In the Emperor’s Name
Without so much as a whisper of cloth, the aging samurai slid from his tatami, reaching for his sword. He settled in a crouch and raised his katana before him, still within its saya. A clammy sweat covered his body, but every nerve was ready for instant action.
Moments passed. The room was dark, and his instincts told him it was empty, but the nightmare had been so real… so very real. As the tenseness left his muscles, his heart stopped racing and his blood stopped pounding. Sweat cooled in the night air, causing an involuntary shiver to pass through him ~ or was it the chill?
Ishikawa wrapped a kimono around his body and walked outside into the garden. Looking into the sky, he saw a wild field of twinkling lights. Much like that night…
He had been an exceptional swordsman in his youth and had attracted a great deal of attention. As a young samurai in the Seppun family, Ishikawa managed to avoid much of the infighting that generally consumed the samurai of the great Clans. His was a family sworn to service of the Emperor, not to any specific clan.
As he matured, his growing reputation and leadership ability earned him many posts of increasing responsibility, always in imperial service. As was the custom when accepting an imperial post, Ishikawa suspended the use of his family name – a practice instituted to bring unity to the various servants of the Hantei, so that members of rival families would not be reminded of that rivalry while in the service of their Emperor.
First he served as a member of the Imperial Guard, where his diligence and efficiency were recognized. After serving in the Guard for a couple of years, Ishikawa accepted a commission as an Imperial Magistrate — offered by the Emerald Champion, who had many dealings with the Imperial Guard. After a few years as a successful magistrate, he accepted a post as an officer in the Imperial Guard. It was no great surprise when, two years later, Hantei the 38th appointed him as Captain of the Imperial Guard.
He had served as the Captain for three years before it happened. Late in the hour of the Boar, during a hot autumn night, the Scorpion turned the Imperial Palace into a battleground.
Ishikawa was woken from his sleep to the ringing of the warning bells. The bells hadn’t been used in centuries.
Quickly throwing on a kimono and grabbing his daisho, he ran into the hall. Dozens of people, from servants to courtiers, scuttled about the hallway in the same disarray as Ishikawa himself — hair mussed, hastily dressed and bleary eyed. Ishikawa had never before seen panic within the palace, but there was no mistaking the smell of terror as it whirled about him.
He started toward the Hantei’s chambers, but halted almost immediately. Pushing their way in his direction he saw Isawa Kaede and her father, both of the Phoenix clan. Between them, his hands held firmly in theirs, was the Hantei’s heir. The young prince squirmed and pulled but could not break free of his captors.
Ishikawa, charged with the protection of the Imperial family, started toward them, his anger growing. They stopped as he reached them and Ishikawa was about to demand an explanation when the boy was released. The prince rushed to Ishikawa’s side.
Kaede’s father, Isawa Ujina, spoke to Ishikawa in a voice that sounded like the grinding of stone on stone, “Take the young Hantei and my daughter Kaede into the mountains to the north and work your way to Isawa palace.” Before Ishikawa could respond, he started to move away, his gait uneven and lurching.
Ishikawa was momentarily stunned, allowing the old man to separate them by half a dozen steps. “NO!” he finally responded “— my place is at the Hantei’s side!” He started toward the Hantei’s chambers, the prince at his side, only to find Ujina firmly planted in his path.
“Take the heir and my daughter and get out! Now!” Ujina repeated to Ishikawa, his words grating softly but firmly.
Ishikawa responded, “Out of my way. I must go to the Hantei!” As he spoke he tried to shove The Nameless One to the side, but found him as immovable as a rock wall.
The Nameless One aimed his dark eyes into Ishikawa’s and spoke again. “He is dead.” The words were still soft, but the power of the frail-looking shugenja pushed Ishikawa back a few steps.
Without knowing precisely why, Ishikawa believed the aging Phoenix immediately. He held the young Hantei’s right hand in his left and, nodding to the old shugenja, led the boy and the young woman down emptying halls. Finally arriving at a dead-end, Ishikawa opened a secret door, long forgotten by all except those closest to the Hantei, and led them through a seemingly endless series of narrow, twisting passages hidden in the walls of the centuries-old castle.
After hours in the maze-like passages, the three exited the palace and began to make their way through the streets of Otosan Uchi. The sky was moonless, but a bold sea of stars provided enough light to illuminate their path, allowing them to pick their way easily down dark streets toward the north gate. On several occasions they were forced to conceal themselves from passing bands of Scorpion Clan samurai.
Ishikawa was amazed at the numbers of the Scorpion samurai as they moved about the city. How could so many troops have made their way into the Otosan Uchi? The Otomo would have known weeks in advance if a Scorpion army had moved against the capital. Then it occurred to him that thousands of ‘peasants’, many more than expected, had flocked to the city just the previous week for the Chrysanthemum Festival.
There were a few times that Ishikawa drew his blade and felled a Scorpion samurai that stood between them and freedom, but the trio eventually escaped the city and moved north toward the Phoenix lands and safety.
During the next seven weeks, as they lived with the Isawa, Ishikawa begged the young heir to be allowed to commit seppuku on dozens of occasions. After the Lion reclaimed the city in the young prince’s name, the young Hantei ascended the throne of his father and reinstated Ishikawa as the Captain of the Imperial Guard. In the three years since that time, Ishikawa had rebuilt the Imperial Guard, which had been killed to the last man during the Scorpion coup, and established strict procedures for the protection of the Hantei.
Ishikawa turned his gaze away from the stars, his thoughts returning to the present. He was still the Captain of the Imperial Guard, the Hantei, now nearly a man, lay in his sickbed with a strange plague, and the old nightmares had returned. He clutched his kimono a bit tighter and returned to his room, though he knew he would not be able to return to sleep.
The office of Ide Makujin was small and cramped, but tidy. The magistrate was an older man with greying hair and more around the middle than he would have liked. He was also under a great deal of pressure — Doii Satsume, the Emerald Champion, had died a few years ago and had not yet been replaced. Since Makujin had been Satsume’s aide and was the senior magistrate in Otosan Uchi, he had been given the responsibilities of the office until such a time as a new champion was appointed.
Though he had always been extremely good at handling paperwork and coordinating appointments for the former Emerald Champion, Makujin was a man who liked peace and quiet, preferring anonymity to the pomp of his current station. He was not at all a happy man.
Ishikawa walked into the office, bowed respectfully, and sat. He was nervous, but felt that he had to voice his suspicions. He had made an appointment with Makujin and waited nearly a week for the appointed time. Now, however, he was unsure of his own wisdom.
“Yes, Captain? How may I be of service?” asked Makujin. He expected this appointment to be a simple discussion between peers looking out for the interest of the Empire — nothing more.
Ishikawa, in his nervousness, blurted “Magistrate Makujin, I suspect that sinister things are going on in the palace.” The silence in the enclosed room was palpable. Makujin was stunned and Ishikawa was even more nervous. Finally Makujin recovered, “What manner of things, Captain?”
Ishikawa forged ahead. “Well, the Emperor – the plague that raged across Rokugan either killed its victims or they weathered the illness and got well. The Emperor has been ill for nearly a year and his condition does not change. In addition, there have been so many subtle changes over that time that the Empress seems to wield his authority and power without question. If the Emperor were dead, she would have no power at all.”
He paused, waiting for the magistrate to interject, but the older just nodded and stared past Ishikawa’s head.
Makujin was pleased. Just a few weeks ago he had been summoned to the Empress and she had told him of her suspicions that someone inside the palace was working to subvert the authority of the Emperor. Though he hadn’t had time to investigate, the fortunes had smiled on him. The saboteur just walked right into his office! What better person to begin a campaign of ambition than the Captain of the Imperial Guard?
Finally Makujin broke the silence. “I see, Captain. Yes. I see what you are saying. This requires some… subtle investigation. I will look into it.”
Ishikawa was disappointed by the tone of Makujin’s response. If he were serious, there would most certainly have been many more questions. Instead, it sounded like a bureaucrat’s dismissal. He rose and left.
Kachiko, wife to the Emperor, smiled her thanks again to Ide Makujin as he left her apartment. Among the most luxurious settings in Rokugan, her apartment had its walls and floors covered with lavish tapestries, and the windows framed with expensive curtains. All manner of priceless furniture and art objects were placed about the room for maximum impact — it was important that people entering her rooms be put off guard by the overpowering show of wealth and power. That gave the Emperor’s wife an edge in her dealings.
She had set that snare merely as a way to occupy the little man’s thoughts, not because she actually suspected anyone was subverting her authority. How kind of Captain Ishikawa to make her efforts so worthwhile.
A slight motion caught her eye and she turned as Aramoro stepped from behind a curtain. She smiled. Even Aramoro felt the impact of her beauty, and she knew it.
“Well, Aramoro, I think it’s time for our tine Captain to see more of Rokugan. What sights shall we show him?”
Aramoro thought for a moment. “The Lion Clan is attacking Kakita Palace. Possibly the Captain would like to take his most loyal troops and aid in its defense? In the Emperor’s name…”
Kachiko paused. “Yes, the chances of surviving that attack are slim…” She paused once more. “And I think that Ide Makujin’s age is beginning to wear him down. Don’t you think he should get a well-deserved rest?”
Her meaning was quite clear to Aramoro. “Yes, Empress. As you say.” Then he was gone.