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Fires of Toshi Ranbo

Part Two of Four
by Rich Wulf

House of the White Jade Fan, Toshi Ranbo, Several Weeks Ago&

Rama Singh was a brash and arrogant fool, whose penchant for bold and reckless behavior frequently endangered himself and others. Some day he would die on one of his foolish quests and none would mourn his passing - or so his brother, Sumukar, always complained. Of course these complaints were usually made in the midst of some foolish quest that the pair had stumbled into together.

Rama Singh set down his cup and leaned back on a silken cushion with a sigh. The tones of a distant shakuhachi flute wove gently through the air. The door stood slightly open, as it always did, so the Seppun guardsmen could keep an eye on him. One peered back with a sour expression. Rama's lips curved into a grin, and he laughed despite himself.

"Drunken fool," he heard one of the guards grumble.

Rama ignored them. He rose and moved to a nearby shelf, eyes scanning the many thick scrolls that lay there. He drew a copy of the Tao from its resting place and returned to his seat to read.

He was not drunk, of course. Rama did not allow himself such uncouth displays of excess. He never drank the sake offered to him, though he appreciated the gesture, drinking only clean water or hot tea instead. If anything it was the guards who were likely drunk, as they invariably collected his untouched bottles to split among themselves. His laughter had come from drink, but from reflection upon his past adventures. Rama had been in far worse prisons than the House of the White Jade Fan. The Ruhmal cultists who tortured him for his loyalty to the Maharaja would not have served him finely cooked fish or dressed him in the highest quality silks, nor helped him master their language and philosophies. All things considered, this was not so bad. Sumukar would be jealous.

"What do you expect from a gaijin, Kobei?" the other replied.

Rama's eyes flicked toward the guards in irritation, then returned to his reading. It seemed no amount of courtesy or effort to learn Rokugani ways would convince them that he was anything more than a barbarian, allowed to live only because the Emperor had commanded it to be. Many Rokugani, it seemed, knew nothing about the lands beyond their Empire and cared even less. To the guards, any foreigner was an ignorant gaijin at best, and a scheming killer at worst.

"Kobei?" one of the guards called to the other in a weak voice.

Rama looked up again curiously. One of the two guardsmen now sat slumped against the doorway. The other was shaking visibly as he knelt to examine his friend.

"Gaijin," the guard said weakly. "Help him!"

The guard's eyes rolled back and he collapsed as well.

Rama rushed to the side of the fallen guardsmen. The thought crossed his mind that he should leave the arrogant fools to their fate, but he ignored it. A quick examination told him that both men were sleeping. They appeared to be heavily drugged, but unharmed. He propped them against the wall with dignity before standing to look around for a sevant to help. He turned quickly at the soft sound of footfalls behind him. He was not surprised to see the young girl who had served him his dinner. He had not recognized her before. He stood in a relaxed pose, hands clenched loosely at his sides.

"You drugged my sake," he said.

She nodded. "I knew you would not drink it, and they would," she answered. "I wanted to remove the guards without harm.

"Have you come to kill me?" he asked calmly. "If so, I fear it will not be as easy as you might hope."

"I have been sent to rescue you, Rama Singh," the girl replied. "I am Tsuruchi Risako, of the Mantis Clan. To see a warrior of House Suresh imprisoned like a common criminal shames my clan, who still name the Ivory Kingdoms as their friends." She threw a red kimono and mask on the floor at his feet. "Wear this, please."

"The garb of a Scorpion?" he asked, surprised.

"Why not?" she replied. "The mask will cover your gaijin features. So long as you walk quickly and look to be on urgent business, no one will interfere, even without a daisho. Only a fool interferes with a Scorpion messenger in the Imperial City."

"While I appreciate the gesture, I fear my freedom is not yours to give," Rama replied. "When this is discovered, there will be questions. What you have done here will only create more problems for me. At the very least I will have ruined all chance of good relations between my homeland and yours."
Risako smiled. "I was told you would say something like that," she replied.

She reached into her obi and took out a small cloth bag, offering it to him. Rama accepted it dubiously. He examined it closely, sniffing the contents with an amazed look. It was full of ground ginseng, the same variety that he had come to Rokugan to collect, the rare herb that could prolong the Maharaja's life.

"Where did you get this?" he asked quickly. "Only the Crane Clan can grow this herb."

"And there are those within the Crane who feel that you have been treated unfairly," Risako replied. "They are Lady Kumiko's allies. Escape now, and without fear that you have failed to save your Maharaja."

"And your Emperor?" Rama asked. "Will he not hunt me? I think the Anvil would look favorably upon the humiliation of his Seppun guardsmen."

"You may be surprised," Risako answered. "Take the disguise, and leave through the kitchens. I have arranged for the servants to be absent as long as you move quickly. Meet me at the Mantis Clan embassy in Benten District."

"You trust me to meet you there?" he asked.

"It is better if we travel separately," she explained. "A Mantis and Scorpion together will only draw undue attention. Besides, where else will you go, gaijin?"

Rama Singh nodded, conceding the point.

"I will not force you to escape if your honor would forbid it, Rama," she said. "The choice is yours."

With a final bow, she turned and left him alone with the unconscious guards. Rama sighed. It wasn't much of a choice; his status in the Imperial City was already tenuous at best. If he remained to explain why two guards had been mysteriously drugged in his presence and a Scorpion disguise was hidden among his belongings, he would surely expend whatever good faith the Emperor still had in him. He would be executed, and all further hopes of peace between Rokugan and his homeland would be lost. At least, this way, there was a chance that he might survive and retain a source for the medicine that prolonged the Maharaja's life.

Rama quickly slipped into the kimono and placed the mask over his face. Risako was true to her word, and none interfered with his stealthy exit from the House of the White Jade Fan. Night had recently fallen over the Imperial City, and few remained on the street. He walked briskly, struggling to remember his way. It had been a year since he had emerged from his luxurious prison, and his memory of the foreign city was dulled. He hoped he would not have to ask directions; as fluent as his Rokugani was, his accent would surely be recognized.

Despite the danger and uncertainty, it was exhilarating to be free again. He was alone in a strange land and in terrible danger, but that thought only made things more exciting. As Rama paused in the gates of the Mantis estate, he imagined that Sumukar would laugh to hear this tale. The doors of the estate stood open, with no guards in sight. Rama glanced around a final time to make sure none took notice of his arrival and entered. Risako waited in the chamber beyond. Wordlessly, she closed the door behind him and gestured for him to follow as she moved deeper into the house. She led him to an audience chamber where two men waited for him. One was a heavy-set middle aged samurai in a sea green kimono. The other was a thin, ancient man in robes of jet black. Though Rama Singh recognized them both, he smiled at the older man as he removed his mask and bowed.

"Komori-sama," Rama said. "It has been a long time."

"Too long, Rama," Komori returned warmly. "I have not seen you since we fought the Cult of the Destroyer. How fares your brother?"

Rama's smile faded. "Sumukar walks with the Preserver now," he said. "He gave his life to protect the Maharaja's child from Ruhmal assassins."

"I thought the Ruhmal were no more," Komori said, frowning.

Rama lowered his gaze. "My people's enemies are no less tenacious than your own," he replied. "Do not mourn Sumukar. He died with courage, insuring that the Ivory Kingdoms would see a better tomorrow."

"And the Lion say that gaijin do not understand the heart of a samurai," the other man said with a deep chuckle. Rama Singh knew Yoritomo Katoa only by reputation. He was the ranking Mantis representative in the Imperial City, a loud and boorish fellow that had apparently been dispatched to Toshi Ranbo because his clan was unsure what else to do with him.

"I assume I owe my escape to you, Katoa-san," Rama said. "You have my thanks, though I must confess your motives are unclear."

Katoa shrugged. "Lady Kumiko wishes to restore the friendship between your people and our clan," he replied. "She will see to it that you are returned safely to your homeland, and given enough medicine to preserve your Maharaja's life for several years. That should be long enough for suspicions to fade, and a new ambassador to be sent."

"If that is your intent, then I fear I must deny your offer," Rama replied.

Katoa looked at Komori. The old man only chuckled.

"I warned you he was stubborn," Komori said.

"I have been unjustly accused of complicity in the fires that nearly destroyed this city," Rama answered tersely. "Many innocents died in those fires. My honor demands that I cannot leave Rokugan until the true culprit is discovered. Their spirits cannot rest until justice is done."

"A noble goal, but I'm afraid the trail is cold, Rama," Katoa said. "It has been over a year since the blaze, and most discount it as a random act of Bloodspeaker violence. Whatever truth you seek has been long buried."

"Obviously the Crane think differently," Rama said. "During my imprisonment, one of them questioned me about the fires. He did not have the air of a man prepared to abandon the investigation, or who thought the trail was cold."
"You do not know the Crane," Katoa said. "Their fires burn hot, but cool quickly. No doubt the man you spoke to has long since abandoned the chase."

"Wait, Katoa-san," Komori said, looking up at Rama seriously. "What did this Crane ask you?"

"Only if the name Cornejo' was significant to me," Rama replied. "When he learned that it was not, he departed quickly."

"Cornejo?" Katoa asked. "What sort of name is that? I have never heard such a name."

"I have," Komori replied.

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

The Imperial Palace, Toshi Ranbo&

"What is the meaning of this, Kikaze?" Otomo Hoketuhime demanded urgently, looking from Daidoji Kikaze to Esteban Cornejo with a scowl. "You would smuggle a gaijin into the Imperial Palace itself and arm him with a daisho?

Cornejo reached for the hilt of his katana. Hoketuhime did not flinch, her cold blue eyes boring into the gaijin's. If he intended to kill her, so be it, but she would not give him the satisfaction of showing fear. The handle of the sword pulled away from the saya, but with no blade. The gaijin held out the hilts of his fake swords, displaying the empty sheaths for her.

"The disguise was necessary, milady," Esteban said in a thick accent, "but I am no samurai, and would not truly usurp the symbols of their station."

"Your dramatics do not impress me," she replied. "Kikaze, explain this man's presence quickly. You say he is responsible for the fires in the Imperial City?"

"In a matter of speaking," Kikaze replied.

"I started the fires to save the city," Esteban replied.

"The people who died that day would say you did a poor job of it," Hoketuhime replied.

"Please, Hoketuhime-sama, let him explain," Kikaze said.

"My respect for you is the only reason I have been so patient to begin with," she retorted. "Make sense quickly, or I will summon the guard."

"It was an act of counter-sabotage, milady," Esteban said. "When I arrived in Toshi Ranbo I found many buildings had already seeded with polvora barrels, set to ignite a terrible conflagration throughout the city. I suspected the palace was the saboteur's true target, but as a lone uninvited gaijin I feared the guards would not heed my warnings in time and I knew I could not infiltrate the palace's security to disable the explosives in time. Instead, I sought out an uninhabited section of the city and set off a smaller explosion of my own, hoping to rouse suspicion and give the Imperial Guard reason to root out the true threat." Cornejo was silent for a long time. His face twisted with a pained grimace. "I underestimated the true arsonist, and even my explosion set off many other hidden bombs. I think that the true saboteur, seeing his plans foiled, seized the opportunity to feed the flames and cause as much destruction as possible."

"And what was a lone uninvited gaijin doing in Toshi Ranbo to begin with?" Hoketuhime demanded.

"It was my great-grandfather Calixto's wish that I come here," Esteban replied. "It is a long story."

"I think you should indulge me."

Esteban exchanged a troubled look with Kikaze. The Crane only bowed his head slightly.

"I was named for my great uncle, a master of the art of explosives," Esteban began. "As his namesake, I saw it as my duty to learn the family trade. My great-grandfather Calixto approved. Two years ago, old Calixto told me the truth about my namesake. He told me that Esteban had been marooned in a land called Rokugan, and made a home for himself here. Kikaze has already informed me that the Otomo monitor all gaijin activities in this Empire. Surely this tale is familiar, Hoketuhime-sama?"

Hoketuhime glared at him silently.

"Please, Hoketuhime-sama," Kikaze pleaded. "We pursue a threat to the Emperor himself. I beg you to cooperate with him. Secrets no longer serve us."

Hoketuhime's eyes widened slightly at the sincerity in Kikaze's tone. When she looked at Esteban again there was less hatred in her gaze, if only slightly. "Yes," she said. "I know of the first Esteban Cornejo. His floundering ship was found by Mantis sailors. Lord Yoshitsune granted him refuge in the Islands of Spice and Silk. He served Yoshitsune as a saboteur in the clan's mercenary endeavors. All was well until his affair with Iuchi Maiko, the wife of a Unicorn ambassador. Esteban dishonored Maiko then took her husband's life in a duel. Fearing the repercussions for his Mantis hosts, Esteban flung himself from the cliffs of Kyuden Gotei."

"And what of my great uncle's son?" Esteban asked.

Hoketuhime's red lips pursed in mild irritation. "Alhundro was but a child when Esteban died," she said. "He studied his father's journals well and also came to serve the Mantis Clan as a saboteur until he disappeared near the end of the Clan War. There has been no trace of him since, at least none we are aware of. I confess such incompleteness bothers me. I would not think that a man with such dramatic talents would meet so obscure a fate."

"There is some amount of magic in my family," Cornejo replied, "Though today it is only a shadow of what it once was. For thirty years, my great-grandfather has been plagued with nightmarish visions. He dreams of Alhundro, trapped in darkness, screaming for release. Calixto saw the Imperial Palace of Rokugan in flames. He saw a catastrophe that would drag your Empire to ruin. I promised him that I would journey here and do what I could to prevent it."
"So rather than find a proper ambassador to discuss this wild prophecy you engaged in wanton arson?" she asked with a sneer.

"My family's fortunes have dwindled in recent years," Esteban said. "The king of Merenae thinks Calixto is insane. It was all I could do to arrange for a ship to leave me on Rokugan's coast."

"You deserve execution, not aid," she retorted.

"I have known all along that I would never see my homeland again," Esteban said darkly. "I will meet my fate without fear if I can prevent great-grandfather's vision. If I must die, so be it, but not before I learn Alhundro's fate."

"Esteban is not the only one at fault here, Hoketuhime," Kikaze said. "You knew of my investigation. Surely the Otomo would have recognized the explosives we found beneath the Palace as of Merenae origin. You told me nothing."

Hoketuhime frowned. "I do not answer to you, Kikaze."

"No, you do not," he said. "But this gaijin would leave his homeland and family forever to save a city he has never seen. Can you do less, Hoketuhime?"

She looked from Kikaze to Esteban, bowing her head marginally in the gaijin's direction. It was as much of an apology as he would get.

"What do you need from me?" she asked.

"Alhundro was not my namesake's only son," Esteban said. "Iuchi Maiko bore a bastard child, a ronin cast out by his father. Cut off from his Unicorn heritage, this man struggled to learn what he could about his gaijin blood. Through sporadic correspondences dispatched through the Burning Sands, this man made contact with my great-grandfather. It was through him that Calixto learned what little I know about Esteban and Alhundro after their arrival in Rokugan. If any know what became of Alhundro since, it would be his brother, Rodrigo."

"Does this man still live?" Kikaze asked.

"Swear to me, Kikaze," Hoketuhime said, looking directly at the Crane. "Swear to me on the honor of the Daidoji that you truly seek to protect the Emperor in this. Swear to me that, if this man Esteban proves to be an enemy," she looked levelly at the gaijin, "that you will not hesitate to kill him."
"This I swear," Kikaze replied instantly.

"Very well," Hoketuhime said. "I will tell you where to find Rodrigo Cornejo."

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

Today, the Shinomen Forest&

The lands of the Scorpion Clan were in close proximity to the Shinomen Forest, so Bayushi Sunetra was no stranger to the legends. The Shinomen was a haunted place. Spirits older than the Empire dwelled within the verdant shadows. It was the home to the ancient Naga, a race of serpentine humanoids who had slumbered here for centuries.

During the Clan War, the Naga awakened to fight Fu Leng. After some initial suspicion, the people of Rokugan welcomed the Naga as allies. After the War Against the Shadow, the Naga's magical slumber began to reassert itself. The Naga returned to their cities, sinking beneath the depths of forgotten pools and entering a deep sleep. Only a handful of Naga resisted the call, and now protected their brothers and sisters from danger.

The Emperor commanded Sunetra to seek the Naga to learn more about their ancient enemies, the Ashalan. Iyotisha, the ruined Naga City of Astronomers, seemed the best bet for ancient Ashalan lore. Sunetra knew that the journey would be dangerous. She knew that she would likely encounter threats that she could not possibly understand. She only had the faintest idea where to find the Naga cities, as most Imperial Maps only suggested their locations. What disturbed her the most, however, was arriving to find a column of heavily armored samurai encamped at the edge of the Shinomen Forest near the ruins of Iyotisha.

The samurai of the Unicorn Clan helped the Naga guard the Shinomen. Their presence was no surprise, in small numbers, but so many at once was highly peculiar. As she studied their ranks, she noted several orange-garbed Phoenix mixed among their number as well. Curious, Sunetra crept closer, crouching low in the high grass. She flattened herself upon the earth as a pair of Shinjo scouts rode past. They did not appear to notice, galloping onward along the perimeter of the forest. She waited several moments and continued her crawl. She scowled as she recognized the banner that flew at the center of the camp, bearing the personal chop of the Shogun.

This could be no coincidence. Why would the Shogun camp outside Iyotisha now, of all times? Was he seeking the Ashalan as well? The Ashalan were apparently allied with the true master of the Gozoku, Bayushi Atsuki. Naseru suspected that Kaneka bore Gozoku sympathies, but was it possible that he knew of their true masters? Was it possible that Atsuki had sent Kaneka here to silence the Naga? Or was he seeking them for his own purposes?

Sunetra pushed foolish theories aside. Kaneka's presence here was irrelevant to her mission unless he chose to interfere. He was a complication to worry over once her mission was complete. She gave the camp a wide berth, moving slowly so as not to disturb the grass until she was safe within the forest's dark embrace. She jogged along a rough path through the deep undergrowth, making no sound on the carpet of leaves and tinder. Jagged chunks of white stone stood out from the trees in places, marked with the arcane sigils of the Naga. The symbols reminded Sunetra of the ones she had seen in the City of Night, but she had no idea what significance they bore.

The sound of an approaching horse drew her attention. She darted into the shadows behind a thick oak, pressing herself against the bark so that she would not be seen. The horse was moving swiftly through the forest toward Kaneka's camp. The rider was a rough Unicorn in a tattered cloak, leaning low in the saddle. He was in such a hurry it was unlikely he would spare a moment to notice her, hidden as she was. Just as he passed her, he suddenly pulled his horse to a halt. Sitting upright in the saddle, he began to look around attentively, his bow in one hand with an arrow drawn.

Sunetra cursed silently. A dagger appeared in her hand. How could the man have seen her? It was impossible. She did not wish to kill one of the Shogun's soldiers, but she could not let some fool compromise her mission. She hefted the weapon, preparing to throw it.

The man turned, and she saw the greenish-purple light that gleamed in his left eye.  The dagger fell from her hand. He lowered his bow.

"Sunetra?" Shinjo Shono said in surprise.

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

The Plains Above Evil&

The doors of the ronin hideout exploded with a single, well-placed kick. Daidoji Kikaze entered with his sword drawn. Takihiro and Tani followed just behind, their weapons ready as well. Esteban Cornejo entered behind them, holding a short spear awkwardly in one hand. Esteban had little training in the use of weapons, but Kikaze had insisted he go armed, if only to intimidate a potential opponent long enough for one of the Crane bushi to deal with them.

Hoketuhime had told them to seek Rodrigo on the plains here. According to her intelligence he was still alive, albeit ancient. He had come to lead a small band of ronin too disreputable to find work anywhere else. The few scattered peasants who dared to live on the remote plains had eagerly helped them find the specific location of his hideout. Most, it seemed, assumed that Kikaze and the others had arrived to deal with Rodrigo and his thieves accordingly.

Though they had arrived under cover of darkness, there were no lights within the hideout. No horses were tethered in the stables, no smoke rose from any cook fire within, though the interior smelled heavily of old smoke and a more peculiar, bitter smell.

"There is no one here, my lord," Tani said sharply.

"Not surprising," Kikaze replied. "Scum like Rodrigo never stay in one place for long."

"No," Esteban said, stepping past Kikaze, deeper into the house. "I hear something."

The others fell silent. A soft sound could be heard from deep within the hideout, like a man whispering. Kikaze gestured for silence and slowly approached, pushing open the door to the adjoining chamber. The coppery smell of fresh blood rolled over them. Esteban covered his mouth with one hand and turned away in disgust. The bodies of a half dozen ronin lay on the floor, torn apart as if by an animal's claws. They lay strewn among heaps of broken furniture and overturned barrels. Many still held their weapons in hand, looks of horror frozen upon their dead faces. An old man sat on a barrel in the middle of the chamber, his face and clothes stained with blood, the wispy remnants of his hair sticking out in mad patterns. He held a small lantern high and stared at the bodies as he mumbled to himself.

"A brother helps a brother," he whispered. "In a place like this, all that a brother has is his brother."

"He's mad," Kikaze said. "Look at their wounds. There is some dark power at work here."

"Rodrigo?" Esteban called out, stepping toward the old man.

"Alhundro?" Rodrigo answered, looking sharply toward Esteban.

Esteban opened his mouth to answer, but the response died upon his lips. He recognized the harsh smell of sulfur, realized the reason for the smoke. He recognized the barrels that filled the small hideout, and the one that Rodrigo sat upon.

"You're not my brother," Rodrigo said, his face twisting in anger, "but he told me you would come. I'm sorry. At least the darkness will not find us, too."

The lantern fell from Rodrigo's hand.

"Blood of Kharsis, run!" Esteban shouted, turning back toward the door.

The world was overwhelmed with the sound of thunder and the flash of searing fire. Esteban leaped through the doors of the hideout just as it exploded around him, losing track of Kikaze and the others in the confusion. He was hurled through the air, crashing into the ground. He tasted blood in his mouth and felt a rib crack as he rolled across the misty plain. Stunned and senseless, he was unable to do anything more than look helplessly at the night sky and struggle to draw breath. The shadows moved above him, and saw his own face peer down.

No, not his own face, but very similar. A young man, a Merenae gaijin.

"Alhundro?" Esteban whispered through the pain.

"That name is familiar," the man said. "You are the one from Toshi Ranbo. I suppose it feels better to know that I owe the shame of my failure there to family. It makes the sting less painful, to know it was not a worthless Rokugani who ruined my beautiful fire. Still, I find it a pity&"

Alhundro's features flickered and vanished. His face became an eggshell-smooth patch of skin.

"My family waited too long to find me," Alhundro said. "I have a new family now."


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!