It was a cool morning in the Colonies, or at least as close to cool as it ever came, which was something close to “bearably mild.” Back in the Empire, it would surely be freezing, likely with snow covering much of the plains across Rokugan. Yoritomo Hiromi did not miss it. He had never particularly enjoyed the cold weather. It made sailing miserable, and sailing should never be miserable. Nevertheless, these were idle thoughts, and the Mantis Champion pushed them away absently, as one might wave away a troublesome insect. Would that all his woes could be so easily dealt with. “I do not like this.”
Most of his advisors were of his own clan, and they did not respond. At most, they glanced at one another without expression, perhaps commiserating at the burden of his company, perhaps simply acknowledging his comment among their peers. There was another, however, who did apparently find it necessary to make comment. The man was dressed in nondescript colors, like a wave man, and the lower half of his face was covered with what appeared to be no more than a mere scrap of cloth from some old garment. He looked every bit the wave man, but of course that was the lie that he showed to the world. “Our strategy will be successful, my lord. We have discussed this. At length, I might add.”
“You might add that part, yes,” Hiromi said, nodding. “I might also break your teeth with my kama. Who knows what ‘might’ happen? Only the Fortunes.”
The nondescript man’s eyes narrowed. “You requested my presence here, Lord Hiromi.”
“I did indeed,” Hiromi nodded. “I do not trust you, and I want you close by on the off chance that I suddenly find myself in need of brutal vengeance for some manner of betrayal.”
The other man’s posture suggested indignation. “The information we have supplied you is accurate.”
“It could not be more obvious that you’re playing both sides against one another, and yet you take such offense when someone calls you on your duplicity and marvel when someone does not trust you. I know children with a greater understanding of basic social interaction than you people.”
“I am disappointed at the disrespect you show my people,” the man replied. “My report of our impending victory will be marred by an account of your comments.”
“The Mantis and the Scorpion have been at relative peace with one another for years,” Hiromi added. “That does nothing to dispel the fact that I hate them in a broad, general sense. More specifically, in the past two days, I have developed a very acute and specific hatred of you personally.”
The ronin drew a deep breath, as if trying to refocus. “The first feint will be expected. The second feint will likely be expected as well. What will follow, however…”
“Will depend upon a number of factors, not least of which is whether or not the description of their forces that your clan supplied us with, as well as the profiles of their officer cadre, are accurate. If they are…then we may very well have a chance.”
“They are,” the man insisted.
“I truly hope so,” Hiromi replied. “For your sake.”
* * * * *
The Gilded Lotus was among the finest tea houses in the Imperial City, but they offered only a limited few of their best patrons the opportunity to partake of their sunrise service, brisk morning teas that helped stave off the cold weather and prepare one for a busy day. Doji Takato was eminently pleased with himself for getting such an invitation after only a few months in the Imperial City. There were several members of the Crane delegation to the Winter Court who had not received such invitations, and they were deliciously jealous of his achievement. It was the little things that afforded one the edge he needed to truly make a name for himself.
Takato entered the room and nodded to the few others gathered there, most of whom were sitting alone or in pairs, sipping their preferred blends and talking quietly. He considered taking a private table; it would be nice for others to see him without the need for the company of others, but then he saw an associate from Winter Court and decided that it would be more entertaining to invite himself to join.
“Chikyu-sama,” Takato said pleasantly, taking a seat at the table. “What a delight to see you this fine morning. I was not aware you were among the invited here at the Gilded Lotus.”
The Dragon courtier looked vastly less pleased than Takato at the morning’s events. “Good day, Doji-san,” he said formally. “I do not partake of the Lotus’s hospitality every day. I prefer to savor it on special occasions.”
“You are a wise man indeed,” Takato said solemnly. “In all honesty, however, who among us can know where a day will lead? I prefer to start most of my days here. When one goes well, then it is all the more special thanks to the added pleasure.”
Chikyu stared at him stonily. “How profound of you.”
“How have you been enjoying court of late?” Takato said, nodding graciously to the serving girl who brought him his customary morning cup. “I have found things wildly entertaining, personally. The silliness between the Lion and the Scorpion has been better than last season’s best plays, in my opinion.”
“I suppose if one finds the potential for terrible loss of life entertaining, then yes, it has been a real delight.” Chikyu did not seem particularly nonplussed by Takato’s line of discussion, which annoyed the Crane to no end.
“The whole affair of one clan banning another from their embassy,” Takato chuckled, careful to make it sound as genuine as possible. “And the Regent? My goodness, what is that even about?” Finally, there was a glint of some sort in Chikyu’s eyes, and Takato wondered if he was offended or simply in agreement with the sentiment. It would be interesting to find out, he thought.
“The judgment of the Divine Empress is above question,” Chikyu said flatly. It was a ridiculously boring response.
“Oh, of course,” Takato replied automatically. “You have to admit, though… it is quite bizarre.”
Takato sipped his tea again. “We are surrounded by some of the most powerful and influential people in the entire Empire, and their endeavors are being overseen by… a ten year old girl?”
For the briefest moment, there was a flash of stony anger in Chikyu’s eyes, but it was gone in an instant. “The Divine Empress has been blessed by the Heavens in a manner that we mere mortals will never experience or even understand. Perhaps the only living being in the mortal realm who can claim a similar privilege is Utaku Zo Sia. Is it any wonder she was chosen as regent?”
“I simply find it peculiar, is all,” Takato replied. This conversation was nowhere near as entertaining as he had hoped, and Chikyu’s zeal with regard to the subject of the Regent was making him somewhat uncomfortable.
“If you had been paying closer attention, you would know that Zo Sia-sama was born on the same day as the Unicorn Champion, and even if she appears as a child, she is older in fact than many of the attendants in Winter Court.” The Dragon looked at him with an incredibly condescending expression. “I suppose some people are incapable of looking past more than mere physical appearance. I should not be surprised that you are among them.”
Takato scowled. The tea this morning was not to his liking at all.
* * * * *
Matsu Hachiro marched at the head of what he believed was the largest and finest force that had ever been assembled in the Colonies—second, perhaps, only to the exclusively Lion force that his beloved Clan Champion had commanded some months previously, during the summer. Many had desired command of the force, but ultimately it had been given to Hachiro, something that made his heart swell with pride, so much so that it felt as if it would burst from his chest.
The forces under his command were predominantly, but not exclusively Lion. Lord Seiken, scion of the Iweko house, had decreed that the Crab, who along with the Lion comprised the bulk of the forces loyal to him in the Colonies, were better served in defensive roles. As a result, the Crab currently occupied Journey’s End City and much of the Second City as well. Still, there were some Crab among his forces and, other than their preposterous alliance with the Scorpion, Hachiro held the clan in very high esteem, as he did the small number of Unicorn that were attached to his force as well.
The others, however, were another matter altogether.
Hachiro had a certain degree of respect for the Shiba. They were a family who embraced tradition and revered their ancestors. That was just and proper for a family of warriors. They also had a strange aversion to war, though, and that made no sense at all. Hachiro had no choice but to assume it was a result of their thousand years of close association with so many shugenja families which, of course, comprised the bulk of the Phoenix Clan. A proper warrior was honorable and reverent, of course, but too much time with the priests would make one see things in too abstract a manner. It was best for a man who carried two blades to remain firmly grounded in the mortal realm, for that was where he must serve his lord.
And, of course, the Scorpion. Given leave to do so, Hachiro would turn his own forces against the meager Scorpion units within their ranks and wipe them from the Colonies. How the other clans, or even lord Seiken himself, could view the accounts of Scorpion activity from the Empire and still look upon them with anything that even approximated trust, he did not understand. They were vile, treacherous things, barely even men, much less samurai, and they deserved nothing better than a quick and violent death. But Seiken had refused to censure them for the acts of their kin in Rokukgan, so Hachiro found himself saddled with several units of the fools. Still, he would make do. It was his duty, after all.
An outrider approached and genuflected appropriately. “Commander, we are approaching a site that would be suitable for an ambush. Do you wish me to divert our path around it?”
Hachiro frowned. “No,” he replied at once. “We command significantly more, superior troops than any of the so-called ‘progressives’ can muster. At best, an ambush would weaken our forces only slightly, and whet our appetite for battle when we reach the southern provinces.” He shook his head. “I do not believe they are foolish enough to attempt an attack, although I hope to be proven wrong. Continue on the planned path.”
“As you command, my lord,” the outrider said, then turned and nudged his horse into a quick run back to the outermost elements of the force. Hachiro scratched his chin and smirked. He hoped that the rebels would attempt to stop them. He was eager for the first taste of victory, and with the resources they had at their command, the rebels had little chance of any sort of victory unless he and his forces made some sort of horrific tactical blunder, something he had no intent of doing. While his personal style of combat was very aggressive, he preferred to command in a more controlled manner, using caution until the enemy bared their throat, then tearing it out as viciously as possible. Defeat on the battlefield, Hachiro truly believed, should be so traumatic and scarring that it left an enemy either dying, or too fearful to ever take the field against you a second time. He hoped for the former, but would accept the latter. It would demoralize the enemies at Twin Forks and Kalani’s Landing for the battered remains of an advance scouting party to limp into their city, barely clinging to life. His smile broadened at the very thought of it.
Roughly an hour later, his forces reached a sort of depression along the route—not a valley as much as a simple low point through which the road traveled, likely formed during monsoon season by the flow of flood waters. The banks on either side of the wide road were only ten to fifteen feet tall, and even then expressed a very gradual slope, offering a minimal tactical advantage. Hachiro noted it just the same and began making a mental list of maneuvers that would deny any ambushers the advantage of the meagre, though admittedly higher ground.
“Commander!” One of the outriders returned. “Enemy forces ahead!”
Hachiro nodded. “Number?”
“Difficult to say due to the terrain, Commander, but it appears to be a single company, perhaps two.”
Hachiro frowned. “So few? What is the point of such a gambit?”
“Likely a delaying tactic, my lord,” one of his advisors offered. “Perhaps they are trying to slow us, in order to complete an evacuation?”
“Also possibly a diversion, my lord,” another chimed in. “They hope that we will commit fully to a frontal attack, and then flank us.”
Hachiro considered for a moment. “The rebels are too self-assured to evacuate. This is either an attempt to gauge our strength or a feint to lure us in. I will not be so easily fooled. Divert the first and fourth companies forward to engage, but be prepared. An attack on our flank by an element of similar size is likely.”
“My lord!” one of his junior advisors shouted, his voice full of alarm and urgency. Hachiro glanced at him, and he held aloft a signal flag. “My lord, your shugenja detachment has sent word! They detect a large illusion to our front, where the encampment has been sighted.”
Hachiro drew back. “An illusion? What would…” his voice trailed off. “Recall the first and fourth companies at once,” he ordered. “Brace both flanks for an attack.”
As if at Hachiro’s command, a black rain of arrows came from the top of both sides, where enemy forces had remained out of sight concealed. “Yes,” Hachiro said, smiling fiercely. “We have them. All elements of the first legion, advance east. Elements of the second legion, advance west. Rear elements remain in position.”
Like a living thing, the army began to shape itself to Hachiro’s commands, with the bulk of the force dividing into two, each moving swiftly up the gradual incline toward the entrenched archers and their support troops. Hachiro watched very closely, evaluating the movement of his men. All was as he intended, his men moving exactly as he wished. He glanced over to his command group and pointed at one of the Phoenix shugenja attached to his unit. “Priest. Dispel the illusion forward. Let the enemy see how utterly their tactics have failed them.”
“As you wish, Commander.” The shugenja folded his arms into his sleeves and closed his eyes, his lips moving ever so slightly as he recited an ancient prayer to the kami. Then his eyes popped open in alarm. “Commander!” he shouted. “Commander, something is wrong!”
Hachiro sat up straighter atop his horse, his eyes following the shaking gesture of the priest. In the distance, the illusion of the troops began to shimmer and fade, as expected. But that was not the extent of it. The troops that his outriders had seen were a complicated illusion, yes, but they concealed a much greater force, one that flew the banner of the Mantis Clan Champion.
The illusion was a double feint.
Hachiro’s forces were divided, leaving his support, command, and rear guard forces completely exposed. “Signal a reformation!” he shouted.
But it was too late.
The Mantis Champion charged.
* * * * *
Hida Kenjiro did not grimace as he approached the command quarters of his lord Iweko Seiken, but it was not because he did not find the task unpleasant. It was the most unpleasant duty he had ever been asked to perform, and he had done terrible things in his younger years when he served atop the Kaiu Wall. No, this was worse, because within him, he felt enormous shame at the news that he carried.
Iweko Seiken glanced up from the maps he was studying as Kenjiro entered and bowed. He nodded, looking the Crab warrior over carefully. “What has happened?” he demanded, shattering any illusion Kenjiro had that he had kept his expression neutral.
“Dire news from the south, my lord,” Kenjiro offered. “Our forces moving toward the rebels were routed.”
“Routed,” Seiken said carefully. “Not defeated, you say, but routed.”
“The losses we experienced were… significant, my lord.”
Seiken nodded. “How?”
Kenjiro shook his head. “I debriefed the messengers myself, my lord. It seems as if they outmaneuvered our forces at every turn. Yoritomo Hiromi led the attack. The Lion are aghast at his heretofore undemonstrated tactical acumen. They say…” his voice trailed off.
“I can imagine what they say,” Seiken said darkly. “The Lion blame the Scorpion for many things when they aren’t at war, much less when the state of affairs is as it currently stands.” He shook his head. “I will speak to the officer cadre. They will have to accept that the situation is not as simple as it appears.”
Kenjiro nodded. “I know my lords will be appreciative of your consideration.”
“Make no mistake, the possibility that the Scorpion have done something duplicitous is real,” Seiken countered. “I will not discount that possibility until I have satisfied my curiosity. Nor will I permit the petty differences among the clans to compromise our purpose here, however.” He frowned and looked back at the maps. “We are too far from the scene of the incident. If we had been closer, if I had been on the field, perhaps… perhaps…”
“There would have been a great victory, my lord,” Kenjiro said with absolute conviction.
Seiken looked at him strangely. “Perhaps there would have been no need for so many samurai to die so foolishly at all,” he said. “Regardless, the time for distance is long since passed.” He paused and scrawled something on a piece of parchment, then stamped it with his chop and held it out. “Take this to the officers’ quarters.”
“Of course, my lord,” Kenjiro said, bowing sharply. “Are we deploying?”
“Relocating,” Seiken said. “I am taking over the Second City.”