Prelude to Darkness, Part 5
The Pawn
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman

"Greetings, Lord Naseru." Bayushi Norachai seamlessly inserted himself into the ongoing conversation between the Anvil and the enthusiastic courtiers who clung to the Anvil's every word. "I beg your indulgence for a moment, if I may. My apologies to your most honorable associates." The magistrate bowed his head respectfully toward the others, his smile disarming any implied insult for his monopolization of Naseru.

"Bayushi Norachai," Naseru said pleasantly, nodding. "Yojiro's former student. How could I refuse one of the Emerald Champion's principle advisors? We all must do our part to keep order in the Empire, after all." He snapped his fan closed and gestured to those around him. "Let us speak privately."

"That is not necessary, Naseru-sama," Norachai replied. "The matter I wish to discuss is of public import, and therefore everyone's business. Are we not all servants of the law? I know how rumor swirls about your every action and would hate for your quest for the throne to be surrounded by any further controversy. Let us speak openly. You know how the seeds of gossip are planted."

"But of course, Bayushi-san," Naseru said, eyeing the Scorpion cautiously. "Though of course none of those present in this esteemed assemblage are guilty of gossip. Strange how gossip never seems to come from those you know." The assembled courtiers chuckled at Naseru's wit, and he favored them with a small smile.

"Naseru-sama," he began, "I bring a firsthand account of the events in the Yasuki lands, if somewhat belatedly." The subject brought an end to the laughter as the courtiers suddenly paid rapt attention to the Scorpion magistrate's words. For his part, Naseru showed no reaction whatsoever. "Akodo Kaneka appeared at the site where the Crab and Crane had met to discuss the Yasuki situation," Norachai continued. "He led an army of troops from the Lion, Unicorn, Scorpion, and Mantis into the area with the intent of halting the conflict. Emerald Champion Yasuki Hachi arrived a short time later, and attempted to assume responsibility of the situation. As Emerald Champion, such was his right. However, Kaneka refused to step aside and demanded a duel when Hachi refused to bow to his own will."

"A duel?" a young Moshi courtier said, her eyes wide. "Which one of them is dead now?"

"Neither," Norachai said, privately surprised that anyone in the court had not heard this tale already. "As the challenged, it was Hachi's right to name the specifics of the duel. He chose a non-lethal duel of stances. In the end, Hachi honorably bowed to Kaneka's superior style and withdrew."

"The coward's way out," rumbled Akodo Koun, a gruff samurai of the Lion Clan. "Hachi should have died in that duel. Just like a Crane to run from the truth."

"Throw your own life away if you must, Lion. The Emerald Champion is too important for such foolishness," said Shiba Itami, a pretty courtier of the Phoenix. "Did you forget that the test that selected Hachi-sama as our Champion was one of Emperor Toturi's last requests? Without an Emperor, we would have no Emerald Champion at all."

"This is true," whispered Kakita Gosha, an elderly Crane bureaucrat. "I have heard this tale already. Shortly after Hachi's confrontation with the Bastard, Kakita Kaiten challenged Kaneka's right to the lands. Kaneka cut the revered sensei down with apparently little effort."

"At any rate, I knew that the news would come of interest to you," Norachai said directly to Naseru. "As a man who thirsts for justice, no doubt you would be keenly interested to hear that Hachi, having bowed to Kaneka's superior technique, has therefore by tacit implication condoned Kaneka's claim on the Yasuki lands. A claim that we recently discovered was, in fact, illegal. That being said, the problem that we face is one of justice. The Emerald Champion himself has condoned an unjust act. So now he sends me to ask you, who knows more of justice than any other, to find a way to save face."

The silence that came over the group was a tense. No one spoke, and all eyes were upon Naseru. Since the strange outcome of the Test of the Emerald Champion, most had assumed that Yasuki Hachi was a pawn of Naseru, or at the very least a willing ally. The Anvil's hatred for Kaneka was also well known.

A silent look passed between Norachai and Naseru, a look that spoke the Scorpion's true purpose here. The clever Scorpion had managed to beat the Anvil at his own game, manipulating the perception of others. By speaking in Hachi's favor, Naseru would seem to be supporting a shamed and incompetent Emerald Champion. By speaking against him, he would no longer appear to be controlling Hachi, but the Champion would face greater shame. Norachai wondered what must have been passing through the Anvil's thoughts at that moment. Surely he wondered why Norachai would draw his own master into a situation where only more shame could fall upon him.

Naseru smiled tightly. "A most unfortunate circumstance," Naseru finally said, regarding the group with a somber expression. "I am afraid I can do little to aid you or your master. I know Yasuki Hachi only by reputation, and if he cannot handle a minor problem like the upstart Kaneka, then perhaps he is not worthy to be the Emerald Champion."

Several among the assembled courtiers nodded in agreement, although Norachai noticed at least one or two who looked less than certain. One, surprisingly, was Hida Tokichiro, emissary of the Crab. Perhaps Hachi was not as widely reviled as rumor suggested. In any event, Norachai bowed deeply. "I merely thought you would wish to be informed, my lord. I am most grateful that you deigned even to hear me out on this manner, and I am certain that Hachi will be likewise grateful, though also disappointed. I will of course be available to you if you have any questions regarding the matter."

"My thanks, Norachai-san," Naseru said with a disaffected air. "Although I fear there is little else I would wish to know regarding such an unsavory incident. You were most correct: it was indeed very disappointing."

Norachai bowed a final time and retreated from the group to leave. As he passed through the doorway leading out into the halls, he looked back over his shoulder. Naseru stared at him coldly, speculatively. Norachai smiled slightly and continued on his way.

o

Two days later, the court was alive with activity. Yasuki Hachi's Emerald Legions had been sighted on the road to Otosan Uchi. Soon the controversial Emerald Champion himself would make an appearance in the court. The Crane's supporters and his detractors had both turned out in large numbers to watch the fireworks that were certain to ensue.

Upon arriving in the city, Hachi had stopped at one of the more prominent bath houses in the inner city. There, he spent several hours preparing and washing away the dust of the road. This, of course, only gave the massed courtiers more time to speculate on the reason for his presence here. Some commented that the Champion was clearly insulting Hantei Naseru, the de facto master of the court in the absence of the other Winds, by delaying his final arrival as much as possible. Naseru showed no sign of impatience or curiosity; his face was its usual practiced mask of politeness.

When the handsome young Crane finally arrived in court, every eye was focused on a man who, a short time ago, had been a simple gunso named Daidoji Hachi in the armies of the Crane Clan.

Accompanying Hachi, as always, were his primary advisors, Doji Nagori and the now familiar Bayushi Norachai. Nagori's face was somewhat pensive as he studied the assembled courtiers. One might have expected that Norachai's expression would be downcast and humble after his appearance in the court the other day. Instead, his face was locked in a smug grin. His eyes were focused straight ahead as he strode at Hachi's right hand.

Everyone in the court watched Yasuki Hachi to see what he would do next.

He bowed politely, gave his greetings, and then retreated to one side to converse with Norachai and a Crane samurai-ko who had accompanied him. The court was dead silent. Those who supported Hachi were shocked he had chosen not to defend himself, or even to acknowledge the shame Norachai had brought his name the other day. Those who hated him were simply stunned. This was the last thing they expected him to do.

Nagori took advantage of the momentary silence. The Crane strode purposefully across the room and bowed deeply to Otomo Gosaiko, one of the court's hosts and a senior member of the Imperial Court. "My lady Gosaiko-sama," Nagori began, his practiced storyteller's voice carrying throughout the chamber without shouting. "I regret that I must inform you of the death of your daughter, Hino. As my mother was your niece, it falls upon me to report to you this unhappy news."

Gosaiko's eyebrows raised in mild surprise. It was the most drastic expression one could realistically expect from her, given the circumstances. "How dreadful, Nagori-san. Please, tell me what has happened."

Nagori nodded. "During his recent stay in the Crane lands, my lord Yasuki Hachi-sama uncovered and eliminated a subversive group that our investigation seems to indicate was involved with the Kolat."

"Bah!" Ikoma Tsai, representative of the Lion, laughed. "The Kolat are no more."

"So we thought as well, Ikoma-san," Nagori replied. However,, our investigation led Hachi-sama to believe that the group was responsible for the placement of one of their so-called sleeper agents within the Imperial Court." The murmur died instantly as everyone in the room very carefully took assessment of where they were and next to whom they were standing. Tsai smoothed one hand over his broad stomach and eyed his neighbors warily.

"This is indeed unfortunate news, Nagori-san," Gosaiko said in a very sincere tone. "Please continue."

The Crane nodded deferentially. Giving an embarrassed look to the courtiers now hanging on every word, he lowered his voice. He seemed not to notice when the assembled crowd drew closer to hear him. "Hachi-sama's investigation led him to discover that the sleeper agent had been kidnapped while conducting business for his family along the coast. The so-called 'programming' they conducted on him left him with no memory of their involvement with him. When they finished, they returned him to his family. No one suspected anything."

"How insidious!" Gosaiko exclaimed at the appropriate moment, drawing incredulous agreement from those around the room.

"Wretched villains," Tsai growled. "I hope you dealt with them appropriately."

"We did, Ikoma-san," Nagori agreed. "Fortunately, however, the Emerald Champion would not allow such a foul plot to threaten the Imperial Court. For the last several months we have been conducting an elaborate secret operation, seeding agents of the Emerald Magistrates into worst portions of the coast until we could root out the Kolat agents and uncover the phrase needed to activate the sleeper agent." He took a moment to look around the room. "With the discovery of that information, Hachi-sama drove our band relentlessly until we reached the capitol in the earliest hours of the morning."

"Such devotion is commendable," Gosaiko said, favoring Hachi with a warm smile.

"Then you will be honored to hear that your daughter was among the magistrates who volunteered for this mission," Nagori said. "She died during our final confrontation with the Kolat cell. Hino leapt in front of a blade that was meant for me." Nagori bowed his head. "I was not worthy of her life."

Gosaiko was silent, also bowing her head to conceal her sorrow.

"What of the sleeper?" Hantei Naseru demanded, stepping forward with a fierce expression. "If this threat still threatens the Imperial Court, then it must be dealt with."

"And it will," Hachi said, stepping forward with a severe frown. "Now that the dead have been properly honored. At any rate, we believe that the sleeper is a person of high standing in the court. I know the word that will activate the sleeper's programming, but I am loathe to speak out concern for the honor of the party in question. After all, it is not their fault that they became someone else's pawn."

"Indeed," Naseru said.

"Even yet, justice must be done," Ikoma Tsai said. "What fear have you of shaming yourself, Hachi? The Imperial Court has never required additional testimony when the Emerald Champion is involved."

"Perhaps in the best of times," Hachi said with a nod, "but I have no illusions. I know that I am not well regarded."

"Nonsense," Otomo Gosaiko said fervently. "My daughter's death must have meaning. The word of Yasuki Hachi is all that is needed here."

There was a rippling of applause among the assembled courtiers as Hachi nodded respectfully. "You are most gracious, Gosaiko-sama."

"Enough nonsense," Naseru said. "Imperial Guard, to your positions. When Hachi speaks the word, you will seize any person who acts suspiciously. Take them without harm."

"My thanks, Naseru-sama," Hachi said as the guardsmen took their positions near every courtier. Looks of absolute terror reflected throughout the court as each man and woman present wondered if they were the one the Emerald Champion sought.

Naseru nodded to the Emerald Champion.

"Musoka," Hachi said.

An angry cry echoed from the corner of the chamber. A burly Seppun Guardsman had wrestled Suzume Roshi, the Sparrow Clan ambassador, to the ground. "No!" Roshi cried, clawing at the marble floor with his free hand. Foam flecked his lips. "You will die, Hantei Naseru! Do you hear me? The Empire will be washed with blood before another Hantei sits on the throne! Blood, do you hear me? Blood!"

Roshi stopped abruptly as he was knocked unconscious with a deft punch to the jaw.

"How unpleasant," Naseru said, watching as the would-be assassin was dragged from the room.

"It seems you were the target, Naseru-sama," Hachi said. "No matter. The threat has been attended to. Now I am to understand that you wished to discuss something with me regarding how I resolved the dispute with Kaneka?" Hachi spoke loudly, letting his voice fill the chamber.

The court watched with interest. Hachi had just proven himself the hero of the court. Most had forgotten the shameful light in which Norachai had just painted him two days before. They watched the Anvil to see how he would answer Hachi's question.

The Anvil smiled tightly. "What is in the past, remains in the past," the Anvil said. "I thank you for aiding me against this Kolat conspiracy, Emerald Champion."

"It was my honor, Lord Hantei," Hachi said with an elaborate bow. "The safety of all of Toturi's children is my prime concern, until such a time as a rightful Emperor may be chosen."

"Well said," Naseru replied.

With the tension of the moment broken, the members of the court stepped forward to congratulate the Emerald Champion.

o

The Anvil's private quarters were not at all what Hachi had expected. In the court, Hantei Naseru had a love for luxury and appreciated fine works of art. His own chambers were small, spartan and functional.

"I must admit," Hachi said, "I was quite surprised you wished to meet with me after earlier today."

"Oh come now, Hachi," Hantei Naseru said, waving away the servants who had just finished bringing tea. "I am nothing of not appreciative of a keen wit and skillful planning, and you have certainly demonstrated both today. In addition, you genuinely did save my life."

Hachi shrugged. "I didn't know the assassin was after you. If I had, I might not have gone to so much effort to catch him."

The Anvil snickered. "How droll. At any rate, I felt it appropriate to meet with you in person, however briefly. I did not want your duties to call you away before I had a chance to offer my congratulations. You have my deepest respect, Yasuki Hachi."

"Yes," Hachi added sourly. "I have seen how much you respect my position. The Test was proof enough of that."

Naseru fixed Hachi with an inscrutable stare. "You still do not see, do you? Of them all, not even you realize my true purpose here."

"To make my job difficult?" Hachi asked.

Naseru sighed and set his teacup down with a clink. "Yasuki Hachi, when you took the post of Emerald Champion, you were nothing more than an arrogant young boy. You entered the test only because your daimyo told you to do so, nothing more. I allowed it to appear as if you were my minion because it served the Empire to do so. Over the last year, the difficulties of your position have forged you into something more. You are, at last, worthy of the title you were given. Look how much you have learned in the past year. You even managed to defeat me in the court, forcing me to distance myself from you by publicly shaming your own name and then redeeming yourself before the consequences of that shame could come to call."

"Ah, so it was all for my own good and you had it planned all along," Hachi said in a sarcastic tone. "Many thanks, mighty Anvil. I saw the sun rise today. Did you plan that as well?"

The Anvil smiled. "Of course not," he said, "but I opened my window knowing that I would feel the light on my face. Hachi, you must understand the way a politician thinks. Every representative of a Great Clan that was sent to the Test, except for one, was sent because they could be easily controlled by their respective daimyo. It was a gambit by the Great Clans to seize some modicum of power in the vacuum left behind by my father's death. I would not have it. The Empire is ruled by an Emperor, not the Great Clans. I placed my leash upon you knowing in advance that there would be three likely outcomes." Naseru counted them off on his fingers. "First, and most likely, you would throw yourself into some foolish conflict and die, leaving the post vacant until I or one of my siblings became Emperor. Second, you would resign yourself to being a pawn and be effectively removed from the equation. Third, and least likely, you would rise above the chains that had been placed upon you and become a true Emerald Champion, no man's pawn. If I were a gambling man, I would not have placed my koku on such an outcome, but I am pleased to see it come to pass nonetheless."

"Pleased to see me slip out of your control?" Hachi said with a laugh. "Why do I find that unlikely?"

"Because, like so many others, you are selfish and perceive others as so," Naseru said. "I care nothing for you. I care nothing for myself. I care only for a strong, unified Empire." Naseru's sole eye fixed upon the Emerald Champion, and Hachi was taken aback by the intensity he saw reflected there.

Hachi sipped his tea silently.

"I have to admit," Naseru continued with a small laugh, "using Norachai was a master stroke. Even I sometimes presume Scorpion to be dishonorable and untrustworthy, underestimating their astonishing capacity for loyalty when it is deserved. I thought that Norachai was attempting to defame you in the court, seeking to get in my good graces. I was arrogant. It shall not happen again."

"A trick I learned from you, Naseru-sama," Hachi said. "I learned early on the value of having dependable minions, though I would call them 'friends.' You were behind Bayushi Kwanchai at the Test, weren't you?"

"As I said, there was one Great Clan representative at the Test who was not a pawn," Naseru said. "That was Shiba Aikune. The Phoenix entered out of arrogance and pride. Those are two traits I will not have in an Emerald Champion, and I see now that I was right to eliminate him. I assume you have heard of the chaos in the north?"

Hachi nodded. "I was planning to journey up there to investigate after I finished here."

"Have a care, Yasuki," Naseru said. "I have heard that Aikune's temper is only surpassed by his power. You may do well to let the Lion deal with him. He may harbor a grudge."

"No," Hachi said. "I will meet with Aikune myself. I deal with my problems directly."

"If you require my aid, you need only ask," Naseru said.

"No thank you," Hachi said. "I have no interest in becoming a pawn again. My only interest is cleaning up the mess that your brothers and sister leave behind in their brawl for father's seat."

"I have only one brother," Naseru said. There was steel in his voice. "And my offer stands, Hachi. Not the offer of a master to a pawn, but the offer of one powerful samurai to another. Together we could fix much of what is wrong with this Empire, Emerald Champion."

Hachi frowned thoughtfully, uncertain what to say. Was the Anvil being sincere, or was this yet another attempt to manipulate him? Knowing Naseru, probably a little of both along with some other motivation Hachi had not even considered.

"What is in the past, remains in the past," Hachi said quietly. "What respect I have now, I earned. What honor I bring to the position of Emerald Champion is my own. We owe each other nothing. From this day forward, whatever alliances or enmities you and I may have will be born of our actions."

Naseru inclined his head. "Perfectly reasonable." In the distance, the sound of thunder rumbled in the sky.
Hachi began to say something else, but was interrupted by the sudden and violent opening of the shoji screen that separated Naseru's chambers from the anteroom. Naseru's yojimbo charged in, blade drawn. For a moment, Hachi thought Seppun Isei was there to kill him, and his hand blurred toward his blade. Isei did not give Hachi a second glance. "Naseru-sama," he said, urgency clear in his voice, "the Shadowlands Horde attacks Otosan Uchi. You must get safety."

"The Horde…" began Naseru. "

"…here?" finished Hachi.

Isei glared at Hachi. "Yes, my lord," he continued, turning to Naseru. "You must escape."

"How far are the Legions?" Naseru asked.

"Tsudao led the largest part of the Legions to the Shinomen weeks ago, hunting the Tsuno," Isei said. "We have some troops here, but not many. The Horde attacked from the sea; we were unprepared. We must evacuate."

"What of the people?" Hachi said, rising from the chair. "We must rally the guard! We must get everyone to safety!"

"Naseru-sama, there is not much time!" Isei said, extending one hand to guide Naseru to the door.

"To Jigoku with me!" Naseru shouted, slapping Isei's hand away. "Hachi, how quickly can you rally your Magistrates? We need to mount a defense!"

"Immediately," Hachi said, nodding to Naseru. He shouted to Nagori and Norachai, who waited in the hallway outside.

"Isei, gather the miharu guarding the entrance," Naseru ordered without hesitation. "We must gather as many of the Imperial Court as possible. The heart of the Empire must survive."

"The Emerald Magistrates will buy you what time we can," offered Hachi.

"Carry the Fortunes, Yasuki Hachi," Naseru said with a nod. "Fight with honor, and we may see one another again, if not in this realm."

For the briefest of moments, Hachi and Naseru regarded each other as equals. It lasted mere seconds, then both moved into action.

o

"How wonderful," Omoni said with a gleeful smile. He squatted at the side of the road, beside the fallen corpse of a merchant. He drew a long knife from his belt and licked his lips. A small gaggle of bakemono cackled gleefully as they watched their master work.

"Omoni, you fool, what are you doing?" roared a voice from behind him. The metallic thud of iron-shod boots echoed behind him. The hideous visage of Tsukuro, the ancient general of the Shadowlands, stared down at the goblin lord from behind a mask of tanned human flesh.

"Just collecting a few bits and pieces," Omoni said, holding up a handful of something bright red. "These people are well fed, in excellent condition. The things I could make with this sort of quality material!"

"The Dark Lord has ordered the area secure, and this is what you do? Play?" Tsukuro growled. One hand twitched to the sword tucked behind his obi. Omoni looked up at the general nervously, but the undead samurai stayed his hand. A stirring behind him drew his attention.

Both Tsukuro and Omoni knelt as low as possible as the Daigotsu approached. He was surrounded by Shahai, his dark armored yojimbo, and three of the eight Onisu - monstrous creatures that defied all imagination. Daigotsu looked down at the general and the goblin lord with a grim smile.

"Why do you bicker among yourselves?" Daigotsu asked in a mild voice. "The time of our victory is nigh! Omoni, move your bakemono to the eastern edge of the city to support Katsu. Tsukuro, lead your undead legions to the southwest. Hakai reports some pockets of Emerald Magistrates showing resistance there."

"Emerald Magistrates?" Tsukuro said eagerly. The undead samurai had once been a Crane, long ago. Once, he had aspirations of becoming Champion himself.

"Kill them or turn them, the choice is yours," Daigotsu said. "When you are done, meet with me in the Forbidden City. Our victory is nigh."

The Dark Lord swept past his two vassals, the Onisu gibbering and cackling in his wake. Around them, the city burned.

Dramatis personae

Akodo Kaneka - Also known as the Bastard, one of the Four Winds in contention for the Imperial Throne. Hotheaded and tempestuous, this illegitimate son of Toturi believes that he must prove himself worthy to take his father's throne. Recently ended the conflict between the Crab and Crane over the Yasuki lands by claiming those lands for his own use.

Akodo Koun - A samurai of the Lion Clan.

Bayushi Kwanchai - A young samurai of the Scorpion Clan. During the Test of the Emerald Champion, he injured Shiba Aikune, preventing Aikune from winning the Test.

Bayushi Norachai - A Scorpion magistrate who serves as one of Yasuki Hachi's principal advisors.

Doji Nagori - Yasuki Hachi's oldest friend, a storyteller from the Crane Clan. Cousin to Crane Champion Doji Kurohito and brother to Crane samurai-ko Doji Yasuyo.

Hantei Naseru - Also known as the Anvil, one of the Four Winds in contention for the Imperial Throne. Educated by the most vicious and manipulative samurai in Rokugani history, he is a ruthless political mastermind.

Ikoma Tsai - A somewhat noteworthy shugenja of the Lion Clan.

Otomo Gosaiko - An elder courtier of the Otomo family, the most powerful Imperial Family in the absence of the Emperor.

Shiba Aikune - An ambitious young Phoenix samurai. He now possesses Isawa's Last Wish, an artifact of tremendous magical power.

Shiba Itami - A Phoenix courtier who is rather taken with Bayushi Norachai.

Toturi - Emperor of Rokugan, whose recent death without naming an heir launched Rokugan into chaos.

Toturi Tsudao - Also known as the Sword, one of the Four Winds in contention for the Imperial Throne. She is a master of kenjutsu, an expert tactician, and an inspiring leader of troops though her acumen in the courts leaves something to be desired.

Yasuki Hachi - The Emerald Champion, foremost magistrate and executor of justice in the Empire. Once a simple Daidoji samurai, events have forced him into positions of great responsibility and power.

Background (other fictions on this site that add depth to this story)

Victorious - Yasuki Hachi wins the Test of the Emerald Champion, but not in the manner he hoped.

Complications - Yasuki Hachi faces Akodo Kaneka for stewardship of the Yasuki Lands.