Twenty Festivals, Part 1
By Maxime Lemaire
Edited by Fred Wan
Kyuden Hida, Month of the Hare, 1200
Gathered in the meeting room of Kyuden Hida, Hida Kisada and his advisers were poring over maps, reports and other scrolls. With howling winds raging outside the castle, some were secretly relieved to be pulled from field duty, even if it meant long hours of discussion by candlelight. But in truth, logistics was a constant necessity for the Crab, at all times of the year.
“We will have to redeploy men from the Fourth Army to the Wall,” one of the senior Hida commanders said, holding up a mangled parchment scored with figures. “The third time this season. Our reserves are growing quite thin.”
“We can't afford to support any more troops,” offered a man wearing the Yasuki mon, his face grim. “We're running out of all commodities – food, weapons, clothes. Several Clans have taken their business elsewhere, and we've had to offer... considerable discounts to even meet our minimum requirements.”
“Unacceptable!” bellowed the commander. He pounded his powerful fist on the table, displacing several scrolls which bounced and rolled away from his fury. “How dare they leave us in such a precarious position?”
“They don't see the Taint as a threat,” the Champion of the Crab bitterly admitted, his voice low and harsh. Though his eyes were clear, his face was worn with enduring countless hardships, effort which the Empire was beginning to take for granted. “The lies of the Spider have addled their minds, and lulled them into a false sense of security. The Scorpion support us, but only privately, and only in small sums. The only clan willing to contribute significantly to opposing the Taint is the Phoenix. But the other Clans have shifted their assets to their own conflicts, or to the Colonies. Tomoe, what's your report on Shadowlands activities?”
The daimyo of the Hiruma had previously been sitting in the back of the room, absentmindedly chewing on a ball of rice. As Kisada called her name, she wiped her mouth with her sleeve and made her way to the table.
“Quiet, as per the previous report. My men have been tracking some of the remaining Chuda tsukai. We eliminated one this week, but not before she took three of our best scouts.”
Kisada nodded in appreciation. “We appreciate your sacrifice, as always.”
“It is our duty, Little Bear.” Some of the samurai present winced, as few dared to call their Champion by his nickname to his face. But somehow, Hiruma Tomoe never drew his wrath by doing so. “The Chuda are nested in the deep Shadowlands, which is dangerous even in times of low activity. But their numbers are diminishing, one by one. They haven’t recruited any new members over the last generation, while we can just make new samurai the old-fashioned way.” She grinned in jest, but with her numerous facial scars, Tomoe’s smiled looked somewhat sinister. The group of samurai chuckled at her comment.
“Even so, every Crab death is one less sword to defend the Empire with. What's the situation at the Second Wall?” Kisada said.
“The Scorpion have been forced to redeploy many of their troops to face the Lion assault. As per your orders, a detachment of our own troops will be deployed to the Second Wall, with orders not to engage with the Lion for the time being,” the Hida commander replied.
Kisada sighed as he contemplated his maps. “We have soldiers in the Colonies, on the Wall, at our borders, on the Second Wall, and all on thin supplies. Do the other Clans really have such short memories? Have they forgotten who we are? I only hope our new Emperor reminds them of who our true enemies are.”
“Do you think he will have us moved against the Spider?” Tomoe said. She didn't sound overly concerned at the thought, merely curious.
“Nothing of the sort has been announced yet, but it is no secret he has no love for them,” Kisada said, his hand tightening subconsciously around the handle of his sword. “For now we continue to monitor them closely, and harass them in the Colonies. But should they event hint at betraying the Emperor, we will remind them of the Crab’s fury.”
The Second Wall, Month of the Hare, 1200
Hida Toranosuke arrived at the Second Wall with the rest of the Crab troops and was not impressed with what he saw. The Scorpion troops were too few to be a real obstacle if a major outbreak was ever to happen. Of course, this was probably why Crab reinforcements had been requested, but he still felt disturbed by the weakness of the defenses. The few Scorpion present, at least, seemed to have learned from the Crab over the generation since the Second Pit had opened. They wore heavy armor and held stouter weapons, and as Toranosuke got closer, he could see scars where masks didn’t cover their faces. The Scorpion warriors bowed to the Crab, a sign of appreciation which while silent, showed genuine respect rather than typical Scorpion sycophancy.
Toranosuke’s officer broke his troops into small squadrons, and assigned them at key points of the Wall, to reinforce Scorpion patrols. The Crab marched quickly to obey, despite having just arrived from a long journey. They curtly introduced themselves to their Scorpion counterparts. Toranosuke’s squadron had been assigned to a small tower, where three Scorpion bushi wearing black masks and naginata awaited them.
A loud, rumbling sound came from deep beyond the Wall, possibly a roar or a landslide. As the Scorpion warriors nervously peered in the direction of the noise, Toranosuke grinned under his mask. Those samurai were too easily startled, as noises like these were common coming from the Shadowlands, so he initiated conversation to distract them.
“What’s the largest thing you’ve ever killed?” he said in lieu of greetings, his voice muffled by the mempo covering the lower part of his face. “Other than humans, that is.”
The three Scorpion exchanged awkward looks.
“An ogre,” the largest of them said, his fists clenching in memory of the fight.
“An undead,” said another whose voice revealed her to be woman. “But he had been from your Clan in life and was quite large.”
“I suppose I should thank you for destroying this abomination then. However, in the future, be careful when speaking of such monsters. Other Clans aren’t so keen to be reminded that the bodies of their ancestors still walk the Earth as a grotesque parody of themselves,” Torasnosuke said. “What about you? You haven’t spoken yet.”
“Nothing,” offered the last warrior after a pause. “I only passed my gemppuku last month, and haven’t engaged in true battle yet.”
“An ogre, a zombie and nothing,” Toranosuke summarized aloud, his amusement stinging the Scorpions’ pride. He sat down on a stool and started oiling his tetsubo. He then gently, almost ceremoniously, sprinkled jade powder onto it until the large club was covered in a green gleam. “Well, that’s not bad I suppose. Two out of the three of you would qualify as adults in Crab lands.”
“And what beasts have you vanquished, oh mighty champion?” the Scorpion woman retorted.
“Me?” Toranosuke sniggered. “Oh, nothing grandiose I’m afraid. It’s becoming hard to find larger oni, unless you go deep within the Shadowlands, and my comrades-in-arms in the Hiruma Family usually take care of those before they reach the Wall.”
“You sound disappointed,” the larger Scorpion warrior said.
“Not disappointed,” Toranosuke corrected him. “Wary. The Festering Pits haven’t magically closed themselves. No, the Shadowlands are just biding their time, but when they decide to strike, and we have all grown naive like this young samurai here, having forgotten what it is to face the real threat, they will crush us. That’s why I cover my tetsubo in jade powder every day. It has never been necessary, but when the time comes, I will be ready.”
Toshi Ranbo, Month of the Hare, 1200
Mirumoto Tsuda checked his armor one more time, making sure it had been tied properly. He did not doubt the skills of those who helped him don it, but the suit felt new and unfamiliar to him. While he had worn his own armor and the symbol of the Mirumoto Family for years, he was now the Emerald Champion, and the role came with completely different regalia. One more time, he stood in front of the mirror, and while he didn’t see any flaws, the weight of the armor still felt awkward on his shoulders.
“I didn’t know you were the kind of person to overly worry about his looks,” someone said behind him as they entered the room. “If I may say so, my lord, you look quite majestic.”
Tsuda smiled as he recognized the voice of Tamori Daiishu, a shugenja and friend of his. Having heard from fellow clanmates that Daiishu was in the capital, Tsuda had immediately sent for him. A friendly voice was a welcome reprieve from all the changes in his life, even one as sarcastic as Daiishu’s.
“Please, Daiishu-san,” Tsuda said. “No need for formalities. I don’t remember you being so polite when we trained together back at the dojo.”
“I wasn’t, it’s true, but then again at the time, you were one year behind me. Not that it prevented you from defeating me every time we sparred. Now, I see you’ve risen well above my rank.”
“Isn’t it strange,” Tsuda said as he looked down at his armor, “how in just a few days any samurai can rise from obscurity to becoming one of the most important men in the Empire?”
“If you are skilled enough to win a tournament where you face the best samurai the Clans have to offer, I think obscurity was never more than a temporary condition at best” Daiishu answered. “And on this topic, allow me to apologize for not being present at the time of your victory. I was told you displayed the strengths of the Niten style brilliantly through your triumphs.”
“I hope I did my ancestors proud,” Tsuda said. “The Unicorn certainly did. They came quite close to retaining the office, if not with the same Champion. And the Crane, as expected, came quite close to defeating me as well.”
“I hear Utaku Ji-Yun has now officially retired from the position of Emerald Champion, and become the daimyo of the Utaku. Surely her Family is blessed to have such a competent and honorable leader,” Daiishu said.
Tsuda raised an eyebrow. “You remain as well informed as ever, Daiishu-san. The news of Utaku Ji-Yun’s new position isn’t widely known outside her clan yet.”
The shugenja smiled. “It helps that the spirits speak to me. But really any scholar should remain aware of new developments. That is why I am presently in the capital – to record the events leading to the coronation.”
“The coronation,” Tsuda echoed, taking a seat on an ornately carved stool. He gestured for his guest to sit as well. “That's one of the reasons why I had you summoned here.”
“Summoned?” Daaishu chuckled, taking the seat offered him. “It seems to me you’re settling into your new role quite well, after all. Not that I mind – a true leader should be able to know when his needs trump the ones of his underlings”.
“I merely wanted your advice,” Tsuda continued, ignoring his friend’s comments for now. “The Empress will soon abdicate in favor of her oldest son. I serve her, but she has made no specific demands from me, and in a few weeks I will serve someone else. What am I to do for the time being?”
“Follow your own path,” Daiishu immediately replied “That was always what our sensei told us, wasn’t it? What do you think is right?”
Tsuda gripped his chin, wondering how much of his thoughts to say. “I think people have been following their own path a bit too much in recent times,” he grumbled. “I have great respect for the ways of our Clan, but between the Fudoists, the so-called progressives in the Colonies, the Fallen, and many more, I think finding's one path has become an excuse for many samurai to indulge in dishonorable violence.”
“I wholeheartedly agree, my friend,” Daiishu said. “And in such wisdom, you find your own answer. Use your magistrates to restore not only order but the spirit of the Empire. You have your work cut out for yourself during the transition between the Iweko the First and her son, but you can be a symbol of integrity to the Empire at large – if that is what you want”.
“Thank you, Daiishu-san,” Tsuda said. “In that case, I know of the first matter which will require my attention”.
“And what could that be?” Daiishu said.
“That’s the other reason why I summoned you here. Remember at the dojo when we took breaks from the training? You were always poring over scrolls detailing the history of the different Families of Rokugan, old and new.”
“You mean when I took breaks,” Daiishu smiled. “I don't remember you taking any. But yes, I made sure to study the history and customs of all families past and present, from clans great and minor. Why do you ask?”
“Because of this,” Tsuda said as he handed Daiishu a tightly wrapped scroll. The shugenja opened it and skimmed the contents with worried eyes. “A pair of monks was recently spotted in the South of Rokugan. They both wore tattoos and didn't introduce themselves by the name of Togashi. Instead, they used a Family name unheard of in a generation”.
“No,” Daiishu said as he lifted his eyes from the scroll. “That's impossible. Kokujin perished years ago, and so did his order.”
“Did it? The Scorpion purged them from their lands, but I couldn't find any records of a more extensive hunt for survivors,” Tsuda said.
“There wasn't any,” Daiishu whispered, incredulous at the news. “This was one of the greatest tales of shame in our clan, but the Togashi were content to wait for the day they resurfaced, instead of hunting them as they should have. Some of them even lamented they couldn’t confer with the Kokujin to learn more of their philosophies! Preposterous, if you ask me.”
“Well, it seems like they have indeed resurfaced,” Tsuda acknowledged. “And they're not even pretending to hide – they used their full name in several interactions they had with the local population. That cannot be a good sign.”
“To think Kokujin was made a Dragon. Not once, but twice! We should crush them with all our strength,” Daiishu said as he pounded his fist into his hand.
“I’m glad we agree,” Tsuda said. “I thank you for your advice, my friend. I will meditate on it as I journey south.”
“You intend to investigate the matter yourself?” Daiishu asked.
“Of course,” The Emerald Champion answered, allowing himself a small smile of his own. “How can I expect others to walk my path before I walk it myself?”
“Sometimes, I get tired of our metaphors, Tsuda-san. What good is all my knowledge and power if I don’t have a clear way to use them? I live to serve the kami, but I have been taught to call upon them to smite my enemies, and for what? I am losing patience.”
Tsuda’s eyes grew somber, but his voice remained firm as he answered. “When they day comes the Clan has need of your services, I dread to think of what catastrophe requires them.”
The Colonies, Month of the Hare, 1200
Daigotsu Kanpeki circled around his opponent, waiting for an opening that he knew would appear. Wearing neither weapons nor armor, he crouched to offer a smaller target. He could feel his heart pumping with urgency in his sore muscles and the sweat running down his bare chest, the product of hours of fighting. Facing him was one of the best warriors of his Clan, fully clad in heavy armor and brandishing a katana. The samurai took a swipe at his Champion, which Kanpeki dodged by crouching further. He retaliated with a strike of his open palm, which connected with his vassal’s ribcage and cracked both metal and bone. The Spider samurai adapted quickly, however, and his katana came slashing back, much lower this time. Kanpeki fell prone to avoid the blow, and kicked the legs from under his opponent. Losing no time, Kanpeki sprung up, landing on the samurai’s torso. He grabbed him by the wrist and elbow of his right arm and twisted until the arm snapped out of its socket. As the katana fell from the warrior’s hand, Kanpeki caught it with lightning spin, spinning the blade so the tip landed on his enemy’s throat.
“You have defeated me again, my Lord”, the samurai said, his voice betraying no signs of pain. “Should we try once more?”
Kanpeki stood up and watched as his vassal’s broken body jerked back into normal shapes, starting to heal. The power of the Taint had given him tremendous regenerative abilities, making him a useful sparring partner. However, as his arm snapped back into place and his torso straightened into perfect form, Kanpeki’s eyes narrowed in envy.
“No, that’s enough. You’re dismissed,” Kanpeki answered.
As he grabbed a towel while his vassal bowed and left the dojo, Kanpeki felt a presence behind him, which wasn’t there only moments ago.
“I do not appreciate being spied upon,” Kanpeki growled without turning around.
“My lord, if my intention was to spy on you, I assure you my presence would go undetected”, the shadow answered. Darkness coalesced in the form of a black clad figure whose face was only vaguely defined. Kanpeki knew this creature as Goju Yurishi.
“So tell me then why I shouldn’t kill you here and now,” Kanpeki whispered as he wiped his neck, “to prevent you from ever spying on me in the future.”
“Because we have common interests,” Yurishi answered, taking a careful step forward. Kanpeki turned to face him, and Yurishi again retreated to his original position, though more out of respect than fear. “And because in the absence of my parent, I am the only one who controls the Goju Family.”
“You're aware of what happened to it, I presume.” Kanpeki said. “I hope this does not pose a problem to you.”
Yurishi shrugged. “Despite my parent being one of the most powerful entities in all of creation, it rarely interacted with me at all. In truth its absence only grants me more freedom. I guess I will have to forge a legacy of my own – just like you, my lord.”
Kanpeki watched Yurishi in silence for a moment before answering.
“You're welcome to compare yourself to me if it makes sense to you,” he said. “But never presume to compare the Shadow Dragon to my father.”
“Of course, forgive me. Do you require my services?” Yurishi asked.
“You know I do, or you wouldn’t be here. The Empress will soon abdicate in favor of Seiken, and I expect he will make an announcement of some kind regarding what will happen to our clan. I need you to plant some of your minions within the capital, to relay the news back to me as soon as feasible.”
“Of course, my lord. It will be done. The Imperial Palace itself is magically warded, preventing us from getting too close, but news travels fast among the clans, and my ninja know how to take advantage of those that leave themselves… accessible. Those bothersome Scorpion, however...”
“Bothersome?” Kanpeki said. “I wasn’t aware Goju were ever… bothered, by anything.”
Yurishi smiled, or so Kanpeki thought, as it was hard to tell in the absence of lips. “Most of us retain slivers of human personality, my lord, to allow independent thought and action. A useful quality in spies, I’m sure you’ll agree. As for myself, I find I experience a variety of emotions, if never strongly. I believe this comes from my other parent.”
“Who was your other parent?” Kanpeki asked.
“I have no idea,” Yurishi shrugged. “Will that be all, my lord?”
Kanpeki nodded, and Yurishi disappeared. Only moments later, a servant hurried into the dojo, prostrating himself before Kanpeki with a samurai’s chop in his hands. Kanpeki took it, and sent the servant back to let the guest in.
“My lord,” a samurai said as he approached Kanpeki and prostrated himself.
“Endo-san,” Kanpeki said as he motioned for him to get up. “Good to know some of my vassals still know how to approach their superior properly. Even if they happen to be dead.”
Endo gazed at the rotting bones of his right hand, flexing the putrid joints in amusement. “In all honesty, my lord, I find myself oddly unchanged since my death. My body has decayed, of course, but my mind remains strangely similar.”
“And that is why you are an effective liaison to the undead legions. What’s the latest report on their strength?” Kanpeki asked.
“We swell to numbers heretofore unseen, my lord,” Endo answered. “At your command, we have been scouring the jungles for samurai corpses. Many of them were not provided with proper funerary rites, in the chaos that has befallen the Colonies since the Dark Naga first attacked. Do you wish us to deploy?” Daigotsu Endo said.
“No,” Kanpeki answered, flexing the sore muscles of his right hand. “Keep your forces hidden in the jungle, well away from samurai settlements. The very sight of undead causes panic in the population, and revulsion in samurai, and I need us to keep a low profile at this stage. I want you and the legions to build a new stronghold in the wilderness, difficult to find and easy to defend. Make it inhabitable by living troops, as well.”
“We remain at your service, my lord,” Endo answered, lowering his head in acknowledgement of the command. “While I am present, allow me to congratulate you on the news of your wife’s pregnancy. The whole clan has been celebrating once they learned of your line’s continued strength.”
“Thank you, Endo-san,” Kanpeki said with a nod. “I have no further need of you for now”.
As his vassal bowed and departed, Kanpeki gazed up at a statue of his father, the Dark Lord Daigotsu. He had died hoping his son would inherit the Empire. With Seiken as Emperor, however, Kanpeki had little hope to unite his line to the Iweko, as he had once intended.
As he had done so many times before, Kanpeki would wait. Part of him yearned to be unleashed, and the longer he waited, the more that urge grew. Wouldn't it be better to strike first then, before the Clans turned upon him with this new Emperor at their head? Then he would finally have a fight worthy of his strength. Kanpeki only hoped that when the time came, his father would answer his prayers and bless him with the powers he had always yearned for…