Kaiu Okaru read over the orders for the third time and sighed, rubbing his eyes and wishing away the weariness that felt as if it had sunk into his very bones. Already he struggled to find a way to schedule the work crews in a way that would not exhaust his men to the point of uselessness. It was a struggle he had already had on numerous occasions, and it was growing more difficult each time. Two men had been treated for injuries brought on by chronic fatigue already this week. These orders would make it worse by an incredible degree and, spent as he was, he could think of no way to alleviate it. Perhaps if he was able to grab a few hours sleep…
“You look troubled, Okaru-san.”
He turned and forced a smile. “It is a difficult duty I have been given, Osote-sensei,” he said. “I am greatly concerned for the well being of those who have been given to me to command.”
“That is the mark of a good leader,” the massive sensei said, his smile showing approval. “I know this matter is not of my concern, but if I may be so bold, what orders have you been given that cause you such difficulty?”
Okaru ran his fingers through his hair. There was a great deal more grey than there had been some months previously. “These orders are directly from Renyu-sama himself. They instruct me to ensure that we remove everything of value from this region by the end of the month so that I can move my work crews on to another area. The Empire, lord Renyu insists, needs these resources urgently.”
“I see,” Osote said. “Wherein does the difficulty lie?”
He gestured absently toward the papers on his desk. “These orders were written by someone without any notion of what is required to remove the lumber from an area, much less any inkling as to how difficult it is to remove large quantities of ore and precious minerals from the earth itself.”
“The lords of the Crab cannot concern themselves with such things,” Osote reminded him. “It is our duty to take their wishes and make them possible, no matter how preposterous they may seem on the surface.”
“Forgive me, sensei-sama, but you do not understand,” Okaru said, struggling with his frustration. “If you were given an order to split the sky in half and see it properly divided between the Crab and Scorpion, could you find a way to make such a thing possible? Because that is the equivalent to what I am being asked to do.”
Osote chuckled. “You always did have a flair for the dramatic, even as a student.”
“This is no laughing matter!” Okaru insisted. “My men will suffer, perhaps even die! What am I to do?”
“To begin,” Osote said, “you must have faith. You are aware that Renyu-sama came to the Colonies with a sizable contingent of berserkers, are you not? Perhaps he anticipated that their strength would be needed for such endeavours.”
Okaru stared at him. “I cannot believe that Renyu-sama would assign his warriors to something as mundane as mining,” he said after a moment of consideration.
“Oh no, not all of them. Perhaps just one.”
“One?” Okaru scoffed. “What good will one…” he fell silent as a shadow came across the tent and something massive moved outside. His blood ran cold and he instinctively picked up his weapon, the tales of his father’s tours on the Wall springing to mind at once. “What is that?” he whispered raggedly.
“That,” Osote said, “is the most unfortunate, tortured soul I have ever met. But his misery and determination are to your benefit.”
“That is not a man,” Okaru whispered.
“No, not anymore,” Osote said, a tone of sadness in his voice. “But since he cannot die a Crab, he has sworn to die in service to them.” He nodded toward the hulking misshapen thing that was once a man in the courtyard beyond. “Hida Kaiji. He discovered an unknown artifact in the ruins of some temple, and it transformed him into… that.”
As Okaru watched, the massive, misshapen warrior hefted a tetsubo that was larger than any battering ram he had ever seen. With a grunt of effort that sounded disturbingly like a cry of anguish, Kaiji brought the titanic weapon down upon a massive boulder, shattering it instantly. Okaru could not suppress a vulgar outburst, which elicited another chuckle from Osote. “It would have taken a full crew two days to break that down!” he said.
“As I said, young one,” the venerable sensei said. “You should have faith.”
The boats of the Seppun were approaching. They would be upon the Second City by dawn. Kakita Tadanobu cast the horizon one last glance before darting back inside. He and the other guards raced through the embassy hallways, leading the throng of courtiers. For the first time since its founding, the serenity of the Second City’s Crane Embassy was broken.
The courtiers followed the guards with an otherworldly serenity. Their step was brisk, but there was an odd grace to it, a certain calm. They were courtiers, musicians, artists, and diplomats. But they were also samurai. To run from battle would be unbecoming.
Tadanobu ensured that each room was safe before bringing them to the secret escape passage. One by one, he watched as they calmly passed through. The future of the Crane in the Colonies rested with these courtiers… this he knew as fact. When the battle was over, someone would have to re-establish loyalty to the Imperial families. Someone would have to remind the Empress that the Crane were loyal to the Empire.
Throughout the Empire’s history, the Crane were the Emperor’s Left Hand. It was not the place of the left hand to move in the path of the right. So the moment when word of the Empress’ retribution had reached their ears, the Crane prepared to remove themselves from the conflict entirely. A wise decision made by the delegation’s leader, Doji Yuka. For a moment Tadanobu was lost in thought. Had anyone seen her since that decision was made?
Tadanobu ushered the last of the courtiers through the passageway. The tunnels beyond would lead to a safe vantage. The Crane had always stood beside the Imperial families, but they also knew the zealousness of the Seppun well. They would not know ally from enemy until the battle was over. Tadanobu looked to his companion, a younger man with dyed white hair and sharp features.
“Are there any remaining?” he asked.
The other man, Kakita Yusugi, shook his head. “That was the last of those who intended to leave.”
Tadanobu frowned. In spite of the leadership’s decision, there were many who were remaining with the embassy. Fools, the lot of them. Their loyalty to the Governor would surely be a stain in the eyes of the Imperial families. Those who fled would have to carry the burden of that stain. In spite of this, Yuka had ordered no harm come to them. Let them die as samurai, she had said. It was surely more courtesy than they were worth.
“In that case,” he replied, “there is little reason to remain.”
Yusugi nodded, and then bowed deeply. “Good luck,” he said, “my friend.”
At first the yojimbo’s reply did not register. Tadanobu returned the bow out of habit, then turned towards the doorway. But then he realized what his friend had said, causing him to pause. He looked back. The tone of Yusugi’s voice, the solidness of his stare…
Tadanobu slowly pulled away from the passage. “You are staying.” He didn’t ask. He already knew.
Yusugi shrugged his shoulders, seemingly oblivious to his friend’s reaction. After a moment, he said, “I think I prefer it here, to tell the truth.”
Tadanobu’s shock was plain. He stared for a moment more before frowning. “That is treason,” he said,. But he left his sword sheathed.
Yusgi seemed amused. “All my life I’ve been riffraff. A troublemaker. I have broken countless promises. Now, for the first time, I’ve made one that I’d rather keep.” He smirked. “What good is a yojimbo who abandons his charge?”
The implication was short in coming. “Doji Yuka is staying as well?” Tadanobu’s head reeled.
“She promised to serve the Governor,” Yusugi explained with another shrug. “It cannot be helped.”
Tadanobu was silent for some time. He seemed conflicted. “This is something you cannot back away from,” he finally said.
For a moment, steely resolution shined in Yusugi’s eyes. “I welcome whatever comes,” he said. “I won’t abandon the only people who have forgiven my past sins.”
“And what if this course of action forces you to fight your Crane brethren?”
Yusugi flashed another grin. “Then I will have the opportunity to show them how Kakita’s Techinique is properly done.”
Tadanobu chuckled, shaking his head. They’d been friends since Tadanobu’s boat had first arrived all those years ago. In all that time, even as his station had shown him the error of his ways, and even in the face of this crisis, Yusugi was the same cocky upstart that he’d always been. Tadanobu laughed. “You are insane,” he remarked.
As Yusugi watched, Tadanobu approached the passage, then shut the shoji door. He turned back to his friend and undid the peace know holding his katana. Then he stood beside his friend and faced the direction of the enemy.
Yusgi’s grin broadened. “You’re staying,” he said. It was not a question.
Tadanobu sighed. “Perhaps I am insane as well.”
Kitsuki Fujimura looked at the reports scattered on her desk. “Scattered” wasn’t quite the appropriate word for the stacked and organized scrolls and papers before the magistrate, but for the tidy woman, it was an unusually large assortment of items. “Let us address some of these, Ichizo-san.” she finally said, lifting one of the documents and examining it. “This report from Mirumoto Katagi on the western edge of the Colonies seems most pressing.”
Mirumoto Ichizo nodded his head. “Yes Fujimura-san. It is as we feared – when the Lion accused the Spider Clan of attacking their holdings, we interceded and demanded some manner of explanation that truly showed the Spider’s involvement. The Lion took that as an act of defiance and have begun striking out at our holdings here.”
“What word from the Spider on the matter, then? As our main emissary to their clan, certainly you have heard something.”
Ichizo looked down for a moment, as the reminder of his position shamed him a little even now. He was not appointed to his station as an honour, but instead as a reminder of how he had failed the clan – if not the whole Empire – so many years ago. The Spider, while a Great Clan, were seen as villains and abominations by most Rokugani. “Lord Kanpeki of the Spider states that he will assist how he can, but that their forces are of course committed to further exploration and rooting out the Rhumalite cultists.”
Fujimura frowned, not looking up from the letter. “Indeed,” she said quietly, “As if the Dragon are not likewise strained under so much duty. In addition to overseeing the Spider Clan and now becoming involved in their conflict with the Lion, we have scholars assisting the Phoenix’s effort to document the natural and unnatural wonders of these lands. Further, the matter of officiating disputes in claims on parts of these Colonies has now fallen squarely on the Kitsuki family’s shoulders.”
After a moment’s thought, she continued, “The siege of the Second City only complicates matters and encourages such opportunists. I think it was perhaps a mistake to interfere in this. The clans do not want these matters resolved truthfully, they only seek to gain any advantage possible.”
“Your family’s efforts are well spent, Lady Kitsuki,” Ichizo offered. “The Dragon are known for their impartiality and wisdom by many in the Colonies, now. While it’s true many petty fights have emerged over these rights, we have managed to settle a great many of them peacefully and with an insight few could match.” The ageing samurai sighed as he felt even older thinking of how many lives had been lost in the exploration of the former Ivory Kingdoms. “Every new holding in the Empress’ name is bought by blood of the clans. It is a great honour to ensure that such a price is not meaningless.”
“It is as you say, Ichizo-san,” Fujimura agreed, putting down the report about the Spider and picking up another document. “In both aspects. These squabbles of ownership are not simply ‘petty’, however. Several others and I believe there is a sort of coordination or influence at work here.”
“How do you mean?”
The magistrate gestured to another stack of papers on her writing table. “Every time we are just about to resolve one such dispute, two more seem to appear from nowhere. Even from claims that we thought secure and impossible to dispute. The timing of these new enquiries always seem to keep my assistants and servants too busy to do anything productive. We barely have enough time and manpower to simply react quick enough.”
“Even the Sun must rest,” Ichizo replied, quoting the Tao. “It does seem suspicious that such things are literally unending.”
“The Scorpion,” Fujimura said darkly. “Our so-called ‘allies’ among the Clan of Secrets could be behind this. They have endlessly toiled to stymie our family’s efforts to seek out the truth in the hidden corners of the Empire. They do this while claiming to owe our clan a debt of honour from generations ago – saying they are our friends while treating us little better than any other family or clan.”
The older man leaned back on his cushion for a moment and gave Fujimura a questioning look. “You are frustrated, Fujimura-san. Perhaps…”
The magistrate waved her hand dismissively. “I will of course meditate upon this, Ichizo-san. But…” she trailed off for a moment and looked at nothing in particular. “Yes. Perhaps it is time something be done about this unequal arrangement.”
The guards did not bother to slow Matsu Arata as she stepped into the room. They had become accustomed to the routine of late. She visited several times a day with updates from the heart of the conflict. They exchanged questioning glances. Tonight, Arata’s expression seemed brighter than the mask of grim determination she had worn for the past few weeks.
Arata’s mind tumbled with errant thoughts and worries, and despite her best efforts she could not push them aside. Her eyes widened slightly and her confusion grew as she took in the unusual sight inside the temporary war chamber The room was empty save for one – Kitsu Miro, a shugenja who served as the Lion representative in the Second City. Miro looked up from behind her mound of scrolls and bowed politely. Arata bent at her waist and respectfully bowed back.
“Good evening, Arata-san,” Miro said in greeting. “I am surprised to see you tonight. The hour grows late.”
“There is news of impending change among the Crab,” Arata replied. “I feel it cannot wait.”
Miro frowned. “Strange. Our Clans have been growing close of late. They should have formally approached me first. What have you heard?”
The young Matsu bowed her head. “My friends among the Crab believe that the siege on the city will soon end. I do not know what path this resolution will take, only that it draws close.”
Miro looked at one of the scrolls in front of her. “What have they said on the matter?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Arata admitted. “However, their behaviour has changed. They no longer sound tense when they speak of the current situation. I sense that they will force something that will end the current siege.”
Miro did not reply, and she studied the young Matsu in front of her. Suddenly Arata felt a flood of uncertainty wash over her. She immediately stopped talking. It seemed that her thoughts lost the weight they had in her mind when they were shaped into words. Urgency fled from her, and the sense of epiphany gave way to an equal share of foolishness. How could she have charged in here with such frivolous thoughts?
Miro did not seem to notice the thoughts that warred in Arata. She set the scroll aside and stood up. “Tell me, Arata-san. When was the last time you visited the Temple District?”
Arata paused at the shift in conversation. She reflected briefly before she answered. “I pay my respects to my ancestors within the barracks, Miro-sama. I have not visited that district in some time.”
Miro smiled. “I would like to dedicate some time tonight to meditation and devotion. Will you join me?”
“Of course,” Arata replied without hesitation. “I am not expected back at the defenses for some time to come. I would be honoured.”
They remained silent for some time as they made their way to the Temple District. They encountered few people along the street; the mood within the city had been dampened of late by the impending conflict that seemed to loom over them all. Arata followed the shugenja through the empty streets in respectful silence. They arrived at the district, and their privacy continued to hold. When Miro suddenly spoke it caught her by surprise. “It is doubly important to properly venerate our ancestors here, so far from Rokugan. SO many things here struggle to shed us of our values and traditions, and we must fight back to hold what is dear.”
Arata could only bow her head. “I have been lapse in my piety. I have no excuse.”
Miro shook her head. “Do not take my ramblings to heart. Arata-san. You need not visit a temple to show proper deference. Keep the proper mindset and your ancestors will feel no shame in your actions.”
They stopped at the threshold of the temple and Miro turned to face her. “Tell me, how is the morale among the defenders?” Miro asked.
“No one is pleased with the thought that the siege will ever continue to its destined conclusion.” Arata replied slowly. “The Imperial Legion outside has many of our Clansmen within, and bloodshed on either side would fall on Lion armour. Despite that, no one is willing to let their duties fall to the wayside.”
“That is my thought as well,” Miro said. “I cannot believe that the Governor will allow the situation to worsen into combat, yet her stubbornness has stretched the situation out much further than I would have believed.”
“If my friends among the Cr–” Arata began to say.
“If your instincts prove correct,” Miro interrupted, “we will be ready to act, one way or another.”
She gestured to the temple and smiled beatifically. “For now, set aside your worries. We have more important tasks at hand.”
The smell of smoke hung in the thick air as Yoritomo Emoto stood at the fore of the Third Kama’s deck. He had been in the Colonies for a great many years, and had lived on the Islands of Spice and Silk before that. The humid choking air did not bother him as it did most people, but he found he was unused to to how smoke seemed to become almost solid in it. As the captain looked to the north from the great river, he saw several small fires outlining the southern side of the Crane city.
The siege of Twin Forks City would possibly be the greatest glory Emoto achieved in his life. The Mantis Clan had grown weary of the Crane’s constant interference in the sea trade from the Colonies. The Mantis left the endless and mind-numbing politics of the Empire to the Crane, why couldn’t they return the courtesy? Months ago, the Clan’s Champion, Yoritomo Hiromi, ordered Emoto to punish the Crane for their temerity.
Now, several other large warships choked the great river fork that connected the Second City to the southern Colonial ports… and the the Empire. It would be his greatest glory, Emoto thought to himself again, and a matter of no small personal satisfaction. The Crane were arrogant and prideful, after all, and they were due for a lesson. The Yoritomo family, unlike some of the other noble houses of the Empire, truly did appreciate the art and grace the Crane Clan brought to Rokugan. But they had made a grave mistake in attempting to cut the Mantis off in sea trade between Rokugan and the Colonies.
The Crane – and the Empire – would not soon forget what it meant to contend with the Mantis Clan and the Yoritomo family on the seas.
“Report,” the large man said quietly, still enjoying the sight of the burning Crane city.
Behind him, a young officer named Tsuruchi Tomaru cleared his throat. “The Aerie, the Crane’s port on the sea to the south, has been successfully cut off. The blockade will hold for many months, Emoto-sama.” The officer paused, his lips curling into a smile. “The Crane have launched an attack on Kalani’s Landing, but it will be crushed soon. The only shipping routes to the Second City are now in Mantis hands.”
Emoto raised a hand and turned to look at the other man. “Not so, Tomaru-san. Let us not get ahead of ourselves. The matters of Twin Forks City and this counterattack on Kalani’s Landing are not yet finished.”
The Tsuruchi bowed his head and nodded. “Of course, captain. My apologies.”
“We must push the Crane from the banks of the river. Then we must capture a majority of the city… and then we must hold it. Between us and this goal are the dangerous Daidoji scouts and guerilla warriors – they will make it difficult to take the city even from the water.” Emoto pointed to either bank of the river in turn, as if he were pointing at the hidden scouts themselves. “Beyond that, the influence the Doji and Kakita families hold with the other clans could bring interference upon this attack. We must proceed with care and skill, not fall prey to the assumption the Crane are weak and will simply be swept aside.”
“I have the loyalty of a detachment of Tsuruchi-trained scouts, my lord. If the Daidoji think they are masters of their ways, they will take their mistaken notions to the next life.” He paused for a moment, “But what of the Asahina priests?” Tomaru asked. “Certainly that noble family will lend their aid to the Crane’s struggle.”
Emoto shook his head. “They are few in number here, and pacifists besides. It would be a blemish on our reputation to kill them, so let them flee or stand aside. They may even make useful hostages to bring back to the Second City.”
Tomaru straightened. “In regards to that, sir, I bring news. It appears the Imperial Legions’ siege on the Second City is turning in their favour. The city’s Governor is requesting any aid the noble families might give.”
The captain crossed his arms and looked to the north. “The Governor…” he sighed. “That woman is the reason so many clans are here, usurping land that might have been ours. Getting in the way of proper colonization of this region.” He frowned and fidgeted with the kama on his belt. “So be it,” he finally said. “Send word to pull our available ships and soldiers away from the Second City. Have them brought here, and we will send forces from this siege to aid Kalani’s Landing. Let the Governor deal with her own issues, as we have dealt with the ones she caused us.”
Daigotsu Bukaro was not a man accustomed to dealing with his own fear. He was familiar with the sensation in general – he had seen panic-stricken enemies widen their eyes, fumble about in confusion, and flush with blood. He had cut them all down, of course, as their fear made them easier prey. As he killed them, Bukaro thought he understood fear – the look of it, and the feeling someone would have to go through to have their bodies and minds betray them in that manner. The large warrior believed he had known fear and beaten it back.
Bukaro realized today that it was a lie he had convinced himself of. His hands were damp with sweat as he held the scroll that may well spell the doom of his clan, but he composed himself well. He was facing his fear, he thought, and it was his will that was proving stronger than the feeling. For now.
The Spider officer could hear the footsteps of his lord as Daigotsu Kanpeki entered the chamber in the Steel Soul Dojo. “Bukaro-san,” the Champion of the Spider Clan said in his deep voice, “I understand you have brought me a report from the east.”
“Yes my Lord,” the commander said, kneeling on the floor and holding the scroll up. “An account of the goings on in the Second City as well as some new developments.”
Bukaro would have continued to detail the contents of the letter, but Kanpeki gestured for him to rise by curling two fingers up. “News from the east,” the Champion said, almost to himself. “Tell me, Bukaro-san, is it in regards to the Imperial Legion laying siege to the city?”
“No, Kanpeki-sama,” the man replied.
“I would hear any news you have of that, if you know something. I have been… indisposed, and the agents of the Spider cannot move so freely to and from the Second City. I am interested to hear how this conflict between the Imperials has gone.” Kanpeki folded his arms behind him and added, “The message can wait a moment, I’m sure.”
“Of course, my lord,” Bukaro said, pushing down the urge to contradict his master and insist he read the report. “The Imperial Legions have set a siege upon the Second City, citting that the Governor’s control of the city has gone… unchecked in some fashion. I apologize Lord Kanpeki, but I am not exactly certain how the conflict began.”
Kanpeki raised an eyebrow and looked genuinely surprised. “Interesting, Bukaro-san. That is what I have heard many times. None seem to be able to explain why the Legions are trying to wrest control of the city from the Governor.” The Champion looked off towards the east. “Interesting,” he repeated to himself. After a moment’s silence, he placed his hand out, “The letter, then.”
The Lord of the Spider Clan broke the seal and read. The silence of the chamber seemed to press down on Bukaro as he waited and his lord’s eyes narrowed further and further. “The Crab,” Kanpeki finally said, slowly closing his fist around the letter. “Those fools in the Imperial Legion have recognized Renyu as the ranking noble in these lands. He, in turn, has entered into an alliance with the Lion who have attacked us.” The warrior’s jaw clenched as he closed his eyes, regaining his composure. “It is an insult that will not be tolerated. To think that man, even though he is a Champion’s brother, is of appropriate rank to equal my own and declare such a thing.”
“The Lion and Crab together, my lord,” Bukaro said, “It is a serious threat.”
Kanpeki looked at his vassal and nodded. “You understand what is at stake. They could well destroy us, stretched thin as we are, executing the will of the Empress,” the last word was said with a deep bitterness. “I am told the Dragon have earned the Lion’s ire for interfering in this conflict?”
“We are honour-bound to aid them, as they have aided us. You will carry word to my highest commanders – we marshal our forces in full. We will turn aside the Lion, the Crab, even the Imperial Legions if they dare to attack us while we have broken no law, trespassed against no agent of the Throne! We will unleash a fury upon them that will make them think twice before coming to this place and pretending they are the masters of it again!”
Kanpeki took a deep breath and a thin, fierce smile formed on his lips. “It is time we deployed the Blood of the Destroyer on our enemies in earnest, Bukaro-san.”
“Gather as many samurai as will volunteer!” Shinjo Tselu had barely shouted the orders, and already young warriors were scrambling to carry them out. Just over a year ago, those orders would have come from a voice that wavered oh so slightly, a voice that would not carry beyond the palace’s courtyard. Now that voice thundered.
He looked around him. His fledgling “Ivory Legion,” most of them from his own Clan, tended to the gathered throngs of peasants. Tselu had reason to believe the soldiers of the Seppun would try to break the siege again, and if they did, they would come in from the Peasant quarter. His men hurried to evacuate the quarter, leading the Heimin into the Temple district. Surely the Seppun would not dare to attack a place sacred to the Fortunes.
He looked from one face to the next. These peasants were confused, worried, and unsure. He could see their doubt and felt their worry. But not their fear, for that was unbecoming of a samurai.
Even so, he took strength from the thought that his charge, the Imperial Governess of the Colonies, was safe in her palace. For a moment, his gaze turned to its looming shape towards the centre of the city. Perhaps she was watching him now…
A wordless, out-of-breath soldier approached the Ivory Champion, pausing only briefly to bow. It was Tselu’s command that they dispense with such trivialities. The man gave his report” the Imperial reinforcements had arrived much more quickly than they had expected, apparently bolstered by forces from Journey’s End Keep. The irony was not lost on the Ivory Champion.
A bolster in forces meant that their general was confident he could break the stalemate that had stagnated the siege of the city for the last two months. Tselu felt an odd churning in his gut. His inspections had not yielded any faults in the defense, yet he could not help feeling that something was being overlooked.
The answer was to prepare. If a renewed siege was to come, then it was better to be prepared. Anticipate the attack, and perhaps he could minimize casualties.
Lost in thought for a moment, Tselu realized that the scout had stopped speaking. The man glanced up nervously at the champion. “What is your name?” Tselu asked.
“I am Kinto, my lord,” the man replied, “Shinjo Kinto”
Tselu nodded. “You are thinking that what we are doing here is treason, isn’t that right?”
The man said nothing.
“And so you feel guilt,” Tselu said. “You feel that the honourable recourse is to surrender the city to the Imperials.”
Kinto looked up, his eyes steeled. “Never,” he swore. “Never! This is not their city, my lord! They sent their castaways here, but that does not make it theirs!” His eyes glistened and his face contorted with every word. “They did not raise their families in a hostile land, did not coax life from sun-baked sands! When times were difficult, they offered no aid to the people of this city. We had to fend for ourselves. They treat us like beggars.” He narrowed his eyes. “They do not treat us like samurai.”
Tselu felt the tug of a smile. “Then we shall show them what we are.”
His words were punctuated by a round of cheers He was not aware that others had been listening to his conversation. As he looked around him, he suddenly realized that the number of soldiers in this quarter had tripled. They were mounted samurai on horseback, each one bearing a Unicorn Mon. His honest words had rallied them all.
Tselu laid a hand on the first familiar person to approach. “Who are these samurai?” he asked/ Surely they were not all volunteers in the city’s defense. The other Clan contingents were scrambling to protect their own embassies, to cut their own losses…
The man smiled. “My lord, these are the volunteers you asked for.”
The Ivory Champion blinked in disbelief. Slowly he turned his head. All around him were men and women in purple and white armour, armed and ready, their proud horses standing strong with their noble riders. He spotted a group of Utaku Battlemaidens who noticed him and bowed in their saddles. Not far away was a gathering of Ide. They carried swords, a somber contrast to the smiles on their faces. Tselu looked from one grouping to the next, staring in disbelief. There were so many more than he thought would be willing to defend the city against direct assault.
“It must be the entire Unicorn embasy,” he murmured, mostly in jest.
The man’s smile broadened. “Yes my lord,” he replied, as Tselu’s eyes grew wider. “It is.”
A former Elemental Master of Earth once said “All true knowledge has a price.” Isawa Mina wondered… are the Phoenix paying that price now?
She’d always wanted to go to the Colonies. Her sisters laughed whenever she’d mentioned it. Only the failures went to the Colonies, they’d said. The disappointments, the trouble-makers… the backwash. Why would anyone want to go there?
Mina could think of several reasons. Every morning she awoke to a sky ink-washed by the sun, to a radiant shore of vibrant oranges, blues, and violets. Her days were filled with barefoot walks upon serene beaches, meals of spiced seafoods and exotic vegetables, seaside air strengthening her lungs, and warm sun tanning her skin into a burnished beauty. And while there was conflict in the colonies, there was also an alien sense of unity, an odd sensation of peace that was difficult for her to explain.
But the main reason was knowledge. There was so much to learn here! The difference in vantage shed a new light on ancient practices, and every day it seemed the explorers were uncovering new discoveries. There were vast libraries of new documents to read, while monks, within their temples, argued over new insights.
What was a Phoenix that did not pursue knowledge? Was that not the sacred duty given to them by the first Emperor, the very reason for their existence? Was it not the one thing that unified the Phoenix Clan in spite of their vast differences? The Asako had always sought the things would give them insight into the human condition, the Shiba had always sought whatever would aid them in protecting their charges, and the Agasha sought the secrets locked within the laws of the natural world. The Isawa sought these things and more… for all knowledge, no matter what it was, had value and importance.
But there was another thing that the Phoenix had always sought, and that was Peace. This fact was what filled her heart with uncertainty. She knew that she would have to purge that, or else she would hesitate when her time finally came.
Mina lit the last of the incense sticks, then pushed the bowl forward in a gesture of offering. The unmoving icons of the Seven Fortunes gazed down at her. The temple’s shrine was silent and dim, save for the flickering light of the candles around her, and the sounds of the Shiba outside as they prepared the embassy’s defenses. She could not help but think that her brethren at home would have abandoned this temple and the Colonies at large. She knew, in her heart, that she could not. Even now the students of the dojo were funnelling peasants and holy men alike into the escape tunnels beneath the compound, but the rest remained behind. The effort would be futile, but they would attempt nonetheless.
The Phoenix had been warned by the view of the invaders on the horizon. Their ships flew unmistakable banners and they were ready for war. They would be here by the morning… they would establish their footholds on Mina’s sacred beaches. Perhaps they were as uncertain as she, even after the decision was made to stay, to defend the temple and keep it from their hands. After the decision was made to remain loyal to the Governor.
But her warnings had come from the spirits themselves. Thus, what reason had she to be uncertain?
Perhaps they would call it “defiance”. Perhaps they would call it “foolish”. Perhaps it was these things, in the end. But as her grandmother had said, these came in a samurai’s life when that samurai must make a choice as to where her allegiance would lay.
The truth was, she’d fallen in love with the Colonies. Their beaches, their sunrises, their people, their ways. Their lands. No one else’s. If it gave her the strength to do what must be done, how could love possibly be sinful?
And like that, the doubt was gone. She smiled. Thank you.
From outside came shouting. The clash of steel. She closed her eyes and bowed to each of the Fortunes in turn. Bishamon, lend me strength. Jurojin, lend me time. Benten remind me why I defend these lands. Fukurokujin, have mercy on my brethren. One to the next, and to each in turn, she asked for guidance. Around her, she felt the influence of the kami growing stronger.
And then, as the doors burst open, she rose and turned. Ten Seppun samurai stormed into the temple, their blades drawn. They bore the Mon of the Imperial Throne. The banner of the Empress.
“Death to all traitors!” their leader cried. As one, they rushed towards her.
“No fighting in the temple,” she said, and unleashed a wave of flame.
“Fortunes,” the Scorpion swore under his breath relaxing because he knew it was impossible for anyone to hear him so far from the encampment. “What happened to that one?”
The air stirred slightly, and there was a slight rustling of leaves. These was the barest outline in one of the major branches of the tree adjacent to the one in which Soshi Kodanshi was sitting. The rustling of the leaves formed a whisper in his ear. “Be silent, you fool. Do you want them to hear you?”
Kodanshi glanced irritably at the other man. Yogo Ugimori was far too self-important for Kodanshi’s tastes. The man was a priest, a member of the Kuroiban, and a vassal of the Imperial Explorers as well. Too many divided loyalties, in Kodanshi’s opinion, and with a Yogo, no less? Who trusted them? And for such a man to look down on him, for no other reason than the fact he had been born with the ability to speak to them kami? It was unbearable. “They are Crab,” he hissed, his voice virtually silent. “They cannot hear us from this distance.”
“Have you forgotten the Hiruma?” the whisper in his ear came again. “They can hear a leaf fall from a tree a mile away.”
Kodanshi sneered. “Do not subscribe to such hyperbole,” he cautioned. He returned his attention to the distant Crab encampment. “I think they might actually make their schedule now, with that thing pitching in. What manner of magic could create a brute of that size, do you suppose?”
Ugimori might not be fully visible, but there could be no question that he was scowling. Still, he seemed to consider the question. “Nothing that I know of,” he finally admitted. “Certainly no acceptable form of magic, and nothing of Rokugani in origin. I have heard rumours that a Crab patrol found some unique artifact in the ruins, and that its unique properties were transferred to a single warrior.”
Kodanshi nodded appreciatively. “What happened to the artifact?”
“Destroyed upon transeference,” Ugimori said.
“That is unfortunate. We could have put that to good use, I imagine.”
Ugimori’s tone was full of condemnation. “You would employ something capable of transforming a warrior in such a manner on a Scorpion?”
“I think its influence would have been interesting to observe on someone like Hawado,” Kodanshi continued.
“What?” Ugimori demanded.
“What?” Kodanshi repeated. “Are you not curious?” He shifted his weight slightly. “Why are we spying on the Crab, anyway? They are our closest allies at present.”
“The Crab are indeed our closest allies,” Ugimori confirmed. “And that is why we alone have been assigned to observe them. Most other clans have far more agents in place observing them.”
“Of course,” Kodanshi agreed. “Do you think the Crab would be flattered?”
Bayushi Shibata gazed across the vast room of maps and tables with a decided air of weariness. “One day soon I will have to face the possibility that I may be getting too old for this,” he noted aloud, drawing odd looks from his subordinates. Annoyed with himself, he waved them away, dismissing them for the evening. “Makubesu,” he called out as the last few were leaving the building. “Hold a moment. I would speak with you.”
Bayushi Makeubesu nodded and remained behind while the others departed. “What can I do for you, Shibata-sama?”
Shibata walked around the room, examining the different maps. “I see no adjustments to the westernmost regions. I assume either Ugimori has not returned or that you have placed his maps in the vault.”
“The latter, my lord.”
“Very good. Thank you for that, Makubesu. What of Ugimori?”
“Reassigned to a low priority duty until such a time as you require his services again, my lord.”
Shibata nodded. “How long have you been with me, Makubesu?”
“Six years, my lord.”
“An exceptional six years it has been,” Shibata said. “I am in your debt. I know, with your family connections, you could acquire any duty you desire. Why have you remained here?”
“I consider the Imperial Explorers the only truly worthy branch of the Imperial bureaucracy, my lord.”
“Interesting,” Shibata said. “The matter concerning the map we just discussed? I have a feeling that in the very near future, I will have no alternative but to choose between my duties to the Imperial Explorers, and my duty to the Scorpion. It is a choice I have managed to avoid for a great number of years, but it cannot last forever.”