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A Rising Tide


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Kyuden Seppun, Winter Court 1122-1123 

 

The season was turning, snow had been melting though the skies were still gray, and the Winter Court was beginning to break up. The Emperor had returned to his palace in Imperial City while his son was sent to Ryoko Owari Toshi, to oversee the disposition of the Opium War that had occurred there. The war between Lion and Crane Clans had simmered during court, due mainly to the Imperial Advisors ability to avoid placing the opposing clans where they could make an excuse for a duel. It is a remarkable historic fact that the Imperial Winter Court had no fatal duels fought. But soon that war would begin to heat up.  

 

Shosuro Kamiko had been at court as part of the Scorpion entourage, a reward for her service as a deputy of the Jade Magistrate. The only recognition she had received for the duties she had performed at great risk.   She was preparing to leave Court herself when she was invited to tea. This was not an unusual occurrence as she was, in her own way, quite popular. At least among her fellow Scorpions.

No what made this unusual was the inviter.

 

Bayushi Kachiko, the Imperial Advisor.

 

Kamiko arrived at the appointed time and after formalities were observed, she was bade sit. Lady Kachiko sent the servants away and served the tea herself. Once the service was complete the Lady sat across for Kamiko and watched the younger Scorpion as she sipped her tea. “It has been some time Kamiko-san, I hope you are well. You are wondering why I asked you to tea.” 

 

Kamiko gazed at her host, though older by many years, Kachiko looked young and beautiful still. Before she could answer Lady Kachko continued, “Your service with the Jade magistrates has finished, you were integral to the success of the Swords of Heaven, though your contributions were oft ignored, rest assured they did not go unnoticed by all.

 

Do you know, Kamiko-san, what it is you wish to do now that you are …free?”

 

 

Tsuma Winter 1122-1123

 

Retsu was dead.

 

Kakita Zoyu stared at the river, the surface frozen solid just a day and a night ago, now once again flowing sluggishly its surface a field of floating ice islands.

 

Retsu was dead. And not by her hand. Not in battle. Not even by an assassin’s blade.

 

Retsu had died of sickness. Fitting perhaps, but unsatisfying.

 

All her effort, her position, wasted for nothing. With the miscreant dead she could not clear Rin’s name, could not prove anything except for after the fact and it would count for nothing. She had needed a confession. A confession she could not get. And Kakita Zoyu always got what she wanted.

 

“He will see you now Kakita-sama.”

 

The students voice brought her back to the here and now, and other worries. She turned to follow the student a girl of about fifteen, pretty, and her mind strayed again to wonder about Rin. Where was she?

 

Zoyu entered the dojo, it was one of the smaller practice rooms Kakita Toshimoko was across the room he was bare chested and Zoyu could see the sheen of sweat on his muscles. Even at his age he was fit and strong, only the lines on his face betrayed his passage from youth and even then, he did not look his age, whatever that may have been. He had obviously just finished practicing either alone or with another who was already gone.

 

She bowed and he smiled broadly at her.

 

 “That will be all Ami. Please have Kote bring wine.”

 

The student bowed deeply and left.

 

Toshimoko watched Zoyu as he dryed the sweat then put on his undergarment the smile never leaving his face.

 

“Did you except Dogi Namura’s ‘invitation’?” he asked as he finish wrapping the outer garment.

 

Dogi Namura was the Daimyo of the Crane and her, as well as Toshimoko’s liege lord. She had received a letter today, this morning as the sun rose Asking if she would Join his service as Kenshinzo. While She was a Crane and owed fealty to Dogi Namura, she had not been sworn to his service, she had been a Jade Magistrate and had been sworn to the Jade Champion and thus to the Emperor. But she had resigned and was now free, free to take service where she willed.

 

Being name Kenshinzo would be a great honor, especially at her young age, but it would also place her under the direct Service of the Crane daimyo. Her duty would be his will.

 

It also bothered her that the offer had come only a day after learning of Retsu’s death. And now somehow Kakita Tosimoko, her sensi knows about what should have been a private correspondence.

 

Ryoko Owari Toshi

 

Thunder shook Kaneteru awake, he rolled to his feet grabbing his staff as he rose. The sky was black with ferocious storm clouds, roiling, pierced by yellow lightning. The wind howled around him his robes lashed against his body, dust flew making it hard to see. The howl grew louder, closer. It was dry there was no rain despite the storm. The howl was louder but no longer sounded like a wind, now it sounded like an army. The dust blew around him, the wind like a tornado. He turned toward the howl and the wind and clouds parted. Before him a hill, step and rocky, beyond the hill jagged mountains wreathed in shadow, and coming over the hill an army. An army of demons howling with the voices of Hell.

 

Thunder crashed!

 

Kaneteru awoke with a start as the thunder crashed again, only it wasn’t thunder. The sound that had woken him was the noise of the carpenters tearing down the skeletons of burned buildings on the street his inn was located on.  He rolled over and looked up at the narrow shogi and the light it let in.

 

He had slept later than was his wont, the dream was probably at fault. It had been vivid and even now he could recall it with almost perfect clarity.

 

His stomach growled.

 

Later the Monk made his way down the rickety stairs. It was a poor inn but one of the few still standing that had had a place that he could sleep inside out of the cold. The dream bothered him still something he couldn’t put his finger on.

 

He stopped halfway down the stairs. It was a poor inn the common room was open right off the stairs. To the left was a makeshift counter where the beer and wine were served from , there was a curtained door behind the counter between the shelves led back to the kitchen and storage. The room was square and had an uneven floor there were a quarter dozen short tables scattered around the room there were no cushion or benches for sitting. A small stage was against the far wall where a couple of musicians or performers could perform. Beside that was a narrow hall that led to the door.

 

A half dozen customers stood at the far corner and the Inns proprietor, an emaciated man with a cadaverous face, stood behind the counter. All of these people were watching a lone man sitting at one of the tables legs crossed one the floor. He was bent over the table eating noisily. His broad back was to him but  Kaneteru could see  that there was a bowl or rice balls a bowl of soup and a jug of water on the table there was also a wakizashi beside the jug, not on the floor. The man wore laborers clothes not the clothes of a Samurai. Kaneteru glanced toward the door there were two long swords leaning against the wall by the door and a dirty bundle.

 

“Are you going to stand on the stairs all day?”  The seated man spoke, and the voice was not that of a man. He was a woman! The woman picked up the jug of water and poured some into a wooden cup, “Join me if you wish There is too much for me alone and you look poorer than me.”

 

The woman picked up the cup and her sleeve slipped up on her arm revealing a Tattoo of a pair of Koi on her inner wrist that Keneteru could make out as she drank.

 

She never once turned his way.

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Do you know, Kamiko-san, what it is you wish to do now that you are …free?”

 

Kamiko did not bat an eyelash at the oddly familiar address from Bayushi-sama. In the company of Scorpions she often chose to go veiled rather than masked, and even an inquisitive lift of an eyebrow would be noted. Instead she lifted her teacup to her lips and sipped delicately, mulling the question over.

 

What she wished was not at issue here, she knew that at once. Bayushi-sama had purpose for calling her here, and was likely probing to test her loyalty or...compatibility, perhaps, with a task she needed done. To wish, to be free...these were curious things indeed for one's superiors to dangle in one's face, unless it was to gauge her reaction. But it wouldn't do at all to call her out on any of that.

 

"Yes, Bayushi-sama," she said after lowering her cup. "I do know. My work is far from done. Before being called to serve Clan and Empire at the side of the magistrates, I had heard distant murmurs of sacrificed animals in the hills north of the Painted City. If maho was involved, there may yet be some embers in the ashes of the trail to follow."

 

Her eyes lifted then, from her hands and cup to Kachiko's eyes...ever so briefly...as she added, "Unless Clan and Empire has some other task for me, of course."

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Kachiko makes a slight, almost imperceptible, nod, "I admire your dedication," her eyes never leave Kamiko's, "but, it has been so long, I would hate to see you waste effort on a well that has likely dried up. I have acquaintances in that region. If you wish it, I can have them see if those clues still exist. If you wish it.

 

In the mean time, there is something. I don't know if you have heard but Kakita Zoyu, whom you worked with, resigned from the Magistrate to pursue a mystery. You may have heard about the duel she was to have with a minor Samurai that besmirched the reputation of a friend of hers. The details are scandalous. It was this duel which led to the Mirumoto magistrate, you know her too, Rin, to murder, pardon, kill, several would be assassins' or so she claimed. While acquitted of murder, she was forced to resign. But you know all of that.

 

Now the Kakita got it in her head that Doji Retsu. you know, the one who started this war between the Lion and the Crane. She believed that Retsu wanted her dead and arranged the duel and hired the assassins' to kill her. At least that is what the Mirumoto told her. Now the Kaita has spent the better part of a year searching for proof. But then Retsu died this winter. And so true or not it is moot. Luckily Kaita Zoyu did not make her suspicions public. So it seems the whole sordid affair is over.'

 

Lady Kachico sat back on her heels a hand slips into her kimono and comes out with a small tightly rolled scroll. "Or maybe not."

 

She leans forward again. "It seems there may be some truth to what the Mirumoto disscovered, but incomplete. Retsu you see did not die of the fever he was poisoned," she shakes her head, " do not ask how I know, I have my ways. But the Kakita is still in danger and now she is alone without the Swords of Heaven to protect her. Kakita Zoyu and I have our differences but we both desire the same thing. I wish to... inform her, but at the same time I do not wish to be seen getting involved.

 

But you, Kamiko-san, you are a friend, you worked together for along time. Perhaps you would like to visit with her again."

 

Kachiko is holding the scroll loosely, not so much handing it to Kamiko as allowing Kamiko to make a choice.

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Kamiko did not reach for the scroll immediately. This wasn't so much because she had any intention of refusing, but rather because she wanted to collect her thoughts...and did not wish to appear too eager to accept. A choice was a rare gift. Given one, it was expected to at least consider one's options. This situation did not, on the surface, address her usual interest in undoing the workings of black magic...but she had found that the embrace of such magic was almost always used by those seeking to undermine the Empire at one point or another. It was too powerful to ignore, and if one was already a traitor and outlaw, there was no reason not to pursue that power.

 

The war between Lion and Crane was a crisis in the Empire, more even than it seemed on the surface. The Kakita and Mirumoto samurai had, by fortune or design, found themselves swept up in some secret about its origin. A secret they were sorely unprepared to untangle...and, when discovered, use properly.

 

The presence of a Scorpion was required. More to the point, her unique relationship with the former Swords of Heaven made her the best one for this task.

 

She had questions. How had Zoyu 'got it into her head' that Retsu was behind the war? How had Rin discovered the assassins, and what had she learned about them? Was this something they'd stumbled into, or a course that had been set for them? These answers, and more, she would have to tease forth from this grim tapestry.

 

"A friend is valuable beyond jewels and jade," she said, and reached for the scroll. "I should very much like to visit them again, in these trying times."

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Kaneteru smiled weakly, "I may be poorer in the material sense, but spiritually, I have a feeling we are both gifted." He came down off the steps and sat across from the Woman with the Koi tattoo. He looked her over, his trained eye indicating that this woman was not what she was portraying. She may have been a "poor traveler" but she was still a samurai. What a samurai was doing here, in attempted disguise, was the true question. However that question would have to wait. "It would be an honor to share a meal with you. I am Togashi Kaneteru. Whom do I have the pleasure of sharing a meal with?"

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The woman Samurai sniffed loudly and slid the rice balls toward Kaneteru. The monk now noticed that she had a tattoo on the left side of her neck, the leg and tail of a dragon, curling around her ear the bulk of the tattoo hidden by her unkempt hair. "Heh, well said."  She leveled her gaze at the men standing in the corner, "I am Mirumoto Rin," she turned back to Togashi, "It is a pleasure to meet you Togashi-san. I do not often find myself in the company of a brother."

 

She signals the proprietor and pointed at the bowl of soup and then at Kaneteru. "Pay no mind to those cowards over there. They are members of a gang, the side effect of the recent Opium War which gutted the normal power base here in the City of Lies. These dogs and their ilk have been extorting the businesses that didn't burn.' Rin spoke matter of factly between sips of soup and bite from her own rice ball. She also spoke loudly.

 

The proprietor shuffled up staying on the side closest to Kaneteru. He set a full bowl of soup in front of him.

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Tsuma Winter 1122-1123

 

"This one has not yet decided, Toshimoko-sensei," Zoyu murmured, serving the wine the younger student had brought with airy grace while her mentor finished garbing himself. Though her mismatched eyes were half lidded, there was nothing demur in her gaze.

Kakita Toshimoko would make an exemplary husband, though he seemed committed to being a bachelor after the issue with his first wife. The finest duelist in the Empire, he may have been older than her father, but he was still more fit than a man half his age, and more than handsome to her eyes, with marvellous hands.

He was also a sensei of some renown, having trained many of high station in the Empire, including Prince Satorii, and the Daimyo of the Crane himself, as well as others. Though unexpected, she could see how Toshimoko may have learned of Doji Namura-sama's invitation so swiftly. She was Toshimoko's student with the greatest potential, after all, the invitation could very well have been at his behest.

However, that it had come a mere day after learning of Retsu's death sowed a seed of doubt within her breast. Perhaps, it was engaging with Tsukiko and her Scorpion brethren while investigating the truth behind Doji Retsu and who may have aided him in his perfidy which had cast a tainted cloud over Rin - which had turned up little - but the timing of Retsu's death and the great offer seemed a little too convenient. Something to distract her from her pursuit.

Which didn't mean she wasn't greatly tempted by the offer. Being accounted among the Kenshinzen had always been on the path she had been crafting for herself, and being offered the position by her Clan Daimyo was a tremendous honour indeed...

And yet, Zoyu was not resigned to being thwarted in clearing a dear comrade's name by a mere death. She had spent over a year pursuing her investigation as she decided. She had been a student of a Kenku swordmaster, and though amidst Tisuri-sama'a aerie and beyond, it had felt to be many times longer, when she had returned, she had found just a single year had passed. Though Honour and Duty made their demands, Zoyu had grown used to being her own mistress, walking her own path.

It could not be forever, of course, but she was relunctant to relinquish her freedom so soon. And to be fair, Doji Namura's invitation was a request, not a command from her Clan Daimyo. Still, she felt the weight of the invitation, slipped up the sleeve of her fine and flattering kimono - raven and azure and patterned with windswept sakura blossoms - and it had nothing to due with the mass of the sumptuous paper.

"It is a great honour being presented, to be sure," Zoyu said, gliding over to Toshimoko's side and taking a sip of wine. She made a please sound, it was a fine vintage, light and fruity and fragrant. There were advantages to being the head of the unequaled Kakita Dueling Academy. "And yet, it is hard to give up a self proposed quest, despite the chain this one has been following being terminally clipped short."

She tossed her head, long luxurious hair, half ebony, half ivory, tied up in a foxtail dancing across her shoulders and back. A bare curve to her full lips hinted at a smile. "If Empire and Clan called me to serve directly, this one will of course accede. But this ones believes her quest does serve the Empire and Clan, and has grown used to flying free." The faint curve deepened. "Much like certain elder samurai who have much to offer a household, but have not settled down, yet."

Zoyu sighed and finished her wine, then turned to look out a window. It was still outside, warm for this time of year. With the bare trees, the slow flowing river riddles with chunks of jagged ice, and the sun a blur behind grey clouds, it was a good scene for an ink wash painting, perhaps adding just a splash of colour of a single bird or flower.

"What think you of the offer, Toshimoko?"  Zoyu asked, more casual, even intimate, then she ever would be in public. "Mentor and friend, do you believe Doji-sama would be affronted if I asked for time before deciding on the answer to his request?"

She wasn't asking what to do, but she would hear the advice of a man she greatly respected and admired, and yes, even desired, who had known her practically since she had first held a wooden sword. The Bushido made of the people of the Empire something greater than the beasts in the wild or the uncouth barbarians outside Rokugan. But Tisuri, and Toshimoko himself - with his many dalliances and frequenting of geisha - had taught her that passion could be folded and folded again, like the steel of a blade, to be made into something greater...

Even if passion came into conflict with the Bushido. Perhaps, because it all too often did.

Zoyu smiled to herself. She had read far too many pillow books and romances.

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Zoyu and Toshimoko

 

"Humph." grunted Toshimoko deep in his chest, his features, for a moment grimaced, as if wrestling with an unseen opponent. "What I think, it seems is of little concern to any but you, Zoyu. I was not consulted. Indeed were it not for a little bird whispering in my ear..." He lets the thought trail off and sips the wine.

 

"I have of course followed your career, but then you dropped out of sight for a whole year only to turn up here at winters onset. I will not pry. You have made a name for yourself. But you are young and in my opinion have not yet reached the heights for which that title was intended."

 

He turns to face Zoyu squarely. "I do not think Doji Namura thought of this on his own. Or if he did, his motive is not to honor you but to serve himself. If you accept he will send you to war. You are not a soldier, Zoyu, you are a fighter, fast, skilled, deadly. No, this is politics.  Accept this and you will not serve, you will be used."

 

 

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Kaneteru smiled at the proprietor as he placed the soup bowl in front of him. He then nodded in thanks to the man. "So, Mirumoto-san. What can I help one such as yourself with? I do have some time available, as my next task is late in coming. However, I must say, it is a dangerous game you are playing here. If you wish to run the gangs out of town, wouldn't a magistrate or two and their entourages be more helpful than a simple monk? I can provide names if you are looking for someone to trust. Not that I am afraid, but it's just not practical to keep going to each gang and throwing every member out personally." Kaneteru took a small bite of his rice ball, and a sip of water. "But you are not quite the simple Mirumoto that you portray, are you?" He chuckled and hid his smile behind his hand, "Sorry, but even if I hadn't been trained by the Kitsuki, as a youngster, the tattoos give more away among our kind than you would probably like known in public. Perhaps we should continue this in a place with less ears and eyes."

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In the City of Lies

 

Mirumoto Rin burst into laughter, after several deep guffaws she took a deep breath. "I don't know about that Tagashi-san, I am a fairly simple Dragon. I am not here to throw out gangsters, I am here for the soup. Grandfather there is a very good cook. That is why they didn't burn his inn. Where else would they get the soup."

 

Rin picks up her bowl and drains it loudly smacking her lips after. "Very good soup."

 

One of the gangsters had started edging slowly toward the stage and the corner where Rin's swords were. Keneteru could see the Duelists eyes moving to follow him.

 

"But it does raise a question," the gangster stops, "why are their six gangsters in this inn each with their collections, when the only other people here are you, me, and grandfather?"

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