The Flowers, the Snow
by Nancy Sauer and Fred Wan
Bayushi Saya looked around the room, enjoying the sight of power ebbing and flowing through the conversations around her. Last year’s Winter Court at Kyuden Otomo had been exceedingly lively, from all accounts, and this year’s promised to be almost as amusing. And she had Doji Domotai to thank for it.
The Scorpion courtier raised her fan and moved it gently in front of her face, using it as cover as she continued her study. Since the beginning of the Empire the nobles of the Crane Clan had been the highest arbiters of style and taste. An artist recognized as talented by the Kakita masters instantly received offers of patronage from the wealthy and powerful. A tea master retained by a high-ranking Crane daimyo received invitations to the winter courts of high-ranking daimyo in other clans. And last week when Doji Domotai, Champion of the Crane, walked into the main court of Kyuden Otomo wearing robes that had been current at the time of Hantei X, she had instantly rendered every other woman in the room unfashionable. The logic was inescapable: Lady Doji could not be wrong, so everyone else had to be. Saya had been impressed: Never before had she seen a naked display of power so artfully clothed.
Domotai herself was now standing near the dais at the front of the room, speaking with Otomo Hoketuhime. The Crane was wearing a rich blue over-robe patterned with pine branches over a set of five under-robes dyed in successively paler shades of blue, ending in a white robe. The robes were left open and were worn over a maroon kimono and hakama set. Both the front opening of the robes and the wide, bell-like sleeves had been cut to show the layers underneath in a rippling display of color. Hoketuhime was wearing a set of robes that had multiple shades of yellow and gold over a blue-green kimono and hakama. Saya had done enough reading over the past few days to know that this had been a color combination popular for mid-winter in the time of Hantei X, and so its resemblance to the colors of the Hantei family was only a coincidence. The same way the fact that Hantei X had been an Otomo before the main Hantei family line had died out and he was obliged to rejoin the family and become Emperor was a coincidence.
Domotai’s appearance had set off a scramble for fabric and seamstresses as everyone in court tried to follow her lead. And then the fun had really begun, Saya thought, because every kimono shop within reach of the palace claimed to be busy making clothing for Lady Doji’, and could not accept any further businessunless Lady Doji said so. Sprinkled about the room were the fortunate ones: ladies of Hoketuhime’s and Domotai’s households, high-ranking visitors from the Phoenix and Lion Clans, and Yoritomo Yoyonagi, the Amethyst Champion. Everyone else was engaged in a decorous and frantic effort to exchange enough favors to get access to the new fashion, because appearing in court so dressed would mean that you were either important enough that Lady Doji had presented you with a set or you were clever enough to get one on your own. And an unfortunate few were already known to be doomed to failure on that point. Saya smiled slightly at the sight of Yasuki Miliko in conversation with Isawa Ochiai, who was gorgeously robed in a combination of reds and yellows. The Crab had been trying desperately to get a set, to keep up her prestige as Ruby Champion, but no one seemed interested in crossing Lady Doji on her own ground.
Saya’s meditations were interrupted by the sight of Asahina Beniha approaching. The Crane was dressed in a set of white, pink and green robes that was supposed to evoke nature sleeping under a cover of snow but which made Saya think of something bought at a confectioner’s shop. Of course, she mused, confectionary might just be the angle Beniha was going for.
“Good morning, Basyushi-san,” Beniha said pleasantly.
“Good morning, Asahina-san,” Saya said.
“I could not help but notice that you were admiring Master Ochiai’s clothing. Is it not beautiful? She wears warm colors so wonderfully.”
“Indeed. I was also noticing your Champion’squite bold of her to use the shades of purple scheme, but to alter the colors used. ”
“Ah, a scholar of the art!” Beniha said. “I am eager to see what combinations you will use. Scorpion women are justly known for their sense of style.”
Saya glanced over to the Asahina with new interest. As a member of Domotai’s household Beniha would know perfectly well that she had yet to obtain any of the new fashion, and while running salt into the wound was a legitimate tactic in court is wasn’t normally the Crane’s style. “Sadly, that will not be for some time. All the kimono shops are swamped, and I have been unable to place an order.” She hadn’t found anyone she wanted to threaten with destruction over it, either. It was still early in the court season, and she had wanted to keep something in reserve.
“Truly unfortunate,” Beniha said sympathetically. She folded her fan up and tapped it against her chin a few times, as if thinking. “Perhaps I could give you the name of my kimono maker? His shop is not nearly as famous as the ones Lady Doji and Lady Otomo use, so I am certain he will be less busy.”
Saya stared at her, thinking through the possibilities. Accepting Beniha’s help would mean owing her a favor, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if she could get the robes now&. Over Beniha’s shoulder she could see Miliko, who was now in conversation with Yoyonagi, who was making it a point to carefully re-arrange her sleeves.
“You are most kind, but I would not want to trouble you.”
“It would be no trouble at all, really.”
“But surely you need him to make clothing for yourself.”
“Oh, no,” Beniha said airily, “I am well supplied.” She flicked open her fan and leaned closer. “Jorihime and I are sharing wardrobes,” she whispered. “Between the two of us we have enough clothes to last until mid-spring.”
Saya raised her own fan to cover the smile that threatened to peek out. Beniha was clearly one of the dangerous ones, she thought. The possibilities this court were presenting her with were endless. “Well, if you are certain then I would be very grateful,” she said. “If there is ever something I could do as a small token of my gratitude you have only to ask.”
“You are so very kind, Bayushi-san,” Beniha said. “I will remember that.”
* * * * *
In the north of the Empire winter came hard and early, and the wise military commander made sure that his troops were heading into winter quarters before the leaves stopped falling from the trees. In the south matters were not so clear-cut, and a general with fortunate weather and sufficient desperation could continue to march well into midwinter. Hida Dayu shrugged himself deeper into his winter cloak and promised his chilled bones that this was the last push of the season: once the Crab had Sakura no Yuki Mura in hand they could afford to let matters rest until spring.
He slid open the door of the farmhouse and walked in without bothering to take off his shoes. Inside an armored samurai wearing the colors and mon of the Daidoji sat on a campstool in front of a small table. A handful of armored samurai stood lined up against the wall behind him. Dayu waited patiently while his own honor guard filed in behind him, then he spoke. “Greetings, Daidoji-san,” he said.
“Greetings, Hida-san. I am Daidoji Zoushi, commander of the Crane forces holding this district.” He gestured at the table, which held a sake bottle and two cups. “Join me for a drink?”
“Thank you, Daidoji-san. I am Hida Dayu, commander of the Crab forces who will be holding this district tomorrow night.”
“Indeed?” Zoushi said. He poured them both sake, then picked up and drank his. “There would seem to be little for us to discuss, then. My orders are very clear.”
“There is one thing.” Dayu picked up the cup and swirled it around, enjoying the fragrance of the sake. “There is the Cherry Blossom Snow brewery,” he said, and then drank down the cup.
“What of it?” Zoushi said, pouring them another round.
“Though he was not truly the heir of the Yasuki, it cannot be denied that Daidoji Hachi”
“Yasuki Hachi,” Zoushi cut in.
“the late Emerald Champion,” Dayu said, and after a pause to see if Zoushi would object went on, “was an honorable man who served the Crab Clan to the best of his ability. In honor of his service, I pledge that my forces will not attempt to burn or otherwise destroy Sakura no Yuki Mura or its brewery.”
Zoushi drank his sake while he considered this. In purely material terms this benefited the Crab, as they desperately needed the money that the brewery would bring them. What the Crab were really offering was the implication that the Crane might win the coming battle which, Zoushi thought, was both highly flattering to his current military resources and extremely unlikely. “I am moved by your offering to the memory of the late Emerald Champion,” he said. “I too will pledge to leave the village and brewery intact, so that both of his clans may honor him.”
Dayu smiled and stood up. “Thank you, Daidoji-san. Whatever else may lie between our clans, the Crab will never forget the defense of Shinsei’s Last Hope.”
“Nor shall the Crane,” Zoushi said. He watched as the Crabs filed out of the building and then signaled his aide to refill his cup.
“Zoushi-sama,” the man said as he poured, “I do not understand. Our orders are to deny the Crab use of the brewery.”
“Yes, what about it?”
“You have just promised to hand it over to them intact.”
Zoushi gave the man a withering look and picked up his cup. Hachiman, Lord of Battles, defend me from my staff, he thought as he drank. I can deal with the Crab on my own. “What is the name of that Kakita duelist we’ve been carting around with us?”
“Kakita Kensho-in,” his aide said.
“Yes. Her. When we get back to camp I want her summoned to my command tent.”
Outside, Dayu was settling himself on his horse when one of his honor guard approached. “Yes?”
“Dayu-sama, I think you should know that I recognized one of the men that Zoushi had with him. His name is Daidoji Kojima, and he is one of those who have trained on the Wall.”
Dayu mulled this over for a moment. Daidoji who were Wall veterans were extremely tough in combat, but the Crane didn’t have that many and even if Zoushi had a legion of them it wouldn’t be enough. Still, it was something to plan for. “That’s good to know, Aya.”
* * * * *
The Cherry Blossom Snow brewery was located near a lightly wooded area that would provide excellent cover to anyone wishing to attack it. The leader of the Crab force sent to secure the brewery had recognized this immediately and had sent scouts in to provide a warning against such an attack. They had been very good scouts, Daidoji Murasaki reflected to herself, whose only real weakness had been that they hadn’t spent the previous five years obsessively mapping the area they were now operating in. She patted her map case affectionately. The Daidoji who had sworn themselves to the Crane branch of the Yasuki had not forgotten their roots.
She flicked a signal to Akagi and Naoshige, sending them off to look at the brewery proper, and waited for the rest of her force to filter in. Kojima arrived first and stood next to her. “We are running behind,” he said. “The main battle would have started an hour ago.”
“Couldn’t be helped,” Murasaki said. “It will not take long now.”
Kakita Kensho-in arrived with the next group and made her way to the Daidoji. She looked towards the small valley that held the brewery. “It is very sad, don’t you think?” she said softly. “What we are about to do?”
“What do you mean?” Murasaki said.
“All that fine craftsmanshipit is like dropping an old, beautiful vase.”
Murasaki shrugged. “Cherry Blossom Snow sells for a premium priceso the Crab can’t have it. With that kind of koku they could crack the markets back open again.”
“Still, I think it sad that something so fine should come to an end.”
“Artisans might have such thoughts, but soldiers do not. Perhaps we are fortunate in that.” Murasaki’s lifted a hand to forestall any reply and after a moment first Naoshige, then Akagi, made his appearance. “Well?” she asked.
“Ten bushi, total,” Akagi said. Naoshige nodded his agreement.
“I am pleased that they recognize that Zoushi-sama is a sincere man,” Murasaki said. “Ten bushi is an honor guard, not a deterrent.”
“Honor guard indeed,” Naoshige said. “I recognized some of themthey are the ones Hida-san had with him last night.”
There was a startled intake of breath from Kojima and Murasaki looked up to see that his face had gone a trifle pale. “The woman is there, also?” he asked. “The one with the Hiruma school mon?”
“The woman from last night, yes,” Akagi said. “I could not make out her mon; it was unfamiliar to me.”
“Her name is Hiruma Aya,” Kojima said. He hesitated for a heartbeat, and then went on. “She is one of the first students admitted to the newoldHiruma school. She is very dangerous.”
Murasaki considered this for a moment. She had no idea at all what the strengths of the reborn school were, but that scarcely matteredthe Hiruma sensei would have hand-picked students who would make it look good regardless. “Akagi,” she said, and then made a motion with her hand as if she was pulling back and releasing an arrow. He nodded. “Naoshige, their officer. Go get ready.”
* * * * *
Murasaki’s group burst out of the treeline and ran down the slope towards the brewery, letting their pale, mottled cloaks fall behind them as they went. They raised no battle cry, but the Crab samurai had no doubts about what their business was. The Crabs did not rush out to meet themthat would have given the attackers the full benefit of their momentum. Instead they arranged themselves in a line in front of the building and waited. Except for one.
Kojima saw the woman running towards them and altered his course to meet her, drawing his katana as he did so. As they ran past each other there were two clashes of sword on armor, and Kojima staggered for a few steps before turning to face her again. He could feel part of his side plates hanging free, and the burning that signaled a cut. Long but shallow, he decided after consulting the pain. Aya’s armor looked dented where he had hit, but was otherwise unharmed.
“You couldn’t beat me in the dojo,” she snarled at him, “do you think you can kill me now?”
“I already have,” he whispered, too softly for her to hear.
Aya whipped her blade up into an overhead stance and narrowed her eyes, picking out the moment to strikeand then staggered back with a shriek as an arrow struck the weak point she had exposed and embedded itself under her arm. Kojima sprang forward and kicked her feet out from underneath her. Aya lay on the ground and tried to say something, but only blood came out of her mouth. “Zoushi-sama’s word is good,” Kojima told her. “We will leave the brewery intact.” He brought his katana down and severed her neck.
Kojima shook the blood off his blade, blinking rapidly, and then looked around to see how the battle was progressing. Half the Crab samurai were already down, many with arrows sticking out of them. A few Crane were also down, and he noticed Murasaki engaged in battle with a bushi a foot taller than her. Her right arm hung oddly, and she was trying to fight, without notable success, with her katana in her left hand only. Kojima crossed the distance between them and struck from behind, removing the Crab’s head with one stroke. And then all of the Crabs were down, and the fight was over.
“What’s wrong with the arm?” he said.
“Broken,” she said. Murasaki shook the blood from her blade, reversed her grip on its hilt, and sheathed it. “In several places.” She looked up as Kensho-in came dashing out of the brewery and ran back up the slope to where they had started. “We go, now!” She cradled her right arm with her left and began to run. Kojima followed, and he did not look back.
* * * * *
Hida Dayu rode towards the brewery, letting his horse plod at its own pace. It was a long day getting longer, but he didn’t mind. His force had decisively beaten the Cranethe Daidoji had fought well, but they could not hold their ground against the advancing Crabs. The last scout report had the remains of Zoushi’s forces retreating out of the district.
“Dayu-sama,” one of his soldiers said, “look.” He pointed towards the patch of sky over the brewery, where crows were dropping out of the blue towards the ground. Dayu watched for a moment, suddenly cold, and then kicked his horse into a run.
The arrival of the Crabs scattered the carrion-bird from their feast. What had happened was easy to see; even if there had been a doubt over who the attackers were, the arrow-fletchings would have told the tale. “See the strength of the Crane,” one man said bitterly. “They cannot defeat our armies, but they can ambush ten men.” Dayu simply stared at the scene and thought. The brewery was intact, which made killing the guards senseless. Unless he dismounted and walked slowly up to the building. There was no sound about save the noise of angry soldiers and the distant caws of equally upset crows. He slid open the door and the mingled smells of cooked rice and battlefields rolled over him.
The bodies nearest the door were sprawled over rice-washing tubs or dropped baskets, cut down in the midst of their work. Dayu walked over stone floors made sticky with pooled blood and noted how the bodies changed pose as one went further in: more and more of the brewers had been attempting to flee, or were groveling for their lives, when they died. He found the brewmaster in the the koji room, among trays of fragrant koji-dusted rice.
“Why?” one of his men said behind him, and Dayu turned around.
“It’s useless to us now,” he said. Dayu pointed at the brewmaster’s corpse, then waved out towards the others. “We can make sake here, but it will just be sake. Without knowing their methods, it won’t be Cherry Blossom Snow.” He remembered the cup he had drank last night. It would be, he realized, his last taste of a sake that would soon cease to exist.
* * * * *
“I deeply regret that you and your husband were unable to accept Lady Otomo’s invitation to her winter court, ” Reiha read aloud, “and I hope that the trouble between our clans did not form a part of your decision. In token of this, I send this modest show of my regard. Doji Domotai, Daughter of Doji Kurohito, Champion of the Crane.’” Reiha put the letter down and looked at the contents of the box it had come with. It was clothing, but most of the kimonos had weirdly cut sleeves and there seemed to be entirely too many of them. The colors were pleasing, thoughdark blue shading through pearl gray, and warm brick red. “What’s her point?”
“That I should have snapped her skinny little neck when I had her within arm’s reach,” Kuon said. He strode across the room to stare out of window, hands gripping the sill tightly.
Reiha shook her head slightly. The news from Sakura no Yuki Mura had arrived yesterday, and her husband had been in a temper ever since. Domotai couldn’t have had her gift arrive at a worse time if she had planned it. “I doubt that was really her point,” she said.
“No,” Kuon said. He turned away from the window and walked back to Reiha. “I would guess that she has sent you whatever the latest court fashion is,” he said. “To remind us that the Crane Champion is a power in court and the Crab Champion isn’t. As if it mattered.”
Maybe it does, Reiha thought, but she did not voice it. Her husband had read the same reports she had, and knew perfectly well the stranglehold the Crane had placed on their supplies. Their armies had reclaimed most of the Yasuki holdings held by the Crane, but it was a real question if they could hold on to those gains come spring. Kuon stood looking down at the clothing as the silence lengthened between them, and then he spoke. “Burn them,” he said.