An Imperial Party
VII. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

A cold wind blew across Dragon Heart Plain, but inside the main building of Shiro Morito, the only moving air was hot. For in that building, in a room just off of the audience hall of Lord Morito, many courtiers gathered about a grand banquet table, chattering incessantly as they waited for the master of the castle to enter.
The four young Imperials entered into the heated atmosphere, and were for a moment glad to find respite from the cold wind outside. A hush fell on the other courtiers, mostly representatives of the Minor Clans, as Miya Kanatei took three steps into the room, bowed as fluidly as he could in the wicker cloak that denoted his office, and graciously began.

"Esteemed courtiers, representatives of the various families of the Empire, residents of Shiro Morito and guests of its lord, may I present to you the honorable Otomo Dajan, representative of Otomo Hoketuhime in this the Winter Court of Clan Ox." On cue, Dajan stepped forward and bowed, resplendent in his many-layered kimono of green and black, trimmed in cloth-of-silver. Behind him came the two Seppun, Yamaedo and Koriyei, the former in gleaming armor, the latter in the simply cut and patterned robes that he favored, the well-maintained case at his hip denoting his membership in the cadre of holy men. Kanatei turned to bow to Dajan, and then retreated behind the two Seppun, his task finished for the moment. Dajan straightened and began to speak, his honeyed voice filling the room.

"My colleagues, the family of Otomo, indeed, all of the Imperial Houses bid you greetings and express their general wishes that all of you and your families and Clans do well this year. My daimyo expresses regret that she could not attend, but the necessity of overseeing the relocation of our family keeps her occupied, as some of you here doubtlessly know." As Dajan said this, his eye caught on a beaming young man, dressed in the colors of the Monkey Clan, standing beside a woman whose attire Dajan could not place at the moment. He smiled broadly at the two, as if greatly pleased to see them in attendance, and continued. "We of the Imperial Houses remember how in dark days before the men and women of the Minor Clans and of the waves that brought about the salvation of the Empire, and we are honored to count you as our comrades and partners." Polite applause broke out from most of the assembled courtiers and delegates. At various places in the room, however, there was stillness, for not all of the people in the room were from the Minor Clans. A pair of Crane, a pair of Scorpion, and a lone Unicorn all looked at the Otomo intently, judging the import of his words. This Dajan also marked, and drew breath to continue.

"The samurai of the Great Clans are also the friends and allies of the Imperial Houses, for their tasks were given them first by the First Emperor, and again by the Splendid Emperor, and for years beyond any of us, perhaps beyond all of our years put together, they have done much good in performing those tasks." The Unicorn sat back, stroking his bearded chin. The two Crane had different reactions, one looking slightly mollified while the other grew grim. The Scorpion were inscrutable, save that one of them work a mask that left bare her lips, which twisted into a smile more chilling than anything Dajan had yet seen. "But we are here to celebrate the Clan of the Ox, in whose castle we dwell so comfortably this season, and to thank the Lord of the Clan for his generosity." A murmur of agreement ran through the crowd as most of the people in the room returned to their own private conversations, ignoring the Imperials for the moment.

One of the Scorpion, though, came over to the Imperial Party. "You speak eloquently, Dajan-san." The voice was low and resonant, creeping out from behind a full-face mask of dark cloth beneath a red hood. Dajan nodded his head, muttering humble words of appreciation, and gestured for his companions to go elsewhere. The Scorpion continued. "Lady Hoketuhime chose well to send you here."

"As Yojiro-sama did to assign you here. I must, before we continue, apologize, friend Scorpion, but I seem to not have heard your name."

"I have no name worth speaking, Dajan-san."

"Something that befits one in your position, yes?"

The Scorpion chuckled slightly. "I see that the Serpents of the Emperor indeed have fangs."

"You have struck with both pincers, sir, and I wonder about the tail."

"Ah, but can you be sure that the tail did not come first, and that one pincer does not still await?"

"Yet the pincers only hold, while the tail carries the venom, and I am not dead."

"Poison does not always act quickly, and sometimes following one's prey to its death becomes wearisome."

"When has the scorpion preyed upon the serpent?"

"There was a time, once, but the phoenix arrived first."

"It seems you are familiar with the history of this plain?"

"Is it not the duty of the Scorpion to creep where others will not look, to smite that which dwells away from the eyes of the honorable?"

"Then why did a flaming bird of the heavens have the opportunity to sweep down before the tail could fall?"

"Perhaps I misspoke; there are many serpents in the Empire, and it is to your benefit that you have and keep the blessings of the Emperor."

"Ah, but if you wish to speak of the Emperor's Blessing, my companion Miya Kanatei would be far better able to enlighten you than I. You may find him, I think, conversing with the Monkey."

"Of course, Dajan-san. Another time." The Scorpion nodded his enshrouded head and floated off as Dajan found a seat at the grand table that filled most of the room, looking around and noticing his companions. Kanatei was indeed speaking to the Monkey and the unusually-clad woman next to him. Yamaedo was standing near the door, scanning the crowd warily, and nodded when Dajan caught his eye, pursing his lips at the Crane. Dajan looked over to them as surreptitiously as he could, and saw them doing the same to him before glancing over at Koriyei, who seemed to be deep in conversation with a Fox woman.

"Seppun-sama, respectfully, that makes no sense."

"How not, Lady Fox?"

"How could the worship of the Fortunes be different than the Way prescribed in the Tao?"

"It is not now, but it once was held to be. My ancestress, the First Seppun, was a priestess of the Sun and Moon before she ever bowed to the First Hantei, and Shinsei did not come before the First Emperor until years after that."

"So how did the two become one?"

"The same way almost everything of note in the Empire occurs; the Emperor decreed it so, and the Seppun worked to ensure it. That is why the Four Temples stand around Kyuden Seppun and that is why those Temples are the foremost among the holdings of the Brotherhood. Their Shinpu speaks for the whole of Shinseism to the Imperial ears."

"I had always wondered about that. Thank you for the benefit of you knowledge and wisdom, Seppun-sama."

"It is the place of those who have to provide for those who do not."

"And is that why you carry a medicine kit?"

"I have some slight degree of skill to give with it, yes."

"I have much skill to give with it. Perhaps later we can discuss healing and the Tao?"

"I would be honored to do so, Lady Fox."

"Please, Seppun-sama, call me Hyoko."

"You honor me again, Lady Hyoko. I am Seppun Koriyei."

"Well, Seppun Koriyei, your Otomo friend looks lonely. You might want to join him; I think he could use some of the cheering up that you brought me." A brilliant smile split the young woman's face, and Koriyei found himself hard-pressed to maintain his composure as she turned smartly and walked off, drawing Koriyei's eyes as she went until at last he wandered back to where Dajan sat.

Dajan acknowledged the shugenja's arrival with a brief and very slight nod. "Have you learned any of what the old man spoke of?"

"Only that few people are in the know. I have heard some odd tales, though. The Fox, Hyoko, was standing-"

"Oh, so we're exchanging names?"

"I thought it appropriate, yes. In any event, we were standing not too far from a Sparrow, I think his name was Gosha, who was telling a tale, as the Sparrow typically do. I was not able to focus on it and still maintain my conversation with Hyoko, but I did catch one or two words that you might better recognize than I."

"Really? Tell me these words."

"I think not here; he had trouble pronouncing them, and I do not think that we ought to do anything in this place to attract attention."

"True. Tell me later tonight, then."

Yamaedo chose that moment to return to Dajan's side. "The guards outside have shifted their stances. I think that the Lord Morito is about to enter, and it would be a good idea to face him on your feet."

Dajan rose smoothly, nodding slightly to the miharu. "Well done. Go get the shisha." But Yamaedo had already stalked off.

The Monkey saw him coming, and bowed deeply as the Seppun approached. Miya Kanatei turned around, saw his companion, and nodded. "Dajan-sama requires your presence, Kanatei-san."

"Of course, Yamaedo-sama. I was just bidding this noble Monkey, Jorai, a pleasant evening." Kanatei made for the seiyaku and the shugenja, while Yamaedo stayed a moment to nod respectfully to the Monkey, who smiled and bowed yet again, reveling in the complement.

A heartbeat after Yamaedo returned to Dajan's side, the doors at the end of the hall swung open. Through them walked two Ox bushi, who took up posts at the sides of the door. Following them came the monk, Ugo, dressed in a clean gi of brown and black, the skin exposed by the gi wrapped in fresh white bandages except for his eyes and fingers. He turned and went to the left of the door, and Oneko emerged from it. Dajan heard Yamaedo's breath leave him as he looked at her, resplendent in a kimono of brown and black emblazoned with a pattern of mountains and hills, her hair glistening in the foxtail she had pulled it back into. She went to the other side of the door and stopped, facing out into the room and the faces of the assembled courtiers and delegates. Her flawless contralto rang out, calling all of the people in the hall to silence even their breathing.

"My friends, gathered lords and ladies of many clans both Great and Minor, and representatives of the Houses Imperial, allow me to present to you Lord Morito, Champion of Clan Ox and master of this castle." She bowed deeply as Ugo knelt, and everyone in the room followed suit, especially Yamaedo, who bowed more deeply than anyone would have thought possible in the type of armor he wore. Morito emerged from the door, and his rough stentorian voice called out. "Thank you, my guests, for honoring my halls with your presence. I hope that all of you have found the accommodations suitable, and that you will continue to do so for the duration of your stay." A generally affirmative murmur ran through the hall at the last, for no one was willing to risk the dishonor that denying their host's words would bring.

Morito continued. "I am especially honored this year to host three of the Great Clans; that we of the Ox merit such attention is unusual and a blessing. From the Crane, I host Doji Surieko and Kakita Edemo, both noted students of their schools. From the Scorpion I host Bayushi Kage and Bayushi Yaruko, and from my Unicorn cousins I host Shinjo Romo. Treat them well, for by dwelling here this winter they show themselves to be of high character and impeccable taste." A ripple of polite laughter ran through the crowd, and Morito pressed on.

"I am most pleased to have in my halls representatives of the Imperial Families of Seppun, Otomo, and Miya." Morito actually nodded his head in Dajan's direction, causing all eyes to turn for a moment to him. "Such honored guests as I am privileged to host this year must surely mean that I am doing something correctly." Another wave of laughter. "I hope that I shall continue to do so.

"Let me begin by offering you a meal, for this is my banquet hall, and my kitchens have been working abundantly in preparation for your arrival. You will need to eat, because tomorrow, my people will demonstrate the skills for which I have selected them, and you will, of course, be invited to test your mettle against them if you so wish." The last came off as a challenge that could not be ignored, and would not be by the four young Imperials.