By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The Mantis Estates, Toshi Ranbo
Tsuruchi Etsui slid the door to his chambers open and stepped inside. The dim light was a welcome relief to his bloodshot, irritated eyes. He pulled his helmet off and tossed it to the floor unceremoniously. There was a bottle of water, doubtless old and dusty by now, but he picked it up and drank deeply regardless. It was not stagnant, at least, which meant that servants had been attending to his room in his absence. He frowned at the thought. He valued his privacy, and would prefer his quarters free from any unnecessary interference.
As if on cue, the screen through which he had entered only moments before swung open suddenly, and Yoritomo Yoyonagi stepped in, her expression one of intense curiosity and irritation. “Etsui! Why did you not come to me as soon as you arrived?”
“I am hardly presentable, my lady,” he said with a quick bow. “I did not wish to offend.”
“If your wish was to avoid offending me, then you should not have left me waiting,” she said indignantly. “Have you any idea how long we have been waiting for word from the Shadowlands? There are rumors throughout the city that the samurai that accompanied Hachi have been returning, but no one seems to know what happened. Rumors abound, as always.”
Yoyonagi threw up her hands in exasperation. “Of course! This is the Imperial City! What else do the legions of fools have to occupy their time but speculate and confuse their gossip with reality?”
“Very little, I suppose,” he admitted.
Yoyonagi was silent for a moment. “The guards said you returned alone,” she said quietly. “Katoa did not return, then.”
“No, my lady,” Etsui said. “He died a hero. He died content.”
She looked away. “How appropriate. He could not be content in life, but somehow in death he finds fulfillment. He was more like those he hated in this city than he wished to admit.”
Etsui frowned at her tone. “Forgive me, my lady. I did not realize that you two were& close.”
“Don’t be a fool,” she laughed. The laugh was not convincing. “He was a brutish oaf without any trace of redeeming social graces.” She opened a fan and idly fanned herself with it, conveniently covering her face. “Still, I must admit it made him& unique.”
“He was indeed unique,” he replied. “I was honored to fight alongside him, however briefly.”
Yoyonagi smiled wanly. “I have heard of no one else returning,” she said quietly. “Your solitary entrance is somewhat& troubling. The others? Hachi? Sekawa? The Emperor?”
Etsui lowered his head. “Sekawa-sama survived,” he said. “He has sought the Keepers for something he said was of great importance. The others.” his voice trailed off and he shook his head.
Yoyonagi, the voice of the Mantis in court, whom Etsui had never seen display a single genuine emotion before this very moment, covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a sob. A single tear ran down her perfect cheek, and in that moment Etsui wanted to go to her, to take her in his arms and comfort her. It was exactly that quality that made her so dangerous in the courts, he supposed. “By the Fortunes,” she whispered. “What a disaster.”
Etsui nodded. Almost as an afterthought, he withdrew a candle from his bag and held it out to her. “Katoa-sama sent this to be returned to the clan. It was taken from the Tomb of Seven Thunders.”
Yoyonagi frowned as she examined it. “What are these inscriptions?”
“I had time to study them with shugenja during my journey home,” Etsui said. “One side says that an extinguished candle offers no light,’ while the other says that a lit candle casts no shadow.’” He shrugged. “No one is certain of its implications.”
Yoyonagi frowned. “It hardly seems worth the lives used to purchase its return, does it?” She placed closed her fan and tucked it within her obi. “There will be ramifications for so many deaths,” she said. “The city will be thrown into chaos. Opportunists will be at the throats of every clan.” She shook her head. “It will be a difficult time.”
“Opportunists,” Etsui said. “Katoa-sama once told me that we were all opportunists, even if the city had no opportunities for us to seize.”
Yoyonagi’s smile returned. “He was fond of saying that,” she agreed. “Well then, perhaps we can make certain and prove him wrong. For once, I will have the last word at least.” She nodded in thanks and turned to leave. She paused in the doorway for a moment. “Was there anything else?” she said. “Did the Emperor send word for the Empress, or instruct the survivors on how to carry out his final wishes? Anything at all? It seems unlike him to be unprepared for a contingency.”
Etsui thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “Nothing like that, my lady.”
Yoyonagi nodded. “Rest, Etsui,” she said. “You have earned that much.”
Less than an hour later, Etsui entered a ramshackle sake house in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The region had never fully recovered from the fire that had gutted it years ago, and those with enough resources and clout to see it rejuvenated had long since stopped caring. Nevertheless, Etsui had wrapped himself in non-descript clothing and, still reeking from the road, he stepped into the sake house and out of the public eye.
Inside, he quickly took one of the tables near the corner, outside the brightest glare of the lonely lantern struggling to illuminate the interior. There were a handful of others inside, but no one looked up. This was a place where men went to be alone with their inner demons. Those who weren’t too drunk to notice his entrance ignored him in hopes that he would do the same. He settled into his seat and waited. The serving girl approached and wordlessly left a bottle of tepid sake that could be described with glowing praise as mediocre. There was nothing else to drink or eat here, so no conversation was required.
Nearly an hour later, Etsui had drunk very little of the sake. He heard the door open and saw a figure stand for a moment, surveying the room. The stranger came toward him, covered in an obscuring cloak just like everyone else in the room. Etsui gripped his weapon inside his cloak, a habit that he had no intention of breaking. The figure sat down across from him unceremoniously, and the two regarded one another wordlessly for a moment. “I was not sure if the message could be correct,” the newcomer said.
“Obviously it was,” Etsui said flatly.
“Apparently,” the newcomer said. “What news?”
“The Emperor is dead. The Emerald Champion as well. The Yasuki and Mirumoto families are without daimyo, and Isawa’s Last Wish appears to be destroyed.”
The stranger gripped the table tightly, his eyes bright with excitement. “You’re certain? Of all of it?”
“All save the Wish,” Etsui said. “Who can be certain with regard to that thing?”
“No one but Aikune,” the stranger said. “I assume he is dead, if you believe the Wish destroyed.”
The stranger nodded. “That is unfortunate. He was a good man.” He paused for a moment. “There are reports that the survivors have returned with strange artifacts. Do you know anything about this?”
“Somewhat,” Etsui admitted. “There was a candle given to me to return to the Mantis. There were witnesses, so I had no choice but to follow through. That was not all, however.” He withdrew a small silver baton from his robes and laid it on the table. “Inspect this, please?”
“For what?” the stranger demanded.
“Please,” Etsui said, “indulge me.”
The stranger picked up the baton and weighed it carefully, turning it over in his hands repeatedly. He inspected the ends, and attempted to pull it apart repeatedly. Finally, he tossed it back on the table. “It’s just a simple club, and not a particularly effective one at that. It isn’t heavy enough.”
“So it would seem,” Etsui replied. He picked up the baton and, which a casual flick of the wrist, it separated into two halves, each sporting a six-inch blade. Just as quickly, he placed the halves together again and it was a baton once more.
“A parlor trick,” the stranger said. “Nothing more.”
“Perhaps,” Etsui admitted. “Yet no one else has been able to separate the blades. Not even when I have told them that it comes apart. I do not understand why, but it appears unique.”
The stranger frowned. “Is it a nemuranai?”
Etsui shook his head. “Completely without any mystical properties, as near as the shugenja who examined it for me was able to determine. It seems to be a puzzle only I can put together, although I do not know why.”
The stranger shrugged. “Useful, but not overwhelmingly so. Was there anything else that you learned that might be of interest?”
“Yes,” Etsui said with a sly smile. “I spoke to the Emperor only moments before his death.”
Shiba Yoma leaned in, the excitement back in his eyes. “What did you learn?”
“I know where he hid the information regarding succession of the throne,” Etsui said. “I know how to discover who he declared as his heir.”
The city of Nikesake, the Phoenix provinces
Shiba Naoya spread his hands on the wide, tall table and looked down, counting inwardly in hopes of keeping the frustration from his voice. “What I am saying, my lords,” he said quietly, “is that there is a direct, immediate link between the price changes on our trade with the other clans, and with the Mantis beginning shipping operations on Kaigen’s Island.”
“That much is clear, yes.” Isawa Ochiai smiled. Despite the nature of their conversation, Naoya had found it all but impossible to resist her quiet charm. The sight of even her simple smile seemed to dissipate his irritation, which was annoying in and of itself. “We simply disagree with your assessment of that fact.”
Naoya forced a smile. “The Mantis are manipulating trade negotiations against us on a wide-spread scale. That is the only possible interpretation.”
“I do not believe so.” Shiba Ningen did not look up from the scroll on which he was drawing elaborate calligraphy characters. “The Mantis are yet suffering from the war, as are we. They do not have the resources to engage in such a large-scale manipulation, at least not for some months yet.”
Naoya frowned at the Master of Void’s casual dismissal of his argument. “This is part of a long-term plan to weaken us,” he insisted. “The Mantis hope to forestall our recovery so that they can initiate hostilities again once they feel they are in a position to exploit it.”
“We understand your concern,” Ochiai began.
“It is the duty of the Shiba to protect the Phoenix,” Naoya interrupted. “We must stand against this threat before it can destroy us.”
Ningen looked up from his work at last, staring at Naoya curiously. “You are embarrassed,” he said. “Embarrassed that the Phoenix surrendered to the Mantis.”
“That is not my place to judge,” Naoya said. “I am a soldier. I serve.”
“That does not change the truth,” Ningen said. “You are also shamed by the recent exposure of corruption within the clan. You are ashamed that it took Master Bairei to expose it, and believe that the Shiba should never have allowed it to take root in the first place.”
“Please stop that,” Naoya said quietly.
“Ningen-san, enough,” Ochiai said. “We’ve spoken about this. It is inappropriate.”
Ningen stared at her curiously, then shrugged. “As you wish. If Naoya-san wishes his feelings to remain private, then he should do a better job of concealing them. Honestly, it’s as if I am standing in room with a mewling cat and asked to ignore it.”
Naoya stifled a sneer at the Master, but inwardly chided himself all the same. His brother Mirabu had always accused him of feeling things too strongly. Perhaps he had been correct.
“You take too much on yourself, and on the Shiba,” Ochiai said lightly. “Your family has served honorably and well for centuries, but you are hardly infallible. And the Isawa are hardly in a position to expect infallibility from others. You have not failed the clan, not in any of these things that are apparently weighing on you.”
The warrior cast one last glance at Ningen, then bowed his head to the young woman before him. “It was not my intent to disrespect Master Nakamuro-sama,” he said softly. “I respect his devotion to the Phoenix ideal, as do all Shiba.”
“Hardly all,” Ochiai said sadly. “There are many who disagreed with his choice to surrender. That is one reason he ceded leadership of the Council, as you know.”
Naoya nodded. “I merely worry that the decision will cause difficulty with the Mantis in the long run,” he explained. “They are not a clan capable of respecting anything they perceive as weakness, nor are they capable of understanding the path the Phoenix walk.”
“In that, at least, we can agree,” Ochiai said. “The matter at hand, however, is how we will deal with.” the Master of Fire’s voice trailed off as a loud snap sounded through the chamber. Both Ochiai and Naoya looked to Ningen, who had broken the quill with which he was writing. The ruined writing implement was clutched tightly in his fist, apparently forgotten, and ink spread slowly across the beautiful scroll on which he had been working. The Master of Void stared toward the chamber doors with a wild intensity neither had ever seen from him. “Ningen-san?” Ochiai asked. “Are you.”
“It approaches,” he whispered reverently.
Naoya glanced at Ochiai with an expression of confusion. “Is he ill?” he nearly whispered, not wishing to attract his attention.
The Master of Fire shook her head, frowning all the while. She began to speak, but a sudden noise from the corridor beyond the doors stopped her. There were sounds of a struggle, then shouting. Naoya’s blade was in his hand in an instant, and he moved immediately to place himself between the Masters and the doorway. “They must have gotten past the sentries,” he said quickly. “Out the back way. I will delay them as long as I can.”
“Courageous, but unnecessary,” Ochiai said. “I do not fear Kinuye’s brood.”
“But Master Bairei!” Naoya insisted.
“Survived,” Ochiai said, “and is recovering. Let us see what feeble attempt they make on our lives now.”
Naoya ground his teeth in frustration, certain that the Master of Fire was not taking the situation seriously enough. Before he could object further, however, the doorway burst open.
Masakazu, Ochiai’s gigantic yojimbo and former vassal of the Shogun, staggered into the room, a much smaller form locked in his stone-like embrace. Whatever he held was little more than a blur of green and gold, barely kept in place by his implacable strength. His face was red from the force of multiple blows, but his snarl of rage was enough to chill even Naoya’s blood. “Shoot her!” the yojimbo insisted. “She’s a nimble little thing!”
“Stop!” Ningen’s voice resonated through the chamber with such intensity that several candles were suddenly extinguished, and Naoya could feel the force of it in his chest. “Release her at once!” he ordered.
Masakazu stared impassively at the Master of Void, and did nothing until Ochiai nodded at him. Then he opened his arms and unceremoniously dumped the woman he had been struggling with onto the ground.
The woman was slight of build, and wore robes that left her arms and much of her shoulders exposed in the traditional Tamori style. Still, the tattoos covering her exposed flesh told Naoya she was no shugenja. The woman grinned for a moment. “That was exhilarating,” she admitted, then rose and bowed deeply before the assembled Phoenix. “I apologize for the misunderstanding, samas. I fear the momentum from my journey carried me past the threshold of your home, and your yojimbo assumed that my intentions were malicious. I fear fatigue has addled me somewhat.” She paused, and her expression became more somber. “I am Hitomi Maya, representative of Mirumoto Rosanjin, sent to deliver an important package from Shiba Aikune.”
“Aikune?” Naoya asked. “Where has he gone?”
Maya’s expression grew graver still. “I regret to inform you that Aikune-sama has joined his ancestors in Yomi.”
Naoya bowed his head. “How did he die?”
“He died protecting many, including myself, from the last assault of the oni. He died alongside others, including my lord Rosanjin.” Her voice trailed off. “The Emperor has died as well.”
Ochiai gasped, and Naoya felt the strength leave his legs. “What happened?”
“It is a long, difficult story,” Maya said, “but the essence of it is this: in his search for enlightenment, the Emperor found the lost Tomb of Seven Thunders. Within, he discovered many items of great importance, items he felt must be returned to the Empire at all costs. He ordered Hachi-sama’s officers, Rosanjin and Aikune among them, to return the items while he remained behind. He believed the oni would not give chase if they stood a chance to kill the Emperor. In the end, he banished the other survivors from the battlefield and stayed behind. I do not know what he did, but the demon army was virtually destroyed. The few that survived followed us, and Aikune, Rosanjin, and Yoritomo Katoa stopped them.”
There was a long moment of silence in the chamber. Masakazu crossed the room and began rummaging around in one of the cabinets. Ochiai, paler than Naoya had ever seen her, finally seemed to catch her breath. “Please& please extend our greatest thanks and sympathies to your lord,” she said to Maya. “The Empire owes Rosanjin a debt of thanks. Katoa as well, I suppose.”
Maya nodded. “Thank you, my lady.”
“May I see it?” Ningen’s voice was barely above a whisper. “You have it with you, do you not? I need to see it. Please.”
Maya nodded and withdrew a small bundle from her traveling sack. She offered it mutely to Ningen, who accepted it with shaking hands. The Master of the Void unwrapped it delicately, revealing a small egg emblazoned with a symbol that Naoya did not recognize.
Looking upon the egg filled Naoya with a sensation he could not clearly describe. The sight of it filled him with a strange awareness of everything around him: the warmth from the lanterns, the air stirring around him, and the pressure of the floor beneath his feet. Yet at the same time, he felt strangely distant, floating, as if he were dreaming. “What is it, Ningen?” he heard Ochiai ask.
“It is the Egg of the Void,” Ningen answered. His voice was distant, and Naoya was not entirely certain the man knew he had spoken, or even where he was. “It is a child of the dragons, a vessel of their power, a token of their favor.” He ran a finger across its delicate surface. “It is the way for us to become one with them.”
Naoya stared at Ochiai uncomprehendingly, but she could not take her eyes off of the egg. He wondered for a moment if he should destroy it and free them, but even the thought seemed somehow obscene. He would likely have stood there indefinitely, had someone not shoved a massive hand in his face. It was Masakazu, who had retrieved a bottle of sake and poured two cups. “Drink,” he commanded.
“What?” Naoya asked, exasperated. “That is what you think of at a time like this?”
“You were not in the Yasuki provinces before the Emperor took the throne,” the yojimbo said. “You haven’t seen how he transformed my home. Drink with me. Celebrate his memory.”
Naoya stared at him for a moment, then accepted the cup and drank. The massive warrior stared down at him for a moment, unusually introspective. “There will be dark times ahead,” he said morosely.
Naoya could not disagree.
The road between Nikesake and Shiro Shiba
Shiba Mirabu was in no particular hurry. There were many things awaiting his attention upon his arrival in Nikesake, of course, but nothing of such importance that an additional hour would cause difficulty. The time alone in the wilderness, however, always improved his mood and made his duties flow easier. It was a small sacrifice, a minor indulgence he allowed himself from time to time. It helped him to keep his composure during the more stressful times.
And it seemed that he was on the cusp of such a stressful time now. There had been no word from the samurai that had accompanied the Emerald Champion into the Shadowlands in search of the Emperor, and it had been too long. He regretted sending Aikune alone now, but at the time it had seemed the only logical choice. Only two days ago, he had considered sending additional forces in hopes of finding the others, but Isawa Sezaru had recommended against it.
Sezaru. Even the name caused Mirabu to frown. The man was growing increasingly unstable, and it seemed that no one else could see it, or at least would not acknowledge it. To Mirabu it was clear that the clan had a dangerous serpent clutched to its breast, and he feared that it would bite when they could least afford it.
The pain shot through his head with such sudden intensity that at first Mirabu thought he had been shot with an arrow. He swayed in the saddle, one hand gripping the reins and the other pressed against his face, his teeth clenched tightly.
Aikune, is that you?
Mirabu groaned in agony and lost his balance. He crashed to the ground with a bone-shaking thud that he barely noticed. He tore his helm off and covered his face with both hands, struggling against the pain that lanced through it like lighting.
“I am not Aikune!” Mirabu screamed raggedly. “Stop!”
It isn’t you. The voice was calmer now, and the pain began to ease. I thought it was you. It hurts so much, I’m confused!
“Who speaks?” Mirabu rasped, forcing himself to his feet. He glanced about, looking for anyone “What do you know about Aikune?”
He’s gone! The voice wailed. He’s lost! I can’t find him anywhere. Why would he leave me like Father did?
Mirabu frowned and tried to ignore the pain. The voice was not coming from anywhere he could identify, but was resonating in his mind. It was like tiny daggers lancing into his head. The voice was manic, almost panicked. He had heard the same tone on the battlefield, from wounded soldiers on the brink of madness. “Wish?” he asked. “Is that you?”
The voice halted instantly. I know you, it said. I have seen you before. You are the one Aikune called brother. He called me that as well. It paused for a moment. Are we brothers, then?
“Where is Aikune?” Mirabu pressed.
Gone. The despair in the voice was almost unbearable. Lost to me.
Despite the pain, Mirabu lowered his head and fought back the grief that threatened to overwhelm him. “Gone,” he croaked. “I am sorry. I know how& how close the two of you were.”
Yes. The voice seemed dreamy, almost distracted. You are Mirabu. May I call you brother, then?
“If you wish,” Mirabu said absently. He was not certain how to proceed. The Wish was an artifact of nearly unlimited power, and with it unfettered by a bond with a human, he was uncertain how it would react even to casual conversation. “If you would like, yes.”
A burning sensation washed over Mirabu suddenly, as if he had been consumed by the rage of a mad shugenja. It blossomed in his chest and surged to his limbs in a flash, burning from the center of his being to the tips of his fingers. He opened his mouth to scream in unholy agony, but as quickly as it began, it was over. The Phoenix Champion slumped to the ground on his knees, gasping from the intensity of the sensation. “Wish?” he gasped.
I am here, the voice said. It was closer now, so much closer that he could not distinguish the voice from his own thoughts. Thank you for helping me. I do not know if I could have recovered from the battle on my own. I need time to rest, and I need someone to protect me while I am weakened.
“What have you done?” Mirabu demanded, staring down at his arms and chest in horror. They were the same as they had been only a moment ago, and yet he sensed that he was fundamentally different on a level he could only barely understand.
Your thoughts are troubled, the Wish said. Tell me, Mirabu& who is Sezaru?