By Rich Wulf
Doji Kazo stood at the window of a mansion that had once been the home of Yasuki Taka, and now served as a Crane barracks. The young Crane warrior frowned out at the night. Crab watch-fires dotted the plains and beaches surrounding Friendly Traveler Village.
Late last night, a trio of Mantis-built warships had arrived on the beaches surrounding the Village, disgorging hundreds of crack Crane bushi under Kazo's command. The attack had been swift, decisive. The Crane offered no surrender to the small garrison of Crab samurai stationed at Friendly Traveler; Kazo knew the very offer would be taken as an insult. No peasants were harmed in the ensuing battle, no structures damaged. Kazo was proud to have been a part of such a skilled tactical maneuver.
Now it seemed all for naught. Crane reinforcements should have arrived by now, but they had not. Instead, Hida troops had massed to the north, preparing to attack with the rise of Lord Sun. The village's defenses were feeble, even with the Daidoji working tirelessly to improve them. Kazo had every confidence in his troops, but feared that the battle to come would ruin the prize for which they fought.
"Doubts, my lord?" Yasuki Jinn-Kuen asked.
Kazo scowled at the pale, thin man sitting at the far corner of the room. Jinn-Kuen was a Crane double agent, a spy among the ranks of the Crab Yasuki. Without his information, the Crane would have never known that the rich sake works of Friendly Traveler were so lightly defended. Even still, the thought of working beside the conniving little man turned Kazo's stomach.
"Do not speak to me unless you have something useful to say, Yasuki," Kazo said shortly.
"Hm," Jinn-Kuen grunted. "I meant no offense, Kazo-sama. I simply wished to know whether you needed any advisement for the coming battle? I was once a Crab, remember. We are not all bloodthirsty brutes. This does not have to end in bloodshed."
"I do not need your advisement, spy," Kazo said.
Jinn-Kuen frowned. "Do not be so short-sighted, Kazo-sama," he said. "Sun Tao himself lauded the virtues of spies in warfare."
Kazo nodded, "He also stressed the necessity to kill them once their usefulness was ended." He met Jinn-Kuen's gaze squarely. "Thank the Fortunes I do not heed Sun Tao."
Jinn-Kuen looked away, sipping silently from his cup of sake.
Hida Shara paced the edge of the Crab camp. The young bushi was full of restless energy. Yesterday morning, an exhausted peasant had arrived at the front lines with news of the invasion of Friendly Traveler Village. The attack had been unexpected, confirming rumors that the Mantis had been secretly aiding the Crane. Crane vessels were typically clumsy and crude. Only with Yoritomo-built ships could the Crane have traveled so far, so quickly. Hida Kuon had begun mobilizing his troops to win back the village that same hour. Shara and her unit of two hundred Crab had been sent ahead to assure the Crane did not escape, and that the village came to no harm.
She would not fail.
At the edge of the firelight, Isawa Minoru sighed deeply.
Shara glanced at the Phoenix sharply. "Am I keeping you awake?" the Crab snapped, pushing a lock of dark black hair from her eyes as she turned from her vigil.
"You amuse me, Shara-san," the Phoenix envoy replied. He smiled tightly, his aquiline features taking on ghastly shadows in the flickering light of the campfire.
"I recommend you explain that statement," Shara said, her voice growing deeper and more dangerous with each word.
Minoru smiled tightly. "This war of yours," he replied. "Leave it to a Crab to settle a matter of law with their fists."
"I'm not even going to begin telling you how wrong you are," Shara shook her head. "Besides, you aren't allowed complain. You are my guest. It would be bad etiquette if you did not appreciate my hospitality"
"I came to these lands to visit my cousins in the Kuni," Minoru said. "It was your belligerent daimyo that demanded I be placed under the 'protection' of a Crab unit. Do you normally protect ambassadors by sending them along with an attack squad?" The Phoenix smoothed his immaculate orange robes about his knees, grimacing in distaste at the dusty earth.
"Not all of them," Shara grinned wickedly. "Only the Isawa-trained shugenja. I'm sure if we get into trouble your vaunted Phoenix honor will lead you to defend your gracious hosts." Shara gestured about at the Crab encampment.
"I see," Minoru said. "And what if I decide that the Crane might be more hospitable?"
"The choice is yours," Shara said. "Just keep in mind that a lot of accidents can happen this close to the Shadowlands, and that no one can protect you from the darkness like a Crab." She rested one hand on the hilt of her katana
"I will remember that, Shara-san," Minoru nodded soberly.
Shara smiled sweetly, fixing him with her dark eyes.
"Do you relish the idea of slaughtering Crane?" Minoru asked after a moment. "Do you look forward to bathing in the blood of fellow samurai?"
Shara scowled at Minoru. "No," she said. "I do not hate the Crane. My father fought beside Daidoji Uji. I do not relish this war, but I will not shy from battle."
"If you had the chance to end the war peacefully, would you?" Minoru asked.
"I do not think that is an option," Shara replied. "That will be my daimyo's decision. I am only a warrior."
"You are what you allow yourself to be," Minoru replied.
"Save your philosophy, Phoenix," Shara replied. "I have an assault to plan." Shara turned and began pacing once more, sizing up the defenses of the enemy for the battle to come.
The armies of the Crane gathered at the hastily erected defenses of Friendly Traveler Village, a wall of sky blue armor and wickedly sharp yari. In the fields beyond, the Crab forces massed, a sea of steel grey and blood red, wielding massive tetsubo and dai tsuchi. The trademark siege weaponry of the Crab was absent; this advance group had been forced to move too quickly to carry such a load, and the surrounding terrain offered poor resources to fashion makeshift engines.
Across the fields of battle, Doji Kazo and Hida Shara regarded one another calmly. These two samurai were more than mere soldiers in the armies of the Great Clans. This far from the front lines, they were their clans. Their actions would alter the balance of this war, whatever the result.
"What have you decided, Shara-san?" Isawa Minoru's advice rang through Shara's thoughts.
"This does not have to end in bloodshed," despite himself, Doji Kazu found himself reflecting upon Jinn-Kuen's words.
The light of Lord Sun crept across the land. The armies were prepared, but no order to charge came. For several minutes, the Crab and Crane simply watched one another.
"I am Hida Shara, gunso of the Crab Clan," Shara finally shouted, her voice booming loudly across the beaches, drowning out the crashing tide. "My father fought the Shadow at the Battle of Volturnum. My mother died burying her blade in the chest of the Steel Chrysanthemum's lieutenant, Tsi Yoji. I serve in the name of Hida Kuon, and his mother, Champion of the Crab, Daughter of the Bear, Hida O-Ushi! Get back in your wretched pirate ships and leave our village or perish upon Kaiu steel!"
Doji Kazo strolled casually from behind the barriers of sharpened wooden stakes, his sapphire armor glittering in the rising sun. He watched Shara calmly from behind his blue crested mempo, pausing several seconds before his reply.
"I am Doji Kazo, gunso of the Crane," he replied. His voice was not as loud or as menacing, but rang with an eerie calm and carried just as far. "My ancestors were as worthy as yours, Shara-san, but my actions speak for themselves. This village we have taken by our strength and skill. This village belongs to the Yasuki, and by the will of the Emperor the Yasuki now serve the Crane."
"The Yasuki are yours, the land is ours," Shara replied. "Are you prepared to fight to back your false claim?"
"I am a Crane," Kazo shouted, "I am always prepared. But know that your brutish attack will destroy the village. Friendly Traveler has no mines, no pearl beds, no natural resources to speak of. Without its famous sake works, Friendly Traveler is an worthless prize. Attack, and my Daidoji troops will burn the sake works."
"You would murder peasants for your pride, Kazo-san?" Shara demanded.
"The peasants are safely evacuated to the hills," Kazo replied, gesturing to the distant horizon. "Only the buildings will burn."
"Are you suggesting that we surrender?" Shara spat, "or retreat?" She took a step forward, pointing a clenched fist at the lone Crane.
"I would not insult you with such a demand," Kazo said, standing his ground.
Shara's eyes narrowed. A glimmer of respect shone there. Kazo returned it.
"So what would you recommend?" Shara demanded. "That we stand and glare at one another till both our armies starve?"
"We negotiate," Kazo said. "Perhaps both sides can still gain something from this."
"Perhaps," Shara said. Her voice echoed with doubt.
The two fell silent, each watching the other for any sign of weakness.
There was none.
The thunderous sound of drums echoed across the plains. Both officers looked
the north to see a third army galloping toward them, garbed in the bright green armor of the Emperor. The troops carried the banner of the Fifth Emerald Legion. A trio of riders galloped away from the group toward Shara and Kazo.
The leader wore the golden chrysanthemum emblazoned on his back banner and sparkling green armor. His companions were a man in dark red armor bearing the symbol of Bayushi as well as that of the Legion and a young man with bleached white hair, dressed in pale blue robes. "Hold!" shouted the leader. "The Emerald Champion commands it!"
His was a face known well to both Crab and Crane.
"Hachi," mused Isawa Minoru, stepping forward from the Crab ranks to stand by Shara's side. "Naseru's pet Emerald Champion. This does not bode well, Shara-san." He spoke quietly, his words only for the Crab.
Shara could feel the bile rise in her throat. She should have attacked when she had the chance.
"Yasuki Hachi-sama," Doji Kazo greeted the Emerald Champion with a bow. "I had no idea that Lord Kurohito had dispatched you here."
"I am not here at Kurohito's command," Hachi replied as he swung out of his saddle with an agile bound. "I am here as Emerald Champion. I have come to negotiate a truce before either side makes a mistake they regret."
"Then should you not be at the front lines?" Isawa Minoru asked, "Where O-Ushi-sama awaits Lord Kurohito?"
Hachi turned to the Phoenix. "The front lines are silent, Phoenix," he replied. "Here there is conflict, so I have come to resolve it."
"The Yasuki daimyo come to resolve the Yasuki War," Minoru nodded and smiled. "So I see the rumors of the new Emerald Champion's vaunted impartiality are true."
Hachi glared at the Phoenix. "Who are you to question my honor?" he demanded.
"Just a Phoenix," he replied. "You probably did not recognize my colors, since you did such an expert job of avoiding our representative, Shiba Aikune, at the Test."
"You dare insult the honor of the Emerald Champion?" Hachi snarled, his face darkening quickly from raw fury.
"Never," Minoru replied, "but if you are truly the Emerald Champion, I suggest you act like one. The Champion represents the Empire, not the Crane. If you wish to be impartial, then do so."
Hachi opened his mouth to reply. At his side, the blue-robed man cleared his throat gently. Hachi's mouth closed with a click. With visible effort, Hachi reined in his temper, realizing that any further argument would only make him seem more foolish. "Fine," he said, turning to his other companion. "My lieutenant, Bayushi Norachai, will arbitrate in my stead."
"A Scorpion?" Shara exclaimed in disbelief.
"An Emerald Magistrate," Hachi answered firmly. Norachai's face was calm, seemingly unperturbed by Shara's suspicion.
"With all due respect, Hachi-sama," Kazo said quietly, "we have already determined the necessity of negotiation. Your offer of arbitration is appreciated, but not necessary."
Hachi frowned. "Is this what you wish, Hida-san?" he asked Shara.
Shara looked at Kazo, then back at Hachi. "It is," she replied.
Hachi nodded sharply to them both and walked away.
Isawa Minoru smiled triumphantly.
The sun set on Friendly Traveler Village.
The great sake works were still intact, peasant workers hurrying about as they rushed to produce the finest sake in the Empire. Despite the recent events, not much had changed in their lives. Now two Great Clan mons hung over the gates of the village, and samurai of two clans walked the streets, but the work still had to be done.
"That was a disaster," Yasuki Hachi said quietly, looking back at the gates of the village with a frustrated frown.
"A great loss of face," Bayushi Norachai agreed.
"I doubt that Phoenix's presence was an coincidence," Doji Nagori said. "Minoru knew too much about the Test."
"No matter," Hachi said, shaking his head as he climbed into his saddle. "Our ends are accomplished, even if I was not the one to broker the treaty. The village is safe, a precedent established. Perhaps the Crab and Crane will take notice, and the hope for peace will spread."
"Or perhaps Friendly Traveler will become an ugly symbol for strife and division," Nagori replied, watching the dual Clan mons above the gates as he climbed his saddle.
Hachi glared at Nagori.
"It's true," Nagori shrugged with a frown. "The war is hardly over. Whatever becomes of the Crab and Crane, I guarantee you it will begin here."
"I am confused," Norachai said, mounting his own steed and riding by Hachi's side. "If Doji Kurohito wanted peace he would leave the Yasuki lands alone. Did he not order you to seize them, Hachi-sama?"
"Yes, but I am not here serving Doji Kurohito," Hachi said firmly. "My duties as the Emerald Champion supersede my lord's orders, and the Emerald Champion cannot allow the Great Clans to be absorbed in pointless war." He turned to the Scorpion with an exhausted glare. "I would have thought you would have known that, Norachai, having trained as you did with Bayushi Yojiro. Or is this simply another test? Must I continue to prove myself, even to my lieutenants?"
"With all due respect, Hachi-sama," Bayushi Norachai answered. "You have not even begun to prove yourself."
"Nor have you, Bayushi-san," Hachi said, steel in his eyes as he stared back at the Scorpion.
"I mean no offense, Hachi-sama," Norachai said finally, bowing his head. "My words may be sharp, but I only test you so that you can maintain your edge against the enemies of the Empire. If anyone knows how it feels to be distrusted on the basis of one's name, it is I. These are confusing times. If you feel that I have spoken out of turn, Hachi-sama, I am prepared for any punishment you deem fit."
Hachi was silent for a long time. "You have only spoken your mind, Scorpion. I would have no less," Hachi replied. "As for whether your words are sincere, I shall discover that in time. We have a long road ahead."
"Fair enough," Norachai replied.
"So where do we go next," Nagori asked.
"North," Hachi said, looking to the horizon. "Follow me if you can." He unfurled his tessen to signal the Legion to mobilize as he spurred his horse to a gallop.
The three men charged off, the soldiers of a dead Emperor following in their wake, leaving the fragile peace of Friendly Traveler Village far behind.