By Shawn Carman Edited by Fred Wan
The early morning sunlight had turned the endless fields into a sea of gold. Moto Taban smiled as he looked out at the radiant plains awaiting him. He patted his horse’s flank as he brushed her. She nickered excitedly, eager to ride as well. It was a habit Taban had developed as a child, and one he hoped to continue well into his twilight years: at least once a week, he rose well before his sensei and rode into the open fields, relishing the last wisps of evening cool on his face as he and his horse galloped across the way. It was the feeling of true freedom. It was the essence of what it meant to be Unicorn.
“I beg your pardon, lord,” a voice behind Taban said. He turned to see a servant kneeling, forehead pressed against the stable floor. “I do not wish to interrupt your privacy this morning, but I bring a message from your sensei. He wishes you to join him in the dojo as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Taban said at once. He patted his horse on the flank, inwardly mourning the loss of his morning ride. Still, his sensei, his teacher, had summoned him. He had no choice but to respond.
“My lord,” the messenger continued, “the honorable sensei also asked me to tell you that he expected you as soon as your morning ride was finished, not before.”
Taban frowned. “How could he know…”
The messenger still did not look up. “The honorable sensei said that he could not speak to a student whose mind was elsewhere.”
The young Unicorn samurai smiled slightly. “Tell Takai-sensei that I will be there shortly.” As the messenger departed, he turned and rubbed his horse’s face. “It has to be a short ride this morning, old friend, so let’s make it a memorable one.”
Shiro Moto was a magnificent palace, and one that was unlike anything else in the entire Empire of Rokugan. The Moto family had constructed it in the manner of their ancient ancestors, a tribe of warriors that had lived far north of Rokugan, across the vast desert known only as the Burning Sands. The other castles and palaces found throughout the Empire looked largely the same, constructed using methods and principles over a thousand years old, but Shiro Moto was exotic and unique. The word many visitors used was foreign, but to Taban and his fellow Moto, was a symbol of their strength and individuality.
By contrast, the dojo attached to Shiro Moto was rather traditional, and had little to indicate the family’s unusual origins other than a handful of decorations and weapons that were placed occasionally throughout the practice chambers. Freshly cleaned after his ride, Taban was alarmed to discover that there were only two other samurai within the building once he entered For a moment, he thought perhaps he had somehow ridden for too long, and had missed the gathering altogether. But no, he recognized the familiar stance of his sensei at the chamber’s front, and walked quickly to take his place. Upon arriving, he bowed deeply, a gesture of respect
from a student to a teacher, and took his place upon the mat.
Utaku Takai, the aged sensei, smiled at Taban. During the years the young Unicorn had studied at the dojo under the venerable Takai and other sensei, he had rarely seen the old man smile. It was only since he had succeeded at his tests and undergone the gempukku ceremony that the relationship between the two had changed, and Takai now seemed more inclined to favor his students than before. The old man wore a chrysanthemum mon on his kimono alongside the moon of the Unicorn Clan and the Utaku family. He was not only a sensei to the Unicorn, but also trained the Imperial Magistrates, the men and women that enforced the Emperor’s laws throughout the entire Empire. “Welcome, Taban.”
“Thank you, sensei,” Taban said, bowing again.
Takai gestured to the young woman sitting on the mat next to Taban. “I believe you know your fellow student, Utaku Kohana.”
“Hai,” Taban confirmed. He glanced sidelong at Kohana with a respectful nod. He had often noticed Kohana during the few occasions when their respective student groups had practiced together. She was Takai’s great-niece, and Taban was quite certain she was perhaps the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on in his entire life. Many of Taban’s friends and classmates had openly fantasized about courting the young samurai-ko, but Taban had never bothered. Even if he were a more handsome man, his marriage had been arranged since he was a child. The woman he was to wed would undergo her gempukku, the ceremony that marked the end of a student’s childhood and their entry into the ranks of the samurai that served their family and clan, in three years” time. Shortly after that, Taban imagined, they would be married.
“I must return to the Imperial City soon,” Takai said. “My duties are more important now than ever. However, before I go, I requested the privilege of granting you two your first duty assignments now that you have completed your gempukku.”
Taban was stunned for a moment “Sensei, I am honored beyond words.” For Takai to single him out in such a manner… he would never have dreamed that the sensei would choose him for such a thing.
“The honor is mine,” Takai replied. “I would ask but a single favor.”
“Anything, sensei,” Kohana said quietly.
“Before we discuss your assignments,” Takai said, “I wish to hear what assignment you would wish for yourself, if you had the freedom to choose.”
Taban drew a deep breath and considered his teacher’s question. He was uncertain how to respond, but fortunately Kohana replied first, giving him a few moments to think. “I would wish to serve with the Utaku shiotome,” she said in her soft tone.
“Why?” Takai asked. Taban wondered as well, for the stoic Kohana seemed somewhat ill-suited to such a military post.
“The Utaku Battle Maidens are the greatest cavalry force in the Empire,” she answered without hesitation. “It is the most elite sisterhood that has ever been known, and they are feared throughout Rokugan. To serve alongside them is a great challenge, and I wish to meet it.”
“Well said,” the sensei said. “And do you expect to be given such a duty?”
“I am not yet worthy,” Kohana said. “When I have proven myself, only then can I hope for such an honor.”
Takai smiled and nodded. “What of you, Taban?”
“If I could choose,” he said carefully, “I would be a scout serving with the Junghar.” “Why?” Takai asked again.
“The Junghar army is one of three armies the Unicorn maintain, and the only army assigned to protect our provinces from our enemies. To serve the Junghar is to have the honor of protecting one’s family, one’s home.”
“Why a scout?”
“Scouts scour the land,” Taban said wistfully. “There are no more beautiful lands than ours. To spend each day riding among them, the open fields and the wind in my hair… that is more than any man deserves in a mortal life.”
Takai chuckled. “Do you believe that you will receive such a post?”
“No,” Taban answered.
“The Khol, the largest and greatest of the Unicorn’s three armies, is depleted after the Khan’s attack on the Lion lands last winter. The Khan reached the Imperial City as he wished, but he was unable to take the throne because of the interference of the Lion, Crane, Dragon, and Phoenix clans. The Khol and Baraunghar armies were decimated. I expect that I will serve with the Khol, to help replenish the ranks of those lost in battle.”
“An astute belief, but somewhat presumptuous, don”t you think?” Takai chided gently. “The Khol are the greatest of all Unicorn warriors. Do you believe you are worthy to stand among such warriors?”
Taban looked down, his face reddening. “No, of course not. I… forgive my arrogance.”
“Do not apologize,” Takai said. “You, both of you, are among the finest young samurai of your generation. That you would receive such a post is not at all out of the question, but unfortunately that is not the case for the moment. There is a greater burden for you both, but one that brings great glory and honor for your families and the clan.”
“What would the Khan have of us, sensei?” Kohana asked.
Takai rose and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, walking along the northern wall and regarding the twin scimitars hanging there. “Kohana, you are student of history. Tell me everything of the Khan’s march.”
Kohana bowed her head respectfully. “When the Emperor perished on his quest for enlightenment, the throne was left empty, with an Empress that few respected ruling in her dead husband’s absence,” she began. “When the Khan, the great Moto Chagatai, discovered that his former ally the Shogun would not seize the throne, he knew that war would be inevitable when the spring came. To prevent this, he launched a military campaign in the dead of winter, something that Rokugan had never known before, and attacked the Lion provinces. He raided storehouse after storehouse, depleting the Lion’s supplies while they were unable to respond to his attacks because of the winter conditions. When the thaws came, the Lion descended upon the Khol army in the center of their lands while the Khan and the Baraunghar, the smallest and fastest of his armies, used powerful travel magic to move instantly to the Imperial City.”
“Yes,” Takai agreed. “And the result was, as Taban has already mentioned, unfavorable.”
“The Khan’s forces were virtually wiped out, and the Khan himself was greatly wounded. He was permitted to return to our lands by the Phoenix, but the Lion desire his death, and vengeance for those lost during his campaign.” Kohana shook her head. “They are positioned to attack our border at any time. Their assault is inevitable.”
“All correct.” The sensei looked to Taban. “And what has become of the throne?”
“It remains empty,” Taban answered. “The Empress, the Shogun, and anyone else who could make a legitimate claim to the throne died in the attack on the Imperial City. Now the clans are at peace, but it cannot last. With no line of succession, the throne can be taken by force, or by political power. One or the other, most likely both, will come soon.”
“And therein is our clan’s dilemma,” Takai said. “Of all the Clan Champions and those they champion to take the throne, the Khan alone is worthy. He alone possesses the will, the strength, and the clarity of purpose to guide the Empire into the next age. Any other will lead only to ruin, but those who are threatened by the Khan’s strength stand in his way. Individually, they are insignificant, but together, they cannot be easily overcome.”
“The lies of the other clans poison the people against the Khan,” Kohana said. “They see him as a barbaric conqueror.”
“It will be difficult to combat so widespread a mistaken perception,” Taban added. “The Ide family diplomats will find their work far more difficult than in the past.”
“It is a task the Ide cannot accomplish alone,” Takai said. “Their influence extends only so far. Even those of us with influence in other circles can only accomplish so much. When a new Emerald Champion is appointed, I have little doubt that he or she will dismiss me from my post within the Emerald Dojo. There are few forgiving enough to overlook my ties to the Khan.”
“Disgraceful!” Taban could not contain his outrage. “To dismiss a sensei of your distinction for such a thing! Who would dare?”
“Those who wish to see their clan place someone upon the throne,” Takai answered. “Those who have the same ambition they attribute to our Khan. To overcome this, the Unicorn must build new bridges. We must impress upon others the truth. We must demonstrate the Khan’s true nature by exposing the clans to our young samurai, men and women of character that can serve as an example to others of the true ideals we all hold.”
Realization dawned on Taban. “Us?” he blurted out. “You want us to serve as ambassadors to the other clans?”
“Sensei, we are not trained for such things,” Kohana objected.
“No training is required,” Takai assured them. “You will be given the assignments you expressed an interest in upon your return. For now, you will be assigned to one of various Unicorn delegations departing into the Empire. All you need do is to serve your superior in whatever capacity they require, and to exhibit the same traits that have impressed your sensei during your training. You will be the image that the Empire sees of our clan. Our future, and the future of the throne, could very well depend upon you.”
“Hai, sensei,” they both replied.
Taban sat atop a great rock outcropping, two hours ride from the dojo at Shiro Moto. He had been excused from his duties pending his departure from the Moto provinces. The young warrio came here often to contemplate major decisions. He had come here to collect his thoughts before traveling to the Crane provinces months ago to participate in the Topaz Championship, and now it seemed that he would be leaving again soon to serve as an attendant at the Emerald Championship. From there… he did not yet know. He only hoped that there would be open fields in which to ride.
Taban shifted on the rock and adjusted the twin blades that he carried in his obi at all times. The weight of the swords on his hip was still new to him. They had bothered him quite a bit at first, but now he did not notice them so much. Soon, he would not notice them at all. They were the mark of the samurai, and he would bring honor to them, or die in the attempt.
The young warrior rose and brushed the rock dust from his pants. He whistled sharply, causing his loyal horse to come trotting from where it had been grazing in the fields. Time was short now, and the sun was rapidly dipping toward the horizon. Tomorrow, however, would be a new day.
Moto Taban would be ready.