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The Gift of the Emperor

Our battleground stands at the base of the Mountain of White Smoke, a
sacred site to the Ikoma family. For years, it has been covered in sweeping
grains and rice-fields, but now it has become the site of a great festival.
Samurai from the surrounding areas stand there, bearing the bright mon of
their noble houses; striving for honor and glory, and to catch the Emperor's
eye.
I sit by the side of the field, watching the gleaming armor studded with
blows from hardwood bokken. My name is Ikoma Kaoku, and I write the histories
of the Empire. You will forgive me, I hope, if this text seems a bit dry... I
am no storyteller, no singer of tales. I am a historian, and I serve the
Throne with facts, not pretty words. In this time of trial, as the Imperial
City itself darkens, it is my honor to chronicle the events of our time.
May these words bring glory to our Emperor, Toturi, the First of that
Name.

I watch as they wheel and turn, as a Hida falls prey to a valiant warrior
of the Lion. The Matsu are in force today, surrounding their brave daimyo,
Ketsui-sama. At her side stands Turi, covered in the glory of the day. His
has been the fastest sword, the greatest heart.
But, sadly, his victory is not to be.
The Crane sent only a few scant samurai, all noble and honored, but with
weariness upon their faces. I look at their mon: Kakita. Their swords are
better placed between their warring brothers, but for the favor of the
Empire, they have come to fight.
Three Mantis... one of whom I recognize as a member of Tsuruchi's house...
battle against the Crab, tearing their fortified stances to the ground.
Fortuitous, that these great sons of Osano-wo should battle, and perhaps one
day, the Mantis will learn the steadfastness that drives their cousins on the
wall. But not today, for they fall, one by one, to the Hida's tetsubo blows.
The day passes, and the banners lazily wave above the Emperor's pavilion.
He has not ventured out into the noonday sun, not since he began the
tournament at dawn. His face seems tired, covered in the creased lines earned
by each Emperor since the Sun and Moon began the world. At his side stand a
squadron of chui, bodyguards to the Son of the Celestial Heavens. They, too,
seem weary, but their eyes are bright and fervent. No harm will come to him.
They have remained apart from the battle, concerned that their presence shows
the Emperor's favor to one of the warriors on the field. I look at the
eagerness with which they see each samurai fall, and I thank the Fortunes
they hold their swords in their scabbard. They are too bloodthirsty for my
taste.
But to the battle itself. Toturi came to the forefront, at dawn, and
spoke words of glory, words which lifted our hearts. He listened to the boons
requested by the Six Clans... Lion, Crane, Dragon, Crab, Phoenix and Unicorn...
and to their allies in the Mantis, the gentle monks of the Brotherhood. Even
a ronin or two, curse the honorless dogs, have come to battle for the
Emperor's Gift, and as the Empire's humble historian, I must mention their
contributions to the day's battle.
One of the Dragon in the battle has a new sword, a weapon that shines as
brightly as the Sun. When asked about it, he smiles enigmatically, "A gift
from my allies to the north," he says. Who lives to the north of Hitomi's
pass, I wonder? Strange. I had thought the Empire ended with the Dragon
mountains - perhaps he means that their new Champion, Hoshi, has made an
alliance with the barbarian Yobanjin tribes? The Mirumoto... one of Hitomi's
line, I believe, perhaps Sukune's son?... sheathes the sword again, and it
glistens like a promise. But what was the promise, and to whom was it made?
Still, I cannot take my eyes from it as it shines in the sunlight.
Something about it is familiar, tugging at my memory as a child tugs upon its
mother's obi. A legend of the Sands.

The sunset has come, and three men stand amid the day's mud and turned
earth, the scars of the bokken, other battles of the day, staining their
armor and their mon. One of them, the Dragon with the golden sword hidden in
his saya, lifting a battered bokken above his head in contest. His opponent,
a Crab, turns and lunges toward his feet. The Dragon allows the strike,
grasping the Crab's wrists with his hands. They fall. The Dragon leaps,
cat-quick. I have never seen such speed! He is on his feet as the Crab rolls
and pitches, grasping for his tetsubo... Ah, but the Dragon, the clever
Dragon, has his bokken at the Hida's throat.
Now, there are two men on the field.

The Mirumoto stands, looking at a battle-weary ronin. The samurai's face
is covered in stubble, empty of any sign of clan or mon. His armor, black and
brown, holds no mark of family or of honor, but he lifts his bokken in salute
to his opponent as if he has a lifetime of nobility at his call.
The Dragon smiles and bows, and the fight is joined.

I cannot blink, or I will miss the strikes. Never before have I seen so
perfect a match, so tremendous a battle. Between these two, the Dragon and
the ronin, a thousand years of techniques are tested. Two bokken, one, and
their bare hands twist as weapons fall to the side... victims of war. They
struggle, feet lashing out as lightning in storm, and the Dragon finds
himself thrown, rolling in the air to land upon his feet, his knees. He
gasps, lurching to his stance with his eyes narrowed.
The ronin is not even winded. I see them clash again, and the crowd around us
roar. It is an exhibition. Though I see the clear marks of the Mirumoto in
the Dragon's blows, I do not know the author of the ronin's treacherous
strikes. Here, the mark of a Crane sensei. There, the heavy iron-shod fist of
the Hida. At last, with a ki roar and the thrust of an Akodo clawed palm'
strike, the Dragon falls. The ronin pauses, waiting as if eager to see his
opponent regain his feet, but there is no sign of movement. Around us, the
samurai in the field lift their banners, shouting to the courage and honor of
the brown-garbed ronin.
I can barely see through the waving mon; Unicorn and Phoenix and even
Dragon, lift their arms in salute as the victor paces slowly through them.
Courtiers bow in politely hushed reverence, allowing him to step before them.
Already, I hear a Crane beginning the saga of the fight, lauding the ronin to
the sky. His courage, his speed and skill. who is this man?
The Emperor steps onto the dais, and the torches around the pavilion are
lit. The long wall of paper flutters lightly in the breeze, a backdrop to the
scene. On it, painted in neat, black kanji, is the tale of the First Gift of
Hantei. The flames light the Emperor's brow, and I see a clever smile from
Toturi-sama. He is pleased, I think, to see the clans have not been
victorious against each other. Perhaps this will be the start of peace?
But, I ramble. Now, the Emperor's men bring a matched set of swords from
the pavilion. The ronin shakes his head. He will not swear fealty. Now, the
hushed murmurs of the crowded courtiers grow silent in amazement, and I can
hear their words at last.

"You have bested the finest samurai in the Empire," the Emperor's voice,
low and smooth like the smoke of the torch-flames. "And you may claim your
prize."
"Anything I wish?"
The ronin's rudeness did not startle me, for I know well the brash
roughness of the wave-men. The Ikoma used them many times, to stall the
Unicorn's advance, and yes, I have seen them die. The courtiers whispered,
and the samurai muttered, but I continued to write undisturbed.
"Hai." The Emperor is gracious.
"Make me daimyo over all the lands to the south of Beiden Pass. Give me
rule over the plains from the River of Gold, and to the Plains of Drowned
Sorrow, below the bloody waters of Mizu-umi no Fuko." The black eyes were
calm, and though the ronin's greasy hair stank with sweat, he knelt proudly
before the Son of the Heavens, waiting for his request to be considered. The
Scorpion lands.
"Those lands belong to no one," Emperor Toturi considered.
"Iye, Toturi-sama," the ronin bowed slightly. "Now, they belong to me."
"They will be filled with blood, soon enough. Do you think you can hold
them?"
"I have men." The crowd jostled with concern. could the honorless
wave-man be speaking of a ronin army, poised to steal the land? Or was he
daring suggest he would start his own legend: claim the land as his
birthright, raise the banner of a minor clan above those scorched fields?
"Men enough to hold back the Scorpion?" The jest was certain. I saw a
Crane hide her smile behind her fan, mocking them.
Boldly, the ronin lifted his chin. "If the Bayushi return from their
scorched pilgrimage, they will not dare to trouble me. They will recognize me
as lord of those lands, and they will kneel before my command."
A Crab, far to the back of the crowd, cursed in surprise at the boldness,
and to my right, a group of Lion cheered.
"Then have them, and all the curse that goes with them." A scroll came
forth, and Toturi signed his name across the parchment with the forgotten
stroke of a delicate brush. "But you can not have Ryoko Owari. It stands to
the south of the River of Gold, but it is held by the Unicorn. I will not
have my right hand cheated of their conquest.
"Take the lands, and take these swords. Both are yours, if you can keep
them." The Emperor's hand is steady, and the dirty ronin stands to take the
scroll.
"Forgive me, lord, but I tell you a second time: Those are not my
swords." Twice refused. One more, and the ronin would be forced, by
propriety, to accept them and thereby, swear fealty to Toturi's house.
The Emperor set the daisho down once more. "Then where are your swords,
ronin? You wear none. What is your name, that we may honor you? Who is your
father, and your house?"
Silently, the ronin stared at the Emperor. Gauging his time with an
arrogant eye. Then, he reached into his pouch and drew forth a strip of black
silk as fine as a maiden's hair. "My name," he smiled, wrapping the mask
about his jaw, "Is Aramoro, of the Bayushi. We thank you for our lands, my
Lord."
Many samurai leapt as if to seize him, their hands on their swords. The
Emperor considered, lifting his hand. Aramoro simply stood. He was utterly
unafraid of the angry samurai, the ring of steal - unafraid, even, it seemed,
of the Emperor himself. No mark of weariness touched him, there was no
concern beneath his lying mask. After a moment, he bowed politely, and turned
to leave.
"Lord Aramoro." A third time, the Emperor lifted the daisho at his side,
his words about to seal the Scorpion's fate.
Yet, as Toturi-sama spoke, a second voice came, speaking over the
Emperor's word as if with one tongue. A man knelt at the edge of the crowd,
holding a magnificent katana in his hands. "Aramoro-sama, daimyo of my house,
I thank you for allowing me to hold this for you, as you fought. It was my
honor." Another Scorpion. Yojiro?
Aramoro paused, looking back at the neat trap the Emperor had laid for
him. He smiled in sudden, keen understanding, and took the scarlet-draped
saya from Yojiro's hands. "Thank you, yojimbo. You see, my Lord Toturi-sama,
I do not need your swords.
"I have my own." With that, and another polite bow from the two Bayushi,
they turned their backs to the field.
"Let him pass." Murmured the Emperor, and the crowd opened for them. His
Imperial Majesty stood and walked form his dais, and I thought I heard
Toturi-sama whisper as he passed me by. "A small price," he smiled, the
shadows in his eyes dancing in the torchlight. "For the death of a kami."

I am not a storyteller, and it is not my place to speculate, only to tell
the truth as it occurs before me. I have chronicled battles far and wide,
written mournful sagas as the samurai of the Otaku fell, one by one, to the
Oni's wrath. I have tied the scrolls that contained the names of Doji and
Daidoji, slaughtered on their own fields. It was my hand that penned the news
of the Mantis' assault on Kyuden Asako, and the brutality of their victory...
hard-won.
But I do not write stories. I write only facts. And when I looked to see
the Dragon's eyes shine as he watched the Bayushi pass, it was not my normal
procedure to question why. Was he pleased that he had failed to win the
prize? Absurd. Yet, it was not my place to ask, (even at the end of such a
trying day) how a Mirumoto samurai, son of their daimyo, came to possess that
magnificent golden katana.


- From the High Histories of the Lion,
Respectfully submitted,
Ikoma Kaoku



 

 

 

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