Kyuden Gotei – Early Spring,
Otomo Sukishi looked back at the city, sprawling over the entire harbor like lichen on a moss, and sighed slightly to himself. It was a rare moment where he considered the merits of what he had done, what needed to be done. This place, beautiful as it was and a gem, however crass, in the midst of the ocean, was far removed from the greater empire. Even his own managed lands, maintained by undermanagers and heimin loyal to the family, were far distant from these shores.
It was then that the last vessels began to sail away, just barely within his field of vision, that he was reminded why he was present. The old man was leaving, moving to help handle the affairs of the kami knew what ventures that the Yoritomo daimyo had in mind right now. It was a rare opportunity, one not to be passed up or left behind. It was the very nature of the opportunity that was what brought him here.
His cousins had forgotten, he reminded himself as he seated his lithe frame onto a cushion and began to make the sweeping strokes of the message he would need sent southward. They had forgotten the needs of the empire, the realities that the Toturi had never forgotten. However powerful the creature who whispered in his ear might be, that … thing could not be everywhere, and it was the Otomo’s sworn duty to be where he was not, to whittle him down, and to keep he and all other threats manageable… but it was also their duty to protect the future.
The future lay in these isles, at least potentially. Only a fool would believe that Toturi Hizatoru’s bid would go completely uncontested. Nevertheless, he was one of the most likely candidates to seat himself upon the Steel Throne. If the Otomo did not move swiftly with he and his sister, the growing reality would be that an Imperial might reign on the throne, guided entirely by forces who were not of heaven.
It was a matter of principle. No, it was a religious duty that kept him here. He sighed again and continued to write. That Scorpion had told him time and time again his duties, his honor, his place… and many times, others had come to him, proclaimed that he was fated to be in one place, in one battle or in another, that destiny drew him and others.
“They know nothing,” he murmured, half to himself, glancing at the paper and nodding in approval before he continued. It was not for mortal men to decide such things, but time and time again, they had attempted to interfere with his duties to the Otomo, to his family line, to throne itself. He was beginning to wonder at the wisdom of some of the entities who had come looking for him with their proclamations. As important as such things were, he was ill-suited for them, and here a role they had forgotten was being fulfilled. It was past time that he grasped hold of his destiny, his place in the celestial order, lest something worse take it.
“Good,” he said, letting the ink dry and sliding the scroll closed. Taking out the small seal he had been given recently by the rogue for those rare occasions he was authorized to speak with the lad’s authority, he set a mark on it, closing and sealing the document properly.
Rising, the courtier carefully brushed the strands of hair that had errantly fallen lose backwards into the tied portion behind his head. With that practiced motion, he stepped out, looking for the next man that he needed to speak to. The missive would need to leave as soon as possible, after all, if it was to have any impact on the winter’s court season.
* * *
Sukishi gave a gentle tap with his fan on the edge of the desk, drawing the young lord’s attention. It was only on rare occasions that he was afforded the time to further his training as he was already of age and had several duties yet to perform each day in preparation for his coming marriage. “Attention, -sama. Tell me, what do you think is the purpose of the lesson?” he asked, raising an eyebrow ever so slightly, though he permitted himself a slightly indulgent smirk.
The young man bobbed his heads, but the motion of his eyes said that they had been rolling only a moment before. It was only the relative privacy that permitted him such leniency, Sukishi reflected silently, but he was a soul of far greater station. Privilege had its rights, even if once in a while… it was a touch insufferable.
“I confess, teacher,” he said, using the formality for the occasion even if the Otomo was no proper teacher. “I am uncertain what value this really has for me. It is not likely I will be dealing with jurisdictions over vassal families, you know.”
The smile rose slightly. It was a teaching moment, though not in law. Sukishi’s eyes shone only slightly as he replied. “Tell me, my lord, and please be honest,” he said, allowing himself to briefly make eye contact. “Has anyone ever tricked you with words that only sounded correct at first?”
The boy made a slightly undignified face and nodded. “I had a teacher who would do that a lot to trip me up,” he said, shaking his head. “He wasn’t very good at it though, so I always saw through it.”
“Yes, but there are those who are good at such things,” Sukishi replied, raising a delicate hand, one finger draped over the tines. “And you know that not all souls, however honorable we would wish they be, will behave themselves accordingly. Some even excel in such falsities.”
“Oh, I know,” he said, his tone bored. “But I will have advisors to catch such things, ne? Men such as yourself.”
“You flatter me too much, -sama,” Sukishi said, turning his head down and only hoping he had the chance to screen such efforts somewhat. “Still, even good men fail. Have another look at the lesson today. Tell me what might happen if the decision favored the magistrate’s desires.”
There was another eye-motion, but the boy did as he was asked. He looked over the carefully chosen example for a long moment before his eyes widened. “But, in this tone, if this decision were made…, the Hogosha would,” he said, glancing up and seeming confused.
“Precisely. It is … technically accurate, merely a nuance, but if this choice were made, I think you see the implications for your gracious hosts, ne?” Sukishi said, smiling more openly now, the quirk visible. “And sometimes, a person might use what is technically within the bounds of law and honor to do something such as this… is it not a good choice to be prepared, that one never be taken unawares by the cunning?”
“Yes, but to do so would be a gross abuse,” he protested, seeming almost shocked. “Who would demand such a privilege?”
“I believe that it was a Crab… a man by the name of Hiruma Amagi, about a hundred and twelve years ago. My own teacher used this example with me as well, many years ago,” Sukishi said, nodding. “The matter took almost a year of haggling and Amagi’s seppuku to unravel completely. Quite a mess.”
“I see,” he said, looking at the paper again in what was almost a sort of mute shock. “But, though it is wise for a Lord to know such things, I do not see why this applies to me… I am not simply…”
Sukishi raised the fan in a forestalling motion and tapped at the scroll before the boy, the motion just a bit closer than he would normally make and something that made him feel almost improper to one so superior to him. However, this one was far less formal at times. The motion, though, drew a second widening of the eyes as the boy understood who had signed the document.
“I … believe that I understand, teacher. Perhaps… we can continue a little longer,” he said softly, frowning.
“Nothing would please me more, my lord,” Sukishi said, the smile slipping away as he resumed the small luxury of his life.
* * *
Sukishi paused in his walk. Looking about him, he noticed a tree in the garden. In the climate of the isles, it did not flourish as it should. Still, lightly pink blossoms fluttered down from it slowly, dotting the ground around the verdant article, likely brought to appease the sensibilities of mainlanders such as himself.
As he was looking up wistfully, he could hear footsteps behind him. A figure emerged at the edge of the doorway and glanced at him. “You seem well, Otomo-sama,” it said in a voice that sounded partially familiar and yet not exactly identical to any he could recall. It was not the first time.
“I find my body grows accustomed to the clime here day by day,” Sukishi said, smiling and giving a half-bow backwards, one returned by the other. “It… is not as easy as I had hoped, but I grow more acclimated with time.”
“Of course,” his companion said idly, as if unconcerned with whether Sukishi had answered at all. “The master’s lessons go well. I am informed he seems to be taking to them better than expected.”
“The proper stress is sometimes needed,” Sukishi said, reaching up to catch a falling petal on one of his fingers. “I think that he understands their value more personally now.”
“Perhaps, though I am curious of something,” he replied. “Why the interest in complicating matters with our neighbors to the south?” In the tone was a hint of stone, of flint.
“The offer should complicate nothing for my gracious hosts,” Sukishi said, shaking his head. “After all, an offer so grand, and phrased to give honor to one so… celebrated… as him should not be construed as an attack against his person.”
Person. What a delicate way to describe that… man.
“Yet, you know the result of this, should it be accepted,” that voice intoned.
“How could I? He is as unpredictable as the storms of the sea,” Sukishi said, shaking his head. He sincerely hoped that Hizatoru’s backing would make it particularly difficult to refuse such an offer, especially if his father backed the notion. “His presence in the court would be… rather unclear, would it not? An unusual opportunity to meet one of our most colorful souls.”
“Or rank, unbridled chaos.”
“As you say… but surely, he has refused all such invitations before. I fear that this will be no different,” Sukishi lied. It was as smooth as silk, as sweet as honey, and as false as a snake’s skin. They came to him more easily than he ever could have imagined now, after so many years. However, appeasing men such as this, men who were already aware of whatever he planned, the eyes who always watched him, it was all part of the duties of the chosen of heaven. What did a few untruths matter in the face of Tengoku’s will?
“Most likely, and as you have said, the opportunities are truly present. I and a few others were merely curious of your intentions,” the man said softly. It would take no effort to know who ‘a few others’ referred to. At this point, there were really only two, perhaps three, others who this might mean.
“Please give my best to your compatriots,” Sukishi said, turning and bobbing his head. However, as he did, the soul was already gone down the hallways. The Otomo sighed and shook his head a little. “How appropriate, beneath this tree…”
Permitting himself a small smile, he let the petal fall from his finger. Today had been a good day. Perhaps he would treat himself by speaking with that Rider from the other day… though he was unsure if he wished to bear with the aftermath. Still, it had been quite a long time, and even the most stolid of men required entertainment now and then. An unstressed servant was an effective one, after all.
All in the service of heaven…