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Broken Ambition
By Shawn Carman & Rich Wulf

Sunrise in Phoenix lands was unlike anything else in the Empire. Lord Sun rose magically into the western sky over the seas, casting magnificent rays of gold and red down upon the brisk, snow-capped mountains and vast, untamed forests& it was majestic. The sunrises in the Dragon lands were also quite beautiful, of course, but this was something entirely different.

Perhaps, Mirumoto Mareshi mused, it was the unique union of human and Naga blood that made him crave new experiences. Neither race was particularly interested in new things on their own, humans bound by their traditions and the Naga by their xenophobia.

As the sun cast the landscape in a golden hue, Mareshi could see others were beginning to move about. The soldiers were well-trained and highly disciplined, that much was obvious even though he had been in the camp little more than a week. He had seen men and women from each of the Great Clans and a handful of minor clans as well. He had expected a tense, competitive, possibly even hostile environment, but he had found something far different. Each soldier had a purpose, and fulfilled their duty regardless of whatever feelings they may have for the person next to them. Most, such as the Lion and Crane bushi, made a pretense of not despising one another, but it was obvious to Mareshi that they did. Enemies were enemies no matter the state of secondary loyalty. Still, that they achieved as much as they did with as little bold hostility was quite impressive.

Mareshi glanced over at the large tent that dominated the center of the camp. It bore several mons: the Phoenix, the Shiba, and the Imperial chrysanthemum. Above them all, however, larger and triumphant, was the symbol of a fist clenching the steel blade of a wakizashi. The symbol of the Shogun, Warlord of the Empire. Even as he watched, the Shogun appeared and stepped forward into the morning sun. Kaneka's topknot rippled slightly in the brisk morning wind. The legendary warrior nodded as a half-dozen officers approached and bowed deeply before them. He returned a simple nod and began issuing the morning's orders. His comments were concise, and each officer was sent to bring the Shogun's word to those under his command within a few moments. Not for the first time, Mareshi wondered what strange passions filled Kaneka with such drive, such focus.

The young warrior enjoyed a few more moments of the morning beauty before he was disturbed by the sound of armored boots tramping through the dewy grass. "You there," a gruff voice called. "You are Mirumoto Mareshi?"

"Yes," he answered. He listened to the man's rough voice, but he also listened to the murmurings of the kami that swirled around him, invisible to mortal eyes. Mareshi could not command the spirits as shugenja did, but he could see them well enough. He could often tell quite a bit about someone from the way the kami reacted. This man, he could see, was single-minded in his duty, unimaginative with a poor sense of humor. Mischievous air spirits followed in his wake, just waiting to amuse themselves by causing trouble for him in small ways.

"My commander has given me orders to bring you before the Shogun," the man continued, his narrow eyes assessing Mareshi.

"Of course," Mareshi said easily. He rose to his feet gracefully, straightening his clothing and checking the position of his twin blades where they rested in his obi. "Lead the way, nikutai-sama."

The man looked pleased at the recognition of his rank and the respectful form of address. He nodded and turned to walk back into camp. Mareshi followed, looking again at the dozens of tents spreading throughout the Shiba lowlands. The Shoguns forces were yet small, numbering less than two hundred as yet. Fully half his forces were comprised of Shiba bushi who had been given leave to follow him, as near as Mareshi could tell. The other half was a mix of other clans, with a large number of both Lion and Unicorn among them. The young Dragon nodded in appreciation, again marveling that the Shogun could keep so many flaring tempers at bay with nothing more than the strength of his presence. Mareshi knew the moment he entered the camp that none here would betray the Shogun's commands, not for any reason.

The corporal led Mareshi directly through the camp to the Shogun's tent. Again, the Dragon ignored the stares of others. He had long since overcome the discomfort he felt in the unease of others. Ahead, a Phoenix officer awaited their arrival at the Shogun's tent. He nodded at their arrival, thanking the nikutai for coming so swiftly and quickly dismissing him. Then he turned his attention to Mareshi. "You are Mirumoto Mareshi?" he asked simply.

"I am." He scrutinized the Phoenix's appearance. The man was clearly a soldier, yet was flawless in his appearance. His clothing was simple, but carefully pressed and immaculate in every regard. His blades were arrayed just so, and were obviously cared for. Once again, Mareshi listened to the whispers all around him. The fire spirits flickered dimly around his blade, waiting for the glory of battle once more. This man was swift, true, and honorable, with a love for combat surpassed only by his fervent dedication to the Phoenix Clan.

"I am Shiba Nizoru," the man said, bowing slightly in greeting. "It is my honor and privilege to serve the Shogun as an officer in his army. Lord Kaneka has learned of your arrival in camp and wishes to speak with you." He paused for a moment to give his words more weight. "The Shogun does not normally speak thusly until a recruit has proved their service for a number of weeks. It is a great honor to be given such an audience."

"I understand, Nizoru-sama," Mareshi said with a low bow. "I will not dishonor my hosts, nor the Shogun."

"I would have expected nothing less," Nizoru returned. "Yours is an honorable family, Mirumoto-san." With that, the Phoenix turned, lifted the flap and disappeared inside the tent. A few seconds later, the flap lifted again and he beckoned Mareshi inside.

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The Shogun's tent was not quite what Mareshi had imagined. It was, in fact, nearly bare. There was a small room separated from the main room by hanging clothes. The remainder of the tent was dominated by a large table containing a map of the Phoenix provinces. Markers were placed on several key strategic positions (including, he noticed, many on the Dragon/Phoenix border), and there were notations in many places. At first Mareshi was surprised that such information would be set before guests, for it looked to be of a sensitive nature, but then he realized the characters were in a cipher of a sort similar to the complex codes and riddles he had studied during his time with the Togashi. Even Mareshi's trained eye, however, could not divine the true meaning of the Shogun's careful notes.

Though the tent itself was unimpressive, Mareshi was immediately stunned by his first glimpses of the Shogun himself, the man known simply as Kaneka. The spirits swirled around the man in a silent, invisible fury. Earth, fire, water, air, even flecks of void trailed in his wake. This was the sort of man who built Empires or toppled them. The destiny of millions was influenced by his every movement, and the spirits watched him with eager interest.

Kaneka stood at the map table, carefully examining a line of markers near the northern border. He continued his study for several minutes, during which neither Mareshi nor Nizoru moved or spoke. Finally, Kaneka moved one of the markers a few inches, then quickly made a note along the map's border. Nodding in a satisfied manner, he then set his instruments aside and dusted his hands on a cloth that hung from the table's side. Nizoru bowed deeply, nearly kneeling. "I have brought him, Kaneka-sama."

Kaneka looked Mareshi over, as if looking for some sort of flaw or perhaps an identifying mark of some kind. After a moment, he shook his head. "You are him, then. The son of Mirumoto Daini and Mara."

Mareshi bowed as deeply as Nizoru had. "I am, my lord, although my father gave up his family name long ago. He is merely the Daini' now, for that is what my mother's people called him."

The Shogun frowned. "Strange that the Mirumoto would welcome you back after your father abandoned their name, is it not?"

"Sometimes circumstances require a man to set his name aside - simply because a man has lost his name does not mean that he has lost his honor," he paused and looked up at the Shogun, "Kaneka-sama."

"Perhaps so," Kaneka said with a wry smile. The smile faded as rapidly as it appeared, and the air spirits swirled in a frenzy around Kaneka. Mareshi could tell by their reaction that the Shogun had adjusted his opinion of him, gauging him by his own words and actions rather than his father's legend. "I imagine your life has been quite unlike that of a normal samurai."

"It has not," Mareshi confessed. "But I would prefer an interesting life to an easy one."

"Interesting," Kaneka chuckled. "A good word. I know something of that, I believe." He gestured to a guard standing at the side. The man immediately stepped forward and held forth a wrapped bundle, which Kaneka took and unwrapped. A familiar blade was held within. Kaneka looked at him again. "This was in the tent you were assigned. I assume it is yours?"

"It is," Mareshi's eyes widened in surprise. His lips pressed into a firm line.

The Shogun nodded absently, admiring the blade, not seeming to pay attention to Mareshi at all. "This is exquisite. I assume it is a Naga blade? The form and length are unlike anything I've ever seen in a katana."

"It is not a katana, Kaneka-sama," he replied. "It is a Naga blade. My mother trained me in its use."

Kaneka looked down at the blade, then smiled faintly at Mareshi. "Odd," he said. "I thought that you Mirumoto were prouder than that." Fire and earth spirits moved randomly through the air around the Shogun - there was more to Kaneka's actions here, but precisely what the young Dragon could not tell.

"How do you mean, my lord?" Mareshi asked, eyes narrowing.

"I send a guard into your quarters, take your sword, a gift from your mother's people, display it before you, and you take no offense?" he replied. "I had heard most Mirumoto were brash, willing to challenge another man to a duel for the slightest insult to their blade."

"As you have already noted, my lord, I am unlike normal samurai," Mareshi said in a low voice. "Yes, you have insulted my blade but by challenging you what have I to gain? Should I triumph, I will have robbed the Emperor of one of his greatest servants. Should I fail, I will only dishonor myself further. I am willing to be patient, assume this is a test of some sort, and wait for the apology that is due."

Kaneka stared evenly at Mareshi for a long moment. Even the spirits were immobile, uncertain what the Shogun would do next. Finally, Kaneka nodded to the young Dragon and stepped away from the sword. "You have my apology, Mareshi-san," he said. "I am impressed that your strength of character is as great as your reputation with a blade." He gestured to his guard, who presented the blade to Mareshi.

"Thank you, my lord," Mareshi replied, taking his sword from the guard and bowing his head.

"Now, let us continue straight to business." The Shogun said firmly. The spirits relaxed as the Shogun moved on, swirling into regular patterns once more. "Why have you joined my forces, Mareshi-san?"

"Forgive me, Shogun," Mareshi said, looking up at Kaneka, "but I have not joined you."

Kaneka glanced at Nizoru, then back to the young Dragon. "You were intercepted by Phoenix magistrates near the Shiba border."

"Yes, my lord."

"You told them you were seeking the Shogun's camp," Kaneka continued.

"Yes, my lord."

Kaneka frowned. "You were escorted to the camp, and assigned quarters. The magistrates explained that you sought to join my forces."

Mareshi shook his head. "I'm sorry, my lord, but the magistrates assumed I wished to join you. I never said that I did. I merely allowed them to believe it was so."

"Why have you remained here for nearly a week, then?" Nizoru asked, his tone mildly irritated.

"To ensure the magistrates would have returned to their posts," Mareshi admitted. "I have no need of them plaguing me during my visit."

"Why are you here?" Kaneka asked curiously.

"There is a village near here," Mareshi offered. "A scholar dwells there, and I have need of his counsel. I could not procure traveling papers from the Shiba, and so I thought perhaps you might grant me leave to go there. It is within the region over which you have been given domain, and I would be glad to submit myself to any guard or escort you would place over me."

Kaneka's eyes narrowed menacingly. "Why could you not procure traveling papers from the Phoenix?"

"Ill blood still flows between my clan and the Phoenix," Mareshi replied. "I did not wish to draw favors from that clan that may turn suspicious eyes upon my own, when we have been at peace for so many years."

"But you forget, Mareshi-san," Kaneka said softly. "I am a Phoenix now."

"This is true," Mareshi said, "but I come here not as a Dragon, but as a servant of the Emperor. As your own duties to your brother outweigh your obligations to the Phoenix, so I hoped that you might see past clan affiliation and do me this small favor."

Kaneka frowned. "Duties to the Emperor?" he asked. "Tell me more of your business here."

"I cannot, as of yet," Mareshi replied. "I fear if I do not find what I am seeking, and I fail, knowledge of my intent will only bring shame. Should I succeed, however, it shall benefit the Righteous Emperor greatly. I promise when my task is complete, Lord Shogun, you shall be the first to be made aware of my success."

"You are a strange man," Kaneka said finally. "You are unique, and thus have great value, particularly in the eyes of the ever-curious Phoenix Clan." He frowned slightly. "In the eyes of my clan," he corrected himself. "So I will forgive your& peculiarities, as you forgave mine." He fixed Mareshi with a cold stare. "When we next meet, I will expect you to remember this favor."

Mareshi bowed deeply. "As you wish, my lord."

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The village was tiny and hidden away in a remote valley well off the commonly traveled paths in the Shiba provinces. It had no proper name that Mareshi had been able to discover during his research, but was only called the Village in the Valley. In preparation for his arrival there, the young Dragon had changed into plain, non-descript clothing that bore no sign of his clan or allegiance. It was possible, almost certain, that a Dragon would be met with suspicion if not open hostility. A ronin, however, would be overlooked or possibly even welcomed, especially if he spent his money freely.

As he approached the village, Mareshi reflected on his meeting with the Shogun. Kaneka had not been what he expected, although he chided himself for having formed such false expectations in the first place. The stories that spoke of the Shogun failed to truly capture Kaneka's unpredictable nature, or his keen intelligence. He was much more than a power-hungry general, the spirits had told Mareshi that though he could tell that much from his own observations. In the five years since his arrival in Phoenix lands, Kaneka could have organized a force of thousands, yet he restricted his army to far less than that. There was some hidden agenda behind his actions, but Mareshi could not decipher it. The kami were of little help in that matter, as they seemed to be in awe of the Emperor's half brother.

All of that, however, was immaterial to Mareshi's true business here. Mirumoto Rosanjin himself had given him this task, and he would not fail. Over the past few years, many Dragon investigators had dedicated themselves to hunting dangerous nemuranai - enchanted items - for study. Some had been found, and many had been safely disposed of in the Tamori Furnace, but many more well known cursed nemuranai remained hidden. Of those, more than a few led their hunters to the Phoenix lands, where the trail disappeared entirely. To Mareshi's mind, the coincidence was simply too great. Too few items of power existed in the mortal world for so many to have disappeared in one clan's lands.

One missing item in particular was Mareshi's objective. A weapon forged by one of the most powerful tsukai the Empire had ever known. A weapon that had been used to take the life of two of Rokugan's greatest Emperors. A weapon that had last been seen near here before it was claimed by Isawa Kaede and disappeared entirely.

The weapon was one of the four Bloodswords, also known as Yashin.

Ambition.

That had been more than enough to pique Mareshi's interest. Now, months later, he was finally drawing near the village in question. Miraculously, he had managed to do so virtually without detection, although he was certain the Shogun would now be tracking his movement.

The Village in the Valley proved to be every bit as remote and meager as Mareshi had expected. There were fewer than three-dozen numbered among its citizens, many of them elderly or children. Yet somehow, the men and women there managed to oversee a truly impressive number of rice fields, ensuring that their families would be well-fed and their taxes paid in full. Mareshi never failed to marvel at the spirit and resourcefulness of peasants.

As expected, the villagers were initially defensive, but after Mareshi began spending large amounts of money in the teahouse, the perception of the locals began to turn around. By the third day, Mareshi felt as though he had gained their confidence enough to ask a few discreet questions.

At first, he feared he had made a mistake. Even the most confidential questions about the Emperor's presence here years ago caused people to withdraw from him instantly. No one seemed willing to speak of it, and there was a look in their eyes that was something like terror, repressed and hidden so deeply that they had forgotten it was there at all. It was not until he found a man particularly fond of sake, and purchased him several bottles, before he could extract any useful information.

Mareshi found himself in a tiny home, speaking with an elderly man who had been a worker in the local inn at the time of the incident. It took nearly an hour of convincing, but the man finally agreed to speak. "Lord Toturi was here for nearly a full week, though of course we didn't know who he was at the time," the old man said with a shaking voice. "The lady - Lady Kaede - paid the innkeeper enough to feed his family for a year to quietly bring food and supplies to the house in the mountains where they hid."

"But why would the Emperor come here?" Mareshi asked, studying the man intently. There seemed to be no falsehood, no deception in the spirits' reaction to his words.

"Those were strange times," the old man said with a vague, distant look. "The shadows were darker then. We learned not to ask too many questions, we just kept to our own. I thought nothing of it until that ronin appeared."

"Describe this ronin to me," Mareshi said. "Did he carry a weapon?"

"Of course he did," the old man replied. He paused a long moment in thought. "Though now that you mention it I recall he had only one sword - a wakizashi."

Mareshi frowned. By all accounts the Bloodswords were katana, but Ambition's history was a strange one. After Bayushi Shoju slew Hantei XXXVIII with the blade, it had been mistaken for the Scorpion Clan ancestral sword and shattered. That any bit of it remained to be reforged at all was incredible, so it was not surprising to learn that only enough remained for a wakizashi.

"Tell me more about this ronin," he said. "His behavior, his appearance."

"Somewhat shabby, an odd, glazed look about him," the old man said, "as if he was driven by something greater than himself, and wasn't quite sure of what he was doing. He threatened a few of the townsfolk with his sword& though he never attacked anyone& until we told him what he wanted to hear and he headed off to find the house where Kaede and the Emperor hid."

"What happened after that?"

The old man shook his head. "It was all very confusing. The lady revealed herself as Isawa Kaede. Phoenix soldiers quarantined the village, as if they thought we were all ill with some disease or something& claimed it was the Emperor's will..." The old man seemed very anxious, uncertain if he should be speaking of what he had seen. The spirits around him seemed angry and confused as well. "We never saw the ronin, or the Emperor again. We heard that he had died later, though he came back through Oblivion's Gate, of course."

Even more peculiar, Mareshi reflected. The Bloodswords supposedly stole the souls of whomever they slew. If the Emperor had truly been slain by Ambition, how could he have returned through Oblivion's Gate at all? Even more curious&

"You say your village was quarantined?" Mareshi asked. "Why?"

"The Phoenix claimed they wished to make certain none of us had been influenced by the Lying Darkness," the man said. "It was a great danger at the time, you now."

Mareshi nodded, absorbing the details thoughtfully.

Something here was not yet clear, something that bothered him more than the Phoenix hiding away some ancient sword&

The man licked his lips nervously. There was something in his eyes, something worse than the terror the others held deep inside. This was different. It was a hungry look. A dangerous look. Mareshi could see the indecision warring in the man's eyes. "The& the ronin. He left something behind."

The Dragon's heart leaped. "What did he leave behind?"

"The ronin gave it to me," the old man said. "I was kind to his horse, gave her the best oats and brushed her matted hair& he seemed to appreciate that, mad as he was. He gave me a token, a gift to remember him by. It was just a scrap of steel, but he said that it was valuable."

"Where is it?" Mareshi asked softly.

The old man's voice quavered. "It is valuable, you know," he said, as if not hearing Mareshi's question. "The most beautiful thing I had ever seen& but dangerous. When I held it in my hands I could hear voices within it, whispering dark secrets to me. It was an unlucky thing, I could tell that much. I kept it all this time just because I was afraid what would happen if someone else had found it, but I hid it safe away so I wouldn't hear the whispers."

"Where is it?"

The old man gestured to the center of the room where a rough thatch rug lay on the floor. "Buried there, wrapped in cloth," he said. "I have heard that there are those among your clan who know how to deal with such things. Take it if you will."

"Arigato, my friend," Mareshi said with a short bow. "You have done the right thing in telling me this."

Mareshi rose and tossed aside the rug. He dug into the earth eagerly, staining his hands with the packed soil and cutting his fingers on the small rocks there. He dug for several long minutes, although it seemed like hours to his mind. There were whispers all around him, the spirits crying out in alarm and surprise, but he shut them out. Then, finally, he touched cloth.

The Dragon pulled a long cloth bundle from the earth. It was not unlike the one he used to wrap his mother's blade, but had clearly been buried for many years. He tore free the cloth, causing the spirits to recoil in disgust from what lay within. Contained within was a saya, an exquisitely crafted sheath that did not bear a single speck of dirt despite its long interment. A saya that was no longer needed, because the blade it once housed was no longer a katana. Beside it lay a shard of pure steel, gleaming with the faintest hint of red.

"What is it?" the old man croaked.

"Broken Ambition," Mareshi said, reaching carefully for the shattered blade.

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