Shadows in the Dark
The light flickered from the candle as the shoji screen slid open.
The man, bowing briefly, quickly took his seat at the table.
‘Is all in readiness?’
‘It is,’ replied the man, leaning forward in his sedan, ‘Though I know not why it was so important that I see to it directly. Surely others…’
A stinging laugh echoed through the room as a woman’s voice rose in laughter
‘You do what you are told! And see that you continue to do so.’
The man glared back with such malice that it should have made her flinch at his mere gaze. However she was no ordinary woman. But then, neither was he merely a normal man.
‘Enough of this.’ Slammed the voice from the darkness, the third player in their little get together. ‘You are not mewling Cranes at court! And I expect better from those who are better born.’
Both the woman and the man nod their ascent in terse replies.
‘The Lion have begun their attack upon the Southern emplacements. Their assault is well planned and with supplies from the Mantis, I doubt that the defence will hold for long.’
‘It will hold long enough for the winter to set in and for the momentum of this autumn attack to slow. The assault will not have the same impact it should have. Toturi has waited too long.’
‘Don’t you mean Kage?’, the woman countered, ‘I would say that it is he that holds the puppets strings in this little play. It will be interesting to see what the puppet does next.’
‘Be that as it may,’ the man continued, casually taking the tea cup already full and hot, ‘With the attacks begun it will not take long before the real power begins to make its move. The Great Bear has grown hungry in its cage and seeks to make it bigger.’
‘This will need to be taken care of before he controls half of Rokugan and never looks back. Our plan should work – assuming that we can rely on the loyalty of our own.’
‘Our Loyalty should never be in question.’ the woman countered.
‘And yet I hear of infighting in my clan, MY CLAN!’ fists slam into the table, the sound of knuckles squeezing and releasing with obvious effort.
All were silent for a moment before the woman resumed speaking.
‘While it is not uncommon for our clan to have differing agendas, it is important that we find those that are worthy to complete this task.’
‘They will all need to be put to the question. All will need to be tested. No exceptions.’ Intoned the voice gently.
‘Should they fail?’ replied the man
‘Then we will know their heart and use them accordingly. We will waste nothing.’ Said the woman
‘My concern is with those that pass, not with those that fail. For those who fail, do with them as you please and send those loyal to me. Time grows short.’
The man and the woman both nodded their ascent before leaving the room.
Opening aside the window shutters, the voice was bathed in moonlight, his eyes strong, searching for answers from the moon itself.
‘Let us hope that the heavens will forgive us our sins. For we shall not lose the Empire to a tyrant, not while we draw breath.’
Memories on the water
The newest lord of the Lion, gazed upward at the banner rippling in the wind, its powerful jaws seemingly devouring the breeze that powered them.
It had been two months since the merger and already Yoritomo was disgusted with his choices.
Beside him, still prattling on about this decision or that was a loud braggart of a man. Clearly in the gold and browns of the Lion and bearing the mon of the Ikoma, the sound of his voice could not be drowned out even by the strong gale. For the last two months he has counselled the Lord of the Yoritomo in elegance, etiquette and the lore of a thousand years of Lion stories. The man never shut his mouth except when pausing between breaths.
While the droning voice never ceased, his mind wandered to what had led him to this decision.
I want to burn this place to the ground!
Such were the thoughts of Matsu Tsuko as she walked through the halls of Kyuden Gotei, the home of the Mantis
How can we really do this, to our clan, to our honour?
The halls contained more opulence that reeked of the greed of these so called samurai. To the left she saw a pile of gold, casually littered on the ground as though it were nothing.
To her right as she continued to walk sat a curious thing on a pedestal. A strange ape like creature, holding a gong in each hand. Like a child reaching for a flame, she touched the odd looking figure, jumping back in startled fright as it began to beat the symbols together making a strange sound emanating from the creature’s chest.
Her no-dachi in hand she moved to strike the figurine down in disgust, when she heard the loud sound of steel on steel.
Looming above her was the large grinning form of Yoritomo, Lord of the Mantis.
Looking at her sword and shifting her weight against him, she noticed peasants kama that pinned her weapon and a second resting on her stomach.
‘The music is not to your liking, Tsuko-chan?’ Yoritomo chuckled, obvious mirth showing in his face, ‘I can have the child’s toy removed if it is not to your liking.
Tsuko slid back, her no-dachi coming free of the kama, and stance never shifting from her attack stance.
The Lord of the Mantis was an impressive figure. Easily stronger than most samurai, only the largest of Crab would compare to his imposing form. In his hands, two kama were readied in an attack stance not to dissimilar to her own. Not surprising considering the Mantis shared a descent with the Lion.
The two stood there facing each other, their eyes never wavering.
‘This gaijin filth is an abomination!’ denounced Tsuko, her eyes darting back to the ape, and the up to her opponent, ‘Your opulence knows no equal!’
The young Lord of the Mantis laughed, a brutal honest sound escaping his lips, a cruel mocking laughter, his guard seemingly slipping.
‘Scared of a child’s plaything, little girl?’
Seizing her opportunity, she charged the larger opponent, her blade arcing down at his insect like helm only to find him already moving.
His leg sweep connecting into her shins, she fell forward, her no-dachi clattering to the floor. As she rolled onto her back to face the next blow her katana leaving its sheath momentarily to catch the kama’s strike upon her breast.
But there was little she could do about the second kama laid to her throat.
Matsu Tsuko glared at him, her defiance obvious, her spirit challenging.
‘Finish it! You have used your dishonourable tactics to beat me. Finish me like the coward you are.’
The lord of the Mantis merely peered at her, studying her movements, her face.
Slowly, as if coming to a decision, he moved back, cautious never to let his guard down.
‘The Mantis were born of the Crab as well as the Lion. I fight only to win. I live only to serve my clan. I survive all that confronts me and I do not let petty concerns such as honour get in the way of victory.’
Springing quickly to her feet, Tsuko readied her katana to be drawn at the next attack.
‘Dishonourable scum! You sully the very idea of the samurai! You and yours are no better than bandits, ronin fools that care more about vain pleasures than about greater things! How your miserable clan still live is a mystery to me, seeing how you are such a pathetic waste of a man!’
Her words echoed around the room, her rage all consuming
And yet what he did next surprised her.
Yoritomo tucked his kama into the obi, and removed his helm tossing it onto the pile of gold.
His face was scarred, a brutal thing that cut from eye to lip. He would never be handsome, never be taken for anything other than a thuggish warrior. Yet his eyes held something in them that she had seen mirrored only in her own.
‘I heard how the Phoenix murdered your parents, Tsuko-san. How they used their foul magics to penetrate your tents and slit their throats before they could defend themselves. It is not the first time that I have heard of assailants mystically assaulting places that no man could reach. My own family were the unfortunate recipients of such an attack eight years ago,’ his thumb slowly traced the jagged scar, ‘I earned this trying desperately to save my family, only to be overpowered and left to watch my father die slowly while I killed his attackers.’
He slowly turned his back on her.
‘I will do whatever is in the best interest of my clan Tsuko-san. I will do that which you find distasteful, disrespectful, dishonourable. Without a second thought. So long as it benefits my clan, I will do whatever it takes to never fail them again. And my enemies will not get an opportunity to do this to anyone else ever again.’
He slowly walked over to the toy, allowing it to play the strange music once more.
‘If there is nothing else, please leave. I have no wish to fight you this day, Tsuko-san.’
The Lady of the Lion, stood for a moment, then gathered her no-dachi and sheathed her swords.
She stood there listening to the music for a moment, considering it alien and yet not.
She bowed her head, understanding.
‘Lord Yoritomo, I come to you as an emissary of Akodo Toturi, Champion of the Lion. We have a proposition for you.’
The sounds of drums beat loudly returning Yoritomo to the present.
Turning back to his crew, he raised his kama to the sky, silencing all but the beating of the drums.
‘Let those that oppose Yoritomo of the Lion meet the same fate as all who oppose the Lion.’
A pause lingered after his words before shouting out
‘A swift and brutal death!’
The cheers of his men outweighed the boasting of the Ikoma.
Much as it should be.
For a man out of his prime, the lack of sound in his tread made those he passes feel unease at his approach.
A thin lipped smile was the only indication that a man with so fearsome reputation as Daidoji Yamato even so much as paid this feeling due notice.
The Demon of Toshi Ranbo, dressed in such simple clothes, a hakama and gi of black and white, might be mistaken for a monk as he passed through the halls of Kyuden Doji. Save for the menace in his face and the soundlessness of his footfall.
He had trained his son, Daidoji Uji, in the same arts as he was taught. He was an able fighter, learning how to use the dangerous foreign sai-bor, gained from his infiltration of a Mantis trading vessel bound for the Ivory Kingdoms.
His return with the prize, the solitary man returning home had filled him with a sense of pride and had rewarded the Crane with a hidden trade route to the foreign nation.
Uji was becoming every inch the man he needed to be in order to succeed him. However his mastery of the silent step was still taking it’s time, much to Yamotos disappointment.
He stopped at the shoji screen door, taking a moment to listen to the quiet conversation progressing inside.
‘… she would have died to be with you, Brother!’
‘Such things are not permitted, Hoturi-kun. Fooling about with a Phoenix courtier, no matter how lovely she is, is courting trouble!’
‘Better that than not enjoying your life while you live it. Kuwannan-kun.’
A brief laughter filled the air.
‘And you do nothing but enjoy your life, Hoturi-kun! When are you going to grow up and start leading the clan like Fath…’
The words faded leading into silence.
‘I am sorry that I am not him brother. I truly am. I lead where my instincts tell me, letting my ancestors guide me. I feel no shame at not being our Father, and yet I feel that I disappoint you.’
‘Hoturi, I understand your need for enjoyment. All those years with Toshimoko-sensei has paid off in your exceptional skill with the blade as well as an insatiable appetite for the… finer things in life.’
A brief pause followed.
‘However your life must change. We need you to become a man among men, not a boy wearing his father’s mantle. I believe you can do this, believe that you can live up to any expectation. Unless an angry father catches up to you first!’
Laughter cascaded merrily out from the room.
‘Enough with pleasantries brother! Perhaps we can continue the game?’
The soft sound of go pebbles touching the board ended the conversation.
Yamato had heard enough.
Those boys are fools.
Disgusted he slowly rose and gave himself a moment to compose himself, knocking on the screen before entering it.
The two young men were seated in an ornate room, beautiful scenes and artworks decorating the room. The Go board lay between them, hardly a move played.
An excuse for their inane banter.
‘Yamato-san! We were just discussing our next moves.’
Such lies from young lips.
He nodded at Hoturi before kneeling before them.
‘The Lion have begun attacking the Phoenix.’
Both brothers did nothing but nod their heads.
‘Our armies stand by awaiting your orders.’
The young Crane Champion looked down at him disapprovingly.
‘And yet I gave no such order to do so.’
The Lion march on our traditional allies in the Phoenix and we do nothing! Bound by worthless treaties to worthless clans.
Yamato said nothing.
‘I am disappointed that you marshalled our armies without my consent, Yamato-san. Did you believe that we would commit our troops to violence?’
With so much violence and tension without this castle walls, our enemies become stronger at our expense.
Yamato said nothing.
‘With our gains made at court, this show of force may provoke the others into doing something rash, something that we do not wish for yet.’
The Scorpion erodes our power in the courts. The Crab in the south gathers all forces for their war next summer.
Yamato said nothing.
‘Please return our armies to their positions of defence among our borders. Let us not provoke our enemies into making a brash move.’
They are already making their moves. When we are last they will swallow us whole.
Yamato nodded his head to the young lord before turning to leave.
‘Trust me Yamato-san, like you did my Father. I will not let the Crane down.’
Yamato stopped and turned around bowing to his lord.
‘As always my lord, I live to protect the Crane.’
And I will do whatever I feel is necessary to achieve victory. With or without your consent.