Winter Court in the High House of Light
“Hatsu-kun, did you hear me?”
Shiba Hatsu his fiancé Asako Asami sat at a low table with several other samuari around them. Present were all friends of the couples, Kitsuki Ayoko the Dragon Magistrate, Yotsu Subatai, the famed ‘Demon Tiger’ of the Yotsu, and Otomo Arishkagi, the Scorpion turned Imperial.
The group dined quietly on a porch overlooking the mountains around the High House of Light. A cool morning breeze swept through the small porch, it was still very early in the winter season and the last lingerings of fall was still in the air.
“I am sorry Asami-chan, what did you say?”
“I asked if you wanted to take a walk in the garden we saw on the road leading up to this place before it gets to cold…. what were you thinking about?”
Hatsu eyes seemed to snap back into the real world, “I’m sorry Asami, I was just thinking about which temples I wanted to pray at today. But yes, a walk in that garden does seem like a good idea, before long I suspect that it will be covered in snow. How about we go right after we finish with breakfast?”
The young Phoenix maiden smiled her answer as she sipped her tea cup.
“Hatsu, I do not believe that I can think of a better place for you to spend you winter, with the exception of Shiro Shiba. You must feel very at home here.”
Hatsu’s gaze turned across the table to see that the young Dragon investigator, Kitsuki Ayoko was speaking to him. He nodded in response, “Hai Ayako-san, I am rather excited.”
Asami chimed in “I think this is a the most excited I’ve seen him in many years, although I think I remember something similar the first time his sensei was planning on beginning Iaijutsu instruction. He was as he is now, simply giddy.”
This comment brought the flicking of fans and snickering of all of assembled samauri.
Hatsu huffed in mock indignation, “I am not giddy!” he proclaimed.
Some number of weeks later
Silence, and then the sudden crack of bokken.
“Good, good, but shift your foot out just a little bit more to the right… there that is a better center of balance post strike,” Kakita Shinji instructed.
The pair stood facing each other in the middle of a dojo, dressed only in hakama. Their practice swords each holding at their strike points on the other. It was clear that the Crane held the better position and was the winner of the duel.
“From that position, your balance is better post strike and you improve your silhouette slightly should you be bested in the draw.”
The figures recovered and bowed deeply to each other.
“Hai, my thanks my friend. I am glad to have someone to practice with during the long winter,” said the Phoenix.
“Of course, I too am glad for the practice, Hatsu. I fear between all of the practice between you, Sabaurashi-dono, and his students I will be sick of art of the fast draw by spring!” Shinji said laughing.
His companion broke into a grin as they both placed their practice swords in the rack and each turn a turn drawing from a jug of water.
“So where are you praying at today my friend?”
“Well, I have been making my way around the shrines to the Seven Fortunes, the Thunders, and now I am on the Great Kami. As fortune would have it, I’m going to see Dojo’s shrine today.”
“Hai, excellent, I would join you but Saburashi-dono has requested that I speak with him today… privately,” said the Crane, “it is my hope that he has been impressed with my skill thus far and might request that I train under him.”
“That is great news my friend, I am certain that is the case. May the Kami be with you,” Hatsu said, bowing to his friend.
The bow was returned, “You as well, Hatsu-san.”
Hatsu collected and redressed himself and then headed off to the Shrine of Doji.
Passing through one of the corridors, the bushi noticed a strange sight down of the other passages. Turning, the sight of a small tattooed man on his arms and knees smelling at the ground like a dog greeted him. The monk wandered around for a time like this, smelling the floor of the temple as if looking for something and then crawled into a shrine alcove and disappeared.
“Strange Dragons…” he murmured.
A few minutes the Shiba arrived at the Shrine of Doji, a grand but serene affair with a life-sized statue of Dojo keening in the middle.
Dancing around statue was a woman in Crane colors. She dripped and swirled in a dance around the room, her duel fans spinning and twirling in unison with her movement. Hatsu stood transfixed watching her for sometime.
Eventually the identity of the Crane woman dawned on him, she was Doji Akane, Regent of the Crane land. As if sensing his recognition of her, Akane stopped her dancing and looked up at him.
“Oh excuse me samauri, I did not see you come in,” Akane said plainly.
Hatsu bowed deeply, “Please Regent-sama, I do not wish to disturb you. I am simply here to make my benedictions to Lady Doji.”
The Crane hesitated for a moment as she appraised the intruder, “Oh, well please continue then. I met you, do I know… Shiba Hatsu-san?”
“Hai, my Lady. We during the Emerald Tournament, my charge Asako Asami assisted you in your attempts to win the heart of your late husband. My condolences on his death.”
“Hai, I do remember you now,” Akane’s face seem to brighten slight, she bowed respectfully to the Shiba. “I am glad to see you again, Shiba Hatsu, please continue your mediations.”
Hatsu nodded and took a position in the corner of the room. The Lady of the Crane began to dance again.
Evening, several days later
“Thank you so much for coming, Regent-sama,” Asami said polity while gesturing to Akane to sit at the head of the table.
“Please, you may both call me Akane during these circumstances. I am glad to see both of you again,” said the Lady of the Crane.
“Of course, both Asami and I are glad to see you again as well. Further, we are pleased that you would seek to accept our invitation for the Tea Ceremony,” commented Hatsu as he prepared for the ceremony.
Asami continued the conversation as Hatsu busied himself, “Are you glad to be back in the lands of your birth my Lady?”
Akane looked off into nothing for a few moments before collecting herself and answering, “Hai, I am very glad to back in the mountains of my birth Clan. While I certainly enjoy the absolute perfection that is the Crane lands, my heart belongs in the austere beauty that is this place.”
“Indeed, the Dragon mountains are like none other place in Rokugan,” Asami continued, “Hatsu and I are both glad to be away from the duties of our families. We were both shocked at the prospect at the invitation to Togashi-sama. I assume that we would both be somewhere else, probably in the lands of the Lion or Crab helping to avoid a war in the coming spring…”
The snap of a fan from across the table caused Asami to pause mid-sentence. Doji Akane looked her with a visage of frustration, which softened back to a smile after a moment. “Please Phoenix-sans, let us not discuss the events of Clan or Empire. Lets us simply be three samurai, enjoying each others honorable and culture company.”
Hatsu and Asami looked at each other momentarily, and then bowed their heads in silent acknowledgement. “Of course,” they said in unison.
Hatsu continued, “Let us begin the ceremony then, if you please my Lady.”
Several days later
Doji Akane, Regent of the Crane, emerged into the Shrine to Doji. The room was empty save for the statue of the Crane Kami and the kneeing form of Shiba Hatsu.
“Hatsu-san,” began the Crane, moving the Phoenix from his prayers, “I have come as you requested, but I am very confused by the nature of your note. You should be move careful when sending notes to the Regent of a Great Clan.”
The Shiba rose, bowed deeply, and then returned to his kneeing position. “I apologize for the confusion, but it was necessary to get you away from your fellow clansmen for a while.”
Akane faced contorted in slight confusion and she edged to the door, one of her hands moving to grasp one of the two fans tucked into her obi.
“Allow me to explain… I wish to make amends for interrupting your dance several days ago.”
The Crane relaxed slight, now understanding more of the nature of Hatsu’s letter.
“A question for your, Lady of Cranes, are you aware of the story of Bayushi Kachiko and her husband, Shoju?”
“Of course Hatsu-san,” Akane confessed, confused.
The Shiba gestured to the long flute sitting in front of him. “The Scorpion Thunder would play this flute to bring serenity to her Champion,” Hatsu continued, “I have been working on the melody for several days now and I believe I have it correct. I wish to offer you the same gift Kachiko offered Shoju. A moment’s distraction for the duty, the chance for a moment of clarity and serenity.”
“If you will indulge me, Doji-sama?”
The Crane removed the fans, one in each hand and bowed deeply to the Phoenix. She stretched momentary, and moved to take her place in the center of the shrine.
Hatsu picked up the magical flute and began to play, slow and lilting at first.
Matching the melody, Akane began to step, and then step again, her fans slowly moving and twirling with each note.
As his Shiba sensei had instructed him for each, Hatsu surrendered himself to the Void, pushing himself into it, allowing it to envelope and surround him. After a time, he could feel the woman across the room form him, her twists, her turns, the flicks of her fan. The Void began to intermixed with the music of the Scorpion Thunder’s flute.
The music rising, Hatsu could almost feel the notes pulsing along with the heartbeat of the Crane woman, the two becoming one motion, one pulse.
His eyes became heavy, his vision blurry, but through it all he focused his senses on the figure dancing in front of him.
At this, a gentle force began to overcome him, the magic of the flute began to take effect. The compulsion that calmed the enrage heart of Bayushi Shoju all those centuries ago.
Hatsu’s eyes opened, he realized, and saw not what he expected to see.
Instead, he saw the elemental kami rushing through the Shrine. Air dancing around the room, earth shift and spinning in the floor, fire dancing on the tops of candles, water drifting from his breath, and everywhere void was laughing. They were all swirling, swirling around the form of Doji Akame, her figure outlined in stunning combination of all of the elements, churning in and amongst themselves.
The event crested its crescendo and then slowly, deliberately, came to a stop.
Doji Akane looked across the room from the same position where she had begun the dance. Almost as if the dance had never occurred.
“Perfect.” was the word that escaped her smiling lips.
The following week
Hatsu walked softly into the Shrine of Doji, flute in hand. Akane’s message had instructed him to meet her at here at midnight.
There, praying quietly next to the statue of Doji was the form of the Crane Regent, dressed in a subdued, simple kimono suited for a graceful and sweeping dance style. She sensed the Phoenix’s entrance, rose, and bowed to him. “Greeting Hatsu, I am glad that you could join me.”
Shiba Hatsu bowed deeply to the Crane Lady, “Of course, Sama, how I could I refuse an invitation for an encore?” The smirk across his face betrayed his emotions.
“Hai,” the Crane gestured to his position.
The two took up their stances and each began their part. Music and movement seemed to blend into one for Hatsu, reality and the Void becoming as one for a time. Calm and harmony pervaded the room.
And after a time, they concluded. Right where they have begun.
Each turned and bowed to the other out of deep respect for the other’s art. Words of thanks were not necessary.
“My Lady, a question?”
Akane had wondered over to a small clay jug of water she had brought with her, sipping from it lightly. “Of course, Hatsu, what is it.”
“Well…” he stuttered momentarily and then summoned his will, “Akane-dono, it is the duty of a samurai represent his lord in court. However, ever since my childhood, I have always been apprehensive about some social situations. It has only ever been minor hindrance in my life, and my duties have forced me to become more adept at social situations.”
“Given that you are Regent of the Clan of Doji and a most skilled diplomat and orator, I request that honor me with some instruction to allow me to conqueror this…deficiency.”
Akane considered her Phoenix companion for a while, her fan quietly disturbing the silence of the shrine.
“I would be honored to assist you in this ask. We will begin tomorrow morning, after we finish our prayers.”
“Thank you, Doji-sama.”
Several Days Later
Greasy shadowed light washed across the figures of Hatsu, Asami and their companions at the anti-chamber of Togashi Imasu, the only light entering from a small stone window. The full moon hangs heavy in the night sky, ominous and foreboding.
A shadowy figure, appearing something like Togashi of Imasu, appears from the shadows. The figure’s skin glosses like a mutli-faceted sheet of obsidian.
Hatsu’s adrenaline shifted into high gear, he had seen this figure, in the Shrine of the Three Sisters; the avatar of the Shadow Dragon.
The two Otomo present began to address the creature, Hatsu largely ignored them and sized up his opponent.
“…Imasu-san had given into the Three Sins before the Shadow Dragon even arrived in this place,” the avatar spitted at the two Imperials
Hatsu felt the Void tug behind him as Asami channeled the kami into a brilliant strike Fire against Imasu. The flames flickered off the obsidian shell coating the avatar.
Quicker than Hatsu could even think to react, the creature lashed out with a palm strike against Asami, dropping her to the ground. Isamu ended his strike exactly where he stood the moment before.
More words, Hatsu turned back to see Asami barely alive, gasping for breath. She moved slowly to summon the water kami to revive herself.
My charge has been assaulted, I must challenge this avatar over this affront.
But I will throw my life away, there is no way to defeat this creature.
Time passed, words echoed from his companions. Asami rose slowly behind him.
But your honor has been insulted, you must answer this insult to your honor.
The sound of more words swirled around him. Asami says something
The avatar speaks directly to Asami, “And you, you are the most sinful of all assembled here. You used the power of the Void to change reality so that you could marry your yojimbo. Sin of Desire indeed, Little Phoenix.”
Shocked, Hatsu looked back into the eyes of his fiancé. A cold stare of concentration greeted him… and a look of regret. Later, her eyes seemed to say.
“…but you must allow your regrets to dominate your soul, Imasu-dono,” pled the voice of Otomo Arashikage, “you will met your love again in another life.”
Other words echoed from across the chamber, from the voice of Kakita Shinji, but Hatsu did not understand them.
Suddenly Hatsu knew what he needed to do.
Stepping forward, Hatsu channeled the Void into his voice to add weight to his words, “Togashi Imasu, you are the Champion of the Dragon Clan, a right and honorable family that has served the Empire since its founding. You have dishonored yourself by allowing the corrupting influence of the Shadow Dragon to pervade your soul. You have but remaining you along the path of honor. You are a samauri, you must perform the three cuts! It would be my honor to act as your second.”
The real face of Togashi Imasu pushes through the blackness. He slumps towards the side of the room and a sheathed wakizashi appears in his hand.
Hatsu’s katana jumped into his hand as he moved behind the Dragon Lord. Otomo Torikagi appeared next Imasu drawing the blade and holding out towards the Dragon’s chest. “Here my Lord, I will catch you.”
With an economy of motion the Dragon Lord fell upon the outstretched sword and Hatsu’s sword crashed down, cleaning removing the head.
Silence falls across the room.
Otomo Torikagi looked up with glowing eyes.
The assembled samauri bow before the new Lord of the Dragon Clan.
The following day
Hatsu and his betrothed quietly sipped tea, the morning sun casting heavy shadows across the small stone room.
“Hatsu so, about yesterday…”
The bushi looked up, “Hai, Asami?”
The small water priestess summoned herself and began forcefully, “What occurred yesterday, the avatar of the Shadow Dragon speaks lies. He was trying to find a way to cause division between us…”
Hatsu starring straight into her eyes caused her to stop mid-sentence, “You have always protected me, I have always protected you my betrothed. Deeds, not words define who we are, Asami-chan.”
“Hatsu…” tears started to roll down Asami’s face.
The bushi slowly moved closer to his charge. He hesitated slightly and then reached out and grasped Asami softly, pulling her closer to him.
“I have always been your guardian and protector, my Lady. Never doubt this.”
He reached in and kissed her softly…
Evening of the same day
The shrine to Lord Togashi was empty, save for the Shiba. The giant golden statue of Dragon Kami starred down upon the shrine, its continuance appeared deep in thought.
Hatsu sat for some time thinking about the events of the Winter Court. Eventually, his thoughts turned to the events of the years since his gempukku. A storm was coming, the Peace of the Miya was coming undone, and another Clan War threatened to begin in the spring. The Void had spoken about this before, but only inklings, small tugs against Hatsu’s mind.
If there was any place that he might find some answer, some clue, as to how to avoid or soften the coming conflict, the Shrine of the Dragon Kami would be such a place.
In preparation, Hatsu fell into a deep kata, allowing himself to clear his mind of all things. He focused solely upon the movements of his body, fusing his will and physical self into one, abet for just a moment.
After finishing, he tugged on a jug of water and rested for a moment.
Assuming the lotus position in front of the great statue, Hatsu pushed himself out into the Void.
His soul swam in the depths of the Void, rising and sinking through the eddies.
He searched, searched for something, anything. A solution, an answer, an action, a location, an idea, a way to avoid the coming storm.
<Void dumping for either a 10k8 Divination or a 10k8+10 Meditation check trying to find something in the Void that would help prevent the coming darkness to the Empire. Hatsu is very aware of all of the prophecy that has appeared in modules up to this point>>
A light in his eyes brought him out of his trance, a small pillar of light from the morning sun shone from small window high in the shrine.
Morning of the final day of Winter Court
Asako Asami sat quietly mediating as Hatsu moved gracefully around her, deep in the meditative trance of his kata.
After a while, the bushi finished creating a deeper karmic connection between them in the Void.
“Asami-chan,” Hatsu began, “I noticed something strange when I was bathing this morning.”
“Oh? Is something wrong my beloved?”
“I am not certain, here please look at it,” the bushi removed the top section of his practice gi to reveal a strange mark on this upper left chest.
The mark was circular in appearance, faintly red in coloration, that appeared to be the left half of the Phoenix clan mon.
“It appeared this morning…”
Asami moved closer, “It appears to be a tattoo…” The mark started to glow softly as she walked closer.
“Asami, look down at yourself,” said Hatsu staring at his companion’s chest.
Looking down at herself, Asami saw a faint glow of blue emanating from below her kimono. Pulling part of the silk down to reveal that upper left part of her chest, she revealed a similar mark. However, this mark appeared to be the other half of the Phoenix Clan mon and faintly glowed blue.
Asami stuttered a bit and then called upon the kami to sense.
After a few moments, she continued, “I believe that this magical tattoo similar to ones possessed by the Togashi monks.”
“Interesting, perhaps we should speak with the monks about this before we depart for the Lion lands.”
“Hai, my love, let us finish breakfast first though.”