An Imperial Party
I. Prelude

A cold wind swept across the Dragon Heart Plain, carrying with it the dim fetor of a battle not too long ago fought. The Dragon and Phoenix still carried on their conflict, still driving their steel into one another's bellies as winter approached. A few flakes of early snow flew upon the wind, coming to rest upon the cheek of a slim and unimpressive-looking man as he sat upon his horse. His sashimono fluttered in the chill breeze, and his wicker cloak, his horo and badge of office as a Miya Shisha, rustled slightly against his steed's flanks.

"Well, Kanatei," came a mellifluous voice from behind the herald, "how much longer must we be out on this barbaric stretch of barren land?" A slight man, dressed in many layers of green and black kimono, walked his horse beside the Miya, his sharp eyes fixing somewhat annoyedly upon the shisha's countenance. Beside him stood another horse and rider. This rider was of like size to the other, and bore a cylindrical case at his hip, emblazoned with a chrysanthemum astride a bamboo branch. "Indeed, shisha, this place bears ill omen; though the snakes on Dajan-san's arm are honorable, those that lived in this place before were not."

Another figure came up behind the two to face the herald. Clad openly in full armor, he shivered slightly, though he remained fully upright in his saddle and bore the cold in silence. A quick glance revealed his membership in the elite corps of the Seppun Miharu; the emerald badge of that office sat proudly just below the hollow of his throat. "Koriyei, do you sense anything that would harm Dajan-sama?"

The small man with the case closed his eyes for a moment. When they opened, a pale glow suffused them. "Cousin, there comes one from the north, riding hard." The miharu's hand went to the massive no-dachi strapped to his horse's side as a figure crested a nearby ridge, and as the sword cleared the throat of the great saya, Miya Kanatei sounded out, "Hold, Yamaedo; the rider is a patrolman of Clan Ox." Turning, he commented to the small and well-insulated rider that had first spoken. "To answer your question, Dajan-sama, not long." He stood in his saddle, and called out tot the oncoming bushi, who now was easily visible to all. "Hail, man of Clan Ox! What news from Shiro Morito?"

The rider reined his steed in to a halt. Clad in browns, he turned the flank of his horse to the four and called out in a gruff voice. "Only that the lord of that castle does not like people traipsing about his lands without declaring themselves. Who rides in the lands of Clan Ox?"

"Samurai, I am Miya Kanatei, herald to Otomo Dajan who rides with me and who is attended by the two Seppun, Koriyei and Yamaedo. We are bound for Shiro Morito, there to bring the regards of the Imperial Houses to this winter's gathering of Clan Ox."

"Then, Miya Kanatei, let the one you represent come forward and present his credentials to me, for there are many things other than samurai that walk these plains, and I will be sure of anything I come across before I let it pass by me." A smirk grew upon the Ox bushi's face, and Yamaedo's grip tightened on his no-dachi at the implied insult. "Or is this Seppun so mighty that he thinks he can strike me down simply because I dare to request the papers of one who rides in my lord's lands and does not bear the mon of one who serves him?" The Ox's hand went to his own sword, and the smirk changed into a narrow-eyed grimace as the two bushi glared across the plain at one another.

"Yamaedo-san, sheathe your sword." Otomo Dajan turned his face toward the Ox, his deep voice filling the area. "This man is no threat to me or any of us." The miharu obeyed instantly, and the face of the Ox bushi grew grim at the cleverly-constructed insult as the seiyaku rode up to him, papers presented. "All is, of course, in order?"

The Ox bushi nodded curtly. "Shiro Morito is three hour's ride for me, probably five for you, due north from here."

"You seem eager to part company with us; is it the custom of Lord Morito to have his men act with so little regard for their place in the world?"

"I don't know what you are talking about."

"Of course." Turning, he motioned at the other three members of the Imperial House. "Come on; we must not keep this samurai from his duty, and we still have a long ride ahead of us."