A Matter of Honor
Path of the Destroyer Part 1
During the final days of the Empress’ festival in the Imperial City, rumors of an assault upon the Carpenter Wall begin to circulate throughout the Empire. Some, however, are too distracted with a far more immediate danger to be concerned about such distant evils.
Doji Tsubakita bowed deeply to his hostess. “Masako-san, I was so pleased by your invitation. I am very honored.”
Doji Masako returned his bow. “Tsubakita-san. I learned long ago that the early afternoon was the perfect time for good company and conversation. It divides the day nicely and gives a nice break from the more arduous duties before us; don’t you agree?”
Tsubakita smiled. “Any time of the day is improved by a visit with you, Masako-san.”
Masako smiled outwardly and sighed inwardly. She regretted inviting the young man to tea already. It was not that she didn’t wish to have a long conversation with him. His ambition was not as obvious as some in the court, but it was certainly there, and that was something that could be used, to both their benefits. Still, she felt so tired today and wasn’t sure if she was up for the feints and strikes required for the meeting. Perhaps the session would have been better with an actual friend. She couldn’t skip her afternoon tea without others in the court noticing. Showing weakness in the court was not exactly the same as showing weakness on the battlefield.
It was much more dangerous.
“Shall we take tea in the garden? The summer flowers are showing so nicely this year.”
“That sounds lovely, Masako-san.”
The table sat waiting for them as they entered the garden. Masako’s suggestion was as preplanned as every element of the afternoon meeting. After some slight maneuvering about who would sit first, both settled in to Masako’s third-best cushions.
“So, did you hear anything interesting this morning at court?” Masako smiled. Tsubakita was a pretty boy. There was no reason why she should not enjoy his visit, despite feeling under the weather.
He cocked his head. “The same as you, I am certain. There is no topic more central than the threat to the Wall.”
Masako rolled her eyes. “If we were to treat every assault on the Wall as the most important item facing our day, we would scarcely get anything else accomplished, now would we? Leave the Wall to the Crab. As much as they are unwelcome additions to the more… refined areas of the Empire, they do their job as well as can be expected. If they fail on their duties, why should the rest of the Empire be expected to correct their mistakes? If you want to rise within our ranks, Tsubakita, you must remember to keep our clan’s interests as paramount.”
Tsubakita listened intently and then said, “With respect, Masako-san, I do not know that I agree.” He stopped speaking as one of Masako’s servants entered the garden, carrying a well-laden tray. She had stopped at the edge of their field of view, as she was trained, but since Tsubakita stopped speaking, Masako nodded towards the servant.
The hostess bristled at the interruption. It meant that she would have to wait to hear the rest of her guest’s opinion. That gave him more time to formulate the best way to make his statement, while she had only the standard time to compose a rebuttal. She started running through his likely arguments to better prepare herself while the tea was poured.
Masako was distracted by the sight of the sweat mark on her servant’s back. She was aghast. There was nothing to be done about it now. She could only hope that Tsubakita had not noticed, though a slight flicker of his eyes showed her that such a hope was for naught. A stupid, disgusting servant girl had cost her dearly and there would be consequences. Masako’s temper with her staff was normally not this severe, but this would not stand.
Tsubakita, of course, did not mention the lapse, but neither did he reach for his tea. Instead he continued the conversation where he had left it. “Normally, Masako-san, I would agree with you about the best place for the Crab being on the Wall and out of earshot, but…”
Masako cocked her head, knowing what was coming. “Yes?”
Tsubakita looked seriously at his hostess. “Word has come from the Wall. The Crab are concerned. They were nearly overrun and the situation is most dire. Should we not turn our attention in this direction?”
Masako shook her head. “There are two things you should always know about the Crab. The first is that they are very good at what they do, despite being appallingly poor at everything else. The second is that the threats posed at the Wall vary in strength based on how seriously we take the threats. In other words, this is nothing more than Kuon’s version of the games we play everyday. He seeks attention for his clan, nothing more.”
Tsubakita looked uncomfortable for a moment before replying. “Making such an assumption is dangerous. What if this is more than mere bluster?”
“Then the blades of the Empire will rise up to defeat the threat, just as they did to the Army of Fire. There is no threat that we cannot handle, Tsubakita-san. Do not let the fear mongers in the court-” Masako was cut off by a loud clattering crash from inside her home. The eyes of both Cranes darted towards the entrance where the sound emerged.
Masako looked back to her guest and said, through nearly gritted teeth. “If you would excuse me for a moment, Tsuba-” She was cut off again – this time by a short scream.
Tsubakita was to his feet a moment before Masako. “If you would indulge me, Masako-san. I think we should both investigate.” Both entered the house, Masako a step behind Tsubakita, only to find the servant who had recently brought them their tea, sprawled on the floor. A tray lay beside her, with two broken plates and some small confections she was bringing to the garden, scattered in front of her. A second, older servant knelt beside her, sobbing.
“Anu! What has happened?” Masako snapped.
Anu looked up at the angry Crane. In doing so she moved enough so that Masako’s view of the fallen servant was no longer obstructed. “She is dead, mistress.”
Masako looked at the sores that lay exposed on the neck of the deceased. She could see further peeking from the girl’s sleeve hem and on her scalp.
Tsubakita looked at Masako and said, “Poison?”
Masako simply thought of the sore she found on her abdomen as she dressed that morning. She felt rivulets of sweat start down her back. She shook her head. “Not poison.”
* * *
Shosuro Toson sat astride his horse looking down the hill at Ginasutra. He watched as his samurai formed a circle around the village. None entered.
He waited for the signal that the blockade was completed before sending a signal of his own to a small group waiting nearby. Three shugenja, accompanied by an equal number of yojimbo, walked down the hill to Ginasutra.
“Do you have confirmation yet?”
Toson’s head whipped around at this voice from nowhere. Where he expected no one he found Bayushi Paneki on the back of a horse, black from nose to tail. Toson bowed his head quickly as he wheeled his own mount around. “Bayushi-sama. My apologies. I did not know you were coming.”
Paneki returned the bow with a tip of his head. “The situation seemed to demand immediate action. I commend you for your handling of the situation, but something of this importance concerns me, obviously. Well?”
Toson thought for a second, ensuring he knew what question his champion was asking. “Partial confirmation, Paneki-sama. The magistrate’s report was accurate. There is plague within Ginasutra. We do not yet know how widespread it is. I sent word to find out if there are similar reports elsewhere, or if talk of our problem has reached other parts of Rokugan. It is too soon to-”
Paneki interrupted. “It is not just here. There has been a similar outbreak in the Crane lands, though they are trying to keep it quiet.”
Toson’s eyebrows rose at the idea that his champion already had reports when his spies had yet to return anything. “The Crane? That could be very dangerous. If they do not take the proper steps it could easily spread further.”
“Indeed.” Paneki muttered. “If it is not already too late for that. There are also reports that it is in Unicorn lands as well. The reports are that it has hit them quite… severely.”
Toson thought for a moment and then said. “They are less likely to spread the plague, with their limited contact with the rest of the Empire… but if one of their riders becomes a carrier it could be an even greater threat.”
Paneki did not reply. After a moment he said. “First we must ensure that the Scorpion do not threaten the Empire. Understand?”
Toson bowed. “Hai, Bayushi-sama.”
* * *
Shosuro Tezuko watched for the signal from her daimyo. When she received it she nodded to the other two shugenja with her and then turned and walked towards Ginasutra. The other shugenja and the three yojimbo assigned to them moved in unison with her. They made no wasted movements, focusing intently on the village before them.
When Tezuko was called to duty by Toson she did as expected, dropped everything and came. This ruined two months of manipulation of an imperial magistrate. When he arrived at her place of work this evening and did not find her there, he would turn his attentions to another, ending her access to his reports to his superiors.
Toson had to know this was a likely result of his summons, so Tezuko paid the magistrate no mind. If her daimyo believed her new duty was important enough to jeopardize her previous one, she knew that he was right to do so.
When she arrived, Toson told her the mission and any possible final doubts were banished.
When they reached the sentry, Tezuko showed him the hastily scrawled orders from Toson. The letter overrode the sentry’s standing orders to not allow anyone into Ginasutra. Tezuko knew the letter said nothing about his orders against letting anyone out.
When they arrived in the village itself, there was a welcoming committee. One man, clearly the village elder, bowed deeply to the group.
“You know why we are here?”
The elder nodded and motioned towards a house on the edge of the village. Tezuko nodded and indicated that he lead them there. As they reached the simple building. Tezuko muttered words of prayer and requested protection from the air kami around her. They responded but she could feel their weakness. There was something terrible here.
They did not set foot in the building. Merely reaching the step was enough for Tezuko to smell the sickly sweet odor of decay. Past the screen pulled back by the elder she saw the bodies. There were four that she could see. The sores and bruised skin were apparent even at a distance.
The elder bowed again. “There are six inside, Shosuro-sama.”
“How many more are sick.”
Tezuko walked back to the center of the village, with her retinue following closely behind her. A slight call to the air kami allowed her voice to reach every corner of the village. “Residents of Ginasutra. If you are not already in the village square, I command you to come out immediately. Any refusal to comply will be considered treason against the clan that protects you and the Empire itself.” As she watched some remaining villagers emerge, including some who had to be helped by others, due to their illness, she spoke again – this time only for the ears of those who had entered the village at her side. “Have them pull up their sleeves. Also check their necks.”
She maintained her air shield against the foulness in the air, though she knew there was no point. Within minutes she had confirmation of what they already knew. Leaving the other shugenja behind, Tezuko walked back to the edge of the village where she had entered. She looked up the hill where her daimyo waited. Once she saw he was still watching she made a series of hand gestures that they had previously agreed upon.
They were returned with the message she knew would follow.
The sentries maintained their vigil until the village was nothing more than ash and cinder. No samurai attempted to escape from the conflagration, and no villager succeeded.
Shosuro Toson swore to himself that he would visit a temple when circumstances allowed it. Bravery and loyalty asked no reward, but he thought a prayer would be the least he could offer.