The Temple, large and ominous hidden within mountains – deeply haunted so the peasants say, shone like a beacon in the fading light of day.
‘Like a beacon to those that will never be conquered by the darkness or light,’ muttered the old man.
He had travelled several days, annoyed at being forced to make the journey at such a critical point in his plans.
While he had his reservations in leaving, he understood the necessity.
It was in the open. Too many knew, too many suspected.
And so the meeting was called. And it had been a long time in coming, a long time since all ten Masters had gathered to the temple.
Sighing to himself, he hurried inside, hoping that this would not take too long.
* * *
The grand chamber of the ten Masters was full.
It had been so long since he had seen them all together. So long since he had needed to contact them in person, usually their other form of communication was more than sufficient.
However this issue required more delicacy than normal. Much was at stake.
The others had all gathered before him and it seemed like he was last to arrive.
‘Sensei! You honour us with your presence! Do you require refreshments?’ spoke the Merchant, easily the most recognizable in the room, apart from himself.
‘You may dispense with the pleasantries, Merchant, I have not the time for them,’
‘Indeed Sensei, that was what I had told them,’ replied the light tones of a woman, her Imperial Legionnaires armour glinting in the firelight.
‘We were only trying to follow some form of etiquette,’ the Geisha retorted, clearly offended at the behaviour ‘Something we thought that you samurai would appreciate.’
‘Enough.’ said the Daimyo.
This speaker was one of two strangely garbed men. He would have passed for a Rokugani, though tanned as though in the sun far too long and wearing clothing clearly foreign in nature. The second of these men, the Gaijin, was clearly a foreigner but since their inception they had always had dealings with the outside world. A world that showed Rokugan to be a minor piece to a larger puzzle.
Such contacts had always proven… profitable.
The old Sorcerer, keeper of the Oni’s eye, cleared his throat.
‘Our plans are slowly coming to fruition. Our agent in the field has successfully pinned the murder of the Emerald Champion’s son on the Crane. It is only a small amount of time before he uses the armies of the Emperor against his most trusted servants.’
‘More importantly,’ intoned the Deceiver, ‘The traitor will be crushed and the prize returned to us.’
A peal of laughter echoed out amongst the council. The sound came from the only person in a mask – the only person unknown to the ensemble yet was clearly the most devoted to the cause.
Silent and deadly, the master known only as the Tiger stood apart from its fellow masters. Save for the ancient mask it wore, no trace of colour, no trace of gender or even a note of dialect could be gleaned from that voice. Guardian of the Temple and the enforcer of their most ancient traditions, the role of the Tiger was granted and accepted anonymously. Chosen by the previous Master Tiger to ensure its anonymity, whoever bore the title of Master Tiger was always formidable opponent – or ally.
Even the Sensei, whose reach was considerable, had never been able to discern the Tiger’s identity.
No, He mused, I will find out your secret, Tiger, and then we will see what you look like abandoned and alone.
‘You find something funny, Tiger?’
The Tiger’s voice hardened like steel, ‘You underestimate our opponents. We are in this situation due to your behaviour! If you had only heeded my words of caution, you would not have allowed your foolish grab for power to endanger our goals.’
The Sensei scowled. His plans had changed throughout the last four years. The revelation of Void as a Shadow agent and the betrayal of Tomo and Tadaka had ruined one of his current plans. However there were always others…
The Sensei outlined his plan to the group, unsure of what weakness Tiger was implying. ‘Yasu is soon to be like the Emperor before him, crippled with overwhelming sorrow and emotion. Even if he sees through the deception, Kisada will use the opportunity to send the Crab to attack Crane for us. And I am certain,’ gesturing to the Merchant, ‘that the courts will be informed of the Cranes’ impropriety.’
‘Unfortunately, honoured Sensei, you have forgotten one thing. I suppose it is a failing of Lion warriors to believe their plans invincible, but I would hope that this does not cost us the same fate as those who you would see punished.’ Tiger replied smoothly.
A thin smile crossed the Sensei’s lips, ‘And what would this one thing be, Tiger?’
‘The Demon of Toshi Ranbo.’
* * *
Kyuden Doji, Months Earlier
‘It will happen within a year, Hoturi-sama.’
The autumn leaves had begun to fall within the palace of the Doji. The brown leaves were a stunning contrast to the beauty that surrounded them.
’You are or course joking Yamato-san. The Crab would never dare.’ Said the silken voice of the Crane Clan Champion, walking through the gardens of the Crane.
‘You cannot believe that that surely, Hoturi!,’ said Daidoji Yamato, lord of the Daidoji family, clearly frustrated, ‘They will attack! My scouts have informed me that this attack will happen – and soon. Shiro no Soshi has fallen, the Yogo are no more. The Scorpion are weak now – and while the Scorpion will have a back-up plan, I am certain that the next move for the Crab will be to find a reason to attack us. When that happens…’
‘You forget that we have the new Imperial Chancellor in our favour. She will make sure that the Emperor will see our side.’ Hoturi replied.
‘No. It will not happen. You will need to go to the capitol personally, to try and make the Emperor listen. But by then, they will have already attacked. The only question is where.’
‘Where will it be then? Seeing as you seem to believe you know better than I?’
Yamato sighed. ‘You are young Hoturi-sama. You have been brought up by that idiot Toshimoko and made softer by the absence of your father.’
‘How dare you!’
Hoturi turned in rage to the older Crane, his hand flying to his katana with the speed of more than a decade of iai practice. For his part, Yamato did not wait to draw a weapon. His foot lashed out and caught the younger man’s knee, sweeping Hoturi off his feet before the katana could leave the saya. A knife was at Hoturi’s throat before he had recovered his balance.
‘How can I not? How can I do naught but tell you the truth, Hoturi? Honesty is a better virtue to you now than foolish vain sincerity and on will ever be! And while you may have had that pretty cloud of supposed comradery with Toturi, he is gone! Instead the Lion, often our greatest enemies, are led by that Old Wolf Kage! And if you think for a moment that he will not uphold his alliance with Kisada, you are sadly mistaken!’
Yamato slowly stood, sheathing the knife.
‘Unlike the rest of your underlings I will never tell you that which I do not believe is true. Demand my seppuku if you must, I am old and have defended the Crane through the heaviest of fighting and turmoil. My son Uji is ready to take the mantle of Defender of the Crane, if that is your wish.’
Hoturi slowly climbed to his feet. ‘No. The fault is mine. I would rather that it does not come to war. Such conflict is a burden on our clan. With the Asahina limited in number, I intended to do what I could to restore their numbers. War – with the Crab, or any clan – will only delay this.’
’I… do not believe that our strength truly lies in the execution of war. We are Crane and are better than that. But likewise we cannot shirk from our duty.’
‘Come Spring I will make my way to the Capitol and petition the Emperor for courtesy and compassion. He will stop the nightmare that is the Crab and make things right again.’
Yamato nodded. ‘In the meantime I will make my way south. I will leave our Northern strongholds in the capable hands of my son. Uji will ensure no surprises come from the Lion in my absence.’
Hoturi looked at Yamato, now reluctantly in agreement with the old warrior. ‘There is one question. Which city will be attacked?’
Yamato did not hesitate in his answer. ‘While Mura Subishi Toshi should be the correct choice to cripple our economy, I fear that Kisada will make a bolder statement. He will strike at our heart.’
* * *
Winter, Camp of the Emerald Champion
Liars. Each and every one.
For the fourth straight day, flanked by the commanders of the third, fourth and eighth Imperial legions, merchants and peasants had filed in to confirm what he suspected.
That his son had not died by Crane hands.
It had begun weeks earlier. Yasu had reviewed the samurai taskforce’s initial report. The coalition of samurai that had gathered to investigate the loss of a man whom to them friend, a mentor even a fellow magistrate and clansmen. They had been honest in the testimony given. Despite how much the Phoenix courtier prattled on about this and that, they had reported on the evidence as they had found it – something that could not be said for the people that followed.
Every day new lesser samurai and peasants and merchants were brought before him. Each giving more and more damning evidence. Some said that they had heard the Crane plotting his son’s demise. Some have stated that they saw them enter the area with the body of his dead son into the castle before the oni arrived.
Each one carried the same story, this Daidoji Dajan had killed Yasu’s son and his wife in the small camped area beside the lake.
And yet the one thing that Yasu was sure of – that was not the place of his son’s death.
Not that he could openly admit that. He had travelled to the site listed on the information provided by Yasuki Taka, son of the daimyo of the Yasuki family. He had examined the area, could see that the facts were exactly as the taskforce described, the slashes of blood on the tree indicating that his son was taken by surprise and with excessive force. The outlying blood stains were consistent with the next assumption that the attendants of his son had tried to flee and were cut down. He could see the place they had found the Asahina fetish. Understood that the charm had fallen off in pursuit of the last of the servants.
It was all there. Except… There was an old Kitsuki saying. Blood will tell. It always does.
Examining the blood stains using techniques only the Kitsuki would deem worthy, he had discovered that the blood was far fresher than the blood at the castle site. No more than a few of weeks earlier, by his estimation. But it was enough to realise that this was an elaborate ruse.
His mind had quietly tried to understand who could have done this without conclusion. Again and again the same arguments went through his head.
The Scorpion were a likely choice, but the after effects were not a usual Scorpion ploy. The old wolf Kage leads the Lion, his alliance with the Crab could have given him access to supply the false testimony, but to what end? Adding the Crane into the war against the Crab was to no one’s benefit. The Phoenix and Dragon have no reason to destroy the Crane, while the Crab would not unleash an oni on their own people nor risk the wrath of the Imperial Legions just to find a reason to destroy the Crane – Kisada needed no help in finding dubious reasons to wage war.
No, it was something or someone else. Perhaps these Shadows people were taking a hand against him. His son had warned him of a sinister force nearly three seasons prior. He of course had only been the daimyo of the Kitsuki then and had ignored it. Perhaps it was time…
A commotion outside caused an interruption in his train of thought.
An old man in full armour and back banner strode into his quarters, his sky blue colouring countering the yellow and green of the tent.
Sending merchants and peasants scrambling out of his way, the old man placed himself in front of the Champion before slowly removing his fearsome mempo.
‘Emerald Champion! You have summoned me?’
Stunned at the audacity, the three commanders dropped their hands to their saya, each readying themselves for combat.
‘Stay your blades my friends,’ said Yasu with a wave of his hand, before turning towards the Daidoji daimyo. ‘I thought I had summoned both you and your Lord, Yamato-san. When will I expect him?’
‘I believe that he will be detained in Otosan Uchi, pleading his case before the Emperor.’
‘I have not made any notification of my findings to the Emperor…’
‘Ha! There is talk about it already from within Otosan Uchi itself,’ quipped Yamato with obvious disdain, ‘It is said that the Emerald Champion summons the Crane to render judgement on charges of murder and blasphemy.’
The Emerald Champion’s eyes narrowed, quickly glancing at the smiling face of Taka. You were able to get this information out and up to the capitol so soon? Hmmm…
‘You are here, Yamato-san, to answer for the actions of a Daidoji Dajan – to answer for his crimes.’
‘Dajan has been missing for months, Yasu-san. Something that you will come to understand if you were to scour the Empire for him as I have.’
‘Never the less, a transgression has been made here Yamato-san, and as his daimyo, you are to be questioned in his stead.’
‘This will last only as long as the Emperor does not intervene, something that will change come the spring, though it will be too late by then.’
‘Too late? How so?’
‘ You don’t think Kisada will wait for your word, or that of the Emperor? While the courtiers are talking about the Crane in the court, the Crab will be preparing their armies to march again. And you ended their war with the Scorpion, freeing up more troops to move against the Crane! ’
‘That goes against our decision to end this conflict…’
A bitter laugh rose up from the Daidoji Daimyo’s mouth. ‘It is too late for your reconsiderations Yasu. The Bear comes for my people in your name. It is too late for you to interfere.’
’Perhaps there is a way, Yasu-dono.’ A voice uttered from beside him.
A woman, commander of the Third Imperial Legion stepped forth.
‘Allow my Legion and I to intervene! We shall take Asahina Dorai and Daidoji Yamato into custody and escort them to the Imperial Capital. Then there will be no reason for the Crab to intervene. Even the Crab would not dare to attack an Imperial Legion in its duty.’
Yasu nodded. ‘An excellent idea, Soto san. Once the winter ice allows travel, take your Legion and escort Asahina Dorai to my palace – and of course any of the samurai whom the Crane have identified as responsible for this blasphemy. There we will investigate the claims and render a final judgement.’ Yasu eyed Yamato, looking for his reaction to these words. He was slightly disappointed to see no emotion at all in the old man.
Yasu continued, ‘Daidoji Yamato will likewise attend on me at my palace in the spring – and he should travel with Asahina Dorai and your legion, Ikoma-san, for safety.’
Yamato did not reply to this statement either. He reaffixed his Mempo to his helmet, its fierce oni visage poking out from beneath the curves.
‘Do as you wish Yasu. Give your orders. I am going to prepare for war. ‘
‘And a savage warning against those that try their hands against me. I shall make what I did to the Lion seem like a child’s dream compared to the horror I will unleash upon them.’
He nodded to each of the commanders and Yasu before striding out.