By Rich Wulf
“Emperor Toturi, I am grateful that you would make time to meet with such a humble servant,” Yoritomo Kitao said, bowing deeply and kneeling before the Steel Throne.
The Emperor looked down at Kitao thoughtfully, a cunning look in his eye. The Emperor’s chambers were silent, empty except for Naseru, Kitao, and a handful of the Emperor’s guards. “Truth be told, the pleasure is mine, for I have heard many tales of your remarkable adventures,” the Emperor replied. “And call me simply Emperor, or Naseru-sama if you must. Toturi the Third is a name for the heralds and histories, Naseru is the man I am today.”
“Naseru-sama,” Kitao corrected herself, raising her head with a smile but politely not meeting the Emperor’s gaze.
“What brings you to Toshi Ranbo, Kitao-san?” Naseru asked, the bemused tone in his voice implying that he already knew the answer.
“Respect, Your Majesty,” she replied. “As you know my clan has been through great turmoil since your father’s death. My own predecesor, the legendary Aramasu, was assassinated and I have done my best to restore order to the clan since that time. I come merely to show the Mantis Clan’s dedication to the your new rule.”
“How brave,” Naseru replied with a thin smile. “But from what I hear, order has never been the norm in the Mantis Isles. Since the time of Yoritomo, chaos and ambition have reigned. You have clawed your way from Minor Clan status to stand beside clans founded by the divine Kami. Yoritomo himself refused to bend knee to the Emperor, a practice my father regarded with patient amusement given Yoritomo’s indispensable tactical skills. Samurai that defy tradition in such a manner must expect to have a harsh life. Look no further than your unfortunate predecessor.”
Kitao frowned. The rumors that she had been responsible for Aramasu’s assassination had destroyed her standing in the court of late. She had already fought six duels to uphold her honor, but the whispers would not stop. Rather than press the matter with the Emperor, she merely changed the subject. “My clan’s past history is immaterial,” she said. “I wish only to deal with a traitorous usurper.”
“You speak of Yoritomo Kumiko,” Naseru replied, “the woman who claims to be Yoritomo’s daughter, the so-called Daughter of Storms?”
Kitao paused for a moment, seeming to take satisfaction in the doubt with which Naseru regarded Kumiko’s heritage. “Yes, Kumiko,” she replied. “With the help of the Yoritomo Elite Guard and the support of the Shogun, she seized Kyuden Gotei, gaining great attention for her boastful claims. Now, as you know, things have changed.”
“Those who once served the Shogun have been commanded to serve him no more,” Naseru replied.
“Exactly as you say,” Kitao nodded. “Now, in her moment of weakness, I think it would be best to deal with this errant former servant of your half-brother, and secure the leadership of the Mantis Clan.”
Naseru chuckled. “You would remove a thorn from your own side, and eliminate a possible secret ally of the Shogun,” he answered. “I wish you the best of luck, but what do you wish from me?”
“Your aid,” she replied. “What I would do here helps us both, my Emperor.”
“Perhaps,” Naseru replied with a bored shrug. “But you would kill Kumiko regardless of my aid. I know of your reputation, Kitao, and my own reign is still young. I cannot afford to risk showing favor to a pirate – especially if you fail.”
“I will not fail,” Kitao said, eyes narrowing.
“So you say,” Naseru replied, stroking his thin beard with one hand. “Still, an Emperor cannot afford undue risk. I shall not aid you, Kitao, but neither shall I hinder you. The Imperial Legions will not take sides in this affair so long as it remains confined to the Mantis territories, and any clan who interferes in the Mantis Clan’s succession shall answer to me. Further, I will offer no aid directly to the Daughter of Storms. If you shall maintain your claim of dominion over the Mantis Clan, you shall succeed or fail by your own strength. I believe you shall find this acceptable,” Naseru’s tone was flat, stony. It was clear there was no room for negotiation – the Emperor’s offer was final.
“That is more than adequate, Your Majesty,” Kitao said, bowing deeply to the Emperor again. “I thank you for your patience and generosity.”
“Indeed,” Naseru replied.
* * * * *
Placed on the shores of the Islands of Spice and Silk as it was, Kyuden Gotei was no stranger to savage storms. Hurricanes and typhoons were not uncommon. Today, however, the savage storm that shook Yoritomo Kumiko’s chosen home sent a chill through those who dwelled here.
“This is no natural storm,” Yoritomo Kamoto said in a bleak voice as he paced the castle’s central audience chamber. “All my instincts cry that it comes from magic.”
“Your instincts cry true,” replied Yoritomo Yoyonagi. The pretty young poet knelt cross-legged in the corner of the room, eyes closed in meditation. “Those foolish Moshi who follow Kitao have summoned this storm.”
“I always choose to visit at the most interesting times,” replied Rezan. The ronin leaned casually against the wall. His posture was relaxed, but his eyes were calm and prepared.
“Will they invade tonight?” Moshi Mogai asked, looking urgently from Rezan to Kamoto. The little courtier ran one hand nervously over his balding head. “Are we prepared for this?”
“We have been prepared for months,” Kamoto replied, continuing to pace.
“Is that true?” Mogai replied dubiously. “Morale has sagged since Kumiko’s disappearance. I know that you have done your best, Kamoto-sama, but the people’s hopes were united behind the Daughter of Storms.”
“You think that I do not know that, Mogai?” Kamoto snapped, scowling down at the little man. “I have done everything within my power to keep morale high. And what have you done besides fret and worry?”
“Cease,” Yoyonagi replied in a low voice. “No need to abuse Mogai so, he can hardly defend himself. If we fight among ourselves, we will win Kitao’s victory for her. Kumiko will be here.”
“How do you know?” Mogai asked eagerly. “Your magic?”
“I do not need magic,” Yoyonagi replied. She left her meditation and rose, fixing Mogai with depthless black eyes. “A destiny as powerful as Kumiko’s is so clear I can see it without aid. The path of the Mantis Clan shall be defined tonight.”
* * * * *
The Bitter Flower cut through the sea like a Kakita master’s blade, its route direct and true toward the city of Kyuden Gotei. The storm parted around it, shifting into a strong wind to propel Kitao’s flagship forward. To either side, a dozen ships sailed toward the city, the bulk of the Storm Legion navy. Yoritomo Naizen stood at the bow of her ship, his weathered features expressionless. He wore a full suit of armor – a rare risk for a samurai at sea – a brilliant green helmet clutched under one arm. To Naizen’s eye, victory seemed imminent, but such knowledge held no joy for him. Naizen was skilled at battle, but never allowed the lust for victory to overwhelm his good sense. Such self-control had made him a successful pirate, and now it made him a cunning general.
“What is your summation, Naizen?” Kitao asked, joining him at the bow of the ship.
“It will not be long now, Kitao-sama,” Yoritomo Naizen said simply.
“Kumiko chose poorly when she stole my home from beneath me,” Kitao replied with a nod. “Without the Shogun’s sword she cannot hold Kyuden Gotei. Tonight, we punish her.”
Naizen nodded as he continued to study the shore. The city was essentially indefensible with its many ports sprawled across the beaches. The city itself had no walls to speak of. The ocean was Kyuden Gotei’s wall. Against the other seven Great Clans it was a mighty defense indeed – but not against a force led by fellow Mantis.
“Kyuden Gotei will fall tonight, Lady Kitao,” Naizen said.
Lightning crackled in the sky overhead, casting a harsh blare across Kitao’s fleet. In the distance, she could see soldiers beginning to line the shores, watch fires burning on the beaches. The storm her shugenja had summoned would warn them – Kumiko’s shugenja were too powerful not to realize the weather was not natural. Even so, the wind and rain would confuse and exhaust her foes before she arrived. When the Bitter Flower landed, all that remained was to claim her city as her own once more.
Just as Kitao turned away from the bow to return to her quarters, a sudden roar of wind drew her attention. She glanced back to see a funnel of raging water erupt from the ocean nearby, stretching from the sea to the clouds above, twice the breadth of the Bitter Flower.
Kitao turned to the shugenja standing at the mast, head bowed in concentration over his scrolls. “Ishada, what is the meaning of this?” she demanded. “Is that waterspout your doing or theirs?”
The man looked up, wet lanky hair falling about his features. He stared at the spout in confusion, as if such a thing could not possibly exist. “It is not my doing,” he replied in a gravely voice. “The wind and storm are under my control. There can be no defiance, not even from the kami. That spout cannot exist.”
The deck lurched as the funnel made a path directly toward the Bitter Flower. Kitao slapped Ishada across the face. “Open your eyes, fool, it is real enough! Turn about! Ishada, fill our sails so that we can avoid that spout!”
“Yes& yes mistress,” the shugenja mumbled, stunned.
The Bitter Flower turned, Ishada’s winds filling its sails. The waterspout continued to bear down upon the flagship at full speed. Naizen watched the waterspout with a calm expression, standing unmoved as the deck pitched beneath them.
“There is something powerful within that spout!” Ishada shouted over the storm. “My magic, the magic of my shugenja, we cannot undo it!”
“Useless fool,” Kitao snapped. “This must be Komori’s work, or that fool Kaigen and his Storm Riders. Naizen?”
Naizen nodded. He lifted his brilliant helmet and placed it upon his head. Immediately, his perceptions of the world shifted. All was blazing energy and living spirit. Above it all, he could see the image of a great dragon, watching down over the islands of the Mantis with a patient frown.
“Yoritomo Naizen, the pirate,” the Thunder Dragon said, its voice for Naizen’s ears alone. “Or are you Naizen the general? Or are the two men the same?”
“I am Naizen, nothing more,” the samurai said, his voice only for the dragon. “I am Yoritomo, descended from the first Dragon of Thunder. We are kin, and your helmet has served me well. I would return it now.”
“So be it,” the Thunder Dragon said. “I will grant you a boon in return. What do you wish?”
Naizen paused a moment in thought. He considered demanding that the dragon slay Kumiko and her followers, for surely they were at the heart of the storm. He even briefly considered demanding Kitao’s death as well – perhaps after this civil war neither she nor the Daughter of Storms were truly fit to lead. Perhaps he& but no. He had learned the price of arrogance and greed long ago. His was a new path now, the path of the Mantis.
“I wish only for Kumiko and Kitao to face one another as equals,” he replied. “Let the best Mantis triumph.”
The dragon nodded, its electric eyes widening in respect. “So be it, Yoritomo Naizen. You have shown great wisdom today. Keep my helmet& you may need it again one day.”
And with that, Ishada’s typhoon was washed away. The waterspout vanished, leaving Kumiko’s flagship revealed in its heart barely a hundred feet away. The fleet was left dead upon the water, with only a small breeze casting Kumiko’s ship toward the Bitter Flower. The sun stood high in the sky, bright and clear in the windless sky. A young woman stood in the bow of the opposing flagship, arms held across her chest, each holding a silver kama. Kitao glared at her from across the sea and drew her katana in readiness.
And for the first time, Kitao and Kumiko faced one another.
* * * * *
“Traitor!” both women shouted as one.
Yoritomo Kumiko leapt from the bow of her ship as it drew close to the Bitter Flower, landing in a roll. Kitao stepped back, allowing five of her warriors to charge forward with staffs and clubs. Two fell immediately, golden-fletched arrows in their chests. Kumiko swept another from his feet with a well-placed kick and a kami in the hearts of each of the remaining two. She glared at Kitao through the blood and screams of the dying men.
“Fight me yourself, coward!” she roared. “Or would you force me to spill more Mantis blood as you spilled my brother’s?” Three of Kumiko’s elite guard landed on the Bitter Flower behind her. The Tsuruchi archer that crouched in the crow’s nest of Kumiko’s ship drew another arrow. Kumiko tucked one kama behind her obi and drew the katana at her side. The length of the blade crackled with electricity. All that saw the blade recognized it – Nobori Raiu, the Celestial Sword of the Mantis.
Kitao looked at Naizen and the others. For the first time, she saw a flicker of doubt in their eyes. Ishada stared at her in open fear. She could not refuse this challenge. She must fight for her rule, here and now, or stand in Kumiko’s shadow forever.
“Fine then, Daughter of Storms,” Kitao said with a mocking chuckle. “If you truly possess your father’s strength, then prove it. Without the aid of magical blades.”
Kumiko nodded calmly and sheathed the celestial sword. She held her hand out to one side, and a soldier obediently handed her his katana. The two women circled one another beside the Bitter Flower’s mast, eyes filled with mutual hatred. They lunged at one another, and sparks erupted as their blades locked with one another. Kitao let one hand fall free from her blade, savagely punching Kumiko in the throat.
The Daughter of Storms stumbled backward and Kitao pressed her advantage, lunging forward with her blade. Kumiko dropped her katana and rolled forward. A dagger appeared in her hand with the flick of a wrist and she pulled the blade across the back of Kitao’s left knee. Kitao shrieked and fell forward. Kumiko leaped onto her rival’s back, one knee pinning Kitao’s sword arm to the ground. She pressed her dagger to Kitao’s throat.
* * * * *
Kumiko felt the roar of blood behind her ears, the thirst for vengeance. She could feel the darkness deep inside her driving her hand, urging her to press her blade deeper into her enemy’s throat. She fought the madness, pushed the beast aside, and merely held Kitao where she was. The lessons the Unbroken had taught her served her well, granting her the power to fight the Taint that lay within her. She looked up at her ship, floating beside the Bitter Flower. She saw Yoritomo Komori standing at the bow. The old shugenja watched with a solemn, uncertain expression. She saw Tsuruchi Okame sitting atop the mast, a white glint from the tip of his drawn arrow.
Kitao’s breath came in gasps. She tried to twist beneath Kumiko, but the Daughter of Storms held her firmly to the deck. A thin line of blood trailed down Kitao’s throat where Kumiko’s dagger bit into flesh.
“Kill me, then,” Kitao whispered bitterly. “Build your claim on blood as I did. Another Daughter of Storms will come for you.”
“You are defeated, Kitao,” Kumiko replied. “But I give you mercy, freely and without demand of anything in return& save your continued loyalty to the Mantis.”
Kitao opened her mouth to reply, perhaps a bitter retort or a snide insult. The sudden roar behind them washed everything away. A cloud of shadow billowed outward from behind the shugenja Ishada, congealing into an enormous insect form. The creature looked much like a mantis, though its body was twisted and smelled of fetid decay. An alarmed outcry erupted across the Bitter Flower. Six Storm Legionnaires immediately charged the beast, seeking to protect their fallen mistress. It cut them all down with a single sweep of its claw and lumbered toward Kumiko and Kitao. Yoritomo Naizen stepped before the creature, sword drawn, but was sent flying backward by a heavy kick from the demon’s foreleg. Kumiko lifted her weight from Kitao, looking up to face the Onisu of Larceny with her father’s kama in her hands.
The demon lifted its claws, and a flash of light erupted from its face as Tsuruchi Okame’s crystal arrow struck home. The beast fell back upon the deck, flailing at its burning face. Kumiko charged forward, her slim form ducking between the claws, and buried her kama in the demon’s chest. It shrieked and wailed as she savaged its torso with the sharp blades, and within a few moments it was gone, body melting into shadow once again. A surge of energy flowed through Kitao as it died, the Unbroken magic doing its work. She fell to her knees as a sudden burning energy surged through her body. The Taint that festered inside her reared up like a wounded animal, screaming and shrieking as it was consumed.
And as it did so, Kumiko heard a sibilant voice inside her, a voice that could only have been the Onisu’s. “You are no better than Kitao,” the demon chuckled to her. “Now that you are free of your corruption, you are freed of your responsibility. Darkness will consume you, and this time it will be your own.”
“We shall see, demon,” she whispered back as she felt the last hints of her Taint trickle away.
* * * * *
Kumiko knelt on the floor, head bowed, and held forth an elaborately lacquered box. The lid was open to reveal a crystal arrow – the same that had laid the Onisu low. “I now return the gift that you gave to me, my lord,” she said sincerely, “and your thanks for your aid in a most difficult battle.”
“The gift was not for you, it was for Okame,” the man said as one of his guards accepted the box. “I did promise not to aid you, after all.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Kumiko said with a small smile.
“So Okame’s fears were founded after all,” Naseru said. “It was truly one of the Onisu who was at the heart of your clan’s civil war.”
“Okame has hunted the demon for over a year now, but I do not believe Settozai was entirely to blame,” Kumiko replied with a weary sigh. “Kitao’s treachery and ambition were her own. I think that the demon only intended to feed off of our conflict, and grow strong as the Mantis Clan shed its own blood. The beast was larceny incarnate, and Okame warned me that a sincere gift freely given would weaken it. By showing Kitao mercy after all the hatred she has shown me, we were able to weaken the beast enough to draw it from the shadow of the tsukai it hid behind. Your arrow was enough to distract it so that I could deal the killing blow.”
“A Unicorn trinket,” the Emperor said with a chuckle, accepting the box as the guard handed it to him. “It seems as Emperor I have a virtual armory of such things now. I wonder where half of them even come from. I am pleased that this one could be of use.” Naseru lifted the arrow in his long fingers, considering the crystal tip before looking down at Kumiko again. “And what of Kitao? Did you truly spare her life?”
Kumiko nodded. “She lives. If my offer were not sincere, the Onisu could not have been defeated.”
“Unfortunate,” Naseru said, returning the arrow to its box.
“Pardon my temerity,” Kumiko replied, “but Kitao’s servants said that you made your own arrangements with her, agreeing not to interfere in our battle.”
“And what of it?” the Emperor replied. “Kitao was like a mad dog, to be treated with utmost caution. I did not lie to her, for the Emperor’s word is truth, but I allowed her to believe I supported her until she could be disposed of. Ambition is a fine thing, but when untempered by scruples or loyalty it only brings harm. Her survival is unfortunate. She will be a danger again one day, I think.”
“I understand,” Kumiko said quietly. “Again, I thank you for your aid, my Emperor.”
Naseru laughed. “It is you who have aided me this day, Kumiko-san, for relieving me of the burden of having such a reprehensible person as one of my Champions. You have done me a favor, and you have my gratitude.”
“But why would the Emperor require favors or give gratitude?” Kumiko replied. “We are all samurai. We are yours to command.”
The Emperor chuckled. “I might have thought the same, once, but the Emperor is much like any other man. I may find myself in need of allies one day, Kumiko-san, and thus I am grateful. My your reign over the Mantis Clan be as legendary as your father’s, Daughter of Storms.”
“I thank you, your Majesty,” Kumiko said with pride. She bowed to the Emperor, but not as deeply as she might. After all, her father’s spirit might be watching.