By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The first charge of the Yobanjin against the walls of Shiro Shiba had been broken, due in a large part to the efforts of a young shugenja whose name Shiba Danjuro could not recall offhand. The circumstances were perplexing, but he had precious little time to decipher the conflicting reports about exactly what had happened, and in any event the affairs of shugenja were something that Danjuro understood little of. How to step in front of one to take a blow or an arrow, that was a simple matter. Understanding the give and take between them and the spirits that surrounded all things was something else altogether. Regardless, he understood that the castle might well have fallen in the first great surge if not for the young woman, and for that he would thank her a thousand times when the battle was done.
Assuming, of course, that he lived.
His new Champion Tsukimi had given him command over the forces on the western side of the castle, where the fighting was intense. It was second only to the fighting on the northern plain, where she had taken the field herself. Danjuro hoped that she was experiencing greater success than he; their enemies seemed beyond numbering. He had read the reports time and time again, he knew the incredible losses the Yobanjin had suffered. Still they came in waves. It was a strategy that Danjuro had studied during his time with Kaneka: attack without consideration for the ranks of your army, and shatter your enemy’s ability to fight or defend. The Army of Fire’s ranks had to be waning, spread as thin as it had been and suffering the manner of losses that it had. Danjuro only hoped that the Great Clans could exhaust its ranks completely before they were, in fact, broken beyond repair and unable to defend themselves from further threats. Although he could not imagine any threat greater than this.
It was difficult to fight any foe that did not care if they lived or died, only that they inflicted as much harm as possible to their enemies. That was a lesson Danjuro had learned many years ago, defending a small village from bandits alongside an honorable shugenja who had lost his way, but who found it again in death.
“Commander!” one of his officers shouted. “Siege engine!”
Danjuro offered a rapid prayer as he scanned the battle, his eyes finally settling on a row of massive wooden constructs near the westernmost flank of the force attacking them. “Fortunes!” he swore. “Where did those come from?”
“I do not know, commander! None of our scouting reports indicate anything like them as part of the attacking force!”
Something had either been missed, and at an incredible cost to the Phoenix, or the enemy had used some manner of trickery, perhaps sorcery, to conceal them. “We need men there now! Divert the seventeenth and twenty-sixth legions!”
“There is at least a division’s worth of heavy infantry in a shield around them, my lord,” the officer said, his features grim. “And many of the ones the men call belchers’ as well.”
Danjuro’s jaw was set. “Ready my personal guard,” he ordered. “We ride.”
“No, my lord!” one of the others objected. “We need you here!”
“There will be no here if those engines are not brought down, and quickly!” Danjuro answered. “The Heavens only know where they got them, but they could tip the balance of the battle!”
“Enough,” Danjuro said sharply. “The decision is made.”
“No, my lord,” the man said, pointing vigorously. “Look!”
Confused, Danjuro followed the man’s gesture. Just for a moment, he allowed himself an instant of incredulity. It was difficult to tell at this distance, but one of the engines was aflame, and the one nearest to it was being overrun. It looked as though there were a dozen men, perhaps two dozen at the most, attacking the crews with heavy weapons and setting fire to their ammunition. The attackers wore Crab colors.
“What in the world?” one of the officers muttered.
“It does not matter,” Danjuro said. “Stragglers from the war, perhaps. Regardless, they will quickly be overrun and we will be in this precise position again in moments. We must exploit the advantage.”
Again, Danjuro cast about in confusion. “Tsukimi’s mounted forces? Where?”
“No, my lord, the Unicorn!”
Truly, it seemed as if there were at least fifty men in Unicorn colors, flying the banner of the Shinjo, riding north toward the battle at incredible speed. Their course placed them in a direct line to strike at the engines. The Army of Fire shifted to protect the weapons, but it would not be in time. Danjuro had seen much of cavalry in his years, but never had he seen anyone ride so swiftly. “Sachi’s Anvil,” he muttered, referring to the island off the coast. “They must have been stationed at Kyuden Kumiko.” He turned back to the men. “The Mantis dropped them off south of here. The Yoritomo are coming to land on the beach! Reinforcements will be here shortly, men, we must hold on!”
Danjuro turned back to the field. “Ready my personal guard,” he repeated. “We ride to join the Unicorn on the attack!”
* * *
Bayushi Paneki sat in his private study, tapping his fingers together lightly, lost in thought. The Winter Court had gone long past the end of winter, and he had already been forced to reallocate supplies from the Bayushi provinces twice in order to meet the needs of so many additional guests. Not only that, but the finest food and drink was required in order to preserve the reputation of the Scorpion Clan as hosts. It was proving difficult logistically, but the rewards were many. Each day, the Master of Secrets devoted at least an hour of time in his study to simply sit and attempt to assimilate all that happened during the day, taking into account the many reports he received from the various vassals participating in the court throughout the palace. He had learned an incredible amount already so far, enough to keep his agents throughout the Empire busy for years, but there was always more to learn.
Sometimes, however, he learned things that disturbed him greatly.
“Toson,” he said softly.
The screen to his study slid open with less than a whisper, and the shadowy form of the Shosuro family daimyo entered. “My lord,” he said quietly.
“Ukabu Mura has been evacuated, has it not?”
“It has,” Toson answered. “The Shiba defense are stretched too thin, and the village is largely unimportant. A necessary sacrifice, in the eyes of the Phoenix.”
“I am more concerned about the aspect concerning the House of the Evening Star,” Paneki said.
“Ah, yes. One of the most profitable geisha houses in the whole of the Empire,” Toson said. “Its staff and resources were evacuated early. They have been granted a temporary base of operations in the Crab lands.”
Paneki pursed his lips. “Who is responsible for that?”
Toson smiled ever so slightly. “Jinn-Kuen, of course.”
“What an inconvenient man,” Paneki observed. “I am uncomfortable with the notion of the Crab expanding into the market of peddling vices. It infringes too much upon our secondary markets in their lands.”
“I will have him watched carefully, my lord,” Toson said. “If he shows signs of expanding the operation, I will notify you immediately.”
“Very good. The situation with the recall of Shiba forces to the Phoenix lands is of concern to me,” Paneki said. “Are the reports correct?”
“They are, my lord,” Toson answered. “The Phoenix have perhaps the fewest bushi of any Great Clan, and even the handful of them scattered throughout the Empire could make the difference in the defense of their homelands. Doing so would unfortunately dishonor the clan in the eyes of their allies. The Dragon have boldly stepped forward and offered a small number of their swordmasters as replacements.”
“Despite their losses,” Paneki observed.
“They consider the disparity between the number of Mirumoto and Shiba an obligation to assist their allies.” Toson shrugged slightly. “I consider it a ruthlessly absurd tactical decision, but Kei is the sort who cannot easily be predicted.”
“The Dragon do not concern me,” Paneki said.
“The monks, then,” Toson nodded. “Yes, the Imperial Advisor has secured the services of an unnamed monastic order in providing replacement yojimbo. There is no tangible evidence to suggest that the order is in any way affiliated with the Spider.”
“But they are.”
“Of course,” Toson said.
Paneki nodded slowly. “This situation is unacceptable,” he said.
“Would you like the order discredited?” Toson asked. “I can have their charges killed, if it would please you.”
“No,” Paneki said. “One failed attempt and we would receive the lion’s share of the blame for the rash of assassinations that preceded the Empress’ ascension. I do not wish that wound opened again.”
Toson bowed his head. “As you wish.”
“Prepare a document with what we know, properly sanitized, and send it to Shosurn Jimen in the Imperial City. Instruct him.” here Paneki paused for a moment and smiled every so slightly. “Request that he see it passed on to Seppun Tashime. I understand the good magistrate has a passing interest in our mutual adversaries.”
“Your will, my lord.”
“Also, find a list of everyone protected by one of these monks,” Paneki ordered. “See to it that each and every one has an agent nearby at all times. If these monks wish to make their move, they will die before they know what has happened.”
Toson bowed sharply. “It will be done at once.”
“Toson,” Paneki called as the other turned to leave. “Send Aroru to find who the master of this order is. I wish a name to go with my enemies.”
* * *
Daidoji Kirimi stood perfectly motionless, like a statue concealed in the shadows. Not even the dust stirred, thanks to the mask that muffled her slow, shallow exhalations. There was nothing at all to betray her presence. She balanced perfectly atop the rafter, and the men who passed only feet beneath her had no indication that there was another presence in the room at all.
One of the Yobanjin snarled and kicked over a small shrine. “Nothing! How can anyone waste so much time and stone on so many temples? There is nothing of use here!”
“No quarters for their monks,” another confirmed. “There will be no supplies here.”
“Keep moving, then,” their officer responded. “The commander wants the entire village searched for supplies. Once that’s done, everything burns.”
One of the barbarians who had spoken earlier chuckled darkly. “For all that the samurai have scorned us over the years, soon they will be nomadic tribes as well. We have left nothing for them to dwell in!”
Several of them chuckled as they left, although Kirimi noticed that several did not. One of them even made what she believed to be some sort of primitive religious gesture at the sight of the overturned altars and shattered vases the men left in their wake. When she was certain that they were not returning, she dropped down from the rafters without a sound and glanced about the room.
Stealth was Kirimi’s secret. Since childhood she had possessed the ability to move like a wraith, like a shadow across any surface. It had served her well during her duties as a scout for the Daidoji army, but the times when she could employ it were limited. An honorable samurai did not skulk about in the shadows, after all, and so often she was forced to put her gifts aside and behave in a manner contrary to her nature. Perhaps, she mused, she should have been born a Scorpion. But no, then she would have taken her own life in shame.
The ruination in the small shrine was difficult to look upon, haphazard though it was. The men bashed anything within arm’s reach, but were too lazy or too weary to commit to a full assault upon the trappings within. If they had had any inkling as to its importance, an importance that was belied by its simple appearance, perhaps they would have. They seemed to enjoy any act that smacked of desecration. Had that happened, Kirimi would have been unable to resist attacking them. Her against five men& the odds were not favorable, and she would almost certainly have been killed. But she could not conscience the destruction of another of the Empire’s sacred places. She simply could not have withstood it.
The young scout moved quickly to the primary devotion chamber and was relieved to find it unmarred. It was humble enough in its appearance. Agasha Kitsuki had been an exceptional individual, but after all, the history of his family was a continuing source of friction between the Dragon and Phoenix clans, and so his shrine was quiet and unassuming, out of sight and hopefully out of mind. Or it had been, until war had come its way. Now it was in jeopardy of being destroyed like so many other shrines and villages and even cities. But that would not do at all.
“Despite his descent from a family noteworthy for their abandonment of fealty,” Doji Nagori had told her, “he is nevertheless the spiritual ancestor of our Empress, even if they share no links of blood. We cannot permit its wholesale desecration. I am prevented by the status of our military forces from dispatching troops to the village.” Here he had looked at her curiously. “I am well within my rights to dismiss one of my yojimbo for an extended leave, if I so choose, however. Particularly when that yojimbo is alleged to have unique talents that might assist her in whatever she chooses to do during that time. Do I make my intentions clear you to, Kirimi-san?”
And of course he had. Nagori’s prediction had been completely correct, and she had arrived just as the evacuation of Ukabu Mura had begun in earnest. Kirimi had no choice but to remain until all had left, staying hidden to avoid being detected by the earnest but exhausted Shiba guards. And when she finally had the opportunity to move about and locate the object of her quest, the Yobanjin had arrived. Now she found herself in a difficult position. Or she would have, that was, except that Nagori had the foresight to select exactly the right person for this duty.
Carefully, reverently, Kirimi lifted the urn that contained the ashes of Agasha Kitsuki, the ancestor of the Divine Empress, from its place of honor on the principal shrine. “Forgive me, grandfathers,” she whispered to her ancestors. “I mean no disrespect by touching this, but I must see it to safety. I pray you will forgive my impertinence.”
And with that, the scout was gone, as if she had never been there in the first place.
* * *
The fields surrounding Shiro Shiba were blackened for as far as anyone could see in any direction from the fortress itself. It was possible that the damage did not extend far, because the haze of fire and battle dramatically reduced visibility, but somehow Danjuro suspected that there was ample devastation in every direction regardless of whether he could see it or not. The day was won. The Phoenix had emerged victorious. And yet, as was so often the case in war, the cost of the victory had been high, perhaps higher than he and his family would have been willing to pay.
“I sincerely hope you aren’t going to start moping,” a gruff voice said from behind him. “I have always despised that about you Phoenix.”
Danjuro smiled despite himself. “I was unaware that you had any significant experience with our clan, my lord.”
Hiruma Todori dropped onto a stone abutment near Danjuro and let out an exhausted breath. “Some,” he said, “not a tremendous amount. My apathy is largely academic in nature.”
“Academic,” Danjuro repeated. “Not a word I have heard many of your kinsmen use in the past. Perhaps I have been misinformed as to the nature of your people.”
“I seriously doubt that.” Todori grunted slightly as he removed a shard of jagged metal from the front of his armor, then wiped away a smear of blood with a scrap of cloth, grimacing as he did so. “There will be quite a line at the torii arch, I imagine.”
“For a few hours at least,” Danjuro agreed. “There is much to be purified of.” He turned and bowed slightly. “I want to thank you for your assistance, my lord. Your defense of our home will not be forgotten. Not by the Phoenix, and not by me.” He looked at the courtyard. “Where is Shinjo Hwarang? I would thank him as well.”
“Riding with his men, hunting for stragglers.” Todori shook his head. “The vitality of youth is wasted on the young.” He shook an ample quantity of ash from one of his sleeves, then sneezed once. “I have heard stories of you, you know.”
Danjuro frowned. “Oh?”
“Mostly from my time in court, when I was a yojimbo in the Imperial Court.” He frowned at the memory. “They were mostly ridiculous, of course. You were described in the most outrageously glowing terms, the kind that make most military men sick to hear. A paragon of virtue, a man of honor, fulfilling any duty no matter the cost, never accepting defeat& it was quite tedious.”
“I am sorry.”
Todori grunted. “Yes. Imagine how horrible to find they are all true.”
Danjuro shook his head. “I am only a soldier.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I have led soldiers by the thousand in my lifetime. You are something altogether different.” He checked his blades and stood. “If you ever find yourself near the Wall, you would be more than welcome to stand at my side against the demons.”
“I am honored,” Danjuro said with a bow. “Unfortunately, I begin to wonder if this war will ever end, much less if I find time to visit your beautiful homeland.”
“All wars end,” Todori said. “Just not always in the manner we would prefer.”
Denver Kotei Winners
Military: Joe Bartolick (Crab)
Political: Rick Heinz (Scorpion)
Rossford Kotei Winners
Military: Heath Sheiman (Crane)
Political: Andrew Leukering (Crab)
New Zealand Kotei
Military: K.C. Wong (Unicorn)
Political: James Dunning (Dragon)
Force Reduction [Action]
Battle: Give your target unbowed Personality with 4 or higher base Force a Force penalty up to his current Force: Give a target enemy Follower or Personality without attachments an equal Force penalty. Bow it if you are a Crab Clan player. Destroy all targets whose Force is now 0.
Counting Enemy Forces [Action]
Battle: If this province’s battlefield has been targeted by a Recon action, target your unbowed Scout Personality and bow him unless he is Cavalry: Destroy a target enemy Follower or Personality without Followers.
Saving Agasha Kitsuki’s Ashes [Item]
Attaches to a Crane Clan Personality paying 2 less Gold.
Battle: Move this Personality home: Target an enemy Personality with less Personal Honor than this Personality’s Chi. Move him home. If he moved, his controller loses 2 Honor.