By Rich Wulf
It was a day much like any other, but this day would not be soon forgotten. As the sun set over Yasuki Yashiki, the normal hubbub of the market suddenly died. All conversation ended and all eyes turned to watch the four men that now made their way down the busy street. Even the lowly eta, absorbed in their duties carting away the waste of the city, set down their buckets and stared with awe.
In a lifetime of living in one of the greatest cities of the Empire, no one had ever seen anything like these four men. The clothing they wore was not the garb of a samurai or peasant. The dark veils that covered their faces were unlike the mask of any Scorpion. The wide blades they wore at their waists were not katana. Their eyes were wide-set and pale brown, unlike the eyes of any Rokugani.
These were gaijin - outlanders.
The leader walked toward a nearby merchant. The terrified man stared up at the taller gaijin in horror. The strange traveler pulled away the cloth that covered his face and attempted to soothe the merchant with a friendly smile. He bowed, somewhat awkwardly, and spoke in a clear, if heavily accented, voice.
"Where is your lord?" he said. "We wish to honor him."
The merchant's jaw worked wordlessly. All he could do was turn and point at the large castle near the southern wall.
"My thanks," the stranger replied. He seized the merchant's hand with both of his, shaking it firmly and leaving something pressed into his palm.
The merchant snatched his hand back quickly, unsettled by the stranger's touch. The four gaijin continued on their way, and only when they were a good distance down the street did the merchant realize the stranger had pressed a coin into his hand. He looked at it in awe, marveling at its golden color and the strange winged beast engraved upon its surface. Whistling in astonishment, he looked up to see where the gaijin had gone.
A detachment of mounted samurai, armored and ready for combat, now rode out to meet the travelers. The merchant frowned. Gaijin were feared and detested in Rokugan. It was likely that the magistrates would strike down these strangers without even pausing to question them. It would serve them right. In the past the gaijin had proven unwilling to keep peace with the Empire. Even so, the merchant wondered what other wonders these men might have to offer. He looked down at the coin in his hand.
Glancing around to make sure no one saw, the merchant tucked the coin into his obi and returned his attention to his business. This was a matter for samurai to decide…
The Fantastic Gardens of the Doji were, as ever, fantastic. The sprawling grounds covered more area than many villages, a testament to the artistic prowess of the Doji and Kakita. These gardens were home to an astounding array of rare flora and fauna. They were also quite frequently home to the most powerful political figures of the Crane Clan.
"Good morning, Lady Akiko," Kakita Munemori said, falling into a graceful bow as he greeted the Lady of the Crane. "I hope this morning finds you well, though it must be something of a disappointment."
Doji Akiko raised an eyebrow curiously at the old courtier. "How do you mean?" she asked. "It is a beautiful day. Why would I be disappointed?"
"I assumed that for one so lovely as you, even so bright a day must seem bland by comparison. Is it not so?" Munemori blinked innocently.
Konetsu looked up from the patch of irises he had been tending, an irritated look on his wrinkled features. "I wonder if you would be so forward, Munemori-san, if Akiko's husband were here."
"Oh, quite certainly," Munemori said with a laugh. "Doji Kurohito knows me well enough to know I am hardly a threat. Besides, I am too useful to him. Should he wish to whip up scandal and outrage in an enemy's household, he knows all he need do is send old Munemori and chaos will surely follow."
"A dubious claim to fame at best," Konetsu said sourly.
"Do not mind Munemori," Akiko said with a laugh. "I doubt he means half the things he says to impress women."
"That sounds about right," Munemori replied with a nod. "I save all my sincerity for Lady Akiko." He fixed her with a warm smile.
"Now I remember why I retired from the court," Konetsu said with a sigh.
"Retired?" Munemori answered. "I thought that to retire implied that one stepped away from public life and entered a monastery. I hear that you have been most active in politics at Shinden Asahina."
"Lord Sekawa is a busy man," Konetsu replied sharply. "His nephew, Handen is too young and inexperienced to take full responsibility. I am no longer a Crane, I am merely an advisor."
"Do advisors normally threaten to carry out the Badger daimyo by his collar if he continues to be a nuisance?" Munemori asked mildly. "If they do, I wish I had known. I have wasted many interesting years."
"Gentlemen, enough," Akiko said, though her tone suggested she was more amused than offended. "Both of you have served the Crane loyally for many years in your own way. This is why I have called you here today on Lord Kurohito's behalf. I have a mission for you."
"A mission?" Konetsu asked. "With Munemori?" The old monk cast the courtier a scathing look.
Munemori smiled broadly. "This sounds interesting, my lady. Tell me more."
"Wait," Konetsu said, holding out a warning hand. "If this matter involves our lord, should we not discuss it somewhere more private?"
"These are the Fantastic Gardens of the Doji," Akiko replied. "When Lord Kurohito wishes, they are private. There are no unfriendly ears nearby. The Daidoji have seen to that."
"I did not see any Daidoji," Munemori replied. "Of course I saw no Daidoji," he added after a moment of consideration.
"How much do you know about Yoritomo Aramasu?" Akiko continued without further prologue.
"He was the adopted son of Yoritomo," Konetsu replied. "A former Scorpion who found a home with the Mantis during the War Against the Shadow, and later became their Champion."
"A former Kolat as well, if rumors be true," Munemori replied. "He was a reclusive ruler. Never attended a Winter Court until very recently. Remained neutral during the War of Spirits, though his bushi fought on both sides."
"He was assassinated two years ago," Konetsu finished. "His sword and remains were in our clan's possession for a while."
"You said 'our clan,' Konetsu," Munemori said. "I thought you were no longer a Crane."
Konetsu scowled at Munemori.
"Much of what we think we know about Aramasu, as it turns out, is untrue," Akiko said, ignoring the ongoing venom between the two men. She paused to consider a pale white blossom. "Aramasu was not 'distant' during the War of Spirits. He was not hiding on his islands in fear of the Kolat or the Scorpion or the Steel Chrysanthemum for that matter. Aramasu was not in Rokugan."
"Not in Rokugan?" Munemori asked, brow furrowing. "How interesting. Is this certain?"
"I have reliable sources," Akiko replied. "During the War of Spirits, my husband and I found it useful to keep a few friendly agents among the Mantis. The mercenaries often see much that we miss, in their own clan and abroad."
"Spies," Konetsu said in a weary tone.
"Call them what you will," Akiko said. "I call them 'patriots' for their service to the Emperor's Left Hand, even if that patriotism can only be inspired by the shine of Crane gold. At any rate, these sources told me a most intriguing tale. After the death of Yoritomo, Aramasu's first act as Mantis Champion was to take stock of his clan's resources and allies. Among these, he was surprised to learn the depth of his clan's trade with the gaijin."
"Gaijin?" Konetsu replied, surprised. "Imperial Edict has long forbidden trade with foreign lands."
"Do not be so aggressively naïve, Konetsu," Munemori replied. "That edict is old, outdated. The only reason most obey it is because we have no choice. Our own Daidoji ships could never survive a voyage across the seas, or I am certain some would try."
"Your words border on treason, Munemori," Konetsu hissed.
"Konetsu, you have spent too much time in the temple," Munemori retorted with a mocking laugh. "I do not suggest that I, personally, would trade with the gaijin. I only mean to illustrate that there will always be heights of heroism and depths of dishonor. I do not believe there is any Great Clan who cannot claim to have members who aspire to both."
"Well said," Akiko replied. "At any rate, before you judge Aramasu, hear the story till its end. The next part may surprise you."
"Then pray continue, my lady," Konetsu said.
"Aramasu learned of the illicit smuggling operations within his clan," Akiko said. "Though he had suspected some amount of trade with the gaijin, the amount he discovered surprised him. In particular, his smugglers had a large amount of dealings with the Ivory Kingdoms."
"The same Ivory Kingdoms that dispatched an ambassador to our court only a few decades ago," Konetsu said. Interactions with gaijin were so rare that they were well-documented events of the court.
"The same ambassador who returned home in disgust after a Matsu 'diplomat' insulted him," Munemori said. "I wonder if the Mantis followed him home?'
Akiko looked at the two men solemnly, waiting for them to grow silent so she could continue. "The Ivory Kingdoms are ruled by the Kshatriya, a noble caste of warriors similar in some ways to our samurai. However, Aramasu discovered that the rule of the Kshatriya had not been easy. An organization known as the Cult of Ruhmal had quietly subverted the noble houses from within. The Ruhmal were killers, nihilists that worshipped an entity known only as the Destroyer. Through their control of the Kshatriya, the Ruhmal had begun to construct a mighty fleet of warships, designed to sail across the seas and conquer all that they found. When Aramasu learned of this, he did the only thing that he could. He declared war upon the Ivory Kingdoms."
"War?" Munemori replied. Even the cynical old courtier was shocked. "How could he do such a thing without the Emperor's sanction?"
"He could not, of course," Akiko replied. "Toturi was occupied with the War of Spirits, but agreed that Aramasu's cause was just. The Mantis Champion's war was sanctioned privately, secretly, and Aramasu was given whatever funds the Emperor could spare to see that Rokugan would not face an attack on two fronts."
"Extraordinary," Konetsu replied. "The man would take on an entire nation by himself?"
"Not in the way you might suspect," Akiko answered. "Remember, Aramasu was trained by his ninja father, the Kolat Masters, and the Son of Storms. He was a resourceful man. He first made contact with his clan's smuggling contacts. With their aid, he learned their native tongue and the ways of those lands. He studied the noble houses and, with his practiced eye, soon surmised which ones the Ruhmal controlled. He sent Tsuruchi spies out into the Ivory Kingdoms to collect more information. Along with his Storm Legion warriors and Moshi shugenja he staged several quick, daring raids on the strongholds of the Ruhmal, always leaving enough evidence to lay blame on a rival house. He finally allowed one house, the Rafiq, to discover that the Mantis had been responsible all along. Enraged, Balyezn Rafiq, captain of his house's fleet, sailed out in pursuit of Aramasu as he returned to Rokugan. Near the Islands of Spice and Silk, Balyezn Rafiq found the entire Mantis navy waiting for him."
"And the Rafiq vessels were destroyed?" Konetsu asked.
"No," Akiko replied. "Aramasu did not wish to destroy such valuable, powerful ships. Instead his Mantis boarded, overpowered the crew, killed the ones who bore the mark of the Destroyer, and took the ships as their own. Those sailors who survived and surrendered to the Mantis were allowed to continue serving on their ships so long as they taught Aramasu and his Storm Legion all they knew about sailing, shipbuilding, and the Ivory Kingdoms. The Mantis Clan spent the next several years studying the stolen warships and learning from the sailors. Seven times the Rafiq sent their best assassins to murder Aramasu for his temerity. Seven times they failed. Aramasu had escaped the Kolat and the Scorpion as a boy. What had he to fear from enemies who did not even know him?"
"Precious little good Aramasu's skill at avoiding assassins did him in Otosan Uchi," Munemori said dryly.
"Even the boldest hero cannot fight forever," Konetsu said with a sigh. "Death comes to us all, in time."
"When he was once again ready," Akiko went on, "Aramasu returned to the Ivory Kingdoms. What the Mantis Champion found was precisely what he had expected -Feydn Rafiq, the ruler of House Rafiq and a high-ranking member of the Cult of Ruhmal, had rallied the other noble houses against the Mantis. When Aramasu sailed into the Ivory Coast in the Rafiq's own stolen fleet, it was more than Feydn could bear. Screaming vengeance to his dark god, the gaijin waited at the docks for Aramasu's challenge. A Tsuruchi arrow took Feydn in the heart at a thousand paces."
"Quite an unseemly end for one so 'noble,'" Munemori said with a snicker.
"The other Kshatriya were angered, but duly intimidated," Akiko said. "Thus it was even more surprising when Aramasu landed his flagship and offered his surrender."
Munemori grinned at the strange turn in the story. "I almost regret never meeting this man."
"Aramasu knew that the nobles would be bound by law to allow him to speak his piece before execution. With that, Aramasu strode forward to deliver his surrender to Amal, master of House Suresh. The Suresh were the strongest noble house that had not yet been corrupted by the Cult of Ruhmal, and were the most adamantly opposed to the Destroyer. Along with his surrender, Aramasu delivered all the evidence his Tsuruchi spies had accumulated in the long years they had remained hidden in the Ivory Kingdoms - evidence that traced the hierarchy of the Destroyer cult and named every known agent of the Ruhmal. Aramasu was immediately pardoned and together the Mantis and House Suresh purged the Ivory Kingdoms of the Destroyer's followers. Aramasu returned and reported his success to Toturi. The Splendid Emperor requested that Aramasu keep his victories secret, for he knew well the prejudices most Rokugani held toward gaijin. In the meantime, he asked that Aramasu continue to keep good relations with the Ivory Kingdoms."
"And I thought local politics were complex," Munemori said with a wry grin. "An intriguing tale, but what does this have to do with us?"
"I was only told this tale recently," Akiko replied, "by a Mantis who is still loyal to Aramasu's memory. He revealed this tale now, of all times, because a crisis has arisen in the Ivory Kingdoms."
"The Maharaja, ruler of the Ivory Kingdoms, has been gravely ill for many years," Akiko replied. "By chance, his healers discovered a special variety of ginseng among Aramasu's many gifts to the Suresh that holds his condition in check. This ginseng grows only in Rokugan's climate, and cannot be cultivated in the Ivory Kingdoms. Aramasu kept the Suresh in good supply but it seems that the they do not trust Yoritomo Kitao."
"Why am I not surprised?" Konetsu said.
"Why, Konetsu, that was nearly amusing," Munemori said.
"Desperate to save their leader, the Suresh have landed on the Rokugani mainland," Akiko said. "They avoided the Mantis isles and, finding Otosan Uchi gone, landed at the next largest port."
"Yasuki Yashiki," Munemori said, eyes narrowing.
"Kaneka?" Konetsu replied, shocked.
Akiko nodded. "The Shogun's feelings toward our clan should be well known to both of you. Fortunately, the ginseng that he seeks is one that grows only in these gardens," she replied. "Kaneka can give the Suresh nothing unless we wish it. He has agreed to receive one Crane emissary to work out some sort of an arrangement."
"Arrangement?" Konetsu said. "Why do we need anything from Kaneka? The Suresh can come to us directly."
"Not while they are surrounded by the Shogun's warriors," Munemori replied. "Imperial Edict still forbids gaijin in these lands. Kaneka could kill the gaijin out of hand and be regarded as a hero."
"Surely Kaneka is not foolish enough to do such a thing," Konetsu said. "He would risk war with the Ivory Kingdoms."
"Journey to the Empire is risky. The Suresh will assume their ship was lost at sea. In the meantime, Kaneka is the sort of man who would as readily destroy an advantage rather than grant it to his enemies," Akiko answered. "He knows we will not give him the ginseng for nothing. He will probably seek some sort of compromise."
"Can we trust him?" Munemori asked. "He killed Kaiten."
"Kakita Kaiten was slain in a fair duel," Akiko replied. "This is important to remember. Kaneka is a violent man, but he adheres to law and tradition. Use these to your advantage."
"A compromise?" Konetsu asked. "I did not think Doji Kurohito was the sort of man to compromise with his enemies."
"He is not," Akiko said meaningfully.
"I understand," Munemori said. "So I will be sent to negotiate? Is there not already a Crane among Kaneka's counsel?"
"Doji Midoru," Konetsu replied, his expression strangely distracted. "Midoru is not much for diplomacy."
"You will leave at once," Akiko went on. "Konetsu, you will accompany Munemori. Kaneka allowed only one Crane diplomat but, as you are so fond of reminding us, you are no longer a Crane. Think of yourself as a spiritual advisor. Many sinful men grow repentant in their old age and seek guidance in the Tao."
Munemori cocked his head slightly. "Are you saying that I am old, or that I have many sins to atone for?" he asked.
"Whichever you prefer," Akiko answered. "Now go, and do not disappoint your Lady."
"Kakita Munemori, emissary of the Crane Clan!" boomed the thunderous voice of Kaneka's Lion herald.
Munemori stepped forward into the vaulted chamber. A lightly armored Daidoji yojimbo walked just behind him to the right, wide eyes taking in every detail. Konetsu walked at Munemori's left. His eyes were half closed seemingly in prayer, but few details escaped his notice. The Shogun's assembled court turned to see the new visitors. Munemori smiled graciously and nodded to a handful of individuals that he recognized. Some responded cordially, pleased to see him. Others simply fixed him with a brief, frigid stare and then returned to their business.
"You are man who leaves lasting impressions, Munemori," Konetsu whispered.
"For better or worse it is good to be remembered," Munemori answered, greeting governor Ikoma Tomaru's young niece with an impish grin. "Do you see the Shogun anywhere?"
"No," Konetsu replied. "Presumably he must be attending the gaijin, or perhaps overseeing his armies."
"Good," Munemori replied. "That gives us some time to study the lay of the land before we must set in for the fight."
"Any idea how to deal with Kaneka?" Konetsu asked.
"I thought you might drag him out by his collar," Munemori replied.
"Gentlemen," said a booming voice. "Welcome to Yasuki Yashiki."
Munemori and Konetsu turned to face a large, thick-shouldered man wearing a rough kimono of blue silk. His hair was long and rumpled; a thick moustache hung from his lip. He clutched a cup of sake in one hand. His appearance overall was that of a man more accustomed to the battlefield than polite society, who had hurriedly washed and stuffed himself into his father's best kimono to greet guests.
"You must be Hida Hitoshi," Munemori said with a small bow.
"You have heard of me?" Hitoshi asked, suddenly interested.
"I researched all of the Shogun's advisors before my arrival here," Munemori replied. "Even the obscure ones, such as yourself."
Hitoshi's expression soured. He took another sip from his sake, glaring intently at Munemori all the while. "You are a Kakita," he said finally.
"That is what my sons tell me," Munemori agreed.
"How does it feel to be a guest in the house of the man who slaughtered your lord, Kaiten?" Hitoshi asked, smiling in self-congratulation for the insult.
Munemori's lips pressed into a thin line.
"Is this Kaneka's house?" Konetsu asked, stepping forward as he looked around at the walls and ceiling. "I thought this was a Crab stronghold. So hard to remember. You Crab do give up your castles so easily." Konetsu looked at Hitoshi, a faint smile painted on his features.
A low rumble echoed in Hitoshi's throat. The man set his sake cup on the table and began slowly reaching for his sword.
"I'm sorry, Hitoshi-sama," Munemori said in feigned surprise, just loud enough for the assembled court to hear. "Are you about to challenge my monk advisor to a duel?"
A few interested faces glanced over, ready to see the Hida shame himself by cutting down a man of the Tao. Hitoshi quickly moved his hand, trying to make it look like he was straightening his obi. His face darkened in embarrassment. "Heh," he said, glancing around nervously. "Munemori, you are as full of mischief as I have heard. A delight to meet you. Please excuse me." Hitoshi quickly moved away from them, heading back to his Crab brethren. Munemori noticed a few of them chuckling openly at Hitoshi's embarrassment.
"My thanks, Konetsu," Munemori said softly. "I must be growing soft to let one such as he get the better of me."
Konetsu shrugged. "Kaiten was a hero. He does not deserve mockery."
"Then let us not leave the Suresh in the custody of Kaiten's killer," Munemori said, looking at the monk meaningfully.
"I know my duty, Munemori," Konetsu said, scanning the crowd calmly. "Good fortune in yours." Seeing the face of the one he sought, Konetsu stepped away into the crowd.
As the monk departed, a tall man in robes of pale blue and black approached Munemori. His white hair hung long and limp around his shoulders. His eyes had a slightly wild cast.
"Kakita-sama," the man said with a sneer. "You are the one sent to take the burden of these gaijin from my shoulders." The words were a statement, not a question, as if the man were well used to others not trusting him and found it only vaguely curious.
"You must be Doji Midoru," Munemori replied, bowing to his fellow Crane. "You are an intriguing man. There are not many Crane who could survive in the Shogun's court as long as you have."
"This place holds no fear for me," Midoru said, looking about in mild disdain. He turned to Munemori. "In this place, one can see his enemies clearly. Not like Kyuden Doji."
Munemori stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I suppose predictability has a certain charm," he said. "However after years of work in politics I think such a change would ultimately upset me."
"How do you know Konetsu?" Midoru asked in a flat tone.
"I have known him for ten years," Munemori replied, studying a young Scorpion girl who had begun playing a samisen in the corner. "I knew him before he retired, when he was a provincial governor of the Asahina."
"Then you have not known him long enough," Midoru whispered. "Be careful around him, old man. He wears truth like a mask, but treachery is deep within him."
"Oh?" Munemori asked, looking back toward Midoru with interest.
Midoru was gone.
The Shogun's personal audience chambers were small, practical, and comfortable. Munemori supposed that came as no surprise. Kaneka was a pragmatic sort of man, as were the Yasuki who had owned the palace before he claimed it. Munemori seated himself comfortably, enjoyed a cup of tea, and flirted idly with the serving girl while he waited for the Shogun to arrive.
The door finally slid open and three men entered the small chamber. The first was an intense, square-jawed young Lion dressed in a deep brown kimono. That was one of Kaneka's generals, Ijiasu. The second was Kaneka. With his angular features and commanding gaze he was a rougher image of his illegitimate father, Toturi. The third man was obviously one of the gaijin. He wore a loose black tunic, breeches, and a strange cloth headdress. His face was darker, his eyes slightly wider than a Rokugani. He smiled politely and bowed his head to Munemori as he sat, but the Crane could sense a certain fear behind the man's practiced calm. The gaijin knew he had made a mistake coming to mainland Rokugan, and now wondered if there was any way to undo that mistake.
That was good. Munemori could use that.
"Kakita-sama, I assume my Lord Shogun requires no introduction," Ijiasu said in a genial voice. "The other man is Rama Singh, the leader of our visitors from the south."
"Rama Singh?" Munemori replied. "What should I call you, my friend? Is Rama your family name or Singh?"
The gaijin looked slightly embarrassed. "I have no family name," he replied. "Our naming conventions are different than yours."
"Of course," Munemori replied. "The variations in etiquette from one province to another have taken me a lifetime to master. I imagine that the customs in the Ivory Kingdoms must be even more exotic, just as ours must seem to you. I imply no offense with my ignorance, Rama Singh, and commend you that you have learned our language so expertly."
"Rama," the man said with a small laugh. "Call me Rama."
"Now we all know one another," Kaneka said in a low voice. "Perhaps we can get to business."
"Of course," Munemori said, nodding to Kaneka. "With my sincerest apologies, Lord Shogun, you are mistaken. We have no business to discuss."
Ijiasu's jaw dropped open slightly. Rama frowned curiously. Kaneka's stony expression did not change. "I am sorry, Kakita-sama, do I fail to understand your presence here? Are you telling me that Lord Kurohito cares nothing for the health of the Maharaja?"
"Not at all," Munemori answered. "Kurohito and Rama have much to discuss. You, however, are not a part of these proceedings."
"You would dare speak to the Shogun in such a way in his own palace?" Ijiasu said in a low growl.
"Calm yourself, Ijiasu," Kaneka said. "This Kakita thinks he is being clever."
"Do I?" Munemori replied. "There are many words to describe me. I never imagined 'clever' would be one of them."
"I said you think that you are clever, not that you are," Kaneka said. "I know about your monk friend. I know you brought a shipment of ginseng with you. I know that he made contact with Yoritomo Kumiko's supporters here and attempted to arrange having the shipment sent to the Ivory Kingdoms without my knowledge." Kaneka clapped his hands and the shoji screen opened. Two servants entered, carrying large boxes bearing the Doji family seal.
"Pity, I thought that was a good plan," Munemori said, pouting a bit as he looked back at Kaneka. "Is Konetsu all right?"
"I am not the monster you Crane believe me to be," Kaneka said. "I did not kill your monk."
"Yet you will kill these gaijin if I do not compromise with you," Munemori replied.
"Perhaps," Kaneka replied, not looking at Rama. "Then again, perhaps I will lay siege to Kyuden Doji and take what I require. In either case, this argument is moot. I have what the Maharaja needs, and you do not. Rama-san, let us retire to another audience chamber. Munemori-san's presence is no longer necessary but it would be rude not to let him finish his tea."
Ijiasu began to rise. Rama said nothing and did not move. He only watched Munemori with a quiet, expectant expression. Munemori raised his estimation of the man. The gaijin was cannier in politics than he appeared.
"A moment, Lord Shogun," Munemori said. "I have something else for you to consider." Munemori drew a golden scroll case from his kimono and set it gently upon the tea table. Its seal, a golden sunburst mon, gleamed quietly in the dim light.
"What is this?" Kaneka asked.
"What do you think it is?" Munemori asked. "It is an Imperial Edict, signed by Empress Toturi the Second. The edict grants safe haven to the representatives of the Maharaja so long as they conspire no violence against the Rokugani people. It is, however, quite clear that the Ivory Kingdoms diplomats must be moved to Kyuden Seppun, where they may be closer to her Majesty."
"Empress?" Kaneka said with slight amusement. "I recognize no Empress."
"Perhaps not," Munemori replied, "but the Imperial Legions do."
A silent moment passed as Munemori locked gazes with the Shogun.
"You had best return those crates as well," Munemori added. "As we of the Crane Clan do acknowledge Toturi the Second's reign, that ginseng is rightfully her property."
"The monk and the Mantis were a distraction," Kaneka concluded, scratching his chin with a sneer. "You meant to threaten me with Tsudao's blessing all along." Ijiasu slowly began to draw his sword. Kaneka made no move to stop him.
"You honored my Lord Kaiten in your victory, Shogun," Munemori said, watching Ijiasu's hand warily. "Honor me now in your defeat. Word of this incident need spread no further than this chamber. Consider it a gesture of peace toward your sister rather than an acknowledgment of her claim."
Ijiasu's eyes flicked toward Kaneka. Kaneka was expressionless for another long moment, then nodded and rose.
"Take your gaijin and your weeds, Kakita," he replied as he turned to leave. "Do not show yourself near Yasuki Yashiki again."
Ijiasu followed his master out of the chamber and the screen slid closed. Munemori breathed a sigh of relief, which was echoed by Rama Singh.
"It seems politics in your land are almost as cutthroat as in my own, Munemori-san," Rama said with a sudden grin.
"Almost?" Munemori said in a choked voice. "Remind me never to visit the Ivory Kingdoms!"
Ijiasu and Hitoshi stood atop a watchtower of Yasuki Yashiki, watching the gaijin horses as they disappeared over the horizon.
"This is a mockery," Hitoshi whispered. "Those Crane come and take the gaijin out of the Shogun's most fiercely guarded stronghold, and we do nothing to stop them."
"I like it no more than you, Hida," Ijiasu said, "but the Shogun knows best."
"There is still time, Ijiasu," Hitoshi said. "We could gather a regiment. Those gaijin and Crane need never live to see Kyuden Doji."
Ijiasu gave Hitoshi a slow, steady look. "The Shogun has spoken," he repeated. "You swore loyalty to him beside me. You broke your wakizashi to secure that loyalty. I know you mean well, Hida, but if I hear such words of treachery escape your lips again, they will be your last."
Hitoshi laughed for a moment, then looked into Ijiasu's eyes. Ijiasu was brash, often foolish, but there was a good reason he was so close to the Shogun. There was no doubt in those eyes. There was murder in those eyes. Hitoshi stopped laughing. "Hai, Ijiasu-sama," he said soberly. "In fact, if I may take the liberty I shall send a unit of my own troops to insure they reach the Crane border safely."
"Do so," Ijiasu said. "The Shogun will be pleased."
Hitoshi nodded and quickly departed. Ijiasu remained where he was, continuing to watch the horses recede over the horizon. After a few silent minutes a new presence joined him at the height of the tower.
"There will be others who will doubt what you have done here today, Shogun," Ijiasu said quietly.
"Then you will silence them, as you did Hitoshi," Kaneka replied.
"Yes, Shogun," Ijiasu said. He returned to studying the horizon.
"You do not doubt me, even for a moment," Kaneka said. "You never asked me for an explanation."
"Of course not, Shogun," Ijiasu said, surprised at the suggestion. "Why should I?"
"Chagatai returns from his patrols in three days," Kaneka said. "You know the Unicorn Clan is our strongest ally, and his clan have unspoken sympathies for gaijin. When he hears that we spared them, he will be well pleased, and once Kumiko seizes the Mantis Clan from Kitao we shall have a chance to open our own negotiations anew. Naseru, no doubt, will perceive what I have done here as weakness, but it is to my advantage for him to think I am weak, considering what we plan…"
"Shogun, I do not doubt what you did was right," Ijiasu said. "I never required an explanation."
"I know," Kaneka said. "That is why you deserved one."
With that, Kaneka left Ijiasu to his vigil.