Treachery's Coin, Part II
Three months ago…
The dank smell of the cave caused Yasuki Jinn-Kuen to frown with distaste. It did not matter how much the caves were cloaked in finery and luxury. When it rained, they stank. Why Moshi Shanegon would select such a filthy place for his seat of power was beyond him.
The merchant entered Master Coin's audience chamber. Though it was just a rough cave, Jinn-Kuen was taken aback by the sheer extremes of the treasures that decorated it. Art from the Kakita Academy, masterpieces from the Shiba provinces, koku in vast quantities… it was too much to take in at one time.
"Yasuki Jinn-Kuen," Master Coin said, his voice thick with sarcasm as he leaned back on a grand golden throne, obviously an import from some gaijin land. "How nice of you to join us."
"Forgive my tardiness, Master Coin." Jinn-Kuen's voice quavered slightly. He glanced quickly at Nadeka, the hulking Ox Clan advisor who was never far from Coin's side. "There was a storm that delayed my arrival."
"I am well aware of the storm, thank you," Coin said impatiently. "Your delay has robbed me of all courtesy, I fear, and so I will get straight to the heart of the matter." He leaned forward in his throne and stared pointedly at Jinn-Kuen. His golden mask, the mask of a Kolat Master, was impassive. "What contact have you had with the Unicorn?"
"What?" stammered Jinn-Kuen.
"Do not mistake me for a fool, Yasuki!" Coin shouted. "Moto Chaozhu! What contact have you had with him?"
"I… I offered him the assistance he needed to begin his vengeance against his brother," said Jinn-Kuen. "When he ran short of funds, he was contacted by Master Tiger's agents. That's all I have had to do with him."
"And what exactly were your plans with this Chaozhu?" inquired Nadeka softly.
"It was for the good of the Coin Sect!" insisted Jinn-Kuen. "Moto Chaozhu has a pronounced hatred for his brother, General Moto Chen! If we can sculpt that ambition to our purposes, we can turn Chaozhu into a willing pawn and regain the ground we have lost within the Unicorn Clan!"
"I find your motives suspect," Nadeka said. His even, calm tone was somehow terribly menacing. Jinn-Kuen found it difficult to meet his gaze. "If this plan was to the good of the Coin, then why did you not report it to us?"
"Suspect indeed," Master Coin agreed. "Your activities border on treasonous, Jinn-Kuen. This is too delicate a time to allow a suspect agent to continue to operate, especially within your family."
"I can prove my loyalty!" repeated Jinn-Kuen, his voice nearly a shriek. "I will gladly turn over all correspondence to you without hesitation, Master Coin. You can continue as you see fit! Only tell me when you wish it done and it will be."
"Immediately," Coin said, pointing back down the tunnel that led to the docks. "See to it at once. Turn everything over to Nadeka within a week's time, or you will suffer for your insolence."
"I will see to it personally," Nadeka added. There was a hint of eager anticipation in his voice.
"Yes, Master Coin. Thank you, master. I shall be more discriminating in the future." Jinn-Kuen bowed deeply, touching his forehead to the grimy cave floor before hurrying from the chamber. As he left, he glanced one last time at Nadeka, bowing his head respectfully. The Ox samurai's gaze had never left Yasuki Jinn-Kuen.
In the dimly lit tunnel, there was no one to see the Yasuki's smile.
"You seem troubled, Chen-san!" Yoritomo Kumiko's words were bright and cheerful, much like the woman who spoke them. Chen found her enthusiasm quite contagious until he looked into her eyes. The cheer never reached her eyes. There was a haunted look there. It reminded Chen of himself, and not in a way he cared to remember.
"This is not like riding a horse at all," he grumbled, taking great care to keep his balance as he crossed the deck of the rapidly moving kobune.
Kumiko laughed. "Of course not! The two things are nothing alike. Did you expect them to be?"
"A Crab told me it would be like riding a horse," he said, gripping the railing for balance.
Kumiko laughed. "There are many times to trust a Crab's expertise, but seamanship and horsemanship are not among them," she said.
"He seemed sure of himself," Chen replied.
"And I am sure he is laughing now," Kumiko said, grinning. "Have no fear. You will become accustomed to it within a few hours. Even the most hopeless mainlanders do."
"I look forward to it," he said blandly, looking over the railing to the choppy ocean. He wished he had not eaten before coming on board. He contemplated disposing of his meal right then and there, but decided he had had enough humiliation for one day. Knowing the Mantis, they would have some colorful metaphor for such a thing that would follow him for the rest of his life."
"Considering a gift to the sea?" asked a sailor as he passed, confirming his suspicions.
"I knew it," he said doggedly. "But enough of this. Are we far enough out to sea yet?"
"Yes," said Kumiko. Her playful demeanor disappeared instantly, and was replaced by a hard, cold edge that surprised Chen. "I know every man on board this vessel. None will betray us. If you have information, you can speak it freely."
The Unicorn general nodded. He withdrew a small slip of paper from his obi and handed it to Kumiko. "Do you know this place?"
"I do. It's a small port in the Phoenix lands, along the coast between the Agasha and Shiba provinces. Very little trade comes and goes through there anymore. It was briefly important during the War of Spirits."
"The Kolat have a stronghold there," Chen said. "The counterfeit koku they have been creating in Unicorn lands travels through there."
Kumiko frowned. "The trading routes are not far from this port, even if very few stop there. It will be difficult to determine one ship from another."
"The ships do not interest me. I intend to destroy their stronghold in the city."
"Very daring," Kumiko said with an appreciative nod. "I hope your information is correct."
"I trust the man who gave it to me," Chen said. Kumiko looked at him quizzically. "I can not tell you his name," Chen added, "but he has given me aid when there was no reason to do so. His enemies are our enemies, it seems."
Kumiko shrugged. "If you trust him, I see no reason not to."
"You are a trusting sort. I would not have expected that from your clan's reputation."
Kumiko shrugged. "Do you know how far it is from here to land?" she asked.
"How far?" Chen asked.
Kumiko looked over the rail, toward the bottom of the sea. "Not far," she said meaningfully. "This is why I trust you. You trust me more, though you do not realize it." She smiled again, though this time there was no humor in it.
Chen nodded soberly. "We cannot hope to oppose them openly with only the crew of this ship. We will need stealth and surprise if we have any hope of victory."
"Just this ship? Do you think me so stingy with my favors, Chen-san?"
A shout came from the front of the ship before Chen could respond. Kumiko only smiled. "Perfect timing," she said. "Come with me." The two walked quickly to the prow of the kobune and stared out over the rolling waves. Chen looked for a few moments, but saw nothing. "There," Kumiko said, directing his attention. Chen squinted to make out some indistinct form on the horizon, then drew back in surprise.
Two men were walking across the ocean. Though they appeared to be walking at a casual pace, they moved toward the ship with incredible speed, and seemed to be upon them in only a few moments. Chen stepped back as the two men rose from the surface of the sea on a column of water and stepped casually onto the deck. The Unicorn placed his hand on his blade reflexively.
"Be at ease, Chen," Kumiko admonished. "These are two of my most trusted advisors. May I present Yoritomo Komori and Yoritomo Kaigen." Both men bowed to Chen, then turned and bowed very deeply to Kumiko. The older one kept a careful eye on Chen as he did so.
"That was… remarkable," Chen finally said.
"Komori is my guardian," Kumiko said, "and Kaigen is the grand master of the temple at Tempest Island, where the Storm Riders dwell. They are our family's most powerful shugenja. As you can see, they hold domain over the sea with little difficulty. Few know of them, but they support their true Champion and will be rewarded accordingly."
Chen raised his eyebrows. "Their true Champion?"
"It is not your concern," Komori said.
"Nonsense," Kumiko corrected. "If we are to be allies, there should be no secrets." She turned to the Unicorn general. "This is a time of conflict within the Mantis Clan, though both sides have taken pains to conceal it. Komori and these others have joined with me to insure that Yoritomo's rightful heir becomes Mantis Champion as it should be."
"I did not know Yoritomo had a son," Chen said.
"He didn't," Kumiko said with a subtle smile. Her hand rested on the kama tucked behind her obi. Chen noticed for the first time how finely crafted they were, weapons worthy of a clan daimyo.
Chen nodded. "I have heard the men call you 'Daughter of Storms.' I take it that is not just an empty title. Is this why you have chosen to aid me?"
"We both have to regain titles that are rightfully ours, General Chen," she answered. "Already my Yoritomo Elite Guard have taken Kyuden Gotei and regained our clan's Celestial Sword. I do not believe even Kitao would be involved with the Kolat, though I do suspect they had more to do with Aramasu's death than it seems. By wiping them from our midst I will gain more support and respect from my clan. By helping you, we help ourselves, though that does not relieve you of upholding your end of our bargain."
Chen shrugged. "Your war against Kitao is not my concern. I will perform as we agreed, and take things from there."
"Fair enough," Kumiko said. She seemed nonplussed, but Komori scowled despite his earlier comments.
"You both have my thanks," Chen said, nodding to the shugenja. "Your assistance will be invaluable."
"There are Mantis among the Kolat. Traitors must be purged," Komori said. "That you benefit from the action is merely an extra incentive," he added dourly.
"We have assembled the troops you require, my lady Kumiko-sama," Kaigen added. "The ships are hidden nearby. We await your command."
"Hidden?" asked Chen.
"It is best not to inquire into the Storm Riders' methods, Chen-san," Kumiko said. "I have finally learned not to ask questions. It is easier to accept their word." She turned back to the two shugenja. "When we prepare to attack, we will depend upon you, my friends. Our approach must be masked, and none of the Kolat can be allowed to escape. That will be your task."
"As you wish," Komori said.
"Why not let me destroy them for you, my lady?" Kaigen asked calmly. The terrible ease with which he discussed the destruction of an entire port chilled Chen. "There is no need for you to risk your life."
"No," she said firmly. "We must investigate their holdings. Whatever dark secrets the Kolat have can only be deciphered with more information. I want to know what they are doing."
Kaigen nodded in acceptance. "Whatever you wish shall be, Kumiko-sama."
"There will be an Ox samurai among the Kolat there," Chen said. "He is one of Coin's most trusted advisors. No one but me shall touch him. I must send a message to Master Coin."
"What?" demanded Komori. "You expect to send him home with a scroll tucked in his obi? Preposterous."
"That is not the sort of message I had in mind," Chen said darkly.
Kaigen chuckled. "Perhaps I will like you after all, Unicorn."
Kumiko's forces had been everything she promised and more. Six full kobune fully loaded with Mantis warriors had met her command vessel shortly after the two shugenja came on board, and together the ships had sailed north toward the Phoenix lands. With Komori and Kaigen's assistance, the ships made incredible time, and on the evening of the second day, the port came into view on the horizon.
When night came, Kaigen summoned a thick fog that blanketed the entire coast. Komori quieted the water kami so that the ships could approach without detection. Once docked, Kumiko and Chen led the bushi across the piers to the warehouses Chen had specified. The few external sentries were dealt with quickly, and the warehouses were penetrated as quietly as possible. Kaigen and Komori remained outside to deal with anyone who attempted to flee.
The battle exploded into chaos within moments, and Kumiko was at the head of the charge. She leapt through the doorway into the warehouse's main chamber, followed by dozens of her finest men. She cut the first Kolat nearly in half with a devastating double strike from her kama before he even realized what was happening. To her disgust, she recognized him as a Moshi who had visited Kyuden Gotei some weeks ago.
"Scum!" Kumiko shouted. "Show these fools how the Mantis deal with traitors!"
The Mantis bushi accompanying Kumiko needed little encouragement. The Yoritomo Elite Guard had not earned their reputation undeservedly. They tore through their foes like a strong wind through dry grass. The first warehouse was overtaken in mere moments, and Kumiko led the charge into the second.
Kumiko's laughter was bright, but tinged with a manic energy. She burst through the door of the second warhouse and exploded into motion, moving like a ghost across the much larger floor. Death and chaos followed in her wake. None could match her speed. None could stop her brutal assault. Her twin blades tore one man open from shoulder to shoulder, and she laughed madly as he fell to the ground in a shower of blood.
Another came at her. Kumiko danced easily away from his clumsy strikes and lashed out playfully with her kama. The blow tore flesh from the man's neck, sending a thick gout of blood running down his arm. Kumiko smiled grimly as the main cried out in pain, burying the blade of her second kama between his eyes.
Combat swirled all around the Daughter of Storms. Her eyes flitted from one target to the next. The smell of blood filled her nostrils. Her head swam with the endless violence. Something black stirred deep inside her. Intoxicated with the carnage unfolding before her eyes, Kumiko reached for the vast reserves of untapped strength, deep within her.
"KUMIKO!" Komori's voice paralyzed her as it echoed through her mind. Her smile disappeared instantly. "What are you doing?"
"Destroying my enemies," she rasped. She suddenly realized her tattered clothes now dripped with the blood of the Kolat she had killed. "They are traitors. They are worse than Kitao. They deserve no better."
"Are they worth your soul?" Komori's voice was stern, unforgiving. The steel that was his soul resonated through her mind as his magic brought the words to her.
"No," she whispered.
"Yours is the soul of the Mantis," his voice intoned, beginning the mantra she had known her entire life.
"Mine is the soul of the Mantis," she repeated. "I cannot know weakness, nor doubt, nor failure. So long as I admit no defeat, there can be no defeat." The words were familiar, comforting. She had repeated them to herself countless times during her short life, and would continue to do so until such time as she no longer needed to steel her soul against the Taint.
Another enemy approached, a spiked, bloodied club in his hands. Kumiko cut him down without thinking, lost as she was in her thoughts. He writhed on the floor in a death spasm, his life rapidly leaking away through the terrible wound she had inflicted to his throat. Kumiko found herself fascinated by the growing pool of blood at her feet. The dark impulse welled up within her again, demanding that she carve the dying man's heart. The vision of it was so powerful that she staggered a step.
"So long as I admit no defeat, there can be no defeat," she repeated again, grinding her teeth to drive the dark image from her mind. She hefted her kama to the heavens. "I am Yoritomo Kumiko, Daughter of Storms!" she screamed. "No man or god holds dominion over the Mantis! YORITOMO!"
The other Mantis shouted their devotion to Kumiko and the clan above the din of the battle, their simultaneous cry echoing like a peal of thunder. Drawing on their strength, Kumiko turned from the visions of blood and darkness and reentered the battle.
Oblivious to Kumiko's inner struggle, Chen had reached the main chamber. The
fight had not been easy. Although his enemies were weak, they were more numerous
than he had expected. Now, however, all was silent. Chen stepped into a narrow
hall on the second floor of the building. A man in black armor polished so
brightly that it was nearly blue stood before him.
"Nadeka," Chen said, recognizing the Ox samurai from Jinn Kuen's description. "Why would a servant of Morito sell his honor for the Kolat?"
Nadeka said nothing. He drew his strange gaijin blade and set it aside, drawing a long knife from his belt instead. In such close quarters, the weapon would serve far better than a katana.
Chen drew his tanto as well and launched himself at Nadeka, closing the distance between the two men in an instant. He attacked once, twice, three times before Nadeka could offer a counterattack. It was almost immediately obvious that Nadeka was better with a knife, but Chen's strange fighting style was not one that the Ox had seen before, and he struggled to parry the quick, darting strikes. Chen snarled fiercely when his blade penetrated Nadeka's defenses and sliced a long, jagged wound across his chest, but his expression changed to pain when Nadeka answered with a crippling wound to the arm.
From nowhere, one of Nadeka's men stumbled into the hallway behind them, obviously lost in his attempt to escape the warehouse. Without pausing, Nadeka seized the man by the shoulders and shoved him at Chen. Caught unaware, the general staggered backwards out of the end of the hall before he forced the man away and onto the waiting blades of a Mantis bushi.
Nadeka was on top of him in an instant. The Ox samurai pinned Chen's knife hand to the ground and stabbed downward with his blade, a murderous gleam in his eyes. Chen caught Nadeka's knife arm by the wrist, the blade only a hair's width from his left eye. The Ox leaned in close. "You shouldn't have come, fool!" he hissed, spittle raining down on Chen's face.
Snarling, Chen kneed Nadeka solidly in the midsection, pushed the knife aside, and lunged upward, smashing Nadeka's face with his forehead. He felt several teeth break, and he felt others bite deep enough into his forehead to scrape bone. He drew back and smashed into Nadeka's again, and felt the Ox's grip slacken somewhat. Chen lunged upward, rolling both men across the floor to collide with several crates along the western wall. Nadeka's knife went tumbling from his hand.
Within seconds, Chen pinned Nadeka, helpless. His arms looped around Nadeka' shoulders, his hands linked behind the Ox's head. He sat on the man's back, holding him firmly to the ground. Nadeka clawed backwards at Chen's face desperately, but he had no leverage with which to make a real strike.
"What are you waiting for, Unicorn?" Nadeka asked. "Kill me!"
"No," Chen growled, tightening his grip on the Ox. "We will question you first, Nadeka. We shall see how much of their plans the Kolat Masters share with their pawns."
"Pawn?" Nadeka chuckled. "I am not the pawn here, General.'"
Chen frowned, confused by the man's words, but Nadeka had suddenly gone limp in his arms. Chen looked down at Nadeka's face. A gout of blood spurted from the Ox's lips as his eyes rolled back in his head.
"He has bitten off his tongue," Yoritomo Kaigen said, looking down at the Ox with a grave expression as he approached. "He would die rather than risk torture."
"No matter," Chen said, standing and kicking the body aside in disgust. "We have learned enough."
In his heart, he was not so sure.
As the sun began to rise above the horizon, Moto Chen took stock of the situation. One of the three warehouses had been burned to the ground by a fire that had broken out during the fighting. Komori and Kaigen had kept it from spreading, fortunately, but some of Kumiko's men had been killed. The others were busy searching through the chaotic aftermath. A handful of Kolat had been taken alive, but they seemed to know nothing of Master Coin's greater operations. Some documents had been found, but Komori's progress in deciphering the Kolat script was going slowly.
Kaigen had offered to "encourage" them to speak, and Chen considered the man's offer, but he decided against it. Coercion and manipulation were Chaozhu's way. That was not who he was. The battle had driven the self-doubt from his mind.
"A good fight," Kumiko offered, joining him on the dock. She had dealt with the Phoenix magistrates in town in very short order. They were eager to overlook the Mantis invasion if it prevented knowledge of the Kolat's involvement from becoming commonplace. Chen could only nod in mute agreement. The Daughter of Storms had lived up to her promise and more. She had personally accounted for over a dozen of their foes, and had lost several of her men in the fight. All had been loyal, skilled warriors. Such losses would make Kumiko's struggle for control of the Mantis more difficult, no matter how much the Kolat purge would gain her favor. Kumiko had not mentioned it, however, and Chen did not know how to adequately express his thanks. So he said nothing.
Kumiko looked up at the fallen general, an inquisitive look in her eyes. "I assume this fulfills my part of our bargain." It was not really a question.
Chen grunted. "I will introduce you to the ones you seek. You have done far more than I expected. I can only do the same in return."
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Praise the Fortunes." She clapped the Unicorn on the shoulder in the manner of his people. "I have waited to hear those words for a long time, Chen."
"Then return to Unicorn lands with me," Chen replied. "You will find the Naga, and I will find answers."
Under normal circumstances, the trip from Phoenix lands to the Moto provinces could take up to a month. Driven by his desire for closure, Moto Chen pushed his steed to the breaking point and arrived in just over two weeks. Kumiko was clearly uncomfortable during the journey, but she did not offer complaint. Inwardly, Chen acknowledged that his respect for the Daughter of Storms grew each day he knew her.
Chen's family estate was not lavish, but it was comfortable. The home he had grown up in was the largest structure in the village his vassals oversaw in his absence, and within moments of arriving he felt as if he were truly home again. The fact that this was truly his place now that his brother had been given domain over Chen's army was a bitter memory, but it was still good to be home.
"How long will we be here?" was all Kumiko had asked. Chen assured her that it would be a day or two at most. Truthfully, they only had to wait until morning.
Chen was awakened the next morning by a gentle touch on his cheek. "Awaken, lover," Akasha's sweet voice whispered in his ear. "It's time." For once, Chen managed to overcome distraction, which Akasha so often presented, and bathed quickly. Despite his ordeal, it would be unseemly to be appear unkempt before his guests.
In less than an hour, Chen greeted his guests in the main chamber. Kumiko was already there, looking perplexed. "I apologize for making you wait," he offered. "The trip was a difficult one."
"You need not apologize, General," hissed Ghedai. "Your business is important, and patience is one virtue I can claim." The Naga jakla's massive tail was coiled tightly, giving him a considerable height advantage over everyone else in the room. His large hood fanned out over his shoulders like a cobra, only adding to his intimidating appearance.
"Please, Ghedai-sama," Chen said, his face darkening. "I am a general no more. Simply call me Chen."
Ghedai smirked. "Among my people, we do not have names. Our titles refer to our purpose in this world. Your purpose is to be a leader of men, General, even if you currently have no troops. I call you 'General' for that is what you are." Ghedai took a deep, sibilant breath.
"Thank you, Ghedai-sama," Chen said, bowing to the Naga and the two women. "I asked you to come here that I might show you something most disturbing." He gestured to servants waiting at the door. They disappeared and returned, the four of them carrying two chests between them. "These chests were taken from a Kolat stronghold in the Phoenix lands. I managed to connect them to documents I found in a similar stronghold in the southern Ide provinces." Chen knelt down and opened one of the chests, which contained a vast amount of koku minted with the mons of different clans. "These coins are made here, in the Unicorn lands."
"Curious," hissed the Naga. "I always found it strange that your people valued wealth so highly that even symbols of wealth were treasure."
"Counterfeit coins?" Akasha asked.
"And good ones," Kumiko said. "The design of the koku makes it most difficult to produce a counterfeit to the discerning eye."
"But even more curious is this," Chen added. He leaned down and opened the other chest, which was completely filled with large, flawless pearls. Ghedai's eyes widened. "We also found several of these chests, which appear to be…"
"Naga pearls!" exclaimed Akasha.
"Taken from the undersea pearl beds guarded by the ningyo, most likely," Chen agreed.
"What is the meaning of this?" Ghedai insisted, his voice so sharp and quick his words were almost undecipherable. His voice might have been angry, but it was difficult to tell with the Naga. The tip of his tail flicked back and forth.
"We do not know, Ghedai-sama," Chen said. "Somehow, what the Kolat are doing involves these pearls. This is why I asked you to come here. I thought perhaps you could help us understand."
"I do not know, General," Ghedai said. "But I assure you I will find out. These pearls are sacred. Their magic maintains my race's peaceful slumber. To remove them could cost countless innocent lives. This blasphemy cannot be allowed to continue. Fortunately, your people protect the great Shinomen. Perhaps further incursions can be avoided."
"My people?" asked Chen.
"Yes," hissed Ghedai. "The Chagatai has sent one of your armies to defend and protect the forest. The Yokatsu's son leads the army, along with your own clutchmate, Chaozhu."
"Chaozhu!" exploded Chen. "He cannot be trusted! He may be involved in this!"
The Naga hissed and swayed from side to side, clearly distressed. "This is most disturbing, General. If the army defending the forest has been compromised, there will be no safety for my people. I cannot defend them alone."
"If we had an army of our own, things would be different." Chen slammed the pearl chest shut with a scowl. "We could end this once and for all."
"An army," said Ghedai quietly. "What you ask may be possible, General. If you are willing."
"Sensei?" Akasha asked, looking at Ghedai curiously.
"The bloodline of the Asp are my people's warriors," Ghedai said. "I believe if we can communicate our need to them, I can awaken some of them. But it will be difficult. They will require focus. They will require a leader." Ghedai looked at Chen. "General."
"Very well," Chen said. "Tell me what I must do."
"You must join me in the Shinomen." Ghedai said, fairly undulating with energy now. "There we can begin the ritual."
"Hai," Chen said. "But first, I must ask you a favor, Ghedai-sama." Seeing the jakla's inquisitive look, Chen continued. "I have an oath to fulfill. A promise to Kumiko-san." He nodded to the Daughter of Storms. "I need Akasha's help. With your permission, we will rejoin you in the Shinomen as soon as possible."
"So be it," the Naga said, his voice hushed. "But you must hurry. Time is of the essence."
Master Coin sat in solitude in his private chambers. Another of his facilities had been destroyed, and this time Nadeka had been lost as well. Things were degenerating quickly, and there seemed to be nothing he could do to stem the tide. If he could not regain control soon…
"Contemplating the enormity of your failure, Master Coin?" A robed figure emerged from the shadows of the tunnel that lead into the chamber. "Or simply wondering what lies to tell your fellow masters?"
The man wore a featureless black robe and a simple golden mask. Only the symbol on the mask's crest distinguished the visitor from Coin, but that was a symbol that no Kolat failed to recognize. It was a symbol of fear.
The symbol of the Tiger.
Those who failed the Kolat faced the Tiger.
"Master Tiger!" Coin exclaimed. He leapt up from his seat, knocking over a priceless crystal goblet of wine imported from the Ivory Kingdoms. The sound brought a guard from an adjoining chamber, but he quickly vanished again when he saw Coin's visitor. "I did not know you were coming."
"If any man saw my coming, he would take steps to avoid it, neh?" Tiger lazily trailed one finger along the rich fabric of a tapestry hanging on the wall. "I could hardly accomplish my duties if I did so."
Coin swallowed. "I assume you have heard."
"I have," Tiger confirmed. "You disappoint me, Moshi Shanegon. I expected better of you." Not all the Master's knew Coin's identity. Tiger did. There was little Tiger did not know.
"It was Moto Chen," Shanegon said lamely. "The fallen general."
"That your operations could be disrupted by a man without troops, resources, or even a clan to call upon hardly paints you in a fairer light, Shanegon," Tiger said. Master Tiger stood motionless, his black robes unmoving. His voice seemed to echo from somewhere within the voluminous robes.
Coin licked his lips nervously. He could think of nothing to say. There was no excuse Tiger would accept.
"This matter has attracted too much attention," Tiger said. "It needs to be resolved immediately. If it cannot be resolved to your benefit, it will be resolved to the Kolat's benefit."
Shanegon shook his head. "Chen could not have done this alone," he said. "He must be getting information from somewhere. I… I don't know what to do."
Tiger shook his head. "A pity for you, then, that I know exactly what to do."
Shanegon's eyes widened behind his mask. "Give me time, Master Tiger," he begged. "I will find a way. I swear."
"See that you do," Tiger replied. "Fortunately, there are others within your sect who are prepared to pick up the pieces should you fail. I suppose that comes as small consolation to you, however."
Again, Shanegon could think of no response. Tiger apparently needed none, and disappeared down the corridor as quickly as he had appeared. A moment later, the guard who had entered the chamber a moment before approached Coin. "Master, what is your command? How do we appease Master Tiger?"
"We don't," Coin croaked. "The fact that Tiger chose to threaten me at all is a blessing, an expression of thanks for all that we have done. It could just as well have been Master Lotus, and then we would not be here."
"So what do we do?" the guard asked.
Shanegon paused for a long moment. "This is a problem best fixed by time and distance. We still have allies among the Roc Sect. As soon as Tiger's ship is out of sight, begin loading the largest vessel we have. We will set sail for the Ivory Kingdoms."
"Hai!" The guard disappeared down the corridor after Tiger. Licking his lips again, Moshi Shanegon could only hope to get far enough away fast enough to avoid Master Tiger's punishment.
TO BE CONTINUED