An Imperial Party
VI. It's Good for the Soul

A cold wind blew across the Dragon Heart Plain, whipping about the small shrine inside the walls of Shiro Morito. Inside the shrine, two figures knelt before a simple figurine of a massive man with one hand holding a tetsubo, while the other was a clenched green fist. The slight form of Seppun Koriyei was before and slightly to the right of the much doughtier figure of Ugo the monk of Osano-Wo, and both men muttered soft prayers to the Lord Sun, wishing him strength as he again faced the Fallen Brother. A gentle light shone upon the figure, and it seemed to rejoice in the light as the two men lit incense before sitting for a few moments in absolute silence as fragrant smoke wafted about their heads and up to the ceiling.

Seppun Koriyei suddenly stood, followed a moment later by the sohei, and strode out of the shrine, bowing as he went. Though not much of Ugo was visible behind his wrappings, what showed wore an expression of confusion at the sudden movement of the Hidden Guard shugenja, and he asked, "Seppun-sama, what is wrong?"

Eyes cutting in their focus, Koriyei stared directly at the monk and breathed one word.

"You."

"I beg your pardon, lord?"

"There is something wrong with you; your chi does not flow properly for one who has just sat in prayer before Lord Sun and the Thousand Fortunes. So you may tell me what is wrong."

"Seppun-sama, I am not aware that there is any imbalance in my chi."

"Is that why Hyakujo sent you from his presence?"

"He sent me because I asked to go." Ugo shifted uncomfortably, the gaze of the shugenja oddly familiar and decidedly unnerving. "Why do you say such a thing?"

"I say such a thing because I see such a thing." A motion of purple flashed in the corner of Koriyei's vision. "I would think that Utaku Dacha-san would say the same, were we to ask him."

Ugo suddenly changed; his eyes grew flinty and his stance tightened and altered itself into something unfamiliar to Koriyei's eyes. A heartbeat passed, and Ugo was back where he started, and though the change had lasted only for a moment, Koriyei marked it before saying, "But we will not ask Dacha-san, as he is very busy. And I also soon will be. Enjoy your evening, Brother Monk." The shugenja bowed slightly before turning and going back to his assigned quarters, leaving the monk in a state of quandary. Ugo shook his head after a moment standing stock still, and bent to pray again.

As Seppun Koriyei returned to his quarters, he encountered Otomo Dajan and bowed low before him. "Dajan-sama, I trust that the day has kept you well."

"It has indeed, Koriyei-san. And it has brought to my attention a matter that I wish to discuss with you, since I have seen no Phoenix that I trust."

"Truly, lord? I have found that the Phoenix are more often truthful than not."

"And that is why you are a shugenja and not a Seiyaku; remember that Bayushi and Shiba were twins, sharing a soul."

"But the Phoenix are ruled by the Isawa, not the Shiba."

"The descendants of a man who tricked the brother of the Father of Lies. You are trained to defend against magics, and that itself means against the Phoenix, for are the Phoenix not the masters of the arcane?"

"True, lord, they are."

"But let us talk about what I had intended to speak of. Your cousin tells me that there are no looking-holes in our rooms, but there may well be listening-holes, and that you can convince the kami to rectify that."

"I cannot speak to the Earth kami who make up the walls."

"Then your cousin is in error."

"Not entirely, lord. I can convince the Air kami to not relay the sounds of our speech."

"How quickly?"

Koriyei pulled a scroll from his pouch, and after a brief incantation said, "Call Kanatei."

Dajan did so, first with a normal voice, then with a louder tone of command, and finally in a great shout. "He has not come."

"Because he did not hear you call."

"Very good. You must come with me; I need to speak to someone and still come back in enough time to be presentable for evening meal, and I do not want word of it to leak out."

"Lead the way," said the shugenja as he stepped aside. Dajan passed by him and made for the door of the guest-house, going west along the footpath, past where it met with the road between the inner and second walls of Shiro Morito, then turned north along with it and went to the first of the servant cottages. Heimin bowed and scraped as the two passed, and a ronin lounging nearby nodded his head respectfully, a smile and an honest expression on his face. For a moment as the two saw him, they felt almost compelled to trust him, so forthright was his lean and lined face, and did not think it odd when a golden Koku coin appeared in his hand from seemingly nowhere. Dajan almost stopped, but shook his head and turned to the servant bungalow before him.

Out of it hobbled an aged man, leaning on a staff. Seeing the Otomo, he bowed as fluidly as his obviously arthritic joints would allow, and stood aside as the courtier and the shugenja filed inside. The ronin peered intently at the cottage door as it slid shut, then looked from side to side as nonchalantly as he could make himself do. With another smile, he muttered to himself, "Well, Kado, you've got a fine thing to do now, don't you?" as he sidled up to the door. Skirting the small dwelling, he put his ear to the wall, but heard nothing. No speech, no rustling of feet, not even the thump of a walking-stick on the ground.

The old ronin shrugged and went about his business. The Koku coin glinted as he casually flipped it, light glinting off of the embossed katana. Inside the hut, however, a lively conversation was taking place as Otomo Dajan renewed his family's contact with the castle.

"The Ox should fear the serpents in the grass, for though his hooves can cleave them, their poison can fell him. Yet so too should the serpent be wary of the Ox, for though his eyes are poor, his tread is steady and his rage powerful and many things may be crushed underfoot."

Dajan's voice flowed out. "What incites the beast of burden to anger?"

"A yoke ill-applied. Take it from one who knows; the beasts of the field do not mind their labors if they are treated well, but when their masters abuse them, they respond with great force. Neither do they like fire."

"You think that the Ox will become involved in the Dragon-Phoenix conflict?"

"Without the clear will of the Heavens, the denizens thereof may war amongst themselves, but the creatures of the earth know better than to get involved. But there are other forces in the world than the Heavens, and the Fallen may not be the only one thought gone that may return."

"I do not understand."

"Not yet, no. But even in this silence I dare not speak more clearly; remember that the hunter is aware both of the sound of his prey and of the absence of that sound, and the best hunters are not known until after the deathblow falls."

Dajan's eyes widened. "The ronin."

"Yes, that same ronin you saw outside of my home. When next you return to the Otomo holdings, please tell your daimyo that you will need a new contact here, one that samurai may speak to less conspicuously, for I do not think I am long for this world."

"What have we stumbled into?"

"Nothing, and as long as you remember that, it may not find you. Act for a moment as though you know anything, and you will die. However, I think you might want to go check on your horses."

"Just how many people are you in the employ of?"

"Ah, that would be telling, would it not? But the Otomo keep me and my family comfortable because I work for many, have worked for many, and not always as the heimin that you now see. But that has been years and years past, and I am glad that I have had some time of simple peace." Turning, the old man hobbled over to a moderately-large chest, and opened it, moving more fluidly than the seiyaku would have anticipated. From out of it came a yari blade and a sheathed daisho. "The ronin you saw is not the only one that frequents this part of the castle." The daisho was quickly but reverently set down, and the old man began to affix the spear-head to his staff. "One more thing, though, before you go. When you return to the Otomo lands, tell Yotsu Asami that I will see her in the next life."

He looked up at Dajan and smiled. "What they say about confession is true."