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Scenes from the Empire

By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan

Friendly Traveler Village, the Yasuki provinces
Sake was not Moto Taban's preferred drink, given a choice. His father had favored a peculiar drink that the Unicorn had first encountered during their travels throughout the world centuries ago, and had continued to enjoy to this day. It was virtually unheard of outside the Unicorn provinces, however, mostly because it included as its primary ingredient fermented mare's milk, something that other samurai would recoil from in horror. As a child, Taban had loathed the smell of the stuff, but as he had grown older, he had developed a taste for it himself. He regretted only that his father had not lived long enough for the two of them to share a drink together.

Still, Taban could appreciate the taste of a fine blend of sake. He had heard for years that the sake produced in Friendly Traveler Village was the finest in the Empire. Now that he was finally here and could sample it for himself, he was not entirely convinced that it was the finest, but it certainly was quite good. He sipped the cup and savored the flavor as he enjoyed a moment of relative quiet. It had been a most stressful day, and he was grateful that it was almost over.

"Pardon me, Moto-san, but I am afraid I must ask to see your travel papers."

Taban refrained from sighing. Perhaps the day was not so close to being over after all. "I believe we have discussed this matter previously, Doji-sama. Twice."

The magistrate smiled insincerely. "That is true, and I am loathe to continue disturbing your visit to our village, but unfortunately we have been experiencing some difficulty with forged documents, and we have been instructed to thoroughly inspect all seals with which we are not intimately familiar."

"Of course." Taban obediently handed over the papers. "I must compliment you on how thoroughly you attend to your duties. Perhaps I should write a letter to your superior, praising your performance. What would that man's name be?"

The magistrate shook his head, but did not stop smiling. "You are too kind, Moto-san, but I could not accept your accolades for merely performing my duties." He took the papers and made a show of examining them carefully. He frowned and clucked his tongue. "Unfortunately, Moto-san, this is one of the seals we have been instructed to check very carefully. I am afraid I have no choice but to ask you to accompany us until such time as we can confirm these are legitimate."

"I see," Taban said flatly. "Are you implying that you have arrested my charge as well?"

"Arrested?" The magistrate seemed horrified. "Make no mistake, Moto-san, this is not an arrest. We are simply offering you a chance to stay as our guest until this little formality is dealt with. Your master is a guest of the governor, so of course there can be no questioning of his papers. I am quite certain he will understand, and will not have need of his yojimbo for a few days."

"I see," the young Unicorn repeated. "And suppose that I choose not to accompany you? As your guest?'"

"I am afraid that is not an option," the magistrate said, his voice full of false regret. "Please do not force our hand in this matter. Be a gracious guest, not a brutish barbarian." He paused. "But then, I suppose that is something of a tradition within your family."

Taban did not rise to the baiting. "I will not abandon my duties by accompanying you," he said simply. "Make of that what you will."

"Then I am afraid we have a problem."

"Yes," a woman's voice said. "You do."

Taban and his opponent both turned. There was a woman wearing Crab colors at a table a short distance across the floor. She met the magistrate's eyes with an unwavering glare, and the people at the table between them got up and left immediately. Taban wondered idly if there was going to be violence. He had left his blade at the door, and suspected the Crab had as well. The magistrate, of course, had done no such thing. "This does not concern you, friend Hida," the magistrate began.

"I decide what concerns me," the Crab said, her voice perfectly calm. She placed a scroll bearing the Hida seal on top of the table. "I received orders today to ensure that all Crab personnel and their allies within this village are secured. That man," she pointed at Taban, "is an ally of the Crab. He is under my protection."

"Do not be ridiculous," the magistrate scoffed. "He is nothing but a yojimbo, one whose lord is speaking to the Crane governor, not the Crab contingent. And regardless, his papers could be forgeries&"

"Close your idiotic mouth," the woman said, her voice slightly louder. "If forged papers are the best excuse you can manage, then that snake Naoharu should definitely find more skilled underlings to do his bidding. My orders bear the seal of the Crab Champion, and they assure me that hostilities between the Crab and Crane are imminent." She placed both hands on the table, palm down. "I would be delighted to begin the festivities earlier than expected, if you continue to call into question the veracity of my orders."

The magistrate sneered at her, then glanced around the sake house. There were at least half a dozen other Crab at various tables, all of whom were now staring intently at the spectacle unfolding before them. Each looked ready to leap up at a moment's notice. None of them would have weapons, Taban knew, but men and women of such size were weapons in and of themselves. This was a simple fact that the magistrate obviously knew as well. The man cleared his throat. "I must go investigate this matter with my superior," he said. "I will return shortly. I expect all of you to be here waiting!" With that, he and his yoriki swept out of the building at once.

"Thank you," Taban said. "I hope you have not caused yourself difficulty."

"The Unicorn and the Crab are old friends," she replied. "It is fortunate for the Crane that they have chosen to prattle at others rather than bothering us over the last several years. It appears their brief wisdom has ended. May I have your name?"

"Moto Taban." He bowed.

"It is good to meet you, Taban-san," she said. "I think perhaps we might need to continue this discussion elsewhere, however."

"As you wish, Kaoru-san."

***

Toshi Ranbo, the Imperial City
Kitsuki Taiko grimaced as she glanced across the shelves containing what seemed like an endless stack of scrolls, all carefully placed inside protective cases with kanji explaining their contents. A stranger to this particular library would doubtless be stunned by the sheer volume of texts available. She certainly had been on her first visit. With every passing hour, however, she found more and more that was not stored within this particular library, and that thought filled her with dismay. Many other libraries had been damaged during the Battle of Toshi Ranbo some months ago, and it was possible that not even the intervention of the Phoenix Clan had been enough to save the records she sought from the destruction that swept the city. Or at least, they might not exist outside the biased accounts found in the hands of other, clan-maintained libraries. Not that Taiko would have the chance to study at the Ikoma records, for instance, but even if she did, it was unlikely she could trust what she found there to be completely accurate and impartial. That was, she sighed inwardly, the nature of man.

After several minutes of consideration, Taiko frowned and took one of the cases. It was not exactly what she had been searching for, and would likely not contain the information she sought, but it was apparent that this was as close as she could find, and there was always the chance that it have some passing reference she could make use of. As she walked through the silent aisle back toward the table she had been working on, she wondered idly if there was any point in petitioning for an audience with the Master of Water. But of course there was little chance he would see her, as relatively unimportant as she was. No, this was something she must handle on her own.

Taiko stopped in mid-stride. There was someone sitting at her table, glancing idly at the scrolls already opened there. The young man had touched nothing, that much was obvious, but neither was he discreet in looking from one to the next with a bemused smile, his long white hair draped casually over one shoulder. "May I ask what you are doing?" she asked, her voice strained.

The young man looked up and smiled at her. "Hello again, little hummingbird."

Taiko frowned. She remembered him, of course. Despite that she was completely disinterested in such things, it would be difficult to forget any man as stunningly handsome as he was, no matter how irritating she found him. "Kakita Hideo," she said, her tone far from welcoming. "I had not imagined we would see one another again after the Topaz Championship."

"And yet here we are. Surely the Fortunes favor us."

"I suppose that would depend upon your interpretation of the events at hand," Taiko replied. "Why have you sought me out?"

He feigned surprise. "Why do you think I was not simply visiting this most august of libraries?"

"That conclusion would be preposterous to anyone who has spoken to you for more than a moment's time," she answered, and almost immediately regretted the acerbic tone she had taken.

"Then surely we live in a preposterous world," Hideo answered, without apparent insult. "I am here to research an issue of lineage."

"Lineage?" Taiko was genuinely surprised. "Would the Crane records not prove a more dependable source for that manner of information?"

"Not mine," Hideo corrected. "The lineage of a Scorpion, actually. We Crane do not track that manner of information."

"I am surprised that a man of your& talents, would be assigned such a duty," she observed, setting her scrolls down on the table and opening the first case. "Your expertise would be in a different area, I would imagine."

For the first time, Hideo's façade disappeared, and Taiko saw genuine remorse and sadness on his face. The pain written there was stunning, as she had believed he was little more than a buffoon. "There are no duties for me to perform in the city, I am afraid," he said wistfully. "There will likely not be for some weeks. It is doubtless my punishment for my performance at the Emerald Championship."

"Punishment?" Taiko was incredulous. "A warrior less than a year after his gempukku, invited to and succeeding in the initial rounds of the Emerald Championship? How can anyone hold you to such a standard for failing in that? You cannot seriously believe you would have won."

"Spoken like someone with no appreciation for the art of the duel," Hideo said. His smile returned instantly, although more genuine this time. "Forgive me, I did not mean insult. But a duelist who does not believe he can win, cannot win. No, I am not ashamed of my performance, but rather my behavior in the final round. I shamed myself, and my family. Now my lords are demonstrating their uncertainty in my ability to perform my duties by giving me none."

"I& I am sorry." She was not certain what to say. "Will your punishment last long?"

"I cannot say. Until they have need of me, or until I can demonstrate that I am worthy." Hideo shrugged. "One or the other will happen soon enough. Or at least I hope so, I find this inactivity exceptionally boring." His mood brightened. "What are you doing here, if I may ask?"

Taiko frowned, unsure of whether or not she could confide in him. Ultimately, of course, there was little to lose, and there was always the nigh-impossible chance that he could be of assistance. She withdrew a case from the table and held it out. "During the attempt to restore order to the city, the Dragon discovered this."

Hideo removed the scroll delicately, for it showed signs of fire damage around the edges, particularly at the top. He frowned. "This is a petition from the Kitsune family, calling for aid." His eyes darted to the top of the scroll, where the damage was most severe. "There is no indication of who the intended recipient was. The Mantis, perhaps?"

"Perhaps," Taiko said. "It was decided, however, that giving them the scroll without ensuring that it belonged to them was an unfavorable choice. There is no way to determine how old the scroll is, unfortunately. The task of determining its intent and origins was considered low priority. I had to petition repeatedly to be allowed to address it."

Hideo glanced at the notation near the top of the scroll. "This scroll was written less than two weeks before the Khan's attack on the city."

"What? How can you be sure?"

He pointed. "This notation is an indication of the date. The Sparrow Clan use a modified calendar based upon the year of their founding. It is not uncommon for the other members of the Three Man Alliance to use it, particularly the Fox. The Tsuruchi use it some as well, although not as often as they once did." He handed the scroll back to Taiko. "This scroll was intended for the Tsuruchi."

The young magistrate nodded slowly. "It must be returned, then."

"Do not be so hasty," Hideo cautioned. "In spite of the best efforts between both of our Clans, relations between Crane and Fox have been marked by failure and tragedy. The Mantis have not proven themselves in the eyes of the Crane. To assign the duty to the Mantis without further investigation would be for the Crane to fail the Fox once again. I cannot allow that."

She frowned. "I am obligated to report this information to my superiors."

"Then do so. Tell them that you have found no information about the time of the message other than that a disgraced Crane assured you it was an obscure Sparrow dating method that no one has ever heard of."

Taiko drew a deep breath. "Thank you," she said. "I will petition my lords for permission to travel to the Kitsune lands and investigate this more thoroughly."

"You will need a yojimbo."

She nodded. "I will send for Mirumoto Ichizo."

"The Dragon who nearly crippled the Mantis at the Championship?" Hideo shook his head. "It will take too long. I can be ready to leave within the hour, if you wish." Her uncertainty was surely written on her face, because his features softened again. "Let me do this," he asked quietly. "Give me the chance for redemption."

Taiko hesitated, then nodded slowly. She was certain she would regret this.

Hideo's brilliant smile returned. "And a week on the road together? Pure bliss."

In fact, she regretted it already.

***

Mura Sabishii Toshi, the Crane provinces
Lonely Shore City was a strange name for this particular settlement, Yoritomo Eriko had decided. Perhaps when it had first been created, when there was little reason for anyone outside the village to come here, then it had been lonely. After centuries of growth, however, it had grown to massive size, and saw dozens or perhaps even hundreds of vessels coming into port every week. It was one of the Crane's major shipping hubs, one of the centers of their vast economic web that had made them perhaps the richest clan in the Empire for many years.

Or at least it had been, until now.

There were many confused looks and stares as Eriko walked through the streets. Only a few among the city's leaders knew what had happened. Others were simply confused as to why so many Mantis had suddenly appeared in the city. The simple truth that escaped them, and that plagued the Crane who governed the city as well as those to whom they answered, was that the Mantis had expended a considerable fortune to purchase more than three quarters of all merchant patronages in the entire city. Now their merchant vassals had enough unified economic power to swing any large-scale treaties, trade agreements, or other mercantile interests in the favor of the Mantis Clan. The Crane, while still benefiting from the actions of their own vassals, had effectively had the city stolen out from under them, with little they could do about it.

Ultimately, it was all about money, which Eriko found distasteful in the extreme. Still, there were those who served the Mantis Clan Champion who were unafraid to sully their hands with such things, and if that was the case, so much the better. For herself, Eriko only wished to serve the clan in a manner more befitting a samurai. Today, that was serving as a yojimbo and assistant for a ranking Mantis courtier and merchant patron. It was not as illustrious a duty as she would have hoped, given her position as a magistrate, but it was what was required of her for now. When the courtier's ship set sail in two days time, he would have a new assignment for her at Houritsu Mura. That was all she needed to know.

Even as she was lost in thoughts of putting her skills as a magistrate to better use, dreaming of the glory should bring to the clan, something amiss caught Eriko's eye. She turned to the left, searching for something that she had glimpsed only in the faintest edge of her vision.

There had been someone standing just outside the shadows in an alleyway. That was not so uncommon, perhaps, but her instincts told her that the individual was staring at her, studying her. Her hand was on her weapon, and she did not even know she had done it. Eriko moved toward the alley, carefully evaluating the street around her to make certain this was not some sort of trap. The sighting had been so subtle, though. Normally those wishing to divert someone's attention I this manner were grotesquely obvious, and tipped their hands for that reason. This one was subtle enough that, if it were an ambush, her opponents were exceptionally good at what they were doing, and she was dead regardless. So there was little reason not to investigate.

The alleyway was dark and dirty. The smell was terrible, but Eriko paid it little heed. She loosened her weapon and tread very carefully, her keen eyes seeking out anywhere that an assailant could hide in the ramshackle alley, her ears alert to any sound of approach from behind. She spent several moments searching, but there was no sign of anyone having been present. She had almost decided that she had been mistaken, and was already beginning to chide herself inwardly, when she noticed the scrawled script on the wall near the ground.

"The night breakers. Ten minutes."

The writing was black and had already smeared, probably written with the burned tip of a piece of wood. It blackened the tip of her finger where she touched it. Under different circumstances, she might check the other entrance to the alleyway for anyone who might have seen something, but there was no time for that now.

The ten minutes were almost up.

"Night breakers" was what the locals called a large outcropping of black stones on the coast a short distance south of the city. Many a ship had run aground on them in the past, but in the modern age such things were rare. Eriko moved easily among the jagged peaks, maneuvering between them with the grace of one accustomed to the pitching and rolling of the seas. As she neared the center of the field, she could see that there was a lone figure awaiting her.

"Thank you for coming," the man called out. He was clad in non-descript colors, but she thought she caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar mon beneath his cloak as he uncrossed his arms. "I thought you would have seen me."

"Who are you?" she called out. "What is it you want?"

"Many things," he replied. "My name is Gyoken. I have a message that I require to be delivered to your superiors."

"A message? From whom?"

"From my lady, Yoritomo Hotako," he answered. "She only specified that it must reach your lord Naizen. I was given leave to choose the identity of the messenger. I chose you."

Eriko's weapon was in her hand again. Yoritomo Hotako was the name of a young Mantis officer who had disappeared some months before. It was rumored that she had been sighted in the company of the Lost, but no one could say if that were true or not. Regardless, if she was alive, and if this man was her vassal as he claimed, then things were not what they seemed. "Why me? And why should I cooperate?"

"You will take it to your immediate superiors because, like all your kind, you lack the will to act with independence. Is it legitimate? You cannot be certain! You do not have the rank to make such a decision." Gyoken shook his head. "A truly worthy lord values vassals with strength of purpose and clarity of thought, not mindless slaves."

Eriko's face twisted in a hateful expression. "You take your life in your hands speaking to me so."

Gyoken grinned. "Ah yes, that is why I chose you. I heard of your prowess at the Emerald Championship. Your impromptu duel is already the stuff of legend! Tell me, what really happened? How could you have accomplished such a thing?"

"Be silent," she hissed.

"Of course, if you refuse to take the message& if you are foolish enough to attack me& then perhaps I will take your life. And in doing so, gain favor with the Crane whose land you occupy! There is no means by which I cannot prosper in this!"

"You will not prosper when you are dead!"

"That seems unlikely," Gyoken mocked. "I am not an aging duelist, after all."

"Be silent!" she shouted.

"For that matter," Gyoken added, "your death might well purchase favor with the Dragon as well. I am certain that even among a mountain of mystics, there are one or two interested in a bit of vengeance for the great hero Mirumoto Chojiro."

Eriko's face grew red at the mention of that shameful moment. "Do not speak of him!" she hissed. "You are not fit to speak of that!"

The Spider shook his head in disgust. "You, his murderer, dare judge me unfit to speak of him? Your hypocrisy knows no bounds."

Eriko leapt at him. She darted among the peaks separating the two with incredible speed, levying a blow that would silence the fool's mocking voice permanently. He made no attempt to avoid her attack, and blocked it with his blade at the last minute, his face twisting into a mask of rage as he did so. "You are pathetic," he rasped, pushing her back seemingly without effort. "I cannot fathom how your wretched clan was wise enough to ally with my lords in the first place."

"What?" demanded Eriko. "What do you mean?"

He glared down at her from the peak where he stood. "You will see soon enough."

She lunged up at him from the sands where she had landed, but he leapt easily over her strike and kicked her squarely in the head, sending her reeling back to the sands and unable to stand. She dully recognized that he threw the scroll case at her, and it struck her in the do-maru that covered her chest. "Do as you are told, little errand girl."

"& kill you&" she managed.

"Unlikely," he repeated. He leapt down and struck her again, this time across the jaw.

Blackness claimed her.

*

 


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