An Entertaining Game
The court chambers were strangely silent, far less energetic than normal and hardly filled with the usual murmuring of a score of courtiers. Kaukatsu tucked the scroll he had just received into his sleeve for later reading and looked around to see what was amiss. Such a silence in court usually indicated a spectacle of particular interest had presented itself for the delight of the assembled courtiers. Among the remaining voices, he could make out a rich baritone, rising and falling in a dramatic fashion.
Sume. Of course. The old bard had been entertaining the masses with his colorful tales for days on end. For some reason Kaukatsu could not fathom, the others did not seem to tire of them. To the eye of a Bayushi, however, Ikoma Sume was as transparent and obvious as he was tiresome. Still, it would not do to seem aloof or impolite. With a warm yet completely insincere smile, Kaukatsu crossed the room to listen in with the others.
"Terrible was the wrath of the Troll King," intoned Sume solemnly, apparently nearing the end of his latest tale. "The horrible beast ravaged the countryside in his rage, lusting for the death of the magistrate who had caused him such agony. But the magistrate was far too clever, and laid a deadly trap for the King of the Trolls high in the mountains. When the beast finally found him, he used the secrets of the new magic he had discovered to tear the beast's spirit from its body and send it screaming into the spirit realms." Sume drew himself up and surveyed the crowd. "According to legend, the beast's body still sleeps deep inside the mountains. Unless, of course," he paused with a wicked grin and a raised eyebrow, "its spirit escaped at the Battle of Oblivion's Gate?"
There was a smattering of laughter among the assembled courtiers as well as genuine polite applause. The old man smiled and bowed low before his audience. One particularly young Phoenix courtier piped up as the bard was moving to leave "Sume-sama! What clan did the young magistrate belong to? Was he a Phoenix? Surely such magic could only be harnessed by a Phoenix!"
Sume smiled sadly. "Unfortunately, the Ikoma lost many important records when the Lying Darkness ravaged our lands many years ago. The name of that valorous individual is lost to us. Or perhaps my feeble old brain simply cannot recall it." There was another outbreak of laughter at the bard's words. "In truth, we do not know what clan the young man served, only that he served his Empire. Such are the tales of heroes." Sume spread his arms to encompass the entire group. "When my descendants spin tales in court, perhaps they will speak of one of you?"
Kaukatsu smiled wryly. He was certain Sume did know, but in claiming ignorance the bard had endeared himself further to the group and perhaps even managed to inspire some young would-be heroes to look upon the old Ikoma as a mentor. It was a more cunning move than he would have given Sume credit for, and he had made it seem very casual. Perhaps there was more to the bard than Kaukatsu had imagined? Granted, the old man was the daimyo of the Ikoma and the leader of that family's so-called 'spymasters,' but he had never seemed worthy of Kaukatsu's attention despite his clear superiority over most of the assembled courtiers. It would be interesting to at least explore exactly what manner of man this Ikoma Sume really was.
* * *
Some time later, Kaukatsu managed to find Sume alone in the garden, arranging the pieces of an antique go board. Despite his silent approach, the old Ikoma looked up and met his eyes with a knowing smile. "Good day to you, friend Kaukatsu-san. A pleasant day for a stroll in the garden, is it not?"
"Indeed it is, Sume-sama," Kaukatsu smiled as he bowed. "I enjoy the quiet after a morning in court. Too many voices can leave one feeling somewhat at odds."
"Ah," nodded Sume. "I cannot say that I have ever had that problem." He smiled broadly at his own joke, and then gestured to the go board. "Would you care to entertain an old man with a game?"
"I would be honored." Kaukatsu sat down and quickly made an opening
move on the board. Sume followed suit and soon the two were deeply invested in
the game, neither speaking for some time. Kaukatsu knew that Sume's family was
well known throughout the Empire for their exceptional tactical skills, yet he
could not quite understand the point of Sume's strategy.
"One day soon," Sume said, "it will be I who calls you sama! You are the future Chancellor, after all."
"That decision has not been made yet, Sume-sama." Kaukatsu bowed his head and smiled as if he had been given a great compliment.
The old man's eyebrows raised in mock surprise. "After Yojiro intervened personally? I don't think any of the other champions valued the position enough to confront the Master of Secrets on his own ground." Kaukatsu remained silent, and the game continued. Once again, it was Sume who broke the silence. "One way or another, the Otomo should announce their decision regarding the Chancellor-ship tomorrow."
"Yes," agreed Kaukatsu. "Many will be disappointed when the announcement is finally made, regardless of who is chosen. I fear the position may become the target of ill will by those who wish they had been chosen."
"Ah, yes," said Sume wryly. "Similar to the plight of our current Emerald Champion. Tragic, that."
Kaukatsu frowned sadly and shook his head in solemn agreement despite being impressed by Sume's canny assessment of Yasuki Hachi's predicament. "It is."
"Still," Sume continued, "perhaps it will not be received as you imagine." He looked at Kaukatsu pointedly. "There are those who wish not for power for themselves, but rather to make use of the power others possess."
The Scorpion examined Sume carefully. Was he proposing something? There was more to the old man than he had anticipated. Kaukatsu suddenly realized what strategy the Lion was using in go. It was an old ploy known as The Tattooed Friend. It required Kaukatsu to trust not only in his own abilities, but that his opponent would commit an error that would cause them to lose.
Kaukatsu was suddenly very certain that Sume would make no such error. Not in go, and certainly not in court. "Please forgive me, Sume-sama, but I fear that I have an engagement I cannot miss. Would it be possible to pursue our game at another time?"
Sume inclined his head respectfully. "Of course, Kaukatsu-sama."
The courtier smiled. "Wonderful. Perhaps when this business is concluded I might visit Kyuden Ikoma. I have always wanted to visit your family's home. So much history to be found there."
For once, the old bard did not smile. "And your lord Yojiro-sama? Would he permit such a thing?"
"I am certain he would. He is eager to form an alliance with your most distinguished clan."
Sume started evenly at Kaukatsu. "Do not assume because Kaneka accepted Yojiro's gift of a pet that the Lion will do the same."
An oft-rehearsed look of confusion and mild offense masked Kaukatsu's shock at the older man's words. "Sume-sama, I do not understand. What are you suggesting?"
As quickly as it had disappeared, Sume's usual jovial expression reappeared. "I apologize, Kaukatsu-sama. I must have been confused. At my age, such things happen with alarming regularity. I beg your forgiveness." He rose from his seat to bow deeply before the courtier.
"Of course, Sume-san," said Kaukatsu graciously. "A man of your great stature has certainly earned the right to misspeak on occasion." He returned the bard's bow and turned to leave the garden, his expression one of deep thought.
How much did the bard know?
* * *
The following day, the familiar soft buzz of dozens of different conversations filled the elaborate chambers. Kaukatsu tried not to frown. The Otomo were deliberating over this matter at great length. On the one hand, it was only fitting, as the appointment of an Imperial Chancellor was a very serious affair. On the other, it was never fortuitous to have to wait so long for something. It meant that the Otomo were having difficulty with the choice, and that meant that Kaukatsu had not courted them as successfully as perhaps he had thought.
A light, crisp laughter rang out across the chamber. Yoritomo Yoyonagi, a well-known poet from the Mantis Clan, had managed to emerge as the darling of the court this season. In addition to her own considerable talents as a diplomat and artisan, her demeanor was so different from the stereotypical Mantis that most courtiers found her charm irresistible. Kaukatsu alone seemed immune to her charms. The young woman glanced across the chamber suddenly to lock eyes with him. Kaukatsu smiled slightly, careful to avoid making it appear forced. Yoyonagi smiled back, her expression very sly yet somehow innocent. She would be a formidable adversary some day. Kaukatsu looked forward to that day. The court was so boring with so few to challenge him.
The ringing of a gong signified the return of the Otomo to the chamber. The delegation was small, but clad in such splendid attire that Kaukatsu's own exquisite black and crimson kimono seemed drab by comparison. At the head of the party was Otomo Hoketuhime, daimyo of the family, and Otomo Gosaiko, master sensei of the family's courtier school. The presence of both women at the proceedings ensured that whatever clan was granted leave to appoint an Imperial Chancellor would appreciate the enormity of the honor the Otomo had granted them. Another game.
Hoketuhime smiled warmly at the gathered courtiers. "Dear friends," she began, "you have honored us deeply with your gracious offers of assistance. Indeed, your enthusiastic response gives us hope that one day very soon the Empire will be united once more under a single Emperor." There was a murmur of assent through the crowd. "When the time comes, each of you will be remembered, as will the devotion of the lords who sent you hear to help achieve peace between the Four Winds." Kaukatsu noticed a suspicious gleam in the eye of more than one courtier. For such 'honorable' men and women, they seemed shamefully eager for personal gain.
"Unfortunately," continued Hoketuhime, "only one clan can receive this honor. After careful consideration of each of your presentations, it is the decision of the Imperial Court that the Scorpion be responsible for the appointment of the Imperial Chancellor."
All eyes, many of them quite envious, turned to Bayushi Kaukatsu. He hoped that his victorious smile seemed appropriately gracious and humble. "My lords and ladies," he said, bowing deeply, "you honor us greatly with your acceptance of our humble proposition. My lord Yojiro has given this matter a great deal of thought, and he bid me to accept this enormous honor on behalf of our clan. It is an honor I can only hope to prove myself worthy of before this august body and my blessed ancestors who look upon me this day."
The gracious bows of the Otomo were answered by a round of polite applause from the assembled courtiers. Kaukatsu turned slowly, bowing his head to those whom he recognized throughout the crowd, smiling warmly at others. To his delight, those who seemed most surprised by his announcement were those who were beneath his notice. Those who knew him, such as Ide Tadaji, did not seem surprised in the least.
Kaukatsu was mildly surprised to find Doji Tanitsu had stepped forward from the crowd to bow low before him. The Crane's knowing smile showed no trace of surprise. Tanitsu congratulated him and offered the services of the Crane in the execution of his duties. Kaukatsu only smiled and nodded. The Crane's words were clearly rehearsed. It was a message: the Crane were prepared to deal with a Scorpion Chancellor. Tanitsu was developing nicely as a potential worthy competitor in court.
In moments, he locked eyes briefly with Ikoma Sume. A knowing look passed between them, and Kaukatsu knew they were not yet finished. But there would be time for that later. Kaukatsu had just become one of the most influential men in Rokugan, and there were duties he must perform before pursing this oddity that plagued his thoughts so.
* * *
The moon shone brightly over the court garden. Kaukatsu found Ikoma Sume sitting at the same antique go board, waiting. Their game pieces were untouched from the last time they had met several days previously. The Scorpion sat down wordlessly and regarded the man frankly. The time for clever words had passed. "There is more to you than meets the eye, Sume-san."
"Why thank you, Kaukatsu," said Sume with a slight smile. "I will take that as a great compliment from a Scorpion."
"You did not seem so complimentary earlier."
Sume shook his head. "You misunderstand, my friend. I have only respect for the Scorpion Clan. You excel at the skills I have spent my life studying. If your people can be said to have any fault, it is that you assume because you excel at something, that no one else can be proficient at it as well. Until you correct such an oversight, you will continue to face surprises such as the one I held for you."
Kaukatsu chuckled. "You are a wise man, Sume. Are you sure you are not a monk?"
Sume laughed as well. "I am far from a monk, for many worldly concerns plague me." He looked at Kaukatsu with purpose. "My young nephew, for example. He has much potential, but is an honorable and just man. I fear that unless he comes to recognize the perils that court life presents, he will continue to be manipulated by men such as ourselves, who know full well the reality of things."
"Really?" inquired Kaukatsu, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Perhaps your nephew, who recently became an enterprising young sea captain I understand, would be well served among my own people for a time. I am certain that we could awaken him to the reality of the Empire."
"Yes," agreed Sume, "but not as a student. As a guest. As an
equal. I will not dishonor him by anything less."
Kaukatsu thought for a few moments. "Then perhaps… a wedding? A bond between our two clans? Ikoma Otemi would be serving a great duty for the Lion."
"Then a wedding it is," said Sume. "To your former student Yasuko."
The Scorpion arched his eyebrows in surprise. "Shosuro Yasuko?" He could not help but chuckle. "I admit I am surprised that you would wish such a… distraction in your family's home. And what of that Matsu samurai-ko that he adventured with? I heard much of that, even in Otosan Uchi."
"The Lion do not permit love to cloud their judgment," said Sume.
Kaukatsu nodded. "Then you are a wise people. But still, Yasuko? She is a woman with a tendency to… to lose herself in the company of others. She would be a disruptive guest, I am sure."
"You sound as if you speak from experience."
Kaukatsu chuckled. "A Scorpion does not surrender his secrets so lightly."
"She has information I desire," said Sume simply. "And she will be our guest, the wife of my honored nephew. Nothing more."
"Then we are agreed," said Kaukatsu with an air of finality, thinking of the message Tanitsu had sent earlier. "I must leave in the morning to begin my duties. But before I go," he gestured to the board, "shall we finish our game?"
Sume smiled. "We can finish this game, certainly. There will be many more."
* * *
Unseen by both men, Ide Tadaji sat in a secluded corner of the garden, tugging at his beard as the voices of both men drifted through the hedges. "Sume-san," he whispered to himself, "there is much to learn about you, old friend."
Silently, the old courtier rose and slipped from the garden.