An Imperial Party
VIII. The Games Afoot

A cold wind blew across the Dragon Heart Plain, its icy breath trailing across the small bits of exposed flesh that the guests of the Winter Court of Morito permitted as they stood outside, awaiting the beginning of the entertainment that the lord of Shiro Morito had promised the evening before.

In the hours since that promise, the four young Imperials had spoken long about what they had learned, most especially the shugenja of the Hidden Guard and the Seiyaku, and Otomo Dajan's mind reeled with the types of plots he might weave, the dissensions in the ranks that he might sow. Outwardly, though, he showed nothing, only an occasional and very slight shiver marking his body's lack of adaptation to the cold.

Standing out in the small open area behind the main building of Shiro Morito, the four young Imperials waited, forming a small and cohesive knot among those of the Minor Clans who also waited. The Unicorn was in attendance as well, though the Scorpion and Crane were markedly absent. Dajan ran through the possibilities in his mind as he looked slowly about, surveying the reactions of all who stood in the cold. So it was that Kanatei did not surprise him when the shisha's hand came lightly upon the courtier's shoulder.

"Dajan-sama, Lord Morito comes, and he is not alone."

Dajan reacted to the knowledge, turning to the branch of the footpath that the herald indicated, and motioning his companions to bow. Others of the assembled group looked at the four with quizzical expressions bare moments before Morito and five others rounded the squat form of the main building. A ripple of commentary went through the assembled delegates, noting the prescience of the Imperial Families, before they mimicked the gesture of respect.

The Champion of the Ox Clan strode forward, flanked by Oneko and an old and openly smiling ronin that the four young Imperials recognized, followed by Ugo and Utaku Dacha and one peasant bearing a pack. The peasant scrambled forward, withdrawing from his pack a folding chair that he set out for Morito as the latter nodded his head slightly, acknowledging the genuflections of his guests. Sitting down, the lord of the shiro motioned Oneko forward. She took a breath, and her clear contralto warmed the frigid air. Again, Yamaedo felt his hear stir, and started slightly as Koriyei nudged his foot as subtly as might be done. Focusing on the duty of warding Dajan from harm, he became as stone, eyes wide open and scanning the whole of the terrain, evaluating every iota of every impression that reached his senses for threat potential, dismissing any meanings beyond a negative answer to the question of "Will it hurt my charge?"

Dajan, however, missed no meanings as Oneko spoke, telling of Morito's thanks that the delegates and courtiers could come and enjoy the early morning with him, praising the glory of Lord Sun and telling of the Ox Champion's continued sorrow that the children of the Splendid Emperor, with whom Morito had been ronin, could do such disservice to their father's legacy. A few coughs broke through the audience, and some fans began to wave before faces though no one could possibly have been hot. In his mind echoed the words of the last evening, when Seppun Koriyei had related the Sparrow's words.
"But in truth was Akodo Kage, the revered sensei of the Lion Clan and the only Lion allowed to bear the name during the edict of the Last Hantei, a Kolat, and a master of them."
Dajan had finally fully grasped his contact's meaning; the Ox and the Kolat were inextricably linked. It made sense, actually, that a former Unicorn, and a former Shinjo especially, would form something linked with that dark conspiracy. But surely they had been eliminated by the Lady Shinjo. Unless, of course, the Unicorn were truly a reflection of their Kami, and she was herself hot-tempered and brash, racing past details best investigated. Koriyei would have balked at the implied sacrilege, as would have Yamaedo, but the Seppun existed to further the Fortunes and the Tao as well as to the Imperial Person, for no difference truly existed between them.
But why now? And why him?
Oneko went on. "These three are men who dwell at Shiro Morito, but are not Ox. Therefore know that the Lord Morito does not command them, but that they have of their own volition come forth to display for you talent and technique over the course of this day. Ugo, the monk here, will do this, for the Tao should always be in our minds. Kado the ronin will do this," and at this point two things happened: the old man smiled the same smile at Dajan that he had outside of the old man's hut, and Utaku Dacha's eyes went hard for only a slight moment, "because of the great joy he feels at seeing that one of his station may rise to the greatness enjoyed by Lord Morito.

"Utaku Dacha will do this because of the long friendship between the Unicorn and Ox, and to prove to all that defeating the horse of a Unicorn only makes him more dangerous."

From the gathered delegates, Romo let out a brief laugh, and called back. "Of course; killing the horse makes the Unicorn very, very angry." Some laughter went through the rest of the gathering. As it subsided, Ugo stepped forward and bowed.

"Here I see many samurai. Are there any that do not fear a young monk such as me?" A confused murmur ran through the gathering. Dajan noticed the Monkey delegate, Jorai, standing nearby, and leaned over to him. Whispering a few words in his ear, the Seiyaku stepped back and watched as the young man stepped forward suddenly.

"Monk-san, I am Jorai of the Monkey. I am a humble man, and I will face you to spare my noble compatriots any indignity." The Monkey bowed to his opponent, and dropped into a classic jiujutsu stance. Ugo returned the gesture, and assumed a very casual form, standing with feet at shoulder's width, hands at his hips with palms facing out. Dajan noticed that Seppun Yamaedo was peering intently at the two, and resolved to ask him later what he was watching. Seppun Koriyei suddenly drew in a sharp breath, feeling the waves of chi emanating from the monk, thinking, "There is indeed something amiss in his chi. I do not know what it is, but it is not right."

From beside Kanatei, a voice, he thought it to be that of the Fox woman, muttered "Should he be using kiho?" Kanatei then looked at the monk, and saw Oneko standing behind him. On her left wrist was an odd symbol, unlike any chop or mon that the shisha could recall seeing. He resolved to mark it down, to investigate further, and in an instant, the symbol was burned into his memory. And at that moment, Ugo rushed forward for exactly three steps.

Jorai saw the motion, and began to respond, his right fist shooting forward in what would have been a devastating blow to the jaw of the monk. Instead, Ugo, who had stopped short of where his opponent's punch would have connected, sidestepped in a flash of motion, grabbing the Monkey's wrist in one hand and violently twisting it, throwing the young man of the Minor Clan off balance and forcing his stance to shift. As the Monkey struggled and started to turn, Ugo followed his motion, keeping Jorai's arm extended and twisted as the Monkey's foot shot out to try to trip Ugo.

The Osano-Wo monk quickly shifted his own stance, and at the same moment stepped around, bringing the Monkey into a shihonage hold, dropping him to the ground an instant later. The whole exchange took perhaps three seconds.

Ugo stepped back as the Monkey rose to his feet. The two traded bows as the gathering departed to eat and while Yamaedo looked on. Dajan tapped him on the shoulder, bidding him follow, and Yamaedo fell into line as the Seiyaku asked, "What did you find so interesting?"

"Dajan-sama, you know that I trained at Kyuden Seppun, and that many monks are in residence there at any given time. While there, they continue to practice their jiujutsu, for faith does not change due to location."

"Yes?"

"Did Ugo not say that he was sent by and trained under Hyakujo?"

"Something to that effect, yes."

"Dajan-sama, I have never seen any sohei of Osano-Wo use that stance. I have, however, seen one or two Crab use it."

"Anything else?"

"Ugo could have destroyed Jorai's arm without a thought from that position, but he was not looking at his opponent. He was looking at Utaku Dacha."

Koriyei started at that as he walked beside the Seiyaku. "He grew angry at the mention of that name before, and there is the thing we discussed."

"Dajan-sama?"

The Seiyaku shook his head. "Do not worry about this thing, Yamaedo-san. You are dismissed until one hour before lunch, at which time we shall meet for food and another round of 'entertainment.'"

* * * *

The hour for lunch came, and the four young Imperials again found themselves in the great hall in the main building of Shiro Morito, surrounded by delegates and courtiers from many of the Minor Clans and the Great Clans of the Crane, Scorpion, and Unicorn.

As Yamaedo took up his accustomed position in the corner of the room, Koriyei and Kanatei engaged two of the Minor Clan representatives in conversation, the former reprising his conversation with Kitsune Hyoko and the latter using the benefit of his non-threatening demeanor to listen to the words of the Sparrow, Suzume Gosha, and the Hare, Usagi Kaneri, a white-bearded older man who listened to the Sparrow's prating with enviable patience. Dajan, however, went to Shinjo Romo, who stood talking with Utaku Dacha. The two Unicorn stopped speaking as the Otomo approached, and bowed deeply to him as he stepped up. "Konnichiwa, Otomo-san. We are honored that you wish to speak to us."

The Seiyaku returned the bow. "I am honored that you allow me to speak to you, Shinjo-sama, Utaku-san. I trust that the day finds you well."

"Of course; we are among our kinsmen and in the presence of the representative of the Son of Heaven."

"I am flattered that you estimate me so highly, gentlemen. I fear, however, that not all here value the Imperial Houses as highly as do you."

Dacha's eyes widened slightly. "Truly, now? How could one not?"

"Well, you do realize how the Scorpion are so enveloped in their own affairs that they fail to pay the proper respect to that which stands above them."

Shinjo Romo now spoke. "So you are saying that the scuttling arachnids are snubbing you?"

"Not me personally; I do not take offense at that, for I am merely a servant of the Lady Hoketuhime and of the Emperor, may one soon sit the Throne again. Yet I noticed that they did not appear this morning for the first demonstration."

"This is true; they were absent. As were the Crane."

"Ah, but the Crane I know to be honorable; did not the Otomo remove to dwell among them for a time? And I know that we would not associate with any who were not people of honor, who would breed such dens of iniquity as to mire down the noble and then insult them as they struggled."

"I think that I take your meaning, Otomo-san. I will check my boots more closely in the coming days."

Utaku Dacha spoke next. "Otomo-san, I trust that you have found the stabling to your liking."

"I am hardly an expert in such things, but my shisha friend assures me that you have done a fine job in caring for our steeds. Truly you are a master of caring for beasts."

"Good horseflesh such as that you arrived on hardly requires a master to care for it; those steeds very nearly care for themselves. But I thank you nonetheless."

"You cannot be here now simply to discuss this thing; are you giving your demonstration after lunch?"

"I am indeed. I noticed also that your miharu watched the earlier exercise with great interest; did he comment on anything?"

Otomo Dajan considered a few things for the space of a heartbeat, and then said, "Actually, he noted that the monk seemed unusually interested in you for someone who was fighting another."

Dacha considered that, and Dajan pressed on. "When you introduced yourself to us, you called yourself by another name than you use now."

"You must forgive an old man; I was alive in the days when Kamoko-sama still rode without that name. I remember when Hantei XXXVIII sat the Throne, and remember the downfall of Shoju, and so I forget sometimes that my name is now not what it used to be, especially when presented with such youth and vigor as you displayed and I return, if only for a moment, to my old young self."

Romo spoke up. "Otomo-san, I am not sure that such a thing as that is appropriate for this place."

"Then I must ask you to forgive the folly of youth; I am overwhelmed to be in the presence of such august company as yourselves." The doors at the end of the hall opened, and Ugo the monk entered with other figures visible behind him. "You will, of course, excuse me, sirs?" Dajan slipped off to his accustomed place, only to find the Scorpion he had spoken to previously, Bayushi Kage, waiting for him.

"Otomo-san, I am gladdened to see you. What tales have you gleaned from the Unicorn?"

"Oh, no tales; those things are for the Sparrow."

"True; the Unicorn are so far removed from things that truly matter that they cannot have much to say." This came as a whisper, for Morito was entering and seating himself as the food came in. The two bowed, and the Scorpion continued. "Still, the Imperial Houses cannot show favoritism, so perhaps you will speak to me for a while."

"Perhaps. How do matters in the Scorpion lands progress?"

"Oh, we do well enough. Business as usual, actually."

"I wouldn't know about business; that seems more toward the Yasuki. But what is usual among the Scorpion?"

"Wouldn't that be telling? Suffice it to say that we remain in the shadows, where we belong, and take care of the things that are in them that work against the Empire."

"So the Unicorn are correct."

"What did you say?"

"That the Unicorn are correct."

"About what?"

"They mentioned something about 'scuttling' in a conversation regarding your Clan."

"Really?"

"Would I lie? After all, I cannot show favoritism, as you say."

The Scorpion stood silently and went over to where Romo and Dacha were eating. Kanatei assumed the Scorpion's seat beside Dajan as a servant brought a fresh plate. "What was that all about?"

"I don't like the Scorpion, and neither do the Unicorn. I just provided the Unicorn an excuse to take care of my annoyance." Loud words came from the other side of the room, then, and all conversation stopped.

"I will not accept this insult!" The Scorpion's fist clenched spasmodically. "You are fortunate that I do not carry steel this hour!"

The voice of Morito came from the head of the room. "Then you may retrieve it, Scorpion. Utaku Dacha was to provide his demonstration this hour in any event; he shall do so in this manner."

The entire population of the room suddenly picked itself up and went outside. Hyoko somehow found her way to Koriyei's side, and Oneko stood perilously close to Yamaedo. The shugenja could not help but notice the whisperings of the kami that surrounded himself and Hyoko, and Yamaedo by sheer force of will wrenched himself back into the mindset of his duty as Dajan whispered to him, "I need you to watch the duel closely, and tell me what you see of the combatants."

Utaku Dacha stood impassively on the same small area where Ugo and Jorai had fought that morning, betraying no emotion as the Scorpion, Bayushi Kage, walked up, clad only in a simple red kimono with his daisho at his side. Bayushi Yaruko and Shinjo Romo stood at opposite sides of the area, and the Crane looked on from beside Morito as he stood, with the Minor Clan delegates arrayed about. The coarse stentorian voice of the lord of the shiro rang out clearly as the two duelists assumed their positions just slightly more than a sword's length apart from one another.

"The Scorpion, Bayushi Kage, claims that the Unicorn, Utaku Dacha, has sullied his honor by his words, and demands retribution." Turning to the stable-master, Morito continued. "Do you deny the allegation of the Scorpion?"

"No, though I find it odd that one of Bayushi's children takes thought for his honor. This must be a first in the history of the Empire, that a Scorpion worries about his good name."

"You, Bayushi Kage, have heard the response of the one you accuse. He denies nothing. What will satisfy your honor?"

"Only his death."

"Then I, acting as the lord of this place, and in accord with agreements between the families and Clans, do hereby give my permission for this duel to occur. Bayushi Kage and Utaku Dacha shall fight until one is sent into the Void." The two men bowed to Morito, who nodded and stepped back.

Dacha and Kage turned to face one another, the former bowing slightly as he did so. The black hood and mask of Kage betrayed nothing, as he settled into his stance, with his weight resting one his horizontal and rearward left foot, the right leg held straight and pointing towards his opponent, the saya of his sword standing dead level to the ground. Dacha assumed a far more casual stance, feet close together and at a slight angle, sword hanging at an angle to the ground. Yamaedo let his breath out in a sort of whistling sigh as he looked on, and even Dajan noticed that the stance did not look very martial.

The air palpably tensed as the Scorpion gathered his chi, and the Unicorn stood unmoved. Yamaedo watched him intently, and suddenly realized something, thinking to himself "The Unicorn is hiding something, is hiding his skill" as the Scorpion moved to strike, lunging at the Unicorn as his blade cleared the saya. Dacha stepped aside, moving to the outside of the strike and drawing his own blade in a lazy motion that belied the celerity of his side-step.

Kage brought his other hand onto his katana, and leveled a slash at Dacha's belly, whipping the blade with blinding speed as he planted his left foot and pivoted from the hips. Dacha again stepped to the outside of the swing, his own sword held low and to his right, the tip barely clearing the ground. Yamaedo let out another whistling sigh as the Scorpion's belly cut suddenly whirled into a shomen strike, and Dacha surged forward, his blade moving up between the legs of the Scorpion. Dacha's face was an inch from the black hood of his opponent, well inside the swing that never fell. His sword had stopped with the tsuba in the Scorpion's belly, and the kissaki and monomuchi emerging from between his shoulder blades. For a moment all was still, and then the Scorpion fell, the blade of Dacha finishing its travel through his body.

Yamaedo looked over to the monk, and saw that he was peering intently at the Unicorn as the gathering broke up and the delegates returned to their respective rooms. The four young Imperials, upon returning to their own suite, had a long discussion about what they had seen and come to know, and were not at all surprised when notice came that Oneko's demonstration had been postponed to "another time."

Yamaedo's voice came out, showing more worry than any had heard in it. "Utaku Dacha will die soon! We must warn him!"

Dajan replied. "We cannot. If we betray, even for an instant, that we know anything about the conspiracy, we will become its victims. For us to survive, Dacha must fall as they might intend. If he can save himself, all the better, but we cannot interfere."

Kanatei broke in. "Friend Yamaedo, if the conspiracy that Dajan-sama and Koriyei-sama speak of does not kill Dacha, then the Scorpion will. They will never forgive the loss of one of their own."

Koriyei now spoke. "You would also do well, cousin, to stay away from Oneko. She is doing something to you, and I worry that her wiles will overcome your training."

"I do not like it."

Dajan again spoke. "Neither do I, but you have your order. We do nothing to stop what will occur."