The Scorpion's Sting

Between the pincer and the tail

Aya,

Much has happened since the last time we had the opportunity to correspond. I hope things have been going well in your province. How is your husband? Is he fully recovered from the trials he endured at the hands of those bandits, many weeks ago?

More importantly, how are you? These times have grown dangerous, and I worry for your safety. I know you are both capable and careful, but when armies of ronin march against the Crane, there is no such thing as too much caution.

I have recently spent some rather tumultuous time in Kyuden Suzume. Without going into too much detail, the Crane have earned a friend in the Sparrow, and hopefully the Three Man Alliance will follow suit. I even had the pleasure of performing for the Suzume Daimyo, himself!

As to the caution I suggested earlier, however…

I do not wish to alarm you, but we have uncovered evidence that the Scorpion have infiltrated some of the minor clans. I cannot imagine they would be as audacious as to do the same for any great clan, but it would set my mind at ease to know you are safe, so if it would not be too inconvenient, you may wish to ensure the identity of all members of your household; prove they are who they say they are. The Scorpion’s capacity for treachery runs deep, it would seem, so we will need to dig just as deep to uproot it.

Unfortunately, with the ronin gathering in the south, it may be some time before I am able to visit you. In an effort to make amends, I will unveil my greatest masterpiece, to date, when I finally do arrive.

In the meanwhile, please be safe. Know that you are in my thoughts.

- Itsuma

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Alliances

Uncle,

I understand you have left your household and ridden north to join forces with the Emerald Champion in your bid to aid against the ronin armies of the south, so this letter may not find you before I do, but I must send it all the same, just in case.

The events that have transpired here in the court of the Suzume are too alarming to understate: the Scorpion have infiltrated the court, and posed as the Yoritomo family Daimyo in what appears to be an effort to undermine the Three Man Alliance. Some innocent Sparrow samurai were lost in the process of unraveling the mystery, but I believe we have earned the Sparrow’s favor for our role in rooting out this foul plot. With this ugly affair concluded, I feel that the Sparrow will speak favorably of us to the Mantis and the Fox, thus setting the stage for more amicable negotiations, going forward.

It is the honor of any samurai to faithfully and loyally serve their lord, and I call upon you, Uncle, to allow me to serve with you in fighting back the amassed ronin army. The honor of the Crane is being tested by the vile aggression of these wave-men, and we are near enough to be of some assistance, if it pleases you.

I will allow Tensen to inform you of the details, but I wish to emphasize how impressively he conducted himself whilst in the care of the Suzume’s hospitality. He has made the Kakita ancestors proud, this day, and he looks forward to doing so again on the field of battle. As do we all.

Blessings of the nine be with you, uncle.

- itsuma

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Clandestine Caverns
From the pages of Kirari's journal

Fifth Day of the Minor Clan Court

I am somehow too exhausted to sleep just yet. The adrenaline has long since surged through my veins but death still feels close. The healer has tended my wounds, but they are still fresh and threaten to reopen if I am not careful. This brush and ink, perhaps, might comfort me when words cannot.

We gambled and came very close to losing. We did not know with whom Suzume-dono would side, and that hour was perhaps one of the longest in my short life.

Once again my brazen nature has almost been the death of myself and my comrades. “The flame that burns brightest burns fastest,” they say, and perhaps they are not wrong. How much longer will I have if I keep this up? I told myself after Mura Sabishii Toshi that I would need to leash my fiery temper. Without Yuki to hold me back, will I learn to stay my tongue—and my steel? I knew we had walked into a trap, but like a fool, I rushed headfirst, eager to prove myself right.

Was it fate that led Toshihiro to stumble upon the trapdoor in the forest? I believe him when he says that he had nothing to do with it… but it seems strange that we were the ones he told. I saw the spirit of Kakita’s ancestor in the forest. Did the kami see to it that we found the Mantis—nay, the Scorpion—conspiring with the Tortoise?

I have prayed to them many times tonight, but they have been silent. Have they deemed my intentions impure? Was I too weak to call upon them properly? Or is there something else afoot? Something darker?

At night, I still dream of the warrior and the puppeteer. How Tensen was at Meido’s precipice, and Yuki’s eyes seemed to glow with the light of the sword. The cultists are still out there, outside of Lonely Shore City. I cannot help but believe them connected to the ronin uprising.

And the Scorpion. I was certain that they had infiltrated Kyuden Suzume, but not to that degree. To think that the Mantis Clan Champion himself was but an actor… is no court, no clan safe from the sting of the Scorpion? What is their purpose, now?

My sight is too narrow to see how these plots might connect. I can only hope that with the coming of the new dawn the sun may shed new light on our predicament. May Amaterasu guide and bless our next step.

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A song of steel

A strange woman, Shihoseki. It is my own fault, I suppose. I dared to wonder what marriage arrangements might be available for me, and before I had made sense of my own thoughts, Kirari took action and introduced me to the Suzume Daimyo’s daughter. It was a curious meeting, as first impressions go. Though we drew steel, I cannot help but shake the suspicion that it qualified as flirting. A strange woman, indeed.

Her art is one of turmoil, however. There are many motives as to why an artist picks up a brush, and I sense that Shihoseki does so to vent her frustrations. If she is not careful, she will color her world in the very anger she seeks to expel from herself. The peace I seek may be consumed by its fury …

… or galvanized by it. She has certainly spiced up this visit; that much is for certain.

I will need to meditate on this; it all happened so fast. I confess there was a certain thrill inherent in our impromptu duel. I would sing her a song, but I suspect the only song she is interested in is a song of steel.

Still, that is a song I know well.

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A Midnight Meeting
From the pages of Kirari's journal

First Day of the Minor Clan Court

True to his word, Shintaro met with me at the apportioned hour in the courtyard. It was not so late as to be considered improper, but late enough that most of the courtiers had abandoned the courtyard for their quarters. With any luck, we won’t be the subject of the gossip tomorrow, but if so, I must determine a way to make that to my benefit.

The eldest son of Lord Suzume Satoru does not approve of the match between his younger sister and Kitsune Toshihiro. I can only imagine petty jealousy is at play, but who am I to blame or judge him?

“You two would make a better match,” or so he claims. I wonder if the Fox feels the same.

If the two of us were to wed, it could be a boon for the Crane and the Phoenix both. But if not done delicately, it could do more to sour relations with the Sparrow. Is it better to have a united front among the Minor Clans, or to keep them squabbling amongst themselves?

Have I become a Scorpion? Of course it is better if they are allied, if only because it would benefit the Great Clans more. And what the Crane need right now is another sword in the sheath to rebuff the Lion’s aggression.

But all of this is idle musing if I cannot bear the man called Toshihiro. What sort of man is he? A shugenja, I might guess at his choice of conversation and admiration of the scroll. But can he hold the fire in his hand, or will it burn him?

I walk a delicate line, but curiosity wins out, as it usually does for me.

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A night of shining scars

Tensen is the one with the gift for words. If only I could trust my own emotions at this moment, I would have him put to paper what my heart cannot express. Perhaps, by sharing my own fears, my own hopes, I could attain some measure of enlightenment.

Throughout my youth, my adolescence, my training… throughout it all, I have never considered keeping a journal. Tonight, however, the will of the Fortunes have seen fit to give me no alternative.

As a boy, hearing the stories of the Crab on the wall, so brave, so strong, so resolute in the face of the Empire’s enemies, it was like a dream come true when my uncle helped secure my candidacy for the Iron Warrior school of the Daidoji. If I possessed my cousin’s gift for poetry, I would relate here the range of experiences during those intense months, but instead, I will simply say that my image was shattered. Though my time on the Kaiu Wall was not indicative of how all Crab present themselves, it is safe to say that their reputation is well founded. They have no passion for anything beyond the maintenance of the wall. What that realization meant to me was that we are born into the roles our ancestors have forged. A Hida is a Hida, no matter how hard he may try to live a life beyond the wall. A Doji is a Doji, no matter how hard she may try to live a life beyond the courts. Our heritage is our strength, but it is also our chains. Or so I thought.

I tried to shed the precepts of the Kakita way when I was young. A sort of petulant rebellion, I guess you would call it. Part of me felt that spending time with the Crab was the surest way to ensure that I would become my own man, rather than just another Kakita following in the footsteps of a legend who was buried a thousand years ago.

Blasphemous thoughts, to be sure. I was lost; at that age, we all think we know so much, when in truth we see so little. All the while, fighting against my mon and my family ties, every string I plucked in practice on my Biwa was an echo of my hypocrisy. Here, I was raging against the narrow-mindedness of following the footsteps of those who came before, yet pursuing to perfection an art, just as Kakita himself was famous for. In trying to defy my namesake, I exemplified it, without even realizing it.

I discovered this the night Yoshiro mocked my music. It took a defeat for me to realize what victory really meant. That night, I stopped running. That is the night I confessed my feelings for Aya, and though I was denied, that is the night I felt most alive.

Until last night.

I could write here that my Biwa was stolen, but something far more beautiful was taken from us last night: the honor of my dear cousin, Tensen. So strange a thing to have one’s topknot taken from him in the dead of the night, but stranger still was the look on Tensen’s face when he awoke. The symbol of a samurai was so strong with him, that he nearly committed seppuku rather than endure its absence. Fortunately, Kirari is creative in her communications with the kami, and though I do not understand much of the ways of the Shugenja, I know that I have never seen any servant of the faith bring peace and joy to a samurai as wholly as she did in that moment. She made Tensen whole.

The severity of the situation startled me. It has caused me to reflect on a great many things, to question answers I had always taken for granted. Some, like my doubts of the Tao of Shinsei as they were exploited by the Shinsei-do cult, are easy to dispel now that I have seen the horrors committed in their name. Now, I lament the foolishness which ever gave me cause to question the Tao. But there are other concerns which nettle at my resolve.

Some are beyond my control. Had I have but known I would likely not see Yuki again, I would have liked to ask him a great many questions in regards to a samurai’s place in times of peace. I would very much have liked to gain his insight into what makes a life worth living. I feel there was much he could have taught me, steeped in the springs of clarity as the Phoenix are known to be. He is a good man, and a fine yojimbo. I never told him this, but I believe that the Daidoji dedication to defending the Doji, for all their honor and virtue, are but shadows of the bond that is born between a Shiba and their charge. Do not mistake this to mean that I take the Daidoji lightly; to the contrary, it is but a testament to how impressive the Shiba are. I have borne witness to how Yuki cared for Kirari, and it is a thing of…

…well, perfection.

Were I a braver man, I would beseech Kirari for Yuki’s residence so that I might at least correspond with him via letter, but I cannot help but feel that his retirement bears deeper meaning than what has been revealed to me. Though it is but a minor token, the least I can do is honor the quiet he has so rightfully earned.

Then there is Kirari, herself. A strange Shugenja, to be sure, though perhaps my own limited experience colors that, somewhat. The only Shugenja I have spent any time with were Asahina, possibly the most gentle and pacifistic samurai I have ever met, and the Kuni, of whom paranoia and caution are of paramount importance. Still, she has been not unlike a cousin to me, though her blood is not of my blood. She reminds me of Aya, in some ways (mostly in that her thoughts are difficult to discern!). One moment, she is hammering away in the forge, and the next she is asking me to join her in clothes-shopping for court.

She is seeking marriage, which is no surprise given her age and the prestige of her family. Tensen has been married for a time, now. It makes me wonder, if only in the secrecy of my own thoughts, what type of woman I would wed, if given the call to choose. Would it be someone like Aya, whose silver tongue would match my golden fingers? Or someone like Kirari, whose fiery passion is a muse to light the world? Or someone like Fumiko, dutiful and virtuous, clever and compelling. Or someone like the Shinjo who now rides with us, curious and aloof, yet refreshingly honest and forthright? Such is the plight of those destined to serve; such decisions are so rarely our own to make. Not to say that I would not do my duty and marry whomever my lord arranged, but it can be heartening to let the mind and heart wander from time to time…

Writing like this is… frustrating. I do not see the comfort in this the way Tensen must. Writing like this just confuses my feelings further. There is no clarity of expression; not like when making music. Being that this is the first night in a very long time that I have not had an instrument to play, however, I must make due with ink and paper. It is a poor substitute, but better than leaving this all stuck in my head. We have an important task ahead of us, and I must not allow myself to be weighed down by personal matters.

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Theft on the Emperor's Road
From the pages of Kirari's journal

Sixth Day

I have heard them say that court can be dangerous, but I did not quite realize the truth of the saying. Someone has already tried to sabotage our efforts at the minor clan court, and we haven’t even arrived yet. Itsuma-san awoke to find his biwa missing, and Tensen-san’s topknot was severed in the night.

I could feel Itsuma-san’s pain keenly. What would I do without my spell scrolls? How could I practice my art? I’d have offered to try my hand at crafting him a new one, but I have neither the time nor the materials. With any luck, we might be able to find a merchant on the way to Sparrow lands, but I’ll admit that without the sound of his songs in camp, a melancholy has settled over us all.

Tensen was near to considering seppuku, such was his anguish. I had not realized how much the hairstyle could mean to one in the buke, since my hair has always been my own to cut or grow as I pleased. It was only through a careful recitation of the Path to Inner Peace that we were able to regrow his hair back to something close to its normal length. Tensen said that he had an obligation to protect me now, after this and when I saved his life twice against the Shinsei-do cultists. But I demurred. It is to his father that I owe my life, and thus to Tensen as well. The debt goes both ways now, it would seem.

Whoever did this was skilled, and were sent here with a purpose. I consulted with the earth and fire kami as to what transpired in the night, but I could only discern that there were four hundred pounds worth of them, and they headed in the four cardinal directions away from our camp. Yuki’s acquaintance, the unicorn Shinjo Mae-mi, was able to spot tracks, but the footprints all appeared to lead towards our camp, not away. Shinobi? But they are merely a legend…

My thoughts cannot help but turn to that Scorpion we met in Lonely Shore City, and those two “Dragon” monks we supposedly met with. The motive is certainly there: the Scorpion would not want the Three-Man Alliance to find even more support from the Crane.

But why not take the jade sword, my spell scrolls, our weapons? Or even our lives? Why not put a stop to the Crane delegation entirely?

We cannot afford to mount a search effort in earnest for these brigands, but perhaps we shall find out more at Kyuden Suzume.

Emperor’s Road or no, we have resolved to take watches during the nights going forward. Tomorrow, we continue on.

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Journey to Kyuden Suzume
From the pages of Kirari's journal

First Day

Today we depart from Tsuma. We have spent the last week preparing for the journey and fashioning the gifts to be presented at the court. I have spent most of my time perfecting the mantras for a unique version of the Legacy of Kami no Kaze. After four days of spell research and one day of calligraphy it is complete. When read with pure intention, the kami of air fashion the breeze into a sparrow to fly a short message from one individual to another. I know that the Sparrow are not known for their shugenja, but I hope they see it as a gesture of friendship and trust on the part of the Phoenix.

Yesterday I tricked Kakita Itsuma into taking me to the kimono-maker where he purchased his extravagant robe at the beginning of his travels. I purchased a fine kimono of my own, as well as makeup and a courtier’s fan to match.

I have been considering our mission and the whispers of my own heart. With Shiba Yuki gone into the mountains, I am more alone than I have ever felt in my entire life. Since my gempukku I have longed to be rid of a yojimbo, to journey freely on my own, but now that it has come to fruition I admit that I feel lost.

I see the bond between Kakita Tensen and his wife Kasumi and wonder if perhaps there is someone out there for me. Someone in whom I can confide my troubles and with whom I can share my victories. Someone who will support and encourage me rather than protect and restrict me. Perhaps even love me.

The Minor Clan Court will be the first time I have met so many new faces in one place, and I cannot shake the feeling that I may meet someone there. And if a match can seal an alliance between the minor clans and the Crane and Phoenix… would I be able to marry for duty and not love?

I must meditate on this.

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Lost among the waves

Aya-san,

I hope this letter finds you in high spirits as much as I hope your husband has recovered from the traumas of late. The Empire may seem calm upon the surface, but I cannot help but feel that something angry moves beneath the surface; something vengeful and unseen. I would advise you to maintain the utmost caution when travelling outside your home; I am less certain with each passing day that even the roads within Crane lands are safe for travel. This new religious sect has poisoned the very principles Shinsei hoped to instill in the hearts and minds of all Rokugani, and there is no telling what their so called “priests” will do in the name of their new worship.

My journey to Mura Sabishii Toshi was … unusual. My compatriots and I have been as a stone in a still pond; the ripples of our actions will stir in distances long beyond that which we could ever have known. There are times when it feels as though that is the fate of all mortal lives; we are merely casting ripples, hoping to create an impact in a world after we are gone. This new sect would have us believe that we can create our own fate; if there is a philosophy more vain, I do not know of it. We are all instruments of the Fortunes, products of our Ancestors. That is not to say that we cannot make our own choices, but I believe there is more to free-will than the simple act of making a choice.

Please pardon my ramblings. I have spent so much time investigating this Shinsei-do that it has put me in an introspective mood, and I do not wish to bore you with such dry discussions as these. I know there is no merit in this cult or its teachings, but it has gripped the peasantry with an ardent fervor. Even if we stamp out their organization (if there even is an organized center), the damage has already been done. You cannot erase the teachings from the minds of those who have heard it. Still, if our efforts can stop the bleeding here, so much the better. We cannot allow any more souls to be perverted with this vile slander.

I … have a confession to make. I do not feel the conviction I have displayed in this message. Though I am an adamant follower of the Tao, I cannot help but see some promise in the teachings of Shinsei-do. I truly feel that there is merit to their cause, but I cannot condone the violence that they perpetrate in its name. And regardless of my own feelings on the matter, I will do my duty to my lord and clan; for the Emperor’s sake, this cult will be stamped out. I only hope they have a plan for how to dismiss it from the peasantry, for even if we prevent it from spreading any further, it has already gained sizable popularity.

I have also recently come into knowledge of a fashionable stone by the name of dark jade. As I understand it, it has become all the rage in court. I must warn you, Aya-san, it is a dangerous substance. I advise you to keep your distance from it, or anyone who wears it willingly. It may be the catching fancy of the moment, but it bears a darker purpose than merely its exotic nature. I cannot say as to what that is, exactly, but never have I felt so uneasy in the presence of a mere stone. Please, keep away from it, if you can.

Aside from the matters listed above, I am well. My biwa survived its exposure to the sea no worse for the wear, and I am happy to write that it sounds the same as ever. For all the other ailments which seem to plague this city, I confess there is a certain beauty in all the chaos, a wonder born from so many disparate people working together. There is a song here, somewhere in this city, waiting to be heard, and I will be the one to play it.

With every note, I come closer to writing the song I promised you all those years ago, back when we were something more … complicated … then we are, now.

From the shores of Mura Sabishii Toshi, know that my hopes and thoughts are with you.

- Itsuma

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A missive to Doji Aya

Aya-san,

I apologize for the lapse in time since my last communication. Though duty makes for a poor excuse when tending to matters of import such as strong and treasured friendships, I am afraid I must beg your forgiveness, for it is duty which has stayed my brush all this time.

It troubles me greatly to hear of the attack on your husband, and you have my word as both a trusted friend, and as a samurai fortunate enough to bear the name of Kakita, that I will do everything I can to unravel the identity of his assailants. I can only hope that he was allowed to return to you; if so, is there any information he can offer as to the nature of his assailants? If they took him, do you know of any one who may have seen him last? The information you have already shared with me has been useful beyond measure, and I will see to it that your husband’s honor is avenged.

I miss playing for you, Aya; I owe you a performance complete with encore the next time we meet. Were my business not so pressing now, I would make sure to take respite in your household en route, but especially with the news of the attack on your husband, the need for haste has only grown. I will make sure to pass by your lands upon my return, however; perhaps my journey will have afforded me a new song!

In lieu of sharing music together, let me leave you with a poem:

A song of silence
Rings as hollow as a reed,
Quiet kills the soul

May the sun kiss your cheek and the moon bless your dreams.

- Itsuma

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