Empress
By Shawn Carman

Kyuden Seppun was once one of the most magnificent places in all the Empire. The Seppun were a pious people, given to the quiet contemplation of their duties to the Emperor and their role in the world, and their home reflected such devotion. Their serene gardens and the chiming of their sacred bells were the source of many of Toturi Tsudao's favorite childhood memories.

Now, it was much different, as so many things were different. The quiet serenity of the gardens was now more of an empty stillness, and the gardens were filled with the forms of the Seppun guardsmen who would once have been stationed in Otosan Uchi. Now, they stood guard at the new home of a self-declared Empress, their eyes empty and haunted by the enormity of their failure to protect the Imperial City.

Glancing to the north, Tsudao could not help but feel the still-fresh pain of her loss. Otosan Uchi. Her childhood home. Now a crushed ruin. At least the last fires had been extinguished. Perhaps the sky would no longer be darkened from Otosan Uchi's funeral pyre. The loss of so many cherished memories and so many beloved friends caused sadness to well up within her, but Tsudao pushed those thoughts aside. An Empress did not weep, not even for her people. She must be strong.

Low voices and the rustling of cloth warned Tsudao of another's approach. She took in the barely visible rubble on the northern horizon for one more moment, then turned to face her lieutenants.

"You called for us, Empress?" Doji Jotaro started to kneel, then caught himself and bowed deeply instead. Tsudao had ordered her immediate advisors stop the incessant kneeling that everyone insisted upon since her declaration. It was appropriate, given her station, but it was also a waste of time, particularly when she had business to discuss with her advisors.

Tsudao hesitated for a brief moment, enjoying the irony of the two men before her. Doji Jotaro, magistrate of the Crane, and Bayushi Paneki, Scorpion, Defender of the Empire. Two more contrary men could not exist, yet they served her well. Their disagreements were legion, yet they put aside their differences when she needed them. If only the rest of the Empire could be so accommodating. "I have need of counsel," she said. "The two of you are best suited to offer it."

"Of course, Toturi-sama," Paneki answered, his voice smooth and comforting as always. "We are always at your disposal."

"Please," she said with a smile. "In private, continue to call me by my name, Tsudao. It brings me comfort. Both of you know that your counsel is more valuable now than it has ever been, my friends. I do not know if I could have endured these past months without you."

"You could have done so, and easily," insisted Jotaro. "You are the only one with the strength to bring the Empire together, Empress. Those of us who serve you are merely privileged to ease your burden somewhat."

Tsudao waved the words away absently. She knew in her heart that both men were sincere, but she had heard so much idle flattery in the past few months that she no longer had the stomach for genuine praise. "I have spent much time of late dwelling on the… the unpleasant business in the Shinomen Mori. Now that it has been concluded, it is time that I turn my attention elsewhere."

The Crane magistrate glanced sidelong at Paneki. Frowning, he ventured "Your Highness, can we be certain all is finished within the forest? It was not so long ago we were ignorant of the Tsuno's activities there. Surely there is more there than we know, even now."

"We know what the Tsuno are doing there, and how they are doing it. That is the important thing." She gestured to the training grounds outside the walls of Kyuden Seppun. "As we speak, Dejiko and Miyako are preparing to lead the Fourth Legion to the forest to bolster the Naga cities. If we can deprive the Tsuno access to the sleeping Naga, then perhaps their ability to move through dreams will be stymied as well."

"What of Shahai?" asked Paneki quietly. "And of Junnosuke?"

Tsudao was quiet then, struggling with her thoughts. "Shahai is gone, but I am not so much a fool that I believe she is dead. She has no doubt returned to the Shadowlands to her dark master. We will face her again, someday." She paused again before continuing. "Junnosuke is dead. I saw him fall. An unfortunate end."

"No, Empress," Paneki said. "I think it was quite fortunate that he died. Men such as he bring nothing but chaos and death. It is good that we are rid of him. His fate was deserved."

"Was it?" Tsudao asked, her voice soft. "He was an arrogant, presumptuous man, yes. But he was a great warrior and leader. A patriot of his clan. Would he have come to so ill and end if not for you and I, Paneki?"

"Every man is responsible for his own fate, Empress," Jotaro said. "To blame yourself for Mirumoto Junnosuke would be to blame the fireman for the fire."

"Perhaps," Tsudao said again. "But in death, I saw the potential for greatness within him. He could have overcome his fate, if things had been different." She shook herself. "But enough talk of death. Let us speak of the Empire. There are many matters that my father would have dealt with long ago, were he still on the throne, problems that have festered without an Emperor to solve them. It is long since time I began to deal with them." She looked to her advisors. "There are so many, however, that I find myself debating which to deal with first. I would have your counsel in this matter."

"Easily one of the most pressing matters is the confusion regarding the Yasuki provinces, Empress," Jotaro offered readily. "The Crab claim the family, but the daimyo serves the Crane. Kaneka has claimed the lands as his own, ostensibly to end the dispute. Daimyo Yasuki Hachi is too consumed with his enormous responsibilities as Emerald Champion to bring the matter to resolution, and his past attempts to do so have had mixed results. There is much confusion among all parties involved. I have no doubt Lord Kurohito would appreciate an arbitration over a military solution, as would Hida Kuon. His forces are hardly in a position to fight Kaneka for what is rightfully theirs."

"The Shogun is definitely a concern, Empress," agreed Paneki. "His growing military might threatens many of your most ardent supporters. However, I am not certain it would be wise to deal with him at this time."

"Why is that?"

The Scorpion frowned slightly. "Thus far Kaneka has made no effort to officially claim the throne. He has made no overtures of any sort save for his vow to defend the Empire. Taking that into account as well as his proximity to the Shadowlands, and I believe that attempting to engage him in battle would result in an immediate exploitation of that situation by Daigotsu. It simply is not worth the risk."

"We are discussing potential diplomatic endeavors," corrected Jotaro. "No one said anything about engaging the Shogun on the battlefield. In any case the only reason Kaneka has not declared himself Emperor is because he knows so few will support his illegitimate connection to Emperor Toturi the First. Better that he use the title Shogun, and rule in all but name. That is his plan, I think. When his army is ready, he will dominate the Empire."

"If the Empress will forgive me," Paneki added, "anything that begins with Kaneka will likely end in battle. He is not a diplomatic man."

"Kaneka is many things," Tsudao agreed as she walked through the garden, the two men falling in behind her, "but he is not a diplomat. I do not believe this is the time to approach him. He may see it as a threat. Let him put his house in order, give him a little time to build his strength. Then perhaps he will feel comfortable enough that we can approach him without fear of misinterpretation." She glanced over her shoulder. "What other matters would be suitable?"

"If we are speaking of diplomatic matters," continued Jotaro, "then there are a number of places you might direct your attention, Empress. The courts of your other two brothers are growing in influence. If you will forgive my insolence, Your Highness, Naseru's court in Ryoko Owari is perhaps more influential than your own."

"I have accepted this for now, Jotaro," Tsudao said. "Naseru has always had a long reach."

"It would be in the best interests of the throne to dispatch official representatives to each of your brothers' courts. There are no doubt supporters of the throne in each court already, but they will need an official presence to rally their efforts. Additionally, it would be fitting for one of your vassals to attend and monitor the court of the Otomo now that they dwell within Crane lands. It is best to keep one's friends close, particularly when dealing with the Otomo."

Tsudao's voice betrayed a smile. "Well said, my friend. You will see to it that suitable ambassadors are sent to Kyuden Otomo and Kyuden Sezaru. Paneki," she glanced over her shoulder again, "you will select someone to act as an ambassador to Naseru's court in Ryoko Owari."

Now it was Paneki's turn to smile. "I believe I know the perfect choice, Your Highness."

"Excellent. What else?"

Jotaro and Paneki exchanged a surprised glance. It was unlike Tsudao to move from subject to subject so quickly. She was a contemplative woman, one who preferred to weigh all possible alternatives before taking action. The throne, it seemed, had given her brevity and focus. "There is the matter of the Phoenix Clan's leadership, Empress," offered the Scorpion.

Jotaro clucked his tongue at that. "I think that would be a mistake. The Phoenix have governed themselves with little outside intervention for over a thousand years. Their system of governance is unlike any other clan in the Empire. While they have a Champion, their chain of succession is unlike any other clan, and the Council of Elemental Masters overrule the champion in all matters. None can understand the ways of Phoenix government but a Phoenix, and they prefer it that way. I do not think it would be welcomed by any party if you were to intercede, even if Shiba Aikune did offer his loyalty."

"The Council of Elemental Masters is incomplete, divisive," countered Paneki. "The Shiba armies are led by Aikune, and the Agasha and Asako have no apparent designs on the clan's leadership. Aikune commands the clan in all but name. And his support of your rule has been unwavering." Paneki paused to spread his hands wide. "It would cement the bond between Phoenix and Empress, and would show all the Empire how the Lady Tsudao rewards those faithful to her."

The Empress stopped and turned, her hand stroking the golden sunburst amulet she always wore. "A compelling argument. And perhaps if Aikune was given the title of Phoenix Clan Champion, he could at last make peace with the Dragon. The ongoing struggle between those two clans benefits no one, and innocents suffer." Her gaze moved to the Crane advisor. "Have you any other options, Jotaro?"

The Crane frowned. "I have heard rumors of a dissident faction within the Scorpion Clan. It might well be something to look into."

"Rumors, nothing more," replied Paneki. "And even if there were truth behind such rumors," he fixed the magistrate with a withering stare, "it would be an internal matter."

Jotaro raised one eyebrow in interest, but allowed the matter to drop. "Then I must concur, Empress. The Phoenix seem to be a most beneficial option at the moment. I will again insist that we may face a backlash, however."

"Thank you, Jotaro," Tsudao said, smiling. "Thank you both. Surely no Emperor has been so fortunate in their advisors as I have been. We will make preparations to leave for the Phoenix lands in three days. Send riders north to alert them of our arrival."

"Whereabouts, Your Highness?"

"Shiro Shiba," answered Tsudao. "It is long past time the Phoenix had a Champion once more."

o

As Tsudao strode purposefully through the halls of Shiro Shiba, she reflected that being Empress was not what she had imagined. When her father had been alive, the deference and respect others had shown him had been both automatic and unquestionable. Since declaring herself Empress in the aftermath of Daigotsu's defeat in Otosan Uchi, she had seen precious little of that respect. The Seppun treated her with obedience and loyalty, of course, as did many of the Imperial families and virtually the entire Imperial Legions. There were some in each clan who treated her as they would have her father. But not all. Not nearly.

Here in Shiro Shiba, she had been treated with the utmost deference and accommodation, but it had the feel of falsehood about it. Not that the Shiba had been anything except respectful to her and her entourage; far from it. It was just that while they treated her as they would an Emperor, she did not believe they genuinely viewed her as their Empress.

As if in confirmation of her doubts, Shiba Aikune had not been in attendance when she had arrived several days ago. His servants made endless apologies, going on about his duties with the armies and the hostilities with the Dragon. It was only natural, of course. Had she really expected him to drop everything to meet with her? Even as his people were embroiled in a terrible war? Perhaps she had. It was an unrealistic expectation, and one she would never have presumed only a short time ago. The throne was changing her.

She could not allow herself to be seduced by power. It was she who must change the throne. This was not her father's Empire. Toturi could have ruled it, but another Emperor would have to find their own path to bring the clans together. If she was to be Empress, this would be her task.

Now, as the servant that guided her had informed her, Aikune had returned to Shiro Shiba. He had arrived only this morning, and delayed his meeting with her only long enough to make himself presentable. It was an apology of sorts, to see her so quickly. It was the best she could hope for under the circumstances. She had long since tired of false apologies.

Tsudao had reserved her finest attire for this occasion. Her kimono was a radiant golden color, emblazoned with the image of the afternoon sun and the jade colored seal of the Emperor. She felt strangely naked without her helm, which she had worn so often over the past year, but her silken black tresses were pulled back in a simple yet elegant style that suited her well. In her obi she carried only her wakizashi as a sign of deference to her host, yet she also carried the knife Aikune had given her as a sign of his allegiance. It was crafted from the power of Isawa's Last Wish, and while she knew it held unimaginable power, she had never drawn it. Power must be guided with wisdom.

The "audience chamber" the servant led her to was barely worthy of the title. It was large enough, to be sure, but hardly the opulent extravagance she had become accustomed to around the Crane and Otomo. In many ways, it was similar to that of the Seppun, which should come as no surprise given the similar philosophies of the two families. She found it strangely comforting, despite that it had been nearly a decade since her last visit to Shiro Shiba.

Shiba Aikune was waiting for her. His smile was both warm and genuine, but Tsudao could not help but noticed how he had changed since she last saw him only a few months ago. His eyes were wide, filled with a feverish intensity. The power of the Last Wish was all that he knew, and she imagined that controlling the legendary artifact must be difficult indeed.

"Empress," he said reverently, kneeling quickly. "I am honored that you have come to see me in my home. I apologize for not arriving sooner."

"There is no need to apologize, friend," Tsudao said, gesturing for him to rise. "Were I to expect you to be the perfect host, then my manners would need much improvement. Three days notice is hardly appropriate when visiting so busy an individual in his home."

Aikune's smile was wistful now. "Busy, yes. There is much to do, I'm afraid."

The Empress frowned, a vision of burning villages springing unbidden into her mind's eye. "Is the war worsening?"

"I do not know. There is something strange afoot in the plains between our lands and the Dragon's. Our scouts disappear, or return with strange accounts. Some among the Dragon believe that I have leveled entire villages, they say that they have witnessed me personally destroying squadrons of Dragon troops." He paused for a moment, gauging her reaction. "I have done no such thing, of course."

"Someone sets you against one another, Aikune."

"Perhaps," mused the Phoenix general. "Or perhaps the Dragon are simply more devious than I had anticipated. The Fortunes know the Tamori cannot be trusted, and who understands the legion of tattooed maniacs that fill those mountains? No, I must assume Dragon treachery. I cannot risk my men's lives otherwise unless there is proof of some other party's involvement."

Tsudao shook her head sadly. "It is a terrible thing, this war. I think it is a testament to your compassion that you have not unleashed the Wish's power as you did when you first found it. Life is far too precious to be wasted in such a fashion, even in defense of one's clan."

A haunted look passed Aikune's features like a shadow across the midday sun. "I… was not fully in control then. I regret the deaths of those men. Had I time to master the Wish's power I could have ended that battle without the loss of life. Such a thing will not be repeated unless there is no other choice."

"An honorable sentiment," agreed Tsudao. "And that is one of the reasons that I have come to speak with you, Shiba Aikune. You are a man of valor, and have lead your clan with distinction despite the absence of a clear chain of command after your mother's death and the Masters' disappearance."

"I have only done what I must, Your Highness."

"And now I do what I must to ensure the well-being of my people." She favored Aikune with a smile that was at once demure and radiant. "Shiba Aikune, by Imperial Decree we name you Phoenix Clan Champion. Lead your people wisely and well through this time of crisis, and let none doubt the favor of the throne rests with the Phoenix Clan."

Shiba Aikune's features broke into a wide grin, which faltered after only a few seconds. "Your Highness," he said cautiously, "surely you cannot be serious?"

Tsudao felt a wave of shock tear through her. "Of course I am serious. Why would I not be?"

Aikune shook his head, an apologetic look on his face. "Your Highness, I cannot accept. That which you offer is not yours to give."

A smoldering ember of anger sprang to life deep within Tsudao, but she quickly calmed, replacing the energy with calm logic. "Am I not Empress?" she asked. "How can leadership of a clan that serves me not be mine to give?"

"Because, Your Highness," he said softly, "you are my Empress, but you are not yet the Empress of all the lands."

Tsudao's eyes narrowed. "You come perilously close to offending me, Shiba Aikune," she said.

"Please, do not take offense," he said evenly. "What I do, I do only for my clan. Were I to accept this most gracious gift, not everyone would recognize it. It would cause strife and discord among others as well as within my own clan. I am already a target of controversy and distrust because I wield the Wish. Isawa Taeruko would seize upon such a proclamation to openly ally herself with one of your siblings. Those who support Mistress Taeruko would suddenly be given reason to look upon you with hostility. I cannot allow my clan to be torn apart in such a manner."

Tsudao turned away. "So my power is not real. Just a phantom. I am not a true Empress, just a memory of my father that his former subjects obey when they find it convenient."

"That is only true if you allow it to be, Toturi-sama," Aikune returned.

"If I allow it?" Tsudao actually laughed. The notion was so preposterous to her that she could not help herself. "How could I but allow it? Half the Empire pays homage to their Empress and expects me to deal with their problems, and the other half refuses to acknowledge my claim to the throne at all. Some do both."

"War makes skeptics of even pious men, Empress," Aikune said.

"And am I to take comfort in that, Aikune? Is your wisdom intended to assuage my fears and concerns? It seems cold comfort indeed." She crossed the room to admire a subtle piece of sculpture, one of many scattered throughout the chamber.

"There is more to being Empress than taking the name, Toturi-sama," Aikune said quietly.

Her back stiffened at the words. "That much is obvious, but what do you mean?"

"I mean," he returned, "that you have not gathered the supporters you have merely by proclaiming yourself Empress, have you?"

"No," Tsudao said. "They have been with me since I led the Legions. They were my allies because of my actions, not my title."

"Yes," Aikune nodded. "And it is action that you must display now. Your subjects, myself included, revere you for your courage and strength, not your political power or your proclamations. If you are to truly lead the Empire, you must remind them why you are called the Sword. You must show them your edge."

"Such as," she offered, "issuing a proclamation from Kyuden Seppun that Shiba Aikune is now the Phoenix Clan Champion?" She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly to the side.

"I could never decline such an appointment, were it issued thus, Your Highness," Aikune confessed. "I would never disobey my Empress before the eyes of the Empire. But in doing so, you would make enemies of your potential allies in my clan. I am ready to serve you, Lady Toturi, but it is not yet time for this."

Tsudao looked down at her clothing. How long had it been since she took up her armor and rode with the Legions? And when was the last time she had deferred to etiquette and put away her katana? She could not recall. It was unlike her to do so.

Aikune was taken aback by Tsudao's sudden laughter. It was a bright, merry sound, but one tinged with a hint of regret. "I must thank you, Aikune. All this time I have concerned myself with changing the Empire, but it is I who have changed." She gestured at her attire. "How can I rule the Empire when I am not true to myself?"

The general smiled. The wild look in his eyes was gone now. "It pleases me to hear you say that, Empress."

Tsudao pulled a pin from her hair, allowing it to spill down on her shoulders in the style she normally wore. "You are right. It is time to stop thinking like a diplomat. That was my father's gift, and Naseru's, but that is not my way. The problems the Empire faces cannot be solved with pretty words. I will take them in hand by standing shoulder to shoulder with my people, as I have always done."

"The Phoenix stand with you, Toturi-sama," said Aikune, kneeling once more.

"You have been a loyal vassal, Aikune, and so I leave your war for you to deal with. But I will not allow my people's suffering to continue indefinitely. Finish this thing with the Dragon, or I will deal with it myself."

"As you command, Empress."

"And when it is done," Tsudao smiled, "When the people accept me as Empress, you will accept my appointment as the Champion, or I will find another who can unite the clan as you have."

A tiny smile tugged at the corner of Aikune's mouth. "I will respect the wishes of my Empress."

"Thank you, my friend," she said. "You have reminded me of who I am, and what I must do." She turned to leave then, striding purposefully back toward her chambers. There was much to do, and little time.

It would feel good to wear her armor once more.