Secrets on the Wind Part III
By Rich Wulf and Shawn Carman

Crab (1 of 9)

A small man in dark black robes bearing a battered, jade-encrusted staff hurried up the stairs to where Hida Kuon and Hida Kuroda waited. Both men were now fully armed and armored now, as were the six Hida guards that accompanied them; it was something of a breach of etiquette at the Winter Court, but under the circumstances no one had complained.
"My lords," the small man said, bowing his head and catching his breath as he waited for their attention.
The brothers turned from their search of the halls of Kyuden Miya. Their house guard stood at attention. The small man fell into a deep bow, his shaggy black mane spilling over his blue painted face. When Hida Kuroda had chosen to bring a tsukai sagasu -- a witch hunter -- along as part of his entourage, the emissaries of the other clans had snickered.
No one snickered now.
"Report, Kiyoshi-san," Hida Kuroda commanded.
"I have found nothing, my lord," the witch hunter hissed, his voice rapid and impatient. "I have sensed a Taint in the court itself, and most of that lingered about the dark stain upon the throne. I can sense it even now, though it is at the other side of the Kyuden."
Kuon frowned. "We should have brought Rohiteki," he grumbled. "She knows the purification spells. She could have dealt with that."
"Mother needed her expertise in the fight against the Crane," Kuroda shook his head. "We could not have known this would happen."
"Damn the Crane," Kuon snarled.
"No," Kuroda met his brother's gaze squarely. "A Crab does not shift his mistakes to others. The fault is ours, and only ours."
Kuon looked at his brother for a moment, then nodded. "What do we do now? I do not think that creature was here alone."
"Nor do I," Kuroda said. "So we keep searching." The son of O-Ushi frowned as he glanced about the vast halls. Kyuden Miya was immense. A man could lose himself in these passageways forever.
"Only nine Crab to search all of this," Kuni Kiyoshi said with a sigh. "Excuse my impertinence, my lords, but the task is impossible. Akuma himself could be hiding in this palace and we would never find him."
"Then we shall not search alone," Kuroda said. He looked down the hall, to a point where two Seppun miharu stood on guard. A look passed between Kuroda and his brother.
Kuon nodded. "You two!" the big Crab bellowed, moving quickly toward the Seppun and pointing at them with his tetsubo.
The two guardsman looked up and blinked in alarm. Their hands tightened on their yari, as if they feared the mad Crab would attack them both.
"In the name of the Emperor, I command you to split up, find your brethren, and search Kyuden Miya, room by room," Kuon barked. "No one leaves. No one enters. If anyone questions the orders I have given, bring them to me. If they resist, kill them."
One of the Seppun stepped forward. "Excuse me, Hida-san," he said in a quiet voice, "but what right have you to give me orders? We are the Imperial Guard. Our duty is to the Winds, not to some Crab vagabond."
Kuon was silent a long moment, eyes narrowing dangerously at the Seppun. The Imperial Guard were known for their intimidating presence, their strength of will under pressure.
The Seppun looked away first, sweat trickling down his brow.
"My brother commands you by order of Emperor Toturi the First," Kuroda proclaimed, stepping to his brother's side. "We are the Crab, commanded by Imperial Edict to defend the Empire from the Shadowlands. The Shadowlands are here now, like it or not. You may not wish to help us on the Wall but you will help us here. So either you rally your troops and place them at our disposal in the search of this palace, or you can answer to your Four Winds when another Pekkle slips through your defenses."
"That's right," Kuon said, as if suddenly hitting upon the idea. "It was your shoddy defense that allowed the Pekkle to slip through, miharu." He took a step toward the man, so that he could feel Kuon's breath on his face. "Are you interfering with the duty of the Crab, Seppun? If so then do not worry for your Four Winds. You can answer to me."
"N-no, Hida-san," the man said rapidly. "We'll rouse the guard. We'll search the palace. We'll do whatever you require!"
"Excellent," Kuroda said. Kuon stepped back and continued to glare. The two Seppun scrambled off in opposite directions, shouting orders to their distant comrades.
"Go with them," Kuon said to two of the Hida guards. "Make sure they don't get lost." The two Crab bushi nodded and complied.
Kuon turned to his brother with a smile, mouth half open to utter some humorous comment, but a second shout from across the palace cut him off. This was not the shout of the Seppun guardsmen, but a frightened cry of alarm. Both brothers were instantly in motion, the Crab house guard following close behind. Kiyoshi ran even ahead of the brothers, his jade staff clutched in both hands.
"What is it, witch hunter?" Kuon shouted as they ran. "What do you sense?"
"Nothing," Kiyoshi snapped.
"Nothing?" Kuroda said. "It cannot be nothing."
"No, you do not understand," Kuni Kiyoshi replied. "I sense nothing. I do not sense the Tainted Steel Throne. Either it is no longer Tainted... or it is gone."
"Fortunes!" Kuroda swore, and kept running.

Crane (2 of 9)

Doji Tanitsu knelt in his chambers before a low table. He held a long brush gently in one hand; its tip glided across the soft rice paper, leaving the dark black ink to soak into its surface. The image of a crane soaring toward the rising sun soon took shape upon the paper.
"Very beautiful, Tanitsu-san," Toturi Tsudao said, peering at his work from the open doorway of his chambers.
"Thank you, Tsudao-sama," Tanitsu said, turning and bowing his head toward her.
"I did not know you were an artist," she said, returning the bow as she entered the chambers.
Tanitsu chuckled. "Artist?" he asked. "No. I paint only to relax. After the events in the court today my nerves needed calming. But perhaps there is a bright side to all this chaos. If the Empire continues to spiral to destruction, perhaps I will become a talented artist yet." He smiled as he set his brush aside and gestured for her to sit.
"I have no time, my friend," she shook her head in polite refusal. "I must return to the search."
"What has happened in the last hour?" Tanitsu asked. "Have you found any signs of the culprit responsible for the beast's appearance?"
"The Crab have commandeered the Seppun miharu," she replied. "They tear the palace apart looking for any sign of the Pekkle's summoner."
Tanitsu nodded. "Crab zeal is a useful tool at times," he said. "This is one of those times, to be sure. What of the Hare maiden?"
"Usagi Fuyuko's entourage have been detained for questioning. It seems they were all recently hired in Ryoko Owari. None of them knew their mistress' true nature. I wonder if the Hare's invitation ever arrived safely. I suspect Usagi Fuyuko is alive and well, many miles from here, and knows nothing of the changeling that took her place."
"I see," Tanitsu nodded. "And what of your brothers and sisters? How have they reacted to all of this?"
"Typically," Tsudao said. "Sezaru has already spirited himself away. Kaneka is angry; I think he believes all of this was done to paint him the fool."
"With all respect due, Kaneka is right," Tanitsu said. "Fuyuko's... that creature's intent was to set you against one another, and it very nearly worked."
"If not for that Miya, it would have," Tsudao nodded.
"Kitsune Fusaie once said 'If the Emperor is the heart of Rokugan, the Miya are its blood,'" Tanitsu replied. "We are indeed fortunate that Gensaiken-san was present. What of Naseru? I have not seen him since the incident."
"Naseru is bitter," she continued. "Even he did not see through the creature's facade. I suspect he's off somewhere scheming, concocting some counter-measure to prevent his being fooled again. I feel almost as if I should apologize... that creature nearly had me at my brother's throat..."
"Your brother would see apology as a sign of weakness, Tsudao-sama," Tanitsu advised. "It is in the past. Leave it in the past."
Tsudao nodded gravely. "Sometimes I think you know my siblings better than I do, Tanitsu-san," she said. "The four of us have been divided by circumstance and design, and now by politics. Only you know each of us as we know ourselves."
"My duty and my privilege, Lady of the Sun," Tanitsu said with a proud smile. "You know that I am ever at your service."
"And Kurohito's," Tsudao said shrewdly.
"Of late the two have followed a similar path," Tanitsu answered.
"Really?" Tsudao asked. "I had heard Kurohito had favored Akodo Kaneka, that you had turned his ear with talk of 'taking the raw ore of bushido veined deep within his soul and forging him into the hero our Empire needs.'"
"I may have said that," Tanitsu grinned.
"And yet when you arrived here, you supported me in nearly every discourse, every discussion," Tsudao said, "knowing that in return for your support my siblings had offered the Crane the right to an arranged marriage."
"Water under the bridge," Tanitsu said with a sigh. "There will be no Winter Court, so the agreement is void."
"And yet I wonder," Tsudao said. "You are friends with all of the heirs. Why would you offer your support to me when Kurohito favors Kaneka?"
"Kurohito has much in common with Kaneka," Tanitsu said noncommittally. "But a soldier in the field must sometimes obey his own instinct. Kurohito-sama knows that. That is why he sent me."
"So it has nothing to do with your own feelings for Kakita Nanami, who was to be Kaneka's betrothed?" Tsudao asked. "The clever courtier offers the damsel to the Lions and then rescues her single-handedly? A love story for the ages, to be sure."
Tanitsu glanced up for a moment, startled. His practiced courtier's mask shattered. He quickly composed himself
Tsudao grinned. "I'm not half as naive as my siblings think, Tanitsu," she arched an eyebrow. "You may know me, but I know you as well."
"So I see," Tanitsu answered with a short laugh.
A sudden cry echoed through the halls of Kyuden Miya. Tsudao was on her feet in an instant, hand resting upon the hilt of her blade. Tanitsu was at her side as a shaken Imperial Guardsman appeared in the doorway.
"Report," Tsudao demanded.
"The Steel Throne," the man gasped. "The Steel Throne has been stolen!"

The Dragon (3 of 9)

Only a few weeks ago, the winter breeze had been pleasantly cool. Now it cut through Uso as surely as a blade of ice. The frigid wind numbed his skin, nearly burning him with its intensity. Yet he did not move; he simply stood at the edge of the tall tower of Kyuden Miya and contemplated the power of the wind.
Mirumoto Temoru could only watch as his daimyo stood facing the fierce winds in some sort of bizarre ritual that only he understood. Was it meant to be penance for his perceived failure at Winter Court? Temoru shook his head. How could Uso have hoped to succeed? The Winds were at each others' throats before the negotiations even began. There had been no chance the heirs would agree on a location, much less one in the beleaguered Dragon holdings.
"Uso-sama," Temoru began, "we must return to the palace. It grows dark." The daimyo of the Mirumoto gave no indication that he had heard his kinsman. Temoru frowned and braced himself against the chill wind. He would not leave his daimyo, even if it meant remaining here throughout the night.
Fortunately, that was not necessary. Uso finally stepped away from the window and turned toward Temoru. With a slight smile, he nodded, signaling that it was time to return to the palace. They walked in silence for a time before Uso finally spoke. "What have you heard from our men?"
A tense look passed over Temoru's features, one that spoke of frustration and anger. "There is no sign of the Throne, my lord. Kitsuki Remata could find no trace of a thief, nor any sign of how it could have been removed."
"Unfortunate," Uso mused. "If it had been any sort of mundane theft, Remata would have discovered it. Therefore it must be a threat of a different sort. Perhaps the Shadowlands is to blame, or perhaps some foe we cannot predict or foresee. Patience will show us the truth." Uso suddenly changed the topic of the conversation. "Do you know why I stand against the fury of the elements as I do, Temoru?"
The warrior shook his head. "It is not my place to question your actions, Uso-sama. It is my place only to obey."
Uso nodded in mute assent. "You are a fine warrior, Temoru. But you must open yourself to question before you can perceive the true way of things." The older warrior turned toward the winding stairs leading to the heart of Kyuden Miya. "I allow myself to experience the fury of the elements in order to remind myself that there are things I cannot control."
Temoru shook his head. "You are not to blame for Winter Court, Uso-sama."
"I realize this," Uso said flatly. "There is a destiny for all things, and though we can change the circumstances that surround them, our destinies themselves are already written. Hoshi-sama has often said this, though I did not understand it until now."
Temoru walked in silence for a time. "Uso-sama," he said, finally, "it is difficult for me to believe that a warrior cannot change his destiny. Was my end written before my life began? Can I not transcend it?"
Uso smiled slightly. "I do not know the answers you seek, Temoru. But I do know this: questions such as those you ask now are of the sort that have driven the greatest heroes of our clan's history." The older man stopped and stared pointedly at Temoru. "The quest for enlightenment should never be abandoned for the path of the blades alone." Temoru nodded, and the two men continued their walk toward the palace.
"What will become of the Dragon Clan, Uso-sama?"
Uso folded his arms within his kimono and was silent for a moment. "It is difficult to know, Temoru. The volcano has delivered us a great wound, one that could prove mortal if we are weak. The news from the front is that our troops have seized the Shrine of the Ki-Rin and the fertile lands that surround it. Unfortunately, we will be unable to use those lands until the spring. Our battle is not yet won, but neither is it lost. There are rumors that the Lady of the Sun, Toturi Tsudao, will lead the Imperial Legions to aid us. Whether or not such rumors are true," he shrugged, "it is not for such as me to say. There is but one thing I know for a certainty."
The two men stopped again. Uso turned to face Temoru, and the younger man was taken aback by the sudden change in his lord's features. Uso's mouth was drawn into a thin line and his eyes were filled with a cold fire the likes of which he had never seen before. "The Dragon Clan will someday perish, as all things must. But it will not be at the hands of the Phoenix."
"Hai, Uso-sama." Temoru gripped the hilt of his katana tightly. "That much of my destiny I can foresee."

The Lion (4 of 9)

Akodo Kaneka cursed himself for a fool. If he had not been so angry, so frustrated over the ridiculous fiasco of Winter Court, he might not have sent the Seppun escort away. But he had, acting with the same brashness that had caused trouble for him his entire life. Only this time, it might his last mistake.
The attack had seemed to come from nowhere. Lost in his own thoughts, Kaneka was not sure where the bandits had come from. There had been over a dozen, although that number lessened considerably once Kaneka's blade was free of its saya. But these bandits were both cunning and vengeful; they did not abandon the battle, nor did they attack senselessly. Instead, they circled Kaneka and attacked two at a time, carefully probing his defenses, looking for weakness.
Now Kaneka was tiring, while several of the bandits remained fresh. Perhaps he would join his father soon, if he was worthy of a place in the afterlife beside him. He would soon know if he was worthy. But would he be remembered?
The bandit leader laughed. It was a petty, cruel sound. "You will soon be dead, Akodo Kaneka! And I will be known as the Wind Slayer!" The wiry man had a dangerous glint in his eye. The katana on his hip bore the mon of the Unicorn Clan on its tsuba, doubtless stolen from some lone careless samurai.
"Face me, fool. We shall see of whom the tales will speak." Kaneka's voice was grim and even, only the barest hint of anger creeping into it. His unquestioned resolve caused the bandit's grin to falter somewhat, but he would not back down. Not in front of his men. To do so would mean mutiny and death at the hands of his own brigands.
Unfortunately, there was simply no way for Kaneka to finish all of them. He would die here, on the road between the Unicorn and Lion lands. And without him, the Empire would fall into the hands of one of the others. I pray it is you, sister, he thought to himself.
As Kaneka prepared himself for the final charge, a great shout rose up from the west, followed by the sound of thunder. He dared not turn his back on his attackers, but Kaneka could read the fear in their eyes. Some turned to flee, but were quickly cut down by Kaneka's lightning fast blade. At last, he turned to see what approached.
Eight great horses streaked across the plains, each ridden by an armored Lion warrior. The plates of armor upon the samurai were laden with the flecks of snow that marked the early winter season. At the head of the Lion scouts rode Ikoma Otemi, the guardian of the western border. Kaneka could not help but appreciate Otemi's look of unabashed joy as he ran down the last few bandits. Combat was the soul of the Lion. Kaneka turned with a flourish, cutting down the final bandit as he turned to flee the field of battle.
Otemi turned his steed back as his men pursued and eliminated the last remaining bandits. Dismounting quickly, he bowed deeply from the waist in respect. "Konnichi-wa, Kaneka-sama. While I have no doubt that you could easily have defeated such offal yourself, it would be unseemly for the son of Toturi to enter the Lion lands without an escort. My patrol would be honored to serve you."
Kaneka's face remained completely emotionless as he sheathed his blade. "Of course. It is only fitting, that they died facing me. A bastard should be surrounded by his own kind." A long moment of silence passed as the two men regarded each other stonily. Finally, they both broke into easy grins. "It is good to see you, old friend," Kaneka said folding his arms and nodding at Otemi sharply.
"You as well, Kaneka-san. And my men thank you for the exercise. These bandits have been plaguing this road for weeks. I had feared they would go to ground during the winter and we would not see them for months." The younger man frowned. "It is extremely unlike them to attack lone targets. It simply is not profitable."
Kaneka nodded in assent. "It is possible they were told to expect me. There are many who would not see a Lion upon the throne. And my exit from Winter Court was hardly subtle, I fear."
"Winter Court," sighed Otemi. "I had hoped it would provide me with an escape from my duties here." He gestured to the peaceful plains that surrounded them on all sides. "This is no place for a warrior." Otemi frowned, his frustration evident.
"A man's position is unimportant," Kaneka admonished. "It is his actions that prove his worth. When it was revealed who my father was a few short years ago, Matsu Nimuro, regarded by many as an arrogant and spiteful man, offered to step down as the Lion Clan Champion so that I might assume my birthright."
Otemi frowned. "And you said no?"
"It was not my destiny," Kaneka said. "I had not earned it."
"Nimuro is an honorable and virtuous man," Otemi agreed. "I merely wish to join him on the front rather than remain here."
Kaneka shook his head. "Do not be so eager for enemies, Otemi. One day you might find yourself surrounded by them on all sides. What's worse, you may be unable to tell friend from enemy, and want only for the peace you have now."
Otemi nodded thoughtfully. "You are home now, Kaneka. The Lion are your allies, and you will have the peace you desire, if even for only a short time."
"Indeed," Kaneka said, looking off to the great plains of the east. "Welcome home."

The Phoenix (5 of 9)

Even deep in meditation, Nakamuro easily detected the approach of his scribe. The whispers of the wind that enveloped the Master of Air told of the young man's clumsy climb up the rocky trial where Nakamuro sat overlooking the Phoenix lands.
"I instructed you not to disturb me, Moroken-san," Nakamuro chided softly. "This cliff is far to arduous for one so inexperienced as you."
"Please forgive me, master," the boy panted, out of breath from the exertion of the climb. "But you have a visitor. I felt it important to come and inform you."
Nakamuro raised his eyebrows questioningly. "A guest? How unusual." He thought for a moment. "Still, no one of consequence visits my home. Can this individual truly be so important that you risk your life rather than wait until my return at nightfall? I hardly think so."
"It is Toturi Sezaru, master."
Nakamuro was on his feet before he realized he was moving. "The Wolf? Here?" The young apprentice only nodded mutely, his face a mask of reverence and fear. "Yes, master. He requested an audience with you."
The Master of Air's mind was swimming. Toturi Sezaru was possibly the most powerful shugenja in all of Rokugan. He could quite simply have appeared upon the cliff beside Nakamuro if he wished. Not doing so was a show of respect and courtesy, qualities that the Wind known as the Wolf was supposedly lacking. "Tell him," Nakamuro told his apprentice, regaining his calm, "that I will be with him very shortly. And that I apologize for keeping him waiting." Moroken nodded and half ran, half stumbled back down the cliff towards the simple dwelling that Nakamuro called home. In the meantime, the Master of Air sat down once more and returned to his meditation.
"Regardless of his station," Nakamuro thought, "regardless of my distance from the rest of the Council - I am still the Master of Air. I will behave as such rather than some fawning sycophant in court."
Almost an hour later, Isawa Nakamuro entered the guest chamber of his meager home. Awaiting him was the lone figure of Toturi Sezaru. Clad in robes of red and white, the stern features of the shugenja regarded Nakamuro with an unreadable expression.
"Welcome to my home, Toturi Sezaru-sama," began Nakamuro. "It is my honor to have such an esteemed guest. I apologize for the delay, but I was-"
With a wave of his hand, Sezaru cut the Master of Air off in mid-sentence. "Your apologies are unnecessary. Of all people, I understand both the need for meditation and the desire for solitude. Should I find the need to call upon you again in the future, I will inform you in advance."
Nakamuro nodded mutely. "How may I serve you, Sezaru-sama?"
"The Phoenix Elemental Masters have certain insights into the nature of the elements that normal shugenja do not typically possess," Sezaru said bluntly. "Normally, I have little for use others, and those who comprise the current council tend to be arrogant and demanding. As fortune would have it, however, the insight I require can be gained from the one Master worthy of my respect." The Wolf turned to face Nakamuro. "You."
"I am unworthy," Nakamuro said without conceit or malice. "I failed the only task that ever mattered to me. I shall spend my lifetime in penance."
"Don't be a fool," barked Sezaru. "I know of you and of Taeruko's daughter. Tragic it may have been, but it is in the past. You must leave it there or it will destroy you."
Nakamuro turned away, unwilling to hear such things. "Ask of me what you will, Sezaru. But I will not speak of this any longer."
Waving his hand dismissively, Sezaru continued. "I foolishly allowed myself to be distracted by my siblings and their farcical Winter Court." He grimaced as he recalled the incident at Kyuden Miya. "I should have ignored such nonsense and continued my true mission. I will find my father's killer, Nakamuro. No matter the cost, I will avenge his death."
"It is only just that you do so," Nakamuro said with a sincere nod. "In what way can I aid you?"
Sezaru sat upon the cushions in Nakamuro's home. He folded his hands in the sleeves of his robes and stared intently at the Master of Air. "On the day of my father's funeral, I witnessed a sight unlike any I have seen before. Tell me all you know of the Oracle of Wind."
Nakamuro sat. The two talked long into the evening.

Ratling (6 of 9)

"That was weird-weird," Ruantek said.
The little Nezumi was crouched in the rafters of the court. He'd been there for hours now, and was just thinking maybe it was safe to climb down. When the little oni popped its claws, Ruantek had known-known exactly what to do. He ran! He scampered up the wall, found a good hiding place, and holed up there till it was safe. The big-shiny guards had searched the room from top to bottom, but found-found nothing. Had not even found Ruantek. Sloppy big-shiny guards.
Time to get out of here and run-run back home. Other tribes would be disappointed when Ruantek came home. They all been looking forward to this, finally a chance to sit at the big-big Winter Court of the humans and make the Four Winds see that Nezumi were just as important as anyone else.
Then stupid the stupid black-claws-oni-Hare-girl messed it all up.
The Winds probably forgot they'd even invited Ruantek. Ruantek sighed. Sometimes he felt like he was just bit character in kabuki about someone else.
Well, if the Winds didn't care-care about Ruantek, he didn't care-care about them. He would go back home and tell the tribe what he saw, though.
About the little black-claws-oni-Hare-girl who turned into an oni.
About the man with the black blood who walked out with Wolf.
About the Steel Throne... how it waited till everybody left the room (but Ruantek!) and disappeared in a cloud of greasy smoke and laughter.
Ruantek would have to tell other Nezumi, since humans would never believe it.

Scorpion (7 of 9)

"An exciting morning, wouldn't you agree?" Hantei Naseru asked. The Anvil strode quickly through the entrance to his personal chambers servants scrambled out of his way. A dozen peasants hurried to pack the heir's belongings so he could leave Kyuden Miya as rapidly as possible. A dozen armed Imperial Guardsmen stood about at attention, ready to give their lives for the Anvil.
Bayushi Sunetra entered just behind Naseru. Both were dressed in light armor, following the lead of the Crab and disposing of etiquette for practicality. "Exciting, yes," Sunetra said dryly. "If you consider coming a hair's breadth from death and corruption exciting."
Naseru turned to Sunetra. "I yet live," Naseru said. "And while I live, I shall mock those who dared oppose me. The Shadowlands failed, providing an exciting morning, nothing more. If more of them linger in the palace, the Crab shall deal with them appropriately."
"Possibly," Sunetra said. Her blue eyes were hooded in concern. "The Crab's pet witch hunter says that the beast was a Pekkle. A shape-shifter that radiates no Taint."
"A shape-shifter?" Naseru's eyes hardened, and his expression became serious. "Like the minions of the Lying Darkness, the ones my father fought?"
"Not as extreme," Sunetra answered. "They are very rare, and are only known to assume the shapes of the young. They are seducers, deceivers. They are undetectable, save for their black blood."
"Seducers. Deceivers. Kindred spirits, Sunetra?" Naseru chuckled.
Sunetra scowled. "I am serious," she said. "These beasts are dangerous, my lord."
"I am serious as well," Naseru said. "I will show you how serious. Isei," Naseru said.
"My lord," Naseru's chief yojimbo stepped forward, a broad-shouldered older bushi with a great scar across his face.
"Cut every man and woman in this room," Naseru said, eyes fixed on Sunetra. "Across the left forearm, so that they can still work. Begin with me." He held his left arm forward, rolling the sleeve back with his other hand.
Isei drew a short dagger from his belt and obeyed his master's orders without questioning. He drew the steel quickly across Naseru's arm. The blood welled up, bright and red.
"If the blood runs black, kill them," Naseru said, making sure all those in the room heard him. "Go to Paneki, give his troops my permission to do the same to every living creature in this castle, be they eta scum or Elemental Master. I will not endure the Taint beneath the roof of an Imperial Family."
"Yes, my lord," Seppun Isei said, bowing deeply to his master. The yojimbo paused long enough to cut his own arm, displaying his own red blood. He then stepped toward Bayushi Sunetra. The young samurai-ko glanced from Isei to Naseru incredulously.
"Surely you can't imply-" she began.
"The Scorpion talk much in defense of the Empire," Naseru interrupted, ignoring the blood streaming down his arm. "Are you prepared to bleed for the Empire as well?"
Sunetra frowned, then unlaced her kote, pulling the armor aside so that Isei could see the fair white flesh of her arm. She said nothing. Isei drew the blade sharply, and the blood ran red.
"Excellent," Hantei Naseru replied. "What else needs attending before we leave this accursed place?"
"There is yet the matter of the Steel Throne," Sunetra said. "The Crab reported it missing from the court only an hour ago. Their witch hunter believed it was Tainted."
"Why is that my concern? Any thief who can spirit a throne of pure steel from a palace guarded by Seppun miharu is certainly not someone I plan to deal with personally," Naseru said. "The Crab have already begun the hunt. Let them finish it. If they need me, they know I am here."
"There is also the matter of the favor we had planned to offer the Winds," Sunetra said. "With the disruption of Winter Court, the opportunity seems to be lost."
"That opportunity, perhaps, but all opportunity?" Naseru asked. The Anvil took a scrap of silk from his pocket, tying it tightly about his arm to staunch the bleeding. "Look again. A house in chaos. From the highest to the low, all are suspect, Imperial Guards slashing people's arms with wild abandon. I predict that more than a handful of the pampered courtiers in this palace would give much to avoid the pain of steel on their delicate flesh. I have given you an opportunity, Bayushi Sunetra. If you choose to discard it, that is your own decision."
Sunetra smiled.
"Now go," Naseru said, "and let the Scorpion remember who gave you this gift."
"Yes, Naseru-sama," Bayushi Sunetra said with a bow.

The Unicorn (8 of 9)

Ide Tadaji strode solemnly down the halls of Shiro Moto. It had been over a week since the fiasco of Winter Court. He had not been called to see Moto Chagatai during all that time. That the Khan was disappointed in Tadaji's failure was certain. What was not certain was exactly how angry Chagatai was with the aging courtier. The Khan did not have a reputation for mercy or forgiveness.
With a deep breath and a calm mind, Tadaji walked confidently toward the doors of Chagatai's audience chamber. The silent guards effortlessly opened the massive doors to allow the courtier entrance.
The chamber was virtually empty. The only other person within the room was Chagatai. Standing near the dais where the Unicorn Champion would hold court, the powerful warrior seemed lost in thought. He stared at the wall were a gaijin scimitar hung, the symbol of the power of the Moto family.
"This is the blade my grandfather carried when he led the Moto to Rokugan," Chagatai said. "It is the blade he used to destroy the Dark Moto. He set it aside in favor of a katana when Shinjo granted him leadership of the clan. But while he carried this blade, he shook the Empire to its very core. There had never been anything like him in Rokugan." The Khan turned to face Tadaji. "My blade will hang beside it one day."
"Of course, my Khan." Tadaji knelt before the Champion. "It is my great shame to have failed you, Chagatai-sama. You bade me bring the Winter Court to the Unicorn lands and I did not. I await only your punishment."
To Tadaji's surprise, the younger man only laughed. "You have never been a fool, Tadaji. Do not begin now. The Winds squabble like the spoiled children they are. It was an impossible task. I sent you only because you have achieved the impossible so often before. Rise." Chagatai gestured for the diplomat to stand, then returned to face the scimitar of Gaheris. "In the end, little was lost. In any event, my preference would be to demonstrate the Unicorn's power through action rather than words."
Tadaji nodded. "Your generosity overwhelms me, my Khan. But what of your desire to open trading routes beyond Rokugan? Without the approval of a Wind, it seems unlikely that this can be accomplished."
Chagatai snorted derisively. "I have had merchants trading with the gaijin beyond Rokugan for months now, Tadaji."
The old courtier rocked on his heels, a carefully masked expression of shock on his face. Such an undertaking would require a massive allocation of resources, yet he had noticed nothing amiss in the Unicorn lands. Winter Court had only been a way to legitimize what Chagatai was already doing, not gain permission. "My lord," Tadaji framed his next comment very carefully, "this is a very profitable yet dangerous undertaking. There are numerous Imperial edicts against trade with gaijin."
The Khan nodded. "Yes, there are. Yet there is no Emperor upon the throne." Chagatai turned to face the courtier. "Nor is there even a throne, as I understand it. What can you tell me of this phenomenon, Tadaji?"
"Only that the Steel Throne was moved to Kyuden Miya for Winter Court, then mysteriously vanished in the aftermath of the oni attack. It was simply... gone. All efforts to locate it have failed."
"Would anyone be able to steal such an item? Would they be foolish enough to try?"
Tadaji mulled the question over carefully, shifting his hands inside the sleeves of his kimono. "There were, of course, some who blamed the Scorpion. But in truth, I cannot imagine anyone who would have both the knowledge and the resources to do such a thing. Even Yojiro, while certainly cunning enough for such a ploy, would not commit such an offense."
Chagatai was silent for a moment. "There are those who say that this is an omen," he said simply. "There are those who believe the Winds are not fit to rule the Empire."
Tadaji said nothing. The Khan's ambition was boundless, and Tadaji could not be sure that it was not warranted. Chagatai was certainly an able leader.
"The Baraunghar, the Army of the West, has already been dispatched to aid the Crab," Chagatai changed the topic. "Chen has asked to lead the Army of the East, the Junghar, into battle as well. What are your thoughts, Tadaji?"
"If the war turns against the Crane, they will offer us a great deal to withdraw our support of the Crab. It could be used as leverage to strengthen our position in the courts."
Chagatai nodded once more. "Good. Exploit that opportunity when it arises. I will instruct Lixue to redouble her efforts. Just as we dominate the battlefield, so too must we garner respect in the courts. This I leave to you, Tadaji."
The old man bowed deeply. "Yes, my Khan."
The warrior turned once again to regard his grandfather's blade. "My day will come soon."

Shadowlands (9 of 9)

Miya Gensaiken looked out at the road ahead. The winding path led deep through the heart of the Dragon mountains. There would be war and battle ahead, war between the Phoenix, Dragon, and Lion. Even yet, none would block their travel. Not so long as they traveled beneath the banner of the Wolf, potential heir to the Empire. The Emerald Legion that protected Gensaiken and his group would dissuade those who dared meddle with the servants of Toturi Sezaru.
Rank had its privileges. Gensaiken could get used to this.
"I do not believe we have met," said the tall, thin man riding beside Gensaiken. "My name is Ryoma, of the Asako house." The man bowed and held out his right hand, displaying the white eye tattoo upon his palm.
Gensaiken carefully prevented his face from showing any dismay as he returned the bow. This one was an Inquisitor, a hunter of hidden darkness. That one would have to be dealt with. "It is an honor to meet you, Ryoma-san," Gensaiken said. "I am-"
"I know who you are," Ryoma replied. "Koshei told me everything. You are the man to whom my master owes his life, his honor, and his soul. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miya Gensaiken-san."
Gensaiken smiled politely. "It is the least I can do for the son of the Splendid Emperor."
Ryoma inclined his head in acknowledgment.
Gensaiken took Ryoma's momentary distraction as an opportunity to look into the man's soul.
He saw obsession. A deep dedication to the pursuit of purity. A deep loyalty to Toturi Sezaru. He saw boundless courage and a thirst for justice. He saw a very clear, personal image of what Ryoma believed justice and purity truly were.
Asako Ryoma would make a dangerous enemy... or a useful tool. Enemies could always be destroyed later. A new tool was always worth consideration.
"If there is anything you need, friend Inquisitor, consider me at your disposal," Gensaiken added.
Ryoma nodded and returned his attention to the road, not suspecting the deeper meaning of his new companion's words.
"Enjoying yourself, are we?" spoke a voice within Gensaiken's soul, or within what passed for it.
"Life is joy, Lady of Blood," Gensaiken replied, speaking the words in his mind. "I am fortunate in that my occupation is also my passion."
"Idle luxury?" Shahai asked.
"Manipulation," Gensaiken added.
"I know your kind, Gensaiken," Shahai said. "I know more than one Pekkle oni who grew to comfortable in the life it created for itself."
"You do not know me," Gensaiken said. "I live only for the war against the Empire, for the sake of corruption. I look upon these bags of flesh and see only empty vessels to be filled with the glory of the Dark God. As you were."
"Watch your tongue, Pekkle," Shahai said. "You are never beyond my reach."
"Indeed," Gensaiken mused. "If you have not already heard, dark mistress, the plan was a success. I suppose your threats are my thanks?"
"I never threaten," Shahai said. "I heard the other was slain."
"'Usagi Fuyuko' is dead," Gensaiken said. "I exposed her to the Winds, and they killed her."
There was a pause. "Dead?" Shahai asked. "You know how rare your kind are."
"I work alone," Gensaiken said. "For eighteen years I have cultivated my position in this family, since the day I devoured the true Gensaiken in his crib and replaced him. None suspect me. The one you sent was sloppy. She caused trouble. Another day, another hour perhaps, and the Crab's witch hunter would have known her for what she was. By destroying her, I was able to secure my own position with the Wolf and none are the wiser."
"The summoning was difficult," Shahai replied, her mental voice tense now. "There are only a handful of Pekkle in the whole of the Empire."
"The prize is well worth the expense, Shahai-sama," Gensaiken said. Inwardly, he was glad to be rid of the competition. There was no room for incompetent spies in the ranks of Fu Leng. "Thanks to her sacrifice, we now lay coiled about the heart of the Wolf."
"Fine," Shahai said. "I will trust your judgment. I have no choice. What of the throne?"
"The throne?" Gensaiken asked. "Sezaru will secure the throne soon enough. With my aid-"
"No, I mean the Steel Throne," she said. "My spies report that it vanished."
Gensaiken paused. "I know nothing of that," he said. "However... my sister's Taint ran rampant when the Winds slew her. Any man or woman in that room may be corrupted now, despite Sezaru's attempts to dispel the darkness. The throne itself possessed an obsidian streak when I saw it last. Tainted nemuranai have a mind of their own, my Lady. Perhaps it left seeking a new master?"
"Who?" Shahai asked.
"I suppose we shall find out," Gensaiken answered. "I doubt something so powerful as a Tainted throne will remain concealed for long..."