By Shawn Carman
The door opened. The men and women hidden by the smoke recoiled. The air was thick with the cloying scent of incense, which only barely hid the distinctive smell of more distinctly potent herbs. The stranger strode purposefully through the cramped tables, jostling several patrons who were too lost in their own thoughts to notice. He walked to the large table in the rear of the room where the proprietor was sitting, sipping some unknown concoction from a large tea cup.
The leathery old proprietor frowned at the sight of the stranger. "I don't know you."
The stranger grunted and withdrew a pouch from the folds of his robes. It made a load jingling sound when he dropped it on the table. The old proprietor raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Open it," grunted the stranger.
With yellow-stained fingers, the old man fumbled the straps open and dumped the pouch's contents out onto the table. A dozen bu and even a few koku spilled out and rolled across the table, ending up in a scattered heap spread across half its surface. The old man stared up at the stranger with a confused, heavy-lidded look.
"Why?" rasped the old proprietor even as he raked the coins into his lap.
The stranger leaned in, pulling away the basket hat that obscured his face. "For damages," he said in a low voice.
The old proprietor looked even more confused. "Damages? But there aren't…" The glazed look in his eyes faded, and the color drained from his face.
"Wait," was all that the stranger said. With that, he turned and marched back across the room, stopping at one table where three men sat laughing, thick plumes of smoke emanating from their table. The masked stranger stood silently for several long seconds before any of the men noticed.
"What's your problem?" asked one of the men loudly. He was fat and bald, his many chins layered with glistening sweat.
The stranger did not respond, but instead reached out with one hand, lightning fast, and cracked the man's head sharply against the table. Cups rattled with the force of the blow, and a red stream ran down the man's face. He looked up at the stranger dumbly for no more an extended moment before slumping unconscious into the floor.
A second man leapt up from his seat at the table, pulling a knife from his belt. This one was leaner and more agile, but was still no match for the stranger's incredible speed. He lashed out with his left hand, punching the second man in the throat with devastating force, then grabbing his forearm and twisting sharply. There was a cracking sound, and the knife fell. Its former wielder slumped back onto the floor, clutching his throat with one good hand and gasping for breath.
The third man stared up from his seat at the stranger, paralyzed by fear but shocked back into clarity. His jaw worked desperately, but no sound came out.
"What is wrong, Eidan?" the stranger asked. "Aren't you pleased to see me?"
"It… I… you…" the man stammered. "Do… do I know you?"
"Yes." The stranger removed his basket hat, tossing it aside where it landed on the unconscious fat man's ample stomach.
"Oh no," whispered Eidan.
"Oh yes," the stranger said calmly, reaching over to grasp Eidan by the front of his robes. "And now, Shinjo Eidan, you are going to tell me everything."
Ten minutes later, the flimsy wooden door to the sake house shattered as Shinjo Eidan flew through it, rolling several times in the dirt of the road before coming to a stop in a heap, coughing and groaning. The stranger stepped out into the late afternoon sun after him, pulling his hood up around his head. "You should know by now that I am a man accustomed to honesty, Eidan. Lies only serve to upset and confuse me. I hate it when I become upset."
"I don't… don't know anything," gasped Eidan, struggling to get to his feet.
The stranger kicked the man in the ribs, eliciting another groan of pain. He knelt and seized the man's collar, dragging him into a sitting position and glaring into his eyes. "Tell me, Eidan, have you ever seen Shinsei's smile?"
Eidan blinked in terrorized confusion.
"It is a term that the Moto raiders of the Burning Sands coined," the stranger said. "It means to cut a man's throat from one tip of the jaw line to the other, so that his throat gapes open in a bloody smile." The man pushed back his cloak, revealing a curved sword at his hip. "It is done with a sword, with a single perfect stroke. Only a true master swordsman can perform it without cutting off the head. Would you like to see?"
Eidan's eyes widened in fear.
"Tell me what you know, Eidan, and Shinsei will keep his mouth shut today," the stranger said.
"You! Stop!" The voice was young and full of authority. The stranger looked to his left, down the street, to see two young Unicorn samurai running toward him. Both had their hands on the hafts of their swords. The stranger cursed under his breath. Just his luck to leave the sake house when sentries were passing by. "Keep away from that man!"
"This is not your concern, soldier," the stranger said, his voice low. He let Eidan fall limply on the ground. "Leave. Now."
"We cannot allow a man to be beaten in the streets," one of the two responded. The young bushi's voice was even and steady, and his face a mask of concentration. His comrade, on the other hand, seemed eager to enter the fray, and wore a disturbing look of anticipation.
"You could allow an opium house to operate freely, but you cannot allow one of the men responsible for its operation to be punished? Strange laws you have in this town." The stranger let the hood around his face slip down, revealing a handsome if somewhat weathered face.
The second sentry prepared to advance, but the first grabbed his upper arm. His expression was still calm, but his surprise was obvious. "We will return shortly with more men to deal with this supposed opium house." He glanced down at the man in the street. "I trust that we will find no evidence of you here when we return?"
The stranger shook his head.
"Very well then." The first sentry began a retreat back down the street, all but dragging a clearly outraged second sentry behind him. Just before he turned the corner, he stopped and looked back. "I did not believe what they said about Ryoko Owari, General Chen-sama. When you return to command the Junghar, I will be waiting."
"Thank you, Kabaru-san," Moto Chen replied. The sentry nodded, then disappeared, allowing Chen to return his attention to the man in the street. "Now, Eidan," he said as he placed one heavy furred boot on the man's chest, "you were just about to tell me everything you know."
"How can you do this?" croaked the man. "You are a general in the Khan's army! You cannot murder me in the street!"
"No, I am not." Chen bent down to look his prey in the eye. "I am just a man now, not a soldier. A man free to do whatever he wants, to travel anywhere he pleases." Chen lowered his voice to a whisper. "Free to destroy every Kolat scum within the Unicorn provinces, if I so choose. And I do choose, Eidan." He increased the pressure with his foot. "Tell me of Master Tiger's operations!" he growled.
A moment of genuine confusion flickered across Eidan's face. "I don't know anything about Master Tiger!" he hissed, struggling to draw breath. "I don't know anything! I swear it."
Chen glared at the man. "Then you have no further use to me." He drew his sword.
"Coin!" shrieked Eidan. "I work for Master Coin! I'll tell you everything!"
Moto Chen smiled. "Near enough. Talk."
Chen sighed as he sat heavily on the battered tatami mat in his filthy quarters. The inn was disgusting, but it was anonymous. There was little chance anyone would find him here, and no chance that the scum who frequented such a place would take notice of him. He looked around at his filthy surroundings, settling finally on the daisho he had reverently placed on an cracked and beaten sword rack.
His twin blades shone brightly even in the dim light. The exquisite detail on the saya was obscured only by the cloth he had reverently placed between the blades and the rack upon which they rested. They were incredible swords, given to him by Moto Chagatai when he had become the general of the Junghar, Army of the East. His elder brother now carried the daisho their grandfather had once wielded.
Chaozhu. Even the thought of his brother caused anger and sadness to well up within him. How was a man expected to deal with betrayal from his own blood? Chaozhu was the only family he had left in the world save for distant cousins like Chagatai. Yet every time he thought of Chaozhu's smug, arrogant face, Chen's hands instinctively curled into claws that longed to crush. Looking down at his dirty, bloodied fingers, Chen felt his hatred wash away. He slumped forward, burying his face in his palms.
How could he hate Chaozhu? Chaozhu was his brother.
How had it come to this? Living as little better than a ronin, Chen was beginning to lose sense of himself. His frustration manifested more and more often as violence. He had not intended to beat Eidan so badly. That was not the sort of man he was. Or was it? Was this who he really was, beneath the veneer of a soldier and a dashing general? Was this beast, this violent animal, the true Chen? If so, it was no wonder Chaozhu despised him so.
"You do not look well, Chen-kun," a soft voice came from the doorway. "Perhaps you should consider some companionship for the evening?"
Chen looked up at the small figure clad in dark robes and topped with a basket hat identical to the one he had worn earlier in the afternoon. "I do not think that would help," he said half-heartedly. "I hear the geisha houses in this town are of poor quality."
A soft, musical laughter came from beneath the hat. The stranger quietly slid the door to the chamber closed and stepped in close to Chen, kneeling down to look him in the eye. The hat was removed to reveal smooth, flawless skin with a strange, exotic hue that was almost imperceptible. "What troubles you, Chen-kun?" Akasha asked.
Chen lifted his hand to stroke her perfect face, but stopped when he remembered how filthy they were. He smiled, but the expression did not reach his eyes. "It is… more difficult than I thought it would be."
"Ah, but you are Moto Chen," she said with a playful glint in her eyes. "The great hero! The man who traveled to Toshigoku with Moto Chagatai and rescued the spirit of the great Gaheris! The soldier who confronted Bayushi Kaukatsu in court and lived to tell the tale!"
"Stop that," he said roughly, but he could not help but grin. Her good nature was infectious. "Can you stay?" A slow grin spread across her face.
"To stay amid such luxury?" she asked, opening her arms to take in the filthy room. "How could I decline?" Her smile faded then, and she ran a finger along the line of his jaw. "I cannot. Not tonight. I would like to, but there are things I must do."
Chen nodded. "We all have our duties, don't we, Akasha? You to your sensei, and I to my clan."
The young woman frowned and studied him intently. "Are you still certain? You believe this is what Chagatai intended for you to do?"
"Yes," he answered without hesitation.
She shook her head. "How can you be so sure? Everyone believes it was nothing more than a simple dismissal."
"Then why are you here?" Chen asked.
"Because I believe in you," she said, her green eyes still watching him carefully. "Even if you do not always believe in yourself."
Chen was silent for a long time, lost in thought. "Chagatai and I often played together as children, Akasha-chan," he began. "One summer we often had disagreements with some of the Crab children who lived in the town. Their parents were sensei at the Hiruma school there. Once, they got a bit carried away and attacked a young girl that was one of our friends. They knew she wouldn't say anything. She was, after all, merely a poet."
There was a murderous gleam in Akasha's eyes. "As a Naga, I do not view any soul as less worthy of respect than any other," she said. "As a samurai, I would have personally shown them their place in the Celestial Order."
"I know you would have," Chen smiled. "But this girl was not like you. She was timid, shy. I was furious, and demanded that we go to our parents. Chagatai refused."
"At the time, I did not know why. I did not understand. Chagatai found a stray dog and penned it up. He trained it carefully to attack anyone wearing Crab colors. He fed it the finest meats so it would grow strong. Then one afternoon, he took it to the outskirts of the woods where the Crab children played and let it go. I was fearful that they would be killed and that we would be punished. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to do this thing." He looked up at Akasha. "He told me that the dog had no place in his home, that it was free to do as it wished and that its actions were of no interest to him."
The samurai-ko shook her head again. "The same words he said to you."
"Yes," Chen said. "It was his way of telling me I was free to hunt our enemies. The Kolat are like a plague that cripples our clan. I must hunt them as Lady Shinjo did years ago. That is why Chagatai placed Shinjo Shono in command of the Junghar. If the Kolat would seek to influence the Three Armies in my absence, they will gain no ground with Shono."
Akasha tousled Chen's hair. "You are no Lady Shinjo."
"No," agreed Chen. "I am pleased that you have noticed." He smiled at the sound of her laughter.
"I have brought you a present," Akasha said, her expression suddenly cunning.
"A present?" Chen replied, surprised.
"It is customary for a guest to bring their host a gift, is it not?" Akasha swept her arms wide to indicate the room. "You are clearly the lord of this exquisite manor."
Akasha reached into a pouch on her hip and withdrew a large, slightly off-white pearl. "I have this for you." She held it before her in one palm. She tapped it lightly twice with her finger, then traced a circle before tapping it one last time. "When you activate the pearl, it will glow very slightly whenever someone tells a lie in its presence. Its magic only lasts a brief time, and recharges by the light of the moon. Use it wisely. Take it with my sensei's compliments."
Chen took the pearl carefully and grunted. "Give the Ghedai my thanks." Akasha smiled, but said nothing. "This would have been useful earlier," he continued.
"You found Shinjo Eidan, then?"
Chen nodded. "He is in the next room, unconscious. I will not sleep easily tonight with him so close."
"Did you put the herbs I gave you in his meal?" Akasha asked. "They will keep him sleeping deeply for at least twelve hours. You have nothing to fear from him."
He grunted again noncommittally. "With his help, I should be able to find out what I need. It isn't Master Tiger, though. Someone called Master Coin."
"There is more than one Master?" she asked.
"It would seem so," he answered. "I do not know how many Masters there may be. I only hope their numbers are small. I would hate to live like this long enough to kill them all."
Akasha laughed again. "You do not fear that you will fail, only that success will be difficult. You never lose hope. It's a very endearing quality." She leaned in close and nuzzled his ear playfully with her nose.
Chen raised an eyebrow. "I thought you couldn't stay?"
She placed a finger lightly on his lips. "Only for a few hours," she smiled. "You don't mind, do you?"
The clouded moon cast very little light on the village streets. Chen hid deep in the shadows nonetheless. He was a hunter, and it would not do to risk his prey detecting him when he was so close to the kill. It had taken him over a week to find this tiny village along the Ide provinces' southern border, even with Eidan's help. It was in a very inconvenient location, where one would never expect to find any sort of settlement. Chen suspected that was deliberate. Even more suspicious was the foundry. No village of such meager size should have one. Yet there it was, in the village's heart, churning out a steady column of steam and smoke.
Chen checked his blades to make sure they were not hindered by the black robes he had donned for the occasion. A quick glance to the heavens assured him that Lady Hitomi would not reveal his presence this night. He darted from his hiding place, moving from alley to alley, alcove to alcove as he approached the two drunks outside the foundry. Chen smirked at the thought. He had attended enough festivals in Ryoko Owari to know when someone was only pretending to be drunk.
Chen came to rest in the mouth of an alley some fifty feet from the nearest sentry. The shadows and the distance would make for a difficult shot, but Chen had made worse. He untied a length of leather from his belt and coiled the loose ends around his fist. With his other hand, he withdrew a smooth, heavy stone. He tucked the stone into the leather and began to twirl it. The sling made a faint whistling sound just before Chen released it. His aim was true. The stone produced an audible crunching sound even from this distance. One sentry staggered backwards two or three steps, then sat down heavily in the dirt and slumped over. The second sentry took note and lurched over to see what was going on. He put out one hand to steady himself while placing another over his stomach as if he were thinking of giving up his sake, placing his hand near the hilt of his sword. He staggered on one knee, coincidentally presenting a smaller target as he scanned the area. Chen smiled appreciatively. This one was good. However good he might be, however, the second shot from the sling took him down as readily as the first.
Chen moved quickly to the fallen sentries, unsure if there were other eyes upon him from inside the foundry. He positioned the two unconscious men as if collapsed from revelry, facing outward into the village. With luck, any of their coconspirators who saw them would believe they were still fulfilling their duty. Once he had hidden their weapons, he circled the building to find a way in.
There was a door on the northern face of the building that was strangely unlocked. Chen frowned after testing the door; it seemed too easy. Still, there were no other apparent means of entry, and he had no desire to scale the walls to find an entrance. Cautiously, he stepped through the door and closed it silently behind him. As an afterthought, he locked it as well. He had no allies here, so there was no sense allowing others to follow him in. The door could easily be broken down, but he would likely hear that and have a few precious seconds to prepare.
It was noticeably warmer inside, but Chen had been expecting that. He quickly shed his outer robe, stashing it near the door. Underneath he wore only thin armor of silk and leather strips, as well as the thick furred boots common to Moto riders. He drew his katana quietly and crept through the outer chambers toward the central chamber. The outermost walls were wooden, but there was more stone the farther inward he went. The heat that the foundry put out made wood a risk.
There were very few people in the chamber as far as Chen could tell. It only made sense, he supposed, since a large number of agents would draw attention to the operation, and the Kolat despised attention. Eidan had told him there would be over a dozen heavily armed agents. From what Chen knew, the Kolat used this remote facility to melt down raw materials and counterfeit koku with the mon of various clans. It was treason of the first order.
The Unicorn lands would be free of this filth. He swore it.
Chen slid quietly into the main chamber. In the center was a large container much like a cauldron or cooking pot, only far larger. A deep fire pit was dug beneath it and stoked to a fierce temperature. Even across the room, Chen could hear the boiling liquid within the container. While he watched, a trio of bare-chested men dumped the contents of a heavy chest into the container. Chen saw a large amount of raw metal fall into the container. The men quickly retreated from the unbearable heat.
Across the chamber was a fat, sweaty man with a narrow moustache and a rather unpleasant grin. He rubbed his hands together constantly and eyed the melting pot like a starving man might regard a feast at Kyuden Doji. "I have the molds ready!" he said loudly to the others. "When will the metal be finished?"
"We just put it in, Baruma-sama," one of the men offered. "It will be several hours."
"Bah!" the fat man said, clearly irritated. "We must have this shipment ready in two days! You must stoke the fire! We have no time!" He waved his hands dismissively and returned to the papers on the low desk near the wall, occasionally favoring the three men with withering glares. The men shared a long-suffering look and began gathering wood to stoke the fire.
Chen carefully considered his options. He could not allow this effrontery to continue. His loyalty to the Khan demanded that the foundry be destroyed. Yet if he was to find out more about the Kolat's operations, he needed answers. The fat man was clearly in charge, so he must be taken alive. It would be difficult, as he looked to be the sort to flee at the first sign of danger. He would have to be incapacitated first.
Chen drew his wakizashi and changed it to his right hand. He weighed it carefully and took aim. He stepped from the shadows and hurled the blade with all his might. The blade flew across the room and sliced deeply into the man's shoulder, driving him back against the wall and pinning him there. The fat man shrieked like a terrified child and immediately began pawing at the blade, slicing his fingers badly.
The three men stoking the fire turned to face Chen even as he lunged forward. The first was killed before he even assumed a fighting stance, but the second slammed into Chen bodily, knocking him to the floor. The third man grabbed a flaming log from the fire pit and advanced toward the two grapplers, a sinister grin on his face. Chen knew he had only seconds before he was crushed or burned. He drove his knee up into his opponent's midsection, driving the air out of his lungs. Chen then managed to get one arm free and crushed the man's jaw with his elbow, sending him reeling. Chen rolled desperately away, but the third man's shadow fell across him and he knew he was about to die.
A dull thudding sound reached Chen's ears, and for a moment he thought that it was the sound of the final blow crushing his skull. Instead, it was followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor. Chen leapt up into a defensive stance to find the third man dead on the floor, an arrow sprouting from his forehead. A swift kick finished the second man, and Chen spun to search for the source of the shot.
There. On the second floor that overlooked the melting chamber, a man in non-descript robes stood with a yumi. "Be at ease, Moto Chen," he said soothingly. "I mean you no harm."
"I don't think I'll trust anyone in here," Chen said. "Perhaps I'd rather just kill you and be done with it."
The man shook his head. "I will be gone by the time you reach this level, Chen-sama. The situation is more complex than you can understand. My master has sent me to bring you the gift of understanding."
"Lies," snarled Chen.
"I believe you would know if I lied," the man said plainly.
Chen cursed inwardly. He had already used the pearl Akasha had given him. He had used it to locate the stronghold, weeding Eidan's lies from the truth. But how did this one know of the pearl at all? "Perhaps," Chen said, reaching into a pouch on his belt. Perhaps the man would not know that Chen had already exhausted the pearl's power. "Who do you serve?"
"I am not allowed to reveal that, Chen-sama. But I did bring this." He held forth a pair of sealed scrolls. "They will reveal that which you need to know."
"Is this a trap?"
The man chuckled. "Not a trap. A mutually beneficial arrangement."
Chen frowned thoughtfully. To his practiced ear, the man did not seem to be lying but without Akasha's pearl there was no way to be sure. He nodded at the archer. The man speared the documents on the tip of an arrow and fired it into the ground at Chen's feet. "Good day to you, Chen-sama." He bowed and then disappeared through a doorway behind him.
Chen considered chasing the man, but knew there was no use. He had come from nowhere, and no doubt could return there just as swiftly. Instead, he approached the scrolls, prodding them carefully with the tip of his blade. They did not appear to be unusual in any way. One bore the Crab mon. With determination, Chen broke the seal and read it.
I hope that my agent will be able to give me a first hand account of your mission against our mutual enemy. You do not know me, but we share a common enemy.
The letter attached to this scroll was intended to be delivered to you, but was intercepted by our common enemy. I give it to you now, and ask nothing in return. Consider it a demonstration of my value as an ally. I am certain that you will find it most enlightening.
In addition, I offer you whatever aid I can, and that is not inconsiderable. Whatever I may offer you in your campaign, whether it be resources or information, I will gladly give it.
Discretion is our utmost priority.
Chen frowned. He knew very little of this Jinn-Kuen, although he had heard of his reputation at commerce. He was a shady character, a man the Ide merchants were wary of dealing with though he often offered opportunities other merchants could not match.
Like this, Chen thought as he unrolled the second scroll. His eyes widened as he saw what it contained. The letter bore the mark of Yoritomo Kumiko, the Daughter of Storms. Its contents brought a devilish smile to Chen's face.
Tucking the second scroll in his obi alongside the first, the fallen general turned back to his captive. Even if he was no closer to his objective, at least the hunt had grown more interesting.
TO BE CONTINUED