By Shawn Carman
The City of Tsuma, some months ago
The Imperial Court was being convened even earlier than normal, and Doji Domotai was feeling an unpleasant mixture of concern and weariness. Her duties the night before had not allowed her to sleep more than a few hours before she was needed in court the next morning. She understood the need for such early proceedings, of course. Such important personages as those found in the Imperial Court could hardly attend the contests in lieu of conducing their official business. Nevertheless, many had a personal investment in the contests, and needed to be in attendance. Therefore, the only option was to meet before and after the contests were concluded, and the Emperor had graciously made it so.
Domotai frowned as she grew closer to the building where the Emperor’s court was being held. At the conclusion of proceedings the previous day, the Otomo had announced that a minor courtier named Ikoma Masote had requested permission to begin the morning’s session with a gift for the contest’s hosts, the Crane. For some reason, the announcement had filled Domotai with a cold dread that she could not escape. Masote did not seem the magnanimous sort, and she sorely doubted that his intentions were noble. If she was wrong, she would feel foolish, but also relieved. At worst, perhaps he would offer some sort of backhanded compliment and make a fool of himself, ensuring his political career came to a spectacular end. Still, she could not dismiss her concerns.
The chambers were largely empty when Domotai arrived early for her duty. Still, a small number of attendants had already arrived. The Unicorn general Iuchi Lixue was in rapt conversation with the Crab sensei Toritaka Tatsune. Despite her years of service, Domotai had never grown accustomed to seeing the two in the court, what with Lixue’s strange, flowing garments and Tatsune’s lame leg, to say nothing of their rather interesting lack of decorum. Nevertheless, the two were hardly the oddest attendants.
Domotai took her post and waited patiently as the court chambers began to fill as the early morning hours progressed. It was perhaps an hour and a half after she arrived in the court chamber that Domotai saw Masote and his entourage arrive.
Masote was a slightly built man who frequently wore the traditional attire of an omoidasu, the historian-bards of the Lion Clan. It was not his appearance or even his demeanor that alarmed Domotai so. The man simply radiated a sense of suppressed malice that was difficult for her to ignore. Most did not seem to share her perception of him, as he was clearly popular with certain groups in court, but there were a few that she could tell felt the same way. She could see Shosuro Higatsuku, one of the Shogun’s former representatives, cautiously evaluating Masote as the Lion spoke to several Crab allies. She also saw a Mantis yojimbo carefully maneuvering herself so that she was between her charges and Masote at all times.
Within two hours of her arrival, Domotai was confronted with the familiar controlled chaos of an active and flourishing Imperial Court. The Emperor’s arrival finally calmed the attendees down, for which she was grateful. It was difficult to protect anyone when surrounded by a sea of constantly moving bodies.
“Honored attendants,” the elderly Otomo at the Emperor’s dais said, his smooth voice bringing instant silence to the room. “The Righteous Emperor Toturi III and his beloved Empress, Toturi Kurako, wish to welcome you to these proceedings. Before they begin hearing pronouncements during our abbreviated session this morning, Ikoma Masote of the Lion wishes to address the court and offer his clan’s gratitude to our noble hosts, the Crane.” The elderly man gestured to Masote with a respectful bow. The omoidasu returned the gesture, then stepped forward to kneel before the Emperor. With protocol fulfilled, he turned to face the court and smile to the Crane contingent assembled. Domotai saw her mother return the smile, although it seemed somehow insincere.
“Friends,” Masote said, “we gather here today as we have each year for innumerable decades to witness the finest youth from all across the Empire struggle to earn the honor and burden of servitude in the name of their family, their clan, and their Emperor. Alone among us, the Crane take the additional responsibility of orchestrating these contests, that our young adherents might achieve the greatest honor of all: service.” Here he smiled again and bowed to the Crane. Domotai felt a moment of relief, and hoped that perhaps her instinct had proven wrong.
“In recognition of their generosity and selflessness, I wish to present our hosts, and particularly the Lady of the Crane, Doji Akiko, with this gift.” Masote gestured to his cohorts, who in turn stepped outside the chamber and then quickly back in bearing several large boxes. The boxes were rather battered, and bore a smeared and flaked seal that looked familiar to Domotai. Despite her duty to remain impassive, she could not suppress a slight frown. “These boxes were bound for Crane lands from the Lady Akiko’s estate in Phoenix lands, but were supposedly lost in an unfortunate bandit attack some months ago. My men and I were very fortunate to recover them recently, and it is my honor to return Akiko-sama’s rightful property to her.”
“Thank you, Masote-san,” Akiko said demurely. She gestured for her attendants to retrieve the materials. “I had feared these personal items lost.”
“An unusual gift,” the Emperor mused, “but certainly welcome. How did you come to possess these items, Masote?”
“An entertaining tale, my lord,” Masote said. “Some months ago, I was investigating reports of misappropriated supplies from the Lion holdings in Foshi. I had already spent months following spurious paperwork and claims, carefully tracing what appeared to be a smuggling ring that had infiltrated numerous clans throughout the northern Empire. I elicited testimony from more than one source, testimony that was acquired under circumstances that made me quite certain it was valid, that a shipment of material from the Phoenix lands was making its way south to the Crane border, and that it contained documents of a most treasonous nature.”
At the mention of the word treason, a murmur had spread through the court, a murmur instantly silenced by the stern look on the Emperor’s face. “Treasonous documents? My patience wanes, Masote.”
“Then I will be direct, my lord. What I had discovered was a group of Gozoku agents working among the Lion, Crane, and Phoenix lands. The agents were arranging for supplies to be directed away from their intended location and sequestered elsewhere for some unknown purpose. Furthermore, the Gozoku agents learned that an investigation was threatening the shipment from Phoenix lands, so they dispatched a second group of agents disguised as bandits to eliminate any trace of the evidence. Fortunately, my allies reached the cargo first and took what I needed, replacing the rest with forgeries that were destroyed in the bandit attack’ that was reported by Lady Akiko’s retainers.”
Akiko’s expression had not changed, but Doji Kurohito’s face was a mask of rage. His hand had strayed dangerously near the hilt of his blade as he glared at Masote with open hatred. The Emperor glanced at the Crane Champion and his wife before returning to the Lion. “Continue.”
Masote held a scroll aloft. “Within the cargo I found documents bearing the seal of Lady Akiko. These documents refer to shipments containing the exact materials missing from Foshi being transferred to a keep somewhere near the southern Unicorn lands. I believe that the great traitor Bayushi Atsuki, one of the leaders of the Gozoku, was defeated in that area some time ago.”
“This is preposterous,” Kurohito said. “You dare come into Crane lands and impugn the honor of my wife? And with such a laughable accusation as this? Why would anyone leave documents of such a sensitive nature in a questionable state? This smacks of a failed playwright’s last hope for glory.”
“Lady Akiko made a mistake,” Masote said. “She is only human, after all. With the enormity of her duties as a Phoenix Master and the wife of the Crane Champion, a slight oversight was inevitable. Unfortunately for her, this one was far too damning. I had my allies recover the documents, and I distracted her from potential inconsistencies by confronting her in court with thinly veiled allegations. Her agents have been observing me ever since while my allies gathered everything I required.” He turned to the Emperor. “My Emperor, it pains me to say this, but given the testimony of the Gozoku agents my men apprehended, the papers and shipments that have gone missing and been located, the coincidental diversion to the area where Bayushi Atsuki met his end, and the personal seal of Lady Akiko… there is simply too much proof to be countered. Doji Akiko was among the Gozoku’s leaders.”
There was a chorus of fans snapping open, but the room remained otherwise silent. Domotai felt her head spinning and feared she might fall. She marshaled her will and remained motionless, silently screaming for her father to do something, to make this ridiculous lie end.
The Emperor’s voice was as calm as ever. “Is this true?”
“It cannot be!” Kurohito said vehemently. “The word of smugglers and thieves, gained through coercion? Easily forged accounts of commercial transactions unfit for the hands of true samurai? A shipment of personal goods raided by bandits? This is outrageous! That this fool believes such things can stand against the testimony of my wife is a slap in the face of all Crane!”
“Doji Kurohito has a valid point,” the Emperor said. “Testimony is tantamount in such a matter, and yours is sorely lacking, Masote.”
“It is,” the Lion admitted. “Fortunately, I have one ally remaining who has not revealed his hand.” He gestured to the assembled Crane.
“He speaks the truth,” a hushed whisper came from the courtiers. A thin, almost gaunt Crane stepped from the crowd. “I am Doji Takeji, my Emperor. I am a courtier and clerk for the Doji. My duties included the documentation of many shipments throughout the Empire. I have on many occasions been instructed to alter such documents to arrange for large amounts of various merchandise to be misplaced and ultimately misdirected. This was done on the order of various superiors, and on several occasions on the orders of Akiko-sama’s personal advisors, who assured me I was acting in her name.”
“Lies! Slander!” Kurohito raged. “This incompetent buffoon is unfit for real duty, and so spends his life shuffling papers rather than represent the clan in court. Is it any wonder he would cooperate in this tapestry of lies? He is a disgrace!”
The Emperor overlooked Kurohito, his eyes meeting Akiko’s. “Is this true?” he repeated.
Domotai watched as her mother drew herself up proudly. “It is,” she said.
The court chamber was as silent as a grave. No one spoke, not so much as a single murmured word of surprise or outrage. The magnitude of such a betrayal was simply too much. Domotai felt her legs shaking dangerously and reached out to brace herself against the wall. The entire room was spinning out of control, and she could not seem to catch her breath. A hand gripped her shoulder and helped her steady herself. She could barely make out the form of a sullen Najmudin standing to her left.
“Consorting with the Gozoku is a most serious crime,” the Emperor said. “By admitting your place among them, you name yourself one of the greatest traitors of our age. Why have you done this?”
“I am Doji Akiko,” she said proudly. “I am the daughter of a Thunder and the wife of a Champion. I have seen the rule of a Kami, and how far the Empire has fallen now that it lies in the hands of men with no true link to the heavens. My crimes, your words and never mine, were committed in the name of the Empire, and I will not apologize for them.”
“You have disgraced both the Doji and the Crane,” the Emperor said darkly. “My father spared your life and permitted you to remain in the Empire, and you have repaid his mercy with betrayal.”
“I have done only that which needed to be done, and which no one else had the courage to do. I regret nothing.”
“Remove the traitor,” the Emperor said. “She will be executed for her crimes.”
The word was uttered in agony. Doji Kurohito stepped forward. For a moment, Domotai felt a wave of panic, certain that her father would not allow anyone to touch her mother. Surely Akiko felt the same, for the adoration in her eyes was unmistakable. “I will not allow her to be taken from me.”
“Choose your words carefully,” the Emperor warned.
“I have,” Kurohito said. He drew his wakizashi and turned to face his wife. The love in her eyes never wavered, even for a moment, even as he cut her down in a shower of blood. Doji Akiko fell to the floor in two pieces, cut apart from hip to shoulder by her husband.
Kurohito surveyed the room carefully, lingering for several moments on Masote, before turning back to the Emperor. “My family has been disgraced,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “This stain cannot be erased save with blood. Please, my Emperor, I beg you, permit me to take my life in atonement for this crime.”
The Emperor’s expression was solemn, but sad. “You have my permission, my friend.”
“My lord, is it not traditional in matters such as these for the entire family to suffer such a burden?” Masote asked. He was clearly flush with victory. “The traitor Akiko had a daughter, if I am not mistaken.”
Domotai made as if to step toward Masote, but Najmudin restrained her.
“Kurohito’s daughter spent her youth with the Lion,” the Emperor answered, “and the years since with the Imperial Guardsmen who protect my life, my court, and my palace.”
“Of course, my lord, but she is Akiko’s daughter nonetheless.”
“Unless you wish to imply that the Matsu and the Seppun are complicit in Akiko’s treachery,” the Emperor said, his demeanor suddenly threatening, “then you will say no more on the matter. Doji Domotai has no part in this.”
Masote seemed disappointed, but bowed. “As you wish, my lord.”
The Emperor rose. “This court session is at an end.”
And with that, the chamber emptied. Kurohito knelt over his wife’s body, and with only his shattered daughter remaining within the chamber, he wept.
* * * * *
The distance between Domotai’s barrack and the tent where her father waited was short, but to the young Crane warrior it seemed to be the longest walk she had ever taken. The cool spring breeze ruffled the cloth of her white kimono. It was unusual for one of her position to wear white, the color of death traditionally worn by the individual committing the ritual of seppuku, but to her it seemed appropriate. The gravel crunched loudly beneath her sandals in the quiet evening air. It seemed as though the entire city was silent tonight, even more so than the norm for the night before the final test of the Topaz Championship. She wondered idly if the silence was for her father or mother, or if it was merely fear. She did not know the answer.
A lone man stood outside the tent, watching her approach. He was older, with a finely crafted robe of the drabbest gray color imaginable. His wrinkled face was pursed in disapproval as she reached the tent, his gaze taking in her white kimono with a disapproving sniff. “You are the second?” he said curtly.
“I am,” she answered.
The old man nodded. “I am Otomo Taiyou,” he said. “I am one of the Emperor’s masters of protocol. I will oversee the ceremony and report on your father’s end.”
Domotai nodded mutely. She had held out some hope, somewhere deep in the farthest recesses of her mind, that the Emperor would arrive to witness the ceremony. Perhaps she even hoped he would stop it, and grant Kurohito his life. But he had not come, and would not witness her father’s end. Instead, he had sent one of his trained apes to watch and tell him that her father died with honor or with shame. Domotai doubted that this Taiyou cared at all one way or another.
“Your father has asked me to remain outside,” the Imperial said with a sniff. He clearly found the notion of Kurohito requesting anything unacceptable. “He wishes to speak with you privately before the ceremony begins.” Again, Domotai only nodded. She could not find her voice. She lifted the heavy flap aside and stepped into the tent.
Within the tent, Doji Kurohito knelt before a small altar where incense burned. Domotai recognized the scent; it was her mother’s favorite. Their home had often had that heavy, pungent scent when Domotai had been a child. All at once, the sense of loss she had been avoiding seemed to crash down on her with a terrible weight. She staggered a step, nearly falling, and had to bite back a ragged sob of pure anguish.
Kurohito was on his feet at once, and took her arm. “Be strong, cherry blossom,” he said with a strange smile. He had called her that during the rare times they had spent together when she was a child. “You have a heavy burden to carry now.”
Domotai looked at him with an unsteady gaze. “I do not know if I am strong enough,” she said softly.
The utter surprise in Kurohito’s eye was genuine. “Of course you are,” he said with that same smile. “You are my daughter. You are Doji.”
It was not the words, but the conviction with which her father spoke them that gave Domotai strength. She nodded and stood tall, straightening her blades in her obi. “Do you… do you want me to summon the protocol master?”
“Not just yet,” Kurohito said. “I want a moment to speak with my only child before the ritual begins.”
“Is that why you chose me to be your second?” She had not intended the question to bitter, but the enormity of the entire situation gave terrible weight to her words.
“It is true that I wished to speak with you before I die,” Kurohito admitted, “but I chose you for my second because there is no one I trust more. There is no one I would have at my side for something so important more than you, Domotai.”
Once again, emotion threatened to overwhelm the young Crane woman. She pressed her lips into a thin white line and nodded, saying nothing. For a time, the two stood together, saying nothing. When it seemed that the silence would become unbearable, it was Kurohito who finally spoke. “In the first moments after I… after your mother died, do you know what my greatest fear was?” Glancing at Domotai, he smiled again. It was a terrible, mournful smile. “My fear was that the Emperor would deny me the right to commit seppuku for her actions.”
Domotai nodded. “You feared for the Crane’s honor?”
“Yes,” her father said, “but that was not why I felt fear.” He turned and stared at the incense burning at the altar. “I feared that he would deny me, and that I would live to see the sun rise on an Empire without Akiko in it. I do not think I could endure such a horrific tragedy.”
“It is difficult to think that I will never see her again,” Domotai said. “But what choice was there?”
“None,” Kurohito said emphatically. “That is the burden all samurai bear. That is also why we must live to the fullest when we have the opportunity. Do you love your husband?”
“Kusari?” Domotai said, surprised. “I… do not know. Perhaps.”
“Good,” Kurohito said. “I mourn for those who do not know the joy I have felt.”
“Father,” she whispered.
“There is no time,” he said quietly. “If we are to complete the ceremony by dawn, we must begin.” He drew a deep breath. “I have said on more than one occasion that I do not know how to fail, as if the blood of Doji in my veins somehow granted me some modicum of her perfection. I know now that is not true. It has been easy to rationalize that my duty as a Champion was more important than my duties as a father, but it was an excuse. I was a poor father.” He looked at Domotai. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive,” she insisted.
Kurohito smiled. “I wonder if my regrets will prevent my entrance into Yomi. If so, then perhaps I can find your mother again in the Realm of Waiting. It would be worth Emma-O’s wrath to see her again.” He nodded toward the flap.
Domotai retrieved the surly Otomo Taiyou, and the ritual began. It took hours for the proper prayers to be offered, the death haiku to be composed. In the end, as dawn neared, Doji Kurohito, son of Doji Kuwanan, performed the three cuts with a stoicism that had not been seen in a lifetime. When the time finally came, and Domotai drew her blade to take her father’s life, his pale face turned to her and smiled. It was a fierce look of victory.
The first rays of sun fell upon the city of Tsuma as Doji Kurohito died.
The Emperor’s Court
The Imperial Court was as silent as the city had been the previous night, with even the most flippant and overjoyed attendees well aware of how somber an occasion they were witnessing. The Righteous Emperor looked upon the kneeling Crane and nodded in satisfaction. “Rise Doji Domotai, Champion of the Crane.”
Domotai stood, her brilliant blue kimono freshly adorned with the mark of a Clan Champion. Her father’s blade rested in her obi, her own daisho having been set aside to await the birth of her first child. She turned and faced the assembled courtiers, most of whom bowed, although a few only nodded. The sensation of it all was surreal, as if it was a fevered dream. She wished that it was, but knew that it was not. To one side she noticed the new Topaz Champion, the recently renamed Horiuchi Wakiza, bowing so low that her forehead nearly touched the ground. Somehow, Domotai found the earnest young woman’s genuine respect more admirable than the empty gestures displayed by the others in the room.
“The dishonor of Doji Akiko has been cleansed by the sacrifice of Doji Kurohito,” the Emperor said, “as noble and courageous as man as I have ever known. His daughter now holds his position, and there will be no mention of Akiko or her crimes in my court, else those who speak of them be banished.” The Emperor smiled. “Welcome my new Champion among you.”
The murmur that constantly accompanied the court returned in full force, with many stepping forward to offer the congratulations to Domotai. Thankfully, most seemed to recognize the enormity of what had happened over the past day, and refrained from launching immediately into offers of treaties, border negotiations, matters of commerce, and the like. The faces were just a blur, until finally she saw the one she most wanted to see.
“Domotai-sama,” the Lion said with a bow. “I offer my congratulations on your appointment, and my sincere condolences for your father’s death. He was a great man.”
“Thank you, Setai,” Domotai said. “I need travel papers for the Lion lands. Can you arrange this?”
The former Deathseeker looked surprised for a brief moment. “I should be able to arrange it, my lady. How large will your party be?”
“I will be traveling alone.”
Setai’s features displayed both confusion and obvious concern. “May I inquire as to the nature of your visit to Lion lands, Domotai-sama?”
“A simple matter,” she answered. “I need to visit my husband’s father.”
And she smiled.