Love & Duty
A tale of a magistrate and the one failure that truly haunts him
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The magistrate stirred the embers of the campfire with a thin stick before grunting noncommittally and tossing three more logs onto the top of them. Satisfied that the fire would burn well for some time with the addition, he sat back against the rock and munched absently on the rice ball that had held his attention before he noticed the fire was ebbing in the first place.
“I must admit,” a woman’s voice said, “I am surprised.”
The magistrate looked up with a quizzical expression. “About?”
The woman across the fire from him shrugged slightly. “I expected that we would have stopped at the magistrate’s keep some miles back rather than spend the evening in the wilderness.”
The magistrate grunted. “There are too many magistrates in places like that,” he admitted. “Some of them simply cannot help but poke their noses into other people’s business, and I have no interest in explaining my our business to someone else.”
“Thank you very much, my lord,” the woman said. “It almost sounded like you meant that.”
The man smirked but said nothing.
“Regardless of the quality of company, I must admit that I am surprised to find an Imperial magistrate so comfortable camping in the wild,” she continued. “It is not what we were taught to expect. But then we were taught to expect was the unexpected, so perhaps I should have expected it?” She shook her head. “The Kitsuki are a confusing people.”
Seppun Tashime chuckled. “I would never offer insult to your lady Iweko by agreeing with you,” he said, favoring her with a knowing smile. “Nevertheless, I have always felt it was important for a magistrate to be self-reliant. And besides, hunting is a sport for gentlemen, after all.”
“That is true,” Tamori Shaiko agreed. “It still does not explain why you are good at it, of course.”
Tashime nearly choked on the rice ball with a fit of laughter, and Shaiko laughed as well. It was a light, tinkling sound, like festival music. “There is nothing conventional about you Dragon, is there?” he finally asked.
Shaiko smiled. “I meant no disrespect, my lord. I merely wished to gauge your reaction. You can tell much about the measure of a man by his reaction to such things.”
“And how do you gauge it?”
Her gaze was suddenly quite warm. “I find that I like it very much,” she said.
* * * * *
The Emerald Champion glanced over the report a second time with an inscrutable expression. “The Quelsaurth,” he said. “I always wondered what had happened to that serpent. I had assumed he was dead.”
“That had been the assumption of my order as well, my lord,” Tashime said. “It is fortunate that it was not the case, or we would have been denied this valuable information.”
The Champion glanced at Tashime strangely. “Do not be so eager to place your trust in this information,” he cautioned. “How can we be certain of anything the Quelsaurth says? He did spend all that time with the Spider, after all.”
“But my lord,” Tashime protested, “the Spider assisted us in locating him, or so it would seem. They, or some of them at least, are sincere in their concern over this matter.”
“Or so they appear. Their complicity in this matter is one more reason to regard it very carefully.” Shosuro Jimen rolled the scroll up and placed it in its obi. “Ultimately, of course, the Seppun must determine their response to this incident. I will tell you that the Emerald Magistrates will be approaching it from a position of skepticism, however. If we can secure something, anything, to corroborate the claim, then perhaps it can be taken more seriously.”
Tashime nodded. “Forgive me for saying so, my lord, but if you had spoken with the Quelsaurth, you would not question his sincerity.”
“It is not his sincerity that gives me pause,” Jimen said. “Although I would wonder if it was even the Quelsaurth. How can one tell them apart? They all look frightfully similar to me.”
Tashime’s brow furrowed in frustration, but he could think of nothing to counter such an argument, and so he made no attempt to do so. “I am grateful for your seeing me, my lord, and on such relative short notice. Thank you very much.” He bowed deeply.
“It is I who am grateful,” Jimen said. “Thank you for petitioning your lords to bring me a copy of your report. I think we can all agree that when it pertains to the so-called Spider Clan, it behooves all of us who bear the Imperial chrysanthemum to cooperate to the fullest extent possible.” He smiled at the magistrate. “Would you not agree?”
Tashime struggled to find a proper response, but was left without one. Unaccustomed to such a situation, he opted for absolute transparency. “I think that there are a great many unknown factors that have tremendous influence over the wars we currently face, my lord, and that we must completely divulge everything. If the highest authorities in the Empire cannot reach consensus on the truth behind the war, then what chance is there for victory?”
Jimen chuckled slightly. “Why Tashime-san, are you suggesting you do not have absolute faith that the Divine Empress will guide us through this crisis?”
“My faith in the Empress is absolute,” the magistrate said. “My faith in the ability of men to overcome one another’s deceptions and serve the Empress with the devotion necessary to enact her will, less so.”
“You are a man of clarity,” Jimen said. “I respect that. Perhaps we can work together. Are you interested in an appointment to the Emerald Magistrates? I am quite certain I have some high-ranking openings that I would be delighted to see you fill.”
“Thank you, my lord, but no. My place is with the Seppun.”
“I see,” Jimen said. He paused for a moment as a servant entered and placed a scroll on his desk. “Is that sentiment sincere or are you playing the game of refusal? Normally I can tell but I find you uncharacteristically difficult to read.” His eyes twinkled. “I probably should not say that, of course.”
Tashime could not help but smile slightly. “I am sincere, my lord. I am grateful, but I have found my place in the world.”
“Very well,” Jimen said, surveying the delivered paper. His expression grew more severe. “It seems your report has drawn the attention of those more important than myself.”
“My lord?” Tashime asked. “You are the supreme arbiter of the Empress’ laws. Who else is there?”
Jimen held the scroll out so that the magistrate could see the seal. “The Empress herself, of course.”
* * * * *
The sun was just creeping over the horizon, and the sounds of battle were audible to the north. Tashime pushed the distraction from his mind as he tightened the cloth bandage over the woman’s shoulder. She winced, and a slight hiss escaped from her lips. “Is it too tight?” he asked her. “I should find someone better qualified for this.”
“It is fine, my lord,” Shaiko said, “and the Lion herbalists certainly have more pressing concerns. Once the pain subsides somewhat I can speed the healing along myself. It is merely too distracting for now.”
“I am sorry,” Tashime said. “It was never my intent for you to be placed in harm’s way.”
“Just moments ago you said I was your yoriki,” Shaiko said. “You cannot undo that commitment so easily.”
“I would not wish to,” Tashime said. He looked at her appreciatively. “You have proven yourself resourceful, cunning, and brave. And of course I do not think I could leave you behind even if I wished to do so.”
“The shortcomings of being so painfully honorable,” Shaiko said with a smirk. “Greater men than you have had similar problems.”
“How reassuring,” he said dryly.
Shaiko laughed, which turned almost immediately to a grimace of pain. Tashime reached down and checked her bandage, his hand lingering on the flesh of her shoulder below the wound. “Are you alright?” he asked softly. “Is there anything I can do to ease your pain?”
Shaiko glanced at his hand on her shoulder, and looked into his eyes. She reached up and drew her finger ever so slightly along his jaw line. “My lord should not ask questions if he is not prepared for the answer,” she whispered.
* * * * *
Tashime bowed deeply to the Imperial Guardsmen standing watch over the Empress’ private audience chamber, and spoke with them briefly, recalling their previous meetings at different duty posts on behalf of the Seppun family. The men seemed flattered by his interest, even if they diverted attention to him only cursorily. Truthfully it was merely a way for Tashime to deal with a sensation that was most unfamiliar to him: anxiety. He had not had a personal audience with the Empress before, even in the aftermath of the nightmare with Kyoso no Oni within the Shadowlands years before. He had been in court when she had appeared, of course, but he had never felt the weight of her attention focused upon him. He found himself uncharacteristically nervous at the very thought, for had he not failed her in a truly spectacular manner?
The Imperial Advisor emerged from within the chamber. He smiled at Tashime and bowed lower than was necessary for a man of his station, but Susumu had always struck a strange chord with Tashime, and made him feel slightly uncomfortable. “The Empress wishes to see you now, Tashime-san.”
“Thank you, Susumu-sama,” he said with a bow. “I shall follow you.”
“No, I am afraid not,” the Advisor said. “You will be meeting with the Empress and her Voice alone, I believe. She has things she wishes to ask you that are not for the ears of others.”
Tashime nodded slowly, unsure how to process such information. “Thank you, Susumu-sama,” he finally said, and stepped into the chamber beyond.
The chamber was smaller than he anticipated, with tasteful decorations that would have been at home in a Dragon castle. Which was fitting, really. On the main dais, the Empress sat concealed behind her screen. On her right sat Togashi Satsu, the Voice of the Empress. His expression was, of course, completely inscrutable. “Welcome, Seppun Tashime, valued vassal of the throne.”
Tashime knelt at once. “I am honored to stand in the presence of the Divine Empress and her Voice,” he said. He was uncertain what else to say, so he simply remained quiet.
“It is the understanding of the Empress that your recent reports to the Emerald Champion and the lord of the Seppun magistrates have contained very troubling information,” the Voice said.
“It is indeed,” Tashime agreed. “I have been pursuing the matter of the enigmatic Order of the Spider, or so the sohei that have been encountered by the Empress’ forces are allegedly called.”
The Voice nodded. “It is the Empress’ desire to know your thoughts on the matter.”
Tashime fidgeted ever so slightly. “I find myself uniquely divided, my lady. These monks are an incredible danger to the Empire, in my opinion. Many among them have embraced the Shadowlands Taint, and even those who have not have certainly embraced its philosophies. They are an enormous threat, but at the same time the convenience of having them pitted against our more pressing enemies, the Destroyers, should be considered as well.” He paused for a moment’s reflection. “I genuinely fear for the Empire’s safety in light of the threats we face from the north and south at present, my lady,” he admitted, “but I feel that to condone in any way the activities of the Order of the Spider would be to gamble Rokugan’s soul to protect its body. I do not feel that is a gamble that can afford to be made.”
The Empress nodded once behind her screen. “The Empress finds much wisdom in your words, honorable magistrate,” the Voice said. “What would your recommendation be?”
“The order must be expunged, Divine One,” Tashime said at once. “They must be ferreted out and destroyed before they can inject more poison into the Empire’s heart.”
“That would be ideal, were it possible,” Satsu said, his voice mirroring the regret the Empress surely felt. “Unfortunately, any group dispatched to deal with the order would require either significant numbers or, failing that, extremely skilled. Neither of those is possible at the moment, for the Empress’ subjects are consumed with war. To remove them from that would be potentially disastrous.”
Tashime bowed his head. “Of course, Empress. Your wisdom prevails. I will enact whatever wish is yours. Should you desire my efforts directed to the war I will of course do so at once.”
“That would not be preferable,” the Voice said. “It is the understanding of the Empress that there is an aspect to your investigation that ties you to it. Further, it is her understanding that it pertains to the occasion when you both met prior to her ascension. Is this correct?”
Tashime looked away. “Yes, Empress.”
He drew a ragged breath. “It is my fault, Empress,” he said hoarsely. “You sent your vassal to assist me with the investigation stemming from Hida Kisada’s death, and I failed you.”
“Your cause was just, and there is only so much that one man, even a man of your talents, can accomplish alone,” the Voice said. “The Empress was pleased to assist you, even if only with the resources of the Kitsuki family.”
“Shaiko died assisting me,” Tashime said.
“It is the duty of all samurai to die in the fulfillment of their lord’s will,” the Voice said. “Should you perish in the execution of your duties, would you feel regret with your last moments?”
“Only that I could no longer serve,” Tashime answered at once.
“Shaiko would not have shirked from her duties, even if she had known what would come of them,” the Voice said. “Such was her devotion. Such was her honor. Why then do you feel shame, when she does not?”
“She died,” Tashime said. “She died in the Shadowlands, and I was I was so consumed with wrath at her death that I gave every thought to capturing the perpetrator I believed responsible in some way for her death. If I had acted on my instincts sooner, looked more closely into my feeling that we were being manipulated if I had not turned away from her remains”
“Then your reports cannot be mistaken?” The Voice was solemn. “Tamori Shaiko yet walks the earth despite her death.”
“She does,” Tashime said.
Satsu glanced sidelong at the Empress. “I remember Shaiko,” he said, clearly speaking now for himself. “A remarkable woman, if unconventional, even by the standards of the Dragon. Your grief, magistrate it seems greater than that of a man who lost a vassal in battle. What is the nature of your relationship with Shaiko, Tashime-san?”
Tashime turned away. “I I cannot, my lord. I should never I did not mean for us it should have been different.”
Satsu raised a hand. “I should not have asked that. I did not mean to cause you pain.”
Tashime could not speak. He shook his head.
Satsu looked to the Empress again and nodded. “The Empress would spare you this pain, if you would wish that,” he said. “She will place another in command of the investigation, if that is your wish. There is no shame in this. Your skills can be put to use in the war effort, as you said.”
“No,” Tashime said. “Please, Divine One. I must see this through. This is my duty, and my punishment. Once it is done, I will request your permission to commit seppuku for my grievous failure.”
“There is no failure here in the eyes of the Empress. That you have even asked is a sign of your honor and worth,” the Voice replied. “There is no need for such a thing. Your duty is clear, and when it is fulfilled, then there will be another that requires your unique abilities.”
Tashime bowed his head. “Thank you, Empress. I will not fail you again.”
* * * * *
None of Rokugan’s monasteries could accurately be described as opulent, or at least none that were genuine monasteries rather than pleasant retirement locations for those samurai who chose to pretend piety in their later years. Still, even the most austere among them would have seemed as a lush private estate compared to the stark and severe features of any home to the Order of the Spider. One man stood alone in a dark chamber. Everything within the chamber was hewn from stone, and there was absolutely nothing in the way of furnishings. The center of the room was dominated by a large boulder, on which two lanterns were situated, creating the only light in the dim chamber. He stood regarding the boulder for a long time, then struck it suddenly with an open-hand strike, his palm making a sharp cracking sound where it struck the stone. After one blow, the man would circle the boulder, finding a spot that suited him, and stand regarding it for moments on end before striking and beginning the process again.
“Rather an unfair advantage, would you not agree?”
The man glanced over his shoulder at the figure standing in the doorway, then turned back to the boulder. “You,” he said.
“Eloquent as always,” the woman said, her tone just shy of mocking. “My lord,” she added as an afterthought.
“If your presence has some purpose, then speak it and be gone,” the man said. “I have no interest in your company.”
“I am so wounded by your words,” the Grey Woman said. “I thought you might be interested to know the status of the magistrate’s investigation.”
“Those I told to handle the matter have not reported to me,” the man said. “They are either dead, or attempting to deal with the situation. Either is acceptable to me.”
“I fear it is the former,” the Grey Lady said. “Tashime has proven quite tenacious, and I believe I told you he would.”
“Mind your tongue,” the man said. “It would not serve you well for me to be reminded that his interest in you is a great portion of his interest in this order.”
“I would remind you that he discovered me when investigating the order,” she countered, “but I suppose ultimately it is immaterial. I wish to deal with the matter personally. With your approval, of course.”
“Do as you like,” he said. “Your pursuits are of no interest to me.”
A scowl covered her pale features. “What have I done to warrant such disdain?”
“You are dead,” the man said. “Like all dead things without the sense to remain so, you are an ambitious fool.”
The Grey Woman sneered. Her fist clenched and there was an almost imperceptible crackling sound as energy coursed along her arm. “You would do well to remember to whom you speak, my lord.”
The man glanced over his shoulder once more, then turned and leaped at the boulder. He struck the lantern, shattering it and powering through it to the stone itself, which erupted into a shower of stone and earth at his blow. Dust filled the air and stones scattered to every portion of the room. Flame from the lantern danced along the floor where the oil had spilled. Flame danced along the man’s hand and sleeve as well, but he merely brushed them away as if they were motes of dust. His hand showed no sign of damage from the flame. The fire on the floor cast him in a terrible light. “Do you wish to test yourself against me, undead slattern?” Michio asked quietly. “I stand here, alone. Test me if you are certain that is your desire.”
Daigotsu Shaiko hesitated for a moment, then took a step backwards, the aura of power around her dissipating at once. “No, my lord,” she whispered. “I do not wish that.”
“Deal with the magistrate once and for all,” Michio commanded. “If you cannot, then I will deal with him, and with you.”
The Grey Woman bowed sharply. “As you command, my lord.”