*Silk & Spice
*By Shawn Carman
Winter never truly reached the islands. To the natives it was noticeably cooler and more subdued, of course, but to those from the mainland it seemed a land of endless summer, or at least of endless mild autumn. Visitors to the island were few and far between during the winter months, however, as few had any desire to attend the Mantis Clan’s Winter Court. It was, in fact, barely considered a court at all among the more polite circles of other clans, and was regarded largely as a punishment for those who were either failures or simply incompetent. Few ships sailed in and out of port at this time of year, even in the busiest ports such as the one at Kyuden Gotei. Even though the Mantis could still move cargo along the coast, Rokugan’s harsh winters made it impossible for those who purchased it to distribute it among their clans’ lands. For the most part, they stockpiled supplies during the rest of the year, leaving the Mantis idle for a quarter of the year.
Given the infrequent nature of activities during the winter, there was considerable clamor at the port when a large ship bearing both the mon of the Mantis and Crane arrived. Burly dockworkers stopped and took note, waiting to see what manner of visitor was so important. When an aging man clad in fine blue robes crossed to the dock somewhat shakily, most chuckled and went about their business. For his part, the Crane adjusted quickly, and within moments showed no sign of his sea-spawned uneasiness.
The Crane turned toward the voice and smiled. A young Mantis woman, resplendent in exquisitely crafted if somewhat scant attire, stood waiting on him where the dock met the shore. “The Fortunes are surely smiling upon me,” he said with a grin. “I did not expect to be greeted by such a vision of beauty. You are nearly as radiant as the legendary Mantis poet, Yoyonagi.” He raised one eyebrow appraisingly. “I think perhaps she is a bit fatter than you, though.”
Yoyonagi put on an expression of mock outrage. “Fat, you say? I seem to recall someone partaking of more than their fair share of fine cuisine at the Phoenix court last season. My attendants thought you would surely collapse dead at any moment for forgetting to breathe between bites, but I assured them if such a thing happened we would never know – you were far engorged with sweets to keel over.”
Kakita Munemori stood up tall and straightened his kimono. “A man of my boundless appetites needs a great deal of energy.” He smiled broadly at her, then glanced around the port. “I am surprised to find you here, however. I would have expected you to be in a prestigious position somewhere in the Empire.”
“And are you suggesting that the Mantis court is not prestigious?” she asked playfully.
Munemori frowned. “My goodness, no, of course not. I said no such thing. Why would you say that?”
The young woman rolled her eyes in exasperation and smiled again. “Needless to say, my Champion had duties for me to perform that I could only deal with here. When they are finished, I will return to the Empire to represent her, my family, and my clan in court.”
“In your own unique way,” Munemori added.
“In my own unique way,” she agreed. “And speaking of appointments, I am surprised to see you here. Did you perhaps offend someone? It’s a difficult idea to imagine, but I suppose anything is possible.”
“I requested an opportunity to come here, actually,” Munemori said. “I have always wondered what it must be like, and I have matters of great importance to discuss with your Champion.”
“I see,” Yoyonagi said. “Would you allow me the honor of escorting you to her court?”
Munemori raised his eyebrows and glanced at the sun, which was slipping below the distant horizon. “Court? At this late hour in the evening?”
“Hmm,” the striking young woman mused. “You are correct, of course. Kumiko-sama’s court will not convene for another few hours.”
“How very& unconventional,” Munemori observed.
“Of course. You are in the islands, after all.” Yoyonagi smiled warmly. “Would you care to accompany me to dinner while we wait for my lady’s court to begin? I long for news of the mainland these past few months.”
“I would be delighted.”
The two walked away from the dock, deep in a conversation that was simultaneously vacuous and laden with subtle manipulation.
“This,” Munemori observed somewhat wryly, “is not what I was expecting.”
Yoyonagi smiled. “Many visitors say that.”
The opulence of Kyuden Gotei clearly bespoke a degree of wealth that Munemori had only seen rivaled in the courts of the Crane and the Unicorn. The Crane, however, preferred to demonstrate their wealth with tasteful displays of grace and elegance, while the Unicorn used exotic art and architecture as an expression of their wealth. The Mantis used neither of these, but seemed to prefer ostentatious displays of valuables. Jewels and precious metals encrusted virtually everything in sight. Even to Munemori’s admittedly unconventional sensibilities, it was somewhat tasteless, but he could not help but be impressed and not just a bit intimidated. This was almost certainly the Mantis’ goal. Put the guests on the defensive, make them uncomfortable in an environment from which there was literally no escape, and then slowly wear them down until they come around to their host’s point of view.
All things considered, it was a strangely effective if crude technique. And if Munemori had learned anything during his many years in court, it was that effectiveness was the most important thing. Results mattered. Nothing else, not even reputation, was important. That lesson Munemori had learned the hard way.
The old Crane brushed aside recollections of the past. Regardless of all he had seen, nothing could have quite prepared him for the spectacle he was currently witnessing. The so-called court of Yoritomo Kumiko, the Daughter of Storms and Champion of the Mantis Clan, bore a striking resemblance to several drunken revelries that he had witnessed in his youth. The Mantis in attendance were not of the sort that one would normally find in court. To say they were rough around the edges would be something of an understatement. Munemori had seen a more reputable-looking lot in the shadier neighborhoods of Ryoko Owari. Kumiko sat among them, the eye in the center of the storm. Munemori noticed that, as crude as her men were, they looked upon her with the greatest respect and quickly, almost unconsciously parted before her as she made her way through the court.
Other ambassadors from the Great Clans were in attendance in Kumiko’s court. Some, like the Moto and Hida representatives, were joining in the revelry with great vigor and relish. Others, such as the Bayushi and Doji (a more haggard and beleaguered Crane Munemori had never seen), were trying desperately to blend in despite the chaos of their surroundings. Still others, including an Asako and Kitsu, looked so uncomfortable that Munemori was wholly convinced they would sell their soul to Fu Leng to be free of the islands once and for all. Were the situation not so truly bizarre, it would be comedy of the first order.
Yoritomo Kumiko was at the head of the revelry, leading the other Mantis and their willing visitors in a raucous celebration that filled the entire palace with thunder. She was the first to boast, the first to sing, and the first to drink. Indeed, she consumed sake with such fervor and relish that Munemori was amazed she was capable of standing, much less the clarity she seemed to possess. Even so, he saw a firm, steely look in her eyes. This was all a faade, this was a woman in control, watching, listening, carefully gauging the reactions of her guests.
For his part, Munemori gave no indication that there was anything unusual going on around him. He blended in perfectly, and smiled inwardly at Yoyonagi’s annoyance. If she had hoped to enjoy his consternation, she would be disappointed. She was true to her word, however, and managed to speak with Kumiko about a private audience for the old Crane. The Daughter of Storms met his eyes once, smiled slightly, and nodded. She said something briefly to Yoyonagi, but Munemori was too far away to read her lips.
A few moments later, Yoyonagi reappeared at his side. “Your reputation precedes you,” she teased. “Kumiko-sama will see you in her private audience chambers, although she cannot break away from court for another two hours.”
“Outstanding,” he said. “You have my eternal gratitude, Yoyonagi-san.”
“Oh, I know,” she said with a smile. “I assure you, I will take great advantage of that fact in the near future. In the meantime, however, shall we mingle? I would be delighted to introduce you to our other guests.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I’m sure you would. By all the means, lead the way.”
Munemori was surprised yet again when he was admitted to Kumiko’s private audience chamber. The dcor here was in extraordinary contrast to the court beyond. The chambers were quiet, reserved, almost subdued, reminding Munemori or a monk or priest’s home more than a Clan Champion. This trip was proving to be quite surprising thus far. The old Crane wasn’t sure if he enjoyed it or not.
“Kakita Munemori,” the young Mantis Champion said with a smile. “How gracious of the Crane to send so prestigious a representative to our meager court.”
“Everyone keeps saying that. Is it really so difficult to believe that I offended someone and have been banished? What have I done with my life if I haven’t even managed to gain a reputation for questionable behavior? It’s almost enough to make me shave my head and enter a monastery.”
“And why haven’t you?”
Munemori threw up his hands in disgust. “Have you ever tried to seduce a servant of Shinsei? It’s nearly impossible. The nuns of the Four Temples are devoutly chaste. I’m not saying it can’t be done, of course, but I hardly think the reward would be worth the exertion.”
Kumiko smiled wryly. “I have been told that you are a man who understands when to be dignified and when to play the fool. Should I take offense that you choose to play the fool with me?”
“Not at all,” he assured her. “Most are unable to appreciate my humor. So they don’t deserve it.”
“That sounds like justification to me, but you’re entitled to your eccentricities,” Kumiko said with a dismissive gesture. “Who am I to say otherwise?” She lifted a cup and took a long draught. “What can I offer the Crane, Munemori-san?”
“My official purpose for visiting your fine islands is to assure that the relationship between our two clans remains unchanged. The Unicorn dominate trade through the Pass, the Crane move their cargoes unmolested overland and along the shore, and the Mantis& spare us your protection.”
“A curious arrangement, but one we are more than happy to abide by so long as it remains profitable. So far, it has been very profitable indeed. I am very pleased with the alliance as it currently stands.”
“As are the Crane,” Munemori added. “And the Khan as well, given his notorious penchant for violently dissolving treaties that arouse his displeasure. As we have heard nothing, we must assume he is content.” He glanced around the chambers with a resolved air. “Well, then. That was simple enough. I suppose I can be on my way home.”
“Don’t be coy,” Kumiko chided. “It doesn’t suit you. Kurohito and subordinates would never dispatch you for something so meager. You must have specifically requested such an appointment. Why?”
“Curiosity, perhaps.” The courtier shrugged. “I’ve been all over the Empire, but never the famed Mantis Islands.”
Kumiko took another drink of the sake. “Again, I find your attempts at subtlety somewhat lacking. You came all this way, gained a private audience with me, and now you wish to dance around the truth like an inexperienced geisha. If you came to waste my time, you’re succeeding famously.”
Munemori said nothing for several moments, but walked around the chamber, casually examining many of the treasures there. “The truth is,” he finally said, “that I have wanted to meet you for some time now. You have the makings of someone I might call an ally. The stories they tell of you in the Empire& they are quite remarkable.”
“But we are already allies. You a Crane and I a Mantis.”
He shook his head. “I do not speak as a Crane. I speak as a representative of& let us say of men and women who place the best interests of the Empire above the idiosyncrasies of clan loyalty.”
“How very melodramatic,” Kumiko said with a sigh. “And the point is?”
“The point, my dear Kumiko-sama, is that we believe no one man, however wise and powerful he may be, can truly rule the Empire alone. An Emperor is too isolated, too protected, even from the simple truth. Those around him will never permit him to see those things that most need his attention. And so there must be others, who are willing to see to it that these things are done in his name.”
“That sounds suspiciously like treason. Or even blasphemy. Why would I consort with men who undermine the Emperor?”
“We do not wish to undermine the Emperor,” Munemori replied sharply. “The Emperor has his place, and that is in the eyes of the people, presenting the image of a powerful, infallible ruler. Even if, in truth, he is not.”
“You imply Toturi III is incompetent?” Kumiko chuckled. “Pardon me if I fail to agree with you – the man cemented my claim upon championship of my clan.”
“Yes,” the Crane agreed. “After Kitao was defeated. Did he move to support either you or her before? No, of course not. Because what good would his word have done? Would those loyal to you have changed their allegiance based solely on his word? Would Kitao’s loyalists? No, they would not.” Munemori picked at a piece of lint clinging to his otherwise immaculate kimono. “And therein lies the problem. An Emperor, even an Emperor as capable as Naseru, possesses authority without knowledge or true power. He is dependant on others to enforce his wishes.” He fixed Kumiko with a meaningful look. “Emperors are, by the nature of their position, weak, dependent upon the unpredictable ebb and flow of public opinion. I was of the impression that you were the sort who stamped out weakness. You did, after all, seek out a way to destroy your own weakness by purifying yourself of the Shadowlands Taint, a feat only a handful in Rokugan’s history have accomplished.”
Kumiko’s eyes narrowed in surprise, but her smile remained. She reached beneath her desk and withdrew a strange, metal container. She poured the sake she had been drinking into the container and then gestured toward the door. “Come with me, Munemori-san. Let me show you something.”
Kumiko led Munemori back to the docks, to a large, well-guarded warehouse set apart from the other merchant holdings. The guards were unobtrusive, and looked more or less like the denizens of any other docks anywhere else in the Empire. To Munemori’s eye, however, it was obvious that they were on guard for any who might approach. Kumiko was not hindered at all, of course, but they gave Munemori a keen appraisal. He imagined they would stay close at hand so long as he was near their post.
The Mantis Champion said nothing, but escorted her guest inside wordlessly. Once inside, she removed the covering from a strange lantern, illuminating the closer regions of the warehouse’s cavernous interior.
It was difficult for Munemori not to gasp. The warehouse was filled with cargo of all shapes and sizes. Boxes and crates were everywhere, as well as every conceivable variety of loose items. Weapons, armor, foodstuffs, silk, and even several large lots of what appeared to be&
“Steel?” Munemori said suddenly. He examined the seals upon the worn sacks. “This is Crab steel.”
“Indeed it is,” Kumiko seemed unconcerned. She took a drink from her flask.
“I did not know the Crab were in the practice of trading such large amounts of their second most valuable resource.”
“They are not.” She shrugged. “The vessel that bore this was lost, far from the coast. It sat low in the water. I knew what it must carry, and my clan had need. So now it belongs to the Mantis.”
“You attacked a Crab vessel?” Munemori replied, shocked.
“By Toturi’s own charter, the Mantis were commanded to expand their domain to all unclaimed territory in the Empire,” she replied. “None laid claim to the seas, so by the Emperor’s command they are ours. The Crab refused to pay us tribute for invading our territory. Their pride followed them to the bottom of the sea.”
“I find this very strange,” Munemori replied. “I have heard tales of your honor, Kumiko-sama. Strange that one who battled the corruption in her own soul would embrace such questionable activity.”
Kumiko smiled. “I do what I must,” she replied. “When I faced the horrors of the Taint, I did what I had to do to contain them. Now, that danger is passed, and I continue to do what I must for the future of my clan.”
Munemori looked around the warehouse. “Why have you shown me this?”
“So that you will understand me.” She looked at him inquisitively. “If I join you and your allies, it will be as an equal. I will accept nothing less. If you betray me, think upon what happened to these men. I bore them no malice, I bear them no anger now. They opposed me, however, and now they are no more. Similar tales surround the former owners of every item in this room. All underestimated the Mantis, and all paid the price.”
The Crane smiled and gestured to the endless wealth surrounding them. “I would never dare underestimate you.”
“Then I will consider your offer,” she said. She held forth the flask. “A drink. To future friendships.”
Munemori took the flask. “Of course.” He took a short drink, his eyes widening in surprise. He looked at the flask, then at Kumiko. “This is water.”
“Of course,” she echoed his words. “A dulled mind is worse than a dulled blade. My battle against corruption taught me that self-control can be a powerful weapon. I carry that weapon always.”
Munemori smiled and took another drink. “Well said, my lady. I think that you shall be a great addition to the Gozoku.”