An Imperial Party
II. To Sake!

A cold wind blew, whistling outside of the rough-hewn halls of Shiro Morito, seat of the Minor Clan of the Ox. Otomo Dajan pulled the many layers of his green and black kimono more tightly about him, shivering as he looked up at the thirty-foot gatehouse. Beside him, Seppun Koriyei stood perhaps less solemnly than before; the cold seemed to affect him not at all. His cousin, Seppun Yamaedo, bore the wind stoically as he did all other things, though an occasional tremor ran through his armored frame.

In front of them all stood Miya Kanatei, his sashimono fluttering proudly as he spoke to the guards at the gate.

"Hail, Shiro Morito! Do we travelers and emissaries come at last to the place where the most worthy Clan of the Ox sits for this winter?"

A deep, full basso profundo voice called back from the top of the gatehouse. "Aye, travelers, you do come to the home of Morito, Champion of Clan Ox, and since your garb proclaims you members of the Imperial Houses, you may pass my gate."

"Many thanks, o great bushi of the Ox." Kanatei rode in through the opening gates, followed closely by the other three. For a stretch of fifty feet from the inside of the gatehouse, the ground stood empty, claimed only by the dead stalks of grasses cut short and by the white mantle of snow upon them. Beyond that, the ground was trampled as by the passing of many horses, and one of those horses stood with a rider directly before the four. Miya Kanatei quickly bowed, and said, "Noble Ox, may I present to you the esteemed Dajan of House Otomo, leader of our group and emissary of his family." The rider nodded hi head as the seiyaku came forward. With a remarkably deep bow, he began to speak.

"Man of Clan Ox, as my worthy herald has stated, I am Otomo Dajan. My companions and I were sent-"

"I know why you are here. My Lord Morito has bidden that all who would attend him this winter be first made sure of, and then brought to the guesting-house most appropriate for them. You will, of course, come with me." The last came accompanied by narrowed eyes from the burly Ox bushi as he turned his horse to the left, where the flattening of the ground was most evident and freshest. The party followed, finding themselves surrounded on three sides by massive stables, holding many horses and ponies, attended by heimin and four samurai. Three, young men and rather lanky, bore the garb of the Ox. The fourth, somewhat older and much more well-rounded a person, stood in the purple, gold, and leather of the Unicorn.

The party's guide dismounted smoothly and quickly, taking his horse by the reins and leading it towards an empty stall. As he did so, he called out, "Unicorn-san, these four come from Imperial Houses, and shall likely need their horses tended to for some time."

The Unicorn turned, nodded brusquely to the Ox, and came before the party. As one, Kanatei and Dajan dismounted, followed only an instant later by the two Seppun, who bowed deeply as Dajan nodded and Kanatei bent slightly at the waist. This met with a smile and a bow from the bow-legged Unicorn, whose face betrayed many days in the saddle with the wind and sun in his face, and many nights of laughter. "Greetings, children of the Imperial Houses. I am Otaku Dacha, finest stable master in this part of the world, and I would be honored to care for your steeds for the duration of your stay here."

Dajan, with his smooth and melodious voice, replied, "Otaku-san, I would not think to trouble you by taking your time with our four mounts when so many are entrusted to your care."

"Ah, but caring for the steeds of those who take their rest in this place is my duty, as is training the young who will do it when I return to my homeland, and so your mounts will be of no trouble to me; I can show the students what a properly cared-for horse looks like and how they react."

"Then I fear that you will not have good examples with our horses, which surely cannot compare to the mighty chargers of your own home and Clan."

"Your mounts are more like to those of home, especially that of the shisha who stands there with a grin on his face," Kanatei turned red and tugged absent-mindedly at his right ear as the Unicorn drew breath and smiled widely, "that save for my own there are no better examples of true horses in these lands, and I would rejoice to have such noble beasts in my care again."

"Then, Otaku-san, I commend my steed and those of my party to your care."

"I shall keep them well." Taking the reins from each, he gestured with his head toward the party's Ox guide. "Masaro, there, will be going to the guest-house across the way, there." Another head-gesture indicated a square, squat building from which soft strains of music wafted in between whistles of the chill air. "He will want to talk with you there. The sake is actually very good; Friendly Traveler Village, I think it comes from. Anyway," he began to turn, "I shouldn't keep you waiting out here in the cold," and he led the horses to four waiting stalls. Kanatei immediately began to head toward the guest-house, only to feel the heavy hand of Yamaedo come down upon his shoulder.

"I will go in first."

Kanatei shrugged and stood aside, then fell in behind the miharu as his armored form trudged toward the indicated building. Behind him, he heard Dajan mutter under his breath. "What, Dajan-sama?"

"I said that it's about time we finally receive some decent treatment from these provincial yokels. And that it came from a Unicorn, rather than the rulers of this land! What have I done to deserve this punishment?"

The eerily calm voice of Seppun Koriyei cut through the air. "Dajan-san, you will do well, I think, to remember your purpose. These are not the best times, and the duty of a guard is first to be wary."

"When I need a shugenja's opinion, I think I shall ask a Phoenix."

Koriyei's eyes flashed, and Kanatei quickly cut in. "Dajan-sama, Koriyei-sama is correct. We are all here as bearers of good will, except perhaps for Yamaedo, but none of us will serve our masters if we allow ourselves to be drawn off of our centers."

"Besides," he added with a glint in his eyes, "if the sake really is from Friendly Traveler, it will have been worth the cold." And the four were in the building.