End of Spring, 1121, Otosan Uchi
The Imperial Court was ablaze with rumour.
Whispers travelled through the corridors and in the halls of the Imperial city like a fire through a granary. Scorpions claimed to have heard it from reliable sources in the heartlands of the Lion, the Lion argue that it never took place. The Crane whisper of Scorpion dressed bandits conducting the deed while the Phoenix point to the Lion as the source of the Empire’s woes. The Dragon, ever ones for calm and pragmatism, ask for testimony, hard evidence and the truth to come out. Even the Crab participate, wondering if the other clans have tried their hands at a larger game and failed abysmally in the attempt.
The rumour had swept out of Lion lands travelling from village to village, the story evolving with each retelling. Some claimed that the bandits had come from the Scorpion Lands, the Crane Lands, out of the lands of the Phoenix or Dragon. Others claimed that they had come out of the Lions own heartland, unsatisfied peasants bemoaning their lot in life. Some described their force at little over a hundred while others place it a thousand strong with ronin shugenja backing them up. A few have tied it in to the recent attacks of Bloodspeakers in the nearby lands of the Crane, while some whisper of an army of bandits lead by a capable general, a former Lion angry at their clan’s plight.
As for the attack, the rumours have it that the Seppun Guardsmen were ambushed upon the road, others claiming that it was while they were camping at night. Some claim poison was involved, with the uncouth seeing this as yet another sign of the Scorpion’s involvement; while the use of sorcerous powers to conceal the troops could point to Phoenix or Crane interference. Perhaps there is a union of clans coming together to provide a single alliance, suggested one unfortunate Dragon courtier who soon found himself being lambasted for such a foolish notion.
The targets of the attack vary as much as anything about the tale. The claims that the Emperor was the target have been dismissed by everyone, unthinkable even for the courtiers that circulated his throne. His wife was the target, pregnant with a potential rival for the throne, whisper those who would benefit from the loss of such a dangerously outspoken and cunning opponent. Other’s speak of the young heir, Hantei Sotorii, as being the target – especially if news concerning the Empress were found to be true; her child being guaranteed heir in the event of Sotorii-sama’s unfortunate demise.
What all the accounts did agree on were a series of simple truths.
The Emerald Champion had escorted the Empress and the young heir to his new tutelage in the lands of the Lion clan’s Ikoma family.
The Emerald Champion had been seen slaughtering all the bandits that he could get his blade upon.
The Emerald Champion had been killed.
The closer these rumours got to the seat of power of the Empire, so too did the mood of the court seem to darken.
The Emerald throne had never felt so hard or cold, thought Emperor Hantei XXXVIII, as he sat poorly in his seat. His shoulders slumped, his head slack, he vaguely listened to the goings on in his court.
‘… the Lion continue to threaten our clan, even when misfortune strikes their own lands! Is it any wonder that tragedy has befallen our Empire?’
‘Pathetic Isawa Jorai – telling the Empire about your enjoyment at the plight of our Imperial family! Such purile courtly games are unworthy in the face of so great a loss! The Empire suffers – and I heard these attackers originated out of lands other than our own!’
‘Another Scorpion plot should you ask me…’
Leaning to his left, his arm slowly reaches out, trying to touch his friend’s sleeve, a gesture he uses to let Satsume know that he wanted to leave. Maybe they could grab some tasty takoyaki to relieve him of the blandness of the courts. Maybe they could go and Satsume could watch him try to play with the dice again.
‘… were the Imperial Legions? Surely they should have been sent to guard such an honoured guest?’
‘It should not have been necessary, Ikoma Minako, and all those assembled here know it! Should the Lion have merely done their duty…’
The Emperor looked to his left at the vacant floor where only days before his best friend had stood upon that same ground. His head tilts as he imagines the dour face briefly smiling at him before quickly resuming its usual tacit stony countenance.
‘… a Scorpion matter, perhaps if the clans of war and peace were not at odds with each other…’
‘How can responsibility fall with anyone other than the Emerald Champion for the disgraceful attack upon the Empress and Sotorii-sama?’
‘He died to protect the Empress and the young heir! How can you say…’
The Emperor froze, slowly turning to see the courtiers in his court. All the colours of the world seemed on display like sunlight upon the bountiful sea. All the colours save one; Emerald Green. He spoke, his voice calmer than it should be, calmer than how he felt inside.
‘Don’t say that.’
His words were lost on the squawking of the courtiers,
‘…blame lies at fault with the Lion, clearly…’
‘… funeral will have to be held at the courts convenience assuming that the blame…’
‘… could it have been anyone else’s? He died away from his charges, completely at odds with…’
A thunderous roar was heard throughout the court.
‘Don’t SAY THAT!’
Startled, the attending court merely looked at him, shock and curiosity covering their faces, hidden by mask or fan or not.
‘Pardon Otenno-sama? I am afraid we are not sure…’
The Emperor leapt from the throne in an aggressive move he was not known for.
‘What I said Lion was – Don’t. Say. That.’
The court looked up at the Emperor, while his eyes roamed over them wildly.
‘Until I see the body of my friend, until I hear of confirmation by someone who was there, do not tell me that Satsume is dead! Do you understand?’
The young Lion courtier nodded his head. ‘Of course Otenno-sama. We would never think of disobeying your orders. Yet with his absence, the Emerald Magistrates will need…’
‘Your name? What is your name?’ interrupted the Emperor.
The Lion looked startled.
‘Ikoma Seichiro, my lord, son of the honouredIkoma Hisai and Ikoma Mai, grandson of honoured…’
‘I demand that you leave now and be posted on the Crab Wall. Immediately!’
Ikoma Seichiro blinked. He recovered quickly taking out his fan,
‘The w-Wall my lord? Surely you jest!’
The Emperor gestured to the closest Crab.
‘You, Yasuki. Make sure that he has travel papers and make sure that he is unimpeded on his journey nor once he arrives.
Tell Kisada to find this man a post suitable for his strongest!’
The Yasuki nodded his head and made his way out.
The court began murmuring among themselves but a Crane maiden could not contain her discomfort.
‘But my lord! The young Ikoma did not mean insult…’
The Emperor wheeled on her savagely
‘Who are you to tell me what insult he meant! Perhaps you both deserve each other if you are willing to stick your neck out for him! You obviously care so much for the Lion that you wish to share his fate! Then by all means, I order you not to be apart any longer, let your lords be advised! You will marry him and then serve on the Wall with him!’
Silence resounded in the hall except for the sobs of the Crane maiden as she collapsed upon the ground. No one made a move to help her.
The Emperor covered his ears.
‘Will no one shut this woman up?! Seppun guardsmen, clear the room. Your audiences are at an end! Now leave me be!’
The courtiers fled.
Alone upon his throne, the Emperor sat there in his audience chamber alone, tears absently falling down his cheeks.
A week later.
The Emperor had entertained no one since the banishment. Taking to the Otomo palace, the courtiers had steered clear of him. They were afraid when his tortuous pain might turn once more into furious decision and no one wanted to be the next sent to the Wall to serve for the remainder of their lives.
However the absence of the Emperor did little to quieten the furious discussion that ensued. As the rumours had spread through the Empire, the courtiers of the Empire flocked to the capital, each eager to assert their influence. Akodo Kage, Bayushi Kachiko, Kakita Yoshi, Yasuki Yoku. Each led their delegation through the homes of the Otomo, each directing their courtiers to their tasks.
The topic for discussion was simple. Now that the Emerald Champion was dead, who would take his place?
Each clan had its own opinion, the Crane petitioned that the title should fall to the current Crane Champion, Doji Hoturi, while the Scorpion believing that the position should remain vacant. Likewise the Phoenix also argued that it was unneeded, suggesting that the new Jade Champion could easily take over that position. The Lion argued that it was time that a true warrior to assume the mantle, drawing ire from both the Crane and Phoenix. The Crab wanted the position to be determined as normal, a tournament for the position and the Dragon… they had not given any intention away, remaining as implacable as ever.
However all the courtiers were surprised and eager when the messenger came to them, came to deliver the news that they waited for.
The Emerald Champions’ personal adjunct had arrived to deliver news about the Champions’ demise. Rumour would be put to rest.
The courtiers assembled in the audience chamber of the Emperor, cautious of the regal figure seated on the Emerald throne.
Though normally many have earned places of honour and respect closer to the dais, all were being kept away as the Emperor sat motionless on the throne. Only the form of the Imperial Herald, the aged Miya Yoto, stood near the Emperor, relaying his masters quiet commands.
‘The Emerald Champion’s adjunct will present himself to the Emperor to give testimony concerning the rumours of what befell in the Lion lands. Shosuro Tadashi, present yourself!’
Slowly the doors to the chamber opened and the sea of courtiers parted neatly revealing a young Scorpion slowly making his way toward the throne. His hakama were mud stained from the hard travel to the capital, while his right eye was showing, deeply scared and mutilated.
The courtiers raised their fans, their murmuring already beginning concerning the Scorpions bleak appearance.
He knelt before the dais his eyes turned toward the floor.
‘Otenno-sama. I have journeyed here as fast as I have been able to. I have been witness to events both tragic and terrible. I formally present myself to you to give my report.’
The Emperor glanced at the Miya who spoke ‘The Emperor will hear your report. Be precise and succinct.’
‘The Imperial procession travelled to the far keep of Kyuden Ikoma, escorting your son to his place of study and then escorting your wife to Kyuden Bayushi. My lord, Doji Satsume-dono, ordered a force of a hundred Seppun guardsmen to provide protection as we travelled through these lands.’
‘We had travelled for five days when we camped close by the Drowned Merchant river. That evening our food was tainted with a poison while a hidden force of organised bandits attacked from all directions, slaughtering the Seppun guardsmen. This resulted in the kidnapping of the Empress and the heir.’
Cries outpoured from the assembled courtiers. The words muddled to conceal who yelled what.
‘Preposterous !’ ‘Outrageous!’ ‘More Scorpion lies!’ ‘Trust a Scorpion to know poisons!’
The outpouring lasted only until the Herald cried out ‘Silence! He has yet to finish his report and the Emperor has commanded that he give it. Unless one of you wishes to earn his displeasure…’
Noting the immediate silence, the Miya Daimyo nodded at the Scorpion kneeling on the floor.
‘Thankfully due to the intervention of samurai from the Great Clans, the Empress and young Sotorii-sama were able to be recovered safely with little harm to their persons. However the Lion force that pursued the missing Emerald Champion were defeated by the force of bandits and the Emerald Champion was reported slain.’
Silence was broken by the raging voice of the Emperor.
‘Why? Why was this done? Who dared to attack me, attack me in the heart of my domain?’
‘As I said, Otenno-sama, these bandits were organised. Their tactics were unexpected and as to their identities, the samurai and I have identified that there were several groups of bandits from different regions in the Empire. Not only has some as yet unseen bandit lord decided to attack the Imperial families but these people could be linked with the bloodspeakers that attacked the Emperor earlier this year.’
‘Explain yourself! What possible connection could they have? I, who have only just inherited this burden from my late father!’
The Shosuro remained silent for a moment before speaking.
‘Both attacks were orchestrated at sites where the Emerald Champion and the Empress where present. Both attacks have sought to shame your rule and discredit your Champion. His death will result in the chaos that they…’
‘How can you say that! A planned assault? You are worthless! You failed to protect your master! Why couldn’t you have done more to protect him?’
For the first time, Tadashi looked at the Emperor, his one good eye meeting the Emperor’s steely gaze.
‘With all due respect, Hantei-sama, I believe I gave all that I could in trying to save Satsume-dono’s life.’
The Emperor stared deeply into his eye, dropping his own gaze in the sight of the empty eye of the Shosuro.
Silence fell about the court before the wizened Lion Sensei, Akodo Kage began speaking.
‘Emperor-sama, the Lion will not suffer this insult to your personage! Direct us and we shall purge these traitors from your lands!’
‘Unfortunately, my dear Kage-sensei, if the Lion have been unable to deal with the threat, what is to say that they will be able to now?’ expressed Bayushi Kachiko, moving forward through the crowd to face the revered sensei.
‘And do you think that the families of the Scorpion will do better? Or perhaps you would entrust this to another Clan? The Dragon perhaps?’ conveyed Kakita Yoshi, clearly mocking the Imperial Adviser.
‘Perhaps we should be addressing the more important concern of replacing the Emerald Champion?’ stated Yasuki Yoto, ‘It is his mandate to pursue and destroy these criminals wherever they may hide.’
‘Are you saying, Crab, that the Lion cannot handle the bandits in their own lands?’
‘I was only saying…’
In a swift motion, the Emperor seized the ancestral sword of the Lion, normally placed symbollicaly at his right hand, and threw it to the floor among the arguing courtiers.
The clatter of steel upon the stone and the shout of the Emperor, now on his feet, brought the courtiers quickly to attention.
‘Kage – the Lion have failed in this duty! As have all of you! These bandits came from all your lands, not just the Lion.’ Gesturing to the discarded sword, ‘This task is beyond my Right hand, or my Left, or even my fabled Underhand! I thought that the Shosuro’s report would have made the choice obvious!’
‘Together, setting aside your differences, samurai of all the Clans were able to rescue my wife and son. The Lion alone were unable to assist my champion in his moment of need.’
The Emperor sat back upon his throne, his hands spread wide to the assembled audience.
‘Samurai of the Empire, hear my command! I order you – send your samurai to my cause! They will go to all the corners of my Empire to scour this bandit menace from the face of Rokugan! From the Umi Amaterasu to the ends of the mighty Shinomen Forest, I will have them purged!’
Silence washed over the assembled audience before one lone voice spoke up.
‘My Lord’ quietly whispered Yoshi, ‘who will lead these samurai on this great mission?’
The Emperor glanced down at the Emerald magistrate who knelt quietly unmoving from where he gave his report.
‘Shosuro Tadashi, until I decide what I will do concerning the position of Emerald Champion, it is to you that I charge with this mission! You and the rest of the Emerald Magistrates will be in charge of leading this mission to cleanse my Empire of this threat! Let all help be given to them in this charge! Let the enemies of the Empire quake at my wrath!’
He gestured to the Herald with a nod.
‘Samurai of the Empire, you have heard the command of the Emperor! Now fulfil his command! This audience is at an end.’