Autumn IC 1122, Shiro Shiba
Shiro Shiba was ablaze with colour. The haphazard donjons and towers streamed banners of orange and scarlet, reflecting the glowing autumn colours of the trees and gardens tucked away in surprise courtyards around the strange castle grounds. Shiba soldiers shining in orange and black and steel lined the walls, the yards, and the open court at the top of the castle grounds was full of the warriors of the Phoenix. At the entrance to the small castle keep at the very top of the hill was a small party of Shiba and Isawa dignitaries, resplendent in the glorious colours of the Phoenix clan.
Shiba Mayori stood at attention among her sister and brother bushi. The discipline of years of training kept her back straight and her eyes fixed ahead, despite the cold of the autumn morning creeping through her armour. Rank after rank of the best of the Shiba soldiers were on display today, to pay respect to the visiting Isawa leaders. No, just one Isawa now, Mayori thought. One Isawa and one Yogo – what a strange thought, now the Shiba are serving the Yogo as they had served the Isawa for centuries… Mayori resisted the urge to shake her head as she dragged her thoughts back to the present.
Isawa Uona was speaking now. Mayori searched her memory to recall what had been said while her thoughts were wandering. The Shiba general on the stairs with Isawa Uona had finished his long speech of respect for the fallen Isawa leader Tsuke. There had been long descriptions of Tsuke’s might on the battlefield, the loyalty of the Shiba who had fought under his command, how no other leader commanded such respect, etc. This is when Mayori’s mind had started to wander. She herself had never served directly under Isawa Tsuke’s leadership, but of course she held him in respect – she had heard plenty of stories about the Firestorm Legion in battle against the Lion Clan. But surely it was not necessary to go on with tales and words like that. Mayori imagined that the great Isawa Tsuke would be a man of action, not one to listen to speeches and many words. The Shiba soldiers showed their respect for their general by fighting without question, serving without complaint, just as the Kami Shiba had sworn they would. No amount of flowery words could describe this loyalty.
Isawa Uona was speaking graciously about the Phoenix clan champion, drawing Mayori’s attention. “Shiba Ujimitsu-dono is doing great work for the Clan, and wherever he is he will surely hear our call. The Emperor requires a new Emerald Champion, and there is none in the Empire who could serve better than our own Champion. The Emperor is in great need, and thus the Phoenix Clan, and Ujimitsu-dono, will do all that we can to serve.”
Shiba Ujimitsu-dono serves, for certain, Mayori thought, but where? He has been gone from this castle since before my gempukku – will this be enough to call him home?
“And so the word will be carried to every Phoenix stronghold…” Uona continued. Of course, even she doesn’t know where he is. But she has faith in him, as do we all. He will come when he is needed. Mayori was content with the thought that her leader would serve when he was needed, and until then her brothers and sisters served the Isawa in his stead. It had always been so, it would always be so.
Isawa Uona was elaborating on exactly this topic. “… the strength of the Phoenix lies not in our blood ties, or mere oaths of fealty as it does for other clans, lesser samurai. It is as Shiba dreamt at the beginning, when he gave the name to our people – we are not separate, but one and the same. I am the reflection of your soul just as you are the manifestation of mine. We are death reborn, immortality through a thousand lifetimes. We are the cycle of the cosmos, spinning in patterns as old as time. We will die in flames, only to rise again and again until the sky itself collapses. We are the Phoenix — the Eye of Eternity. The strength and unity of the Phoenix lies our one promise, one purpose. That purpose is to serve and to protect. Shiba swore to protect Isawa’s people, so that Isawa could go with Shinsei, to defeat the darkness and to protect the Empire. Now the time has come for us – and Ujimitsu-sama – to make that sacrifice too. He must go to protect the Empire, the Emperor, and we will serve and protect his people in his place, as Shiba did for Isawa.”
As Uona finished her oration, Mayori became aware of a disturbance behind her. It was not movement or talking, but rather like a gasp running through the crowd. Strict training kept Mayori in line and all of her fellow bushi around her too. But her eyes strained to her right, trying to see what had caught the breath of her brethren. Her own gasp escaped when she saw the figure striding through the ranks.
Few had seen Ujimitsu in the last several years, and Mayori had not seen him personally – not since she was a young child, ten years ago. But she was immediately certain this was her Champion, finally in person. His clothes were traditional warriors robes, yet intricate with gold and flame colours; but his sandals were well worn, in contrast to the rest of his clothes. As always described, he wore no armour, just two swords at his side, gold glittering in the sun. Mayori saw his serene face for a moment as he strode silently between the ranks of bushi and up to the stairs. She found herself falling to one knee in unison with the soldiers around her as Ujimitsu passed. The Shiba leaders, Isawa shugenja and Isawa Uona herself bowed at his approach.
Isawa Uona greeted the Clan Champion. “Shiba Ujimitsu-sama, we are grateful that you have heard our call. I did not expect to find you so soon – your duties keep you very busy, none question that. But the Emperor has great need of a new Champion, and among the Phoenix there is none more worthy than…” Uona trailed off as Ujimitsu neared the stairs.
Mayori dared to sneak a glance up at the stairs, at her leaders. As she did she was relieved to see she was not alone in her curiosity, many others were also looking up, disturbed by the strange tone in Uona’s voice.
“My lord, my Champion, is – is there something wrong?” Uona’s voice was almost trembling. Mayori saw Ujimitsu’s hand on the hilt of the katana, his grip tightening as he mounted the first step. His face was turned away from the crowd, looking toward the Isawa leader higher on the stairs, but the fear in Uona’s face told Mayori how he must look. Mayori felt the breeze across the courtyard start to pick up, blowing toward the stair and the frightened shugenja there.
Isawa Uona backed a hesitant step away, then two steps, but it was not enough. Ujimitsu drew his blade and struck in one swift motion. The wind suddenly became a gale, but it was not enough to stop the blow. Uona fell with a small cry, blood across her face and kimono. In the moment following the strike, the Clan Champion did not stop, continuing to stride up the stairs at a smooth pace. The Shiba leaders and Isawa shugenja parted before him, bewildered and unsure of what had happened. Ujimitsu did not stop at the entrance to the keep – but rather than enter the doorway, he suddenly leaped up, grasping the tiled roof and pulled himself up, bloody katana still in hand. For a moment he glanced back down at the figures below, the bloodied Isawa Uona and the ranks of Shiba soldiers. Then he ran along the roof, jumped from the tiles to a nearby wall, and then again leaped lightly over the wall and was gone.
The few seconds of confusion passed and everyone sprung into action. The Isawa shugenja rushed to the fallen Uona; and as they crowded around, Mayori could not see if the Isawa leader was alive or dead. The Shiba leaders started giving orders, and then the voice of her own Gunso drove all other thoughts out of her head. Mayori obeyed her instructions, ignoring everything else. The assembled Shiba split up into units and searched the labyrinthine castle for the Phoenix Champion. Mayori wondered what she would do if she actually found him. Would he be in hiding, as a criminal who just murdered the Isawa leader? Or would she find him striding down the hall, or along the street at the port, as confident as he had been back there in the courtyard, before the attack? Could she arrest him? Should she? He was her clan champion – but had he just murdered Isawa Uona? Did he murder Isawa Tsuke too? They said some dark evil force had murdered Tsuke, but Ujimitsu was known to have mysterious powers… She forced herself to stop thinking about what ifs and concentrate on the task at hand.
* * *
The Shiba were assembled again in the courtyard. The orange banners fluttered in the breeze, but there was no glory in them today. The stair at the foot of the donjon was empty, and it was easy to remember the dark stain of blood on the step, though the servants had done good work cleaning it away. Shiba Ujimitsu had not been found in the castle or the city, and it was assumed he had fled using his famous but most mysterious powers. Even a shugenja could not disappear that quickly, they said, not without leaving some trace among the kami. But the Isawa shugenja had searched just as hard as the Shiba, to no avail. The Phoenix Clan Champion had vanished.
His victim, Isawa Uona, was said to have survived the attack, but only barely. Her injury should have been fatal, and the rumour was that the very air kami themselves had leaped to her defence, deflecting the blow just enough to save her life. Whatever had happened, there was no doubt as to the intent. Shiba Ujimitsu had wanted Uona dead. But why? Wild speculation had resounded in the sake houses and barrack houses for a week now – but always out of earshot of the most senior leaders. Whichever way you looked at this, Mayori thought, whichever side one took, one must betray a superior owed loyalty. If she respected Ujimitsu, and stood by him despite his unjust action, she would betray the Isawa, those the Shiba were sworn to protect. On the other hand, to condemn Ujimitsu was to betray her Champion and family leader. Wasn’t it? What should she do when her own leader has committed such a heinous crime? In the end, Mayori decided that the act was a betrayal of the harmony within the Phoenix, and the ideal of peace that the clan aspired to. Ujimitsu must be mad, or corrupted perhaps, if he was not merely criminal. Either way, she felt betrayed by her leader.
There was movement on the balcony two floors above the courtyard. There the Shiba leaders once again appeared, though much more subdued this time. Isawa Uona herself emerged onto the balcony, supported by another woman. Uona said something, but clearly she was still weak and pale, and the words did not carry. Another Isawa shugenja repeated he words in a loud voice, carried by the air to reach the entire castle.
“Shiba, Isawa, Asako, Yogo – loyal servants of the Phoenix. Mistress of Air Isawa Uona wishes to convey that she has reluctantly declared Shiba Ujimitsu to be a fugitive. An Order of Appearance will be sought immediately from the Emperor for his arrest in the matter of the unprovoked attack upon her person, a leader of the Phoenix Clan.” The shugenja stopped to listen to further words from Uona. He then continued, “Isawa Uona implores Ujimitsu to reveal himself, and to testify as to the motive for his actions. If Uona-sama has displeased Ujimitsu personally, or failed the Phoenix in some way, she is prepared to accept the price of her failure. If only Ujimitsu would make it known why…”