Somewhere in the Scorpion provinces, the young samurai took a quick drought of water and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. The sun had dipped below the horizon some time ago and the countryside was difficult to navigate in the darkness, even with the lantern he had acquired in the Unicorn lands. Worse, the temperature here was considerably warmer than he was accustomed to. Even in winter, the exertion of his hurried travel had caused him to break out into a sweat. In the mountains of his home, it would be vastly colder than this.
He grimaced at the thought of the illness he would doubtless suffer because of this trek. Terrible illness had claimed many lives in his family, and he had often wondered if something about his line made them weaker against illness despite their prodigious strength and martial prowess. If so, then at least he would die for a reason, even if it were crippled in bed, wracked with sickness like his father and his uncle before him. At least he would die fulfilling the personal commands of his Champion. He could think of no greater destiny. His father would be proud.
The smaller man accompanying the large warrior had not spoken for days. He did not have the physical conditioning that Ichiro Tikao possessed, and the journey had been extremely difficult for the older man. He had never complained, however, and never faltered no matter how hard Tikao pressed forward. They had been tasked with reaching the Emperor’s court as rapidly as possible, and the ambassador had not hindered the journey in anyway despite the obvious hardship it presented.
The samurai turned at the sound of the voice, attempting to place himself between it and the ambassador, but he could see nothing in the darkness.
“I am not sure, Gaho. He is far too clumsy to be an effective assassin. I suppose he could just be a stupid one.”
“Who speaks?” Mao demanded.
“I think we will ask the questions here,” the first voice said. A Scorpion emerged from the darkness, seeming to appear from the shadows like an apparition. “I would like to see your travel papers. NOW!”
The man bore a mask that somewhat resembled a boar, but could just as easily represent some manner of unholy demon. Ichiro Tikao grudgingly and very slowly removed his papers from the pouch he wore in his obi behind his back and handed them over. For the first time in quite some time, the ambassador spoke up, his voice clear and precise despite the circumstances. “We come on business for Ichiro Kihongo, the Badger Clan Champion.”
“Ichiro Kihongo is still alive?” the one named Gaho asked. “Remarkable.”
“The fact remains that travel papers signed by the Badger daimyo.” Yousui made a point not to use the term Champion, “have no bearing in Scorpion lands. You will leave immediately. I will summon an escort for you.”
“That is not possible,” the ambassador said.
Yousui tilted his head slightly to the side, as if he had perhaps heard incorrect. “You misunderstand if you believe there is a choice in this matter, Badger.”
“The misunderstanding is unfortunate, but it is yours.”
Now both Scorpion were regarding the two Badger samurai very carefully. “The Emperor’s Winter Court is being held only a short distance from here, as you are no doubt well aware.” Gaho said. “You cannot possibly imagine that we will allow travelers with no legitimate papers to gain entrance. Can you? My sensei always told me that I was a creative student, and yet imagining someone so foolish as to believe that would be a great strain.”
“What is the nature of your business here?” Yousui asked.
“That is a matter for the Emperor’s personal attention, and not that of his hosts,” the ambassador answered. “Although your interest in the affairs of the Badger is greatly appreciated, naturally.”
“I have heard enough,” Gaho said. “You will be detained and escorted to the nearest magistrate’s station, although clearly not the one in Kyuden Bayushi.” He emphasized the last part as it prevents any possible measure of victory on the part of his adversaries. “You will doubtless be arrested for your transgressions here in our lands, although if you have any measure of value to your lord perhaps he will make reparations in answer to the insult your presence offers.”
“It is not our wish to offer insult, but we cannot be detained,” the ambassador said plainly. “If you will but escort us to the palace, I am certain your discerning nature will be well-rewarded when our message is presented to the Emperor”
“That is not going to happen.” “Unfortunate,” the ambassador said. “Tikao?”
The large Badger warrior bellowed and swung a lantern at Yousui’s head.