humorless. They seemed to assess one-another. Measuring. Sensing.
“My lord,” the Daigotsu whispered, “are you certain?” She narrowed her accusing eyes at the Kenshinzen. “In light of all that is happening…”
Shibatsu’s joviality dropped in an instant. He met her gaze, displeased. “This is my brother,” he uttered. “And furthermore, your future Emperor.”
She immediately bowed. “Forgive me. I misspoke.”
Seiken’s yojimbo did not say anything. He left only after the Daigotsu, casting one final weary glance as he slipped from the room. At last, the brothers were alone.
“She will be reprimanded,” Shibastu said as he poured tea.
“Do not bother.” Seiken sighed. “She is looking after your interests. It is this conflict.”
Shibatsu paused. He looked up and met his brother’s gaze. “Yes,” he said, “the conflict. That is true.” He took a deep breath. “I want you to know, brother, that I had nothing to do with-“
“I know.” Seiken dismissed the notion. “You are my brother. I trust you. Furthermore, I was going to assure you that I had nothing to do with it either.” He sighed again, clasping his hands and leaning over the hearth. Even in the day, the coals cast his rugged face in a hot light. “It is these colonies. Something about these lands causes samurai to entertain foolish notions.” He leaned forward. “Just the other day, a large force of Crab came to me and pledged themselves into my service. They wanted me to lead an attack on some fortress they claim was ruled by,” he searched for the word, “‘progressive’ forces. They said they would kill in my name.”
“What did you do?”
Seiken waved his hand. “I gave them some tertiary duty… ‘protecting the city’ or some such thing. Something where they would not harm anyone.” He thought for a moment, then cast Shibatsu a meaningful look. “Togashi Noboru is your most outspoken supporter, you know. Last week, he remanded himself into my custody. He presented himself, unarmed and without guards, to be my hostage.”
Shibatsu smirked. “How is that treating you?”
“In honesty? I welcome his perspective and advice. He is an insightful man, if a bit eccentric. But I believe he seeks to convince me to end my hostilities against your supporters.” Seiken grunted. “It is so frustrating! I have ordered no such attacks! This matter is becoming difficult to manage. These factions are beginning to unite on both sides. Eventually, I will not be able to keep them apart. They will become armies. It will spill out of my control. In some places, this has already begun.”
Shibatsu darkened. “Twin Forks City.”
“What will we do when we cannot contain this any longer?” Seiken asked. “They would have us pitted against one-another. I have done what I can without casting aside neutrality, without embarrassing the family… but this situation threatens to slip from my fingers if I do nothing.”
“What can be done?” Shibatsu observed, refilling his brother’s cup. “Condone them, and you will spark civil war. Condemn them, and it will look like a concession, and the Empire will question your leadership.” He shrugged. “So instead, we manage this as we can. Buy time for mother…”
“She should have decided already,” Seiken muttered. “This whole situation is absurd. I am the most deserving of the throne.” No sooner had the words left his lips that he reached out to Shibatsu. “I do not say that as a judgement, brother. You would make a fine Emperor, but-“
Shibatsu laughed. “I am not offended, brother. You are the eldest.”
Seiken chuckled. “Yes, well.” He cast his gaze again at the city. “Sometimes I think the colonials are only happy when they are fighting.”
“There is fighting in the Empire as well,” Shibatsu quietly reminded him.
Seiken nodded. “Hai. The Lion and Scorpion. That, at least, I understand. And the Phoenix and Unicorn.” He shook his head. “I am surprised at the Unicorn. The Phoenix were only performing their duties. They should be commended. I understand the Unicorn’s offense, but surely even they see the validity of the Phoenix’s actions. I would spare them the Unicorn’s retribution, if I could.” He thought for a moment. “I believe I will issue a public statement in support of the Phoenix’s findings. Perhaps the weight of my words will convince the Unicorn to reconsider engaging their war after the snows finally thaw.”
Shibatsu pursed his lips. “I might advise against that, brother.”
Seiken cast him a look. “Oh? Why is that? If I can stop a conflict, should I not do so?”
“What do you have to gain by getting involved? Politically, I mean.”
The elder brother thought about this for a while, as Shibatsu sat, hands folded, before the hearth. “Nothing, I suppose,” Seiken finally admitted. “I did not consider it relevant.”
“Then why act, if that action gains you nothing? Your words have implications and weight, brother. There’s no reason either of us should issue a statement. If you did speak in favor of the Phoenix, and it moved the Unicorn into staying their hand, it would not stay their anger or their hurt pride. Indeed, it could deny them the opportunity to avenge their honor. They would resent you for it. Why make an enemy when there is no need?” Shibatsu shrugged. “If the Phoenix are correct, Tengoku will support them, and they will find a way to prevail. In any case, you stand only to lose influence by speaking in support of either side. Better to remain neutral for now. Politics is similar to Go, you see… every move you make should net you a gain. To move without gaining anything…”
“Is superfluous.” Seiken nodded with understanding. “Akodo did say never to reprimand an officer in public. This is similar to that notion. Very well, I see your point. I will take your advice.” He drank his tea and nodded with satisfaction. “You will be my first and foremost advisor, I think. We will make a good team, brother.”
Smiling, Shibatsu obediently refilled his brother’s cup.
Seiken did not relish the notion of meeting with the bureaucracy of the city. He had patience for many things… for plans to come to fruition, for the right moment to strike, for his mother to make a decision that would shape the Empire… but not the bureaucracy. Many believed that Otomo Suikihime’s convoluted system of overlapping duties and labyrinthine courtly titles and offices were unique to the colonial capital. This was not true; she’d simply invented another one, only this one held her at the wheel’s axle.
Seiken never understood the purpose of the Imperial Bureaucracy. In an army, the command structure was tiered, vertical, with the general at the apex. This made more sense to Seiken than the massive horizontal structures of the court. Such a bloated governing body would move slowly and serve only to hinder the Emperor… and shouldn’t an Emperor be allowed to do as he pleased?
The Imperial Bureaucracy was of no use to him. And yet he found himself forced to maneuver through their offices and duties to achieve anything. The last thing an Emperor should be made to do, when acting in the interests of his people, was wait. Wait, as he did now. Seiken sighed as he stalked the garden path towards the dojo. If he could only do what was required without the bureaucracy and politics. If he could only do everything himself.
As he came to the dojo, the sounds of practicing echoed from within. He paused only momentarily before moving into the dojo’s courtyard, immediately spotting a figure cutting bamboo rods with a katana, practicing his sword technique. Scruffy-looking and garbed in brown, the man did not seem as though he belonged here. Seiken walked into the courtyard and leaned against a nearby column, watching the man practice without saying a word.
Seiken watched the stranger cut four green bamboo rods in rapid succession, each strike accompanied by a ki-ai shout. Judging from the man’s form, he had much practice and talent for the blade, but no formal training. If anything, he’d been shown the basics and then left to his own devices. From that, he’d developed a style that was manageable, and impressive given his humble start. But to Seiken’s eye, it was a far cry from the swordplay of trained samurai. A ronin, perhaps?
The man’s strength and speed was without question, however. In the space of a breath, he cleaved through three rods at once seemingly without effort. It was as savage as it was beautiful. The stranger rested in the final pose for several heartbeats before lowering his guard to inspect his handiwork.
“Impressive strike,” Seiken commented.
The man casually turned. He had the sort of face that only suggested a samurai’s heritage. His right eye was covered by a dark eyepatch. He didn’t seem to think much of Seiken, for he simply nodded and looked back to the severed rods. “You think so?” he replied, appraising the strike with a careful hand. “I suppose it is passable. But I’m going to need to do better, I think.”
Well that’s interesting, Seiken thought. This stranger did not recognize him. Only now did Seiken remember that he’d left his Imperial haori behind with his retainers. Anyone from the palace would recognize him without his heraldry. That this man did not confirmed his suspicions.
Interest aroused, Seiken took a seat on one of the benches flanking the courtyard. “In that case,” he suggested, “do not cross your center so much. Next time, use your arms only as guidance. All strength should come from the belly.” He patted his obi. “When you attack, it should be like the uncoiling of a tight spring.”
The stranger nodded. Sheathing his blade, the ronin approached with a jovial smirk. The sword’s handle was worn and in need of new wrapping, “You must be a seasoned warrior, eh?”
Seiken smiled. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
The ronin laughed. “I may not look like much, friend, but you have never stood against me.” He looked at Seiken again, narrowing his eye with scrutiny. “In fact… I don’t believe I’ve seen you in the city before.”
“I’ve been here a while,” he replied. “You know… I get the impression you’re not supposed to be here, friend.”
The ronin shrugged. “Is this not a public dojo? I have seen samurai come and go from here, and I am no different from them.” He laughed again. “Well, perhaps in some ways I am different.”
“Oh, you are definitely different,” Seiken agreed, unable to hide his amusement.
“My name is Oneiyara,” the ronin said suddenly. “I was born in the colonies, and for that, I am grateful. There is no better place in the world to be!”
Seiken laughed. “The whole of the Empire, and this is is the best place to be?”
“Of course!” the merry ronin insisted. “That a lord’s province is wild and unsophisticated is a great treasure.” A serious look came over him. “In this unpolished, unruly land, I will carve my destiny.”
“Your destiny, you say?” Seiken disregarded the notion that he should alert the guards, or dispatch this intruder himself. He was very amusing, at least for the moment. “How do you intend to do that, friend?”
Oneiyara paused. He rubbed his neck and paced a moment. “First, I will train,” he suddenly proclaimed. “Then, I will seek out one of the dojos of the Great Clans. I will convince them to teach me. I will serve them loyally from that point on.”
Seiken put his forehead into his hand. “That is… quite a plan.”
Oneiyara seemed to take offense. “Do you doubt me?” he asked.
“I do not doubt you will attempt this,” Seiken replied, trying not to laugh at the misguided fool. “I am sure you know that the Great Clans do not open their dojos to ronin. No matter how capable that ronin may be. They would never reveal their secrets so willingly, not just because you can swing a sword.”
He seemed to consider this. “Then I will challenge one of their students!” he blurted confidently, “I will defeat him! They will have no choice but to accept me!”
Seiken smirked. “You think that will work, eh?”
“You seem like a strong warrior,” Oneiyara commented. He looked suddenly very thoughtful. “You gave advice freely before, perhaps you would again. Of all the dojos in these lands, which one should I approach? Of all the schools in the Empire, which school is the best?”
Seiken looked at the ronin for a long time. At last, he stood. “Show me your stance.”
Oneiyara immediately drew his blade, adopting the Chūdan posture, equally weighted, his blade held at the middle position.
Seiken walked around him, arms crossed, carefully scrutinizing his stance. At last, he spoke. “Do not seek a dojo.”
Oneiyara slowly lowered his blade. Offense reflected in his fiery eye. “You insult me?”
Seiken shook his head. “No. I am giving you advice. Do not seek a dojo. Do not seek a school. Do not seek to learn techniques, or any such thing. Instead… seek a teacher.”
The anger in the ronin’s eye faded, and he considered Seiken’s words.
“Find a warrior,” Seiken continued. “Seek a man or woman, someone with insight, to follow. When you find a samurai that you will heed, even when you have lost your senses, then you have found your teacher. Make yourself into an image of that samurai. Emulate him or her in every aspect. When you find this warrior, throw yourself at his or her feet and pledge your loyalty. As for dojos and schools… do not concern yourself. This way is better.”
Oneiyara nodded thoughtfully as he sheathed his blade. “Yes… that is good advice.”
Both turned to the courtyard entrance. Two Seppun guards approached, urgency plain on their faces. The youngest one rested a hand on his blade.
Oneiyara seemed oblivious to any danger.
The two Seppun eyed the ronin wearily. “Is this man bothering you, Seiken-sama?” the older of the two asked. “He is filth from the streets who sometimes wanders into this dojo. He has been told many times that he cannot practice here… that it is only for those who serve the city.”
“I take it the bureaucrats are now meeting?” Seiken asked.
The guards nodded. “They are ready to receive you, my lord.” They never took their eyes off the ronin.
“Good. Then I will depart.” Seiken held up a hand. “Leave this man be. He has my blessing to practice here.” Confusion washed over the faces of the Seppun as Seiken walked past them. “He may practice as much as he likes.” He paused, casting Oneiyara a grin. “He is going to carve his destiny from this unpolished, unruly land.”
Oneiyara’s eye widened as the heir walked away. His face grew pale. He looked to the closest guard. “Did you say… his name was Seiken?”
“That is Iweko-sama to you, scum!” the guard barked back, and they both left the thunderstruck ronin alone in the courtyard.
It was nearly evening by the time Iweko Seiken entered his audience chambers. His immediate advisors were already here, seated in two lines before his dais, awaiting his arrival. Wordlessly he strode to his seat. A few of the gathered courtiers and warriors exchanged quiet looks. The meeting with the city’s bureaucrats had clearly not gone to his liking. But then, they never did.
Seiken fell into his seat and crossed his arms. All within the room turned to pay attention. But he didn’t speak. He only sat, back straight, eyes closed, brow furrowed in thought.
It was some time before one of those present dared make noise; Nozomi, a woman of the Daidoji house. “Lord Seiken,” she said, “you’d asked for a report on the state of the fighting in Kikashi Province…” She made as if to read the report, drawing it from her sleeve, but awaited his approval.
None came. Seiken did not move, nor make any sign that he’d heard her.
Advisors exchanged glances. Even Togashi Noboru looked up from his seat in the farthest corner of the room, setting aside his teacup for the first time that evening. Daidoji Nozomi obediently remained in her position, awaiting his acknowledgement.
A Hiruma shifted uncomfortably. “Something troubles you, my lord?” The Yasuki seated across from him shot a scathing look, but if the Hiruma had offended the heir, there was no sign.
“It is a blessing,” Seiken murmured, “that one’s provinces be wild and unpolished…”
“My lord?” asked Nozomi.
Seiken stood. All eyes followed him as he paced the dais. “Daidoji-san,” he asked, “should an Emperor have to maneuver within the Imperial Bureaucracy? Or should he be allowed to do as he pleases?”
Numerous glances were cast at Nozomi. She kept her expression plain. “The Bureaucracy exists at the convenience of the Emperor,” she finally said. “It is a tool for him to use, as he cannot do everything himself. It is also within his power to disregard them as he so chooses.”
Seiken nodded. He looked around the room. Men and women from many clans filled this chamber. Courtiers and bushi, some having followed from the Empire, and others who were born in the colonies. All politely downcast their eyes as his gaze swept the room. “Today, that Bureaucracy proved itself a hindrance to Imperial rule, not an asset.”
No one spoke. They’d expected as much. Seiken was far more active than his mother or brother. He hadn’t the patience to dance around the court. He detested delegation and only did so as a necessity. That he believed the entire Imperial Bureaucracy to be a bloated network of hollow positions was an opinion he did not hide.
Seiken approached a map of the colonies hanging from the wall. “There are vast swaths of uncultured land out here. Clusters of farm villages far from governance. It is an unruly, rustic land.” Seiken seemed to consider something. “The lack of control in expanding the colonies is unacceptable. There are struggling farming villages, but no roads. There are jungles standing untamed and fertile fields being strip-mined. There are clans seizing control of provinces without updating maps. The rural Empire suffers. And yet, all attention and resources are diverted to the city, and not the frontier.” He turned to the gathered samurai. “It is a symptom of weak, contrived, and convoluted governance.”
Otomo Takama blanched. He was the brother of Otomo Suikihime, and the implications of Seiken’s words were not kind to her. But he said nothing. It was not his place to speak, and it did not seem Seiken cared if the Imperial Governor learned of his opinion.
“This is not unique to the colonies,” Seiken continued, “It is the same in the Imperial City. It is the same in every city. The Bureaucrats are not warriors. They do not know what life is like in the far reaches of the Empire. They do not care.” He frowned. “Well, I have lived out there. I have lived among every Great Clan. Every true Great Clan,” he corrected. “I have lived in cities and villages. I have seen what life is like away from the cities. And because of this, I have seen what city life does to samurai. I have seen what city life encourages! We have courtly officers with overlapping duties instead of clear hierarchies. We have soldiers forced to split allegiances between factions. We have cities with many walls and trading villages with none. Some villages are forced to govern themselves. There are now samurai who do not understand the meaning of the word.
“In the days of our ancestors, samurai directly governed the land. There was no bureaucracy. Every samurai had an estate that he or she oversaw. Ownership of land was synonymous with the samurai title.”
“Forgive me my Lord,” asked Otomo Takama, standing, “but I seek understanding. Is this not still the case?”
Seiken smirked. “What land do you govern, Takama-san?”
“My family holds an estate in this city,” he replied. “And my sister is governor.”
“Does she own the city?”
Lines appeared on Takama’s brow. “The city belongs to your mother, my Lord.”
“Then what land do you own?” Seiken crossed his arms. “Do you directly govern your family’s estate?”
Takama hesitated. “I serve my sister, Seiken-sama.”
The imperial scion nodded. “Thank you, Takama-san. You have served to prove my point.”
The Otomo quietly sat back down and said nothing more.
“When did the samurai become a distant administrator? When did he become divorced from his land? Our soldiers now live in cities. All power is concentrated in cities, not in the Empire proper. Saigo are making decisions for villages they have never visited. In the times of Emperor Genji, samurai did not behave in this way. They did not have these temptations. This arrangement is disharmonious!”
Seiken paused, ensuring that all would hear his words. “When I am Emperor,” he spoke, “all samurai will be required to live for one year in a rural village, if they wish to hold any significant imperial office.”
None spoke, but several advisors exchanged glances. Several samurai, especially Crab, smiled and nodded approvingly. The most courtly among them looked worried.
One samurai, an Akodo, immediately stood, bowed, and moved to exit. Seiken called out to him. “Where are you going, Akodo Daiken?”
The man spun around and bowed again. “To live in a rural village for a year, my lord!”
Seiken smiled broadly and nodded. “So be it.”
The Akodo all but ran from the hall.
Seiken cast a look at Doji Razan. “You have something to say, from the look of you.”
Razan stood calmly. “You demonstrate great wisdom, Seiken-sama. Yet, I think an important point has been overlooked. By my estimation, this policy would clear out most of the Imperial Bureaucracy. There would be virtually no bureaucracy left.”
“Yes, I also think it would be an improvement,” Togashi Noboru remarked. The monk looked completely unfettered, pouring himself some more tea. Razan bristled but held his tongue.
“Perhaps it will,” Seiken admitted. “If this means the Imperial Court becomes only a fraction of it’s current size, then I will consider it a success. I intend to remove three-fourths of the imperial positions. No more redundant offices. My court will be more… simple.”
Several ons fell to the scion’s words.
“You would dismantle the Imperial Bureaucracy?” Daidoji Nozomi asked.
“It exists at the convenience of the Emperor,” Seiken replied. “Is that not what you said?”
She lowered her gaze. “Hai. I did.”
“I will herald a return to our ancestors’ Empire,” Seiken continued. “The Iweko Dynasty will see a return to the prosperity of our past. Samurai will once again be a landed nobility, whose sole task is to administer and protect a parcel of the Emperor’s land. No longer will all governing power rest solely in cities. No longer will samurai be disconnected from their true purpose and duties. No longer will our military forces be concentrated in a handful of places, leaving vast tracts of Empire prone to corruption and invasion. Events like an unhindered army of Destroyers marching unopposed through provinces will no longer be possible! The woes of our Empire have been caused by divergence from the path of our ancestors. By embracing a system that formed to insulate the Emperor from his subjects. I will see this barrier broken! I will ensure that every samurai directly governs and protects a parcel of land. I will give land to such samurai that prove worthy! There will be no samurai worth his blade that does not hold a fiefdom! I will ensure that those who govern will understand what they are governing. I will see us return to the days of the rural Empire! Our glorious past will be made present!”
The room erupted into cheers. Samurai leapt to their feet, energized by his words. Seiken held his head high over those loyal to him. Among them, he saw Otomo Takama quietly leave through the door.
So be it, he thought. Warn your sister. Warn them all. I will see this Empire returned to it’s glorious past.
One way or the other.