The tale of the Colonies continues with this penultimate tale of the 2012 Kotei tournament wins. The final selection of prize wins will be posted tomorrow, so check back here!
The Age of Exploration, Part 4
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
There were amazing things hidden deep within the jungle. The beauty of it was how easy it was to conceal those things. Even in an explored region, even when something was mere feet away, it could be missed. The shadows were so deep, the undergrowth so thick, that even an enemy could exist almost within arm’s reach and go completely undetected. Or it could, at least, if one was an obtuse fool completely devoid of a hunter’s instincts.
Shosuro Hawado was not a person of that sort.
Truth be told, Hawado was not certain herself precisely what sort of person she was. She certainly never fully understood other people. Their thought processes were incomprehensible, almost alien, to her. She operated on instinct, committing actions almost before she thought about them. Only once had she encountered another person who seemed like her, who seemed to possess the same instinctive, feral intelligence she did. And it was on the orders of that man, Shosuro Keirei, that she found herself in the jungle she had come to love.
This particular section of the jungle was particularly thick and inaccessible on account of a large number of geographical features that prevented travel. Hawado’s superiors here in the Colonies found it highly suspicious, and for good reason. It was clear to her that the features that prevented travel into the region were artificial in nature. They were expertly disguised, there was no mistake about that, but this did not deter Hawado; it merely encouraged caution and promised the potential of a challenge later on in the matter of the investigation.
From the limited amount that Hawado had been able to explore and observe since her arrival in the area, it appeared that there was a network of subterranean tunnels that covered the entire region. They were far too extensive to be man-made, and she suspected that they were naturally occurring and had been modified to ensure that there was adequate space for the number of people using them. Hawado was as yet uncertain what that number was, but she intended to find out.
Whoever they were, they were quite skilled. Thus far, she had seen only one of them, and the man was a filthy gaijin in the most literally sense of the word. He was not a Kingdom native, that much was clear; she had seen men of that nationality before, and they bore no resemblance to these wretched infidels. They had a lean, hungry look. They were accustomed to a life of meager means, and she strongly suspected they lived in the shadows before they had come to this place. She believed that they did so because the things that they did were such that they must be hidden from the world at large.
There was the faintest of rustles from the underbrush fifty feet to her right. Hawado smiled. Three of them had surrounded her and believed they had her at a disadvantage.
How precocious these gaijin were.
* * * * *
Kitsuki Yataku flicked the blood from his blade with a practiced motion, leaving scarcely a mark on the steel of his instrument of justice. The man whom he had been hunting the past four days, a fool of a peasant who believed he could transcend his station, lay dead on the ground, his blood rapidly soaking into the dry earth. The blade he had carried, a crude, ramshackle thing of no honor or heraldry, lay where it had fallen, and Yataku saw no reason to tend to it. “This is the peril of the Colonies,” he observed to his assistant. “The distance from tradition and propriety breeds discontent in the weak-minded.” He gestured to the dead man. “Would this man ever have abandoned his proper station if he had remained in the Empire? I suppose we will never know.”
The attendant, a Kitsuki youth scant months past his gempukku, nodded and made a notation in the record he kept of the senior justicar’s exploits. “Are there any additional details you wish recorded for the clan’s account, my lord?”
Yataku glanced around the area in which they found themselves. “Make a note of this location, I think,” he said. “Note that this is not a naturally occurring depression, but rather appears to be man-made.”
The attendant looked up, surprised, and glanced around the pit, but dutifully made the notations as commanded.
Yataku chuckled. He always felt rather magnanimous after bringing prey to justice. “If you look at the striations on the cliff walls, you can see that some of them are the remnants of mining equipment, most likely some crude form of picks. I have noticed in three places what appears to be the remains of a manacle or other binding. I suspect this place was worked by prisoners or perhaps slaves.” He paused. “What would you say is the most important question we must answer?”
“What was being mined,” the attendant answered at once.
“Excellent,” Yataku said. He began to continue with that line of thought, but then stopped suddenly and frowned. “Do you have the information we received from the Scorpion prior to our departure from the Second City?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord,” the young man said at once, and produced a scroll.
Yataku took the scroll and unrolled it, searching its length for something. After a moment, he grunted and strode over toward the cliff wall. “Make a note,” he said, his good mood disappeared. “This site needs further investigation.”
“Of course, my lord,” the boy said. “May I note for what purpose?”
Wordlessly, the justicar held the scroll up. The section he was reading denoted a large, gaijin symbol of unknown origin that the Scorpion had found in multiple locations in the Colonies so far, but which did not correspond to any known Ivory Kingdoms culture.
The same symbol appeared on the cliff wall.
* * * * *
The fields were thick with deep, green grass, which waved in the gentle and unseasonable breeze that did little to cut the heat of the summer day. Tsurao mopped his forehead with an already saturated scrap of cloth. The action did little to alleviate the unpleasantness of midday, but it was a habit that he had never proven able to break despite more than a decade of work in the fields and the stable. At this point he had stopped bothering to try; he could readily imagine spending his years as an old man mopping his forehead ineffectively in exactly the same manner. It was a small matter.
A pair of riders approached, bearing the heraldry of samurai. Tsurao sighed inwardly but ensured that his most acquiescent and accommodating smile was plastered on his face. Representatives of the clans were always difficult to deal with. “Good day, honored visitors,” he said. “I regret to inform you that there are no steeds for sale today. We may have a half-dozen that are suitable in another month, but until then the stables are not open for business.”
The two riders came to a stop and gazed about the fields in a very calculating fashion. “This grass,” the first of them, the man, said. “It is a blend?”
Tsurao raised his eyebrows in surprise. Few noticed such minor details. “It is,” he confirmed. “When my father first came to this place, he discovered that the grasses native to this region gave his horses difficulty. He brought in some grasses native to the Empire and mixed them, scaling back the amount of imported grass until he reached a point that the horses could manage properly.” He frowned at the heraldry on the rider’s armor. “Forgive me, my lord, but your badge of office is unknown to me. It seems familiar, but I spend little time in the Second City.”
The woman laughed heartily. She gestured to the man with exaggerated formality. “You have the honor of addressing the Ivory Champion himself, Shinjo Tselu.”
Tsurao felt his stomach roll at the words. “I… I did not know,” he said meekly. “Forgive me, lord Champion. May I offer you refreshment? A gift of horses, perhaps?”
“You are kind, but I have not come to take advantage of your hospitality,” Tselu said. “Tell me of this place.”
“My father was among the first settlers of the Colonies,” Tsurao said. “He was a wave man, but he made a prosperous life here for my mother and I. With the funds he saved working for your clan, he purchased horses and came here to start a stable. Tadatsugu’s Legacy, it is called. It is my great honor to remain stablemaster.”
“And remain you shall, under the direction of Utaku Sung-Ki,” Tselu said, gesturing to the woman. “She shall ensure you have all that you require.”
Tsurao looked confused. “My lord, this stable has ever been independent…”
“I know, and I am sorry to break such tradition,” Tselu said. “The situation in the Colonies is become more complex, however, and resources must be marshaled. However, you will be amply compensated, and as I said, nothing will change save that your horses will now supply the Unicorn exclusively.”
Tselu gestured to the battle maiden. “We have brought funds equal to the amount paid for every horse your stables have sold for the past five years. This should be ample compensation for the minor inconveniences you will have to endure. Do you not agree?”
“I do indeed!” Tsurao said enthusiastically.
* * * * *
Kitsu Miro entered the chamber without announcement or preamble, and nodded quickly to the Lion officers waiting for her there. “Thank you for your patience,” she said with a wave. “I regret that I could not arrive sooner, but I was delayed in dealing with matters pertaining to the exploration of the greater Colonies. You may be pleased to know that the matters in question are of significant benefit to the Lion Clan.”
One of the older men in the room bowed his head slightly. “Forgive me, priestess, but we were expecting the shireikan to assume daily command of the fortress today.”
“That was the intended course of action, yes,” Miro agreed. “Unfortunately, circumstances have forced an alteration to the plan. Military obligations elsewhere in the Colonies have delayed the shireikan, and his arrival here is at this point an unknown. Until such time as he or his designated representative arrives, he has instructed me to take command.” She placed a scroll on the table. “My orders, if any wish to inspect them.”
The elder officer bowed respectfully but took up the scroll. As he opened it, he continued. “What rank do you hold, my lady?”
“I am the spiritual advisor to the shireikan,” she answered. “Or I was, I suppose, until he dismissed me to oversee this fortification in his absence.”
The room was utterly silent. “You… are a spiritual advisor?”
Miro sighed lightly. “You may either assume that the shireikan is a fool and has made a terrible mistake, in which case you are guilty of disloyalty and a stain upon your ancestors, or you may trust in his decision and follow my commands, earning honor for your name and ancestors. The choice is yours and, frankly, I am not particularly concerned with it one way or another. I have been given a duty to perform and that is precisely what I intend to do.”
The officers in assemblage looked at the man who had spoken. His long white moustache bobbed up and down as his jaw worked, but after a moment’s consideration, he merely bowed. “What would you have of us, commander?”
“I will need to be informed as to all the daily routines here,” she began. “This fortification is intended to serve as the front line defense against any unpleasantness that manages to break through from the eastern jungles, is that correct?” Seeing no dissent, she continued. “My understanding is that an oni from the Shadowlands has burrowed beneath the jungles and broken into the Colonies on one occasion, is that also correct?”
“It was that incident which prompted construction of this fortification,” the elder officer confirmed. “Normally the creatures that are native to the eastern jungle appear to be cowardly, reclusive, or some combination of the two.”
“I will enjoy reading tactical assessments of the wildlife,” Miro said. “My principle concern, however, is familiarity with the construction of this location. I understand its geographical value, but I am troubled by reports of pre-existing structures.”
One man cleared his throat. “There was a tower of unknown origin on this site, my lady,” he confirmed. “We built our fortification around it.”
“Interesting,” she said. “And why was that done?”
“Because,” the elder officer said, “we were unable to destroy the tower.”
* * * * *
Yoritomo Kanahashi had always despised lakes. They were so meager, so limited. Their very existence was almost like an insult to the proper sea, and she wondered why Suitengu tolerated their existence. Likely it was some inordinately divine thing that mortals could never understand. Or maybe just that it was something a Fortune would never care about in the first place.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, she was going slightly out of her mind being so far from Kalani’s Landing and her various duties there. Kanahashi could honestly not remember the last time she had left the city, save for her annual trip to the Second City. The routines and the rituals that occupied her every day there had become second nature to her, and here she felt somewhat empty and confused. “Kanaye,” she said suddenly, as much to break the silence as to satisfy a need to say something profound, “let us finish this ridiculous bit of fluff and get back to the matter of running a wartime port, shall we? I find this silliness beneath our notice.”
Yoritomo Kanaye said nothing specific, but just grunted inarticulately. He was apparently feeling quite verbose today, as he added a shrug along with it. Allegedly he had quite the sharp tongue on him, according to other magistrates she had overheard talking at the port, but she had very rarely ever heard him talk at all, much with anything ascerbic. It might be a relief, actually.
As if on cue, the hulking warrior turned to her with an uncharacteristically quizzical expression. “What are we doing here, my lady?”
Kanahashi almost sighed with relief at the break from the tedium. “Consolidating holdings, of course,” she said. “You know as well as I do the Mantis cannot afford to be reduced to a minor player in the ridiculous political and economic scavenger hunt the esteemed Imperial Governor has created. Thus we find ourselves in a position to consolidate power by even the most trivial of means.”
“Hmph,” Kanaye grunted again. “Why send you?”
“Well that is an excellent question, is it not?” Kanahashi replied. “Regrettably, the situation has devolved into something of a power struggle. I personally have no interest in participating, but if I choose not to do so, then the so-called Lady of the Sun in the Second City will consolidate her power in a manner that might give her an edge in terms of our respective levels of authority.” She offered her yojimbo a wan smile. “I presume you agree that such a thing cannot be permitted.”
“Certainly not,” Kanaye answered. “That woman is a disgrace, cloaking her political machinations in theology.”
Kanahashi drew back in surprise. “My goodness,” she commented. “Aren’t you quite the orator today!” She gestured to the lake. “This is all ultimately meaningless, of course. We will create massive estates here, the pinnacle of beauty and comfort, and then we will traffic in favors and koku for their use. Think of it not as a waste of time, but rather… as an investment in a means to create influence.”
* * * * *
The monk was quite old, really, but felt none of the trepidation that many of her younger associates felt when it came to delving into the steamy, enigmatic jungles of the Colonies. They were not yet at peace with themselves, she believed, and as a result they still felt the insistence of unimportant things like fear or even animosity. They would realize in time that such things were naught but barriers that could obstruct true understanding of the world.
Of course, it was a simple matter for Aranai to dismiss fear of the jungle. She had been combing its depths for more than two decades, closer to three. Even when she had first arrived among the vanguard of the Mantis Clan, she had been among those scouts most often chosen to plumb the depths of the jungles. And that did not even take into account the many secret sojourns she had made, those fact-finding missions about which her commander in the Mantis forces had known nothing. No, those had been for her true master, the Lord of the Spider.
And there it was. The conundrum of her existence. Aranai’s thoughts always wandered back to it sooner or later, as if the universe itself was seeking to force her to find closure of some manner. For more than twenty years, Aranai had lived as a samurai in service to the Mantis Clan. For some years before that, however, she had secretly reported to the Spider as an infiltrator, constantly seeking to gain advantage for that clan at the expense of the Mantis. When the Destroyer War had ended, however, Daigotsu and any others who had known of her status had perished, and she had been free to live as a Mantis only. It had been confusing at first, and she had felt lost, but in time she had come to appreciate it. The secret of her divided loyalties had been submerged, at least until she had joined the Brotherhood and begun to meditate on the realities of her soul and its place in the universe.
It was the path of Fudo that had given her the relief she had sought for so many years. The strictures spoke to her innermost doubts and concerns. Seek one’s own path? Find one’s own truths? These were things that brought her comfort. It was during her studies of the various Fudo texts that had become so prevalent in the Colonies that she had discovered a strange riddle, a koan, that had led her to this place. Its wisdom told her that something was here, something hidden away by a Fudoist brother some centuries beforehand. It was a map, something that had great value. And while a monk had no need for things of value, Aranai knew a clan that would make great use of it.
It was long since time that she paid her debt to the Mantis Clan.
* * * * *
Salt Lake City
Tamori Muzu had never had occasion to enjoy time on the seashore before. Most of his life had been spent within the mountains, as one might expect for a priest in service to the Dragon Clan. His arrival in the Colonies had proven one delightful surprise after the next. To begin with, there was the overwhelming humidity. Muzu knew that many did not care for it, even found it oppressive to the point of misery, but how could a shugenja whose natural talents tended toward water magic agree with such an opinion? The air itself was thick with the essence of water, and while the spirits of water in this strange land were vastly different from those he had studied his entire life, they seemed content to answer his entreaties. The Togashi monks that made up such a large proportion of his clan’s representatives in the Colonies seemed to enjoy his outlook, but the more stoic Kitsuki seemed to find him at least mildly exasperating. Eventually someone had grown weary enough of his demeanor that they had found work for him far south of the Second City. And that was where he had discovered the joys of the seashore.
For the past week, Muzu had enjoyed traveling the southern reaches of the Colonies, skirting along the lands that touched the coastline. Few among the other Great Clans had bothered to invest much time or energy in this area, as most considered it the province of the Mantis Clan, but Muzu had carefully examined the records of the Imperial Explorers during his travels and identified several different places that the Mantis had not formally claimed. Since he was traveling regardless, Muzu felt that he should examine them and see if any bore investing the Dragon’s time and energy in. His most recent point of interest was a village, relatively recently constructed, that seemed to be plying a brisk trade in the fishing of the waters around the coast. Doubtless the Mantis were aware of it, but for whatever reason they had not formally annexed it yet. Muzu was here to determine if there was a reason for that.
Something flickered at the edge of his vision. Muzu thought perhaps it was another traveler, so he turned and raised his hand in greeting, but froze halfway through the gesture. The thing he saw did indeed appear at first to be a fellow traveler, but he could see through her, as if she were a piece of beautiful artwork painted on glass, like the Unicorn favored. It was a young woman clad in Dragon colors, wearing a broad-rimmed hat fashioned like a jingasa. She smiled at him, filling him with a sense of warmth, but she said nothing. She gestured toward the village and nodded, very slowly, and then she simply disappeared, like smoke scattered by the wind.
“Chieko-sama,” Muzu muttered under his breath. He had heard of the spirit and how she appeared to members of his clan, but never placed a great deal of stock in them. Apparently the rumors were true.
* * * * *
Iuchi Yupadi was not a young woman, although you would not know it to look at her. The kami adored her, or so she had often been told by other priests, and it seemed that they wished to preserve her beauty. There were signs as to her true age if one looked closely, of course, but in general she had the appearance and vitality of a woman perhaps half her age. It made things difficult when ill-informed young men attempted to court her, of course, but she had long since stopped attending court, partly for that very reason, and so it rarely came up anymore.
The Mantis Clan often considered themselves masters of the Colonies, but in keeping with their traditional philosophy, it was a statement of absolute hubris to even consider such a thing. What had the Yoritomo and their lackeys ever done but make claims that benefit themselves? What greater good had they ever accomplished in the Colonies on behalf of the Empire? No, it was the Unicorn who had accomplished the most for the good of Rokugan. Could the Second City have ever been constructed without the security afforded by the forces stationed at Journey’s End Keep, which was build exclusively by the Unicorn? To say nothing of the clan’s efforts in the actual construction aspect of the Second City, which were considerable. There were times when Yupadi struggled to maintain the peaceful demeanor that was appropriate for a priestess of the kami, and so she made an effort not to consider the failings of other clans, lest she find herself overwhelmed.
The region in which Yupadi found herself was a vast series of plains that had been cleared of indigenous plants and wildlife. The region had not been formally claimed by any clan for the reason that it was earmarked for exclusive use by the Imperial families, specifically the Governor and her immediate staff. Fortunately, however, the Imperial Governor found such notions as direct ownership of land quite distasteful, and when the fact that she owned it had been brought to her attention by a sharp-eyed member of the Ide family, she had been quick to agree to a prosperous arrangement that ceded it to the Unicorn’s control. As one of the senior Unicorn shugenja present in the Second City, she had been tasked with ensuring that the entirety of the region was properly blessed. It was tiring work, but rewarding as well. The peasants who were working the land seemed overjoyed at the news that the Unicorn were now their lords. It could be that they were simply saying what she wished to hear, of course, but the Unicorn were known for their compassion and mercy, and the Imperials hardly were. Yupadi instead believed that they were genuinely pleased.
Another village loomed on the horizon, and already Yupadi could hear the excited chatter of children who saw her and were running, shouting to their parents about her arrival. She could not help but smile at their simple ways.