Kachiko reclined on the quilted pillows of her personal audience chamber reading the dispatch. The room was small but its few furnishings were of the finest quality and spoke of great wealth. Her perfectly shaped eyes narrowed as she read.
Kachiko’s gaze fell upon the messenger that had given her the dispatch, bowing low before her. He wore the uniform of an Imperial Guardsman with the markings of an officer. She hadn’t considered his name important enough to remember.
“Thank you, Chui.” Her voice was sweet and friendly. Only those closest to her would have recognized the slightest hint of strain as she dismissed the officer. “I will have a response to Captain Ishikawa’s dispatch in the morning.”
Once alone, Kachiko slowly tore the dispatch to pieces.
“He lived!” she fumed in a hoarse whisper. “Not only did he live, but according to the Crane reports on his activity during the battle at Shiro no Kakita, he should receive commendations for his inspired leadership!”
Now in her private chambers, Kachiko spat venom at her misfortune. Ishikawa and his troop of fiercely loyal lmperial Guards had survived their mission to Shiro no Kakita. She had hoped that they would be destroyed during the battle, but instead they had served with distinction and received only minor losses.
Bayushi Aramoro stood nearby, impassive as always.
“What now, Empress? He cannot be allowed to return to the Forbidden City… our enemies could put his curiosity to great use?”
Kachiko dismissed Aramoro’s comment as obvious. Her mind raced for yet another way to rid herself of the pious servant of the Emperor.
Aramoro immediately realized his mistake – being as obvious with someone as cunning as Kachiko could be perceived as patronizing. He tried again, speaking quietly.
“I believe that Beiden Pass is the focus of some attention. . .”
Kachiko’s mind laid hold of that idea and began to toy with it, twist it, torture it, looking for a way to make use of it. After a moment she responded, “He will undoubtedly realize our purpose – sending him into such an obvious trap twice – he is not a stupid man. Still, once the order is issued, he cannot refuse it. If he does, he will be forced to commit seppuku or we can have him hunted down for treason. The odds favor his death in such a battle, but they did in the Crane lands as well…” Her voice trailed off as she pondered the possibilities.
Their horses clopped wearily along the Emperor’s Highway. Tired, covered in trail dust, and longing for home. The Imperial Guard were just two days away from the Forbidden City, the Emperor’s palace at Otosan Uchi. Though a few of their number would never return home, they had died with honor in service to the Empire.
Ishikawa led his unit with pride. The men had served with distinction against the Lion forces. They were ordered from the field by Doji Hoturi, the Crane clan daimyo, so they had left in honor.
The column paused as a horseman raced toward them across the gently rolling plain. As he drew closer, Ishikawa recognized him as Chui Ryuki. Ryuki had been sent ahead with a dispatch while the rest of the unit rested and received medical attention after the battle. Ishikawa had not expected to see him until he reached Otosan Uchi.
Ryuki galloped straight to Ishikawa, his horse sliding to a stop in the loose dirt beside the road.
“A dispatch, Ishikawa-sama. It bears the Emperor’s seal.”
Ishikawa knew exactly what he meant. With the Emperor in his sickbed, the dispatch would have been issued by the Emperor’s wife, Kachiko.
Shortly before their mission to the Crane lands, lshikawa had voiced suspicions regarding the Empress to the highest-ranking magistrate in the capital city. He believed that she was accumulating and consolidating too much power in the Emperor’s absence. He had further suspicions, but he kept those to himself for the moment. He was anxious to return to Otosan Uchi to find how the magistrate’s investigation was proceeding.
He accepted the dispatch from Ryuki and broke the seal with his tanto. Rolling open the scroll, he read it in silence. As his eyes skimmed down the perfect calligraphy, the muscles of his jaw grew tighter and began to knot with fury. He remained composed in front of his men, however.
When he’d finished reading the dispatch, he ordered his men about, reformed into a traveling column, and began the long march toward their new destination… Beiden Pass.
The chill air of the mountains cut through his cloak as his visible breath was drawn away behind him by a slight breeze. Ishikawa looked to either side of the narrow canyon ahead. Strewn with boulders and lined with uneven walls, a small army could hide within. Still, any other route to the northern reaches of the pass would require more than a week.
They slowly rode into the canyon, warily watching each boulder and turn of the canyon wall. A few hours passed as they crept carefully along, then a call came from ahead. It was a booming voice that spoke with confidence… or arrogance.
“The Crab Clan holds this pass. Unless you plan to wrest it from us, retreat now!”
They could just make out a small group of bushi some distance ahead. Ishikawa held his column, spoke a few words to Chui Ryuki, then rode forward alone to meet with the Crab leader. Ishikawa stopped only a few horse-lengths from the small group.
“Greetings, Hida Amoro-sama,” he said.
“Greetings to you, Ishikawa,” replied Amoro gruffly. “What are the guardians of the Emperor doing at Beiden Pass?”
‘The Emperor’s will.”
Amoro looked uneasy. Having witnessed the courts of the Emperor, Ishikawa knew that the advantage was his. Amoro had not been forewarned how to deal with interference from Imperial forces and was at a loss.
lf not allowed to proceed, Ishikawa would have to confront the Crab in the Emperor’s name… and be killed. If he proceeded correctly, no confrontation would be necessary.
“Did l understand you to say that the Crab Clan has laid claim to Beiden Pass – lands that the Emperor claims as his own? Or did you mean that the Crab Clan holds the pass in the Emperor’s name, as his loyal retainers?”
Worded in such a way to allow no room for error, Ishikawa’s question demanded one of two things: that the Crab Clan be declared in open rebellion against the Emperor, or that it reaffirm its loyalty. Ishikawa was quite sure that the Crab leader wished to do neither.
Amoro scowled, eyes shifting like a trapped rodent looking for a path of escape – calculating. Another member of Amoro’s party — Ishikawa believed him to be Kuni Yori – leaned to Amoro and whispered in is ear. Ishikawa could hear none of what Yori told Amoro, but was relieved to see a look of disgust and resignation cross his face.
Amoro finally said, “Surely we would never claim the Emperor’s lands. Such was not the intent of our challenge.”
“I would never have assumed such. It is just that at a distance… I could barely make out your words. In the Emperor’s name, I thank you for your dutiful service. Now I will take my men and continue.”
lshikawa knew there would still be a moment of hesitation for Amoro – to let Ishikawa pass or not. However, Amoro’s cleverly evasive assertion that the Crab were not in open rebellion should serve to diffuse the situation.
Waving his column forward, Ishikawa continued. The next day Ishikawa’s column was approached by a Unicorn forward patrol while continuing into the heart of Beiden Pass. After a brief discussion, the patrol sent one of their number to lead the Imperial Guard to their main encampment. Their dispatch included orders for the Unicorn daimyo, Shinjo Yokatsu.
A few hours later Ishikawa’s unit passed through the outer perimeter of the Unicorn camp and he was escorted to Yokatsu. As he entered the daimyo’s tent, lshikawa was struck with how very different it was from the rich fineries of the Forbidden City. The tent itself was made of many animal hides stitched together, a fact that both repulsed and fascinated lshikawa. He also noted animal pelts hung on the tent flaps, but the rest of the tent’s interior was even more intriguing… the ground was covered with more than one layer of colorful woven rugs and pillows. In the middle of the cluttered looking tent was a finely crafted table complete with a delicate tea set – an island of civilization in the surrounding clutter.
Seated opposite the entrance Ishikawa had used, against a wall of the tent a friendly-looking man sat in samurai armor, which had been stitched with a fur lining. Beside him stood a very stern young woman in more traditional armor.
Before he was able to move toward them or be formally by the daimyo, the young woman spoke up. “Why are you here?”
The daimyo gave her a stern look, but then turned back to Ishikawa with a look of bemused indulgence.
“What Otaku Kamoko wishes to say is, ‘To what do we owe the honor of your presence?’
Ishikawa, taken off-guard by the Otaku family daimyo’s abruptness, relaxed as the Unicorn daimyo spoke in a calm open tone. He moved into the room and approached the daimyo, holding out the dispatch.
“A message from the palace, Shinjo Yokatsu-sama.”
Without a word, Yokatsu opened the missive and read it. It was clear that he was far from pleased by its content.
Later that evening Yokatsu and Ishikawa spoke privately and quite openly about the current state of the Empire. Something about Yokatsu’s easy way led Ishikawa to feel very at ease in his presence.
Yokatsu’s Unicorn army and a Dragon army led by the ronin Toturi had come to Beiden Pass to secure it on behalf of the Emperor from an advancing Crab army. Even as Ishikawa arrived, the Dragon forces were engaging the Crab forces to the south. The missive Ishikawa delivered from the Palace ordered Yokatsu to refuse the Dragon army access to Beiden Pass upon their return.
Ishikawa repeated his concerns that the Empress was accumulating power as the Emperor grew weaker. He also voiced his suspicion that his last orders had been intended to kill him and his men. Yokatsu listened with rapt attention, neither agreeing with nor refuting Ishikawa’s thoughts.
In the morning, Ishikawa went to Yokatsu’s tent and presented him with another dispatch. He asked that it be sent with the Unicorn daimyo’s reply to the Imperial orders. “What is it?” Yokatsu asked, much more at ease with the Imperial Guard Captain after their frank words of the previous evening.
“My resignation. If I stay in Imperial service, the next mission… or the next… will result in our deaths. In service to someone else, I may be able to investigate my suspicions from without the palace. I am no longer the Captain of the Imperial Guards… I am Seppun Ishikawa.”
“And your men?” Yokatsu inquired.
“They‘ve asked to remain with me… as ronin if necessary. I cannot send them back – it may mean their deaths. The dispatch notes their resignations as well.”
Yokatsu leaned back on a pile of pillows. “So, Seppun Ishikawa… in order to further your inquiries you will need allies. Allies with power. Which clan will soon be honored by the Seppun banner, eh?”