By Shawn Carman
On some days, Hantei Naseru was almost glad that Otosan Uchi had been destroyed. It was a fleeting sensation, of course, and one that caused enormous guilt. Otosan Uchi had been his home, after all, and there were many friends, or at least allies, who had lost their lives when the city burned. He found himself missing his home almost daily. Yet if that tragedy had not occurred, he almost certainly would not have moved his power base to Ryoko Owari Toshi. And the so-called City of Lies was a dream come true.
Everyone had secrets. Every kimono held a hidden blade. Poison dripped from the tongues of traitors and tainted the tea of the unwary. Fools traded lies and deceit like currency, with no thought to the notion that they could be being manipulated as easily as they manipulated others. For Naseru, it was a grander arena than any he had seen before.
For the time being, things were relatively quiet. Bayushi Kaukatsu had returned home to deal with some personal business, and in his absence many others had taken the opportunity to do the same. Under different circumstances, Naseru might have scheduled some important event or other during Kaukatsu's absence, if only to demonstrate to the arrogant Scorpion who was the master here. Relations between Naseru and the Chancellor had been improved of late, however, and there was no reason to pointlessly antagonize the aging courtier at this time. Instead, he planned to deal with some of the requests for a personal meeting that had been accumulating for quite some time. Some had been waiting for weeks or even months. It was regrettable to delay them for so long, as he was almost certainly sacrificing potential allies in the process, but his schedule simply would not allow more than one or two a week under normal circumstances.
Now that he had a full day of appointments that would likely bore him to tears, Naseru was enjoying the leisurely stroll through town to his audience chamber. Here and there, samurai dotted the streets, lost in their own machinations. He could almost see the plots brewing and growing in their minds. Spring was his favorite time of year. Having hibernated all winter, ambition blossomed and bore fruit throughout the spring and into the summer. And Ryoko Owari was such a lovely garden.
Naseru suppressed a sigh as the smiling Unicorn envoy left his chambers. She was a lovely girl, but hopelessly clueless as to the true nature of treaties and alliances in Rokugan. He had often wondered how a clan that could have produced as brilliant a man as Ide Tadaji could seem so inept at matters of court in other respects. Tadaji-sensei had been a great inspiration to a young Hantei Naseru, and outside his tutelage with the Steel Chrysanthemum, he had no greater teacher. Unlike Hantei XVI, Naseru had not longed for Tadaji's painful death. Watching the man work among the courtiers of his father's court had been an eye-opening experience. Sadly, the only other Unicorn who had ever impressed him were Tadaji's student Michisuna, who bore a hint of his master's perception and instinct, and the disgraced Shinjo daimyo Shinjo Shono, who was hopelessly genuine but an impressive speaker nonetheless. Once he had been impressed with Moto Chagatai as well, but that was before the Khan had thrown his lot in with Kaneka. Clearly, Naseru had overestimated Chagatai.
Clearing his thoughts, Naseru concentrated on the next matter before him. A Phoenix representative, apparently, speaking on behalf of the Shiba family. At least he wouldn't have to deal with that hopeless bore Shiba Yoma. Yoma had much of the court fooled into believing he was a magnanimous man performing a sacred duty in representing the will of the Elemental Masters, but Naseru knew better. There was something beneath the surface with that one, something he kept hidden very well. Another allegiance, perhaps, or maybe just a dark secret he wished to keep hidden. In time, he would make a mistake. Then he would belong to the Anvil.
"Naseru-sama," a low voice came from the chamber entrance. Naseru glanced up at the guard. It was uncommon for them to enter the chamber unless he specifically requested them to do so. They knew he disliked interruption. "Lord Naseru," the guard began again, "we have received a message from your next appointment. The Phoenix representative has sent word that he will be unable to meet with you today. An illness struck him in the night."
"How unfortunate," said Naseru. "It will be difficult for him to reschedule an appointment without another lengthy wait. A shame." He glanced back up at the guard. "Have any of the others arrived early? Perhaps I can see one of them."
"No, my lord," the guard replied. He looked down, obviously embarrassed at something.
"What troubles you?" Naseru asked.
"My lord, there was a stranger here earlier, demanding to see you. He bore no colors or mon, so we turned him away. He was not scheduled to have an audience with you."
"That is not unusual," said Naseru, returning to his scrolls. "Did he say anything of note?"
"Yes my lord," the guard replied. "He said that he bore you a gift. And he said to tell you that he brings regards from Kakita Marui and Doji Eloka."
Naseru looked up sharply at the guard. "Find him. Now. Bring him here."
"Yes, my lord," said the guard, his eyes wide. "At once." He disappeared from the chamber as Naseru quickly gathered up the scrolls from the previous meeting and put them away. He barely had time to finish before the guard reappeared. "He was waiting outside in the street, my lord. He asked me to bring you this." The guard held up a small parcel wrapped neatly in crimson rice paper.
Naseru nodded and beckoned the guard to approach. The young man, no more than twenty at the most, placed the package in his hand and then withdrew a respectable distance with his head bowed so that he might not see what the parcel contained. Naseru unwrapped it with his typical precision, taking care to look for poisoned needles hidden in the wrapping. It had been years since he had received a package with such a trap, but he preferred not to take chances. Once the package was opened, Naseru's breath caught in his throat for a brief moment. He glanced up at the guard. "Show him in and close the door. Be ready if I call for you."
"At once, my lord," the guard said, withdrawing instantly. A few moments later, a man heavily swathed in thick, russet-colored robes entered the chamber. His hands were folded into the kimono's voluminous sleeves. His features were dark, but not in an unattractive manner.
"Good day to you, Hantei Naseru-sama," the man offered in a crisp, cheery tone.
"How do you know of Marui and Eloka?" demanded Naseru.
"I have a rather beneficial relationship with the Dark Oracle of Air," the stranger replied. "There is little she does not see. The Crane assassins you sent after your brother Kaneka are merely one of the many secrets she has whispered to me."
"Kaneka is not my brother," Naseru replied icily. "You have strange taste in gifts," he added, withdrawing the jagged shard of crystal from the parcel he had just unwrapped. "I daresay there are few who would appreciate the significance of this particular item."
The stranger smiled. "I thought you might enjoy a souvenir. I'm quite sure you left in such a hurry you had little time for sightseeing."
Naseru laid the crystal down by his seat and gestured for the stranger to sit across from him. "So you know of what happened in the City of Night, then. Odd, considering so few were present at the time, and you were not among them."
The stranger did not move to sit. "My master is not one to allow events of such importance to go unnoticed."
"How perceptive your master must be."
Again, there was that strange smile. "Yes, very much. And he has sent me to you in order to make you an offer. An offer fit for an Emperor, one might say."
"I am not Emperor," Naseru said firmly.
"No, you are not. But you might be. And if you do take the throne," the stranger leaned in conspiratorially, "this offer will make you much beloved by your people."
"Enough," said Naseru. "Your gift has not put me in a mood to play games. Who is your master?"
"Daigotsu, Dark Lord of the Shadowlands." The man held forth his left hand, palm down. There, set atop his wrist, a single eye glared out at Naseru from behind a thick white film.
If the stranger had hoped for a dramatic reaction, he would be disappointed. Naseru felt alarm at the news, but showed nothing. "Interesting. I had heard that Daigotsu attempted to negotiate something with the Crab at one point. I was not aware his influence extended beyond their lands."
"Daigotsu is everywhere," the stranger said with a strange intensity. "Nothing is beyond his grasp." There was an edge to his voice, one that was vaguely fanatical.
Naseru despised zealots. They were very difficult to manipulate. "Be that as it may," he said, sounding vaguely bored, "I am a busy man. What message does your lord send?"
The stranger hesitated for a moment, as if confused by Naseru's response. "The Dark Lord is aware of your experiences in the City of Night. It was quite traumatic, as I understand it. You lost someone close to you?"
"Yes," Naseru replied. There was no reason to deny it.
"And a man who has seen what you have is a man who understands the dangers of confronting such power. You know what terrors can be unleashed upon the world of men, do you not? A true Emperor would never wish his people to experience such things."
"No," the Anvil agreed. He thought of his father, and how he had devoted his life to protecting the people of Rokugan.
"Daigotsu is willing to offer you assurances to prevent exactly that kind of pain," the stranger said, his voice a seductive whisper. "The Empire and the Shadowlands need not be enemies. All you must do is give your word that Rokugan's armies will not enter the Shadowlands, and in return Daigotsu's legions remain outside the Empire. What would we want with your world? It is not ours, and does not want us. And what would you want with ours? There is no reason we must war with one another. It is pointless."
"Your lord would condemn himself to life in the wilderness?"
The stranger laughed again. "You think the Shadowlands nothing more than a twisted wasteland, don't you? No, Naseru-sama, Daigotsu would do no such thing. He has crafted a great city in the heart of the Shadowlands, an obsidian city as surely as Otosan Uchi was a city of emeralds."
"A city of the Lost," Naseru mused.
"Yes, a great capital to Daigotsu's dark empire. Surely a man such as yourself can appreciate the need for civilization. We are not ravenous madmen. Not all of us at least, and those dangerous to others have had their energies channeled in a productive manner. We can be your neighbors, even your allies, if you let us. We can co-exist peacefully, if not warmly."
"The Crab would be opposed to such an arrangement," observed Naseru.
"The Crab cannot reach deep enough into the Shadowlands to find our city. With the jade shortage your Empire is experiencing, no army large enough to overcome our city could reach it," the stranger replied. "They cannot pass the wall we have erected to keep them out. The wilderness in between… they may travel there if they choose. There are far worse things than the Lost that they must deal with. They cannot reach the city in any event."
"I must be very clear on what we are discussing," Naseru said as he rose and paced the length of the room. "Your lord offers an agreement of non-aggression, as well as a promise of a more civilized relationship with his people and mine."
"Yes, yes, exactly that."
"What assurances do I have that you will not simply use the time to amass an army large enough to lay siege to Rokugan?"
"You will have time as well, won't you?" the stranger asked. "We are not so naďve as to believe you will not strengthen your own position during times of peace."
The Anvil's gaze was steely. "I do not believe that the Shadowlands is interested in an eternal peace arrangement."
"No," the stranger readily admitted. "But what treaty lasts forever? Certainly they do not in Rokugan."
Naseru stroked his chin again, his brow furrowed. "I am inclined to agree with such an arrangement with the understanding that it will last for the foreseeable future. After all, if your lord cannot keep his word, then we will have had ample time to prepare our defenses. And it ultimately benefits the people of Rokugan. They will be spared much suffering."
The stranger's phantom smile resurfaced. "I knew that you would be the most reasonable of the Four Winds."
"If I am to give you my promise, then I will need a show of trust in return."
Now there was silence from the stranger. "What is it you wish?" he asked finally.
Naseru opened his hands, gesturing to his chambers. "I have accepted you into my home. I have dealt with you as I would any other representative, and made an agreement that benefits both parties. I deserve the opportunity to make similar demands."
"I do not understand."
"It is very simple," Naseru replied. "I need to know where I can send my ambassadors. If I need an audience with your lord, how am I to know where to find him?"
"Ahh," said the stranger. "I understand. You wish to know the location of the City of the Lost."
"I think it only fair. After all, I have no armies to send forth. I can pose no martial threat to Daigotsu."
"Yes," mused the stranger. "Yes, I think he would agree. And it would be possible for a small group to reach the city if they had sufficient jade and magical protection." He muttered something under his breath in a language that Naseru did not understand. "Open your mind, Naseru-sama." He held out his left hand, and the filmy eye set in his wrist rolled to look at Naseru.
A vision overtook the Anvil. He sailed above the earth as a bird might, traveling south across the Crab provinces at incredible speed. The City of the Lost loomed before him, southeast of the Hiruma provinces. He saw enormous buildings of obsidian, barracks, even ports. And in the center of the city, a great temple. Then the vision faded. He took a deep breath to settle himself, then turned his attention back to the robed man waiting patiently. "You have been a most gracious guest, stranger," he offered. "Your offer is most generous, and you serve your lord well."
"Why thank you, Naseru-sama," the man said, bowing.
"You promised civilized behavior," the Anvil mused. "A pity I made no such promise." With lightning speed, Naseru lunged forward. The stranger was caught completely off guard and was totally unprepared for the crystal dagger that Naseru withdrew from his sleeve. The light glinted on the blade just as it had on the matching shard that sat atop the table across the room. The dagger was buried deep in the stranger's throat long before he even thought to shout or mutter an incantation.
Gasping, the stranger clawed at Naseru even as the heir stepped back out of range. A thick, yellow stream of fluid poured from his wound, pouring over his robes and scarring the floor with its foul touch. The man slumped forward, tried desperately to crawl toward Naseru, then collapsed into a heap on the floor. A thin, noxious smoke began to mist from his robes.
"Guards!" he shouted. The doors burst open as four guardsmen entered the rooms, their blades ringing as they were drawn. One stood stock-still in horror as the other three immediately moved between Naseru and the corpse. "Destroy that," he said firmly. "And speak to no one of this visit. I am relocating the remainder of my appointments to the city's court chambers. Once you have cleaned the room, summon a shugenja to purify it and you." He glanced around at the men. "None of this happened."
The guards nodded mutely as Naseru swept from the room and down the hallway.
* * * *
It was late in the evening by the time Naseru could return to his quarters. It had been a most interesting day. He would have to alert Tsudao and Sezaru regarding the information he had discovered soon. But not right away. It would not be possible to act on the information for some time yet, and so it benefited him to keep it to himself until such time as he could capitalize on it. Sezaru would likely attempt to find the City of the Lost and destroy it personally, an attempt that could only end in dismal failure. Tsudao would lead her armies there at once, leaving the Empire vulnerable to the ambition of men like Kaneka. No, it would not do to make his brother and sister aware of his newfound knowledge just yet.
The moment that Naseru slid the shoji screen closed behind him, he knew that he was not alone. There was an unnatural stillness in the room, one that could only be caused by someone hidden in the darkness, waiting. Either he had yet another unexpected visitor eager to discuss business, or someone was here to kill him. For a brief moment, he longed to have Sunetra by his side. He shoved those feelings away almost instantly. The current unpleasantness among her clan had demanded much of her time of late. No, if there was to be an attempt on his life, he would deal with it himself. He had faced his fair share of assassins in the past, and his assailant would find that he was far from an easy target.
Naseru crossed the room casually and lit a lamp. He set out a tea set as if he was going to prepare a drink before retiring. He held his breath for the briefest of moments as he knelt to withdraw his favorite tea from the small drawer at the side of the table. This would be a most tempting target for a would-be assassin.
Nothing. No rustling of movement, no daggers hurled through the darkness, no poisoned needles. His visitor was either here for something other than murder or he was completely incompetent.
"Tea?" offered Naseru to the darkness.
After several seconds, there was an answering grunt. "You don't have anything stronger?"
"Of course not. Drinking sake before bed is a sign of weakness and age. But there is an old man rooming down the hall, so I am certain you could find a drink there."
Another grunt. There was a whisper of cloth and movement, and then a figure simply appeared from nowhere to stand across the table from Naseru. "Tea will have to do, then."
"Very well," said the Anvil, pouring two cups. He glanced up at his guest, noting the wolf insignia on his katana's tsuba. "Are you still calling yourself Yamainu? Or has that changed in the short time since we spoke last? It's difficult to keep up."
"Yamainu will do," said the other man, settling into a comfortable cushion opposite his host. "Names aren't important."
"I beg to differ. Names have great importance. Since you have so many, you must be very important indeed."
"I'm not really in the mood for humor tonight," retorted Yamainu. "I did what you wanted, but I didn't like it. I still don't."
"Fortunes preserve us," said Naseru. "An assassin with a code of honor? How novel."
"When I face a man and let him live, it hurts my reputation. A man like me lives and dies by his reputation."
"You were well paid to do exactly what I asked you to do," Naseru said very calmly. "If you object, then I can find others who will be happy to accept my patronage in the future."
"No, no," Yamainu insisted. "It's just… why didn't you have me kill him? I know I could have. Shogun of the Empire… bah! It's just a title to frighten the weak-minded."
"I don't want Kaneka dead. At least not yet. I needed to give him a reason to oppose me publicly. As yet, our disagreements have been largely private."
"Who cares about what he does publicly?" The assassin was obviously disgusted with the idea of political games influencing his work.
"I need people to think Kaneka initiated hostilities between us," Naseru responded. "There are too many who would be quick to assume I was responsible if he suddenly died or disappeared. You might say I have a bit of a problem with my reputation."
Yamainu snorted. "I just hope your little games don't cost you your other eye. That's what you mean, isn't it? About your little problem."
Naseru grew very quiet. "You forget yourself, ronin. Do not think to play games with me. I can ensure you never leave this room alive, even if I die in the process. Are you ready to end your career so soon?"
The assassin's eyes narrowed, and for a moment Naseru thought he would go for his blade. After a moment, though, he only shook his head and picked up his cup of tea. "You are the employer here. I won't mention it again."
"Very good," said the Anvil tersely. After a moment's consideration, he added "Did you stage the attack in the way I specified?"
Yamainu frowned again. "I did. What was the point in all that? What difference does it make what accents my henchmen used, or what kind of blade they carried?"
Naseru smiled wryly. "Call it… call it a test for Kaneka's organization. We shall see what they make of it."
The assassin stared at his employer for a while, sipping his tea occasionally. "I suppose I should be glad that men like you are still around," he finally said. "It is very reassuring for my future productivity."
Naseru only smiled. "Let us speak of other things. Kaneka's men will be looking for you. You would do well to keep out of sight, at least for the time." He smiled. "I have a job that requires a talented man like yourself. It isn't in your normal line of work, but I'll pay well enough that it won't matter."
"Sounds good," said Yamainu. "What kind of work is it?"
"Scouting," answered Naseru. "I need you to confirm the location of something for me."