Ashes and Steel
By Rich Wulf

"I welcome you to Kyuden Gotei, Doji-sama, though I must confess you arrived much sooner than I expected," the little courtier said, bowing deeply. "Grandmother Jukio has told me much of your long friendship with our family, and it is a great honor to be your guide and, I hope, your friend. I am Moshi Mogai, son of Moshi Utamaro, who fought beside you in the Clan Wars. I am the one who contacted you."

"Konichiwa, Mogai-san," Doji Chomei replied, returning the man's bow. The old samurai winced slightly, causing a look of concern to flash across Mogai's face.

"Are you all right, Doji-sama?" Mogai asked softly. "If you need anything, simply say the word and the servants shall attend to your needs." Mogai gestured sharply and a young heimin in green robes appeared from somewhere.

"I am fine, merely an old wound," Chomei said, smiling weakly and holding one hand over his right hip. "Travel disturbs it, and age does not help matters, I fear. If I can simply get off of my feet for a while I should be well enough."

"Certainly," Mogai nodded quickly. "Right this way, Doji-sama." The Mantis gestured toward a side hall and stepped aside, waiting to fall in beside the Crane. Chomei's yojimbo and Mogai's servant followed.

Chomei could hardly conceal his wonder at the lavishly decorated halls of the Mantis palace. Every wall featured silken paintings or delicate hanging sculptures. The floors were covered in lush, exotic carpets. Priceless gilded lanterns hung from the ceiling, illuminating their path.

"Quite breathtaking is it not?" Mogai said, noticing Chomei's interest. "The fruits of the labor of the Mantis Clan. Some would frown upon my clan, call them merchants, pirates, or even ronin. Let them call us what they like. While they grumble from their filthy hovels, we are surrounded by luxury."

"Truly, I have never seen such a display of wealth," Chomei agreed.

"Really?" Mogai looked dubious. "Not even in Kyuden Doji or Kosaten Shiro?"

"My family has great wealth, this is true," Chomei said, "but typically our style of decoration is somewhat more... reserved."

"I think you mean 'tasteful,'" Mogai said with a wry chuckle.

"I did not say that," Chomei replied.

"No, but I did," Mogai retorted. "I have no illusions. Kyuden Gotei is a wonderful place, but there is no order to it. Moderation is not my clan's strongest virtue. Still, this place has a certain charm."

"It is larger than I remember," Chomei said. "Though I have not been here in nearly three decades."

"The city expanded greatly when Aramasu was our lord," Mogai answered. "It is a monument to his adopted father, the Son of Storms. It is as Yoritomo would have built it, had he survived the War Against the Shadow."

"The halls seem to go on forever," Chomei said, glancing down a side passageway as they walked.

"Sometimes I think they do go on forever," Mogai said. " I have spent the last three years of my life here and there are some sections I have never visited. The palace is now as large as most small cities and the city larger than any save Ryoko Owari." The courtier carefully avoided any mention of Otosan Uchi.

"I think Yoritomo would have approved," Chomei said.

Mogai looked at the Crane eagerly. "Truly?" he asked. "I know that you and he were friends, or so it is said."

Chomei laughed quietly. "We were comrades, allies during the Clan Wars and War Against the Shadow, but I do not know if you could rightly say I was his friend. Yoritomo could be a difficult man. If I was prone to using trite metaphors, I might say that he was 'as cold and unpredictable as the storm,' but luckily my teachers always cautioned me against such foolishness."

"Indeed, fortunate," Mogai said with a grin.

"I do not think that any knew Yoritomo well enough to call him 'friend,'" Chomei said. "Perhaps I came closer than many."

"Well, you knew and fought beside the Son of Storms just the same, and that is an honor few can claim in this day," Mogai said. "You will always be welcome among the Mantis Clan."

They came to the end of the hallway and the doors before them opened, revealing a lush garden beyond. In the light of the hanging lanterns Chomei could see a wild mixture of colorful flowers and wild ferns. A tall, pink bird with spindly legs and swanlike neck stepped into the path, looked Chomei fearlessly in the eyes, and continued on its way.

"Extraordinary," Chomei said, "I have never seen such an animal."

"There are seven living here," Mogai said. "Aramasu brought them back from his journeys in the Ivory Kingdoms. Supposedly they do not thrive in captivity but they seem to enjoy the gardens. This way, please."

Mogai led Chomei down the well-manicured path to a well-lit clearing. Small benches were arrayed about its edges. In the center, four men in fine green kimonos were knocking a large leather ball about using their feet, knees, shoulders and head, their arms folded behind their backs. Two young Mantis maidens sat nearby, doing a very good job of pretending not to pay attention while they discussed the young men behind their fans. One of the Mantis snatched the ball from the air with one hand and nodded respectfully to Chomei. The others turned and quickly bowed to their esteemed visitor. The two women rose and did the same.

"Ah, my apologies, Doji-sama," Mogai said quietly. "I had expected to find this courtyard empty. We can find another more suitable for you to rest peacefully."

"Not at all," Chomei said. "It is I who should apologize for disturbing the game. It has been too long since I watched a good game of kemari." He turned to the assembled players. "Do you mind if I remain and watch?"

"Not at all," Mogai said, his tone sounding as if he was not entirely pleased by the request. He gestured to one of the benches and they made their way toward it.

"Mogai-san," said one of the athletes, walking toward them. It was the one who had merely nodded instead of bowing. "This is the Crane you were expecting?"

Chomei eased himself onto the bench, one hand holding the injury at his hip. He looked up at the man speculatively.

"Hai," Mogai said, looking at the other Mantis with thinly concealed dislike. "This is Rikugunshokan Doji Chomei, hero of the Clan Wars."

"Please, Mogai-san," Chomei said with a chuckle. "I am no longer a general. These days I merely serve as an advisor to Lord Kurohito and Lady Rekai."

"Hero, hm?" the Mantis asked with a frown. "From Mogai's stories, I expected you would be taller, Rikugunshokan."

Chomei raised an eyebrow. "Excuse my rudeness," he said in a clipped tone, "but I did not catch your name, boy."

"This is my brother, Kalani," Mogai said in a pained voice. "He is a favorite of Lady Kitao and sees that as an excuse to forget his manners in the presence of his betters."

"Manners?" Kalani answered curiously. "I think I am being relatively polite to the Rikugunshokan, compared to his past visits. Were you not once beaten within an inch of your life by the Son of Storms?" Kalani grinned. One of his comrades laughed softly.

"I once had the honor of dueling with Yoritomo, yes," Chomei said, meeting the younger man's gaze. "Would you like me to show you what I learned from him?"

"What glory would I gain, dueling with a wounded old man?" Kalani asked.

"What glory would you lose," Chomei replied, "by letting one beat you?" Across the courtyard, one of the women laughed softly.

Kalani laughed as well. "And I expected some foppish old Doji courtier," he said. "Mogai, why did you not tell me that your guest had such character? I like you, Rikugunshokan. You remind me of my grandfather. "

"I spent quite a bit of time with the Centipede maidens during the Clan Wars," Chomei said with a wry grin. "I may well be your grandfather."

Kalani's comrades laughed at that, and even Kalani could not suppress a chuckle. The young Mantis bowed respectfully at last, acknowledging defeat in the verbal duel. "Rikugunshokan Doji Chomei," Kalani said, gesturing to the old samurai as if introducing him for the first time. "Comrade of Yoritomo and friend to my departed father. Respect him as you would me, or answer to me." Kalani glanced back at the others. They bowed deeply, said their goodbyes and made their way from the courtyard. Kalani himself remained, sitting on a bench nearby.

"So what brings you to our islands, Rikugunshokan?" Kalani asked. "My brother was not specific in the details of your visit. Have you come to offer the Crane Clan's recognition of Lady Kitao's claim?"

"Perhaps," Chomei replied. "Lord Kurohito is undecided on the matter, but has given me authority to make the decision for our clan as I have more experience in dealing with Mantis than any other Crane. Your brother indicated that he had something important to show me, something that could sway the opinion of my clan. He gave few details, but it is not as if Lord Kurohito had any other pressing duties for another old samurai like me. Besides, it has been far too long since I have visited the isles."

"Well if Mogai brought you here so that Kitao could make her case I'm afraid he has wasted your time," Kalani said. "Kitao is not expected to return to Kyuden Gotei for many months."

"Oh?" Chomei said, looking curiously at Mogai. The courtier was carefully studying a bush on the far side of the clearing.

"Can I speak freely?" Kalani said, looking meaningfully at Chomei's yojimbo and Mogai's servant.

Chomei nodded. He dismissed the two with a gesture. When they were gone, he turned to Kalani again.

"This is not a good time to be in Kyuden Gotei, Rikugunshokan," Kalani said in a low voice. "If I were you, I would leave and not return. Unfortunately I am not you, and cannot leave without being marked as a traitor by my clan and causing even more trouble for myself." A silence fell over the clearing. Kalani idly plucked a long blade of grass from the ground at his feet and twisted it between his fingers.

"Traitor?" Chomei replied.

"There is a movement against Lady Kitao within the Mantis Clan," Mogai replied. "Rumor has it that Kitao is hunting the leader of the traitors as we speak."

"Who would seek to usurp the rule of the Mantis?" Chomei asked.

"A supporter of Yoritomo Aramasu who believes Kitao had something to do with his death," Mogai said.

"A fool who can't leave well enough alone," Kalani added, tearing the grass into two strips.

"A fool today, a hero tomorrow," Mogai said under his breath.

Kalani shifted uncomfortably. "Take my advice, Rikugunshokan," he said. "Better not to get involved with this. Mantis politics are not as... courteous as those of other clans."

"I am quite familiar with your clan's traditions," Chomei said. "I was there when Yoritomo set most of the precedents."

"My brother is somewhat pessimistic," Mogai said. "I assure, you, Doji-sama, there is no danger for you here."

"Then why does the Storm Legion look so nervous of late?" Kalani asked. "And why have the Yoritomo Elite been so quiet?"

Chomei looked at Kalani quizzically.

"The Storm Legion and the Yoritomo Elite are the two most prestigious orders of Mantis bushi," Mogai explained. "Both serve essentially the same purpose - they protect and serve the Mantis Champion. The Storm Legion is the older of the two groups, and is typically more proactive, hunting down enemies of the Mantis. The Yoritomo Elite, on the other hand, were founded during the Clan Wars. They protect the territory of the Mantis specifically."

"I know of both groups," Chomei said, "but I was unaware there was any conflict between the two."

"Normally there isn't," Mogai replied. "Their duties rarely interfere. However, the current leader of the Elite, Yoritomo Kamoto, is no friend of Kitao's. He has been missing for months, and none of the members of the Elite within Kyuden Gotei will speak of where he has gone."

"Kamoto has always had an independent streak," Chomei said. "He was not one of Yoritomo's favorites."

"Then at least that Mantis tradition has persevered under Kitao," Mogai said. "She attempted to install one of her own supporters, a Storm Legionnaire named Ikemoto, as their new commander but the Yoritomo Elite refused to obey him on the grounds that a new commander could only be named upon proof of the death or dishonor of their predecessor."

"And Kitao allowed her own bushi to defy her in such a way?" Chomei asked.

"Of course not," Kalani said with a laugh. "The officers of the Yoritomo Elite in Kyuden Gotei were arrested that very day. The others fell into line, but they are not pleased with the situation. They're an angry, bitter lot and they don't like Ikemoto one bit."

"A lot of people in the city are not pleased with Kitao," Mogai added. "The Yoritomo Elite charter was written by Yoritomo himself. Some would say that Kitao has no right to change tradition established by the Son of Storms."

"Others might argue that she's our daimyo and can do as she likes," Kalani answered, throwing the two blades of grass aside. "People who get on the bad side of their lord end up hunted like Kamoto."

"Kitao is not hunting Kamoto," Mogai said sharply.

Kalani laughed and shook his head. "Mogai, cast aside your folk tales and stories. We both know that Kamoto has a habit for not doing as he is told. This rebellion is his, and his alone. There is no heir of Yoritomo. There is no Daughter of Storms."

Mogai said nothing, only looked at the ground.

"Daughter of Storms?" Chomei asked. "Yoritomo had no children."

"Of course he did not," Kalani said. "He died during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, and his bride died soon after. Yoritomo's heir is a myth, an excuse for Kamoto to cause trouble."

"My brother has said too much, Doji-sama," Mogai said. "We were wrong to involve you in our problems and our politics. Think not on these matters, for they are Mantis matters. If you wish, I will explain in more detail in the morning. For now, the hour is late. I should show you to your chambers and retire." Mogai rose and quickly made his way to the gates of the small garden before Chomei could argue.

"Careful, Rikugunshokan," Kalani whispered as Chomei rose. "My brother is a good man, but he is a fool. One day his idealism will destroy him. Be careful not to stand too close."

Chomei said nothing in reply, only followed Mogai from the garden. As he followed the courtier through the halls of Kyuden Gotei, he wondered why he had truly been invited to the Islands of the Mantis.

He suspected he would know soon enough, one way or another.

o

The sound of a vase shattering in an adjacent room stirred Chomei from his sleep. He sat up wearily, peering about his chambers. Somewhere, in the distance, he could hear men shouting. The sound of steel hitting stone echoed in reply. The signs were subtle, but he had lived through enough castle invasions to know when he was witnessing one. Chomei rose calmly, moved to dressing table, and began putting on his kimono. By the time Chomei's yojimbo burst into the room, the old Crane was tucking his daisho into his belt.

"Chomei-sama!" the man said, looking at the empty bed in confusion. He blinked at his lord, fully prepare for battle.

"I regret not having the foresight to bring my armor," Chomei chuckled. "What is the situation, Hisato?"

"The Mantis fight among themselves," the yojimbo said, bewildered. "Two groups, one wearing a symbol of a forked lightning bolt, the other wearing a mon with dual kama."

Chomei nodded. "The Storm Legion and the Yoritomo Elite. Take me to Moshi Mogai immediately," he said.

"My lord, I do not think that is wise," the yojimbo said, bowing his head in apology for his argument. "It may be more prudent to remain here and defend this area."

"More prudent, agreed, but I care little for prudence at this point," Chomei said. "We have been led here on false pretenses. I want answers."

"Hai," Hisato said with a sharp nod. He stepped out into the hallway, glanced both ways to make certain the path was clear, then gestured to Chomei. The two samurai stepped out of the chamber, moving cautiously through the darkened halls.

"There are only two of us, my lord," Hisato said in a nervous voice. "What do we do if we are attacked, my lord?"

"We join the other side," Chomei said. Hisato blinked.

"You are a fine yojimbo, Hisato, but your inexperience shows," Chomei said. "One day you will learn the inherent humor in your own imminent demise."

"As you say, my lord," Hisato answered.

The two Crane continued down the hall. The sounds of battle drew closer. Thunder rumbled in the sky above.

"A storm?" Hisato asked.

"A Yoritomo shugenja with a penchant for drama, more likely," Chomei said. "Perhaps we should not go this way."

The two Crane turned, and at that the doors burst open behind them. Seven Mantis samurai in the armor of the Storm Legion stood with katana ready. The leader had a thick bandage tied around his right bicep, blood streaming down his arm.

"You Crane," he said, pointing his sword at Chomei. "Proclaim your allegiance immediately."

"I am Chomei of the House Doji," Chomei said boldly. "I serve Lord Doji Kurohito."

"To Jigoku with Kurohito! Kitao or Kumiko?" the man demanded, still holding his sword ready.

"What?" Chomei replied. "Who is Kumiko?"

"Do you serve Lady Kitao or the traitor, Kumiko?" the man demanded in a more forceful voice. Chomei knew from the mad gleam in the man's eyes that battle had driven him beyond reason. The Mantis would attack no matter what he said, and his minions would likely do the same. Chomei held his right hand above the hilt of his katana, as if offering a gift. Hisato looked at his master nervously.

"Hisato, on my mark," Chomei said, "Show these men the strength of Crane steel."

In flash, Chomei's blade was drawn. He leapt at the Mantis and swung in a broad stroke, shattering the other man's blade and cutting him from throat to pelvis. Hisato drew his own sword only a moment later, shouting a fierce battle cry and lunging forward beside his master. The Mantis faltered at first, surprised at the sudden fury of the outnumbered Crane, and in that instant two more fell. Then, with a fierce cry, the Mantis rallied and fought back. Hisato grunted in pain and fell beneath the sword of a Storm Legionnaire. Chomei lifted his blade to strike again, but the wound in his hip flared and caused him to stumble. His leg was kicked from underneath him and he lost his sword. He looked up into the eyes of a furious Mantis bushi. In that instant he knew he would die.

What strange irony, he thought, that his career should begin and end by being defeated by a Mantis.

A sharp crack of thunder echoed through the hallway. A harsh burning smell filled Chomei's nostrils for a brief instant before a flash of lightning cascaded over him. The electric bolt parted neatly around Chomei and Hisato, striking the remaining Mantis and sending them sprawling backwards down the hall.

Chomei crawled painfully to one knee and retrieved his sword. He peered back through the smoke-filled hallway, wondering if he had been saved or simply faced a new enemy. A gaunt old man with lank white hair emerged from the smoke, looking down with a severe frown. "Three decades ago I warned Lord Yoritomo you Crane would be no end of trouble," the man said with a hiss. "Of course he would not listen."

"Yoritomo Komori," Chomei said. "I thought you had retired."

"And I thought you were dead," Komori said with a sneer. "What of it?" The old shugenja moved quickly to Chomei's fallen yojimbo and knelt. Drawing a scrap of parchment from the satchel at his belt, he whispered words of prayer. Glowing blue water kami swirled around Komori's fingertips, passing to the wound on Hisato's shoulder and closing the injury.

"Your yojimbo is as clumsy as you are," Komori said with a sneer. "How is that wound you took at Kyuden Doji?"

"Still bothers me," Chomei said.

"You are fortunate it did not kill you," Komori said. "Simple justice, I think, for attacking an ogre by yourself."

"I see your mood has improved since we last met," Chomei said.

Komori grunted. "We missed your sword at Oblivion's Gate, Crane."

"I am sorry I was not there," Chomei said sincerely.

To Chomei's amazement, the Mantis moved on to the fallen Storm Legionnaires, healing their wounds as well. The old shugenja cursed under his breath when he saw the man that Chomei had killed.

"Why are you healing them?" Chomei asked. "Those men tried to kill us."

"These men are Mantis," Komori said, looking back at the Crane sharply. "They may be foolish enough to serve a false lord but they are my kin just the same. I will leave them here, bound by my magic. When this coup is done the Daughter of Storms will allow them to choose whether they wish to swear fealty to her or join the usurper Kitao in exile."

"Daughter of Storms?" Chomei said. "I was told she was a myth."

"Then come with me, Chomei," Komori said, "and meet this 'myth' for yourself."

o

Komori led Chomei to a large courtyard near the western end of the palace. Thirty Storm Legionnaires stood in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by a circle of forty Yoritomo Elite with spears and bows. A small gathering of frightened courtiers and servants huddled in another corner, guarded by more Yoritomo Elite. A tall samurai in brilliant green armor stood near the door. Komori walked directly toward him. Chomei followed.

"How many dead?" Komori asked, nodding toward the Storm Legionnaires.

"Twenty Storm Legion, ten Elite," the samurai said softly. "Could be worse. None of them will renounce Kitao, so I expect they'll move to fortify her position in Toshi no Inazuma once we release them. I don't look forward to that. Kyuden Gotei may be larger but Toshi no Inazuma is far more defensible, and with no Yoritomo Elite stationed there to help us from the inside. We have our work cut out for us if we hope to crack the City of Lightning, Komori."

"Hopefully it will not come to that," the shugenja said. Where is Ikemoto?" Komori asked.

"Gone," he answered. "I suspect he fled as soon as the attack began. The man is no fool." The samurai turned to face them. His face was thinner - more lined with worry and age, but Chomei recognized him at once.

"Yoritomo Kamoto," Chomei said. "Why am I not surprised to see you at the heart of this?"

"Doji Chomei," Kamoto said in a neutral voice. "You arrived sooner than we expected."

"So my invitation during Kitao's absence was no coincidence," Chomei said. "I thought as much. My yojimbo was injured during your coup. We both may have died were it not for Komori."

"Then you have my sincere apologies," Kamoto said. "I assure you, we had not intended for you to witness this; we had hoped you would arrive after the battle was done. This is a Mantis affair. We cannot allow Yoritomo Kitao's rule as daimyo of our clan to continue."

"You have drawn the blood of your own brothers, Kamoto," Chomei said. "What makes you think this makes you any better than Kitao? Who will rule the Mantis when she is gone, you?"

"Me," came the reply.

A young woman walked across the courtyard toward them. She was dressed in loose, simple clothing, revealing much of her lean, muscular frame. Her face had the sharp, aquiline angles of a Moshi but her eyes were fierce, dark, and determined.

"I am Yoritomo Kumiko," she said. "Yoritomo's daughter."

"If you are his daughter, then where have you been all this time?" Chomei asked.

"That is not your business," Kumiko said sharply. "It was I who sent for you through Mogai. I would ask you for two favors."

"You ask me for favors when you will not even answer my questions?" Chomei asked. "Truly you are Yoritomo's daughter."

"And you are surrounded by my elite guard so I suggest you cooperate," Kumiko answered.

"Fair enough," Chomei replied. "What do you wish of me?"

"First, I wish you to carry the news of what you have seen here to the rest of the Empire," she said.

"You wish me to tell the Empire that you deserve to be the daimyo of your clan?" Chomei asked.

"Not necessarily," she replied. "You may make your own decision in that regard. I only wish for you to tell them that the Daughter of Storms now rules Kyuden Gotei. Tell them that I do not seek civil war. I only seek to take back what is mine. I do not thirst for Kitao's blood and will show her followers mercy if they display reason." She gestured at the Storm Legion prisoners.

"And what of the twenty who died?" Chomei asked. "Were they... unreasonable?"

"There is no victory without cost," Kumiko said. "You have been samurai long enough to know that, Doji."

"Perhaps," Chomei said. "I can promise no more. What else do you wish of me?"

"I wish to tell you of Aramasu's murder," Kumiko said. "I have spoken to Akodo Kaneka, who was present during the Scorpion attack on Aramasu's estates in Otosan Uchi. The Storm Legion was assigned to guard Aramasu, but when the Scorpion arrived only three guards were present of the usual twenty. When the Mantis fleet entered the bay seeking Scorpion blood, it was the burning wreck of a Storm Legion vessel that stopped them - a vessel with no sailors aboard. This testimony was sworn by the Shogun. Whatever feelings your clan may have toward Akodo Kaneka surely you would not doubt his word."

"So you believe that the Storm Legion betrayed your brother?" Chomei asked. "It was my understanding that the Storm Legion would never betray another Mantis."

"Aramasu was adopted," Kumiko replied. "Not everyone considered him a true Mantis. Especially Kitao, the leader of the Storm Legion. Aramasu never trusted her, but her exploits during the War of Spirits demanded her promotion. She won much glory and wealth by fighting for both Toturi and the Steel Chrysanthemum, though she covered her duplicity well. Aramasu suspected her crimes and was moving against her, so she poisoned the Storm Legion's minds against him. She allowed the Scorpion Clan to murder my adopted brother. Now she turns them against me. I will not have it. If she would hunt me, she will return to find the gem of the Islands of Silk and Spice stolen from beneath her."

"Kitao will not stand for this," Chomei said. "You may not want a civil war, Kumiko, but you will have one."

"Then tell Lord Kurohito what I have told you," she said. "Tell him the truth. With the support of the Crane Clan, perhaps Kitao will not be so confident in her ability to stand against us. You aided us before, Doji Chomei. You helped my father build his Alliance. Now, I ask you, help us again."

"I will tell Lord Kurohito what I have seen here," Chomei said. "I can promise nothing more."

o

One Month Later...

Doji Kurohito sat calmly on the dais before Chomei, brow furrowed in thought. Kurohito was very much the model of a Crane samurai - equal parts politician and warrior. His deep blue kimono was exquisitely cut and not a single white hair was out of place, but his deadly Kakita blade was always within reach.

"The news you bring is intriguing if not surprising," the Crane lord said. "So the Mantis are on the verge of civil war and they seek our aid?"

"Hai," Chomei said.

"Tell me, Chomei," Kurohito said. "You know the mind of the Mantis. Do you truly believe that if we lent this Daughter of Storms our support that Kitao would truly surrender her position?"

"I think that if we sent a strong force of Daidoji to Toshi no Gotei that the Storm Legion might reconsider their campaign," Chomei said. "That might give Kumiko opportunity to convince them of the truth."

"And what truth would that be?" Kurohito asked. "The truth the Bastard told her? Akodo Kaneka is a man who claims to be the son of Toturi, remember. A man who allowed the Empire to believe he was the Yasuki heir simply so he could line his own pockets with gold that rightfully belongs to the Crab and Crane."

"I thought I knew Kaneka," added Doji Tanitsu, a dark-haired courtier seated at Kurohito's right. "Yet he has declared war upon our clan simply because to do so gains him popularity. I cannot believe he would become involved unless it suited his own purposes."

"The Daidoji report that Kaneka has made an alliance with this Daughter of Storms," Kurohito added. "She was one of the first to offer her wakizashi when he declared himself Shogun, after Kitao refused to swear the blind loyalty he demanded. It was her first known public appearance. Then again, I suppose it is easy to give up one's blade when you are more used to fighting with farming implements."

"Kumiko did not tell me that she had sworn fealty to Kaneka," Chomei admitted.

"I am certain she did not," Kurohito said. "Yet she expected us to ally with her, we who have suffered at the Bastard's hands more than any. The Daughter of Storms expects us to ignore our own problems so that we can solve hers." Kurohito paused for a long moment.

"I will say this much," Tanitsu said. "She is clever."

"Hai," Kurohito replied. "I would do the same, if I were in her position."

Chomei frowned.

"Do not be so surprised, Chomei-san," Kurohito said with a disapproving frown. "Honor is a fine thing, but the honor of a daimyo is unlike the honor of other samurai. One must be practical if the clan is to survive. A daimyo that clings to personal honor too fiercely will rule poorly. Simply look at Aramasu. He was a strong, honorable man. An admirable samurai. And now he is dead. Kumiko has succeeded where Aramasu failed, thus she will make a strong Mantis Champion."

"So we will ally with the Daughter of Storms?" Chomei asked.

"I would like to," Kurohito said. "Kitao presented herself to my court just last week. When she told me that Kumiko had allied with the Shogun, I was only too eager to offer her support."

"Kitao is a duplicitous traitor," Chomei said. "Kamoto told me of the crimes she committed during the War of Spirits."

"Kitao is a Mantis. Of course she is a criminal," Kurohito replied. "Find me a Mantis who is without guilt and I'll gladly support him as daimyo. Where was Yoritomo Kumiko during the years when her adopted brother ruled the Mantis?"

"Plying the coast of the Ivory Kingdoms as a pirate, I suspect," Tanitsu said.

"So you have decided not to support Kumiko, then?" Chomei asked, disappointed.

"Perhaps not," Kurohito said. "During our brief conflict with the Crab, the Mantis changed sides not once but twice. Perhaps it is time to return the favor. We will use Kitao's Storm Legion to aid our battle against the Shogun while our courtiers quietly spread the truth of her actions through the courts on Kumiko's behalf. At best, we aid the Mantis in solving their problems. At worst, they continue to kill one another. We will gain the favor of both."

"The Mantis value actions, not words," Chomei said. "This is a dangerous path. If either side hears that we have allied with the other, both will turn on us."

"Then we make a demonstration of loyalty to both sides," Tanitsu said. "We present each with a gift that will cast aside all doubts. Perhaps the items that you showed me earlier, Kurohito-sama?"

"Exactly my thoughts," Kurohito nodded.

"Kitao is the commander of the Storm Legion and Kumiko is the daughter of Yoritomo himself," Chomei said. "Neither is the sort to be swayed by trinkets."

"You have not yet seen what I intend to give," Kurohito said. He gestured to two of his guards, who quickly departed and returned with two large gilded chests. "My agents in Otosan Uchi were watching the Scorpion Clan carefully in the months before Yoritomo Aramasu's death. As you know we have been seeking opportunity to reassert our dominance in the courts and weaken the power of the Scorpion Clan. When Aramasu was slain, mistakes were made. My Daidoji agents were prepared to pick up the pieces."

"Pieces?" Chomei asked.

Kurohito nodded. "Two pieces, in fact. This one," he gestured to the chest at his left, "was... lost... by a Scorpion courier on his way to Traitor's Grove. It will make a perfect gift for Lady Kitao, I think."

The guard opened the chest, revealing a large ebony urn.

"The ashes of Yoritomo Aramasu," Tanitsu explained. "She will no doubt bury him with honor to curry the favor of those who suspect her involvement in his death."

"The other gift is arguably far more valuable but perhaps less sentimental," Kurohito said, gesturing to the chest at his right. "It was stolen by a foolish heimin during the Scorpion attack. He should have been slain for his crimes, but our Daidoji agent was prepared to show him mercy, given the importance of what he carried."

The guard opened the chest, revealing a katana in a brilliant green saya. Chomei thought he saw a spark of electricity leap from the tsuba of the blade to the lid of the chest.

"Nobori Raiu," Tanitsu said, "The Celestial Sword of the Mantis Clan."

"We will give the blade to Kumiko," Kurohito said. "She will stifle all arguments against her legitimacy when her clan sees she holds the blade Tsi Xing Guo forged for her clan. To use these gifts are nothing more than ashes and steel, but to Kitao and Kumiko they could prove a claim or destroy it."

"A fine plan, but not a permanent one," Chomei said. "We cannot sit on the fence forever. In the end, we will have to choose to support either Kumiko or Kitao."

"Then I leave the decision in your hands, Chomei," Kurohito said. "These gifts shall place them on equal ground."

"And how will I choose which is the legitimate daimyo?" Chomei asked.

"That was never the question, and it is not our concern," Kurohito said. "The question is which of them will benefit the Crane more? That answer, Chomei-san, I leave to you."

o

Glossary of Characters and terms

Akodo Kaneka - Also known as the Bastard and the Shogun, one of four individuals in contest for the throne of Rokugan.

Battle of Oblivion's Gate - The great conflict that ended the War Against the Shadow. Many samurai were killed or corrupted by the Shadowlands during this conflict. This battle occurred roughly twenty-six years before this tale.

Centipede Clan - A Minor Clan that was absorbed by the Mantis when they became a Great Clan. They are now the Moshi family.

Clan Wars - A great period of strife roughly three decades before this tale that ended in the return of Fu Leng, a powerful divine entity strong with the powers of corruption.

Doji Chomei - An elderly samurai of the Crane Clan. During the Clan Wars, he aided Yoritomo in building his Alliance and eventually obtaining Minor Clan status for the Mantis Clan.

Doji Hisato - Doji Chomei's bodyguard.

Doji Kurohito - Champion of the Crane Clan.

Doji Tanitsu - A courtier of the Crane Clan.

Jigoku - The Realm of Evil, home of Fu Leng.

Kyuden Gotei - The palace in the Mantis Isles. The city that surrounds it is Toshi no Gotei, the largest city in the Mantis Isles.

Moshi Jukio - Daimyo of the Moshi family of the Mantis Clan. Many refer her to as "Grandmother" though her only true granddaughter is Yoritomo Kumiko.

Moshi Kalani - A samurai of the Mantis clan, brother of Moshi Mogai.

Moshi Mogai - A courtier of the Mantis Clan, brother of Moshi Kalani.

Nobori Raiu - The Celestial Sword of the Mantis, recently lost during the murder of Yoritomo Aramasu.

Rikugunshokan - A Rokugani military rank, roughly equivalent to "general."

Toshi no Inazuma - The City of Lightning, another stronghold of the Mantis.

Tsi Xing Guo - The Fortune of Steel, a divine entity who forged the Celestial Swords for the eight Great Clans.

War Against the Shadow - The war that followed the Clan Wars, in which Rokugan was nearly destroyed from within by a strange entity known as the Lying Darkness.

War of Spirits - The most recent war in Rokugani history, ending only eight years ago.

Yoritomo - The daimyo of the Mantis Clan during the Clan Wars. It was he who gained the Mantis their Great Clan status. He died during the Battle of Oblivion's Gate, passing on leadership of his clan to his adopted son, Aramasu.

Yoritomo Aramasu - Champion of the Mantis Clan, he was recently murdered by assassins from the Scorpion Clan. Aramasu was originally a Scorpion, though he was later adopted by Yoritomo and named as his heir.

Yoritomo Kamoto - A samurai of the Mantis Clan. Leader of the Yoritomo Elite.

Yoritomo Kitao - Current Champion of the Mantis, named as Aramasu's successor due to her tremendous support among the Storm Legion. A former pirate and smuggler. She is believed by some to be partially responsible for Yoritomo Aramasu's death.