As the Great Clans rush to claim the hidden resources of the unexplored regions, many find that there are severe consequences for their actions.
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The samurai ran through the jungle. There were sounds from somewhere behind him, terrible sounds. It was an unholy combination of a terrible, keening mourning and a wretched, wrathful wailing. It was a sound he had become painfully acquainted with over the past few days.
The jungle was dark, and the moonlight could not penetrate the canopy to illuminate the landscape. Something, probably a branch or ruin, tore the flesh of his left arm. It had been covered by his armor, but of course his armor had been lost some time ago, torn asunder by the power of an inhuman foe.
The keening behind him seemed closer, and the samurai redoubled his speed. Every part of his body ached from exhaustion and the multitude of injuries he suffered, but he knew that to slow down would be the final act of his life, and so he pushed his ruined body harder. Somewhere nearby, his friend was running along with him. He could hear his crashing in the underbrush, but of course it was too dark to see him. The samurai had only known the man a few short days, but the trials they had endured were such that he had never been closer to anyone in his life; the threat of constant death forced men to bond, it seemed.
The keening came again, and the samurai ran even faster.
* * * * *
The sound of the door opening unexpectedly was shockingly loud in the large audience chamber where the Imperial Governor preferred to conduct her business. If the room was full, as it was when court was in session, then perhaps it would not have seemed so loud, but then of course the doors would be open then regardless. Asako Kikugoro glanced anxiously at the Governor.
Otomo Suikihime seemed almost pleased at the interruption, which was something that the Phoenix scholar had grown distressingly accustomed to in the month since he had been retained to assist her with matters pertaining to the greater activities in the Colonies. The woman seemed to thrive in the unexpected, the unconventional, and the rather conservative Kikugoro found it intensely uncomfortable. As he watched nervously, he recognized the men approaching, and saw that the Governor did as well. Indeed, it seemed her familiarity with them was something of a disappointment.
“Do not tell me,” she said, holding up a hand to silence any outbursts, “let me see if I can surmise the means of your arrival.” Suikihime placed one delicate finger against her chin in an expression of thoughtfulness. “After failing to find any of my functionaries willing to admit you to my personal audience, you sought out the one man in the city who had the power to bring you directly to me. A man who, by the favor of the Fortunes, is indebted to you as his sensei.” She raised an eyebrow in an inquisitive manner. “Would that be correct?”
Bayushi Shibata, master sensei of the Imperial Explorers, inclined his head very slightly in a gesture of respect. “You have the right of it, my lady.”
“It is not merely a matter of being indebted to my old sensei,” Shinjo Tselu responded, his tone somewhat apologetic. “I am sympathetic to the cause of master Shibata-sama, Governor. I mean no disrespect.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Suikihime said, and Kikugoro noted a hint of exasperation in her tone. “Honestly I think if you ever were even slightly disrespectful I might fall off my dais.”
Tselu blinked and opened his mouth as if to respond, then simply closed his mouth. Kikugoro felt a stab of sympathy for the man. “Would you like me to leave you, Suikihime-sama?” the Phoenix asked.
“No, I doubt this will take a particularly long time,” the Governor said with a wave. “Speak your piece, sensei.”
“Is it your intention to dissolve the Imperial Explorers?” Shibata asked pointedly.
“What?” The Governor seemed genuinely surprised. “No, of course not. Why would I expand your charter and then disband you? That would be foolish.”
“I would not presume to guess at your intentions or purpose, my lady,” Shibata said. “The point of the matter is that you have made out duties difficult to the point of impossibility. How can I have my people perform their duties when the unexplored lands are filled with hopelessly unqualified samurai, seeking some unspecified treasure or trophy for their clan in the wake of your edict regarding exploration?”
“This again?” Suikihime was clearly annoyed now, and that troubled Kikugoro. “How many times must we discuss this?”
“At least once more,” Shibata insisted. “Do you know the full ramifications of your edict?”
“How do you mean, exactly?”
“One hundred and thirty two samurai have died attempting to explore the unknown regions. One hundred and thirty two that we know of. Another eighty seven are missing. Again, that we know of. Settlements all along the frontier of settled territory have been inundated with scouting parties heading into the wilderness and mauled survivors coming out. Estimates place the number of wounded at perhaps twice that of the ones who are dead. It is, if you will forgive the expression, an absolute catastrophe.”
Suikihime glanced at Kikugoro, who nodded silently in confirmation. “What exactly is your point, if I may sound a bit callous?”
Shibata stared at her for a moment. “This must end, my lady. If it persists, the potential ramifications could be disastrous.”
“I must agree, Governor,” the Ivory Champion added. “It is against my family’s nature to overlook this degree of suffering. Already the deaths are staggering, and it will only get worse. We must do something.”
Suikihime’s expression did not change. “Is it not the duty of all samurai to die in the name of their lord?”
Tselu looked away. “It is,” he said. “Still, the Shinjo do not believe…”
“Have you seen what is happening in the westernmost regions?” Shibata demanded. “The Lion have established what they jokingly refer to as a power base in the north, while the southern reaches are dominated by a collaboration between the Crab and the Scorpion. They have suffered devastating losses, and they are only the most ‘successful’ of the Great Clans’ endeavors. These clans are hurling people and resources into areas they have ‘claimed’ because they have a mediocre, hopelessly incomplete map and a few trinkets they have found and decided are worth the danger.”
“And have you seen any of the treasures that have been discovered in the west?” Suikihime asked nonchalantly.
“I have heard stories, but I hardly think they could be worth the suffering…”
Suikihime was on her feet in an instant. “The Phoenix discovered a diamond the size of a man’s head!” she nearly shouted. “The Dragon recovered a book of lost lore that may unlock mystical secrets the likes of which no living soul has ever commanded! In twenty years, what meager yield have these lands surrendered? Nothing! The Empire requires resources! And the Colonies? We require a great many things of our own, things that will not come to us! Meekly venturing into the bushes while avoiding the shadows! Are the Spider the only clan with true courage? What do you hope to accomplish with this weak-willed mothering?”
Kikugoro was struggling not to look at the Governor, terrified of attracting her attention and perhaps her ire, but he could not look away. Tselu looked absolutely horrified, and even Shibata seemed surprised. “Do you know what manner of life the people in my family endure?” Suikihime asked, her tone becoming calm once again. “It is one of unbearable tedium. Things exist exactly as they have for generations. Everything is ritualized, hidebound, and completely unbearable. If I had not been appointed to this position, I might have taken my own life by now simply to escape. When I was sent here, I vowed that I would escape that horrific fate, and that I would create something new and vibrant. If we are going to create that here, we will require vast quantities of resources, far beyond what we normally harvest and send back to the Empire. And I will see those resources attained, no matter the cost.”
Shibata blinked. “You… you care nothing for the lives lost?”
“What would become of them?” she demanded. “Samurai are meant to die. We have known no war for virtually a generation, save for the unpleasantness with the Phoenix and Scorpion. An entire generation has grown up desperate for conflict. Do you think that those who venture into the jungle are sad at their fate? Or are they thrilled at the opportunity? Do you know so much better than they what destiny holds in store for them?”
There was nothing for a long moment. Finally, Shibata cleared his throat slightly. “Do you wish the Explorers to continue their duties, then?”
“I do. Is there anything you require?”
Shibata considered it for a moment. “A second dojo,” he said. “In Kalani’s Landing, closer to the frontier.”
Suikihime nodded. “I will make it so.”
* * * * *
Yoritomo Kanahashi sighed as she looked up from the orders she was writing. She had been attempting to get them finished all morning, and a steady stream of interruptions had thwarted their completion. It was becoming something of an annoyance. Perhaps she might find it amusing if it were not so cursedly irritating. “What?” she demanded, making no attempt to hide her obvious frustration.
One of the city guard officers appeared in her doorway. “More coming in, my lady!”
“They are not the first and they will not be the last,” she said. “Find a place for them as best you can. I hardly think this requires my attention.”
“It may, my lady,” the man said. “One of them is a Mantis.”
Kanahashi was on her feet at once. “Is it Etsui’s missing patrol?” she demanded as she crossed the room and threw the outer door open, rushing out into the humid morning sun. “How many are there?”
“Only two,” the officer said. “I do not think they are Etsui’s patrol, my lady. Only one of them is a Mantis, the other a Dragon.”
“What?” she said. “There are no missing parties of multiple clan composition!”
“That we know of,” the officer said pointedly. “There is no telling who has been deployed without our knowledge, Kanahashi-sama.”
She frowned, but the point was valid. The two headed for the port’s northern quarter, where the city had been housing the dozens of wounded that had begun emerging from the jungle only weeks before. A steady stream, averaging about one group per day, had been finding their way into the Landing, many in desperate need of a shugenja’s attention. Several of the city’s shugenja and almost a dozen herbalists had become impromptu healers, working to assist those who were the most grievously injured and facilitating the recovery of those who were less so. “Where are they?” Kanahashi said, scanning the area in search of new arrivals.
“Here!” the officer said, pointing, still running. She followed him to a half circle of sentries accompanying a pair of men into the city. One was clearly unconscious, his clothing so torn and stained that she could barely determine his clan affiliation, although he appeared to be a Dragon. The man carrying him, however, she knew very well.
“Anshu?” she said, pausing in mid-stride. “Anshu, what are you doing here?”
The graying gaijin warrior looked relieved to see her. “Lady Kanahashi,” he said. “Please, my friend needs help urgently.”
Kanahashi glanced around at the impromptu area that had been set up for refugees. “This will not do,” she said. “Take Anshu’s comrade to my estate. Summon one of the shugenja from the temple and find an unattached herbalist immediately.”
“At once,” the officer said, and he and another guard gently took the wounded Dragon from Anshu, who sat down roughly on the ground in the middle of the street.
Kanahashi watched as the guards took the samurai away, then knelt down near the gaijin. “Anshu, what happened? Who is that man?”
Anshu gestured for her bottle of water, which she gave him. He drank deeply, then wiped his mouth. “His name is Kojinrue,” he said. “He braved the wards of the Maharaja’s Vault beneath the ruins of the Ivory Palace. That satchel he carries has books that he risked his life to acquire.”
She looked after the party, which had disappeared down the street toward the noble quarter. “He looks as if he has been mauled by a tiger.”
“That would be a better fate, I think,” Anshu said. “I will need one of the falcons immediately.”
“Falcons?” Kanahashi said. “We have no falconry here. Do you need a ship to take you to the Aerie?”
“No, no, no,” Anshu said, frowning. “Not like that. One of the Crab. The quiet ones. The haunted ones. A Falcon.”
“A Toritaka?” she said, confused. “There are none in the city that I know of.” She considered for a moment. “I believe there is a Crab outpost about a day’s ride to the north. There may be a Toritaka there.”
“Pray that there is,” Anshu said, taking another drink. “When night comes, the spirits will as well.”
Kanahashi felt a cold breeze wash over her, though there was no wind. “What spirits do you mean?”
“An army of the dead,” he said. “Spirits of the Maharajas, hungry for revenge for those who broke the seal of their treasures.” He nodded down the street. “They want Kojinrue’s soul. I promised him I would not let them take it.”
“The word of one Mantis is the word of all,” Kanahashi said. “We stand with you.”
Anshu smiled, his expression a mixture of relief and gratitude. He withdrew a cloth bundle from his satchel. “I must ask you to take this. If I die when the spirits come, promise me that it will be sent to Hiromi-sama.”
Kanahashi nodded and took the bundle. “What is it, if I may ask?”
“It was my father’s,” Anshu said. “It will change everything.”