Broken Wave City - Spring, 1501
Sukishi leaned heavily against a wall in his room, a bottle of half drunk sake
in his hand. The window behind him was open and he held his fingers delicately
to his forehead, trying to clear his thoughts. The sake wasn't helping, but it
was at the very least dulling the other thoughts that made matters worse for
Chill, moist air crept into the room from the outside, helping to keep him aware, awake and at least a little refreshed. He could still hear sounds of late night revelry in the air outside. His hand reached up to the nape of his neck and he winced slightly, sliding his kimono closed over his frail, lithe frame.
His eyes closed and he saw a vision again, of fog surrounding him. He recalled the sensations experienced and the surprising fear he had felt. His eyes snapped open and in a display of almost unheard of rage, the remaining contents of the sake slathered over the door while the bottle shattered into countless shards of useless pottery.
"What are you thinking, coming to me as you did, and now disappearing?" he snarled at no one in particular.
Silence was his only answer.
* * *
Sukishi remained in the island town for a time after the others departed. It did his mind well to immerse himself in the work of the courts, however distant such a city as this was. The man before him might not have been the most prominent of individuals by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a cunning man and one capable of just the right levels of subtlety.
"Yoritomo-sama," he whispered quietly as the tea was brought out for the two of them and they enjoyed a moment's bliss in the quiet of the festival's end. "It is a shame that the Thrane have chosen to spurn the gifts available through trade via the Mantis. Such a possibility would have afforded the allies of the empire a greater means to control and disseminate their wares properly than was available with the minor clans."
The man gave a bit of a gruff harrumph in reply. Yoritomo Matsura had probably been one of those who would lose most heavily in the midst of the investments that he had already made to the Thrane trade. It was something of a sore spot with him, and one to be traveled lightly. "As you say, Otomo-san. A shame, though we have not forgotten your efforts on our part. The lobbying you did in the courts aided us greatly, however temporary the benefits."
Sukishi smiled. How like a viper his smile could be sometimes. "Now, now, you wound me, Yoritomo-sama. I have not called upon you merely to remind you of such things as if I were calling in a favor. I am merely here to enjoy the peace of the afternoon and to share your thoughts of the future."
"The future?" he grunted sourly. His eyebrow raised and he looked at Sukishi with an eye that said he was searching for the angle that the Imperial had in this particular venture. They always did. "And what sort of future might you think the Mantis has, having lost such a great offer at the even of its victory?"
"When a door closes, new ones open," Sukishi said mildly, turning and gazing out upon the horizon. "It is always this way. You still have the logistics in place to handle the commerce that the Thrane would have offered. Perhaps there are other uses that they might be put to?"
"And what concern would that be of an Imperial? Commerce is the business of Yasuki and Yoritomo, not Otomo," the man said dubiously.
Sukishi sipped at his tea, relishing the soft breeze and tang of the salt in the air. He wondered if he could ever truly get used to its taste. Still, there was a pleasure in experiencing such things once in a while, an exotic feel for a man who had grown up far from the coast. He did not reply forever. Matsura would answer the question for himself in time.
"You have something in mind, do you?" the gruff looking merchant said after a few minutes of consideration. "Fine, then share your thoughts… but I'd like to know why?"
"The clans have forgotten that the Mantis have ever been the supporters of the Emperor and his Jerald," Sukishi said simply. "In court after court, I hear talk of how the Mantis grow strong and wealthy, bitter talk, jealous talk. Such vipers. They cannot remember that the Mantis bear these gifts for their services to the Emperor himself. They protect Miya-donno's peace. They guard and nurture a son of heaven himself. They guard the seas of piracy. Such services, and the concerns of so many are that they are too powerful."
"You tell me nothing I do not already know," he said, a touch acidly. "This is common knowledge. We bowed and did not take issue over the matter of the imperial daughter. We have served the peace well these many years, and yet we are a threat. And what does this have to do with you?"
"I would like to remind them that, at the very least, the Imperial Families have not forgotten where their friendships lie," Sukishi said, that viperfish smile returning to his lips. It did not meet his eyes. So few of his smiles ever did.
The man across from him frowned and considered the Otomo carefully. He took a sip of his tea and grunted once more, finally nodding. "You'd play go well, I'd wager," he muttered. "That face of yours doesn't show what's really going on in your head."
"In truth, I'm a terrible player, but sometimes I do win a game or two," Sukishi said, his smile never slipping as he nodded his head.
"Of course. Fine, then what is it that you have in mind? Obviously, you'll leave the dirty matters of commerce to men such as myself. It's what we're here for, but you wouldn't have come here just to chat about go and possibilities, now would you?"
"What do you know thus far of the lumber needs of the Scorpion?" Sukishi said in a quiet tone, gauging the reaction of the merchant.
Matsura stopped, teacup midway to his lips. His eyes slid across the table to regard the Otomo carefully. He frowned again and remained motionless for a moment. Then that frown quirked a little into a smile. "A few things, Otomo-san. Go on. I'm listening."
The conversation would go on long into the evening…
* * *
One of the best ways to use a favor, Sukishi had been taught, was to give it back to the one who had given it in the first place. In returning it, give it back with interest, an investment that would yield a return to aid the person and thus further ingratiate them to you. Only in the most brazen or desperate of circumstances should a person burn the bridges so immaculately conceived that the return of giving up one's favor with another received only a temporary benefit.
The Doji had the right of it. Favors were investments in the future, steps that were taken in the building of a deep relationship. The Crane had retained their power for generations, not off of the strength of their military so much as the power of the favors that they were owed, the friendships that they built, the trust that they garnered. Trust was not simply given.
Trust needed to be earned.
And so, Otomo Sukishi found himself standing on the docks of the Broken Wave City, awaiting a chartered vessel that would take him back to Hisatu Kesu. The ship would disembark him on its way south to Crab lands. It had been a return of a favor that the Mantis had owed him that had brought him to be involved in the shipment. And yet, that favor was being used in return to help ease the logistics with the presence of an Imperial's authority and the favor that it in turn engendered. It would smooth over negotiations slightly, after all.
"Otomo-sama," a young man said, sliding up beside him, a parcel in his hands. "Yoritomo Matsura-sama wishes to send his thanks for your assistance."
Sukishi smiled at the boy. He could not have been much past his gempukku… if he was even so old. "I see, but certainly Yoritomo-sama knows that I am merely showing my appreciation for so many years of hard labor his people have endured in our stead. No thanks are necessary."
"My lord insists that you take this as his means of personally thanking you," the boy stuttered out, clearly nervous in the presence of a man of much higher status. In his hands was a tube of carved ivory, wrapped in a soft, green silk wrapping. "Please, accept his personal thanks in this token."
"And deny him such a lovely gift? Perish the thought. Surely I am not worthy of such a thing as this, please no, take this back that he may enjoy it himself," Sukishi said, smiling as he saw through the nerves. The Yoritomo were training their prospects moderately well at the least.
"Please. Then, he asks that you take this as a symbol of the close bond of fellowship that he feels for one who understands the needs of our people," the boy said. It was obvious that this last was nearly recited. These were not the lad, but Matsura's words.
"Tell your master that I am grateful that he thinks of me so," Sukishi said, his hand taking hold of the silk-wrapped cylinder. And so, it began, he thought to himself. Finally, someone was beginning to notice him. Perhaps he was seen by them as a pawn. It mattered not.
He turned from the boy and looked at the wallscroll inside. It was a fine enough piece. His mother would enjoy the seascape being hung in the family household when he returned to Toshi Ranbo in a few months. Yet, there was something strange to it. Two figures, one shorter than the other, were inside of portrait. Their forms and colors were indistinct, but their presence was unusual to say the least.
Perhaps Matsura was not so simple as he had thought. No. The ink was old. It was at least twenty years old. A mere coincidence then. Still, the irony was not something that Sukishi would miss out on. He rolled the scroll back up and slipped it into the tube, placing it amongst his personal belongings as he prepared to repay a favor with a favor.
The City of Vice - Late Spring, 1501
Sukishi stood alone. The gardens attached to the residence he'd been staying at
as a yoriki were as lovely as they had been for the last month. All that had
happened had done nothing to taint this fact in his view. They were one of the
only places in the entirety of the worm-infested cesspool that he had been
forced to attend to that he actually enjoyed.
Others had expressed surprise at his view of the city. Here, there were geisha who could tend to his particular … tastes. And yet, those people were the ones who did not understand him at all. Pleasure was a fine pursuit, but it was to be done in a fashion that was proper, that had taste, a sense of style. This place was simply a glut of hedonism, and an offense to his nostrils.
He shook his head, clearing his mind as he heard footsteps approaching from behind. His hand lingered near his wakizashi. That man had made him nervous, and in a city such as this, one could not be too prepared.
"Otomo-sama?" said the small plaintive voice of a servant as she held up a sealed letter.
He sighed and nodded. It wasn't like that one was going to make his decision overnight anyway. He could entertain a little bit of relaxation at least. He took the letter and opened it, scanning the contents carefully. An eyebrow raised and he grunted softly.
It was almost too easy.
"Tell the oyoban I will be along at the appropriate hour," he said in a faint voice, nodding to the servant, who departed on hurried steps.
Taking a moment to himself, Sukishi relished the fact that this one's invitation had come with enough time to give him some relaxation. He looked back at the spot of upturned earth in the garden. The kami there were supposedly still disturbed.
"Perhaps I was too hard on him," he said softly to himself, his only witness the wind. "No. He needs to make a choice." And with that, he departed for the internal halls to get properly dressed.
* * *
"Chokatsu-san gives his apologies for being unable to meet with you at this time," the oyabun said in an unctuous tone. The man was a loathsome creature. Unlike Chokatsu, he had not even a shred of refinement. In the background, Sukishi could hear the rattle of cups. He could hear the shouts of 'Han' and 'Cho.' In his mind, he relished the idea that the Emerald Champion would be here soon to take him away from this worthless hive.
In his eyes, though, none of this showed. He simply smiled and nodded. "Of course. As any good samurai knows, the time of a good and honorable businessman such as Chokatsu-san is oftentimes occupied by his trade and craft. It is his place in the celestial order, and I for one am grateful to him for his work to help keep reputable businesses intact in this fair city, what with all the chaos recently."
The man smiled, showing yellowed teeth. Sukishi could actually feel himself almost regretting the flagrant, blatant lies he was telling right now. He almost felt them wash over his spirit, and then he remembered his duty.
All things in the name of the emperor were righteous. All under heaven stood for him to rule, and if he was not aided properly, if the needed sacrifices were not made, then he could not stand. This was an Otomo's duty. He knew it, and he knew that no amount of cheap and sullied words would change this fact. His honor was unquestionable, for he was an Otomo, and he had a job to do.
"However," he continued, sipping at a tea with a hint of mint in it, good for cleansing the pallet. "This is not why we are here today. Chokatsu-san knows as well as I do that with the fall of his nefarious rivals from grace, there is a need for growing interests in this town that handle proper businesses. Goods must come here somehow, yes?"
"Of course, Otomo-sama," the man said, fanning himself rather noisily. Perhaps if he'd shed fifty pounds, he wouldn't have such a problem with the heat? "But, as you know this is a Scorpion city. I'm quite certain we shall have no end of such things in keeping our businesses afloat."
"Naturally, I'm sure that the governor could…" Sukishi said, beginning but not finishing the sentence.
"Ah. Yes, I suppose not," the fat little man said. When he frowned, he looked even less like a Buddha and more like a squat toad. "Would you have a suggestion, Otomo-sama?"
"I believe that Yoritomo Matsura has been building lines to aid overland trade with the Scorpion in many of the needs that a city such as this might have," Sukishi said with a small smile. "Perhaps you could speak with him, and I with the Scorpion?"
The man frowned. He studied the hem of his kimono. He seemed to ponder for a moment, and finally he nodded. Sukishi had chosen the name Matsura for a reason, after all. He might have no knowledge of this world, but he knew people to ask who did. "Yes, yes I think that could be quite helpful, a good and fine way for us to help keep legitimate businesses around here operating properly. Help to keep the peace here, as you said to Chokatsu-san."
"Wonderful. I am glad that we have a mutual understanding. Please, let us speak of other things. I don't handle most of the details, after all," Sukishi said. He could put up with this little maggot a bit longer… if only for propriety's sake.
* * *
Sukishi sat quietly in one of the only tea houses in town that he did not find aesthetically reprehensible, waiting on his guest. The oily gentleman who walked in had an unctuous air to him, dressed in his overly expensive blacks and reds. He looked like a man accustomed to his pleasures and accustomed to getting what he wanted.
"Good evening Yogo-sama," Sukishi said, bowing to him. The man was barely above his station, but it didn't hurt to follow the protocols. Why be rude, when he needed something from him.
"Your proposal arrived to me via courier, Otomo-san," the man said, bowing and taking his seat. As the tea was poured for him, the man waited, fanning himself ostentatiously. Were it not for his hawk-like beak of a face and beady eyes, he might have been attractive to a horse. Still, business associates were important men not to displease. "It seemed a pleasant arrangement, though I am a touch concerned that the goods might be coming via the shipping lanes you had mentioned. Is there not another provider?"
Sukishi grimaced. He detested actually hammering out the details like this. It was peasant's business and this Yogo seemed to revel in it. He was as bad as Hatsuhara sometimes… but at least the boy had the training to justify it. This one was just in some consortium or whatever nonsense the Yogo had cooked up a few centuries back. Frowning a little, he pawned the motion of his lips off as concentration and tapped them with his fan before replying. "Sadly no. The gifts that might be given would have little impact right now on a Crane or better yet Phoenix interest at this time. As such, this provider's offering is a more viable choice. Better yet, he is willing to work with secondary cargo comments, as he told me, something I believe you had mentioned a need regarding."
The man smiled. His teeth had a slightly yellow sheen to them. Did everyone in this forsaken city smoke? "If that is the case, then the truth is that I believe some arrangements may be made. But what interest is it of a man of your standing to dabble in the affairs of the Mantis?"
"My duties often take me to a wide variety of locales," Sukishi said almost in a bored fashion. "My paths crossed in two duties of late, and I saw no reason not to show the Mantis and Scorpion that we of the Imperial families have not forgotten the goodness they have shown us."
In his own mind, Sukishi wanted to throttle the Yogo. It was none of his affair what had brought Sukishi to handle this matter, nor was he about to tell him. Still, his control was as pristine as ever, and outwardly no sign was visible of any discomfort.
"Of course, of course," The Yogo said. "Well, I think that everything is in order. I will have to remember your help in this. We've been in need of fresh shipping lanes since recent events. You understand of course."
Sukishi understood, far better than he wished he did. But his work would never be done. There was time for rest when you were dead…
Toshi Ranbo - Immediately before the Imperial Funeral, 1501
Sukishi stood upon a low hill near the Drowned Merchant River. There was a small
statue of stone before him. He frowned at it, a piece of paper burning in his
hands as he shook his head sadly.
"Always impetuous. You never had the patience to take a true villain down," he whispered to the silent and lonely winds. "Have no fear. I will deal with that man in due time. You are simply one more thing he has taken away from me and mine."
Lifting the white hem of his pale kimono, he poured out a bottle of sake upon the ground, letting it slide out into the soil before the statue and onto the statue, dribbling over its rocky lips. He placed the empty bottle on its side there and clapped his hands twice. "We will meet in the next life perhaps, my little fool… it seems that I will not be able to keep my promise to you, since you've gone on ahead. Another time, another time."
As a single teardrop feel from his face, Sukishi brushed it away irritably and turned. The prayer was done, and his work was not. He departed at a brisk pace. He was only grateful that the death of the twins had given him pause to wear white for this occasion. It did not matter to him personally that it was not them that he wore it for. For whatever reason, he shivered and drew his kimono close, like an icy hand had brushed the nape of his neck. It had been a long season.
* * *
Sukishi stood in the cold light of the garden on his family lands. It had been a considerable length of time since he had last been here. The memories of this place were always bittersweet, but for now it was good to be home.
Soft footfalls drew close behind him. Sukishi stiffened slightly. Somehow, he knew the source of them. There was a dryness, even in the way that she walked. He did not turn, nodding his head at an angle.
"Mother… you are well?"
"I am, at least well enough to walk in my own garden at night and talk with the errant whelp the kami cursed me with," she said, a faint bit of acid in her tone. Then again, there had not been a day in several years that Sukishi could not recall a hint of acid in his mother's tone.
He smiled very thinly and nodded again, turning to enjoy the vista. "It is good you are well, mother. I apologize that my return comes with such grave tidings."
She made a small sound and stood there next to her son. She said nothing further, looking out into the garden with a quiet and austere grace. The woman was just past forty-five and probably should have thought of retirement some time ago, but like so many others, the business of the world demanded her attention more than enlightenment.
Sukishi did not shift or get uncomfortable. They had played this game before, and he would not be the first to speak so quickly. She would outlast him, but he would make her wait for the privilege of proving herself. He was not such a child any longer.
Finally, after he had seen the moon emerge from the horizon and fully rise, its frame gracing the sky, he made a small cough. "You wished to speak with me about something, I presume… and doubtless it is more important than poetry, or you would have simply sent me a note."
"The statue. You visited it," she said. It was not a question.
"I did. I could not bear witness to the event without shaming myself, but I would give proper respects," he said quietly. "His honor was expunged, after all."
"True, but the matter is concluded, I assume?" she said, glancing over at him. "You are to have no further contact with his line, that no chance of this ever returning to our family comes?"
"A favor was owed by them… but as you say, it would be better that the tie not be remembered. Some things are lost in time I suppose," Sukishi said with a little reluctance.
"Yes, better that way… and I am to believe that you have been busy of late," she said softly. There was an edge beneath the softness of her voice.
"I have," he said in reply. "An opportunity presented itself to further ingratiate myself to the Mantis, and I took it. The Imperial Families have been forsaking their allies of late, and we are the Otomo. We are meant to be in all places and courts."
"They are Shikan's allies," she replied, the barb there. "I am told he speaks well of you." Oh, there was definitely steel behind that phrase.
"He hears what he wishes to hear," Sukishi said in a non-committal and light tone. "I am not above using even that man's influence."
"Enough," she said, her voice cracking like a whip. "You are my son, and further, you are one of those assigned to me to help maintain relations. Yet you have moved without my word or order. You overstep yourself, and I will know what it is you have planned."
Sukishi sighed and nodded. He had known, as soon as he had spoken with Shikan the second time, and as soon as the right faces had been reminded of the favor of the Imperial Family itself for him, that nobody would have missed the fact that he had made a political move. She had a right to know.
"I pray that they simply think I am getting away from your influence," he said softly. "Mother, please let them continue to think this. You know I would not act without our family's interests in mind, and I apologize for moving without your consent… but such windows close swiftly, and I felt a need to move before this was lost to me."
"Then tell me, and we will see if I am so willing to forgive you as you hope," she said, not eased in the slightest by her tone. Her eyes stared at his head as he bowed before her coldly, waiting.
"The heirs… we must consider them all heirs. That man. He sent two of them away, and allowed them to be fostered without proper guidance," Sukishi said in the same low tones. "Imperial sons and daughters… and they grow up under the close and tight thumb of the clans… not the Otomo. My wife, the kami bless her, would complicate one avenue, but another has opened to me… barely."
"The Rogue? You think we have not tried?" she said with the coldness of ice. "There would be an Otomo at his side were we to have the choice."
"We have failed because we were unwilling to compromise the pawn sent to serve him," Sukishi risked. He went on before she could respond. "If a man were to indebt himself to the Mantis and prove himself a value to them… that would place him possibly closer, especially if he were patient."
"And he would be under their thumb as well, of little use," she snorted.
"But he would be there. Do we have any we can say are there now? I saw him upon the back of an Orochi, mother. I have not spread this, but I saw him there, on the back of a beast of the sea. Dare we risk not at least having a voice?"
She was taken aback. Her eyes narrowed and she frowned, looking back towards the house. Finally she sighed and nodded. "That little bit of gossip is not whispered of late. It had been seen as too fantastic, but if you have seen it. Fine. You are correct that we need a voice there, even a compromised one. It would be a start, but you cannot simply waltz in and become his retainer. The Rogue is their prize. He is one remaining key they have in a losing political fight with the other clans."
"Then I will take a step. If the Emperor agrees to the line of thought that was given, that a voice of our families among the Imperials would help him find greater cooperation by them, and if Shikan truly believes that my presence will aid in the keeping of peace on the seas as he wishes, I may be named an ambassador to them. It would be a start, and might afford me chances to reach deeper and closer to him."
"A small start… but a start," she mused, looking down at him. "Very well. I will chastise you publicly tomorrow. For now, I believe that you may have found a place for yourself in this… though there is one thing. Remember the story of the Kaiu who made wings of wax and metal. Do not soar too high, lest the son burn you, my son."
"I will remember, mother," Sukishi said sincerely, rising and looking in his mother's eyes. It was, perhaps, the first time that an understanding had been there in many years.