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|A Season of Intrigue|
|Written By:||Shawn Carman|
|Edited By:||Fred Wan|
|Released:||November 20th, 2009|
Yoritomo Naizen, the Scourge of Storms, stood on the dock alone, having dismissed the clutter of attendants and workers that would be here under normal circumstances. They had many other duties that would consume them over the course of the next few days, and he had no need of them for the moment. There were few ships that would arrive so early in the morning regardless, but of course there were always exceptions. As expected, one lone kobune was gliding across the relatively calm morning sea, moving directly toward the port at Kyuden Gotei with clear purpose. The ship slipped between the eddies and reefs as if experienced. Naizen smirked slightly at the thought, regarding the ship’s Imperial banner with a chuckle.
Moments later, the ship arrived expertly at the dock, and a weary traveler stepped off the deck onto the dock, pausing only for a heartbeat to make the adjustment from sea to land. “Hail, Naizen-sama,” he said with a bow.
“Welcome home, Utemaro,” Naizen said. “The Mantis Islands are pleased to receive their wayward son, the Imperial Treasurer of Rokugan.”
Yoritomo Utemaro raised an eyebrow in surprise. “I do not recall you standing on protocol with great frequency, my lord.”
Naizen shrugged. “It is your first trip home since your appointment. I thought it was the least I could do.” He gestured toward the castle. “If you will follow me, I will ensure that the requests you made were fulfilled adequately.”
Utemaro bowed very low. “Thank you, my lord. I would not be at all insulted if you relegated such tasks to a subordinate.”
“I would prefer the opportunity to catch up on your activities,” the Champion answered. “I know you have little time for correspondence, and I certainly do not have a taste for writing letters either.”
“That, I completely understand. Unfortunately, there’s very little of interest I can share with you. I have spent the past year assessing the entirety of tax collection records in the Empire for the past fifty years, and rewriting the laws governing calculation and collection.” He shook his head. “It has not been particularly interesting, but it was necessary. Now, thankfully, it is completed.”
“That sounds horrific,” Naizen admitted. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I refuse to be relegated to ill-defined duties and vague expectations,” Utemaro said. “My acceptance of this position was conditional, and the Empress agreed to the condition that I could rewrite the laws as needed to execute my duties.”
Naizen glanced sidelong at the other man as they entered the castle proper. “You levied a condition to the Divine Empress?” he said. “Only moments after witnessing her ascension? I have always known you were somewhat brazen, my friend, but that… that is something entirely different.”
“I reasoned that a woman of divine blessing would be fully aware of the nature of the man she asked to fulfill this duty, and she would either accept me or expect me to change, which of course I would not.” He smiled grimly. “Ironically I have found service under her rule to be quite agreeable. She seems to posses insight that I have never seen in all my travels.”
“Are there changes I should be aware of?” Naizen asked. “I am passingly familiar with the tax collection performed in the islands, but not the details, of course.”
“There will be a slightly increased tax levied against clans responsible for hosting significant Imperial events, such as the Empress’ Winter Court,” he answered. “In the case of our clan, that will be compensated for by a slight decrease in the taxes against exotic goods, which of course is our principle trade other than foodstuff.”
Naizen frowned. “That seems an… arbitrary increase.”
“Most clans have negligible trade in exotic goods,” Utemaro explained. “The slight increase to cover Winter Court will result in a slight cost being passed down to the peasants. In turn, they will either accept the burden as their share of the cost of hosting the Empress or her Imperial servants, or they will resent it and make life ever so slightly more difficult for the Clan Champions in question.”
Naizen shook his head. “Why would you do something like that?”
The Treasurer glanced at him with a strange expression, as if the question made no sense. “Because I am curious, of course. Why else?” The two men had stopped in the principle audience chamber. “What happened here?” he asked.
The Champion nodded. “Stark, is it not? Yoyonagi insisted that most of our decorations would be considered inappropriate by the court as a whole, and she had them placed in storage for the season.”
“This is dreadful,” Utemaro condemned. “I feel like I am back in the Imperial City. The entire place is like one vast warehouse and I was glad to be rid of it for a while, at least.” He clucked his tongue. “Fortunately my private estate is close enough that I will not have to endure such barrenness for long. How is Yoyonagi acclimating to her return? She has been away longer than I, although she is able to return more frequently.”
“She arrived three days ago,” Naizen said. “There have been some… tensions.”
“Sachina, eh?” Utemaro laughed. “How long did it take?”
“I would estimate seven minutes before Yoyonagi threatened to appoint Sachina the clan’s ambassador to the Ningyo cities,” Naizen answered. “It was entertaining for a very short period of time, then rapidly became annoying. Your vassal Yashinko has been assisting with arbitration, which I have been grateful for.”
“Yes,” Utemaro said warmly. “A delightful young woman.”
“Come, old friend,” Naizen said. “Have a look at the treasury for me and let me know how much will be needed to placate the court’s needs for the season.”
Shosuro Jimen loathed the sea. He did not suffer from sea sickness as others did, of course; that was far too banal a weakness for a man such as himself. No, he loathed it for the barrier it represented. He had no choice but to attend the Winter Court and serve as his Empress’ champion, as was his duty, but the sea ensured that communication with his subordinates in the Imperial City would be extraordinarily difficult. Leaving the city in the hands of that buffoon Norachai was unpleasant enough, but to be unable to speak with anyone there for days or weeks at a time? It was mind-numbing. Certain shugenja rituals could assist in such things, but it was a costly and exhausting process, and his vassals would be capable of little else for days after doing so. The Mantis would naturally have a larger number of shugenja present. Still, he could hardly entrust the Mantis with his business, at least not without indebting himself to them. That would never do.
Jimen sighed as he watched the endless blue canvas drift by. In the old days, he had possessed vastly greater freedom to do whatever he wished when confronting his enemies, both within and outside the clan. Since his ascension to the position of Emerald Champion, he was under much more scrutiny and had to move more carefully. In that regard, his life was more difficult. On the other hand, the stakes were so much higher, the risks so much more exquisite. Now when he entered into a game with an opponent, there was the chance of loss. It had been many, many years since he had ever known that, at least until his new duties. Now there were so many variables, so many factors to consider. It could be frustrating, of course, but it was also intoxicating, and never, ever boring.
His duties at court would likely induce the boredom that he loathed. So few of those assembled there would be of any interest. Even among the Emperor’s Chosen and the other Jeweled Champions, he found few worthy adversaries. Satsu was a tattooed liability, Hisoka was ostensibly an ally, and Susumu was a virtual non-entity. The Shogun and the Jade Champion were brutish but could be convinced to cooperate with him when he required it. Yoritomo was mildly interesting, at least.
And then there was Utemaro.
Unique among the others, Utemaro could see. He could truly see what was taking place around him, while the others generally labored under a fog of honor or self-importance. Utemaro could be a threat, except that, while he could see, he simply did not seem to care. It was completely inexplicable to Jimen, and that alone made him curious about the Imperial Treasurer. Perhaps this season would give him the opportunity to further assess the man. It was not as if he had any other significant challenges, at least not unless Kakita Noritoshi showed up.
Noritoshi. There was a true challenge. Nothing that had happened between them since the Emerald Championship had ended had been what he expected. None of the likely scenarios he had envisioned with their duel was at an end had come to pass. It was absolutely fascinating and, if he was being truthful, perhaps a little disturbing. But then, perhaps this winter would be an opportunity for him to learn more. Perhaps garner allies, even within Noritoshi’s own clan.
Yes, now that was an interesting thought. Perhaps someone ridiculously honorable, someone who would never willingly betray their lord, but who was still pained, perhaps even angered, by his seeming abandonment of his duties in his quest to find the truth behind Jimen’s activities. That would be a challenge. That would be interesting.
Jimen began humming a merry tune as he considered it.
Hida Reiha felt little as she walked through the corridors of Kyuden Gotei. The official Winter Court was scheduled to begin the next day, but she found that she cared very little. She had railed against leaving the front lines, but her brother had managed to convince her to do so. Her youngest son, the ever quiet Ren, would be in the safest place in the Empire, and Benjiro would protect young Kisada with his life. Benjiro had always been good at convincing her to do things, even as a child, and this was no different. His rationale that the Crab could not risk the loss of a second Champion so soon after her husband’s death had been difficult to hear, but she had finally acquiesced. She regretted it already, and felt sure she would continue to do so until she stepped back onto the soil of Crab lands.
Reiha paused outside her destination only for a moment to inspect her attire and ensure that she had not lapsed into any of the comfortable warrior traditions she normally wore, but that her robes were properly positioned for a lady of court. Once that was done, she passed by the silent Seppun guardsmen and entered the small chamber.
“Lady Reiha,” the Imperial Treasurer said with a slight bow. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
“Of course, Utemaro-sama,” she answered, returning his bow. “You said it was a matter of some urgency.”
“After a fashion,” Utemaro said. “I wished to give you a copy of this decree personally. You will see that it bears both my chop and that of the Empress herself. You will no doubt find it interesting.”
Reiha regarded the scroll he handed her with a questioning expression. “Of course, Treasurer. I will have my Yasuki attendants examine it at once, and if there are any questions, I will…”
“Oh, for the Heavens’ sake,” Utemaro said, somewhat irritably. “Really, this sort of thing is not that complicated. It simply says that the Empress has authorized that all Imperial stipends currently received by the Crab to be doubled, on account of the difficulties you are currently having with the invasion.”
“I see,” Reiha said. “I am grateful. This will aid in the long siege to come.”
“It was the suggestion of the Empress,” Utemaro said. “I am simply responsible for ensuring that it takes place. I have all measures ready. The first shipments should arrive at the front lines within a week’s time at the utmost, assuming maximum incompetence on the part of all parties involved in the transportation.”
Reiha continued to regard the scroll. “My husband’s life should not be purchased so cheaply,” she said quietly.
“There are not sufficient funds within the Empire to purchase the life of a man such as your husband,” a deep voice said, “nor of any Clan Champion who serves the Empress loyally.”
“Lord Satsu,” Utemaro said with a bow as the large monk entered the room. His eyes then widened ever so slightly as the personage of the Empress herself followed. “Divine One,” he said, kneeling at once.”
Reiha followed suit, paling slightly. “I did not mean any disrespect,” she said quietly.
“Suffering can give haste to many unpleasant words,” Togashi Satsu said. “The Empress understands this all too well, and does not regard her Crab Champion with any less favor as a result.”
Reiha forced a smile. “Thank you, Divine One.”
“The Empress deeply regrets the necessary sacrifice lord Kuon made,” the Voice of the Empress continued. “Yet it is her hope that you will soon see, as part of the season that begins tomorrow, that his acts have united the Empire in support of the Crab. The sons of Hida will not stand apart in this battle.”
“That would have filled lord Kuon’s heart with joy, should he have seen it while he lived, Divine One.”
The Divine Empress smiled slightly, then nodded to Satsu. “There is one duty that the Empress wishes to speak of with you, Lady Reiha. A duty that is of the utmost importance, and one that she feels the Crab are exclusively suited to deal with in the proper manner. She wishes it to be fulfilled by the witch hunter order within your Kuni family.”
The Crab Champion’s expression was one of otter surprise. “What would that be, my lady?”
“There is an individual somewhere within the Empire, a traitor and blasphemer of the first order who calls herself the Ebon Daughter. Have you heard of this individual, Reiha-sama?”
“I have not, Divine One.”
Satsu nodded. “Few have, it seems, but the Empress believes that she is solely responsible for the outbreak and spread of the dreadful plague that currently afflicts the Empire. For that, the Empress wishes her brought to justice, to be executed before the Imperial Court for her criminal acts, that all might see the light of Heaven in the acts of man.” Satsu paused slightly. “Do you understand the importance of this, Reiha-sama?”
“I do,” she answered, “and I would be greatly honored if you would permit the Crab to bring this harridan to answer for her crimes, my Empress.”
“So be it,” Satsu said, bowing to the Empress. “Now if you will excuse us, Lady Reiha, the Empress has words for her Chancellor and Amethyst Champion, for court begins with the sunrise.”