Despite the fact that by now all of you have probably read it already
By Rich Wulf
Ryoko Owari, the City of Stories…
Inao was a beautiful woman, with the pale skin and elegant features so distinctive of Shosuro ancestry. Age had not marred her beauty, nor had the tears that streamed down her cheeks. Her sorrow was outweighed by the pride that shone in her eyes. If any were disturbed that she displayed such open emotion, none dared comment.
She knelt on the steps of the newly constructed temple, head bowed. An assembly of samurai representing clans Great and Minor gathered on both sides, all kneeling as she did. Her sons knelt to her left, her daughters to the right. Only one man stood, facing them all from the top of the steps, standing before a silken curtain emblazoned with a curious mon – the symbol of a monkey. His lean frame was clad in robes of emerald green and burnished gold. A crown of leaves rested upon his brow, and a black silken patch covered his right eye.
“Lady Inao,” the Emperor said, his deep, practiced voice carrying easily across the temple courtyard. “The loyal servants of the Empire gather here today to honor your husband, a hero that Rokugan remembers fondly as the General. But rather than let my own coarse words describe his worth, let me instead invite one who has been trained by the finest omoidasu of the Lion Clan. Kurako-chan?”
The Emperor gestured toward the dais to his right, where his entourage awaited. A young woman in the same green and gold stepped forward. This was Kurako, of the Akodo House, the Emperor’s betrothed. Though she was a small and delicate woman, she carried herself with the confidence of a warrior. She greeted the Emperor with a subtle smile and a deep bow, then turned to address the assembly.
“Today,” she began, her dulcet speech a counterpoint to the Emperor’s deep voice, “we dedicate this temple in honor of your husband’s lifetime of heroic service. Today we dedicate this temple in honor of his sacrifice in battle against the Bloodspeakers. But most of all, today we dedicate this temple in honor of the example he set for us all. Though he was not born a samurai, he embraced bushido more fiercely than any who have ever walked the Empire. Never did the Splendid Emperor show greater wisdom than when he elevated the General to true samurai status. He was a man of courage, who carried duty foremost in his heart. He weighed compassion and courtesy in all his actions, and it can truly be said that no man was more honest than he. The General took his name from a character written on the cover of Akodo’s Leadership…” Beside Kurako, the Emperor smirked slightly and coughed to clear the sudden thickness in his throat. “Merely because he was fond of its shape. How ironic that his name was ‘virtue’ because truly no man embodied the tenets of bushido more perfectly than he. Toku… was a man of honor. He will never be forgotten so long as the Celestial Heavens endure. Already the most respected shugenja of the Soshi and Fuzake families have consecrated this temple...”
“And it was my greatest honor,” the Emperor chimed in deeply, “That the very first ceremony to be performed here was my own wedding, presided over by the esteemed Seppun Kiharu, master of Toshi Ranbo’s Ten Thousand Temples, witnessed by Yasuki Hachi, the Emerald Champion.”
A ruffled murmur spread through the crowd. Many were shocked that the Emperor had married his betrothed so abruptly and without their knowledge. Others were overjoyed at the news. Still others only chuckled, not surprised that their Emperor had done such a curious thing. Seppun Toshiaki, the Emperor’s shugenja advisor, looked particularly distressed.
“Now, children of Rokugan,” the Emperor continued, sweeping his arms outward as if to embrace them all, “let us dedicate the Temple of the General together.”
As the Emperor spoke these words, a sharp cry erupted from behind him and the waiting drummers began to beat a steady, pounding rhythm. Unseen Soshi shugenja whispered their magic and the braziers that stood before the temple erupted in roaring white flame. The Emperor and Kurako receded to their dais. The silken curtain that covered the temple doors fluttered away, revealing a massive statue crafted by the finest Kakita sculptors. It had been crafted to the Emperor’s personal specifications, depicting a young man in rough and ill-fitting armor. He held a ready sword in his right hand and had a thick, worn book clutched beneath his left arm. His keen eyes burned into the distant horizon, staring into the future without fear. On his back was mounted a sashimono, a banner depicting a black wolf – the symbol of Toturi’s Army. It was Toku as he had been in his youth, as he had been when the Emperor’s father first met him. At the bottom of the statue were carved a single line of characters.
“Toku, Fortune of Virtue – named by the Righteous Emperor, Toturi III.”
It was fortunate that the Emperor’s drummers played with such thunderous volume, or many samurai might have shamed themselves with their tears. Perhaps the Emperor would have been among them. The ceremonies continued for a long time afterward. Many grizzled veterans who had once fought by Toku’s side stepped forward to tell tales of the General’s exploits. Several young Monkey bushi nervously faced the crowd; though clearly overawed by the powerful company they shared today they showed every bit of Toku’s courage as they told tales of how the General had inspired them. The last to rise was Toturi Miyako, eldest child of Toku. Her eyes were red-rimmed as she looked out at the crowd. Her younger brothers, Koto and Kyoji, stood beside her in silence. Kiyuko, the youngest of them all, held Koto’s hand and looked out at the crowd with the simple earnest wonder of a child.
“What more can be said?” Toturi Miyako asked in a husky voice, “What has not been said? How can the words of a simple bushi like myself hope to compare with the words of so many heroes and scholars, not to mention the Emperor and Empress? I can only think of one thing. On behalf of my father…” She bowed her head. “Arigato.”
“Utz!” called out a sharp voice from the crowd.
Miyako looked up curiously, and even the Emperor raised an eyebrow at the unexpected disturbance.
“Banzai!” shouted the crowd.
“Utz!” the man shouted with greater fervor.
“Banzai!” came the crowd’s reply.
“Utz!” he shouted a third time.
“Banzai!” the crowd answered, their shouts now deafening.
It was only when the salute was done that the crowd turned to see who had initiated it. All tall figure stepped forth from the assembly. He was an elegantly handsome man, dressed in black silken robes trimmed in blood red. He wore the symbol of the Scorpion Clan on his right shoulder and the symbol of a rising sun over his heart. His face was covered in a thin veil. This was Bayushi Paneki, the mysterious new Champion of the Scorpion Clan. For a brief instant his dark eyes scanned the crowd for any sign of challenge, then he fell gracefully to one knee before the Emperor.
“Righteous Son of Heaven, forgive my arrogant outburst,” Paneki said. “Yet I could remain silent no longer. Many years ago my predecessor, Bayushi Yojiro, was given the privilege of selecting a bride for the General. Though it tore at my friend Yudoka’s heart to see his sister separated from him so, seeing the fine samurai that Inao’s sons and daughters have become only fills my Scorpion heart with pride… and I am sure that Yudoka, Yojiro, and even the General share this feeling. I wish to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Scorpion Clan’s friendship with the Monkey Clan. As Champion of the Scorpion, Master of Secrets, and Defender of the Empire I swear that the General’s temple shall always stand, strong and pure, so long as a single Scorpion still has a drop of blood within his veins.”
“And let us offer our loyalty as well,” said another man. He was tall, like Paneki, but thick and muscular where Paneki was slim. His skin was dark, weathered by sea winds, and he wore armor of deep sea green. Paneki looked at the man with narrow, cautious expression. “I am Yoritomo Naizen, General of the Mantis armies,” he introduced himself, greeting Paneki with a stiff bow then kneeling before Naseru. “Righteous Emperor, as you well know there is little love lost between the Mantis and Scorpion Clans. Eight years ago our Champion, Yoritomo Aramasu, was murdered by a Scorpion assassin. It has come to our attention that this Scorpion was later revealed to be a rogue agent, reviled among his own clan, but such revelations did little to calm the more vengeful members of my clan. Blood calls for blood, it is said, and only violence would appease them. But upon hearing the news of this temple’s construction, Lady Kumiko sent me to make peace. As you know, the General was once an ally of our legendary hero, Lord Yoritomo. Toku now shares the heavens with Osano-Wo, our most illustrious ancestor. If a man such as Lord Toku would grant his favor to the Scorpion Clan, then it is the least the Mantis can do to offer our forgiveness as well.”
“How can I but accept such a generous and sincere gesture?” Paneki said, the surprise in his voice showing a rare trace of emotion. He looked back at Naizen, nodding in respect.
The Emperor clapped briefly in approval. He rose again and moved to stand among Toku’s children. Kiyuko blinked up at him with wide eyes and he placed a fond hand upon her brow with a laugh. “Even in death, Toku continues to be an unparalleled inspiration to us all,” he said, his voice thick. “Rokugan will miss its General. Let Toku guard the heavens now, at my father’s side once more. I declare the Temple of the General to be open to all who would seek Toku’s blessings.”
Naseru stepped aside again, rejoining his entourage and giving the crowd tacit leave to enter the temple. Inao and her children were the first inside, pausing only long enough to kneel deeply before the Emperor another time. The assembly began to break apart as they drifted within. Some hovered about, obviously waiting for an opportunity to seek the Emperor’s attention.
“My congratulations on your marriage, Naseru-sama,” Seppun Toshiaki said quietly, leaning close between the Emperor and his bride. “Strange that you did not deem fit to inform me of it. Last night you said that you visited the temple only to view the architecture while it was still empty.”
“It was not planned,” Kurako answered him with a warm smile. “Naseru-sama was so impressed with the glory of Toku’s temple that a bit of the General’s impulsiveness overtook him. I hope you are not offended that you were not there, Toshiaki-san. You should be glad for us.”
“Why would I not be, Kurako-san?” Toshiaki replied. “I am merely concerned by the Emperor’s behavior. A ward that is untruthful with his guardians is most difficult to protect.”
“He was not unprotected, Toshiaki-san,” the Emerald Champion said with a soothing grin. “I was there. Irie was there.” He nodded at the Captain of the Guard. “Many of my finest magistrates were there. Do you feel we are not sufficient to the task?” His steel blue eyes leveled a challenge at the shugenja.
“You may be content with such measures, Hachi-sama,” Toshiaki retorted. “For my part one can never be satisfied with the Son of Heaven’s safety.”
“Bah,” Naseru suddenly said, drawing a surprised look from them all. “I am surprised you didn’t know, Toshiaki. I thought you knew everything about the man who sat upon the Steel Throne. Of course we are far from the Throne, aren’t we?”
Toshiaki looked at the Emperor sharply.
“Incidentally my brother Sezaru sends you his regards, Toshiaki,” the Emperor said. “He would have presided over the ceremony himself, but he is busy restoring the wards that protect the Imperial Palace. Apparently he felt they might not be as complete as once thought.”
“The Hidden Guard prepares those wards,” Toshiaki said urgently. “Sezaru should not interfere with…”
“Ah, but one can never be satisfied with the Son of Heaven’s safety,” Naseru countered. “And you will address my wife as ‘sama.’”
“My apologies, Righteous Emperor,” Toshiaki said insincerely. “Perhaps you are correct. Perhaps you are better off not relying upon the protection of the Hidden Guard, whose magic has guarded the throne for centuries. Surely your faith is better placed in the hands of a ronin and a Crane… or Crab…” Toshiaki scowled at Hachi. “Or whatever.”
Hachi’s right hand twitched, and Toshiaki flinched, but the Emperor shook his head slightly.
“I shall go attend to the temple now,” the shugenja said, stalking away. Immediately several of the Imperial Guard fell in behind him.
“You should not have stopped Hachi,” Irie said. “There is only one way to deal with men like him, Your Majesty.”
“Not yet,” Naseru said in a cool voice, watching as Toshiaki climbed the temple stairs.
Hachi nodded. “Toshiaki has too much influence,” he added. “He has friends in every court. If he were to die, his allies would convince everyone that mattered that Naseru is a tyrant.”
“He is the Emperor,” Irie said. “How can they doubt the Son of Heaven.”
“But it was not so long ago that Rokugan had a taste of a truly wicked Emperor,” Kurako said in a sad voice. “The Champions still remember Hantei XVI, and they remember that our lord was once his hostage and student. Naseru-sama has struggled to rise above the villainy of the Steel Chrysanthemum, and suffered much to gain the Empire’s respect.” Her gaze rested upon the Emperor’s silken eye patch. “Yet all of that could be washed away with the martyrdom of a fool like Toshiaki.”
“We cannot let him undermine your rule forever, Your Majesty,” Irie said, still unsatisfied. “He must be dealt with, as well as the others like him.” She looked at the Empress warily, unwilling to utter the name of the Shogun, a former ally of the Lion. Kurako said nothing.
“Such conspiracies cannot be built swiftly,” Naseru said. “Likewise they cannot be destroyed swiftly.”
“At least Toshiaki is afraid,” Hachi said. “He knows Sezaru has cleansed the Steel Throne, he knows that his conspiracy is not as invincible as he believed. When I made to reach for my sword, I saw his fear. He’s not willing to die for his cause. That gives us an advantage.”
“Does it?” Naseru asked, looking at the Emerald Champion. “Are my allies willing to die for their cause?”
Hachi only nodded grimly. “Does that surprise you, Your Majesty?”
The Emperor said nothing.
“So what must we do?” Irie asked. “How do we fight this Gozoku?”
“We wait,” Naseru answered. “And rely upon those who are still loyal. Sezaru has already struck the first blow.”
“But with Toshiaki always nearby, such efforts matter little,” Kurako said. “We must remove their spies, or disrupt their communication.”
“Plans are in motion,” the Emperor said. He looked at Hachi. “The Crane are my left hand.” He looked to Kurako. “The Lion are my right. Sezaru and his Phoenix are my Voice, but an Emperor has other allies still...” He smiled then, a sinister smile, and there was no mercy in his eyes.
Naseru’s estates in Ryoko Owari were a large and sprawling complex. Already extensive even before he took the throne, his temporary home in the City of Stories only became larger and more elaborate after his coronation. The Scorpion spared no expense to show their dedication to their Emperor, insuring that he and his servants were comfortable when visiting their city.
This only suited Seppun Toshiaki’s purposes, allowing him to place his own quarters as far from the Emperor’s as decorum would allow. He could hardly stand to be in the Son of Heaven’s presence of late. The Seppun stalked back and forth across the small dining room as he chewed over the day’s events in his mind. Shosuro Tsuyoshi, a heavy-set Scorpion courtier in a ghastly mask, sat at a table nearby and enjoyed a bowl of rice.
“The man is infuriating,” Toshiaki spat. “He absolutely refuses to concede defeat. Our allies have usurped his authority on nearly every level. We have agents in the houses of every Great Clan. Local magistrates and officers throughout the Empire already follow our commands rather than his. The Shogun himself is counted as one of us. When will he cease his arrogant rebellion?”
“He is the son of Toturi,” Tsuyoshi said with a chuckle. “Did you truly expect anything less?”
“He is the son of Toturi; I expected him to be reasonable,” Toshiaki retorted. “Instead he only proves why he should not rule. Look at what he did there today, Imperial showmanship, marrying Kurako in secret, smirking at his minor victory as he bestows Fortune status on a peasant! This is the man that determines the destiny of our Empire? I think not.”
“You needn’t convince me, Toshiaki-sama,” Tsuyoshi said. “The Scorpion have always believed in protecting the Empire from itself, though some of us realize that vision with greater clarity than others.”
“Speaking of which, what of your new lord, Paneki?” Toshiaki asked. “Where do his loyalties stand? Do you believe he could he be recruited?”
“Difficult to say,” Tsuyoshi said. “As you know, he was favored by Toturi. He was Tsudao’s strongest supporter until she died and her brother took the throne. It is in her tribute that he forever wears the symbol of the sun. This may mean that he has transferred his loyalty to Naseru or that he will forever compare him to his memories of her… a standard, I might add, that none living could hope to match.”
“So he may be pliable,” Toshiaki asked, nodding thoughtfully.
“Perhaps,” Tsuyoshi said, “though I would not wish to be the man to dare ask him. Paneki’s temper can be a swift and deadly thing.”
“And what became of his predecessor, Bayushi Sunetra?” Toshiaki asked. “My own spies have revealed little.”
“There was a mysterious invasion of Kyuden Bayushi,” Tsuyoshi said. He looked at Toshiaki carefully. “Assassins attempted to kill her.”
“How dreadful,” Toshiaki said mildly. “How did this lead to Paneki’s ascension?”
“I do not believe Paneki is responsible for Sunetra’s disappearance, if that is what you mean” Tsuyoshi answered. “He does not seem to thirst for power, at least not for his own glory.”
Toshiaki gestured curtly, as if this was of no interest. “That is not what I mean,” he said. “Where is Sunetra? Is she dead?”
“I do not know, my lord,” Tsuyoshi said. “Paneki and the other Scorpion lords said only that she stepped down. I can only assume that some terrible dishonor was involved, a matter better left unspoken. Why else would a Champion abdicate? I know that Paneki carries Churetsu, so he is the true Scorpion Champion now. The sword… protects itself from those who would bear it falsely.”
“Protects itself?” Toshiaki asked.
Tsuyoshi chuckled. “I have shared many secrets with you in the name of our cause, my friend, but some secrets must remain the Scorpion’s.”
“Understood,” Toshiaki said, though he fixed a suspicious eye on Tsuyoshi. “Are you meeting with the messenger today?”
“I am,” Tsuyoshi replied.
“Then I shall leave you in peace,” Toshiaki announced, smoothing his robes over his bony frame as he moved toward the door. “I know he favors privacy.”
The Seppun bowed curtly to Tsuyoshi, who nodded in reply and continued eating. He closed the door behind him with a snap. It had only been a few seconds before the messenger peeled himself from the shadows near the window. He wore a loose outfit of blood red, a deep hood covering his face.
“The playwright knows the truth,” the man said, then waited. He held a nagamaki in one hand, the long blade pointed toward Tsuyoshi.
“The historians only guess,” Tsuyoshi answered, looking at the man expectantly.
The messenger lowered the blade of his weapon.
“I have much to report,” Tsuyoshi began.
The messenger held up a restraining hand. He spun his nagamaki in both hands and looked cautiously at the ceiling. “I have nothing to say, traitor,” he replied.
With a swift lunge, the messenger darted forward, aiming his spear at the ceiling. Another shadowed figure rolled from the rafters, barely dodging his weapon. It landed nimbly in a crouch, a short sword appearing in one hand. The intruder was female, dressed in a loose fitting shirt and hakama of thin black silk. She glared up at the messenger, blue eyes behind a painted white face.
“Sunetra,” the messenger hissed.
She said nothing, only dove forward with her sword outstretched. He blocked the blow with his spear but she snatched his hood, tearing his cloak away, exposing his face. He wore a mask beneath, but among the Scorpion a mask could be even more distinctive than a face. His was golden, like the wings of a hawk, covering his entire head except for his chin. Short horns protruded from either side.
“Bayushi Kamnan,” Shosuro Tsuyoshi hissed angrily. “A Shadowed Tower traitor. You were right, my lady. How foolish I have been.”
“Redemption never arrives late, Tsuyoshi,” Sunetra answered.
“I’d argue that,” Kamnan retorted with a frown. He flicked his left hand absently, and Tsuyoshi fell clutching at his bleeding throat. Kamnan’s eyes never left Sunetra’s.
“Murderer,” Sunetra spat.
“As the Scorpion made me,” Kamnan answered with a short bow.
She dove at him with her ninja-to again, weapons clashing in a flurry of motion. He chuckled as he danced away from her, rolled, and leapt out the window, hurling another shuriken as he fell. She darted to one side, but it left a trace of red along her cheek. She glanced back at Tsuyoshi. The Scorpion lay dead on the floor, a look of peace on his face. Sunetra followed Kamnan with a curse, landing in the street below.
The streets of the noble district were empty this time of night, so Sunetra quickly caught sight of Kamnan darting into a nearby alley. She hurried after him, only realizing her mistake at the last instant. She ducked as the nagamaki burst from around the corner, burying itself deeply in her left shoulder. She stabbed with her sword at the same time, leaving a less satisfying gash along Kamnan’s right hip.
“Poor Sunetra,” Kamnan said, withdrawing his weapon and clutching his side with a chuckle. “Naseru let you out of your cage too late. Your skills are dulled. Did you think yourself a match for me?”
“Of course not,” she replied. “Unlike Aramasu, I am young. And armed.”
Kamnan sneered. He stabbed at her again, but she danced away. She slashed at him in reply but he slapped the hilt of her weapon down, returning the blow with a backhand slap. Sunetra staggered back against the wall, unready for his strength. He lifted the spear again and brought it down hard. She tried to scramble away, but the weapon buried itself in her thigh. He kicked her sword arm hard, knocking her weapon into the darkness.
“You are a wretched Scorpion,” Kamnan said, twisting the spear and smiling at Sunetra’s anguished cry. “You chain your honor to the disfigured spawn of Toturi. My lord Atsuki watched the living world for centuries before he returned; he has told me the truth of the Clan War and the times that followed. If any deserved to take the Hantei throne it was the Scorpion. We saw the Dark God first, but instead of a throne we were given exile. We humble ourselves, begging for the scraps of power that should wholly be ours.”
“Atsuki’s vision is flawed,” Sunetra retorted, looking up at Kamnan hatefully. “Perhaps he was noble once, but he has been driven mad by the Realm of Slaughter.”
“Better a mad Scorpion ruler than the son of a ronin,” Kamnan answered. “Weigh this, Sunetra. It is a foolish man who founds his dynasty on regicide. It sets a most unsettling precedent.”
Kamnan reached behind his back, drawing his wakizashi in one hand while he kept her pinned with the spear. Sunetra drew an egg-shaped pellet from her wrist and broke it on the ground, releasing a cloud of burning smoke. Kamnan stumbled away with a startled gasp, slashing the air with his wakizashi but finding no target. When the smoke cleared, Sunetra was gone. Seeing neither trail of blood nor any sign of movement, he cast about in confusion, then looked straight up.
Landing easily on the roof, Kamnan found a trail of fresh red droplets leading away. He saw Sunetra’s shadowy figure on the next building. She stopped only long enough to glance back furtively and keep running. He fell into motion, leaping easily from one roof to the next. He was privately impressed that she could make such a leap with her injuries, but Kamnan did not let that deter him. He threw a shuriken at her retreating form and dodged just in time for the knife she returned to glide past his mask.
Sunetra disappeared over the wall of a noble’s mansion, and Kamnan quickly followed. He ignored the broken steel and glass that jutted from the mortar at the top, a protection meant to deter clumsier invaders. He saw no guards or lights inside the house but her blood trail led to the door. Presumably this was the seasonal home of some absent samurai. Dropping from the wall, he quickly ran toward the house, glancing in each direction for possible sentries. Something struck him as wrong, but he could not abandon the chance to kill Sunetra now that she was so badly wounded. He threw open the main doors and stepped inside with his nagamaki ready. Sunetra’s silhouette waited for him, her weight on one foot, holding a short knife as she waited for him.
“Standing on one leg,” he chuckled. “Born like a crane, die like a crane. At least you stopped making me run.” He charged at her.
She dodged his spear at the last instant, seizing the haft in one hand and tracing a deep gash along his fingers. Kamnan gasped in pain and reached for his wakizashi. She buried her knee in his midsection and pushed him to the ground. She spun his spear in one hand and pointed the long blade at his chest.
Kamnan only looked up at her blankly, stunned by the ease that she had defeated him, even wounded. He realized that he had never been a match for her. “Why play with me like this, Sunetra?” he snapped bitterly.
“I don’t know what you mean, Kamnan,” Sunetra replied. “More importantly, I don’t know why you invaded my friend’s house.”
With that, the unseen man in the corner removed a cover from his lantern, filling the room with light. A rich ink brush painting of Yoritomo Aramasu hung on the wall behind him. Kamnan’s eyes widened.
“Welcome to the esteemed house of the Mantis,” Yoritomo Naizen said, standing languidly and cracking the knuckles of one hand. “Blood calls to blood, Kamnan.”
The doors on either side suddenly opened. A dozen men stood on either side, wielding Tsuruchi bows and the twin hooked blades of Yoritomo bushi charged in to fill the chamber. A half dozen more flooded in to block the front door. Kamnan looked from one man to the next without fear, discounting even Naizen, until he saw one that waited behind them all. His jaw dropped in horror.
“Give him back his spear, Sunetra,” Naizen said. “We have earned this.”
Sunetra nodded, dropping the weapon on the floor. She turned to leave, limping only slightly from her injury.
“Good luck,” the Mantis called out to her.
She only nodded, and did not look back as the door closed behind her. The sound of steel on steel echoed for several seconds, followed for a much longer time by the sound of Kamnan’s screams.
Naseru sat alone in his personal chambers, leafing idly through the thick volume that lay upon his desk. A smile painted his worried features, not one of the practiced smiles he reserved for the court but a sincere expression of happiness. She was almost reluctant to disturb him, but it could not be avoided.
“What are you reading, my lord?” Sunetra asked as she dropped from the ceiling.
He looked at her with only faint surprise, concerned gaze moving from the bandages on her shoulder and thigh to the cut on her cheek. “Leadership,” he replied. “So rare that I get to read anything but official documents anymore, but I can make time for this. This book was given to the General by my father, to replace the torn and weathered copy that he carried throughout the Clan War. Inao returned it to me today.” His smile deepened. “It had never been opened. Toku preferred the original copy, though he would not deny my father’s gift.”
Sunetra smiled in reply. Not for the first time she envied Naseru the friends and family that he shared, as fractured as those bonds sometimes were.
Then his smile faded, and his face was bored and urgent once more – the face of the Anvil. “My guards found Shosuro Tsuyoshi dead in his chambers,” he said. “Your report?”
“Kamnan slew Tsuyoshi when he was recognized,” Sunetra said. “I could not stop him.”
“Unfortunate,” Naseru replied. “Tsuyoshi could have been useful. Presumably there are other Scorpion like him, who follow the Gozoku but do not recognize their origins. We could have used that, but there is nothing to be done. What of Kamnan?”
Sunetra looked to her left. The shadows seemed to move and a tall, lean man appeared at her side. He wore a golden mask, the wings of a hawk with short horns on either side. He regarded the Emperor with a murderous gaze. Naseru looked back at him calmly.
“This is Bayushi Baku, the one I told you of,” Sunetra said. “He will replace the true Kamnan.”
“A spirit,” Naseru replied. “What if you are recognized?”
“I know all that Kamnan knows,” the spirit answered. “He wore Scorpion loyalty as his mask. Now I wear his soul as mine.”
“Bearing the weight another man’s crimes is no small burden,” Naseru said. “How do I know I can trust you not to act as Kamnan did?”
“My crimes are even greater than Kamnan’s,” Baku replied. “Yet your father trusted me. I must atone, even if I must paint the entire earth with the blood of those who would betray my clan and Emperor.”
Naseru said nothing, only looked at the spirit evenly.
“I must return to my new ‘allies’ before I am missed,” Baku said.
“Of course,” Naseru replied, and then Baku was gone as swiftly as he had come.
“You do not trust him,” Sunetra said pensively.
“I trust very few,” Naseru said. “I trust you. I trust Irie. I trust Hachi to adhere to his honor and I trust Kurako to be the noble Akodo. Beyond this I trust very few, least of all spirits of the dead who do not know their place.”
“Baku’s place is here,” she answered. “He was sent to atone, and I think he knows more about Atsuki than he admits.”
Naseru’s eye widened. “An original Gozoku conspirator?” he asked.
“Possibly,” she said. “He says he is an unforgivable traitor. When else did the Scorpion betray the Emperor to such a degree? I believe he was one of Atsuki’s lieutenants, but most of their names have been stricken from our histories.”
“The remorseful spirit of Baku against the vengeful spirit of Atsuki,” Naseru mused. “We have won an ironic victory if nothing else. I am sure you have much to do, Sunetra. You are excused.”
She bowed deeply to him. He nodded perfunctorily in reply, but she caught the fond smile that crossed his face when he believed she was not looking. She stepped back into the hall, making no noise on the nightingale floors. She passed the guards without notice, though vigilant Irie glanced up. Yet as she crossed the outer courtyard there was one whom she could not pass unnoticed.
“Sunetra,” Bayushi Paneki said, his voice causing her to jump.
She looked back at him, blue eyes intense. “Master of Secrets,” she replied.
“How did I know?” he asked ruefully. “The Scorpion Champion disappears in the night, with no reason or warning, only a sealed note addressed with my name. I find that I am now Scorpion Champion, and the Chamber of Swords now answers to me. Yet I do not know the reason why.” He looked back at the mansion. “How did I know that Naseru was a part of this?”
“As I said, you are Master of Secrets now,” she answered. “So I trust you will keep this one, and tell no one you saw me here.”
“Why did you choose me, Sunetra?” Paneki answered, though his tone was not plaintive or regretful, only curious. “I am no leader.”
“You will learn to be one,” she said. “You are intelligent, ruthless, beautiful, and patient. You are all that the Scorpion need. You will make them deadlier than they ever have been.”
“Then why did Yojiro not choose me instead of you years ago?” he asked.
“I am a hunter, Paneki,” she said. “Yojiro chose me to hunt the Shadowed Tower. Where they once plagued the Scorpion, now they plague an Empire. One as visible as a Champion cannot fight them, and those who foolishly follow them. I must be the Emperor’s unseen agent. I must be his Underhand.”
Paneki looked unconvinced. “You have given up everything, Sunetra,” he said. “You were the Lady of the Scorpion, the Mistress of Secrets. All the power and influence of your clan was yours to command. You have given up all of that, merely so that you could serve Naseru again. I could not rule the Scorpion knowing that you might regret what you have lost to become the Emperor’s Underhand.”
“Then know that I have lost nothing,” she said with a coy smile. “He has given me everything that matters.”
Paneki understood. He made no good-byes, no promises, said nothing more to her. Further words would have been meaningless. He merely watched Sunetra disappear into the night and wondered if he would ever see her again.
Finally a fiction that resolves a boxtopper tournament !
Though to be honest at first I didn't know it was an actual storyline prize . It actually fits in quite smoothly within the current storyline in my opinion , but I guess that's due to the Story Team's practice with these things . It's probably not a storyline prize that the Scorpion players expected to win either but it's still a bit of story time for them. On top of course of the unraveling of the reasons why Bayushi Paneki assumed the Scorpion Championship (though it's perhaps also a throwback to tragic Scorpion love stories e.g Aramoro/Kachiko) . Personally I think Paneki's ascension bodes well for the Clan , as the storyline generally seems to have portrayed Paneki as a well connected , heroic Legionnaire as well as a loyal Scorpion clan schemer and courtier (as can be seen in his handling of the War of Kaeru Toshi)whereas Sunetra remained more of an essential ninja , despite her Crane connection (which was interesting too)
Perhaps we'll see the alluded to romance between Sunetra and Naseru blossom into something more tangible than probable new art for Unrequited Love , which would deepen Naseru's character while (if the story team wishes) leaving him more open to the manipulation that seems to be the arc's focus . Naseru could for instance stabilize his role as Toturi III under Kurako's guidance , lending him the legitimacy and honor of the Lion clan, while he pursues a relationship truer to his personal character with Sunetra. But then again it might be that such a relationship would be doomed to fail anyway
Either way it'd provide some interesting fiction in my opinion
Naseru supporters will probably still not find in him the courtly-savvy ever-watchul Emperor they'd like to see him portrayed as in this fiction , but at least he's showing encouraging signs of rebellion against the Gozoku 'Web of Lies' and we just might see a resurgence of his strength of character in future fictions
And finally this fiction finally resolves the long protracted Scorpion/Mantis feud to the mutual benefit of the Clans. The Scorpion even got the satisfaction of knowing they litterally nailed a remnant of the Shadowed Tower and we just might see a future card come out of that (Event : Kanman's Undoing or some such). I thought this fiction would also resolve the learn a secret/give a favour to another Clan result for the Scorpion or the Mantis from Gencon SoCal but apparently that has yet to come
At least that should put an end to the feud (flavour text change on "I Am Ready" ?)which seems like it will benefit the Empire in the long run , although right now it essentially focuses the Mantis' attention away from avenging Aramasu and towards the Mantis/Phoenix war (which is probably not good for the Empire)while on the positve side of things the Scorpion are now free to hunt Atsuki and the Gozoku with all their might at the Emperor's command and with Baku's aid to boot (Experienced 3 Bayushi Baku ?)
So on the whole I'd say things are looking up for the Empire ,and this fiction manages to weave things together in an interesting manner too , which is a nice plus