By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman
Hida Kuroda paced the Wall, his impatience drawn clearly upon his face. His years with the Unicorn had seeded his blood with their restless energy. He could not stand in one place for long. Nearby, his brother Kuon watched with detached amusement, his face calm as he leaned against the signal tower and carved at a small chunk of wood with his tanto.
“Winter Court?” Kuroda asked. “The heirs seriously expect us to vie for their favor for something so ridiculous as where they shall spend the winter?”
“Winter Court may be irrelevant to men such as us,” Kuon said, “but the promise of an Imperial Legion on the Wall is a prize worth winning.”
“But why must we caper to their tune?” Kuon said, continuing to pace. “Do they not realize how important our duty is?”
Kuon smiled faintly. “Do not seek to understand their ways, brother,” the larger Crab said with a chuckle. “They are of Imperial blood, and thus better than us.”
Kuroda fixed Kuon with a stern look for a moment. The other twin lifted one eyebrow, and they both laughed. “Of course,” Kuroda replied, the tension in his voice replaced by sarcasm. “The winter home of Toturi’s children should be our highest priority. Surely the wars with the Dark Lord’s spawn and the thieving Crane can be rescheduled.” He shook his head ruefully. “Why, Kuon?” he asked. “Why did -other ask me, of all of us, to attend to this nonsensical errand? There are plenty of more capable diplomats in …” Kuroda cut off quickly.
“The Yasuki?” Kuon said, looking off to the south with a grimace.
“Indeed,” Kuroda said thoughtfully. “I had not considered what a political disaster that would be. A Crab loyalist would not survive two minutes in the court with that wretch Naseru. And the others may fear that to accept such an envoy would demonstrate favoritism, a venture they are clearly not prepared to enter.”
“So it falls to us,” Kuon said.
Kuroda shaking his head. “It falls to me, Mother gave me this mission.”
“And I stand by your side,” Kuon said. “We’re brothers, aren’t we?”
Kuroda looked at Kuon. Kuon’s dark eyes were fixed, his jaw set. There was no purpose in arguing with him. “Yes,” Kuroda said. “So what’s our next move? If we are to win the Winds’ favor I think it best that we start with the one most sympathetic to our cause.”
“Which one?” Kuon asked. “They all seem to care little about the Crab.”
“Not so,” Kuroda said. “Merely because they have goals and desires of their own does not mean they do not appreciate the defenders of the Wall. Remember that it was the Anvil’s intent to send the Phoenix and Lion to our aid when he established their alliance.”
“A lot of good that did,” Kuon snorted, flicking another chip of wood over the side of the Wall.
“Even yet, Naseru is a pragmatic man,” he said. “His sense of justice is strong, though his methods are often questionable. Our war with the Crane began because he hoped to settle the dispute of the Yasuki succession. Who better to resolve that dispute?”
Kuon grunted, unconvinced. “I do not trust Naseru.”
“You have never even met the man, Kuon,” Kuroda said with a laugh.
“What of Kaneka, then?” Kuroda asked. “He has a warrior’s spirit. Surely he would support our cause, and perhaps his Akodo kin might offer to help us chase the Crane out of our lands… unofficially, of course. The Winds must remain, above all, impartial.”
Kuon chuckled. “No wonder mother chose you. I think the Sword would be a good choice, as good as or better than Kaneka. She would lead the Legions here herself, no doubt. From her reputation, I wouldn’t be surprised if she carried the fight to the Pit. The Wall would be in good hands. I know that I would welcome her.”
“And I suppose the rumors of her beauty do not influence your judgment in the least,” Kuroda asked, folding his arms as he paused his pacing.
Kuon said nothing, but kept whittling.
“Then there is Sezaru,” Kuroda mused, continuing his wandering again. “Who can know the mind of such a man? How can one gain the favor of someone so arcane?”
“The same way a Crab accomplishes anything, Kuroda,” Kuon replied. “Persistence.” Kuon held up his completed work, a small statue of Fukurokujin, the Fortune of Wisdom. “For you, brother,” he said. “Perhaps he can guide you when you face the Winds.”
Kuroda looked at the statue, then at Kuon. “I thought you said you were coming with me,” he said.
“And I am,” Kuon nodded, “but if you think I’m going to be the one speaking to those pampered courtiers, then you clearly need a Fortune’s guidance.” He offered the statue again.
“Strange, Kuon,” Kuroda said. “I did not think you were a religious man.”
“I’m not. Not usually. I just think we need all the help we can get.”
“Tanitsu,” Doji Kurohito said without prelude. “You know why I have called you.”
“I do,” the young courtier said, stepping into the darkened audience chamber with a bow. “Rumor flies swifter than our clan’s namesake.”
“You know the Four Winds, Tanitsu,” Kurohito said, his gravelly voice echoing deeply. The shoji screen slid shut behind Tanitsu, guided by unseen hands. “Kakita Nanami claims that you have won the friendship of all four heirs.” Kurohito indicated the small Kakita woman kneeling at the table beside him with a negligent wave. In the gloom, Tanitsu had not even noticed her.
He smiled in her direction. “Nanami is an old friend. Certainly she exaggerates, but I shall do my best.”
“Hai,” Kurohito nodded. “If you are half as adept as she claims, then I shall hold your counsel more highly than anyone’s.”
The Crane Champion’s ice-blue eyes watched Tanitsu carefully, eyes that could render an enemy helpless before blades were even drawn. Tanitsu did not flinch, though he lowered his gaze respectfully. “I thank you for your faith in me, my Lord Doji,” he said, bowing once more, deeper than the first time. “I will do my best to fulfill your expectations. I may not possess my noble lord’s legendary skill with the blade, but the Kami whose name we share has blessed me with her sharp eyes and her giving heart. I can only hope that my feeble political games can gain us half so much glory as your great victories against the Crab. But I digress; your time is too valuable to be wasted with flattery, Crane Lord.”
Kurohito smiled a crooked smile. “Sit,” he said simply.
Tanitsu did so, arranging his courtly dress deftly as he settled before the low table.
“You believe you can gain the Winds’ favor in this venture?” Kurohito asked.
“My lord, if I may be so bold, I already possess the Winds’ favor,” Tanitsu said with no hint of arrogance. “I count each of them as friends, even distant Sezaru. In the unlikely event that they choose a setting other than our own for this court, I can yet influence them in a manner that will be to the Crane’s advantage.”
“Then victory is assured,” Kakita Nanami said. Her cool voice seemed to brighten the darkened chamber, and even Tanitsu’s practiced gaze could hardly remain unaffected by her simple beauty. Kurohito was unmoved. He looked upon Nanami as he would any of his servants; the grim Crane Lord’s heart was spoken for. “All that remains is for us to determine who would make a most suitable spouse for the Wind we favor most,” she said.
“We must take care not to show one undue support,” Kurohito said. “They all have something to offer us.”
“All are worthy leaders,” Tanitsu added. “At any rate, the choice is not ours, but theirs. We must prove to them that whoever ascends the Steel Throne, the Crane shall stand at their side.”
“Exactly,” Kurohito said. “You know their minds, Tanitsu. Whom do you recommend we offer as spouse for each?”
“Hantei Naseru would accept any wife we offer,” Tanitsu said, “but unless she could match his wit and ambition, he would treat her with no more respect than a valuable piece of furniture. I think that Kakita Kaiten’s niece, Kyruko, may have the fire to challenge Naseru’s sharp mind. Though she is older than he, I think the Anvil would welcome the challenge. And no doubt Master Kaiten would appreciate her being taken off his hands.”
“I doubt the Temptress would appreciate an arranged marriage,” Nanami said with a smirk.
“She has no say in the matter,” Kurohito said dispassionately. “What of Tsudao? Shall we likewise pair her with a samurai to match her strength?” “Toturi Tsudao is a complicated woman,” Tanitsu said hesitantly. “Outwardly, she may be a bold warrior, an idol to be followed. The face she keeps concealed longs for acceptance, love, and friendship. A gentle heart is needed to tame the Lady of the Sun. I think Doji Nagori, your cousin, would serve well in that regard.”
“Hachi’s sycophant?” Kurohito said. The Crane Lord rolled his eyes. “So be it. And Sezaru?”
“Sezaru is an independent soul, but like the wolf of his namesake the bonds he makes last forever,” Tanitsu said. “I am proud to call him friend, and would not suggest we pair him with anyone less loyal than he. I would recommend a spouse with strong power in magic. Sezaru has a great deal of trouble relating to those who cannot understand his power. Though of course we cannot offer an equal to the Wolf, I think a shugenja would be best.”
“An Asahina,” Kurohito said. “Perhaps Kimita. She is the most powerful of their number.”
“With respect, I do not know Kimita, and loyalty is my true concern, Doji-sama,” Tanitsu replied. “Sezaru’s episodes can be taxing, often terrifying. It will take a steady soul to anchor him.”
“Kimita shall be that soul, should I command it,” Kurohito said confidently.
“And what of the one they call the Bastard?” Nanami asked. “The half-peasant who wears a Lion name?”
“Ah, Kaneka,” Tanitsu said with a broad smile. “Do not underestimate him, Nanami-san. He is a bold man, but an honorable one. He is more like his father than he admits. Like Toturi, his perfect match would not be a warrior, but a caregiver. Not a trophy wife who nods her head and smiles, but a sharp mind who knows the paths of power. One who would know his humors and curb his temper. One who could take the raw ore of bushido veined deep within his soul and forge him into the hero our Empire needs. I would recommend you, Kakita Nanami.”
Nanami looked shocked. “Me?” she asked. “Marry a Lion? His claim is illegitimate. Do we even need his favor?”
“If we do,” Doji Kurohito said, “then you shall marry him, Kakita Nanami. And that shall be that.”
Mirumoto Uso, daimyo of the Mirumoto, sat unmoving upon a rock near a waterfall high in the Dragon mountains. His twin swords balanced carefully in his lap, he fell into a deep trance, extending his senses all around him. Uso could sense the fish swimming in the frigid water. He felt the insects writhing in the dirt beneath the rocks. The ripples of air caused by birds in flight far above his head washed over his body.
For all his discipline, for all his concentration, Uso could never sense the approach of his lord Togashi Hoshi any more than he could stifle his flinch as the half-dragon interrupted his meditation. Flushed, he bowed deeply to Hoshi and thrust his swords back into his obi.
“Did I disturb you, Uso-san? That was not my intent.” Hoshi arched an eyebrow in an expression that might have seemed comical were it not for the gigantic tail that thrashed about behind his four reptilian legs. Uso shook his head. “The fault is my own, lord. I have yet to master the Sense the World kata. When my spirit is properly aligned, I will no longer be so prone to distraction.”
Hoshi regarded the daimyo curiously. “You have mastered both the sword and the court, Uso-san. The man who strives for too much risks that which he already has. Heed the wisdom of the Tao.”
Bowing low, Uso nodded. “I will study its wisdom, my lord.”
Gazing across the serene meadow, Hoshi turned to other matters. “The Winds have announced their intent to choose a Winter Court. Have you made preparations?”
Uso nodded again. “Hai, Hoshi-sama. We have salvaged enough supplies to support such an event if need be. But with our clan so besieged with difficulty, what possible incentive can we offer the Winds?”
“If Winter Court is held in our lands, then I will meet with whichever Wind finds favor with you and the other daimyo at winter’s end.”
Aghast, Uso tried in vain not to show his shock. Hoshi rarely met with anyone, even within his own clan. “My lord,” he stammered, “do-do you think that is wise? The Winds would surely attempt to exploit your good nature and unique gifts.”
“Indeed they would, Uso. But it matters little. Their fates are set, and even with my forewarning they can but change the circumstances, not the outcome. Toturi Sezaru knows this, although his siblings choose to deny the truth.” Hoshi contemplated a tiny butterfly lighting upon the surface of the water. It would barely manage to avoid being swept away in the currents, only to take flight and return to the water’s surface once more.
Uso walked beside his lord silently. Finally, he asked, “Do you know what they will ask of you?”
The half-dragon nodded simply. “It has all been written. To Sezaru, I will offer the gift of knowledge. Knowledge of his father’s death. It is his only desire.”
“Kaneka, on the other hand, will wish to know of his future. That is simple enough. Even if he does not find our favor, the stars will reveal such to him soon enough. My imparting such knowledge will matter little. His youngest brother, Naseru, will wish for knowledge as well, but of his enemies. I will only confirm that which he already suspects.”
“And what of the Sword, Hoshi-sama? What of Tsudao?”
Hoshi walked silently for a moment. “She will ask only for our support, Uso-san. She is an innocent soul, one without duplicity or malice. If she should find your favor, we will give her a token of our trust. That task, I will leave to you.”
“To me. You honor me.”
Hoshi shook his head. “No, Uso-san. I merely recognize your gifts. You bring honor to the Dragon. Only you can choose the proper gift. This, too, has been written.”
Uso stopped by the mountain stream as Hoshi walked away, disappearing into the forest as he always did. His mind raced as his hands adjusted his obi, the weight of his swords shifting as he did so.
The cool autumn wind stirred the falling leaves in the field overlooking Shiro Ikoma. Ikoma Otemi barely noticed. He continued his kata in the open fields, alone except for his ancestors and the great steed he rode into battle. The fury boiling inside him gave him strength, his katana moving almost faster than the eye could see. Most of the day had been spent in practice, and perhaps the evening would have as well had Otemi not been interrupted by the soft clearing of another’s throat.
The Lion warrior spun around, sword in hand. From the shadow of the tree where his steed stood tethered came a soft chuckle. “Would you vent your fury on an old man, Otemi-san?” An aged man with a long white beard emerged from the shadows. “When we have so many enemies to choose from?”
Otemi smiled sadly. “There are no enemies left for me, uncle. Nimuro leads the charge against the Dragon while Dejiko guards the Hall of Ancestors. I am left to guard our borders from anyone who attempts to exploit our condition. But no one is so foolish as to tempt the Lion, even when we are besieged on two fronts.” He gestured about at the serene landscape. The older Ikoma could only nod in sympathy. It was only right for a true Lion warrior to long for battle.
The cool breeze blew again. Sume glanced about and stroked his beard. “Winter comes soon. And with it, the season of court.” Otemi only shook his head, grimacing in disgust. He had often told his uncle that court was not a battlefield he understood. Sume smiled. “You no doubt know of the Emerald and Jade Champions, but tell me, nephew, have you ever heard of the Protector of Otosan Uchi?”
The young warrior furrowed his brow. “I have seen that title with the names of my ancestors, but I know not what it means. I thought it simply a rank in the Imperial Legions.”
Ikoma Sume shook his head. “No. It is a powerful position within the court. One that has been vacant for many years, much as the Jade Champion was until a few short years ago. Many Lion have held that sacred duty since the post was established following the Battle of White Stag. You see, after the gaijin invaders left, the new emperor …”
Otemi cut his uncle off with a curt gesture. “I need no history lessons today, Sume-sama. I am a warrior. I know nothing of court, and nothing of Otosan Uchi. Your wisdom is better spent elsewhere.”
A sparkle entered Sume’s eyes. “Oh, you are quite mistaken, Otemi. The Protector of Otosan Uchi should interest you very much indeed. The Protector answers only to the Emperor himself, and is charged with the protection of Otosan Uchi, with an entire legion of guardsmen under his exclusive command. In a city so full of people and conflict, the Protector is never without duties to fulfill. Only the most honorable and capable warrior could fulfill such a position. Someone like Nimuro-sama.” Otemi winced at the name. Sume continued to stroke his beard. “But of course, Nimuro-sama is busy with our war with the Dragon. Perhaps, in his absence, someone like yourself …”
Gripping the hilt of his katana tightly, Otemi pondered the historian’s words. “It does sound- interesting, Sume. Very interesting indeed. And as loath as I would be to abandon my,” the warrior suppressed a grimace, “obligations here, I would not be able to refuse an Imperial position. It would be a dishonor to the Lion.” The young samurai mused for a moment, lost in thought. A moment later he shook himself from his reverie. “But this is pointless. There is no Emperor. There will be no Protector. I shall fulfill my duty here until the day of my retirement.”
“The season of court is coming, Otemi. If Winter Court comes to the Lion lands, then the Winds will be open to our suggestions. Kaneka will find himself in need of those he can trust if he takes the throne. I believe you two knew each other as children, did you not?”
Otemi only nodded.
“Tsudao will likewise need allies, and who better than the clan who taught her? That has known her all her life? That supplies soldiers for the legions she commands? She, too, will call upon the Lion.”
“But the others,” Otemi protested. “Naseru and Sezaru. They have no such obligations.”
“That is true. They are strong men who need little from others. But Naseru would appreciate an ally who could disrupt the activities of the Crane and Scorpion within the capital. And Sezaru has little time for the nonsense the other clans so often bring to court. A Protector who could free him from such petty trivialities would receive much favor in his eyes.”
Otemi stood silently, regarding the plains around Shiro Ikoma for many long moments. “My duties tie me to the lands,” he finally said. “Perhaps I should take a more active role in our affairs. Such as the preparation for court.”
Sume nodded wryly. “I am certain your ancestors would approve of your diligence.”
Deep within the recesses of Kyuden Isawa, the Council of Elemental Masters sat around the table that symbolized of their control over the Phoenix Clan. Once, years ago, the table had been shattered by the impudent Shiba Tsukune, who took advantage of the council’s weakness at the time and demanded representation for the Phoenix Champion. But little had come of that foolish demand. Shiba had sworn long ago to defend the Isawa line, but Isawa had made no promise to share power over the Phoenix Clan.
Isawa Hochiu gazed across the table at his fellow Masters. “Our task is simple, brothers and sisters,” he began. “The location of Winter Court will be announced by the Winds soon, and there is little doubt that we shall be the hosts. Kyuden Asako has served our clan well in the past for such events and doubtless shall again.” The others nodded in mute agreement. “The question facing us now is this: how shall we use the ambition of the Winds to our benefit? Each of them would gladly accept the support of the Phoenix.”
Isawa Riake, Master of Water, added her voice to the council. “Toturi Tsudao is a strong, honorable woman, if somewhat nave. The power of the Isawa behind her would grant her claim a great deal of legitimacy. In exchange, we would merely wish to examine the Golden Obi of the Sun Goddess that she wears.”
Hochiu nodded. “It is one of the few artifacts still tied to the power of the Lady Amaterasu. Perhaps even a portion of her essence is contained within. If so, only the Phoenix could understand such a power.” The Master of Fire inclined his head respectfully to Riake, then turned to another master. This time, there was no show of respect, nor even of simple courtesy. “What of the one they call the Anvil, Nakamuro-san?”
The weathered face of Isawa Nakamuro betrayed no hint of emotion. “Hantei Naseru has many things at his disposal that would benefit us. Our support could easily grant the study of such items. In particular, the jade goblet of Gohuri. No shugenja has ever deciphered its mysteries.”
Hochiu nodded again, grudgingly. The goblet’s secrets were lost to time, known to no living creature. At least, not yet. One more secret for the Isawa to master. He turned to face the simple features of Shiba Ningen, the Master of Void. “Ningen-san, you know of Toturi Sezaru. Like you, he plumbs the depths of the Void. What of him?”
A knowing smile graced Ningen’s face. “There are no items he possesses that would be given to an ally, even to such as us. However, Sezaru can still aid the council. Never has so powerful an ishiken also been a master of other elements. Though my skill with the Void dwarfs his, his gifts with the other elements far exceed my own. The insight of such a man could lead to many great discoveries. In exchange for our support, he will gladly aid us in the creation of a new, powerful nemuranai. One we might even put to use against the Dragon.”
Hochiu glanced at Isawa Taeruko, the Master of Earth, but the final member of the council only sat, staring unpleasantly at Nakamuro. For his part, the Master of Air avoided her gaze. Shaking his head in disgust, Hochiu finished the discussion. “That leaves only Akodo Kaneka, Toturi’s bastard son. Although his claim to the throne is not legitimate, he is also the Wind with the most to offer us. In exchange for our support of his endeavors, he will deliver us the bloodsword Fukushu, formerly held by his daimyo, Akodo Ginawa.” The other masters all nodded in assent. “At last, we will be able to decipher the enchantments surrounding the cursed blade. Once we understand it, we can destroy it. No one has been able to destroy the Iuchiban blades as yet, not permanently. The Phoenix will succeed where the others all fail.”
“Will Kaneka be able to acquire the blade?” asked Nakamuro.
Hochiu only sneered. “He will. We are the Lion’s closest allies. If he cannot win our support, his cause is lost. He will produce the blade. He has no choice.” Hochiu rose from his seat at the table, a signal that the meeting was at an end. “With this matter resolved, only one other task awaits us.” The Master of Fire gestured toward the west. “The Dragon Clan and their upstart Tamori family must feel what it means to arouse the wrath of the Isawa.”
As one, the masters left the room, leaving only Nakamuro in the council chamber. As he ran his hand across the table, he wondered how the others had become so much like the cold, hard stone from which it had been crafted.
“You are a difficult man to find, Yojiro-sama,” Bayushi Paneki said, ducking to push aside a tangled branch as he picked his way through the undergrowth.
The aged Scorpion daimyo did not turn; he had sensed Paneki’s approach long before he had spoken. He simply continued to crouch in the high grass, gazing off into the thick branches of Traitor’s Grove. Discarded weapons and armor from a hundred traitors to the Scorpion chimed an eerie melody in the wind. Yojiro seemed almost hypnotized by it. “This place helps me to think,” he replied. “Here, I can put matters in perspective.”
Paneki moved closer to his lord’s side, glancing warily about the haunted forest. The Legionnaire was more accustomed to cities and camps than forests, and the half-remembered legends of the Grove from his childhood unnerved him. “This place is dangerous, my lord,” Paneki warned.
“Precisely,” Yojiro replied. “What worth is life, without risk, Shireikan?”
Paneki inclined his head, acknowledging his lord’s wisdom. Though Paneki and his lord disagreed on matters of tactics, they were often of one mind on subjects of a more philosophical nature. Both were men of action.
“You have come to deliver the message of the Winds,” Yojiro said, “to announce the contest of Winter Court.”
“Hai, Master of Scorpions,” Paneki said with a nod, still waiting several paces behind his master and to one side. Paneki was not remotely surprised that Yojiro knew his message even before he had delivered it despite the breakneck pace with which he had ridden here. Yojiro may not have been as ruthless as many of his predecessors, but he was as keenly aware of all that transpired in his domain. “They wish diplomats from each clan to state their case. The one they find most reasonable shall host the Winter Court.”
“Host it, or merely choose where it is hosted?” Yojiro said, glancing over one shoulder. Behind his fearsome mask, Yojiro’s eyes were shrewd and thoughtful.
“The choice is ours, should we triumph,” Paneki said. “Kaukatsu should have the matter well in hand. He only awaits your order. The Winds have offered us an opportunity to perform a favor on their behalf to be repaid in time.”
“To be repaid when they are Emperor,” Yojiro corrected. “We should choose carefully; select the one who would serve us best. Select the one who would be most indebted to us.”
“Clearly, it is so, my lord,” Paneki said. “Choose, and I shall relay your command to Kaukatsu-san. I believe it would be wisest to seek the one who needs our guidance the most, who will ever have need to turn their ear to the Scorpion.”
“You would make the Emperor a figurehead, Paneki?” Yojiro chided.
“If I may speak frankly my lord, each has already demonstrated their unworthiness to rule merely by instigating this war of succession,” Paneki said, lowering his head. “I believe that only the Scorpion’s wisdom can guide the rule of the successful Wind along an untroubled path.”
“Your honeyed words smack of deception, but I concede the point, Paneki,” Yojiro said. “Which shall we choose? Naseru? Kaneka? Sezaru? Tsudao?”
“Each has merit, my lord,” Paneki said. “Sezaru and Kaneka are unfamiliar with politics. Given the proper encouragement, I believe we can guide them. However, both are men of fierce temper. Should we make a misstep…”
“All our work would be lost,” Yojiro finished. “Use caution. Kaneka is like his father; easily goaded but resentful of manipulation. And Sezaru? I know as little of Sezaru as anyone, and a Scorpion never enters a venture unprepared. I would be cautious.”
“Yes, my lord,” Paneki said. “Naseru is already an ally, but so is he an ally to our rivals, the Crane. It may be worth our time to ingratiate him to us fully.”
“Naseru is a clever man,” Yojiro said. “He would lead Rokugan to a golden age, if his arrogance can be properly guided.”
“Agreed, my lord,” Paneki replied.
“What of Tsudao?” Yojiro asked. “You know her best, from the Legions.”
“I find her a most worthy commander,” Paneki said. “She is bold, fearless, and charismatic. She is the sort of woman a samurai would follow into Jigoku. But-” He paused for a long moment. “I am uncertain of her worth as an Empress.”
“Why?” Yojiro asked.
“She is naive,” Paneki replied. “She shines as brightly as the sun, but like the sun she cannot see the shadow. I am afraid she would unknowingly lead the Empire to ruin.”
Yojiro stood and turned around fully. Pushing his straw cloak aside, he revealed the monstrous Scorpion armor he had worn since the War of Spirits. The Scorpion Champion looked almost like a thing out of nightmares, a warrior to be feared. “If Tsudao does not know the dangers of the darkness,” Yojiro said calmly, “then someone must show her. For the good of the Empire.”
Paneki was quiet for several seconds. “Yes, my lord,” he finally said with a bow. “I believe that will be all, except for the matter of the favor we shall owe. What favor will the Scorpion offer the heir to an Empire?”
“Leave that to me,” Yojiro said cryptically. “Return to Kaukatsu, Paneki-san. Tell him what has been said here, and take him this.” Yojiro produced a rolled scroll from his sleeve, sealed with the blood-red mon of the Scorpion.
“Yes, my lord,” Paneki repeated, accepting the message and hiding it away among his robes. Paneki bowed a final time and departed without a sound through the darkened forest.
Bayushi Yojiro remained where he was, calmly listening to the deadly song of Traitor’s Grove.
“You called for me, my Khan?” Ide Tadaji stood, hands tucked within his sleeves, while the enormous form of Moto Chagatai groomed his powerful war-horse. The massive warrior only grunted in assent and continued brushing the majestic animal’s fur. Tadaji waited wordlessly. He was accustomed to Chagatai’s thoughtful silences. Outsiders had interpreted them as a sign of a slow mind, but the aged courtier knew the truth was very much the opposite.
“Tell me of this contest,” Chagatai finally said. Tadaji smiled inwardly, both surprised and delighted at the Khan’s interest in matters of the court.
“It is actually quite simple, my Khan. The Winds have requested an emissary from each clan to present their petition for hosting Winter Court. The most convincing representative will earn the right for their clan to select the location.”
Another grunt from Chagatai, followed by another long moment of silence. “How would such a thing benefit us?”
Tadaji took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Such a simple yet complex question! “It is an opportunity for us, Chagatai-sama. One of the Winds will become the Emperor. A full winter with them as our guests gains us the chance to earn their favor. Toturi was our ally, but few emperors have been in the past. If the Unicorn are to flourish, we must have an ally upon the throne.”
Chagatai put his brush aside. With one last comforting pat on the flank, he turned from his steed to face the much smaller man. “They will expect us to ask for what is already ours. My armies hold the crater near Seikitsu Pass. It is not theirs to give.”
“Of course, my Khan. Yet if the Winds expect such a request, as you say, then perhaps another, less politically charged request might find favor with them instead.”
“Indeed.” The broad-shouldered man nodded sagely. “Then we shall seek to open the trade routes outside the Empire. The other clans will care little, embroiled as they are in their own petty squabbles. And the promise of secrets from beyond will entice the Winds, perhaps even aiding them in their quest for the Steel Throne.”
The courtier nodded. “It would be seen as a small price for the support of the Unicorn. Sezaru, in particular, could be swayed with the notion of gaijin sorcery. The sorcerers of Laramun have secrets even he has never dreamed of. The others might prove more difficult, however.”
Chagatai snorted. “Hardly. Open trade beyond our borders would allow us to expand our influence considerably. We might even find ourselves able to spare enough of our war-horses to equip an entire legion. Tsudao’s penchant for swift justice would be well served by such a force, would it not? And surely Kaneka’s claim to the throne might seem firmer with an army at his command.”
Tadaji chuckled. “You speak truly, Chagatai-sama. I also think that a Winter Court in our lands would find many outsiders unpleasantly surprised by your keen insight.”
The larger man’s laughter rang out through the stables. “Nonsense! Everyone in Rokugan knows that Moto Chagatai is little more than a dullard with a sword, Tadaji. You have been misinformed.” The glint in his eyes faded. “However, with regard to Hantei Naseru, I am quite the ignorant fool. What can we offer the one they call the Anvil, Tadaji?”
“A very simple question, my Khan. With our resources spent trading beyond Rokugan’s borders, our trade within the Empire might suffer. Surely a man such as Naseru would be able to guide and oversee our caravans in exchange for a sizable share of the profit.”
Chagatai nodded. “And, of course, the wealth of information such caravans might discover about the goings on in the lands of the Great Clans might be of interest as well. Not to mention the effect they might have on the Yasuki War. It is a good offer.”
Tadaji bowed his head. “I live only to serve, my Khan.”
“Then serve me by bringing this Winter Court to our lands, Tadaji. Go and see the Winds. Convince them of our sincere wish to host their court.”
The old man smiled. “I leave at once, Chagatai-sama.”
It was a sight no Nezumi had seen before.
Maybe a sight no Nezumi would see again?
The leaders of the great Nezumi tribes had gathered in M-atikf’chtr-foo, the Great Home of the Tattered Ear. The thieves of the Grasping Paw, the sea-rats of the Chipped Tooth, even the savage Crippled Bone chitatchikkan and reclusive Green-Green-White scouts had dispatched some of their number to discuss the offer that had been made. At the urging of their Crab friends, the Ashi-romit (the Nezumi name for the pups of the dead human Chief-of-Chiefs) had agreed to listen to their case. If they could win the favor of one of these children, the brave-warriors-who-remember would finally be regarded as equals by the rulers of the Great Tribes.
No more being hunted. Perhaps no more hunting, as land would be set aside so they could tame the earth as the humans do. It would be a difficult prize to win.
That was why they had sent Ruantek, the greatest scrounger in the Grasping Paw. If anyone could steal the hearts of the humans, it was Ruantek.
“What you find-find, Ruantek?” Zin’tch demanded. The leader of the Council of the Eye hopped up and down on a wooden stump. Even for a Nezumi, the young Rememberer was considered tense and hyperactive.
Ruantek gave him a good long look before talking. Zin’tch calmed down, curling his tail about his feet as he sat. “Sorry,” Zin’tch said. “Been waiting long time.”
“All have been waiting long time,” growled Nir’um’tuk, warrior of the Crooked Tail. The big Nezumi stood so that all could see him in his shiny red suit of human armor. “The brave-warriors-who-remember been waiting since the Terrible Day to get shred of respect from the pink-skinned monkeys. Be waiting till Tomorrow finds us all before we find it. This waste-waste of time.”
“Not waste-waste,” Ruantek said. The small, grey-furred scrounger looked up at the larger Ratling with out any trace of fear. “Humans serious. We save Crab at Hiruma Warrens. We fight Nameless at Oblivion’s Gate. Humans finally see how strong the Chi’ch-tch – our people – be. Ready to give us respect.”
“For what it worth,” grunted Kan’ok’ticheck. The ghostly white Ratling crouched in the roots of a great tree, pink fingers folded over the hilt of his sword. “What we know of human ways? No make-make friend with chief unless you know how chief thinks. What we know of the Ashi-romit?”
“Know much,” Ruantek said. “Been hiding in great warrens of the Toturi since last snow fall. Been watching Ashi-romit. Know them all good.”
A murmur of hushed surprise echoed through the assembled Nezumi. “Share,” said Te’tik’kir, ancient shaman of the Crippled Bone. It was all he said. Te’tik’kir rationed out his words like he had only a pouch-full, and other Nezumi knew better than not to listen.
“Right-right,” Ruantek said. “First, there be Kaneka. Him oldest, but not very popular. Ruantek can see why. Too big – eat lots of food. Too brash – never run-run from fight. Tribe that follow leader like that, get in no end of trouble.”
“Don’t know about that,” said Yoee’trr, hunter of the Tattered Ear. “Every time humans get in trouble, they ask-ask us for help. If tribe leader troublesome, maybe they need us all the time. If we select that one, Yoee’trr be happy to serve him. Sound-sound like fun.”
“Next there be Tsudao, daughter of Toturi,” Ruantek said. “She fierce, strong. Everyone like her. She great warrior. Ruantek guess that why she not chief.”
“Perhaps she too busy fighting to lead-lead tribe?” Zin’tch asked.
“Could be,” Kan’ok’ticheck said. “Humans never run-run out of people to fight. Fighting done? Then they fight each other.”
“Zin’tch could help,” the Rememberer nodded. “If we pick Tsudao, Zin’tch could help her remember what most important. Help-help her become great Chief of Chiefs.”
“Third, there be Hantei-Naseru,” Ruantek said. “Ruantek use both names since both names seem important. Naseru like-like people to remember both names, since his name so rare.”
“Rare names are good,” Te’tik’kir nodded. “Rare names are strong.”
“Guess so,” Ruantek said with a shrug. “Hantei-Naseru very important man. Everything he do-do important. Everything he say-say important. Hantei-Naseru go to a lot of trouble to make sure people know how important. Very important.”
“Why him so important?” Zin’tch asked curiously.
“Don’t know,” Ruantek said. “He has lots of friends, though. Act like chief already.”
“If he act like chief, then why him not chief?” Zin’tch asked.
“Again, don’t know,” Ruantek said. “Hard to understand.”
Zin’tch nodded soberly.
Kan’ok’ticheck peered up from his reverie. “Sound-sound interesting. Would like to know more. If we choose Hantei-Naseru, Kan’ok’ticheck will follow him.”
“Last, there be Wolf,” Ruantek say. “People call him Sezaru but Wolf seem closer to his Name. Mighty conjurer. If he were Nezumi, he maybe be Nametaker! Great magic. Powerful magic.”
“Tribe that follow someone with such strong magic, have no problems,” Te’tik’kir commented.
“Humans think differently,” Ruantek said. “Most not like Wolf much.”
“Humans are stupid,” Nir’um’tuk spat.
There was a general murmur of assent to that.
“If we choose Wolf, I will follow him,” Te’tik’kir said. “I will help him show the humans what fools they are.”
“All well and good, but which one we choose-choose?” Nir’um’tuk asked. “Wolf seem-seem to be best choice, but if humans no make him chief then we waste-waste our time.”
“Funny you ask that. Ruantek have perfect way to choose,” Ruantek said. He drew out four chips of wood, painted red, black, gold, and white. “Kaneka,” he said, holding up the red. “Tsudao,” – black – “Hantei-Naseru” – gold – “Wolf” – white. Ruantek dropped each chip into his pouch, shook it up, and reached in to draw one out.
“Anyone want-want argue?” he asked before pulling out the chip.
The assembled Nezumi said nothing, but twitched their tails in agreement.
Ruantek drew out the chip…
The Dark Daughter lay back languidly, teasing bloodstained fingers against her full lips. The knife in her other hand dragged heavily against the sand, drenched with the blood and gore of the unfortunate Miya herald. The man’s body lay in a savaged heap nearby, mostly. Parts of it were in the river. Bits were in the trees. Some clung to Shahai’s gossamer kimono, causing it to cling scandalously to her lithe body.
“The Four Winds,” Shahai said. She breathed the smoke of her incense deeply and glanced over the Imperial scroll pinned open with finger bones nearby. The message had been intended for Usagi Ozaki, daimyo of the Hare. Unfortunately for him, the messenger met Shahai first. “One last chance to unite an Empire. I, for one, am quite pleased with the way the Empire has turned. Would you not agree, my friend?”
The oni hunched in the shadows nearby nodded sharply. It had only recently come to this world, summoned by the death and torture of the unfortunate herald. Already, the strife and discontent rampant in the Empire had made it strong. It shifted from one foot to the other, eager to go out into the world and wreak havoc at its mistress’ command.
“Soon enough, little one,” Shahai said, gazing at the beast through the ritual mask of blood that covered her face and dampened her long black hair. “An opportunity taken thoughtlessly is an opportunity wasted. You must know our enemies before I unleash you upon them.”
The oni settled itself, folding its thin arms against its body. It watched Shahai carefully, waiting to hear what she would say next.
“Patience?” Shahai said with a mild note of surprise. “A rare trait in your kind. You will do well on this mission, I think.”
The oni smiled.
Shahai’s fingers brushed against the painted skull that lay in the sand nearby, summoning her grandfather’s power to augment her own. A whispered spell, and the images of four faces wove themselves from the smoke of Shahai’s incense brazier. Three men, one woman. All were different, but all had something distinctly familiar. At the sight of them, the oni hissed and spat.
“Heroes, yes, dreadful things,” Shahai said with a nod. “Or, at least, they could be. It is your mission to change that. Already they have helped us greatly, weakened the Empire against the forces of your master. It should be a simple matter to finish the job. Rivals they may be, but still they are family. Push one over the edge, and the other three will fall.”
The oni nodded its head quickly in understanding.
“Kaneka,” Shahai said, gesturing at the face of a determined-looking middle-aged warrior. “The image of Toturi, but without his father’s clarity of vision. Once, Toturi united the Empire against us. Turn his son, and he can unite the Empire against itself.”
“Tsudao.” Shahai rubbed her slick fingers and the images rotated. Now a pretty young woman’s face was foremost. “He who fights the sun will be burned, but the sun must set. Away from the battlefields, she is vulnerable, pensive. When she falls, the hearts of those who follow her would be crushed. A difficult battle, but a worthy prize.”
“Naseru,” Shahai said. She gestured again, and a weathered young man with a patch covering his right eye came forward. “Clever. Manipulative. Powerful. It may be worthwhile to turn him, only to add his keen mind to our own, but separated from his allies and plots he would not be of great use to us. Even so, we always have use for men with such naked ambition.” Shahai smiled. “I know I do.”
“And Sezaru,” Shahai said, a resentful tone in her voice. A young man with white hair streaked in black moved forth. His eyes shimmered with a strange light. At the sight of him, the oni hissed and withdrew. “Of all of them, he is the only one we truly need fear,” Shahai said. “His power is great, perhaps as strong as your master’s. Even still, of them all he lingers closest to madness. If he joined us, he would be greater than Tsuke. Greater than Junzo. Greater than Yori.”
“Greater than Iuchiban.”
The oni shivered.
“I leave the choice in your hands,” Shahai said, dismissing the images with a careless wave of the bloody dagger. “I trust you, my little one. Go to this Winter Court, wherever it is, and do not return until you have cracked the soul of a Wind. Start them on the road to their own destruction, and I will finish it.”
Oni no Pekkle nodded rapidly, and scurried through the darkness toward Otosan Uchi.
Her work done, Shahai curled in the warm blood and drifted off to sleep.