The Truest Test: Aftermath
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Toshi Ranbo, year 1169, month of the Dragon
Asahina Sekawa took great pains not to look around any more than was necessary. In truth, he did not need to; he knew the Imperial City very well, and under normal circumstances could perhaps have navigated the streets with a blindfold like the one Hira wore. Unfortunately, that could not be done now, for debris littered many streets, even major thoroughfares, and made frequent detours necessary.
Ten days before, the city had seen several hours of fighting. The damage inflicted upon the city in that time greatly exceeded the damage it had suffered during the centuries prior to its appointment as the new Imperial City, even though the Crane and Lion Clans had fought over it constantly. The dead numbered in the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, and the damage to the city was almost incalculable. If the Keepers had not arrived after the Phoenix had begun their rebuilding efforts, Sekawa wondered if he could have withstood the sight of it all.
The Keepers rode behind Sekawa, each heavily burdened with the trappings of their lengthy travels. They did not speak. Kaiu Sugimoto was quiet and apparently unmoved as always, ever the solid rock. Mirumoto Masae stared around in horror, as did Doji Jun’ai, who shifted in her saddle with the weight of her burden. Asahina Hira rode, head down, tears streaming down his face despite that he was blind and could not see that which was around him. Alone among them, Kakita Tsuken stared in rapt wonder toward the city’s center, toward the Imperial Palace. There, the great Fire Dragon coiled around it, surveying the city with an impassive stare. “Magnificent,” Tsuken whispered.
“Keepers,” Sekawa said suddenly, “report your arrival to your lords.” He turned to Hira. “Please give word to Lady Domotai that I will arrive shortly. I have something I must attend to at the Imperial Palace first, however.”
Hira nodded. “Do you require our assistance, Champion?”
“Not for this, no,” Sekawa said. He smiled sadly. “But thank you, my friend. I will have need of you, of all of you, very soon. Once your business at your clans’ estates is concluded, please join me as soon as you can.”
The others murmured assent and drifted off into the city, perhaps wondering if there were any estates remaining in which to offer their reports. Hira lingered only for a moment. “This will be difficult,” he cautioned Sekawa. “They will not understand.”
“I am afraid that they will have no choice,” Sekawa replied.
Bayushi Norachai grimaced as the listened to the reports of his subordinates. “There is no chance, then?” he asked, no hint of the despair he felt leaking into his voice. “None whatsoever?”
One of the men frowned. “They were not particularly specific, my lord.”
The other nodded. “Master Ningen’s acolytes said there was no way to be certain, but that they could not sense any other life lingering in the rubble.”
Norachai nodded. “We are fortunate that we found as many as we did,” he said quietly. “After more than a week& it is to be expected. Extend my thanks to the acolytes, and to their master.”
“Hai,” the men replied. “What should our next priority be?” one asked.
“Petition the Great Clan estates for additional work crews. Tell them I was insistent. Then continue the residential quarters until they are fully habitable. Once that is completed, we will have to begin repairs in earnest on the merchant’s quarter.”
“What happened in the merchant’s quarter?” The two men turned to look at the speaker, then glanced back at Norachai. As one, they both bowed hastily and left, leaving the two men to face one another uncertainly.
“Asahina Sekawa,” Norachai said, bowing stiffly. “How magnanimous of you to appear now, long after your presence could sorely have been of use to the city.”
“There were matters that required my attention,” Sekawa said simply. “What happened to the merchant quarter? I saw the devastation on my entrance to the city.”
“Matters that required your attention?” Norachai was incredulous. “Where have you been for the past six months? What could be so important that you would ignore your responsibility as Jade Champion?”
“You do not understand,” Sekawa began.
“Where were you?” Norachai shouted. “Why weren’t you here?”
Sekawa was quiet for a moment. “You forget yourself, Norachai. Protector of the Imperial City or not, it is not within your station to speak to the Jade Champion thus.”
“There is no Jade Champion here,” Norachai spat.
“Perhaps there is no Protector, either,” Sekawa returned. “My duties do not include military defense. Yet you question my fulfillment of my duty easily for one who clearly failed in his.”
The color drained from Norachai’s face. His hand hovered near the hilt of his blade, and it was clear that murder was in his eyes. “How dare you?” he whispered.
Sekawa looked at the palace suddenly and raised his hand as if gesturing for silence. “Join us if you wish, Master Ningen,” he said, “but eavesdropping ill suits a man such as yourself.”
Only a moment later, the doors opened and an aging man in Phoenix robes descended the stairs to where the two men were standing. His hair was streaked with gray along his left temple, but his eyes were bright and vibrant. “Eavesdropping is somewhat of an unfair accusation, Sekawa-sama,” the Master of the Void said politely. “Your presence, and that of our associate Norachai-san, at least when he is agitated, is difficult to ignore.”
Sekawa drew a deep breath. “Forgive me,” he said. “It was not my intent to offer offense. But then my intentions of late rarely seem to resemble the actions that spring from them.”
“I should kill you,” Norachai said flatly, as if Ningen were not present.
The Phoenix looked at Norachai sadly. “Put aside your grief, Norachai-san. You know Asahina Sekawa. Do you not believe that if he could have been here, that he would have come?”
Norachai stared at the Jade Champion for some time. “I do not know,” he finally answered. “I know only that Rokugan is wounded, and that we sorely need men and women that can wield genuine authority. I also know that Sekawa-sama has been absent from the capital since the Emperor’s death, and that I suspect it has something to do with the damnable fascination that gripped the Empire regarding so-called enlightenment.”
Sekawa frowned and began to reply, but Ningen held up a cautionary hand. “You do not believe in enlightenment, Norachai-san?”
“I know that the Brotherhood has sought it for nearly a thousand years, and the number of monks who have claimed to find it can be found on one hand.” Norachai shook his head and sneered. “I do not believe that dozens of men and women can suddenly have an epiphany and understand the universe when thousands of holy men have devoted an entire lifetime of meditation in an attempt to find the same thing without success.”
Ningen rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Perhaps they were looking in the wrong place?”
Norachai frowned. “What do you have to say about it, Keeper? Are you not one of those who achieved enlightenment? Please, by all means, enlighten us as well.”
Sekawa shook his head. “I cannot say that I understand what it means to be enlightened,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “I can only say that after a decade of confusion and self-doubt, I know my role in the universe. I do not understand it, or why I was chosen, but I know what I must do, even though I would not have chosen the path for myself.”
“All paths are one,” Ningen said cryptically. “Ask Hira. He understands.”
Norachai waved the entire conversation away. “Insanity.”
“You will enjoy seeing me embark upon my path, I should think,” Sekawa said, regarding the Scorpion coolly. “I imagine you will find it most satisfying.”
“I cannot imagine how,” Norachai replied.
Sekawa shrugged the green mantle from his kimono and held it out to Norachai. “As of this moment, I am surrendering my position as Jade Champion.”
“I wish to make absolutely certain that I understand you correctly.” The tone of Lady Doji Domotai, Champion of the Crane, was cool and calm, but the glint in her eyes suggested that she was not pleased with Sekawa’s announcement. Far from it, it seemed. “The Crane have just emerged from a lengthy and exceptionally costly war with the Dragon. Our holdings in the Imperial City are in ruins. The throne sits empty and political upheaval is the very least we can expect. I have been cautioned by a half-divine dragon-man that there is a growing evil within our clan that I must expunge.” She leaned forward to regard Sekawa frankly. “And yet despite all this, my trusted vassal, who may in fact be the highest ranking samurai in the entire Empire at this very moment, is forfeiting not only his position as the Jade Champion, but also as daimyo of the Asahina family and his very oaths of fealty altogether? Did I miss anything?”
Sekawa’s expression did not change. “I will also be surrendering my position as leader of the Keeper of the Elements, my lady.”
“Do you think that I find any portion of this amusing?” Domotai nearly shouted. “I would strongly recommend against any attempts at levity, Sekawa!”
“I am not attempting to be humorous, my lady,” he answered. “I only wish to be thorough in indicating the duties that will need to be filled in my absence.”
“Absence?” Domotai demanded.
“My absence,” Sekawa clarified, “from the Empire of Rokugan.”
Domotai said nothing for a moment, then looked to the rear of the chamber and beckoned. Tsuken and Hira stepped forward, bowing sharply. “Your master has taken leave of his senses,” she said flatly. “It may be necessary for you to escort him to his chambers and keep him there until I tell you otherwise.”
“I am not mad,” Sekawa said quietly. “It might be easier if I were.”
“No more riddles!” Domotai hissed. “I have spent more than a week in an attempt to recover the bodies of our brothers and sisters from the ruined husks of Crane holdings throughout this city, and I will not endure this madness any further!”
“Who was Shinsei, my lady?” Hira asked suddenly.
Domotai glared at the old man. “The madness is spreading, I see.”
Hira held up his hands in supplication. “I would never offer you disrespect, Lady Domotai. Your father was a great man, and it was my honor to serve him. I would perish before I uttered a word of slander against his daughter, whom I am now equally honored to serve. I only wish to offer an explanation, if you would but indulge me.”
The mention of her father seemed to cool Domotai’s obviously rising temper. “Very well. Shinsei was a teacher and a prophet who led the Thunders against Fu Leng and established a monastic order in his name.”
“Essentially correct,” Hira observed. “And on the second Day of Thunder?”
Domotai frowned. “Shinsei’s descendent led the reincarnated Thunders against Fu Leng again.”
Hira nodded. “To be certain. What do you think will happen in one thousand years, my lady? When the third Day of Thunder is upon the Empire again?”
Domotai’s frown deepened. “Third Day of Thunder?”
“There is a cycle to all things,” Hira explained. “An ebb and flow of the universe that permeates all we do, all we see, all we are.”
Domotai tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. “Are you suggesting that there will be no Shinsei in one thousand years’ time?”
“We are,” Sekawa answered. “Rosoku returned to the Empire too soon. He was a man of compassion, and he may have doomed us all. But there is hope.” He withdrew a number of aged scrolls from the bag on his hip. “These were taken from the Tomb where the Emperor died,” he explained. “They are the journals of a thousand years’ worth of sensei, all descended from Shinsei, all teaching their wisdom to their children. I believe Rosoku, or perhaps his father, placed them within the Tomb.”
“You wish to take Shinsei’s place?” Domotai asked incredulously. “You cannot be serious.”
“I cannot replace Shinsei,” Sekawa said firmly. “That is not my place in this world. However, Rosoku’s son might have the gifts necessary to succeed where perhaps no one else can.”
“Rosoku’s son?” Domotai said. “He bore a son?”
“To a peasant woman,” Tsuken nodded. “We found him far from anything of note, in a distant village several days’ ride west of the Shinomen Mori.”
“Why the boy?” Domotai asked. “What difference does it make if he is Rosoku’s son or not? Enlightenment is not hair color, or how tall a man stands. Why could another not learn in his place?”
Sekawa smiled faintly. There was terrible sadness in his expression. “We all deserve the chance to earn our fathers’ legacy, do we not, my lady?”
“That we do,” Domotai agreed. “But I do not understand why you must do this, Sekawa. There is so much that you could do here.”
“Until this point, I have followed my own path. I do not know if the path was true, or if it was the path meant for me all along, but I know that it has brought me to the right place.” He regarded his Champion earnestly. “This is my destiny, lady Domotai. I know that as surely as I know that the Crane will endure long after I am gone. They have your strength to guide them. My strength, or what there is of it, is required elsewhere.”
“You need not leave,” she said. “You and the boy can remain here. The Crane will protect you both.”
“That cannot be,” Sekawa said. “There is a way for all things. I must leave.”
Domotai said nothing for a long time. The four samurai stood in silence, as if waiting for some great signal to resume their conversation. “Go,” Domotai finally said. “Follow your destiny.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
Sekawa’s brilliant blue and white robes were gone. In their place were simple brown robes, much like what any traveler might wear. Gone too was his long white hair, replaced by the empty, shining pate of a monk. Had the Keepers not known to whom they were speaking, they might well not have recognized him at all. The former Jade Champion tightened the bags upon his horse, then turned to face those who had called him master. He stepped forward and clapped Sugimoto on his good shoulder. “You were first among us, old Crab,” he said. “They will need your strength now. All of Rokugan will need your strength.”
“They will have it,” the Crab warrior said.
“Masae,” Sekawa said. “Though I know not why or how someone of such young years could achieve it, you are perhaps the wisest of us all. Find the path, Masae.”
“Hai, sensei,” she said quietly.
“Masae is wise, but she is practical as well,” Sekawa continued as he moved before Hira. “Your vision must remind her of what is possible, not merely what is practical. Can I count on you, old friend?”
“You know that you can.”
Sekawa smiled, and at last turned to Tsuken and Jun’ai. Jun’ai’s arms were filled with a bundle that moved periodically of its own accord. “Remind them what it means to feel passion and love, little ones,” he said to the young lovers. “If that is ever forgotten, then all you can accomplish will be lost forever.”
“Let us come with you,” Tsuken said. “My blade is yours to command. It is yours by right.”
Sekawa shook his head. “I cannot. The balance must be perfect if the teachings are to be successful. The boy can hear but a single voice, at least until he is old enough to seek his own. Until then, I must teach him alone.” He smiled at the brash young Keeper. “You will have much teaching of your own to do, Tsuken.”
Ever so gently, Sekawa took the bundle from Jun’ai. “It has been my great honor,” he said quietly, “to have known you all. It is only in embracing the death of the life I once knew, that I understand the purpose I was born for. Find your purpose, Keepers. The Empire will need you, but you must know yourselves before you can be of service to others.” He paused for a moment. “I do this to save the Empire’s future, but its present is in your hands.”
As the Keepers of the Elements watched, the man once known as the Keeper of the Five Elements rode north from Toshi Ranbo, travel papers securing his passage all the way to the northern border of Rokugan in hand. Despite his urgings, with him he took their confidence, their certainty, and their purpose.
But not their hope.