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Intention & Ambition

By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
Throughout much of the city, it was difficult to tell that anything unusual had happened. Most would certainly never suspect that a major battle between the Empire's two greatest military forces had raged through the streets only a month beforehand. Most streets had only a building or two that had any significant amount of damage, and even then no more than one might expect from the average earthquake, which had been common enough in the previous capital, or a particularly severe storm, which were not at all uncommon on the plains. Still, there were parts of the city that might never recover. The merchant's quarter, for instance, remained little more than a smoldering crater, and it was obvious from the looks in the eyes of the people who dwelled within the city that there was damage that would not be healed so quickly.

Yoritomo Naizen found walking the streets of the city annoying at times, and downright unbearable at others. The glares of particularly strong-willed and defiant peasants was bearable, although annoying. The hateful gaze of other samurai meant nothing to the Mantis Clan Champion, for they were fickle, weak-willed fools who could never understand the enormity of the decision he had made. No, it was the unassuming looks of the Phoenix that he could not bear. They had taken stewardship of the city, over the objections of some but with the blessings of many, and now worked to restore it as quickly as possible. Naizen could not deny that they were responsible for the rapid repairs the city had undergone. And yet, when a Phoenix looked at him without condemnation, without judgment& with compassion and perhaps even pity& that he could not bear. He would not bear it.

The Mantis estate had suffered little damage. It was quite remarkable, really. At Naizen's command, the Mantis within the city had lent their aid to the Unicorn army that had besieged the city only a month beforehand. The city's Lion defenders had been consumed by fury, and yet it never occurred to them to put the Mantis estate to the torch. No, the foolish Akodo had instead scoured the city, searching for Mantis to kill. Only a handful had been so foolish as to allow the Lion to catch them, and in Naizen's opinion, the clan was stronger for having lost those slow-witted enough for such folly. Had the tables been reversed, of course, Naizen would have destroyed everything the Lion held dear in the city, and forced them to come to him. He had heard that the Lion swore not to harm the Imperial City, perhaps in restitution for their role in destroying Otosan Uchi. That was the different between the two clans, he supposed: the Lion were foolish idealists, and the Mantis were realists.

Naizen nodded in response to the crisp bows of the guards stationed outside the estate. He had hand-picked them to ensure that the Mantis would not be threatened by anyone bearing a grudge for their role in the battle. The Champion felt an involuntary wave of relief as he stepped within the estate. He would not admit it to anyone, even on pain of death, but when he walked the city streets, he was certain that he could feel eyes upon him. He avoided looking toward the Imperial Palace, where the great Fire Dragon sat coiled. He avoided it because he knew, without knowing how, that it was the Dragon that watched him. Was it the helm he carried that drew the heavenly beast's attention? Or was it something else entirely? He did not know. He could not know. And so he avoided thinking about it as much as possible.

His arrival at the estate was, apparently, not unexpected.

"Naizen-sama," a silken voice said only seconds after he entered the estate's main chamber. A beautiful woman bowed deeply, followed by another, then another, and still another. "How fortunate that you have arrived. We were just discussing a matter that requires your authority."

"Of course," Naizen said dryly. "Whatever is it, Yoyonagi?"

Yoritomo Yoyonagi smiled and turned to her entourage. "Some members of your court delegation object rather strenuously to my suggestion to reveal the work taking place south of the old capital as soon as possible."

Naizen held up a hand. "Why would you choose to reveal such information so soon?"

"To garner support, of course," Yoyonagi answered flatly. "There are many who& misunderstand our previous actions. This is an opportunity to show them that your intentions were as you indicated. They may even be so inclined as to give us aid on the construction of the village, and that will be a welcome surplus of available funds to begin the work planned for that region."

Naizen nodded and glanced to the other delegates. "Sachina, I assume you object?"

"I do, my lord," the woman answered.

"How shocking," Naizen said dryly. Sachina was a former geisha, one who had been elevated to the samurai caste via marriage. Such a thing was virtually unheard of, and Naizen had always been curious about the circumstances behind her late husband's decision. Still, she had never revealed anything of her past, and he was not inclined to dig too deeply, lest he discover something that might compromise her value to him. She had been an advisor to the Shogun before his death at the battle, and even her hardened exterior had softened with Kaneka's death. She had retired to her quarters in grief for a period of three days, then emerged as if nothing had happened. If nothing else, Naizen admired her unwavering self-control. "Explain."

"The Mantis are under scrutiny right now such as never before," Sachina explained. "To draw attention to any of our endeavors prior to their completion only invites interference from those who would serve as watch dogs over our activities." She gestured toward the city beyond the walls. "Who can say what reaction the Phoenix might have? Would they wish to assist us, as Yoyonagi says? Would their assistance essentially entail them taking control of the village? We cannot accept such help,' from the Phoenix or from anyone else."

The Champion frowned. He considered the matter for only a moment, then grunted. "We will not reveal our work unless pressed to do so by others. Given the location, it seems unlikely that anyone in the capital will hear word of it, but one never knows."

Yoyonagi's expression did not change, but Naizen could sense the tension coming off of her in waves. The balance of power among his court delegates was delicate, and Yoyonagi retained her leadership only through seniority and the ruthless implementation of his every wish. "As you command, Naizen-sama."

"There can be no risk of failure in this," Naizen cautioned. "Any matter dealing with the resources we are allocating, any suggestion that anyone may be aware of our work, you will deal with these personally, Yoyonagi. I cannot risk failure."

A slight smile flickered across the courtier's features, and a corresponding look of disgust appeared on Sachina's behind her. Still, both women and their assistants, a pair of women named Yashinko and Minami, bowed deeply. Naizen knew that there would be no deviation from his orders. "Unless you have something else pressing, leave me. I have matters of a more delicate nature to attend."

The assembled courtiers did not object, but bowed and quickly exited the chamber. Naizen took the momentary reprieve to take a long drink of cool water from the clay bottle on the table. He heard the shoji screen behind him even as he placed the bottle back on the table. "Welcome to Toshi Ranbo," he said curtly.

"Thank you, Naizen-sama," a pair of voices said behind him. One was mangled by a thick accent, and the other was little more than a feminine purr.

Naizen turned to face the two of them. They bowed deeply. "Naizen-sama," the woman said softly. "Champion," the man said. His bow was crisp, and obviously practiced. It was his way, to emulate Rokugani custom as perfectly as possible. It was the only manner in which he could survive in this foreign Empire.

"Singh," Naizen said, stepping forward and gripping the gaijin's wrist in the style of the Ivory Kingdoms. "What do you think of the capital?"

"It is far larger than the cities on your islands, Naizen-sama," Yoritomo Singh replied diplomatically. "It is a great deal to take in all at once."

"You will have ample time for that," Naizen answered. He turned to the slightly-built woman at Singh's side. "Eihime, what news from the Eastern Hub?"

"All is well, my lord," the Moshi answered. "Your ships are moored and await your convenience. The supplies you requested have been delivered and are en route to the future site of the village. All is in order, as you commanded."

"Well done," Naizen said. "Has there been any further difficulty with the Shinjo's ronin friends?"

"None," Eihime answered. "They are a practical lot. They keep to themselves and do not bother us, and we allow them to continue their work as they see fit. There was one ronin that caused difficulty near the ships. It ended in a duel. I believe that he was not with the East Wind, however. I believe it was a feeble attempt to manipulate us into conflict with them." She shrugged lightly. "It matters little now."

"What came of it?"

"Kalani-san dealt with the matter," Singh answered.

"Permanently," Eihime clarified.

"I find it difficult to believe there have been no complications whatsoever," Naizen said. "I expected the aftermath of our role in the battle to be more& significant."

Eihime hesitated for a moment. It was a minor thing, but uncharacteristic for the shugenja, who normally had an abundance of confidence. "There have been sightings of the Deathless off the coast, my lord."

"The Deathless," Naizen snarled, rapping his fist sharply against the table. "What I would not give to possess it."

"That could be possible," Eihime said. "The cost would be considerable, however."

"The Lion would scuttle it rather than allow us to take it," Naizen said, waving the idea way. "We would lose at least a dozen ships and gain nothing."

"Regardless, it seems obvious that the Lion hope to prompt a confrontation on the open sea," Eihime continued. "Doing so would be a direct assault on us in what is essentially our domain."

"We have a word for such individuals in my native language," Singh observed. "Those who provoke conflict in order to assuage their hostilities, but also blame the renewed conflict upon the other party." He frowned. "I do not believe it translates."

"It translates," Naizen assured him. "The word is idiots.'"

"If the Lion discover the construction site, it could complicate matters," Eihime cautioned.

"Forgive me, Naizen-sama," Singh said. "I do not understand the purpose of your new village. It seems somewhat& superfluous."

Naizen chuckled. "You are not familiar with our clan's history, or at least not the reasoning behind it. Do you recall from your readings why Yoritomo first created his alliance?"

"To prove his strength," Singh answered at once. "To prove the worth of your people to the arrogant Great Clans."

"That is partly true, yes," Naizen replied. "It is also true that he was disgusted with their abandonment of the duty set before them. The Great Clans have ever been the favored children of the throne, and in turn the Heavens. During the Clan War, they abandoned their stewardship of the Empire. The people of Rokugan, the people who made it possible for the Empire to continue, died in droves to war, starvation, and plague, and the Great Clans, save the Unicorn, did nothing. Yoritomo considered this unacceptable, and he took steps to ensure that the Shadowlands would not achieve a long-term victory even if they were crushed on the Day of Thunder."

Singh frowned. "So what does this have to do with your actions?"

"The throne sits empty, just as it did then," Naizen said. "And unlike the aftermath of Toturi I's death, there are no clear heirs to assume it. What happened during the Clan War will happen again, this much is certain. Perhaps this time, we can prevent the chaos that happened then."

"And if our selfless adherence to duty should result in a Mantis upon the throne," Eihime added coyly, "so much the better."

Naizen looked carefully at the gaijin that had sworn fealty to his clan. "Something still troubles you, Singh. Do not be concerned. Speak your mind."

"This seems& uncharacteristic," Singh said after a moment's consideration. "In my time in Rokugan, I have not found the Mantis to be quite so charitable as this endeavor seems."

The Mantis Champion laughed again. "It serves our purpose in a number of ways. As Eihime said, it certainly places us in a position of power with regard to the impending political struggle. It also allows us to extend our network of merchants, contacts, and customers throughout the unaligned lands with greater speed."

"Why not use the Tsuruchi or Moshi lands?" Singh asked further. "Why construct a new village?"

"The Tsuruchi and Moshi lands are too remote. Travel to and from them will be difficult. We need a village where our magistrates and troops can marshal and deploy quickly, as soon as word arrives that they are needed. Houritsu Mura, the Village of Law, will be that headquarters in the northern Empire."

Singh nodded slowly. "And what of the southern Empire? The Spine of the World Mountains will slow down travel from your new village."

Eihime smiled. "Lord Naizen has plans for the southern Empire, do not be concerned."

"Singh," Naizen said, "I need you to stay in the capital and take your place with the court delegates."

"In court?" Singh said. "Here, in the capital? My lord, are you certain?"

"I am." Naizen's tone did not brook disagreement. "Your presence will distract our opponents from their normal lines of thinking. Their chief objection to our presence will shift, and become your status as gaijin. The Phoenix will not tolerate such things, as they have a history of involvement with certain Yobanjin tribes."

"They do?" Eihime was incredulous. "I have never heard such rumors, my lord."

"Fact, not rumor," Naizen insisted. "Hopefully your presence will prevent our lovely delegates from becoming too embroiled in their own petty bickering. They are the most gifted we have ever had in court, but I tire of their constant in-fighting. The first time that it jeopardizes our agenda in court, I wish to know of it, Singh. There will be repercussions."

Singh bowed. "As you command, my Champion. If you will permit me, I will introduce myself to them now."

Naizen nodded and waited for the gaijin to leave. Once the screen slid closed, he took another long drink of water, then looked at Eihime. "Report," he ordered.

"We have successfully purchased more than three quarters of all merchant patronages in both locations you specified, my lord," she said quietly. "We now control a large number of the businesses as well, and the vast majority of the economic wealth in both sites is ours, although the Crane and Scorpion do not yet realize it."

"Excellent," Naizen said. "Justice is expensive, after all."

Eihime smiled. "Within the month, Teardrop Island in Ryoko Owari, and Mura Sabishii Toshi will belong to the Mantis. You will be able to afford to bring justice to whomever you want, Naizen-sama."


Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!