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Snared In the Web
By Nancy Sauer


Daigotsu, Lord of the Shadowlands and Champion of the Spider Clan, leaned back in his throne and stared coolly at the man kneeling before him. "Daigotsu Iemitsu," he said, you return so promptly. It has only been-" he paused a moment, as if in thought, "two months since the Emerald Championship?"
As you say, Daigotsu-sama," Iemitsu said. "But after Eiya tried to kill the Kakita daimyo in broad daylight and ran off carrying his hand, things became difficult. I returned as quickly as I could."
"And you think this excuses your absence?" Daigotsu asked.
Iemitsu looked up at his lord. "Nothing excuses my absence, for I was not here to serve you. But it was my lack of skill in evading the Jade Magistrates that kept me away, and not lack of loyalty to you."
Daigotsu considered the man before him for a long moment. "You may go," he said finally. Iemitsu silently bowed and withdrew. When the doors had closed behind him, Daigotsu rose and walked through a curtained archway. A woman sat in the room beyond, watching over a sleeping child. "You heard," he said without preamble.
Shahai nodded. "It confirms our other reports. Despite being leaderless, the Jade Magistrates are out in force, looking for Noritoshi's assailant. All of the great clans are giving the ronin within their borders a second look, and the Crab, Phoenix, and Scorpion are being extra vigilant."
"I do not know what particular insanity afflicted Eiya at the time," Daigotsu said. He walked over to his wife and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Dairya's last student needed to die, but a frontal assault in the middle of the Emerald Championship was not my desire."
Shahal reached up and laid her hand on his. "Regret is a sin," she said with a smile.
Daigotsu laughed. "So it is. And I do not regret attempting to gain the Emerald Championship: had we succeeded, the Empire would be ours to take. But even when leaderless the Jade Mag'grates have the power to make our lives difficult, and soon they will again have a Champion to guide them."
"You had a plan regarding that."
"I did." Daigotsu bent down to smooth the blanket that covered his son. "But after Eiya, there will be extra precautions at the jade Championship."
"Fortunate, then," Shahai said, that you have the service of a powerful, non-Tainted shugenja."
"Katsu," Daigotsu said. "Sending him out into the Empire, out of my sight, is a risk. I find his reliability suspect."
"His treasons have always been on the scale of annoyances, not threats," Shahai said. Her smile grew cruel. "And if he does cross that line, you can destroy him and leave a terrified Empire to wonder how the Jade Magistrates can protect them, when they cannot even protect their champion."
An excellent idea, beloved," Daigotsu said.
A thin man in a nondescript brown robe and a battered straw hat walked down the central street of the new city, and the crowd parted before him. Katsu found the sight amusing. To those around him he was the son of the Dark Oracle of Air, and Daigotsu's sometime executioner a person to be feared, and thus respected. If any of them truly knew what the Dark Lord thought of him they would show him no deference at all... but If they understood what Daigotsu had turned him Into they would be twice as fearful. His life was full of complications.
He entered the Temple of the Ninth Kami and walked through the outer sanctuary. It was empty, so he didn't bother to bow before the image in the main shrine. Katsu was reasonably sure Fu Leng knew what he really thought of him, so with no one about there was no reason to act otherwise. He passed through a doorway and entered a much smaller room where one man knelt at a personal shrine, lighting incense.
"My lord," Katsu said, kneeling before the man and pressing his head to the floor.
"Katsu," Daigotsu said. "You are commendably prompt." He gestured for him to rise.
"Thank you, my lord. How may I serve you?"
"By serving the Empire." Daigotsu shifted around to face his vassal. "You will enter the Jade Championship and do everything , within your power to become the new Jade Champion."
"Daigotsu-lama, is that wise? After the incident at the Emerald Champlonship--"
"The incident makes it even more Important that a Spider is the new Jade Champion," Daigotsu said. "But it would have been necessary in any case. The Jade Magistrates go everywhere, searching for maho-tsukal and signs of the Tainted. They must not be looking for us. If you were the Jade Champion you would have the authority to steer those investigations away from the Spider Clan, and toward those who threaten us. There are maho-tsukai in the Empire who do not acknowledge me as their lord: they must be rooted out and destroyed. And of course, anyone who could be useful me could be turned to our service."
Katsu listened with a sinking feeling in his stomach. What Daigotsu was proposing was an abomination. The people of the Empire relied on the Jade Magistrates to protect them from the threats of the Shadowlands; Daigotsu was proposing they become a threat from the Shadowlands. And in the end, there was only one response he could make.
"Your will, my lord," he said. "I suggest that you send Chuda Mich! and Chuda Kyuwa, as well."
Dalgotsu raised an eyebrow. "I somehow expected your defiance to be more clever than that, Katsu. Or is this your idea of humor?"
"How can I defy you? You have my heart," Katsu said. "Both men have minimal Taint and are more than skilled enough to hide it, even without Jade Petal tea. If they perform well in the competition I would be able to make them Jade Magistrates, thus putting your plan into action immediately. And if they are discovered, I can prove my virtue to all present by destroying them myself."
Daigotsu considered this. The gaijin sorcery that had made Katsu a khadi had removed his heart and bound it in an iron box, and so long as he possessed the box he controlled Katsu. But that control was not perfect, and there were ways a rebellious khadi could plot against his master. The suggestion to send the two Chuda might be the start of such a plot but that didn't automatically make it a bad idea. If nothing else, their presence would inspire ICatsu to work harder to become the Jade Champion, in order to prevent one of them from winning.
"Agreed," he said. "Go now and inform your fellow candidates of my orders. You will leave as soon as I can arrange travel papers for you all."
"Yes, my lord." Katsu said. He bowed and withdrew, wondering what it would feel like to hold the safety of the Empire in his hands and know it was a lie.

     

 


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Togashi will return!