End of Spring, 1120, Chamber of the Elemental Masters, Kyuden Isawa.
‘Your sons are corrupt, Ujina.’
The words resounded throughout the chamber, filled with condemnation and venom. The recipient could not look up at his accuser, his eyes filled with tears, his chest in pain from both the terrible news and the illness that had crippled the middle aged man with a ragged body far beyond his years.
Next to him stood his daughter, Isawa Kaede, defiant and proud; trying desperately to shield him from those terrible words. She had led him here to speak to them, the other two members of the Elemental Council.
These two Elemental Masters had demanded his presence, and refused to allow his daughter to speak in his place. He had struggled to get here, using his daughter as a crutch, escorting him to this most hallowed place, the Chamber of the Elemental Masters.
The room was not as he remembered it. It’s light and pristine walls covered in maps with pins indicating troop locations, armies of the Phoenix clan preparing for the inevitable. The seats that were once filled with discerning voices of the Phoenix Elemental Masters, equal voices in the house of Isawa, now empty. The two seats that were filled contained a violent warmonger and an ambitious sycophant. What were once the guiding hands of peace and a clan of scholars and priests, now the home of conquerors and glory seekers, becoming the enemies they once despised.
‘They have succumbed to the taint, Ujina. Both of them.’
The words ate at him, his heart breaking within him. While many would consider his actions unworthy of the samurai caste, he is beyond caring. His thoughts turn to his sons.
Tadaka, strong, defiant, unmoving. Tomo, calm, tranquil, peaceful. And yet through this they have shared so much, work together so well. Perhaps this was inevitable.
His thoughts wandered back to when he last saw his wayward eldest son.
Autumn, 1118, Kyuden Isawa.
‘Tadaka-san! Wait! Tadaka-san!’
The voice called out as Isawa Tadaka stood on the threshold of his family home. He was girded for travel, backpack slung, staff in hand, hat resting comfortably on his head and his trademark mask covering his face from the elements.
He had stopped, visibly perturbed by the voice coming toward him. While Ujina knew that his son had no wish to get into another argument, he needed to listen, could not escape it. He did not know how long he would be gone for and respect for his father meant that he would listen, even if he would not hear him.
‘Otoo-san, Coming to see me off?’
Ujina sighed, his breathing slow yet hard.
‘Please Tadaka-san, my son, don’t go. Not now.’
Tadaka turned to face his father, his eyes intense in their gaze.
‘I must go. I have leads on the beast and I would follow them up. Our ancestor’s shame will end, I swear it.’
‘The Phoenix need you Tadaka! They need your strength! Do not leave, not now! Stay for the winter at least.’
‘The Phoenix…’ Tadaka considered this before speaking, ‘…are no more than children, their mewling no better than the Crane or Lion. Only the Crab know the truth. Only they have comprehended the dangers.’
Ujina just shook his head, ‘You don’t know of what you say. Tsuke is planning to do something foolish at winter court, I know it. He will lead us to war against the Lion or Scorpion or Dragon. It won’t matter to whom he proves himself. Only you can stand up to him, only you…
‘Enough Otoo-san!’ Shouted Tadaka, his features even more intense, more furious, ‘Enough! I will not hear this again! I care not for the petty games of Tsuke! The Oni that stole our ancestor’s name reigns in the deep south and we are not safe even here in our own lands!’
‘Then lead us, my son,’ answered his father, never flinching, ‘lead us to the Crab so that we can aid them. Do not leave us, do not leave me.’
Tadaka’s head dropped, his eyes cast downward. ‘Were we ready father, I would. But we are not. Our pacifism is our strength and our weakness. We cannot understand the horrors that are to come should I fail. Perhaps we need Tsuke to fail before we will be ready. Perhaps we all need to change.’
Ujina bowed his own head.
‘Take care my son. I see darkness on the horizon, great suffering. Come back to us whole and safe…’
Tadaka gave the comment no sign of acknowledgement, instead turning and leaving the home.
Never looking back, he missed the tears dropping to the ground from his father’s face nor his fathers whispered words.
‘…because I will never see you again.’
‘We have the testimony of an agent in the field, as well as sworn statements of both the abbot of the Kitsu Tombs and that of a newly appointed Topaz Magistrate. Even now they hide in the lands of the Crab, treated to serves of jade petal tea,’ the Mistress of Air delighted in melodic tones.
‘Your family is corrupt and lost Ujina. I wonder how far the taint spreads…’ Tsuke leered, turning his gaze to Ujina’s daughter.
Fear crossed the face of the Master of Void, as Kaede turned toward him to avoid the gaze of the Tsuke. He looked at her serene face, a look of sadness and sincerity clearly displayed. To leave her here at the mercy of that man was a terrible thought for any father to behold.
‘What do you want from me, Tsuke? Speak plainly and truly.’ Ujina asked steadily.
‘As forthright as ever, Ujina. Very well then. You will compete in the upcoming Jade Championship. Only by securing the title will you prove your – and your daughter’s – innocence regarding association with your tainted sons.’
‘I will compete – but with one condition. Should I lose,’ Ujina tuned to look at the Master of Fire squarely in the face, ‘my daughter is left to do as she will, free of suspicion in this matter.’
‘You are in no position to bargain, old man!’ snapped Uona, her smiling features contorting into a visage of hate, ‘your hag of a daughter will…’
‘That is enough Uona-san.’ Tsuke interjected calmly, raising his hand in a placating gesture, ‘Should Ujina be willing to compete in the tournament, I am sure we can grant him his last request. Assuming of course that he removes himself from our sight till the tournament, no longer a part of this council until his victory…’
‘No father! You can’t! Not for me! Not for…’ cried Kaede, breaking down in tears.
‘I accept your terms,’ Ujina nodded, ignoring his daughters pleas, ‘It is done then, Tsuke?’
‘It is done, Ujina. Now leave this place. There is important Clan business that we need to attend to.’
Taking his sobbing daughter by the arm, the pair slowly left the room, not looking back at the smiling faces of the Masters of Air and Fire.
Watching as the great doors to the council chambers closed, the Master of Fire sat back into his chair, relieved as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
He glanced around the room to notice a small paper crane land in the palm of the Mistress of Air.
Carefully she read the paper, before slipping the paper into her kimono.
‘There is news?’
‘Yes, although I am not sure of what import. It seems that the Emperor has made a declaration that each of the clans is to send a contingent of samurai to the fields of the Emerald Champion. They are to gather by month’s end and are to be divided among the Emerald Magistrates, their duty to be scouring the Empire of bandits.’
Tsuke shook his head, ‘While I understand the need to uproot bandits, having done so alongside the champion himself, I do not understand what our Emperor is thinking? Surely Satsume-san will have told him that this is not the way we handle our affairs.’
Uona stifled a laugh, ‘I doubt Satsume told him much of anything!’
Tsuke’s head snapped sharply to glare at Uona, ‘That is Satsume-dono, Uona. You will show proper deference and respect to the Emerald Champion. No other person in this Empire do I respect more. His duty to the Empire is second only to my own.’
Uona looked startled before resuming her composed look, her fan flicking neatly out and to fan herself.
‘I meant no disrespect Tsuke-san, but I thought you had heard,..’
‘That bandits took the life of the Emerald Champion? They ambushed and poisoned the Imperial convoy – the Emerald Champion was slain.’
A look of shock passed over the Master of Fire’s face. This lasted only a moment before a determined calm descended over him, and a most terrible smile graced his face.
He rose from his chair, moving to the door before pausing for a moment.
‘Uona-san, send the word out to Ujimitsu-san and the Captains of our shugenja legions. I want them ready to leave by the weeks end. I will meet them at the Palace of the Emerald Champion’
‘But Tsuke-san! What of the Lion? Surely they will attack…’
‘No. That is the last thing that they will do, Uona-san. Should they have the foolish gall to attack us, the Emperor will destroy them utterly. No, they will not test the Emperor’s wrath, their honour will not allow it. Perhaps we will make them thank us for our help and destroy these bandits while displaying the quality of our mercy.’
Uona bowed her head, nodding her head sagely.
As he leaves the room, a ruthless thought catches on his mind as a wicked laugh echoes throughout the chamber.
Cleaning the house never was never this enjoyable.