A Matter of Loyalty
By Shawn Carman

In an instant, Akodo Kaneka was wide-awake. His breathing remained deep and even, and he did not move. To anyone looking, it would seem as if he was still fast asleep. Something had awakened him, and he suspected treachery was at its root. The moon was not visible through his window, meaning that it was still late at night. There was no reason for anyone to be near his chambers.

There. The faintest of sounds, coming from across the room. It was the rustling of cloth as someone took a cautious, stealthy step toward him. Most would have missed so soft a sound even when awake. Akodo Kaneka was not most men, however, and now he knew exactly where his attacker was.

Turning slowly, as if tossing about in his sleep, Kaneka rolled toward the side of his mat where his katana lay resting upon its stand. Just as a sleeping man would settle back into his mat, Kaneka suddenly rolled quickly off into the floor and crossed the distance between his mat and the stand in a flash of movement. He felt the cold, comforting weight of his blade's saya and heard a hushed curse from across the room.

Armed and alert, Akodo Kaneka turned to face his would-be assassin. To his surprise, he found that there were three men in his chambers, each wrapped from head to toe in dark cloth and each with a blade drawn. "Well done," he said. "Few men would be able to reach my private chambers given how many sentries stand on guard in this castle. Fewer still could come so close to their objective. But one of you is a clumsy fool, and you will all pay the price for that one's idiocy."

The middle of the three men glanced harshly once at the man on his left, then back at Kaneka. "Kill him quickly," he said to his companions. "We have little time." The other two immediately spread out across the room, moving on opposite sides of Kaneka in an attempt to flank him. With the three of them against one, Kaneka acknowledged that it was the best available strategy, but one that would fail.

No man would stand against the Shogun and live.

The assassin on the left lunged in, drawing Kaneka's attention. Even as he turned to intercept, he could see the other moving in behind him to take advantage of his unguarded back. In a single, deft motion, Kaneka drew his katana from its saya, lashing out with the wooden sheath in his left hand to strike the first assassin's blade with such force that it was ripped from his grasp and clattered to the floor. The Shogun did not stop there, however, but allowed the force of his strike to continue spinning him to his right, bending at the waist and kicking out with his left foot. His kick caught the first foe low in the stomach and drove him back against the chamber's wall with bone-shaking force.

Even as the first man struck the wall, Kaneka felt the blade of the assassin behind him pass inches over his now bent torso. Had he remained in an upright fighting posture, he would have surely been wounded badly, perhaps killed, by such a strike. Unfortunately for his attacker, however, Kaneka had anticipated the strike. Still spinning from his saya strike to the first assassin, the Shogun let the spin give his strike additional power, slicing through the man's torso easily. He died with a soft, surprised gasp and the faint sound of blood splattering on the wooden floor.

Kaneka finished his spin and straightened to his full height. Almost casually, he turned and drove his blade through the first assassin, who had just begun to rise from where he had slumped against the wall, pinning him there. He fixed the last man with an emotionless glare. "Your men are dead. You will follow them."

"I don't think so," hissed the man. He feinted toward the door as if to run, then suddenly withdrew a small knife from his belt and hurled it at Kaneka. The dim light allowed the Shogun the briefest glimpse of the pale green glint on the steel edge of the blade. He spun again, this time to his left and away from the blade. For the second time in less than a minute, he felt the stirring of air as steel passed within an inch of his flesh. Kaneka finished his spin and loosed his saya, sending in whirling across the room to strike the last assassin squarely in the face. The crack of wood on bone assured Kaneka that his enemy would not soon recover.

Kaneka had crossed the room before the man even hit the floor. He tore the assassin's blade away with brutal force, then knelt and clasped the man's throat in one powerful hand. "No one threatens my life and lives. No one."

A sudden blow from behind staggered Kaneka and sent him rolling away from the head assassin. Recovering, he saw that, to his amazement, the man he had pinned to the wall had torn himself free and was lunging after him with his blade held in his single functioning arm. Behind him, the lead assassin leapt nimbly out the window and disappeared into the treetops below.

Bellowing in rage, Kaneka forsook his weapon and lunged forward, colliding with the one remaining assailant and sending them both to the floor. He grabbed his enemy's weapon hand a crushed with all his strength, feeling the bones in the man's hand crack and shatter in his iron grip. Once the weapon was gone, he quickly shifted his grip to the man's throat, just as he had done to the escaped assassin.

"Wait," rasped the man. "If you kill me, you'll never know who sent us!"

"I will find that out on my own, fool," Kaneka snarled. He tightened his grip, felt the man's windpipe collapse in his clutches, and then released, allowing the dead man's head to rap sharply against the floor.

A pair of guards burst into the room, blades drawn. Both bore Lion mons. They took a quick assessment of the room, lowered their blades, and bowed. "Six sentries have been found killed, Shogun," one offered. "Poisoned darts."

"Have them replaced, and double the guard until further notice. One of them escaped." Kaneka glanced around the room and, almost as an afterthought, added "And summon someone to clean up this mess. I will be moving to vacant quarters until this place has been purified."

* * *

As he expected, the entire compound was talking about the attack when morning arrived. If the men sworn to his service held true to form, then Kaneka could expect to find most of them with one of two opinions on the attack. Most would be outraged that anyone would dare assault their lord in his own home. A smaller contingent would be horrified at the very idea, believing themselves somehow at least partially responsible because of some perceived failure on their part. Both could be used to his advantage. A few harsh words and a vow to hunt down those responsible would instill in his outraged troops a frenzied devotion that would only cement their profession of loyalty to his cause. A baleful glare to those overwhelmed with guilt would cause them to redouble their efforts to serve him with honor and distinction. Either way, the Shogun would benefit. As it should be.

Still, there were other opportunities to be had in the midst of such an event. Kaneka was considering the possibilities even as one of his advisors joined him on the balcony overlooking his training grounds. "Good morning, Shogun," the man said in a perfectly calm voice, his long white hair blowing in the wind.

"Midoru," Kaneka acknowledged. "I trust you're well this morning."

"Indeed. And better rested than you, from what I hear." As usual, the Crane's voice betrayed no hint of humor or mischievousness, only a flat assessment of the situation. "It seems the castle is not as safe as perhaps we had imagined."

"So it seems," Kaneka agreed. "Few men could have achieved such a feat, however. The cunning and speed to penetrate my defenses so easily are rare. Where were you last night, Midoru?"

"In my chambers." Midoru showed no sign of surprise or offense at Kaneka's question.

The Shogun grunted in assent. "Of all the men in my command, Midoru, you are one of the few I feel certain will always speak the truth. Why is that?"

"If you were a man that could be so easily deceived, then I would not waste my time in your service." The Crane warrior turned to face Kaneka, his strange gray eyes as empty and deep as the Void. "I have little patience for fools, regardless of their rank."

Kaneka nodded mutely. He and the Crane were alike in many ways, even more so than Midoru realized. The Water Dragon's gifts to Kaneka had been many, and he could perceive the strange abilities Midoru possessed, even if the Crane did not understand them fully himself. "Someone in my army has betrayed me, Midoru. They must be found, and an example must be made. You will aid me in this." He smiled grimly at the Crane. "As a show of your loyalty."

Midoru inclined his head respectfully and without expression. "As you command, Shogun."

* * *

"Akodo Ijiasu," Kaneka said to the samurai who stood waiting while the Shogun sat down for a late morning meal. "The sentries who were killed last night, allowing assassins into my private chambers, were almost all Lion from your command." He met Ijiasu's eyes with an almost casual look. "Why was this allowed to happen?"

The young Lion's face was torn between rage and shame. "I am disgraced, my lord Kaneka-sama. My men failed in their duty, and so I have failed as well. If it is your wish, I will gladly perform the three cuts to atone for my dishonor."

Kaneka waved the suggestion away negligently. "Seppuku is not an acceptable answer. Any simpleton can escape his fate that way, but I do not believe you are a simpleton. And I have no wish to draw Ginawa's ire for having seen one of his finest students throw his life away pointlessly." He regarded Ijiasu curiously as he enjoyed a small bowl of rice. "I will be replacing the night guards with Scorpion bushi from Higatsuku's contingent," he said finally. "Perhaps they will have more luck in ferreting out skulking assassins, since they are little better themselves."

"The Scorpion!" burst Ijiasu, his color rising. "My lord, you cannot be serious! Think of the risk! They cannot be trusted!"

"I trust Higatsuku," Kaneka countered. "He has never failed me. I trust you as well, Ijiasu, but you have failed me." He let his words sink in for a moment, allowing the Lion tactician the briefest moment of despair before beckoning him forward and leaning in to speak in low, conspiratorial tones. "I am Shogun, Ijiasu. I cannot… I will not show favor, even to my own family. If I am to trust you with an important duty again, you must show our forces that you are worthy of my trust and theirs. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Shogun!" Ijiasu's face was a mask of determination. He bowed deeply and turned to leave. From his posture, he was ready to do whatever must be done in order to reclaim the Lion's position as Kaneka's chief protector.

Kaneka enjoyed a wry smile for a brief moment, then called out after the young Lion. "Ijiasu," he said, "do not be overly harsh on your men. It promotes poor morale. And those that truly failed us are already dead, poisoned by the assassins and found dead at their post. There is little we can do to punish your men further, and nor should we wish to."

"Hai, Shogun." With that, the Lion was gone, and Kaneka could finish his morning meal in peace. It would be a long day. Interesting, certainly, but long.

* * *

If Kaneka did not know better, he would have mistaken the sound coming from the outer training grounds for thunder. It would be a simple mistake to make. The massive rumbling noise swelled and diminished like a distant thunder that seethed and intensified, but never grew closer. The dust clouds even gave the appearance of an approaching storm. But as Kaneka reached the ridge that overlooked the training grounds on the outer edges of his territory, the source of the sound was obvious: cavalry.

There was likely no greater cavalry in the Empire than that under Kaneka's command, save the Unicorn. It was hardly surprising, really, given that members of virtually every clan had committed troops to his army, whether because their lord ordered it, like the Unicorn, or because they came of their own volition.

A lone horse rode along the ridge's edge toward Kaneka. As it drew closer Kaneka could make out the short, impossibly broad rider. "Hail, Khan," he said, as the horse pulled up next to his.

"Hail, Shogun," Moto Chagatai replied. "I have been expecting you."

"Have you?" asked Kaneka mildly. "Why is that?"

"I have heard what happened," the Khan said. "You will be using this as a means of ensuring that those who have sworn themselves to you are truly loyal. I would do the same, were I in your position."

"Some might say you covet my position, Chagatai. Some might suggest you hope to take my place as Shogun. Or even as Emperor, when that time comes."

Chagatai snorted derisively. "They would not follow me, Kaneka." He gestured toward the training grounds, where his Unicorn troops mixed with the forces of many other clans. "They think me a simpleton. Even worse, they think me incompetent. Those in your service are learning otherwise. As your general, the rest of the Empire shall learn as well." He glanced sidelong at Kaneka. "I serve you because it benefits me and my clan. When you sit upon the throne, I expect my service to be rewarded. Until then, I am yours to command without question. Your failure would only prove I am the fool everyone believes me to be."

Kaneka regarded Chagatai carefully. Technically, such arrogance from a subordinate should be punished. However, Chagatai had been instrumental in his claiming the position of Shogun, and his support had lent credence to the title. Also, he served Kaneka because he chose to, not because he had to. He shook his head. "You are a bold man, Khan," he finally said.

"No. Boldness implies a remote fear of failure. I have no fear, and I have never failed. Nor do I intend to begin now." He turned his horse to return to the training grounds, then looked back at Kaneka. "I have sent to the Unicorn provinces for more steeds. The Shogun's forces cannot be seen on the ragged creatures these other fools brought with them. Let them carry our supplies, if the must, but the Shogun's cavalry will ride only the finest Unicorn steeds. All who see them will know without question that the Unicorn Khan sands with Akodo Kaneka, Shogun of Rokugan. May the blessings of the Ten Kings be upon you, Kaneka-sama." With that, he spurred his horse to a gallop and raced back down the ridge to rejoin his men, leaving Kaneka to return to his castle alone.

* * *

It was almost an hour's ride from Yasuki Yashiki to the shore of Earthquake Fish Bay, but Kaneka did not mind. He always found that his mind was clearest when he was riding, with nothing to preoccupy him save the wind in his face and the roar of it in his ears. He had met with many of his most prestigious followers and supporters, those who would have the most impact when his displeasure trickled down to the soldiers under their command. Kaneka could not very well gather his men together and redress them for their failures. No, that would damage morale rather than build it, and would demonstrate to his enemies that he was weak. Meeting with a select few instead would have a more profound effect without alerting anyone to a change in routine.

The docks that had once served the lords of Yasuki Yashiki now harbored Kaneka's fledgling naval forces. There were very few ships available to him thus far, including only a handful he had claimed when he carved out his piece of the Yasuki lands and those that came to him when the Mantis joined his numbers. He hoped to have more soon, enough to transport at least a portion of his forces along the coast. It would be far faster than having to march the entire army, and it would allow his armies to establish a foothold whenever they chose to move.

Reaching the docks, Kaneka dismounted and left his steed in the care of the Mantis who rushed out to meet him. "Where are Kumiko's chambers?" he demanded of his attendants. One of them pointed fearfully toward the largest of the ramshackle buildings along the shore, sending Kaneka storming along the rough dirt path. Upon reached the door, he did not announce himself, but instead entered without preamble.

"Oh!" exclaimed a small man within, leaping up from his desk and spilling ink across the floor in the process. "Kaneka-sama! I am sorry, I was not expecting you."

"Where is Kumiko?" the Shogun demanded, scanning the room.

"My lady Kumiko-sama is not in residence at the moment, my lord. She is attending interests of her own abroad."

"Interests of her own? What is more important than her oath of fealty to the Shogun? Has she forgotten so soon, Mogai?"

"No, absolutely not," Moshi Mogai insisted. "She is attending to personal matters now so that she can devote her attention to your service. I am afraid I do not know what matters these are, however."

"Assassins attempted to kill me last night, Mogai," Kaneka glared at the much smaller man. "What assurances do I have that your mistress was not responsible?"

Somehow, Mogai summoned the courage to look outraged at the very idea. "My lord! Kumiko-sama is your most devoted and faithful follower! She would never stoop to such base treachery! Perhaps that usurper Kitao, but Kumiko would never commit such a disgrace!"

"A disgrace? Odd words coming from one who serves a Tainted daimyo."

Mogai grew very quiet then, and Kaneka could see something like hatred in his eyes. "You know the circumstances of her birth," he said quietly. "She has never betrayed you, and she never will."

"That is not what others will think. She has the Taint. She will be suspected."

"Then the Mantis will prove her devotion," Mogai said firmly. "The ships you requested will be finished and here by the time you are ready to move. No matter the cost. The Mantis serve the Daughter of Storms, and the Daughter of Storms serves the Shogun."

"Excellent," said Kaneka. "And any who question her service, or yours, shall answer to me."

* * *

It seemed as though an eternity had passed since he had removed his blade from its stand to defend himself from assassins, but in truth it had been slightly less than one full day. Kaneka smiled as he gently sat his weapon on its rack. His forces were being purged of anyone who might prove even remotely disloyal to him, and those who were loyal were eager to prove themselves to him once more. Tolerating a little lost sleep and dispatching a pair of clumsy fools was a small price to pay for such a gain.

Kaneka cocked his head to the side as he heard a slight rustle in the corridor beyond his chambers. Smirking, he said loudly, "Enter, Higatsuku."

The shoji screen slid quietly open and the black and crimson clad Scorpion courtier entered Kaneka's chambers. "Forgive my hesitation, my lord. I was merely… gathering my thoughts."

"There is no reason to be fearful of my wrath, Higatsuku. What delay kept you from returning until now?"

"There was a contingent of Dragon, or perhaps I should say former Dragon, who tracked me down before I reached Sunda Mizu Mura, my lord. Their leader, Mirumoto Settan, led them to follow Mirumoto Junnosuke when he was cast out. They wish to follow you now. I made the arrangements, and they should be arriving within a few days. Several dozen in all. They will be a great addition to our… to your forces."

"Excellent," Kaneka said, quite pleased. "I must say you have done your job well. The entire camp is in disarray, but will soon be forged into a stronger, deadlier blade than before."

"My lord?" asked Higatsuku quizzically.

"There is no need for innocence, Higatsuku," Kaneka said with a hint of irritation. "We are alone. And was it not I who ordered you to hire the assassins to try and kill me? I am not so much a fool as to believe all in my camp are truly loyal to me, and I need a means to purge the disloyal from my ranks."

"But Kaneka-sama…" the Scorpion began.

"If this is to be another of your lectures on deception, courtier, then spare me," Kaneka said, his temper beginning to rise. "You understand the courts better than I ever will, but the mind of a soldier is something you will grasp. What is necessary is…"

"My lord!" said Higatsuku firmly. "You must hear me out!"

The Shogun ground his teeth and clenched his fists. It seemed his Scorpion advisor had forgotten his place. A reminder was certainly in order.

"I have not hired any assassins yet, Kaneka-sama. Your messenger caught up to me before I reached Sunda Mizu Mura. I never completed the arrangement."

The blossoming anger in Kaneka's heart died instantly, replaced with a cold clarity that brought everything into sharp focus. "Then the men who tried to kill me…"

"Were sent by someone who genuinely wishes you dead," finished the courtier.

"No." Kaneka turned and regarded his blade on the stand. "No, not dead. None of my enemies would be so naïve as to believe those three fools could have finished me. This was some sort of message, or even a game. Someone is toying with me. Someone who anticipated my attempt to cleanse my forces of outside influence."

A sharp rap came from the chamber's entrance. Without waiting for acknowledgement, the shoji screen slid open a second time and Doji Midoru entered the chamber. He inclined his head respectfully to the Shogun, offering a cursory nod of recognition to the Scorpion as well. "Forgive me, Kaneka-sama, but I have discovered some information you will wish to hear."

"Tell me," Kaneka said gruffly.

Midoru held forth the knife that the last assassin had thrown at Kaneka the previous evening. "This blade is crafted from Crane steel. It has been weighted not only for throwing, but for a specific warrior to wield. Either this knife was crafted in Crane lands for the assassin, or he made a very poor choice of weapons to steal."

"They were not Crane," Kaneka said.

"No my lord, they were not," Midoru continued, handing the blade to Higatsuku. "I had an eta examine the bodies for me. The calluses the assassins bore suggest a Scorpion fighting style. One of the western Bayushi dojo, I imagine."

"I know this blade," Higatsuku offered quietly.

"What?" demanded Kaneka.

"Look at this." The Scorpion held the blade up, pointing out a small insignia near the base of the blade. It was a snarling wolf with fangs bared for the strike. "I have heard of an assassin that uses this symbol."

"What is his name?" inquired Midoru.

"That I do not know," admitted Higatsuku. "I know only of his symbol. He is said to be one of the best, and quite mad. I would never condone entrusting anything of importance to such a man, nor can I imagine anyone foolish enough to do so. He is a ronin, if the rumors are true."

Kaneka shook his head. "Their accents were Mantis," he said. "And I was fool enough to kill them without questioning them first." He pounded the sword rack with his fist, rattling his blade in its saya.

"One of the men carried this within the lining of his clothing," offered Midoru, holding forth a small bundle of tightly wrapped white cloth.

Kaneka took the bundle and unwrapped it, revealing the tiny black cube within it. He sniffed it cautiously, then held it away from his face. "Opium," he said, his teeth clenched, eyes blazing with pure fury. "Ryoko Owari." He fixed his lieutenants with a gaze that could bend steel and spat a single, hate-filled word.