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Black Chrysanthemum
By Rich Wulf

On a road of formless sand, surrounded on all sides by endless dunes, walked the former Dark Lord. He walked alone, his thick robes shielding his fair skin from the blazing sun. There seemed to be no other living creatures in sight. Even here, so far from the kami that fueled his magic, cut off from the kansen that had once granted him godlike power, Daigotsu could feel their eyes upon him. He paid them no mind, showed no indication that he realized he was being watched, and continued walking straight ahead.

He had not come here seeking this place. His objectives here in the Burning Sands were, he thought, completed with his business in Ghiyath's tower. Yet the khadi had a great deal to tell Daigotsu about the desert's secrets. There was another place that he must go, ere he return to Rokugan. Another offer to be made, another alliance to be brokered.

The risk, this time, was perhaps even greater than his visit to the khadi temple. This time, he would walk alone. None of those who had accompanied him would survive should he find what he sought.

Daigotsu stopped moving suddenly. He reached up and pulled the veil away from his face, revealing the red and white porcelain mask that was once the symbol of his reign. The sands shifted around him. Tall warriors with long spears and curved swords appeared from a haze, like figures rising from water. Each wore light banded armor and peaked caps, encircled with iron rings. They surrounded Daigotsu, leveling their weapons at him.

"Make no movements, outlander," the leader said in the Mekhem language. He was smaller than the others, but his eyes were sharp, his movements decisive.

"I do not intend to," Daigotsu replied. He kept his eyes carefully fixed on the leader of the group, though he listened carefully to mark the positions of the others. He slowly raised his arms from his sides and let his sleeves slip back over his forearms, showing that he held no weapons. "I am only a traveler."

"How did you find this place?" the leader demanded.

"I shall share that secret," Daigotsu replied, "but only with the lady of your house. I have come to make her an offer."

"Our lady says that you are not known to her," he said in a harsh voice. "You must leave."

"The sun's fires scorch the desert," Daigotsu replied, gesturing to the sky. "I am far from my camp; without water I shall surely die before I reach safety."

"Truly, a shame," the leader replied.

Daigotsu's eyes narrowed. "Is this the hospitality of the House Dahab?" he asked, turning to spit on the sands.

One of the men gasped, clearly struck by the words. The leader of the group frowned and turned to one side, drawing a small amulet from his belt and staring into its depths, as if seeking instruction. Daigotsu was surprised that the tactic had been as successful as Th'lazz had suggested it would be. The desert was a strange place. Surely once his difficulties in Rokugan were resolved he must return here and explore it more thoroughly.

"The sun sets in six hours," the man said gruffly. "The lady offers you a choice. Take your chances on the dunes, or follow us and prove to her that you will keep the secrets of what you have seen here. You may drink of our water, share our shade, and remain until nightfall. Fail to prove yourself to her, and you will die."

"Very well," Daigotsu said, bowing respectfully.

The leader watched Daigotsu cautiously as the others herded him toward the area from which they had first appeared. Daigotsu walked forward calmly and deliberately. After a few steps, he felt the earth and air twist around him. The ground changed from soft sand to firm earth. The hot desert wind was replaced with a cool breeze. He found himself standing in an ornate garden, shielded overhead by trees with broad, green leaves. A stone path paved the way to a low marble table. A small, slim woman sat at the table, dressed in a man's loose black trousers and jacket. Her eyes were more angular than most who lived in the desert, giving her an almost Rokugani appearance. Beside her stood a tall man wearing a golden eagle mask and the elegant white robes of a Senpet sahir. He held a long, gnarled staff capped with a golden cobra head.

"Konnichiwa," Daigotsu said, bowing to the woman.

"Kill him," the woman said to the man next to her.

The robed man nodded and leveled his staff at Daigotsu. A burst of green energy erupted from the cobra's head, striking the Dark Lord full in the chest. The jade beam dissipated without effect.

"Are you satisfied, wizard?" Daigotsu asked, glaring sharply at the man.

"He bears no magical protection," the sahir replied, surprised. "I smell no corruption in him."

"Intriguing," the woman said with a small smile. She gestured lazily and a servant stepped forward from between the trees, offering Daigotsu a crystal goblet filled with water.

Daigotsu accepted it without hesitation and drank. He did not fear poison; had the lady wished his death she could have left him to the sands.

"How did you find me here?" she asked.

"Ghiyath," he replied.

She sighed. "The khadi goes too far," she said. "A problem for another day. What has happened to you, Black Chrysanthemum?"

Daigotsu smiled, amused by the title. He reached up and removed his mask. "Your men said that I was not known to you, Lady Dahab."

She shrugged, dismissing the wizard with a negligent wave. "You cannot hide who you are from Chephren's magic," she replied. "And please, call me Ruqayah."

Daigotsu nodded.

"You never answered my question, Daigotsu," Ruqayah said, studying him with an intrigued expression. "How is it that the former Dark Lord of the Shadowlands is still alive? How is it that you have no Taint?"

"One does not embark upon a war with the scions of Toturi without preparing against the eventuality of one's own demise," Daigotsu said. "Nonetheless I did not escape my death unscathed. I returned as you see me now, unburdened by Jigoku's influence."

"Why do you choose to reveal this to me?" she asked.

"Consider it a gift," he replied. "The Kolat value information above all things, is that not correct?"

"We value many things, Dark Lord," she replied. "Purity, for one. We do not let the Taint control our minions, as you do."

"No, you prefer to control them through brainwashing and ritual humiliation," Daigotsu replied, "but I did not come here to argue semantics or the relative righteousness of our respective plans to conquer the Empire. I am here to make an offer that the Kolat cannot turn aside. I have come to offer an alliance."

Ruqayah laughed. "With you?" she asked. "You will be fortunate if I allow you to leave here with your life. Corrupted or no, you are still Daigotsu. Do you think merely because I was not in Rokugan during your rise to power that I do not know what you are capable of? Or perhaps you hope that because I am a gaijin that I am a fool?"

"And what do the Kolat plan to do about Iuchiban?" Daigotsu asked.

"Nothing," she replied. "He is an evil the Great Clans created. The Great Clans will deal with him, or be destroyed."

"An excellent plan," he replied. "I am told it worked well for you against the Lying Darkness." Daigotsu looked at her patiently.

Ruqayah scowled. "And what have we to gain by allying with you?"

"Respect," Daigotsu replied. "I have studied the histories. I know what the Kolat are capable of. I have no reason to make an enemy of you, not with Iuchiban already occupying my throne. In all of Rokugan, who better to root out Iuchiban's hidden cells than the Kolat? I wonder if you don't already know where several of them are. Yet you are powerless to act. There are too few of you, and your power lies in secrecy. Should you strike out against the Bloodspeakers, or even simply reveal what you know to others with the strength to act, that secrecy would be compromised. The Great Clans would not see the good that you have done, and would act swiftly to crush you while Iuchiban tightens his fist around the Empire's heart. I would not repay your aid with such blatant disrespect. I still have my share of followers, and their power is considerable. If you were to share what you know of the Bloodspeakers with me, my own agents would wipe out his cells without question - and the Kolat would retain their secrecy."

"An intriguing offer," Ruqayah replied, "but what will become of this alliance once Iuchiban has been dealt with?"

"What does it matter?" Daigotsu asked. "We can renegotiate the terms once Iuchiban is dealt with. Until then, we both know we stand a better chance together. The Great Clans are strong. Iuchiban is strong. Caught in a war between them, neither of us can survive alone."

"Daigotsu and the Kolat, allied for the sake of a unified Empire?" Ruqayah asked. "The Fortune of Irony must be rolling with laughter."

"If memory serves, Fu Leng killed that Fortune," Daigotsu said. "Do we have an agreement or not?"

"I must discuss this matter with my fellow Masters," she replied, "but for my part I find it a favorable temporary arrangement."

"Then our business is concluded," Daigotsu said, seating himself at the table across from her and sipping from his goblet.

"You risked much facing me here like this," she said, studying him carefully. "What would you have done had I turned down your alliance, or had I simply told the guards outside to kill you?"

Daigotsu looked at her, his expression unchanging. "If you wish you could tell them to kill me now," Daigotsu said, "and then you will see."

"I am more curious in this alliance you propose," she replied. "You are safe enough here, for now."

"Then I shall mind my manners," he answered.

She smiled at him. "For a man who destroyed the Imperial capital and slew Toturi's daughter you are surprisingly polite," she said.

"Should I be an animal?" Daigotsu asked. "We are all of us sinners. It is how we bear our misdeeds, our greater goals that drive us to perform them that makes us strong. If we lose sight of this, then we shall be every bit the beasts our enemies imagine us to be."

"Well said," she replied with an enigmatic grin.

He sat in the darkness, his throat too raw from screaming to scream again. His hands strained at his bonds. His eyes burned with sweat and blood from the endless torments. A dull pain throbbed in his stomach, a strange discomfort, as if something had been torn away.

"What is happening to me?"

"What do you see, Tsai?"

The darkness melted away as a small lamp ignited in his cell. Three men stood before him. One was tall and broad-shouldered, his head shaven like a monk's. The other two were thin, dressed in black robes and a featureless golden masks. One was marked with a jade stone on the forehead, the other with an eye closed in sleep. Hatred welled up from his stomach, rage at his enemies. He lunged toward them, only to be drawn short by the chains that bound him to the floor.

"His soul still belongs to the Bloodspeaker," Master Dream said.

"Begin again, Kaelung," Master Jade replied.

The monk nodded, seizing Tsai by the throat.

His world receded into pain again.

Hours later, the lamp flared in the darkness again. Master Jade and Kaelung looked down at him patiently.

"Well?" Master Jade asked.

"Jade," Tsai said hoarsely. He could feel some sense of himself again. He could feel the haze of the blood that colored his vision begin to melt away. Then it washed over him again. "For my lord Iuchiban!" he screamed, spitting at his fellow masters.

Master Dream sighed.

Kaelung reached for him again.

Days had passed. The shattered, broken mess that had once been Ikoma Tsai stared blankly at the ceiling, barely comprehending the world around him. Kaelung and the two Masters waited nearby again.

"He is not as he once was," Master Jade said. "The Rain of Blood has seeped into his soul."

"There is nothing Iuchiban can seed within him that I cannot root out," Master Dream replied. "He will be one of us once more."

"This is hardly worth it," Kaelung said. "We should kill him now."

Dream shook his head. "Tsai is one of the most cunning of our order. We cannot allow the Bloodspeaker this victory. We may kill him yet, but he will return to us first."

Tsai looked up from the mess of pain that he had become. His eyes focused with difficulty on Dream. "Kaelung is right," he said. "Kill me. Do not let me betray our secrets to the Bloodspeakers."

Dream looked down at Tsai, his golden mask utterly emotionless. "Fear not, Tsai," he replied. "When our work is complete you will remember nothing that can harm us."

Tsai felt a strange mix of fear and relief at those words. He let his head fall back upon the stone floor, and was at peace.

"What will become of him?" Jade asked.

"We will destroy his mind and build it anew," Dream replied. "What once was Master Chrysanthemum will now be something new. His skills will remain, but he shall remember nothing that can threaten the masters. He shall be the lynchpin of our tenuous new alliance, our intermediary with the Black Chrysanthemum as well as our spy, watching him for any signs of betrayal."

"And what do we do if this fallen Master decides he enjoys the power his corruption grants?" Jade asked. "What if he sinks too deeply into the darkness and betrays us?"

"Then he becomes your problem, Jade," Dream answered.

"My problem," Kaelung corrected.

"You are to watch only," Jade said, "and maintain your distance. Daigotsu and his allies are too dangerous for you to engage alone, should they prove themselves a threat."

"I know," Kaelung replied simply.

"Do not allow your personal concerns to cloud your judgment, Kaelung," Jade said. "Even Kokujin is not as great a threat as the Bloodspeaker."

Kaelung looked down at what had once been Ikoma Tsai. "Are we done with this yet?"

"Almost," Dream said. "Just a bit more, then we can rebuild what we have disassembled, and release our new Master to begin his work."

 

 

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