By Shawn Carman
A decade ago...
It seemed almost unthinkable. Gaijin had not entered Rokugan in any significant numbers since they were driven out during the Battle at White Stag and the subsequent series of naval skirmishes. Now, however, Yabanjin raiders had descended from the mountains north of the Phoenix lands to plague the northern coasts of Rokugan. The Emperor Toturi had dispatched his own daughter, the renowned Toturi Tsudao, to lead the Emerald Legions against them.
The notion of sending a spoiled aristocrat to do the work of a true warrior disgusted the young Mirumoto Junnosuke. He had been with the Legion nearly six months now, and was convinced that the entire organization was led exclusively by the weakest members of the Imperial court; they were riffraff that Toturi did not want cluttering his chambers during diplomatic functions. He had wondered if incompetence was a prerequisite for a ranking position within the Legion.
Glancing sidelong at his commanding officer, Junnosuke corrected himself. Incompetence was definitely a requirement. The doddering old Scorpion had single-handedly dispelled every notion the young Dragon had ever had about the so-called clan of secrets.
Kitagi and his officers sat atop their powerful steeds, surveying the foothills surrounding them. Tsudao had dispatched their force to maneuver into a flanking position should the bulk of the raiders attempt to move away from the coast inward toward the center of the Phoenix lands. Between Kitagi's forces and the considerable Phoenix army massed against the raiders, it seemed an unlikely prospect. Meaning that Junnosuke would be denied the glory of combat once again.
A grunt from his commanding officer broke the Dragon's concentration. The old man had fixed upon a narrow column of smoke on the horizon. "A small fire, likely a single building. Perhaps the target of a small raiding party, or one of several." Kitagi stroked his chin, deep in thought. He turned to face the men assembled at the bottom of the hill, and his eyes settled upon Junnosuke. "Junnosuke! Take a patrol and investigate. If there are raiders, put an end to their miserable existence."
Junnosuke was stunned. Kitagi had barely acknowledged him in the past, and when he did it was usually in the form of thinly veiled hostility. To be placed in command of a scouting mission was quite a shock. "What?" he blurted out before he could stop himself.
Kitagi raised a single eyebrow. "You think yourself unequal to the task, little Dragon?" There was a chuckle from somewhere behind Junnosuke. "I shall send Kitsu Dejiko with you. If you find yourself paralyzed with fear, we shall let the young lioness take command in your stead." Now there were several men laughing in the ranks behind him. Junnosuke fumed, gritting his teeth and remaining silent. He glanced over to Dejiko, the young Lion warrior who had only joined their force very recently. She was looking at him with unabashed anger and distaste. It seems Kitagi's comments had not found favor with her either.
"As you command, Kitagi-sama," Junnosuke forced himself to say without too much detectable malice. He turned to the men and signaled the fourth patrol, men from his barracks that he knew and trusted. With a hateful glance in Dejiko's direction, he spurred his horse forward toward the distant column of smoke.
* * * *
After a full two days of chasing the Yabanjin outriders, Junnosuke was on the edge of a furious rage. The other men had long since stopped speaking unless spoken to; it simply was not worth risking Junnosuke's explosive outbursts to ask questions or offer suggestions. Only Dejiko had the temerity to question his decisions or offer dissenting advice, something she took every opportunity to do. It was maddening.
"If all your clan talks this much, woman," he had said at one point, "then it is no wonder the Lion have so many victories to their credit. I know I would surrender before I endured your mindless prattling any further." One of the men had laughed, and Dejiko had looked at both of them with barely concealed hatred. To her credit, she said nothing, respecting Junnosuke's command even if she did not respect him.
On the third day, Junnosuke knew they were close. They had seen the dust from the raiders' horses on one or two occasions. It seemed their prey knew they were following them. Near mid-day, the patrol came to a place where the trail split, with one branch leading into a valley and the other disappearing into the northern mountains. Junnosuke deliberated for some time before finally choosing the valley.
"Junnosuke-sama," Dejiko protested, the respectful term of address sounding forced. "Do you not believe the raiders would attempt to take advantage of the higher ground? I believe they would have taken to the mountains."
The Dragon officer only laughed. "Face an unknown foe on unknown territory? After having been chased for three days? I think not, Kitsu." He turned to gesture toward the valley. "No, there is a village within that valley. They are heading there to refresh themselves before attempting to ambush us." He looked at her as if expected a protest, but Dejiko merely turned away, her attention absorbed by the report of a young Scorpion scout.
"Now," growled Junnosuke, "let us show these gaijin devils what it means to face the Legion." With a great shout, he spurred his horse forward toward the village, his men following suit.
* * * *
The raiders had not been found within the village. Enraged beyond measure, Junnosuke turned his wrath upon the villagers.
"No, Mirumoto-sama, we have seen no one!" The village headman seemed on the verge of a panic, his face white with terror where he looked up from the ground. "We... we would never disgrace our lady Shiba Tsukune by consorting with filthy gaijin!" All around the village, the same terrified look was on the face of any villager who dared show themselves before Junnosuke's men.
The young Dragon found himself torn between two possible courses of action. There was the possibility that the villagers were telling the truth. The raiders could have circumvented the village, or even allowed the patrol to ride past them before doubling back the way they came. Junnosuke's patrol had moved through the valley so quickly that there was a possibility, however remote, he had overlooked his quarry.
However, the villagers might be lying. Peasants were stupid and superstitious, particularly in the Phoenix lands. They would be easily intimidated by the fearsome Yabanjin, perhaps even enough to commit the unpardonable sin of lying to a member of the Imperial Legions. Fear for one's life and home could lead to the justification of nearly any act, even one of treason.
Junnosuke wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He was exhausted, having slept only a few hours in the past three days. There was a constant buzzing sound in his head, and a tinge of red had begun to cloud his vision. He needed rest and sleep, and he needed it soon. How could he make such a decision in this condition? How could he risk resting in a village that could be a haven for enemy troops?
In that instant, Junnosuke knew what he must do.
Leaping down from his horse, he gave a great shout and kicked the headman away from him with his armored boot. "Run, old man!" he shouted. "Run and tell the other villages what happens when you side with barbarians against the Imperial Legions! Tell them that they can die heroes fighting the raiders, or be executed like the cowards they are!" As the heavyset man scrambled away from the raging Dragon, Junnosuke turned to his men.
"The Yabanjin are here," he rasped. "Destroy the village. Burn everything. Leave nothing." With another great shout, Junnosuke turned and charged the line of ashigaru who had been watching his confrontation with the headman.
* * * *
One week later...
The quarters in which he had been left seemed infinitely smaller than his former barracks. Junnosuke paced angrily, nearly climbing the walls in his frustration. The officers discussing his situation had left him here to await their decision. He was not being held against his will, of course, yet it would be a huge dishonor to leave the room in which they had left him.
How could this have happened? He had completed the task assigned him in a manner that left no room for doubt. And yet he faced punishment? Outrageous! It was surely that little Lion whore. She had somehow convinced Kitagi to turn against him. Perhaps she had even seduced the old man...
The Dragon's reverie was broken by the brisk sound of the shoji sliding open. Yogo Kitagi stepped easily into the room and closed the door behind him. Despite that his mouth was covered by a mask, his eyes were smiling. It was not a kind smile.
"Junnosuke-san," the old Scorpion said mildly, his voice full of mock sorrow. "We are certainly in a bit of a predicament here." Kitagi walked around the edges of the small office, his eyes never leaving Junnosuke. "We have sworn testimony from three witnesses that you led an assault on a village with no real indication that the raiders you sought were even there."
"They were there," the young soldier snarled. "We attacked when they were unprepared. We cornered them in the Temple of the Jurojin."
"Which you proceeded to burn," Kitagi nodded, looking at him pointedly. "Well, we certainly cannot be sure of that your testimony is reliable, can we? Anyone who could tell us for certain is dead now, thanks to your exemplary leadership."
"But the gaijin weapons, their armor," Junnosuke said. "Surely that was proof enough..."
"Dejiko's scouting party found nothing more than bones," Kitagi said, leaning in close, his eyes no longer smiling. "You are finished here, Junnosuke. When I am done, you will be the most disgraced ronin this empire has ever seen." The Scorpion leaned back, obviously enjoying himself. Junnosuke slowly raised his head and locked eyes with his superior.
"I would not lie," Junnosuke said hoarsely. "My testimony is my life..."
"And it means just as little to me," Kitagi said with a smug grin.
Junnosuke paused for several moments. "I have the scroll," he finally said.
The effect of his words was impressive. Kitagi's eyes narrowed for the briefest of moments, as if confused by the younger man's words. Then they widened suddenly in recognition. He started badly, knocking a delicate statuette from the desk behind him into the floor where it shattered. "Oh yes," Junnosuke continued. "I believe you know the one I speak of. The one my sensei took from you years ago." Now it was his turn to lean in closely. "The one in which you order the murder of Moto Gaheris' son. You had instructed your assassin to destroy the message, of course, but my sensei never gave him the chance. Out of respect for the alliance between Scorpion and Dragon my sensei never revealed the truth, but I have no such love for your clan. Tell me Kitagi, is Moto Chagatai a forgiving sort?"
"I... I don't... " Kitagi sputtered, "I don't know what... "
"Spare me, you fool," Junnosuke said with a clearly disgusted look on his face. "I sincerely hope the other members of your clan are more successful at deception than you. Otherwise the vaunted tales of the Scorpion are little more than children's stories. A shame, really." Junnosuke glanced down to the floor. He moved his foot to crush the head of the shattered figurine. "It was perhaps the wisest decision my sensei ever made, keeping that scroll a secret. It placed you under his thumb for decades." He grinned. "And now under mine."
The old man shook his head in disbelief. "I was certain that damnable scroll died with Mirumoto Reikan." He looked at Junnosuke curiously. "Why have you not used it before now? You are clearly an ambitious man. Why not use it to advance your station within the Legion?"
A fleeting look of contempt crossed Junnosuke's face. "I did not need that. Your position would have been mine within a matter of months, perhaps a year at most. I need nothing so crude as blackmail when my own talents are such as they are." Junnosuke bared his teeth in frustration. "But I had not imagined that your troops would conceal the Yabanjin weapons and armor after I had departed the village, or that you would use Kitsu Dejiko as your pawn, delaying her arrival until they could see that the Yabanjin were 'just peasants.' I must give you this much, the gambit was well planned. With my testimony in conflict with what Dejiko believed she saw, surely Tsudao-sama would favor a Lion - a member of her father's own clan - over me. You made your move. Now I have made mine."
"What do you want?" hissed Kitagi.
"So quick to negotiate!" Junnosuke clearly enjoyed his power over the aging commander. "If you had left well enough alone, Kitagi, all would have been well. But no, you had to attempt to destroy my career as you destroyed my sensei. It is very simple. Even you should have no questions. I want to remain within the Legion."
Kitagi shook his head. "That is impossible. Too many people know that something happened in the village. If you remain, they will ask questions. Eventually, someone will come looking for the truth. Have you forgotten who our commander is? The Emperor's daughter would be painted the fool for this scandal. However this ends, both of us would die."
Gritting his teeth, Junnosuke slammed his fist into the wall. The Legion had been his dream since childhood. To lose it for something so simple as doing his job effectively was unthinkable. "If I am to be cast out for my sins," he whispered hoarsely, "so too shall you, old man."
"There is no way for you to remain," Kitagi said. Seeing the rage boiling inside Junnosuke, he hastily added, "However, we can control the circumstances of your departure to spare you dishonor. Allow you to return to your clan as a revered veteran of the Emerald Legion, rather than..." Kitagi allowed himself a small smile, "... a disgraced outcast."
Junnosuke was numb. That he was discussing the circumstances by which he would return to the mountains of the Dragon Clan... it hardly seemed real. "I could simply tell them the kami appeared to me and bade me return to my duties at home," he heard himself say as if from a distance. "Those meditating simpletons are always going on about things like that."
"Perhaps an illness in your family," Kitagi began.
Junnosuke cut him short with a rough laugh. "A sick relative? Is that the best you can do? By the Fortunes, how you ever achieved a post of this caliber is beyond me." He shook his head in disbelief.
Yogo Kitagi had grown very still and silent. A cold, deadly rage was clearly visible in his hate-filled stare. "I assure you, Mirumoto Junnosuke," he said quietly, "I am quite capable of dealing with such details. Make your preparations and say good-bye to your comrades, if one such as yourself can call any man a comrade. I will arrange everything. Be ready to leave in the morning." Without another word, the older man slid silently through the shoji screens and disappeared, leaving Junnosuke to brood.
* * * *
Four days later, Junnosuke met a messenger coming to meet him on his way to the Dragon lands. His mother, it seemed, had taken very suddenly ill and had died at the monastery where she had lived these past few years. The brother monks had no explanation for her sudden death.
Somehow, Junnosuke was not surprised in the least.