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    RPGMP3 Newsbot
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    • Owlbear

    The thrilling conclusion to our three-part series depicting the themes and events of the Aftermath CCG expansion!

     

     

    Aftermath, Part 3

    By Robert Denton and Seth Mason

    Edited by Fred Wan

     

    The head of the Lion general struck the stand and rolled like a fallen stone. It came to rest, face-down, in a small pocket of sand. The body collapsed in a shamble at Legulus’ feet. The redness of the sand slowly grew around the lifeless body.

    Legulus stood tall above the body of the Lion Champion. The rusty smell of blood on the wind, the smell of victory, stirred around him. He heard cries of triumph from his honor guard; a sweep of his gaze affirmed his suspicions. Dead lion lay all around him. His elites hadn’t suffered a single casualty, although a few were nicked or sustained minor injuries. They were all grinning, even as they regrouped into formation or shook the blood from their blades.

    “That was nothing!” one of them declared. “Is this what has become of samurai?”

    Another remarked, “They have no great dragon to save them this time!” Together they laughed and readied themselves for their lord’s next orders.

    Legulus did not smile. He was staring at the dismembered corpse of the Lion general. He walked to the body, lowering himself to one knee. His guards moved around him protectively. “My lord?” his lieutenant  asked.

    He frowned. His mind worked around the sensation that something was amiss, like toes sensing a stone in one’s shoe. Calmly, he turned the body over. The armor was ornate and fine, but other than the shoulder-guards, it was not the quality he’d expected for a clan champion, much less a general. He glanced to the woman’s head laying still, her top-knot poking out from the sand like a monolith of death. He stood again. Too easy. That was the problem. It was too easy…

    And then it dawned on him; the sounds of battle, the fighting of the Lion, it all continued with such complete order. No consequence had come of slaying the clan champion. No redoubled attack, no anguished cries to ancestors, no desperate attempt to reclaim the warrior’s body for honored rights. No attempt to retake the ancestral sword. Nothing. A rock had been thrown into the pond and not so much as a ripple had come of it. It was as if they did not care. As if she were just another soldier.

    Just another soldier. His eyes widened.

    “Decoy!” Legulus cried, spinning around. “Decoy!”

    An arrow tore through the throat of his lieutenant. Then another fell just to his side. His men tried to re-form their shields around him, but then the rain of death fell. They clutched their shields and fell to their knees as arrows peppered their shields. Legulus dove for his lieutenant’s body and thrust up his shield, which his dead hand still gripped, just in time to deflect a hailstorm of arrowheads.

    They were pinned. Legulus cursed openly and glanced at his men. They were turtled in defensive positions; two had fallen from the Lion’s arrows. But that was fine, he reasoned. The rest of his army would gather around him and provide a way…

    The thunder of taiko drums drowned out his thoughts. The arrows stopped. Legulus rose from his crouch to find a line of fighting Lion soldiers blocking any path of escape. He was completely cut off, isolated in a sea of samurai. The realization hit him with the force of a crashing wave. At once came a line of Lion samurai, swords brandished and their voices ringing. His men fell into a disciplined rank in front of him, shields out and spears ready, preparing to absorb the charge.

    But he was not watching these charging soldiers. His eyes had caught the form of a mounted herald, a man who was now staring right at him and, with a satisfied look, raising his hand and signaling with his fan.

    The signal was seen by another herald some distance away who, in the thick of skirmish at the Yodotai’s offensive line, repeated it. His signal was seen by another herald, who echoed the gesture. The chain of repeated signals carried word across the battlefield in mere instants with the speed of resounding thunder. It carried over soldiers, crashing blades, and fluttering banners, until at last it came before the eyes of a woman standing at a vantage far from the front lines, a Lion missing her helmet and sode, whose prematurely steel-gray hair reflected white in the desert sun. Akodo Dairuko, Champion of the Lion, saw the signals of her heralds and allowed herself a brief smile before drawing her fan. She held it high above her head at the apex of the battlefield, opened it wide, and then turned it to display its alternate side. Purple. Bright purple against the turquoise sky.

    The voice of Akodo Uehara echoed in her mind. “He will fight alongside his troops,” he’d said. Her eyes flashed with amusement at the thought. What a foolish thing for a general to do.

    After all, then he could not lead them.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The signal of the purple fan cascaded through the ranks of the Lion army. Every man and woman who saw them knew that Legulus was exposed and separated from his forces. They knew that he could not lead from such a position. A new wave of morale swept through the Lion army, galvanizing every soul it touched. The great wheel of Lion soldiers turned again; tired soldiers disengaged from their opponents just as fresh ones arrived, resuming the fight flawlessly in their wake, like the passing of a torch from one hand to another. Lion fought in unison as the great wheel grinded, and the stoic Yodotai line, pushed to exhaustion and without the guidance of their general, slowly began to buckle.

    Yet there was no end in sight for the Unicorn soldiers on the other side of the battlefield, far from the engaged lines. The scout ambush had proven fruitful, and their skirmish had fallen into a virtual stand-still. There’d been twice the number of gaijin than it had first seemed. Min-Hee pulled her sword from the gut of another enemy and then spun to stop the desperate lunge of yet another. She fought one-armed, her other still healing, bound tightly within her kimono, and her strikes and parries gradually slowed as her good arm tired. Her soldiers had formed a circle around their horses and patiently fought against the scouts’ superior numbers.

    “My Lady!” one of the Shinjo cried. His eyes were pointed towards the Lion’s battle-lines. “The signal! The signal!”

    Min-Hee finished her opponent and then reeled in that direction. A mounted Lion herald was flashing a purple fan high above the battlefield. It was the signal for the cavalry forces to intervene. She watched the pattern that the herald made from opening and closing the fan and instantly knew where her enemy was. The Lion would hold him there for the arrival of the Unicorn.

    Another scout lunged at her, striking and then ducking away before she could retaliate. “Damn it!” she spat, gritting her teeth in frustration. “We don’t have time for this! We must strike now!”

    No sooner had she spoke then Iuichi Yupadi appeared by her side. The priestess calmly lit a coil of incense and held it flat in her palm, whispering prayers to the kami. She made a sweeping gesture with her other arm, and before the Khan’s eyes, a great wave of ocean water materialized in the air above their attackers. The scouts stopped in the shadow of the falling wave, with no time for them to leap away. It crashed down on them with the full weight of the wave, sending them sprawling, screaming, to the sand.

    They scrambled to stand again, wet sand sticking to their cloaks. Min-Hee knew better than to wait; she sheathed her weapon with effort and ran for her horse. As though it could sense her thoughts, it dipped its neck with urgency, lifting her up and aiding her into the saddle. She watched as several others followed her lead. Five would be far less than their intended offensive force, but it could not be helped now. No sooner had she mounted than Yupadi placed a hand against the horse’s flank, and Min-Hee felt a strange energy radiating from the horse’s limbs, as if all fatigue and stress that the horse had suffered suddenly washed away.

    Yupadi smiled up at her Khan. “If you hurry, you can still-”

    She halted, the handle of a thrown dagger jutting cruelly from her chest.

    Min-Hee’s eyes widened. For a moment, Yupadi looked as if she could not determine what just happened, glancing at her wound. She looked back up, trails of blood falling fresh from the corners of her mouth. She met the stunned eyes of the Khan.

    And in that moment, Yupadi banished all doubt and hesitation from her features. Her eyes shone strong and determined. “Go!” she said. “For the Unicorn!”

    Min-Hee gave her friend no further look. She spurred her horse into action. Those that could disengage from the skirmish followed as the others prevented a pursuit; together they thundered through the battle lines. She rode towards the greater battle, sword in-hand and eyes steeled. She ignored the tightness growing in her chest and the anguish pushing the walls of her heart. She just rode, stone-faced, towards her enemy. She did not need to look back to know that Yupadi also hurled herself towards the enemy, to death, and the embrace of her ancestors. Even as their daggers fell, and her blood rained like crimson tears, she would be running, ever-running, towards the infinite horizon of the next life. In life, as it was at the moment of death, the only direction for a samurai was forward. Ever forward. Towards the enemy. Towards the sun.

    The Khan would not shame her by looking back.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The great doors of the Ivory court burst open, allowing Kuni Renyu, and his procession, into the room. Although he was announced minutes prior, his arrival sent a cascade of whispers throughout those gathered. Renyu ignored them, coming before the dais and bowing deeply before the Governor and her entourage.

    Sukihime watched him with interest. “Kuni Renyu,” she said, her voice bringing those gathered to silence, “to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”

    The normally-stoic face of the Kuni daimyo showed a rare hint of happiness, today. He rose from his bow and gestured to the court entrance. “I have brought you a gift, lady Governor.”

    A man in plain kimonos was brought into the court by flanking guards. His hands were bound. Though his face was lowered, the bruises that had swollen his left eye shut were quite visible. The court stirred; many recognized the man as a regular fixture of the last Winter Court.

    “This,” Renyu announced, gesturing to the man, “is Sawai, formerly of the Hiruma family.” He paused. “A known Fudoist.”

    Words of dismay scattered through the court, but none seemed quite so dismayed as the Dragon delegation. Togashi Noboru crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes. Within the delegation, Togashi Ango saw the beaten and humbled form of Hiruma Sawai and immediately felt a pang of self-reprisal. He frowned inwardly as his yojimbo, a woman named Mirumoto Niwa, edged closer.

    “This man,” Renyu continued, “audaciously aided numerous Fudoists in their escape from the city, unbeknownst to his masters. He then attempted to leave the city himself, to relocate in a village far north, where Fudoists were seeking refuge from the justice of the Empress.” He cast the prisoner a stark glare. “The Crab were able to follow him to this village, and I can assure those gathered here that justice has been throughly delivered.”

    Sawai closed his good eye, shamefully.

    “How brave,” Noboru spoke, startling the court. He was smiling. “Such brazen defiance of the Governor’s decree, and you have imposed on the colonial Dragon’s new duties.”

    Renyu matched Noboru with an equal smile. “The Crab have suspended their Ivory Court-sponsored hunt within the city, as instructed. But the lands outside the city were not specified. We are still well within our rights.”

    Noboru’s smile faded slightly, and he looked at the Governor.

    Sukihime made to comment, but then Bayushi Shibata, standing beside her on the dais, whispered in her ear. After a moment, she waved him away and refocused on what was happening before her. “I must commend the Crab for their vigilance. Your swift actions have pleased this court.” A pause. “However, I do wonder why you saw fit to interrupt these proceedings to announce this, Lord Renyu.”

    At this, the Kuni daimyo’s eyes flashed. “The gravity of the situation spurred me, Lady Otomo.” At a gesture, Kuni Itsuko stepped forward and presented the dais with a collection of papers. The broken wax seal was clearly that of the Dragon. “It seems that Sawai secured his traveling papers from a Dragon ally,” Renyu continued. “One Togashi Ango, a recent appointment of yours to oversee the Fudo purge from your city. I have reason to believe he has purposefully allowed a Fudoist to escape the city.”

    Gazes spun towards Ango’s direction, and murmurs rippled throughout the court. Noboru did not flinch; indeed, he seemed slightly amused by the accusation. Togashi Ango allowed the serenity on his face to remain, even as he attracted Kitsuki Horume’s blatant glare.

    “Silence!” commanded the Chancellor of the Left. “This court will remain orderly!”

    Sukihime leaned her cheek on her palm and cast an interested look towards Ango. “Togashi Ango, do you care to address these accusations?”

    Ango bowed. “I do, my lady.” The calmness of his voice was matched only by the certainty of his gaze. “I fear there has been a misunderstanding. Sawai is not a Fudoist.” A pause. “He is a former Fudoist.” Ango ignored the murmurs of the court and continued. “In fact, he personally renounced Fudoism in my very presence. When the true nature of this cult was uncovered, many former Fudoists renounced their affiliations, some in this very court. Those that did were spared judgement.” He regarded the court, arms wide and hands open. “Is a samurai’s word and deed not as one Perhaps Sawai was once a Fudoist, but he is a Fudoist no longer. If I am guilty of anything, it is simply performing my duty as appointed by the court.” He looked to Renyu. “For some, perhaps that is enough for judgment.”

    Several of the Crabs bristled at his final comment, but Renyu remained calm. “Even if this is true, and Ango believed Sawai’s renouncement, the fact remains: under the Dragon’s watch, a Fudoist-“

    “Former Fudoist,” Ango boldly corrected.

    “-was allowed to leave the city!” Renyu quickly finished, fists clenching at the interruption. “It is only right that the Dragon be required to submit all of their administrative paperwork to the Crab for review.”

    “Ludicrous,” Noboru said. He took a step forward, looking around the court. “Is it not obvious what is going on, here? The Crab seeks to mend not a breech in the city’s vigilance against a nearly-dead cult…” he met Renyu’s eyes and smiled, “…but their own wounded pride.”

    The collective gaze of the court swung to Renyu, as if expecting a great outburst. For a moment, a look of sheer displeasure dominated his features. But then, he simply shrugged his massive shoulders. “That the Dragon would dismiss these concerns only strengthens my resolve in this matter,” he said to the Governor. “If they will not submit their records to the Crab, they should at least submit them to the authority of the Ivory Court. If one Fudoist-”

    “Former Fudoist,” came Ango.

    “-could escape their notice,” he continued cooly, “then it is a concern for all of us to make sure no others did the same.”

    Noboru made a scoffing face. “That is an unnecessary precaution. The Dragon are more than capable of undertaking this task without oversight. What happened was an isolated incident! You cannot hold it against the Dragon if a man disgraced himself by lying when submitting to questioning.”

    Renyu turned to the Court. “This is how seriously the Dragon treat your concerns, distinguished members of the court. But then, they’ve always known better than us, eh?”

    Noboru opened his mouth for a rebuttal, but the Governor stood, causing him to lower his head in reverence instead.

    “Enough,” she said. She turned towards the gathered ensemble on the dais. “Bayushi Shibata, you have always been a loyal servant and advisor. What is your judgement in this issue?”

    The venerable head of the Imperial Explorers looked upon Kuni Renyu, and smiled. “Lord Renyu makes a valid point, I think. Furthermore, he has demonstrated the value of Crab vigilance in such matters. Were it up to me, your excellence, I would agree to his assessment.”

    Several predominant Scorpions in the court nodded and murmured their agreements. A few vocally praised the Crab’s vigilance. Noboru hid his shock, but stared at Shibata for the remainder of the proceedings.

    “Well put,” Sukihime remarked, “and we are in total agreement, Shibata-san.” She regarded the court. “I will take the words of Lord Renyu into consideration. In the meantime, the Dragon will relinquish their immigration records to the Scorpion for review.” She paused. “These are troubling times for our city, but I will not rest until the threat of these Fudo extremists is completely extinguished.”

     

    * * * * *

     

    Legulus stumbled, barely avoiding the final strike of a dying Lion. In exchange for his life, she’d landed several glancing blows to his limbs and torn his shield away. The Yodotai general panted hard as she fell to the sand, trailing blood, an oddly satisfied look on her face.

    These were not the same Lion he’d engaged moments ago. For one, they were all women, unified in the brilliant furry manes that adorned their helms and armor. Second, they attacked with no regard to their own safety, throwing everything they had into each attack. There was no feinting an enemy like that, no threatening to punish an over-commitment. It was as if death had no power over them. Legulus nodded approvingly at the woman’s corpse. This was far closer to the samurai he’d remembered from all that time ago.

    “My lord!” a veteran shouted. Legulus noted that there seemed to be fewer of them now in the melee, roughly half of those he’d began with. “Someone reached the ballistas! They’re burning…” His eyes widened as he looked into the massive battle raging around him. “The second line! It’s broken!”

    “Get us back to the army!” Legulus roared. But he knew the command was futile the moment it left his lips. The Lion’s skirmish had pushed them too far from the second line to make it back in time. Legulus screamed in fury and frustration as he tore into Lon soldiers with renewed fevor. “Destroy them all!” he cried, “for the glory of Conquest! For the vengeance of Kali-ma! For the memory of our fallen! We will not be ended here!”

    His men picked up his renewed energy, lunging into the fray. Then, as he pushed forward through the sea of chaos, he spotted a single Lion standing still, a steady reed in a churning river. Waiting for him. Sword drawn, armor damaged, small smudges of blood glittering on her face, she watched with great serenity and stillness. Her eyes were dark pools of contemplative void, her black hair pulled in the wind like the night sky. Legulus was instantly taken by the sight of her, and for a moment, the world vanished in the dark of her eyes.

    She stepped forward. Inches from her face, an arrow missed her cheek. She took no note of the battle around her. The right shoulder-guard of her armor, her sode, had been torn away, exposing the patterned kimono beneath. Her eyes matched with that of Legulus, and she calmly lifted her blade and pointed.

    “You can understand me?” she asked.

    Legulus snapped from his daze, readying his own weapons. He spoke his crude Rokugani, the words dripping thick from his gaijin tongue. “You think you can match me, child? I’ll send you to the judgement of your false gods.”

    She was unfazed. “My name is Matsu Rika,” she said. “All my life, I have trained to kill you.”

    “Then you’ve wasted your life, little girl.”

    Her eyes narrowed. “That remains to be seen.”

    He gave her no moment to consider her attack; he leapt first, blade flashing a deadly arc before him. She moved deftly out of the path and pressed her own attack, her sword diverting his strikes. This one’s aggression was different than the others. More controlled. Purposeful. They danced the dance of steel and light, the kiss of their blades finding no purchase except the empty spaces where they’d each once stood. She was fast, this lithe warrior, but again Legulus knew he was the more experienced. When she thought she had him, she raised her sword to risk a finishing strike, but he kicked sand into her eyes and swiped at her with his spatha. She pulled back with eerie calm, blinking debris from her face, and did not acknowledge the steady red stream now running from her unprotected shoulder.

    Now he was upon her, hailing blows in a whirlwind of fury. Rika stepped back from each strike, vision still blurry and blinded from sand. Tears welled in her eyes as they tried to wash the sand away, but through it all she deflected and matched each of his strikes, guiding her blade to his, as if by instinct. Annoyed and amazed in equal measure, Legulus switched tactics, going high and then kicking with his feet in an attempt to make her stumble. Even this she foresaw, and shifted sideways, forcing him to defend his flank. He realized that she intended to entangle him in an overcommitted defense, but the realization did him little good. He retreated just as her sword-tip found purchase on his cheek, leaving a slice on his skin that was just too deep.

    He disengaged, tasted blood running from his face. She stepped back and rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. For long moments they remained, an oasis of stillness among a storm of chaos-melee.

    “You’re quite the little minx,” he said. “Much greater than the others I’ve killed. Did you truly train your whole life just to kill me?”

    She stared at him with red, sore eyes. “My mother would not settle for less. Even though I was the youngest of her children, I still required purpose. So I made your death my purpose.”

    “You couldn’t possibly have known I still lived.”

    “I knew.” She narrowed her eyes. “And my mother knew. You do not know her, I’m afraid.” Rika readied her blade. “But Matsu Kenji sends her regards, anyway.”

    The woman hurled herself forward. They crossed blades again. The sheer ferocity of the attack sent him immediately on the defensive, forcing him to ignore all of the world around him to deflect her attacks. She fought like an animal, with no regard to her safety. He backed away, trying to find an opening to turn his retreat into an attack.

    There! She pulled her sword back too far, going again for the finishing blow. As Legulus capitalized with a thrust of his gladius, she shifted suddenly, and his eyes widened when he realized she’d made a feint. So be it, he thought, and committed.

    They both pulled away the moment after the blade’s kiss. His armored flank could not deflect the precise strike, and blood now ran freely down his leg from a wound whose seriousness he could not see. She panted heavily from a new wound he’d landed in her torso. They were dripping blood into the sand between them. Her limbs were loosely suspended, as though by wires. His vision was blurring, as though he were being emptied.

    She smiled softly. “If a man drowned with bound limbs, would you blame the rope, or the sea?”

    He frowned. Was that some manner of proverb? Some meaning that he’d lost in translation? Before he could ponder the point, he caught a glimpse of Yodotai red descending from the sky behind her.

    He grinned.

    The spear struck just behind her shoulder. The tip ran through without resistance, stopping only then the wood sunk into the flesh. Rika’s face was otherwordly-pristine, but she toppled forward from the blow. Behind her, Legulus’ command group, or what was left, he thought with distain, closed the gap to their commander. His grin widened. Let the Lion claim victory today; he and his retinue would escape, train new recruits, and then-

    He stopped. His men wore desperate faces, lowering their spears in a defensive maneuver. Legulus spun in place; samurai on horseback emerged from the chaos of battle, resplendent and terrible in brilliant purple. They were past him before he could reel around, and behind him he heard the clashing of blades as they engaged his veterans.

    He would have turned with them, but instead, his eyes sharpened on a figure closing in on horseback. A figure clad in armor of brilliant purple and white, glorious banners proudly displaying the Mon of the Unicorn. Legulus saw the flash of steel as a blade was pulled, and the face of a woman whose eyes marked him for death. With shadows cast by burning siege machines behind her, she rode right towards him.

    The world seemed to slow itself. Her steed glowed like the sun, and it showered rain like the steeds of the Mighty and MercilessSea. In the shadows of her face he saw the infinite, cold spaces of death. She was death personified, the horse-mounted angellis spirits and sword-saints from his dreams. In that moment, his heart froze, and at for the first time in decades, Legulus knew fear.

    He lifted his sword, seemingly in slow motion, to fend off the Lion and give himself a pathway to advantage. But no sooner than this and Rika was upon him, striking his blade down again. He raised the other, and she struck once more, her uncanny precision casting aside his strike like a broken toy. One after the next, he tried to move past her, but each strike was met with equal force, just enough to deflect the blow. It was like being bound. He was tied by her strikes.

    One more time, Legulus glanced. His men were surrounded by the Unicorn elites. They could not reach him. The horseback rider was nearly upon him. The gleaming of her sword cast a light against his back.

    He sighed. “Conquest,” he whispered, “why have you sided with them?”

    He saw the flash of the Unicorn’s blade. Then, he saw nothing.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The head of the Praefectus Legulus was held high above the din of battle, impaled at the tip of the Khan’s yari. A great cheer rose from the Lion forces, and almost immediately, the gaijin began to scatter. From her vantage, Akodo Dairuko watched as Matsu Rika bowed to the Khan, and the Khan, after a moment of hesitance, bowed in return. To the west, the third line of Legulus’ forces were completely scattered. The Unicorn cavalry rampaged through the ranks of the opposing army. The sounds of battle were divided in intervals by declarations of victory. The banner of the Lion, beside that of the Unicorn, waved proudly over the battlefield. The Jade Sun had witnessed yet another victory of the Akodo general.

    Satisfied, Dairuko closed her fans and tucked them into her obi. She nodded at her command group, who immediately drew their swords and joined the fray. She watched, arms crossed, as the gaijin were scattered to the four winds and beyond.

     

    * * * * *

     

    The celebrations continued long after the sun had set. Sake poured easily around the massive pyre. Akodo Dairuko, donned in her black and yellow kimono, walked among her soldiers in the cool desert night. Peppered among the Lion were Unicorn samurai; they told stories and danced to the rhythms of the thundering taiko drums.

    Dairuko found Min-Hee away from the celebrations. She was wearing a patterned hakama and gi. Her back to the pyre, she overlooked a small, temporary marker that had been placed on the ground. She spotted Dairuko and bowed. “Congratulations on your victory, Lady Akodo.”

    “Our victory,” Dairuko corrected.

    Min-Hee nodded. “It was the strategy of our general that won this day. Even so,” she added, “In this day and age, I do not expect that a kagemusha strategy would work against a Rokugani army.”

    Dairuko’s eyes shined intelligently. “Perhaps.”

    Min-Hee returned her gaze to the marker. Dairuko stood still for a short time, watching her. “I was told of Iuchi Yupadi’s valor,” the Lion finally said. “A monument will be erected here in her honor. Hers, and every samurai that suffered the indignity of a death away from their homeland.” Her steel eyes looked to the horizon. “Their names will be remembered. Their deeds will be recalled. They will live on in legend.”

    “I am not saddened by her death,” said Min-Hee. She tilted her head and met the Lion Champion with her dark eyes. “I am… glad that she lived.”

    Dairuko nodded, then turned to leave, thinking the Khan would want privacy.

    “Dairuko-san?”

    She stopped, surprised to be addressed. She turned back. Min-Hee still watched her with those dark eyes.

    Stone-faced, the Khan lifted a ceramic bottle. “Would you join me in honoring our fallen comrades?” The question tumbled from her mouth abruptly, uncomfortably, but sincerely. Her On remained flawlessly in place, but there was something new in the Khan’s eyes as she made the unfamiliar offer.

    Dairuko glanced to the bottle. “Rugashi Hano Sake,” she read. “That happens to be my favorite blend.”

    Min-Hee paused. “Then I suppose we have more in common than we thought.”

    The Steel Lion smiled. “Yes,” she replied, approaching, “I suppose we do.”

     

    *

     

    Far from the light of the celebratory pyre, five concealed figures stirred for the first time in hours. They cast aside their sand-colored blankets and rolled up their notes to tuck away into their satchels. Legulus may not have acted with the will of the Council, the will of his former masters, but his actions could yet benefit his people. The unnoticed scouts wordlessly agreed. The information they’d gathered, the battle they’d witnessed, would be invaluable to their masters. Especially to the Council. Or the Emperor himself.

    Wordlessly they left the pyre far behind. Guided by stars, they headed west, towards the distant jewel of Octavion.

     

    * * * * *

     

    “Ango-san?” Niwa laid a hand on her charge’s shoulder. They stood in one of the many halls of the palace, seemingly alone for the moment. “You are distant.”

    Ango did not meet her face. “I have brought shame to the Dragon, Niwa-san. I am disgraced by my actions.”

    “Ridiculous,” came the voice of a new arrival. Ango and Niwa bowed as Togashi Noboru arrived, resplendent in yellow silks and his cocksure smile. Kitsuki Ekeyu followed him closely behind. “No shame has befallen the Dragon, Ango-san,” he continued, “You need not blame yourself for the mechanizations of others. Renyu cannot help but be jealous of our position with the Governor.” His smile widened. “It is simply in his nature.”

    “I am greatly assured by your words, Lord Noboru,” Ango replied, although a hint of guilt still tinged his voice.

    “Frankly, I believe the Crab have only managed to embarrass themselves,” Noboru added. “One wonders what Renyu was thinking.”

    No sooner had he spoken, then another progression crossed their sight down the hall. Kuni Renyu and his entourage moved through the hall, visibly for only moments before vanishing in another hallway.

    Something flashed in the Togashi daimyo’s eyes. “In fact…”

    Noboru immediately began marching in the direction of the Crab procession. The others exchanged glances, eyes widening, and immediately followed. “My lord,” Ekeyu spoke hurriedly as Noboru raced to catch up, “there might be a better time to speak with Kuni-sama, and we have many appointments that we must tend to.”

    “This will take only a moment,” Noboru dismissed, just as they rounded the corner and saw the Crab progression some distance away. “Kuni Renyu!” Noboru addressed him from across the hall. The Crab stopped, and as one they slowly turned. Renyu looked mildly surprised to see Noboru; those gathered around him looked far more concerned.

    Noboru approached with a friendly pace. “How refreshing it was to see you in court today!” he said jovially. “I understood you had better, more important things to do. Some productive farmlands to strip-mine, perhaps?”

    Renyu did not smile, but his eyes showed a little amusement regardless. His entourage exchanged nervous looks. “Believe me, Daimyo of the Togashi, I would spend far less of my time in that court if I were not so often compelled there in the course of my duty.” He wrinkled his nose. “Correcting the mistakes of incompetents.”

    Noboru’s followers looked to their lord, but he was unfettered by the Kuni’s comment. Renyu grunted and turned his back to the younger man. “Now,” he continued, “if you have anything more to say to me, I suggest-“

    “I only mean to congratulate you!” Noboru interrupted, “Your prowess in the court has greatly improved.” His words caused Renyu to turn slowly back towards the Dragon. The gathered Crab sensed their lord’s displeasure and quietly took stock of guards or obstacles.

    Noboru did not back down. He continued, coming even closer to the Kuni Daimyo, until he was merely an arm’s reach away. “Playing on the emotions of the court. Relying on your Scorpion allies to support your position. Shadowing and kidnapping one of your own subordinates. Burning a village to the ground… all just to embarrass a political rival.” Noboru smirked. “I’d say you’re coming along rather nicely. Why, you’re nearly the perfect Scorpion.”

    Stunned silence dominated the hall.

    Kuni Renyu took a thundering step, his face consuming Noboru’s vision with the speed of a falcon. He locked eyes with the monk and did not look away, straightening his back to make full use of his massive height. His eyes were hot as embers.

    Noboru did not so much as flinch, nor did he break his gaze. “I wonder,” he mused, “if you have ever before met a man you believed you couldn’t intimidate.”

    “If you were as wise as they say,” Renyu growled, “you would have an inkling of what you’ve just done.”

    “You are a bully,” Noboru said, smiling at the word. “I think it’s time you remembered humility.”

    “If I am a bully,” the Kuni retorted, “then you are an impudent whelp and an instigator.” He paused. “It is a blessing to the Dragon that your father had the foresight to give the Dragon Championship to the Mirumoto.”

    Noboru’s smile slowly faded. The two stared, stone-faced, at one-another. Silently by their sides, their respective entourages each watching the other. In the short history of the colonies, blood had fallen over less than this. Hands inched towards blades. Bodies tensed. Eyes narrowed.

    “Well,” Noboru breathed, “what a productive meeting.” A pause. “At last, we understand one-another.”

    Niwa looked at the Hiruma across from her. Itsuko locked eyes with Ekeyu. All understood the weight of this moment. There would be no peace between the Crab and Dragon in the colonies. No peace between their lords. A brush-mark, once painted, could not be erased. A sword strike, once committed, could not be withdrawn.

    “You know how this will end,” Renyu warned. “Better to make it easy for yourself.” He turned away. “And end it now.”

    The Crab left. Noboru continued as if nothing had happened. His progression followed, dutifully. None dared speak for a long time.

     

    * * * * *

     

    “There is another important matter to discuss,” Hida Kisada, the Little Bear, said, setting aside his Silver Nettle Tea.

    Mirumoto Shikei nodded. “Yes, the matter of the Jade vein in the Yakeishi province.” He smiled, warm as the afternoon sun shining through the window. “I see no reason why it could not be mined for the Crab Clan’s purposes. It is only that we may need to suffer the indignity of selling it, as our winter stores are severely low.”

    “Nonsense,” Kisada replied, plucking a pickled carrot from his plate, “the Crab will bestow the Dragon with a gift of rice. We have a surplus this year. The Yasuki will fill your winter stores.”

    “Then it is of no concern,” Shikei said with twinkling eyes. “I will have the deed written up for the Crab immediately.”

    “Excellent!” Kisada raised his tea. They clinked their cups together. “Now,” he said, lifting yet another treat from his plate, “let us speak on the conflict with the Dark Naga. I must praise Tamori Yayu for the return of Hida Fubatsu.”

    “The Dragon are honored to help,” Shikei said, lifting his bowl of miso soup. “And naturally, we will continue to cooperate with the Crab in this conflict.”

    Servants entered to carry away empty plates. The conversation between the two Champions, within the diplomacy hall of Shiro Mirumoto, continued in friendly tones, even as the sun began its decent outside.

    The subject of the Colonies never came up. It never even occurred to anyone to mention them. After all, the Colonies, and their inconsequential troubles, were all so far away…

     

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