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IC: L5R: Blood and Jade - With A Single Step

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Weeks ago...

-Shiro Kitsuki, “Last Step Castle”-

The old man looked down at the letter and spoke to Toshi without even looking at him,  “So what brings a Scorpion to the door of my dojo wishing to study the ways of the Kitsuki?”

“I have learned the value of evidence, Kitsuki-sama. Had it not been for a single bead and some disturbed dust, I might have not been able to properly carry out my duties given to me by the Son of Heaven himself the murder of a daimyo may have gone unsolved and a noble family of the Lion would have been lost..” Toshi replied.

“Evidence does not lie, Little Scorpion. Men do. One would think that the Scorpion would find testimony more… agreeable… to their methods.” suggested the old man.

“Perhaps, Kitsuki-sama, but that does not mean we do not desire to know the truth as well. As you said, men lie. But men can lie to anybody. Evidence, on the other hand, simply tells it’s tale to any who are willing to listen. It has no reason to lie." Toshi countered.

“Hmm..." the old sensei said as he contemplated the kneeling Scorpion courtier for a moment before speaking once more, "Come inside then, Shusuro-kun. There may be hope for you yet, Little Scorpion.”

“Domo arigato gozaimasu, Kitsuki-sensei.” Toshi said with a deep bow before stepping through the doors of the Dojo of the First Glance...

Toshi found the Kitsuki sharp senses and a keen intellect. Under their tutelage he learned to focus his perceptions not only on his surroundings, but also those around him. He learned that the smallest bits of evidence could speak volumes and the most subtle and insignificant of reactions and gestures could reveal even more. He began to understand the Kitsuki and came to see why they posed such difficulties to even the best plans and manipulations of the Scorpion. The Kitsuki were masters at detecting deception and discerning motivations and as said in the beginning, evidence does not lie to those willing to listen. The Kitsuki were indeed worthy opponents for the Scorpion and certainly worthy of their respect. In a few weeks time he completed his lesson and learned the fundamentals of the Kitsuki school, completing the first stage of his training and then departing for Tsuma once more.

 

-Iron Mountain Doji, less than a mile from Shiro Mirumoto, “Last Glance Castle”-

"It is not often we are visited by the Kakita, much less a prized pupil of Kakita Toshimoko and the Topaz Champion, aside from those wishing to be taught a less, of course." the Dragon sensei said.

"I have accompanied my friend, Rin-san, here to her dojo so that she may further train and had hoped that I might be able to improve my own skill and 'no mind' technique while I was here. The mountains are quite beautiful in their austerity, and the Dragon are well known for their wisdom and meditation " Zoyu explained.

"Here? With the rivalry of our Family schools, one might think this would be the last place a Kakita might seek to learn." the Dragon suggested.

"A rivalry, yes. But it is not a rivalry born from ill will. Merely a difference in philosophy. A good rivalry causes both sides to improve, which only benefits the Empire as a whole, and a rivalry does not mean there is a lack of respect for your rival. And Rin-san certainly did your dojo proud. I only narrowly defeated her in the iaijutsu tournament and the Topaz Championship itself." the Crane replied.

The sensei bowed with a small smile and turned his attention to Rin, taking a moment to size her up and look her over.

“Rin-kun,” Mirumoto-sensei said as he rested a hand on her shoulder, “I am not even sure why you return. It seems that each time I try to provide you with instruction, you are already lessons ahead.”

“You are my sensei. I have never meant to be disrespectful to you or the dojo. Without your instruction I would not be where I am today.” Rin said.

“You are the finest student I have ever had. Niten comes naturally to you as if you developed the style yourself. I can only imagine where your talent will lead you, but I suspect that one day you may be the sensei and I may be the student...”

Rin's training was relatively short, as was common for her, but as her sensei reviewed the fundamentals of Niten the sensei stopped and questioned her.

"What is it, Sensei?" Rin asked curiously with just a hint of fear that she made have made some fundamental mistake.

"Your guard. It is subtly different. I do not think most would even see it. Why did you change it?"

"You always said that holding your swords should be natural, like holding a teacup. Since graduation I have made sure to practice each day and sparred with others. This guard just felt natural to me." Rin explained.

"It is not just natural, Rin-san, it is better." the Sensei pointed out, using the -san honorific for the first time when speaking to her.

"The difference is small, but noticeable. I had seen you doing so since I began your training. Like you said, I thought it was just what felt natural to you or that you might grow out of it in time, but I can see now that as your skill and understanding has improved, so has that guard. And I suspect it will only continue to improve." he said.

"Sensei.. I do not know what to say." Rin said, caught off guard.

"What to say? That is simple. You will explain that guard to me. How and why it feels natural to you and how you use it so that I my record it for the Dojo and future students and sensei." he said before calling in a young students and sending him to fetch a writing kit and table.

"It seems I may be prophetic, as here I am learning from you, Rin-san." he said with a faint smile peeking through his calm demeanor.

 

Rin spent the next several days in seclusion with the sensei, demonstrating her guard. He recorded it on a scroll once he understood it fully and would practice it himself before returning to her training. In her study of the blade and though meditation she came to see and understand more of the elements around her. The rudimentary lessons in Spellcraft she had received in Tsuma had somewhat opened her eyes to elemental energies, at least on a basic level. She could see how they interacted fundamentally and how a shugenja managed to focus and direct those energies, even beyond what she had learned in her Spellcraft lessons. She came to understand that, with focus, she could aid or disrupt those energies around herself as well, a feat which astounded her Sensei.

"I do not know why I am surprised by you any more, RIn-san. You already fight with no mind, and from that comes speed, for thinking is slow. You already understand this lesson before I have even began teaching it to you. So I review it with you and do my best to clean up any imperfections and here you are already intuitively understanding lessons that those who graduated years before you are only just now learning with the aid of the Agasha." the sensei said with a faint smile as he shook his head.

"I do not know how much longer I will even be able to teach you anything, Rin-san." he mused.

While Rin trained Zoyu was a guest of the Mirumoto. The austere and ascetic lands, homes, dojo and lifestyle of the Dragon was in stark contrast to the lush and opulent lands of the Crane, but it had a minimalist beauty and seemed to give the Dragon focus. In general they had a serenity about them and almost seemed to be more like warrior monks than your typical bushi. They fought with no mind, which gave them speed, but also fought with a casual confidence and placed no particular consideration on footwork or a 'special stepping technique' such as those employed by so many styles. Even beyond the use of both swords, the difference in the Mirumoto style, stance, philosophy and even teaching style was strikingly different from the Kakita. It seemed to work for them though, as Zoyu could attest to from facing Rin in both sparring matches and the iaijutsu tournament itself.

"Do not look for the perfect moment strike your opponent. Searching for that moment is still thinking, and thought is slow to react. Instead just relax and let him come to you. Your body, your mind, your arm and your sword will simply know the right moment and you will find your cut without a thought." the Sensei explained to Zoyu when she asked about the Mirumoto approach to fighting with no mind.

After a short time Rin completed her training and the pair traveled back to Tsuma and the Kakita Dueling Academy.

 

-Kyuden Isawa-

"So good to see you again, Akari-kun. We have all heard of your brave actions and personal appointment by the Emperor." the sensei greeted.

"I only seek to bring honor to my family and dojo, Sensei." Akari offered.

"And I see you have brought a friend with you."

"Yes. This is Kuni Taka, a fellow Jade Magistrate. His knowledge was instrumental to our successful protection of the Lord Prince. He has come to see the Library and make use of it while I study so that we may better carry out the duties appointed to us by the Son of Heaven."

"Ah. I see..." she said.

"Welcome, Kuni-san." she said to the Crab in greeting with a smile that did not appear to be forced (though it was). "Our Library is, of course, at the disposal of the Jade Magistrates. May the knowledge contained within help Jade Magistrates."
Taka bowed politely.

"Then let us see to your studies so that you may be on your way and back to the business of the Jade Magistrates. I am sure two shugenja are sorely missed..." 

Akari's lessons continued under her sensei and with that new found ability came the chance to select several new spells, expanding her magical repertoire. Her greater skill and new spells would serve the Jade Magistrates well, while Taka took advantage of the magical knowledge stored within the Isawa Library to begin research on a new spell which he had been contemplating for some time.

"As a jade Magistrate you are working with other shugenja, Akari-kun. So do not forget the benefit of working together with ritual magic. We Isawa are the most skilled shugenja in the Empire, but never underestimate the benefit of sharing strength and burden." her Sensei reminded.

Soon enough though they found themselves on the road back to Tsuma as well to meet up with their fellow Magistrates.

 

-Kakita Dueling Academy, across the Tengu River from Tsuma-

"I have returned to continue my lessons, Sensei." Zoyu said with a bow.

"You have returned already? It seems you just graduated and here you stand mere months later ready to continue. You are possibly the finest student I have every taught, Zoyu-chan. You make an old sensei proud." Toshimoko said with a smile and nod.

"You flatter me, Sensei. I simply seek to be a worthy vessel to receive what you have to teach." Zoyu said with a shy smile.

"And your fellow Magistrate?" he asked

"She is a Jade Magistrates, yes, but also my friends and a student of the sword as I am sure you had seen during the Topaz Championship. I had traveled with her to the Iron Mountain Dojo for her to continue her training and studied more of the 'no mind' while I was there. When the next level of her instruction was complete, she journeyed with me here." Zoyu explained.

"Really? Occasionally Zoyu-chan, you...hmmm... I am not sure if the right word is... 'surprise' or 'worry' me." Toshimoko said with a warm smile. "Then it is only fitting that we show the same courtesy to one of their finest students."

"Welcome, Mirumoto Rin." he said to the Dragon with a polite bow. 

"Your swordsmanship during the tests of the Topaz Championship was impressive. You bested one my personal students in the Weapons test and showed quite well in the Iaijutsu tournament, only falling to a prized pupil of mine in the final duel. You brought much honor and glory to your dojo." the aging sensei explained.

"Anybody of such skill and devotion to the blade at such an early age certainly has my respect." he added with a deep, respectful bow.

"Thank you, Toshimoko-sama. You flatter me. I only seek to serve the Empire to the best of my ability." Rin replied.

"I must see to my pupil's instruction, but afterwards perhaps we call all learn from one another. A student of the blade is never done learning, after all. And then afterwards I'll introduce you both to the okasan in town. Even the most diligent student needs a break now and then." Toshimoko said flashing a easy, roguish smile.

 

Zoyu continued her studies under the tutelage of her sensei, Kakita Toshimoko. With his training she perfected the "Sudden Strike" of the Kakita, expanding her already considerable understanding of the iaijutsu duel. It was during one of these training sessions that Toshimoko spoke to Zoyu about her progression.

"I can see some of myself in you, Zoyu-chan." Toshimoko said as he sat on a rock and looked out at the river they had been training beside.

"I was full of confidence and swagger. I knew I was skilled and I used that skill to bully and intimidate. I was young and brash and thought I could not fail." he said thoughtfully.

"It took several hard lessons for me to grow up and understand some things... things I wish to share with you." the old man explained as he pulled his arm out of the sleeve of his kimono and rested it inside, against his chest. 

"You have great skill and potential, but you must understand that with this skill and ability comes a responsibility, not just to your lord and the clan, but to the the Empire and honor itself. At times it can be as much of a burden as it is a boon. The taking of a life is never something to be done lightly, and should be done with dignity and respect. I have taken lives of those I respected and even loved, because honor demanded it. I did not wish their death. I would have given my life in order to have not taken their's, but we are samurai, and our lives are not our's to give, they belong to our Lord. So I dueled them, as honor required, knowing full well what the outcome would be, and I took those lives, That was when I truly understood regret and asked for permission to commit seppuku. My request was denied, so I vowed to live the rest of my life without regret, living each day to the fullest."

"You are still so very young, Zoyu-chan. I know these are just words of an old man, but please try to learn from my mistakes while you are still young. I would not wish you to waste so much of your life as I did."

"And as word of your skill spreads, people will wish to duel you just to test their skill and prove themselves your better. Don't let them. Overestimating one's skill is already dangerous enough and you do not want to be the one with their death on your hands just so they could learn that lesson. You have nothing to prove to anybody, especially not anymore. You graduated at the top of your class, your won the Topaz Championship and proved your Iaijutsu in front of the Emperor and daimyo. Duel if you must, and I sure there will be times that you must, but only when you must, because you do not want too much blood on those pretty hands..." 

In the meantime Rin gained a new insight into the Kakita and their style with the instruction from and sparring with Toshimoko. Whereas the Mirumoto let their opponent come to them, the Kakita would seek the perfect moment to strike. They placed a greater emphasis on the duel, in which they were unparalleled, but their philosophy translated into all forms of their swordplay, even in a kenjutsu skirmish the Kakita treated each strike like an iaijutsu duel, allowing them to strike with great speed and precision only to often return their katana to its saya where it awaited the next draw and strike. 

Despite his position and age, or maybe because of it, Toshimoko was a jovial and relaxed man. He was at least a couple of decades past retirement age, but continued to serve the Crane. He was a very fit and even good looking man, looking younger than his actual age in general, but he also had a relaxed demeanor about him (a stark contrast to his brother in-law, Lord Doji Satsume). He was not a stuffy or rigid man in the slightest and when not teaching at the dojo would often be found in the arms of a geisha or carousing at a sake house. It was a side of him that all the Empire knew about and many found distasteful, but it seemed he was too set in his ways and far too valuable as a sensei for anybody to try and do anything about it.

Strangest of all to Rin is that she seemed to have a odd familiarity with the aging sensei. She had seen him before during the Topaz Championship, but had never really spoken with him though. Maybe it was simply his easy going nature and friendly demeanor, but Rin could not help but feel as if she knew him already...

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Weeks passed while the young Magistrates continued their training or sought out new avenues of learning. In time Toshi, Akari, Taka, Kageko returned to Tsuma to find Rin and Zoyu already there along with Seppun Kyuichi who had set up an office for the Jade Magistrates in the estate of Doji Noriaki. Yedo welcomed them all and saw to their horses as each arrived.

Tsuma had returned to the quiet town is was before the Topaz Championship. The spectators had left and along with them the many vendors that had come to sell their wares. Once again it was the sleepy fishing village across the river from the Kakita Dueling Academy and the ronin, who had departed town before the Topaz Championship had trickled back into town as well. The Poisoned Water Sake House had even been remodeled and re-opened with the red and black banners of the Scorpion Clan hanging on either side of the door, indicating new ownership.

The former public dojo was now The Dojo of the Jade Magistrates. Doji Chinatsu had seen to the switch and ensured it was as properly equipped and appointed as she could, even going so far as to build a small reference library in one of the side rooms that contained even some Crab texts of 'questionable' content.

The newly set up office at Noriaki's estate had several spare rooms for Magistrates in town to stay in, if they wished, as well as Seppun's Kyuichi's personal office. And as usual, Seppun's desk was was covered in scrolls and hastily written notes. He did not come off as a messy man, but it was clear that he had much information about the Jade Magistrates to go through that had been gather dust for centuries.

Once everybody was settled Seppun gathered Rin, Zoyu, Akari, Toshi, Kageko and Taka in the garden outside his office, greeting each in turn as they came in and took a seat.

"I am sure you are noticing the absence of Shinjo-san. Clan business that may be of interest to the Jade Magistrates has kept him detained for the time being." Seppun explained as he walked with his hands neatly folded behind his back.

"As for the rest of you, I will begin by saying that I am quite pleased to have you all within my office. You have already began making a good name for the Jade Magistrates. Several daimyo have written to express their praise and gratitude of you all, Shinjo-san included. Since then you have all be diligent in your studies and I can see that you take your appointment seriously, even go so far as to change to schools so as to better serve. You have all been working hard and training, and I think that you are due a bit of a reward." Seppun said as a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"The Bon Festival is drawing near and I am sure you wish to tell your ancestors of your great deeds and one of the best Bon Festivals in the Empire is held in Ryoko Owari Toshi (Journey's End City). So please, as my gift to you all, go there and enjoy yourselves for a few days."

"And when the festival is over, there are likely no shortage of things that might acquire the attention of a Jade Magistrate in a city such as that. Otherwise, feel free to travel across the river to Shiro Usagi and learn of the Bloodspeakers or travel south to speak to the Crab and visit The Wall. I leave your direction after the festival to your own discretion, just keep me posted and remember that you are promising, but still young, so that there is strength and safety in numbers. I will send word to you when needed." the Chief Magistrate explained.

 

Spoiler

The Bon Festival: 

The Bon Festival is a festival of remembrance and reverence towards a family's departed ancestors. On the night of the Bon Festival the veil between the world of the living and the dead is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to cross over for a short time. 

Small booths with altars are set up and throughout the night people take turns entering to pray to the ancestors and seeking forgiveness of any possible transgression to their family name while shugenja perform the Bon dance to entertain the spirits and prevent them from becoming angry and harming people.

The rest of the festival involves celebrating ancestors with fireworks, parades, music, traditional dances and remember that even death was a part of all life.

At the end of the festival, the people send the spirits back to the worlds beyond. The people guide the spirits by floating lit candles and paper lanterns down nearby rivers in the what is called The Paper Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Bon Festival.

 

Ryoko Owari Toshi (Journey's End City):

One of the largest cities in the Empire (possibly the second largest), Journey's End City is known by many names; "The City of Stories", "The City of Green Walls", "The City of Lies", the popular shortened form "Ryoko Owari", or the less popular name that some of the Crab Clan have for it, "The Reeking Scorpion Cesspool".

The city sits at a major nexus of trade at the unofficial center of the Empire with the River of Gold cutting right through it. The city is also known for having many gambling dens, geisha houses, brothels, opium parlors and virtually any other form of diversion or entertainment, legal or illegal.

All of the illicit activities are kept hidden under a mask of legitimacy as the center for the medicinal opium trade in the Empire, with poppies gown in vast fields surrounding the city. The city's involvement in the opium trade, both legal and illegal, has made the city very profitable and wealthy.

In short, the city is a beautiful, massive, bustling metropolis with a great deal of trade, beautiful temples, fine inns, even better sake & geisha houses and a multitude of visitors to the casual observer. But under that veneer virtually form of diversion or illegal good can be acquired...

 

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Toshi smiled at the news - a broad, open and whole-hearted smile. It was the kind of smile that any right-thinking member of another Clan would find as cause for alarm, but no. Toshi was just very happy to hear it. Though it was interesting, of course, that Seppun Kyuchi would choose Ryoko Owari as the place to celebrate the Bon Festival. Of course, his observations about going to the Crab or Shiro Usagi might simply mean a good location for responding to potential trouble spots.

"A most heartfelt arigato, Seppun-sama." Toshi wondered, with their late concerns with the Scorpion revealed, how Rin and Zoyu would regard this offer. "It will be good to return home."

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Mirumoto Rin knelt before the still reflecting pool in the quiet garden which had quickly become her favorite place at the house which had once been their guest quarters during the tournament and now was set aside for the Jade Magistrates use. Rin still wondered at the fact that they had yet to meet their still absent host.

She turned her head this way and that looking at her reflection in the water,comparing what she saw there with what was in her mind. The sensuous smoldering appeal of Kegeko, and the flawless beauty of Zoyu, even Akari held an attraction of innocence and purity she could never hope to compete with. She looked at her reflection and saw a blunt piece of wood staring back. She idly toyed with her hair.

“Hmmph.”

What really was bothering her was the pit of vipers they were being “allowed” to visit. No, she thought. Be honest with yourself Rin, it is a nest of scorpians, not vipers and it is too coincidental.

No matter whether it be the Fortunes or Seppun Kyuichi sending us there. It is there she will go and Duty she will do.

She stops her hand at her head hair pushed up and over from the left to the right revealing her ear. She pushes the dark brown strands further up and over and turns her head a faint curl of her lip reveals the pleasure at what only she can see in her mind. She drops her hair and takes up her paper and charcoal and begins to sketch....

A while later after Rin returns to the House of Noriaki she sends for Yedo who comes to her shortly.

“Yedo, What is the fastest way for me to get to Niwa Shita No Kage. I need to make the trip there do my business which may take up to two weeks and still make the trip to Ryoko Owari for the festival.”

Hmm,” Yedo ponders, “The fastest way is by ship, but not a river boat. You will need to go to Otosan Uchi, and find a fast sea vessel. You could find a boat to take you to the sea and then find a ship, but river boats are slow and make many stops. A horse would be faster I think to take you to Otosan Uchi.”

Domo, Yedo, I must go speak with Seppun Kyuichi, at once. Can you see tha my Horse is prepared and provisions for this journey gathered for me? I want to leave as soon as I am able”

Yes, Miromoto Sama, I will attend to this at once”

It took Rin a few minutes to find Seppun Kyuichi in the same garden she had been in earlier, this surprised her she had never seen anyone else in that garden before. She bows and waits to be noticed. She doesn't wait long.

 Seppun Kyuichi turns with a slight smile, he had noticed the Dragon girl enter the garden and was somehow not surprised. Of all the young Magistrates she was the most predictably unpredictable.

Mirumoto-san?”

Pardon the Intrusion Seppun-sama, I have a request.”

He nods for her to continue.

I have personal business in Niwa Shita No Kage, if you have no pressing duties for me here I would like to leave at once to attend this matter and then journey to Ryoko Owari to rejoin my fellow magistrates at the festival.”

His smile turns to a slight frown . She is a swordsman wishing to prove herself is this a matter of honor, I do not wish to lose someone of promise in an illegal duel.

There is nothing pressing, but this is an unusual request. It is dangerous to travel alone and well, It is a very long trip. This business is it a matter of Honor?”

No, Seppun-sama, it is personal in nature. I had let it go after being named Magistrate. But things which occurred in Jinpachi have made me look at myself in a different way. And , now this day, I feel I must follow this path to become who I am supposed to be. I will do my Duty, Sir and if need be I will abandon my business to meet with my fellows at the appointed time.”

A heartbeat or two pass before Seppun Kyuichi nods again.

Go, Mirumoto-san, may the Fortunes favor you.”

Rin smiles, she had been afraid he would refuse her. She bows deeply.

Domo Arigato Seppun-sama”

 

***************

Rin returns to her quarters and packs some things and quickly writes a letter for Zoyu.

Zoyu-san

I am sailing tonight on a ship to Niwa Shita No Kage, on personal business. I expect to be gone several weeks. I will meet you at the festival as soon as I am able. I have received permission from Seppun Kyuchi. Yedo knows where I am heading if you need to send a message to me.

Have a safe trip.

Rin

Placing the letter and further instructions with Yedo, Rin makes her farewell to the old man who has been so helpful to her, and mounts her horse and rides from Tsuma

 

To be continued...

 

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It was past dusk and Zoyu danced by a pond under a sakura tree, a favoured spot since soon after she had started attending the Kakita Dueling Academy. More moonlight glinted off her flashing blade than should have been possible as she flowed through steps both elegant and deadly. Once, it had simply been a soothing and picturesque place to practice her dancing and swordplay. Later, the area had taken other meanings for her...

She studied under Toshimoko for some weeks after returning from the lands of the Dragon with Rin and took his revealing words to heart, even as a part of her already knew them and wished that her Sensei had seen it was so already. She was proud of her skill and wanted to be known for it itself, not for the number of lives she had taken. She might not be the natural swordsman Kakita Toshimoko or Mirumoto Rin were, but she had pursued Kakita excellence in Art with a formidable dedication.

But Zoyu had set her goals even higher than being 'just' famed and beautiful Duelist. She had been to the Dojo of the Mirumoto Bushi and had seen them, the Akodo, and the Shiba in battle, during the Topaz Championship and defending the Prince. In the duel, the Kakita were unrivaled, it was known. Zoyu wished, yearned, to see that exquisite skill translated, expanded, to encompass any confrontation with blade in had. Though it wasn't formally a part of Kakita's teachings, she saw much that would complement it in the 'No-Mind' techniques of the Dragon and Phoenix.

Nor was it only Toshimoko's warnings against the dangers Pride could lead one to that Zoyu took to her, but his complete joy of life, which she sought to emulate, while retaining the famed Crane elegance. She had seen Toshimoko more than once when she had spent her own nights at the Geisha houses, had even accompanied him occasionally.

In this too, she wanted more, though she was willing to be patient. She was young yet and Toshimoko was vital and handsome despite his age. She had plenty of time to progress her campaign to have him see her as more than a student...

Thinking of which, her heart fluttered in her chest at the thought of visiting Ryoko Owari. Despite learning of the subtle and ruthless machinations the Bayushi were willing to commit, it wasn't trepidation about visiting the famed city of the Scorpions. It was excitement about who she was likely to find there or along the way. Tsukiko... She hadn't seen her since before she had become Topaz Champion and a Jade Magistrate. Zoyu stilled... missed her, which considering how she was beginning to feel about the Scorpion, surprised her and relieved her.

With varying romantic thoughts dancing in her head, Zoyu headed back to her chambers to take a bath then settle down with a pillow book before going to sleep. Yet upon reaching the estate of Doji Noriaki, Yedo presented her with a letter. Zoyu arched an exquisite brow in surprise - it was from Rin.

I am sailing tonight on a ship to  Niwa Shita No Kage, on
personal business. I expect to be gone several weeks. I will meet
you at the festival as soon as I am able. I have received permission
from Seppun Kyuchi. Yedo knows where I am heading if you need to
send a message to me.
 Have a safe trip.
                        Rin

Zoyu sighed, disgruntled. With Rin's absence, the journey to Ryoko Owari would feel longer, even if she was hardly the verbose sort. Though if she remembered what Rin had said before, Zoyu could guess why she was visiting Niwa Shita No Kage and wondered what she would have to show for it. As a servant disrobed her and her pale skin sank below the steamy water of the bath, another, almost familiar, shape joined those already occupying her erotic thoughts. Zoyu sighed again.

 

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Akari, remembering her sensei's words pulled Taka and Kageko aside once they had been dismissed.

"Kageko-san, Taka-san.  You probably are wondering why I dragged you out here.  So I'll make this quick."

She breathes in.

"We're probably going to face many dangers from hereon out.  So I feel we need to be more organized.  We need to practice working ritual magic together, that way we're not stepping on each others toes when a crisis is happening."

Akari nodded.  She's a Isawa, the best of the best when it comes to being a shugenja, but she is Still just one person.  

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"I do not have any ritual magic yet, Isawa-san. There are a few I plan on requesting in the future though, such as Sharing the Strength of Many. The potency of the ritual is greatly increased with the aid of other shugenja." Taka replied.

"And my shugenja magic is very limited since the majority of my studies are focused on Ancestor Magic. I only have a few spells, fewer than either of you, and none are rituals." Kageko added.

"I do agree though that we do need to communicate and coordinate our efforts though. Three working together, even without rituals, is still more potent than 3 individuals." Taka suggested.

"I did see Agasha-san on my way here. She said she would like to see us at the dojo when we were done with our meeting with Seppun-sama." Kageko said.

 

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The festival was roughly a month away. Everybody knew though, that despite what the map said, the journey to Ryoko Owari Toshi on horseback would take a couple of weeks. Considering the route would pass through Kyuden Bayushi (Bayushi Palace) and Shiro no Shosuro (Caste of Pretending) stops were likely, especially to allow Toshi to finally see his family since completing the Topaz Championship. With the stops and a possibly a somewhat slower pace which would be easier on the riders, the trip would likely take at least three weeks. This meant that the young Magistrates would have to leave within a week, giving time for those who just got back to Tsuma from the northern reaches of the empire a day or two to rest before hitting the road again.

On one such day Toshi received a summons to Seppun's office...

 

-Office of Seppun Kyuichi, Noriaki Estate, Tsuma- 

Upon arrival Toshi found seppun looking over several several scrolls that had likely been stored in the ornate, lacquered scroll tube that sat open on his desk.

"You sent for me, Seppun-sama?" Toshi asked as he entered.

Seppun looked up from the scroll and bowed to Toshi, waving him over.

"Yes I did, Shosuro-san. I have found something that I think might assist you in the execution of your duties." Seppun explained as Toshi took a seat.

"Despite the office of Jade Champion being vacant for centuries, the office was filled for roughly two hundred years. In that time the various Jade Champions and the many Jade Magistrates all sought to do their duty to the best of their ability. Over the years some of them found some ways of doing just that, and they recorded them so that future Jade Magistrates may benefit from them as well." Seppun explained as she turned the scroll around and placed it on his desk in front of Toshi where the Scorpion could read it.

"I am no sensei, but it is clear that some of these methods are better suited to magical ability of shugenja, the combat prowess of bushi, or in this case, the social acumen and perceptive abilities of courtiers, such as ourselves." Seppn continued as Toshi looked over the scroll.

"This was developed by a Magistrate who had the luck, be it good or bad, to have dealt with maho-tsukai and The Taint many times. He was not as skilled a warrior as the bushi and lacked magical ability, be he learn focus on his duty as a Jade Magistrate and use that focus to heighten his own perceptions so that he detect signs of The Shadowlands Taint in people with some time to study them. Some signs of the taint are terribly overt and easy to see, as you have learned and Taka-san can explain, but this Magistrate learned to pick out the more subtle signs, physical, mental and even social that some seem to exhibit, even those trying to hide their taint. As the continued use of maho results in the maho-tsukai becoming tainted, this helped him in investigations by sometimes being alerted to an individual before some horrible maho curse was unleashed on him or his colleagues."

"Keep in mind though Toshi-san, that this is not proof of taint, or the lack thereof, in a person. It is not foolproof nor a declaration from the kami like a spell may be. It can be a tool though, an indicator, that may be bale to help you in your duties and possibly save some time, lives, or maybe point you in the right direction." Seppun warned.

"I do pray that this is something you will never need to use and that there is never another maho-tsukai in the Empire, but I know realistically that it is something that may well aid you and your fellow Magistrates."

Seppun then began to go over the scroll with Toshi, helping to teach the young Scorpion and explain  how to properly focus as well as going over the many subtle signs of Taint described within the scroll.

 

While down the street at the dojo the shugenja were gathering...

 

-Dojo of the Jade Magistrates, Tsuma- 

"Ah. Isawa-san. It is good to see you." Agasha Chouko said with a bow as the shugenja entered the dojo.

"Seppun-sama wished me to instruct you in something he had come across in his notes about the Jade Magistrates. Not being shugenja himself, he asked me to study it and pass it along to the other shugenja of our number." she said as she collected a scroll from a locked box and unrolled it.

"It seems the Jade Magistrates did manage to develop some of their own spells in the two centuries they were operational, like this spell." Agasha said as she placed the scroll on a writing table.

"Sepuun-sama said that as Jade Magistrates you are free to make your own copies for your personal use, but the original is not to leave the dojo." she expressed as she withdrew another scroll from the box.

"Seppun-sama also came across notes some of the shugenja among the Jade Magistrates had made on refining their spellcasting process and drawing upon the backing of the very Son of Heaven to aid them in their relations with the kami which thereby can fortify their spells. I have been studying the text and I believe I understand the process to a degree that I may pass it along to each of you, in accordance with Seppun-sama's wishes." the Dragon shugenja explained as she looked over the new scroll.

Over the next several hours the shugenja went through the lengthy process of copying the spell into their own school's cipher, after which Agasha instructed them in this slightly refined method of spellcasting...

 

And across the river...

 

-Kakita Dueling Academy, across the Tengu River from Tsuma-

Toshimoko formed the students into four lines, each one terminating about ten feet from Zoyu, who stood in the middle of the dojo. He nodded the student in front of one line who immediately stepped forward to engage Zoyu. He was quickly 'dispatched' with a single strike from her bokken. Another nod from Toshimoko sent the student in front of another line behind Zoyu at her. He too was 'dispatched' swiftly. 

Students they may be, but they were the upper class of the Dueling Academy, just as Zoyu had been less than a year ago herself. They were certainly no slouches, as each would be graduating just months from now. They all had the quickness of the Kakita style and very respectable skill with the katana.

Toshimoko then nodded again and almost immediately after that, sending more students at her while the defeated ones would get in the back of the line. This ensured that Zoyu's opponents were always well rested while she never got a break. The opponents came her more and more frequently, from different directions and in greater numbers. The melee grew more and more intense, not allowing Zoyu a moments respite or a second to think. Thinking was too slow. She had to rely on her training, her confidence and her natural quickness that exceeded even that of the Kakita style, often catching the students off guard for just a flap of a hummingbird's wings, but long enough for her to seize the advantage. 

Maybe two minutes passed before Toshimoko raised his hand. Immediately, and without hesitation, the students stopped, slipped their bokken into their obi. He dismissed them with a bow and a wave of his hand. The students all bowed to the Head Sensei and then to Zoyu before they left the room.

Two minutes it may have been, but to Zoyu it felt like a few seconds had passed, though she realized her breathing was much faster and she could feel the hint of fatigue in her arms.

"Very good, Zoyu-chan. As you began to let go and trust in yourself, I could see you getting the jump on the others again. It was brief, almost imperceptible, but it was enough time for you to take advantage of you speed and catch them almost unprepared. And that is saying something since only the Bayushi emphasize quickness more then us." Toshimoko praised.

"Keep that trust and confidence and it will serve you well." he said as he patted Zoyu on the shoulder, drawing forth a small, almost bashful smile from her.

"Hai. I will Toshimoko-sensei." she said with a nod.

Toshimoko smiled and nodded back.

"I heard you are going to Ryoko Owari for the Bon Festival." he said as he reached into his obi and withdrew a letter, offering it to her.

"So I prepared this for you, since I happen to know the okasan on Teardrop Island. This is a letter with me vouching for you, and any you see fit, and of course apologizing I could not be there to make the introductions personally. It should get you into any establishment on the island." he explained as she took the letter.

"Because, what good is visiting Ryoko Owari if you cannot even enjoy their geisha houses?" he joked with a smile on his handsome, if older, face.

"Oh. If you get a chance you and Rin-san should look up Kitsuki Jotomon. She has a dojo in the Downhill neighborhood of the Merchant Quarter. She has already mastered the Mirumoto style and has since been developing her own. When I was in Ryoko Owari, at a demonstration I saw her cut a candle on a bamboo pole. Well, I would like to say I saw it, but she cut down the candle, splitting the wick, candle and a good foot of the pole in half, with both halves of the wick still lit. And she did is so fast I hardly caught it. She is a very direct woman. Not rude by any means. But she is a Dragon so some subtleties of society are lost on her. She is probably the most passionate person I have ever met when it comes to Bushido too. Even more so than any Lion I have every met. Granted, most of the Lions I meet are Matsu trying to kill me, but still." he chuckled.

 

 

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Rin rode as fast as she could without harming the animal, keeping the horse rested with alternating cantor and walk, only stopping at the waystations as full night fell upon her. There she ate and rested not partaking in the banter and gaming of the other travelers, and was up and away before the sun rose the next day. The journey was tiring but uneventful, on the third day she could see Otosan Uchi ahead and bypassed the waystation as dusk settled. Having been told by Yedo that she would need special permission to enter the city but that she could most likely find a ship in one of the nearby villages where a great deal of the actual trade was conducted, Rin chose one and proceeded there.

The air was strange and the sound of the ocean a mystery to her ear. She could see little even in the moonlight, of the ocean, but it filled her senses. She stabled her horse for the night and found her way to the docks. She knew nothing of boats or ships, nor how to go about hiring one, or even if she could afford such a thing. As she walked along the docks she realized just how much she did not know. The wisdom of her ancestor and shinsi came to her , Learn all you can of everything, and promised to do just that.

She passed along the docks looking at the ships the only light from the moon and stars and the paper lanterns lit along the quay. She saw only a few people on any of the vessels. She could not even say if they were ships or boats for she could tell not differences that meant anything to her.

On her third pass by a certain ship a voice called softly too her from near the ramp leading up to the deck.

Good evening Dragon-sama.” Rin was startled that anyone could read her mon in such dim light. She stopped turning toward the voice as a man separated from the shadow and came intot he light. He bowed and she returned the gesture. I hope I did not startled but I have watched as you passed the Shikkari ("Steady") several times.”

How is it you know me?”

My pardon, I am Michiyo, captain of the Shikkari, he gestures to the ship behind him. “I was at the Tournament in Tsuma and saw you compete.”

Rin looks at the man , she could see his mon now that he was in the light and saw that he was a member of the Tortoise clan, she looks at the ship.

I am Mirumoto Rin, and perhaps you can help me, if not your self maybe guide me to one who can?”

He nods for her to continue.

This is your ship?”

I captain it, yes.”

I have need of a ship to take me to Niwa Shita No Kage, I am in a hurry.”

Michiyo straightens some. Nodding,he looks up and down the docks. “I saw you compete at the tournament and I saw you named jade magistrate. Is this magistrate business?”

No I am here on my own behalf and will pay my passage.”

He shakes his head slightly Rin isn't sure at what.

Come let us have sake.”

Rin follows the captain aboard the ship. She is somewhat dubious entering the ship even tied it moves with a motion she is unsure of.

They enter a small Cabin and Michiyo pours the sake which is already warm, and indicates a seat for her.

How soon do you need to leave?”

I would like to leave now.”

Oh no, we would have to wait for the outgoing tide tomorrow. And It is along voyage and I have only just unloaded my cargo I have not had time to arrange another.”

If it is cost...”

No, no Mirumoto-sama, payment is not a concern I only think of logistics, It would be an honor to carry one so favored by the Clan daimyo.” He smiles again as Rin bows her head in thanks. “ If you can wait a day for me to load the necessary food and water and if the fortunes and the wind favor us I can have you in Niwa Shita No Kage in two weeks, perhaps sooner.”

I will be in your debt Captain-san.” says Rin wondering what that debt would be.

She stayed upon the Steady that night and in the morning gathered her horse and made some other purchases in the village. Then she waited while the ship was prepared.

She walked out of the village and found a place where she could see Otasan Uchi in the distance and she practiced. Her mind regarded the great city as her body and spirit moved through her kata. Imaginary foes attacked her in random patterns their ghostly images changing and challenging her skill. But her thoughts were not there no her thoughts were soaring thru the city in the distance seeking one who has never been far from them.

The tide came in and that evening when it rolled out the Dragon-girl went with it

to be continued...

 

 

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On 2016-01-28 at 0:44 AM, Noir said:

"Because, what good is visiting Ryoko Owari if you cannot even enjoy their geisha houses?" he joked with a smile on his handsome, if older, face.

"Just so," Zoyu replied, returning Toshimoko's smile with one of her own that may have been warmer than one a student should have offered to her sensei. "I'm sure the Okasan and Geishas of Teardrop Island will miss your presence almost as much as I during the Bon Festival."

The sentiment was, but part of her was glad he hadn't offered to accompany her or revealed he would meet her in Ryoko Owari. Zoyu had ever intention of making the greatest swordsman in the Emerald Empire her husband, but her heart fluttered at the thought of reacquainting herself with the friend she had made with a Scorpion as she was growing into a woman while still a student of the Art of the Sword and of dance. She felt a faint blush coming to her cheeks and slid her mismatched gaze from Toshimoko's regard.

"After my time among Dragon, I will be interested to meet this Kitsuki Jotomon, and I'm sure Rin-san will be as well," Zoyu continued, her grin growing impish. "But I can hardly credence her blade being too quick for you to follow, Sensei." Zoyu stood up with her fluid dancer's grace and shook her supple arms to ease the fatigue in them. "I am glad to return to Tsuma to study under you, Toshimoko," she said, a hint of familiarity slipping into her tone. "Under your tutelage, my skill and knowledge grows ever greater, but now I have to prepare to travel once more on behalf of pleasure and duty. Until we meet again."

Zoyu still yearned to be a famed and legendary duelist, but she was growing to desire fame for an even greater goal, to expand and refine the talents of the Kakita Dueling tradition itself. And with Toshimoko's insight and ineffable skill with the blade, as well as her own more difficultly earned talent, she was confident she would do so.

Zoyu took her leave of her beloved sensei with subtly intimate warmth, then went about preparing for another three week journey. She made sure her mount was well rested and in good health and had the armor of the Topaz Champion cleaned to a bright sheen. She sought out any news of the road to Ryoko Owari, for dangers, natural disasters that would require detours, or bandits and the like.

Since becoming Topaz Champion weeks and months ago, Zoyu's svelte limbs had grown firmer with her training and her womanly figure had matured further. For that and her own vanity and possibly reconnecting with Tsukiko, Zoyu commissioned new kimonos and other garments for herself, to emphasize her enviously sleek  yet curvaceous figure and the grace of her movements. Most were in the classic white and blue of the Crane, along with the deep topaz due her as Topaz Champion, and others in white and black, blue and black, tastefully accented with pink and reds and other vivid colours and patterns.

While her new wardrobe was being fashioned, Zoyu took the short trip to Kyuden Kakita to the Kakita Artisan Academy to spend some time with her parents, who she had not seen since she had been proclaimed Topaz Champion, and visit the elegant grounds that had always filled her pride and peace. It was for such that she defended the Empire as she could.

She also spent some token amount of time with her one brother there, the youngest of three though still three years her senion, exchanging a few words with him as duty required, though she cared not much for him. He was a poor swordsman who thought himself as skilled as Toshimoko and regaled her with how he would have won the Topaz Championship had he been given the chance. Zoyu fully expected him to be slain by one who took offense of his words and was decent with a blade... or by tripping over his own sword.

As it approached a week since Rin had taken her leave of them, Zoyu was eager to be off on their own journey and to find what there would be at the end of it.

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Motion, movement, shifting of center. These are the world of now.

The Steady set to sea under the power of her oars, it was dusk and the long days to this point had caught up to Rin. After seeing to her horse, whom she had grown fond of, she retired with little fanfare to the small cabin the Captain had given her. The movement of the ship was pleasant and lulled her into a deep sleep.

The Sea moves, the winds move, the ship moves.

Rin awakes to a harsh morning it was still dark the barest tinge of light on the distant horizon. She could not stand. The rocking of the Steady , this way and that, had robbed her of balance, her insides were full of birds trying to escape. She sat back on the pallet she had slept on and struggled.. She could not understand how anyone could stand this not having balance the constant motion. For the remainder of the day and well into the next, Rin suffered and was helpless. On the second day she went onto the deck thinking the fresh air would help It did not. But as she struggled to not embarrass herself at the side of the ship she watched the men and women who worked. As she watched helpless she saw that they did not suffer nor did they fight the movement, they accepted it and moved with it. As she observed she came to realize that the balance she had lost was not on the ship nor in the sea but in her. Rin focused inward to find her balance.

It was not easy at first, Her balance had been born on land and nurtured in the mountains. But slowly she too accepted the movement of the ship and with her focus turned inward she found the balance she thought she had lost. Throughout the remainder of that day she practiced moving as the sailors moved. The Captain on his deck watched his only passenger and nodded his approval, he said nothing, but it pleased him that the Dragon was finding her sea-legs.

That night Rin slept fitfully and was not sick when she awoke.

        RedSealShip.JPG.966d1cda48a6529638d8529c the SHIKKARI (STEADY)

After becoming accustomed to the ship and the sea, Rin began to enjoy the voyage. While the ship never sail completely from sight of land often during the day the distant shore was but a dark smudge on the horizon. It was during the day that the sails were unfurled if the wind were favorable and if it was not the ship stay closer to shore and moved by oar. The work of the sailors was hard and seeming unending and in the heat of the sun it was hot and sweaty. Both men and women wore only the fundoshi while working and donning more modest garb only after the ship anchored for the night. Rin had never seen women wearing the fundoshi before but in the heat it made sense. She also notice a lack of formality among the crew and officers. Every talk as if to a close friend or relative, given names were used almost exclusively, except for the Captains and Rin who the all observed the formalities for. She found this to be the way of the Tortoise the walls between Samurai and hinin were all but non existent. It also allowed the to work smoothly.

After the first two days Rin settled in to the routine of the voyage in the early morning she would practice kata unarmed on the deck, then tend her horse. No one objected to that which surprised her at first but she enjoyed the animal so it suited her fine. During the day she stayed out of the way but she did observe and by observing learned much. She also sketched. She drew the sea, the sky , the way the water parted against the prow of the ship. She would dine with the Captain at night and they talked and played go. The Captain always won but he did not embarrass her in winning and he always showed her how he had won. He was an excellent player he was also a poet. They talked of many things. Their clans, the sea, shinsi and the fortunes. Time slipped past and after seven days at sea The captain joined her on the deck as she practiced.

Dragon-sama (for he was always very proper when the crew could hear them), we have had very good winds.” He pointed to the receding shore. “From where we are now I estimated that you will be able to see your destination before the sun fades tonight. Tomorrow you will be in Niwa Shita No Kage. I will stay a day or so to see if there is cargo I can carry into Earth Quake Bay, before sailing there. In a week or so I will return.”

You have done me great service Captain, and far quicker than I could have imagined. My business will take a week possible more, or perhaps only the day.” She shrugs. When I am done I will look for you. I would be honored to have The Shikkari carry me again.” The two exchange bows and the day goes forward.

That evening the Shikkari pulls close to the shore. The sailors she has come to know point out her destination away in the distance, a dark line on the horizon fading into the sea as the sun sets.

Tomorrow she will be in Niwa Shita No Kage Toshi, Garden Under Shadow City.

To be continued....

 

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Though Tsuma was a quite town, the very early mornings were particularly so. The cool night air would occasionally bring with it a light fog from the river, giving the town an almost otherworldly appearance for a brief time. Gradually people awoke to eat and prepare for their day and it was during this time that several young Jade Magistrates tied the last few straps of their packs. With their horses, and bodies, well rested the young Magistrates took to their horses. Yedo hurried before them and opened the gate wide, bowing to each with a smile as the passed through the gate and onto the streets of Tsuma. In a few minutes they find there way to the western gate where the guards bow and open them for the morning, permitting the Magistrates to be on their way.

By mid afternoon on the third day Kosaten Shiro (Crossroads Castle) comes into site.  Unlike many of the Kyuden (Palaces) of the Crane, Kosaten Shiro is an actual castle built on the border with the Lion Clan and heavily garrisoned by the Daidoji to serve as the first line of defense against any possible invasion by the Lion Clan since Shiro Matsu (Last Breath Castle), the ancestral home of the Matsu family sits just a few (actual) days down the road to the north.

"You know, Zoyu-san..." Kageko said, somewhat thinking aloud, "Even though you are the Topaz Champion, you are the only bushi among us for this journey."

"I met a one of your Clansmen on the roads of my Clan as I traveled back to Tsuma, and he escorted me here to Kosaten Shiro, as I was traveling alone. He is likely still there and I would like invite him along with us to Ryoko Owari Toshi with us to both provide additional escort and to thank him for his courtesy." the little Lion suggested.

"What do you think? Does anybody have any objections?" she asked.

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Zoyu breathed deep of the clear country air. Her lock of raven-black hair was twisted into an elaborate braid and swayed fetchingly in the light wind; enticing lips curved in a joyous grin. Once, she had never been more than two days from Tsuma, but since becoming Topaz Champion and a Jade Magistrate, she was beginning to travel far and wide and it was endlessly fascinating, even if she had to endure the occasional bore along the way.

"For one of my Clan, I never," Her grin turned wry and she amended with honesty she couldn't mask, "almost never, have any objection, Kageko-san. Invite your acquaintance for the journey to Ryoko Owari with my own gratitude." Her striking, mobile features and lush lips shifted into something almost like delighted challenge. "Some Matsu may forget courtesy and protocol and decide to make trouble for the favoured student of Toshimoko-sama. And while I teach them the error of forgetting themselves, it will be well having another Crane watching for the safety of the rest of you."

Zoyu looked over at Kageko and the rest of her companions, smiling teasingly. She didn't doubt their spirits, merely their experience and training facing armed men and women.

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"You are Toshimoko-sama's favoured student, but you are also a Jade Magistrate traveling with four other Jade Magistrates, all of which were appointed by the Son of Heaven himself. Though the Mastu can by a bit.. brash.. I doubt they will trouble you, though they may have a short temper. So it would be best not to linger as Shiro Matsu." Kageko suggested as she rode along with her fellow Magistrates.

The young Magistrates rode on reaching the castle a little later in the afternoon. Kageko left the others to secure lodging in the town while she proceeded to the castle. Once the horses had been seen to and rooms had been acquired, Kageko returned to the inn accompanied by a Crane. The Crane was in his late teens, relatively tall and lean (though not scrawny) for his age (like many Cranes) with blue eyes and long white hair tied back in a fox tail. Tucked into his obi was a full daisho, with a long, narrow strip of cloth dyed brown, tan and orange tied around the end of his katana's grip.

Kageko and the Crane walked over and they both bowed in greeting.

"Kakita Kaze, please meet my fellow Jade Magistrates. Kakita Zoyu, Shosuro Toshi, Isawa Akiri." Kageko says, introducing the Crane to her comrades with a smile, causing each to bow in turn.

"Kaze has accepted my offer to join us for the Bon Festival and for the time being he will be a deputized Jade Magistrate so as to provide extra protection on the trip." she explains.

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As they enter, Kaze places his Daisho by the door, strip of cloth dancing briefly as it is caught in a stray breeze. As he is provided with introductions, he bows politely to each member of the party, acknowledging each one.

"You do me honour in allowing me to render whatever aid I may to the Jade Magistrates. As Kitsu-san said, I am Kakita Kaze."

He calmly takes a seat beside Kageko, a quick smile creasing his features.

"I had not had the pleasure of witnessing the Topaz Championship, but Kitsu-san has regaled me with tales of the competition while we were journeying. It makes for a compelling story."

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Zoyu returns Kaze's nod graciously, her odd, mismatched eyes bright and a grin tugging at her lips. "I assure you, even the most fantastic tales of my victory as Topaz Champion are likely true," she says with not entirely feigned, vainglorious boasting. "Welcome to our band. More company on a journey is almost always a pleasure."

As the servant returns and leaves to fulfill Kaze's and Kageko's orders, Zoyu studies him through dark, elegant lashes. She had paid attention to the most promising students of the Kakita Dueling Academy, in the years ahead and behind her, at least to know their names and faces. Her blue eye and green eye linger for a moment on the tassel adorning the hilt of his blade.

"I regret that I don't recognize a skilled bushi of my family, Kaze-san. You have studied elsewhere than the Kakita Dueling Academy, perhaps among the Daidoji?" Zoyu inquires in her low, dulcet tones, intentionally suggestion a school she doesn't really believes he attended so he may politely correct her and reveal where he has truly gone without sounding boastful or uncomfortable.

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Kaze takes a sip of tea as it arrives, sighing in apparent enjoyment at the taste as he listens to Zoyu. He can guess just what her eyes linger on by the door and raises his cup in acknowledgement of her comment and what it allowed of him.

"I have indeed studied elsewhere, though it was not among the Iron Cranes. I had the pleasure of training within the Akodo Dojo. I was returning from Shiro Akodo once more when I ran into Kitsu-san on her own Journey and given we were both travelling in the same direction, well, as you said. Company on a Journey is most always enjoyable. It certainly makes the time pass quicker to have someone to talk on things with."

He shrugs, taking another sip of his tea and letting his gaze flick over the various clansmen at the table, assessing. Crane, Lion, Scorpion, Crab and Phoenix. An interesting and varied group. He had to remind himself that the only other Bushi here was Zoyu. After so long among the Akodo, it was a strange feeling, being among Courtiers and Shugenja. He idly wondered if any of them would be interested in sparring. The Crab would be most likely. He had heard that their Shugenja were more likely to engage in hand to hand than most of the other clans. Zoyu as a Bushi probably would, though she would probably prefer if it was with training swords than fists. He wondered, though,

"I have heard a fair amount about your group. Stories about the first Jade Magistrates nearly five centuries travel fast. From what was being said, I thought you numbered yet a few more. Is the entirety of your party gathered here, or are we waiting for another arrival or two?"

Crane, Lion, Scorpion, Crab and Phoenix. But the rumours suggested another lion in the group. As an Akodo, it was the talk of the Dojo for the last while. The Sensei were practically bursting with pride. In addition to a Dragon student of Mirumoto. Her he knew next to nothing about. Only what word came back from Shiro Hideo and the guards that were stationed there. All he could really get was that Magistrates had investigated and suddenly there was a new Daimyo. He made an idle note to talk to some of his peers among the Crane. Friends among the Crane were few and far between compared to those among the Lion, given his long term absence from Crane land. Something to be remedied. Mentally dismissing it for the moment, his attention returned to Zoyu. An easy and genuine smile on his face as he allowed himself to relax back. He had a good feeling. Like something was on track.

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Now that, Toshi found interesting. A Kakita trained by the Lions. He was garnering some very unusual Kakitas for companions. "Mirumoto Rin is traveling by sea, as she has some separate stops to make. We will meet her in Ryoko Owari. As for us, I would invite all of you to stop and visit Kyuden Bayushi and Shiro no Shosuro as we make our way."

A good time to report to the Lord and Lady, and visit his family. And a chance to see how his new traveling associate and his fellow Magistrates faced the heartland of the Scorpion.

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Akari  bowed.  "Please to meet you Kakita-san.   Hopefully we can get along."  She raises a eyebrow upon hearing Kaze was trained by the Lions.  "That is Interesting.  Perhaps you can tell us what it was like."  Akari said with her typical tone of curiosity.

She then looked over at Toshi.

"Sounds like a plan, Toshi-san.   Perhaps you can show us around, since this is your clan's territory."  Akari nodded to her friend.

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Kaze inclines his head towards Toshi,

"I would be delighted to partake of the hospitality of the Scorpion"

And hopefully come out the other side in one piece. Isawa-san has already responded with an affirmation. Will be interesting to see how the others react to the invitation. Will certainly help with figuring out the lie of the land. He turns to Akari to address her question.

"It was an interesting experience, Isawa-san. It was, of course, slightly odd for me to be there. It is not regularly that a student is seen hailing from another clan, though it does happen more frequently than one might imagine. I gained a certain amount of attention for being different. Mostly just curiosity. The Lion in general and the Akodo in specific have my regard because of it. Barring a select few, it was business as usual in remarkably short order. As to the time after that, it was fascinating. The precision that the Akodo espouse appeals to me, from weapons to tactics. Of course, tactics plays a large roll in the curriculum, both as they apply towards small scale skirmishes and large scale battles. These are accompanied by practical demonstrations wherever possible. Beyond the demonstrations, there are also Wargames, staged so both the War College and the Bushi school may gain a practical foundation in how to apply the teachings in the field. 

He offers Akari a slight smile

"Beyond that, while there I was also introduced to the rudiments of weapon and armour smithing and took up Falconry as a hobby. I still have much to learn in all of them and I doubt I will ever stand at the level of a true artisan, but I learn a little more each day and I find them all rewarding in their own rights."

He places his still steaming cup down with a slight chink. Letting out a huff of self deprecating laughter.

"Listen to me prattle on about myself, forgive mem, but what of yourselves? Kitsu-san informed me only of the general composition of your group, but no specifics. Zoyu-san, as one of Toshimoko-sama's prized pupils and the winner of the Topaz Championship is somewhat known to me, but even then, that knowledge is only skin deep. Would you care to enlighten me as to your own callings?"

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Previously – Mirumoto Rin leaves Tsuma on a personal quest soon after returning with her Jade Magistrate companions. While her fellow magistrates begin their Journey to Ryoko Owari Toshi for the Bon festival, she rides south and takes a ship to Niwa Shita No Kage...

 

The Steady anchored in Niwa Shita No Kage Harbor mid afternoon, Captain Michuyo came to Rin.

“We will go ashore by barge, I will not take up dock space unless I can find a cargo, your horse is being loaded now.”

Domo, Captain-san you have done me a valuable favor in arriving so quickly. My debt to you is great.”

“No, no Dragon-san, I have only done my duty and as I promised.”

They exchange small bows.

“I will only be here for a day or two before heading across the bay to some of the other towns and villages,including a stop at Friendly Traveler Village," he smiles broadly at that, " but we will be back in a week or so if you require further transportation.”

“If all goes well I may be ready to return then and it would please me if the Steady were once again my conveyance.”

“Then we should get you ashore.”

Rin says farewell to the Steady at least for a time. The Captain points out the various parts of the city as the barge makes it's way to the docks. It is late afternoon when Rin says good bye to Michiyo and makes her way into the city proper.

The first thing she notices is the abundance of Bushi on the streets. The Daidoji take scant notice of her except for noting her colors and the Jitte she wears and none question her. Eventually she finds a pair of Doshin and approaches them. After greeting them and some explanation she inquires about lodging for her and her horse. The Doshin point out an inn that can offer both. Rin thanks them and seeks out the inn. After acquiring lodging she calls for utensils to write a message and for someone who can deliver it to Daidoji Hari. The letter includes Yedo's introduction and asks to visit him at his earliest convenience. The reply come shortly and the artist agrees to see her in the morning.

The shop was not like Taro's shop in Jinpachi. Indeed it was not cluttered with drawing and designs as she expected. And the Tattooist was not what she expected either.

Daidoji Hari was a young man no more than a few years older then Rin herself, and a very good looking man.

“Mirumoto-san it is an honor. Come join me for Tea.”

They settled in a comfortable room and were served by a very pretty young girl. Rin idly wondered if she were the Artists wife. After the pleasantries were gotten out of the way the Artist got right down to the bone of the matter.

“You have made a long journey Mirumoto-san, I know from Noriaki-sama's man that you are interested in a Tattoo. It would be my pleasure to assist you I have many designs and I believe we can find something to complement you.”

“Thank You Diadoji-san, but my desire has changed to something rather specific. And I do not have a great deal of time in which to spend acquiring what I wish. Allow me to explain what I want and then you can decide if you wish to take the job.”

Rin explains in detail what she is after and shows the Artist her sample drawings. Daidoji Hari looks at the drawings with a critical eye.

“You realize this is not a Tattoo you will be able to cover up. Even if you let your hair grow back out there will be much still exposed.”

“Yes. I understand. If I did not wish others to see it I would not consider having it done. I am a Dragon as a clan we are more overt in how we decorate our bodies, and this is something that I feel is... me.”

The Artist looks through the drawings again. “This will take a great deal of time to accomplish and it will be very painful due to it's location. It will take many sittings just to do the outlines. And many days to heal between the sittings. You speak of not having time?”

“Yes I must be in Ryoko Owari in time for the Bon Festival. The pain I will endure as for healing I am skilled in mitsugusuri I will be able to enhance my healing between sessions.”

The two sit in silence for several moments.

“You offer me a great challenge Mirumoto-san. As a tattooist I usually only have to please my customer and myself with my work as in general the work I do is not often on display. This will be where all will see. You will be judged because of it and so will my work. It will have to be a work of art made to please our ancestors, both yours and mine.”

“Yes I have thought of this. This will identify me for all to see. I do not think our ancestors will be displeased. I must be who I am, just as I must do my duty, and this I feel is who I am.”


“And I am who I am. I will will make arrangements to have you live here while we do this since time is of the essence. It will take at least a day for me to creat the design using your drawings as a start, but the art will be mine in this. If it is to be in front of the world it must be of my heart and mind. My man will gather you belongings. And if you would tell him what you will need for the brewing we will have that gathered as well."


 

To be Continued....
 


 

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Zoyu inclined her head towards Toshi, her lock of sable hair falling forward to shadow part of her face, an enigmatic curve gracing her lips. "I too would be interested in visiting Kyuden Bayushi and Shiro no Shosuro. I accept your offer, Shosuro-san."

Though Zoyu's unwillingness to accept the way the Scorpion pursued the interests of the Empire was hardly a secret to him, Toshi wasn't particularly surprised by her acceptance. There was something there, something beyond mere politeness to her agreement, he just did not know what it was... yet.

The striking Crane arched a brow at Kaze, returning his smile. She wasn't fully comfortable with a clansmate who has trained with a clan who had a long animosity with the Crane, but he is a charming fellow. It was good to know the Lion had not tamed the heart of the Crane.

"Rudiments indeed," Zoyu teased. "My father, Kakita Kurohu, is a respected swordsmith, a master at the Kakita Artisan Academy." She nodded towards her katana by the door on its rack. "The blade of a Topaz Champion was fashioned his hand. My mother is a student of the Academy as well, who pursues the Arts of Ikebana and Painting. If you truly wish to learn more of the intricacies of the Sword-Maker's art, there is no better place than the Kakita Artisan Academy."

It could have been mere boasting, but there was a purity to Zoyu's tone that revealed she truly believed what she was saying. She brushed back her lock of black hair from her face and sipped at her tea. "As such, I've had the honour and opportunity to learn of the artistic excellence of the Kakita from an early age. I claim some skill in Dance, though I have always seen it as part of my talent and skill with the Blade. There is much that complements both the Art of Dance and of the Sword. They are Arts that are both physical and mental in nature, that require utmost precision and many repititions to embed the movements into the muscle itself. Yet, they both also require a flexible spontaneity, a dedication to the moment, to evoke the perfect strike or emotional nuance, depending on the varying circumstances of a duel or performance and who ones audience is."

Her smile deepened. "I have learned much from Toshimoko-sensei and during my travels."

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The young Magistrates and their new deputy talked and ate, getting to know each other a bit and enjoying some of the last time that would be spent in the lands of the Crane for would like be a couple of months at minimum. Though Kaze did attend the Akodo School, he was still a Crane and quite likable, though the influence of the calm and cerebral Akodo could be noticed by those who looked for such things.

Eventually the Magistrates turned in for the night. The next morning they gathered to eat, at which time Kageko presented Kaze with a formal writ stating he had been deputized as a Jade Magistrate and was signed with Kageko's chop. 

 

-Shiro Matsu (Last Breath Castle)-

Soon after they found their way on the road once more and in just a few days Shiro Matsu came into view. It was a very large and imposing castle with tall, thick walls and massive barracks. Huge practice fields surrounded the castle as well where the bushi and students of the Matsu School trained in groups of twenty or more, each group training in juijitsu or with one of the twenty weapons of war. Other groups, again both busi and students, were led in mock battles with blunted weapons, on run or through fields where they had to carry logs, toss large stones, leap massive trenches or climb huge piles of large, loose stones. If there was a more martial place in the entirety of the Empire, then the Magistrates had certainly never seen it. 

"Welcome to Shiro Matsu, the ancestral home of the Matsu family and the primary dojo of the Matsu school. Despite that, virtually every family of the Lion Clan has members stationed here. The castle sits at the cross roads of Michi sano Tozen na Fukushu (Way of Righteous Vengeance) to the north, Shojo no Garaso Doro (Maiden of Glass Road) on which we are currently traveling, and Beiden Roka Doro (Beiden Pass Road) to the west. Across Kawa Mittsu Kishi (Three Sides River) are Seikitsu sano Yama no Oi (Spine of the World Mountains). It serve to monitor Beiden Pass and stands to repel any incursion by the Crane to the south or the Scorpion to the west." Kageko pointed out.

"And though the city is large, I hear that the waystation just past it serves an excellent noodle dish. If we push through we can make it by nightfall." the Little Lion added, cleverly offering an excuse to not linger so close to the Castle and the tempt her Matsu clanmates into making a scene with a prized student of Toshimoko's.

"Noodles you say?" Zoyu asked as she thought for a moment, "That does sound tempting."

"Yes. Let us dine on noodles tonight." Taka said, doing his best feign actual interest and play along.

"Very well. It is decided then." Kageko said with a nod and shook the reins of her horse, increasing speed as she led her fellow Magistrates past the castle and across the river just into nightfall to reach the waystation. And that night they dined on noodles.

 

-Beiden Roka Doro (Beiden Pass Road)-

The next several days were spent following the road up and into the mountains. The Seikitsu sano Yama no Oi (Spine of the World Mountains) were a massive and imposing range and did indeed seem to be an impassable barrier aside from the lone Beiden Pass. The mountain ran from the northwest to the southeast, serving as the de facto dividing line of the Empire into its northern and southern halves.

The northern half of the Empire was much older and at one point was indeed the entirety of the Empire. The land was almost entirely tamed and pacified with easily two-thirds to three-fourths of the population of Rokugan. Aside from the occasional dispute between Clans, the north was seen as being a place of safety, culture and civility.

On the other side of the Mountain was the southern half of the Empire. The very southern border it shared with the Shadowlands with only the Crab and their Kaiu Kabe (Kaiu Wall) keeping it at bay.The massive, dark and ominous woods of the haunted Shinomen Mori (Hidden Forest) covered easily a third of the land, stretching from Mizu-umi Kiku Hanabira (Chrysanthemum Petal Lake) to the northwest almost to the shores of Mizu-umi no Sakura Yuki (Lake of Cherry Blossom Snow) in the south east. The south is also home to many of the Minor Clans, Wasp, Fox, Sparrow and Hare to name just a few, as it was the majority of the open and untamed land that the Emperor could award through most of the history of the Empire. Only two Great Clans call the south home; the Scorpion right along the other side of the mountains, and the Crab far to the south while the Crane control the majority of the coastline.

 

As the horses made their way along the winding pass (heavily patrolled by Matsu), Kageko seemed at times alternately frightened and sad and turned to stories to pass the time as she often did along the road...

"More blood has been shed over this strip of earth than anywhere else in the Empire, for this is the only pass through which an army can reasonably move.  Most of the blood spilled to control it is that of the Scorpion, and my own clan." Kageko said solemnly.

"There once was another pass, to the north near Kyuden Ikoma (Sacred Watch Palace)... Shinomen Pass. As the Ikoma Libraries and Hall of Ancestors were being built a massive Shadowlands army numbering in the thousands was sighted moving through the pass. Word reached Akodo, the last of his divine brothers and sisters to walk to earth, who had come to oversee the construction. His aids suggest they gather the Lion army and warn the Emperor, but he knew that there was not time. He would take his men, barely one hundred, and confront the foul army. It was suggested to him that he did not have enough men for such a task, to which he replied, "A hundred Lions is more than enough." Akodo then removed his daisho and gave it to Ikoma, who he instructed to deliver them to his son and to tell him that his father died with honor." Kageko explained.

"Akodo and his men met the beasts at a narrow point in the pass. All of his men knew they would not live to see another sunrise, but they were not frighted, for they were led by Akodo himself, and his wrinkled face was smiling and beaming with pride. As the shadowlands army approached Akodo looked to the sky. "Mother," he called to the unblinking sun, "Of all your children, I have stood alone, proud and unfettered by weakness and unclouded by sin. Now I ask for a boon... one service you can perform for a lifetime of duty. I ask that you watch the battle to come and remember how brave men die." His men rushed forward, claiming the narrow gap, using the terrain to their advantage. They fought like Lions, for each one that fell claimed many more their number until the bodies formed a small wall, halting the army for a moment."

"Finally the army broke through and Akodo could hear their laughter as they saw him standing along against him. He stood as they approached, and drew in his breath one final time. As he did so, he reached down into his soul, to find the last bit of divinity buried in his mortal shell. Closing his eyes, he released it with a sharp tug... and roared like a Lion with the fury of a thousand storms. The sound reverberated across the mountains and throughout the pass. its force split the ground below it and shook the highest peaks with power. As Akodo's last breath slipped from his body, a single stone dropped from the top of the pass... then another... and another."

"Then, like a wave of rock, the mountains began to crumble. Within seconds, the army was buried beneath tons of earth and stone. The entire length of the pass collapsed, and not so much as a single goblin broke free. With his last breath, Akodo has destroyed all who stood again him. Shinomen Pass was never cleared and today cannot even be distinguished from the rest of the Seikitsu Mountains, but it is said that for those who do know where to look, that a small shine on a nearly inaccessible peak stands in testament to Akodo One-Eye's final sacrifice. He died as a Lion, and Lady Sun remembers."

 

-Beiden Roka (Beiden Pass) &  Mizu-umi no Fuko (Lake of Sorrows)-

It became clear that traversing the pass would take several days, even on horseback. At times the pass was rather narrow, but it places it also opened up into places that had clearly been used at battlefields as well. On the second day as a stone bridge spanning a river could be see in the distance, Kageko relayed more of the history of the pass...

"Beiden Pass crosses Kawa sano Okami Jikan (River of the Hour of the Wolf) by way of that stone bridge ahead. The river is named for a battle in which ten thousand samurai died within one hour - the hour of the wolf. The battle took place at Beiden Pass between the Scorpion and the Lion and the blood of the samurai ran down into the river and made it the bloody crimson of the sunset. That lake, to the south, is Aka Mizu-umi (Red Lake), as the lake was red and thick as blood. It is said that on the anniversary of the battle, in the dark hour of the wolf, the lake's waters turn red and blood washes up on it's shores..."

"The lake to the north is Mizu-umi no Fuko (Lake of Sorrows). It is said to be haunted by those who could not be properly buried or identified. If you do not mind, I would like to visit this lake and pray for them, so that they might know some peace. Any would be welcome to come, of course. It may seem like a delay or inconvenience to some, and I understand that, but if others could see and hear what I do in this place, then I doubt there would ever be an objection." Kageko said as she looked around, her eyes focused on things that were clearly not there.

Kageko very rarely asked for anything or imposed on the others, so with no objections around midday she ventured along a path leading to the sires of Mizu-umi no Fuko (Lake of Sorrows). Many small shrines dotted the shore line in homage to those who fell whose names are not remembered. Kageko, and any who chose to accompany her, visited several shines, stopping to light incense, make offerings and pray at each. Though Zoyu, Kaze and Toshi all knew prayers, it was times like this that they got to see Kageko, Akari and Taka in their element as shugenja and sodan senzo, priests leading and offering prayers and homage to the restless dead.

 

For the rest of the way through the pass over the next few days Kageko would ride, but offerd prayers almost constantly, seeking to ease the restless dead and protect herself and her friends from harm. The road began to take a noticeable downward slant and eventually they could see from the road down to the land below, the home of the Scorpion Clan. Toshi knew that from this point it would only be a few days until he once again saw the walls of Kyuden Bayushi and those of his own home, Shiro no Shosuro days after that...

 

-Kyuden Bayushi (Bayushi Palace)-

Finally, after weeks on the road Kyuden Bayushi came into view. The palace was one of the three most extravagant family palaces in the Empire (along with Doji palace and the Mantis Clan palace). Red walls and black roofs graced the palace built which was atop a low plateau in the center of an open plain (making it impossible for hostile forces to approach undetected) and was also guarded by one of the largest standing armies in Rokugan, making it clear how the Scorpion and Lion had shed so much blood in Beiden Pass.

As the Magistrates drew near two armored Scorpions on horseback came riding up to them. They each bowed from their saddle (something which is acceptable, especially when all are mounted) and one stepped forward on his horse.

"Konnichiwa. I am Bayushi Takiji. The Lady Bayushi Kachiko extends her invitation to you and would be honored to host you as her guests at the palace." the man on the lead horse says addressing Zoyu specifically, but his eyes also look to Toshi, to whom he gives a small nod.

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Looking up at the sprawling palace lacquered red and black, sitting upon its plateau, Zoyu was not surprised word of their arrival had preceded them. Kyuden Bayushi was famed for its resplendence and Zoyu had to admit that she wished to visit and see the workings of its court... and perhaps reacquaint herself with a friend who had attended the Kakita Artisan Academy.

Yet the invitation of Lady Bayushi gave her pause. It was right and proper that Lady Bayushi invited a party of Jade Magistrates, the Topaz Champion among them, just as it was right and proper for them to accept the invitation of such an august personage, especially one that had been instrumental in procuring them their appointments to the Jade Magistrates.

It was the manner in which she had provided the opportunity that filled Zoyu with doubt. Though she didn't doubt Lady Bayushi Kachiko culpability with the Jade Champion and the use of Maho for their own ends, they had no proof. And with no proof, it was as if it had not happened. Zoyu could see no polite way to decline the invitation that would not sound a petty excuse, or worse, dent her honour.

Zoyu shifted slightly, to showcase her profile to best advantage, the blue haori of the Topaz Champion bring under the sun, and dipped her head in return. "Domo Arigato. I am Kakita Zoyu, the Topaz Champion of the Emerald Empire," Zoyu said in a clear, sweet voice, then glanced back at her companions for a moment before returning her mismatched gaze to Bayushi Takiji. "The personal invitation of the Lady of the Scorpion is a great honour indeed. On my behalf and the behalf of this band of Jade Magistrates, we accept Lady Bayushi Kachiko's hospitality as her honoured guests."

She let their guide make his reply then let the appropriate amount of time decorum demanded pass before adding, voice smooth with idle interest, " Bayushi-san, perchance, is there a Bayushi Tsukiko attending Kyuden Bayushi at the moment? She is a fond acquaintance from some time back."

It was the chance to reacquaint herself with the very tall, Feathered Scorpion that made accepting Lady Kachiko's invitation more palatable. She could have hidden her interest, but in this place of the Scorpion, that would just lead to more prying and digging on their part, she was sure. So Zoyu decided to be open in her inquiries and pray to the ancestors and the Fortunes her host and her subordinates did not look further than a young woman wanting to reacquaint herself with an old friend.

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Niwa Shita No Kage Toshi

 

Rin dried the sweat from her body and admired the reflection in the pond. She was pleased with the progress, she had worried because they had started a day later than expected, but Daidoji Hari was a quick artist and very focused.

A few days before...

She had intended to do the preparation of her hair herself but Daidoji-san had insisted that a woman he knew do the cutting. And so Rin had sat as a gentle older woman shaved and styled her hair, doing a much better job than she could have. Daidoji Hari had come to her that afternoon with the drawings, they were perfect. He had taken her idea and turned it into a true work of art. Rin grew excited just looking at them. Truly when this was done she would be unique in all Rokugan.

One the day Hari began his work Rin had been shown to a peaceful garden, there a mat had been laid near a pond full of Koi. The pleasant scent of flowers filled the air and the beauty of the garden was soothing and filld Rin with ease.

On the mats Hari's needles and inks had already been set. There were many soft pillows and a brace where she would rest her neck and head during the work. Daidoji Hari came into the garden a few moments after she. All but one servant departed.

"Mirumoto-san, if you are ready we shall begin." His tone was matter of fact and there was a serious determined air about him.

Rin nods curtly. "I am ready Daidoji-san."

"Good. Lay down on your right side with your neck and head on the brace. Tsuneko will place the pillows for you until you are comfortable. She will remain with us to fulfill your needs during the work."

Rin does as she is told and the young servant woman makes her comfortable. Daidji Hari  kneels onto the mat at the top of her head.

"You must find your inner peace and become still. The dragon is in you. You  found it and showed it to me and I have sought it further. The dragon i showed you is from you. Should i make another for someone else they would not be the same, for this dragon is you, Rin-san. We are going to bring the dragon out of you. the dragon will be you, Rin-san. It is not my creation. The dragon is you, I am merely the tool which will draw it out."

Tsuneko gently washes and cleans, then drys, Rin's skin while Hari speaks. Rin focus on her self her center in her minds eye she sees the Dragon.

"Giving birth is a painful process, Rin-san, today we begin the process of giving birth to the dragon inside you. It will be painful. you must remain centered and still. I will work quickly, but in long stretches. you must endure the pain, knowing that soon the dragon will be born for all the world to see."

Daidoji Hari leaned over and put needle to skin.

Rin had never before felt such pain nor for such a long time. But she focused and endured for this was what she wanted at this moment more than anything. The artist worked and the dragon writhed within. Rin felt it's claws and teeth as it fought it's way out through the needles of the Artist. For four days they worked in this manner. Rin had taken the days before the work began to prepare potions which would speed the healing process so that Daidoji Hari could continue to work each day instead of waiting for her to heal naturally. But the potions did little for the pain and sake, which could have deadened the hurt, would have made it hard if not impossible for Rin to find her center and hold it while he worked. Instead Rin used the pain, the pain was the dragon and the dragon was being born.

On the fifth and sixth days the Artist made new inks and Rin brewed more potions. Both of them rested. The constant concentration of working had taken a toll on Daidoji Hari as well as on Rin. On the seventh day they resumed work.

Six more days passed as they worked and the Dragon blossomed colors, vibrant and clear, and was born.

Spoiler

I can't find any pics that actually depict what i want so these two will have to suffice to give an idea how the tattoo looks.

mj1-cressida-natalie-dormer-1078x606-102

This pic shows how Rin's hair is cut and styled. Her hair is exactly like this now including the braid. It also illustrates how the dragon will lay on the scapl following the lines shown here by the vines, The dragon will flow up from the neck around the back of the ear curling up and over.

76188f66a7cf4e019dcb63039b816e2c.jpg.04a   chinese_dragon_by_el_mono_cromatico-d6pt

These are the closest i could find to the dragon I envisioned. They are not perfect representations but will at least give you an idea of what I am looking for. If i find a better one I will replace these.

 

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"I do not know personally, as there are many stationed at and attending to Kyuden Bayushi, but of course I will check for you." Takiji replied with a bow.

Takiji then turned to the other rider and nodded, sending him riding ahead at a swift pace while Takiji escorted the Magistrates the rest of the way.

 

Kyuden Bayushi was indeed extravagant and opulent. The palace complex was massive with high walls, ornately carved gates and exquisite woodwork. The interior walls were graced with scenes from history, myth and legend as well as beautiful landscapes and animals. Everything was made with exceptional craftsmanship and attention to detail. Fine woods, rich inks and vibrant paints and glossy lacquers. Even the outer barracks, housing one of the largest standing armies in the Empire, was still of exceptional beauty and craftsmanship. Another impressive feature was its huge extremely well-maintained gardens, containing may shadowy recesses where private discussions could take place. Ancestral shrines were spread throughout the gardens, dedicated to the most public and prominent Scorpions, such as the author of "Lies", Bayushi Tangen. 

With horses stabled the Magistrates were led to their guest quarters by Takiji, where easily a dozen servants awaited their arrival.

"The Lady Bayushi knows that must have been on the road for weeks and may be wary from travels, so please take sometime to rest and relax if you wish. The servants have baths ready for those who so desire." he said motioning to the servants who immediately come over and begin collecting the Magistrates' packs and so forth to set them in their rooms.

"The Lady Bayushi is having dinner prepared as well. You will be informed when it is ready. Until then, rest, relax, explore the grounds, enjoy the garden or whatever you wish. The servants are at your disposal and will see to your every need." he explained. 

"Now please excuse me while I check into that matter for you, Zoyu-san." Takiji said with a bow as he stepped back and out of the room.

 

With the aid of the servants the Magistrates bathed (which is only proper if one is to be dining with the wife of a daimyo) and had some free time to do with as they liked. The servants were all very polite and unquestionably attentive. Finally, as the sun began to slip below the horizonm the Magistrates were summoned to dinner. Takiji, now dressed in full kamishimo, led them outside and into the garden where a small dining area had been set up. Lanterns hung from strings overhand while other lanterns cast small islands of light ever so often throughout the garden.

There were guards stationed here and there, but certainly no more than one would expect for a palace, and strangely nothing extra for presence of the Daimyo's wife, aside from a single tall man, dressed lightly in black with small highlights of red standing to the side and several steps behind Lady Kachiko as she rose from the table. She wore just a kimono, though exquisite and non-traditional, with her shoulders bared and her faint mask gracing her face while her hair was tied up and held in place with a scorpion capped pin.

"Welcome to Kyuden Bayushi, honored Topaz Champion and Jade Magistrates." she said, greeting each one with a bow and warm smile on her delicate lips.

"Ah. I see a new face." she said as her gaze shifted to Kaze with a smile as she looked him over.

"Lady Kachiko-sama, may I introduce Kakita Kaze, deputized Jade Magistrate. And Kaze-san, this is the Lady Bayushi Kachiko, wife of Lord Bayushi Shoju." Kageko said, making introductions with Kachiko and Kaze bowing to one another.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Kaze-san. If one may be judged by the company that they keep, then it speaks quite well of you." Lady Kachiko complimented.

"Please excuse the lack of pomp and circumstance. I simply thought that after a long journey you might enjoy a relaxing night of fine food and conversation without tedious ceremony." she explained as she motioned to the table, allowing each to select a seat as she took her own at the head of the table.

She turned head head to the side to speak over her shoulder without looking at the tall, darkly dressed man behind her.

"That will be enough for tonight. I am with friends." she said to him, which caused him to bow and step back, excusing himself as he disappeared into the darkness.

"I hope that dinner provides a pleasant change from the usual fare found in the waystations." Lady Kachiko said as the servants came forward, offering water and a variety of sake, filling cups as desired.

A few moments later the dishes began arriving offering a variety of appealing and aromatic options. The meal easily on par with that hosted by the Emperor for the Topaz Championship contestants, though much smaller and more intimate with the Magistrates and Lady Kachiko all sat around a single table. During the meal Lady Kachiko was a polite and pleasant hostess who even encourages her guests to relax around her. She made small talk with the Magistrates about their trip and so forth and as the final plates were taken away leaving them to sit, drink and converse she congratulated the magistrates on the completion of their first case.

"Not only did you complete the task given to you, but you also found a living member of the noble Okimoto line, averted possible war between clans, saved some On (face) for the Crane and generally pleased all parties. Most impressive. I expected nothing less of you. A Fine example of the Emperor's divine wisdom." she complimented.

Lady Kachiko could detect the subtle shifts in mood and expression among the Magistrates and gave a small smile.

"As such, I am certain that you might have some insights and questions of your own leading to your appointment and the events in Tsuma by now. You can speak freely with me. There is no safer place in the Empire to speak of such matters than here." she encouraged.

"Excuse me Lady Kachiko, but I am not sure that all here was privy to such... insights." Taka said to her.

"Ah yes. It is a small matter." Lady Kachiko replied as she looked to Kaze once more.

"Please indulge me for a moment, Kaze-san, but I have two simple questions. I am quite certain that the answers are a given, but indulge me." she asked.

"Of course Lady Kachiko-sama." Kaze replied with a seated bow.

"Do you honor and serve the Hantei and the Empire? And would you do anything to protect the Hantei and Empire, even if it was at the greatest of personal costs?" she posed to Kaze.

Kaze was clearly taken aback by the question, but nodded.

"Through my oath of fealty to my lord, and that of my lord, and the lord of my lord, my fealty ultimately is owed to the Hantei and his Empire. In the end, I live and die by his command." Kaze finally replied.

"As I was certain, Kaze-san. You are a credit to your family and school." Lady Kachiko offered with a small nod, "Then I see little reason for concern. Please, speak freely." Lady Kachiko encouraged the Magistrates.

 

Spoiler

Kachiko has both the Benten's Blessing AND Dangerous Beauty advantages and her Glory is 8+ (Rank 5 Bayushi Courtier, Wife of a Great Clan Daimyo (Bayushi Shoju), and a favorite of the Emperor).

Her husband is Glory 9+ (Rank 5 Bayushi Bushi, Great Clan Daimyo, personal advisor to the Emperor) which put him an near equal footing as the Emerald Champion himself.

 

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Slightly unsettled, Kaze sits back with a bow and a murmered

"Arigato gozaimasu, Bayushi-sama."

There was something that he was clearly missing here, and he didn't like it, though none of his discomfort showed on his face. At least the evening thus far had been a pleasant enough diversion.He had to admit, it had been a bit of a shock to walk the Scorpion's halls, after the starkly militaristic architecture the Lion were so fond of. Even among their palaces, there was a more spartan aesthetic than the opulence demonstrated here.

His eyes flickered over to the Topaz champion, watching for her reaction to the brewing confrontation. There was clearly some point of contention between them, though he couldn't hazard a guess as to what. Between a Scorpion and Crane it could be anything. Had they been offered their positions to keep silent on some subject? Though if that were the case, they would be unlikely to bring it up in front of him. Thinking further on it, he dismisses the idea outright. From what little experience he had with Zoyu, he doubts she would accept anything so mundane as a bribe. Particularly when the person attempting it feels like a position within the Emerald Magistrates is needed. It would have to have been something significant to warrant that kind of gift.

Perhaps they were commanded to perform some unpalatable duty? Again, he couldn't think of something that would result in a position within the Magistrates before it would in Seppuku. Particularly for someone like Zoyu.

There just wasn't enough information to use just yet. And unless they were unwilling to confront Bayushi-sama while he was present, it was likely he would be finding out shortly enough anyway.

 

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Toshi sighed as Kaze looked around, confused in the wake of questions unanswered, and no one of his companions seemed to muster the nerve to speak something to Lady Kachiko. All that recrimination when alone with him, but even the volatile Topaz Champion went peaceful as a creek stream.

"Since you are here, you should not be left ignorant, Kaze-san. The essentials are this. The Empire is once again in need of a Jade Champion and Magistrates. But despite that, Lord Doji chose regrettably to disparage the dangers confronting Rokugan when Lord Kuni made his first appeal to the Hantei. With his influence and the distance from the scenes of turmoil, the chance might have slipped away. So Lord Kuni, with the indirect support of Lord and Lady Bayushi, created a threat the Emperor could not ignore. The attack on the Prince."

Toshi's blank look nevertheless carried the hint to Kaze that he was being tested here.

"It succeeded, for the greater benefit of the Empire. And now, where certain of my colleagues here were quite indignant when I explained it all to them weeks ago, I assume they understand now. Do you?"

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Zoyu gave Toshi a scathing look, her gaze so dark, her mismatched eyes almost appeared to be same colour. "We understand quite well, Shosuro-san," Zoyu said, her dulcet tones cold and sharp. "Why you think that or time would abate our indignation and disgust with these machinations, I'm sure I do not know. And whether there is any benefit to the Empire yet remains in doubt."

Zoyu had intended to hold herself to the bare politeness honour dictated during dinner with the Lady of the Scorpion, she truly had. But Bayushi Kachiko was so charming and courteous, her presence so overwhelming, Zoyu found herself silently questioning her own anger at the actions of the Scorpion. Bayushi Kachiko made them seem cunning... but reasonable. And the way she wore her daring kimono was... spectacular. However, Toshi's smug assurance made Zoyu recall her reticence.

"The dinner, it is exquisite, Bayushi-sama, but forgive me, I believe here is one of the most dangerous places in the Empire to speak freely," Zoyu countered, lips quirking in a half smile as she dipped her head in apology for disagreeing with someone of such standing and their host as well. It was obvious to the socially discerning that the Topaz Champion did not mean she was concerned about any potential spies. She continued, choosing her words with care. "We have done some good for the Empire, perhaps, but as yet, we could have done as much being named Emerald Magistrates rather than Jade Magistrates."

Her eyes cut to Toshi for a moment, her lips turning into a frown, but then returned to Bayushi Kachiko's, to see any reaction, though to be honest, any reaction she revealed would only be what she choose to reveal, Zoyu believed. "My colleague Shosuro-san mentioned Lord Doji dismissing the dangers confronting the Empire... Yet, in regards to the interests of the Jade Champion, the use and spread of foul sorcery, so far, our only suspicions of its prevalence point us towards he who was in fact named Jade Champion. And they who aided his ascendancy, over the protests of the Emerald Champion."

Zoyu's lips twisted in wry anger and she sipped her drink to give her a moment to smooth her features. "To be sure, we have no proof of these claims or accusations. I wonder, would one have proof that there is real need for a Jade Magistracy, and that actions taken to raise a Jade Champion are in fact to serve and protect the Hantei and the Empire, rather than for the benefit of say, a select few?"

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Lady Kachiko looked quizzically at some of Zoyu's statements, but sat quietly and politely listened, even nodding on occasion as she gave Zoyu her full attention, letting the Crane speak.

"In any other palace within the Empire that statement would immediately be taken as offense. I am certain you know that, but the fact you even dared to say such shows that you do understand the freedom of speech and safety at this table." she responded as she poured herself a cup of tea.

"I am not offended though." she continued, "I understand the trepidation many have toward my clan. It is indeed well warranted, if not a bit misguided, but you can be at ease here. You need not worry about saying something that could cause you to lose face or suggest something that even just the thought of could result in seppuku. You are safer here and with more freedom than you even yet realize." the ladsy Scorpion said with a warm smile before taking a sip of her tea.

With a fluid, sensual grace Lady Kachiko rose from her seat and began walking around the table, extending a hand to let it play along the backs and shoulders of those seated with the lightest, teasing touch. 

"I hear you speak of yourself and you fellow magistrates here, and what you have accomplished. That is to be expected, though it is certainly not bragging on your part, but there are things you fail to realize though, Zoyu-san. It is not a shortcoming on your part, not by any means. It is simply the eyes of youth as you finish your transition." she stated as she rounded the corner of the table and stopped for a moment.

"Yes, you all, honored Magistrates, could have certainly accomplished the same Emerald Magistrates. I have no doubt of that. Unfortunately, only you, Zoyu-san, would have had any chance of being appointed one by Lord Doji at the end of the Topaz Championship. And even that it doubtful with the mood Lord Doji was put in after the.. incident... during the iaijutsu tournament." Lady Kachiko explained as she stood behind Kaze and cradled his ponytail with one hand while combing her fingers through it for a moment.

"The rest would have returned to their clans and homes, though they certainly would have served their lord with honor and distinction. Of that, there is no doubt." she said flicking Kaze's ponytail as she began to walk once more, her steps conjuring the sensual movements of a stalking feline.

"So although yes, you could have accomplished the same thus far, as Emerald Magistrates, the unfortunate truth is that none of you would have been so appointed. In which case the you would not have the favor of the Hantei nor received the many blessings from such, the Crane and Phoenix would be at war, the noble Okimoto family would be lost, Lord Hida's anger with the Emperor would still be growing, and you would likely all be little more than brief acquaintances who met once at your gempukku. Not to mention the Emperor would still be vulnerable to such an attack as transpired in Tsuma, had the Dark One or his minions thought of it..." she explained, stopping behind Taka and idly dragging the tips of her fingers along his smooth, shaved scalp.

"Regretfully it also means that we fail to see much beyond ourselves, such as failing to see the good that has been accomplished by your fellow Jade Magistrates and the Jade Champion himself thus far. That is to be expected though."

"Aside from all of that, you focus on yourselves," she said with a sigh, "as we are all wont to do at such an age. Your life and duties are clear. Simple. Straight forward. it happens to us all at that time. We fail to see much beyond ourselves as were are concerned with serving our lords faithfully and honorably and making out family and clan proud." she noted as she continued on.

"This is not a criticism of any of you. It is simply part of life that we all pass through at that point, myself included." the Lady Bayushi pointed out as she stopped behind Toshi and bushed off the shoulders of kataginu, adjusting them slightly before walking over behind Zoyu.

Lady Kachiko rested her hands on Zoyu's shoulders, giving them a skillful rub for a moment as she leaned down, bringing her face nearly beside the Crane's. 

"We all value our personal honor, but would you do something... distasteful... if it would help ensure the safety of the Emperor and the Empire? In the end, isn't that who and what we all serve?" she asked before straightening up and claiming her seat at the table once more.

"Or is your personal honor so precious that you would see the safety and security of the Emperor and Empire weakened just to keep it untarnished? Isn't that putting yourself before your duty, before even the Empire itself?" she asked.

"For that is what would have happened had Lord Kuni's plan been exposed. Yes, we could have stopped him in that moment, but he is a driven man and would have done something else at a later date. There was no talking him out of doing what he had to do in his mind to protect the Empire. We could have even gone so far as to eliminate him, though the chance of success in that would be questionable, but for the sake of argument, let us say we could have. Then no matter what option you pick, at best the Empire is weaker for loosing the greatest living enemy of the Shadowlands." Lad Kachiko calmly explained before bringing her cup to her soft lips and taking a small sip.

"So is that what you would have had us do? Take a very narrow, simplistic and selfish view of honor and expose or kill him, thereby weakening the Empire simply for the sake of honor, when all he was trying to was strengthen the Empire?" the lady Scorpion asked as she sat her cup down, rested her elbows on the table, interlaced her fingers and rested her chin on them, awaiting a response with a soft smile.

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Akari nodded as she anaylzed the situation.  On one hand the attempt on the Prince's life was dishonorable and would have caused great harm to all of Rokugan.  On the other...in the time since she and the others were named Magistrates they have done great good, prevented conflicts and solved many a great problem.  All of which would be still happening had they not had the opportunity. 

 

"If I may be so bold.  I trust Toshi-san's and Your judgement on this matter, Bayushi-sama.   We cannot take a brash action that would weaken the empire as a whole."

 

She sighed, knowing Zoyu would not like what she will say.

 

"In the end, this act, while questionable, even a massive gamble would say, has ultimately done great good for the empire.  There is a saying, sometimes a forest must burn for new life to grow."

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Kaze stiffens and flushes almost almost scarlet with Kachiko behind him. He coughs slightly to regain his composure, fighting down his blush. Given his looks, he had always attracted some attention, but the Lady Scorpion, between her own features and the cut of her Kimono, made all of his previous experiences pale in comparison. He almost sighs in relief (or maybe it was disappointment?) as the Bayushi moves on. His features fall into a dispassionate mask as she continues around the table, listening raptly as she continues to talk. When Akari comments, he blinks in surprise.

"Ano, Isawa-san. I cannot help but feel that you may be seeking another analogy. A single faked assassination attempt is hardly razing the Empire to rubble, though still disquieting."

His attention returns to his cup before he continues.

"And dare I say it was faked, Bayushi-sama? I imagine there were contingincies in place to ensure the princes safety. Given the amount of effort Lord Kuni put into it, it would have been the height of Irony for his plot to succeed. And for a man as dedicated as that, I do not think he would take it well. If I might ask though, Shosuro-san has commented that you were aware of the plot and indirectly supported it. May I enquire for how long were you aware of it? Also, did you confront him over it? You say there would be no talking him out of the course, but I notice you refrained from commenting on whether you had actually talked to him or not about it. Finally, if you do not feel it is over reaching myself, may I know what support was offered so indirectly? Was it merely allowing him to continue, or something more? Again, forgive my impertinence. I merely seek to clarify as much as possible."

Put him up against a Matsu any day. Talking with a Scorpion felt more dangerous. Honestly, the thought of using a Hantei, any Hantei, but particularly the Crown Prince as bait for something left him feeling disquiet.

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Kachiko listened to Akari, nodding to the shugenja and then shifted her attention to Kaze as he spoke.

Lady Kachiko nodded to the Crane with a faint smile on her sensual lips, "Of course." she replied.

"I suppose I could just lay it out for all of you, as I am sure it would answer many questions." Lady Kachiko thought aloud.

"The basics of Lord Kuni's plan was deduced not long after our arrival in Tsuma. You see, most of the year there are quite a few ronin in Tsuma. They all know when the Topaz Championship held though, so weeks before it, they all leave. No ronin wants to be anywhere near so many daimyo and their often very zealous guard, much less the Hantei and his Seppun miharu."

"My husband and I arrived on the Imperial Barge, guests of the Hantei himself as part of the Imperial entourage. It was not long before we heard of the bandits attacking Lord Kuni, and of him, of course, slaying them all. Bandits attacking anybody so close to Tsuma, at least at that time, is unusual, but men can be desperate or foolish though. The bandits not recognizing Lord Kuni was unlikely, though possible so far from The Wall. Lord Kuni attending the Topaz Championship was certainly unusual, though if one seeks to speak with the Emperor, it is one of the few places outside of Otosan Uchi that one can hope to do so."

"The night of the first banquet we discovered that he indeed had something to speak to the Emperor about... The need, once again, for a Jade Champion."

"Though he had quite a clever plan, we managed to deduce it after he spoke the Hantei. The pieces were all there for those who cared to see them. Lord Kuni's plan was a last resort, should the Emperor need additional... persuasion. Lord Kuni's plea being rebuked by the Emerald Champion simply set it motion."

"Once we could see Lord Kuni's plan of action was set, we took a more critical look at it. Yes, the thoughts of exposing him or possibly eliminating him were considered, but the loss of a man such as Lord Kuni would benefit nobody, especially when he sought only to strengthen the Empire, even if by means some might find... questionable."

"So it was decided that his plan would be guided. The suggestion of a feast for the victorious at the dojo was planted, knowing it would make the execution of Lord Kuni's plan not only easier, but more controlled, for where or when he planned the zombie ambushed was anybody's guess. The feast for the victorious at the dojo would be too good of an opportunity for Lord Kuni to pass up. Having it at the dojo kept the Emperor totally safe, should something unexpected happen, but also made sure we would know where and when it would take place."

"It was also clear that there needed to be more zombies to truly make the ambush have the impact it needed so that even Lord Doji could not object to the position of Jade Champion being filled again. So we made sure some 'bad sake' would claim the lives of some peasants in order to bolster the number of dead to be reanimated. They gave their lives for the safety and security of the Empire and will surely be rewarded for it in their next life. We also made sure that any families they had would receive a windfall, to ease the impact of their loss."

"We considered how Lord Kuni was going to animated these zombies. We hard heard of other means of zombies reanimating and sincerely hoped that Lord Kuni was not going to risk the touch of the Dark One to do so. We kept an eye on him and had him followed and discovered his interest in a vendor. You see, with the festivities of the Topaz Championship, all manner of merchants find their way to Tsuma to peddle their wares, especially those for the parades and such, like costumes... and masks."

"This particular mask vendor did not seem to even be trying to make a sale. So with Lord Kuni's interest in him, we took a closer look at his wares. With the aid of a shugenja of our clan in town, we discovered the masks were some form of tainted tsangusuri imbued with a kansen that would animate any corpse it was placed upon as a zombie, without the need for a maho spell. The Crab, especially the Kuni Tsukai-sagasu, certainly come across these items and keep them for study. It was likely that Lord Kuni had been collecting them for some time and used the merchant to bring them into town quite separately from himself. That level of patience, and planning made it clear that this was something Lord Kuni was fully prepared to do, should he feel he must."

"I do not feel that the Lord Prince was never in any real danger. Lord Kuni wished to scare him and the Emperor, but with the feast for the victorious we made sure you would all be there, so he would be well protected. Though I doubt that Lord Kuni would have actually harmed the Lord Prince, we were ready to spring into action should it have been needed."

"The scroll had nothing to do with the spell, but after you were surrounded, had confronted and destroyed several zombies and were mounting an excellence defense of the Lord Prince, the destruction of the scroll was a good enough excuse for Lord Kuni to command them to stop, it seems. He likely assumed that he would be handling the investigation afterwards, so that little deception about the scroll could be easily concealed by him."

"Neither Toshi, Daisuke, nor Ujimitsu knew of the plan. Their reactions had to be totally natural and beyond reproach. They only learned of it well after it was complete, so they all hand no part in it. And, for it is worth, I do not believe Lord Kuni was seeking the position of Jade Champion for himself. I feel that he simply believed it was critical that the office be filled once again. Traditionally a tournament is held to select the Jade Champion, but with these things there is always a level of the unanticipated, such as the Hantei appointing him on the spot."

"We never confronted Lord Kuni. There was no need. It was clear he could not be dissuaded, and it is always better when somebody thinks they are doing something themselves. We could have offered help, but it likely would have been refused as a knee-jerk reaction, thinking it was some "Scorpion plot" to entrap him or some such. So we helped him. We effectively hijacked his plan, decided where and when the ambush would happen, made the percieved threat more real, minimized the risk and other variables and then took steps to try and ensure an eye would always be kept on him... just in case. All without him ever knowing."

"And if you are as wise and dedicated to this Empire as I believe, it will stay that way. There is no need for him to take offense and make us his enemy. That benefits no one."

"Your appointments are not 'tainted', or whatever overly dramatic word your youth encourages you to use. The simple fact is that you earned them. Each and every one of you, though still just children at that time, all came to the Lord Prince's defense without hesitation, fear or even concern for your own safety. You were combating those foul things with sword and spell and even with your own bare hands. You all showed what was in your hearts that day... honor and dedication to this Empire. So make no mistake, you earned your appointments with your own actions."

 

 

Spoiler

Miharu: Imperial guardsmen

Tsangusuri: Single use magic items (not potions). The Asahina Shugenja of the Crane Clan are well known for crafting them.

Kansen: an evil spirit

Tsukai-sagasu: Witch-hunter

 

 

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"Perhaps," Zoyu admitted, nodding at Kachiko, but her lips were set in a stubborn line. Though she was willing to agree that they may have earned their appointments, she still saw in them a... flaw, if one only they knew about, that they would have to work to overcome. "I can see why what has been done has been done, even understand it, though I do not agree with it, Bayushi-sama. Still, it is done, and as such, I will remain silent on the matter... unless I learn of greater danger to the Empire from those involved."

Though she faced one of the greatest and most dangerous courtiers in the Empire, Zoyu met Bayushi Kachiko incisive gaze with determined resolve. She would do as she said, even if it cost her dearly, perhaps even her life. If the actions of the Scorpion had not been quite as entwined with those of Lord Kuni as she believed, Zoyu still did not absolve them of blame, though she was glad Ujimitsu and Toshi had not been involved from the onset.

While Kachiko claimed all that had been had been for the Empire, Zoyu still believed that things had been arranged for the benefit of the Scorpion. They could have found the mask vendor, have some proof of Lord Kuni's plot while hiding their own involvement. If at some later point, they have some issue with Lord Kuni or desire the support of the Jade Champion, they could induce his compliance. A compromised Jade Champion would suit the Scorpion far better than one they had no hold over, and considering the influence Lord and Lady Bayushi had with the Hantei, Zoyu believed they could have swayed the emperor to choose another for the position, or hold a tournament. Just as she believed Lord Kuni would not have been delighted with any but him being named as Jade Champion, not if he was so desperate as to arrange a plot against the Prince to have one named.

"As for honor, personal and otherwise," Zoyu continued smoothly and firmly, "it is what makes the Emerald Empire great, that elevates the Rokugani above the beasts and other men and women. I hold myself to a high standard and expect others to do so well." She say in hint in the expressions of Kachiko andToshi and her lips quirked in tight wryness. "I am not so foolish as to be believe all others do so, nor that I will never slip in my footing, but that does not mean I should lower my standards to meet those of others, but rather that I should inspire them to meet mine."

Zoyu glanced around the table and picked up a pristine white napkin. "There is an issue taking questionable actions to serve and save the empire." She held up the napkin and moved it close to one of the lanterns lighting the dinner. "Here is the empire and the flame are the innumerable and unknowable dangers assailing it."

She placed the napkin on the table before her and picked up an ewer of soy sauce. "Since these... questionable acts are not clear, are sullied, let us use soy sauce instead of water to represent them." She spilled just a drop of soy sauce on the napkin, watching it spread in a small, dark stain. Then she spilled another and another. "With each action taken, each drop spilled, it is easier to take another, to spill more."

Zoyu set down the ewer of soy sauce and gracefully using a pair of chopsticks, she picked up the napkin, now dark and damp, mottled and stained. "The Empire is saved, protected from the flame, for some time at least before it will burn, but what has been saved? Unlike the soy sauce, our actions are done and cannot be washed away."

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"Impressive." the lady Scorpion said with a small clap, "With some proper training, you would make quite a good courtier, Zoyu-san." Kachiko complimented with a smile on her lips.

"Though do not think I did not notice you avoiding answering my question." she said with a sly wink.

"Making such a dramatic, visual display as that is very powerful, and can often affect people very deeply." she added, her tone still sweet and complimentary, "Unfortunately, your example is a bit mistaken." the Lady Scorpion said as she collected her own chopsticks.

"The flame may indeed represent a danger or dangers to the Empire, but this is where you go wrong. Here, let me show you..." Kachiko pointed out as reached over, taking the napkin from Zoyu, holding it up.

"This soiled napkin does not represent the Empire, it represent the many sacrifices, be they  of reputation, blood or honor, made to protect the Empire, many of which some might find questionable or even dishonorable. But these acts are done out of selflessness, to protect something greater than themselves, something they have sworn to protect and so will make any personal sacrifice needed to do, for they do not place their own personal honor above the safety of the Empire. And yes, it may not be pretty, and may even be unpleasant, but they know that indeed they are keeping their oath and serving the Empire and the Hantei, doing what they must even if others might not realize it." she explains as she brings the napkin near the flame of the lantern.

"And look at what those acts that some might call 'questionable' or 'dishonorable' acts do..." Kachiko said as she dropped the soy-soaked napkin on the flame, with the wetness from the soy causing the napkin to snuff the flame with a brief sizzle..

"The danger is gone and the Empire is protected, pristine and untouched, and all because those individuals had the strength of character and commitment to this Empire to make whatever sacrifice was necessary, even if meant sacrificing their own honor in the eyes of others by doing something others may find questionable or dishonorable."

"There will certainly be other threats to the Empire, more often than I think you realize, but people stand ready to protect it through what you call 'honorable'  or 'dishonorable' actions, whichever is necessary." 

"It is doubtful that any of you realize this, aside from Taka-san of course, but the Crab perform a thousand acts every day that rest of the Empire would or do find 'questionable', and they do so without hesitation so they can do their duty, for they know their duty is more important than maintaining some outward image of personal honor to satisfy the tastes of those who only have the time and luxury to cling to such a simplistic idea of honor thanks to the benefit of the Crab's protection and the unpleasantness needed to provide such."

"If they were to conduct themselves with the selfish view of personal honor you espouse, then The Wall would be overrun in a week, maybe less," Lady Bayushi said before continuing, "but those Crabs, at least they would be honorable in your eyes... right up to their deaths... and now the Empire would, at best, suffer great harm, if not outright destruction. But at least they would have what you call honor. Oh wait, they wouldn't, for they would have failed at their duty." Kachiko said with a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

"And that is the danger of such a simple, naive, and selfish view of honor." she pointed out, casually tossing her chopsticks on the table.

"In Tsuma, nobody was harmed or even in any real danger. Lord Kuni even took the first, flimsiest excuse to end the perceived danger. A few ronin and peasants were killed, yes. They died serving the Empire and their sacrifice strengthened it, which will earn them rewards in their next life. It is certainly a more meaningful death than the waves of peasant conscripts sent in first to try and weaken the front lines of an army of samurai, which is virtually certain death. In the end, what happened was really little more than a very elaborate, very scary 'Boo!' being yelled out from hiding as one tries to startle and scare a friend or sibling. it was little more than a simple, harmless trick that encouraged the Emperor to make a decision to strengthen the Empire... one which even the Emerald Champion had to concede." Lady Kachiko explained.

"And that 'trick' was certainly better than exposing Lord Kuni's plot, which would in his death and the Empire's loss of the greatest living enemy of the Shadowlands, or killing him, which even if successful would result the Empire's loss of the greatest living enemy of the Shadowlands. Neither of them were valid options when he was only seeking to strengthen and protect the Empire. Talking with him was pointless. He is a man of will, and would not be deterred from his path. We could have thwarted his plot quietly, which would have just resulted in another plot down the line. There was no 'good' option, so we took the best option available that would ensure the most good was done with the least harm."

"Your appointments, aside from rewards for your own selfless actions, made sure that Lord Kuni had Magistrates that were not handpicked by him, and therefore had no direct or specific loyalty to him, thereby making sure there was a group within the Jade Magistrates to keep an eye on him... just in case."

Kachiko's face softened to a sensual smile once more as she straightened her chopsticks neatly and then looked back up at her guests.

"Learning to think beyond oneself is difficult at such a young age, but we are samurai. We exist to serve our lords, and their lords through them, and so on all the way up to the Hantei Emperor himself and his Empire. Act with honor as seen in the eyes of many, of course, but stand ready to do what must be done in order to serve your lord and fulfill your duty, not matter how... unsavory.. it may be at times. That is the truest expression of honor." she reminded.

"I did not expect you all to understand this before today, nor do I expect you all to fully understand now. You still see the world with that naive eyes of youth, so full of hope and ideals, which is no fault of your own. We all go through that stage. But we share the same goal: the safety and protection of the Empire and the Hantei. Therefore we are not, and shall never be, enemies... unless you should work so very hard and go quite out of your way to make us so." she explained calmly.

"I invited you here because I seek only to be up front and honest with you, to enlighten you about what happened in Tsuma the actual workings of the Empire, in hopes we may work together for the better of the Empire, and possibly be friends. Barring that, I would hope we could at least reach a basic understanding and establish at least a modicum of trust." the lady Scorpion expressed.

"But make no mistake, your trust and understanding is not required, though it is desirable. Either way the Empire will be stronger. How much stronger and the degree to which it may benefit you. your families, Clans and the Empire itself is in your hands, for we can certainly accomplish more good together, hopefully as friends, than we could if we were odds with one another." Lady Kachiko calmly explained as she poured herself another cup of tea.

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Zoyu felt a jab of pique as Kachiko so deftly turned her rhetorical device against the point she had been trying to make. And the Lady of the Scorpion reiterating her view of honor as being naive and selfish was growing tiresome and somewhat insulting. She was well aware there were more... efficient ways to serve the Empire, but if everyone ignored the dictates of Honor to serve the Empire, what Empire were they actually serving?

"I have no wish to be at odds with you, Bayushi-sama," Zoyu said in a polite, but firm, if neutral tone, "but as you said, we all serve our lords and the Emerald Empire as we feel we must." Her grew pensively tight for a moment before she continued, being careful to name no names. "It seems to me that it is surely possible that one can commit so many dark deeds in the interests of the Empire that the darkness can blind one to whether they are serving the Empire or serving themselves, or even He Who Shall Not Be Named unknowing."

Zoyu's lips curved faintly in a melancholy smile. Despite what she had claimed, Zoyu had no doubt that Bayushi Kachiko would eliminate her, through disgrace or other means, if she found her to be a threat, for the Empire of course. Zoyu would not let that deter her in what she felt she had to do serve the Empire and her own Honor, though it could cost her everything. "If I should grow aware of one such, I am not one to stand aside and let the danger persist and fester."

 

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Lady Kachiko's sensual lips contorted into a soft, pleasant smile at Zoyu's words, nodding as the Crane spoke.

"Of course, Zoyu-san." she affirmed with a small bow of her head, "I would expect nothing less." she said with a pleased, almost cheerful tone.

"You are all men and women of honor who's vigilance is most desirable." Kachoko explained.

"And for your own sakes, and that of your families and clans, I hope you place just as much importance on discretion."

Lady Kachiko glanced up at the night sky and sighed softly.

"Regrettably, the hour grows late. I am sure you are all wary from your long journey and seek the comfort of a restful night's sleep."

"You are all, of course, welcomed to stay as my guests as long as you wish, but the Bon Festival in Ryoko Owari is certainly not one to be missed. The decorations, costumes, food, music, dancing and acting are all of the highest caliber and most enjoyable."

Kachiko returned her attention to Zoyu once more,

"I believe that a friend of yours from school will even be performing with her troupe for the festival, Zoyu-san." the lady Scorpion commented before she rose from her seat.

"Dinner was delightful with such pleasant and esteemed company. We must do this again soon." she complimented.

"Good evening." she said with a polite bow before she turned and began to meander through the garden, softly humming a pleasant tune to herself.

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Though it might have seemed out of character for Toshi to say nothing, be so silent, there was in fact, a very good reason. He was too busy enjoying the show at hand. Behind his mask, he smiled at the debate between the Topaz Champion and the Lady of the Scorpion - for who would pass up the chance to see one of the Empire's foremost talents at work?

It said something of Zoyu's determination to stand up against Bayushi Kachiko in this fashion - but also, Toshi less charitably added in his mind, something of the Crane-ish tendency to preen feathers, make a great show of standing on honor and principles for the sake of it. From the shift in her tone, Toshi knew Zoyu had recognized just how upended she'd been.

And for that matter, Lady Kachiko had also taken the time to perform an aid to the relations within their group by clearing him of any overt culpability in the attack on the Prince.

"Arigato, Kachiko-sama." Toshi's voice carried to her as she left, and there was no doubt Toshi was giving more than one expression of gratitude. When she was gone, he grinned at his companions. "I hoped to make Kyuden Bayushi a memorable experience for you, my friends. I promise you will find Shiro no Shosuro and Ryoko Owari equally rewarding. A shame Rin-san is not here."

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In Niwa Shita No Kage Toshi

 

“It is my best work Rin-san if I may say so myself.”

Daidoji Hari stood off to the side not wishing to disturb her as she looked at herself, but not able to resist in the silence. Rin sat with two servants kneeling one in front, the other slightly behind her each holding a burnished silver mirror so she could see her head in the reflections.

Rin had been looking at it for several minutes in silence. Its beauty had made her speechless. She wished Zoyu were here to give her words to express the joy she felt at what Hari-san had created. The detail, the colors, so vivid and rich. The pain had been more than worth it.

She motioned the girls away and rose turning to face Daidoji Hari. She gave him a deep bow.

“Daidoji Hari, you have made a most exquisite piece of art. I am honored at what you have given me. I can never repay you for allowing me to bear such beauty.”

“The beauty was already in you Rin-san,” Hari used the intimate form as the two had become friends over the weeks of working so closely together, “as I have explained the dragon was in you all along. It is I who thank you for allowing me to free it.” He claps his hands twice and two more of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of servant girls enter one of them carrying a fold Kimono. “I hope I have not taken an undue liberty, but while I worked I had this made for you. I could not help but notice that you did not have a Kimono that would accent the dragon and your hair in your possession and I feel that it is important that when the world sees you for the first time that your Boldness and Beauty shine.”

“Oh no Hari-san, I cannot accept such a resplendent gift. Already you have given me much more than a defining tattoo. You have let me live here these weeks that is something I can never repay.”

“Of course, Rin-san I understand, however, the tattoo was work and under the constraints of that commission, you living here was convenient to the accomplishment of the job. This Kimono is my way of saying thank you for allowing me to practice my art in such a challenging and satisfying way.”

He gives a nod and the girl carrying it unfolds the kimono and holds it up so that Rin can see it. It is made of fine silk, colored a dark green the edges laced in gold with red dragons. On the left breast is the Mirumoto mon where it would sit over her heart and on the back The Dragon Clan Mon. In her eyes it was the finest kimono Rin had ever seen, the colors perfectly matching the dragon on her head. For it to be ready in time, Hari must have ordered it almost as soon as he started working on the tattoo .

“Truely it is a magnificent garment Hari-san but again I must decline. You have done so much. This I feel would be infringing upon a friendship newly born, a friendship I cherish.” Again, she bows as does Hari.

“All this is true, Rin-san and I cherish your friendship as well. And it is with these thoughts of friendship that I have offered this to you. The dragon is yours and it was inside you all along. This, I would hope that you would wear and think kindly of your friend, Daidogi Hari.”

Rin smiles, the dance over she feels that Zoyu would be proud of her. In truth the moment she had seen the kimono she had wanted it.

“Then in the spirit of our friendship, I will humbly accept your gift.” She bows deeply then spreads her arms to allow the girls to remove the plain kimono she is wearing and dress her in the new one. The two mirror wielding girls show her reflection from all angles. To her, the sight is amazing it is all she dreamed it would be from the moment she had thought of the idea of the tattoo. She turns and allows Daidoji Hari to see his creation. He too smiles.

“Now, Rin-san, in truth, you are the Shojo no Ryu.”

 

Spoiler

Noir gave me proper a term Shojo no Ryu which i think means girl or maiden of the dragon

 

 

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Dawn arrived quickly, though too quickly for some and not quickly enough for others. The magistrates still had several days ride to Ryoko Owari and wished to allow time for Toshi to visit his family. Thus far he had been the only one of them unable to return home since completing the Topaz Championship with his newfound duties keeping him away.

The palace servants, directed by one of Lady Kachiko's yoriki, saw to the preparations for the Magistrates' departure. The horses were fed and watered, packs were secured, filled with food for the road prepared by the Lady's personal chef, and katana were returned on pillows of silk. With the sun to the right the young Magistrates set off down Doro no Judai na Joka Suru (Road of Fatal Purification) for Shiro no Shosuro (The Castle of Pretending) and the Shosuro estates that surround it.

The trip was pleasant enough. Though the lands of the Scorpion were perhaps not as tamed and well manicured as those of the Crane, there was still a a certain primal beauty to them, mixed with a hint of mystery. Thin, spotty woods and bamboo forest dotted the landscape further up the road until after a couple of days the sight of Shiro no Shosuro game into view, surrounded by a large plane with a few rolling hills and fields.

The castle itself was not the most imposing of fortifications and in fact looked more like a very large estate than castle with many buildings build on around hills,making the castle grounds very three dimensional. Many staircases, paths, luscious gardens covered the grounds, spread among the many buildings that exceeded two stories with only rare exception. The estates that surrounded the castle almost seemed like extensions of the castle itself, each estate having many fields, but also beautiful gardens. The entire area had a very calm atmosphere, with the sight of guards at a minimum.

Toshi guided his fellow Magistrates off of the main road and down a side path, leading the horse instead of riding it. The path rounded a hill, bringing into view the estate of Toshi's family. The entirety of the lands of the estate was surrounded with a short wall, no more than two feet high, made of large rocks cleared from the fields and earth. Walls like that were common and easily defined the one's lands while In the middle of the fields a more proper estate stood, a home and two smaller building surrounded by a wall.

Farmers tending to their fields would look up and bow, averting their eyes as was common when samurai passed. One older farmer could be seen calling his boy over who then went running along the edge of the fields and to house. 

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