By Rich Wulf
The rain was the part he hated most. This thought occupied Shinjo Shono’s mind as his horse plodded down the muddy forest path. Shono found he could deal with everything else. The hunger, the exhaustion, the constant fatigue of warfare had long ceased to bother him. Long hours in the saddle were of little consequence; as a Shinjo he felt more at ease in the saddle than anywhere else. Even the threat of death in combat was of little note. A samurai had little to fear in death, so long as he died well. Yet to be wet and cold was the worst. It only reminded him of the times when he was warm and dry& of the times when he was home. Days like these only served to remind the general how far away from his family he really was.
As he looked at the faces of his fellow soldiers, Shono saw much of his homesickness reflected there. His people, the Unicorn, were nomads by nature. Few of them had a structure they called home per se, but all of them had families. All of these others had also left families behind for this war. Their thoughts were with them now.
And that was dangerous.
“Clearly this is a fortuitous day,” Shono called out in a bright, clear voice. “That such a powerful ally has chosen to reveal himself!”
The other soldiers glanced at one another silently. Shono saw a few faces break into slight smiles. The general’s strange sense of humor was well known among his troops. He turned to survey them. His left eye shone with a warm green light, shedding more illumination upon the path than the soldier’s covered lanterns.
Shono’s shireikan was the first to speak. “What ally is that?” he asked, looking at his commander with a curious grin.
“Is it not obvious, Huang?” Shono asked, raising his arms to the sky. “The Fortune of Thunder favors the Unicorn in the battle to come!”
“Favors us?” a soldier asked. “Then why is this rain so cold?”
Shono raised an eyebrow sharply. “Well,” he continued. “As you know, Osano-Wo is a god who values strength and strength only comes through hardship. Thus he has sent this accursed rain to bless us as only he can!” Shono threw back his head and let the rain fall over his face. Some of the soldiers laughed, while others copied their general’s example.
After a moment he looked back at his soldiers again, his face thoughtful. “Then again perhaps he is just drunk and toying with us,” Shono offered. “He was born a Crab, you know.”
There was more laughter at that, but Huang’s face took an expression of mock severity. “Guard your words well, general,” he said. “The gods are always watching, and you would not wish the Thunderer to take insult.”
Shono smirked. “If the gods have been watching me for any length of time then surely they already know better than to pay attention to anything I say. Especially Osano-Wo, he seems a rather sensible sort.”
Thunder cracked overhead and Shono rolled his eyes upward with a comically pensive expression. “And handsome, as well, or so I have heard,” he said loudly enough for a possibly insulted Fortune to hear.
The soldiers laughed again and began to quietly joke among themselves. Shono’s weathered face quirked in a lopsided smile and he returned his attention to the road ahead. He could feel much of the tension and discomfort had been relieved. His troops’ minds were back on the present. That was a good thing; if they were too distracted by thoughts of home they might never see said homes again. Shono sighed and tried to push the visions of his wife and daughter aside as well. They did not fade easily.
The general’s green crystal eye shone with a sudden pulse of light, warning Shono of movement in the forest ahead. Huang sat upright in his saddle as well. He might not understand the eye’s strange magic but he had been around Shono enough to know a warning when he saw it. Soon the sounds of frenzied hoof beats on a muddy path drew closer. An unfamiliar Unicorn scout rounded the bend toward them, accompanied by one of Shono’s own scouts. At a sharp command from Shono the soldiers parted to let them approach. The exhausted stranger reined in his steaming horse, nearly collapsing from the saddle as the creature ceased its frantic approach.
“This is Moto Taidjut, of the Khol,” Shono’s scout announced.
“General Shono,” Taidjut said, bowing as deeply as he could from the saddle. “It is fortunate that I found you.” The scout did not dismount; Shono suspected that if Taidjut did, he may well collapse and not rise again till morning.
“You are one of the Khan’s men,” Shono said, gesturing at the Khol emblem on his chest plate. Technically all Unicorn served the Khan, but those elite soldiers who served with the Khol fought under his direct command. “Do you bear a message from Moto Chagatai?”
“No, but I bear a message for the Khan from Ryoko Owari,” the scout replied. “It is most urgent.”
Shono frowned, wondering what news from home might be so urgent, but knew better than to question. Moto messengers were notoriously secretive about their burdens, often violently so. There was no point in pressing the man; he could always confer with Chagatai after the message had been delivered. “We march to rendezvous with the Khan now,” Shono said. “You may join us with you wish; we will supply you with a fresh horse, water, some food. Our supplies are scarce of late but you are welcome to them.”
“My thanks, Lord Shinjo,” Taidjut replied, “but if you plan to take the road ahead, be prepared for battle.”
Shono glanced to his own scout. “Lion?” he asked.
“Worse,” the scout replied, his face darkening. “Dragon.”
It all began with the City of the Rich Frog. Toshi san Kanemochi Kaeru had been an important trade hub for centuries. The city stood near the borders of the Ki-Rin Clan, though no Great or Minor Clan ever declared ownership of it. The Kaeru ronin family, cunning tradesman and mercenaries, managed to retain their independence by cautiously playing all those with interests in the city against one another. The two closest Great Clans, the Lion and Dragon, never had a great interest in the city. The Lion quietly disdained Kaeru Toshi’s ronin rulers and the Dragon had their own mysterious concerns.
When the Ki-Rin Clan returned to Rokugan as the Unicorn Clan, the Emperor declared the city to be part of their new territories. The nomadic Unicorn were hardly concerned with what transpired in Kaeru Toshi so long as the Emperor received his taxes on time. The Kaeru family leaders were likewise pleased to have such disinterested lords. What little civil strife threatened the city was resolved by the Kaeru’s own enforcers, the Machi-Kanshisha. So it went for centuries. Time passed, times of war and trouble came and went and little ever concerned the masters of Kaeru Toshi. All remained more or less as it had been until the time of the Four Winds.
Following the death of Emperor Toturi I, the Empire was thrown into turmoil. As the dead Emperor’s heirs feuded among themselves, Rokugan’s enemies grew stronger. The monstrous Tsuno appeared in the lands of the Lion and Unicorn, savage creatures with no mercy for the children of humanity. As Tsuno attacks began to occur with startling frequency throughout Lion and Unicorn lands, the rulers of the City of the Rich Frog became concerned. Kaeru Tomaru, leader of the Kaeru family, decided to look to Toturi’s heirs for protection. Of all the Winds, he felt that only Hantei Naseru would truly understand the city’s unique importance. The Anvil agreed to offer whatever protection he could.
Tomaru was more than a bit surprised when that help arrived in the form of the Lion Clan. Sume, daimyo of the Ikoma family and a supporter of Naseru, arrived with an offer of alliance. The Kaeru would become Lion vassals in return for the Lion’s protection. It was an offer the ronin could not easily refuse. He was not eager to forsake his family’s independence, but the Ikoma proved to be surprisingly flexible lords, overlooking many of the former ronin family’s shadier activities.
All of this did not sit easily with Moto Chagatai. The Khan of the Unicorn Clan was a proud man, and to see one his cities stripped from his rule was a bitter insult. It did not matter that the Kaeru did not formally acknowledge his rule or that the Unicorn had no real presence there. The city was his, and that was that. The Lion had a well earned reputation as the Empire’s finest warriors and tacticians, but that fact only made Chagatai all the more eager to challenge them. He merely needed to prepare. Chagatai, who was at the time a close ally of Shogun Akodo Kaneka, began to carefully study Lion tactics and strategies. He watched the techniques of his Lion allies, studying them for any weakness.
The Unicorn built and trained their armies in secret. In the desert wastelands beyond the Empire many nomadic bandit tribes that would normally have been crushed for their temerity were instead offered a chance at fealty under the Khan’s rule. For five years they underwent the harshest training and the survivors were forged into Unicorn warriors. With Chagatai’s knowledge of Unicorn tactics and these new reinforcements the already impressive armies of the Unicorn became an unstoppable juggernaut. They needed only one thing legitimacy.
After all, as eager as the Khan may have been to prove his steel against the Lion, he was still a samurai. The Emperor’s law seemed to be quite clear for a Great Clan to wage war against another without provocation was a dishonorable act. Chagatai might claim that the Lion had invaded his city, but then it might be said that after five years he had waived his right to defend what was once his. He needed greater justification, and it was a clever courtier by the name of Ide Tang who discovered it.
The Imperial decree that forbade inter-clan warfare predated the Unicorn Clan’s return to the Empire. Its specific wording referred to only six Great Clans, since by that time most assumed that the descendants of the Ki-Rin would never return and the Mantis Clan had not yet been granted Great Clan recognition. According to this interpretation, it was thus neither illegal nor dishonorable for Chagatai to attempt to retake Kaeru Toshi through force of arms.
Shono had known Tang for some time. He had known the man was ambitious and manipulative, but to hear that any Unicorn could abuse Imperial Law so openly still saddened him. To see such behavior from an Ide, the Unicorn family most dedicated to peace, was even more disturbing. Tadaji, daimyo of the Ide, had endeavored to update the decrees to include the Unicorn and Mantis Clans, but the damage was already done. The war had begun and could not now be ended except with blood.
The last time Shono had met Tadaji, he had seen an unfamiliar look of quiet defeat in the old man’s eyes. Tadaji died not three weeks later. How sad it must have been, to spend a life spreading wisdom for the purpose of peace only to see that same wisdom used to incite a war. Tadaji had died without an heir. The Khan appointed Tang in his place, and Shono accepted the dark news bitterly.
Shono considered himself a peaceful man, though the Fortunes knew his hands were hardly clean. He was proud to be a Unicorn warrior, proud to serve his Khan as the general of one of the Three Armies, but he found little glory here in the City of the Rich Frog. The Lion had come to this place at the request of Naseru, a man who now ruled as Emperor, a man Shono considered his friend. How could the Unicorn attack the Lion and still claim loyalty to the Emperor?
Regardless of his doubts, Shono continued to serve his Khan’s commands publicly. In private meetings with Chagatai, he made no attempt to hide his disapproval of the war. The Khan welcomed Shono’s criticisms, even if he never heeded them. In the end, Chagatai knew where Shono’s loyalties truly lay and was willing to indulge the old general’s arguments. Yet each week that passed, Shono sensed that even Chagatai was beginning to realize the senselessness of this war. Both sides seemed too evenly matched and supplies were growing dangerously low for all concerned. Either things would come to a head very shortly or the Unicorn would be forced to retreat to their homeland to escape starvation. For the people of Kaeru Toshi, the future was even bleaker they had nowhere to run.
The path opened up head, displaying a wide crossroads. A sturdy barricade blocked the way forward. Arranged behind it were roughly fifty samurai in the deep green armor of the Dragon Clan. Each one bore the Emperor’s chrysanthemum upon his armor.
And now this war grew even more complicated.
The last few drops of rain fell upon the woods as Shono dismounted and stepped out into the crossroads. The haze of dawn could be seen just above the trees. Several soldiers moved as if to follow their general, but he stopped them with a gesture. Only Huang accompanied him, standing to his left as he walked toward the barricades. Before him stood a large man in brilliant green armor, arms folded across his thick chest. He wore no helmet, his head shaved clean and gleaming wet with rain. He was much taller than Shono, which was not an uncommon achievement, and gazed down at the Unicorn with an imperious smirk.
“Greetings, General,” the Dragon said, making a short bow. “I am surprised to see you here.” The man’s almost amused tone suggested otherwise. “I am Taisa Mirumoto Kyuzo of the Imperial Legions.”
“You know who I am,” Shono said, returning the man’s bow. “Good. Now please clear the road so my troops can rejoin the Khan.”
“I think not, Shono-sama,” Kyuzo said with a small shake of his head. “Mirumoto Kei-sama has been commanded to maintain peace in these lands and I enforce that command on her behalf. None are to pass these roads without the Emperor’s own seal. Do you have one?”
Shono reached into his obi, drew out a small map case, and offered it to the Dragon. Kyuzo’s eyes widened slightly. He accepted it, taking the leather case with only a slightly disgusted sneer. He unrolled the document inside and studied it, eyes fixing on the Imperial Seal for almost a solid minute.
“I have never seen such a document,” Kyuzo said. “Unrestricted lifetime travel throughout the Empire? Sealed by the Emperor himself? How did you obtain this?” He rolled up the scroll with a fierce scowl.
“Won it in a dice game,” Shono said mildly.
“Forgery, more like,” Kyuzo snapped. He dropped the scroll case into the mud.
Shono watched it fall. His crystal eye gleamed with a dull light. He looked back at the Dragon with a blank expression. “I am Shinjo Shono, General of the East, daimyo of the Shinjo family,” he said, “You would accuse me of forging Imperial documents?”
“I think we both know the regard your clan has for Imperial documents,” Kyuzo answered. “I have heard much of you, Shono. Forgive me if I am reluctant to trust one of your ancestry.” Some of the Dragon soldiers behind him snickered.
Shono stepped forward, causing the Dragon’s hands to dart to his swords. Shono smiled and moved more slowly, stooping to retrieve the map case from the mud. “I have shown you my credentials, Dragon,” he said. “If you believe they are forgeries, then arrest me. We can be back in the Imperial City within five days and you can explain your concerns to the Emperor. My men can wait here. The Khan will almost assuredly soon arrive to collect them.”
“Did you not hear me, Unicorn?” the Dragon said, somewhat tersely. “Have you no honor whatsoever?”
Shono drew a scrap of cloth from his armor and wiped the mud from his case, not looking up at Kyuzo at all. He paced slowly away from the Dragon, stopping fifteen paces away. “I have heard a rumor,” he said, “that it is a standard Dragon tactic to send a skilled duelist against the general of a superior force. The duelist’s task is to provoke the general into a challenge and, killing him, rob the enemy of a formidable leader. I consider this a rumor, of course,” He looked up at Kyuzo, green eye gleaming more brightly, “because I have never seen it successfully done.”
Kyuzo’s lips pressed into a firm, angry line.
“Do not misunderstand me, Mirumoto-san, I sympathize with your situation,” Shono said. “The Dragon have been forced into an unenviable situation, commanded by the Emperor to end a war between two invincible forces, neither of which particularly desires peace. Of course if you knew the Emperor, you’d realize he asks the impossible with startling regularity.”
“I realize that you have been sent to delay me, most likely to challenge and kill me,” Shono continued. “All I wish to do is return to my troops. I do not wish to kill you, Kyuzo. Step aside.”
“You do not wish to die, more like,” Kyuzo retorted. “I have insulted your honor and your ancestry and all you do is talk. What sort of samurai are you?”
“I don’t think you want me to answer that, Kyuzo,” Shono replied calmly. “I don’t think you want to know.”
Kyuzo snorted. “Are all Unicorn such cowards?”
Somewhere behind Shono, he heard a sword fly free of its sheath. The Shinjo daimyo’s face hardened, and he held up one fist to hold his troops back.
“Kyuzo, you have erred,” Shono hissed. “I am a man who does not take insult easily, but now you have insulted my men. Offer an apology or I let the consequences be upon your head.”
“Apology?” Kyuzo said with a laugh. “I offer you a challenge, Shinjo!” He drew his katana and wakizashi, falling into a kenjutsu stance. “I offer you-”
Kyuzo said no more, for Shono had drawn his bow and fired an arrow into the Dragon’s chest. Kyuzo looked down in surprise, then back up at Shono. He coughed, sending a trickle of blood down his throat then staggered to one knee. His swords fell from his hands with a tangled clang of metal. Another Dragon soldier rushed forward, easing his friend to the ground as he died.
The crossroads fell deathly silent as men on both sides stared at Shono in shock. Shono knew he had done only what he must. He was a lord of the Unicorn, not some common samurai. He had no compulsion to accept Kyuzo’s challenge and this Dragon would not have relented until one of them was dead. Considering the Dragon’s youth and training that likely would have been Shono and his troops still needed him. Yet the looks in the Dragon soldiers’ eyes told him this would not soon be over. There was only one thing left to do.
“Attack!” Shono shouted pointing his bow at the barricade.
All doubt vanished. The Unicorn soldiers thundered past him, lifting their swords with savage battle cries. The Dragon met them with equal fury, raining arrows upon Shono’s men and lifting spears to meet the cavalry charge. Shono leapt into his own saddle, galloping forward and hewing about with his katana. Something inside him shut off, allowing him to ignore for the moment that these men and women he was fighting merely wished to serve the Emperor as he did. This was war. War was never easy, but war was no time for doubt.
At first his troops seemed clearly superior in numbers, but then more Dragon bushi appeared from the forest, surrounding them on all sides. Shono cursed himself for a fool. He realized too late that this had been an ambush. Kyuzo had hoped to merely kill Shono, remove the dangerous general and let his troops move on without a leader. That had been the Dragon’s mercy. Now that he had denied that mercy, all of his men were going to die.
“For the Khan!” boomed a deep voice from further along the road.
Shono echoed the cry instinctively. He looked up to see a vanguard of mounted warriors in deathly white armor galloping down the road toward the barricade. Already the Dragon had begun to melt into the forest; the wiser among them had seen the White Guard before and knew better than to fight them unprepared. Those who remained to fight were ground into the earth within minutes.
Shono wiped the blood from his sword with a numb feeling; he could not remember whose blood it was. He raised the blade in salute to the leader of the patrol that had saved his men. He recognized the man as Moto Ogedei, a capable and intelligent servant of the Khan if a somewhat bloodthirsty one.
“Greetings, General Shono-sama,” Ogedei said, returning the gesture as he dismounted. He looked back at his men. “Fan out, secure the area! I want to make sure there are no Dragon archers lurking about as we attend to the wounded.”
Shono doubted the Dragon would stoop to such a thing, but the point was not worth arguing.
“Are you injured?” Huang asked, appearing suddenly nearby. Blood streaked the right side of Huang’s face from beneath a tattered bandage.
Shono opened his mouth to reply but said nothing. He pushed past Huang toward Kyuzo’s fallen body. A White Guardsman stood nearby, joking with one of his kinsmen. He directed another spiteful kick toward the fallen Dragon, only to look down with some surprise to see Shono’s sword held at his throat.
“Lord Shono,” Ogedei said, moving quickly toward the confrontation. “Is there a problem here?”
“This man has been disrespectful toward the corpse of a worthy enemy,” Shono said.
“Toward a man you killed, unless I have heard incorrectly,” Ogedei replied, looking uneasily at his soldier.
“We are samurai,” Shono answered. “To die, to kill, is a part of our lives& honor is all that we truly have. We must honor those who give their lives well, even if they are our enemies. If we fail at that, we have nothing. We are nothing.”
Ogedei looked at the soldier with a scowl. The man looked past Shono’s sword without fear, managing to bow his head without slitting his own throat. “I apologize, Shono-sama,” he said quietly.
Surprised, both by the man’s apology and by his own actions, Shono sheathed his blade. Somehow, he kept his hand from shaking.
“Ogedei, I must see the Khan at once,” Shono whispered. “We located a scout with a message for him shortly before the battle.”
“Of course, Shono-sama,” the Moto replied. “He wishes to speak with you, as well.”
Bayushi Kaukatsu sipped deeply from his cup, enjoying the pleasantly bitter texture of the rice wine. Somewhere, deeper in the halls of the Imperial Palace, the sounds of a samisen echoed forlornly.
“I am not a man prone to indulgence,” the Imperial Chancellor said, swirling his cup in one hand as he stared into the liquid within. A simple mask of black velvet covered his regal features, the trademark of a Scorpion. “Yet I have found in my old age that to take joy in simple pleasures brings the purest satisfaction. Such as a good meal. Would you not agree, Ikoma-san?”
The young samurai nodded, though he said nothing.He had barely touched his food, but merely watched the Chancellor carefully. Kaukatsu was quietly impressed. He had done his best to maintain an uneasy silence throughout the meeting, hoping to intimidate the man into revealing more about himself, but had learned little.
It was no matter. He already knew all there was to know.
“Food,” Kaukatsu mused. “To us, it is a simple pleasure but to others it is a necessity a necessity that I am certain your family wishes they could enjoy. I understand they have been faced with difficult times. Is that not so, Ikoma-san?”
“Please,” the man said, finally snapping in a moment of irritation, “do not call me that. I never desired that name.”
Kaukatsu smiled, a fearsome expression for those who knew him well enough to fear him. “Then what should I call you? The Kaeru name seems inappropriate& at least for now. I would call you Meiji, but that seems too familiar. I would not presume to think that we are friends.”
“If you can deliver what you have promised, Chancellor,” Meiji replied, “you will have earned both my loyalty and my friendship.”
“Excellent,” Kaukatsu said, though there was no warmth in his voice, “Friends are a treasure a man cannot possess in excess. Now tell me more of the Lion’s plans in Kaeru Toshi.”
“I know very little,” Meiji replied. “My father does not fully trust me.”
“I cannot imagine why,” Kaukatsu said dryly.
Meiji scowled, but did not reply to the Chancellor’s barb. “But I know a way we can find the information you seek,” Meiji said. “The Scorpion already have eyes on the inside.”
“Oh?” Kaukatsu replied in a delighted tone. He was so rarely surprised; he had come to enjoy it when it happened.
Meiji nodded. “Apparently Matsu Nimuro is most displeased with the progress Ikoma Hasaku has made in protecting the city. He is particularly infuriated by the Lion’s progress in the early days of the war, when they had the greatest chance of turning the Unicorn away.”
“Rumor has it that a new commander will be arriving within the week,” Meiji said. “His identity has been kept confidential for his own safety but I happened to overhear my father discussing the matter with the Machi-Kanshisha.”
“What extraordinary luck,” Kaukatsu remarked. “Who is this new commander?”
“A man you already know well,” Meiji answered. “Ikoma Otemi.”
A slow smile spread across the Chancellor’s face. He could not help but laugh.
“Then I believe the time is nigh, Meiji-san,” Kaukatsu said, “for our war to begin in earnest.”