The first in a new series of fictions detailing the status of the Great Clans and the threads that tie them together!
The Age of Ivory, Part 1
By Shawn Carman
Edited by Fred Wan
The young Mirumoto had never been more painfully aware of the precise location of every item on his person. He wondered about every fold of his clothing, every stitch of his kimono and the mons that adorned them. Clothing had never been his concern, not even when he had dwelled within the frigid mountains that were home to the Dragon Clan. He hoped desperately that his anxiety was not immediately obvious to those around him, but he suspected that was a lost hope. The smirk on the face of the other, much older man who shared his duty was enough to cement that suspicion into cold, undeniable fact. Higaru found the notion of being amused by someone else’s discomfort improper, and he ignored the man. He took solace in that his blades were perfectly positioned, as they always must be. There were many things that Mirumoto Higaru did not yet know about life and the world, but one thing he understood perfectly was the art of the sword.
The Kitsuki on whom Higaru had been waiting emerged from the court chamber. He gestured for the two Mirumoto to follow him, and Higaru fell in step behind him just as his older counterpart walked before him. The three of them walked in that manner from the chambers on the first floor of the Governor’s Estate out into the streets of the Second City, through the Imperial District, and finally to the formal estate of the Dragon Clan. Higaru had been in the city for some months now, and though he was a member in good standing of the Dragon Clan, a warrior of impressive lineage and with many great ancestors, he was not high ranking enough to warrant quarters within the estate itself. He made his home in a modest but pleasant lesser estate some streets over, and he did not want for anything. He was accustomed to an ascetic lifestyle, after all, and the SecondCity tended toward more lavish appointments than anything else.
Within the estate, the three men proceeded to an office chamber, where Higaru took up a position inside the doorway, mimicking the movements of his senior officer, while the dignitary he accompanied proceeded to the room’s center and waited. The dignitary glanced over his shoulder at Higaru. “This is your first time here,” he observed. “I trust I need not explain matters of decorum to you?”
“No, my lord,” Higaru replied.
The man nodded. “You have attended personages of court before, then?”
“Yes, my lord,” Higaru continued.
“Very well then.” It seemed as though he might continue, but he was interrupted as another man entered the room, and try though he might, Higaru could not help but stare. The newcomer was tall, taller at least by a head than Higaru himself, and seemed to dwarf the smaller Kitsuki. His head was shaven and tattoos snaked across most of his exposed flesh; his head, arms, and the upper portions of his chest that were visible appeared to be heavily tattooed in the manner distinctive of the Togashi order of monks. It was only fitting, after all, for this was Togashi Noboru, head of the Togashi order and, as such, one of the lords of the Dragon Clan.
“Kira-san,” Noboru said, acknowledging the Kitsuki dignitary with a wave of his hand. “I trust you have the news from the Empire?”
“The report you requested, my lord,” Kira replied with a deep bow. “It is of some length. I have reviewed it and can address specific points if you have questions, of course.” He held a series of scrolls bound together with silken cord and placed them on Noboru’s desk.
Noboru lifted a single finger, then gestured toward Higaru. Higaru’s stomach turned at the gesture. “This is not one of your normal yojimbo,” the daimyo observed. He had not even looked directly at Higaru.
“No, my lord,” Kira agreed. “Taimaro is recovering from the green fever. He will be unavailable for another week or so at least.”
“I see,” Noboru noted with a tone of disinterest. “Unpleasant, the green fever.” He looked up at Kira. “What news from the Empire?”
“The Empress has chosen a new Imperial Advisor,” Kira began. “A Crab, it seems. Yasuki Makoto is her name, and she is known for her extensive mercantile contacts among various clans, including our own.”
“Unfortunate to have someone sullied by commerce in such proximity to the Empress, but the Divine One chooses for her own reasons.” He considered for a moment. “Do you anticipate that this appointment will have any significant impact on the Crab Clan’s position in court here in the SecondCity?”
Kira shook his head. “I would not, my lord, but it is difficult to say for certain. It seems safe to assume that, for the foreseeable future, Makoto will be busy acclimating to her position in the Imperial Court and securing whatever alliances she deems appropriate. If and when she wishes to turn her eye to the Colonies, it would take at least a month or perhaps two for her emissaries to reach us here. I believe we have little to be concerned with for the moment.”
“Then all that concerns me at present is the position of the Crab in the Governor’s court. That buffoon Renyu and his antics must be mitigated if we are to maintain our position here.” The ire between the Togashi lord and the lord of the Kuni family, another resident of the SecondCity, was well known to anyone who paid even the remotest bit of attention to the goings-on of the court. “What else should I know?”
Kira seemed to think for a moment. “The most significant result of inquiries by our representatives in the Imperial Court is the strong possibility that the Divine Empress will be dispatching the Shogun and his forces to the Colonies in the very near future.”
That statement gained Noboru’s full attention. “The entire Shogunate?”
“That much is unclear,” Kira admitted. “However, the information I received makes it clear that our kinsmen are utterly convinced this will take place, if it has not already.” He appeared somewhat apologetic. “It does take quite some time for correspondence to reach the Colonies from the ImperialCity, as you well know.”
Noboru reclined, steepling his fingers before him as he mulled the thought over. “The Shogun’s presence could change the balance of power throughout the Colonies,” he said. “This could be an opportunity, or it could be a threat.”
This line of conversation made Kira seem somewhat uncomfortable, which Higaru could certainly appreciate. He did not believe that the Dragon had any place in the web of political intrigue that ensnared the SecondCity; that was the province of the Crane and the Scorpion. “The Unicorn Clan is held high in the Governor’s favor, that much is certain. The Shogun, from my understanding, is the sort of man who would… care little for the Governor’s more eccentric tendencies.” It was an extremely diplomatic answer, as befitting a man of the courts.
“I need to consider this news,” Noboru said. “Delay the remainder of your report until morning, but leave the scrolls. I may wish to review them.”
Kira bowed. “As you wish, my lord.”
As Higaru retreated with the other members of the diplomatic entourage, he reflected that he was strangely relieved to be out of the Togashi lord’s presence. The man filled the entire chamber with an energy that he could not accurately describe. It was as if he was in the presence of a force of nature, a storm that was building but yet had not broken.
Higaru did not wish to be present when the storm did break.
* * * * *
The Imperial City, capital of the Emerald Empire
Everyone always remarked how strikingly beautiful the sunrise was in the Imperial City, and Daigotsu Atsushi certainly agreed, at least during his first month or so within the city. In the time that had followed, however, he had come to grow weary of the sight. It was nowhere near as interesting or entertaining the fiftieth time. Those who disagreed were merely unimaginative, in his opinion. Not that he would voice his opinion, of course. That would be counter to his purpose in the ImperialCity.
His purpose here was murder.
That is not what it was called by most, naturally. He was often referred to as a ‘diplomatic envoy’ from the Colonies, or sometimes simply a ‘yojimbo.’ He preferred the former, as it sounded much more formal and left his duties somewhat open to interpretation. Regardless of what he was called, however, Atsushi’s purpose was to serve as a champion for the members of the Susumu family the represented the Spider Clan in court. Because the Spider were so reviled, challenges seemed to arise quite often. In the four months since he had arrived in the city, Atsushi had killed three men. He was hoping this season might offer more men and more challenge, because the ones he had killed thus far were quite meager in terms of the raw talent they seemed to possess.
Susumu Takada appeared in the corridor and glanced up at him. “Ah, Atsushi-san,” he said with a sigh. “I had rather hoped they found an assignment more befitting a man of your… skills.”
“We can but dream,” Atsushi said with a theatrical sigh. “Until such time as the Fortunes favor me in such a manner, I shall be stuck here, slaying imbeciles who dare offend your delicate sensibilities.”
“Yes, because that goes a great distance toward forging inroads in court,” Takada said. “Still, challenges are a way of life. Some find insult in our very existence, so anything we say or do will certainly give certain individuals cause to challenge us. We might as well keep you on hand for such things.”
“If I may be so bold, please try to offend someone with a more talented duelist as their champion,” Atsushi said, plucking a piece of lint from his kimono. “I feel under-utilized slaying mewling weaklings like that last one. He was pathetic.”
“The Ox are not know for their skill with a blade,” Takada acknowledged. “But I have no time for such things right now. We could find ourselves on the precipice of a new crisis and I need to take steps to ensure that we do not plummet from it.”
Atsushi raised an eyebrow. “Something interesting, I hope?”
“That depends entirely on your definition of interesting,” Takada said. “The Brotherhood’s sponsorship of the new Imperial Advisor could be the first step in a new degree of alliance between the monks and the Crab Clan. Given that the Crab are our most ardent detractors…”
“What was it the clan’s emissary said last season?” Atsushi interrupted. “Something like ‘we should all but slaughtered like beasts and our corpses burned to ash then scattered at sea.’”
“The Yasuki tend to have a way with colorful language,” Takada said. “We are fortunate it was lacking profanity. Regardless, if the Crab and Brotherhood grow closer, then our clan’s ties with the Brotherhood will definitely be imperiled.”
Atsushi nodded. The Spider Clan’s forces within the Empire were extremely limited, with only the tiny Susumu family, the monastic Order of the Spider, and perhaps a half dozen like himself, members of the Daigotsu family who lacked the Shadowlands Taint. With the Order of the Spider comprising the majority of their ranks, the Spider’s relationship with the Brotherhood of Shinsei was extremely important. If the monks were to turn their back on the Spider, there would be literally no one left they could count on in times of crisis. “That… would be unfortunate.”
Takada feigned surprise. “Something you take seriously? Surely the mortal realm must be in great danger for such dire phenomenon.”
“True. I should certainly try to relax and take things less seriously.” Atsushi nodded to Takada. “You will of course attempt to offend someone so I can murder them?”
Takada covered his face with his hand for a moment. “Please just… just do not talk to me until we get to court.”
Atsushi chuckled, but as requested, said nothing.
* * * * *
In defiance of his expectations, Mirumoto Higaru had found himself permanently attached to the entourage of Kitsuki Kira. His predecessor, Mirumoto Taimaro, had not recovered completely from the fever that had claimed him, and it was believed that he had lost much of his vision in his right eye. It was not a career ending injury, but it was one that could not be afforded for a court entourage. Whether or not it was actually a weakness for Taimaro was debatable, but that it was a perceived weakness was not, and that was all that mattered in the courts of the Empire and its Colonies.
The weeks that had followed Higaru’s impromptu appointment had been harrowing, to say the least. Now, after several encounters, Higaru felt that he was almost acclimated to the sheer enormity of Togashi Noboru’s presence. Almost. Even now, as the man went over minute details of correspondence with the Empire with Kira, the yojimbo could not help but marvel at the aura of sheer will and faint disdain that Noboru radiated. It was like standing near a fire, when one could feel the heat on one’s face. Truth be told, it made Higaru feel mildly uncomfortable, but it was his duty to endure, and that was what he would do. The fact that it was his duty for the foreseeable future was something he did not dwell upon. Each day on its own, as his sensei had once told him.
There was a faint sound from the chamber beyond where Higaru and his charge were meeting with Noboru. To the samurai, it sounded as if it were a protest of some sort, given only half a voice before being thought better of, or perhaps stopped more forcibly. The sound placed Higaru at once on guard, and his hand drifted to the hilt of his weapon while he shifted his weight to be more alert toward the doorway. He saw his fellow yojimbo, the senior man whose respect Higaru felt he was finally earning, respond similarly, and he noticed a flicker of attention from Noboru himself as well.
The door slid open suddenly and with significant force. At first it seemed that it had suddenly become night outside the chamber, despite that it was the middle of the day. After a heart’s beat, however, Higaru’s mind recognized that he was in fact seeing a single man, a massive form that dominated the entirety of the doorway and that was clad in blacks and dark blues. The other yojimbo let out a weak, coughing sound and took a faltering step back. Despite that he was filled with a sense of dread, Higaru was shocked by the action and embarrassed. He would not shame his family and duty the same way. He drew his blade and stepped between the man in black and his charge. “Identify yourself!” he demanded with a strength that he did not truly feel.
The man was clad in a horned mask, and as he turned to regard Higaru, the young samurai suddenly felt as if he was staring into the face of death itself. If Noboru was like a fire, this man was like a raging inferno. The contempt and barely controlled violence that radiated from him was so great that it required everything Higaru had not to retreat in its face. “Withdraw,” the man ordered. “I will not say it again.”
Higaru could not speak. His voice was gone. He marshaled every bit of energy he had and forced himself to shake his head ever so slightly. He would not.
“Kira,” Noboru said smoothly. “Order your yojimbo to stand aside and permit Lord Kanpeki to enter.”
“Ah… yes,” Kira said. “Please do that, Higaru. Thank you.”
Higaru sheathed his blades and drew a shaky breath. “As you wish, my lord.”
Daigotsu Kanpeki, the Lord of the Spider Clan, pushed through to stand in the chamber’s center, surveying everything around him as if he was its lord and master. “Brave little pup you have there,” he remarked darkly. “Needs a bit more training, though.”
“I would appreciate it if you would not refer to my vassals as if they were no more than pets,” Noboru said coolly. “Particularly when you have entered one of my personal offices without permission. Really, Lord Kanpeki, it’s quite beneath you to act in such a manner.”
“It is not your place to question my actions,” Kanpeki said, a sharp edge evident in his voice. “I am aware that you have something you wish to speak with me about. I am about to depart the SecondCity for a period of several weeks. I am doing you a courtesy to afford you the opportunity to speak to me before I depart. Do you wish to question my good will? Because there are other matters to which I can attend today if so.”
Despite the overwhelming aura of menace that the Spider Champion radiated, Higaru felt a flare of outrage within him. He had never heard anyone speak to one of the Dragon Clan lords in such a manner, and he was infuriated by it. He restrained himself, however, not out of knowledge that the Spider Champion would crush him without a thought, but because his charge had ordered him to stand down and had not yet countermanded it.
“A courtesy, you say,” Noboru replied. If he was in any way disquieted by Kanpeki’s presence, Higaru could not perceive it. “It is a strange choice of words, if I may say, but quite appropriate. I do have a favor to ask of you, and you are the only one I think in the entirety of the Empire or the Colonies who might be able to fulfill it for me.” He withdrew a small wooden document case from beneath his desk. “I wonder if you might have a look at this document for me? I require the advice of an expert.”
Kanpeki’s expression was impassive, but Higaru sensed something like hesitation, or perhaps merely suspicion, emanating from the Spider lord. “I am a great many things, but I am hardly a learned scholar.”
“This is not a matter of scholarly pursuits,” Noboru explained. “I require the advice of a Spider, and you are the most powerful of the entire clan. It is a small thing, and perhaps beneath you, but given that the Dragon have been your willing shepherds and allies throughout all that you have endured over the past few decades, surely this is a minor request, is it not?”
“Bah,” Kanpeki said, waving the comment away. “Show me.”
“Of course.” Noboru sat the case on the desk between the two men and opened the latch, lifting the lacquered wooden lid away to reveal what was inside. Higaru could not see from his vantage point, but it appeared to be a page of old parchment, hundreds of years old by the look of it. “This is the item in question.”
Kanpeki leaned over to look. “What is it?”
“Nothing much,” Noboru answered. “A page from the journal of a man named Kitsuki Kaagi.”
Kanpeki slammed the lid closed at once. “What are you playing at?” he demanded.
“Whatever is wrong, my lord?” Noboru asked, his tone innocent. “You know as well as I do that the Lying Darkness was destroyed after the Battle at Oblivion’s Gate, wasn’t it? You have absolutely nothing to be concerned about.” He paused and placed a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “Unless, of course, there is some vestige of its power remaining. But if that were the case then we could expect its minions to remain in the mortal world as they once did. The Goju and Ninube, I believe they were called?”
Kanpeki’s eyes were dangerously narrow, and Higaru found himself carefully shifting his weight and balancing on the balls of his feet. He would have to move impossibly quickly if this escalated.
When he spoke, Kanpeki’s voice was strangely measured. “I do not think I care for your implications, monk.”
“Nor do I,” Noboru replied evenly. “If, and this is merely wild speculation of course, but if there were Goju and Ninube remaining, I have to ask myself… whom would they serve? And if the answer to that question was, again only speculatively, ‘the Spider Clan,’ then what culpability would the Dragon have for their actions, given the relationship between our clans?”
There was a long pause. “An interesting academic exercise,” Kanpeki finally said. “But nothing more. Speculation of such sort seems a poor use of time for a man with as many duties as you possess, Noboru.”
“Perhaps so, Kanpeki-sama,” Noboru said with a sigh. “I just worry what sort of shadow might fall upon my clan should such things prove true, however impossible they might seem.” His gaze was unwavering, and he met Kanpeki’s without flinching. “I must apologize, clearly I have wasted your time. I do hope you will forgive me.”
Again, Kanpeki was silent for a moment. Then, finally, he straightened back up to his full height. “We will speak of this again some day, perhaps,” was all he said, and then he turned and left as suddenly as he had appeared.
Once the Spider Champion was gone, Higaru released a shaky breath that he had not realized he had been holding. All the strength fled from his legs and it was all he could do to avoid collapsing in a heap.
“Well,” Noboru said, replacing the wooden box beneath his desk. “I thought that went relatively well, all things considered.”
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