By Shawn Carman
Iron Mountain Dojo, year 1158, the year of Toturi I’s death
The courtyard was filled with the sounds of young men and women in training. Dozens of the Dragon Clan’s finest youths were present in the courtyard, conducting weapon exercises under close supervision by their sensei. Today’s instruction was in the use of the bo, a weapon most other clans chose to ignore during their training. The Dragon did things a bit differently, of course. They studied every weapon, if only briefly, so that they might understand it and be able to defend against it.
Mirumoto Uso smiled. His duties as the family daimyo often kept him busy for weeks or even months on end with little opportunity for relaxation. When he could, he took time to watch the young samurai of Iron Mountain Dojo practicing. It was only a short distance from Shiro Mirumoto, and Uso enjoyed the walk almost as much as the dojo. It gave him a moment of solitude, and the dojo allowed him to see firsthand the goal for which he strove each day: the future of the Dragon Clan.
While he watched, a sensei stepped in to correct a student’s form. Uso remembered well the days he had spent within this very dojo, and relished the memories. He could not live in simple times, perhaps, but none could fault him for dwelling upon them when the opportunity arose.
“My lord Uso-sama?”
Uso turned to find a student waiting, head bowed. The older students were frequently given responsibilities around the dojo, serving as messengers for the sensei and tutors for the younger pupils. Smiling at the boy’s obvious anxiety, Uso replied, “Yes?”
“My lord, forgive the intrusion, but there is a visitor to see you.”
“Here?” Uso frowned. “I prefer not to be disturbed.”
“Of course, Uso-sama,” the boy stammered. “My sensei would never have disturbed you at all, save that your visitor& he bears an Imperial seal, my lord. My sensei remains with him. If you wish, he offers to send the messenger on his way to Shiro Mirumoto.”
“No,” said Uso, his frown deepening. “No, admit him. I will see him.”
“At once, my lord,” the young man said, sounding at once relieved to be dismissed and delighted to have delivered his message to so illustrious a guest. Uso watched him descend the stairs with a grimace. There was nowhere, it seemed, that he could escape his burdens. He straightened his kimono and took a moment to be certain that he was presentable in a manner befitting his position. A few moments later, he heard the soft sound of sandaled feet ascending the stair.
Uso resisted the urge to remain where he was, presenting his back to the newcomer. It would be satisfying to insult whoever was interrupting his serenity, to be certain, but Uso represented not just his family, but his clan as well. Personal satisfaction was not a luxury he could indulge in at whim. Reluctantly, he turned from the training before him and faced his visitor, a look of mild surprise coming across his features when he finally regarded the man. “I am Mirumoto Uso,” he said. “How may I serve an Imperial representative?”
“I thank you for seeing me, my lord,” the visitor said smoothly. “I know how very busy a man of your position must be.” When Uso said nothing, the stranger continued. “I am Bayushi Paneki, my lord, a representative of the Imperial Legions and an advisor to the lady Toturi Tsudao, commander of the First Legion.” The Scorpion looked out over the training field. “I do hope you aren’t too busy to receive the Emperor Toturi’s appointed Defender of the Empire?”
Uso felt annoyance at the flagrant pandering. “Of course, the Dragon are honored to receive such an illustrious guest, Paneki-san,” he offered. “Again, how may I serve the Empire’s interests?”
The Scorpion looked downward briefly in what might be a show of regret, but Uso felt nothing from him. No joy, no sadness, nothing. To a man as accustomed to reading an opponent as Uso was, it was disturbing to sense such emptiness. “I regret that I must be the bearer of ill tidings, my lord,” Paneki said. “I recently discovered information among the Legions’ archives that I fear could bring great dishonor to the Dragon Clan. I felt it imperative that I bring this information directly to you, in honor of our clans’ alliance.”
Outwardly, Uso remained impassive. Inwardly, however, he was alarmed. The Scorpion never acted charitably unless it served their interests, and they only spoke of alliances when they wished to take advantage of them. “Your concern is much appreciated, Paneki-san,” he said carefully. “What information have you discovered?”
Paneki held forth a scroll bearing the Imperial seal. Uso took it, fearing the worst. He was not disappointed.
* * * * *
A young man stood nervously in a waiting chamber. He had been taken from the courtyard where he had been practicing with the bo and ordered to bath quickly and dress for a meeting with his daimyo. Although he had seen Mirumoto Uso watching practice on numerous occasions, he had never imagined that the daimyo was paying attention to him personally. The entire affair was very strange, and it made him anxious.
After only a few moments waiting, a servant emerged. “You may enter, sama,” the woman said with a bow. The boy nodded absently and stepped into the room, his palms suddenly moist and his mouth very dry.
Inside the chamber, the boy’s sensei stood waiting with Mirumoto Uso. The daimyo smiled, but it seemed somehow sad. His sensei was expressionless, as always. “Hello,” Uso said. “You are Ichiro, then?”
“Hai, Uso-sama,” the boy said loudly, bowing so deeply that he almost fell over, then standing up quickly with a reddening face.
“There must be thirty young men named Ichiro in your class alone,” Uso said, shaking his head. “I suppose that comes of the Mirumoto adhering so closely to tradition. You are Ichiro, son of Junnosuke, correct?”
“Hai,” the boy said again, feeling a swell of pride that Uso knew of his father.
The daimyo nodded, his expression grim. He glanced to the sensei once, who also nodded. “I have grim news for you, Ichiro. It will be difficult to hear, but you must hear it.”
“Has my father been killed in duty?” the boy asked. His eyes were yet bright, and he knew inwardly that if his father had died, it would have been cutting down the clan’s enemies. He would feel no sorrow if that were the case, only pride.
“I regret that that is not the case,” Uso said heavily. “I recently received information about your father’s time serving with the Imperial Legions some years ago. You were aware he served the Legion?”
The boy nodded. “He does not speak of it often, but I have heard my mother tell of it.”
“Just today I was presented with information about an incident when your father was among the Legion,” Uso continued. “He was dishonored as a result of a poor command decision, but rather than bear his shame he chose to blackmail a superior officer into concealing it.” He paused to look at the boy carefully. “I have cast your father out from the Mirumoto forever, Ichiro. He is ronin now, and has left the Dragon lands in the company of other deserters.”
Ichiro blinked and frowned. Uso’s words made no sense. Was this some sort of strange test? He glanced at his sensei, who was regarding him with apparent disdain, only deepening his confusion. He was one of the finest students in his class. Why would they play such a cruel trick? “I do not understand,” he finally managed.
“This must be difficult for you,” Uso said. “You must understand, however. Your father is now an outcast. You are the head of your household now, or you will be when you undergo your gempukku next fall. You must be prepared to accept that responsibility.” He paused for a moment. “Bayushi Paneki and I have determined that your arranged marriage to a daughter of the Soshi line will proceed as planned, despite this& unfortunate incident.”
The boy stood blankly for several moments. “I don’t believe you,” he finally said.
The sensei frowned but Uso only nodded. “Try to understand.” he began.
“No!” Ichiro shouted, suddenly full of rage. “You’re lying! My father would never have.”
The sensei crossed the room in mere seconds and struck Ichiro heavily across the face. It felt as if the building itself had collapsed on him, and he staggered to the floor with his vision blurred. “You will not speak to your daimyo that way, child,” the sensei said, emphasizing the last word. “Do so again and you will find your punishment more than you can bear.”
Ichiro blinked several times, his eyes clouded and confused. “Hai, sensei,” he said quietly, almost on reflex. “Forgive me, Uso-sama,” he knelt and touched his head to the floor. Tears stung in his eyes. “I have dishonored my family further with my outburst.” He struggled to keep his voice from cracking. “I will never question you again, my lord.” How could he have done such a thing? He was a thoughtless fool. If his father had been here, he would have turned his back upon him in shame.
Uso waved the sensei away. “It is understandable, Ichiro. You are dismissed. It has been a difficult day. Perhaps you should be excused from your studies for a week to& put your house in order?” The daimyo looked at the sensei expectantly.
“No, my lord,” Ichiro said. “I will continue my studies.” He met Uso’s eyes with a gaze like steel despite the shame he felt. “My father would have wanted it that way.”
Uso nodded wordlessly, and Ichiro rose to leave. As he exited the chamber, he saw the daimyo and sensei share a strange look, communicating some feeling he could not discern. It mattered little.
* * * * *
Near Shiro Mirumoto, year 1161, second year of Toturi III’s reign
Two men staggered among the rocks on the path to Shiro Mirumoto. Both were wounded, but one more so. The wounded man leaned heavily upon his companion, who struggled under the burden. “We’re almost there,” the stronger man said. “Hold on just a little longer.” His voice was strained, but certain.
A short time later, there the light of torches was visible on the horizon. Both men redoubled their efforts, but their speed did not increase. It was nearly half an hour before they were within sight of the castle. There was distant shouting from the wall surrounding the castle, and within a few moments a squad of heavily armed guards appeared from its gates. “You there!” shouted one. “State your names and business, please!”
“I see& things haven’t& changed much,” the more severely wounded man gasped, a rough chuckle escaping. “Courteous& yet unyielding.”
“Your names, travelers,” the guard insisted.
“I am Mirumoto Kenzo,” the stronger man said. “We need your help!”
“Kenzo,” one of the guards said. “I know of you. You’re the outcast’s son.”
Kenzo’s eyes flashed angrily, but he continued. “Can’t you see we need your aid?”
The wounded man lifted his head. “I am Mirumoto Temoru. This man saved my life. Turn him away, and I will turn away as well. Explain that to Uso-sama if you dare.”
The guard’s eyes widened. “Temoru-sama!” The men sheathed their blades and rushed forward to aid the two men. “What happened to you?”
“Yobanjin bandits,” he said. “Near the border. There were too many.”
“We will take a patrol and destroy them, Temoru-sama,” the head guard said, eagerness and anger in his voice.
“No need,” Temoru said. “There are no more. They killed my comrades, but they will never trouble any other travelers. Kenzo found me, and we saw to that. Now please, this scroll must reach Uso-sama.”
“It will, Temoru-sama,” the guard said, taking the scroll. “As will you.”
Temoru did not hear the guard’s assurances. He had fallen unconscious.
There was light. Light and the murmuring of voices. Temoru struggled to awaken, his body resisting it utterly. In the end, he forced his eyes to open, then sat up suddenly.
“Easy, my friend,” Mirumoto Uso said, holding up one hand. “You have suffered some rather serious injuries. Rest now.”
“I cannot,” Temoru insisted. “There is too much to explain. Did you receive the scroll?”
“I did,” Uso confirmed. “Kenzo,” he nodded to the young man standing in the background, “delivered it the second he made certain you were safe.”
The wounded warrior shook his head. “He should have left me. That scroll is far more important than I.”
Uso shook his head. “You are both valuable,” he said firmly. “I must admit that I have feared you long dead. Thank the Fortunes that you have returned to us.”
“I have discovered much,” Temoru said. “There may yet be a way to stop the Last Wish. What news of the war, my lord?”
Uso’s face fell, and for a moment Temoru feared that the Dragon had already fallen to the Phoenix. Perhaps Shiro Mirumoto was a mere remnant of the clan’s destruction, a testament to the Phoenix’s vaunted pacifism and mercy. “The war is over, Temoru,” Uso finally said, his voice full of pity. “The Last Wish and its master disappeared years ago. Tamori Shaitung and Isawa Nakamuro forged a lasting peace by defeating the Dark Oracle of Fire, the true cause of all our pain.”
Temoru sat quietly for several minutes, saying nothing. He felt the color drain from his face. “How long have I been away?” he finally said, confusion evident on his face.
“Just over two years,” Uso answered.
“Years?” Temoru exclaimed, jumping to his feet and instantly staggering under his wounds.
“I’m sorry, old friend,” Uso said quietly. “I did not mean to send you away for so long. That was never my intention.”
The samurai shook his head suddenly. “Two years,” he said dully, sitting heavily on the mat. “I& I didn’t know. It did not seem so long.”
“Do not think of it,” Uso advised. “Tell us what you have learned.”
Temoru sat blankly for a moment, then nodded. “The Wish is more powerful than we have imagined, Uso-sama, but its power is not infinite. I have learned something of its origins.”
“That is excellent news, then,” Uso said. “I fear the day Aikune returns, for if he has not mastered the Wish’s power, we will be helpless against him.”
“There is a city far north of Rokugan, a Yobanjin settlement called the City of Gold,” Temoru said. “I found the symbol of Isawa decorating its gates. I believe that Isawa was born of the people there, and that the secrets he used to create the Wish over a thousand years ago have their origin somewhere within the city’s vast libraries.”
Uso’s face was tense. “Have you found them?”
The warrior slumped back onto the bed. “No, my lord. I spent much time gaining their trust and learning the Yobanjin’s language. Although many speak a crude form of Rokugani, their written language is like nothing I have ever seen. Only in the few months prior to my departure did I truly begin searching.” He looked up at his daimyo, his gaze more certain now. “The Wish’s weakness is that which give it such power: it is a living thing, an aware mind with all the flaws that accompany such things. What’s more, I have found hints of an ancient race of creatures who created something similar thousands of years ago.”
Uso paled. “Another Wish?”
“No, my lord, something similar, but different. I believe that if I can find accounts of its fate, we will learn that which we need to know to end the Wish’s threat.” He nodded to the scroll. “All that I have discovered is recorded there.”
The Mirumoto daimyo unrolled the scroll and looked over it briefly. He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Do you believe these theories to be true?”
“I have seen too much to disbelieve them, my lord,” Temoru answered truthfully.
Uso shook his head in disbelief. “This means that many beliefs we have about nemuranai.”
“Cannot be true,” Temoru finished. “It is difficult to contemplate.”
Uso frowned and set the scroll aside, his brow creased in thought. “The other clans will not accept such information,” he observed. “They are not open to new ideas, especially those as& heretical as these.”
“Agreed,” Temoru said. “Yet we cannot ignore the facts, as the Kitsuki might say.”
“What would you recommend, Temoru? You know what we face far better than I.”
The warrior thought for several moments, leaving the room in silence. “First, I must return to the City of Gold,” he finally said. “With your leave, my lord, I will take with me a small number of assistants. Scholars, men and women with keen minds that can aid me in my search.”
“You shall have all that you require,” Uso said instantly.
“We must also be ever vigilant,” Temoru continued. “There are items such as those described in the scroll within the Empire, items that pose a threat to us all. We must seek them out, discreetly, and make certain we understand the secrets they possess.”
“The Wish and the Dark Covenant of Fire are proof enough of that,” Uso said grimly. “Our people, and many others besides, have suffered because of them.”
“We will never be prepared if we do not understand the threat,” Temoru finished. “They are like an enemy lurking on our borders. I, for one, would never feel comfortable with wolves at the gate unless I knew that I could slay them should they attack.”
“You are as wise as ever, old friend,” Uso said with a faint smile. “We will proceed as soon as you are able. In three days time, I will have all that you need ready to depart.”
“I would go in the morning, with your leave, my lord.”
“No,” Uso insisted. “You must rest, and heal. Kenzo will attend you, and serve as your hands until you are ready.” The daimyo gestured to the young guard standing watch by the door. Kenzo nodded and bowed to his daimyo.
Temoru stared at the young man intently. “I did not notice before, but you seem familiar to me, Kenzo-san. Have we met before you found me on the path?”
Uso cleared his throat. “I believe you served with Kenzo’s father at one point.”
“Oh? Who is your father, Kenzo-san?” Even as he said it, Temoru recalled the guard’s declaration of Kenzo as the outcast’s son’ and realized who he must be.
“A hero,” the young man answered sincerely, cutting Uso’s reply off. “A great soldier and leader. Mirumoto Junnosuke.”
“Enough for now,” Uso said suddenly. “There is much to do, and little time. Temoru, rest. Kenzo will be here if you need anything. I go to make arrangements.”
Temoru bowed as best he could and then reclined on the mat, suddenly exhausted. As he slipped toward sleep, he asked one final question. “Kenzo, where is your father now?”
“Dead,” the young man answered flatly. Temoru sensed something jagged in the boy’s voice, but sleep claimed him before he could wonder at what it might be.
* * * * *
Mirumoto Uso sat in his private chambers, deep in thought. The candles had burned low long ago, but he hardly noticed. Six months ago, Temoru and his subordinates had left heading northeast toward the Empire’s border, bound for this City of Gold. Since then, Uso had heard very little from him. Temoru was cautious about his relationship to the Yobanjin, and would trust only a few messengers to travel back and forth between the city and Shiro Mirumoto. Kenzo was chief among them.
This entire matter was disturbing on many levels. Uso had never considered himself pious by any means, but he prayed to the Fortunes and his ancestors daily. Perhaps he did not understand the kami as a shugenja might, but he understood enough to know that the information in Temoru’s scroll was dangerous. Should the Phoenix learn of Temoru’s efforts, they would doubtless view the City of Gold as a holding of the Tribe of Isawa and demand access to all his findings. The two clans’ shaky peace would likely not survive, for the Dragon would never surrender what they had rightfully earned.
There was someone else in the room.
Uso sprang up from his mat with speed that only a warrior with decades of training could possess. He grabbed his blades from their rack and drew them, turning and holding them in a defensive screen just in time to deflect a small throwing blade that whistled toward him from the room’s shadows.
Before the knife stopped skidding across the floor, Uso sprang back across the room into the shadows from whence it came. He executed a lightning fast kata, the Stone Striking Water, designed for use against a foe that could not be seen. He thought perhaps he felt his blade pass through flesh, but in the darkness he could not be certain.
Something struck Uso along the left side of the face, blinding him with pain and sending him reeling. Instinct took over, and his blades deflected another strike, then two more in rapid succession. A fourth strike glanced of Uso’s wakizashi, but then a low kick struck him in the right knee, sending a wave of pain up his leg as something within it snapped.
Uso was driven to his knees, his defensive screen failing. A short strike cut deeply into his arm, and his katana fell away uselessly. Uso’s vision cleared just in time to see his assailant draw back the blade and plunge it deep into his abdomen.
The pain lasted only a moment, then there was a sudden calm, a stillness that Uso had never felt before. He stared down at the blade buried in his stomach. There was a strange gleaming along the edge, a light that was not reflected, but somehow part of the blade. Through failing eyes, Uso could see a man twisting and screaming in the reflection. As he watched, a thin mist poured forth from his wound and circled the blade. A second face appeared in the reflection, and Uso recognized it as his own.
“This is a Shamesword,” his assassin whispered. “A blade forged by a madman using the soul of a disgraced Dragon samurai. Do you recognize this one?”
Uso struggled to respond, but could not speak. A trail of blood trickled down his chin. In a final moment of clarity, he looked past the mask and recognized his attacker, but could not speak the name.
The assassin pulled the blade free. Uso slumped to the floor, his field of vision rapidly fading to black. There was shouting somewhere in the background, but he could not make out the words.
Mirumoto Uso made one final prayer to the Fortunes, then closed his eyes and went to join his ancestors.
* * * * *
Uso’s funeral was not as grand as it should have been, but was still larger than the daimyo would have liked. Rosanjin had known him well, and for many years, and knew that Uso would have wished for a simple end. Instead, hundreds of bushi who had served under him or who had been his students came from all over the Dragon lands to pay their respects. The daimyo of the other families were there, as well as many visitors from outside the Dragon lands. Rosanjin could almost hear Uso’s lamentation that even in death his life was unnecessarily complex. The thought brought him comfort, but only very little.
Kitsuki Mizuochi approached Rosanjin, his aged features grim. “Rosanjin-san, I would speak with you if I may.”
“Of course, Mizuochi-sama,” the warrior responded with a quick bow.
“There will be no need to speak to me with such deference,” the older man said. “Uso had no heir, as you well know. Documents we have found in his possession indicate that his wish was for you to assume control of the family in the event that he became unable to do so.”
“What?” Rosanjin asked, incredulous. “Mizuochi-sama, there must be some mistake.”
“There is none,” Mizuochi replied. “Uso’s wishes are very clear in this matter.”
“But should we not trace his line back and find a suitable relative?” Rosanjin persisted.
“No,” a strong voice said from Rosanjin’s left. Despite himself, the samurai started at the sound. Only a moment ago, there had been no one there save he and the Kitsuki. Now, Togashi Satsu, Dragon Clan Champion stood before him, his strange, golden eyes inscrutable. “There is no need for such a thing. Uso was a wise man, and I support his decision. You are now the Mirumoto daimyo, Rosanjin.”
Rosanjin looked from one to the other, perplexed. After a moment, he sighed and nodded slowly. “It will be as you wish, Satsu-sama, though I do not feel worthy.”
“Any man who felt worthy of such a duty would certainly not be,” Satsu said. He turned to leave, then looked back over his shoulder. “Find the ones who did this, Rosanjin. Find them, and bring justice to the Dragon lands.”
“I will,” Rosanjin vowed.
Rosanjin was reading the latest in what he felt was surely an unending series of scrolls when the soft knock came at the door. He looked up, feeling the muscles in his neck creak from hours of hunching over the writing desk. “Enter,” he said.
The doors slid open and a young Dragon samurai stepped inside. “You sent for me, Rosanjin-sama?”
“Mirumoto Kenzo,” Rosanjin said. “Yes, I did.” He gestured at a large pile of opened scrolls. “I saw you and your bride at the funeral. A Scorpion, isn’t she?”
Kenzo frowned slightly. “Yes, my lord.”
“An outstanding means of maintaining our ties to the Scorpion,” Rosanjin observed with an approving nod. “But that isn’t why I summoned you. You have traveled to the City of Gold on more than one occasion, is that not so?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Temoru came to visit me before he left some months ago,” Rosanjin continued. “He told me that he had taken you into his confidence, and what a promising student he believed you were.”
Kenzo nodded respectfully.
“Do not thank me,” the daimyo said. “I advised him against taking you. Because of your father.” Kenzo said nothing, but he glanced down and his jaw muscles clenched noticeably. “And of course Temoru reminded me that I am often a fool,” Rosanjin added.
“You are not your father,” Rosanjin said. “You are an honorable man who has served loyally and well despite the scorn others have heaped on you. You are a strong man, and one who has endured hardship that you have not deserved.”
“No,” Kenzo agreed quietly. “I have not deserved it.”
“And so,” Rosanjin continued, “you shall aid me in enacting Uso’s last plans. You are hereby promoted to the rank of gunso. Assemble two-dozen men to serve you. I will authorize their transfer to your command. While we prepare them for their duties, you will deliver word of Uso’s death to Temoru. He will need to know what has happened.”
“At once, my lord,” Kenzo answered eagerly. “What will our duty be, Rosanjin-sama?”
The daimyo looked down at the pile of scrolls with something between disgust and fear. “Protecting the Empire, Kenzo. Protecting the Empire.”