By Brian Yoon, Rusty Priske, and Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The corpse was half hidden under the charred remains of the cottage, but the broken red mask caught the glint of the moonlight and revealed its trophy below. Bayushi Hikoko, holding a silken handkerchief over his nose, moved over to the broken home and gestured to his companion. The servant stepped forward and began to sift through the wreckage with slight hesitation. His vigorous efforts quickly exposed the gruesome remains. The corpse had been left to burn under the cottage. Nothing remained but charred bones and half a mask, but Hikoko knew he had finally found the missing patrol.
“Interesting,” Hikoko murmured. “That mask is unmistakable, but I must be completely sure. The plague was not reported in this town. Continue your search.”
His investigator bowed and continued to sift through the material without complaint. Hikoko turned away, his brow furrowed in thought. The Scorpion had not heard from Shosuro Tomoko and her patrol after their departure two months ago from the safety of Kyuden Bayushi. They were tasked to find the source of the plague that swept across the Scorpion’s lands. Everyone from that investigation the villagers, the patrollers, and even the ronin hired to die had completely disappeared, leaving Hikoko and dozens of others like him to puzzle out the truth. Perhaps he finally had a way to strike back at those responsible.
“Your man looks repulsed, Hikoko-san. Did you finally find something?” Bayushi Minoru asked as he approached, his voice muffled under the demon mask that covered his entire face. The Bitter Lies swordsman was a recent addition to his retinue, one that Hikoko was not yet sure was beneficial. The man lived up to the sordid reputation of his school and seemed endlessly restless.
“That mask belonged to Shosuro Tomoko,” Hikoko answered.
“Here, of all places. This is more than fifty miles from where you expected her to be. What could have possibly brought her here?” Minoru mused. He placed a hand under his chin and slowly stroked it.
“Absolutely nothing,” Hikoko said. “There’s nothing that would bring the Scorpion patrol here. Perhaps they were ambushed then dragged to the current position.”
Minoru stood completely still as the thoughts raced through his mind. When he spoke, his voice came out as a deep growl. “If what you say is true, magistrate, it would mean someone is deliberately trying to cause trouble for the Scorpion Clan. We would have an enemy.”
Hikoko snorted. “I think they proved that when they murdered our men, Minoru-san.”
Minoru turned away from Hikoko and stared into the distance. “Our enemy seems to have succeeded,” he said. Hikoko followed his gaze and spotted the horsemen bearing Crane banners.
Hikoko gestured to his servant with two fingers and spread his hands out in a non-threatening gesture. “Remain calm, Minoru, and follow my lead.” Minoru’s soft snort was not a reassuring answer, but Hikoko’s attention was fixed on the approaching Crane patrol. They were armed, some with bows and some with swords, but all seemed attentive and ready for a fight.
The young woman in charge seemed barely old enough for the responsibility. Her armor was impeccably clean and eminently fashionable. She dismounted from her horse with ease and sauntered over to the waiting group. She stared at each Scorpion in turn before finally stopping in front of Hikoko. Hikoko smiled.
“This village is well within Crane borders, Bayushi-san,” the woman said. “Your presence is unwelcome, especially at such a delicate time.”
“My name is Hikoko, magistrate of the Bayushi family,” Hikoko answered. “Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
The woman bowed slightly before replying. “My name is Doji Shikana, and my patrol is responsible for this area. So I ask again, what are you doing here?”
“I am investigating a murder that occurred a month ago. My trail has led me here,” Hikoko said. He pointed at the destroyed hut as evidence. Shikana turned and followed his gesture to the broken building.
One of Shikana’s followers, still on horseback, laughed. “A likely story,” he said, scorn dripping from each word. “A simpler answer would be that they are here to hide a murder. They might have torched the building themselves.”
“Tensan, please,” Shikana said calmly. She examined the wreckage in silence.
Hikoko gestured toward the building. “I found the unfortunate woman’s mask under the wreckage. As you can see, the building has been in this state of disrepair for a long time.”
“I am surprised the Crane would allow such ugliness to remain in their lands unattended for so long,” Minoru said.
Hikoko raised a hand in a placating manner. “I did not intend to intrude onto your provinces, Shikana-san. In my eagerness to pursue justice, I did not realize we had crossed borders. I hope you can understand my position.”
It was a lie, but one that was easy to accept. Shikana looked into Hikoko’s eyes, as if she were trying to see directly into the truth.
“Your man is pale and shaky,” Tensan suddenly said. “He looks like he’s been infected with the plague!”
Instantly the mood changed. Shikana took a quick step backwards and glared at Hikoko’s servant. Under the attention, the eta turned paler with fright.
“No, he is not,” Hikoko replied quickly. “He is simply my”
“They plan on spreading that cursed disease deeper into Crane lands! Shikana-san, this act cannot go unanswered!” Tensan continued.
“Did this murdered woman have anything to do with the plague, Hikoko-san?” Shikana demanded.
The lie came easily to his lips. “No,” Hikoko answered.
“He lies!” Tensan shrieked. His hand flashed down to the sword at his side.
That was all the impetus Bayushi Minoru needed. The Bitter Lies swordsman howled at the top of his lungs and leapt forward into the Crane patrol. The sound of steel leaving scabbards filled the air.
The situation was now beyond words, and there was nothing Hikoko could do but join the skirmish.
* * * * *
The Hiruma scout stood on the balls of his feet, carefully shifting his weight in time with the swaying of the deck as the kobune crested from one wave to the next. Balancing was an instinctual act, one that he paid no attention to. His attention was focused on the horizon, and he squinted against the glare to make out the details in the distance. The others on deck looked at him curiously, then stared vacantly at the horizon and shook their heads in wonder. The scout paid them no mind. Finally, after several moments of intense scrutiny, he turned and crossed the deck before disappearing into the hold below.
“Another Mantis ship interdicted, my lady,” he reported with a quick bow. “The ship in question flies both the Scorpion and Imperial colors.”
Hida Reiha nodded curtly and dismissed the scout. “The Emerald Champion is quite busy, it seems,” she observed. She glanced across the hold at her guests, frowning slightly. “Are you absolutely certain that there is not information you have withheld from me, Treasurer?”
“I am quite certain, yes,” Yoritomo Utemaro said, never stopping his hurried writing. “And if I were not, I probably would not mention it.” He glanced up for a moment. “I believe you are being adequately compensated for your trouble, Lady Hida. Do you have further reservations?”
“My reservation is that the Crab Clan has enough plaguing it without adding the wrath of the Emerald Champion to the affair,” Reiha said. “Although, if I am to be completely honest, the nature of your& associates, also troubles me somewhat.”
Utemaro sighed heavily and set his brush down. “I believe we discussed this prior to our departure, Lady Hida.”
“We did,” she confirmed. “Assuage my concerns and explain it again.”
Utemaro forced a slight smile. “As you are doubtless aware,” he said with great patience, “during the Empress’ time in the islands, she availed herself of our clan’s rather unique expertise in the distant lands known as the Ivory Kingdoms. There are many among certain clans, your own included, who believe that the threat we face originates from there, and that in fact the Kingdoms may have declared war upon our own Empire.”
“That theory does have some weight to it,” Reiha observed.
“Be that as it may,” Utemaro said, raising a hand to forestall objections from the others within the cabin, “the Empress obviously found no fault with my associates, as you call them, and made ample use of their knowledge. Some of them, anyway. Now, we simply wish to transport them to the Imperial City so that, should the Empress so wish, she may have them at her disposal once more.”
Reiha nodded absently as she surveyed the three individuals sitting within the cabin. “What say you, gaijin?” she finally asked. “Why does the Emerald Champion seek you out, if your counsel has been so valuable to the Empress?”
Yoritomo Singh bowed his head slightly in respect. “I believe, Crab Champion, that he seeks to protect the Empress.”
Reiha smirked slightly. “How so?”
“There are some within the Empire, perhaps even many, who find association with individuals such as myself to be unclean,” the gaijin said. “He wishes to protect the Empress from losing face in the eyes of others. If he could find and detain’ us, then he would be protecting her, if even from herself. Of all I have met, Shosuro Jimen alone has both the loyalty to the Empress and the self-importance for such an act.”
Reiha chuckled slightly. “I suppose that is true enough. Jimen is a serpent, make no mistake about that. I would not be surprised if he felt he needed to protect the Empress from herself. Who would know better than he what is best for the Empire, after all?”
“He is a man with a shadow for a heart,” the odd looking Rokugani woman sitting at Singh’s side said. “The only light within him is loyalty, and even that is stained. His being is full of blood and poison.”
“That will be quite enough, Kekiesu,” Utemaro said. He smiled to Reiha, slightly apologetically. “Please forgive her. Her time in the Kingdoms appears to have made her somewhat, shall we say, morbid.”
“So it would seem. And what of that one?” Reiha gestured to the foreign woman sitting demurely to Singh’s other side.
“Arjuna is& I suppose you might call her a distant cousin, in your language,” Singh said. “As of yet she does not speak your beautiful language well, although she understands much of it.”
The exotic looking young woman smiled and bowed respectfully to Reiha, who only looked at her quizzically. “Well enough, I suppose,” she finally said. “The Emerald Champion can hardly stop every vessel returning to the mainland. The Crab are among the last ones he would suspect of ferrying you around, I suppose.”
“No, that would be the Dragon,” Utemaro said. “Which is why I made sure Jimen’s agents saw me speaking furtively to a Dragon a few days ago.”
Reiha stared at Utemaro for a few moments. “Should I trust you any more than I would trust Jimen?”
“Almost certainly not,” Utemaro answered at once. “Although I will say that I find your Yasuki family’s tax records delightfully entertaining.”
Reiha scowled and made for the deck. Before she stepped up, she paused and glanced back over her shoulder. “If I had declined to transport you and your associates,” she asked, “what would have been the result?”
“I would likely have suddenly remembered a horrific tax oversight your clan made in the winter of 448,” Utemaro answered. “How fortunate to leave such unpleasantness in the past, wouldn’t you agree?”
Reiha made no effort to hide her snarl of distaste. “Imperials,” she growled, and strode above deck.
* * * * *
Things rarely slowed down in a port town, especially down on the docks. Between the sailors going to and from their ships, merchants trying to sell their cargo or sell supplies to the ship captains, and dockworkers loading and unloading, there was always movement and there were always crowds.
That made the passage of a single figure that much easier.
She moved amongst the din, unnoticed and unaccosted, with her hood pulled low around her eyes. She did not travel in a straight line, but neither did she meander. Her path took her to specific places where she could see a certain ship being loaded or a certain captain shouting orders over the tumult of the docks. She did not tarry at any spot too long and if there was a pattern in her observances, it was known only to her.
Eventually she stood on the dock next to a merchant ship called the Ocean’s Road. The ship flew no clan colors and bore the markings of a ronin craft, likely owned by a merchant of no serious wealth. It was weather beaten and its crew clearly cared little about the aesthetic of the craft, but it still looked sea-worthy. The signs that only an experienced sailor would notice showed that the crew knew their way around the deck of a ship.
She noticed other things as well.
“Excuse me.” The woman approached a man who was directing the flow of cargo onto the Ocean’s Road.
The sailor, rough in dress but clean in complexion, looked up at the previously unnoticed woman. “Yes?”
“I was wondering if you could take me to the captain of this vessel. I am looking to purchase passage to your next destination.”
The sailor’s eyebrow shot up. There were usually people on the docks looking for passage, but this woman had said the wrong thing. “And what would that destination be, since we have not posted that information anywhere?”
The woman said nothing. She just gazed at the sailor impassively.
“This is not a passenger ship. The captain does not take on tourists.”
“I assure you, that I am no tourist.”
The sailor snorted. “I do not care if you are Shinsei himself, barring an order from the Empress, the captain will not be allowing you aboard. so go find yourself another ship. We have work to do before we miss the tide.”
The woman said nothing for a moment and the sailor could not read her expression in the shadow of her hood. Finally she said, “Very well. I will leave you to your work.”
The sailor, Mago, watched her for a minute as she walked away from the Ocean’s Road. He considered the oddity of the woman for a moment before returning to his work. She had no reason to think the same of him as he had not told her anything that was untrue and there was much for him to do before they set sail.
The captain of the Ocean’s Road tossed the shipping manifests to the side of her desk. They did not truly concern her but they were still necessary. She looked up at her cargo master and nodded. “I assume that these manifests will hold up to scrutiny.”
Mago bowed his head. “Of course, Captain-sama. There is no indication that we are anything other than what we seem.”
“That is mostly true.”
Mago drew a long, jagged dagger from the sash around his waist as the captain moved into a defensive posture two feet to the right of her initial position. The voice came from a corner that sat in shadow just past the beams of sunshine that flowed through the portholes.
The stranger from the dock stepped into view.
“The signs are very slight and I believe it would only be the most highly trained who could see them. Your cargo master does not have quite the marks of wind on his skin that time on the sea brings. It is true that this could be the result of spending most of his time below decks. You aren’t the pilot, after all. On the other hand, your masking of the jade and other wards is nearly flawless. It would take a very close inspection to tell that the Ocean’s Road is actually a koutetsukan.”
Mago shot a glance towards his captain who said, “Apparently those efforts were in vain.”
“Oh, do not judge the efforts of your crew so harshly. The only reason I was able to spot the details is that I knew they were there. Otherwise I would have had no idea. But then,” the woman threw back her hood, “I had an advantage.”
The cargo master’s eyes grew wide though the captain expressed no shock. They both bowed quickly and the captain said, “Mirumoto Masae. It is my honor to welcome you aboard the Ocean’s Road.”
Masae returned the bow. “Your welcome is appreciated, Yogo Rieko. I will keep my presence aboard your ship known only to you and Bayushi Mago, if that is your wish.”
Rieko betrayed no emotion. “It is.”
“As I said, I was aware of the true nature of the Ocean’s Road, as well as the ship’s actual assignment, but there are a number of questions I still have, if you would oblige me.”
“I will answer what I am able. You understand that I am not privy to the thoughts of my superiors, nor will I divulge anything that could damage the Scorpion. I have great respect for both you and your position as Keeper of Air, but there are limits to my hospitality.”
Masae bowed slightly. “I appreciate your candor, Rieko-san, as well as your respect. I would never dream to put you in the awkward position of choosing between your loyalty to Rokugan and to the Scorpion.”
“There is no choice.”
“Of course.” Masae turned to Mago. “Do you wish Mago-san to stay for this conversation, captain?”
Mago glanced towards Rieko who said, “Considering what has already been said, I think it would be in my best interests for him to remain where he is. While I am certain that none would doubt my loyalty, the addition of a witness to that fact could never hurt one’s allegations.”
Masae’s mouth turned up a little at one corner. “Spoken like a true daughter of the times, Rieko-san. Now to my questions let me start with a simple one. Kuni Daigo personally appointed you as a Jade Magistrate, Rieko-san. How is it that you can be captain of this ship, while still completing your duties?”
“My duties as a Jade Magistrate are currently suspended. Daigo-sama knows that I have duties to my clan that have taken my attention for the time. He has been assured that not only are these tasks temporary but they are in the pursuit of the larger goal of the Jade Champion and his magistrates the protection of the empire from the corruption beyond.”
“So Kuni Daigo knows that you are sailing the Sea of Shadows?”
Rieko smirked slightly. “Ah, I had thought you knew everything about our mission, Keeper-sama, but it seems you do not. We do not sail the Sea of Shadows. That would be a violation of Imperial law, would it not? The Crab would never allow our passage.”
“So you certainly would not tell Kuni Daigo if that is where you were going.”
Rieko leveled her gaze at Masae. “As I said, Keeper-sama. Our orders are not to pierce the Sea of Shadows.”
Masae assessed the captain and then said, “I see. Then why a koutetsekan and why in secret? It took much planning to have the ship made and concealed while claiming to be independent merchants. You are risking the wrath of the Crab, which I am certain the Scorpion would not wish to raise again& to what end?”
“Do you have a question, Keeper-sama?”
Masae thought for a moment. “You are not entering the Sea of Shadows, but you are protected against the threat of the taint. The ship is traveling along the coast in the direction of the Otaku Route, but you insist and I believe you that you are not planning on entering. That leads me to believe that you are preparing for some threat to exit that route.”
Rieko nodded. “Congratulations, Masae-sama. Yes, we are to patrol the area. Watching.”
Masae thought for a moment more. “You do not believe that any force that could overwhelm the Stone Storm which patrols the Route would be something you could defeat. This ship is not outfitted for battle. It is designed to weather an assault and then escape. You are here to warn the Empire if something breaks through the Crab defenses.”
Rieko did not respond.
Masae continued, “This means that you suspect a threat, but do not feel that you can approach the Crab with your suspicions.”
Rieko shook her head. “We know of no threat other than what the Empire already faces.”
“Yet you are here. If you know of no specific threat then you monitor this area out of concern that its normal defenses are not sufficient. You feel that the Crab should not be trusted to.” Masae trailed off and then her eyebrows rose slightly. “I see. You feel the Crab have already failed to protect the Empire and cannot be trusted with the sole defense of the region, but you cannot voice those concerns. The Empress has absolved the Crab of any dishonor in their failure of duty, and to even mention it would be to go against her word. So you remain behind the cover of this charade.”
Rieko straightened her back. “Keeper-sama, I am prepared to state that this entire mission was conducted without the knowledge of my superiors in either my clan or among the Jade Magistrates. If there is any dishonor it is on me and me alone and I will request the privilege of seppuku if any of my betters express their displeasure over it.”
Masae looked at Rieko for a moment. She then looked at Mago, who remained an impassive observer, and then back at Rieko. “I did not come here to expose your ruse, Rieko-san. I came aboard your ship to judge your intentions and I have done so. I see your intentions as being both pure and noble. You seek only to protect. Whether that brings you into conflict with the Empress’ edict is for some other to decide. I make no such accusation.”
Rieko bowed to Masae but said nothing.
“In fact, Rieko-san, I have a gift for you. Since receiving the honor and burden of being the Keeper of Air, I have been writing a work on the nature of Air and how this ever-pervasive element rules every aspect of our existence and being. I would like you to have it, Rieko-san. I feel that it would serve you well and you would put its teachings to good use, both here and when you return to the Jade Magistrates.”
Rieko bowed deeply. “I am greatly honored, Keeper-sama. I am certain I will learn much from your experience and knowledge.”
Masae returned the bow. “I feel that the Empire has many lessons to learn and a very short time to learn them. I have to hope that the final lessons will not be at our expense.”