The third and final installment in our series exploring the events of the expansion The Shadow’s Embrace, this time featuring the Phoenix Clan.
The Shadow’s Embrace, Part 3: The Phoenix
Written by Nancy Sauer
Edited by Fred Wan
Isawa Hinata stood patiently alongside many of her kinsmen, as well as a large contingent from several other clans. There were among them a number of Lion, and she could sense their angry glances, but she afforded them not a second thought. Why should she? They were unworthy of her attention, particularly when such an important personage was arriving within theSecondCity.
The city’s northern gate was used almost exclusively for arrivals and departures between the Colonies and the Emerald Empire. Departures were often cause for sorrow, but occasionally quiet celebration. Likewise arrivals were most often cause for celebration, but occasionally quiet concern. Today there was more of the latter than usual, owing primarily to the importance of those where were said to be arriving. Positions would be threatened. The balance of power would shift, politically speaking, and perhaps in arenas other than politics as well. Hinata cared nothing for such trivialities. For her, this was a grand day, and one that would see her ambitious realized by day’s end, or so she hoped. She would see soon enough.
The ceremonial palanquins arrived shortly, and there were far more of them than usual. The number of arrivals following on foot was appropriately larger as well, and Hinata noted inwardly that perhaps she had underestimated the enormity of the day. Ultimately, however, it wasPhoenixbusiness and onlyPhoenixbusiness with which she should concern herself, and in that regard she was well prepared indeed. She approached the palanquin that bore familiar colors and bowed deeply as the lone occupant emerged. “Good day and welcome to theSecondCity, noble Kurou-sama.”
Agasha Kurou, master alchemist and lord of the Agasha family, smiled thinly and offered a short bow in return. “Isawa Hinata, I presume?”
“Indeed, my lord. I trust your journey was not too unpleasant?”
“Calling in pleasant would be foolish, but I have endured worse hardships,” he said. “Our Unicorn escorts kindly offered us accommodation in Journey’s End Keep to refresh before our arrival, for which I am grateful.”
Hinata smiled. “The Unicorn seem to thrive in this unusual environment,” she observed. “They have proven staunch allies here in theSecondCity.”
“Having read your reports, which I found in excellent detail, I would have to agree,” Kurou said. He glanced around at the crowd. “I expected a larger reception, given the company in which I was traveling.”
Hinata regarded the crowd again. “This is the largest I have seen in my time here,” she acknowledged, then looked back to him. “I have heard rumors of those traveling with you. I suppose they must be correct, then.”
“I could not say what you have heard one way or another,” Kurou said. “I do know that the Kuni daimyo was among those traveling with me.”
Hinata paused. “Kuni Renyu?” she asked. “Kisada’s younger brother?”
“The same,” Kurou confirmed. “A thoroughly unpleasant man, in my opinion. “When one spends too much time in the company of darkness, it begins to permeate the soul.”
Hinata felt a sense of alarm. “Do you believe he was sent here because he is Tainted?”
“What?” Kurou looked surprised. “No, I do not think that. I simply think he is quite sinister and threatening. I would prefer to avoid his company, I think.”
“I am certain that can be arranged, my lord,” Hinata said, her tone revealing her relief. She frowned at the military entourage surrounding an older Crane man disembarking from one of the other palanquins. “I am afraid I do not know that man, however.”
“Hmm?” Kurou looked around. “Ah, yes. Daidoji Tametaka. A senior commander of the Crane military, as I understood it. Not much of a talker, that one.”
“I see,” Hinata said. She looked beyond the gate and saw the assembled Crane forces there. “I believe the Mantis will find this arrival of particular interest, although I doubt it will be much to their liking.”
“The conflict between the Mantis and the Crane is of no consequence to us beyond whatever obligations may be in place for us to assist the Crane,” Kurou said. “I do not believe our long-standing treaty calls for any particular obligations in this instance, but we should set a scholar to the matter to ensure that our honor is above reproach.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Kurou nodded. “Very well, then. I am quite eager to see what has been done since the last report that I read. However, I suspect there are obligations for new arrivals. Would that be correct?”
“In this instance, my lord, yes,” Hinata said, offering a pair of scrolls. “One is your formal invitation to the governor’s estate for dinner this evening. The other is a report of the topics I expect will be discussed there, so as to ensure you have the most recent information available.”
“Outstanding,” Kurou said. “I think I will find your service exceptional, Hinata-san.”
* * * * *
It was still midmorning, with the sun painting long shadows on the ground from temple and tree, and yet already the heat had begun to rise. Agasha Kurou discreetly adjusted his kimono yet again, seeking a way to increase the flow of air without compromising his dignity. His guide, he noticed somewhat enviously, seemed to have no problems at all: Isawa Hinata was walking briskly through theTempledistrict, pointing out the things she thought were noteworthy and giving a running commentary on the people who could usually be found in the area.
“Here you can see where the new temple for the Inquisitors is being built.” Hinata gestured at the structure, pride clear on her face.
Agasha Kurou studied it for a moment. It was only half-framed, but it was already obvious that this temple, like all others in the district, would be reassuringly traditional in form. “It will exist in harmony with the flow of the elements,” he said. “And perhaps while I am here I can aid in diffusing whatever problems are slowing down its construction.”
“What are you–” Hinata stopped speaking for a moment and then began again. She had the air of a woman who was choosing her words with care. “I do not understand, Kurou-sama. Construction has been going quite well. In what way have we failed to meet your expectations?”
Kurou frowned. “I do not mean to condemn the efforts that have gone into the temple,” he said. “But if work had started promptly after the Governor gave her approval it should have progressed much faster than this.”
Hinata stared at him in perplexity for a moment, and then her expression lightened. “Oh!” she said. “You are comparing this to temples built back home, in thePhoenixprovinces.”
“Well, yes,” Kurou said. “Of course.”
“Kurou-sama, we have far fewer peasants here in the Colonies and most of them are dedicated to growing food. Our construction crews are thus much smaller, and work takes longer to complete. Much longer, now that summer has arrived.”
“I see,” Kurou said. He had come prepared for strange food and blasphemous magic, but this disruption of the familiar rhythms of life bothered him. “I thank you for showing me the Temple District, Hinata-san. I will be off now for my first meeting.”
“Carry the Fortunes,” Hinata said. She bowed. Kurou thought, but could not be certain, that she softly added, “and good luck.”
* * * * *
“I thank you for making time to speak with me,” Kurou said. He smiled and gestured at the servant to bring them something to drink. Not tea, it was already too hot for tea, but chilled water flavored with the pulp of one of the local fruits.
“Any trouble would be outweighed by the honor of helping such a venerable priest,” Kitsu Sorano replied.
It was not the sentiment Kurou was expecting, and he studied her for before going on. Sorano bore the tokens that identified her as a sodan-senzo, and had the bearing of one who had met and mastered many dangers. “I have been told that you recently returned from the untamed lands far beyond theSecondCity,” he said.
“I have. I accompanied a detachment sent to claim a section of the Empty Plains for the Lion.” Sorano accepted the offered drink and sipped lightly at it.
“I have heard,” Kurou said, “that there are still scattered cultists in this tragic land, as well as ruins infested with foreign magic,”
“It is so,” Sorano said. Her left hand rose up and touched something small tucked into her obi. “I have heard a story of a Dragon samurai being pursued by the souls of the dead of this kingdom. The Mantis who gave him shelter sent to the Crab for help. The Crab!” she repeated, indignant.
“Incomprehensible,” Kurou agreed. “So you would agree that this land is rich in spiritual dangers?”
Sorano was quiet for a time, though her eyes did not look away from him. “I would,” she said at last. “But that is not the same as agreeing that theSecondCityneeds a temple full of Phoenix Inquisitors to protect it.”
“Kitsu-san, it is not that simple. The Phoenix Clan has dedicated itself to the study of spiritual matters since the time of the First Hantei. Why should we not bring this knowledge to bear on the problems found here?”
“Because it is impertinent and unwanted,” Sorano said. Again she touched her obi. “Forgive my bluntness, but this seems like the time and the place for it.”
“Kitsu-san, forgive me for meeting bluntness with bluntness, but may I ask you to ponder this again? In all the time you have been here, have you encountered nothing that has disturbed you? Nothing that has made you wish for a well-stocked library tended by shugenja who were both scholars and warriors?”
Sorano sat very still, her hand touching her obi and a slightly haunted look in her eyes. “I am sorry, Agasha-sama,” she said. “This matter has been decided. There is nothing more to say.”
* * * * *
The temple to the Lords of Death was very large and imposing, which was exactly what Kurou had expected in a city with a large Unicorn population. He hadn’t expected the temple grounds to hold a beautiful garden full of tall, shady trees, fragrant flowers, and benches where one could sit and enjoy both.
Kurou was studying a waxy-petaled white flower with a particularly intense perfume and worrying about his yojimbo, who had insisted on wearing his armor and was now probably sweating to death in it, when aMatsusamurai approached and bowed. “Excuse me, Agasha-san,” he said, with a curious mix of embarrassment and belligerence, “may I ask you a question about this temple?”
Kurou’s first reaction was a flash of anger over the insulting ‘-san’, but he quickly smoothed it away. The man was clearly a low-ranking bushi who had no idea he was speaking to the Agasha daimyo, and pointing this out would only shame him. “Of course, Matsu-san,” he said. “What would you like to know?”
“I wish to offer some prayers for my fallen clan-brothers to the Court of Emma-O,” he said, waving a hand at the temple to the Lords. Kurou smiled slightly at the euphemism but did not interrupt. “But I do not know–Is it a normal temple? What do I do when I go in?”
Kurou nodded his understanding of the question. “In the Unicorn lands, I have heard that some shrines offer salt for purification when one would expect water,” he said. “Everywhere else they are exactly like shrines to the other Fortunes.”
“Thank you, Agasha-san, for your trouble.”
“It is no trouble to aid piety. But may I ask a question in turn? In what service did you comrades die? I have not heard of any recent attacks on the city.”
“My brothers died far from this place. We had found and claimed a great treasure for the Lion Clan, and on our way back we were attacked by monsters I have never seen the like of. We drove them off, but at a cost.”
“Tragic, to have the years of their service cut off so. The Phoenix Clan stands ready to aid your clan, to help prevent such things in the future.”
“The samurai of the Lion need no help!” theMatsushouted, and then he blushed. “Forgive my outburst,” he said, bowing. “What I meant was, our courage and skill are all we need. I am sure you meant no dishonor in your offer.”
“Indeed not. May I know the names of the dead, so that I may also honor these brave samurai in my prayers?”
“Of course,” theMatsusaid, and recited a list of names. “My name is Matsu Hachiro,” he said. “Thank you very much for your help, Agasha-san. If there is some way I can be of help to you, I can be contacted though the Lion embassy.”
“I will remember your graciousness, Matsu-san. Carry the Fortunes.” Hachiro bowed a final time and departed. Kurou frowned as he watched the man to into the temple. He was starting to see a pattern form.
* * * * *
The Flawless Blossom had all the amenities one would expect to find in a fine teahouse in the Empire. Kurou had hoped that its aura of civilization, combined with its status as neutral territory, would make it easier to deal with Kitsu Miro.
The plan wasn’t working out nearly as well as he would like. Miro had agreed to the meeting, that was true, but she sat stiffly with her back as straight as a spear and shoulders mercilessly squared. It made his own back ache just to watch. She had accepted the cup of tea Kurou poured, but had not drank from it. He drank his own cup in silence, watching the elemental kami swirl around the other shugenja and sifting their patterns for clues how to proceed.
“One of my first teachers was an old woman who had been present at the ceremony where Hantei Naseru, who would become the Righteous Emperor, oversaw the treaty between the Lion and the Phoenix Clans,” he said, breaking the silence between them.
“It must have been a very proud memory for her, to have been in the presence of one who would become Emperor,” Miro said.
“Very much so,” Kurou said. “She frequently spoke of the Lion Clan’s dedication to the defense of the Empire, and urged her students to show equal diligence when facing magical threats.” He paused, but Miro did not speak. “I greatly regret that my clan’s intentions were so poorly explained. Is there no way for us to understand each other? No way for our clans to serve the Empress together?”
“I found the matter clearly explained,” Miro said. “The Lion cannot be trusted to defend theSecondCity, and so the mighty Phoenix Clan has chosen to intervene.”
“Kitsu-san, a general does not send out scouts to insult the warriors of his main force; he does so because sound strategy requires knowledge.”
“Military talk from aPhoenixpriest?” Miro did not try to hide her scorn.
“If I am wrong in this, I would listen to your correction,” Kurou said.
“It is I who am wrong,” Miro said. “I came here hoping that your clan’s leadership had recognized its error. Instead I listen to you lecture me–a daughter of the Lion!–on military matters. She stood up. “I have no more time for this foolishness. Carry the Fortunes, Agasha-sama.”
* * * * *
Just outside the Imperial District was a public garden with wide inviting walks and cleverly designed shady nooks for those who wanted privacy and conversation. Kurou sat in one such nook, thanking the Fortunes for shade and wondering how anyone in theSecondCitysurvived summer. Tomorrow he would simply order his yojimbo to go without armor, and set about finding some cooler, locally-made kimono for himself.
Kurou let his thoughts run on in this vein for a while, and then he signed and banished them. As oppressive as the heat was, it was just a distraction from the issue of the Lion Clan and his current failure to make any progress at all in softening their resentment ofPhoenixactions. What more could he do, he wondered. There were still other Lions in positions of influence who he had not yet spoken with, but he had definite suspicions that they agreed with Kitsu Miro, or were at least unable to publicly disagree. It was a problem with no solution.
An outburst of talking caught Kurou’s attention. He recognized one of the voices as the Moshi lady who was part of the Mantis delegation to theSecondCity. Kurou had met her at the governor’s dinner, and she had made a lasting impression. Unless her group was coming to this particular nook, he thought with relief, they should never know he was here.
A man wearing a Tsuruchi mon slipped into the nook, and for a moment Kurou gave up hope. Then he realized that the newcomer had stopped suddenly and was listening intently to the approaching voices. Kurou signaled his yojimbo to stand down in the same moment that the Tsuruchi realized he was not alone. “Your pardon for intruding, Agasha-sama,” he said, glancing back and forth between Kurou and the voices. “I will only be here for a moment. That is, I, ah–”
Kurou wanted to laugh: the Tsuruchi looked very much like a rabbit caught between hunter and hound. “The Sun Priestess is a woman who greatly values dignity,” he said instead. “Certainly you would want to compose yourself before speaking with such an august lady. Would you like to sit down?”
The Tsuruchi smiled faintly. “Thank you, Agasha-sama, I would like that.” He moved to sit across from Kurou.
“‘Agasha-sama’” Kurou said. “You know who I am.”
“I am Tsuruchi Samuru, a magistrate. I try to stay aware of important people and criminals.”
“One hopes I am the former and not the latter,” Kurou said.
“By myself, certainly, but then I am not a Lion.”
“Well-shot, Tsuruchi-san,” Kurou said.
“I hope they do not create too much trouble for you,” Samuru said. “Our clans have had many conflicts but I know from that how formidable aPhoenixshugenja can be. Build your Inquisitors temple, and I know where I will be running to the next time I am being chased by a host of angry spirits.”
“You have had this happen before?”
Samuru made a dismissive motion. “They turned out to be very large, very ill-tempered bees, but the principle remains. However beautiful and well-run this land was when the Maharajas ruled, it is full of malice and danger now. The Lion are fools to ignore what thePhoenixoffer them.”
“You would consider the criminals you hunt fools, but at the time they committed their crime they probably considered themselves clever.”
“Is there a lesson there, Agasha-sama?”
“I don’t know,” Kurou confessed. “But the Tao warns us against those who think they are wise.”
“So it does,” Samuru said. He cocked his head and listened. “While I was composing myself the august lady has departed. Now I will also go. Carry the Fortunes, Agasha-sama, and good luck.”
“Carry the Fortunes, Tsuruchi-san,” Kurou said. He sat alone after the Tsuruchi left and
turned his problems over in his mind. It took time to build things, that was all, and he should not allow himself to become discouraged because the first day was so unpromising. Samuru had shown that there were people in theSecondCitywho did understand what his clan was trying to do. Tomorrow he would find out who of all the Lions in the city had the most influence, and who influenced them. The Crane would be helpful there, and with the Mantis getting aggressive they would be looking for favors. Kurou nodded firmly to himself and arose. He walked back to the Temple District through the long shadows of evening, smiling.