In his chambers in Ryoko Owari, Hantei Naseru nodded sleepily. His eyes nearly closed as his brush stumbled across the thin paper. He cursed as the calligraphy was ruined and pushed the message he had been drafting aside, tucking it into a small brazier. The young Anvil sat back on his heels and rubbed his eyes in exhaustion.
“You cannot continue at this rate, sama,” Yotsu Irie said from her post near the door to his chambers. Her expression was concerned.
“Why Irie-chan,” Naseru said, looking up at her with a chuckle. “I understand it is your duty as yojimbo to look after my welfare, but you sound sincerely worried.”
“Should I not be?” she asked.
Naseru shrugged, tucking back one sleeve as he reached for a fresh sheet of paper. “I am capable of caring of myself, and most seem content to allow me to do so,” he replied. “You should not waste your concern on me.”
Naseru’s left eye flicked up, fixing on her curiously. “Is there a problem?” he asked, setting his brush down carefully.
“I would rather not speak of it,” she said, looking out the window. On the horizon, the signal fires of the Shogun’s army could be seen. “It is unseemly.”
Naseru looked at her calmly. “When we first met, Irie-chan, you planned to kill me out of vengeance for your clan’s destruction. This set a precedent for your personal opinions being directly relevant to my welfare. Now please, tell me what is on your mind.”
Irie looked at Naseru. She was not a beautiful girl, and never would be, but there was a certain confidence in her manner and bearing that intrigued Naseru. She was an honest woman, and even in a land that prided itself so much on loyalty and honor, Naseru knew how truly rare a commodity that was.
“I wish that you would not do this, Naseru-sama,” she replied.
“What do you mean?” he asked tonelessly. He set the finished document on a pile of similar sheets beside his desk.
“You know better than to tempt the Shogun’s wrath, yet you do it nonetheless. You goad him into conflict, drive him here to face you. You wish the Empire to think you have some clever plan to defeat him.”
“And what do you think that plan is?” he asked.
Irie took a deep breath. “I think that you have come to accept that the Empire views you as a villain and a manipulator,” Irie said. “I think that you no longer desire the throne, for you no longer feel you can obtain it. You hope that Kaneka will come here and destroy you. You plan to insure that your defeat discredits him so greatly that your sister will gain the throne.”
Naseru chuckled. “Ridiculous,” he replied.
“Then what are you writing?” she asked. “Documentations of your personal holdings, contracts for your personal retainers.” Irie reached into her obi, drawing out a scrap of parchment covered in Naseru’s own handwriting. “All allocated for your sister’s use upon your death.”
In his entire life, Naseru had only been struck speechless a handful of times. This was one of them. Gathering his wits, he looked down at his low desk. “You do not understand, Irie,” he said. “It is the only way. Some things are larger than any of us. Some things are worth death.”
“And some things are worth life,” Irie replied. “Such as the Empire. Even should one of the others gain the throne, you would be a fool to throw your life away for pride. The Empire needs you.”
Naseru raised an eyebrow. “I think there are precious few in this Empire who would agree with you.”
“Only because you allow them to,” she said. “Only because it is easier.”
“Easy?” Naseru said, his voice growing slightly heated. “I was to be the anvil upon which a madman would have forged a twisted new Empire. Do you think anything in my life has ever been easy?”
“Pitying yourself seems easy enough,” Irie replied.
“Watch your tongue, woman,” Naseru said. “I am still your superior.”
“Then prove it,” Irie replied. “Survive. Bring peace among your siblings and end this conflict. Forge a new Empire to do your father’s spirit proud.”
Naseru’s eye flicked out the window, toward the campfires. His fingers drummed on the table before him as he turned over a thought in his mind.
Then, slowly and deliberately, he began to gather the papers beside his desk and tear them in two.