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    • Owlbear

    The first in a trilogy of fictions depicting the events of our Aftermath CCG expansion is here! For continuity buffs, please note that the events of this fiction take place before the events referred to in There Will Be Blood parts 3 and 4.

     

    Aftermath, Part 1

    By Seth Mason & Robert Denton

    Edited by Fred Wan

     

    “If it is a seat, you should sit in it,” Asako Karachu said as he stood in the center of the Ivory Court. The proceedings had been dismissed for the day, and the monk was alone in the vast chamber with the woman who now stared at the Ivory Throne.

    “That’s rather blunt,” Suikihime remarked, not taking her eyes from the seat of power that was now hers again. “Unlike you, really.”

    Karachu smiled a little. “It is a quote from the Tao, Lady Otomo,” he replied. “You have spent a great deal of time examining that seat rather than sitting in it. If I may be so bold, I would ask why.”

    The Imperial noble turned from the sight and fixed her cool eyes on the Phoenix. “You may always be so bold, my friend,” she said. “Your dedication to my safety during my unfortunate… absence in the city means a great deal to me. Though I have chosen to honor your service by taking you as my personal protector, that is not the extent of my gratitude. You have served me well, and service is rewarded.”

    There was silence in the room until Karachu simply extended one of his hands, asking the question again without words.

    “A throne of any kind is not merely a seat, Karachu-san. Even Shinsei would agree with that.” She touched the side of the thing carefully, as if she were worried her fingers might break it. “It is forever changed by all who sit upon it, no matter for what brief time. When the previous Governor was here, it was seen as a seat of honor. Under my control, I daresay people thought of it as a seat of influence.” She sighed, pulling her hand away. “Two men have sat upon it while I was gone, and now I fear it is merely a seat of power.”

    “There is nothing inherently wrong with power, my Lady,” the monk remarked.

    “Oh, no, of course not,” the Governor replied, looking back to him. “But it is not influence. Influence is a thing that people wish they had but typically do not believe they can steal from you. They may believe they can destroy what influence you have, but taking it for their own is difficult if not impossible. It must be destroyed and then rebuilt under new terms. Power, on the other hand…” her voice trailed off, and Karachu noted the small signs that worry plagued the woman’s mind. “This Empire is rife with those who believe – rightly – that power can be taken.”

    There was silence again as Suikihime paced away from the Ivory Throne and stood near one of the exits to a balcony, overlooking the quiet, dark city. “It has been some time since such quiet has been in the city. During the day, reconstruction buzzes everywhere, creating such dreadful noise, but it is the noise of order. It is silenced at night, unlike the times during the riot. Or the attack.”

    Karachu furrowed his brow at her words. The Governor was almost rambling now, but he had learned she often had a point to all of her speech and action. Even if it took some time to get there now and again.

    Finally, she spoke again. “Did you know the Empress never formally declared her eldest son her heir? Such a curious decision. Or rather, a curious non-decision.”

    The monk frowned in thought for a moment and then shook his head. “I have never thought about it, my Lady, but you are correct. I had merely assumed Iweko Seiken would naturally assume his mother’s position. But she has not been explicit on the matter.” He looked at his mistress and his frown remained. “But she was a Dragon, was she not? Many people think the Dragon are full of riddles or mysteries, or simply directionless oddities. But the wise know better – the Dragon see action and inaction along the same path. And they take no action without a purpose.”

    At that, Suikihime said nothing, but looked wordlessly back to the Ivory Throne.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The tent flap opened for only a moment, flooding the interior with light. The soldier moved to the table at the center of the tent and bowed to those gathered around it.

    Akodo Dairuko looked up. “Ikoma Jeiku,” she greeted him, maintaining her disciplined On, “it is good to see you.”

    Shinjo Min-Hee watched as the scout straightened from his bow. His face was wrapped to protect him from the sands and sun, but she could tell that the skin around his eyes had baked in the heat. “I have brought my report, Dairuko-sama,” he said, extending a scroll.

    Dairuko accepted it with a nod. “Arigato, Jeiku-san. This will be more than adequate.” After a moment, she tilted her head. “We have not spoken in some time. How does your daughter fare?”

    The man’s eyes brightened. “She has progressed to the head of her class. I believe she will be a great soldier! She shows some promise with leadership.”

    “Keep me informed,” she replied. “I would like to know when her gempukku is complete.”

    “I will be sure to send a letter,” he said. The man maintained decorum, but the joy in his voice was obvious.

    Min-Hee watched the exchange with quiet eyes. This man was numerous ranks beneath his Champion’s station, yet she regarded him with some measure of brotherhood. Was this the same Dairuko that had scrutinized her troops and rebuffed the Scorpion champion in open court? Perhaps some would have been puzzled, but Min-Hee’s gaze was shaded with quiet understanding. It was only puzzling if one did not know the Lion.

    Min-Hee looked to the gathered commanders around the table. They gestured to the maps before them and met one-another in the eyes. They were unified in their tan-and-brown kimonos, their even expressions, and the military dialect of the Lion in their speech. Among them, Dairuko stood out only from the whiteness of her hair and the single patch on her kimono’s chest that designated her as rikugunshokan.

    The Khan nodded softly to herself. She knew Akodo’s Leadership; this was the camaraderie a general was supposed to foster. Dairuko never spoke down to any of her underlings; she fostered a brotherhood among her men that went far beyond rank and status. It was no different than the bonds of friendship that openly tied the Unicorn, bonds that Naleesh and Min-Hee also shared. As her mind drifted to her champion, she found herself quietly agreeing with Naleesh’s past assessments that the Lion and Unicorn had common ground to stand on.

    “I must return to the patrol,” he said, bowing again. “Excuse me, my lady.”

    Dairuko nodded, allowed him to take his leave. As he did, she unfurled the report and read it aloud. Jeiku and his men had managed to track multiple parties of gaijin as they were gathering deeper into the desert. These smaller bands appeared to be natives of the sands that were living in isolated pockets far from Rokugani cities. This led Jeiku to postulate that these forces were not actually Yodotai, but nomadic tribes that, for whatever reason, were drawn to Legulus’ army.

    She lowered the scroll and nodded. “This is in keeping with our discoveries,” she mused. “Perhaps they seek to drive us away from their lands, and Legulus promises nothing less to them.”

    “They see us as invaders,” Min-Hee observed.

    Dairuko pinched her brow and met her gaze. “We are invaders, Min-Hee-san,” she remarked. “Let us not obscure that fact.” A pause, then she shrugged. “Not that it makes much difference.”

    “My lady.” One of her commanders, Akodo Uehara, inclined his head towards her. Min-Hee recalled that this was the man that had recognized the strategies of the caravan raiders. “I believe we have sufficient information to construct a plan.”

    Dairuko nodded. “Share what you know.”

    The older man returned her nod, then carefully reached beneath the table and produced a thick tome, written in a language that Min-Hee both recognized but did not understand. The De Bellis Yoditorum. The Yodotai book of tactics.

    “They will be gathering in a fortified camp,” he explained, “one that will allow them a view of our approach, from whichever direction we choose to come. They will be patient and deploy in three lines; spearmen closest to us, heavy-troops in the second, and their veterans in the final line. They will be staggered to allow for their ranged troops to retreat through their lines. They will surround their command; this will minimize any advantage of numbers we may have, while allowing them a possible flanking maneuver if they outnumber us.” He considered his words for a moment. “I believe that, in light of Jeiku’s report, many of their troops will not actually be Yodotai, but rather, warriors from desert tribes or native refugees from the fate that befell the Ivory Kingdoms. They will not be accustomed to the Yodotai ways, but they will have been trained by Legulus to some degree to fight as he does. It is likely that he has a core of veterans, most likely his command unit.

    “And,” he added pointedly, “he will fight alongside his troops. Likely in the third line.”

    Dairuko furrowed her brow. “Are you sure? How would he keep stock of his army from within their ranks? Or issue his orders?”

    “He will have trained his troops to respond to us through drills,” he replied. “They will require minimal interference from him; Legulus will rely on his officers.”

    “Then we will have the more flexible force,” Dairuko concluded. “He will see how water can wear away a mountain.”

    Uehara folded his hands. “We should take care not to underestimate them, my lady.”

    Dairuko paused, then nodded. “Hai, that is right. There will be things he will try that we cannot foresee. The Yodotai will attempt to force our strategy from the start.”

    As the others agreed, Min-Hee took quiet note of how Dairuko had allowed Uehara to correct her, how he had done so without embarrassing her. The Khan knew that Dairuko’s commanders would think no less of her.

    If the same had happened in her own armies, would Yupadi dare to correct her Khan? Inwardly, Min-Hee realized that no, she wouldn’t. Out of concern for her Khan’s anger. Min-Hee darkened. It only occurred to her now, observing the Lion champion, that perhaps she had neglected this aspect of leadership to some degree.

    “Cavalry will be their weakness,” Uehara advised. “Their formations will take much time and slow them significantly. If we can hide the presence of cavalry from them, my lady, then perhaps he can exploit this weakness and surprise them with it.”

    Dairuko looked to the Khan. “Our Unicorn allies will be essential to our plan, then.” He motioned for Min-Hee. “You have not said anything yet, Min-Hee-san. Come, join us at this table.”

    The Khan paused. “You wish for me to help you construct your battle plan?”

    Our battle plan,” Dairuko corrected. “You know your troops better than anyone else, Min-Hee-san. Utilization of your cavalry troops will be the difference between victory and defeat. I cannot afford to contemplate the latter; I must use every resource at my disposal. Besides,” she added, “I cannot cast aside the opportunity. When before has a Lion Champion had the honor of fighting alongside the Unicorn Khan?”

    Immediately, Min-Hee recognized the goal of Dairuko’s words. It was no different than how she’d spoken with her underlings; she was attempting to foster camaraderie. Sisterhood. There was a part of Min-Hee’s mind, the part that did not trust the Lion, that was immediately offended. So the Lion Champion saw fit to speak to the Khan as an underling? It told her not to succumb to those tactics; for the Khan to bow to the Lion Champion would be an insult to all who bore the title. The gesture was not genuine… it was merely the strategy condoned in Akodo’s Leadership.

    And yet, when she looked at Dairuko’s face, there was a part of her mind that told her something different. The part that admired Naleesh, the part that recalled the ways of her father. It noted that the Lion Champion wore no On. She was bringing the Khan up alongside the commanders of the army, not forcing the Khan to bow. Her words, her sentiment, was genuine.

    Which of these thoughts would her father have trusted?

    Before the gathered officers, Min-Hee nodded, and joined them at the command table.

     

    * * * * *

     

    Far from the Lion encampment, three figures stood, casting aside the sand-colored blanket that had obscured their leather tunics. The tallest of them opened a spyglass, reporting what he saw in an obscure, gaijin tongue. Five units of peasant levies. Three units of cavalry. Numerous armored samurai, some in purple, some in sandy orange. He noted how many supplies they had, and what they carried for arms. Every word was transcribed by the other two as they knelt in the sand. When the entire army composition was recorded, he closed the spyglass and slipped beneath the blanket. The three wordlessly turned and headed towards the horizon. Towards the waiting Yodotai camp.

    Their general, Legulus, would be pleased.

     

    * * * * *

     

    Yoritomo Sachina waited in the quiet chamber, her hands folded in her lap and an expression on her face of pure serenity. That expression, however, changed immediately. “You are not expected,” she said flatly to the woman who had just entered.

    Yoritomo Yashinko smiled a little and bowed her head to the other Mantis. “It is good to see you haven’t let your time in the Colonies soften you, Sachina-san,” she said as she strode forward and took a seat at the negotiating table. “I was not expected by you, you mean.”

    “What is the meaning of this?” Sachina asked, not bothering to hide the irritation in her voice. “I was entrusted by Yoritomo Hiromi to conduct these negotiations with the Crane here rather than back in the larger courts of the Empire. I was not informed of any… assistance.”

    “Negotiations are ever-evolving, my dear,” Yashinko replied, reaching forward and helping herself to some tea. “It seems that Doji Makoto, dear man that he is, requested my presence here. It seems he has a fondness for me. Or one of my family, I’m not sure which. Hiromi-sama was more than happy to oblige him.” She paused before bringing the tea to her lips, and looked off as if considering something. “Indeed, he put up so little of a fight it makes one wonder if he was eager to get me here or get you out.”

    The implication was clear to Sachina. “You see what they are doing? The Crane think the Mantis are full of nothing more than ambitious idiots who will stab each other in the back for a chance at some glory and you are proving them right.” She calmed herself and looked the other Mantis direct in the eyes, saying quietly, “Makoto-sama is afraid of me, if he is trying to replace me.”

    Yashinko nodded after sipping her tea. “I had thought that, as well,” she agreed. “And it is no coincidence that, in order to minimize the political damage to the Mantis in the mainland, I had spent most of this war decrying the state of things and declaring my deepest admiration and respect for the Crane. Now, if I were to act harshly against the Doji and Daidoji, my words would be… suspect. It’s a clever move, really.”

    Sachina’s irritation faded into curiosity. “You seem in good spirits for someone who realizes she has been manipulated,” she said.

    “The Crane are right that the Mantis are ambitious,” Yashinko noted, putting down her cup. “They don’t seem to understand that it grants us a certain eye for opportunity. Makoto was asking a great deal, trying to meddle with whom the Yoritomo family sent to deal with this issue. It was a simple enough matter to make a request of them, as well.”

    Yashinko took another sip – obviously in an attempt to draw the moment out longer – and Sachina sighed slightly. She had never enjoyed the woman’s needless penchant for the dramatic.

    “I have requested,” she said slowly, “that Daidoji Sosuke be brought here to answer for his crimes.”

    “What crimes?” Sachina asked.

    “The war, of course,” Yashinko replied with a chuckle. “It has already been established that the Crane overreached when they made the matter of a single duel an excuse to punish all of the Mantis trade in the area. We simply never responded to that misstep. I want to see one of the Crane humiliated for their temerity, and rightly so.”

    “You asked the Champion of the Crane Clan to send one of his vassals to us so we may humiliate him? And he agreed?”

    Yashinko waved her free hand dismissively. “No, of course not. I merely said I would like his presence to help make sure certain testimony was given first hand. However, Makoto is hardly a fool. I’m sure he understands precisely what we stand to gain from this. I believe he simply can’t figure out a way around it.”

    “Or he doesn’t care to,” Sachina noted.

    It was Yashinko’s turn to look confused.

    “Makoto is, if nothing else, an honorable man. Perhaps he truly believes Sosuke should be punished for his actions and the thought of trying to wriggle out of the consequences did not sit well with him. And now, once we take our revenge on the one man, we still have a whole other thing to deal with.”

    “And what is that?” Yashinko asked.

    “We’ll still be sitting in a negotiation room with a handful of Doji.”

    To that, Yashinko could only sigh slightly. “Yes, well. As intimidating as that prospect is,” she said uncertainly, “we were going to have to fight that particular battle eventually. We may as well get a few good strikes in before the real skirmish.”

     

    * * * * *

     

    Kuni Itsuko presented herself before the court, touching her forehead to the floor from a flawless seiza. Those gathered fell silent, and she felt the weight of a hundred eyes upon her. She was not unaccustomed to this weight; she had borne the eyes of countless others before this moment, looks of jealousy, appraisal, desire, and caution. And not long ago, fear. To be gazed upon openly was the inevitability of the court. Never before had it made her uncomfortable.

    But now? Now was different. Even so, she would not allow a hint of her discomfort to shade her features. Especially not in this crucial moment.

    “Welcome back to the Ivory Court,” Otomo Suikihime said from the dais. Around her, those who had proven their loyalty to the governor watched her carefully. Togashi Noboru, arms crossed and smiling openly, stood to her right. The court was filled with seated attendants, who watched what unfolded before the dais with alternating looks of quiet satisfaction, anticipation, and dread.

    Suikihime laid her cheek against her hand. Her cruel eyes danced with amusement. “I am pleased to see you again, Itsuko-san. But I admit, I was hoping your lord would make an appearance.”

    Itsuko met the governor’s eyes fearlessly. “Renyu-sama is occupied with the destruction of this city’s enemies, my lady. He offers his regards.” It was close enough to the truth not to be a lie.

    The answer amused the governess, and she smiled. “In light of this, am I to assume you speak for the Crab in this city?”

    “I have been so empowered,” Itsuko replied.

    Suikihime nodded. She leaned back in her throne and focused her attention on the Kuni before her. “When I was… compelled to leave this city, I left it in a state of order. Everything operated under a system of my own design. Each internal crisis was successfully contained. Forces wishing to invade from the outside and destroy our city were held at bay while diplomacy was being attempted. These things were sabotaged, and I was made to step aside. Now I have returned to find the city in disarray.” She looked about the room, meeting the eyes of those gathered within. “It is unfortunate that Kuni Renyu could not rise to the challenge provided to him by the Divine Empress.”

    The room filled with murmurs. Itsuko remained calm. It was an obvious ploy to unhinge her; she would not be so easily baited. The answer was mokusatsu; she would not dignify the accusation with a reply.

    “My administration is slowly restoring order,” Sukihime continued, “but to bring the city back to its full glory, I must rely on the aide of the Great Clans.” Now she looked pointedly at Itsuko. “I understand that recently the Crab have taken it upon themselves to purge the Fudo cult from the city.”

    Itsuko nodded. “This is true, my lady. The Crab will ensure that no trace of this blasphemy remains within the Second City walls.”

    “I must commend the Crab for their vigilance,” Suikihime said. “There remains, however, much left to do. There are still Fudoists in the colonies at large, and there is no telling how much of the blasphemy remains within the city. Fortunately, there are some among us who have become foremost experts on our enemies, who are well-equipped to assist us with this challenge.” The governor turned to her court scribe. “Fusimi-san, send word for Togashi Ango and Kitsuki Horume. I am entrusting the official Fudo purge efforts with the Dragon.”

    “A wise decision, my lady.” Togashi Noboru bowed deeply. “The Dragon graciously accept this honor.”

    Itsuko pursed her lips. “My lady,” she began, lowering her head, “the Crab are grateful for the offer of aid, and have no doubt that the Dragon’s insights would be invaluable. However, I must assert to you that the Crab have all efforts well in hand, and to place existing forces under the command of the Dragon would complicate an already delicate-”

    “You misunderstand me,” Sukihime interrupted. “I am not suggesting that the Crab work alongside the Dragon. I am ordering that the Crab relinquish their duty to them.” She smiled softly. “As my servants, the Crab will comply. Unless I am mistaken?”

    The court’s attentions settled on Itsuko. She looked into the eyes of the governor for a long time.

    At last, she bowed. “I cannot recommend this course,” she said softly, “but the Crab obey, my lady.”

    Court was dismissed. The courtiers were excused. As Itsuko turned to leave, she overheard Noboru speaking to the governor. “The Spider could be used to great effect in this task, my lady.” The words caused a great tightness in her chest, and her jaw clenched. Mutely, she drew a great breath and slowly released it before continuing on her path to the exit.

    “Itsuko-san!”

    She turned. It was Kitsuki Ekeyu. Itsuko recalled the Justicar-in-training from their limited interactions in the past season’s Winter Court. The woman stopped a short distance from her and cast her a sympathetic smile. Itsuko looked at her passively.

    “Itsuko, please,” she said softly, “do not think this a slight against the Crab. The Dragon hold the Crab in the highest regard! I know what the other clans have said about Kuni Renyu,” she winced visibly, “but know that the Dragon do not hold him responsible for what befell the city. We understand that Renyu was acting by what he believed was right. We only hope that, with time, he will see how he has erred.” She renewed her smile. It seemed genuine. “And I hope that this will not affect our friendship, Itsuko-san. The Dragon will make every attempt to live up to the great example that the Crab displayed as we carry out these new duties.”

    Itsuko turned her back to the woman. “How sincere,” she murmured, and left the court.

     

    * * * * *

     

    “Unacceptable!” Renyu thundered. His voice carried throughout the chamber and into the Crab embassy beyond. Itsuko kept her head lowered in obedience. She did not flinch at his anger.

    “That harlot expects me to step aside and hand our duty over to the Dragon?!” His face contorted with rage. “I will do no such thing! It is unthinkable!” His eyes hovered over Itsuko’s kneeling form. “How could you let this happen!? Why didn’t you argue? Why didn’t you protest?”

    “Renyu-sama!” The daimyo turned; the protest had come from Hiruma Sawai, the only other person in the room. Sawai had led several Crab expeditions against the Fudoists, using his tracking skills to root them out. These attempts had not proven as successful as Renyu had hoped; many of the Fudoists seemed warned ahead of time, escaping the Crab’s justice by mere minutes. That the man dared to speak now, in light of his recent failures, was a wonder to the Kuni daimyo. He did not reply, simply staring at the man with an unwavering glare.

    Sawai did not look away. “Itsuko has preserved the face of the Crab before the Ivory court! She has ensured that we might rise to favor again!”

    Renyu grunted. “To admit wrongdoing in submitting to the Empress is saving face? How odd politics has become, of late.”

    The young scout almost shook in his seat. “The restoration of the governor has changed things, my lord. The other clans whisper against us. They say that the Crab are betrayers… that we are no different than the Scorpion! They blame us for the ruin that befell the city. Even the Scorpion begin to think we are liabilities to them. Soon the Crab will have no allies!” He looked to Itsuko, who remained silent. “We must convince them otherwise, my lord. Itsuko works to restore our reputation.”

    Renyu was unmoved. “Our reputation is the only one that is clean here, Sawai-san. The ruin that befell this city was long-coming. The other clans blame us only because the governor has swayed their hearts with her lies. They blame us because they cannot blame themselves. Let us not forget, she refused to surrender to an army that served the Emerald Champion! What befell this city was her doing.” He darkened, but maintained an even tone. “Of all the clans here, only we obeyed the Empress. I say to you, when is it wrong to bow to the law and judgement of the Emerald Champion?”

    Sawai said nothing.

    The daimyo nodded. “Let them talk. It is of no consequence. I would not sacrifice our principles to win popularity. This place exists at the Empire’s convenience, what they think of us means little to me.” Proudly, he struck his chest with a fist. “The Crab’s shell is all it needs. It was good enough for our ancestors!”

    Sawai could take no more. He stood, fists clenched. “This is NOT that Empire!” he said. “Lord Renyu, this is a different world now! There is no black-and-white here! The governess acted selfishly, perhaps, but the city would not have burned if the gates had not-”

    He stopped. Renyu was watching him carefully. Itsuko pointedly ignored him; she was looking at the wall. Sawai realized, too late, his error.

    Renyu towered over him. “Choose your next words very wisely,” he advised.

    Sawai looked into the Kuni daimyo’s face. “Lord Renyu,” he said softly, “The people of this city are not your enemies. Our true enemies wake with the sun and rejoice that Kuni Renyu is among the allies of the Empire.” Unflinching, he took a breath. “That is the truth, my lord. Perhaps it displeases you, but to say nothing would be a betrayal. As long as you cannot see this…” he hesitated, “…then I fear that I am no use to you.”

    Renyu leaned in so that his face engulfed Sawai’s vision. “Then go home, Sawai.”

    Shame filled the defeated man’s features. He stood, gathered his things, and left.

    When he was gone, Renyu turned back to Itsuko. She was prostrated on the floor. “I regret nothing,” she said. “To endure the insult I witnessed today caused me great pain, but I did so regardless. And in doing so, I have begun to disarm our enemies. For this reason, I cannot apologize. I act for the Crab, and no other. However,” she added, “if I have displeased you regardless, then I place myself at your mercy.”

    Renyu looked at her for a long time. At last, he shook his head. “I cannot punish you, Itsuko,” he said. She raised herself into seiza, obediently. “You have always been my ally,” he continued, “my greatest weapon in the courts. Even when Shibatsu saw fit to… take you from me,” his voice took a momentary of anger, “you remained ever loyal, acting as my eyes and ears. I know you had a hand in restoring me to the court. I trust you, Itsuko. Let that be explicit.”

    “Even so, we cannot excuse this insult.” He darkened. “We will show the governor that she has erred in giving this duty to the Dragon.”

    “My lord,” Itsuko said, “if you do not care what the other clans think, then why dwell on this?”

    “This is different,” Renyu whispered. His eyes moved to the window. The towers of the governor’s estate loomed in the distance. “This is a matter of honor…”

     

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