Legacy of the Naga Part 2
by Edward Bolme
In the dead of night, an imperial guard ran as fast as he could down the elegant halls in the heart of the palace of Otosan Uchi. He carried a lantern and held his wakizashi tightly to his waist; he might have need of it soon. As he came to his goal, two bodyguards armed with naginatas challenged him. Before they could stop him, he reached out, opened the rice-paper door, and yelled, “Important message for the general!” As he did so, quick as a flash, he dropped to the floor and placed his forehead on the lacquered wood as the guards whipped their deadly blades to either side of his neck, ready to take his head should he so much as twitch.
“Who dares wake me at this hour?” bellowed the general.
“Toku-sama!” shouted the guard, sweaty forehead still pressed firmly to the floor. “There are Naga approaching the city! I thought you should know immediately! If I am wrong,” he added, “please let me purge your guard of my incompetence!” and he laid his left hand upon the hilt of his wakizashi.
“Eh?” said Toku, wrapped in his blanket as he opened the door to his sleeping chamber. “You are mad! I was told no more Naga would come.”
“As you wish, general,” said the samurai, and started to draw his wakizashi.
“I have not given you permission to move,” said Toku quietly. “You saw something; tell me what it is you saw.”
“By the light of the moon I saw a group of great serpents, perhaps eight or ten of them, with torsos shaped like those of humans,” the samurai said, skirting the use of the word “Naga.” “Two of them carried something heavy between them. They approached alongside the Road of the Most High. I ordered the guards to open the gate for them and ran to inform you as fast as I could. As I entered the palace, I sent an honor guard back to the outer city to show them proper respect.”
The sound of horses whinnying in panic carried through the still night air. “Either they are Naga or they are not,” said Toku matter-of-factly. “Either way, I need my best armor. Now!” he bellowed to his sleepy servants.
Within minutes, Toku, his bodyguards, and the breathless gate guard moved swiftly back through Otosan Uchi. No more untoward noises could be heard. The samurai encountered the Naga just inside the city walls, milling in confusion, as were the gate guards.
“Venerable Naga,” said Toku, clasping his hands together in the way Daini had taught him, “I apologize most sincerely that I was not here to greet you at the city gate. I was unaware that we were to be honored by–”
“One thousssand pardonsss,” interrupted one Naga, his deep voice rolling like rich thunder. “Naga hasss no time to be polite. Naga wisssh to sssee the Toturi immediately.”
“I humbly beg your forgiveness, venerable Naga, but that will not be possible. It is forbidden to awaken His Imperial Highness. I will happily bring your needs to the Imperial Court, that you may see the Son of Heaven as soon as is possible in the morning.”
The group immediately began hissing in their tongue–at least Toku hoped it was speech, and not pure anger. In any event, it was clear the Naga were not pleased. But the laws regarding the Emperor had been in place for a thousand years, and Toturi was not one to tamper with tradition, nor was Toku one to defy his liege.
“I will happily provide you all that you need,” added Toku, hoping to calm the Naga. “Food, a hot bath, tea–whatever you wish is yours. I simply cannot awaken–”
“Then I shall awaken him,” came a voice from behind the hapless samurai. He turned to see Mara standing in the street, wrapped only in a silken housecoat.
“I cannot permit that, Lady Mara,” said Toku gruffly.
“You do not understand, general.” She turned and greeted the Naga formally in their tongue. With a sidelong glance at Toku, she added in Rokugani, “I felt your approach through the Akasha. I will arrange everything.”
“It is forbidden to awaken the Emperor, Lady Mara,” protested Toku earnestly. “The penalty is death.”
“Then I shall die for my people.”
“I do not want to have to kill you,” he warned, “but I cannot permit you to awaken the Emperor.”
“Until I have actually awakened him, I have committed no crime,” said Mara, reasonably. “Will you kill me out of hand, Toku? Perhaps I shall change my mind at the last second, to save myself. And once I have awakened him, it is too late, is it not? What will my death accomplish?”
“It would be justice.”
“How would you explain that to your friend, Daini?”
“It is bushido. He would understand.”
Mara paused and looked into Toku’s eyes, testing their resolve. “You are correct,” she sighed at last, turning away. “Therefore I shall awaken the Empress.”
Toku trotted after her, trying to stammer out a response. The haggard Naga band glided silently after them, the honor guard pacing at a respectful distance to either side.
* * *
Against protocol, Emperor Toturi the First agreed to meet the Naga immediately. The servants bustled about like bees, buzzing with rumors, making the throne room ready for the imperial audience. Now, no sooner than the Naga could clean the dust of the road from their hides, Emperor Toturi sat ready to receive them, his shimmering golden aura making the Jade Throne glisten as though wet.
Toturi’s wife Kaede sat at his left hand, herself six months pregnant. To his right sat a courtier, Miya Arugo, apparently still confused by the rapid pace of events. Toturi saw him blink several times, trying to rid his eye of the sleep that hung at one corner. Attendants, as well as those few clan diplomats who had alert and clever servants, sparsely filled the remainder of the room.
The great doors of the Imperial Court opened. Toturi watched as the Naga retinue slithered into the throne room, carefully carrying their palanquin. It was rumored they had moved nonstop across the Empire, and he could see the exhaustion in their carriage as well as the raw stripes down their serpentine flanks where the crags of the Spine of the World had worn the scales away. He searched their faces but did not see anyone familiar among them, let alone the Dashmar, who knew the Rokugani ways. As the travelers greeted him in the Naga fashion, Toturi quickly glanced about the throne room, but he did not see Daini or Mara, either. No help, he thought. This would be done on Naga terms, and he could only hope his Naga etiquette was not too rusty for use.
“We did not expect you,” said Toturi seriously. “We have not received visitors from the Shinomen for at least a year. Your Mara told us to expect no others. What fortune brings you here to grace our court?”
“Naga sssend greeting to the Toturi,” said one, speaking Rokugani as well as he could. “Naga hasss one lassst gift for the Toturi and hisss people.” The speaker gestured, and two Cobras, hoods spread, pulled back the thick veils on the palanquin. Together they reached in and pulled out the gift.
It was a pearl, or so Toturi thought at first glance. But if it were a pearl–what a prize it was! It was easily as wide as Toturi’s shoulders and perfectly round. And, most notable, it was golden–no, more than golden; it glowed with its own faint luminosity, as though it were a paper lantern. The glow made it seem like it should be hollow, but Toturi could see the powerful muscles of the Cobras flex with the effort as they proffered it. The pearl weighed as much as a human, perhaps more.
Toturi was speechless. The glow of the pearl filled the room with a soft, buoyant light. The mons of the eight clans, inlaid with precious stones into the marble floor of the court, sparkled proudly in the light. Such a treasure was priceless, and here the Naga offered it to him–to the Empire–as a token. How very like them.
The courtier, misjudging Toturi’s silence, rapidly interceded. “The Emperor regrets that he cannot accept your gift,” said he, politely giving the first refusal demanded by protocol, “for we have no place that is suited to display such a rare and beautiful object, and we fear it may become damaged if exhibited improperly.”
The Naga hesitated for a moment. The speaker blinked once with nictitating membranes, then waved the Cobras back to the palanquin, saying simply, “Asss you wisssh. We regret disssturbing the Toturi.” With a swirl of powerful serpentine tails, the Naga swiftly left the court.
Miya Arugo was greatly affronted. He turned to Toturi to insist that such a gross insult to the Son of Heaven must be punished, but the words froze on his lips, locked in place by Toturi’s icy glare.
* * *
Although it was the dead of night, the city of Otosan Uchi was anything but asleep by the time the Naga left the grounds of the imperial palace and reentered the inner city. Hitomi walked slowly across the ebon sky, her full face gazing impassively at the events transpiring below.
Twenty years ago, the serpent-people were feared as unnatural spirits or bloodthirsty oni. Now, as they moved steadily alongside the Road of the Most High, peasants and samurai alike gathered along their route. Soldiers of all clans crowded together in the streets, while peasants perched precariously on walls and posts, all to get one last look at this strange envoy as they left Otosan Uchi.
The Naga moved resolutely, some might have said desperately, looking neither right nor left. The only sound to be heard was the steady whisper of their scales across the earth, punctuated by the occasional cough from an onlooker. The Road of the Most High escorted their departure on their right hand, and a wall of humans gave them silent honor on their left.
As they passed through the gate to the outer city, a cascade of chrysanthemum petals fell from on high, cast upon the still night air by a group of young Phoenix maidens sent ahead by Empress Kaede. To the samurai of the inner city, it seemed the Naga passed through the gate and vanished into a fluttering silver mist. Some would later say the scene reminded them of the first snowfall heralding the death of the year. Others, perhaps more hopeful, were reminded of the falling of cherry blossoms and the promise of a burgeoning spring.
Watching from the imperial palace grounds, Bayushi Yojiro sighed and said, to no one in particular, “They are the best of us.”
Beside him, Kakita Kyruko slowly folded her fan. “Out of the mouths of Scorpions . . . .”
* * *
To those awaiting the entourage in the outer city, the Naga seemed almost to appear out of the misty legends of ages past. They moved through the audience, eyes ever forward, smelling of copper and chrysanthemum.
As they approached the gate in the ruined outer wall, one of the palanquin bearers passed his burden to another Naga with the same ease with which a dancer passes a fan from one hand to the other. Atop the gate, Toku watched intently. Such seamless interaction was the goal of every samurai unit, a perfection of action not drawn from training but simply from being.
He looked down and saw that the Imperial Honor Guard was arrayed properly to salute the Naga, but, even so, he saw imperfections. The shiny blades of their naginatas were not perfectly in line, the spaces between the feet of the guards not perfectly identical. How he wished he could honor the Naga with the same perfection he had seen them demonstrate time and again.
He paced across the top of the gate as the Naga passed beneath.
He watched them depart Otosan Uchi for the last time . . . in his life, at least. Idly he observed that their tails did not slither in synchronization . . . until he stopped looking at each Naga and noticed that when he perceived the entire group at once, their individual movements comprised a whole, the undulation of a single entity.
Perhaps such perfection does not belong in the Empire, he thought. But then, without it, how should we be inspired?
He watched as they slithered away into the darkness, like a fish sliding to the bottom of a dark lake.
He watched until their forms faded from sight, and continued watching even after that.
It felt so empty.
Suddenly, he tightened his lips, gripped the sill of the gate’s window, and drew a sharp, deep breath through his nose.
“Uts!” His shout pierced the night.
“BANZAI!” roared the cheer from a thousand throats.
“BANZAI!” Louder this time.
The echoes carried the voice of the Empire and faded into the nighttime sky.
With a last explosive exhale, Toku turned away.