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Emerald and Jade
By Shawn Carman

Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City, two months ago

The new Doji estates in Toshi Ranbo had been constructed less than a decade ago, when the city had become the new Imperial capital. Even in that short time, however, it had become well known throughout the Empire for its beauty and serenity. Exquisite marble and the finest hardwood had been crafted by the clan's greatest artists and carpenters, inlaid with precious metals in a way that was subtle but impressive all the same. It was no wonder that so many prominent Crane chose to conduct their business there. Most guests did not object in the least. Even if allowing the Crane to meet in their own home allowed them a certain advantage, many were willing to endure it in order to enjoy one the luxuries offered there.

Asahina Sekawa favored the assembled samurai with one of his rare smiles, only slightly marred by the scar that cut across his cheek. According to his reputation, Sekawa was a morose and bitter man, obsessed with the death of his sister and uncle during the Test of the Jade Champion years ago. The scar was a constant reminder of that day. Mirumoto Narumi felt a wave of sorrow for Sekawa. She wondered if he threw himself so completely into his duties out of a sense of obligation to the dead, or merely to escape the pain he must feel when the quiet moments inevitably came.

"In recognition for your exemplary performance, and with the recommendation of both Kuni Tansho and Togashi Satsu, you are appointed the rank of Jade Magistrate in service to the Jade Champion and the Righteous Emperor, Toturi III." Sekawa's smile widened, and took on a look of genuine warmth. "Rise, Kuni Yaruko."

The young Crab shugenja rose from where she knelt on the stone floor, her painted face expressionless. She accepted the seal he offered with a bow. "Thank you, Sekawa-sama," she said in a quiet voice.

"It is I who should thank you," Sekawa insisted. "Your courage in rescuing Hitomi Kobai from the Bloodspeakers has provided the Dragon Clan with a valuable asset, one that can aid them in their struggle to purge the Empire of elements of corruption. Your service is appreciated, and worthy of recognition."

Yaruko bowed her head. "You are far too generous, my lord." Narumi's smile faltered somewhat when she heard her friend's tone. Narumi had hoped that this well deserved promotion would wash away whatever feeling of failure it was that haunted Yaruko. Despite that her family and clan seemed pleased with her service, the Crab continued to punish herself for something. Narumi did not know what, nor was it her place ask. When the time was right, Yaruko would speak. Until then, it was none of her business.

With the appointment concluded, Yaruko was surrounded by well-wishers for some time. Other Jade Magistrates welcoming her to their exclusive order, various Crab congratulating her on her great honor, even a few other Dragon thanking her yet again for her service. Narumi smiled, although she knew the entire spectacle made Yaruko uncomfortable. Perhaps, when it was all said and done, it might improve Yaruko's mood, but Narumi doubted it.

When the two had been dismissed, they left the Crane estate and walked through the city streets, enjoying the brief moment of anonymity. "Unusual, isn't it?" Narumi remarked.

"What do you mean?" Yaruko replied.

"Anywhere else in the Empire, these badges would set us apart. We would be viewed with respect, deference, perhaps even fear." Narumi nodded toward Yaruko's new jade badge, then gestured to the emerald seal that hung upon her obi, not yet a week old. "Yet here, in the Imperial City, no one even notices. Even an Emerald or Jade Magistrate is relatively commonplace. If we wish to be treated as we were once treated at home, this is the only place we can go."

Yaruko shook her head. "You say the oddest things." She paused for a moment. "Someone is following us."

"Yes," Narumi agreed, her smile never faltering. "He was waiting for us across the street when we left the Crane estate. Shall we see what he wants?"

"Yes," Yaruko agreed, her face set. Narumi had noticed in the past few months that the only time the young woman's face expressed anything other than sorrow was when she was prepared for combat.

Narumi held out a hand to calm her friend, turning as she did. "Greetings, friend," she said loudly. "Can we be of assistance?"

The young man following them was obviously a peasant. He fell to the ground as soon as the two women turned to face him. "F-forgive my rude manners, most noble samurai," he stammered. "I was uncertain how to approach you!"

"A likely story," Yaruko hissed.

"Patience, Yaruko-san. What is it you need of us?" Narumi said calmly.

The young man held out a scroll in a shaking hand. "My mistress wishes to speak with you, sama. She says it is a matter of urgency."

Yaruko snatched the scroll roughly and unrolled it, glancing over its contents. She frowned. "Mantis," she said. "One of their ambassadors has something for us." She turned to Narumi. "Do you know any Mantis ambassadors?"

"Only by reputation," the Dragon returned. "Mantis diplomacy can be a curious thing. Rise, friend," she said to the servant. "Take us to your lady, and be quick about it."

----------------

The Mantis Estate

"Are you certain there is nothing I can offer you?" Yoritomo Yoyonagi smiled warmly at the two women, her kimono revealing a scandalous expanse of flesh as she bowed slightly. "We have some lovely delicacies from the islands, if you care to try them."

"Thank you, Yoyonagi-sama," Narumi said with a bow, "but we must decline. We are anxious to hear what it is that would cause a woman as influential as yourself to require the aid of two simple magistrates."

"You are too modest," Yoyonagi replied, sitting amid the ample cushions and gesturing for the others to sit. "Your exploits are the talk of the city. Redemption is no simple matter. In an age of corruption and deceit, returning a soul from the darkness is something to be commended. I was delighted to hear of your promotions."

"Thank you," Yaruko said brusquely. "What is it that you desire?"

Yoyonagi raised and eyebrow and nodded slowly. "Your directness is refreshing. Very well. Enough pleasantries." She withdrew a small wooden box from amid the cushions and placed it on the table between her and the two magistrates. "This was recovered during the recent unpleasantness my clan is experiencing with the Phoenix."

"Unpleasantness?" Yaruko laughed. "War, you mean."

"Yes," Yoyonagi said with a frown. "The war."

"From what I have heard," Yaruko said, "the Mantis Clan's problems with the Phoenix are the result of their own actions. Seeking outsiders to resolve your personal business is poor form."

Narumi frowned at her friend's outburst, but said nothing. The Dragon and Phoenix were allies now, and the Dragon had been aiding the Phoenix in their war of late. Yet as an Emerald Magistrate, it was her duty to bring peace. Where did her duties lie in this case? She was not certain.

Yoyonagi's eyes narrowed. "That you believe the Mantis are responsible for this war only proves how much we need aid," she said quietly, all warmth gone from her voice. "No doubt you have heard the Phoenix lies, that the Mantis have utilized black magic to attack their villages."

"I have," the Crab answered grimly.

"And if such a thing were said of the Crab," Yoyonagi replied, "and you knew it were untrue, you would not denounce your accusers? Or is the honor of the Crab such that you would let such grave insults pass?"

"You dare?" The Kuni started to rise, but Narumi placed a hand on her shoulder.

"The Phoenix are liars and hypocrites," Yoynagi said. "They have suffered the burden of corruption more than any other clan, and yet their past sins are forgiven. The same Black Scroll they accuse us of using would never even have threatened us if the Phoenix had destroyed it at the end of the Clan War as they promised. When Isawa Tsuke willingly embraced darkness laid waste to his own clan at the second Day of Thunder, were the Phoenix held responsible? Of course not. They were pitied for the tragedy that had befallen them. And yet, when the Rain of Blood claimed the souls of a handful of unwilling Mantis warriors, the Phoenix dared to hold the Yoritomo responsible for their crimes. And why is that?" Yoyonagi smiled. "Because, above all, the Phoenix revere their gods and it galls them to believe that we Mantis, who were not founded by a god, stand as their equals."

Yaruko's eyes still held a hint of the fire that had blazed within them only a moment ago, but her expression grew more troubled as Yoyonagi continued. "Now let me tell you what the Phoenix will not tell you," Yoyonagi pressed on. "Kumiko-sama attempted to make restitution for the carnage caused by Yoritomo Kitao and her Lost crewmen. The Phoenix refused out of sheer arrogance. They showed her no respect. Their shugenja summoned storms to turn our vessels away from their coastline, distrustful of our motives despite the fact that we had promised the Emerald Champion we would show them no aggression. They had hoped to force our hand, to provoke us into conflict so that they could wipe away the blasphemy they believe we represent, but Lady Kumiko would not allow herself to be drawn in by such a feeble ploy."

"And yet you are at war with them now," Narumi said.

"They declared war upon us when they insulted the honor of our entire clan," Yoyonagi replied. "They used a Black Scroll upon their own village, exterminated their own peasants, and sent the Wolf to whisper in his brother's ear and turn the courts against us. Let the Great Clans ignore us. We shall rise to glory regardless. Let the Great Clans underestimate us. They shall learn their folly in time. But when the Great Clans lie, and malign the honor of the Mantis then they will know the fury of House Yoritomo." Yoyonagi stopped for a moment and drew a deep breath. "This war is a matter of honor. The Phoenix must suffer for their lies and their arrogance."

"Forgive us," Narumi said with a sidelong glance at her companion. "We did not mean to offend. I had not yet heard the Mantis side on the matter."

Yoyonagi waved her hand. "Not surprising. The Phoenix have drawn upon their Crane allies to blacken our name in the courts. It matters not. The Mantis will stand alone, if we must. Now, to business." She gestured to the box. "The scroll within that box was found among the possessions of a Bloodspeaker killed by Mantis soldiers along the Phoenix coast."

"Bloodspeakers?" Narumi said. "Why not inform the Imperial Legions? Or the Shiba, for that matter?"

"And tell them what?" Yoyonagi said in an exasperated tone. "This Bloodspeaker was a Phoenix. If Kumiko-sama sent a messenger to the Isawa, they would deny that the Bloodspeakers are active within their lands. Most of the Legions obey the Shogun who is also a Phoenix."

Yaruko rubbed her chin. "There have been far less reports of Bloodspeaker violence among the Phoenix lands following Iuchiban's death. Unusual, given the large number of incidents found elsewhere."

"I think you underestimate the Phoenix," Narumi asked. "Proof of Bloodspeaker infiltration in Phoenix lands could vindicate the Mantis in this matter. Even the Elemental Council have been known to admit their mistakes when presented with overwhelming evidence look only to my own clan's war with the Phoenix."

"The Phoenix wanted to believe you," Yoyonagi said bitterly. "In the days of Togashi Yokuni, your clans were allies. The Phoenix have no reason or motivation to trust the Mantis. Our clans have never been friends. The Mantis are barely more than criminals, after all." The statement was accompanied by a look of such disgust that Narumi was surprised so beautiful a woman was capable of it. "The resultant debate would give anyone incriminated by the scroll an opportunity to escape, negating the entire purpose and accomplishing nothing."

"But if a neutral party investigates, and deals with the matter at hand," Narumi said, "then the Mantis will prove their point, and the Phoenix will have no recourse but to admit that the Yoritomo destroyed a Bloodspeaker cell within their lands."

"The Phoenix will be unlikely to admit anything," Yoyonagi said, "but the Bloodspeakers will be dealt with, and that is what truly matters." She gestured to the box again. "You are the Emperor's magistrates. Fulfill your duties, I beg you."

"We will," Yaruko said, taking the box. "And I apologize for& earlier."

"No apologies necessary," the Mantis said. "Though such reactions sadden me, they do not surprise me. Perhaps you can help change that."

"This is gibberish," Yaruko said, peering at the scroll curiously.

Yoyonagi nodded. "The scroll is written in some cipher that even the Moshi were unable to decode, though they detected the touch of maho upon it. It is a thing of darkness, but it is an enigma as well."

"I am Dragon," Narumi said, her smile finally returning. "Leave the riddles to me."

----------------

The Dragon Heart Plain, two weeks ago

Lady Moon shone down on the vast, unbroken plain. She was in her richest aspect tonight, casting a light so bright that it was almost like day. There was no need for a torch or lantern. Narumi glanced at Yaruko. The shugenja's eyes were glowing ever so slightly, a minor effect of the kami she had summoned to enhance her vision. The Crab scanned the ground carefully, reaching down and dragging her fingers lightly across the dewy grass. She looked up to meet Narumi's gaze and nodded, gesturing to the north. Narumi returned the nod and resumed a quick trot across the plain, running low to the ground at a pace quick enough to gain ground on their prey but not so quick that Yaruko would miss further signs of their trail.

Much of the time since their meeting with Yoyonagi had been spent waiting. A few days' study of the scroll yielded little new information, though Narumi remained hopeful that she would crack the code eventually. In the meantime, the two had used their new authority to seek out an expert to aid in the matter. Ironically, the closest expert on codes and ciphers happened to be a Phoenix Asako Bairei, the master of Lady Moon's Shrine in Phoenix lands.

The trip to the Phoenix lands had proven difficult for Narumi. The signs of war were inescapable. Despite that the Dragon and Phoenix were now allies, Narumi had been preparing for her gempukku when the Dragon-Phoenix war was raging. She had spent many nights lying awake wondering about what she would see when it was her time to face the front lines. The war had ended before she ever saw battle, but the dreams of what she would face had stayed with her throughout the years.

The Shrine of Lady Moon, at least, had been an interesting surprise. The temple was well-appointed and maintained well by a small sect of monks under Asako Bairei's supervision. Bairei was quite polite and amiable, and seemed genuinely happy to have guests. The gleam of excitement in his eyes at the prospect of unraveling a new puzzle had been almost alarming. The intensity of his attention, once focused, was unlike anything Narumi had seen. If Bairei focused such intensity on his magic, Narumi had no doubt the man's power could match the Elemental Masters or even Tamori Shaitung. Yaruko had clearly sensed the same thing, as the normally silent Crab had asked Bairei why he chose to administrate such a relatively unimportant shrine. The Phoenix had seemed genuinely surprised at the question, and simply answered that his duties allowed him a great deal of time to read.

"Stop." Yaruko's hushed whisper brought Narumi to a halt. The Dragon crouched down on the plain, breathing heavily while her friend studied the ground intently. "They changed their direction here," she whispered, pointing to the grass in several places. "They doubled back a short distance, perhaps about fifty feet, and then headed northwest."

"Doubled back?" Narumi frowned. "They would not do that unless&"

"Unless they knew they were being tracked," Yaruko finished. "They will either flee or lay in wait for us. We must hurry in case it is the former, but if it is the latter then our haste will put us at a disadvantage."

Narumi nodded. "We have little choice." She took a quick drought of water from the small glass bottle she always carried then glanced back at Yaruko. "You are far more skilled at tracking than I realized."

"My mother taught me," Yaruko said. Her expression darkened. "But that was long ago."

Narumi was not certain how to reply. Yaruko had never mentioned her family before. "Your skill is a great honor to her teaching," she finally said, carefully watching the shugenja for her reaction.

"I doubt that," Yaruko said darkly. "Are you ready?"

Narumi nodded as she took another drought. "I am."

Yaruko said nothing, but took off across the plain at a run, much quicker than before, studying the ground intently as she ran. Narumi followed, her eyes on the horizon.

----------------

It was two hours later when Yaruko finally stopped. Narumi crouched beside her, trying to see whatever it was that she studied so intently. It was not until Yaruko pointed to a spot in the distance that she finally made out anything in the darkness. Several sections of a ruined stone wall jutted up from the plains, creating a crease in the horizon that shadows seemed to cling to. Narumi cursed as she recognized the place, drawing a strange look from Yaruko. "The ruins of Shiro Chuda," the Dragon explained. "A cursed place."

"I know of it," Yaruko said with a scowl. "I cannot fathom why it has not been destroyed."

Narumi glanced at her companion with an irritated expression. "You know such things do not always die easily. To destroy it might unleash even greater horrors. Some wounds must be left to heal on their own."

"You are right, of course," Yaruko replied. "Even so, it pains me to look upon such a thing."

"Well, it should not be untended," Narumi said, a hint of anger in her voice. "There are supposed to be patrols, guardians to prevent intruders from drawing on the dark magic here."

"There is blood on the grass here," Yaruko said. "A great deal of it. I believe your patrol was caught unawares. They have either retreated to bring reinforcements, or they have been destroyed."

Narumi nodded grimly. The scroll that Bairei had deciphered had been correspondence. Someone beyond the Phoenix lands had sent the scroll to the Bloodspeaker cell the Mantis had destroyed, confirming that they would retrieve some unspecified package or burden from the usual place in the Dragon Heart Plain. The scroll did not identify any parties involved nor the location in question. The Plain was vast, but Narumi supposed it had been foolish of her not to suspect the ruins of Shiro Chuda for such a location. Where else would maho-tsukai meet? If the patrols could be avoided, or slain, then the ruins were perfect for concealment. No sane man or woman would enter.

The ruins were dark, as one might expect. There was no sign of light, no campfire or lantern casting eerie shapes upon the walls. Serpentine sculptures leered down at them from the walls, as if offended that the living had returned to this forsaken place. The rest, even under the Moon's pale light, was shrouded in darkness. Narumi drew a deep breath then unsheathed her katana. "We have to go in," she said quietly.

"I am ready," Yaruko answered firmly.

The two samurai moved very cautiously, making no noise or sudden movements. The night wrapped around them like a protective cloak, but Narumi still felt exposed. If their prey was within, and if they were expecting someone to follow them inside the ruins, then there would be little that she and Yaruko could do to repel their attack. Once inside the ruins' perimeter, a cold feeling settled over the Dragon. The shadows seemed to twist and reach out, trying to draw her deeper in. She heard something, an echo, a whisper of something long forgotten here. She steeled her soul against panic and kept moving. If Yaruko saw the same things behind her, the Crab said nothing.

It seemed like an eternity that they crawled through the darkness. Narumi was beginning to fear that her nerves could stand it no longer when they heard two voices, quiet but insistent. It sounded as though they were arguing, which caused Narumi to breath a silent sigh of relief. They were not expected.

"You have no business reading it," a gruff, angry voiced insisted. "It was not meant for you."

"The scroll was not sealed," another voice answered. This one sounded irritable as well. "And in any event what difference does it make?"

"It matters," the first voice answered. "Lord Daigotsu will punish you." Narumi grew cold at the sound of the Dark Lord's name, and she sensed Yaruko tensing beside her.

"Lord Daigotsu," the second voice sneered. "I do not trust the Dark Lord. You embrace slavery far too easily."

"If not for Daigotsu, we would both be dead or worse." The first voice snorted. "Iuchiban would have driven us to madness and suicide, and your master before that abandoned you."

"Lord Chosai did no such thing!" the second voice exploded, seething anger evident in his voice. "I cannot return to him because of those cursed Nezumi! They block the way, preventing anyone from coming or going!"

"How powerful the Dark Oracle must be, to be thwarted by rats," the first voice replied smugly.

"If Lord Chosai could return to Rokugan things would be different," the other said. "That is a discussion for another time. Take the scroll and return it to Daigotsu. I will ensure that this location remains secure."

"After the patrol? How will you manage that?"

The sneer was obvious in the other man's voice. "I have my ways."

Yaruko touched Narumi's sleeve, breaking the trance she seemed to have fallen into. Tiny wisps of green energy swirled around the Crab's fist, and she nodded that she was ready. Narumi drew silently drew her wakizashi and held it alongside her katana, nodding in return. She was ready as well.

Yaruko rose and leapt from their place of concealment, both her hands sheathed in jade energy. "Do not move, blasphemers," she shouted. "You will find me neither hesitant nor merciful." Narumi was behind her, standing to the left and ready to intercept any attack if it proved necessary. "You will surrender immediately and return to Toshi Ranbo for judgment."

The two men standing in the ruins were obviously surprised. Perhaps they had not expected the magistrates, or had arrogantly assumed that they had lost them on the plains. Whatever the reason, they were unprepared. One, bearing a Tamori mon, snarled in outrage and summoned a cloak of black fire around his body. The other, a Crab by the symbols on his armor, hurled himself out of the way just before Yaruko's blast filled the area where both had stood. The Dragon shugenja's black aura absorbed and dissipated the energy, but his face twisted in pain.

The Crab warrior was unnaturally fast. He rolled to his feet in the space of a heartbeat, rising and darting in to slash at Narumi with unbelievable speed. She parried with her daisho, but only barely. He launched a series of ruthless attacks, sparing nothing for defense. If not for his speed, Narumi could easily have exploited the weaknesses of his style, but he was so fast that she was forced on the defensive. She heard shouting and the crackling of energy behind her, but could not spare a moment to look. Either Yaruko would prove victorious, or Narumi would suddenly die in a haze of pain and black fire. Either way, it did not matter. She could only trust in her comrade.

"Weak," sneered the Crab. He lunged with a high attack, forcing her to cross her blades to block it. He kicked suddenly, striking her fully in the stomach and driving her backwards into a crumbling stone wall. The breath was gone completely from her lungs, and she could not seem to draw more. She wheezed, struggling to rise and ward off the deathblow she knew would follow.

Nothing happened. Narumi turned to see the Crab lunging toward Yaruko, who was locked in a deadly struggle with the other Bloodspeaker. A storm of energies filled the void between the two shugenja, black and green boiling in a terrible maelstrom of spirits. Yaruko glanced at the approaching Crab, but it was obvious that any diverted energy would spell her doom.

Narumi sprang to her feet, throwing her wakizashi with one smooth movement. The steel embedded itself in the man's lower leg.

The Crab howled in rage and pain, falling on the ground. He did not lose his blade, and seemed to try and lunge forward across the floor, intent on cutting Yaruko's legs out from under her. Narumi sprinted across the short distance, bending to tear her sword free with one hand and slashing with her katana from the other. The Crab's arm was severed at the elbow. His scream was visceral, raw with pain and anger. Narumi leapt over the man, somersaulting over the seething energy storm, landing neatly on the other side and slashing at the Tamori in the same breath. Her steel found its target, and cut the man through the midsection. The black fires weakened and Yaruko's jade magic began to sear the man's flesh. The traitorous Dragon snarled with rage and turned a shaking hand toward Narumi even as he burned.

"No." Yaruko's voice did not waver. There was a sudden pressure wave, and the last of his dark aura vanished. A cascade of green fire rolled over the Tamori, incinerating him in an instant. The last bit of breath in his lungs was spent in a cry of rage and despair, and then he was gone. Yaruko gave a triumphant, inarticulate cry of victory, a broad smile upon her face. Looking over one shoulder she sneered and waved a negligent hand at the fallen Crab, reducing him to ash as well.

"Yaruko!" Narumi shouted "What have you done? We needed to interrogate them!"

The Crab shugenja stared at Narumi with unknowing eyes, no trace of thought or consideration present in her face. Slowly, the anger receded, and a dawning look of realization spread across her face. "Narumi& I am sorry. I did not think. I was carried away by the heat of battle."

"What is this madness that overcomes you?" Narumi demanded. "How can you allow it to overshadow your duties. These men could have led us to the Phoenix cell!"

Yaruko turned back to the smoldering remains. "I can't& the Bloodspeakers& I can't control myself. I cannot let any of them live. Never again."

Narumi stopped, her anger suddenly forgotten. "Again?" she asked quietly.

Yaruko licked her lips nervously. "When we met in the mountains," she said in a shaky voice, "I told you that I had failed. I told you that I sought redemption."

"Yet your family disagrees," Narumi insisted. "No one believes you failed."

The Crab shook her head. "My mother fell to darkness. She was a great witch hunter, a scourge of evil. No one understands why she fell, or how, only that now she walks among the Shadowlands, once a servant of Iuchiban and now a servant of Daigotsu. I was sent to destroy her, to cleanse my family's honor. But when I returned, I told them that I could not find her."

"Even a Dragon knows that the Shadowlands is vast and dangerous," Narumi offered. "You can not blame yourself for failing to find her."

Yaruko shook her head again. "But I did find her," she said in a whisper. "I found her in the blasted rock plains south of Hiruma lands. Kuni Yae, my mother. I faced her, but I could not kill her." She turned back to Narumi. "I could not kill my own mother. So I lied to the Kuni. I failed, and then I lied to conceal my failure."

Narumi said nothing for a moment. "I never knew my mother," she finally said. "She was among the greatest students of the Nightingale style, but she died when I was an infant. All my life, tales of her exploits have guided me, and yet I would give it all up to speak with her just once." She shook her head. "I can find no blame for you, Yaruko-san. Condemn yourself if you must, but I will not."

Yaruko closed her eyes and lowered her head. She said nothing for several minutes. Finally, she seemed to regain her composure. "Let us take the scroll they came for," she said. "Perhaps we can find more information."

----------------

Toshi Ranbo&

Asahina Sekawa placed the last scroll on his desk and reclined on the cushions for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. He turned to regard the two magistrates carefully, and Narumi felt his steel blue gaze piercing her very soul. "Tamori Miraken and Hiruma Nataka," he said thoughtfully. "Were either of you familiar with these two previously?"

"Nataka was a scout who disappeared during the Rain of Blood," Yaruko answered. "It was believed he was Lost."

Sekawa nodded. He turned to Narumi. "And Marako?"

Narumi shook her head. "There are reports of a man by that name visiting several shrines in the northern Dragon lands, but no record of his training or duty assignment. Shaitung-sama believes that he took the name after swearing fealty to the Dark Oracle of Fire, and that he was not a true Tamori. He, too, apparently joined the Bloodspeakers, seeking their aid in slipping past the Northern Towers of Flame to return to his master."

"I see." Sekawa's brow furrowed. "I am conflicted in this matter," he said finally. "On one hand, you have shown tremendous initiative and skill in dealing with the Bloodspeakers. Given the Emperor's standing order to eradicate them, you acted well within your providence as magistrates. I am certain that when Hachi-sama returns that he will share my assessment." He nodded to Narumi. "Unfortunately, we must also consider this a lost opportunity. The men you killed could possibly have led us to others, had we had the opportunity to interrogate them. Sadly, that is now impossible." He shook his head again. "Of more concern to me is the possibility that this incident will mark the two of you as pawns."

"Sekawa-sama?" Yaruko said. He expression made it plain she did not care to be referred to as a pawn.

"The Mantis manipulated this situation," Sekawa explained. "Regardless of their motives, or the validity of the claims Yoyonagi made when she spoke to you, you were brought into this matter purely to benefit the Mantis and make the Phoenix appear weak. I am concerned that such an incident might undermine your authority with the Phoenix. What are your thoughts on this?"

"I disagree, Sekawa-sama," Narumi insisted. "Forgive me for saying so, but I do not believe you read Yoyonagi's motives correctly. Yes, Yoyonagi-san made me question many things that I had assumed about their war with the Phoenix, but regardless of what else may be true, I believe that the Mantis were acting as honor demanded. Whatever benefit they may have indirectly gained for bringing this matter to our attention, the fact remains that they did what any samurai should have done called upon the Emperor's magistrates to destroy the Empire's enemies. I cannot question them for benefiting for an honorable action. If the Phoenix would decry us for making them seem foolish, then perhaps they should guard their ruins more carefully."

Sekawa raised an eyebrow. "An interesting conclusion," he observed. "You have obviously spent some time considering this matter"

"I have," Narumi admitted. "The Phoenix are my allies. I could not in good conscience take an action that would potentially bring them dishonor unless I believed that it was in accordance with my duty to the Empire. I am a magistrate first, and justice is my only duty. If others see me as a pawn, then it is their vision that is clouded not mine."

"Well said," Sekawa said. "You have shown yourselves worthy of your promotions. I think would be foolish to break such an efficient partnership."

Narumi smiled and even Yaruko seemed to find the news uplifting. "Thank you, Sekawa-sama," they said in unison.

Sekawa's smirked wryly. "Perhaps you should reserve your gratitude until after you have received your next assignment. I doubt you will find it as pleasant." He gestured to the cushions in his audience chamber. "Now sit. Let us discuss your upcoming duties."


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!