A trio of 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
Pupils, Part 2
I trust that this missive finds you in good health. It would not be meet to listen to gossip, but at this distance all news takes on the character of gossip, and it’s impossible not to be interested in the Colonies’ well-being when they are our Divine Empress’s latest project.
My clansmen have been particularly concerned about reports that might indicate that certain old friends have been striking against the Unicorn along the caravan routes. The Unicorn have not been terribly forthcoming about this matter, but it is clear from the tactics that the Yodotai may be involved. Indeed, I was asked my opinion on this incident based upon the few reports that did filter back to us. We have some indication that the Unicorn think these were no mere ragtag raiders, and I must concur. They were too well-organized for that.
We remember what the Yodotai accomplished in the past. The Lion cannot let it happen again.
Needless to say, although the Colonies are a vast place, I cannot help but worry for the dangers that might await you. It’s peculiar: when something threatens Rokugan itself, I have a very good idea of the marching times involved during the rains that turn the roads to mire, how long soldiers can be made to go without sleep or resupply in autumn weather, the folds and swells of the land. For a long time I have taken this mental map–this gameboard, if you will–for granted.
But when it comes to the Colonies, I am playing blindfolded on a board of uncertain size. I study the maps available, as any conscientious tactician would do, but there is a difference between walking over brushstrokes with your eyes and walking over land with your feet. I cannot but impress upon you the importance of continued surveys and reports, no matter how many difficulties there are with the clans all competing for territory. I have the uneasy feeling that this information will become vital to the Empire all too soon.
The go move I have sent you should explain itself; you left your two black stones on the right exposed, and my proper response is to punish your carelessness. The best way to learn, as my sensei liked to say.
This gaijin game of yours worries me greatly. It is understandable that gaijin pursuits would present themselves to you when you are in a land that was, until recently, settled by them. But surely there is no need to contaminate yourself any more than you have to. You may have to eat the food, there’s no getting around necessities like that, but a game is something of a luxury, and when you have proper Rokugani occupations to divert yourself, there’s no point in chasing after suspect gaijin entertainments as well. If it would provide you with a more suitable distraction, I would be happy to play multiple games of correspondence go with you. Do write back and let me know what you think of the idea. I wouldn’t mind the pastime myself.
Greetings from the Second City. We have heard of raiders, of course, but the Unicorn where I am are just as closemouthed about the incidents as they seem to be in Rokugan proper. I am only passingly acquainted with a few Unicorn bushi I see during mealtimes, mostly when we are discussing food. Food is a favorite topic of discussion around here, and for all that the Unicorn are halfway to being barbarians themselves, a surprising number of them are homesick for somen noodles and a decent bowl of rice. There are certain fragrant varieties of rice that are common here, but they are less glutinous than what we are used to. I’m not altogether certain that this is a bad thing, however, as the local rice complements the piquant curried lentils.
Anyway, I digress. I don’t suppose applying diplomatic pressure to the Unicorn has ever produced much in the way of results; but that’s a matter that I’m certain that a courtier such as yourself would have more expertise in. We have enjoyed relative peace for the past generation, but I remember my mother speaking of the wars that came before that, the ashen cities and the gaijin terrors. I am not eager to see such calamity befall our nation in our lifetimes.
You are indeed correct that the situation is greatly different here. The biggest difference is the paramount importance of finding ways to deal with the heat. People dress in ways that would be considered scandalous back home–I’m sure you’ve already heard of this–because the sun is so punishing. Alongside that is the necessity of securing water supplies, and the fact that stagnant water breeds insects, which in turn seems to be correlated with the spread of disease.
Enclosed you will find my response to your latest go move. If being punished for unwise choices is how one learns, I feel I will soon be your greatest pupil. You would think that this welcome reminder of home would make it easier to focus, but there are so many things to adjust to–not just the food and climate, but the very alienness of the sky and the trees–that the opposite is the case. I must decline your generous offer to defeat me on multiple fronts; at least let me see if I can hold my own in a single match!
With respect, Aimi-sensei, I must disagree with your assessment of the gaijin games to be found here. Surely we can wring some understanding of the local culture and its pitfalls by understanding its people’s pastimes: a way to avoid the pitfalls that led to their destruction. An esoteric sort of clue, perhaps, but in the Phoenix I was taught that even the most circuitous lines of inquiry can sometimes yield valuable fruit.
The honorable shugenja has had no luck identifying the mysterious game we discovered in the abandoned house, but I have been learning to play a simple game called pachisi by the locals. The name apparently comes from the word for “twenty-five,” and is played upon a board shaped like a cross. I have sent a diagram and my notes on the game’s rules. I am discovering an absurd fondness for allying with other players to create blockades. Typical Phoenix, defensive play, wouldn’t you say?
* * * * *
The sunrise over the golden plains found Ide Takeru riding alone to Shiro Moto. To the other Clans, it would have been thoughtless to allow the shared karo of the Khan and Clan Champion to travel alone, but the vast Moto provinces had no fear of bandits. Takeru arrived at Shiro Moto on the morning of his Champion’s scheduled departure. Briefly, he worried that he’d timed his ride poorly, but then he saw that the Banner of the Ki-Rin still fluttered proudly over the pagoda-topped towers and knew that the Lady of the Unicorn had not yet departed.
He was received with the respect due to the Champion’s advisor. Servants gave him a bowl of water to cleanse his hands, then a saucer of fragrant oil to anoint them. He paid his respects to the shrine of Natsu-Togumara, the Fortune of Travel, offering thanks for his timely arrival. Then, in spite of his soreness, he saw to his duties, preparing an itinerary for the upcoming journey. By mid-morning, he’d finished his preparations, along with five cups of Pu-erh tea. Having accomplished this, he gathered the morning’s parcels and sought his Champion for his daily report.
He found Naleesh outside the palace. She was riding one of the field mares along a horizon of golden barley. She rode without saddle, nearly standing despite the resistance of her speed. He was gradually noticed, and Naleesh brought the horse to a stop just beyond him, catapulting herself from its back and landing gracefully. Her kimonos, banners of lavender and darker purple, settled neatly around her. Her smile was friendly and warm, as always.
Takeru allowed the moment of familiarity to linger, returning her smile, before beginning the more formal bow as demanded by station. He had not anticipated her bold step forward, nor the sudden embrace of a familiar hug. He awkwardly endured, knowing better than to resist. He was simply thankful that they were alone. Besides, his discomfort only fueled the habit, so it was better to simply do nothing.
At last she pushed him away, holding him at arm’s length, eyes twinkling with mischief. “Welcome home,” she said cheerily, “how long has it been?”
“It has only been five days, my lady,” he replied.
Naleesh tilted her head. “That long?” Her smile broadened as she released her grip, striding past him and into the palace. He followed dutifully and kept his distance; even if she would not acknowledge the demands of station over their friendship, he certainly must.
“I was worried I might have to leave without you,” she said as they passed through the busy halls. “It was odd these past days not to have my breakfast interrupted by constant reports.”
He smiled wryly. “I must make up for lost time, then.” The two arrived in the pine room, so named for the pine-wood paneling set into the walls. Amid delicate ink-tones suggesting forested glades, Takeru presented Naleesh with the documents he’d gathered. It was a small stack of parcels, each letter contained within an origami envelope of sturdy paper. Each one displayed an ink stamp identifying its origin.
Naleesh took the stack to the nearby desk and calmly sorted through each document. Although she hid it well, Takeru could sense the eagerness in her movements. He maintained his expression, even as her shuffling gradually slowed, her energy slowly dying. She gently deflated, sighing. Still no letter from Junpei… no report from her mother’s search party.
She’d wanted to go with them, of course. But her duties to her people held her here. In that moment, Takeru realized how heavily the uncertainty of her mother’s fate weighed upon her. But then the instant was gone, and Naleesh’s On returned. Even for a heart as open as hers, weakness was undignified in a Clan Champion.
“I notice Min-Hee has not seen fit to speak to me in person.” She held the Khan’s envelope, plain white with her black stamped Mon, in one hand.
Takeru’s expression did not change; his wry smile remained suspended beneath calm eyes. “The Khan is investigating reports of raiders on Ki-Rin’s Path. She regrets that she could not be here to accompany you to Shiro Mirumoto, and has nonetheless selected three guards to attend to your safety.”
Naleesh looked up and met Takeru’s eyes. “Is she avoiding me?”
Takeru chose his words carefully. “If not for this matter, she would have delivered her testimony to you in person, my lady.”
It was the truth, after all. Naleesh nodded, lowering her gaze to the paper. She did not unfold the origami envelope to read the letter tucked inside. She already knew what it would say. “How long have the three of us been friends, Takeru-san?”
“Since we were children,” he replied. A memory flashed briefly before his eyes: he sat on a grassy hilltop with his studies unfurled before him, Naleesh and Min-Hee sparring with wooden bokken a short distance beyond. Just beginners, evenly matched. Sparring and laughing.
Naleesh frowned. “Yet she still will not tell me what she is thinking.”
“It is difficult for her,” Takeru said. He smiled reassuringly, approaching with a steady pace. “While the Unicorn Champion must be compassionate and inspiring to her people, warm yet strong as the Eastern Wind, the Khan must be unyielding as iron. It is why your father saw the wisdom in separating the two positions.” He stopped beside the desk, meeting her eyes once more. “Even if she is difficult to understand, you must trust her, my lady. She serves you, the Unicorn, and no others.”
“I do trust her,” Naleesh replied. Her features grew firm. “But there are limits. As long as I have been Champion, I have worked endlessly to restore our clan’s reputation. Now I hear word that Min-Hee has slain the Lion Champion in a duel! If the Khan intends to undo my work, I would at least prefer to know beforehand.”
Takeru tapped one of the envelopes on the desk. It was pale and stained from plains-dust, bearing the Mon of the Lion Champion. “Perhaps my lady would hear the opinion of the Akodo Daimyo on the matter?”
She nodded; as her karo, Takeru took it upon himself to read the letter already. “Akodo Dairuko-sama officially announces her ascension to the position of Lion Clan Champion. She does not dwell on the circumstances of the ascension, except to say that although it is unfortunate that she has lost her brother, she is glad that he died a warrior’s death, and she is confident honor is now satisfied.” He paused, emphasizing the last point. “Like you, my lady, the Lion are as eager to leave the past behind us.”
“How unlike the Lion.” Naleesh’s smile hinted a return. “But I am grateful nonetheless. I must admit, Dairuko-san leaves a good impression.”
“As a gesture of friendship,” Takeru quickly added, “She also offers the Lion Clan’s assistance in investigating the raiders of Ki-Rin’s Path.”
“And now she spoils it.” Naleesh sighed, making a dismissive gesture. “We are more than capable of handling our own affairs.” She paused. “Express that more politely in a letter at the first availability.”
Takeru bowed obediently. “There is one more thing,” he added, “A package arrived this morning from Shiro Mirumoto. It seems Mirumoto Shikei cannot wait eight days for your arrival.”
At this, Naleesh brightened. She followed Takeru into a brightly-lit room whose defining feature was a silk-draped dome over a wooden pedestal. Takeru pulled away the silk, revealing a small brass cage. Two paired nightingales chirped brightly within. Takeru had suspected as much, although even as her karo, he hadn’t dared to peek under the silk until now.
“Nightingales,” he announced. “Presumingly to keep your servants awake at night with their singing.”
Naleesh chuckled and shook her head. “No,” she said, “mated nightingales only sing during the day.” She lifted the cage gently, beaming at the two little birds within, and carried the tweeting gift through the lavender-painted hallways to her personal quarters. She carried the cage to a sun-lit corner of the room. Her servants bowed and excused themselves wordlessly, gleaning from the presence of her karo that she would want to be alone. She smiled at Takeru. “It’s a very thoughtful gift, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “He knows you adore bird-song, my lady.” He met her eyes and maintained his steady smile. His hands were behind his back, straight and at attention.
“Your On is slipping,” she remarked, her smile fading somewhat. She turned away from him to look at her birds.
Takeru sighed. “You know my feelings on this subject, my Lady,” he said. “I see no reason to repeat them.”
She nodded. For a short while, the room was soft, save for the delicate chirping of the nightingales. “He’ll come around,” she finally said. “He has often mentioned that he considers family names to be a trivial matter.”
“I think he simplifies the situation,” Takeru said carefully. He did not want to offend her, but they had been friends for too long for him not to speak his mind.
She looked to him, smiled, and approached, setting a firm hand on his shoulder. “I ask that you trust him,” she said softly. “As I trust him. You do not know him as I do. And I ask that you trust me as well.” It was the gentlest of reprimands, the kind that came from a friend, not a champion.
He softened, lowering his eyes in concession. “You know my loyalties, my lady.”
“I know.” She smiled again, and once more the room was bright with the stars in her midnight eyes. “For I trust you as well.” She pulled away, admiring her birds for one final time, and then making for the passage further into her quarters.
She paused, casting a brief glance over her shoulder. “And I will not defend my heart against those whom I trust.”
Takeru bowed humbly. “I understand, my Lady.”
He waited until her shadow fully vanished beyond the doorway. “And that,” he added softly, “is precisely why I must.”
* * * * *
Starcrossed, Part 2
My dearest Kameyoi,
It seems like forever since I last saw you. In my mind I know it was only a month, and in some ways that month has gone by incredibly fast, but in my heart it feels as if it has been an eternity. It will come as no surprise to you that I have spent the entire time since we last saw one another traveling. The trek from the Empire to the Colonies is a long and difficult one. Again, this is something we all understand in our minds. The reality of it, however, is a terrible thing. I understand completely why the Unicorn call that region the Western Wastes, and the only thing that I can readily imagine would convince me to cross them again would be the chance for us to be reunited. Unfortunately, that time is nearly a year away. Never has something discouraged me more.
Still, I struggle to find the positives in my current position. The Second City is amazing! Everything seems so new and orderly! My Kaiu friends back in the Crab lands would be astonished at the architecture here, although I am also quite certain they would find much of it unsuitable. Some of them consider anything other than a square lump of stone to be unnecessarily elaborate, so some of the sculptures here would doubtless end them into wrathful tirades about waste. There is a tower here that fairly touches the Heavens, it reaches so far into the sky. I hope one day you can see it, if only to marvel at the blessings of the Fortunes that surely keep it aloft!
Even more than the city itself, however, are the attitudes of those who dwell here. Even though I am young and recently arrived, they seem to listen to me, far more so than those back in my home province ever did. They are interested in ideas and people who have the will to see them executed for the good of the clan. If I can show them how my ideas can benefit us, if I can prove to them that it is for the good of the Crab, then they will see to it that I possess the authority to make those things happen. Can you imagine? I will be directly responsible for my own advancement, which is something I never thought to see beyond the confines of the military! It is a dream come true, and I will make the most of it. That much I promise to you: this opportunity to impress upon your father my worthiness as your husband will not pass me by.
I write to you now in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear for confession. Though I have sisters, you have always been nearer and closer to my heart than they, for whatever reason. In you I feel I can place my complete trust, and I beg you, if I am a fool for thinking that, then destroy this letter now, for to read on if we are less than I imagine will destroy me utterly, I am sure.
I have committed the gravest of crimes against the Scorpion Clan.
You know the manner of duties I have been called upon to perform for the clan. Mine is to make men fall in love with me, then gain information from them. I fear it is something I excel at. I take no shame in performing a duty for my clan, but there are times when I feel that the pain I give others as I leave them behind when they are no longer useful ages me beyond my years. I despaired that I would ever feel the same way that these men feel toward me. I had abandoned hope of ever knowing love.
Yasuki Tono is not a man of means. He has little position to speak of, relatively few assets, and is hardly a paragon of sparkling conversation. When I first approached him in court, it was in hopes of using him as a means to gain access to one of his superiors. That was a doomed and ultimately unnecessary endeavor, as it turned out the man was having a torrid affair with the wife of an Imperial, and we turned this to our advantage. My failure, my crime, is that I fell in love with Tono.
Everything I said about him before is true, and yet something about him speaks to me in a way I can never understand, and certainly not put to paper. He seems cloddish at first, but only because he cares little for court and because he is carefully observing everything that takes place around him. His stoic demeanor masks his keen sense of humor and his incredible, driving ambitions. Incredibly, if he accomplishes all that he desires to accomplish, then he may indeed prove worthy of having a Scorpion bride in order for our clan to maintain knowledge of his endeavors and his secrets. I find myself wishing for that to be the case, but not for the reasons that I know I should wish it. Now he is gone to the Colonies in search of his fortune, and I find myself utterly distracted and miserable in his absence.
Tell me, wise cousin… what should I do?