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Fires of Toshi Ranbo

Part One of Four
by Rich Wulf

It could rightly be said that the Imperial Court was like the sea. It was a body always in motion, its tides unpredictable, and though known for its power and fury it was perhaps even more intimidating when it fell completely still and silent. Thus was its state on this chill spring morning. A small woman knelt before the Steel Throne in supplication Hoketuhime, Lady of the Imperial House of Otomo.

Cousins of the former Imperial dynasty, the Otomo had retained their position during the rise of the Toturi Emperors through no small amount of manipulation, ambition, and sheer stubbornness. Hoketuhime was often called the Ice Princess for her cold and ruthless demeanor. She easily numbered among the most powerful individuals in Rokugan, and was one of the few that could command an audience with the Emperor on such short notice. Toturi III looked down at her impassively, his good left eye showing no more emotion than the black silken patch he wore over his right. Beside him, the Empress betrayed only a look of faint curiosity. Standing just beside the throne, Isawa Sezaru, the Emperor's brother, watched Hoketuhime with the bitter frown he wore so often of late.

"Son of Heaven," Hoketuhime said, her voice soft but clear. "I graciously thank you for making time to meet with me. I am deeply honored."

"For such a loyal daughter of the Empire, such a small gesture is my distinct pleasure," the Emperor answered. "I only regret that I have many other matters to attend today, and must keep this audience brief."

"My business is simple, my lord," Hoketuhime replied as she rose. She was a petite woman with delicate porcelain features, but her blue eyes shone with a powerful intensity. "In celebration of your recent victory over Iuchiban, I offer you a gift in the name of my house."

She gestured gracefully with one hand and a member of her house guard hurried forward with a wrapped bundle. The guard began assembling a small wooden stand before the Emperor. "I am certain you will recognize my offering, Righteous Emperor, but I will introduce it nonetheless for the benefit of the court."

"Of course," the Emperor said with a nod. When he saw what now rested on the stand at the edge of the dais, his lip curled into a grin. Beside him, his brother Sezaru gaped in astonishment briefly before composing himself. A daisho sheathed in plain black saya now rested there. The sword hilts were golden, worked in the image of a prowling wolf.

"My lord, I present to you this daisho the lost swords of your father, Toturi I," she said. "I know that it is not customary for a samurai to offer her superior the gift of steel, but I hope in this case that I can be forgiven."

Naseru was silent for several moments. "Hoketuhime-sama," he said, his voice thick, "before we accept these blades might we ask how you came to find them? They were assumed lost when our father was slain by the Dark Lord."

"The tale that brings your father's swords here today is a long one," Hoketuhime replied. "I would not wish to bore the court. I could tell you another time, perhaps."

"The court will listen to whatever pleases us," Naseru replied. "We want to hear how you found our father's lost swords."

"Very well, my lord," Hoketuhime replied. "Your Majesty's last wielded these blades in a valiant struggle against the Dark Lord, Daigotsu, on the road to Ryoko Owari. A brave Scorpion samurai named Toson saw the duel, but was unable to aid your father. Even so, he risked the Dark Lord's wrath and fetched the swords from your father's corpse rather than allow them to be corrupted. He later gave them to Hotaitaka, then lord of House Seppun, who did not immediately reveal their discovery for fear that they might have been unknowingly Tainted. By the time Hotaitaka was certain the blades were pure, Empress Kaede had disappeared. With four Imperial Heirs vying for the throne, the struggle to claim Toturi's throne had begun. Thus he kept the daisho's discovery a secret until a true Emperor was named. As you know, Hotaitaka fell gravely ill shortly before your coronation, and shortly thereafter he was called to join the blessed ancestors in Yomi. Unaware of the daisho's significance, the blades passed through many hands among the Seppun over the last few years. It was not until they were given to a minor magistrate of my own house that they were recognized. To call them a gift was an error, my lord, for these blades are yours by right. It is my honor to return them to your hand."

The Emperor rose and moved toward the swords. Hoketuhime and her guard respectfully backed away, not allowing themselves to stand within reach of the weapons while so close to the Emperor. Toturi Naseru lifted the katana, testing its weight, and smiled in approval.

"This is indeed our father's sword," he said. "Do you recognize it, Sezaru?"

"I do, brother," the Voice of the Emperor replied, studying Hoketuhime rather than the blade. "How strange that it should find its way back to you after all this time."

"We will not be the one to question such a blessing," he said. He took up the wakizashi as well, tucking both blades into his obi. He laughed out loud, causing many members of the court to whisper in confusion. "We apologize, my friends, if the joy of this moment has overwhelmed us. You must excuse us. The Righteous Emperor wishes to spend time with his brother, discussing the good fortune that has returned that which our family thought lost."

"If it pleases Your Majesty," Empress Kurako said, stepping forward with a deep bow. "I would be honored to direct the court in your absence while you celebrate this glorious homecoming."

The Emperor inclined his head, acknowledging his wife's request. Without another word he turned and departed through the rear exit. Sezaru followed, along with the Emperor's bodyguard. Otomo Hoketuhime watched them leave with a small, pleased smile. She quietly noted the reactions of those around her as she took her place among the court, noting in particular those whose eyes lingered on her a bit too long.


"Nine years," Sezaru hissed, glaring back in the direction of the throne room as they walked through the palace halls. "Almost a decade since father died, and she expects us to believe that the Emperor's swords were not recognized until today. Her story bleeds falsehood with every word, Naseru. We should not trust her."

"Why not?" Naseru asked mildly. "Do you believe that Hoketuhime has worked some magic upon father's blades?"

Sezaru sneered. "No," he said. "Of course not. If the swords carried any spells intended to harm or spy upon you the wards I have placed upon your throne room would have turned her soul to dust. It is Hoketuhime's motives that I do not trust."

"Her tale is no less false and calculated than she intended it to be," Naseru replied. "Look upon the larger picture, Sezaru. Her tale paints the leaders of the Seppun as fools. We both know that except for old Kiharu who could care less about politics many of the higher ranking Seppun are allied with Toshiaki's Gozoku. She calls for an emergency audience, knowing that if the true purpose of her visit were known that Kaneka would hurry here to perhaps lay his claim upon the blades. She is showing her support, Sezaru, in a very clear and public way, before the eyes of all our enemies."

Sezaru's frown deepened. "I do not believe that Kaneka is our enemy, Naseru," he said. "Tsudao's death changed him from the man he was."

"He has not changed enough," Naseru replied.

"I think you are too quick to judge the Shogun," Sezaru answered, "and too quick to trust Hoketuhime."

"Why do you suspect her so?" Naseru asked. "Is it because she gave me the blades to celebrate Iuchiban's defeat? To celebrate a victory that was entirely yours? If that is so, then take the swords. I would rather give up father's daisho than have any ill feelings between us."

Sezaru did not answer immediately, his dark eyes smoldering. "I have no use for swords, Naseru," he said stiffly. "Iuchiban's defeat was your victory, not mine. All that I do is in your name."

"Of course," Naseru said, smiling warmly at his brother. "So then speak candidly. Let there be no secrets between us. I sense there is more. What is it that truly bothers you about her?"

Sezaru scowled, glancing from his brother to his silent bodyguard and back. "The years have done nothing to Hoketuhime's feelings for you. She still loves you, Naseru," he said. "I see it in her soul, a fire that would consume all else if left to burn."

"I know," Naseru said, though he was more reserved now.

"You would use even that?" Sezaru asked. "Are you that desperate for allies or merely that heartless?"

"This is not easy for me, Sezaru," Naseru said. "She is powerful. If she wishes to help me because of her feelings for me, so be it. At least we know where she stands. Hoketuhime knows where her duty lies, and would not shame herself by stepping beyond her place due to love." "Perhaps today," Sezaru replied. "What if her ambition grows?" Sezaru spoke much more softly now. "She has killed to protect you before, Naseru."

"That was different," Naseru answered. "The Steel Chrysanthemum would have used us both to start a civil war, to destroy my father's dynasty. He had to be stopped."

Sezaru shrugged and looked at his brother frankly. "Murder grows easier with practice."

The Voice of the Emperor bowed to his brother and hurried off down the hall alone. Naseru watched his brother go, his left hand resting limply on the hilt of his father's swords.

"And you, Irie?" Naseru asked, peering over his shoulder at his bodyguard. "I sense by your sudden tension that you agree with my brother."

"I think the Empress can protect herself," she replied. "I think her guardsmen are honorable men. Yet I cannot help but notice most of them are Crane the Otomo's closest allies. Hoketuhime may not wish to harm the Empress, but she is most certainly spying on her."

"Quite astute," Naseru said. "Sezaru is right in believing Hoketuhime is dangerous. Were it otherwise she would have no worth to me as an ally. The true question is is she a greater danger to our enemies?"

"Until she learns where your heart truly lies," Irie answered, "Yes."

"Then who is really the one in danger, I wonder?" asked a silky voice.

Irie stepped immediately between the Emperor and the shadows of a half-closed doorway. A slim young woman stepped out of the darkness and bowed quickly to Naseru. She wore a form-fitting outfit of black and blood red, laced with thin metal plates. Her face was painted white, the lips bright crimson. Like Hoketuhime, she had a Crane's blue eyes.

"Irie, lower your blade," Naseru said. "I have been expecting Sunetra's report."

Irie nodded and complied, though she did not relax her stance. She continued to watch the Underhand with open suspicion.

"Bayushi Baku has learned a great deal about the Gozoku from Bayushi Kamnan's memories," Sunetra said. "It is as we feared; the Gozoku are built upon the ruins of the Shadowed Tower and most of their agents know nothing of the conspiracy's darker origins. Even more, it appears that my clan's victory over the Tower was planned all along. I assume Atsuki had always intended to dispose of the tower when the dangers of blood magic became to onerous to meddle with." "Bayushi Atsuki truly lives, then," Naseru said grimly.

Sunetra nodded. "Though I confess, I am confused," she said. "Even Kamnan is uncertain what the Tower's purpose was. Atsuki is hungry for power, that much is obvious, but why would he force his pawns to use maho and then cast them aside so quickly? Surely a manipulator of his caliber could have gathered whatever blackmail he needed to build the Gozoku without using blood magic."

"Unless he needed the magic for some other purpose," Naseru theorized.

"Hai," Sunetra answered. "Even Kamnan did not know what that purpose might be. He was merely Atsuki's messenger and butcher."

"A pity," Naseru replied. "Did he know where Atsuki hides?"

"Kamnan rarely visited his master in person," Sunetra answered. "It was always in a different place, one of a handful of Ashalan-built towers deep within the Plains Above Evil. He has a few Ashalan sorcerers in his employ, though Kamnan did not know their purpose either."

"Ashalan?" Naseru replied. "The gaijin?"

"More than mere gaijin," Sunetra said. "My clan had several encounters with them during our exile decades ago. The Ashalan are a race of immortal sorcerers. They have some sort of ancient, bloody feud with the Naga. While some Ashalan are honorable, there are others who have a very low opinion of mortals. That's all we really know of them, and even that's only scratching the surface. Their culture is old, older than the Empire by far."

"More immortal sorcerers," Naseru mused, folding his arms in his robes. "At least that should give my brother something to do."

"I recommend against taking the Ashalan lightly," Sunetra said. "Baku knows more of them than I do, and he is reluctant to approach them, even in disguise. Anything that can frighten such an ancient spirit is a force to be reckoned with, and we do not yet know their part in this. We should not send Sezaru after them until we are ready."

"We need more information," Naseru agreed.

"There is one Ashalan, Hojyn, who maintains ties with the Scorpion," Sunetra offered. "He is a difficult man to find, but I could track him if you wish."

"No," Naseru said. "I think there is a better way to learn what we need to know."

"How?" Sunetra asked.

"I wish you to go to the Shinomen Forest, Sunetra," the Emperor replied. "Who would know how to fight the Ashalan better than their enemies?"


Hoketuhime excused herself from the court shortly after the Emperor departed, her four bodyguards falling into step around her. Though it was amusing to watch the startled faces of her fellow courtiers as they struggled to discern her motives, she knew it was better to leave quickly. Let them wonder why she had done what she had done without her presence to confirm or deny their theories. Let rumor and suspicion take root and divide them. Let them find their own reasons to fear the Emperor's newest ally.

"Lady Hoketuhime!" called out a voice behind her.

She kept walking, ignoring whatever rude fellow had presumed to shout at an Imperial daimyo. Her guards would attend to the buffoon.

There was a clatter of steel on the wooden floor and two pained grunts.

"My lady, please, I do not wish to injure these men," the voice said more urgently.

Hoketuhime peered curiously back the way she had come. A tall, lean man in a sky blue kimono stood in the center of the hall. One foot was placed firmly on the throat of one of her fallen guards. He held the other guard against the wall, his sheathed sword pressed against the man's throat. She could see the Crane tattoo on the man's left wrist. Both of the defeated guards' katanas lay on the floor well out of reach, still in their sheaths. Another man stood further down the hallway, wearing the blue armor of a Crane samurai, complete with a full silver mempo, just watching.

Her two remaining guards took a step forward, reaching for their blades. She halted them with a quick gesture. "Hold," she said, her voice showing a faint trace of amusement and curiosity. "Do not force this man to embarrass you as well. If Lord Kikaze's intentions were truly hostile there would be nothing you could do to stop him."

"Thank you, my lady," Kikaze said gratefully, releasing the guard and removing his foot from the other.

"This is extremely irregular, Kikaze-san," Hoketuhime said, examining the young daimyo's intense expression carefully. "If a lord of the Crane Clan wishes to meet with me, why not arrange an audience through the appropriate channels?"

"Because such meetings take time to arrange, and stir clouds of rumor," he replied. "My ally and I must speak with you urgently, privately."

Hoketuhime nodded. "Leave," she said sternly, the disappointed tone clearly intended for her guards. "Kikaze will ably protect me while I ponder a reprimand for your collective failure."

The guards bowed obediently to their mistress and vanished, pausing only to collect their lost weapons.

Hoketuhime smiled coldly at the shocked look on Kikaze's face. "Don't worry for the guards," she said in a soothing voice. "I shall of course forgive them for the horrible shame you inflicted upon them, and in return they shall say nothing of seeing you here. Now, how may I serve you and your friend?" She looked intently at the masked samurai.

"He can be trusted," the Daidoji lord said, answering her unasked question. "Do you remember the fires that burned in Toshi Ranbo almost two years ago?"

"Of course," she replied. "I was fortunate enough to be in an unaffected quarter of the city, but I had many acquaintances that died or were injured on that night. It was a horrible tragedy, but I am certain Sezaru has revisited the violence tenfold upon the Bloodspeakers who perpetrated it."

Kikaze quickly shook his head. "No, my lady," he replied. "The Bloodspeakers had nothing to do with the fires in Toshi Ranbo, but with your help I may yet find the ones responsible."

"Interesting," Hoketuhime said, intrigued by the mystery. "How can I help?"

Kikaze reached into his obi and took out a small pouch, offering it to Hoketuhime. "What can you tell me about that?" he asked.

She delicately untied the silken drawstrings and examined the contents, wrinkling her nose at the bitter smell of the dark powder within. "Nothing," she lied blandly, handing the bag back to him.

"Are you sure?" he asked. "My bushi found one hundred barrels of it stacked around the foundations of the Palace on the night Toshi Ranbo burned."

Hoketuhime was used to masking her reactions to the unexpected, but at those words her already porcelain face grew even paler.

"A simple combination of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter," Kikaze said, tying the bag tightly and tucking it back into his obi. "The gaijin of Merenae call it polvora. The Emperor that declared its manufacture or possession a capital crime named it gaijin pepper.' I see you recognize it."

"One hundred barrels," she whispered. "That could have leveled the entire palace and most of the city. How is that possible? How is it that no one knows?"

"Such secrets can be dangerous if spread recklessly," Kikaze said. "I think you know that as well as I do." "How can I help you with your investigation?" she asked.

"Do you recognize the name Cornejo?" he asked.

"I remember it from the Battle of White Stag," she answered. "I fear what I know will not be of much use."

"Tell me, please," Kikaze said. "I must know how much you already know."

Hoketuhime chuckled. "What I know is not written in any history book you have read," she said. "You may not believe me, and if you were to speak of it beyond these walls, none would believe you, and I would deny it."

"Fair enough," Kikaze said, "but you might be surprised what I would believe."

Hoketuhime nodded. "Centuries ago, during the Unicorn Clan's wanderings, the Moto family somehow found their way to a distant nation named Merenae. They impressed Teodoro Cornejo, the leader of a powerful family in service to the king of that land. Teodoro came to Rokugan seeking to open peaceful trade, but his fleet became lost. He was aided by the leader of a pirate fleet from the nation of Thrane. The pirate intended to betray Teodoro and murder him on the voyage home rather than share the Emperor's favor with a rival nation. Teodoro conspired with the Mantis Clan to expose his enemy's dishonorable past to the court while the Merenae ships escaped. A vicious battle between the Thrane pirate fleet and the defenders of Otosan Uchi followed. The Emperor died to their polvora weapons. The new Hantei proclaimed that no gaijin would ever be welcome in Rokugan again, and any who crafted or used gaijin pepper would be executed for their crime."

"But the edict against gaijin wasn't always enforced, was it?" Kikaze said. "The Phoenix trade with the Yobanjin sometimes, and the Mantis bring back an occasional wife or husband from their journeys. Some might say that the entire Unicorn Clan is made of gaijin, in a sense. The Emperor may have wanted the doors closed, but that wasn't really possible, was it?"

"The spirit of the edict has always been enforced," Hoketuhime said. "All such interactions are carefully monitored."

"By spies in the service of the Otomo," Kikaze replied.

Hoketuhime said nothing, though she tilted her head very briefly in acknowledgement.

"She knows more," the masked man said in a rough voice. "Make her tell us what she knows about Alhundro!"

Hoketuhime narrowed her icy blue eyes at the strange bushi. "Who is this man, Kikaze?" she asked. "How does he come to make demands of the mistress of the Otomo family?"

"You must forgive him, Hoketuhime-sama," Kikaze replied. "He is very impatient, but he has a personal stake in this matter."

Kikaze looked at the other man and nodded. The stranger hesitated then removed his mask, revealing a round face with dusky skin and wide, black eyes.

"Lady Hoketuhime," Kikaze said with a crooked smile. "Allow me to introduce Esteban Cornejo, the man who set Toshi Ranbo on fire."

To be continued&

Kaze no Shiro Return


Togashi will return!