Far From the Front
Written By: Rusty Priske
Edited By: Fred Wan
Released: October 9th, 2009
Link: [1]
Story Year: {{{year}}}

The courts of Toshi Ranbo were sparsely attended. It seemed to those present that Winter Court had started elsewhere, and they had not received an invitation. It had been this way since knowledge of the outbreak had spread through the ranks of the courtiers and ambassadors faster than any illness itself could have.

None would claim fear of the contagion. None would shirk their responsibilities to ensure their own personal safety. In fact, none would accuse any within the courts of the Empress of carrying the disease. That would be too great an insult to bear.

Still, the numbers dwindled as less and less courtiers occupied the public space when they did not have official business to attend to.

"It is troubling, is it not?" Two lovely young Crane courtiers walked through the great hall, nodding to the relatively few attendants as they did so.

Doji Odaka sniffed at Kakita Taminoko's comment. "Troubling? That is one way to put it."

Taminoko's mouth turned up slightly at the corner. "What would you call it then?"

"Boring. With so many cowering in their little holes, there is very little to do here. We have not had a good scandal in weeks and even then it was quickly pushed aside due to the more important issues in the Empire'. The concerns of the Wall are best left to generals, and it is unseemly that our peers have not yet realized that the plague is not a concern within these halls. Disease in the imperial court? Unthinkable."

Taminoko shook her head. "I love your confidence, Odaka-san. I agree that disease is for the lesser classes who live among the detritus of the land, or soldiers who do not bother to maintain their hygiene as a samurai should, but what of our very own Masako? Was she not the first to contract the plague?"

Odaka practically spat when she said the name. "Masako is an embarrassment. She should have committed jigai the instant she realized she was... afflicted. The fact that she took Tsubakita from us is reason enough to expect her to do the right thing. Instead she ran to the Phoenix for help. Appalling."

"They are our allies, Odaka-san."

Odaka glared at Taminoko. "That is not the point. She exposed herself to disease. That is shame in and of itself, but then she exposed one of our own courtiers to the same disease, and who knows how many others. Tsubakita knew how to expunge the shame of his involvement, but Masako did not, even though it is she who was at fault."

Taminoko shrugged slightly. "The Phoenix healers have acclaimed her willingness to work with them. As the earliest known case, their work to heal her could help them discover a way to save all afflicted, or at least stop the further spread of the foul illness."

Odaka snorted in a manner that was furthest from her ladylike demeanor that any would ever see. "It is not the Phoenix I blame, it is Masako. The Empress, long may she reign, knows the way to eradicate the plague. Preserving Masako's life does nothing other than remind Rokugan of her shame, and therefore ours. She should take her own life or have it taken for her, as happened to those Horiuchi. Empress Iweko knew what had to be done and she did it. We can all learn by her example."

"And what lesson would you teach, child?"

Both Crane jerked their heads around as an unexpected voice intruded on their conversation. Approaching them they found Shinjo Haruko, wrapped in heavy robes, in the deep purple of her clan.

"Haruko-sama. I did not realize you were listening to our private conversation."

Haruko did not react to the insult. "Without the normal number of people in here, the walls carry echoes in ways that you may not expect. You should learn that if you do not want to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, such as implying dishonor on the heads of the innocent."

Odaka bowed her head. "Thank you for the lessen, Haruko-san. I will be sure to remember that. I would not want any passing ears to misinterpret what I say."

"I do not doubt that, Odaka-san. Your misjudgments need no assistance." Doji Odaka began to open in retort but Haruko continued before she got the chance. "I do not dispute our Empress' orders, but to imply that the Horiuchi were somehow at fault will not give me the leeway to dismiss your words as a misunderstanding. Do you wish to talk of the dishonor of those infected? Do you truly wish to discuss fault?"

Taminoko spoke up before Odaka could respond. "I am certain that no one would say anything that could be perceived as insult to the Horiuchi. Their sacrifice was a painful one, certainly. As for fault, it must lie at the source of the infection, not with those infected."

Odaka flashed a look at her clan-mate before looking back to Haruko. "There must have been multiple sources, no? The outbreaks were in many places all at once. Despite what the healers think, there must have been many."

Haruko sneered. "Healers." She appeared to regain her composure for a moment but then scanned around the room quickly before finding a target. "Yes, let us talk about fault." Haruko moved away from the two Crane in a quick and resolute pace. She made no effort to hide her voice from any in the hall. "You there! Phoenix!"

Odaka and Taminoko shot glances at each other before following the Unicorn. They both realized that Odaka's boredom had come to an end.

Asako Kanta turned away from a conversation he was having with a Seppun, who quickly made himself scarce. "Shinjo-san? Can I be of service?"

Anger was evident on Haruko's face. "We have been discussing the plague that affects the Empire, Phoenix, and I was wondering if you could help shed some light on a few things."

Kanta looked towards the Crane, trying to discover a source of the obvious hostility in Haruko's voice but found nothing. "I will try to the best of my knowledge and ability, Shinjo-san. What do you wish to know?"

"It is well known that the Phoenix are using their not inconsiderable resources to save the lives of certain infected people. Just ask these two Crane, as I am sure they are aware of your efforts on behalf of Doji Masako."

The Crane seemed to reconsider their enthusiasm for scandal but it was too late to withdraw.

Kanta nodded. "The healers in my clan are doing what they can. They feel that if they are able to discover how the plague attacks its victims that they will move a long way towards stopping the plague altogether."

Haruko's expression did not alter. "Isn't it lucky that you have a Crane to save. A courtier of some renown who needs the full services of the Phoenix."

Kanta did not see where Haruko was leading him. "Certainly. It is lucky that Doji Masako did not succumb to the despair that accompanies such an ailment. She is of great service to our healers and the Empire."

Haruko practically spat. "Yes. How lucky that you could study her in the comfort of a warm city instead of having to go out into the Empire where your healers could have saved more than just one courtier."

"I am sorry, Shinjo-san, I think you misunderstand what I am saying."

"Well, just in case the misunderstanding goes both directions, allow me to ensure my meaning is clear. An entire family of the Unicorn was exterminated while your healers did nothing to try and save them. The life of a courtier was more important to you than the lives of all of the Horiuchi. That is unforgivable."

Kanta shook his head. "That is unfair, Shinjo-san. The Phoenix healers are not trying to save one courtier. They are trying to save all of Rokugan. Their studies with Doji Masako are not just trying to save her life, but much more."

"Then why her?" Haruko demanded. "Why not one of the many Horiuchi who could have used your help? Why not Horiuchi Seizo? He was a simple magistrate in his family's lands. Why not Horiuchi Kagita who was training to one day serve amongst the Baraunghar? What about Moto Masakage, who was there on assignment when the plague broke out? What about Horiuchi Odonoku who was to attend her first Winter Court this year? Can you tell me why these were not worth the attention of your healers? I realize none are as important to the Empire as one Crane courtier, but I would think they would deserve some consideration." Haruko fought to hold the tears back in her eyes.

Kanta bowed his head. "I am sorry, Shinjo-san, and deeply moved by the loss that the Unicorn have suffered, but the resources of the Phoenix are not infinite and they were forced to make choices about where they could do the most good. It was decided that since Doji Masako was the earliest case documented, that more could be learned from examining her than any other victim."

Haruko's sorrow was quickly forced back down as her anger regained dominance. "Earliest case? I understand that it is believed she was infected by one of her servants. Why are the Phoenix not struggling to save one of them?"

All listening - not limited to Kanta, Odaka and Taminoko - fell silent and looked at Haruko like she had suggested something so absurd as to beggar description.

Shinjo Haruko dropped her head before straightening her shoulders and looking Asako Kanta in the eyes. She spoke in a level and piercing manner. "The Phoenix made their choice. I know the result of that choice. I will not forget. We will not forget."

She turned and walked out of the great hall, leaving the courtiers in attendance in hushed silence... at least for a moment.

Yasuki Takai waited outside the entrance to the inner sanctum where only those granted an audience with the divine Empress were permitted access. Takai had never been inside. When he needed to speak to Empress Iweko his question was passed through her underlings, then to Satsu, the Voice of the Empress. The response came back the same way.

Takai knew from speaking to Kaiu Kamui that those granted access to her divine personage also did not see or speak to her. She waited behind a translucent screen while Togashi Satsu ensured that her will was known.

Kamui was inside. Takai's message came back only a few minutes before his clansman went in. His request had been granted.

The screen slid back and a Seppun attendant ushered Kaiu Kamui out. Kamui's face answered Takai's question before he asked it, but the large Crab Ambassador voiced it regardless.

"Did she grant you leave?'

Kamui looked at Takai and said nothing. The two of them walked across the great hall, past Shinjo Haruko as she approached two Crane courtiers. The Crab ignored them and moved to a far corner, away from the sparse crowds.

"What did she say?"

Kamui broke his silence. "She said that she could not release me from my duties until my task was completed."

Takai nodded. "Being the Jeweled Smith is a great honor."

Kamui looked at his large friend. "Yes. So is being the Ambassador to Toshi Ranbo, but she granted your leave."

Takai shook his head. "That is not the same thing, Kamui-san. I was not asking permission to give up my post. The entire Crab contingent is withdrawing. It is a temporary measure. The needs at the Wall outweigh the needs of having us here."

"Not the entire Crab contingent. I should be with you. A Crab that does not answer the call when the Great Wall is threatened is not a Crab at all."

Takai smiled. "There is no one who is more a Crab than you are, my friend. Maybe Lord Kuon." He laughed and saw a small smile briefly sneak onto Kamui's face. "There is only one thing that overrides our service to the Crab and that is our service to Empress Iweko and Rokugan. She has need of you. See that for the honor it is rather than a hardship."

Kamui sighed. "I do. It is just that I have lived my life knowing that the time would come when I would sacrifice myself for my clan. I thought this was that time. You get that honor, while I must stay here."

Takai jerked back in mock surprise. "Sacrifice? I have no plans of sacrificing myself, Kamui-san! I plan to sacrifice a few enemies of the Empire, though! They have not seen the mighty Takai take the field yet!"

"They may just turn and flee back into the Shadowlands when you get there, hey?"

Takai laughed. "That's right! Besides, you aren't getting out of the debt you owe me from our bet on the Tensei - Koda match! You are the one making the sacrifice, Kamui-sama. You are going to be stuck here, bored to tears."

Raised voices from across the hall caught the attention of the two Crab. "What is going on over there?" Kamui wondered aloud.

Takai shrugged. "Who can tell with courtiers? My guess is that the Phoenix failed to properly admire the cut of the Unicorn's sash or something. Armies have clashed and clans have fallen over things no more important than that. It has to be something along those lines because those two Crane are engrossed."

Kamui laughed. "I will miss you, Takai-san. The capital will not be the same without you around."

"I'll be back in no time, Kamui-san. Keep the Embassy warm until we get back. I don't want any monks poking around and declaring it a holy spot just because I slept there or anything."

With a laugh, the two men left the hall.

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