The final installment in our series based on the Kotei 2012 tournament series.
The Age of Exploration, Part 4B
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
Hida Watari crushed the end of his tetsubo into a stump, burying it just deep enough into the weathered wood that it would rest there until he pulled it free. He wiped the dust and perspiration from his hands. This region of land had been claimed by the Crab long ago, but only recently was it being put to use for anything other than mere farm work. Since the arrival of Kuni Renyu, however, no stone was left unturned in terms of searching for any resource that could benefit the clan. This particular stretch of land had a patch of dense forest that had never been cleared on the recommendation of the Kuni who had initially assessed it, but Renyu apparently had little interest in the recommendations of his subordinates.
Watari sat on the stump adjacent to the one presently holding his weapon and withdraw a rice ball from his hip pouch. He had been working most of the morning and was beginning to feel that familiar stinging sensation in his muscles that indicated he needed to stop and rest for a moment before his body began to give out on him. Not that he minded the physical labor, of course, but he wanted to avoid any long-term ramifications for his actions. As he sat, Watari regarded with great curiosity the old temple that sat at the center of the woodland outcropping.
The stonework was of admirable quality. Although he was no Kaiu, Watari respected their work and knew a small amount about their skill at engineering and construction. Of course even a layman could infer that the temple was of sound construction, seeing that it had endured the death of the Ivory Kingdoms and the decades of expansion and clearing by the colonists. He imagined that Renyu would order it destroyed unless it was shown to have some degree of value. The land upon which it sat could be converted to farm land, after all, and that was all that the Kuni daimyo seemed to care about: finding that which could benefit the Crab in the Empire. The Colonies themselves seemed to be of no concern whatsoever to him. Watari did not completely agree, but he would not be one to disagree with his lord.
The markings on the temple, which were indicated in the initial reports of the location as ‘indecipherable,’ were clearly no longer so. Watari was among those who had realized during the course of their investigation of the area in planning for removal of the assets that the kanji in question were marks of the Fudo cult. They were unknown to most Rokugani, of course, because the proscribed nature of the Fudo texts ensured that most had never seen them. The recent resurgence of interest in Fudoism, however, had ensured that they were now much more recognizable.
Watari pondered as he chewed. Many were interested in Fudoism. Perhaps the temple had value in terms of allowing others to observe and catalogue it? It was an idea worth considering, and one perhaps even Renyu himself would agree had potential, if for no other reason than to offset the negative political ramifications that the clan’s current practices in the Colonies were engendering among certain clans.
Watari stood and dusted his hands off, taking his tetsubo up once again. Until such time as he could discuss it with his superiors, it was just an idea, and he still had work to do.
* * * * *
Bayushi Hurunayi had always found the Governor’s Court of the Second City rather pedestrian, to tell the truth. There were opportunities there, to be sure, but the majority of those who made that particular court their place of business were little challenge for a man with the training he possessed. He had grown so bored that he had realized after some time that he had begun taking ridiculous risks just to see if anyone would even notice. No one had. He was not sure which was more disappointing. And so he had requested and been granted a leave of absence for a period of several weeks. Ostensibly it was to assist in the administration of the various new holdings the Scorpion Clan had acquired during the exploration of the Colonies, but in reality he had set off by himself to participate in that endeavor. Perhaps, he had reasoned, it would clear his mind and help him find some measure of clarity.
The Empty Plains were not inherently mind-clearing, Hurunayi had decided, but they did give one ample time to reflect upon one’s life and the various factors that influenced it. Hurunayi had been given time to consider the various aspects of the Second City that troubled him. He had not reached inner peace or anything quite so prosaic, but he did have more of an idea about how it affected him and how he could ensure such things would not make him foolish and headstrong, as he had been of late. And there had been a few pleasant distractions, the most recent of which was currently occupying his thoughts.
The cave had been small and unremarkable thing, set into one of the ridges that periodically broke the monotony of the rolling emptiness. If not for the windstorm, something that periodically plagued the region as the hot northern air swept south, Hurunayi would never even have noticed the cave. Once he did, however, he had discovered what appeared to be an old thieves’ den, something that had belonged to someone named Barah, as nearly as the Scorpion could tell from the writings he had discovered. There had been a few trinkets of treasure, a few spoils of crime that would doubtless have great value now as cultural artifacts, but there was one item that had caught the courtier’s interest: a book, clearly ancient, and locked away as if it this Barah individual had considered it extremely valuable, or perhaps extremely dangerous. Either way, Hurunayi wanted to learn more about it.
Hurunayi ran his hands across the strange sigils inscribed on the book’s cover. None of them were from any language that he recognized, and indeed he was not even certain that they were language at all. It was possible that they were wards of some sort, or arcane symbols. There was only one word that he recognized, a word that was written in the oldest form of the Ivory Kingdoms language he knew of. Not even a word, a name.
* * * * *
The sign on the exterior of the building simply read “Silk Works,” with no particular elaboration or any of the florid stylings that such places often used in an attempt to drum up interest in wealthy courtiers or wily merchant patrons. The patronage of commerce in the Colonies was regarded much differently than it was in the Empire, which was simply another sign of the reduced focus on tradition that the Colonies enjoyed. To Moto Ming-Gwok, it was something of a double-edged blade. On the one hand, the relaxed traditions of the Empire’s more hide-bound clans greatly assisted in the spread of things such as adherence to the tenets of the Shi-Tien Yen-Wang. Ming-Gwok had personally managed to secure no less than a half dozen new converts to the Lords of Death, all from clans that had utterly rejected their ideas. On the other hand, it also allowed for oddities like the resurgence of Fudoism, on which Ming-Gwok’s thoughts were divided and often changed sides.
The death priest opened the door and entered the Silk Works, grateful for the momentary reprieve from the searing heat of the summer day, even though in truth the interior was not a great deal cooler. “Good day,” he said, his tones as severe as ever. “Is Entla available today? I have business to discuss.”
The merchant working in the building bowed so low that it seemed his forehead might scrape the ground. “Forgive me, noble and honorable samurai,” he said, “but I fear Entla is not well today. He has an unfortunate case of the summer fever.”
“This is a fortunate day, then,” Ming-Gwok said. “I have with me herbs that will alleviate his symptoms. I wish to see him and offer my blessings.”
The man smiled, the exchange completed satisfactorily. “Very well, my lord. Entla is resting within the basement, where it is coolest. Please, you are welcome to see him there if you wish, and I am certain he would greatly appreciate your blessings.”
Ming-Gwok nodded and headed for the door that led down into the basement of the works. He knew the way. It was not his first trip. Entla was always unavailable, of course, but the death priest knew the proper words to ensure that he was granted admittance regardless. As he descended into the basement, his senses were struck by strong odors that had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of silk. “Entla,” he called out. “I am here.”
The man who considered himself an artist emerged from the various materials he used to brew the many concoctions that the Unicorn Clan enjoyed from their centuries of travel around the world. “My lord Ming-Gwok!” he said happily. “I am so glad you are here! I have some amazing product for you.”
The shugenja smiled ever so slightly. He considered the man an oaf, but his skill as a brewer was second to none. He operated in secret here so that his work would not be spied upon by the ever-vigilant merchants of the Yasuki family. “I trust all is ready.”
“Indeed, my lord. The… ah… unique beverages required for your rituals are ready, and in the quantity you required.”
“Very good.” Ming-Gwok was genuinely pleased. The ritual draught was remarkably difficult to brew correctly. “The Lords of Death will continue to bless your endeavors, I am certain.”
* * * * *
The peasant minor reached excitedly into the cleft in the rocks, fanning away the dust raised by his repeated pick strikes with his other hand. He grabbed something in the gap, something sharp and vaguely green, and yanked it as hard as he could. It resisted at first, but then it gave way. He nearly fell over backwards, but managed to keep his footing. He gazed at the thing in his hand, breaking into a huge smile. “My lord!” he shouted, holding it above his head. “My lord, we found it!”
A lean, muscular man approached and held out his hand. The peasant offered the stone from the earth to him with a deep bow, and the man responded with a nod of the head in acknowledgement. Asako Karachu smiled appreciatively. “Jade,” he said. “The kami never lie.”
“This is only the first bit, my lord!” the miner said excitedly. “There may be much, much more!”
“There will be more, to be sure,” Karachu said. “The Isawa have labeled it as a minor vein, however, so do not expect the earth’s bounty to be completely overwhelming.” He tossed the stone back to the miner. “It is only fitting that we be properly grateful to the spirits for their gifts.”
The miner bowed again. “You may not be familiar with the customs of such things, my lord, but it is customary for a mine of this nature to be named once the bounty has been found. Do you have a preference?”
Karachu smiled. “Do you know the story of Hida Ikarukani?”
The miner’s smile faltered. “No, I do not believe I have ever heard that name, my lord. I apologize for my ignorance.”
“Have no worries,” Karachu said. “There are few opportunities for education in the life you lead. Hida Ikarukani was a warrior in service to the Crab Clan. He was one of the berserkers, a particularly dangerous and tragic group of men and women who hurled themselves into battle in hopes of quenching the fire in their minds. Ikarukani was unique even among their ranks. In times of peace, he was known for his boisterous, gregarious nature. He was beloved by all who knew him, save those who had the misfortune to call him an enemy. To those who embraced the darkness of the Shadowlands, however, or who would give it succor to benefit their own selfishness, he was terror given form.”
The miner blinked. “He sounds… horrible, my lord.”
Karachu laughed. “The important lesson to learn is that the darkness must never be permitted to fester. It must be combated wherever it is found, without hesitation or question. This was the lesson of Hida Ikarukani, may his soul be at peace in the next life. Would you not agree this jade should find such purpose?”
“Yes, my lord.”
* * * * *
Otomo Suikihime entered her private audience chamber with a roll of her eyes. The day’s business thus far had been distressingly mediocre, with virtually nothing of any real interest happening. In fact, the majority of the week had been quite boring, and she was beginning to despair that today would be the day to break the tedium. “What is next on my schedule for the day, Kikugoro?” she asked, looking about for her personal scribe.
“I fear your Phoenix attendant had pressing business elsewhere in the palace for just a moment,” a deep, rich voice said suddenly. It filled the room like thunder, but was as soft as silk. “He should be back momentarily. I hope you will not mind if I take the opportunity to pay my respects.” A man, one truly massive in size, emerged from the darkness like a dream, the folds of his kimono dancing with the movement in an almost hypnotic manner.
Part of Suikihime’s mind screamed in alarm at the sight of this stranger, but another part drank in the sight of him like a man trapped in the desert might slake his thirst with water. His features were beyond perfection, his every detail like a work of art. “You are quite presumptuous,” she found herself saying. “I could summon my guards and have you detained indefinitely for an offense of this sort.”
The man smiled, causing a flush of heat in her cheeks. “You could certainly summon your guards,” he agreed. “I hope you will agree such is unnecessary, however. I come bearing tribute on behalf of my lord, Daigotsu Kanpeki.”
The name caused Suikihime to come to her senses, at least partially. “Kanpeki,” she said with a sigh. “You are a Spider, then. That explains a few things.”
“I am a Spider in so much as it is an alliance of tremendous convenience,” the man said. He held forth a scroll. “The clan has discovered something of worth, my lady, and we wish to see to it that it is granted to the Imperial families as representatives of the Empress. It is only just.”
“Really?” she asked, taking the scroll. “Interesting.” She tapped her chin with it briefly, then smiled. “I accept your gift, but I would ensure that none beyond the Spider are aware of it. It might benefit me to have a holding that others know nothing of.”
The man bowed his head respectfully. “Others might not treat your holding with the respect it is due if they believe it is a Spider holding, my lady.”
“Well then,” she said, “won’t they be mortified with the truth comes out? Entertainment is so difficult to come by these days, you know.”
The stranger laughed. “You are a welcome change of pace, my lady.”
“And you are, if I may say, quite… striking.”
The stranger looked down at his arms with a bemused smile. “It is fine, is it not? I only completed it recently.”
Suikihime frowned. “What?”
“Forgive me, my lady,” the man said with a bow. “An artist’s jest, if you will.”
The governor turned and retrieved two cups from the platter behind her. “Will you join me for tea?”
When she turned back, the stranger was gone.
* * * * *
The traveler gazed at the remarkably still pool and pondered. He had been wandering in the empty plains for quite some time. He was not entirely sure how long it had been, to tell the truth. His mind became easily confused under the best of circumstances and he had discovered, quite recently, that in the absence of all context and input from others, such as in these accursed lands, it was even more difficult to separate fact from fiction. For the past two days, half out of his mind with thirst, the traveler had been convinced he was the hero of a play he had particularly enjoyed in his youth. He was not absolutely certain, but he thought perhaps he had been acting out the dialogue of that play to himself, quite loudly, over that time period, and it was the echoes of his own voice that had convinced him other characters were hunting him as well. It was a strange sensation, like madness within madness.
The traveler looked around at the ruins in which he found himself. He had no immediate recollection of coming here, but now that he had come to a moment of clarity, he took stock of his surroundings. It was a city of some sort, albeit a rather small one. It seemed that the sands from the north had claimed it quite some time ago. It was the promise of water that had brought him from his fugue. As always, when he reclaimed his senses, it was then that the sword on his hip was heaviest. He looked down at it. It seemed so innocuous, nothing more than simple steel, but he knew better. He had carried it for decades, and he knew that it was far heavier than a sword had any right to be. It was more than a simple blade. It was a lie. It was deception. It was Guile.
Shosuro Atesharu looked down again at the pool. It was not water. The scent alone was enough to assure him of that, much less its strange appearance. It smelled like the liquid that some of the Colonists used in lamps. They lasted longer than candles, even if the smell was a little unpleasant. This much of it was probably quite valuable, he imagined. Someone in the clan would know what to use it for, although he personally had no idea what good it might be other than a source of koku.
Koku. Once he had been given lots of it for his work. His work as an actor, a performer. Since the blade, his performances had been different. Only he knew what was an act and what was real. Others knew nothing of his art.
Atesharu smiled. There was a role he had not played in many years. Perhaps it was time to play it again. The blade on his hip thrummed slightly. He knew that it was pleased.
* * * * *
Isawa Shunsuko walked among the tents and rough, hastily-erected buildings that had been established within the past month, marveling at the ingenuity and industriousness of the people who dwelled here. She had first heard the rumors of this tiny settlement mere weeks ago in the Phoenix embassy at the Second City, and her fascination with it had not abated. Ultimately she had resolved to see it for herself, and managed to convince her superiors to permit her travel to the site to witness it first hand. She stopped at one of the tents where a young man was working with such intensity, such passion, that he did not even seem to notice her presence. She smiled at the thought, then turned her attention to the young man’s work. The glasswork he had crafted from the sand in this region was the most flawless she had ever seen, and she had been an admirer of glasswork since her childhood. The smooth curves and beautiful fluidity of the thing reminded her of the dance of the water kami as they cavorted with one another among the waters of the seas, the streams, the lakes. She wished to hold it, but dared not introduce imperfection with her flawed touch. Instead, she merely stared at it, losing herself for a time in the simple beauty of it.
Sometime later, Shunsuko was not certain how much later, the artisan turned and noticed her. “Oh!” he exclaimed quickly, nearly dropping the piece he was working on. “My lady Phoenix! Forgive me, I did not notice you were here!”
“No apology is required,” Shunsuko said. “Indeed, perhaps it is I who should apologize. I did not intend to distract you from your work.” She gestured at, nearly but not quite touching the glasswork. “It is… amazing.”
The young man actually blushed. “Why… thank you, my lady. I am but an apprentice. My masters here are the true artists.”
“You do not give yourself enough credit,” she said. “I have rarely ever seen such perfection.”
“Thank you, my lady,” the young man said. “I take my inspiration from Kurohito, the Fortune of Perfection. I will never achieve his greatness, for what mortal could? But I will never stop trying to reach that goal. Perhaps he will bless me just the same.”
“This place is truly a marvel,” Shunsuko said. “I would like to offer my patronage.”
“Oh!” the young man stammered. “I… I am incredibly honored, my lady, but as a mere apprentice, I am not suited for such patronage. You should certainly speak to one of the masters, however. They oversaw the creation of this place and it is their art that is…”
“You misunderstand,” Shunsuko said with a smile. “I do not wish to sponsor you specifically. I intend to sponsor this entire enclave in the name of the Phoenix Clan.” She gestured toward the camp proper. “Would you do me the honor of introducing me to your sensei?”
“Yes!” the young man said. “Absolutely, yes!”
* * * * *
“Faster, you wretches!” Kaiu Esumi shouted, cracking his whip like thunder. “Do you think this land will till itself? Will the crops pluck themselves and walk to the baskets? Nothing is accomplished here without toil! Faster, damn you all!”
Yasuki Jekku looked on in disdain as the portly Crab cracked his whip again and again. The peasants working the land seemed both exhausted and terrified, but the merchant had not choice but to admit they were working faster than any farmers he had ever observed. At the pace they were presently working, they would complete the entire harvest before the end of the day. Normally it would take weeks to harvest a farm land of this size. Jekku was not entirely certain why it was so important to finish at this speed, exactly, but it looked like the work day would be over soon and then perhaps he would have a chance to talk to his abrasive kinsman.
Sure enough, within an hour’s time, the exhausted workers managed to harvest and place the entirety of the land’s yield in a cleared area adjacent to a large series of carts and horses. “Second crew!” Esumi bellowed, and another group of slightly less exhausted looking peasants appeared to begin loading the harvest in the carts. The first group staggered off toward a large building Jekku had previously identified as a mess of some sort. Esumi shouted a handful of particularly unpleasant encouragements to the new crew, then wandered over toward Jekku. “Your caravan will be ready to depart within the hour, I think,” he observed. “Will your men be ready to leave?”
Jekku blinked in surprise. “I… suppose they can be. I had not planned to leave until morning.”
“That will not be acceptable,” Esumi said. “This harvest is earmarked for the various work crews that lord Renyu has harvesting resources throughout the Colonies. It needs to be delivered as soon as possible, before spoilage sets in.”
“Spoilage?” Jekku said, incredulous. “That will take weeks.”
“Not weeks,” Esumi said. “Days. This land is unique. The crops harvested here measure their lifespan in far shorter terms than any other land we have ever encountered.”
Jekku looked around at the otherwise unremarkable surroundings. “How ridiculous,” he observed. “Why bother with it, then? It seems a complete waste of time for an inferior outcome.”
“Why bother?” Esumi repeated, chuckling. “Because this land will be ready to harvest again in less than a week’s time. Whatever odd magic causes the food to spoil so quickly also causes the plants here to age at an incredible rate. We can harvest a half a dozen times in the summer alone, much less the spring and fall.”
“What?” Jekku demanded. “How have I not heard of this?”
“Very few have,” Esumi explained. “You might understand that the Crab wish to keep this place a secret, after all.”
“What causes this strangeness?”
The Kaiu shrugged. “No one knows. The Kuni cannot find the answer. Ultimately, the better question is, does it matter?”
Jekku looked at the amount of food being loaded into his carts. “No,” he said after a few moments. “No, I suppose it doesn’t.”