The Promise of Spring
By Shawn Carman
The chill of winter filled the Moto lands, but the unyielding stone floor beneath Genki’s legs had long since ceased to be cool to the touch. The samurai-ko ignored the throbbing in her calves and thighs, and bowed her head to the touch the floor again. The shrine was a small one, hidden most remote corridors of Shiro Moto. She completed her prayer and lifted her head once more.
The shrine was modest, bearing only the most essential embellishments. It was stark, cold, and unforgiving, much like the man whose memory it celebrated. Only two elements marked it as different from many others like it scattered across the castle. On one side hung a simple scroll satchel, now empty and well worn. Moto Chang had been a priest of the kami, if a rather unorthodox one. On the other side hung a long-sword, a gaijin weapon of surprising length and weight. Few among the Unicorn yet carried them, for they were a remnant of a culture that lived far beyond the Moto lands. Chang had wielded the weapon with unsurpassed skill. Shugenja. Swordsman. Magistrate. Chang’s life had been a strange combination of disjointed notions and ideas.
Genki prayed now, as she often did, for her father’s guidance and wisdom. He had fallen at Oblivion’s Gate, and she missed his brusque and uncompromising outlook now more than ever. He never hesitated when faced with a difficult decision. He never faltered when adversity reared its head. Even in death he had refused to submit, unleashing a spell with his final breath that had destroyed ten score of his enemies.
How she wished for that unfailing confidence now. Genki closed her eyes and breathed deeply, hoping as she had for weeks now that the Fortunes would bless her with a moment of clarity and she would see her true course. Thus far, the Fortunes had abandoned her. Could she truly blame them?
Finally, Genki accepted that no insight would come regardless of how long she sat before her father’s shrine. With a final prayer, she rose and brushed the dust and wrinkles from her kimono. Her troubles were hers and hers alone, it seemed. So be it. She was a Moto, and Moto did not shy away from that which troubled them.
Genki headed back toward her quarters, staying to the corridors most often used by servants. Servants would not dare speak to her, and therefore she would not be expected to make conversation. It was something she found difficult of late.
“I thought I might find you her,” a woman’s voice said. A woman clad in the Shinjo colors stepped out from a doorway and blocked the corridor, her arms crossed and a smirk upon he lips. She was a small woman, but held herself with an earnest, eager confidence. “Did you think you could escape me forever?”
Genki was taken aback at first, but then a warm smile appeared on her face. “Of course not, my lady Haruko-sama.” A mischievous glint gleamed in her eye. “I could never be so blessed by the Fortunes as that.”
Haruko smirked for a moment, then burst into laughter. “I was beginning to worry, Genki-san,” she said. “I have not seen you in weeks. It has been a long time since anything save duty has separated us for so long.”
“I know, Haruko-san,” Genki said. “Forgive me. I have been preoccupied.”
“And I wager I know with what,” Haruko said with a wry grin. “You haven’t yet asked why I’m here.”
Genki raised her eyebrows. “But you come here often, Haruko-san.”
“I do, yes,” Haruko agreed. “But today I bring great news.”
The younger woman shook her head. “Very well, then. What great honor has come to the house of Moto?”
“I arrived in the company of my brother, of course,” she answered smugly. “He has come to make a report of his activities to the Khan. And, perhaps, for other business.”
Genki’s breath caught in her throat for a brief moment, and she looked down at the floor, embarrassed at her girlish gesture. “Does Shono& wish to see me?”
Haruko laughed shortly. “If he does not, then he is a fool. Well, more foolish anyway as my brother is quite the fool from time to time.” She smiled. “Come. Let us find your betrothed in the Khan’s court.”
* * * * *
The Khan held court infrequently, far more disposed as he was to battle than the minutia of court and politics. When he did hold an open court, there were always dozens who wished to meet with him or petition him for one matter or another. Genki had seen the Khan grow wroth on his dais many times, driven to the point of fury by the petty annoyances of it all. Moto Chagatai would storm from the chamber, leaving his Ide advisors to deal with the aftermath of his exit. He would not return for days or even weeks at a time, allowing the number of those seeking his counsel to grow, and the process would repeat itself. It seemed quite inefficient to Genki, but it was not her place to challenge her lord’s will.
Today, fortunately, matters had not yet reached the point of angering the Khan, although he did not seem terribly content to be among the many visitors and guests. As she watched, fully half a dozen courtiers and ambassadors from various clans moved about him like vultures above a kill, each waiting for a spare moment in which to offer their no doubt invaluable insight.
Chagatai’s distaste was not long-lived, however. A man clad in splendid robes approached the Khan and spoke to him briefly. The Khan immediately left the courtiers behind and stood aside for several minutes, speaking to the man. Finally, Chagatai nodded and clapped the man on the shoulder, a gesture she had often seen him use to express appreciation to those who served him. The other courtiers exchanged glances, unaccustomed to seeing physical contact in court, but said nothing. The man bowed deeply before the Khan and turned to leave the court. As he did, the lantern light glinted a bright purple from his left eye.
Shinjo Shono, General of the Junghar army and daimyo of the Shinjo family, approached the two women. He smiled when he saw them, nodding briefly to Haruko. “Konnichiwa, sister,” he said shortly. He turned to Genki, and his smile grew broader. “Greetings, Genki-chan.” He seemed to struggle for words for a moment before finally blurting out “I have missed you.”
“Oh, very elegant, brother,” Haruko said, shaking her head slightly. “I marvel daily that you have not married long before now.”
Genki ignored Haruko. She found it difficult to keep eye contact with Shono, not because his strange crystal eye disturbed her as it did so many others, but because the very sight of the man filled her with such conflict and indecision. “Hello, Shono-kun,” she finally said, somewhat breathlessly. “It has been too long.”
“I know,” he said apologetically. “My duties near the Shinomen demand a great deal of my time, and I do not expect that to change in the near future. The Khan seems well pleased, however, and when spring comes, we shall both be pardoned from our duties for a short time after the wedding.”
“I’m glad,” she said. It was a struggle to ignore the twisting of her innards.
“Good,” he said. “Let us walk. There is much to speak of, and sadly little time.”
With Haruko standing aside, the two left the court chambers and headed toward the garden, deep in conversation.
* * * * *
The winter storm raged on unabated, with the roaring wind audible even in Shiro Morito’s innermost chambers. Morito, Ox Clan daimyo and lord of the Dragon Heart Plain, sat in quiet contemplation in his private quarters. He had always hated the winter. It was all but impossible to conduct any significant military maneuvers during the winter, and that was the one thing the Ox lord enjoyed the most. He felt truly alive when riding across the plains at the head of his small but fearsome army. In there winter, there was little else to do but wait. Wait, and plan.
There was a rustling sound across the room. Morito scowled. “Your theatrics will have no effect on me, Tiger. You might as well show yourself.”
A heavily cloaked form seemed to melt from the darker portions of the room. A golden mask gleamed from the shadows, the symbol of a tiger emblazoned upon its forehead. “Why Master Steel,” said a strange metallic voice, “you do me a disservice.”
Morito grunted. “I know some of the others fear you, Tiger, but I do not. You wield power only over the disloyal and the treacherous. My dedication to our cause is absolute. No man among the Kolat is my superior. Not even you.”
“Of course not,” Master Tiger said blandly. His voice, his tone, his posture were noncommittal. Tiger never revealed anything without necessity – even the assumption that he was male was just that – an assumption. “We are both Masters, are we not? Equals, not superiors.” He crossed to room to stand near the table where Morito sat. “And as Masters it falls to men such as you and I to deal with the most unpleasant of matters. Such as Shinjo Shono. Rumor in the court has it that he is to be married again.”
“And you wish vengeance upon him again?” Morito asked.
“When he murdered his father we promised that his family would know no peace,” Tiger replied. “We have fulfilled that promise once already. Among the Masters, you know Shono best. What counsel do you offer? The other Masters wait for your input.”
Morito was silent for a time, thoughtful “Shinjo Shono is not our only enemy within the Unicorn,” he finally said. “Moto Chen would be more dangerous, I think, were he not so preoccupied with your agent. His brother. I forget his name.”
“Chaozhu has many talents,” Tiger mused. “Occupying Chen’s attention is but one of them. Do not underestimate that which might be useful. Chaozhu is one of Shono’s chief lieutenants, after all.”
“Can we use him against Shono?” Morito asked.
“I think not,” Master Tiger said, admiring a set of Yobanjin blades hanging on the wall. “Chaozhu could very well inherit command of the Junghar in the event of Shono’s death. Far too valuable a tool to risk at this juncture.” He turned back to Morito. “At any rate, we must be discreet. Master Dream and Master Cloud have both detected powerful portents surrounding Shono’s marriage. To meddle in such events can be dangerous.”
“I have heard Dream and Cloud’s claims, and am unconvinced they are a concern,” Morito said with a chuckle. “Are you afraid, Tiger?”
Tiger fixed Morito with a pointed look. “Cautious,” he corrected. “I am always cautious. Shono’s bride must die, but we will move slowly. Carefully. As is our way.”
“I have never understood your shadow games, Tiger,” Morito said. “If Shono angers, you, kill him. Do not attack his family and friends.”
“You know it is not so simple,” Master Tiger agreed. “We have cultivated a belief that we no longer exist, a belief that serves our purposes well, despite Shono’s claims to the contrary. That Shono continues to survive is proof that his claims are false.”
“Bah,” Morito said. “There are many ways to kill a man. We could destroy Shinjo and make it seem like an act of politics, a shift in the tides of battle, or even an act of nature.”
“Perhaps,” Tiger said. “But as he poses no true danger to us, we are content to sate our vengeance against him in other ways. And yet& this latest prediction. It vexes me.”
“Vexing,” Morito repeated. “Vexing is an interesting choice of words. I would have chosen another.”
“I hope that isn’t fear I hear in your voice, Master Steel,” Tiger admonished, an edge hidden in his voice. “It would be most unbecoming.”
“I fear no mortal man,” Morito growled. “Remember that, Tiger.”
“Perhaps not, but then this is not truly a matter of men, is it? At least not if Dream and Cloud are correct.”
Morito could think of nothing to say, and so said nothing. He merely sat and listened to the winter wind roaring around his castle and wished for spring.
* * * * *
Only moments ago, the Khan had been congratulating Shono on the efficient execution of his duties. But the old samurai recalled another conversation, one that had taken place not so long ago. He had advised Shono to seek new allies, to find a way to bring his house closer to those who might prove useful. Marriage, the Khan had said, would be the quickest path to such an end. Nothing cemented an alliance like marriage. The idea of marriage had seemed almost alien to Shono at that time. He knew Genki then, of course, and had known and admired her for years. But he had never even considered marriage. Not since&
Shono had excused himself from his talk with Genki and left the garden. He knew she would be confused by his withdrawal, given that they had been apart for so long, but he could not help himself. He needed a moment to collect his thoughts. He found it in a smaller stable outside Shiro Moto. There was no one around, and for just a moment Shono could be alone with the ghosts of his past.
“What’s going on?” a familiar voice asked.
Shono quickly wiped his face with the sleeve of his kimono and looked up with a feigned scowl. “Am I not allowed a moment’s peace, then?” he demanded.
“Not when you’re acting this way, no,” Haruko said defiantly. His sister’s face softened. She looked up at her taller brother with a worried expression. “What’s happened? Are you crying?”
“No,” Shono said with a bitter laugh. “A samurai does not cry.”
“I have better things to do with my time than listen to foolish bravado,” Haruko snapped. “Now tell me why you left Genki in the garden? She probably thinks you’ve abandoned her.”
“I& I wouldn’t do that,” Shono said, glancing back in the direction of the garden. “She knows that I wouldn’t, doesn’t she?”
“Of course,” Haruko replied. “I just needed to get your attention.” She took her brother’s hand patiently. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Shono shook his head. “The idea of marriage again, after all this time.” He hesitated. “I was thinking of Suren, and of the children.”
His sister nodded. “I know they must be in your thoughts often. You know they would want this. They would want for you to be happy. For you to restore our family.”
Shono nodded. “I know. But it is& difficult.”
“Of course it is,” Haruko said. “I was there with you when it happened, and even I cannot imagine how difficult it must be.”
“After they were& after they died,” he offered, “I swore that I would never allow give the Kolat such a target again. I don’t know if I can do that to Genki, or to myself.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Haruko chided. “What happened to Suren and your children was a tragedy, but you did not fully understand our enemy then. Look at all you’ve done since that time. That was years ago, Shono. You can protect Genki. You can defend our family’s home. You never need lose her, unless you falter.” She smiled. “I have never known you to falter, brother.”
Shono smiled weakly. “I want to believe you are correct,” he said. “Genki is like no woman I’ve ever met. She reminds me of Suren on occasion, but they are so different.”
“Suren would have liked her,” Haruko said. “They are both strong-willed.”
Shono laughed roughly. “That’s a bit of an understatement,” he said.
Haruko smiled, and the two stood quietly for a moment. “What made you change your mind?” she finally asked.
“About marriage?” Shono replied. “To be honest, I don’t really know. I have always been impressed with Genki. She is skilled with the blade, possesses a keen mind, and knows when to speak it. I don’t know that I have ever met a woman possessed of such a range of abilities.”
“When we were children, I remember she always took to new things very quickly,” Haruko agreed. “She was so eager to master new tasks.”
“But it isn’t only that,” he continued. “She is thoughtful, intelligent. She is always ready to discuss new ideas and share her views. Shortly after we first met, we were both wounded in combat and we spent a great deal of time together recovering. Talking to her& it was intoxicating. It still is.”
“And, of course, she is quite beautiful,” Haruko said with grin.
“Yes,” Shono agreed immediately. “Pure and elegant, like the first snowfall in winter.”
Haruko reached up and placed her hand on her brother’s cheek. “I know this is all very difficult, Shono. I know it must be painful. But you must see the truth. You know this is for the best. It will make you happy.” She smiled again. “And if you don’t marry her, I’ll gain a great deal of prestige by arranging for her to marry someone else, so I will emerge victorious either way, and I can’t imagine your reputation could get any worse.” She smirked.
Shono laughed. “You would say that. But you won’t get the chance to find out. I will marry Genki.”
“Good,” she said. “Now, I promised Genki I would bring you back, and a Shinjo keeps her promises. And this time, if you two don’t stay in the same place, I’m going to be very cross with you both.”
“Ugh,” Shono replied with a smile. “I think I’d rather face the Kolat.”
* * * * *