A series of three vignettes from across the Emerald Empire… and beyond!
Scenes from the Empire
By Yoon Ha Lee, Robert Denton, and Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
“I’m being sent to the Colonies,” Yoritomo Souta said that evening. “Probably to farm giant ants.”
“Oh?” Kakita Takara said, at first taking this for another fable. In the past weeks of their affair, she had found that Souta was possessed of a good number of them. To be truthful, it was his unabashed love for over-the-top ridiculous yarns that had first drawn her to him, although his looks didn’t hurt. He was appealing in that rough-hewn way that she found so refreshing after being surrounded by elegant, beautifully-groomed men all her life.
They were exchanging good sake and silly stories in her room, no more quietly than was necessary. There was a lovely half-moon floating outside, and you could see its light captured in the icicles. Souta was more than adequate to ward off the chill, a quality Takara appreciated in men as a category. He had an arm draped around her shoulders now, and they sat side by side under a melange of quilts and disheveled kimonos.
“No, I’m serious, Takara.” Souta was starting to slur just the slightest bit. Usually Takara got drunk faster than he did, only to be expected with a Mantis, but it was true that he had shown an unusual liking for that bottle of Five Sands sake. Takara hadn’t cared for it herself, especially that strange raw resinous taste, but her honorable mother had taught her from an early age that other people’s tastes were their own business, and a good Crane was gracious about other people’s failings.
“All right,” Takara said agreeably, leaning over so she could help herself to a lukewarm cup half-full of tea. “Isn’t it a great honor? I thought you wanted a position with more responsibility.” Surely the Mantis, of all people, wouldn’t hold a stint in the Colonies against someone.
“Oh yes,” Souta said softly, “a lot of responsibility. My dear brother made that very clear in his summons.”
Takara was alarmed–that was genuine bitterness in Souta’s voice–but it would only shame him to let on that she had noticed. “Think of all the exciting stories you’ll have to share with me when you visit,” she said, stroking his hand. Best to distract him–”I especially liked the one about the sea serpent with four heads, and the thing the samurai-ko did with that unusual pair of chopsticks.” He still didn’t seem very distracted. “They tell a story about my great-grandmother, you know. There was always a tradition that she was descended from a kitsune, and certainly she liked to wear russet obi more than was strictly proper according to the fashions of the time.”
Actually, no such thing was true about her great-grandmother, or if it was, no one had seen fit to inform her about it. She had read something like it in an anthology of supernatural tales, however, and now that she thought of it, the fox-blooded woman in question had fallen tragically in love with an artisan who loved nothing but his own carvings. Still, she and Souta had been exchanging amusing lies throughout their affair, partly as a way of diverting each other, partly as a way of acknowledging the fundamentally transient nature of their relationship.
Now, however–now, Souta was changing the rules of their game. He showed every sign of wanting to burden their relationship with a bite of the truth.
There was nothing to do for it but see if her suspicion was correct. “You know,” Takara said, as if the idea had just occurred to her, “I’ve thought that a sojourn in the Second City might do me good. It’s so difficult jostling for position with all my cousins. I’ve told you about the one who used to follow me around and then make snide remarks about my choice of hairpins to all the boys I liked, right? Not to mention the time she slandered me to my sensei.”
Just as she had thought he would, Souta ignored the idle chatter about her cousins and focused straight in on the Second City. “That’s a terrible idea,” he said, looking stricken. His arm tightened around her shoulders, then relaxed, if not very convincingly. “The climate is awful, everyone agrees on that. A flower such as yourself would only be diminished by the experience.”
If her honorable mother was to be believed, the flowers of the Crane could do with a good deal more hard work and a lot less lounging around discussing favorite pillow-books, but Takara imagined this line of argument would not find much sympathy with her lover. Still, there was something Souta definitely wanted to prevent her from finding out about the Second City. She couldn’t imagine what it could be. It wasn’t as if the Empire didn’t know of its existence.
“Well,” she said artlessly, “in that case, you could do me a favor by pulling a few strings, no? I rather like the thought of my cousin Megiri making the journey only to be laid low by some unaesthetic but ultimately harmless fever for a few months. I could provide you with a list. Most of my cousins are terrible bores.” This wasn’t entirely true. Takara enjoyed most of her cousins’ company, but their definition of “enjoy” involved pranks and convoluted schemes. Once Megiri had even contrived to get a particularly annoying boy sent to the Crab for a year. Everyone had been impressed by that one.
In any case, the blow went true to the target. “Oh, no,” Souta said, looking if anything more stricken, “I couldn’t, ah, do that to your relatives. I wouldn’t wish to lose your good regard.”
“My dear Mantis,” Takara said, kissing him firmly on the nose, “I doubt you’re in any danger of doing that.”
It was uncomfortably true, and she hadn’t expected it to be. She was certain now that Souta’s new duties did not bode well for her clan. He was a fool for trying to protect her–all things considered, in everything but arm wrestling she was much better equipped to protect herself than he was–but it meant something that he had tried, and in the meantime she had something interesting to report to her honorable mother.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Rightful Toji
When Asahina Konomi stepped into the room, her senses were assailed by a combination of spicy and musty scents. It smelled thick with agarwood, cinnamon bark, and Mao-to tea. It was the smell of sickness. She’d long associated it with the dying.
The gloom shimmered with the gaussian texture of incense smoke. In the corner, beyond a lonely beam of amber sunlight, her grandfather lay in his flat bed. She could hear his labored breath, too weak even to stir the fog around him. Konomi knew it would not be long now. On quiet feet she moved to the side of the bed, falling into respectful seiza. He lay on his back, eyes closed, his weathered face motionless under a thin layer of dust. Gingerly, she extended her palm and touched his withered hand. It felt cold.
“…Konomi?” His voice was a cold breath. He seemed so tired. Eager to sleep.
She closed her eyes and fought her trembling. “I am here, grandfather.”
His quiet breathing continued for many moments. She could feel him sinking deeper into the embrace of the next world. The weight of her heart pulled it painfully into her belly, and she felt as though she was sinking with him. Outside, the wind-chime stirred four times, then was silent.
She opened her eyes. The time was now; she could feel Meido pulling him, sensed the stir of the kami as the worlds faded together. Yet he hesitated, as if his wind-pulled spirit, like an old and tattered cloth, was somehow snagged. She took his still fingers and squeezed them. She wanted to smile, to reassure him, but any movement of her face would loosen the film of tears before her eyes. She would not do that. Cry now and his spirit will not want to leave. He would become trapped in the world of the living.
His hand squeezed back. She gasped. A moment before, he’d had no strength. He radiated urgency, pulling her forward. “Grandfather?” The wind-chime outside rang demandingly, but she ignored it. Meido would have to wait a moment more. “What is it?”
She sat patiently as he struggled. The oppressive chiming grew louder, as if by covering up the sound of his breathing, it could smother him. She lent him her strength and leaned in.
At last, his voice came to her ear. “Konomi-chan. I… I know the truth.”
The chime went silent. Her heartbeat raced as his began to fade. “I know… the truth…” he said. “I… know why… you accepted… the Asahina’s training. You… gave up… your own dreams…”
The heat of shame tinted her cheeks, and she lowered her head. It would risk his passage to the afterlife to confess this, but her heart was open now. With his dying strength he had opened it, and she felt her emotions tumble out. “I failed you,” she confessed. Tears fell on his cold hand. “I couldn’t find a cure. I thought… if I was good enough…”
“No… ” the old man struggled, “No… failure. You are… my brightest… grandchild.” His mouth twitched into a faint smile. “You always… showed promise. That is why… the kami… chose you.”
“Grandfather…” she whispered.
His eyes softly opened. Milky white. “I want… to give you… something. So that… your talents… will not… be… wasted.”
With a shaking hand, he gestured to the far corner. An old desk sat there, its corners coated with melted candle-wax. Konomi spotted a scroll on its surface, bound with blue ribbon. As she retrieved it and returned to her grandfather’s side, she saw that it was sealed with his family’s Mon. Her family, before she was fostered to the Asahina. The Mon of the Doji.
He trembled. “Break… the seal.”
She did. The scroll unfurled before her. Her eyes took in the uneven calligraphy of shaking hands and knotted fingers. They widened.
He sighed. “My gift… to you…”
It was a deed. His last wishes transferred his entire estate to her. And tucked within was another scrap of paper, this one older and weathered, the writing nearly faded. It was a recipe, and a list of instructions.
There was no containing her tears now. “Grandfather!” she cried.
He was smiling where he lay. Silent. Still. Konomi cupped her hand over her mouth. The chime outside twinkled gently. After long moments, she closed her eyes, then extinguished the incense.
* * *
“This is outrageous!” Doji Hirota exclaimed, throwing down the paper document. Doji Shinkichi, standing behind him, fixed confused eyes upon her. Konomi returned no emotion, refusing to acknowledge her brother’s outburst. Around them, the “Kurabito,” the brewery-workers, stared with slack faces.
She had come to claim what her grandfather had left her: the lone sake works in the village of Tsuma. The “Maneki Neko Brewery,” named for the ceramic bobtail cat that sat just within the main entrance. She’d spent much time here as a child; the sight of the weathered old statue, its left paw raised above its smiling face, unleashed a rush of familiar memories. She’d walked unimpeded amidst the brewery-people as they went about their work, even as many of them paused to cast her curious glances. She’d finally stopped before the huge Moromi vats that held the fermenting rice mash, recalling the promise she’d made to herself when she was a child. It was the dream of a little girl who’d looked up to her grandfather the brewmaster. That one day she would be just like him. It was a dream she abandoned when she’d finally learned of his slow-acting illness, and her gift from the kami. She’d never told him that. How had he known?
The Empire was on the cusp of winter, so she knew the brewery would be busy. It was empty in summer. The farmers tended to their rice paddies and wul fields, and the koji mold grew within the ancestral caves beyond her family’s private shrine. But when the farmer’s lands were blanketed by snow, that was when the Toji would come to the village and hire the hardiest men and women to work in the brewery. Villagers competed for the privilege of working for the brewery in winter, where they were given warm lodging and wages in exchange for their work. In the quiet of winter, the brewery was the beating heart of Tsuma.
But for the moment, the brewery had come to a full stop. Konomi felt the eyes of the Kurabito watching her as her brothers scowled at the document by their feet.
“You have no right to it,” Hirota shouted. He was always quick to lose his temper. “We have managed it for grandfather for years! You had your chance, Konomi-chan!” he spat the suffix, “You chose to live in the temple!”
“The kami called me to my duty,” she corrected him, not falling for his bait. “Just as grandfather calls me to this.”
“This is not what grandfather would have wanted,” Shinkichi said.
A flicker of anger crossed Konomi’s features. “You know nothing of grandfather’s wishes!” she shouted. With her arms crossed, back straight, and shoulders square, and her long sleeves rolled back to her elbows, she was an oddly intimidating figure. “Look at this swill you are making now! You think that I do not know what you have done to our family’s sake works!?” She sneered, showing her open disgust for the first time. “Pouring rainwater into the finished batch for a greater yield! Making inferior nigori sake, like a Crab brute! Cheap cedar barrels instead of cypress! Have you forgotten grandfather’s recipe?! Our ancestors’ ways!?”
Her brothers were unaccustomed to an empowered, assertive Konomi. They stared at her numbly.
“Have you nothing to say!?!” she demanded.
“This is progress, sister,” Shinkichi protested weakly.
Konomi shook her head. “Not progress! Just a scheme to make more money! You have allowed desire to dirty your souls!” She turned her back to them, as sure an insult as a slap to the face. “Grandfather saw what you were doing to his brewery, to our family’s reputation, but he was too weak to stop you. The illness saw to that. That is why he left this brewery to me, with instructions that I restore the previous recipe. He knew that I would honor his wishes.”
Shinkichi shrank back. Her words bit deep, and he felt his grandfather’s eyes upon him. Shame burned his face as he lowered his head.
But Hirota felt only cold anger. “As if you could run this place!” he hissed. “A priestess as a Toji!”
“And why not!?” she snapped, facing him square again. “The koji mold comes from our ancestral shrines, coaxed by the kami of our caves! Sake is blessed for festivals, offered to fortunes! Sake is sacred!”
“You are a fool,” Hirota said. “The Kurabito will not respect you.”
Konomi paused, her eyes narrowed. Abruptly, she cast a sweeping look around her, matching the eyes of all the workers who watched the scene unfold from their milling stations. They were all men and women of Tsuma, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth heimin. They looked back at her with dirty faces. Faces of necessity. Not pride in one’s work.
“You are the artisans who make the sake,” she said to them. “What do you say?”
The heimin exchanged glances. Hirota’s face scrunched. “They don’t get a say!” he barked. “All of you, back to work!”
“Are you proud of what you produce?” she asked. “When the spring comes and your work is bottled, do you hold your heads up proudly? Do you drink the sake you made? Does your master?”
“That’s enough!” Hirota shouted. “I’m calling the magistrate!”
“Go get him,” Konomi replied unperturbed. Her eyes fell on an older man within the crowd. He was standing by his rice-polishing station, a task far too labor-intensive for one of his age. She recognized him. “You worked here when my grandfather was Toji,” she said, “didn’t you?”
He raised his head. “I remember when you were but a child, my lady.”
Konomi nodded. “Where is your family, Honored Elder? I noticed the worker’s quarters were almost empty.”
“The worker’s quarters are for workers only!” Hirota interjected.
Konomi looked to the rest of the Kurabito. “When my grandfather was Toji, the workers’ families were permitted to stay in the workers quarters. Now that I am in charge, we are re-instating that policy.” Murmured excitement rippled through the workers as Hirota’s expression turned into quiet horror. “Send for your spouses, your children, and your Honored Elders. As long as you are working hard, they may stay here.”
The effect was instant. The Kurabito had smiling faces. She’d won them over with that single gesture.
“You’re insane!” Hirota exclaimed.
She cast him a sideways glance. “I thought you were fetching the magistrate.”
Finally beaten, but still fuming, Hirota glared at her balefully. “This is not over,” he swore. “Come on, Shinkichi,” he said, gesturing for his brother to follow.
Instead, Shinkichi fell suddenly on his knees, laying his head on the floor, bowing before his sister. Hirota’s eyes widened. “What are you doing!?” he demanded. “Get up, you fool!”
“Forgive me, sister!” cried Shinkichi, “It was Hirota’s idea to water down the sake! I had nothing to do with it! And we were only making unfiltered sake until the ash filters arrived!”
“Shut up!” Hirota barked. But it was too late; the secret had slipped. “Ash filters” were the cinders of animal bones, abhorred by sake purists. Accusing eyes stared at Hirota as the room fell silent.
“We do not filter with bones in this brewery,” she said softly. “Get out, Hirota. You are not welcome here.”
“Traitor!” Hirota accused. His eyes flicked to his kowtowing brother. “Both of you!” With stomping feet, he stormed out, striking the thick ceramic cat with his palm as he went.
“Good riddance,” said Konomi. She gestured for Shinkichi to stand. His face was red with shame, and he would not look her in the eyes. “So you are sorry for what you did?” she asked.
He nodded. “Sister, I do not want to shame our ancestors! I never meant to bring shame to grandfather’s name! I thought-”
She laid a hand on his shoulder, silencing him. She spoke gently, as a shugenja. “Grandfather smiles on you now, Shinkichi-kun. He is happy that you have corrected your path. I think he would like for you to continue to oversee the Kurabito here.” Her smile faded slightly and she adopted a firmer tone as she added, “But I am in charge. Understand?”
“Hai,” he replied, bowing gratefully.
Konomi smiled again. “Good,” she said. “Come with me, then. I have some ideas I wish to discuss.” Her smile broadened as the Kurabito returned to their work, brimming with a new energy.
* * *
“Lady Hanegansi expresses her apologies that she could not attend your summer court, Makoto-sama,” Doji Shunya said from his steep bow. “She tends to the priorities that you assigned her.”
Doji Makoto flashed his famous smile, waving the comment away. “I had hoped to see her legendary beauty one more time,” he said with a wistful undercurrent, “but I suppose I must manage with only my dreams.”
His closest advisors chuckled politely at their incorrigible leader. Shunya smiled politely. “She does offer a gift in condolence,” he said.
Makoto raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Shunya made a gesture, and his assistant, a lower-ranking courtier of the Doji, stepped forward, extending the gift with both hands. It was a large ceramic bottle with a parchment label. Hand-painted calligraphy announced the contents: “Genshu-Muroka-Shizuka Sake.” Above that, the name of the brew. “Maneki Neko.”
The Doji champion radiated a genuine smile. After the formal refusals, he stepped from the dais to accept the gift with his own hands. The lesser courtier seemed oddly cold and stiff, but Shunya beamed with pride.
Makoto laughed and held the bottle fondly. “Convey my sincere thanks to Lady Hanegansi for her generosity and cleverness,” he said. “I’m impressed! She knew my favorite sake!”
Shunya allowed himself a minor smile. “It is said that the Imperial Consort himself chooses Maneki Neko Sake. Even over Friendly Traveler.”
Makoto nodded, glancing up from the bottle. “That’s because it is the best.”
After a further exchange, Makoto excused the court, leading his entourage of guests to the splendor of the palace gardens. He entrusted the bottle to a servant. Already guests whispered speculations as to who would savor the brew with the Crane Champion before the summer court ended. The representative of the Hanegansi family relaxed a bit, glancing at his assistant. “Makoto-sama was very pleased,” he remarked. “I am thankful for that. Imagine, only last season the Maneki Neko Sake Works was unheard of throughout the lands. They must have a truly great Toji to have become so famous so quickly.”
His assistant, Doji Hirota, did not reply.
* * * * * * * * * *
The kobune approached from the mainland, where the great buildings of the Aerie seemed like children’s toys on the horizon. Kitsuki Jakuei watched as the ship grew ever closer, taking a moment to straighten the angles of his clothing after a particularly brisk sea breeze tossed them into mild disarray. The two others waiting with him seemed oblivious to the wind, but then it would be difficult for a breeze to affect the plates of their armor. The woman did whip her hair so that it would not blow into her face, but other than that, they seemed almost like statues.
In a matter of moments, the ship arrived on the simple pier below them, and the peasant attendants quickly performed the necessary acts to ensure it was safely bound. A trio of Crane disembarked, although Jakuei had only anticipated two. It was a minor matter, but one he carefully filed away for the future, in the event that it became important. “Welcome to Miryoku no Shima, honored guests,” Jakuei said with a bow.
The man walking at the head of the three Crane bowed respectfully. “We are grateful for your time,” he said, smiling. He was an older man, with piercing eyes that took in everything despite the disarming smile he bore. “I have heard that my old friend Shizuro has returned to the Empire to deal with matters of a family nature. Shall I assume you are his replacement, then?”
“I am,” Jakuei said, smiling. “I am Kitsuki Jakuei, Imperial magistrate and newly appointed hatamoto of Miryoku no Shima. It is my great pleasure to make your acquaintance. Am I given to understand that you are Kakita Kazan?”
“I am Kazan, yes.”
“Then it is I who am honored,” Jakeui said, bowing again. “You are one of the architects of this place, this grand estate shared between the Crane and Dragon, and I am in the presence of greatness.”
Kazan actually burst out laughing, but his expression was one of genuine enjoyment rather than mockery. “I fear you must have been misinformed!” he said, wiping a tear from his eye. “I am just an old man, and one of many who worked to ensure that our clans had something to share between us that will ensure we never again come to such difficulty as in our fathers’ time.” He turned to the two women in his entourage. “Please permit me to introduce my attendants. This is Daidoji Kenshi, a veteran of the War of the Twins and my yojimbo, at least until they realize her talents belong with someone vastly more important than I. And this is Doji Iza, a brilliant scholar who has come to inspect the texts your predecessor kept in this estate.” He looked at Jakuei. “I hope that will not prove difficult?”
“Not at all,” Jakeui replied. “My predecessor ensured that such things were readily available for consultation, as he was aware of Iza’s impending arrival. It is the spirit of cooperation that made this island of enchantment possible, after all.” He smiled and gestured to his own attendants. “If I may, my own attendants. This is Mirumoto Reiyu, my yojimbo and, although she will not admit it even to herself, a poet of some significant skill.”
“I am unworthy of such praise,” Reiyu said with a bow to the delegation. “Iza-sama, I am familiar with your research into gaijin cultures. I find your work absolutely fascinating.”
“Thank you,” Iza said demurely.
“And this is Mirumoto Kyoshiro, a recent arrival to the island and my most recent addition to the honor guard here.”
The young warrior stepped forward and bowed wordlessly to Kazan, then to Kenshi. “It is an honor to meet a veteran of the War of the Twins,” he said politely. He then stood and turned toward Doji Iza, but he did not bow. He fixed her with a pointed glare, then turned and began up the path toward the estate.
Kazan raised an eyebrow and glanced at Jakeui. “Is there a problem with your man?”
Jakuei was aghast, but struggled to conceal it. “I do not know, Kazan-sama, but you have my word that I will find out, and that such an insult will never be offered to the Crane again so long as I have position on this island.” He turned and gestured up the path, forcing a smile. “Will you accompany us to the estate? I have the texts that Iza-san wishes to see prepared for her.”
Kazan bowed and smiled, and the Crane followed the Dragon up the path. Daidoji Kenshi glanced up to ensure the Dragon were far enough ahead, then over at Iza. “What was all that about?”
“Old family business, I think,” Iza replied, a thoughtful expression on her face.
“Well, I certainly am glad that’s over with,” Kenshi said. “We do not need tension like that in the Aerie.”
“Over?” Iza said, peering up the path. “No, I doubt that very much.”