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In the Imperial City, a simple walk taken by the Empress and her Voice leads to an unexpected confrontation of the most shocking sort.

 

Children in the Garden

By Shawn Carman

Edited by Fred Wan

The Empire of Rokugan belonged to the Empress Iweko I by right of celestial appointment. The whole of the land was hers to do with as she saw fit. Despite this, it somehow made Togashi Satsu quite nervous when she suddenly decided to leave the palace. Even within the Imperial City, there was no end to the list of potential threats that could be concealed behind a seemingly innocuous façade. Satsu vastly preferred the security of the palace, with trips scheduled far in advance, where the only thing that he had to fear was potential treachery of some minor sort by the Imperial Advisor and, perhaps, the Emerald Champion.

The Empress chose to walk through the innermost regions of the Imperial City, the area immediately adjoining the Imperial palace. Those who traveled in this area were almost always attendants or staff of the Imperial Court and thus were not altogether unaccustomed to the presence of their Empress. They politely knelt and then departed, allowing Iweko-sama some degree of privacy. Whether this pleased or dismayed the Empress, she had never said; Satsu was keenly aware that it pleased him and her guard for there to be so few people about.

Today, the Empress wished to visit a garden attached to one of the larger but frequently empty temples within the inner city. It was, Satsu noticed, a temple to Hotei, the Fortune of Contentment. It seemed strangely appropriate to be empty, as so many who worked within the inner city were rarely content, always working toward some new goal or objective. The ringing laughter from within indicated that the garden was a site of play for children, which caused Satsu to smile as he thought of his own family. The Empress, normally brilliant to look upon, was somehow even more radiant at the sound. Satsu, who rarely discussed anything of a personal nature with anyone, much less the Empress, wondered if, in the aftermath of her wedding, the Empress looked forward to her own family. In truth he did not know if such things mattered to her any more. It seemed strange, the idea of a literal avatar of the Celestial Heavens looking forward to motherhood. Satsu decided he would try not to think about such things. It would do no one any good for him to forget that he served a divine entity.

Near the center of the garden, the Empress sat upon a low stone bench and indicated that her guard should leave her. It was clear that Shiba Erena, First among the guard, wished otherwise, but a devout guardian such as herself would not speak against her orders. Reluctantly, the guard withdrew to secure the perimeter of the garden.

The children playing seemed to take little notice of the new visitors, and certainly did not seem to recognize the presence among them. Some looked upon her slightly longer than the others, their expressions awed. Potential shugenja, Satsu thought, perhaps hearing the whispers of the kami that constantly swirled around the Empress. The children moved on quickly, caught up in some game of chase. One remained behind, however, staring at the pair with a somewhat unnerving expression.

Recognition came to Satsu after a moment. "Child," he said softly, "were you in attendance at the Winter Court in Scorpion lands last year?"

"Yes, sama!" the girl piped up merrily. "My name is Oki!"

"Oki," Satsu repeated. "Who are your parents, Oki?"

"My father is Fu Leng!" she said proudly.

Satsu's heart stopped for a moment. "What did you say?"

The girl's features twisted and changed, taking on a much more ominous look, and a sudden presence was with them. She spoke again, and this time her voice was two voices speaking in tandem; one was a little girl's, and the other that of a grown man. "You will please forgive the pekkle," a voice said. "Despite their talent for deception, the young ones are quite literal-minded."

"Daigotsu!" Satsu spat.

"In the flesh," the voice said as the body curtsied awkwardly. "Such as it is."

            Satsu glared at the child-demon, his expression fierce. "That you have been allowed this close to the Child of Heaven is an atrocity of the first order," he said gravely. "There will be punishment among the Empress' Guard."

            The child laughed, and for a moment, it was nothing more than a child's laughter. Daigotsu's voice returned quickly, however. "Does it make you feel better, to vow that there will be consequences, particularly when you cannot take vengeance upon me? How short-sighted." She cocked her head to the side curiously, as if considering something. It made her resemble a puppet. "I will share a piece of information with you, one that you have no doubt wondered about for many years. The wards placed upon your palace and its grounds are quite effective. The ones upon this garden, while hastily inscribed and weaker, are still quite formidable. Unfortunately for you, the willingly given life's blood of a follower of Fu Leng can and will weaken and destroy all but the most powerful ward. There is little in the mortal realm that the touch of my master cannot eradicate." He paused. "It is quite costly, however."

            Satsu's fury was evident, and he opened his mouth to speak, but the Empress held her hand up and stopped him. "The Empress wishes to know your intent," he said through clenched teeth.

            "The Empress summoned me, but will not speak with me directly?" Oki clicked her tongue. "How impolite."

"You are least fit of all men to hear her voice," Satsu spat. "Its purity would surely scour the flesh from your very bones!"

"How interesting," the child demon replied. "Regardless, I repeat my initial question. For what reason have you summoned me, Child of Heaven?"

"The Empress is aware that you have had contact with refugees from across the Burning Sands," Satsu said. "Merely one of your many crimes."

"Is that your assessment or hers?" Daigotsu asked. "I am uninterested in a litany of my alleged sins, if that is the purpose of this meeting."

"It is the desire of the Empress to hear that which you know about these Destroyers that plague the southern Empire."

Daigotsu-Oki smiled. "I am of course flattered at your assumption of my knowledge," he replied. "What makes you think I know of such things?"

"You have held parlay with members of the blasphemous gaijin cult known as the Jackals," Satsu answered. "Why would anyone flee to a land known to be as xenophobic as the Empire unless they faced a greater threat?"

"Hmph," Daigotsu said. "On anyone else, a fleeting moment of omniscience would be easily squandered. On a Kitsuki I find it unbearably inconvenient. I suppose there may be some meager value to the family's utterly ridiculous preoccupation with minutia."

"The Divine Child of Heaven has asked you a question," Satsu reminded him.

"One I have not decided to answer," Daigotsu returned. "Why should I choose to do so?"

Satsu drew back, clearly aghast. "You speak to a scion of the Celestial Heavens!"

"One who has made it clear that my life is meaningless," Daigotsu growled. "And regardless, you speak to a scion of Jigoku. I consider our terms equal."

"Are they?" Satsu asked quietly. "Your dark master sits no more among the Realm of Evil any more than he does the Celestial Heavens. Your patronage is no more. You are little more than a criminal wave man, a bandit who&"

"Enough!" Daigotsu commanded, his voice echoing throughout the garden. "I will not hear such heresy! Speak it again and this meeting shall end without any gain!"

"Nothing will come of this regardless," Satsu said with a dismissive sneer. "You came to hear your own voice and play word games. You have nothing of importance to say."

"I can give you information that you desire," Daigotsu answered. "But I will not do so freely."

Satsu's eyes narrowed, but he listened intently to something that no other could hear. He glanced at the Empress as if for confirmation, then bowed his head. "What is it that you desire?"

"The restoration of the Hantei as an Imperial family," he answered at once. "In service to the throne, of course. I and my son are the last true descendants of the Hantei line."

Satsu slowly shook his head. "That cannot be done. It shall not."

"Then perhaps the Voice was correct, and there is nothing to be said."

"Perhaps not," Satsu agreed. "Not unless you have a more reasonable request."

Oki seemed to consider for a moment. "I will impart a portion of that which you desire," he finally said. "In exchange, you will permit one of my agents to remain within the city. Under guard, of course, but you will ensure that he is not subjected to the brutality of the Great Clans, and that he will be free to correspond as he sees fit."

Satsu raised an eyebrow. "Is not the Imperial Advisor one of your agents? It seems this bargain has been fulfilled long ago."

"I can no longer be absolutely convinced of Susumu's loyalties," Daigotsu said after a moment. "I have been forced to consider that proximity to the Empress may have& altered his priorities somewhat."

Satsu blinked in surprise, but then bowed his head to the Empress and continued. "The Empress desires to know why you believe that another agent would not be similarly compromised?"

"I trust this man because he had vows prior to entering my service, and he has not yet violated them. Thus I see no reason to believe that he will violate his vows to me."

The Voice frowned. "Who is this man?"

"I shall summon him, if the Empress permits." Seeing her nod, Oki closed her eyes for a moment. Then opened them and smiled. "He comes."

The three of them waited in silence for a short while before a figure emerged from the hedge rows, having apparently been concealed somewhere within the garden prior to the entourage's entrance. Which also meant that Daigotsu had been prepared for his initial request to be refused. Satsu stared at the newcomer for a moment in surprise. "Taishuu? Mirumoto Taishuu?"

The samurai bowed sharply to the Voice and the Empress, then to the child-demon. "It is merely Taishuu, my lord. For now."

"Taishuu shall be remanded into the custody of the Empress' Guard until arrangements can be made for a residence and a permanent duty guard," Satsu answered. "Your terms shall be observed upon the word of the Divine Empress."

"I find that sufficient," Daigotsu answered. "What will the nature of our relationship be following the conclusion of this meeting?"

"There is no relationship," Satsu answered. "You are an enemy of the throne. Your reprieve shall end at sunset."

"Naturally." He pondered a moment. "Is there no way to alter that relationship?"

"You were summoned to appear before the Empress and answer her questions," Satsu replied. "You chose instead to speak through a demon masquerading as a child, and to bargain to meet your own ends. If you had chosen otherwise, if you had demonstrated any interest in the safety of the Empire or its inhabitants, who knows what the result might have been?"

Oki shrugged. "I regret nothing."

"Tell the Empress what you know of the Destroyers now, please," Satsu said.

The demon child smiled.

* * * * *

            Shiba Erena struggled with her anger as she placed her blades upon the stand and regarded the exquisite armor arrayed next to it. The armor was for formal court settings, and had not been necessary today. The storm inside her spirit longed to lash out and hurl the armor to the ground, but she would not succumb to such petulance. She was a warrior, not a spoiled child. "Today's events were completely unacceptable," she finally said, her tone completely even despite her mood.

            "I do not think anyone here will disagree," the ever-serene tone of Ikoma Tobikuma's almost musical voice answered from behind her. "The question is, could we have done something differently? I fear the answer is no."

            Erena turned to face the others calmly. "I do not accept that answer."

            Hida Tatsuma laughed. It was a bitter sound. "Do you see? Do you see what the Crab are forced to deal with? How can you ferret out a demon that masquerades perfectly as a child, with no sign of its true nature? How can you stop a man who can send his filthy soul across the Empire into the body of demons? It's outrageous!"

            Erena held up a hand. "None of us question the difficulty of your clan's task, but that is not the point of our discussion. We were individually selected by the Emperor's Chosen to protect the Empress. I do not care about the nature of the threats that face her, only that they can be stopped."

            Tsuruchi Sanjo smirked. "Even those we have no realistic chance to stop in advance?"

            "Especially those," Erena answered. "We need shugenja."

            "What about the Hidden Guard?" Sanjo asked.

            Tobikuma shook his head. "The Hidden Guard are loyal to the Empress and the Seppun family, in that order."

            "So?"

            "So the Seppun consider the existence of this unit, and our individual clan affiliations, a suggestion that they cannot perform their duties," Tobikuma answered. "We cannot depend upon them to be our allies, particularly in a matter like this."

            "They will use it as leverage to petition for our dismissal and replacement," Erena agreed. "With Seppun guardsmen, of course." She considered for a moment. "I may have a solution to the issue of shugenja, but I will doubtless require your collective assistance." She smiled. "Thank you, my friends. You are dismissed to your individual duty shifts."

            The others began to file out, but just before the room was emptied, Erena spoke again, quietly. "Idzuki, Hirose& a moment."

            The Crane and Scorpion glanced at one another briefly, then turned back to their commander. Bayushi Hirosei closed the screen quietly to ensure that no one lingering in the corridor beyond could overhear. "What is it, commander?" Idzuki asked.

            "You each hold military appointments within your clans, do you not?"

            The two glanced at one another again. "Yes," the Crane answered.

            "Would it be possible for your units to be seconded to the guard, privately, and moved to the Imperial City?"

            Kakita Idzuki frowned, but the tilt of Hirose's head suggested he was smiling behind his mask. "You wish to amass a greater force at our disposal? For what purpose?"

            "For the purpose of ensuring that the Empress is safe regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whatever ridiculous political games the Imperial families wish to play," Erena answered.

            Hirose chuckled. "The feathers hide talons, I think. I will do as you request, commander."

            "With respect, Erena-sama," Idzuki said, "why not Naomasa or Kasei? They could call upon more troops than we can."

            "And the Lion Clan would quickly find out and assume we are incapable of our duties," Erena answered. "I will not have our every move second guessed by outsiders who covet the prestige of this appointment. Is that clear?"

            "Perfectly," Idzuki said with a bow. "It shall be done."

 

     

 

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