An Imperial Party
IV. Before and After Steel

A cold wind blew across Dragon Heart Plain, chilling four members of the Imperial Houses as they followed a thickly-set Ox Bushi in the early light of day. Masaro had come to their rooms at the earliest crack of dawn, telling them that "the lord Morito desires your presence" and that they might wish to become presentable for him.

The facilities of the guest-house were more than equal to the task, and the four young men- Otomo Dajan, Seppun Koriyei, Miya Kanatei, and Seppun Yamaedo- found themselves climbing a long ramp as it led up the earthworks that formed the base for the next wall of Shiro Morito. Cresting this, they saw well-maintained footpaths leading away right and left and toward another wall, and that path they followed as Masaro trudged steadily on. The guards upon that wall looked impassively at the four Imperials as they passed, quickly ascertaining that there as no threat posed by them.

Again, inside the gate ran a crossroads of well-laid footpaths, with one branch leading to a single large, low building. This was the heart of Shiro Morito, the dwelling place of the Ox Clan and seat of their daimyo's power. Masaro stopped before the guards at the single door and bowed slightly, waving the Imperials forward. The guards took a single step forward, one of them raising one hand to bid the four to stop as Masaro retreated.

This guard was unlike any of the other Ox that any of the four had yet seen. Where the other bushi were large, thickly set men, this one was a mere slip of a woman, of like height to Dajan and Koriyei, and probably weighing less than the armor and weapons of Yamaedo. But in her eyes there burned an intensity unlike any that the four young men of the Imperial Houses had seen, save in the eyes perhaps of the Four Winds or the most revered sensei of their schools. Here was a woman who knew her duty, knew it well, and would follow it to its conclusion though the Heavens themselves moved to bar her way.

"I am Oneko, daughter of Onegano, commander of the Guard of Shiro Morito. My lord awaits your arrival. You will follow me." Her voice came out as a ringing contralto, surprising in its clarity and moving even the heart of the unflinching Yamaedo with its perfection, and the four young men of the Imperial Houses followed her without question or hesitation, passing swiftly through the front halls of the heart of Shiro Morito.

Passing through a small antechamber into a grand hall, the five came in only moments to another door, one at which Oneko stopped, saying, "This is the audience chamber of my lord Morito. Herein he awaits you. Present yourselves and return to me that suitable accommodations may be found for you." With one hand she pushed the door open, and the four stepped through into a room lit by three hearths, two in the back corners and one in the middle of the room. In the midst of the three stood a raised dais, bearing upon it a massive solid throne of wood. Sitting upon it was the form of Morito, Champion of Clan Ox.

Dajan immediately fell to his knees, pressing his face to the ground. Kanatei and Koriyei did likewise, while Yamaedo nodded briefly, unwilling to surrender his vigilance even for the lord of a clan. Morito grimly returned the nod from his vantage on the throne, and called out in a rough voice, "Rise, men of the Imperial Houses. Why have you come to my castle?"

Dajan's own mellifluous voice replied, "Lord, we come as the delegates of our families to your winter court. Though there is no Emperor as yet, the Imperial Houses remember-"

"Yes, yes, I know. My service and the service of my clan to Toturi I is remembered and held in esteem by the noble members of the Imperial Families, who maintain that title even in, as you say, the absence of an Emperor. Is there any other reason you are here?"

"No, lord."

"Then should you even remain in this place after I dismiss you?"

"I would not presume to dictate to a lord who may and may not remain in his halls, lord."

"Then I think I shall keep you around. I do not have the time, regrettably, to wander about much as I used to, and would appreciate the news you could provide. The perspective of the Imperial Families is always, shall we say, refreshing."

"You have our thanks, lord."

"Oneko will see to your billeting. You may go."

Dajan bowed again, and turned to leave, followed closely by the shisha, the shugenja, and the miharu.

Morito's voice rang out. "Miharu, next time you appear before me, I do not care if you are guarding Hantei no Kami himself, you will bow. If I intend to harm your charge, your full attention will not suffice to stop me, and I will not accept the insult again."

The helmed head of the Imperial Guardsman dipped very deeply. "You have my apologies, Morito-sama. I shall be more observant of etiquette in the future."

The door shut immediately behind Yamaedo as he made to catch up to his companions. A door opened behind Morito, and a rough-clad figure stepped to beside the throne. A rasping voice hissed out, "Those might be trouble. The Seiyaku are notoriously meddlesome, and the Shisha all have keen eyes."

"Not to mention the devotion of a Seppun, be they bushi or not. Watch them, but do not act until I say."

"And the other matter? He grows too close."

"I will give the word."

"Of course, Master."

The four Imperials followed Oneko out of the main building of Shiro Morito, past the first wall surrounding it, and into the buildings clustered against the inside of the second wall. Yamaedo, unusually for him, spoke to their guide as they walked.

"Oneko-sama, it seems to me that there is much open space inside these walls, unusually much for so chill an area."

"There are indeed, Seppun-san, areas that we have left open, and for a purpose. Our archers prefer to have clear fields of fire."

"I see. Is this place under threat of attack?"

"Aside from the unpleasantness between the Dragon and Phoenix, there are always Yobanjin raids to worry about. Prepare for the worst, always, so that when it occurs you are ready."

"Sound advice, that." They now stood in front of a corner house, one with two doors facing in from stubby wings. Said Oneko, "This is the Imperial guesthouse. The Shining Prince will likely never come among us, but we are ready if he should."

Dajan now spoke. "Is that what you consider to be preparing for the worst, samurai?"

"No, Otomo-san, it is not. I should be greatly pleased to host the Emperor in these walls."

"You should, yes, but are you?"

"As I have said, the Lord of Rokugan has not graced us with his presence, and likely will not, for we are a humble folk and still remember that the purpose of a samurai is to serve his or her betters."

"Certainly. How, then, do you think we are best served?"

"As you are the guests of my lord, you are entitled to lodgings in our walls. There are rooms ready for you herein. I shall return later to ensure your comfort, but must now be off to oversee my guards. The Miharu may accompany me if he so wishes." Oneko turned to Yamaedo, and he in that moment realized just how beautiful her eyes were. He began to stammer a reply as Koriyei cut in. "My cousin will certainly join you later, but his duties also call him at the moment; no offense to those concerned, but he is required by the nature of his orders to personally inspect all of our rooms before he may take leave."

"Ah, of course." A note of true regret sounded in her perfect voice, and for a moment Yamaedo thought that his heart would burst from having disappointed this most lovely woman. "I could never keep such a noble man from performing his assigned duties." Yamaedo's heart missed a beat, and then a fog lifted from his mind, and with eyes crystal clear he saw what had just happened, cleared his throat, and managed to softly speak the words "Perhaps another time, Oneko-sama" before turning on his heel and entering the building. Dajan and Kanatei followed him quickly, but Koriyei stared at Oneko for a few seconds with an uncanny focus before he, too, got out of the cold.

He walked into confusion. Yamaedo's sword was drawn and his left hand had pushed Dajan firmly behind his back toward the wall. Kanatei was over in a corner, a dazed expression on his face as Koriyei looked from him to where the miharu's sword was pointed. The gleaming steel aimed at a spot in the darkness seen through a doorway, which resolved in a moment to a bandaged man who stammered out, "My pardon, samurai; I did not mean to startle you. My name is Ugo, and I am a monk of Osano-Wo."