Smoke & Mirrors
By Shawn Carman

The forests outside Ryoko Owari had always proven sufficient for the city's needs, but they were by no means expansive. Compared to the vast wilderness of the Shinomen Mori that bordered on the southern Unicorn lands, it was as pedestrian as a castle's courtyard. Perhaps, Moto Chen mused, that was why the letter he had received had insisted on a meeting place so far from the city walls.

The general's face split into an eager grin as he thought of the letter tucked into his obi. He withdrew the parchment and held it to his face, inhaling deeply. The intoxicating scent that permeated the scroll was unmistakable. It was the same strange blend of herbs that Akasha used to perfume herself. Over the past few months, the scent had come to drive him mad, which was hopefully the intended effect.

Chen had not seen the messenger who delivered the letter. He had found it within his chambers after a particularly frustrating session at court. How she had managed to deliver it past his guards without their noticing, he did not know, but he further attributed it to the girl's aura of mystery. Under different circumstances, he would certainly punish his servants harshly for permitting such an intrusion. Given the nature of the missive, Chen was all too happy to overlook such a minor issue.

The letter spoke of a secluded pond some three hours ride from the city. If Chen would be so accommodating as to meet her there, then she assured him he would find the trip well worth his time. Chen was delighted to accommodate her. In the months the two had been enjoying one another's company, he had come to realize that Akasha was unlike any woman he had ever met. She could be as delicate as a lotus petal one second, and as sharp and unyielding as steel the next. She was a complete mystery, beyond his comprehension; her presence made him feel strong and helpless both at once. Words always failed him when he attempted to describe her, even to himself. But he always tried: mercurial, tempestuous, untamed… magnificent. Since his assignment to Ryoko Owari he had sorely missed their rare meetings in the court, and his heart was lifted by the idea that she had come to visit him.

Recognizing his surroundings from the description in the letter, Chen dismounted and strode silently through a small path in the woods. After a few moments, he could make out a gentle splashing sound ahead. Grinning once more, Chen took care to be especially silent in his approach. Chen was not a lecherous man, but if Akasha was already in the pond, then that was certainly a scene he would like to enjoy for a moment before announcing his presence.

As Chen entered the clearing, it was immediately obvious that he was the only one there. The gentle splashing he had heard was a deer standing in the edge of the pond drinking. Chen frowned as the beast noticed him and bolted into the woods. There should be no way that he could have arrived first. Akasha had several hours to reach the place before him after delivering the letter, even more if she had used a messenger rather than delivering it in person. He scanned the clearing again, searching for details, and saw a small package resting on a rock near the pond.

Retrieving the package, Chen unwrapped it quickly. Within, he found what appeared to be a random assortment of broken stones. In a sudden moment of dreadful insight, Chen realized what the fragments had been: a crude replica of the seal that signified his status as the general of the Junghar, one of the three armies of the Unicorn Clan.

"Chaozhu," cursed Chen. He had no idea what this was all about, but there was little doubt as to who would have perpetuated such a betrayal. His brother Chaozhu hated him with a passion no one else could fathom, and he had made spiteful comments about Chen's relationship with Akasha in the past. How he could have so exactly duplicated Akasha's chop and perfume, he did not know, much less why he would do such a thing.

Cursing, Chen bolted from the clearing back toward the path. It would be difficult, but if he pushed his steed, he could make it back to Ryoko Owari in just over two hours. Akasha was not there, of course, but Chaozhu surely would be.

o

Ryoko Owari was a city of contrast. Since the destruction of Otosan Uchi, it was the largest city in the Empire. Every Great Clan had some holdings within the city, but by far the two most powerful were the Unicorn and Scorpion. The noble quarter was divided between the reserved, intimidating architecture of the Scorpion and the strange gaijin spires of the Unicorn. The Unicorn had always maintained a rather expansive presence within the city due to its proximity to their clan's provinces, but during the Scorpion's absence after their failed coup, and again when they were exiled from the Empire after Toturi's disappearance, the Unicorn cemented their hold on the city. In recent years, they had essentially taken control while the Bayushi and their allied were busy establishing dominance over the Empire's courts. The Scorpion resented the presence of a Unicorn governor in Ryoko Owari, but continued to conduct business as usual regardless.

In recent weeks, Hantei Naseru had begun transferring his assets to the city in preparation for establishing a base of operations there. It was no secret that Naseru soon planned to declare his own claim upon the throne, as his sister Tsudao had, and that his capitol would be the greatest city in the Empire. Recognizing the Anvil as the most politically powerful of the Four Winds, many clans had begun relocating their most skilled and influential courtiers and ambassadors to the city in anticipation of the courts that would be held there.

All of this held little interest for Moto Genki. She knew little of court. She was a warrior, not a politician. Her tenure of service to Ide Michisuna had exposed her to dangers the like of which she had never known existed. The men and women of court used words and promises like swords, crippling entire families and leaving enemies alive, but without honor. Each day, Genki felt cold fear deep within her, for while she could protect her charge from the blades of assassins, but how could she protect him from the words of others? At last she finally understood why her father had spoken so disparagingly of court life and assignments there. She could scarcely imagine him in such a setting.

Since Naseru's arrival in the city, however, Genki had noticed the new intensity among the courtiers. Even among the other yojimbo, the strain was evident. Genki knew that they, like her, chafed at the notion of merely standing aside while their charges participated in a game the could not understand, much less engage in alongside them. Bored, Genki was idly examining the style and craftsmanship of the silken kakemono on the walls when Moto Chen entered.

She noticed Michisuna stiffen almost imperceptibly. Chen did not often attend court; the general's brusque and forthright nature was such that attending the Scorpion courts could prove disastrous if he was not adequately prepared. Unsupervised, he could pose a risk to the clan despite his considerable intelligence. For that reason, Chen chose to avoid court whenever possible. Michisuna had often professed to Genki that he considered Chen a very wise man because he recognized his shortcomings and took steps to avoid allowing them to jeopardize the clan's interests. Apparently, that was no longer the case.

"Ah, the decorated commander, Moto Chen," said Bayushi Kaukatsu comfortably. He glanced sidelong at Michisuna, who had been moving toward Chen, and smiled in what Genki considered a most unfriendly manner. "It has been far too long since we enjoyed your company here. What fortunate turn of events brings you to us today?"

"Treachery," replied Chen gruffly. He took a cup of tea from a servant roughly and downed it in one gulp. "Sake," he demanded, sending the servant scurrying from the chamber in a rush. "Treachery," he repeated. "I knew full well that Ryoko Owari was a den of vipers, but I was foolish enough to imagine that I could keep them from my own home. I may have been mistaken, but the price has been paid in full."

Kaukatsu's expression was one of mild surprise. In Genki's experience, courtiers who showed genuine surprise were either very inexperienced or presenting a façade. Likewise, those who showed no expression whatsoever were generally concealing a genuine emotion. Those most experienced of courtiers, like Kaukatsu, only allowed very slight expressions to break their veneer of stoicism. It was impossible to determine what they were feeling. It was a game, and one that Genki hated. "Chen-san, my friend," Kaukatsu continued, "I'm afraid I do not know what you're talking about."

Chen said nothing, but withdrew something from his obi and tossed it to the floor, where it clattered on the stones and came to a stop near Kaukatsu's feet. It was a steel mempo, stained with blood. Although she could not see it well from where she was standing, it looked familiar. "Recognize it, Kaukatsu?" Chen asked, mirroring Genki's thoughts. "I believe one of your lapdogs wore one exactly like it. Where might he be just now?"

"I am not certain what you are insinuating," the Chancellor said, his sharp tone revealing that he was quickly growing impatient with the commander's accusations, "but the yojimbo of mine who wore a similar mask was dismissed two months ago. His devotion was… lacking."

"Of course," insisted Chen. "How convenient. Who would suggest that you sent your pet to break into my home when you clearly dismissed him only two days ago?"

The room was completely silent, and Genki saw that all the color had drained from Michisuna's face. Chen had just accused the Imperial Chancellor of sponsoring an illegal and dishonorable act. If a swift apology was not made, Chen could damn the entire clan's enterprises within this city. That would prove impossible unless the hot-tempered commander left immediately. Unfortunately, he showed no signs of doing so.

"My honor is unquestionable," Kaukatsu said in a tone so even and emotionless it chilled Genki's blood. "The Winds themselves have chosen me to be the voice of the people. I know there is no basis for your accusations, or you would present it. Have you suitable testimony to prove that I am responsible."

Chen said nothing, only glowered at the Chancellor.

"Of course," Kaukatsu said with a deep sigh. "I understand, however, that a man of your training and background has little understanding of such things. I do, however, expect an immediate apology."

"Apologize?" said Chen, laughing. "For what? Killing the man you sent to do your dirty work? For preventing the poisonous filth that fills your clan from spreading? I will do no such thing."

What was visible of Kaukatsu's face below his mask now creased in an angry frown, as much expression as Genki had ever seen in the man. "I will not tolerate such an insult, Chen. Not in my home, and not in my city, for it is my city however much your ineffective Shinjo governor may wish to believe otherwise. You are not welcome here. Leave immediately, or you will face my house guard."

"Ha!" exclaimed Chen. "That would almost be worth it. I've already had my morning practice today, however, and I have no wish to overexert myself." He snatched the sake the servant had brought and downed it as quickly as he had the tea. "Bah," he snarled. "Scorpion sake. No better than bathwater." And then the general stormed out as suddenly as he had entered. Genki watched the commander leave, a puzzled expression on her face. She knew that Chen was a headstrong man, but his behavior seemed very strange. What had he thought to gain by insulting the Chancellor?

There was no sound whatsoever in the court. No one dared speak or even move, lest they attract the attention of a wrathful Kaukatsu. "The Unicorn will suffer for this insult," he said suddenly, leveling a long finger at Michisuna. "There will be restitution."

Ide Michisuna's mouth worked wordlessly as he sought for some words, any words, to sincerely express his shame to the Imperial Chancellor.

"My lord," came an unknown voice. A tall samurai stepped out of the crowd. He wore the color and markings of the Unicorn, but Genki did not immediately recognize him. His hair was worn long, and he bore both blades on his hip. The most remarkable feature by far, however, was the glittering gem that had replaced his left eye. "I would speak, if you will permit me. I wish to offer an apology."

"No mere apology will suffice, Shinjo Shono," Kaukatsu hissed. "That time has passed."

"Of course, Kaukatsu-sama," said Shono, inclining his head respectfully. "I only wish to offer an explanation that might ease your mind somewhat." Seeing the curious nod his host offered, Shono continued. "After a recent adventure in the Way of Night I was appointed as second in command to Moto Chen, my lord, along with the forces under my command. It is an arrangement that I believe Chen did not find satisfactory."

"I would think Chen would not question an order from his Khan," Kaukatsu said. "What does this have to do with anything?"

"Again, my lord, there is no excuse," reiterated Shono, "but it is no secret that my family carries a degree of stigma for their past association with the Kolat. I might compare such a thing to the justifiable outrage the Bayushi feel, constantly judged for their clan's past affiliation with the Lying Darkness."

Unbelievably, Kaukatsu smiled very slightly. "Are you comparing your family to the Lying Darkness, Shono-san?"

"No, my lord. I am merely making a point. I understand that it is easy to judge others for the crimes of the past, and not weigh their merits by looking upon the present. Please, allow the Unicorn to deal with this issue. I promise you that it will be dealt with, and the Shinjo would be in your debt."

Michisuna was holding his breath. Genki was impressed with the gambit Shono was playing. Like many others, she had dismissed him as a fool and a weakling, but it occurred to her that she had never actually spoken to the man. The stigma surrounding his family was such that any Shinjo was suspect, even the daimyo.

There was a long pause, during which it seemed that no one dared even take a breath. Finally, Kaukatsu nodded. The favor of a great family, even a disgraced one, was not something to be dismissed slightly, it seemed. "Then I will trust that your Khan will deal with the situation, and soon. Further, I wish to be notified of what happens."

"I will do so myself, Kaukatsu-sama," said Shono, bowing deeply.

"See that you do, Lord Shinjo. See that you do."

o

The following days were exceptionally chaotic, even from the perspective of the Unicorn. Michisuna was deluged on all fronts by accounts of the Scorpion usurping control of Unicorn holdings throughout the city. While the clan had not been removed from the city by force following Chen's outburst, it seemed that the Scorpion were attempting to assume even greater control through more indirect means. As for Moto Chen, he had been strangely withdrawn following the incident, and saw very few guests. Genki had overheard a meeting between the general, Shono, and Michisuna, in which Chen had insisted he was not in the city at the time of the disruption in court. It was a preposterous claim, of course, and Michisuna had been outraged, but Genki had thought it remarkable at how sincere Chen's protest was. Shono had said nothing the entire time, his facial expression grim and thoughtful as he absorbed the news.

Within two days of the incident, Michisuna sent Genki with Chen and Shono, as well as a unit of Shono's men, back to the Unicorn lands to inform the Khan of the situation in Ryoko Owari. She had never been to the Khan's court, and while she had long wished to meet him, these were not the circumstances she had hoped for. She had expected a long delay, as usual meeting such an important personage, but the Khan's court admitted them almost immediately. Apparently the Khan had no time for triviality.

When they entered the Khan's chamber, Genki presented the scroll that Michisuna had entrusted with her, a scroll of polite greetings and warm regards from the elderly courtier. Chagatai handed it off to one of his attendants without a second look and waved her aside, then fixed Chen and Shono with an unwavering glare.

"Explain." It was all he said.

Shono spoke first, explaining everything that had happened up to and including his intervention with Bayushi Kaukatsu. He offered no accusations toward Chen, only recounted exactly what happened. There was no condemnation in his voice, nor was there any inflation of his own deeds. He merely gave an impartial and unbiased account. When he was finished, Moto Chagatai turned his gaze to Chen. "And you?"

"I did no such thing, my Khan. I have been betrayed, and someone has gone to great lengths to dishonor me."

"You have no proof?"

"No, my Khan, only my word that it was not I who appeared in Kaukatsu's court, and a letter forged in Akasha's hand. It crumbled into dust as I returned to the city."

Chagatai looked at Shono.

"I have worked with Chen only for a short time," Shono said, "but his actions seemed most out of character. Almost as if it were someone else in his place."

Chagatai nodded slowly at Shono. "And Kaukatsu?"

"Surprisingly I think the Scorpion was innocent in this," Shono said. "He seemed just as surprised as we."

Chagatai leaned back upon the great chair that dominated the northern wall of his court chamber. He sat in thought for several minutes, his eyes hooded and intense. Finally, he sat forward in his seat and regarded the two men intently. "Moto Chen, you are stripped of all command. You no longer command the Army of the East. You will return to your family's provinces and administer them. You have no place in my court. Your actions are your own, and of no interest to me whatsoever. Do you understand?"

A strange look passed between the two men, and Genki was suddenly aware that there was something she could not understand transpiring between them. "I understand perfectly, my Khan," Chen said.

"So be it. This matter is concluded. Shinjo Shono, you will assume control of the Junghar immediately. This is a great responsibility. Do not fail me."

"I will die before I fail you, my Khan," said Shono earnestly.

"We shall see," answered Chagatai.

o

The inn was very poorly lit, and Moto Chaozhu had difficulty making out whether or not anyone was within when he first entered. In a moment, his eyes adjusted, and he could make out a few indistinct forms scattered across the room. One of them sat at a table with a black lotus sitting in the center. Chaozhu crossed the room and took a seat.

"Greetings, Chaozhu-san. I had begun to fear you would not be coming," said a dry voice.

"There were complications," answered the soldier gruffly. "Things have not gone as I expected."

"Nothing in life is ever as we expect. How unfortunate that you have not yet learned this."

Chaozhu's knuckles whitened where he clutched the edge of the table. "What happened? How did the plan fail?"

"Fail?" the stranger said, his voice surprised. "It did not. We distracted and dishonored Chen, just as we agreed."

"I was supposed to take his place!" hissed Chaozhu, glancing left and right to make certain none overheard. "Not that fool Shono! Is he not your enemy?"

"Shono is... an unexpected development but not a concern," the hooded man said. "At any rate, your promotion was never part of our arrangement. You assumed it was, of course, but assumptions make fools of the wise and ignorant alike. Consider it a learning experience."

Chaozhu bristled. "You tell your master…"

"My master," interrupted the other, "is now your master as well. Do not forget that."

"I owe no allegiance to this Master Tiger," Chaozhu insisted. "My goal has not yet been met."

"Hasn't it? You wanted your brother disgraced and humiliated. We have done that. You are now his unquestioned superior. Chen may trouble you further, but if you are competent he should become no threat. And if you fail to see how our deal has been completed," the stranger leaned in slightly, "then I can arrange for some of my associates to convince you of the wisdom my words. The mere knowledge that Master Tiger exists is a privilege, not a right. Consider it a privilege very close to your heart."

Chaozhu frowned. Truthfully, seeing Chen destroyed was his wish. He had no question that his skills would allow him to climb the ranks of the Khan's armies now that his brother was out of the way. His allies had proven both their incredible resources and their willingness to use them to advance their agenda. Was throwing his lot in with them so terrible a fate? There were far worse options. Chaozhu smiled. "Very well then, my friend. Tell our master that I accept. What is our next step?"

"Do as you wish, Chaozhu," the stranger answered, smiling. "You will be contacted when the time is right, and you will have ample opportunity to prove your loyalty to the Kolat."