IC 1121 – Spring – Shiro Kuni
“…no matter the cost. ” The soft voice echoes down the stone hallway, eerie but unmistakable to those who know the eminent Kuni Yori. But the quiet footsteps of approaching visitors are not enough to dull the words of the conversation floating through the stone hall.
The soft clattering of Shogi tiles are almost drowned out by a second voice, deep and resonant like a voice in a long forgotten cavern. “For you and yours, maybe, but the others are not so generous, or farsighted.” Clear and firm, but not raised in ire; his tone that of long held frustration.
“On the contrary,“ the Kuni Daimyo continues, placing another tile, almost absentmindedly, “they have already promised troops. Even your own Clan has agreed to support the effort – “ but he is cut off but a bark of laughter from the other.
“My clan! Ha! If Isawa Tsuke was serious about this, the Shadowlands would lie in ruin. Why, he and I together – or any of the Masters, what we could achieve if they would just see the need…” the voice trails off again, placing another tile clearly moved less by consideration but rather in deep frustration.
There are a few moment of silence as Kuni Yori, handling his kinshō tile carefully, waiting for his counterpart to grumble to himself in peace before placing his next move. To Yori’s trained eye, his victory would not be long off.
The servant leading the visitors waits kneeling by the paper door, as is proper, and finds this the appropriate opportunity to knock. He raises a hand to do so, but the conversation inside resumes. The servant hesitates, looking back at his guests, unwilling to interrupt the eminent shugenja in their discussion. The visitors hear the voices inside continue.
“Why don’t you challenge him, Tadaka-san? You speak of the Council as though it is some foreign thing, out of your control. You are Master of Earth, equal of Tsuke. Better yet, your own brother and father sit also upon the council. Yet you hesitate. You speak of war, of the fight, the victory in our reach – but you do it here. Why not return to Kyuden Isawa? Speak your mind in the chamber of the Elemental Council, where it will do some good…” The words might be challenging, but the tone delivered is that of an old and often repeated lecture. From the hall, one could almost imagine Kuni Yori speaking with a small smile on his face – as if such a thing were possible.
Tadaka sighs. “You know why I do not return. You – but you are teasing me. Again. Somehow, sometimes, Yori-san, you remind me of my father. Or my sister. I suppose they are much alike. Were they here now they would say the same. But it is because of them – for their sake – that I am here. Father – and my dear brother Tomo – for all their power, they do not have the will to stand up to Tsuke. And thus, as things stand, I am alone. Should I confront Tsuke, he will make things difficult not just for me but for Father as well, and Father would not cope with such stress as that right now. But next year, or the year after that, when Father retires, and Kaede takes his place…” Deciding his best option is offence, he moves his kyōsha to threaten his opponent’s ōshō.
“In the meantime, we can…” Though the conversation continues, the servant knocks abruptly on the door-frame, perhaps deciding that the conversation has become far too intimate to be overheard any longer.
“My Lords, please forgive this humble intrusion, may I present to you distinguished guests who have travelled far to meet with you…”
The Kuni lord stands and turns to greet the newcomers. “Ah yes, my little surprise for you. Tadaka-san, I hope you do not mind that I did forewarn you about this, I was hoping this might help cheer your dark mood…” Yori gestures to the servant to let the guests in, his hand gracefully picking up a fuhyō tile.
The servant looks back nervously at the guests, and introduces them as they enter the room.
“Kuni Osaku, honoured servant of the Crab Clan; Agasha Tsukiko, visitor from the distant Dragon, Hiruma Kazeko – uh – Imperial Magistrate; and his excellency, the Elemental Master of Water, Isawa Tomo…” The servant seems more than a little bemused as to how to announce one Elemental Master to another.
Isawa Tadaka also springs to his feet, though clearly more easily than the older Kuni daimyo. He almost stutters on seeing his brother, many emotions appearing unrestrained on his face. “Tomo, Tomo-kun, I didn’t know you …” He trails off as
Isawa Tomo steps from the darkened hall into the firelight.
Unlike his brother, Isawa Tomo had never been a large man, but the figure standing in the firelight is not just small, it is almost – emaciated. It is certainly not the healthy man that left the Topaz Championship only weeks ago. His complexion is pale, and his malaise is noticeable in his breath, the trembling in his movements. But Tomo gives his brother a smile, and in that small gesture it is clear that though his body may be suffering, his spirit is yet to be broken.
Kuni Yori politely turns away from the Phoenix brothers to give them a moment of privacy, and speaks to his other guests.
“Agasha Tsukiko-san, I wanted to give you a personal welcome to the lands of the Crab. You have journeyed far, and your assistance in bringing Isawa Tomo safely here has been valued. You will be a welcome guest in this castle for as long as you choose to remain. I hear that your performance as a shugenja in the Topaz tournament was impressive. My congratulations. Should you ever have the interest in staying here longer, the Crab are ever in need of shugenja with the courage, and the fortitude, to serve. You would be welcome among us.”
“Kazeko-san – my personal congratulations on your achievements. You must have impressed the Emperor himself to have earned such an – unusual – title. We heard a little news about the event, but I would be pleased if you would be able to give me a full account. Kisada-sama himself may also wish to hear from you. I will speak with Kuni Osaku-san first, then I shall meet with you – perhaps later this evening?“
The Kuni daimyo does not give the two young women any time to respond, as he continues, “I do apologise that I cannot entertain you further just now, but you surely understand that the business of defending the Empire never ceases. I have received your reports from my Kuni staff – but Osaku-san is yet to give his report… ” A look passes between the two Kuni shugenja, but to the outsiders its meaning is impenetrable.
He turns to the servant, and gestures to the door. “Please see to these guests – anything they need. And inform the rest of the staff that I shall have two more for dinner this evening.” The servant bows in acknowledgement, and then waits for the young samurai to precede him out of the study.
Yori turns back toward the Phoenix Masters. The brothers are conversing in low voices, Tomo telling Tadaka about his journey – his ordeal. Allowing them some little privacy, and the comfort of the fire, Yori moves to the furthest part of the room, and gestures for Osaku to join him.
For a few moments, Kuni Yori stands staring into the distance, apparently ignoring the younger shugenja, not asking him to sit or take refreshment, or any of the niceties that would normally be expected. But Kuni Osaku is used to such treatment by his lord, and stands waiting patiently. Eventually the Kuni daimyo turns his attention to Osaku, and with just a raised eyebrow indicates that Osaku should speak.
Kuni Osaku bows his head, and begins reciting his prepared report. “You have received my written report, lord? As directed, I accompanied our candidates to the Topaz Championship. Their performance was adequate – but as you must be aware the tournament itself was disturbed –“
Yori cuts off Osaku’s speech abruptly. “I have heard enough about the Topaz Championship, Osaku-san. I want a report of your activities – how long has it been since you submitted a proper report? Months, I find. And more, I have some very interesting reports from those young shugenja you arrived with. What have you been doing, Osaku-san?”
“I – my lord, I have done as you bid. I have been seeking the taint within the Empire, the cursed bloodspeakers. I had identified a cult – near the border – and was pursuing investigations. I discovered their leader was in communication with…”
Osaku trails off under the unnerving stare of Kuni Yori. “Is there something wrong, my lord?”
Yori continues to stare at Osaku, a slight frown on his face. The Phoenix Masters continue murmuring near the fire. Unsettled, almost nervous, Osaku fidgets slightly. He glances over at the Phoenix, and back to his master.
Eventually, Yori answers the question, with a small sigh. “Osaku-san, I find that I must ask myself a question, one that I seem to ask far too often.” Osaku is clearly confused, and becoming ever more uncomfortable. Yori continues “I have no doubt that you were conducting your duty against the bloodspeakers, and became – distracted – by your mission. It happens often, I am afraid.”
“My lord, if I have been tardy with my reports, it is only because I was –“ Again, Yori cuts him off with a sigh.
“Because you were pursuing your duty, with a single mindedness that is to be congratulated, no doubt. You alone had discovered an awful truth, and were pursuing it as far as you could, and could not afford the time to report…” Yori recounts in a derisive tone. “And you discovered something important, which you now want to report?”
Osaku is ever more confused. “Yes, my lord… yes I have, I…” He again glances back at the Phoenix Masters, as though seeking their aid, seeking a way out. “Yori-sama, you don’t think that I…”
“Yes, I do think, Osaku-kun. More than that, I know. Did you think I wouldn’t find out?” Yori’s voice turns savage. Almost as if this is a cue, Tadaka stands and helps Tomo to his feet. Tadaka barely spares a glance for the Kuni daimyo and the anxious Osaku as he shepherds his weak brother out the door. Osaku watches them go, realisation and despair descending over his face.
The stone walls of the hallway seem to magnify the last plea from the witch-hunter Osaku.
“Please, Yori-sama, it is not what you think! Please – Master!”
A flash of jade-green light briefly illuminates the chamber, casting long shadows ahead of the Master of Earth and Master of Water. The soft words of the Kuni daimyo follow as darkness falls again.
Considering for a moment longer, Yori places his fuhyō tile softly on the board, securing the victory he had sought.
“It never is, my friend. It never is.