The Battle at the Tomb, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City, year 1160
The celebration outside had reached a fever pitch. There had never been any festival or ceremony that had resulted in such mirth from the people of Toshi Ranbo. Indeed, the citizens of this oft-beleaguered city rarely had cause to celebrate over the past century, given as their home was to siege and warfare. The city had changed hands between the Lion and Crane easily ten times in the past century alone, and the count of how many transitions had taken place before that had long since fallen into a state of contention between the two.
Now, the city was in a state of rebuilding unlike any it had ever seen, and that was a great accomplishment in and of itself. In an unprecedented agreement, the Lion and Crane Champions had offered the city as the new Imperial capital, and vowed to defend it together from any that might threaten it. So it was that it had come to be the new Imperial City, replacing the grandeur and the tragedy that was once Otosan Uchi, and it was here that the newest Emperor of Rokugan, the man once called Hantei Naseru, and been crowned the Emperor Toturi III. Even now, as he stood on the balcony overlooking the celebration in the street below, Naseru could not help but smile. So much of the past few years had been nothing but difficult times for the people of Rokugan. He was pleased that now, if only for a while, they could forget the suffering that had dominated their lives.
“There are few men that can claim an Emperor among their students,” a familiar voice, brittle with age, said. “I am proud to be one of them.”
Naseru turned, his smile broadening. “There are fewer still who can claim that their sensei was alive in the time of the Kami. I am honored indeed to make such a claim.”
“A jest regarding my age,” Ide Tadaji said flatly. “I can see your father’s dynasty is thriving.” The old man’s features split into a smile as he knelt. “I am honored to be retained in your service, my Emperor.”
“Rise, please,” Naseru said. “You never need bow before me, Tadaji-sensei.”
“Yes, I do,” Tadaji said. “I am honored beyond imagining that you would speak such a thing to me, my Emperor, but you must not do so. For your own sake.”
Naseru’s smile faltered. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you are Emperor. You must be treated with reverence in all things. To allow anyone to do otherwise, even your closest friends and allies, even your very family, will diminish your rule. That can never be allowed for any reason.”
Naseru tilted his head curiously. “Such advice seems unlike you, Tadaji-san.”
“It is a universal lesson,” Tadaji said with a nod. “One all Emperors must learn in time. I only seek to spare you the hardship such a lesson brings.”
“I am the Emperor,” Naseru said. “It was decided among my father’s children, and blessed by the Heavens. Our enemy in the Shadowlands has been defeated, and the squabbling of the clans is at an end. There will be no discontent among my people. It is time for peace, as there was in the days of my father’s reign.”
Tadaji smiled sadly. “You see the past with the eyes of youth,” he mused. “Peace? There was hardly peace in your father’s day. For a time there was, perhaps, because the Clan War, the War against the Darkness, and the War of Spirits simply left the clans with no resources to wage more wars. Had your father’s reign continued, he would have faced the same struggles that await you.”
“There will be peace,” Naseru insisted.
“I wish more than anything that could be true,” Tadaji said wistfully. “But do you honestly believe it?”
Naseru was quiet for a time. “I wish to believe it,” he said finally. “I want to believe that all the sacrifices I made, that all those who died at my command, will mean peace for the people of Rokugan.”
“I hope that one day such things will come to pass,” Tadaji said. “And for a time, perhaps, they will. But the simple truth, one that has never been given to you, is this: the attainment of your throne was perhaps the simplest part of your journey, my lord. The most difficult times still lie ahead. You must make even greater sacrifices, and yet at the same time you cannot allow your character or honor to bear even the slightest hint of question. Open threats are easily dealt with, but you shall rarely face such things. Subtlety will be the weapon your enemies use against you, and in the face of such things you must move carefully behind the scene and allow others to see nothing.”
The Emperor smiled wryly. “Hardly comforting words to hear from my advisor.”
“They are no less true for it,” Tadaji continued. “You have done sinister things to reach this point, have you not?”
“Too many,” Naseru admitted quietly.
“Not enough,” Tadaji corrected. “The number of such acts you will be forced to commit now will be beyond number. Before, you had allies and enemies that could be manipulated. Now, you have only servants and enemies. Your enemies shall be all the more dangerous, and your servants will be spent against them like stones in a game of go.” The old man shook his head. “I saw your father forced to make such sacrifices many times. They weighed heavily upon him, but you have borne such a burden your entire life. You shall be stronger.”
“My father,” Naseru said. “I cannot believe he ever made the choices I have been forced to make to reach this point. He was a man of irreproachable honor.”
“All Emperors make difficult decisions,” Tadaji insisted. “Toturi hid them from others. He understood that the throne must never seem tarnished, no matter the threats that might face it. Those who posed a challenge to him simply& went away. None ever knew the wiser.” The old man held his hands palm up, as if weighing something. “Consider the difference from your first sensei, Hantei XVI. He made certain that all knew of his ruthlessness, and the price he paid was high indeed.”
“Appearances,” Naseru said flatly. “I would have thought the Emperor above concern for such things.”
“No one is, particularly the Emperor.” Tadaji paused for a moment, tapping his finger against his chin. “Consider this for a moment. Among your supporters were those that believed you fit to rule because you bore the Hantei name. Now you have discarded it, and rightfully so in my opinion. What of those supporters? Will they look upon you with the same favor now that you have dissolved the pact your father made with the Steel Chrysanthemum?”
“My first proclamation shall be remembered as that of an oath-breaker.” Naseru looked back out toward the balcony. “I had hoped such things might be behind me. Foolish hopes, I suppose.”
“Foolish?” Tadaji mused. “Perhaps so. But they are merely an indicator of your character. You are more fit to be Emperor than any living man, Toturi-sama. Your father shall be proud of the legacy you will build for your children.”
Naseru continued to stare out toward the balcony. “Is that the friend speaking, Tadaji? Or the servant?”
The Imperial Gardens, year 1166
It was rare when the Emperor could put aside all his daily concerns and enjoy a brief moment of quiet privacy in the Imperial gardens. Every manner of plant from all across the Empire was represented, as well as a wide assortment from the Mantis islands and a handful of exotic blossoms the Unicorn kept from their days of travel beyond Rokugan’s borders. Shugenja in service to the palace ensured that the environment within the garden was always like that of spring, and so one could find delicate and beautiful blossoms even when a light snowfall was descending upon them, as it was now. If there was any serenity to be had within the palace, it was contained within the gardens.
So tragic, then, Naseru mused, that it was a lie.
There was the faintest rustling sound from behind him. Naseru smiled slightly but did not turn around. Instead, he took a seat at one of the many go boards scattered throughout the gardens. “Of all the things I admire about you, Sunetra, I think perhaps your impeccable punctuality is my favorite.”
The young Scorpion standing nearby said nothing, waiting silently. Her thick cloak obscured virtually every detail about her, although the brilliant blue of her eyes could vaguely be made out even in the poor light.
“You may speak,” Naseru said. “It is safe here.” He gestured to the floor, where the ritual circles for a duel of taryu-jiai, the traditional dueling method of shugenja, was inscribed on the floor.
Sunetra stared down at the circle. “These inscriptions are unlike those throughout the rest of the palace.”
“Quite right,” the Emperor said. “The one in which you stand, and those beneath the stool on which I sit, are unique. My brother designed then, and I had a rather brilliant and unquestionably loyal shugenja create a unique cipher to ensure that they could not be deciphered.”
The Scorpion considered for a moment. “To what extent do you believe your palace personnel have been compromised?”
“I cannot be certain, but any compromise is far too much,” Naseru answered.
“Can these circles be trusted?” Sunetra continued. “The cipher could be broken.”
“The shugenja that created the cipher could have left records, or he could have been coerced into revealing the codes.”
Naseru nodded. “I considered that, and I ensured that such could not happen.”
“I see,” Sunetra said, inclining her head respectfully. “How may I serve you, my Emperor?”
“I have been greatly troubled of late, Sunetra,” Naseru said, his expression growing grim. “Tell me again of your defeat of the Shadowed Tower.”
Sunetra frowned. “It was in the village of Pokau. We struck all the Tower’s identified resources simultaneously, including their master’s estate hidden in the village. I watched Atsuki die myself, cut down by my agent Kamnan.”
“And you are certain he is dead?”
“Completely,” Sunetra answered at once. “I saw him cut into two.”
“You trust Kamnan?” Naseru asked quietly. “You believe Atsuki incapable of preparing some manner of advanced deception to accomplish exactly what you saw?”
Sunetra began to say something, then stopped. She considered it for a moment. “I had his& remains inspected. There was no indication of any sort that it was a duplicate or an imposter. I am as certain as I can be with a man such as Atsuki.”
“Comforting,” Naseru said, stroking his chin. “And yet, I am less certain. Tell me what you know of the Gozoku.”
“A political conspiracy from several centuries ago,” Sunetra said at once. “They conspired to reduce the Emperor to a figurehead, but were undone by the Empress Yugozohime.” Her frown deepened. “Atsuki was among the original conspiracy’s leaders,” she added with a hint of shame to her voice.
“Indeed he was,” Naseru confirmed. “Of late, I have seen many signs that concern me greatly. I fear another such conspiracy grows within our midst even as we speak. Do you think it an odd coincidence, Sunetra, that such would occur so short a time after Atsuki’s alleged demise?”
Her features were set as if in stone. “It seems extremely unlikely,” she said softly.
“I concur,” Naseru answered. “I believe that he may yet live, and that he is in part responsible for this unpleasantness.” He turned a baleful glare at the Scorpion Champion. “You failed me, Sunetra.”
She knelt at once. “My failure is unforgivable,” she said. “Permit me to cleanse my family’s honor, my Emperor.”
“Do not be ridiculous,” he said sharply. “I do not discard my vassals so carelessly. You have exceptional skills, and your family’s honor yields easily to my needs.”
She looked up, confused. “What would you have of me, Toturi-sama?”
“I have need of your unique talents. There is no one else who can match your skill.”
“What of your ronin vassal?”
Naseru smiled. “Yamainu is useful, of that there is no doubt, but he would not die for me. Kill, yes, with great enthusiasm and proficiency. But die for me? It is not in his nature. Thus, there are things that cannot be entrusted to him. That is where you will come in.”
“Of course,” she said at once. “I am yours to command, as always.”
“You are my underhand,” Naseru said. “You have three months to put your affairs in order. At that time, you will relinquish the position of Scorpion Clan Champion to a successor of your choosing. You will simply disappear. You will be a creature of shadows, and will perform any unsavory tasks that I require.”
Sunetra paled slightly, but bowed her head. “If that is your wish, of course.”
“I ask a great deal, I know,” he said. “I am resigning you to a life of solitude and emptiness. You will have no allies, no comrades. You will die alone, unmourned and unremembered. And you will betray all you hold dear, without reservation, at my instruction. Do you understand what I am commanding you to do?”
“I do,” she said quietly.
“Very well,” he replied. “You may offer your services to your new Champion, if you like. When you are not on a task for me, then you may aid your clan in whatever manner is appropriate. I will leave that to you. When I call upon you, however, you will answer at once, regardless of the consequences for the Scorpion. Is this understood?”
“Excellent. Then go about your business as instructed. Once the transition of power is complete, report to me here in the same manner as tonight. I will have more information at that time, and your hunt for Atsuki will begin again.”
Sunetra rose and bowed sharply, then turned to leave.
“This is not a matter of punishment,” Naseru called after her. “It is simply what is necessary.”
“Of course, my Emperor.”
The Imperial Palace, year 1166
The Emperor strode through the palace hallways, his hands folded into his sleeves. His face was grim and drawn, and all who heard of his approach moved away to give him his privacy. He walked purposefully, avoiding any passage that might cause him to pass another, until he reached his private chambers. It was with no surprise whatsoever that he discovered someone awaiting his arrival, although he was slightly surprised at his identify. “I do not wish to see anyone at the moment, Sezaru,” he said.
“As you wish, my lord,” Isawa Sezaru said with a bow. “I only just heard the news. I wished to see if you were well.”
“What news might you be referring to?” Naseru asked with a spiteful expression. “The news that one of our father’s oldest friends is dead? The news that the Phoenix have been concealing a hidden city filled with dangerous artifacts? Or perhaps the news that the Bloodspeakers now have many of those artifacts in their possession? Really, I cannot choose just one. I find them all equally interesting.”
Sezaru bowed. “I understand your anger, Toturi-sama. I did not know of the hidden city or I would have made certain it was known to you as well. I will discover what other secrets the Phoenix have concealed, if it is your wish.”
“No,” Naseru said. “If you meddle in their affairs, it will appear as though it was done at my behest, and I will appear all the more ignorant for it. That is not acceptable.”
“Of course. I meant no offense.”
Naseru waved the comment away. “I do not doubt your motives, Sezaru. I never have. How is the fight against the Bloodspeakers progressing?”
“Not as well as I would wish,” Sezaru admitted. “Each time we destroy one, another draws deeper into the shadows. I will destroy them, but it will take time.”
“Do as you must, but do not tarry,” Naseru ordered. “Every day, they grow stronger, and more fall under their knife.”
“Men such as Toku-sama,” Sezaru said quietly. “His life was worth more than every Bloodspeaker that has ever lived.”
“I have never known a man so truly virtuous,” Naseru admitted. “So without deceit or rancor. He was something unique, and now he is gone.”
“Build a shrine to his memory, brother,” Sezaru said, putting aside formality for the first time Naseru could remember. “Remember him as father would.” The shugenja placed his mask on his face and bowed. “I return to the battle, my Emperor.” With that, he was simply gone.
Naseru stood in the hallway for several minutes, considering Sezaru’s words. Toku should be remembered, that much was without question. What had not occurred to him was that the great general might perform one final service to the Toturi dynasty, in death as he had in life. The only true question was whether or not the spirit of Naseru’s father could rest easily knowing that his son had used the death of his great friend to further his own agenda.
The estate of Seppun Toshiaki, year 1167
The aged Toshiaki slid the screen closed behind him. The servants had left for the evening, as he had instructed. After a day such as today, so full of tension and stress, he required solitude in order to overcome his inevitable frustration. The tea he specified was prepared just as he had instructed, and he sipped from the cup delicately. It seems the most recent chef had finally mastered his rather specific culinary needs. For that, at least, he was grateful. He had grown quite tired of cycling through new ones seeking a chef with some degree of competence.
It was not until he was pouring his second cup of tea that he realized something was amiss. The sensation was subtle, as if masked. Toshiaki set his cup down with an expression of irritation. Someone had disturbed his quarters. Perhaps a servant that did not have permission, or one of his myriad of enemies. Regardless, someone had violated the sanctity of his home, and there would be repercussions. Toshiaki had not risen to command the Hidden Guard through political power, and if someone thought him an easy target for their interference, they would soon find his wrath was terrible indeed.
There was the sound of blowing, and suddenly Toshiaki was blind, his eyes burning and streaming tears uncontrollably. He let out a strangled cry and threw one hand up, uttering a rapid prayer to the kami and unleashing a bolt of lightning that shattered wood somewhere across the room. Something struck the old shugenja in the side of the face, something metal and wielded with exceptional force. Toshiaki heard his own jaw break, and gurgled in pain.
Something was poured over the lower half of his face. It was liquid, but thick and warm to the touch. It bound his lips together with a seal like wax, but even as he clawed at it he could not tear it away. The stench was overwhelming. Another splash of liquid was thrown in his face, but this time it was merely water. His eyes cleared, but he still could not free his mouth of the rapidly-hardening compound that obstructed it.
A man stood before him, clad in the shabby robes of a ronin. His scarred and grizzled features betrayed no expression, and Toshiaki saw him tucking a small bottle back into his obi. The older man reached feebly for the knife he always kept at his belt. His opponent glanced down with an annoyed expression and batted the blade away before the shugenja could even draw it. With his other hand, the ronin grabbed the old man’s hair and rapped his head sharply against the surface of the desk. The pain in his head was incredible, and the renewed pain from his broken jaw threatened to overwhelm him completely.
The ronin shoved him down onto the floor and placed a foot upon his throat. “Listen well,” he hissed, his voice just above a whisper. “I have a message for you, and it took me forever to memorize the entire thing. If you interrupt, I shall have to begin again. You will suffer for that.” He cleared his throat, then began. “Hello, old friend. I apologize that I could not come in person, but you of course understand that is not possible. You are hardly the adversary I imagined you to be. I believed you a man of true power, but you are nothing more than a spy and a pawn. Your embarrassment at the funeral of the General has rendered you useless to your masters, and as a result you no longer have use to me. You have been an irritation to me, Toshiaki, and now I have decided it is time to end that irritation. Take solace in that, in death, you have a single use left to me.’”
With that, the ronin took his foot from Toshiaki’s throat, allowing the old man to fill his lungs with great, wheezing breaths through his nostrils. “Once the message has been delivered, my job is a simple one,” the ronin continued. “I am to ensure that your co-conspirators understand the fate that awaits them.” The man knelt beside Toshiaki and brandished a knife. The blade gleamed in the low light, as did his sinister smile. “My lot,” he said with a smirk, “is to serve.”