Rebuilding the Court
By Shawn Carman
Kyuden Miya shone brightly in the early morning sunshine. The castle had been alive with activity for hours despite that the sun had only just risen over the horizon. Miya Shoin, the Imperial Herald and the chosen successor to family daimyo Miya Yumi, his adopted aunt, strode boldly forward into the courtyard. His daisho was placed firmly in his obi. A straw horo cloak, the identifying mark of a shisha – the tireless messengers of the Empire – swept down his back. A servant stood before him with his steed at the ready. Shoin mounted the beast in one fluid movement, nodding to the servant in dismissal, then turned to address his men.
A dozen of the finest Miya shisha were assembled in the courtyard, each dressed for travel just as Shoin was. Each wore the traditional trappings of a herald, and each was mounted on a fine Imperial steed, horses that had been born of the herd the Unicorn had given to the Emperor years ago. Shoin spent several moments surveying the men and women before him. “You each have your tasks,” he finally said. “Ours is the most sacred of duties. The Imperial Court has been reconvened, and we are blessed to bring the news to the people of Rokugan. We must inform the Great Clans that their representatives are expected. We must inform all others that the Court will be available again, that they may petition those involved to address their concerns. Whether Crane or Sparrow, all the clans in Rokugan must know of this. No clan shall go without representation.” He turned his horse to face Kyuden Miya’s gates. “Know that I ride forth as well. No Miya will rest until this duty is complete. Each of you knows your assignment. May the Fortunes grant you speed.”
As one, the Miya heralds rode from the castle and scattered to the four winds.
* * * * *
“I already told you, Miya,” the grizzled old samurai snarled, “Lord Kuon is no longer here.”
The herald’s features fell. “But this is the third place I have sought him. When I arrived at Kyuden Hida, they told me he had traveled to Yasuki Yashiki. When I arrived there, they referred me here to Sunda Mizu Mura. And now.”
“Now,” Toritaka Tatsune said irritably, “Lord Kuon has gone to inspect the Great Wall to the west.” He leaned in closer. “Are you suggesting the Crab Champion should delay his duties for your convenience? Is your precious message so important that it takes precedence over our defense of Rokugan? Perhaps if Daigotsu knew you were here, he would delay his attacks long enough for you to deliver your message!” Tatsune pounded the table violently to punctuate his comments, causing the sake bottle to rattle dangerously.
The Miya herald paled. “Forgive me, Tatsune-sama. I meant no offense.” He bowed deeply. “Perhaps you are correct, and my presence here is disruptive. If you have no objection, I will leave the Lord Kuon’s notice with you, and take my leave.”
Tatsune smirked. “By all means, leave.” He bowed, but only very slightly, then laughed cruelly as the obviously relieved herald turned and scurried from the room as quickly as he could. Tatsune looked down at the sealed scroll and the chop of the Imperial Court that it bore. Wincing, he reached down and rubbed his injured leg.
His old wounds had been paining him more of late. He had been considering retiring from his position as sensei, for he did not want his burden to become the clan’s. Now, however& perhaps there was a way he could continue to serve the Crab. A new battlefield, fraught with enemies only a true Crab could defeat&
Tatsune smiled and chuckled to himself. This would prove most interesting.
* * * * *
Doji Kurohito nodded as he accepted the scroll. “You have my thanks, herald. We have been expecting such a notification for some time.”
The herald bowed very deeply. “Shoin-sama wished to have everything prepared before issuing invitations, Kurohito-sama. He felt it would be improper to make the Great Clans wait for court to commence once it had been announced.”
The Crane Champion waved her words away. “More likely, Shoin wished to deprive us all the chance to come up with any ploys to exploit the court’s formation to our advantage. He’s quite canny, your lord.” Kurohito smiled slightly and bade the herald rise. “Return to your lord and bring him the Crane’s thanks. He has our support in all things, and he need only ask us for whatever he wishes.”
The herald smiled and bowed deeply a second time, then turned and left the court chamber, leaving Kurohito alone with his wife. “Is it as we expected, husband?” Doji Akiko asked, standing at his shoulder. “And if so, whom shall we send to Shoin’s little court?”
“It is as we expected, yes,” Kurohito nodded. “He plans to convene the court at Kyuden Miya until a more permanent location can be selected.” The Champion rubbed his chin in thought. “Perhaps we can find a way to select something suitable to our needs.” He lapsed into thought for a moment, then turned to his wife. “Will you accompany me to court?”
Akiko smiled. “Of course, though we will need to find more permanent representatives. With my own duties to the Elemental Council I cannot remain at the court for long.”
“We all have our duties,” Kurohito said with a resigned look. “I shall have to select others, then. But who is trustworthy enough for such responsibility?”
“Take Seishiro,” Akiko said at once. “He has proved both loyal and competent. He will serve you well.”
Kurohito nodded. “True enough. I think I shall taken Handen as well.”
“Handen?” Akiko asked. “Why?”
“He served us well during the& unpleasantness at Kyuden Kakita. He seems to be seeking to prove himself to us, as if atoning for some sin.” The Champion shrugged. “I care little for his sins, so long as it makes him a more willing and competent vassal.”
“Ever the pragmatist,” Akiko smiled. “Yasuki Hachi and Nagori will also be present, although you may not be able to depend upon them to serve your agenda rather than Hachi’s.”
“I do not need Hachi’s assistance, nor do I expect it,” Kurohito said. “He serves the Empire, not the Crane. No, I shall have all I need.” He rose from his dais. “I will retire to our chambers, I think. I have a letter to prepare for my dear friend, Matsu Nimuro.”
* * * * *
Mirumoto Uso walked among the mountain paths that crisscrossed the treacherous lands surrounding Shiro Mirumoto. Others might consider the mountains a challenge at best, but to Uso it was simply home. He walked seemingly at random, but the sound of kiai shouts from the nearby Iron Mountain Dojo grew ever closer. Finally, he rounded a curve and stood before a great boulder that overlooked the path leading to Shiro Mirumoto.
A man stood atop the boulder, bare to the chest and covered in swirling tattoos. The bald man performed a series of lighting fast strikes with his twin blades, then twirled them about and inserted them flawlessly into the saya tucked into his obi. He leapt down from the boulder and landed directly before Uso, bowing deeply. “Greetings, Uso-sama.”
“Hello old friend,” Uso said with a smile. “I see your training continues.”
“Life is a journey,” Mirumoto Rosanjin said, flashing his familiar grin. “I must continue moving forward. To stop is to die.”
“Interesting,” Uso mused. “I had hoped you might say something along those lines.” He held up a scroll. “I received word from Satsu-sama a few days ago. He wishes each family daimyo to select a representative to the Imperial Court.” He shook his head. “Unconventional, to say the least, but we must do as our Champion bids. I will not question his wisdom.” Uso looked at Rosanjin. “I have selected you.”
Rosanjin raised his eyebrows. “You may not question Satsu-sama’s wisdom, my lord, but I think perhaps others will question yours. Why would you choose me?”
“I need someone I can trust to think well under difficult circumstances, and to represent the Dragon Clan’s unique philosophies. Of all those I feel can perform the task, you are the one I trust most.”
“You honor me, Uso-sama,” the general bowed. “Are you certain the other daimyo will not select someone more suitable? There may be no need to place your trust unduly in me.”
Uso frowned. “Perhaps, and perhaps not. Mizuochi has chosen one of his vassals, Tadashi, I believe. He has apparently forged some sort of alliance with the Ningyo. He seems well-suited to the court.”
“Excellent,” Rosanjin said. “And the others, if I may ask?”
Uso’s frown deepened. “Shaitung selected Mirumoto Tsuge, a former student of yours. I believe he was involved in the recent unpleasantness with the Dark Oracle.”
“An odd choice.”
“I thought so as well,” Uso agreed. “But she claims that Tsuge’s loyalty is unquestionable. I prefer not to argue with her.” He stared down at his feet. “And Satsu-sama has selected Vedau.”
Rosanjin raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, my lord, but it sounded like you said Vedau. Hitomi Vedau?”
“The same,” Uso sighed. “As I said, I will not question Satsu-sama’s wisdom.”
The general opened his mouth as if to say something, then thought the better of it and only nodded. “As you say, my lord.”
“You leave in three days, Rosanjin-san,” Uso said. “Please prepare for the trip to Kyuden Miya.”
Rosanjin bowed again. “I will do my best to serve you, Uso-sama”
* * * * *
The gates to Shiro Matsu burst open as two-dozen fully equipped Matsu house guard rushed out to meet the two figures riding toward the castle. Both were bloodied and one was all but carrying the other. “What is going on here?” the guard commander demanded.
“Miya herald,” one of the two gasped. “I bear& important message& for Matsu Nimuro-sama.”
“He’s wounded, and badly,” the other samurai, a Lion, said. “He needs aid now. Take us inside.”
The commander scowled at being ordered about so freely, but turned to one of his soldiers. “Inform lord Nimuro that an imperial herald has arrived, and that he is wounded.” He turned back to the two travelers. “Come with us.”
The group moved within the castle’s gates, the guards taking over supporting the wounded herald. The man ground his teeth against the pain, but did not cry out. The other walked on his own, making no move to wipe the blood from his clothes.
A few moments later, a shugenja was tending to the herald. The guards glared at the as yet unidentified Lion, but their attention was diverted by the arrival of Matsu Nimuro, Lion Clan Champion. The massive warrior approached the group and took a long look at those around him. “Will he live?” he demanded of the shugenja tending to the herald. Seeing the Kitsu’s nod, he asked “What happened?”
“Bandits,” the herald gasped. “They ambushed the Akodo Wardens who were escorting me here& cut them down with archery fire, then closed in.” He winced as the shugenja administered a poultice to his ribs. “They bought me time with their lives, but my horse was wounded. I could not escape.”
Nimuro’s face was a mask of rage. “I will destroy these fools myself. No one brings shame to the Lion lands.”
“No, my lord,” the herald continued. “That one,” he pointed to the Lion soldier who had helped him, “saved me. He killed most the bandits, while carrying me over his shoulder to protect me from harm.”
“Send two patrols,” Nimuro ordered the guard commander. “Find the others.” He looked the Lion soldier. “How did you manage to kill so many when the Wardens failed?”
The man said nothing, only bowed his head, as if in shame.
“He fought like a demon,” the herald offered. “As if he did not care that he might die. His ferocity& it terrified the bandits. They panicked.”
Nimuro frowned and examined the soldier’s kimono. “A Deathseeker, then. That explains much. Who are you? Tell me your name.”
“I was once Akodo Setai, Nimuro-sama,” the Lion said with a bow. “Now I am nothing, a man without honor.”
Recognition dawned in the Champion’s eyes. “I have heard of you. You are the Deathseeker who cannot die.”
Setai hung his head in shame. “Twelve years, my lord. I have been a failure.”
“And were I to reward you for this service,” Nimuro asked, gesturing toward the herald, “you would request permission to perform the three cuts?”
“Then you shall have no reward,” Nimuro said. “Too few vassals possess the skill you have demonstrated today.” He paused and thought for a moment. “Unless I am mistaken, the herald brings news of the Imperial Court.” He looked to the herald, who nodded. “Setai, your heroic act today has insured that the Lion will not fail to show their strength in the court. You have saved the entire clan from shame. Your own shame is wiped away.” He looked at Setai meaningfully. “If you would be the first to take a post at this court, you will be Deathseeker no more.”
Setai’s eyes widened, a mix of fear and hope. “I am no politician, sama,” he said in a choked voice, unwilling to believe what he was hearing. “I fear I will only fail you again.”
“You will have ample aid,” Nimuro replied. “I shall dispatch Kitsu Juri to represent us as well, to temper your bravery with wisdom. And I have no doubt that Ikoma Sume will soon find a place at this court as well. Do you accept my offer, Setai?”
Setai bowed his head, his face flush with excitement. “As you wish, my lord.”
* * * * *
Yoritomo Katoa grew very silent and placed his hand on the blade resting atop the desk. He fixed the herald with a piercing glare. “I believe you mispronounced my Champion’s name, Miya. I suggest you correct yourself.”
The herald took a step backward. “I& do not understand. I have instructions to deliver this message to Yoritomo Kumiko, Mantis Clan Champion. What are you.”
Katoa stood up. “My Champion,” he said in a dark, quiet voice, “is Yoritomo Kitao. If you suggest otherwise again, you and I will have more than words.”
The herald stammered for a moment. “It& I& ah, of course, Yoritomo-sama. I& did not mean to imply otherwise. If& may I& give the message to you in her stead? Will you see Ku& Kitao in the near future? It is difficult to track her movement while she remains at sea.”
Katoa grabbed the scroll from the herald’s shaking hand. “Get out,” he hissed. “I will deliver your message. Kitao charged me to deal with all matters regarding her affairs in this port.”
The herald fled the building in a barely disguised run. Still scowling, Katoa broke the seal on the scroll and read its contents.
* * * * *
Miya Tsuruken debated the move for several long moments before finally steeling his nerves and ducking into the opening in the trunk of a gigantic tree. He had been wandering the wilderness for nearly three days in an attempt to locate some member of the Tattered Ear tribe, a particularly gregarious band of Nezumi who, he was told, dwelled within the southern reaches of the Shinomen Mori during this time of year. He had finally come across a patrol of some sort early this morning, and had spent most of the day in what could generously be described as negotiations with the pack warriors before finally being admitted to see Zin’tch, the tribe’s leader.
It took a moment for the herald’s eyes to adjust to the darkness. During those few seconds, Tsuruken occupied his time biting his lip in an attempt to keep from retching at the terrible, fetid odor within the tree. When he could finally see through the shadows, Tsuruken could just make out the outline of an old Nezumi sitting quietly, regarding him with a strange expression. “Hello,” it said plainly.
“Greetings, noble Zin’tch,” the herald said, stumbling slightly over the name. “I am an emissary of Miya Shoin, the Imperial Herald. He has asked me to extend to you his invitation to attend his newly convened Imperial Court, in recognition of your tribe’s valorous efforts in aiding the Crab and for your defeat of the Onisu Kyofu.”
“What court?” Zin’tch asked. “Big-big meeting?”
“Ah& yes,” Tsuruken said.
“Why no say meeting?”
“I& uh& I don’t know,” the herald said.
“What be valor?” Zin’tch continued.
“Bravery. Courage.” The herald was a bit more confident.
“Why no say courage?” the Nezumi squinted.
Tsuruken blinked. “Our people have a joy for words& so we collect them, and use many.”
The old Ratling grinned, showing sharp white teeth. “Zin’tch can understand,” he said. “Even so, you humans. So strange. But I come to meeting. Maybe collect some of your words?”
“Shoin-sama will be delighted,” Tsuruken said with a forced smile.
“What be delighted?”
“I really have to be going now,” the herald said loudly, standing up with a start. “I have many more procla& messages to deliver.”
“Good start!” Zin’tch said happily, clearly pleased with the simpler word. “Hope for you yet!”
* * * * *
Bayushi Kaukatsu sat at his writing desk, a thick stack of unused scrolls sitting at his left hand, awaiting his attention. The Imperial Chancellor did not hurry, taking time to savor each word, taking each opportunity to build bridges or secure the favor of another. His duty was the Empire, to be certain, but he could best perform his duties by playing to his strengths, and manipulation had ever been his greatest strength.
The matter that currently occupied his attention was that of the newly convened Imperial Court. He was mildly annoyed that Shoin and Tadaji had collaborated without his approval or even his knowledge, but he was not so arrogant as to dismiss what would doubtless prove an incredible opportunity for such vain reasons. He, more than anyone, stood to gain from the court’s reconvening. Was he not Imperial Chancellor, after all? Already he had gained much favor by traveling to the various clans’ courts and executing his duties. That they would all be in one place only made it more convenient.
Nevertheless, there was the matter of his clan’s representative. Kaukatsu knew it was important to retain at least a veneer of impartiality, and so could not be the only Scorpion in court, although he would certainly be the most important member of his clan there. The Champion would likewise be occupied with the impending unpleasantness with the so-called Shadowed Tower. Kaukatsu made a mental note to pen a letter to Higatsuku upon the conclusion of this one. If the almighty Shogun would be otherwise engaged, and Kaukatsu strongly suspected that he would be, then Higatsuku might serve a more& traditional purpose at court.
It was also important for the Chancellor to be well protected. Despite that the Seppun would doubtless be present in large numbers, Kaukatsu decided to bring his new yojimbo as well. He smiled. That would certainly prove entertaining.
Allowing himself only a moment to chuckle, Kaukatsu returned to his letters. Already he would be working well into the night. It was difficult work, to be sure, but oh so rewarding for one who enjoyed it as much as he did.
* * * * *
Moto Chen sat atop a rock overlooking the Naga city, idly eating a rice ball. It was one of his daily rituals, one that he had maintained in one form or another since the days following his gempukku. A quite moment of introspection each day allowed him to keep things in perspective. Given how odd his life had become, perspective was something he desperately needed.
Chen rose and brushed the remnants of his meal from his rumpled kimono. He had spied a rider approaching the city, and it would be a disservice to his Naga allies to be at least marginally presentable if guests arrived. He mused for a moment that he would be almost relieved if it were an assassin, for he had had little excitement of late. But as the rider drew nearer and dismounted, Chen was pleasantly surprised. “Shinjo Shono,” he called out, lifting his hand in greeting. “This is unexpected.”
The Shinjo daimyo returned the wave with a brief bow. “Chen-sama.”
The general scowled. “I should call you sama, not the other way around.”
Shono waved the comment away. “You have my respect regardless of your station, Chen. I have little use for tradition out here.” Shono gestured at the vast forest looming all around the Naga city.
“True enough,” Chen nodded. “What may a humble samurai like myself do for the Junghar commander?”
“I bring a message from the Khan,” Shono said, fishing a scroll from his saddlebag. “He wishes you to represent the clan in court.”
Chen burst out laughing, doubling over and placing his hands on his knees. He recovered after a moment to find Shono looking at him with a bemused expression. Chen’s face grew grim. “You can’t be serious.”
“I was unaware that Chagatai-sama was prone to humor,” Shono said with a grin.
“Court?” Chen nearly shouted. “Has he forgotten what happened last time?”
“Of course not,” Shono returned. “And he has not forgotten what has happened since that time. He wishes to send a message to the Court.”
Chen shook his head. “All that happened, happened because the Khan wished it.” He smiled grimly. “That does sound like Chagatai.”
“Yes,” Shono agreed. “And it serves to give our Naga allies a voice in court as well. Two foes, one strike.”
The general took the scroll from Shono with a bow. “The Khan’s will be done.”