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By Shawn Carman

Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City

The Shogun's forces arrived at dawn. There was no announcement, no warning of their arrival other than a few rumors among traveling merchants of a large encampment only a few days away, something most had assumed was Lion or Crane in nature. As Shogun, however, Kaneka was given free reign to travel as he pleased throughout the Empire, and notice of his arrivals and departures was a rare thing indeed. With most of his forces committed elsewhere, he had left the bulk of his personal army under the command of his wife and departed with a small personal guard to Toshi Ranbo.

"Your orders, Kaneka-sama?" Shiba Danjuro dismounted smoothly and surrendered his steed to a very perplexed stable-hand.

Kaneka dismounted as well, landing with noticeably less grace than his subordinate. "See to it that the men are provided barracks. Near the palace. The Seppun will have space, no doubt. Stable the horses and have them ready in case we are called away. We should be ready to depart in a moment's notice at all times."

"Do you anticipate difficulty in the city?" Danjuro asked.

"Not at all," Kaneka answered. "I merely wish to be ready in case there is a threat elsewhere that requires our attention."

"I know many who will be relieved to hear that."

Kaneka turned to see a noble-looking man with weathered features clad all in brown. The Shogun smiled. "Shoin. It is good to see you."

"Thank you, Kaneka-sama," the Imperial Herald said with a bow. "I am pleased to see you as well, although I did not anticipate that we would meet again for some months."

Kaneka chuckled. "Perhaps I found your letter a bit more concerning than you intended, then."

"So it would seem," Shoin said. "What is the purpose of your visit, if I may ask? As I said in the letter, the Emperor is likely to remain indisposed for some time."

"And that is the purpose of my visit," Kaneka said. "Absence of authority can foment betrayal and treachery. I am here to ensure that neither blossom while the Emperor is consumed with more pressing matters."

"I see," Shoin said, clearly unconvinced. "Your devotion to duty is an inspiration to us all."

"No flattery," Kaneka said with a wave. "I do not play such games. I will need quarters in the palace."

"I will see to it personally," Shoin said.

There was a faint muttering from the other side of the door. Danjuro looked up with a frown, instinctively moving between Kaneka and the doorway. Not for the first time, Kaneka was inwardly grateful to have secured the service of such a skilled and honorable man, even if his diligence was not always required.

The doors to Kaneka's chamber flew open suddenly, although they did not strike the walls. Instead, they suddenly stopped just short of their targets, drifting the last few inches to rest light as a feather. The Imperial guardsmen outside had not moved from their posts. Between them, standing in the doorway, was a man wrapped in brilliant robes of crimson and orange. The gaunt man regarded Kaneka with a sunken expression, his white hair cascading down his shoulders in several neat braids. "These vigilant guardsmen assured me that the Shogun did not wish to be disturbed," he said in a morbid tone. "Fortunately the doors seem to have opened regardless. Hello, brother."

"Hello, Sezaru."

Danjuro glanced at Kaneka. His expression was neither confused nor concerned, but merely inquisitive. Regardless of what he was ordered to do, Kaneka had no doubt Danjuro would do it, even if it meant certain death by attacking Sezaru. Such thoughts were ridiculous, of course, but occasionally Kaneka was a ridiculous man. "Leave us please, Danjuro," he said. "I wish to speak to my brother alone."

"Of course." Danjuro immediately stepped out of the chamber and closed the doors behind him, giving the two the privacy they required. The Shogun sighed raggedly. Of his three siblings, Sezaru was the one with whom he had the least rapport, despite that it was Sezaru who had first called him "brother" all those years ago. In truth, he had no idea what to say to this strange, terrifyingly powerful man standing before him. How did a soldier converse with a hurricane?

"You were not present at my wedding," Sezaru said flatly.

Despite the tension, Kaneka could not help but chuckle at the oddity of the statement. "I know," he said after a moment. "And for that, I am truly sorry. I would very much have liked to pay my respects to you and your bride, but you and I both understand the realities of our lives. I could not be there."

"I know."

"How is Angai faring in her new life as a Phoenix?"

There was a flicker of a smile on Sezaru's face, although it could have been just a trick of the light. "She excels in all things, of course. Yet, I see in her eyes a strange sensation whenever she calls herself by the name Isawa. It is the sort of sensation one might experience when drinking tea that has long since gone sour. But of course she says nothing."

"She is a fine woman," Kaneka said. "A skilled magistrate, a powerful shugenja, a cunning courtier& and of course having one of the Kuroiban near at hand is always beneficial when one faces the darkness as often as men like us do."

Sezaru's look was piercing. "You know of the Kuroiban?"

Kaneka waved the comment away. "I know a great many secrets that others would prefer to stay hidden. Fortunately, despite a reputation to the contrary, I am a man of discretion when it suits me." He smiled at Sezaru. "The Kuroiban aid in protecting the Empire. They never need fear me."

"That is fortunate," Sezaru said. "For them, of course. And what of your bride, brother? Yasuyo is not as frequent a sight in court as perhaps she once was."

"Yasuyo and I are busy people. We cannot overlook matters of importance to the Empire for something so petty and pointless as obligatory court appearances."

"I understand that she has retained her family name despite your marriage and the resultant obligations to the Phoenix." Sezaru seemed almost amused at the idea.

"She earned that right," Kaneka said with a grin. "She nearly bested me in a sparring match to determine how we would resolve that particular quandary. Her performance was such that I could not bear to deny her, even if I was victorious. I must confess that I had underestimated her."

The Wolf's smirk was no longer hidden. "You believed she would not be a threat, despite her reputation as a warrior?"

"Something along those lines," Kaneka confessed. "My ribs still ache. She is an incredible woman. Different from me in every respect save her stubbornness. It can be both invigorating and infuriating, occasionally at the same time."

"Remember that," Sezaru cautioned. "You value her for your differences, and yet you slowly destroy those differences by placing her among your forces just as you would any other trusted general. Do not alter her path to suit yours if you value her strengths."

"Thank you for the advice," Kaneka smiled. He turned his back to the shugenja for a moment and placed his blade upon the rack. "While I appreciate your burgeoning mastery of conversation, we both know you did not come here to discuss the ceremony of marriage." He turned back around. "What news?"

Sezaru folded his arms into his sleeves. "The war goes badly."

"How is that possible?" Kaneka demanded. "The Phoenix possess the most powerful magic in the Empire. How can the Mantis plague them so?"

"The Isawa are indeed powerful," Sezaru acknowledged, "but still relatively few in number when compared to the vicious armies of the Mantis. The Isawa have spent much time securing their coastline from attack, leaving the other families to protect the more vulnerable Shiba and Agasha coastlines. And there are many, even Isawa Ochiai, who will not kill their enemies. It is admirable, but it makes the war far more complicated."

"You speak of the Isawa as if you did not bear their name," Kaneka chastised.

"Perhaps I bear the name," Sezaru said, "but I was not born among their number."

"Your mother was an Isawa," Kaneka returned. "You could end this in a day."

"Perhaps," Sezaru repeated. "But I will not spill the blood of samurai whose only sin is waging war without the Emperor's permission. The Phoenix are guilty of that as well. The Mantis serve the Emperor, in their own fashion. Bloodspeakers and demons I will crush without hesitation, but loyal subjects of my brother? No. No, I will not become that monstrous."

"You may have no choice," Kankea pressed.

"If the Mantis armies reach Kyuden Isawa," Sezaru said, "then I promise you that they will be turned away. But I will not become a butcher. That is not why I joined the Phoenix."

Kaneka shook his head. "You say the Mantis are the Emperor's loyal subjects. What of the accusations they used a Black Scroll?"

"Those accusations cannot be substantiated," Sezaru explained. "There has been ample testimony to refute it, and little in the way of proof."

"Proof," Kaneka sneered. "You sound like a Kitsuki."

"You have met Yoritomo Kumiko, as I have," Sezaru said, his otherworldly gaze meeting Kaneka's with an uncomfortable intensity. "Do you believe that she would condone such a tactic? Or permit someone who would utilize it to serve her? I have seen into her spirit. I know the answer to that question, as you do."

Kaneka sighed and scratched his cheek roughly. "You suspect someone within the Phoenix, then?"

"I do not know." The Shogun could never recall hearing Sezaru say those words before. "It would be simpler to believe some outside party set the two clans against one another, but that line of thinking is nave and leads only to disappointment. Perhaps the war was engineered, but even so it will end in blood and fire. There is too much hatred. On both sides."

"How bad is it?"

"The Isawa's insistence on securing their coastline has created tremendous resentment among the other families. If the war continues for much longer, I fear the wounds between the families may never heal. The Shiba are stretched to their limit trying to protect the remaining coastline, and cannot launch an offensive." He paused for a moment, as if weighing his words. Finally, he sighed and continued. "The recent& death of Doji Akiko has crippled the Isawa who serve as the Acolytes and Initiates of Water. Several have taken their lives in disgrace over her actions, and in doing so have significantly reduced the offensive capabilities of the Phoenix stationed at the coast."

"Idiots," Kaneka snarled. "They were so absorbed in their own perceived honor loss that they cut open their bellies and left their brothers weakened for their deaths."

"The disgrace was tremendous," Sezaru admitted. "Given the strain this war has placed upon many of our pacifist kinsmen, I am not surprised that a handful have taken a convenient escape. In truth, I expected more."

"What of the Mantis?" Kaneka asked.

"They have seized a number of islands off the coast," Sezaru continued. "They are using them as a staging ground for their naval attacks and incursions onto the mainland. Many villages have been put to the torch, although the cost for the Mantis is always high. They could have crippled Phoenix trade routes by now, but they continue to avoid the City of Remembrance."

"Why would they do such a thing?" Kaneka demanded.

"It is complicated," Sezaru said, waving the question away. He fixed the Shogun with an unwavering gaze. "We are suffering in this war," he said in a low voice. "We need you, Kaneka."

The Shogun was silent for a moment. "I cannot."


"I offered the Council my help in the beginning," Kaneka said. "They declined."

"That was long ago," Sezaru said. "Things have changed dramatically. We need you now. The Phoenix need you."

Kaneka shook his head. "The time for that has passed. I cannot come to their aid now."

"Why?" Sezaru repeated.

Kaneka turned and swept his arm, encompassing the room and the palace, even the city beyond it. "Naseru is gone!" he hissed. "He's retreated into his maze of private chambers to contemplate the notion of granting the Shadowlands Great Clan status? The Shadowlands, Sezaru! Can you imagine such insanity?"

"Be very careful," Sezaru said, his voice just above a whisper.

Kaneka drew back a half-step, suddenly remembering Sezaru's history of instability and, perhaps more importantly, his unwavering zeal in serving the Emperor. "It is not my intent to slander the Emperor," he said carefully, "but if what he said before withdrawing is true, if the witnesses are relaying his statements correctly, then something has to be done. You cannot tell me that you, of all people in the Empire, would be willing to make peace with Daigotsu and his pack of slavering fools. Just because he trained them to stand up straight and speak doesn't make them more than animals."

"I do not believe there can be peace with the Shadowlands," Sezaru said. "Furthermore, I believe that the Emperor will consider all outcomes, as he must, and that he will arrive at the same conclusion I have." There was a tiny glimmer of doubt, barely reflected in Sezaru's voice and eyes, but it was enough for Kaneka to seize upon at once.

"You and I both know what the answer to this obscene petition has to be," he said quietly. "What it must be! That you and I, a soldier and a priest plagued with his own inner demons, can so easily arrive at such an obvious conclusion should be a matter of grave concern, should it not? Why can our brother not see it? What can possibly weigh upon his mind so heavily that he would even entertain this madness?"

"The Keeper of the Five Rings believes that the Emperor is taking the wisest course of action," Sezaru offered.

"Sekawa?" Kaneka laughed. "Asahina Sekawa is either a charlatan or a madman, and quite frankly I'm not certain which is more dangerous. He fights against his own family's pacifistic tendencies for years in hopes of slaying the demon that murdered his sister, and then suddenly he finds one of Rosoku's books and is a sage leader? I do not believe it for a moment. That he is involved in this somehow makes it all the more suspicious to me."

"It's a simple matter for you to question, is it not?" Sezaru asked. "To doubt? Because it excuses you from having faith, and from accepting that perhaps your role in the grand scheme of things is not so grand as you might wish."

"That is not what this is about," Kaneka insisted.

"Explain it, then, because you seem like little more than dissident military leader that craves power."

Kaneka frowned. "I voluntarily surrendered my claim to the throne, just as you did," he said with a sneer. "I do not want the throne. I want an Empire that is safe, with citizens who do not have to fear for their lives or their souls. I want law and order, and if our brother is not going to step forward and supply it, then I have no choice but to do so in his name while he remains indisposed. There are wars, Sezaru, and wars can lead to chaos with nothing more than a breeze or a whisper."

Sezaru's eyes narrowed. "You intend to seize control of the capital?"

"No," Kaneka said emphatically. "I intend to maintain order while the Emperor is absent. If he wishes me to depart, all he must do is emerge from his seclusion and resume the duty himself, or appoint another to do it in my place."

For a brief moment, Kaneka feared that he had overstepped his bounds. Sezaru's eyes seemed to glow, but they gave off no light or energy, merely a strange intensity that the Shogun imagined he could almost feel. "It is your intent, then, to maintain law and order, then?" Sezaru asked quietly. "Your ambition does not extend beyond that?"

"No," Kaneka said adamantly. "I am no brutish conqueror. Not any longer."

The intensity finally faded from Sezaru's eyes, and the Wolf seemed tired. "I should destroy you," he said after a moment's consideration.

Kaneka instantly plotted the location of his blade behind him, and the various items he could use as a shield long enough to get close to Sezaru. He suspected it would not be enough. "You do not believe me, then?"

"On the contrary," Sezaru said. "I can see into your soul. I know that you are an ambitious man. I know that you bear no love for our brother the Emperor. And yet you are honorable, as he is. You desire only the best for the Empire, as he does. And you both believe that the other cannot achieve such goals."

Kaneka frowned. "Then why destroy me, if you know I am genuine."

"Because two men such as you, both desiring the Empire's best interests, and both adamantly opposed to the other's methods, is the greatest threat that Rokugan can face," Sezaru said. "You will tear the Empire apart."

"That cannot happen," Kaneka said firmly.

"Agreed," the Wolf said, turning to leave. "It will not, because eventually I will have no choice but to decide which of my brothers will save the Empire, and which will damn it with war."

"And when that day comes?"

Sezaru turned as he stepped through the doors, raising his mask to his face. "On that day," he said, his voice oddly different, "I will have but one brother remaining."

Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!