by Nancy Sauer
editing by Fred Wan
There was nothing particular about the warehouse to draw the eye; it was neither the best-kept nor the shabbiest in the district. Throughout the slow winter season it had kept up an irregular stream of visitors, but that could be said of some of its neighbors as well. It had roughly the same number of watchmen as the other warehouses; but there the resemblance ended. The trained eye saw that these watchmen were of a cut above the others in the district, and they pursued their duties with a professionalism that did not match their worn and faded clothing.
Bayushi Muhito stood in the shadows of a nearby shop, watched and waited. According to Shosuro Maru the warehouse belonged to the Black Lotus Cartel, and they had rebuffed her offer of mutual assistance. His mission tonight was to make sure they regretted that. No guard, however loyal and well-trained, was perfect, and all he needed was a few moments of inattention. He had been waiting for hours for one of those moments, and he could wait for hours more if needed.
Finally a break came: one guard had walked around the front corner while Muhito could see that the other was still down at the other end of the alley. He darted from his cover, reached the front of the warehouse and with one leap he grabbed the beam of the overhanging eve and pulled himself up. By the time the watchman had gained the front of the warehouse Muhito was securely wedged under the eve, waiting. It would be a long slow night, but he knew in the end there was only one outcome.
* * * * *
Shosuro Jimen looked up from his desk. “And you are?” he asked.
“I am Bayushi Kurumi, Emerald Champion-sama,” the young woman said. She knelt down on the floor and bowed deeply, giving him a fascinating view. “Shosuro Mizuno sent me with information she thought would be of use to you.”
“Very well,” he said. “What is it?”
Kurumi straightened and picked up the small chest beside her. “Champion-sama, these papers were taken from a warehouse controlled by the Black Lotus Cartel, and they contain much information on their activities. Mizuno-sama sends them to you in earnest hope that you will use the information to the Empire’s benefit.”
“No doubt,” Jimen said. He took the chest and set it to the side of his desk. “But it will be of limited use; as soon as they were discovered missing the Black Lotus will have been moving to make the information obsolete.”
“Champion-sama, I am told that the district that the warehouse was located in suffered a great fire and the warehouse itself was destroyed. Thus, the papers have probably not been missed.”
“One hopes that the individual responsible for the fire was dealt with appropriately. Was there anything else?”
Kurumi shifted a bit. “Champion-sama, there has been a new report on Kakita Noritoshi.”
“Oh?” Jimen’s tone indicated nothing more than mild interest.
“He has recently been at one of the minor Seppun courts. It is as always; he speaks about you and charges you with dishonorable behavior. After he had convinced a number of the higher-ranking samurai present, he departed.”
“I have magistrates at all of the Seppun courts. Why was he not challenged?”
“I am told that the magistrate present, Seppun Reizo, announced that your honor was beyond the need for defending. I am told that his tone of voice was quite what you would have desired.” “Seppun Reizo is an honorable man and a diligent and effective magistrate. I shall miss him greatly.” Jimen shrugged slightly. “Anything else?”
“Very well. Give Mizuno my thanks and assure her that this information will be put to good use.”
“Yes, Champion-sama. Thank you.” Kurumi bowed again and then left the room. Jimen watched her leave and after the door had slid shut behind her he shook his head. “That girl is trying too hard.”
“It is a phase that some go through,” a voice replied. “Most of them grow out of it.”
“One certainly hopes so. At the moment she’s a threat only to the young and the foolish, and they tend to have limited utility. You heard? About Noritoshi?”
“Tangen’s Lies has something to say on this matter.”
“I am aware of the passage.”
“Then proceed. No one will contradict Kakita Noritoshi, for fear of his blade, and I cannot have the office of the Emerald Champion undermined in this fashion.”
“It will be done,” the voice said. There was the merest rustle of sound, and then silence. Jimen smiledthe rustle was a courtesy to let him know his visitor had departed, and nothing more. He flipped open the chest, drew out a scroll, and started to read.
* * * * *
Etsushi strode through the streets of Zakyo Toshi, frowning slightly. He had been the chief magistrate of the city for almost three years now, and in that time he had brought a measure calm and security to it. It was still, to be sure, a rambunctious place, but the city’s merchant district and willow world were both able to conduct their business in an orderly fashion, and that was all that Zakyo Toshi’s citizens really wanted. It wasn’t the most glorious of positions, but it was a needed one and he was proud of what he had accomplished.
But now his senior yoriki had sent word that there was an Emerald Magistrate wanting to speak with him, and that unsettled him. Etsushi knew nothing about Shosuro Jimen save that he had been part of the Scorpion Clan’s snub of Kaneka and that he had become Emerald Champion under some very peculiar circumstances, and he didn’t like the lines of thought that these two facts started. Still, he knew that many honorable samurai became Emerald Magistrates; it was unfairdishonorable evento judge before he met him. And in any event, he would have to do whatever it was he wanted: Etsushi knew exactly where the ronin magistrate of an unaligned city stood in relation to one of the Emperor’s own magistrates.
He entered the teahouse that the message had directed him to and received his first shock. There was not, as he expected, a magistrate waiting for him. There was a half-a-dozen samurai in the brilliant green of the Emerald Legion, and a handful of Scorpion soldiers clustered around a man in the rich robes of a courtier. And in the center of the room, dominating it, was a man in the imposing armor of the Emerald Champion. Etsushi gaped at the sight briefly before recovering. “Excuse me, Shosuro-sama,” he said, bowing very deeply. “I had been given to understand that I would be meeting with a magistrate, not the Emerald Champion himself.”
“It is no problem,” Jimen said. The mask of his armor hid all expression, but his voice was affable. “I had requested that your message be worded so; my business here is simple, and I saw no need for unnecessary pomp.”
“And does your business relate to the city? Is there something I should know about?”
“I regret so,” Jimen said. “Information has come into my hands indicating that the Black Lotus Cartel has a representative in Zakyo Toshi.”
Given the nature of Zakyo Toshi, Etsushi didn’t see how anyone could consider this to be news. “Is that so? Well, you can be certain that I will not rest until this person is found and brought to the Emperor’s justice.”
“I am afraid that will not be sufficient,” Jimen said. Etsushi stiffened in anger, but before he could say something unwise the other man went on. “I mean no disparagement to your work, of course. But one ronin against the largest criminal organization in the Empireyou can see how this is an unequal fight. And due to this city’s importance to the Empire, I feel compelled to act.”
“Act,” Etsushi repeated. The more Jimen talked, the less happy the ronin felt. “Act how?”
“On my authority as Emerald Champion, I am placing this city under Imperial control,” Jimen said. “I will see to it that the Black Lotus is kept out of Zakyo Toshi.”
“Shosuro-sama,” Etsushi started and then stopped, unable to think how to proceed. “Shosuro-sama, are you sure this is necessary? I have only the good of the Empire in mind, and I know your resources must be strained by effort to keep the Emperor’s law with no Emperor. With the information you have given me I am certain I can convince the city’s council of merchants to increase the number of yoriki alloted to methey do not want the Black Lotus here any more than you do.”
“The answer of an honorable man,” Jimen said, without the slightest hint of mockery. “I am sure the Lion missed a rare opportunity when they offered your brother, and not you, fealty with them.” Etsushi’s face grew hard at this reminder of Uchito’s good fortune. Jimen ignored it and gestured to the Scorpions in the corner. “But it will be no strain. The Scorpion Clan has graciously offered to administer the city, for the good of the Empire. I will thus be turning it over to them.”
“You are taking control of Zakyo Toshi in the name of the Emperor,” Etsushi said, “and giving it to the Scorpion Clan.” He was hoping, on no basis whatsoever, that he had somehow misheard Jimen.
“Exactly,” Jimen said. “Do you have a problem with that, samurai-san?”
Etsushi was a ronin and the son of a ronin, and he knew that there were things that a ronin did not say in the presence of a Great Clan samurai, things that they did not even think in the presence of an Emerald Champion. He bowed low and stuffed his thoughts back into his heart, where they could do him no harm. “Not at all, Shosuro-sama,” he lied. “You have made everything perfectly clear.”
“Excellent. I shall be recommending that you and your staff be retained to deal with the minor lawbreakers in the city.”
“Thank you, Shosuro-sama.” Etsushi kept his head bowed slightly, his eyes on the floor between them. “With your permission, I shall go an inform them of your orders.”
“Of course. You are dismissed.”
Etsushi bowed again and left the teahouse as fast as courtesy allowed. Tonight, he thought, he would kneel before the shrine he kept to his ancestors, and burn incense, and give thanks that he had not been honor-bound to become a Scorpion.
* * * * *
Moto Chen kicked his horse into a trot, enjoying the feel of the animal’s powerful motion. The little girl in front of him shrieked with laughter and pounded on his leg. “Faster, horsie, faster!” she yelled. Chen smiled fondly down at her and sent the horse to an all-out run, which sent the child into shouts of joy. Akasha sometimes chided him for spoiling her, but how could any father resist a child as darling as Naleesh was?
He let the horse run for a bit, and then began to ease him up. “More running, Papa,” Naleesh begged him. He shook his head. “No, little zephyr,” he said. “Remember that a horse is strong, but there are limits to that strength. How long do you think you could run with me on your back?”
Naleesh frowned at this, and Chen could see a sulk coming on. Quickly he thought of a distraction. “Naleesh, we are going to a very important temple right now. Do you know which one?”
“Dead Lords,” she said.
“The Lords of Death, yes.” Chen paused, wondering how much one could explain to a child so young. “They are gods for all the Empire now, but they were the gods to us long before. Generations before Lady Shinjo found our ancestors and taught them honor the Lords sat in judgement on our souls. You must always show reverence toward them, and you must always be just in your dealings with your kin and your vassalsthe Lords judge all, but we have known them the longest and so they expect more from us.”
“Yes, Papa,” Naleesh said.
“Good,” Chen said. “We are almost there.”
They rode in silence into the temple’s outer courtyard. Chen quickly slid from his horse and caught Naleesh, whose preferred dismounting style seemed to involve throwing herself off head-first. He set her down on the ground, holding on to one hand tightly, and passed the reigns of his horse to one of the guards who had accompanied them. By the time all was settled a priest had come out of the temple. “The blessings of the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang be upon you and your enemies, my Khan,” he said. He bowed low. “I am honored by your visit here.”
Chen suppressed the grief that the title awoke. “Thank you, Akikazu-san. I wish to take Naleesh into the temple to offer prayers, and then I need to speak with you.”
“Of course, my Khan. I will be waiting in the back gardens.”
Chen nodded and led Naleesh up into the temple. As he knelt down in front of the statues of the Lords he reflected that while many feared the She-Tien Yen-Wan or being judged by them when they died it didn’t particularly bother him. He had met them before when they were actively trying to harm him and nothing could top that. After they were finished he followed an acolyte out into the garden, Naleesh skipping along beside him.
Akikazu had tea waiting for them, and a rice cake stuffed with sweetened red bean paste for Naleesh. Chen smiled slightly at her enthusiasm and silently applauded the shugenja’s foresight in finding something to keep the child occupied. Clearly, Chen thought, he done well in choosing Akikazu.
“My Khan,” Akikazu said, “I know that you are an honorable man who respects the gods, but I do not think that it was piety that brought you here.”
“No,” Chen said. “I wanted to speak with you privately, away from court. This winter you impressed the Phoenix with your behavior, and Ide Eien has been able to leverage that into an invitation for one of our shugenja to study with them for a time.”
“That is excellent news,” Akikazu said. “The Phoenix have no match in the depth and breadth of their knowledge of the kami. If it is your desire, I can prepare a list of candidates for this honor.”
“Don’t bother,” Chen said. “I’ve already decided to send you.”
“Ime, my Khan?”
“Yes.” Chen paused to drink his tea. “You are intelligent and resourceful, which will help in putting the Phoenix training to good use. Also, Asako Toshi seems to have a great deal of respect for you, and that will be help you in dealing with the Phoenix after we move into the Ox Clan lands.”
“My Khan, I don’t think I need to point out that we do not share a border with the Ox.”
“Half the force went as part of Ide Eien’s guard, the rest will go with you. After all, the roads are dangerous these days. It won’t be enough to win a pitched war with the Ox, but it shouldn’t come to that: what we want is horses, and we are prepared to pay fairly for them. But the Ox will sell to us, and no one else, until we say otherwise.”
“That should be enough for the Phoenix. A great deal of their strength still lies in the south, and as long as there is no bloodshed they will have little incentive to intervene. But what about the Dragon Clan?”
“What about them?” Chen said, with a trace of bitterness. “They couldn’t be bothered to join the battle of Toshi Ranbo, so why should they care about a Minor Clan?”
“I suppose it is unlikely. Should I learn otherwise, I will send word as fast as I can.”
“Faster, if possible.” Chen looked around to discover that Naleesh had slipped off and was now fussing with something near the small stream that ran though the garden.
“Naleesh!” he called.
She ran over to them, holding something in her hands. “Papa! Froggie!” She held the creature up for his inspection.
“Very good, little zephyrthey’re tasty with some soy sauce and wasabi. Now put it back, we are ready to leave.”
* * * * *
Chuda Hiroe paused in mid-stride, wondering what in Fu Leng’s name was going on. It had been months since she had seen Pokku, and she had assumed that the goblin had managed to get himself killed in some ridiculous scheme or another. But no, the figure running up to her in the over-sized kabuto could only be him. “What do you want?”
“Pretty-sama, want a new deal?” he yelled. He waved around a scroll case.
“What do you have?” Hiroe asked.
Pokku stopped and tried to shove the case into her hands. “Important stuff! Look! Daigotsu will know my name after this! Yours too, if you help!” Hiroe rolled her eyes and accepted the scroll case. The idea that the goblin could do anything worth Lord Daigotsu’s notice was&. Her thoughts came to a halt as she saw the writing on the case. Quickly she opened it up and scanned the opening sections of the scroll. “You see? You see?” Pokku demanded. “I know good stuff when I see it.”
Hiroe took a swift look around and realized that the goblin’s boasting was attracting the attention of others on the street. Quickly she rolled the scroll back up and shoved it back in the case. “Don’t be absurd,” she said loudly. “You wouldn’t know a raven from a writing desk. The paper is of high quality; I’ll give you something for that.” She started to walk off, a complaining Pokku trailing her, and was relieved to note that those around her were going back to their own business. She waited a block and then stopped and bent down so that she was face-to-face with the indignant goblin. “Be quiet,” she hissed. “Do you want to get us both killed?” She straightened back up and resumed walking.
Pokku followed her, suddenly thoughtful. Getting Hiroe killed did sound like a good idea sometimes, but Chuda were notoriously light sleepers and anyway, she had asked if he wanted both of them killed and he didn’t consider that a good idea at all. Perhaps she had a way to kill herself and not him? That would be a good exchange in return for the scroll, especially if the way worked on other Chuda as well. He pondered the issue as they wound through the camp and stopped at the large one in its center.
Hiroe approached the guards at the door, careful not to make any sudden motions, and announced, “I have some important information for Lord Daigotsu. It concerns Asahina Sekawa, the former Jade Champion.”
The bushi looked her over. The flesh on the left side of his face had started to decay away, leaving bare bone exposed, but enough remained for a contemptuous expression. “You?” he said.
Hiroe drew herself up and gave him her best withering look. “Yes, me,” she snapped. “I am Chuda Hiroe, the only student of Chuda Miki to survive the Test of the Scroll. I am not some fool who will waste our lord’s time with trifles.”
The guard flicked a glance over to his partner, who wordlessly slipped into the tent. After a moment he returned. “Send them in,” he said.
Hiroe nodded to them and walked in, Pokku strutting in behind her. Daigotsu was sitting at the other end of the room, Shahai beside him, and the Chuda woman knelt down before them and pressed her face to the floor. “Greetings, Lord Daigotsu. I thank you for this opportunity to serve you.”
“An unusual service, it appears,” Daigotsu said. “You have news of Sekawa?”
“From Sekawa,” Hiroe said. She offered him the scroll. “This is a letter from him to the Asahina Keitao, the daimyo of the Asahina.”
Daigotsu accepted the case, opened it, and examined the scroll. “It appears genuine,” he said, scanning it.
“How did you obtain it?” Shahai asked.
Hiroe paused as she realized that she didn’t know. “My lady,” she improvised, “I think that it would be best if my agent were to explain the circumstances.” She waved her hand towards Pokku. “He could answer your question better than I.”
Pokku was beside himself with glee at finding himself speaking to Daigotsu and his lady. Hiroe was proving to be far more useful than he had ever dreamedmaybe he wouldn’t kill her. It would be a useful thing to know how, though, just in case. He walked forward and bowed low. “Prettier-sama, I took it from a messenger.”
Shahai frowned. “Who? And how?”
Pokku shrugged. “He was the important kind of messenger, the one with the straw clothing that makes the other Rokugani afraid. He was riding all hunched over a pouch, so I jumped on his horse and grabbed at it.”
“You stole a pouch from a Miya herald while riding on a horse?” Daigotsu said.
“No, Mask-sama,” Pokku said. “The horse threw us both off, and then I took it.”
“I see,” Daigotsu said. He paused, cleared his throat, and went on. “You have both done well in this, and will be recognized for your service. Now, leave us.” As he waited for them to withdraw he passed over the scroll to Shahai, who opened it and began to read.
When she finished she passed the scroll back to him. “How can anything be so cryptic and so full of impending menace at the same time?”
“Another triumph of Crane literary skill,” he said drily. “I shall have Konetsu look it over, to see if makes more sense to him. In the meantime, I think we need to make some preparations to meet this threat.”
“I’m not sure how one prepares for a threat that vague.”
“By dealing with your other, well-defined ones,” Daigotsu said. “For every enemy we deal with now, there will be one less distraction when this new one arrives. I think it is time we started going down our list.”
Shahai smiled. “Indeed. And I think I shall enjoy showing those dabblers what real power looks like.”
“You will not be a part of this, my love,” Daigotsu said. Shahai started to object, and he held up a hand to stop her. “Using a dai-tsuchi to smash a fly is poor planning. We will send Michio and his brothers on this taskit is time they proved themselves to us.”
Shahai thought for a moment. “Well, that is so. But it can be so hard sometimes, waiting and doing nothing.”
“We wait and watch,” Daigotsu said. “And with every mistake our enemies make we draw closer to our goal.”