The Shadow’s Embrace, Part 1: The Crab
By Seth Mason
Edited by Fred Wan & Shawn Carman
“On behalf of the Imperial Governor, appointed representative of the Child of Heaven in these far lands, I greet you, Kuni Renyu of the Crab Clan, to the Second City. It is our great honor to stand before the lord of the Kuni family, and we of the Otomo officially recognize the authority you carry in the name of your clan and family here. The Governor has sworn a duty to oversee the safety and security of the Empress’ people in this land, and personally puts forth her word that you shall be ever welcome in her presence…”
Kuni Renyu looked around the area as the functionary read the proclamation. Dignitaries from several clans were assembled as well as a small honor guard made up of Imperial guards. As th little Otomo man continued, Renyu’s gaze fell upon the Crab officers that waited patiently near him. The Kuni daimyo gave a frown as the speech dragged on, and finally he sighed openly. He clapped his hands quickly and then pointed a thick finger at the Imperial functionary.
“Kiba, fetch,” he said darkly.
A red blur sped past the Crab lord, and promptly leapt at the Otomo. The man yelped loudly as a young dog snatched the scroll from his hands and ran quickly back to his master. Renyu barely smiled – his mouth was the only part of his stone face that moved – and took the proclamation from his dog. “Your welcome is sufficient, Otomo-san,” Renyu stated flatly. With that, he gestured sharply to the attendants near his caravan, and the servants began to unload his belongings to take deeper into the city.
“Your home will be in the Imperial District, my lord,” a young Unicorn officer said, bowing. “If I may, I will show you and your men to-”
“What is your name, soldier?” Renyu asked, his deep voice conveying what was possibly the friendliest tone it could.
The man flinched at being interrupted and addressed directly, but recovered quickly. “I am Shinjo Itao, Lord Renyu.”
The Kuni daimyo folded his arms and sized up the man. “My home is in Rokugan, Itao-san. As is yours. This,” he waved a hand vaguely through the air, “is not home. Do you understand?”
The Unicorn looked the man in the eye for a moment, then looked away. “No, I’m afraid I do not, my lord. I was born here. My parents were both appointed by their Champion himself to travel here and establish a foothold in the Colonies.” With a pause, he added, “They passed away when I was small. All I have ever truly known is here. So this is home.”
“I see,” Renyu said as he nodded slowly. After a moment, he put his hand out in the Unicorn custom of greeting. “I appreciate your honesty. A lesser man simply would have agreed with me due to the difference in our station, Itao-san.”
The Unicorn seemed surprised, but shook the other man’s hand. “If my honesty is something you enjoy,” he said, “I should perhaps tell you I’m a little surprised by you, Renyu-sama. I had heard… well…”
The Kuni daimyo frowned a little, “I have a reputation, I know. I find it unfortunate that others seem so intent on spreading the worst possible interpretations of my behavior. However, I have little time to do anything about it, and I believe I wouldn’t bother even if I could.”
“When I saw your dog… ah… take that scroll from the Imperial emissary, I suppose I didn’t know what to think.”
“Yes, the Otomo,” Renyu said quietly, as if he had just remembered him. He turned and looked at the smaller man with a disdainful glare. “I forgot you were there. You may return to your mistress. I will send word when I wish to see her.”
The Imperial rubbed his hand nervously on the cloth of his kimono, bowed sharply, and walked off with a look of barely-concealed rage. The servants and soldiers unloading the caravan parted for the man and he was swallowed by the bustle of the city.
“Renyu-sama, if I may,” Itao said, looking at where the Otomo had gone. “The Governor is not a woman to be trifled with – especially for an Otomo.”
“Itao-san,” Renyu replied, watching his various journals and belongings being taken towards the heart of the city, “I only worry about enemies of the Empire. If the Lady Otomo wishes to maintain her position on top of her little heap of dirt, she will not make me worry.”
The Unicorn officer straightened, and took a steadying breath. “As you say, my lord,” was all he could think to reply. “This way to your… to the quarters that have been prepared.”
* * * * *
Renyu looked out over the southwest of the city from his balcony. He had been given a place to stay on the third floor of an unusually tall structure – though it was not as large as the ridiculous tower elsewhere in the city. His view let him see over the part of the Military District to the southwest of the city, as well as over some of the Peasant district. Behind him, a calm middle aged man managed the servants moving his belongings into the room.
“I understand the Agasha daimyo was part of your caravan, my lord Renyu,” Yasuki Jekku said as he kept an eye on the unloading process. “How interesting.”
“I did not have occasion to speak with him, Jekku-san. Is there a point to your observation?”
The thin man smiled slightly at the barb and shook his head. “None, other than confirming what I had heard. It’s important to distinguish rumor from fact, after all.”
Renyu narrowed his eyes at the man. The Yasuki had always held a particularly unusual place in his mind – he saw their duty and behavior as vital to the Crab Clan, but personally found it annoying and sometimes disgusting. However, he had learned that many viewed the Kuni in the same way, and had slowly come to truly appreciate their similar situations.
Despite that, though, he still found this particular Yasuki remarkably off-putting. “Indeed, Jekku-san,” he said, walking towards where his writing table had been set. “Enough of this, though. I need to speak with you about the new orders our clan has from Lord Kisada.” He pulled several documents from a scroll case at his side, and laid them on the table.
“New orders?” Jekku replied, taking several steps towards the other man but only looking at the desk. “I had no reason to believe anything required…” he noticed the sheer number of the scrolls and paused. “So many changes,” he finished. “What would the Crab Champion have us do?”
“I am unfamiliar with the various men and women of authority here, so I would meet with those whom you deem of suitable influence to carry out Kisada’s orders. Have them meet with me tomorrow, perhaps in the morning before this wretched thickness soaks the air.”
“That’s quite abrupt, my lord, perhaps I should-”
“How it is done is of no concern to me, Jekku-san. You seem like a capable man.”
Jekku’s smiled widened, “Lord Renyu, it is my duty as your appointed karo to inform you of some realities here in the Second City. This is not the greater Empire, where a samurai missing his routine will be compensated for by some other man or woman. Building and expansion are in constant progress, and these things must be handled correctly.” The Yasuki waited for a response – of any kind – but only saw Kuni Renyu’s unchanging look of displeasure. “While I will endeavor to do as you say, Renyu-sama, there are simply factors that must be accounted for.”
Renyu continued to stare.
“Not that I cannot execute your will, my lord. I just wish to make your understanding of the area more complete, as is part of my function here.”
Silence dominated the room.
Jekku finally cleared his throat. “So, yes. As I was saying, it will be difficult, but I will be sure to have the samurai you require here in the morning.”
“Excellent, Jekku-san,” Renyu rumbled. “Find me a Scorpion, as well. I am not concerned with exactly which one. Just one that you believe I should speak with while I remain here. I wish to deal with our allies in an area where our collaboration isn’t directly preserving their lives. I would like to see just how earnest their devotion to this alliance is.”
“Our allies, yes, sama,” Jekku said, obviously making a mental note. “It would be ideal to speak with the Unicorn, as well-”
“A young officer named Shinjo Itao will be my link to the Unicorn. He has promise, and I will help teach him of the proud heritage of the true Empire, Jekku-san.” Renyu looked down at the papers he had put on the desk. “It is a strange time, Yasuki,” he sighed. “Our friends among the Unicorn consort with the Spider. We stand with our backs exposed to the Scorpion, trusting their self-interest to keep them from striking. And here,” he gestured vaguely around the room with both hands, “we wear light clothes and pretend these jungles are the Empire.”
After a moment, he looked down at his rough hands. “Perhaps the Heavens, through my brother, have placed me here to stem the tide of all this nonsense.”
* * * * *
Yasuki Jekku stood to Renyu’s side as the Kuni daimyo knelt behind his writing table. Two rough-looking men and an unassuming woman in a plain cloth mask sat opposite them. “Lord Renyu, may I present Hida Takeuichi, a senior commander of the Crab forces in the Second City.”
“Kuni Renyu-sama,” the larger man said, bowing his head to the floor. “I was not told it was you arriving to take command of our forces here, or I would have made myself more ready to speak with you.” His armor was still on, though it was clearly in need of some cleaning. It was possible he had just marched out of a battle to be here.
Jekku continued, “Hiruma Nitani, of the Crab’s expeditionary forces. We are fortunate he was within the city this morning, as he is often scouting for possible areas to claim under the banner of the Crab.”
Nitani said nothing, merely placing his forehead low and then straightening.
“Finally,” the Yasuki said, “Bayushi Nomen, of the Scorpion. She was aware of your arrival, and has been tasked with being a liaison between you and the Scorpion Clan’s representatives in the Second City.”
“Renyu-sama,” Nomen said, likewise bowing. “I am eager to speak with you, but as you have just arrived, I am content to wait outside while you speak with your clansmen in private.”
The Kuni daimyo shook his head slightly, “You will stay, Nomen-san. What I have to say to these men will likely cause some alarm among those with weaker stomachs in the Colonies. I wish for you to report everything you hear today back to your masters. Let them be sure the Crab are keeping clear communications open.”
Bayushi Nomen bowed her head, but said nothing.
Renyu turned to the two Crab seated before him. “Takeuchi-san, I want you to relay these commands to whomever is in charge of logistics for our gathering efforts. We are to increase production and work with the Unicorn to get supplies back to the Empire faster.”
Jekku leaned down, picked up two rolled papers, and handed them to the large man. Takeuchi opened the scroll and began to read.
“The men in charge of these efforts are not to be admonished. My brother finds their work satisfactory so far. I, however, believe we need to re-order our priorities so that we may better fuel the war effort at the Wall.”
“Renyu-sama,” Takeuchi said quietly. “These orders are unusual. We have spent years attempting to cultivate resources in a way that a steady supply would return to the Empire. If we are to harvest at this rate, we may well destroy the areas we have claimed.”
Renyu gave him a slightly confused look. “Yes, commander. That is the intention. I am not particularly concerned with preserving the natural state of this gaijin land, especially not at the expense of Crab lives that might be spared with these resources. I don’t believe this to be unusual at all.”
“I agree with you, sama,” Takeuchi said, “I am merely surprised, that is all. My apologies.” He read the orders further, and added, “I don’t understand this part, my lord. It states we should be ready to move on to new territories. Are the Crab to abandon what we have claimed?”
“Not exactly, Hida-san,” Renyu replied. With a wave, he motioned for Jekku to hand two more scrolls to the small Crab who had not spoken. “Nitani is to relay those orders to his men, and his superiors when he finds them in the field. We are no longer interested in holding regions that we have stripped of resources. We will move on to other areas, by force if needed.”
Nitani’s eyes scanned the pages, but he remained silent. Silence fell upon the room as Renyu waited for any word from the man, but none came. Finally, Nitani rolled the papers back up, and inclined his head in a gesture of understanding.
Renyu smiled slightly, “Good,” he said, obviously impressed. “Have them ready to move within the week, Nitani-san. Now,” he turned to look at the Scorpion woman, who had been observing the exchange. “As for you, Nomen-san. How goes your clan’s efforts to discredit others in their claims to territory?”
If the woman was surprised by Renyu’s words, the only indication was that she did not reply immediately. After a beat, she said evenly, “There is some success, lord Renyu. Though, if I may ask, is there a reason this drew the attention of one such as yourself?”
“Do not be concerned. I am not of a mind to berate the Scorpion for being the Scorpion,” Renyu replied, though his tone indicated he didn’t think highly of the situation. “My brother has seen fit to extend the alliance that our mother had with Nitoshi-sama’s, and I am committed to seeing it honored. Though, I will warn you that if such activity is exposed, we will be of little help.”
“What we have gained is quite worth the risk. The squabbles over ownership have made it difficult for others to take a hold firm of what they think they have won. While there are pockets in the wild lands that have been claimed with such notoriety that it is impossible to dispute them, there are others not so secure. If the other clans notice that the Crab and Scorpion have had to deal with only small cases of such disputes, we do not expect the Crab will have to intervene.” Nomen placed her open hands before her in a gesture of indifference. “It is understood where the strengths of each partner in this alliance lie, Renyu-sama,” she said mildly.
“Indeed, which is why I believe the Scorpion would find a mutual benefit in focusing their attention on the Spider.”
The Scorpion’s eyes narrowed as she considered the words, then looked over at Hiruma Nitani, who was smiling slightly now and gripping his orders a little tighter.
Renyu continued, “I have heard there was an attack on the Steel Soul Dojo, as well as several other minor holdings the Spider have a claim on, is that not so?”
Nomen nodded, “Yes, Renyu-sama. There was reportedly a strike against the gaijin cultists by the Spider in retaliation, but the Spider have suffered a major blow to their western lands. These gaijin understand the lands better than we do, and they excel at tactics of harassment and indirect warfare.”
“Pathetic,” the Kuni daimyo growled. “All of their talk of strength and power, yet they cannot hold ground against the shadows of a dead kingdom.” He stood, and all four of the others in the room looked at him with complete attention. “The Spider have taken a great deal of time spreading blasphemies and clutching the Dragon Clan and the Imperial Throne to protect them from reprisal. At least the Crane make no illusions about their need for others to keep them safe.” He turned and looked again out his window, this time more to the west. “But if they wish to prove themselves, we will give them ample opportunity. We cannot formally declare war, but perhaps if rights of ownership are in question, they must simply hold the lands they have taken in the past year by strength of force. What could the Imperials or Dragon do then?”
The room was quiet for a moment before the rest of them realized Renyu was not simply asking the air. “Nothing, my lord Renyu,” Nomen said.
“Excellent. I require reports. Nothing too detailed, but I wish to know of your preparations and actions weekly. You three, plus Shinjo Itao, will be my hands in this… place. If others attempt to exercise their authority over you, direct them to me or assert yourself over them. I do not care which.” He turned back and looked at the Hiruma man. “Nitani, you are dismissed. Takeuchi, you as well. I would speak with the Scorpion for a moment.”
The two men rose and bowed as one, and left the chamber, their orders in hand.
“For you, little Scorpion, I have a task I believe you and your masters will relish. I wish to know everything about the Spider. Where they are strong, where they are weak, and where they are not. I will not break the Empress’ edict, but they are dogs and know nothing of honor.” He took a step towards her and smiled broadly. Renyu knew he was a man who others though never showed joy or happiness, but the reality was that they were looking for such moments from him at the wrong time. “They will eventually misstep, Nomen-san. And when that happens, we will crush them and this embarrassment will end. Do you understand?”
“My lords will be pleased to hear that our clans continue to have agreeable priorities, Renyu-sama.” In spite of herself, she felt a feral grin mirroring Kuni Renyu’s blossom on her own face.