The Era of the Heavenly Empress

Return of the Gajin

It had only been a matter of time before the gajin that had slain thousands of brave bushi during The Great Warrior Pilgrimage 1173 would return, and so they did, during the Winter Court of 1177. The manner of their return was surprising, however, as The Kingdom of Yoritomo‘s ships they kept scouting towards the foreign lands reported a gajin ship, much smaller than the iron vessels loaded with gajin pepper, was growing closer to their lands. Yet, it had raised a white flag! The Yoritomo Prince, Yoritomo Kosho had one of the Kingdom’s own vessels fitted wit ha white flag, and sent to meet this apparently friendly missionary. Word quickly came back to Kosho that the main in charge was named Koriron, and could actually speak Rokugani! A quick question to Cado revealed that she could not speak their language, and as such Kosho went to meet them. Further surprising the Kingdom’s representative, it became apparent quickly that Koriron was there to negotiate peace!

Yoritomo Kosho was always one for recognizing oppertunity, he quickly entered into negotiations, finding that Koriron was willing to trade much of the advanced technology of the Merenae kingdoms for simple gold, which The Kingdom of Yoritomo had in spades, thanks to their trading. Koriron offered faster engines for kobunes, while Kosho wanted one of the iron ships that he had seen in action near The Burning Sands. When Koriron’s price was named to be a shoulder high pile of gold, Kosho changed the items in question to the devestating rifles that that the Merenae had. Eventually, it was settled on 5 engines that could burn coal or charcoal, and fifty rifles…for five katana blades. To a Yoritomo like Kosho, a katana meant less than his prized Yoritomo longbow, after all, so why not? All of this was settled in only a month’s time, which led to Koriron’s next question: could the riches of the Emerald Empire be plundered if the Kingdom worked together with the Merenae?

Yoritomo Kosho had already told Koriron that the Emerald Empire and The Kingdom of Yoritomo had split apart, but that even though the Empire did not want to take the islands, there was no way that the Kingdom had enough forces to land and plunder anything on the coast, even the rich Crane cities. A plan forming in his mind, Kosho asked Koriron to hold a demonstration, one that would show Yoritomo Naizen that the Merenae were certainly worth allying with against the Empire. Naizen however, just as cunning as Kosho, realized that the reason the Merenae had come in peace was because they feared the powerful, unknown magics of the shugenja of Rokugan, while Rokugan feared the guns and gajin pepper of the Merenae. If they played both sides against one another, The Kingdom of Yoritomo could come out ahead, and much, much richer. So it was that in the spring of 1178, that Yoritomo Kosho returned to the Emerald Empire, to Toshi Ranbo, bringing a dire warning of the gajin’s return…

Instead of being received by The Empress, or even her consort Hantei Ryozo, he found himself greeted by Otomo Kage. While he was one of the highest ranking Otomo’s, he was hardly one that was likely to receive and listen to Kitsu Kosho‘s statement; Kage’s hate of the Mantis, and therefore the Yoritomo, was very well known. After only a few hours it became clear to Kosho that he was not about to make progress, as Kage himself had not even arrived, and so instead he went to see one of his oldest friends; Toturi Sozen. To Kosho’s dissapointment, it became clear that Sozen no longer bore any suspicion or distrust towards the Empress, and indeed, was once more her loyal servant. While they spoke at length on honor, and what they had done together, in the end their conversation came to a close with Kosho rising and declaring Sozen was dead to him from this moment on. With no other choice, Kosho was forced to meet with Kage once again.

The two met with little fanfare, in private, and did not even exchange a single bow. The tension in the room was thick enough to be cut with a sword, as the two spoke to one another curtly, Kitsu Kosho told Otomo Kage of the threat the Merenae represented, a threat that Kosho himself had helped to engineer! Kage did not seem to relent even after Kosho stated that the Merenae were coming with not less than 20 of their iron vessels! When he then offered to make sure the Merenae didn’t land on the coast, if the Empire was willing to provide them with enough gold to assemble a large enough fleet, Kage countered that the Empire could not be bought, and then asked why the Merenae would skip The Kingdom of Yoritomo when it was clearly a smaller and more easily raided target, even if the Yoritomo were still masters of the seas! Kosho simply stated that they were not interested in such an admittedly small goal as Kage had said, and Kage was forced to take Kosho’s words to the temporary Emerald Champion, Hantei Ryozo. After hearing from Kage, Ryozo agreed to finally speak to Kosho. While waiting, Kosho also met with Bayushi Yoshimi in secret, with Yoshimi agreeing to help Kosho with whatever he needed…once Kosho knew what that might be.

Finally, it was time for Hantei Ryozo to meet with Kitsu Kosho. Kosho repeated much of what he had told Kage, while Ryozo expressed his concern that ‘pirates’ might abscond with much of the increased Yoritomo fleet, thus proving a greater threat to Rokugan in the long run. Further, he didn’t believe appeasing the gajin would last forever. Paying them to leave would only embolden them. Kosho repeated that twenty ships were coming, and while it was possible The Kingdom of Yoritomo might be able to negotiate with the Merenae, he would rather choose the friends he already knew. Gravely, Ryozo asked for four days, and when Kosho granted them, he met with Toturi Sozen, Otomo Kage, Bayushi Yoshimi and Kakita Tiru. While the five discussed the dangers and benefits of ensuring the Kingdom would aid them, ultimately Ryozo decided to give a gift of half of what Kosho wanted; all the gold, but none of the lumber. Kosho had been sent to start a war, to give the gajin a reason to attack Rokugan, instead, he had accomplished what Yoritomo Naizen would never have dreamed possible; gaining the gold and the good will (to some extend) of the Emerald Empire! Yet Ryozo was not a fool to imagine that was the end of it; indeed, Kaiu engineers of the Crab marched to the Crane and Phoenix coasts to fortify them, and furthermore, entire legions of shugenja took up residence there as well, ensuring that the coastline was now the most fortified position in the Empire besides the Great Kaiu Wall itself!

It took nearly a year for the construction and troop movements to be finished, a year in which Yoritomo Naizen traded lightly with both the Empire, and the Merenae. When the time came for the demonstration, Kosho’s words brought an unexpected development; the Merenae would not attack at all, fearing the power of the shugenja when Kosho told them exactly what was arrayed against them! Instead, a new district was created on the islands in The Kingdom of Yoritomo, one that promoted trade between they and the Merenae, and even the Burning Sands…and certain unscruplous persons in the Emerald Empire. If ever there had been doubt about the existence of the Kingdom as a power and a force to be respected, it was now gone.
(more to come)

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Hantei's Truth, Toturi's Fate

Three years passed, and the Empire waited. The various persons of note were hardly lax, however. Bayushi Tosen was hard at work shoring up Rokugan’s defenses for the inevitable gajin return. By now, he was known as one of the most prominent generals in all the land, and certainly the most lauded. Bayushi Yoshimi had been busy expanding his tea house empire, becoming one of the richest men of any Clan. Secretly, it also became a spy network, answering only to him. Otomo Kage, planning in advance as was his way, began to develop the land on which the next Emerald Championship would be held, as the position was still held nominally by Hantei Ryozo, after Shosuro Jimen had been slain by Akodo Sozen. Sozen in the meantime had taken the family name of Toturi in order to avoid bringing shame to the Akodo after joining The Kingdom of Yoritomo as their Rikugunshokan. Kakita Tiru & Kakita Kara celebrated the birth of their first child, a daughter. Tiru also, with the approval of Doji Domotai resurrected the disbanded Daidoji Harriers, now based from Lonely Lotus Garden, with some differed techniques.

After the conclusion of Winter Court 1177, Bayushi Tosen returned to the castle the Soshi had constructed for him in Lonely Pines, the lands given to him by the Lion when the Scorpion had still held an alliance with the honorable clan. Only a few days after his return guards brought news that he had visitors; Usagi Kenji, a Hare duelist that competed nearly ever year at the tournaments held in Fukuharashi, and Kitsu Sojiro, one of the powerful shugenja that had gone on The Great Warrior Pilgrimage 1173. After exchanging some reminiscing over the various duels they’d both fought in their careers, and how they might fare against one another, Tosen invited Kenji and his companion to dinner.

After the meal, Kenji presented the true reason for his visit; a scroll, signed by the Hare Clan Champion, inviting Tosen to a private banquet of honor in Hare lands. The Hare Clan Champion’s letter revealed that not all of the Minor Clans supported Tosen’s aggressive defensive measures along the coast. The banquet was not only to honor Tosen for his work, but also to give the Scorpion Rikugunshokan a chance to explain and prove that he was the best choice to follow, to win over support from the few holdouts that didn’t believe his actions were proper. Tosen accepted, deciding to bring other members from The Council of Thunders as well.

Later that night, however, as Tosen was deep in thought wandering the corridors of his castle, he saw at the end of a hall two arrows embedded in the wall. Quietly drawing his sword, he crept to the end of the corridor and carefully looked around the corner, only to find Bayushi Kitsunejo unconscious and wounded from what looked like both sword strikes and barehanded blows. After ensuring she would live, Tosen checked the nearby secret passages, and finding one improperly barred, he descended through it, emerging in one of the training rooms in a ‘hidden’ area of the castle. Ahead of him was a flickering light, which he followed, and finally cornered Usagi Kenji just as the Hare Clan was about to leave the room. Putting his blade on his sword, Tosen watched the other carefully, and when Kenji also rested his hand on the pommel of his blade, Tosen attacked.

First trying to simply batter the Hare to the ground, the Scorpion found him too agile, and so he drew his blade, only for Kenji to again evade the attack with remarkable agility, Kenji running up the nearest wall and flipping off of it to land behind Tosen. It was then that Kitsu Sojiro made his presence known, casting a powerful Water spell that struck Tosen, but the Scorpion resisted the kami’s full effects, the torrent of waves not enough to knock him from his feet. In retaliation, and marking the shugenja as the most obvious threat, he lashed out, nearly killing Sojiro in one blow. Shouting at Tosen that the Scorpion was a Kolat spy, Kenji missed him with a sword blow, but then lashed out and kicked him across the jaw! Desperately, Sojiro called upon the kami once more and this time rather than try and kill Tosen, he teleported him upwards three floors! Tosen immediately called for the guard, but Sojiro was a master of magic that let one move quickly, and Kenji was a Hare…Sojiro escaped easily, but as Tosen descended back into the lower levels of the castle, he found the Hare searching through the rooms at impossible speed; one last spell from Sojiro before the Lion shugenja had left the castle.

When Kenji noticed him, he demanded to know where the piece of the maho scroll that The Council of Thunders had split up was. Tosen hid his surprise well, but it was clear the secret of the Council had spread over the past three years. After telling Kenji why the Council did what it did regarding the scroll, and listening to the other’s accusations, he decided the only way to assuage the Hare’s concerns was to do as he asked. This, he handed the maho scroll to the other bushi. Kenji accepted it, and told him to meet with both he and Sojiro in the village where Hida Maki had taken leave to protect her own scroll. After asking Kenji how long it would take to obtain the others, Kenji only shrugged, and said that he’d already managed to get three of them, without telling Tosen who they had belonged to originally. He also asked for a letter of introduction to Kakita Tiru. Not only to gain Tiru’s trust, if necessary, but also to compare the handwriting to the maho scroll itself, ‘just in case’, in Kenji’s words. It wasn’t hard to guess than which scrolls he’d taken from the other council members; Kitsuke Maeko, Isawa Banasu, and Moto Michimo. Kenji revealed his suspicions were truer than Tosen knew; it was Maeko that had given him her scroll willingly, and trusted the Hare to discover the truth one way or another. Saying his goodbyes, Kenji met with Sojiro, who had recovered from Tosen’s devastating attack with help from the kami, and using the shugenja’s magic, they left for Lonely Lotus Garden.

There, they found easy entrance, a letter from the Hare Clan Champion and the letter from Bayushi Tosen ensuring that Kakita Tiru would see them. There, they explained their purpose, along with the fact that Tosen had willingly given his scroll to them. When Tiru asked why they had chosen him to be one of the last to seek out in the Empire, Kenji answered only that the Hare clan was small, and word traveled fast among them. Tiru could only shake his head; clearly Usagi Ariso still spoke of him. And often. Agreeing that the Hare would be the one to prove whether the maho scroll that could have aided in The Empress’s ascent was damning of her truth or not, he bade them stay the night, so they could set out the next day to meet with Hida Maki. During the night though, Tiru encountered Kakita Notsuran, who walked about in a scandalous lack of dress. When he confronted her, he realized she was sleepwalking, even as she settled into a fighting stance. Determining that she was headed to the guest chambers, he confronted Kenji, asking if he knew what was going on. He told him that Notsuran suffered from Kolat brainwashing, and that there was no known way to help her. Reluctantly, Tiru cut her down, seeing no other option and not wishing to leave a Kolat spy in his home, even an unknowing one.

Joined by Kakita Kara, Kenji, Tiru, and Sojiro used the kami’s magic to travel the roads of the Empire with incredible speed, arriving in the small village that Hida Maki made her home in just as Bayushi Tosen did. Tosen was accompanied by Bayushi Yoshimi, who had been staying in the castle. While not a member of The Council of Thunders, Kenji still suspected Yoshimi of being Kolat, and had asked Tosen to bring him along as well. Understanding the threat that the Kolat represented, especially if they had access to this kind of powerful maho magic, Maki also gave her scroll to Kenji, and a sample of her handwriting as well. It was quickly proven that no one that was part of The Council of Thunders on the mainland had anything to do with the scroll, but Toturi Sozen was no longer part of the Empire, and Yoritomo Kosho had ceased coming to the Council entirely… Kenji only grew more worried and nearly paranoid about the Kolat when a near-fatal poisoning was stopped only by the Water kami as called on by Sojiro, the group would set forth for The Kingdom of Yoritomo in a day’s time.

Receiving news of the group’s arrival, Toturi Sozen wisely chose to keep the fact that Kakita Tiru was among them to himself. Tiru had slain Yoritomo Hanako, Yoritomo Kosho‘s first betrothed, and the daughter of the King of the Yoritomo, Yoritomo Naizen. Kenji had asked Sozen for his scroll, but when Sozen then asked Kosho for his scroll, the former Lion refused. He had never held great trust for The Council of Thunders since The Kingdom of Yoritomo had come into being, and he had married Naizen’s other daughter, Yoritomo Haruko. Indeed, he had told Naizen all about the Council! Instead, he proposed that he and Sozen go together with the rest of the group to Other Castle Island, the place where the Kolat Temple had been discovered, along with the scrolls that comprised that powerful maho spell. With no other option, as they were guests in the now-foreign land, the representatives of the Empire agreed, but not before Tiru, accompanied by Tosen met with both Naizen and Kosho in the King’s Hall. There, he told them of Hanako’s last words, and while the tension between Kosho and Tiru was all but enough to start a skirmish, Naizen said the truth would be revealed and things settled on Other Castle Island.

They took several ships to the island as a precaution, a quarter of a Legion worth of Yoritomo bushi accompanying them there, and another quarter under the Wolf’s Legion banner, serving Toturi Sozen directly. With Usagi Kenji having obtained handwriting samples of both Yoritomo Kosho and Toturi Sozen to ensure that neither of them had penned the scrolls, The Council of Thunders had mostly been vindicated by this time, especially as they had all co-operated with Kenji, to a degree. Once they had landed and Kitsu Sojiro was able to find a clear standing pool of water, he cast the spell Reflections of Panaku, and told the group of how he saw Yoritomo Hanako writing with her left hand. Grimly, Yoritomo Naizen confirmed that Hanako had been right handed; she had been using her left to pen the ‘maho’ scroll and disguise that it had been her doing. Further, Kenji pointed out how the scroll took great pains to show what it did, something a true maho practitioner would not have bothered doing. She had also forged all the diaries the Council had found, ones that implicated Yoritomo Saito for all of Hanako’s wrong-doing. It was clear at that point once and for all that Hanako had always been the true Serpent of the East in all the ways that mattered.

Inside the actual Kolat temple, Kitsu Sojiro cast the spell once more, enabling him to see Yoritomo Hanako taking the true scroll that a maho priest had used and replacing it with her falsified one, after killing the priest with her kamas. It was agreed by all present that Hanako had been falsifying evidence to protect herself, with Yoritomo Naizen again grimly stating the truth; that she had been a liar to protect herself from an early age. Faced with this evidence, Toturi Sozen decided he had no choice but to return to the Emerald Empire, and offer his seppeku to The Empress. As the group left, Yoritomo Kosho graciously told Kakita Tiru that he would let him live this day, as the kenshinzen was surrounded by those friendly to Kosho. Grimly, Tiru bowed, and departed, ensuring that things between them would still need to be settled in the future…

Returning to the Empire with the truth, the group presented themselves in audience before The Empress. Usagi Kenji spoke of how The Council of Thunders had done everything in their power to help him once they had learned of his quest, and how it was now known beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Kolat had nothing to do with who now at on the throne; The Empress was truly the Maiden of Heaven, appointed to rule the Empire as her place in the Celestial Order. The true matter though was the fate of Toturi Sozen, once known as Akodo Sozen, titlted Akodo’s Hope by the Empress herself. While the various allies of Shosuro Jimen tried to condemn him, the Empress did not return his wakazashi to him when he offered her his life. Instead, she proclaimed the following:

“The Toturi dynasty served well as stewards of the Hantei line during our absence. They defended the Empire while the Hantei could not. Thus, they defended our legacy, and thus they shall defend it again. I sentence Toturi Sozen to be the daimyo of the Toturi Imperial Family, and that the Toturi shall die a thousand times before his sentence is fulfilled.”

So it was that the Toturi line was reborn, to serve the Hantei as its first line of defenders, in some ways like the infamous Lion Deathseekers.

Yet the gajin menace still loomed…

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Winter Court 1173 Concludes; Endings

Far from Kyuden Doji, an honor guard of Lion bushi arrived in Mantis lands, seekinig Yoritomo Hanako: she was to stand before Shosuro Jimen, the Emerald Champion, and be judged as either hero to Rokugan or betrayer of the Empire. The letter had not only Jimen’s seal, but that of Akodo’s Hope, now named as such by The Empress herself. Her future husband, Kitsu Kosho said that she had sailed off a short while ago, and that he did not know where Yoritomo Hanako had gone. Grimly, the Lion thanked him for the information, and then asked after the whereabouts of Orochi Hanako. Again, Kosho said that he didn’t know where she was, and in fact, he hadn’t seen her since The Great Warrior Pilgrimage 1173. Lastly, the Lion told him that there was a warrant out for the arrest of the ronin Hanako, accused of crimes against the Empire itself. After the Lion had departed, Hanako emerged from an adjoining room, having overheard the conversation, and decided along with Kosho that they would go to Winter Court, and she would defend her actions.

Meanwhile, at Winter Court, Bayushi Yoshimi sent an emissary to Bayushi Tosen to ask for advice concerning the true danger the gajin represented. Asoko Nabashi sent a letter to Tosen, asking to speak to him privately on the third floor of a tea house, in a private room. After receiving Tosen’s answer, and meeting with him, he proceeded to speak of a ‘dream’. In that ‘dream’, the emissary spoke of the Shadowlands fighting side by side with the samurai of the Empire to combat the gajin outsiders. A ninja had come to the powerful and influential at Court and all had agreed to an alliance, as the Shadowlands despised outsiders just as strongly as the Empire did. Tosen returned that an ally of his had spoken of how the weapons carried by the gajin caused the Taint, and allying with the Shadowlands was, as a result, too dangerous for those close to the Empress to consider…and he advised that should the dream happen again, not to speak to Bayushi Paneki, but to instead come and talk to him.

Akodo Sozen meanwhile had received an invitation from Doji Akemi to come and meet with her at her home in the city. After being let in, he found her in her gardens, with her hair done in a peculiar new style; his keen eyes noting that the chopsticks holding it up were in fact a set of tiny, wooden daisho. She hastily apologized for not having the spear he had given her up amongst the other gifts she had garnered from influential individuals, instead drawing his attention to the fact that it rested near a training stand. Sozen returned that he had given her a spear; it was meant to be used! He also imagined, however, that Akemi had carefully arranged this display to impress him; he’d learned a great deal about the art of flattery from his wife, Akodo Namiko. Akodo Hoshi, the new Lion Clan Champion, joined the two of them for dinner, at which point she presented them both with scrolls containing The Pilgrim’s Prayer.

After the dinner had concluded, Doji Akemi found herself with a request to grant a meeting to Kakita Tiru, the very same Crane she had asked to defend her and her honor, if such a thing was needed, from the Emerald Champion Shosuro Jimen. During their short encounter, Tiru said that he believed it was possible for Akemi to champion the Pilgrimage, a feeling she felt very strongly towards (and that the Crane Clan Champion Dojo Domotai had strong feelings towards), as well as maintaining their current, secretive alliance with the Scorpion. As Bayushi Paneki and Jimen both agreed with the Pilgrimage as being a poor idea, against the interests of the Empire, everyone was looking for someone to blame, and Tiru suggested Yoritomo Hanako, known also the Tsunami. The scroll The Danger of the Fated had talked about the dangers of those with a Dark Fate, and she would serve as the perfect example. After some thought, Akemi agreed, and another dinner was planned…

This time it was Bayushi Tosen, his wife Bayushi Kita , Bayushi Yoshimi, and Yoshimi’s nephew Shosuro Iku who were invited to dine with Doji Akemi. They found themselves gifted with rare pearls to begin, before seating themselves. Already present were Tiru, and Akemi’s close confidant, Doji Kwanchai. There, Akemi made her intentions known to the Scorpion. She would support the Pilgrimage and those who fought and died in it, but not the Mantis, nor any of their actions. Nor would she support Yoritomo Hanako, regardless of which name she chose to call herself. Tosen was naturally suspicious; he had heard from Bayushi Paneki himself exactly how strong Akemi’s feelings were towards the pilgrimage. Kwanchai was quick to allay his concerns, stating that the Crane and Scorpion clans were enjoying a very unusual period of close co-operation, and that both sides could have what they wished when it came to the Pilgrimage. The brave bushi would be lauded, while Hanako would be condemned. Yoshimi agreed that this could very well work for all sides concerned. After the meeting, Tosen sought out Jimen, discussing Akemi’s new attitude towards the Pilgrimage. Jimen would only smile and say that it was always good to have a Doji Courtier in one’s debt.

Akodo Sozen, regardless of the current ebb and flow of public opinion, and the influence of the powerful amongst the Clans, was determined to protect Yoritomo Hanako. She had fought and died, as had many Mantis, and Sozen respected them for their sacrifice, and their willingness to perform their duty at all costs. Discussing it with his wife Akodo Namiko, they decided that the best way to protect Hanako would be to praise her actions as a bushi, how she had in act fulfilled her duty as a Mantis as mandated by the Empress, “To protect all lands not already occupied by another Great Clan”. His chief concern, however, was how to protect Hanako from her own temper.

While this was going on, in an attempt to further discredit Yoritomo Hanako, Bayushi Yoshimi struck up a conversation with Togashi Sakura on the subject of bushido. Specifically, at how poor it reflected on a samurai to change their name again and again and again. Known as a sage, it was Bayushi Paneki‘s hope (with he being the one to instruct Yoshimio to begin the conversation) that he would further reduce Hanako’s good standing. Instead, Sakura spoke about how in the pursuit of true destiny and heroism, a samurai would change their name again and again, not only at genkpeku, but at each time they were reincarnated. Paneki’s plan had backfired, with the sage’s tale supporting Hanako’s acts as both a nameless ronin, and as a member of the Orochi ronin family!

The day that Yoritomo Hanako and Kitsu Kosho arrived with a guard of Mantis bushi, Otomo Kage went to speak to Shosuro Jimen. He believed that, given the current public opinion, that execution of Hanako may not have been the bad idea, but that threatening that could be a good distraction. Jimen replied that he had a similar plan in mind, and that Kage’s sole goal was not to make her look poorly, as a Mantis, but also as a servant of the Empire.

Many of the more prominent members of each Clan were present as the trial began. Shosuro Jimen presided, and behind him was the normally empty throne reserved for The Empress, who was in attendance! Hantei Ryozo sat in a smaller throne next to her, each of them protected by a dozen Seppun guardsmen. Equally surprising though was Yoritomo Hanako‘s entrance, accompanied not only by Kitsu Kosho but also by an honor guard of the Lion’s Pride, provided by Akodo Sozen! Hanako stood facing Jimen without fear or concern, the Lion’s Pride arrayed around her, as Jimen announced the purpose of it; “We are here to determined whether or not Yoritomo Hanako is a true servant of the Empire, or a traitor to all of Rokugan.” To which Hanako replied; “I may be the truest servant in this room.” Instantly the room was filled with discussion and whispered words at her unbelievable answer.

Immediately Otomo Kage stepped forward and began to question Hanako. Instead of giving answers however, Hanako attacked Kage’s own reputation and honor, telling all present of how Kage had stood against the absorption of the Kitsuki Clan by the Mantis. Kage replied that his loyalty to his Clan had cost him an eye. The two battled back and forth, accusing one another of act after act, Hanako not even answering the simplest question. Before too long Togashi Sakura recognized the fallacies present in the ‘argument’, and stepped forward. He spoke of the 350 ships that the Empire had sent out, of the thousands of samurai that had left and fought and died bravely. While the gajin had been banished for more than 800 years, they clearly had the power to travel and invade Rokugan once again. Thus, the brave and honorable bushi of the Empire were forced to bring the fight to them.

Otomo Kage cleverly switched topics, instead discussing how there were already gajin in the Empire, specifically how the Orochi family had brought in not one, but two large vessels from the Ivory Kingdoms of the Burning Sands! Building on those words, however, Akodo Namiko also stepped forward and said how there were already gajin in the Empire, pointing out that there were even visits in the Imperial capitol! Countering this however, Bayushi Yoshimi took a turn to speak, staying that he had gone to the Orochi islands, like several of those present, and when they had asked to meet The Serpent of the East, they had been brought to Hanako as the highest ‘servant’ of the infamous pirate. Despite Hanako’s constant barbs and retorts to Kage’s accusations, the Mantis-trained courtier had the sense of mind to focus her anger on a figure near-untouchable, proclaiming Bayushi Paneki the true saviour of the Empire.

That was all that Yoritomo Hanako could stand, and in a fit of anger and frustration, she accused the The Empress of being a pretender, a Kolat spy! While The Council of Thunders had their own suspicions regarding her true veracity, spawned from the same discoveries that Hanako had made on Other Castle Island, only Akodo Sozen dared to stand and support Hanako’s accusations. Rather than being struck down immediately, the Empress coldly remanded them to the custody of the Crane for the moment, and they were each led down into separate ‘guest rooms’ in the basements of Kyuden Doji. Hanako had her kama taken from her, while Sozen gave up The Viper’s Tongue, his katana that was gifted to him by Bayushi Tosen. When both Tosen and Isawa Banasu were discussing the events, and what it mean for the Council, Kakita Tiru joined them. After a short talk, Tiru would only say that Lion courage had failed, and that living with dishonor and the heavy weight of a terrible truth was harder than dying with honor, and speaking that truth.

While imprisoned, Yoritomo Hanako was visited by her future husband, Kitsu Kosho, and the two conspired together to escape, Hanako mocking the abilities of the Crane, especially the Kenshinzen, to stop her. After Kosho left, Kakita Tiru went to see her. After reminding her of the insult he had endured years ago to the Kenshinzen Dojo, as well a short discussion about whether the two should conclude their feud outside the city, Tiru passed the Mantis bushi a pair of kama, and drew his blade so the two would fight on even terms. The battle was short, but brutal, with Tiru cutting her down after three blows from The Sword of Kalima, then finishing her where she lay on the ground. Meanwhile, in another of the ‘guest rooms’…

Shosuro Jimen had gone to see Akodo Sozen. He lamented that it was Akodo’s Hope had forsaken the The Empress, and that he was perhaps unsure of what exactly Sozen had said during the trial. He asked Sozen to swear to the Empress above all else, and to swear that she was the true Maiden of Heaven, as appointed by the Celestial Order. “I serve the true Empress”, Sozen stated, and Jimen settled into an iaijutsu stance, as did Sozen. It was over in the space of three strikes, the two both drawing and unable to slay the other during the duel, but Sozen proving faster and cutting down the Emerald Champion with a quick kenjutsu strike afterwards. Finding himself looking down upon Jimen, Sozen claimed both the Emerald Mempo and the The Sword of the Emerald Champion, two of the three symbols of the Emerald Champion, before escaping from Kyuden Doji. Both events were discovered soon, with The Dark Crane having called for the guards after slaying The Tsunami, and with Sozen’s escape anything but quiet.

After learning of the events that befallen his former betrothed, Kitsu Kosho went to speak to Yoritomo Naizen, the Mantis Clan Champion. He found him in the middle of an argument with Yoritomo Haruko, the Courtier Daughter, and the sister to the slain Yoritomo Hanako. Quickly dismissing Haruko after realizing that Kosho had overheard the exchange of words (with Haruko listening and not speaking), he and Kosho discussed the future of the Mantis. Naizen was informed enough to know that the opinion of not only the Imperials and The Empress but also of most Great Clans had turned against them, and he wondered if there was a place in the Empire for them. When Kosho suggested he would marry Haruko, Naizen was surprised, but agreed, and stated that from then on, the Mantis would find their own way, outside the Empire. Kosho suggested that the military might of The Kingdom of Yoritomo that had just been born would need a leader, and he knew of a certain Lion that would do well…

After seeing advice from Bayushi Tosen and Kakita Tiru whether or not it were possible to take the former Mantis islands by force, and then asking Bayushi Yoshimi, Doji Kwanchai, and Otomo Kage about the best political course of action, Hantei Ryozo advised The Empress that taking The Kingdom of Yoritomo by force was ill-advised.

Thus it was that the Mantis were no more, with the the Minor clans Centipede, Kitsune, and Wasp returning to existence and taking over their original mandates, and The Kingdom of Yoritomo formed by the descendants of Yoritomo, once again asserting their independence and ambition. An uneasy ‘peace’ would exist between the tiny Kingdom and the mighty Empire, for while The Great Warrior Pilgrimage 1173 had depleted the Mantis fleets more than any, it was the remnants of that Clan in the form of the Kingdom that still ruled the seas, preying upon poorly protected kobunes and shipping. Yet they could not stand against the full might of the Empire, and the Empire could not land and take their islands.

Three years would pass…

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Winter Court 1173 Begins

The Winter Court of 1173 was held at Kyuden Doji. The Scorpion, having the most influence while all the other Great Clans were focused on The Great Warrior Pilgrimage 1173 easily fulfilled their earlier promise of assisting the Crane in gaining the next Winter Court. The Crane had planned to use that promise to ensure that the Scorpion would be unable to use their support for their own gains during the subsequent years. With their debt fulfilled, the Scorpion were free to pursue their own agenda in the next year. Before the Court began in earnest, Otomo Kage issued invitations to many prominent members of each Clan, ones he had associated with in the past, to stay at his dwelling in Kyuden doji. Unfortunately, due to prior obligations, none of them were able to accept. This would prove helpful to the Scorpion later…

Doji Kwanchai found himself invited to a private tea by Shoshuro Jimen. While making conversation, Jimen presented a scrool to Kwanchai, believing that ‘Kwanchai would find it interesting to read’. It turned out to be a copy of The Danger of the Fated, written by Kitsu Sojiro after Pilgrimage. The book spoke of the dangers of those possessing a Dark Fate, and Jimen helpfully let Kwanchai know that if he required any additional copies there was a man that had plenty available, and all he had to do was ask. After thanking Jimen for the fine gift, he left with a very specific person in mind to tell of this scroll. At nearly the same time that this meeting was taking place, Bayushi Yoshimi was receiving another scroll, and another bit of helpful advice on where to find more copies from a different source; Bayushi Paneki, the Scorpion Clan Champion. Clearly the two were working at the same purpose; to bring down the glory of the Pilgrimage, or of someone on it.

Unsurprisingly, Doji Akemi, the famous Crane courtier and playwrite, had readied another masterpiece to present at this year’s Winter Court. Her last play, Orefesu and Uridesu, had been of legendary repute, and all expected her to repeat with her newest work, The Great Warrior Pilgramage. Firstly, however, she summoned Akodo Sozen to meet with her, as she had a request. She asked that she be allowed to refer to the ronin leader in the play as Akodo’s Hope, thus ensuring that everyone far and would would know that Sozen had been the one to ostensibly lead the Pilgrimage. He agreed, and revealed that he had learned of her interest in practicing with spear as a form of mediation, and thus gifted her with a Lion spear in return. However, it was Akemi that Doji Kwanchai had wished to speak of about Jimen’s intentions. Celebrating the Pilgrimage clearly would not sit well with Jimen, regardless of how moving the work was. Akemi told Kwanchai that she would take his warning under close advisement. She in turn did so by contacting [[:kakita-tiru] | Kakita Tiru]], now known as The Dark Crane. Tiru had requested, and in turn been granted a favor by the Doji family, and in return Akemi now asked him to champion her in an iaijutsu duel if needed. He agreed, even if that meant he might need to do so against Jimen’s best, or even Jimen himself.

Akodo Sozen was further honored by The Empress, invited to seat as part of her honored guests for the duration of the Court. She personally thanked him for leading the Pilgrimage, and gave him his very own personalized mon, decreeing that he was indeed Akodo’s Hope. After the ceremonies however, when the day gave way to night, Jimen met with Sozen discreetly, with only Jimen’s own yojimbo present besides the two of them. He advised that Sozen, having influence with Kitsu Kosho, advise the Lion to annul his engagement and future marriage to Yoritomo Hanako, for his own sake. In doing so, he would be as much of a hero as Sozen was, with the Emerald Champion insinuating that it was Sozen’s reputation and place as the leader, but not the creator of the Pilgrimage that was gaining him such glory. When Sozen replied that Kosho was the master of his own life and choices, and capable of handling himself, Jimen again counseled Sozen to advise Kosho about the dangerous path he pursued.

The two began to battle back and forth, with Sozen holding his own against Jimen’s skillful words and subtle jabs. When Jimen ‘confided’ in Sozen that he hoped barbarism wasn’t contagious, Sozen simply stated that the gajin needed to be fought, only for the Emerald Champion to reveal he knew that the gajin had turned away from Rokugan. He had issued his decree of non-interference with the invading ships because he didn’t want them to invade Rokugan after the Burning Sands. Now that a ship had survived, he was certain they would return, and in greater numbers. Sozen however would not be swayed, even though he reaffirmed his loyalty to the Empire, and the Emerald Champion. Jimen’s final words were that he made a better friend than enemy, to which Sozen wholeheartedly agreed, and that he was capable of besting any enemy without drawing his blade.

Meanwhile, Bayushi Paneki had approached Otomo Kage, asking if he would host a celebration for him. Kage agreed, but only after cannily having Paneki agree to pay for the charges he would incur. It was here that Bayushi Yoshimi moved around the room, learning whatever he could, listening instead of speaking, and when he did speak, saying nothing of value that could be used against him. During what began as a simple conversation with the Lion Clan Champion, Akodo Shigetoshi, Yoshimi discovered that the Lion had odd tics when the topic of the discussion turned to the subject of Akodo Saiori, the wife of the heir to the Lion Clan leadership, Akodo Hoshi. His suspicion piqued, he deftly ended the conversation without pressing the point too harshly, and instead went directly to Saiori, and from there, to Paneki. Learning that Paneki, offically, had no plan at all for Saiori, Yoshimi acted upon the information himself. Within two days, as a result, Akodo Shigetoshi retired; Akodo Hoshi would lead the Lion Clan now, as their Champion. Even retired, however, Shigetoshi would remain under Yoshimi’s thumb; no one was ever above disgrace.

That was not the sole event of the gathering that night, however. Isawa Banasu spoke with Bayushi Tosen concerning the Pilgrimage, speaking loudly enough to be overheard easily. She lay most of the blame for the deaths of so many bushi at the feet of The Tsunami, quoting from The Danger of the Fated as she did so. When she offered to read Tosen a segment of the scrool, Tosen replied that perhaps she would narrate before a greater gathering, after the fireworks display due in a day, as an example. When Otomo Kage, who had been conversing with Banasu before she’d drawn Tosen’s attention, also expressed his interest, Banasu gladly gave him a copy of the text. Lastly, Bayushi Paneki had spent much of the evening speaking to any about him in regards to Tosen being ‘like a son to him’. This lead in turn to Paneki asking Tosen’s opinion on a very important subject; could The Tsunami be taken in and tried? If so, he planned to have Kage, whose hatred of the Mantis was well known, prosecute the event. Tosen replied that it may have been a better idea to have a Lion, one of the Mantis’ allies, seek her out, and Paneki thanked him for his advice, mentioning that he had a specific Lion in mind for the task…

Sozen was not surprised when Jimen once more invited him to tea, making mention of the end of Akodo Shigetoshi’s career. Sozen, having no idea that it had been Yoshimi’s doing, could only grit his teeth, but as before, he matched words with Jimen with skill and daring. Still showing support for the Pilgrimage, if not for Yoritomo Hanako herself, he was going to lead a great ceremony in honor of those that had died. When he found himself being asked to be the one to arrest and bring Yoritomo Hanako to trial, he told Jimen he would speak to the Empress first. Thanks to the efforts of his wife, Akodo Namiko, and that of Hantei Ryozo, the consort of the Empress, he was granted an audience with great speed.

There, The Empress told him that despite his concerns, the knowledge and decisions she had made concerning Yoritomo Hanako were based on the advice of her most trusted advisors, including Jimen. When she asked him about the Pilgrimage itself, he replied that it was difficult, costly, but it had been necessary. The only regret he had was that so many brave bushi had died to grant them victory. Then, she proceed to make her final decree concerning the fate of Hanako, stating only that “Every sword that doesn’t obey is useless”. The meaning to one with Sozen’s honor and standing was clear. With her voice having spoken, Sozen only asked that she attend the trial herself, to which she agreed, especially when she suggested that the Serpent of the East may have been involved with Mantis royalty…

The fate of Yoritomo Hanako looked grim indeed; if it could be proven that she had been The Serpent of the East, her life would be forfeit.

The Trial of the Tsunami is set to begin…

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The Great Warrior Pilgrimage

After gathering a host of ships and samurai, The Great Warrior Pilgrimage began in the spring of 1173. With more than three hundred and fifty ships, and nearly fourteen thousand samurai, it was an expedition outside of the Empire’s borders like none that had ever been seen. The goal; to ensure that the gajin iron ships that had been on course for the Mantis Islands never landed in Rokugan. While Akodo Sozen had been the chief samurai behind marshaling support for the Pilgrimage, there was no doubt that it was Yoritomo Hanako that was the true driving force behind it. While nearly every Great Clan was willing to send their samurai, and the Pilgrimage had no shortage of volunteers, the Scorpion Clan decided that none of their number would venture beyond the borders of the Empire to battle the gajin.

Shoshuro Jimen, the Emerald Champion and the man responsible for the decree that the Mantis could tell no one about the ships on course for their islands had always been against taking the fight outside of the Empire’s borders. While not a Scorpion, his position gave his words the greatest of influence, and since Bayushi Paneki‘s given title had always been ’The Defender of the Empire’, it came as no surprise that he would agree with Jimen. At the court that was held to determine the direction of the Pilgrimage, Akodo Sozen would have strong words against both Paneki and Jimen, and while Bayushi Tosen rose to their defense, the gist of Sozen’s words hung heavily in the air; any true warrior would go on the Pilgrimage, and not a Scorpion was going. Instead, they would stay back and defend the Empire itself, in case the Pilgrimage failed.

So it was that three hundred and fifty ships set sail for the borders of Rokugan and beyond, sailing around towards the Ivory Kingdoms, where the four gajin iron ships had been seen making course to. The two weeks passed quickly, with many strategies being discussed and discarded, and those not of the Mantis clan (or the few ship-trained Crab) struggling to grow accustomed to shipboard life. Before too long however, they drew near a city very familiar to Kakita Tiru; Senpal, the very first city he had come to during his excursion to the Burning Sands. As the only samurai close to Akodo Sozen that could speak the language of the Sands, he was selected to scout the city, accompanied by Togashi Sakura, and a Hiruma scout. The rest of the fleet would wait until his return, or until the gajin flag that the iron ships had set above the city was cut down. If the latter, that would be the fleet’s signal to attack the single iron ship that was moored in the harbor.

The city was easy enough to enter, with only two guards at the gate the small scouting party chose to approach. They carried strange, heavy looking clubs, each with a cylinder segmented into six parts near the end closest to them; were these the weapons that could use the fabled, and much-hated gajin pepper? Closer in smoke rose from several fires that had yet to be completely extinguished and in many places whole buildings had been smashed to rubble. When Tiru told the guards that he had business with Al Haggar, he was let in with little fanfare. Al Haggar had been a man of great political and commercial influence in the city and the trade business, and one that had helped Tiru and Ariso during their journey through the Sands. Having slain one of the gajin in order to speak to him, Al Haggar told the three bushi that the penalty for slaying a guard was to have his family killed. That was enough to tilt the choice of whether to fight or regroup for Tiru; with a slash from The Sword of Kalima the flag fell from the palace, and the assembled Rokugani fleet moved to attack.

The plan of dealing with the gajin iron ship in the bay had been suggested by one of the accompanying shugenja, (placeholder) and both Akodo Sozen and Yoritomo Hanako agreed with it. A powerful water spell would be used to literally part the water around the ship, grounding it in the bay. Once the vessel toppled, the kami would be asked to release their grip, sending torrents of water back against the ship, leaving it submerged. With both Kitsu Sojiro and (placeholder) able to cast the spell, and Sojiro’s abilities as a user of void magic would allow him to bolster both of their casting abilities. It was this second skill that would prove the most telling; this far from Rokugan the kami were very few in number, and less willing to agree to the requests of the shugenja. Even a simple spell would be challenging, let alone the feat of magic they wished to perform!

As the Rokugani ships closed with the bay and the iron vessel, explosions rippled along its sides, and the wooden kobunes of the fleet seemed to explode as if by magic! Those with the keenest of vision could see heavy iron spheres shattering through wooden planks without effort, and even Sozen’s ship was struck down, with Hanako herself leaping in from her own ship to stop him from drowning, while Kitsu Kosho held course. Unable to flee the bay to broadside the fleet, though, by the time twenty kobunes and most of the samurai aboard them had fallen, (placeholder) completed his spell. The water parted, the kami pushing it aside, and the massive gajin iron vessel struck the ground of the bay with a crash! As the fleet, and those in the city watched, the spell ended, sending that very same water with bone-shattering force against the vessel. Bodies and cargo floated upwards, and not another shot was heard.

The first of the gajin ships had fallen.

Meanwhile, in the city, the scouting party moved to leave, only to find their path blocked by three gajin, each one of them carrying one of those strange, long clubs. While the samurai had heard the thunderous sound of the iron ship’s weapons, they had not faced them, nor had they faced the warriors they found themselves confronted with…but they had not traveled hundreds of miles to flee. Togashi Sakura charged, both blades drawn, the Hiruma scout quickly advancing from building to building, cover to cover, while Kakita Tiru drew his blade and formed his will, sending crescent cuts at the three enemies across the way, testing them with a single, simple cut each. Each one passed, and leveled their bizarre weapons, which then spat death and iron. Having marked Tiru and Sakura as the true threats, for the moment, each of them drew heavy fire, Tiru struck three times, Sakura only once, while the Hiruma evaded the few rounds sent his way with ease.

Despite his wounds, Tiru’s blade cut through the air again, felling one of the gajin, but just as Sakura reached his target, the gajin found his moment and sent a shot perfectly into the Dragon bushi’s chest, shattering armor and bone alike…yet Sakura’s devotion to bushido was too much for a simple near-mortal wound to erase. With a last surge of effort, his blades cut down across the guard, severing both of his arms, before collapsing in front of his defeated foe. With a strange premonition, the Hiruma ducked as he reached his own chosen enemy, only for another of Tiru’s strikes to narrowly miss him, striking the guard in front of him! It was child’s play for one of his skill to wrap his chain around the soldier’s throat and choke him into oblivion. Picking up the wounded Sakura, the scouting party left the devastated city. As they walked though, Tiru’s wounds stung, burned, reminding him for another encounter years ago…

When they had returned to the fleet, Kitsu Sojiro spoke of an ominous revelation; the iron ship seemed to have been attracting kansen, dark twisted mockeries of the kami. This only led to more determination to ensure the gajin wouldn’t land in the Empire. With the first blood struck, however, and after taking nearly a fifteenth of their fleet destroyed in a single battle, it was decided that the Pilgrimage would set course for Rokugan again. If the gajin iron ships followed, they would be dealt with…and follow they did. After a mere week lookouts reported two more of the iron vessels chasing the Pilgrimage fleet.

They were too fast to outrun, and when the naval battle was joined the Rokugan ships could only have made landfall on the wretched shores of the Shadowlands. Counting on the powers of the shugenja to once again win the battle, the fleet turned and attacked…only for the very first vessel struck to have both Sojiro and (placeholder) on it! Long minutes passed as the brave bushi sailed into the devastating barrages of gun and cannon fire. Bravely trying to draw fire, Togashi Sakura took up the fleet’s banner, surviving not one, but three sinkings of his ship, returning each time aboard another vessel. Hundreds of bushi perished in moments, either from direct hits, or drowning in the cold ocean, far from shore. Yet once again the water kami obeyed when finally called upon to aid the Pilgrimage, and another iron ship was swallowed, this time deep into the darkness, with not a single survivor surfacing. Finally, the fleet had closed to be too near for the enemy guns to attack, and grappling hooks were thrown over the railings. At last, those who had come on the fleet to kill the gajin invaders would have their chance to taste blood!

When the Pilgrimage returned to Rokugan one week later, there were only three boats left. Of all those that had sailed to do battle, less than two hundred had returned. Kitsu Sojiro led great prayers to ensure the souls of those that died outside of the Empire would find their way back into the karmic circle.

And all that, with one iron ship unaccounted for…

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The Serpent's Truth

Under the guise of a warrior pilgrimage, Akodo Sozen, Kitsu Sojiro, Kitsu Kosho, Bayushi Yoshimi(in the guise of Bayushi Tokushima, and Kakita Tiru journeyed into Orochi’s Teeth, the lair of the Serpent of the East. Before departing, Kosho made sure to inform his future wife, and daughter of the Mantis clan daimyo, Yoritomo Hanako. Crewed by ronin, and wearing ronin clothing themselves, they sailed through heavy fog, with Sojiro stating the water and air kami in the obscuring mist were ‘reluctant to move’. Once through, they saw no less than twelve ships, defending five islands, each of them bearing the mon of an Orochi, a powerful water spirit. It looked as if the Serpent had set up her small navy as its own (very illegal) minor clan! With a raised parly flag, the ronin ship sailed closer still, and was met by one of the twelve vessels which broke off from the general patrol lines that were being run between the islands, to sail alongside.

The captain of the vessel introduced himself as Orochi Cero. A shorter, but very stout man, his stature and manner spoke of gajin, especially when he spoke. Cero demanded to know why the ronin ship had arrived, and who were crewing it. Sozen introduced himself without his family name, to which Cero simply responded ‘I know of Sozen’. When he continued on that he wished to speak wit the Serpent, Cero wanted to know what gifts had been brought to her, and he also stated that they would be allowed to see her only if they brought no weapons with them. Responding that no samurai would give up their soul to see the leader of a ‘minor clan’, Sozen stated that he brought the gift of peace to the ‘Orochi’. Grudgingly, Cero allowed the ronin ship to sail further in, with his own vessel accompanying them.

As the crew of the ship looked about, many things made themselves apparent. Firstly, two of the islands seemed to be nothing more than rice paddies, suggesting that the minor clan was surprisingly self-sufficient, especially for being in the middle of the ocean at the border of the Empire! Further, the largest vessels docked at the islands were not Orochi, or Clan ships at all, but massive vessels that looked like floating castles! Tiru recognized them, having seen one before, far away in the Burning Sands; they were ships of the Ivory Kingdoms. Sure enough, when the group disembarked at the largest of the five islands, now wearing their proper Clan colors, there were gajin everywhere, sporting turbans, beards, and wicked looking scimitars. Street vendors sold delicacies that would be rare in even Crane lands, hawking rare gems and trinkets as well as exotic foods such as bacon. It was in the palace there, made of a strange mix of Rokugani and Ivory Kingdoms’ construction, that they would meet another servant of the Serpent.

Tall, almost statuesque, with pink hair tied up as well as allowed to fall past her shoulders and large round eyes, the gajin woman introduced herself with an unpronounceable word, which she quickly shortened to Cado. It had been a short wait in an antechamber, and she politely took everyone’s names, with Yoshimi introducing himself as his alter-ego Bayushi Tokushima once more, and with Kosho taking the name of his slain brother, Konyo. After a short while, a samurai-ko entered, wearing the Orochi mon as almost all others on the islands did, and introduced herself as Orochi Saito. Those present that were members of The Council of Thunders exchanged glances; Saito was the chosen name of the very same Mantis bushi that they had suspected of being the Serpent earlier! The documents discovered in the underground cult chambers had spoken of Yoritomo Saito, but the age and the description were almost identical. When asked by Sozen, she replied politely, but firmly, that Yoritomo Saito had died in the same fire that had claimed her family. She went on to explain that the Orochi had been skirmishing with several advancing vessels. When the group was skeptical, and understandably as no gajin with vessels like she described had been seen in Rokugan for nearly 800 years, she offered to introduce them to someone that could provide the proof they wanted.

They were escorted to a second, smaller palace, with far more evidence of Ivory Kingdoms construction than Rokugan, and when they met the master of the manse it was easy to see why. Parinder Singh met them with a broad smile and warm greetings, providing them with hospitality and gifts worth of any Great Clan family. As an ambassador from the Ivory Kingdoms, he was in Rokugan to ensure that the king of his home country, who was ailing of a rare and debilitating disease, received regular delivery of his medicine. That medicine could only be formed from a very rare lotus flower, found only in Rokugan. The gajin ships the Orochi ‘clan’ had been skirmishing with were from the very distant lands of Merenae, across the sea, and the Merenae were currently at war with the Ivory Kingdoms. Singh explained it would be easier to devastate the Mantis fleets and cause the king to die than it would be to land a powerful enough force to take the Ivory Kingdoms by force. Finally, he offered to lend one of the two castle-sized ships in the Teeth to the group, who could then see the invading ships for themselves; Sozen and all those present agreed.

The voyage took two weeks, even with the shugenja calling upon what few kami they could to propel the huge ship even faster. What they say was shocking; there were only four enemy vessels, but each one was many, many times the length of a kobune, and even then they only held 250 men each. But with that in mind, Orochi Saito had stated that when the Orochi had sent fifteen ships against them, they’d only managed to have 50 samurai board the four vessels, and that the gajin pepper they had could strike at nearly a mile distant. Grimly, the group turned around to sail back to the Teeth.

Once there, Sozen declared that the Lion would stand with any samurai that would battle the invading troops, and it was then that the true Serpent revealed herself; Yoritomo Hanako, Kosho’s future wife! She went on to explain thatShoshuro Jimen had forbidden the Mantis from speaking of the advancing ships to any Great Clan, nor of going beyond the Empire to battle them before they reached the Rokugani border. But a ‘clan’ of pirates, such as the Orochi, would not be beholden to any decree given by the Emerald Champion against the Mantis. Now that Sozen had declared his willingness to fight, others would follow, and they did; even the Crab lent their famous armored kobunes, their ‘turtle ships’ to the fight! Yet after gathering a substantial force of nearly 500 ships, information came that the gajin vessels had changed course to the Ivory Kingdoms.

Deciding that they were too great a threat not to be dealt with, it was decided that the fight would be taken to them, beyond the borders of Rokugan itself. With no proper clan willing to leave the Empire, it was Tiru that suggested the name of the solution; The Great Warrior Pilgrimage. A three hundred and fifty-strong ronin fleet. Sozen met with the Serpent and the other clan leaders, and it was decided. For the first time since the Ki-Rin Clan had left Rokugan millenia ago, brave and honorable samurai would cross the borders en mass. Not to learn more of the world as they had before, but to bring the wrath of the Great Clans down upon the same gajin that had once attacked the Imperial City itself.

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Into the Serpent's Maw

With war between the Scorpion/Phoenix alliance and the Lion/Mantis alliance successfully averted during Winter Court, representatives from several of the Clans were sent to the Mantis islands to help in the search for and defeat of The Serpent of the East. Having been the key figure in bringing peace between the Lion and the Unicorn, Akodo Sozen was given leadership of the main efforts. With him on the ships were Bayushi Tosen, Kakita Tiru, and Kitsu Kosho. Each of them brought several aides, and while some were left on the main Mantis Islands, most also set out to sea with the fleet of twenty ships provided to Sozen.

The general known as Akodo’s Hope set out a plan to split the fleet into four groups of five vessels each, with three of the groups taking out differing search patterns while the last remained at dock in reserve at Asano Kasia. While two of the fleets performed small, looping paths to the northeast and southeast, Sozen’s fleet, with Kosho named shoryoken of the five vessels, would take a longer, looping path to the far eastern islands of the Serpent’s Maw.

The first few landings were uneventful. An unnamed island little more than volcanos and blasted ash, with barely enough villagers to even count as having a population, spoke of seeing ships heading to the southeast during the night. The next island, Shiro Asahi, received the entire group with agreeable, if suspicious hospitality. Kitsu Kosho however was welcomed as the Savior of Stories, and it was through him that the investigators were able to learn more. The two huge warships that served to protect the island’s export of beiru flew Mantis colors, and the old samurai that served as goekon of the island also spoke of ships heading to the south east during the night. News of a few Tortoise ships, barely seen once or twice a year, was also presented, but regarded as not important.

The next landing was Habaihori-to, Broad Island, was more fruitful. Yoritomi Lin, a samurai of some forty years, received the group and apologized for the poor hospitality that she offered. She spoke of eight ships that had sailed to the east four nights before Sozen’s group had arrived, and it was then that Bayushi Tosen sent his ‘yojimbo’, the ninja Shoshuro Kia, to ask questions that Sozen and Kosho could not. As before, Koshi himself was hailed as the Savior of Stories, and when he spoke to the young daughter of Lin, she had a great deal to say. ‘The military strength and financial power’, she said, ‘of Broad Island was not so great they could afford to pick and choose who to provide supplies to’. Combined with the fact that Kia returned to tell Tosen that the underworld of the island was not a place one could get into without an invitation, resulted in Sozen deciding to return with the reserve fleet to blockade the island, and ensure that the eight ships could not resupply. Tosen himself left Kia, and also Kitsunejo and Kitsuneko at the island. With this done, the group set sail back to Asano Kasia.

Once there, Akodo Sozen waited for the other patrols to return. The first spoke of a collection of ronin, some fifteen or so, on Wolf Island. Supposedly they were quite desperate for work, and in a moment of inspiration, Sozen hired each of them, spreading them out across the various ships under his command, if only to ensure that the Serpent would not do the same! The second patrol to return however arrived in tatters, with only one badly damaged ship returning. The captain apologized to Sozen, telling that during their patrol, they had encountered no less then ten vessels blockading Other Castle Island. The island’s master, Tsuruchi Akinbo told them they were not allowed to land as their ships had been poisoned by Scorpions. When the patrol then attempted to turn back, eight of the ten blockade ships had attacked, powerful magics tearing into the Mantis ships and sinking four of the five. Strangely, the remaining two vessels turned on the first eight after the shugenja display! Acting immediately, Sozen seized two other vessels in port, including the capital ship belonging to Yoritomo Hanako, Kosho’s future wife, who agreed to accompany them to Other Castle Island.

It seemed that only four of the original ten ships remained, but they occupied the only entrance to the bay of the island, a narrow chokepoint. Even though Sozen’s fleet outnumbered them, the superior numbers could not be brought to bear! Thus, it was decided that two ships would circle the island, one east and one west, and that Akodo Sozen, Bayushi Tosen, Kakita Tiru, and Kitsu Kosho would climb the cliffs and move to the governer’s mansion from the rear, while the other ships blockaded the island, and kept other scouts on the move if more of the Serpent’s fleet approached. Hanako agreed, and said that she would ask the shugenja of their own fleet to collapse part of the cliff onto the four boats remaining in the bay, and while Sozen agreed, he asked that she remain in position unless they were attacked.

At the cliffs, the climb was difficult, and while a huge gust of wind pulled Sozen from the cliff, he would not permit his honor to suffer the stain of dying from a mere hundred foot fall onto crashing waves and stone. With his bare hands, he seemed to squeeze the rock in front of him until it gave way to his will, and his fall stopped. From there, he quickly joined the others at the top. There, his keen vision spotted a plum of smoke too thick and large to be from a village off in the forest to the east. Tosen suggested that they make their way there first instead of heading to the mansion.

As they got closer to the source of the smoke, Kosho noticed many footprints heading up through a concealed trail in the woods. Following the trail, it brought them to an ominous looking door with a strange set of symbols upon it. Upon realizing that the door was open, and that the symbols pertained to no Kami or Fortune in Rokugan, they proceeded inside to find a slaughterhouse. Just inside the entrance were three dead Mantis bushi, and a fourth dead man with a kama through his skull. The three Mantis all bore arrows, likely from the fourth’s tsuruchi longbow. The fourth also had a set of strange orange clothing, with symbols adorning it almost identical to the ones on the door outside. In a moment of realization, it dawned on them that they were in fact the exact same set, but arranged differently. Together, as on the fourth man’s clothing, the symbols were locked together, and arranging them as such on the stone door outside would likewise lock it. Open, as they were now, similarly opened the locking mechanism on the door. It was an incredibly complex design, worthy of the best Kaiu engineer; were it not for having both examples to work from, it would have been almost impossible to learn how to open and close the lock on their own.

Further in were more dead, and a library, containing histories of both the Unicorn families, and also the Yasuki family, once Crane, now Crab. There was also a map present that no one could identify, save Tiru, for he alone had been there; the Jewel, the greatest, most opulent city in all of the Burning Sands. In addition there was a map, written on paper so thin that it could be seen through. Both Sozen and Tosen recognized it as an overlay, meant to be put over another map, and it was decided that the overlay would be kept. While it was ‘known’ that the Mantis traded with the Burning Sands for luxuries that simply did not exist in Rokugan, to find so much information was unsettling, especially the map. Still further they descended down a pair of spiraling staircases deeper into the earth, finding several sleeping rooms in the traditional Rokugani style. But it was in an adjoining room to one of these chambers that they found the true horror that the cult lair contained, regardless of what was to come later.

In a room that stank of death and copper were maho scrolls, and many letters. One such letter stated that the greatest accomplishment ‘they’ could hope to have was to convince the Rokugani people that ‘she’ was one of their own. To make one of their own the most celebrated and divine people in all of the Empire. Meanwhile among the maho spells was one that could stop the divine Sun in his path for a full Rokugani hour. The implications were shocking, staining the honor of all those that discovered them; the Empress Hantei XL may have been placed by a group of conspirators from outside the Empire. The one soul who more than any was unquestionable in the Celestial Order may not have been descended from Heaven at all.

Immediately the group fell to talk. Tosen suggested that it was all too convenient that this spell had fallen into the group’s hand, especially with other letters suggesting that The Serpent of the East may not only have been Mantis, but may have been set upon by the same conspirators that built this place; that the Serpent in fact knew the truth all along! More than that, the fire had drawn them here easily enough, and to find nothing but slaughtered resistance? Sozen argued that as a Scorpion, Tosen would see secrets and trickery everywhere, even in the face of this, potentially the greatest secret and betrayal of them all! Kosho agreed that what they had found was dangerous, but it was too early to tell if it was true, and then Tiru suggested that discussing the conspiracy at what might well be the heart of it was a bad place to do see. The rest agreed, and they moved on to the final room, a grand circular chamber that seemed carved out of pure obsidian itself, shuttered with the same kind of intricate lock as the entrance to the lair itself.

In the very center of it lay a pile of bones, bleached pure white, a dead shugenja with great gouges along his arms laying upon it. The obsidian room was the scene of the greatest slaughter, a dozen slain men, some Mantis, others wearing clothing that bore the strange interlocking symbol seen on the doors. Sets of shackles on the wall seemed capable of holding twelve victims, and while no one spoke aloud of what that meant, they were all thinking of it; twelve Rokugani hours, twelve shackles, and the sun had ceased movement for a full day when the Empress had arrived…

Resolving that they would deal with this place later, and that they might need it intact to show others as proof, they closed the door behind them when they left, locking it into place. The moment it clicked shut, there was a vicious, inhuman howl from inside the room. The four bushi quickly threw open the door, only to see nothing, hear nothing. Closing and locking the door again brought forth the howl, and Tiru said what they were thinking; that whatever was in there, it must be dealt with. However, as the howl only sounded when the door locked, one of the four must remain outside to lock, and then unlock it, assuming the three inside could deal with the source of the soulless howl. After challenging their courage, and then their swordsmanship, it was decided that Kosho would stay outside, while Tiru, Tosen, and Sosen would enter the room.

As the three were locked in, the howl sounded again, but this time it was different…it was hungry, and it came from the center of the room, yet nothing could be seen. All three bushi were still, until Tiru quietly retrieved one of the many fallen kama that lay on the ground. After a glance to both Scorpion and Lion at his sides, he threw the kama at the peak of the bone pile, and watched it bounce off something invisible. All three waited, but there came no sound of movement…perhaps it was the most patient of predators? Regardless, Tiru reached down and took hold of the The Sword of Kalima where it rested in its sheath. As the other two samurai watched, Tiru took a single breath, held it, and then lashed out. A dark wind howled out, a faintly visible crescent wave lancing out at the spot where the kama had struck…revealing a monstrous abomination, a hungry spirit looking like a giant, twisted ant with a scorpion’s stinger; a gaki-mushi!

Yet this dangerous creature took only the first of Tiru’s cuts; the second all but causing it to explode into a burst of black gore and gristle. Calmly sheathing his blade, the Kenshinzen missed Tosen’s faint frown behind his mask; the Scorpion had taken note of the power displayed, and correctly guessed it belonged to the blade, not its wielder.

With the creature destroyed, the four emerged from the lair, only to find the mansion now flying the colors of Yoritomo Hanako. Despite Sozen’s orders not to attack, after crushing two of the ships blocking the harbor, she’d stormed the city and taken the mansion by force. Quickly making their way there, the four found that despite being outnumbered, the bushi in the city had fought to the death right up until their lord Tsuruchi Akinbo had surrendered. Hanako had denied him the right to commit seppuku until Sozen, the rightful commander of the fleet, had spoken to him. The Lion elected to have Tiru, Kosho, and Tosen with him as well, and all four listened to the disturbing tale that Akinbo wove.

He said that his reason for asking for seppuku was not that he had lost his island to invaders, but because he had failed the Empire for more than seventeen years. When questioned, he explained that his son had come to him a short time ago and confessed that he had been in league with forces practicing the forbidden art of Maho, and that he had allowed them access to the island for some time. Those present knew at once that the ‘access’ Akinbo’s son had spoken of had allowed for the construction of the vile underground chambers they had earlier found and explored. Before his son could speak further, he had begun to spasm and choked to death on his own blood. Sozen demanded a list of all those that his son may have spoken with, and to the group’s dismay, Akinbo provided a list of more than 120 Mantis vessels, from small fishing ships to military kobune’s. With the accompanying names also provided, Sozen allowed him the mercy of seppuku, before Tiru asked to speak with him outside the room. They were both joined by Kosho and Tosen after a moment, arriving in the middle of Tiru’s words.

The Crane samurai grimly asked Sozen which Clan would make the perfect target, the most necessary target, for a gajin invading force. The answer was obvious; the Mantis. Even if half the ships they had on the list were influenced by outsiders, or worse, maho, the clan might never recover. For the past three years, Tiru reminded the group, the Mantis had been humbled, embarrassed, and humiliated. Tosen recalled the almost half-dozen Mantis duelists he had personally bested and shamed in the tournament for the Empress, as well as the humiliating loss of face he’d help to deliver in the courts, with the help of Isawa Banasu’s damning information, of their failure to eliminate The Serpent of the East. Now it appeared as if, in the best case, the Mantis were being discredited in order to prepare for a future attack from outsiders. In the worst case, their fall was a mere smokescreen for the fact that the Empress herself may have not been divine at all! Such blasphemous thoughts could not help but stain the very soul of all those present, yet, how could they be denied?

It was then that Tosen revealed to Kosho and Sozen what Tiru had already known; that for some time now he had been gathering together a group to server the Empress in a way that no other could. To bring together one member of each Great Clan, to work together to ensure that the gathering could be powerful enough to challenge any foe, from without, or within. Originally, with Tosen having no love for the Mantis, had never planned to include them, but with the Mantis now targeted so viciously, he was grudgingly forced to admit they deserved a place within the group if gajin considered them so dangerous as to target them first! With so few to trust, Tosen and Kosho both agreed to join the group, with some reservations. The four discussed whom else might join, planning for the future, and Tiru suggested that each of them take one page from the eight page Maho spell that could hold in place Lord Sun, in order to be able to prove the truth of their word. When Sozen pointed out that carrying such a thing, let alone displaying it could result in their execution, Tosen countered that he was willing to die for this.

So it was that The Council of Thunders was formed, with the following membership; Akodo Sozen would speak for the Lion, Bayushi Tosen for the Scorpion, Kakita Tiru for the Crane, and Kitsu Kosho for the Mantis, once his marriage was complete. For the other members, Isawa Banasu would be contacted by Tosen to speak for the Phoenix, Moto Michimo was to be released, if Sozen could manage it, and speak for the Unicorn. Hida Maki, as a Jade Magistrate would lend the Council a good deal of credibility, and would also speak for the Crab. The group agreed to meet again to discuss who would speak for the Dragon, and Tosen also mentioned that the Council would have a Chair, if needed a rotating 9th member, able to break ties in the case of even support.

For now, the Council, such as it was, would pursue the The Serpent of the East in an effort to learn more of the conspiracy that had been uncovered. Their duty, once so clear, was now uncertain.

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Court Winds Down

Just a few quick notes: The Unicorn make peace with the Lion, and agree to share the city of the rich frog, with both clans having a presence and collecting taxes on alternate years. Moto Khan was so impressed with Akodo Sozen’s idea, he felt he could retire and leave the unicorn in a lasting peace.

Realizing the futility of the war against the Mantis and the Lion, Bayushi Tosen took Kakita Tiru’s advice, and proposed that instead of war, they send skilled investigators to aid the Mantis and the Lion in the coming war. The lion agreed, as long as they could vet the investagators. Otomo Kage vowed to be involved quietly, to ensure war was the final outcome of the investigations.

With Hida Ryozo marrying the Empress, it became quite in vogue to send gifts to the Crab.

Kitsu Kosho apologized to Soshuro Jimen for failing to capture Kikiyo, and resigned as an Emerald Magistrate.

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The Serpant's Servant

Kitsu Kosho was placed in charge of hunting down the suspected criminal Moshi Kikiyo, but the Lion, Crane, and Scorpion all wanted to send representatives to ensure the hunt was sucessful. Moshi checked into the first few points as expected, but then stopped heading back towards Mantis lands. She became difficult to find, in part because Bayushi Yoshimi was making it more difficult so Masamune’s killer wouldn’t be found by a central member of the Lion Manits alliance, to tempt the Crane into allying with the Scorpion Pheonix alliance, and partly due to Otomo Kage slowing things down for the same intended reason, as he wanted to ensure the summer saw war.

Eventually, it became clear that Kikiyo was headed to Crane lands, speciffically Shiro No Kakita. They reached the city to the news that someone had burned the Kenshinzen dojo to the ground with magic, and killed three Kenshinzen in the process.

A terrified ronin admitted that the servants of the Serpent of the East had smuggled Kikiyo out of the city. The trail ended at Severed village, a small island a ferry ride from the mainland. The townheadman was a disguised servant of the Serpent of the East, who attacked Kage when he became to aggressive. Two ronin and a monk on the island also served the serpent, but the monk managed to escape. A third ronin, an old iaijitsu teacher, was obviously complicient with the serpent, but did not directly aid her, and was left in peace.

Meanwhile, back at Kyuden Bayushi, the final round of the Empress Hand tournament saw Bayushi Tozen bow out to Hida Ryozo, who had become the ideal duelist in one short year, and was now the Empress’s consort.

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Benten's Blade and the Kenshinzen

Kitsu Diaki was set to duel Kakita Masumune. He carefully prepared, but when the duel was met, he was no match for the Kenshinzen’s skill. When Masamune cut his lip, the duel ended and Otomo Takeshi announced The Empress would hold court that night. All were aware that it was so Diaki could request the right to commit seppku.

Ikoma Suigin requested the opp7urtunity to present Daiki, who would only allow it if he was presented as Benten’s Blade. Matsu Juriarranged the Lion’s Pride to act as his honour guard.

Presenting his wakazashi to the Empress, Tenkohime accepted his sword, examined it, and handed it to Shosuro Jimen and gave Daiki her own sword. She commanded him to complete the act on the highest hill in Kyuden Bayushi the next sunset.

Moshi Kikiyo prepared Diaki to meet his end, and Bayushi Yoshimi agreed to be his second. They approached the hill with The Voice of Emma-O. When they arrived, the Empress relieved Yoshimi of his role, and seconded Diaki with Benten’s Blade itself. as she watched, she cried 10 diamond tears, and when the sword fell on Daiki’s neck, the cherry blossoms that flew from it went from white to red. Hantie XL then demanded that Bayushi Paneki build a temple to Daiki, the Fortune of Devotion, on this spot.

Five days later, when Masamune was to duel Yoshimi, he did not show up. Jimen asked Kitsu Kosho to investigate. He learned that Masumune had last been seen leaving Shosuro Manoji’s home, quite drunk. Tiru was able to locate Masamune’s wakazashi at the site of Daiki’s shrine, and the Lion and Scorpion rounded up all those he had scarred, to ensure they did not leave town. Kosho found a charred body stuffed into a crate, and summoned Hida Masori and a Kitsuki investigator. Together, they determined that a bushi with a curved blade had attacked the body from above, and then cut him down, and a shugenja had burned the corpse. The sheathes matched Masamune’s, but his katana was missing. Otomo Kage was able to find a fisherman who testified that he had seen events like this, but they happened so quickl6y even the kenshinzen’s speed hadn’t been enough.

Moshi Kikiyo was suspected, and when she would not answer the shugenja summons sent for her, Yoritomo Naizen declared her a ronin, and offered her death as penance, obviously hoping to appease the crane so that retribution would not have them enter the Mantis Pheonix war on the horizon, evening the sides. The gate guards claim that Kikiyo left the night of Daiki’s death, but this is now under suspicion.

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