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Worldly Matters
By Shawn Carman
Editing & Assistance by Fred Wan

There was something inherently beautiful about the lands maintained by the Minor Clans in Rokugan. The vast expanses controlled by the Great Clans were carefully mapped and cultivated, with hardly an acre that was not evaluated for potential resources and then kept in pristine condition for the clan's use. There was no doubt that such places were beautiful, of course. The mountainous expanse of the Dragon provinces had breathtaking vistas, just as the vast plains in the central Lion lands resembled golden fields that stretched on to the horizon.

Minor Clan lands, conversely, had a wilder, more primal beauty to them. While the smaller clans controlled much smaller tracts of land, they still could not spare the time and resources necessary to thoroughly domesticate the land in the same way as the Great Clans. It was the unfettered beauty of nature, and Mirumoto Kenzo attempted to appreciate it whenever possible. Unfortunately, that was not always possible, especially of late. "Kenzo-san."

The young Dragon turned in his saddle to regard the courtier riding at his side. "Hai?"

"You seem distracted. Preoccupied. Are you well?"

Kenzo managed to refrain from frowning, but it was a near miss. The young courtier he was accompanying, ostensibly as a yojimbo, was bright and perceptive. Unfortunately, he seemed interested in directing those qualities exclusively at his yojimbo. Kenzo understood, of course. Kitsuki Seiji had become one of only a handful of individuals who knew of the burden Kenzo carried, and the knowledge had seemed to unnerve him somewhat when Mirumoto Rosanjin had divulged the information. He had of course asked how he could trust someone who might succumb to dark temptation at any moment. Rosanjin had simply replied that Kenzo alone seemed immune to his blades' siren call, and that had ended the exchange. Still, Seiji paid particular attention to Kenzo, and asked after his every mood change, perhaps fearing a murderous rampage. Kenzo forced a smile. "I am merely appreciating the scenery, Seiji-sama."

"Ah," Seiji said, glancing around. "It is uncommonly beautiful, isn't it? I always wished to live in a forested region like this when I was a child."

This time Kenzo's smile was genuine. "As did I."

Seiji smiled as well and turned to their companion, a surly young man dressed in shades of brown rather than their green and gold hues. "And you, Hozumi?"

The younger man frowned. "I never spent much time thinking about it," he said after a moment's consideration.

"Really?" Seiji seemed surprised. "I thought all boys thought about such things."

"It did not seem important," Hozumi said.

Kenzo held his hand up suddenly, stifling Seiji's reply. "Riders, Seiji-sama," he said quietly. "Four approaching from the east."

The courtier nodded. "Likely a greeting from our hosts, but be on guard all the same."

"Hai," Kenzo replied. Their journey had been a long one, and thus far they had not encountered any Crane. Given the conflict currently being waged in the southern Dragon mountains, that was fortunate. The Crane still held considerable influence in many areas, including the Emerald Magistrates. Kenzo had expected to encounter difficulty during their travels, but as yet their trip had been uneventful. He wondered now if they would be foiled when practically within sight of their destination. He felt the tugging insistence at the back of his mind, a sensation he had trained himself to ignore, grow stronger with the threat of violence. Kenzo steeled his will and shoved the feeling aside.

The four riders were upon them in a matter of moments. It was with considerable relief that Kenzo recognized their mon. One jumped down from his steed and bowed deeply. "Welcome, honored guests. I am Toku Butaka. On behalf of my lady Toku Inao-sama, I offer you an honor guard on your last few miles to the Virtuous Keep of the Monkey."

"Thank you, Butaka-san," Seiji said smoothly. "We graciously accept your lady's generous offer. I take your appearance to mean that word of our arrival precedes us, then?"

"Yes, Kitsuki-sama," Butaka answered. "We received word of your arrival some weeks ago, actually. Our travel routes have not been quite as& restricted as those you have had to use."

"Unfortunately true," Seiji said, "but then the Iuchi Pass is lovely this time of year." He smiled slightly. "Please, lead the way. We are most eager to enjoy the hospitality of the Monkey Clan."

Butaka smiled and bowed sharply, then quickly remounted his horse. "Follow me, Kitsuki-sama."

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

If one were judging by appearance alone, then a first time visitor unaware of his surroundings might assume that the Virtuous Keep of the Monkey were little more than a particularly large monastery or perhaps an old fortress of some sort. The large village lying alongside it dispelled those illusions somewhat, but one could not argue that the keep itself was extremely stark in appearance. The Monkey Clan was not known for its opulence, after all, and despite a very close relationship with the Toturi dynasty, the clan's leaders had chosen not to use that relationship to attain material wealth. It was one of the things that Kenzo most respected about them from his readings on their history.

As the Dragon guests and their escorts rode through the gates into the keep, the most prominent landmark was a large shrine that dominated the courtyard within. It was a recent construction, that much was obvious from the stonework. As Toku Butaka and his companions dismounted, they immediately surrendered their steeds to attendants and walked to the shrine, kneeling to offer prayers before entering the keep proper. Kenzo dismounted in a fluid motion, still taking in the shrine and the other details around them. An attendant approached and moved as if to take Kenzo's horse, but the warrior waved the young man away. "That is not necessary," he said.

"No insult intended, my friends," Seiji said as he smiled to the attendants. "Our associate prefers to handle all matters relating to our steeds."

"Show me to the stable, please," Hozumi said quietly.

"Join us in my chambers after you have refreshed yourself, Hozumi," Sieji said. "We will need to present ourselves to Lady Inao soon." The courtier turned and regarded the many Monkey samurai moving through the courtyard in a chaotic jumble. "I see we are not the only guests."

Kenzo frowned and glanced at the crowd, struggling to find anything out of place among the sea of earth tone kimonos. Finally, he saw a black and red clad man with a mask standing off to one side. His body language was casual, but Kenzo could not help but notice that his positioning was such that he was clearly out of the normal field of vision. He had not seen the Scorpion, but of course Seiji had. "Hello," the Scorpion said amiably. "Welcome to the Virtuous Keep. It is good to see allies so far from home."

"Far from our home, true," Seiji said, "but not so far from the Scorpion lands. And where else would the Dragon feel at home but in the lands of their longest-held allies?"

The Scorpion's mouth curled into a warm smile beneath the line of his mask, although Kenzo felt that the smile was not reflected in his eyes. "True enough," he said. "I am Bayushi Tsimaru. It is my pleasure to meet you."

"Thank you," Seiji said with a bow. "I am Kitsuki Seiji, representative of the Dragon families. This is my yojimbo and associate Mirumoto Kenzo. Our other companion is Hozumi, although he has retired to the stables for the moment."

"So I saw," Tsimaru said. "Odd to travel with a ronin in times such as these. Particularly one with an apparent passion for animal husbandry."

"Hozumi is a loyal vassal," Seiji said. "He has been offered fealty once before, by lord Rosanjin himself, but declined."

"He says he must prove himself first," Kenzo interjected.

"A curious response," Tsimaru mused.

"Hozumi's heritage is somewhat unique," Seiji explained.

"Ah," Tsimaru said. "Now that is something that I can certainly understand." He smiled again and bowed. "I am needed elsewhere, my friends. I merely wished to greet you when I heard of your impending arrival. I hope to see you later this afternoon in Lady Inao's court."

"Of course," Seiji said. "Thank you."

As Tsimaru walked away, Kenzo wondered why someone who should be an ally seemed so dangerous to him. His instincts were rarely wrong, but in this case, he hoped they would prove unreliable. Unfortunately, he could only wait and see.

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

Toku Inao, the Lady of the Monkey, had been born into the ruling family of the Shosuro. Decades ago, she had been married to the man called Toku as part of a political arrangement shortly after the Scorpion returned from their exile in the Burning Sands. History said that Toku offered to return the lands given the Monkey, which had originally belonged to the Scorpion, but that the Scorpion had, perhaps uncharacteristically, refused. Instead, they entered into an alliance with the tiny clan, a move many found curious as the Monkey had literally nothing to offer the Scorpion.

Shosuro Inao, sister to the Shosuro daimyo, became Toku's bride, and the two ruled together for decades. It was only recently, during the Bloodspeaker conflict, that the great hero Toku had at last fallen in battle. In recognition of his valor, the Emperor had bestowed upon the Monkey Clan the family name Toku, and his widow Inao was first to take it.

"Welcome," Inao said warmly as the two Dragon and Hozumi entered the main audience chamber. There were many Monkey in attendance, of course, as well as Tsimaru and a handful of representatives from other Minor Clans. "We are greatly honored to host representatives not only from our allies the Scorpion, but from the Dragon as well."

"Thank you, Inao-sama," Seiji said. "We are both delighted and grateful to partake of your hospitality."

Inao's smile was warm and genuine, and held no trace of the reservation that Kenzo had grown accustomed to when dealing with the Scorpion. Perhaps there was simply nothing of that life left within the aging matriarch. Kenzo sensed sudden tension to his left and turned to see the iron expression he had learned indicated Seiji was suppressing surprise or some other emotion. Alarmed, he cast about the room in search of a foe. Instead, to his shock and amazement, he saw that Hozumi had approached the dais where Inao rested.

The young warrior did not look at Inao as he spoke. "Lady Toku," he said in a quiet, uncharacteristically gentle voice, "I am honored to be in the house of Toku this evening. My father and your husband were comrades during the Clan War, and I have been a great admirer of his my entire life. I mourned his loss as I mourned the loss of my father."

Inao's expression softened. "Thank you, child," she said. "Please, rise and give me your name."

"I am Hozumi, vassal of the Mirumoto," he replied.

"And your father's name?" Inao asked.

Hozumi hesitated for a brief moment. "Sanzo," he answered. "My father's name was Sanzo."

Kenzo glanced sidelong at Seiji, wondering if the courtier had known. His expression remained inscrutable, but Kenzo guessed that he did not. The weight of the smaller blade on Kenzo's hip seemed greater somehow, although he could not say why.

"Seiji-san," Inao said. "You have brought me a great gift this day." She smiled at Hozumi. "In this young man's eyes, I see his father and my husband. Thank you."

"If our presence has offered you any degree of comfort, we are pleased," Seiji said with a bow.

Inao gestured to the table before dais. "Please, come and take tea with me."

Seiji smiled. "We would be honored."

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

It was late in the evening by the time the court session was ended and the two Dragon returned to their quarters. Seiji was agitated, and did not even wait for Kenzo to enter the room first and ensure that all was well. The courtier turned and faced him with an irritable expression. "Did you know?" he demanded. "Did you know about Hozumi?"

"No," Kenzo said flatly.

Seiji's frown grew more severe. "I despise entering a situation without all the information."

Kenzo shrugged. "It worked to our advantage. Inao is certainly well disposed toward us, wouldn't you say?"

"It could just as easily have been a disaster," Seiji insisted. "And in any event, it was not as if we stood any real chance of failure. The Ox accepted our overtures, the Monkey were even more likely to do so."

"Sponsorship in the courts," Kenzo said, shaking his head. "What need do the Monkey have of such a thing? They are beloved by virtually everyone. No one wishes to make an enemy of the Toturi dynasty by alienating their favored vassals."

"All the same, there are advantages that a Minor Clan simply cannot achieve without allies," Seiji said. "We are in a position to offer them those advantages."

"I should think the Scorpion would suffice in that regard," Kenzo said.

Seiji's irritable veneer cracked for a moment as he smiled wryly. "The Scorpion are our allies, and have been for generations. Would you trust them?"

Kenzo considered it for a moment. "No," he finally said.

"In any event, it seems we may have more difficulties than we initially though," Seiji said. "The trade agreement we were intending to make as part of our sponsorship may not be possible."

"Trade agreement?" Kenzo said with a frown. "What can the Monkey have that we require?"

"Rice," Seiji said flatly. "The Monkey provinces are exceptionally fertile, and they produce a surplus of rice. They traditionally sell it at almost no profit to other Minor Clans, but it was hoped that we could arrange to purchase it as a part of our alliance."

"Why do we require additional rice?" Kenzo said.

Seiji stared at him, aghast. "I know you are a soldier, but please don't be nave," he scolded. "War requires enormous resources, and our mountains have never been the most productive holdings. The Phoenix can scarcely feed themselves, even now that their war is at an end. The Ox may be able to produce some small amount for us to purchase, given their proximity to the Dragon Heart Plain, but still, we are facing rationing throughout the Dragon lands."

"What of the Scorpion?" Kenzo asked. "As you said, they are our oldest allies."

Seiji stared at Kenzo for a moment, as if considering something. Finally, he sighed resignedly. "Few know this," he began, "but recently the Scorpion informed our leaders that they would regrettably be unable to sell us the quantity of rice we normally purchase from them, much less any additional amount. This has only exacerbated our situation."

"What?" Kenzo exclaimed. "Why?"

"We do not know," Seiji admitted. "But I suspect that Tsimaru's presence here may be more than he confesses. Yes, he is dealing with matters regarding his Champion's betrothal to Inao's daughter, but her body language when I spoke of the rice purchase seemed& defensive. Evasive, perhaps. I suspect Tsimaru is somehow involved."

"How?" Kenzo said.

Seiji shook his head. "I do not know, and there is no way to inquire without offending both our host and our ally. I shall simply have to be cautious tomorrow and see what I can learn." The young courtier suddenly looked exhausted. "That will be all, thank you Kenzo. I shall see you in the morning."

Kenzo bowed quickly. "Good night, Seiji-sama." He stepped out into the corridor and slid the door shut. He glanced once down the passageway toward his room, then turned and walked in the opposite direction.

He had business.

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

Bayushi Tsimaru was standing in the shrine to Toku, Fortune of Virtue, when Kenzo finally found him. The Scorpion was standing in the center, looking at the altar with a strangely blank expression. His strangely colored eyes seemed bright, almost luminous, in the near darkness. If he sensed Kenzo's approach, he gave no sign.

Kenzo stood silently for several moments before speaking. "Where did you get it?" he finally asked.

Tsimaru turned suddenly, apparently surprised. "What?" he demanded. "What do you mean?"

"You know exactly what I mean," Kenzo said. "Where did you get it?"

Tsimaru scowled, and Kenzo saw his hand tighten around the saya of his blade just below the tsuba. "That is of no concern to you."

"You know what it is, then?"

"Yes," Tsimaru said. "Just as I know you carry one as well, and far worse than that."

Kenzo frowned. His hand drifted toward the blade of his katana of its own accord, but he stopped and moved it away. The Shamesword clamored in the back of his mind, demanding that he destroy the Scorpion for his impertinence. Beyond the din of its insistence, there was another voice, a stronger, subtler whisper urging him to exploit the situation for his own advantage. As always, he put both aside and focused on his surroundings. "I do," he admitted. "I have been trained to deal with such a burden, however. Can you say the same?"

"That is no concern of yours," Tsimaru repeated. Kenzo could tell from his reaction that he had not.

"I know the struggle you feel," he said in a low voice. "I know how the blade calls to you. Surrender it to the Dragon. Let us attempt to break its hold."

Tsimaru actually laughed. "Like they have destroyed the one you carry?" He shook his head. "And how would the blade be returned, exactly? Would you carry it? Are you so strong that you can carry three cursed blades and resist? How very arrogant. Do not be a fool." His mouth became a thin line. "My grandfather's blood is strong. I can withstand the blade's infernal whispering."

"It will destroy you," Kenzo said.

"I shall stand tall long after your curse has ended you," Tsimaru snapped. He stared at Kenzo for a moment. "Seiji has pieced it together, has he? He's cunning enough. If he hasn't, he will soon. I must admit your bringing Sanzo's son& a brilliant move, even if unintentional. It may cause problems."

Kenzo hesitated. "You wish to buy the excess rice for yourself," he finally said. "The Scorpion are attempting to starve us out."

"Oh, do not be ridiculous," Tsimaru scoffed. "What purpose would that serve?"

"Then why?" Kenzo pressed. "Why would you do this?"

"We have no choice," Tsimaru said. "We face possible famine if we do not."

"Famine?" Kenzo shook his head. "There has been no mention of such a thing in the Scorpion lands. Why would you keep such a thing a secret?"

Tsimaru shook his head and rubbed his eyes with his fingers for a moment. "Do you know the name Tamori Emina?" he asked.

Kenzo thought for a moment. "I have heard it, yes. An apprentice of Tamori Shaitung, I believe."

"Then you are aware," Tsimaru continued, "of the role she played in the recent betrothal of Shaitung and the Phoenix Master of Air." "I know they are to be married," Kenzo said. "I am unaware of what role this Emina may have played, however."

For a moment Tsimaru said nothing. "How can you be so close to such things and yet take no notice of them? It is said that the Fortune Benten appeared to Tamori Emina and blessed her, and that in turn is partially what led to the betrothal."

Kenzo frowned. "This only happened a matter of weeks ago. How can you know of it already?"

Tsimaru smiled. "We all have our strengths."

"What does this have to do with your attempt to purchase surplus rice?"

"It has everything to do with it," Tsimaru said, "because Benten was not alone in her manifestation. At least one other among the Seven Fortunes deigned to appear in the mortal realm, only he did not come to impart his blessings."

Kenzo was suddenly filled with a sense of dread. "What has happened?"

"Bishamon," Tsimaru said flatly. "The Fortune of Strength himself. He appeared in Kagoki, the most fertile of all our villages. Few who saw his manifestation will speak of it, but his wrath& his wrath was terrible. He cursed the Scorpion for our inability to protect Rosoku, as if it was our failure alone."

"Why would the Fortunes wish Rosoku protected?" Kenzo asked.

"I cannot say," Tsimaru said. "Who can know the mind of a Fortune? Perhaps Bishamon considers the line of Shinsei to be a source of strength, and curses us all for their demise. Ultimately, it matters little. He blighted the entire region around the village. Hundreds of men and women rendered weak as infants. Animals and plants wilted. None have died, but none have even the strength to stand. The Yogo and Soshi are seeking to find a means of alleviating the curse, but thus far& nothing."

"The crops?" Kenzo asked.

"Ruined," Tsimaru said. "Everything plant within a mile of the village is a brown, wilted ruin. It is the worst disaster we have ever experienced. If we cannot secure additional rice, there will be many who will starve during the winter."

"By the Fortunes," Kenzo whispered. "Is there nothing that can be done?"

"There is but one thing," Tsimaru said. "What I have told you is known to no one outside the Scorpion, and you are not to discuss it under any circumstances. I require your word of honor."

Kenzo considered it. "I give you my word," he finally said.

Tsimaru nodded. "Upon your return to the Dragon lands, go to Mirumoto Rosanjin," he said. "Explain to him all that I have told you. No one but Rosanjin must hear it."

"If you wish," Kenzo said. "I do not know what you hope to accomplish, however. Rosanjin can do little. The war taxes our resources to their very limit."

"The Scorpion do not wish to steal food from the Dragon's table," Tsimaru said. "Once you have explained to Rosanjin what I have told you, you must say this name: Mirumoto Taishuu. Do you know that name?"

"No," Kenzo said.

"Few do," Tsimaru said. "Rosanjin will understand. Will you do this for me? For the sake of the Dragon's alliance with my clan, will you do this for me?"

"If it is done," Kenzo said, "you will surrender your blade to the Dragon."

Tsimaru's face twisted in annoyance. "Yes," he hissed. "If you do as I have asked, the blade will be turned over to the Dragon. But not to you."

Kenzo nodded. "So be it," he said. He turned to leave. It would be difficult to convince Seiji of their need to depart quickly, especially since he could not divulge what Tsimaru had told him, but surely he could come up with something.

"Kenzo."

The young Dragon turned back to the Scorpion with a questioning expression.

Tsimaru seemed conflicted for a moment. "Be careful," he finally said. "The things you need, rice and allies, are going to be in short supply very soon. There is difficulty brewing with the Crab and Crane, and if the Lion become involved, your clan may find itself with nowhere to turn for the sustenance you require."

Kenzo frowned at the warning, but finally nodded and turned away. There was so much at risk, not only with the Dragon but throughout Rokugan, that his head nearly spun with the ramifications of it all.


Kaze no Shiro Return

Togashi will return!