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    • Owlbear

    The first in a series of previews of the fiction leading up to the GenCon event of the same name, Siege: Heart of Darkness examines the enormity of the conflict between the Dark Naga and the people of Rokugan, as well as exploring the potential ramifications of that struggle.

     

     

    Hida Kozan could hear them before he saw them, and he braced himself. There were days, more often than not, that he craved the peaceful serenity of life atop the Great Carpenter Wall. The constant threat of imminent death was preferable in many cases to life in the Imperial Court. But unfortunately the decision was not his to make, not any longer. Steeling himself, he rounded the corner and faced a pair of samurai who were familiar to him despite the relatively short period he had been within the Imperial Palace.

    “Kozan-san,” noted the young woman, one of his kinsmen, whose tone was mildly reproving. Despite her beauty, she reminded Kozan of a sensei he had known during his days in the dojo. “We sent for you some time ago.”

    “I was otherwise indisposed,” Kozan said. “I serve the Empress, not the Imperial Advisor.”

    “Thank you, I am aware of that,” Yasuki Makoto said. “As a result, however, we have no time to fully brief you on the matter at hand. Sufficed to say it is of enormous significance and you should be most cautious.”

    “Fine,” Kozan said, waving his hand dismissively. “Personally I could not care less.”

    Toku Hikaru glanced sidelong at the Crab samurai-ko and stepped between the two quickly. “There are number of protocols we must be careful to observe,” the Imperial Chancellor cautioned. “We…”

    “Oh look,” Kozan said, “I was wrong. You made me care less after all.”

    “Enough whimsy,” Makoto said. “We have no time for insults. This is a significant occurrence, as I said, certainly the most significant since my arrival here, possibly since the end of the Destroyer War.” With a nod to Hikaru and a glance at Kozan, Makoto slid the door open to the chamber.

    “Fortunes,” Kozan muttered. “Now this? This is interesting.”

    The room was one of the larger secondary audience chambers, but it seemed somehow vastly smaller due to the sheer enormity of those currently occupying it. There were a quartet of Naga, their enormous forms coiled tightly to avoid overly crowding the room. One among them was female, and two more stood nearby, clearly guarding her. A fourth, a smaller male without obvious weapons, seemed almost to be lingering on the periphery. “Greetings,” the female said, offering what Kozan assumed was an attempt at a human bow. “You are the servants of the human Empress, yes?”

    “We are,” Makoto said mildly, bowing deeply. “We are greatly honored, and somewhat surprised, to receive you into the Imperial Palace. Regrettably, the Empress is not available at the present time.”

    “This we understand,” the female replied. “The ruler of a great land must have many burdens, and we would not wish to add to such a heavy load. I am the Zenathaar. It is my great privilege to be sent here to the Imperial City to offer the gratitude and service of my people to your Divine Empress, the Iweko.”

    Hikaru winced slightly at the use of the Empress’s name in that manner, but Kozan noted with begrudging respect that Makoto did not appear to react in any way. “I am Yasuki Makoto, the Imperial Advisor of the Divine Empress. These are my associates, Toku Hikaru the Imperial Chancellor, and Hida Kozan the Voice of the Empress.”

    Zenathaar looked at Kozan curiously. “Can the Empress not speak?”

    Kozan paled slightly. His normal acerbic responses seemed grossly out of place here and, for the first time, he was keenly aware of just how significant his involvement could be here. “The Empress is a representative of the Celestial Heavens,” he offered haltingly. “Her voice is… too pure for most to hear. I give her wishes voice so that she need not do so.”

    “Ah, you share an akasha of your own,” Zenathaar said knowingly. “It pleases the Naga greatly to be invited to speak with one of your station, then.”

    Kozan had no idea how to respond. “Thank you,” he said flatly, noticing approval from Makoto. “How can we be of aid to the Naga people?”

    “You already have,” the Zenathaar explained, coiling and uncoiling. “The departure of the Shahismael from this land has freed the akasha from its terrible influence. In response, a small contingent of us was awakened from our Great Sleep. We wish to offer our thanks and service to the Iweko. We wish to extend our gratitude to the whole of humankind, in thanks for combating this most insidious foe, and offer our aid in ensuring that the Dark Naga cannot return to Rokugan to plague your people again.”

    Makoto offered a polite smile. “That is a most gracious offer, Zenathaar-san, but I do not think such service would be necessary. Your thanks alone are more than is required.”

    “Ah yes,” the Zenathaar said, glancing at the smaller male with a nod. “This is the human game of saying no to assure that one means yes, is it not? A strange custom, but one we are familiar with since the incident with the Golden Pearl and the Toturi. It is tragic that you are unable to divine the emotions of your own kind, but please be assured of our sincerity in this matter.”

    At the mention of the Toturi dynasty, Kozan glanced at Hikaru, who shrugged. Makoto stilled them with a simple gesture. “Your interest in and knowledge of our customs honors us, my friends, but rest assured that the Empress has many vassals who serve her already, and your own people doubtless require your leadership for themselves.”

    The Zenathaar hissed softly, which Kozan ardently hoped was the Naga equivalent of laughter. “You are good servants to your Empress,” she observed. “You have declined twice and now you will of course accept our offer. You have our thanks.”

    The three exchanged glances, uncertain how to proceed. “Lady Zenathaar,” Makoto began hesitantly, “noble warriors, and… I must apologize, I do not believe that I know your name, honored guest.” She looked expectantly at the silent fourth Naga.

    “I am the Siminoth,” the male answered quietly. “I am the witness.”

    “The witness?” Hikaru asked mildly. “May I ask what you are witnessing, in this instance?”

    The Siminoth did not answer right away, and the Zenathaar regarded the three men curiously for several moments. “There have been many occasions in the past where our two people have had difficulty communicating and it has led to misfortune. This cannot be one of those times, so I will attempt again. This is an incredibly important and momentous occasion for us. It has become clear to the collective mind of the Naga that, though our time has passed and may never come again, our mere existence continues to have impact upon that which occurs in this world. As virtuous beings, we cannot simply overlook this. Our choice must be to either remove our existence from this world, or to take a more active role in its defense and safeguarding. Toward that end, one thousand of my people have awakened from the Great Sleep. We intend to represent our people in the affairs of man, but more importantly, to ensure that mankind is safe from any dangers that originate with the Naga. We cannot permit something like the Dark Naga to occur again. That is our purpose here.”

    “I never re-entered the Great Sleep,” the Siminoth added. “I have remained awake since our people stirred during the conflict you call the Clan War. I have remembered and witnessed all events of importance since that time. The wedding of the Mara and the Daini. The birth of the Shikei. And now this.”

    “We are honored beyond words, my friends,” Makoto replied. “If I may be so bold, I need to speak with my associates for a moment.” The three withdrew behind the screen and slid it closed. The Advisor visibly relaxed for a moment.

    “What does this mean?” Hikaru demanded in a shrill whisper.

    “What does it mean?” Kozan repeated hoarsely. “Do you have any idea what stories the Crab tell of the Naga’s ferocity in battle? They say that one Naga is worth at least three men. Well, three men who aren’t Crab anyway. Still, can you imagine the power of a force that size? It would be astonishing.”

    “More importantly,” Makoto said, “accepting this offer on behalf of the Empress would save the lives of countless Naga. You heard what they said, it is this or they may very well will themselves to death as a race to prevent cursing the world with another madman like the Dark Naga. We cannot herald the extinction of a race of intelligent beings.”

    Kozan stared at the Imperial Advisor in wonder. “How can you make something like this sound so boring?” he demanded incredulously.

    Despite herself, Makoto smiled slightly at Kozan’s flippancy. “We will tell them that we will present their offer to the Divine Empress and offer our recommendation that she accept it,” she said. “Unless you dissent?” When neither did, shesmiled and nodded. “Very well then,” she said quietly. “Let us see if we can do this without any further misunderstandings.”

     

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