By Shawn Carman*
It was raining when he finally reached the castle. He had been traveling for well over a week, and had carefully avoided all villages and cities for most of the trip. It had been three days since he had spoken a single word, but had instead spent his solitude deep in thought, wrestling with his personal demons. There were many. Greed. Anger. Ambition. Hatred.
Some were easy to dismiss. Greed and envy were merely distractions, nothing more than annoyances that he brushed away whenever he realized they had appeared. He likewise recognized that he had a problem with anger, but did not care enough to attempt to dismiss it. Indeed, anger was a part of his personality that he embraced. He could no more divorce it from himself than he could his soul, and had as little desire to do so. No, these things did not matter. It was his hatred that he must learn to resolve. Hatred for his enemies. Hatred for his brother. Hatred for the Emperor.
The man once called Akodo Kaneka leapt down from his horse, the rain and mud sloshing around his feet as he surveyed the lands surrounding Shiro Shiba. He shook his head in disbelief. The castle was barely defensible, and he could already see a half dozen major strategic difficulties its location presented. How the Phoenix had survived this long if this was their primary military fortress he had no idea.
“Identify yourself, traveler.”
The voice was a sudden break in the monotonous sound of rainfall, and Kaneka turned to his left with an expression of mild surprise an appreciation. A Phoenix bushi stood there, unfazed by the rain. His posture appeared to be casual, but Kaneka could see that he was ready to move at a moment’s notice. The bushi stood just far enough away that Kaneka would be at a disadvantage with his katana against the Phoenix’s polearm. “Well done,” he said. “Few can approach me thus, even under these circumstances.” He gestured around at the pouring rain. “You will be the first.”
“You have not identified yourself,” the warrior said calmly. His eyes never left Kaneka’s.
“I am Kaneka.”
The warrior’s eyes widened ever so slightly. “Akodo Kaneka? The Shogun?”
Kaneka frowned. “No longer Akodo, nor Shogun. But Shogun again, and soon.”
“Shiba Kaneka, then?”
“No,” Kaneka repeated. “Phoenix, yes, but only Kaneka. Nothing more.”
The bushi bowed. “As you wish, sir. My lord Mirabu-sama has been awaiting your arrival since this morning. I will show you to quarters first, if you wish.”
“Mirabu expected me today?” Kaneka asked. “I told no one of my plans. How is it that he knew of my arrival?”
The bushi said nothing. “We shall go at your convenience, Kaneka-sama.” He halted for a moment. “What shall I be the first of, Kaneka-sama?”
“The new army I shall create,” Kaneka said firmly. “The Shogun’s army.”
* * * * *
Isawa Nakamuro stood on the cliffs east of Kyuden Isawa, watching the ocean and communing with the spirits on the cool sea breeze. This was his private place, his sanctuary. Whenever the stress of the Elemental Council became too great for him to tolerate, he retreated here to remember the simple joys of nature. And in this instance, to await an important visitor.
There was a sudden coolness in the air that had nothing to do with the wind. The temperature dropped suddenly and there was a strange emptiness that Nakamuro thought must surely be the stillness of the grave. And then, suddenly, he was not alone. There was no sense of arrival or appearance. One moment, it was as if two more men had been there all along. “Greetings, Lord Sezaru,” Nakamuro said with a deep, reverent bow.
“Greetings, Nakamuro-san,” Toturi Sezaru said with a slight bow. He nodded to his attendant, Miya Gensaiken, who shouldered a heavy bag and turned to walk toward the castle in the distance. Nakamuro thought the man looked strangely morose. “I trust word of my arrival reached you in time?”
“Yes, my lord,” Nakamuro confirmed. “Your messenger arrived yesterday.”
Sezaru nodded. “It is difficult to make polite arrangements when one can easily travel faster than one’s messengers,” he observed.
“This is your home now, my lord,” Nakamuro observed, “just as it was your mother’s. You have no need of such things. Come and go as you wish.”
“Thank you,” Sezaru said. “I had wondered at Akiko-san’s offer of fealty, as she is not truly a Phoenix. I trust there are no hard feelings among your family?”
“Of course not, Sezaru-sama. We are all delighted to have you among us. And Akiko will always be one of us – she is the daughter of the man whose names we all bear.”
Sezaru smiled wryly. “I doubt your sentiments are uniform among your people,” he said. “But I thank you nonetheless.”
“We have a suite prepared for you within Kyuden Isawa,” Nakamuro continued. “I have made arrangements for your vassal Gensaiken, as per your instructions. I have quarters reserved for your other attendants if they will be accompanying you.” He looked at Sezaru questioningly.
“They will, in time,” the Wolf answered. “Angai has commitments among her clan, and I have dismissed my Imperial attendants. They would be better served protecting the Emperor.”
“And your yojimbo?”
“Koshei is overseeing the transfer of Kyuden Tonbo back to the remaining Dragonfly,” Sezaru said. “He requires their forgiveness, as well as his own. I can think of no better way to achieve both than to allow him to return their home to them.”
“I hope he is successful,” Nakamuro said. “The Tonbo are an honorable people. To see them wallow in anger and vengeance has not been pleasant for my family. We hold our cousins in high regard.”
“Yet not so much that you could risk losing ground with the Dragon to aid the Dragonfly refugees against the Lion’s attacks,” Sezaru said reprovingly. Seeing Nakamuro’s embarrassment, his features softened. “Do not feel shame, Nakamuro. I know well enough that you alone among your kin would have moved to protect them if you could have. But you cannot excuse your family’s indifference so easily. Do not shoulder their burden, but do not dismiss it either.”
Nakamuro looked puzzled. “You do not sound as if you hold the Isawa in high regard, my lord.”
“On the contrary, there are a great many Isawa I hold in great esteem, yourself included,” Sezaru continued. “And I have nothing but respect for the devotion your people have to the kami, for it is truly a thing of wonder. That is why I expect so much of your family, and hold such high standards for your kin, standards that most fail to meet. I do not approve of the detachment and arrogance with which many Isawa regard the outside world.”
“Why did you wish to join the Phoenix, if we are so flawed?” Nakamuro asked genuinely.
Sezaru gazed up at the clouds. “I hope that I can provide direction for your people. I hope that I can remind them of their connection to the world and people around them. The Isawa’s seclusion must end, or they will destroy themselves, as they so nearly have in the past.” He looked back at Nakamuro. “I wish to remind them what it means to serve the Emperor.”
* * * * *
“This is unacceptable,” Kaneka said as he looked around the chambers. “I will not stay here.”
The young courtier accompanying him paled, and it was obvious she was struggling to maintain her composure. “I do not& my lord, these are the finest quarters in the castle. Would you like them to be refurbished?”
“No,” Kaneka said, annoyed at her confusion. He pointed to the room. “There is more wealth and finery in this room than in the chambers I once maintained in Otosan Uchi. Such things make one soft, weak. I will not debase myself with such luxury.” He turned and stepped back into the hallway. “Show me to other quarters.”
The woman’s lips pursed in thought. “What would you prefer, Kaneka-sama?”
“Show me where the guards are quartered,” he demanded. “Show me where the soldiers live.”
Within an hour’s time, Kaneka was unpacking the last of his belongings in a small, sparsely decorated chamber more befitting his demeanor. The unpacking took a surprisingly short time. He had brought virtually nothing with him. In truth, what was there that he truly valued? Very little. His armor. The wakizashi forged for him by his followers. A series of strategic works including Akodo’s Leadership and the Book of Sun Tao. Beyond that, there was nothing. Not even his katana.
Kaneka’s musing was disturbed by the sound of someone approaching. He scowled, reluctant to endure a parade of fools wishing to welcome him to his new home. None of them could understand, and he had no interest in suffering fools today.
A man clad in a simple orange kimono appeared in the doorway, carrying a long box. His face was open and honest, but lined with worry. He smiled and bowed to Kaneka. “Welcome, Kaneka-sama. It is a pleasure to have you here. I hope you find your quarters,” he looked around with a bemused expression, “to your liking.”
“I have little use for visitors today, if you don’t mind,” Kaneka said with all the patience he could muster. “I have many things to do.”
“I understand,” the man said. “That is why I have ordered that you not be disturbed for a few days.” He smiled again. “Were I you, I would not wish for visitors either.”
Kaneka frowned. “I do not believe we have ever met.”
“No, we have not. I am Shiba Mirabu, Kaneka-sama. Welcome to my home.” He bowed, but not deeply. It was the bow one gave to an equal.
“The Phoenix Champion,” Kaneka said, returning the bow. “I had heard the Council had chosen a new Champion.” He paused, carefully evaluating Mirabu. “Are you their puppet, or merely their servant?”
“Neither,” Mirabu answered without malice. “I am a soldier given no choice but to lead. I serve the Phoenix, not the Council. I simply see no reason to make them my enemy when doing so would neither serve my interests nor my clan’s.”
Kaneka grunted appreciatively. “A wise decision.”
“I brought a gift,” Mirabu continued, offering up the long box. “I thought that two soldiers such as ourselves could forego the custom of repeatedly denying it. Just this once.”
“Agreed,” Kaneka said. “I never really understood that custom in any event, though it seems to amuse my brother.” He accepted the box from Mirabu with a nod of thanks. He unwrapped it quickly, then stopped to admire the contents. “It is magnificent.”
“We do not have as many smiths as the Crane or Crab,” Mirabu said, “but I find that they are equally skilled, even if they do not gather the same attention. It is a good blade. I tested it myself.”
Kaneka only nodded, holding the katana out to feel its balance. He practiced a few brief strikes, then twirled the blade and flawlessly sheathed it and placed it into his obi. “I lost my blade recently,” he said. “You have my thanks, Mirabu-san.”
The Champion nodded. “You lost it in Daigotsu’s city? I had heard that your blade was a gift from the Water Dragon. Odd that it should not endure.”
“It was shattered on Daigotsu’s dark throne. Just as my father’s blade once broke the throne on which Fu Leng sat.” He shifted the sword slightly. “It seems each time I try to step from my father’s shadow, I only venture farther in. With this one, perhaps I can create my own tradition.”
Mirabu nodded thoughtfully. “You are welcome here, Kaneka-sama. I shall aid you in whatever endeavors you wish. But I must ask one question, and it is best that I do it now, before time and politics have a chance to influence us both.”
Kaneka frowned. “Ask what you will.”
“Why?” Mirabu inquired. “Of all clans, why did you join the Phoenix?”
Kaneka was silent for a moment. “I have my reasons,” he finally said. “I am not ready to discuss them yet.”
“As you wish,” Mirabu said. “I will not press the issue. I do have to wonder, however, what you plan to accomplish here.” His features grew serious. “I have great respect for you and for your family, but I will not allow anything to threaten my people.”
“Have you not heard the Emperor’s proclamation?” Kaneka said innocently. “I am to rebuild my army, to serve in his name.” He nodded to Mirabu. “If you wish me to leave your armies untouched, I shall. There are enough others to serve me among the other clans if need be.”
“Those Shiba who wish to serve you may,” Mirabu said, “so long as the Phoenix lands are your home. I would expect you to defend your home against any enemies we may possess, however.”
“It has been a long time since I had anywhere I could truly call home,” Kaneka said. “If this is to be my home, then I promise you I shall die before anyone takes it from me.”
* * * * *
Sezaru sat wearily at his writing desk. There were limits to even his vast willpower, and he had taxed them to the utmost over the past few days. Forging a new Empire in his brother’s name would be difficult. He hoped he could prove equal to the task. His family’s honor demanded it.
A slight noise from the study’s entrance aroused his attention. Never looking back, Sezaru casually waved his hand over his left shoulder. A would-be assassin clad in dark robes was lifted from the floor and sent hurtling across the room to collide heavily with the empty shelves. A sharp cry of pain followed by a resounding thud was the only sound.
Two Shiba guards burst into the room, blades at the ready. “My lord, are you well?” one shouted as the other moved between Sezaru and his assailant.
“Yes,” he said curtly. “Leave.”
“My lord,” the first bushi began&
Sezaru glanced over his shoulder, his eyes ablaze with power. “Leave now.”
The guard opened his mouth, then closed it and bowed quickly. The two confused men disappeared into the corridor beyond and closed the door. Sezaru could not fault them for their actions. They were only doing as they had been taught from childhood. As was, perhaps, his attacker. “They would have killed you in an instant,” he told the dark robed man. “I have granted you mercy. You would do well to earn it.”
The man said nothing, and Sezaru could feel the welling of dark energy as he summoned some black spell to attack. A simple infusion of the Void defeated such plans, scattering the fouls spirits who would power such magic. The man gasped in surprise as his power disappeared, leaving him defenseless against one of the most powerful men in Rokugan. “Do not test my patience,” Sezaru admonished. “You will find it wanting.”
“I have nothing to say to you,” the assassin rasped hoarsely. “Kill me if you wish. Better that than facing failure.”
Sezaru’s eyes narrowed. He could easily open the man’s mind and take whatever information he needed. There was precious little the fool could do to stop him if he wished to do so. And yet& since Tsudao’s death, Sezaru had found that he valued life far more than ever before. His lust for vengeance had finally been sated, and he remembered the love of life and the kami that he had once known as a child. His hatred for the Shadowlands and corruption burned as bright as ever, but was now tempered with a deep respect for life.
A presence suddenly filled the room. “Mistress, no!” the assassin gasped, then doubled over in agony. The hissing sound of his breath was terrible to hear, but was over almost as soon as it began. The man straightened again, and this time regarded Sezaru with strange, blood-red eyes. “You should never have come here.”
“But I have,” Sezaru answered. “I have sensed some darkness growing within the Phoenix lands, and I am here to destroy it. To destroy you. Your pawn has failed, as will all others you pit against me.” He drew himself up, an aura of power filling the room. “I am Toturi Sezaru, Voice of the Emperor, and I will not allow your evil to threaten his reign.”
“We shall see,” the assassin said. There was a sickening gurgle, and blood flowed freely from his eyes. He collapsed to the floor, his eyes staring emptily at the ceiling. Dead.
“We shall see indeed,” Sezaru said. He reached into his pouch for a scroll, then began offering a prayer for the departed man’s soul.
* * * * *
It was late in the evening before Kaneka ever left the dojo. He had been the only one present for hours, launching into series after series of long, taxing kata. His face was a mask of concentration and frustration the entire time, although no one was there to take notice. He only stopped after his entire body screamed for relief, his teeth tightly clenched, his brow furrowed, his entire frame drenched in perspiration.
Kaneka found a servant and ordered hot water to be prepared in his quarters, then made a brief stop at a shrine to pray for his father’s guidance, his mother’s patience, and his sister’s wisdom. He briefly considered a prayer for the Emperor’s continued well-being, but could not yet bring himself to utter such words. His prayers complete, Kaneka returned to his chambers for a cleansing bath and much-needed sleep.
The door slid open easily, and Kaneka found two figures waiting for him in the dim light of a single lantern. Fury welled up inside him at the disruption, and he snarled as if preparing to attack them. One figure rose, and the light illuminated her face, immediately halting Kaneka’s impending explosive anger. “Akiko-sama,” he said, surprise evident in his voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I merely wanted to assure myself that you had arrived safely and were being treated properly,” Akiko said with a smile. “Tanitsu, light another lantern please. It’s far too dark in here for polite conversation.” She turned back to Kaneka. “I was going to object to you being given these accommodations, but I understand you requested them. Why is that, if you do not mind my asking?”
“Give a hungry man a feast and he will stuff himself until he is useless,” Kaneka responded. “I prefer to remain hungry. It fortifies the soul.”
Doji Akiko raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. “I am relieved to find you have what you wish, in any event. My personal attendants and I will be able to provide you with anything you require. Feel free to call upon me if you find yourself experiencing difficulty. I am certain you will be at home here among the Phoenix.”
Kaneka smiled ruefully. “Far more so than among the Crane, wouldn’t you say?”
Doji Tanitsu looked at Kaneka curiously. Kaneka noted that the young man did not look well, having lost some weight and taken on a decidedly pale aspect. “Why do you say that, Kaneka-sama?” the courtier asked.
The former Shogun lifted a rice-ball from his desk and took a bite. “Do you not wonder why your mistress invited me to join the Phoenix rather than the Crane, the clan to which she currently belongs?”
Tanitsu glanced sidelong at Akiko. “I would never question Akiko-sama’s wishes.”
Kaneka snorted. “How diplomatic of you.” He looked at Akiko expectantly.
The Master of Water sighed. “You would be a great ally to the Crane, of course, Kaneka-sama, but you and my husband are far too similar to ever cooperate fully. If you had joined us, it would only divide the Crane. I could not do such a thing.”
“Not to mention that many among your people hate me,” Kaneka added. “The Yasuki provinces and my defeat of Kaiten still weigh heavily on their minds.” He smiled ruefully. “But as a Phoenix, the Crane’s closest allies and the clan of your father, you would gain my aid without causing such a rift. My military might could be used for political gain, both yours and mine.” He continued to chew the rice ball. “An intriguing proposition, despite that I loath politics.”
“Why did you accept?” Tanitsu asked quietly.
Akiko looked at Tanitsu in surprise, but Kaneka waved away her objection. He looked at the morose young courtier carefully. “Of all my allies and advisors,” he said after a while, “you alone have treated me as a friend. Not because you stood to gain from it, but because you knew my brothers and loved my sister.” Tanitsu paled even further at the mention of Tsudao, but Kaneka continued. “Because you have been a friend with no thought of using me to advance your agenda, because of Tsudao, I will answer your question.” Kaneka set the rice ball aside and sat heavily upon his futon, staring at the wooden floorboards with an exhausted expression.
“I knew the instant Akiko offered fealty to the Phoenix that it was a political gambit. Although I said that I loathe politics, I accepted it nonetheless. I have ruled and lived by force, and have achieved nothing for it. It is time I accepted a new path.
“Kaneka-sama, that is not true,” Akiko began.
“Please,” he said disdainfully, “do not dishonor me with placatory words. I do not begrudge you for your actions. I thank you.” He held his hands up and stared at them. “I have nothing left. My brother rules the Empire of Rokugan. I am left with a kingdom of ash.”
The two Crane remained silent, unsure of what to say. Kaneka looked up at them. “Do you know what I learned in the City of the Lost? I learned that I was easily the weakest of my siblings. Sezaru’s magic was unstoppable. Naseru’s wisdom defeated a god. Tsudao’s purity and sacrifice defeated Daigotsu. I was naught but a fool with a sword. I had always considered myself Tsudao’s equal, in combat if nothing else. Yet, when the time came, she did not hesitate to destroy herself in order to save us all, while such a thought never even entered my mind.” He gestured to the room around him. “Compared to one such as her, this is all I deserve. I must begin again. I must earn the right to call her my sister, though I never understood such things before. And so I willingly agreed to enter into this bizarre arrangement, in hopes of building something new. Something worthy.”
“You shall have whatever you require,” Akiko offered. “You are among the greatest military minds in the Empire, just as your father was. Only you doubt your prowess, Kaneka-sama.” She looked at Tanitsu expectantly.
Tanitsu cleared his throat and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “We wish to offer you a permanent bond with our clan, lord Kaneka. A symbol of our respect and admiration for you and& your family,” he stumbled over the last part. “We would be honored if you would permit us to provide a bride and estate for you, that you would always be at home among your allies, the Crane.”
Kaneka laughed. “And in doing so, help your Kakita cousins forget the wrongs I’ve done in their eyes?” He shook his head. “And what poor woman would you subject to my less than refined company?”
“My husband’s cousin, the illustrious Doji Yasuyo,” Akiko said. “Imagine the influence a union of your house and ours would yield, Kaneka-sama. Even your brother the Emperor would surely take notice.”
Kaneka’s features hardened at the mention of Naseru. He frowned. Such a thing was against his every instinct. It was convoluted and circular, exactly the sort of thing he would never have tolerated only a few months ago. And that was why he must do it. A warrior who could not change would die a failure.
“Very well,” he said. “Let us speak of alliances. And I wish to meet this Yasuyo before I will consider this offer.”