By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Nearly three dozen men descended from the mountains, moving like shadows through the plains in the northern portion of the Empire. They moved at night, rapidly, covering as much ground as possible as quickly as possible, and killing anything in their path. It was not until the first rays of dawn broke over the eastern horizon that they gazed across the fields at the village of Toi Koku.
“With the winter over, they will be preparing to distribute the supplies stored here to last until the harvest,” the leader of the men said. “We kill anything we find, secure the village, and ready the wagons. The others will follow with the dusk, and we will vacate the entirety of its stores.” The man licked his lips hungrily. “If what we have been told is to be believed, the village can feed the army for three, perhaps four weeks.”
“What is left of the army,” one of the others muttered.
“Enough of that!” the leader hissed. “Move!”
The men slipped into the village like phantoms, gliding effortlessly from building to building without a sound. Buildings were entered quickly and exited just as quickly, with perplexed looks. After only a matter of moments, they reached the village’s center, where there were crates and barrels numbering in the hundreds.
“What is going on here?” one of the men asked. “Where is everyone?”
“Evacuated,” the leader said, staring hungrily at the crates of food. “Find the wagons and let us get started.”
“Wait,” the other man continued. “Why are the supplies in the village center? This makes no sense.”
“Be silent!” the leader rasped.
“And what is that smell?”
One of the other men stepped up and struck the speaker across the side of the head, sending him reeling into the dirt. “Enough of your talk!” the man snarled. “We need no reminders of our misfortune!”
The speaker staggered to his feet, holding his head. “It is not my fault the fire has burned away your sense of smell,” he muttered under his breath. He did smell something, though, something acrid and unusual. Even his sense of smell had been damaged, but he knew that it was not food, nor even the strange spices the Rokugani used to garnish their meals. It was something familiar& he had smelled it before. If only he could remember.
“Hunt master,” one of the men said. “Sentry!”
The leader looked upward and spied a single samurai, crouched atop one of the buildings on the far edge of the village. “What a fool,” he snarled. “Crossbows.”
The others unslung their weapons from their backs and began knocking bolts, smiling at the thought of another samurai slain. The one who could still smell did not, an unidentified panic welling up in his chest. “Where have I smelled it before?” he whispered to himself.
As the others took aim, the samurai, one of the Crane, rose and drew his bow, the tip of his arrow smoldering with an ember taken from a torch, or perhaps a fire the Yobanjin could not see. He drew and fired in one smooth motion, the arrow arcing high above them and coming toward the supplies.
“Oh gods,” the raider whispered. “It’s lantern oil!” He turned and ran, his legs pumping as fast as they could. He heard the twanging of the crossbows behind him, and the wooshing sound of the “supplies” engulfed in flame. Ribbons of fire followed trails of oil throughout the village. The raider prayed to his people’s gods that he would reach the edge of the village in time.
He did not.
* * *
Doji Nagori perused the scroll as he walked, nodding at parts. It seemed that the two agents he had dispatched had succeeded wonderfully in their assignments. Kirimi had proven her worth in Ukabu Mura weeks earlier, but that she had managed to take a man such as Kakita Okirou, a man who admittedly had little skill as a scout, all the way to Toi Koku and successfully extracted him was an incredible testament to the young woman’s abilities. Nagori made a mental note to speak to his military adjunct about arrangement a promotion for the young woman upon her return. Okirou would have no interest in such things, of course; the man was more an artisan than anything else, but he was also far and away the most skilled archer in the Crane delegation at court, hence Nagori’s conscription of him in this instance. All things considered, it seemed to have gone quite well. Okirou had even sent a poem with the report, celebrating the defeat of their enemies at the village. It really was quite good, in Nagori’s estimation.
Nagori rolled the scroll back up carefully, tucking the attached poem into his obi, and handed it back to the man who walked beside him. “What of the rest?”
Doji Kato inclined his head respectfully. “The ronin Kirimi hired on our behalf assisted with the breakdown and transport of the Mikado from the village long before Toi Koku was assailed by the Yobanjin infiltrators,” he revealed. “The owner is extremely grateful for our assistance in preserving the establishment. He has agreed to a three month engagement in the Doji provinces prior to the onset of winter in the fall.” Kato smiled slightly. “I am certain it will prove quite profitable for them, and of course a portion is always provided to the hosts as well.”
“The real benefit will be the dining pleasure of our guests,” Nagori corrected. “Many of whom are more pliable after enjoying fine cuisine, I think.” He walked in silence for a moment. “Has there been any further discussion from the court regarding the announcement?”
Kato frowned. “More than can be summarized,” he acknowledged. “The Empress’ revelation that she was considering returning to the Imperial City has created a rather unpleasant environment. Many wish to convince her otherwise, most vocal among them the Scorpion, but none dare contradict her or suggest she might be mistaken. It is a delicate balancing act.”
“Are the Lion still supporting the idea?”
“With great vigor and relish,” Kato said with a smirk. “They long to protect the Imperial City from another invasion, I think. Particularly since the chance of treachery is so low this time.”
“No Lion has ever failed to expect treachery,” Nagori corrected. “Well, it seems there is little we can do. Simply observe and exploit advantages when they appear. Whatever the Empress chooses, she will not choose it as a result of our support or the lack thereof.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Kato said. He hesitated briefly. “Have you considered my proposal, my lord?”
Nagori sighed. “I can but agree that the Chancellor is a constant danger to our long-term plans with regard to the Imperial Court. I am not yet convinced that forging a closer alliance with the Imperial Advisor is a good idea, however.”
“He bears no love for the Chancellor, that much is obvious,” Kato said. “The enemy of my enemy, and all that.”
“We know too little about Susumu,” Nagori said. “Until we know more, I cannot sanction your plan, Kato-san. If you wish to move ahead, you must bring me something of substance.”
The subordinate’s eyes gleamed. “You shall have it, my lord.”
* * *
Tungba stood slightly behind an outcropping of rock for several minutes, struggling in vain to summon his courage and dispel his fear. It was a futile struggle, and eventually he accepted that he must abandon the attempt altogether. He bore a report that would not be well received by his master, or at least the man who served as his master in the absence of the Burning One. And those who bore disappointment to his master frequently did not survive the experience. Finally, he sighed and put on a brave face. He would not disgrace his family and tribe, what little remained of it, by dying a coward.
The central area of the temporary camp was little more than a circle of stones that one of the shamans had summoned to suit the tastes of their commander. He was a ritualistic man, it was said, but Tungba could not say for certain; he had met the man only once before he had become the Son of Fire, and he knew very little of him before that time. He could but assume the others who claimed the man had changed in ways that could not fully be explained were telling the truth.
The man who led the Army of Fire stirred where he sat observing the bonfire in the circle’s center. “You have something for me?” he rumbled. Wisps of smoke accompanied his exhalation, and his eyes glowed ever so slightly in the dim light. As always, the stench of ash and brimstone was think in the air around him.
“Forgive my intrusion, great Son of Fire,” Tungba said shakily. “I bear news from the village called Toi Koku.”
“Hmph,” the giant of a man snorted. He was larger than any man could ever become and still be a natural product of the mortal world. He had been a full foot shorter when Tungba had met him prior to his transformation. “The supplies?”
“Lost, great Son,” Tungba admitted. “There was a& a trap.”
“A trap,” he repeated. “What sort?”
Tungba licked his lips nervously. “Fire, my lord. They burned the village and the mountains around them, killing all of the men sent to retrieve the supplies.”
To Tungba’s surprise, the Son of Fire laughed. It was hardly comforting, however, as when the man laughed there was a slight light visible in his mouth, as if a fire burned at the back of his throat. “Fire!” the commander laughed again. “How unworthy those slugs must have been to have succumbed to such a fate.”
“Unworthy, great one, yes,” Tungba agreed cautiously. “The& the chieftains under your command informed me that without those supplies, the army cannot continue its campaign for more than a few days. Perhaps a week at most. Great one.”
“A week,” the Son of Fire rumbled. “This war will be at an end within that time. Toi Koku is nothing.”
Tungba could not keep the surprise from his voice. “Great one?”
“Ready the troops. Send our runners to the distant patrols. Have the shamans summon our outermost forces.” The man rose to his full, terrifying height. “The Burning One has spoken to me. It is time to cut the wicked heart from the rotten corpse of the Empire.”
* * *
Ikoma Otemi grimaced at the heat of the breeze that blew across the plains. It seemed that the Empire had gone from winter directly to summer, with little in the way of spring. But then war was like that; it distracted a man from what took place around him and filled his mind with death and violence. When the fog lifted, months could have passed. Seasons blurred together, and children became adults. It was an unfortunate by-product of the life of a Lion, but Otemi would have it no other way.
“Rikugunshokan,” one of his officers called to him as he exited the tent. “There is word, my lord! From the other detachments!”
“Report,” he said at once.
“Word has arrived from Lord Shigetoshi,” the officer began, consulting a number of scrolls. “His forces have joined with those of Hida Benjiro to secure the area surrounding Shiro Kitsuki. They report all known forces have withdrawn and appear to be heading east.”
Otemi nodded, frowning slightly. “Other reports?”
“Word arrived from the Shogun as well,” the officer continued. “His advance scouts indicate that the Yobanjin forces in the western mountains are likewise retreating to the east, taking a roundabout route to avoid the Lion and Crab forces. They move with such speed that even the Unicorn cannot keep up with them for long.”
The tactician’s frown grew more severe. “I find an unpleasant pattern emerging,” he remarked. “Is there anything further?”
“Reports from the Phoenix lands indicate a withdrawal of the Yobanjin, but no indication is given as to their bearing, my lord.”
“Obviously not east,” Otemi observed. “The sea and the Army of Fire would mix poorly, I believe. West, then.”
“There is a personal message from Lord Shigetoshi, commander, but it was accompanied by instructions to ask your assessment before presenting it to you.”
Otemi raised an eyebrow. “I believe the Army of Fire is massing in the Dragon Heart Plain for one final assault. Southward, toward the Imperial City.”
The officer bowed and presented the scroll, which Otemi opened at one.
You have doubtless received the same intelligence that I have. I have arrived at the conclusion that our foes are preparing for one final attack, as we have finally depleted their numbers to such an extent that further random assaults throughout the Empire will serve their purposes not at all. You have, of course, already determined this for yourself, and now your men, having had this reinforced, shall remain eternally grateful to have lived and served with a tactician of such brilliance as yourself. Likewise the Crab accompanying you have been demonstratively shown that you and you alone are fit to lead your half of our coalition forces. I know that it is a great comfort to me to have a man of your caliber to depend upon during this time of glorious war.
Marshal your forces, brother, and meet me on the Dragon Heart Plain.
Otemi could not help but smile slightly as he rolled up the scroll. Even in the midst of war, the Lion Champion never failed to exploit tactical advantages in the political and social realm as well as that of battle. If he himself had possessed only a fraction of Shigetoshi-sama’s political acumen during his reign as Champion, Otemi reflected, then perhaps he would have fewer regrets. He realized his subordinate stood awaiting his attention, one final scroll held in hand. “Something further?”
“In addition to advance scouts from the Shogun’s forces, one of the Imperial Legions has arrived on the orders of the Emerald Champion.”
The smile disappeared at once, replaced by a grimace. “Is the Champion in command?”
“He is not, but the commander is a Scorpion just the same. Shosuro Naname of the Sixth Legion. He presents orders from his lord Jimen to join your forces and serve in whatever capacity you determine appropriate, commander.”
“Oh,” Otemi took the scroll, surprised. His wife, a former Scorpion herself, had cautioned him strongly to be exceptionally careful in any and all dealings with Shosuro Jimen, even in the midst of a war. He was, in her estimation, one of the most dangerous men alive. Otemi had little confirmation of that assessment, but had never had cause to doubt his wife before, and would not begin now. “Prepare the men to break camp at once. Ask Hida Hikita and Shosuro Naname to meet me in my tent at their earliest convenience.” He paused for a moment. “Regardless of their convenience, however, I intend this army to be moving within two hours’ time at the outmost, is that clear?”
“Your will, commander,” the officer said with a deep bow.
* * *
The main garden of Kyuden Bayushi was virtually empty, something that was unheard of during the middle of the day. Yet there were no servants about, no courtiers strolling through the majestic topiaries, no old men sitting and playing go at any of the tables. It was empty and nearly silent, and the combination of the two created an eerily uncomfortable environment.
Doji Nagori hurried through the rows, seeking the garden’s center. He glanced over his shoulder only once, managing to resist the impulse the rest of the time. He chided himself for instigating this meeting, but it seemed a necessity given the circumstances. The unanimous agreement of the other head delegates, at least, seemed to lend credence to that idea. Still, the secrecy of it pricked his conscience, and Nagori knew enough of the Tao that such a sensation could indicate his path was not just. He would simply have to pray for forgiveness later.
Nagori came to the opening in the center of the garden, where a number of others awaited him. Representatives from each of the Great Clans were present, just as he had hoped. Time was short, and if waiting had proved necessary, all could have been undone. “My associates have initiated a number of impromptu contests,” he said quickly. “That should purchase us a few moments of privacy.”
“Sentries will prevent entrance to the gardens for the next ten minutes,” Bayushi Paneki said quietly. “Any longer than that, and we risk discovery. What is it you wish to say, Nagori?”
Nagori bowed to the Scorpion Champion. “I believe you have already guessed, Lord Paneki,” he said. “The announcement that the Empress plans to return to the Imperial City is one that many of us expected, but I might say that none of us, save perhaps for our Lion brothers, would have wished for.”
There was a general nod of agreement among the others. “I fear for her safety,” Ide Eien offered quietly. “The wolves are very nearly at the gates.”
“They will not have her,” Kitsu Kiyoko said sternly. “The Lion will not allow it.”
“No one questions your resolve,” Nagori said, “but I feel that it would be in the best interests of the Empire if we might have some plan to ensure her protection as she leaves this place. The murder of a Divine Empress would be a blow from which the Empire might never recover.”
“Agreed,” Yoritomo Sachina said. “Yet we cannot attempt to convince her to remain.”
“What, then, is the simplest manner of ensuring her safety?” Nagori asked of the assembled delegates.
“Victory,” Kiyoko said at once. “The death of her enemies.”
“That is hardly a reasonable response,” Paneki said, his tone a shade reproving. “If it was so simple a matter, would the war not be long over?”
“Nevertheless, it is the most suitable response,” Kiyoko insisted, meeting the Scorpion’s gaze without wavering.
Someone cleared his throat softly, and Nagori turned toward the sound. “Do you have a suggestion, friend Crab?”
“I do,” Yasuki Jinn-Kuen said. “I fear, however, that some among you may not find it palatable.”
TO BE CONCLUDED
Chicago Kotei Winners
Military: Brian Fox (Crane)
Political: David Winner (Crane)
Nuernberg Kotei Winners
Military: Marcus Finger (Scorpion)
Political: Salman Barakat (Crab)
The Trap is Sprung! [Strategy]
Battle: If a Recon action has targeted the current battlefield’s province this turn, target your unbowed Scout Personality: Bow a target enemy unit.
Fight them with our full force [Strategy]
Battle: If you control three or more units at the current battlefield, target your unbowed Personality: Move a target enemy Personality home.
If he is dishonorable, his controller loses 2 Honor.