Two figures rode beneath a setting moon, Jigoku on their heels.
“Chancellor-sama?” The guard’s voice shook with fear. “You have a visitor.”
“Yes, of course, Hasame-san.” Takuan looked up from the papers he had been given to review: taxes, petitions, tedious minutia of the Emperor’s duties. A visitor would be a welcome change. Any visitor, save this one.
* * *
With their horses dying from the strain, sleep is a distant memory. All that matters is that they arrive in time to learn the truth. In their minds, they still hear Kaede’s words:
“I know what you are looking for.”
Three samurai stood in the Crane’s chamber doorway, a flurry of courtiers surrounding them. Words flew and hands fluttered, and the confused samurai tried to answer the questions of the assembly.
“How did you ”
“Kizoku, please.” A hushed voice carried across the chatter easily. “These samurai are weary and wounded. Let us show them the hospitality of the Emperor’s palace.” Kakita Yoshi stood on the dais, dress in the fine robes of the Imperial Advisor. “They have travelled far with their burden, and certainly it is not too much to ask that they be given peace.” The Crane bowed politely as they began to disperse to a reluctant distance, and Yoshi gestured to the three men to join him on the dais, where a servant was bringing food.
As they approached, a maiden whispered in her master’s ear. “The court awaits you, Yoshi-sama.”
“Let them wait, Shizue.” Yoshi smiled behind his fan as the men approached.
“But, Master.” Her protest died on her lips as the samurai stepped onto the dais. Beside her, Kakita Yoshi smiled encouragingly and gestured to the three men with his white gan.
“Rest. Eat,” Yoshi smiled, “and when you are ready, speak to me of the Emperor.”
* * *
A thunderclap and the bright glare of lightning tore the night apart. Dawn was coming soon, and the road was near its end. In the distance, the banners of the Emperor beckoned from above Otosan Uchi. Hiroru looked at his companion. Their horses were heroically attempting to keep up the rapid pace. Ginawa’s face was set like a stone mask, one hand tight about his horse;s reins as if he could urge it on with pure strength of will.
The other clutched his sword with desperate fingers.
Takuan stood before the Jade Throne, his face pale and his eyes dim. Where his Crane advisor should have been, the place at his side was devoid of movement, empty even of shadow.
“My people,” he began, and his voice was thin and weak. Nevertheless, in the hushed court it echoed like a thunderclap. “I have served as your Chancellor for a year, and it has been the greatest honor of my life. But now, I have another duty to perform.”
* * *
The rumors could not be ture. Must not.
How could they be?
Seppun Toshiken stood overlooking the Emperor’s garden, his face carved from stone. In his hand was the sword of the Emerald Champion, borne by a hundered other men for nearly a thousand years. Borne by Toshimoko-sama himself. “Do you have any final words?”
A man in white, kneeling on the ground before him, shook his head. “I serve my Emperor, and for that, I am not ashamed.”
The wakizashi cut once. Twice. The man’s mouth opened.
And the Emerald Champion’s katana ended it all.
* * *
The golden palace shone in the sun’s light like a piece of the heavens themselves. The palace of Otosan Uchi: resting place of a thousand Hantei souls. Toturi’s palace. Each hoofbeat brought them closer, but the dead lingered in their hearts.
The mad seer screamed at them as they passed, his torn Phoenix robes gathered about him. “Return! Returned! Return! Returned! Lost, lost lost.”
Standing before the Jade Throne, Yoritomo Hogosha and Otomo Banu argued, their raucous cries like those of crows descending on a field of the dead.
“Mine is the true claim!” Banu screamed, face turning purple.
“I challenge for it in the name of my lord! No other man in the Empire can hold the peace. Only the champion of the Mantis has the strength to unify our country before the Shadowlands come again. And this time, where will your Thunders’ be, to drive them out?” Although his voice was calm, Hogosha’s hands shook with anger.
“The blood of Hantei runs through my veins.” Banu continued.
“Only in part. You are an Otomo.”
“That does not matter. My line holds the blood of the Hantei.” With a triumphant smile, Banu looked around the chamber at the courtiers. Like sheep, they watched, waiting for some sign, some clear direction of whom to follow. Banu stepped towards the Jade Throne, reaching to touch it with a covetous hand.
“The Mantis attack my people,” whispered a young Phoenix maiden. “We will not folow you, Hogosha. Your cause is lost.” Around her, other nodded. “My clan supports Banu’s claim.” A secret look passed between Osugi and the Otomo, then fell to dust.
Hogosha turned upon her with fury, but Banu laughed from the dais. “The Throne is mine!”
“No, Banu-san.” A stern, commanding voice rumbled from the open doors at the rear of the chamber. “The Throne belongs to me.”
Behind them, three men stood in the doorway. One was a Crane. One was the Emerald Champion.
The third man was Toturi, his black eyes cold as ice.
* * *
One man will find his master.
“Ginawa, no!” Hiroru clutched at his friend’s arm, holding it against his side. It took all of his strength to keep the ronin’s arm from moving, from pulling the sword free of its blood-red saya. “That’s not Toturi. It’s not.” Ginawa’s rage turned his eyes red. Beneath his rough hand, the sword hummed in glee. “It can’t be.”
“The Chancellor is dead.” Kakita Yoshi’s voice rang with uncustomary weariness through the courtroom. “All hail the return of Toturi the First!” Around them, the crowd began to fall to its knees in reverence and relief. From the top of the tall, golden stairs, the Emperor looked down, his hands resting lightly on the arms of the Jade Throne.
The other will kill him.
* * *
Winter has fallen upon the fields of the Jade Empire, and blood stains the soft white snow. Outside the palace of Otosan Uchi, armies march again but this time, out of the palace and towards the land of the seven great Clans.
The Mantis lead the Alliance openly now, guiding the fates of the smaller clans who have sought shelter beneath Yoritomo’s powerful voice. Their attempt to marshal the lands of the Scorpion failed, and they were driven north by the Crane. Loath to attack even the lightly defended provinces of the Lion, the eighth Clan marches north, toward the empty Shiba palaces. However, another army also enters Phoenix lands the family of the Agasha, torn by its devotion to Hitomi and its fear of her new beginning’. Although a few loyal shugenja refused to leave their champion, the family has broken its ties with the Dragon and sworn fealty to Tsukune and her Clan. The Crane are divided by betrayal and loyalty. Daidoji Uji has sworn to have the head of the Jade Champion and destroy his family’s estates in retribution for the suffering the Lion once caused the Crane. Furious at his lieutenant’s insubordination, Doji Kuwanan continues towards the Emperor’s palace and the rear of the Mantis armies.
And the Empire has been rocked by greater news: the return of Toturi. Seated once more on his Jade Throne, the Emperor commands the Unicorn now standing at his right hand to make war upon the Lion for their betrayal. Tsunari, champion of the Lion stands outside Kyunden Hida with sword drawn, as the Unicorn carry messages between the two great generals. And from the Shadowlands, even darker news: the death of a Thunder.