by Edward Bolme
Beneath the gate to the inner city, a group of Crane gathered in the shadows and discussed what had happened. They spoke quietly and with silvered fans covering their mouths, for many people were still in the area. Yet even here in public, conversation was still more private than it would be in the Imperial Court, which was now crowded with arguing Lion, Crab, and Mantis–as well as a large group of spectators gently prodding from the periphery to keep the tempers stoked.
Kakita Yoshi stood at the center of the group and, having gathered all of the information he could from the others regarding the details of the Naga’s departure, now invited the others to make suggestions.
“Clearly,” spat Kyruko, “we must defend the Emperor’s honor and kill this . . . this worm Arugo. The Emperor must know we stand ready to guard his honor.”
“No, the pearl is what’s important here, not some half-wit courtier,” said Doji Chomei. “If we were to go to the Naga delegation, explain the situation, and recover the pearl, we could then present it to the Emperor. Such a move would greatly aid our political position.”
Daidoji Rekai nodded, adding, “Give me three samurai as escort, and I will have that pearl back here by dawn.”
“Take Jiro, Aihara, and Tadashi,” said Chomei. “And I think that we would all be well-served if Lord Yoshi would be so gracious as to lend his tongue to aid you.”
Rekai laughed. “Are you saying that some problems cannot be solved by a swift horse and a swifter bow? Very well, I would be honored to escort Lord Yoshi, if he will grace such a paltry guide as I with his presence.”
Yoshi nodded. “We must not be noticed,” he added. “I think it is likely that other clans may try this as well. We must find the Naga first and convince them of our sincerity.” He paused in thought. “Kyruko, find Asahina Kimita. Between her magic and your knowledge of the city’s secrets, I will trust that we will be able to leave the city quietly. Go, then, and may the Fortunes smile upon our clan.”
The Crane were just about to disperse when a slight twitch of Yoshi’s fan rooted them all in place. Kyruko seamlessly began chatting about a kabuki performance of Hitomi’s Tale the previous week, as another samurai walked toward their group.
“One thousand pardons for my interruption, Kakita Yoshi-san,” the newcomer said as his shadow fell across the gathering, “and I hope that this evening has been most entertaining for you all.”
The entire group bowed from the waist as Yoshi smoothly replied, “Please, do not embarrass us with apologies, for your presence does us great honor, Yojiro-sama. However, Kyruko was speaking of entertainment last week, at–”
Yojiro held up one hand. “Please, Yoshi, just this once let us not play games. I must ask you, samurai to samurai: do not have Rekai lead you to the Naga delegation.”
The Crane advisor looked properly confused by the statement, as if the very thought were something of which he would never have even conceived, but out of the corner of his eye Yojiro saw Kyruko’s mouth twitch in anger and frustration. They had been so cautious . . . .
“I assure you, Yojiro-san,” said Yoshi in his most sincere tones, “we would never consider interfering in the Emperor’s business.”
The Scorpion daimyo carefully untied his mask, folded it properly, and tucked it into his obi. “I am serious, Yoshi,” he said flatly. “No mask; no lies. Please, do not go. We have learned much of the Naga over the last decade. We have had to, sharing a border. This much of the Naga I know: you will not change their minds. Instead, you will be embarrassed. The eyes of the Empire will be on that small delegation, and I do not want you to suffer that defeat.”
“When would a Scorpion ever fret over the honor of the Crane?” blurted Kyruko.
“Would you be satisfied if I said I never would?” asked Yojiro. “I could say that your people have suffered greatly. Your castles are broken, your lands salted with brine, your treasuries all but depleted. What you have left is your honor. Lose that, and the Lion diplomats will take the Imperial Court, which the Scorpions do not want to see happen.
“I could say all that, and it would be true. But, more than that, I do not want to see anyone squander their face on a fool’s errand.”
Yojiro thought for a moment, glancing in turn at Rekai, Chomei, Kyruko, and the others. Then he added, “Your advisors will say that this is a Scorpion trick, that I am trying to prevent the hated Crane Clan from claiming the Naga’s gift for their own. They will say that I am trying to outmaneuver you so that you must remain here in Otosan Uchi and send some headstrong bushi in your stead, thinking that an untrained bushi will fail to sway the Naga where your words might have succeeded.” He glanced at Rekai. “These are theories they will use to justify their desires, which are to gain honor and glory by recapturing that remarkable pearl. I doubt any would suggest that, by appearing to try to prevent you, I actually want to goad you into leaving so that you will suffer an embarrassing failure with the Naga delegation.”
Yojiro smiled thinly. “Yoshi-san, we have faced each other many times in the Imperial Court. You know me, and you know my reputation. Your people watch my people, and you know what Scorpion are in the capitol. If I thought I could recover this gift for the Emperor, or even for my own clan, I would do so, and I would go myself, for none is better suited to the task. However, in the morning I shall be conducting a kenjutsu class for my people. You shall see that every Scorpion in the capitol attends.
“I cannot make you trust my words or my actions. I only hope you will. Let the Naga go. Destiny will attend to itself.” So saying, he nodded, stepped back, turned, and walked away, refastening his mask as he moved alongside the night-darkened Road of the Most High.
“It’s a trick,” hissed Kyruko.
Without turning, Yoshi said, “Kyruko, I believe you are in need of some kenjutsu training.”
Fuming, Kyruko bowed and left.
The remaining Crane stood silent for a long time. “I think,” said Chomei finally, “that kenjutsu sounds like an excellent idea. I should prepare.” He bowed, and left as well, though in a rather more sedate manner than had Kyruko.
Rekai and Yoshi watched him leave. At length, Rekai whispered, “How did he know?”
“Enough,” said Yoshi. He began moving to the Imperial Court, Rekai pacing him a step to his left and a half-step behind.
Once they were gone, a shadow moved underneath the arch of the gate. Shosuro Yudoka crawled, silent as a spider, back up to the top of the gate. Once there, he drew back the black shroud concealing his white mask and faded into the night.
* * *
Rumors raced through the capitol of Otosan Uchi like lightning through a summer sky. Many Rokugani crowded the streets and plazas holding whispered discussions, and those samurai who had missed the all-too-brief events listened time and again to stories told in teahouses and private rooms. Even within the Imperial Court, diplomats and aides analyzed the events and dissected the actions of everyone in attendance with the precision and thoroughness of a Kuni shugenja. Everyone was abuzz with curiosity.
Everyone except for one, for he knew his were the actions most often scrutinized by the various retinues.
Miya Arugo sat on the floor of his room near the foot of his unmade bed, hands on his thighs, staring at nothing. A piece of parchment, a brush, and some ink lay near him, unnoticed. Again and again the scene in the courtroom replayed itself in his mind. He had been born and raised samurai. Samurai are supposed to be ready for anything, but he’d been half-asleep. It wasn’t until he saw Toturi’s expression, the icy eyes framed in that impassive face, that he finally fully woke up. Only an instant too late.
And yet how should he have known?
Arugo cursed himself for a fool and forbade himself from seeking excuses. There were none. His mind continued to replay the horror of the scene, that priceless pearl being peremptorily returned to its palanquin, leaving the imperial throne room, never to return.
Never to return. The Emperor never makes mistakes, and he had spoken for the Emperor. There was no turning back.
Outside, Arugo heard the sound of iron-shod hooves riding hard through the streets. He knew they were Unicorn dispatch riders; only the huge Unicorn warhorses could sound so much like thunder. And in their wake, Arugo could barely hear the staccato consonants of whispered conversations drifting up from the streets, sounding something like rain.
Thunder and rain. Storms clouds, hiding the golden pearl from his sight.
Only an instant too late. Bushi proudly brag that, on the battlefield, a hair’s breadth of time decides victory or death, and then they drink to their bravery and mock the diplomats.
Bushi do not understand the Court.
It is every bit as deadly, but diplomats gamble with more than their own lives.
Arugo raised his chin and set his face at peace. He drew a full breath through his nose, slowly, deep into his belly. He turned it over and exhaled through his mouth, purging himself of emotion. He repeated the breath, and again a third time, to cleanse his soul.
With the grace of a dancer or duelist, Arugo reached for the brush. He stirred the ink and wiped away the excess. He turned his head to the paper.
With slow strokes, he brushed the ink onto the paper. Those who saw it would immediately notice that the strokes were not bold or spontaneous. They would understand the sorrow in the careful shape of the characters.
Empty, his mind composed the haiku without trying.
Honor slips away, A pearl through unfit fingers. Thus my duty ends.
He moved to the window, where his wakizashi waited for him. He knelt and arranged his white kimono carefully. Soon, he thought, the color of death will blossom with the color of rebirth, an auspicious sign for my soul.
He faced the east and waited.
As the sun rose, he drew the blade. The sun’s first rays danced along the razor edge with a bright, golden light, bringing a single tear to his eye.
* * *
The Naga slithered along, seemingly tireless but now confused and depressed to have their mission unfulfilled.
“What shall we do ((and where is our guide))?” asked one.
“We must find another ((the target is gone)),” replied the acting Dashmar.
“The Clan of the Crab ((Eshru, slayers of darkness)) are worthy ((crystal guardians)),” suggested one Cobra.
“No. Many still do not trust us. They still brood over our saving the Yakamo ((the Bright Eye)) from the fire and welcoming him to the Akasha ((allowing him to see with serpent eyes)). Nor did they understand when we left Hiruma Castle to fight the rising Foul ((and challenge the murderer of the Pale Eye)).”
“It is true ((pure as jade)),” added the other Cobra. “The Bright Eye ((the Yakamo)) rises now. He was the connection the Clan of the Crab had with our people. He leads us now ((he is beyond their reach)).”
“Then where shall we go ((and who is our guide))?” asked the first.
The acting Dashmar considered. The Emperor had refused. The Crane and the Lion–they were the Emperor’s hands; when one hand refuses a gift, it is nonsense to offer the gift to the other hand. The Phoenix had opened the Black Scrolls, and the Dragon had unleashed the Foul; neither of them could be trusted. “We shall go to the Unicorn ((strike the mark)),” he said finally.
The rest of the group simultaneously prodded their leader with an Akashic curiosity.
“The Unicorn understand what it is like to be an outsider ((awaken in a strange time and land)). They are near our lands and have embraced us as friends. At the City of Trolls, they challenged the darkened half of their family ((faced the mirrored pool and saw their abomination)) and they defeated the darkness within them ((created a pearl for their soul)). The Karasu showed the devotion of his people by sacrificing himself to trap the Yori into a pearl. They have been explorers ((Shalasha, Shazaar, and Damesh)) throughout their history. This gift will not frighten them as it has the Toturi.”
As one, the group of Naga turned toward the northwest, and, in the light of the rising sun, they could see the sparkle of light gleaming off of the helmets of various mounted scouts watching their passage.
* * *
Day and night the Naga moved, stopping only for water. Even these infrequent stops did not last long, for the Empire knew where the Naga were along their unknown journey, and samurai were always on hand with fresh water blessed by shugenja. The shugenja also prayed over and healed the Naga’s wounds, trying to heal the raw stripes of flesh down their flanks. Even the peasants stopped their work when they saw the Naga pass, and watched in wonder as they passed.
At night, the glow of the golden pearl could sometimes be seen peeking out around the edges of the palanquin’s curtains. Many considered this odd, since, during the Naga’s visit to Otosan Uchi, the glow of the pearl within could not be seen at all. Some samurai believed the Naga deliberately loosened the curtains so that the light would escape, simply to make it easier for the scouts to track the progress of the serpent people.
The Naga moved directly toward their goal, straight as a hunter’s arrow across Lion lands. Ikoma Ken’o, tracking their movements, boldly pronounced that the Naga were heading to Shiro Ikoma, and indeed no one could dispute his calculations. Lion samurai and shugenja honored the Naga as they passed near each city and hamlet, and Lion magistrates did their best to prevent anyone else’s presence, save that of only a few scouts from each clan to carry back word of the events of each day.
Back in Otosan Uchi, Kakita Yoshi took an opportunity to speak with Bayushi Yojiro quietly.
“Thank you for your advice, great and honorable lord,” he said, “for, indeed, had I met with the Naga and failed to sway them, surely Ikoma Ujiaki would have roasted my reputation the way the peasants roast wild boar.”
Yojiro nodded slightly, accepting the gratitude. “I am happy to have helped,” he said. “Only remember my mercy. Ken’o says the Naga move straight as an arrow. He is, of course, right. But also remember: a Naga arrow never misses.”
“You think they are not going to Shiro Ikoma?” asked Yoshi.
Yojiro chuckled. “I think nothing,” he replied evenly. “I find that is best when dealing with Naga.”
* * *
It was late morning, and light, misty rain fell upon the lands. A large gathering of Lion samurai stood outside Shiro Ikoma, a great honor guard arrayed on either side of what Ikoma Ken’o had calculated would be the Naga’s path. Just to be safe, the honor guard started five hundred paces apart, certain to be on both sides of the approaching Naga troupe. The closer one drew to the castle itself, the closer together the ranks of Lion became, designed to gently funnel the visitors and guide them around the main path and up through the gates to the Ikoma daimyo’s reception hall.
The Lion ranks were truly impressive. Thousands of samurai (some of whom had forced-marched there throughout the night) stood at attention. Despite the weather, not a fleck of mud was to be seen on sandals or armor. Back banners stood out boldly, their color enriched by the dampness of the cloth, and straw-colored manes stood high upon the helmets, covered with water droplets. Razor-sharp and keenly polished naginata blades rose into the sky, and throughout the rank huge unit banners proclaimed the Lion’s strength to all. The whole impression was of a harvest of steel rising out of waves of golden grain.
There were only a handful of others present, standing on the battlements of Shiro Ikoma, graciously accepting the rather constraining hospitality of the lord of the castle. They were not allowed outside of the castle until after the Naga had arrived. A few Crane, several Phoenix, two Scorpion, a Crab. The Dragon were curiously absent, as were the Unicorn . . . .
Standing near the castle gate with the senior commanders, Ikoma Ken’o looked about proudly. As the one who had divined the destination of the Naga, he had been given the honor of greeting them at the castle gate. The last inspection of the troops had been completed. The lines were perfect, and Ken’o knew his troops would not move until ordered to do so, even were the world to flood under this stupid, petty rain.
Yes, the rain was the only element not in accord here. What a glorious day it would be to have the sun shining brightly, making the armor and steel glow beneath its warmth.
For a moment, Ken’o thought he heard distant thunder, but, as it persisted, he realized it was the sound of approaching hooves. “What is this?” he barked as his aides. “Were not the pickets warned to let no one trespass? This is our moment, and I will not have another clan try to steal this from us!”
The aide could not answer, having no reply to give, until at last he saw a group approaching over a slight rise. “The Unicorn have arrived, my lord,” he said, pointing.
“Eh?” Ken’o wheeled his mount around, and, sure enough, a group of eight riders, clad in purple, white, and gold, were galloping up to his position. His honored position, at the gate!
“What impudence these barbarians have!” he spat. “Join me!” He kicked his horse forward, and several of his samurai followed. He rode roughly one third of the way toward the Unicorn group, then stopped his horses and dismounted. There was no way he would meet the Unicorn while mounted; their horses were easily half again as tall as any of the native Rokugani breeds, and he’d be damned if he had to look up into the face of one of those barbarian freaks.
The Unicorn rode up, and, as demanded by protocol, they, too, stopped and dismounted.
“These are Lion lands,” bellowed Ken’o dramatically, “and I forbid you to remain. You have already been warned by my samurai,” he added more quietly, as his hand moved to his katana, “unless you rode past them or killed them.” As he said these last words, his thumb inched his katana out of its saya.
If the leader of the Unicorn noticed the Lion samurai’s hostile posturing, he gave no indication. Instead, he pulled out a small scroll and opened it so that Ken’o could see the characters delicately inscribed upon it. “I am Shinjo Shirasu,” he said, “magistrate of Emperor Toturi the First, the honorable and just ruler of the Jade Empire, before whom all must prostrate themselves. I have here magisterial orders–”
“Pah!” spat Ken’o. “You cannot use your commission to barge your way into my house!”
“This scroll is not my magisterial commission, if you will read it,” answered Shirasu levelly. “These orders are specially from Kakita Toshiken and signed in the name of the Emperor, requiring me and my magistrates to guard the Naga throughout their journey and ensure that nothing impedes them. These are the Emperor’s wishes.”
Ken’o stared at the impudent Unicorn for a long time, his fiery eyes testing the resolve of the cool eyes of the magistrate. Shirasu simply stood, proffering the scroll and refusing to yield. At last, Ken’o nodded ever so slightly, turned, remounted his horse, and returned to his station. Shirasu rolled up the scroll and returned it to his sleeve; then he and his magistrates mounted their steeds and followed.
The Unicorn magistrates discreetly halted some distance away from Ken’o and his retinue. They did not need to sit closer, for their taller steeds gave them an excellent view, and Shirasu had no wish to affront the Lion.
Like everyone else, they waited, letting their horses graze on the wet grass.
At last, a murmur rippled through the Lion ranks. Quietly, along both sides of the honor guard, the word was being passed, whispered by samurai who stood as still as statues: they’re coming.
Shirasu sensed the change in mood as well. He looked up to the battlements of Shiro Ikoma and saw the “guests” pointing toward the east and a bit south. He stood in his stirrups and looked, and then he, too, could see them. At this distance, they looked like a single large snake weaving its way across the land.
He scanned the lines of Lion samurai and noted with a small smirk that the Lion had wisely chosen not to have any cavalry present to honor the Naga; few indeed were the riders who could control their mounts when Naga were close. Only Ken’o and a few of his closest aides were mounted.
The Naga delegation moved steadily closer, approaching the open mouth of the Lion honor guard. If the Naga were weary, it did not show. They persisted on their course, neither slowing nor speeding, taking no heed of the honor being done them by perhaps the greatest clan of Rokugan.
They passed between the ranks of the Lion samurai rather closer to the line on their left side, but their course never wavered. As they passed between the assembled soldiers, their path continued to move straight, while the ranks of Lion samurai started to bend around toward the gates of Shiro Ikoma. At last, the delegation’s path intersected the ranks of samurai. The Naga stopped; they refused to be guided.
Ken’o was flustered. Even from this distance, he could see the lead Naga saying something to his samurai, but he knew his troops. Their orders were to be as still as statues and as silent as paintings. His samurai would neither move nor answer; it was not their place to do so.
Could he have been wrong? Could the Naga pass within an arrow’s flight of Shiro Ikoma and not intend to stop? No, it was impossible. Their ways were strange, snake-like, Naga ways. There must be some misunderstanding.
He was just about to urge his horse forward when he heard the approaching clip-clop of Shinjo Shirasu.
“Samurai,” the magistrate said levelly, “your troops stand in the way of the Naga. Move them.”
“No,” replied Ken’o, “the Naga are going to Shiro Ikoma. They just need some guidance; they do not understand why the troops are there.”
“Moto Sakura,” Shirasu called, “the Lion defy the Emperor.”
“Hai!” yelled one of the Unicorn magistrates, and he immediately began to gallop away.
“That’s a lie!” bellowed Ken’o. “Shoot him!” he added, pointing to the Moto.
Three Lion samurai fired their bows in the blink of an eye; two of the arrows found their mark. One struck the Moto in the calf; the other pierced his jerkin between the ribs. Ken’o saw the rider jerk with pain and start to slip out of the saddle.
“Ha! That will stop your lies from ruining my honor in Otosan Uchi,” Ken’o said with a satisfied smile.
Shirasu shook his head. “You do not understand the Moto message riders, samurai. He has sworn his life and honor to deliver his message. If he has to, he will write the message on his chest in his own blood or carve it into the skin on his arm, and tie himself to the saddle before he dies. The horse is trained to ride to Otosan Uchi. You will have to kill them both.”
Ken’o looked again and saw that the horse was still galloping away, the Moto clawing his way back into the saddle. He looked to his men, but he knew one of his small beasts could never hope to catch the Moto’s warhorse.
“Samurai,” added Shirasu, “your soldiers are still standing in the way of the Naga.”
Ken’o looked back toward the Naga. They had not moved from their position. He could see tails starting to lash, and the Cobra had spread their hoods. This was not looking good. “We’ll see about that,” he said, and started galloping toward the Naga. Shirasu, as well as Ken’o's aides and the remainder of the magistrates, followed.
The lead Naga had just turned toward the rest of his people, when he heard the approaching hoofbeats. He looked over his shoulder, saw Ken’o and Shirasu approaching, and turned back to face them. He clasped his hands in the Naga fashion and said, “Naga greetsss Clan of the Lion and Clan of the Unicorn.”
Ken’o nodded his head peremptorily and turned to his samurai. “You!” he bellowed, gesturing. “What is happening here?”
The samurai immediately dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “Ken’o-san!” he shouted back. “The Naga have ordered us to stand aside and let them pass through our ranks! We would not defy your orders, so we stood like the mountain as you said!”
Shirasu chose this moment to cough discreetly.
Ken’o put on a show of fuming for a moment while he marshaled his thoughts. Then he stood in the saddle and shouted in his best commander’s voice, “Lion! We are here to honor the Naga as they pass through our lands! The Naga are not going in that direction,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward the gate of Shiro Ikoma. “They are going there! Readdress your lines! Now!”
With a great shout, the entire Lion force ran from its old position to its new one, realigning itself with Ken’o's outstretched war fan. Five heartbeats, no more, and the Lion troops were in their new lines, forming up and standing at attention.
The lead Naga fluttered his hands in what Ken’o assumed was a gesture of thanks, and the procession continued on its way. For a few moments, Shirasu and Ken’o sat side by side, watching the Naga depart.
At last Shirasu spoke. “Utaku Sahijir, Ide Buodin,” he called, “I was wrong about the Lion Clan. Moto Sakura has an incorrect message. Stop him from delivering it.”
The two magistrates quickly bowed, then wheeled their horses and galloped away.
“Eh?” said Ken’o quietly. “I thought you had to kill a Moto messenger to prevent him from delivering a message.”
“Yes,” said Shirasu simply. “That’s why I sent two.”
* * *
A delegation of Unicorn awaited the Naga at the border of clan lands, but, as expected, the Naga neither slowed down nor acknowledged their existence. Undeterred, the Unicorn flanked the Naga procession with a hundred mounted samurai in full battle armor, day and night. The horses rolled their eyes and flared their nostrils to be so close to such giant serpents, but remained disciplined under the hands of their riders.
Straight as an arrow, the group of Naga continued on its way, and it became clear that they were headed for Shiro Shinjo. The castle hummed with activity. Everything was cleaned, pavilions were erected outside, and food was prepared. When the Naga arrived, they found several thousand mounted samurai awaiting them, arrayed in perfect ranks and files. Pennants fluttered gaily in the breeze from the tips of every riding yari, and plumes and manes added a gentle swaying movement to the sea of purple, white, silver, and gold.
The gates of Shiro Shinjo were open wide, and Moto Gaheris sat there upon his chair, flanked by Ide Tadaji, Iuchi Tzichung, Shinjo Shono, and Utaku Xieng Chi.
The Naga approached the five Unicorn and stopped at a respectful distance before them. Then, for the first time since they had left Otosan Uchi, the Naga set the palanquin down.
“Welcome to our lands,” said Gaheris in his rich voice. “Our people are your people; our camp is your camp; our food is your food. Please, make yourself welcome, and forgive us that we cannot be even more hospitable to such auspicious guests as yourselves.”
The Naga’s apparent leader stepped forward. “Naga sssend greeting to the Yokatsu,” said he, with the assumptions of the Naga. “Naga hasss a gift we wisssh for the Yokatsu and hisss clan.”
Gaheris was greatly affronted by the mention of the name of Yokatsu. Shinjo Yokatsu–former daimyo, traitor, Kolat, power-mad fool, liar, whose name was struck from the histories of the Unicorn, never to be spoken again. And here, the Naga used that vile name for him! Gaheris felt his temper rising, held in check only by the fact that Ide Tadaji had already warned him that such a blunder might easily be made. Had, in fact, already been made, back in Otosan Uchi . . . .
As the Cobra priests reached into the palanquin, Tadaji saw his daimyo’s face reddening and coolly stepped forward. He gestured with his cane, saying, “Sake for our daimyo and his honored guests! Let us celebrate their arrival, immediately.” He popped open a fan and offered it to Gaheris, who took it and fanned himself, if only to distract his anger.
The Cobra brought out the pearl and held it toward the daimyo. Gaheris and Tadaji had already read a description of the pearl, carried across the land by Moto couriers, but the written word could not do justice to the glorious beauty that the Cobra now offered them. Gaheris’s eyes widened, and his jaw dropped open, all thought of insult and indignation washed away by the pearl’s soft glow.
“They only offer once,” whispered Tadaji, unable to remove his eyes from the pearl. “That is their way. Shall we accept this gift?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gaheris compose his face and nod once, solemnly. His was not the way of the tongue, but of the sword. Words he wisely trusted to Tadaji.
Tadaji pressed his hands together in the Naga fashion as he had been taught. “Benevolent Naga,” he said in his highest Rokugani court language, “we are undeserving of a bequest so astonishing, but we will graciously receive thy overture of abiding esteem.” Here he paused briefly, and as he did he noticed the Naga leader surreptitiously leaning back, conferring with the Cobra priests. They were clearly confused.
I should rephrase, thought Tadaji. I am not dealing with Dashmar. “The gift you give us this day is marvelous,” he continued, in slower and much plainer language, “though it is but a token compared to that which we truly value, which is the friendship and assistance you have granted the Empire in general and our clan in particular.” Here he gritted his teeth. “Er . . . Yokatsu . . . whom we now call Gaheris, thanks you for your wonderful gift. We shall place it in a place of great honor, as a tribute to the great respect we have for the Naga people.”
“Exsssellent,” hissed the lead Naga, bobbing his head. He hissed something in the Naga tongue, and the two Cobra slithered forward with the pearl.
Gaheris gestured Shinjo Shono forward to accept. He stepped up to the Cobra and pressed his hands together more or less as he had seen Tadaji do it. He reached out one hand to touch the pearl. It was smooth as glass and pleasant to the touch. It was neither particularly cold nor noticeably warm. He traced his hand down the curve of the pearl and slid it underneath, then gave a heft with his arm to gauge its weight. The Cobra priests did not appear to notice.
“One thousand apologies,” said Shono, turning to the Naga leader, “but we are far smaller creatures than you great bushi, and we may not have the strength to move this as easily as your people do. I hope you can find it in your hearts to loan us this palanquin, for it has carried this pearl from Otosan Uchi to here and we could keep the pearl safe in it while we move it to where we will display it.”
“Thisss we can easssily do, for the carrier isss of no matter to usss.” The leader gestured, and the two Cobra replaced the pearl within its housing.
Shono gestured to a lieutenant to fetch the four strongest samurai in the castle.
“Noble Naga,” interjected Tadaji, as a servant arrived with bottles of sake, “please, come in and share the hospitality of our Clan. Whatever you ask will be yours, to celebrate this day.”
“Naga bodiesss ache, but Unicorn have gave great joy to Naga sssoulsss,” said the leader. “We ssshall ssstay, for little time.”
Servants gave them sake and tea, and Iuchi Tzichung and Utaku Xieng Chi ushered the weary Naga into the castle. Tadaji turned to follow them but paused for just a moment before he left the presence of the daimyo. “My lord,” he said quietly, “I have broken your decree. I shall gladly give my life for using that name, only I request that this be kept from the Naga. They would not understand.”
Gaheris stared out at the assembled ranks of warriors arrayed outside the gates of Shiro Shinjo. After a moment, he turned toward the servant holding the sake, took a carafe from the servant’s tray, and drained half of it in a single pull. “What name?” he asked.
Tadaji smiled inwardly. It was a good day. “My lord,” he said, “we have a banquet to attend.”
* * *
The crimson colors of dawn had just started to stain the eastern sky, and the moon was just preparing to set. The Naga were finally showing their exhaustion. They had bathed, they had eaten, and they had drunk, and then done it all again in reverse order. Now they were gathered in the field outside the gates of Shiro Shinjo, their energy spent.
“Now what shall we do?” asked one of the Cobra priests. “The skein ripens. We were supposed to have been back inside the Shinomen by now.”
“We cannot return in time,” agreed the other. “And I do not know what our absence will mean to the Akasha. The pool will not be full, as we had intended. We may cause the great sleep to fail again.”
“Relax ((I am the guide)),” said the leader. “There is a way ((I have a clear shot)), though it is a human way. One of the Greensnake told me of it a long time ago. It is a curious notion . . . .” And he explained the concept to the rest of the Naga. They made the arrangements as only Naga could and executed the plan with the perfection only Naga could achieve, with both the rising Bright Eye and the setting Pale watching their every move.
As the dawn broke clean and clear over the eastern horizon, the samurai of the Unicorn Clan were stunned to see a perfect circle of Naga, each having been beheaded by the one behind.
* * *
A few months later, the golden pearl was put into its permanent display in a special room rebuilt for just that purpose in the heart of Shiro Shinjo. Stone walls protected three sides of the room, and the fourth was curtained off with an exquisite set of gossamer veils fringed with tiny silver bells. During the day, these veils would be drawn back and secured by green cords woven to resemble a serpent’s scales, and the beauty of the golden pearl was exhibited for all to see.
The pearl stood in a slight alcove, resting in a stand carved to resemble a serpent’s coils. Paintings depicting the Naga and their prowess hung behind the pearl, and its warm color lent such cheer to the room that it rapidly became a favorite place for gatherings of all occasions.
After Emperor Toturi held the next winter court at Shiro Shinjo, it became a tradition that storytelling had to be done in that room. Sometimes fletchers or bowyers would practice their craft in that room in hopes that the legendary skills of the Naga might somehow find a way to guide the human hands that made these new weapons.
And throughout the night, every night, six of the finest samurai of the Unicorn Clan stood guard outside the room.
It was considered one of the highest honors offered to a samurai to take that duty and stand for hours silhouetted by the gentle, golden glow that shone through the veils.
* * *
To be continued . . . .