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    • Owlbear

    The final installment in our series examining the state and relations of the Great Clans as we move into the era of Ivory Edition!

     

    The Age of Ivory, Part 5

    By Shawn Carman

    Edited by Fred Wan

     

    Hiruma Maiko cast a glance down the corridor as she walked alongside her new superior, making a vague attempt to seem casual. The hint of a smile she saw on Yasuki Shairei’s face told her that her attempt to conceal her intent was in vain. This fact annoyed her, but she tried not to show it, and desperately hoped she was more successful in concealing this than in concealing her instincts.

    “It is difficult, isn’t it?” Shairei asked nonchalantly.

    “Yes,” Maiko said, sighing lightly.

    “How many years did you serve as a scout?”

    “Three,” Maiko answered. “Ever since my gempukku.”

    “Your instincts will not diminish easily,” Shairei said. “Nor should you wish them to. This assignment will be very beneficial, but I suspect your skills will not be allowed to languish in this domain for very long.”

    Maiko smiled. She genuinely liked Shairei. There had been some disparaging comments made about the merchant when Maiko had first received word of her new appointment, and she had feared the worst. But the Yasuki patron was pleasant and very sharp-eyed. Maiko imagined that the older woman could have been a scout, if her training had been different. As for the disparaging comments… well, it seemed that even some among the Crab disdained merchants. It was odd. Maiko had come to expect that sort of thing from her friends among the other clans, but she had always been secretly proud that her own people, the Crab Clan, were more practical than that. Nothing was without exception, it seemed.

    “You do not have to escort me to my chambers,” Shairei said.

    “Yes, my lady,” Maiko said. Technically her position was that of consultant, but she preferred to think of herself as a particularly skilled yojimbo, and acted the part. She stepped ahead of Shairei and slid the screen to the merchant’s chambers. At once she realized there was someone waiting within.

    Shairei gasped in surprise, but Maiko was already entering the room, her hand on her blade, already clearing the saya in which it rested. The man she had seen stepped forward to meet her and struck her, almost casually, on the wrist, stopping her from drawing the blade and then twisting her arm and casting her aside. His hand flashed to the obi at his waist, then back toward Shairei.

    Maiko hurled herself in front of the merchant and felt something strike her in the chest. Her armor seemed to protect her, but for the moment she was more concerned about the stranger. He was simply standing in the room, looking at her appraisingly, seemingly unconcerned. He was only a few inches taller than her, making him short for the average male Crab warrior. “What was out of place?” he asked calmly.

    The young scout paused in her stance, considering. “The sound,” she said suddenly. “The blade striking my armor? That was not metal.” She frowned. “A wooden dagger?”

    The man nodded. “Well done,” he said. He nodded to the merchant, who bowed suddenly and quite deeply. “I normally prefer to announce my arrival, but the opportunity did not present itself. You will forgive me, of course.” It was not really a question.

    “Of course,” Shairei agreed. She glanced at Maiko. “Please excuse my associate. She is not aware of your identity. Maiko-san, this is your Champion.”

    Maiko inhaled sharply and bowed. “Forgive me, Kisada-sama.”

    Hida Kisada, called by many the Little Bear, shrugged slightly. “I see no need for an apology. Your martial skills need some development as yet, but your scout’s perception is more than adequate.”

    Maiko felt herself grow flush at the praise, but said nothing. She could not move her focus past her Champion’s gaze. She was familiar with her friends among the Lion, and how they constantly looked at everyone in terms of how to gain a tactical advantage over them. Likewise she had spent time among the Scorpion, and knew that their evaluation of anyone consisted of signs of weakness, to be exploited by whatever means possible. When Kisada-sama had looked at her, though… it was different. She could tell he was determining how to break her, to end the threat she posed, to disable her and move on to the next opponent. It was how her brothers in arms looked upon the denizens of the Shadowlands. Was this how the Crab Champion looked at everyone? Had the life he had led caused him to be so brutally callous in his evaluation of everyone he met? The thought chilled her. “How may I serve you, my Champion?” she heard Shairei asking.

    “You stand astride two different worlds in which I have little involvement,” Kisada answered. “I require information concerning both, and you were in the same province. It seemed the most efficient means.”

    “Of course,” she said, bowing again. Maiko had never seen her so demure.

    “Your kinsman Makoto,” the Champion said, “how has she fared in her time thus far as Imperial Advisor?”

    “Makoto-sama seems to be adjusting very well to life in the ImperialCity,” Shairei reported. “I have noted, with no small satisfaction, many delegates from the other clans commenting how a Crab has exceeded their meager expectations thus far.”

    “Their failure to assess strength marks them as fools,” Kisada observed casually. “What alliances, if any, has she formed to date?”

    “Her only significant commitment is to the Brotherhood of Shinsei,” Shairei reported. “As you know, she enjoys the patronage of an abbot in our lands, and their influence was one of the primary reasons she received the appointment. The Divine Empress places great weight in the wisdom of the monks.”

    “I suspected as much,” Kisada confirmed. “I have some reservations in this regard. The Brotherhood are among the most vocal advocates of the Spider Clan’s monasteries here in the Empire. I am… uneasy with the notion of an alliance by association, no matter how remote.”

    “I understand, my lord.”

    Kisada nodded. “Your mercantile connections, they involve the conduct of materials to and from the Colonies as I understand it.” Again, it was not a question. “I wish to see a message delivered to my brother there. I would prefer to avoid the customary channels.”

    “Of course,” Shairei said. “What information would you have my people pass to Renyu-sama, my lord?”

    “Tell my brother that his Champion needs him to return at once,” Kisada said flatly. “I have need of his counsel.”

     

    * * * * *

     

    The village had no formal name, or at least none that was used with any frequency, even among those who called it home. Most simply called it Pit’s Edge, for that was essentially what it was, and while it was certainly not the most lavish or welcoming settlement in the Scorpion provinces, it was certainly more inviting than its name would have suggested to one looking upon it for the first time. That was certainly the impression that it had given Bayushi Shizuka when she had first arrived in the village a little more than six weeks previously.

    The idea behind the village was an incredibly simple one. At the conclusion of the Destroyer War, a battle between two gods that had crossed into the mortal realm had torn a hole between world, leaving a permanent portal to the depths of Jigoku, the Realm of Evil, home of demons. The Scorpion had quickly sought the expertise of the Crab Clan to help defend their lands against the creatures of unfettered evil that emerged from the pit, but the presence of such a grievous wound in the fabric of the world was something that concerned many clans. Other clans often sought, or outright demanded, to be permitted to inspect the defenses around the Second Pit, as it was called. After an incident with the Phoenix Clan had resulted in a war between the Phoenix and Scorpion, the Scorpion Clan’s leadership had decided a new approach was called for.

    Pit’s EdgeVillage was home to all who wished to visit the Second Pit. Outsiders arrived expecting to find a resistant and obstructive presence from the Scorpion, but instead found a quaint village where they were welcomed and cared for during their visit. The accommodations were fair but not lavish, the food good but not overly so, and the entertainment mediocre at best. Those who arrived expecting difficulty merely found a perfectly average existence, not difficult enough to arouse their resilience, but not so pleasant that they did not wish for the comforts of home.

    When she had first received word of her appointment, Shizuka had been devastated. Many among her peers regarded Pit’s EdgeVillage as the absolute bottom of the clan’s social strata, and an appointment there was tantamount to exile. She had wracked her brain in an effort to determine who she could have possibly offended to receive such a placement, either to convince them that they had made a mistake or, failing that, perhaps gain vengeance for the offense, but to no avail. It seemed she had merely been unlucky, or so she had thought at the time.

    Yasuki Kameyoi entered the chamber, carrying a number of scrolls. She smiled at Shizuka, who returned the expression while thinking once again how strange it was to see Kameyoi without a mask. Not so long ago she had been Shosuro Kameyoi, but she had married her true love, an event virtually unheard of in Rokugan, and now she was a member in good standing of the Crab Clan. Her husband, a Yasuki named Tono, had been given stewardship over the Crab’s holdings near the pit and, as near as Shizuka could tell, was an unparalleled master of governance. He ensured that every possible resource in the region was brought to bear for the effort of defending against incursions from the Second Pit, and his wife ensured that the visitors to Pit’s Edge were afforded every hospitality and courtesy during their stay.

    And if, in the execution of these duties, Kameyoi ensured that any secrets or knowledge of the visitors she uncovered were passed on to her former kinsmen among the Scorpion, then that was a fortunate happenstance for everyone involved. Everyone except the visitors to Pit’s Edge, of course.

    “We will have visitors in the next month, it seems,” Kameyoi said brightly. “Representatives from the Asahina and the Ide will be arriving with the spring. By the time the Ide leave, the annual Isawa delegation will be here.” She rolled her eyes. “The Phoenix never grow weary of wasting their time.”

    Shizuka frowned. “Did the Crane and Unicorn determine their departure dates in advance? That seems unusual.”

    “No,” Kameyoi said. “But the Ide are like all Unicorn, possessed of terrible wanderlust. The Crane will linger longer, but they cannot endure without their decadent luxury for too long. No, the Phoenix will be the season’s longest guests, I believe. Still, an opportunity to gain information on the new Elemental Masters should be exploited, I imagine.” She fixed Shizuka with an innocent expression. “How do you feel about the company of Phoenix men?”

    Shizuka playfully tapped a finger against her chin as if thinking while tilting her head to the side. It made her look terribly vacuous. “I have such tremendous respect for scholars,” she said breathlessly. “I could listen to their stories for hours.”

    Kameyoi laughed. “There is an older gentleman among the Isawa delegates. I understand he enjoys keeping company with young women, particularly since the death of his wife some years ago. You will find him most interested in a sympathetic ear, I wager.”

    Shizuka laughed too. It trailed off and she considered the matter for a moment. “It seems so easy,” she said. “The different clans seem so easy to manipulate, to deceive.” She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should push forward, then continued. “Was that how you began with Tono? I know it became something else, but did it begin the same way?”

    The older woman sighed. “Perhaps,” she said. “It is difficult for me to remember exactly where my mind was when the matter began. By the time I began to work toward gaining Tono’s confidence, the Scorpion and Crab were already closely intertwined. Overt manipulation and deception seemed… inappropriate.”

    “It is difficult to consider a time when our clans were not united in common goals,” Shizuka said. “My grandfather told me stories of when the Crab and Scorpion hated one another. I find it strange to even consider such a thing.”

    “In previous eras, the Crab despised the Scorpion as weak, depending solely upon trickery and lies to achieve their ends, relying upon the Crab’s strength to defend the Empire while mocking them all the while. The Scorpion, on the other hand, considered the Crab idiotic brutes who expected respect for a job that a more intelligent clan could have completed centuries beforehand.”

    Shizuka shook her head. “So strange.”

    “We understand things differently now,” Kameyoi said. “The Crab understand that the Scorpion, lacking a Crab’s strength, must rely upon other methods, but that they share the opinion that duty must be performed at all costs, no matter what must be sacrificed in the process.”

    Shizuka nodded. “And we understand that the Crab discard subtlety and deceit because they can accomplish the same ends with sheer force, and cause many to underestimate their cunning in the process.” She sighed. “It is strange that for so many years the Scorpion considered the Dragon… the Dragon of all clans!… to be their closest allies.”

    “The Dragon are too caught up in their own affairs to ever truly appreciate that which the Scorpion represent,” Kameyoi agreed. “The Crab are a much better fit. They can appreciate the truth of things without attempting to contemplate the ‘greater mysteries’ of everything.” She shook her head as she put aside the scrolls bearing news of impending arrivals and picked up one marked with the Scorpion mon, reading it carefully.

    Kameyoi’s expression was grave as she rolled the scroll back up. She tapped it lightly against her palm for a few moments, then crossed the room and held it in the flame of a candle. The paper caught quickly and was reduced to cinders in only a moment. She glanced at Shizuka and smiled. “The Champion will not be coming.”

    Shizuka was crestfallen. She and Kameyoi had been preparing for a visit from the Scorpion Clan Champion for more than a month. “Some other business arose?”

    “You might say that,” Kameyoi agreed.

    “You burned the scroll,” the younger woman said. “Why?”

    “Instructions on the scroll,” Kameyoi explained. “The information was not for non-Scorpion eyes.”

    Shizuka frowned. “But cousin… you are a non-Scorpion.”

    Kameyoi laughed. “Do not be silly, little one. No one born a Scorpion is ever truly a non-Scorpion. Not without some egregious act of betrayal, and sometimes not even then. Marriage?” She shook her head. “No.”

    Shizuka felt something cold blossom in her chest. “What has happened?” she said, her voice a mere whisper.

    “They believe they have found it,” Kameyoi replied. “They think they may know where the Disgrace has been hiding all these years.”

     

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