Torn Asunder, Part 3

By Seth Mason

Edited by Fred Wan


Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City

The Imperial Court was at recess, and Ikoma Hakige approached the Throne. The Empress was gone, but the Ikoma daimyo bowed in respect all the same. He looked to the Voice, who had been speaking with Utaku Ji-Yun. “Satsu-sama, may I have a word with the Emerald Champion?”

Ji-Yun and Satsu shared a look, then the Voice inclined his head to Hakige. “Proceed, Lord Ikoma,” he said.

“I have had something on my mind as I came to Court to address this matter to the Empress,” Hakige began, scratching his chin. “And, quite frankly, I find it somewhat annoying that of all people, Doji Makoto seems to share my sentiments.”

The Emerald Champion frowned slightly. “You think Kuni Renyu is to blame for the great violence at the Second City?”

“More than that, my lady,” the Lion said, and then hesitated. “I… hope you understand why I ask this, but do you not also think Shinjo Kinto shares some responsibility? The histories have not fully been written on this, and I would appreciate the word of the Emerald Champion on the matter.”

Togashi Satsu turned his gaze to the Emerald Champion, clearly interested in the answer as well.

“You are a historian and a leader of soldiers, Hakige-san, so you will understand this. It is easy for those who bear witness to events to question them afterwards. Every wise leader knows that there are few opportunities to make a clearly correct and flawless decision in the moment of conflict.” Ji-Yun’s eyes drifted to the rest of the Court as she adjusted her kimono. Several others had taken an interest in the conversation, though not all could hear. “I do not apologize for what has happened, though I will say that of course I wish there had been another way to resolve it. All I can do is place my faith in the notion that Kinto – and Renyu – did what they could given their options. Like any good general might.”

Hakige nodded, “If, in the end, a commander’s decision seems unwise, only a fool forgets to account for how that choice was made.”

On the opposite end of the chamber, Bayushi Nitoshi watched the exchange passively, not bothering to try and listen to it. Hakige was clearly interested in the Emerald Champion’s perspective, but the Bayushi daimyo had no time for it.

“He is an odd one,” Kaiu Iemasa observed, walking up to the Scorpion. “I heard the man drank more than one of my clan’s berserkers and then managed to swindle a Yasuki out of a shipment of ore. And here he is, holding the attention of the Empress’ Court like a…” the Crab trailed off when he remembered who he was talking to. “… well, I just find it surprising.”

“There is a reason the Shosuro keep such close ties to the Ikoma, and even the Doji and Kakita tend to respect them. The Ikoma are an odd family – you never know if they will be worthwhile allies, but it is certain they are dangerous and unpredictable enemies.”

“Coming from a Scorpion, Lord Nitoshi, I will keep that in mind,” Iemasa said quietly. “What kind of enemies will they make now, with Hakige about to condemn one half of this whole mess or the other?” the Kaiu wondered aloud.

Nitoshi smiled thinly, “That,” he said darkly, “my friend, is an unfortunately limited view. As my forebearers have often shown, when you think there are only two options available, the third option that remains unseen is the most disastrous.”


* * * * *


Day 30 of the Winter Court of the Second City –

Shinjo Tselu saw the blade move towards him, and he realized it was over. The man opposite him, another Shinjo, would be the one to end all of this by his death or victory. As the Ivory Champion’s sword sang through the air at his opponent as well, Tselu thought – kin had killed kin so many times these few days.

Why should it have been any different for him? What was one more death?


* * * * *


Day 29 –

Bayushi Shibata looked out over the Imperial District from his home in Fuan Ti’s Tower. The structure was unusually tall, possibly the highest such construct of its kind in the known world. Many Rokugani felt ill at ease in the tower once the novelty of being there wore off, but Shibata found the view spectacular… and useful. Well worth any mild concerns the slight swaying of the building brought to mind.

From his vantage point, he could easily see the western side of the Imperial District and over the wall into the Military District. He could make out where the fighting had finally spilled past the gate from the Artisan District, and surmised that the other gates had either fallen in a similar fashion or would, soon. The loss of Akodo Tsudoken had come as a great surprise to the city’s defenders, and it was becoming extremely clear that the Captain – an experienced Akodo general – had apparently been working a small miracle to hold back the invaders as long as he had.

“You know,” the Scorpion said aloud, raising the attention of his guest, “I had a conversation once with a Moto friend of mine. He surprised me by stating that he held a deep respect for courtiers and politicians due to the willpower and endurance they had to possess. He said the business of court was vital to maintaining the Empire, but it was boring, repetitive, and far too easy for a mind numbed by the monotony of it all to make a misstep that could cost a family or clan a great deal.”

The tower shook slightly, and the sound of a mighty thud echoed from the north. The Ninth Legion was trying to break through the northern gate to the Military District, now.

“He’s dead, sadly,” Shibata continued. “Died during the first day the gate to the Peasant District was… compromised. I never had a chance to ask him if he still felt the business of court was so boring.” The Scorpion turned away from the window, a look of quiet reflection in his eyes. “I suppose he probably forgot he even said such a thing to me.”

Bayushi Nomen sat at the Imperial Explorer’s table and sipped her tea quietly. She had grown used to the man’s eccentricities, and knew he was coming to a point soon. She decided to hurry things along anyway. “We have messengers that are able to contact the Ninth, Shibata-sama,” Nomen said. “It appears Kuni Renyu may be appointed governor once Commander Kinto has removed Suikihime. Do you think this was the Crab lord’s intention this whole time?”

Shibata shrugged. “Who’s to say for certain?” he mused. “Renyu is not the brutish idiot many would like to believe. He is both patient and canny. But he is also largely uninterested in such plotting, preferring to be plain about matters like that. Anyone who was surprised by his betrayal of the Governor simply wasn’t paying attention.”

“His time in the Colonies may have changed him. I understand he has had… a relationship with a woman who is not his wife. Here, in the city.”

The elder Scorpion waved vaguely in the air. “Rumor and conjecture, my young friend. I am quite certain of that. I have made certain inquiries and observations. No, I would stake a great deal on the fact that Renyu is the same man who came to these Colonies. So I would say this is merely a happy coincidence for him.”

“And for us, as well,” Nomen noted. “Renyu has been committed to the alliance between our clans.”

“Indeed,” Shibata said. “Assuming it is in our interests to see the Governor removed, that is true.”

“I imagined you would support the Kuni,” she said, narrowing her eyes a little. There was little time for the man’s games now.

“Oh, I do. We do, my friend. However, do we support a Governor Renyu? He has made things problematic. A Scorpion would have known better – we know what a Crab might take by force is better to have handed to us gladly. Better to convince an enemy that you are their friend, that giving you what you want is a victory for them, too.” Shibata turned to look back out the window. “But that time has passed, of course. Why or how Renyu did these things are questions that must be answered, but not now. Now, we answer the question of what there is to gain in the situation we are in.”


* * * * *


“Karachu-sama, this is the report from the southern gate,” the courier said breathlessly, bowing and extending a message.

Amidst the quiet sound of arrow fire and louder sound of a battering ram against the northern gate of the Military District, Asako Karachu scanned the report quickly. The gate to the Peasant District would likely be lost soon if reinforcements were not sent – it seemed Shinjo Kinto had decided to put his faith in a simple push from their most successful front. It was an obvious, but effective, tactic.

The monk had found he took to coordinating the military efforts of the city surprisingly well. The ebb and flow of battle was not unlike the philosophy of the various Elements. Soldiers moved like the water, where strength and freedom allowed it. Forces could be resilient and stalwart like the earth, but could show signs of stress and wearing like stone. Events and random occurrences reminded him of the capricious and unpredictable nature of Air. And, of course, the hostility and push of conflict was much like a fire that would rage then die out… or burn slowly and seem impossible to stop.

But it was the touch of the Void that Karachu sought now – the unnameable thing that held all of this together and could be worked with to alter all of it at once. To him, it seemed so many commanders only addressed each Element as it was relevant to their perception of the fight.

“If Kinto pushes from the south,” Karachu said, “then, as a student of water, he will attempt to contain our movement.” The monk turned his gaze to the north gate. “He will-”

As if reacting to the Phoenix’s attention, the gates emitted a much louder, heavier thud, and collapsed inward some. Whatever the Ninth Legion was now using to batter the gate, it was much larger than what they had employed before. Karachu realized that while he was able to understand such a tactic, if Tsudoken were here, the Lion would be the one to come up with an effective counter to it.

“Commander!” one of the soldiers hollered over the noise. “They will break through soon! What are your orders?”

“Prepare for the attack,” Karachu said, surprising himself with how calm he suddenly felt. The attack, the response, the back and forth between the Legion and the city defenders. Somehow, suddenly everything seemed to fall into a pattern. A pattern he now discerned. “Place archers there,” he indicated with a finger, “and there. The Ninth will wait until the ramming device can be pulled back from the collapsed gate so they can come through in proper ranks rather than in scattered numbers. We will use that moment to our advantage. Form up ranks and be ready to charge through that gate as soon as you are able, then fall back. Archers prepare to meet the countercharge.”

The Phoenix turned to the man who had just arrived. “I need you to deliver this message, word for word, to the Ivory Champion, my friend,” Karachu said in a friendly tone to the courier. “It is important he hears every word, just as I say it.” The monk laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and smiled. Somehow, the courier felt much calmer, despite the gates slamming again and almost coming fully open. “Do I have your attention? Excellent. Now, listen carefully…”


* * * * *


Utaku Kimiono knew war. She had always been careful to say that she knew war, but not that she “understood” it or was even “familiar” with it. Her life before her appointment to the Colonies had been wracked with the curse of war – it was a plague, a demon, and a nightmare. Those who understood or became familiar with such things were to be pitied.

It was dark now in the Second City. The Ninth Legion had pressed their advantage quickly, overrunning the Military District. While there was a great deal of fighting in that area, many acknowledged it was only a matter of time until the city’s defenders would have to retreat behind the less secure walls of the Imperial District. As she watched the vibrant but hurried Ivory Champion quickly move indicators on a map of the city and make clipped commands to nearby messengers, Kimiono recognized that Shinjo Tselu did not know war in the sense she did.

But, sadly, he was learning.

“I have little time, I am afraid, my cousin. But I am to understand you were quite insistent on meeting with me,” Tselu said, looking up for a moment as not to be rude, but not taking too much attention from the matter at hand.

The Utaku noble nodded. “I have information regarding a plot within the Imperial District to thwart the defense of this city. I was honor bound to secrecy and, to my shame, I have conspired to keep this from you. Recent… events, however, bring me to question the judgment of the perpetrators of this plot. My efforts to convinced them against this path have failed, and now my only concern is the safety of this city.”

Tselu stopped his movements and slowly straightened up from his position bent over the table. His focus was now completely on the guest.

“This information came from within the walls of the Unicorn embassy, and as such you are as entitled to hearing them as I was. There is a coalition of delegates of several clans seeking to cause a breach to one of the gates, hoping to cause further damage to the wall, joining with the Imperial Legion at the soonest opportunity. I do not know which gate it will be, only that it will be soon. This coup consists of several ranking members among the Crane, Lion, Phoenix, Crab…”

She paused for a moment before continuing.

“…and Unicorn.”

Such solidarity, Kimiono mused to herself silently. If only such a thing could be managed for the cause of peace.


* * * * *


“They are coming,” Tselu said quietly from the doorway to the Governor’s private chamber. “We would not be able to hold the Imperial District for long even if there was not further betrayal to contend with. Asako Karachu has been an exceptional leader, and we have had a surprising number of factors on our side, but we only slow the inevitable at this point.”

“Arrest these traitors you have been warned about, then,” the Governor said, almost bored. “You are my chief magistrate, Tselu-san,” her tone was slow and condescending, like a sensei reminding a student of a basic lesson. “Did the most obvious answer escape you?”
The Ivory Champion shook his head slowly. “It is not as simple as that, my lady. These men and women are samurai of some influence – members of your own Winter Court. We cannot just send a magistrate to each embassy and arrest them. There will inevitably be conflict over the matter. I can send some of my men to make a futile gesture, or I can divert units away from the defense of the Imperial District to see it done. In either scenario, the traitors get what they wish. No, it is best that I simply warn the guard against such treachery.”

Otomo Suikihime rose, “You did not come to tell me this just as a matter of information, did you?”

Tselu took a breath. “I am given to understand that a woman… such as yourself… might have contingency plans in place.” He dared to look the Governor in the eyes, “I believe it is perhaps time you employ them.”

“A woman… such as myself,” she repeated. “I asked you once and you evaded the question, my Champion. But I will have no double speak or evasion this time, as much as I appreciate how clever you can be sometimes, Tselu.” She paused for a moment and straightened herself up, as if she was preparing for a strike to be delivered. “I command you, Shinjo Tselu,” she said, her voice dark and hard again. “I command you to speak your mind. Tell me – what do you think of me? Of this?”

The words came to him before he even realized it. “You are cruel, my lady. And you take delight in the misery and trials of others. That the Empress could appoint one such as you to a position such as this is a thing that makes me question my own honor on a daily basis.” He took a breath and continued, “But you have done nothing to deserve what has happened. You think I do not notice or do not understand some of your actions, but I see them all, and I stand beside you anyway. You have done nothing to allow me to break the bonds of loyalty I have to you, despite my deepest wishes you would.”

Suikihime’s face once again adopted a look Tselu thought he would never see – surprise. “I… see,” she said quietly.

“Carry the Fortunes, Lady Suikihime,” Tselu said, looking down.

A moment later, the Governor was alone.

… or so it seemed.

“A curious man. Loyalty that my own kin would be impressed by,” a voice emerged from her balcony, and a man garbed in deepest black came into the view of the Moon’s radiance. “Are you prepared, Lady Otomo?”

“Send word to your mistress,” Suikihime responded, not bothering to turn. “I will take the Scorpion and Mantis up on their … offer of hospitality.”


* * * * *


Day 30, Morning –

The battle had grown quiet. Midway through the morning, the north wall of the Imperial District was suddenly haunted by what could only be called a strange near-silence. There was still the noise of soldiers moving on the inside of the wall and wounded warriors being dragged to safety, arrows embedded in them, but compared to the last full day it was practically quiet.

“They are retreating, I think!” one of the unit commanders hollered down from his position on the wall. “Wait,” he shouted again. “I think I see something, it looks like a great wagon approaching. Perhaps they have brought reinforcements, or a diplomatic party!”

A murmur erupted from the soldiers – the idea of the enemy surrendering had seemed like a faint hope, but now it was here before them.

Below, at the ground level, a handful of samurai approached the defenders at the gate. A dozen city guards walked forward to meet the newcomers. “Halt,” one called out. “State your intentions and keep your hands from your weapons. We have been warned that a group of combatants have been planning to betray the city and compromise the gate.”

A man stepped to the fore of his companions, the mon of the Crane clear on his armor. “I am Yoshitada, of the Doji. You have been waiting for us.”

The guards took a step back, drawing their swords.

The Doji looked at his opponents, his expression never changing. “Surrender in the name of the Empress. You have fought honorably, and may have honorable terms.”

“Archers!” the commander called out.

A rain of arrows fell from the wall, only to be turned aside by a sudden whipping wind. Isawa Shunsuko whispered a prayer of thanks to the air spirits for their quick intervention.

Beside Yoshitada, another Crane placed his hand over the hilt of his sword, staring at the guards in a challenge. Kakita Isao would cleave a man in two with his first strike, and the gaze behind his dark blue demon’s face mempo made that perfectly clear.

A third Crane, her armor stylized with a visage of a wolf, held her katana loosely in both hands but stood like a tightened Kaiu spring ready to end anything that came near. Doji Moro would take several heads that day, she knew, and she was aching for it to begin.

Finally, the Lion, Akodo Toshigure, stood with his hands at his sides, at perfect attention. The others had their passions and motivations that could not be explained so simply, but Toshigure knew that it was simply a soldier’s business to be done today. He did not hunger for the kill or cry out with his soul for an end to the violence. He knew his duty – a duty to the Child of Heaven.

The city guard charged, and another rain of arrows was ready.

Just as the combat was joined, on the other side of the wall, Kuni Renyu looked over at the covered wagons that had approached the gate. With a gesture, his soldiers pulled back the covers to show large siege devices with polished steel dragon heads at the fore. They appeared to be battering rams… save for the smoke that curled from their mouths.

These things were about to do what Renyu might have been able to do again if he had the element of surprise and could remain uninterrupted. That, of course, was no longer an option. With a slight smile, Renyu brought his hand up and held it high in the light of the Jade Sun.

When the Kuni lord dropped his hand, the dragons released a volley of thunder and fire that sent chunks of stone and clouds of smoke erupting from where the northern gate and wall had stood only seconds before.


* * * * *


The Ivory Court was not well attended that morning. News of the further betrayal of the city by several clan delegates reached the Governor’s court quickly… and spread to many of those who remained. To some, this meant that the end was here – betrayed by their peers, there was little to do but wait for their eventual arrest or whatever fate the Imperial Legion had in store for them. They remained in their homes or appointed offices, carrying out tasks that calmed their mind and passed the time until the inevitable came.

Not all had resigned themselves so, Fukuzo noted as she walked through the court. It had been a simple enough matter to gain access to the Governor’s estate in her current… outfit. Despite the many double-crosses the people of the city had suffered, the City Guard itself remained steadfast. The bog hag had to stifle a laugh every time some dirty peasant or haggard courtier seemed to look upon the new body with a gaze of affection and respect.

Yes, Fukuzo thought sarcastically, I am certainly here to make it all better.

As the bog hag’s eyes shifted around the room, a blaring trumpet sounded and the doors swung wide. Fukuzo winced at the sheer volume of the noise and mentally recoiled from the absurdity of it. Turning to see what exactly was happening, she saw the entourage of the Governor enter.

Finally, she thought to herself, looking at the woman at the head of the procession, I can finally…

That was not the Governor.

Fukuzo looked around quickly and fell to her knees as everyone else in the room did so. It became clear that others seemed to believe the woman caked in makeup and altered by magic was, in fact, Otomo Suikihime. But the bog hag could see through such things easily.

Clever, little student, the bog hag thought with a smile as she slipped away shortly after the “Governor” took her seat.


* * * * *


“They are surrounded. It is time to crush them.”

Shinjo Kinto looked at Kuni Renyu for a moment, not entirely sure how to respond to such a thing. The Imperial Commander didn’t have a history of carefully choosing his words, but he found both the responsibility that he had been given and the manner of people he now consorted with warranted it. “Renyu-san, do you not believe it would be better to spare those who can be spared?”

The Jade Mountain folded his arms into his kimono and fixed Kinto with a stare that showed curiosity as well as annoyance. “It is your Legion to command, Shinjo-san,” he said evenly. “I leave such a decision to you, of course.”

“You are unconvinced,” the commander stated.

“They are our fellow Rokugani, yes, and their lives should be spared if possible. Who is to say what lies they have been fed by the Otomo woman? But you are not experienced with fighting such as this, Kinto. The longer you consider how to end this with as little bloodshed as possible, the more death will come simply from the length of the engagement. It is difficult to say which path – the more direct or the more careful – will cause greater damage. In the face of such a thing, I choose-”

“Nothing,” Kinto said, frowning. “You choose nothing, Renyu-san. I choose. This expedition has been a disaster since it arrived in Journey’s End City, and it is my name that will be bandied about in the Histories as a butcher, savior, or something in between. Not yours. More than lives are at risk now.”

The Crab continued to hold Kinto’s gaze for a moment, then turned away. “It is as you say,” he said. “I am not a man to avoid conflict when it is needed, Kinto, but I must admit… I do not envy your position.”

Shinjo Kinto looked at the rough maps of the city he had laid out as the Imperial Legion set up a forward camp near the northern gate of the Imperial District. “The Governor is what we are after, but the wriggling beast will hold her until we cut off its head.” He laid one gauntleted hand down, covering the part of the map that indicated the Ivory Champion’s estate near the Governor’s court. “I am told Tselu coordinates the battle from his estate still. It stands to reason the Governor is with him, but even if she is not, removing Tselu will end this conflict.”

“What of the Phoenix monk that had been given his authority?” Renyu asked.

The commander shook his head, “He has not been seen for a day. It is possible he has fled.”

“Commander,” a man said, stepping forward from the ring of advisors and officers near Shinjo Kinto. “Allow me to meet with Shinjo Tselu.”

Kinto did not turn, “Tae-hyun,” he said quietly. In his heart, the commander wished to say no. Tselu, Tae-hyun, and he were all of the Shinjo family. It was possible this was becoming too personal. But as he saw the man kneeling and remembered his requests from earlier to meet with the Ivory Champion, Kinto felt it impossible to say no yet again.

Shinjo Tae-hyun claimed he had been sent here by fate. By the will of the Celestial Heavens, to serve the Empire. At first, Kinto was respectful about it, but dismissed the idea completely. But for all the things he had seen in the last two days…

“Take a unit of my men,” Shinjo Kinto finally spoke, indicating a scroll. “And this ultimatum. It is time we end of this… engagement.”


* * * * *


Shinjo Tselu waited patiently as his attendants laced the last pieces of his armor together. He had never been much for ritual or meditation, but he felt the act of donning the complex suit that had been made for his position helped clear his mind. Everything was in perspective in these moments – he was a soldier. A champion.


Tselu looked over at the messenger who had arrived the previous day, bearing a message from Asako Karachu. The monk’s message was clear, but it did little to boost the Ivory Champion’s hope. The city was effectively lost, and further fighting was pointless. Suikihime was gone. Karachu had left, as well. His mission was honorable, but the Phoenix had been the last remaining man in the city Tselu felt he could count on. He thought about several of his veteran officers and Legionnaires, all of whom had perished in the fight.

Bereft of allies, cut from the duty that had placed him in this position, and facing a defeat that would be marked in the Imperial Histories, Karachu had given him one small glimmer of hope.

“Perhaps I have spent too much time among my Dragon friends, but this is my message to you: We are being scattered – we are leaves, not warriors. The Imperial Legion is a great, cleansing gust. Dishonor and depravity have covered this city like soot and ash, and though the Governor is not the fire that causes it, this gust will end her all the same. Some of us are both air and leaf, the things a fire needs to survive. All that remains is to show them you are unblemished.”

Those had been the words of the Asako monk, delivered to him by a frightened messenger. The man had been allowed to pass into the Ivory Champion’s estate past the patrols of the Imperial Guard. As the officers of the Ninth Legion now recognized the messenger, he was sent by Tselu to parley with another man who had a message for the Ivory Champion.

The Unicorn looked at the message – the challenge – from Shinjo Tae-hyun, and rolled his shoulders, helping the armor settle onto his body. Tae-hyun had been a Topaz Champion, the brightest samurai of those that came of age in the same year. He would be a exceptional duelist, something that the Ivory Champion was skilled at but not remarkably so.

All that remains is to show them you are unblemished.

The Shinjo looked from the missive to his sword.

All that remained…


* * * * *


It was late afternoon when Shinjo Tselu emerged from the front of the Ivory Champion’s estate. The Ninth Legion unit that had been detached to take Shinjo Tselu into custody stood a respectful distance back, with Kinto at their head. The surviving Ivory Legionnaires likewise remained behind as their leader strode forward to meet the man standing at the edge of the estate grounds. Tselu did not even feel his own legs move, and his feet did not register the stone or grass under his feet. Sound did not truly reach his ears as he moved, feeling that for all the world, nothing existed except what would come soon.

Shinjo Tae-hyun respectfully removed his kabuto and bowed to his opponent. The man seemed at once younger and older than Tselu, as if he retained some youthful quality that had survived despite the experiences that made creases on his face and hands.

Tselu bowed in return. Tae-hyun said something to him, then, and he responded… but he was not sure of his own words. He merely spoke the formal greetings and acknowledgements he knew to speak, and when the moment came, both combatants moved into their stances. Tselu’s hand rested comfortably – finally, for the first time comfortably – on the hilt of the Sword of the Ivory Champion.

And then Tae-hyun struck.

Shinjo Tselu saw the blade move towards him, and he realized it was over. The man opposite him, another Shinjo, would be the one to end all of this by his death or victory. As the Ivory Champion’s sword sang through the air at his opponent as well, Tselu thought – kin had killed kin so many times these few days.

Why should it have been any different for him? What was one more death?

The man’s strike was well-guided, but Tselu felt something well up within him. An urge. A wellspring of insight and reflex deep within. He could kill Tae-hyun.

What was one more death? a voice asked.

It was one death too many.

Tselu let his strike fail, making the swing he had meant to from the start, and felt Tae-hyun’s blade cut across his cheek. The Topaz Champion had simply struck to the first blood, and then stepped back.

Sound and feeling returned to the world.

“The Fortunes have spoken,” Tselu said, ignoring the blood running down his face. “Stand down your weapons,” he commanded of his men. “This battle is over. I am now formally turning over command of the city to the Ninth Legion.”


* * * * *


Present day –

“Suihikime was not found in her Court in the aftermath,” Hakige said. When he paused, there was perfect silence over the entire Imperial Court. It was a phenomenon not commonly observed.

“It is said she escaped through the treachery of others. The Phoenix have stated that rogue members of the Crab rebelled against Renyu’s actions. The Crane blame the Mantis. The Crab blame the Spider. The Lion… the Lion blame themselves,” Hakige said with some remorse. “The Otomo have chosen to disavow her, and-”

The Empress made a slight gesture with her fan, and the daimyo of the Ikoma family fell immediately silent.

“The Child of Heaven has decreed that the remaining samurai of the Second City be absolved of dishonor or guilt in many of the events that have transpired there during this time. That the Imperial Bureaucracy was compromised is a matter for the Seppun, Otomo, and Miya to answer for.” Togashi Satsu’s voice rang out over the Imperial Court. “It is her judgment that understandable and honorable decisions were made in the face of impossible choices… but penance must be paid.”

The Voice of the Empress looked at Kaiu Iemasa directly. “The Crab Clan will be responsible for repairing the damage to the structures of the Second City. Kuni Renyu’s tactics were… understandable, but damage to property of the Empress must be redressed. To this end, a Seppun overseer will be on hand to report to the Empress’ Court regarding Lord Renyu’s various appropriations in the city.” Satsu paused. “And in the Colonies.”

“Shinjo Tselu has been tasked with the capture of his former mistress, the traitor Suikihime. His execution of this duty will be paramount, but he will also continue in his duty serving as the chief magistrate of the Colonies, answerable to the Emerald Champion and Empress. The position of Ivory Champion will be divested from accountability to the Governor of the Second City, though its purview will remain in the realm of enforcing law, not administration. Empress Iweko I, in her infinite wisdom, has chosen to acknowledge and sanction this title and office.” The Voice paused for a moment, as if listening, then continued, “The office of Governor itself will remain vacant, with Lord Renyu managing its responsibilities until such time as the Child of Heaven has been able to meditate upon a replacement.”

Silence descended on the Court once again, a tense, unanswered question hanging in the air.

Finally, Utaku Ji-Yun stepped from her position at the side of the Throne, turned, and knelt low on the floor before Empress Iweko.

“What of me, Child of Heaven? What is to be the judgment that falls on my shoulders for so much death? It is my failing that allowed this to happen, my lack of foresight and oversight.”

The Empress gave her Champion a passive glance, and a sorrowful smile.

“Your penance,” Satsu said quietly, sympathetically, “will be to continue to serve. To be forced to face choices such as you have, for the good of the Empire.”


* * * * *


A lone kobune floated down the river in the dusk. They would be at Twin Forks City soon, a city that had only begun to see a siege the likes of which the Second City had just endured. From there, it would be easy to disappear into one of several caravans fleeing the city. Several dark-clad warriors stood near a cloaked and hooded woman as the boat moved. Nothing had been said for hours.

“My lord,” one of the men whispered, breaking the silence and pointing over the side of the boat, “there!”

Behind them, along the river bank, a lone figure was running at a jog towards them. As he came closer, it was clear he was some manner of monk or peasant.

“On your guard, men,” a thin courtier in green said, standing from his place on the boat. He smiled at the woman near him. “Stay comfortable, Shizuka-san, my friend. I will deal with-”

Yoritomo Saigo never finished his statement. He closed his mouth with a click as the monk leapt impossibly high, and a burst of wind preceded him landing on the deck of the boat. The soldiers quickly drew their weapons and surrounded him, until a voice rang out.

“Stop!” Suikihime said, standing and raising a hand. “I think I know this one.” She motioned the men to part, and she took a step towards the monk, who had landed in a position kneeling and facing her. “You are Karachu, are you not? Tselu’s man?”

The Phoenix shook his head, never looking up. “No, my lady. I am your man now.”


* * * * *


Moshi Sasako watched the smoke rise up from the Second City, far in the distance. “I would not have believed it unless I saw it myself,” she whispered. “Everything Chukage-sama told me about this has come true.” Thoughtlessly, her hand drifted to the scrolls tucked safely in the case at her side.

The Scorpion and Crab. The Dragon. The Spider.

The Lion, the Unicorn, the gaijin, the cultists… the Phoenix.

The Mantis and the Crane. Sasako shuddered as if a cold breeze had found its way to her.

Looking at the city once again, she turned away, not knowing what she could do – if anything – about the destruction that waited for all of them. There was nowhere to go, and none she could trust. Even Chukage bid her take the secrets and run, talking as if he would forget he had even said such a thing.

Where could she go now?