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This story was written in March 2006 and it is, among other things, my answer to how and why the Dragon Clan managed to wreck Kosatan Shiro, which was the story result from the 2005 European Championship. This was a result that bothered me a lot because the Lion would have been trying to destroy the fortress for centuries, so how did the Dragon manage it?

Obviously the canon explanation is wildly different from this but it still pleases me. There are a few sentences that have to be reworked for clarity or rhythm, but I like the plot and the characterization.

Signs and Portents

"He claims to have found enlightenment," Hitomi Vedau said. The monk was a large man whose voice had the pitiless rumble of an avalanche. "His name has become a rallying cry to the fools who have swallowed his lies."

"If he is enlightened," Togashi Satsu said, "they are not lies." The Champion of the Dragon Clan was a smaller man, but he had a presence that filled the room and hummed silently against the stone walls.

Vedau frowned. "Is he enlightened?"

Satsu smiled. "If I were not enlightened, how would I know? And if I were, why would I care?"

Vedau stared at his lord for a moment and then burst into laughter. "What then?" he said finally.

"Three Cranes stand as Keepers of the Elements. One Crane stands as Keeper of the Five. The path we must take is clear."

"Lady Moon found Doji Reju worthy of her service," Vedau said. "His kin might be equal to the task, but the Crane are a self-absorbed clan, even now. How do we draw them out?"

"I will send them a message," Satsu said. "One they cannot mistake."

* * * * *

"We received two envoys from the Dragon today," Daidoji Nichiren said. He paused to delicately rearrange the flower arrangement on a side table, then went back to prowling around the room. "I've been assigned to deal with them."

In public Nichiren was the perfect image of a minor official of a great castle; only in private did he show the predator he was. Kakita Osei watched him move about and reflected sadly that had he been born into the correct family, Nichiren could have been one of the great noh actors of their age. "What do they want?" she asked.

"No idea. They are supposed to attend court this evening, so you will have a chance to gather some information." Osei nodded in agreement. Nichiren had essentially no skills as a courtier, and her sole purpose at Kosaten Shiro was to make sure no one outside the Crane Clan noticed his lack. She took a breath, steeled herself, and changed the topic of conversation. "Have you received any news on your luggage?"

Nichiren stopped moving long enough to give her an annoyed look. "You always bring that up."

"It is dangerous to have around."

"Osei-chan," he said silkily, "I am dangerous to have around."

"You are not forbidden by Imperial Law," she shot back.

Nichiren grimaced slightly. He had been trained to regard Imperial Law as something akin to fire--a dangerous force that could be avoided by proper planning--and he sometimes forgot that the Kakita woman saw it as something much more. He bowed slightly, conceding her point, and then walked over to the luggage in question. Three large trunks, ostensibly from his father's estate, filled with old estate accounts, drafts of poems, and a mind-numbingly large quantity of gaijin pepper. The explosives had been shipped to him in preparation for war with the Lion, a war which never materialized. Now they sat in the corner of his sitting room and waited to be shipped back.

Nichiren laid a hand on the topmost trunk for a moment, thinking. He was a Harrier, and the warriors of his unit were trained to defend Crane territory by disrupting supply lines and communications of invading armies. Their existence was one of the most jealously guarded secret of the Daidoji family: Harrier tactics worked best when the enemy didn't know what was waiting for them. But to the Crane war was as much politics as battle, and so it was necessary that a few trusted courtiers be allowed to know. But they were never allowed to know too much. Nichiren didn't want to distrust Osei--he liked the woman, far more than was probably wise--but she wasn't a Harrier, or even a Daidoji, and so every crumb of knowledge had to be weighed out on the scale of necessity.

Slowly he walked back to Osei and knelt on the cushion next to her. "Osei-san," he said softly, "this was not the only fortress to receive luggage." Osei showed a flicker of alarm at this, but did not speak. "All of it needs to be returned to the school, but if it all goes at once someone might notice. My supply is relatively safe and secure, so it will be among the last to be called for. Do you see?"

Osei looked away, nodded. She couldn't understand why the lords of her clan allowed the Daidoji to use such dishonorable tools in war, and she hated being party to it, but if that was the way of it she was determined to see that it was done right. "I apologize for bringing it up, Nichiren-san. I will not speak of it again."

Nichiren smiled and touched her hand lightly. "May I visit you after court tonight?"

"Perhaps," Osei said as she gracefully rose to her feet. They had been obliged to start an affair as a cover for the large amount of time they spent together. Osei hadn't minded at first; Nichiren was a handsome man--but lately it had begun to bother her. It was getting too easy to maintain the act, and harder to remember that it was an act. Duty, she thought. It's only duty.

* * * * *

It was like no castle Mirumoto Mareshi had ever seen. Dragon castles were grand and dignified, but they used the mountains they were built upon as natural fortifications. Phoenix castles were beautiful, but that clan had few enemies and the Phoenix themselves tended to trust the power of the elements more than mere military force. Kosaten Shiro was the Crane's principle defense against the Lion, and it relied only on itself. The castle's main keep soared above them, elegant and menacing, while the outer works sprawled around them in a tangle of walls and moats. Mareshi was certain that there had to be a system behind it, but he couldn't begin to figure it out. "It is amazing," he said. "The fortress complex alone is larger than Shiro Mirumoto's castle town."

"Crane excess," Mirumoto Hirohisa replied. "They are a clan dedicated to luxury and pomp."

"Indeed," Mareshi said. "Otherwise, they would have provided the Empire with all six Keepers and not just four of them." Hirohisa's lips compressed into a thin line of irritation, but he didn't pursue the issue. Mareshi went back to examining the sights around him, which helped distract him from the discomfort he felt over their mission. A samurai had no right to question his lord's orders, and a Dragon samurai didn't even expect to always understand them, but the errand they had been trusted with was peculiar even by Dragon standards. It bothered him, somehow.

Arriving at the gate to the main keep they handed their swords over to the doorkeepers for polishing before being escorted into the hall where evening court was being held. Mareshi paused inside, looking over the room carefully and trying to make sense of what he saw. Many times he had attended Lord Rosanjin's court in Shiro Mirumoto, but that was a quiet, almost sleepy affair compared to this. The room was large, but it was full of talking people forming groups that grew, broke into smaller groups, and then recombined into new groups. Occasionally two people would step close to a wall and have a private conversation behind raised fans. Most of those present seemed to be members of the Crane Clan, but there were a handful of non-Cranes: a few Crabs bearing the mon of the Yasuki, a slightly larger party of Phoenix, and one painfully stoic-looking Lion. The Cranes themselves seemed to divide into two types. The Daidoji present seemed to be part of the castle's military officers; quiet men in restrained fashions with their family's mon tattooed on their wrists. The courtiers who swirled about them wore kimono in brighter colors and vibrant patterns, the women with jeweled combs and hair sticks ornamenting their elaborately styled hair. Mareshi concentrated and clouds of elemental kami came into focus. He could not speak with the spirits as a shugenja could, but they still could show him useful things. Water kami swirled slowly around those he had guessed to be soldiers, while the courtiers had clouds of air kami darting about them, and in one particular area Mareshi saw the flicker of fire kami.

"Well, this is interesting," Hirohisa said. He nodded over to corner of the room where the fire kami danced. "Doji Saori. I wonder what she is doing here?" Without waiting for an answer he set off towards her. Mareshi watched him go, disquieted. Saori had a reputation as a talented duelist of the Kakita school, and Hirohisa was proud of his mastery of the Mirumoto style of swordsmanship. Mareshi knew it was not his place to monitor the older samurai's actions, but he could imagine little good coming from this meeting. Before he could come to a decision he heard someone approach him. "Excuse me, Mirumoto-san," a woman said, "but are you Mirumoto Mareshi, son of Mirumoto Daini and the Naga woman known as the Mara?"

Mareshi turned to see a tall, beautiful Crane woman. "I am," he said, bowing politely.

The woman smiled warmly at him, but Mareshi could see the air kami swooping around her in tight circles. She was watching him intently, he thought, ready to judge his actions and words. "I am Kakita Osei, an aide to Daidoji Nichiren. I wish to make sure that you and Mirumoto Hirohisa find your lodgings to your satisfaction, and to see if there is anything else you require during your time as our guests."

"Crane hospitality is never lacking," Mareshi said. "I thank you for your concern, and would ask that you pass our thanks to Daidoji Nichiren as well."

"He is here now," Osei said, "you may thank him yourself if you like."

"I would," Mareshi said. Nothing would make tomorrow's meeting go well, he reflected, but perhaps he could learn something about Nichiren that would keep it from going worse. Osei led him across the room to a handsome, smiling man dressed in elaborate robes, his long black hair bound into a loose top-knot. Osei bowed low to him. "Nichiren-sama, I present to you Mirumoto Mareshi, a personal representative of Lord Rosanjin on a mission from Lord Satsu himself. Mirumoto-san, I present to you Daidoji Nichiren, a trusted retainer of the lord of Kosaten Shiro."

Mareshi exchanged bows with him, trying to sort out his impressions. Everything about Nichiren's clothing labeled him as a courtier, but his wrists were marked with the Daidoji mon and there was a swirl of water kami surrounding him. Studying them, Mareshi realized that there were a few immensely bored fire kami as well. "Welcome to Kosaten Shiro," Nichiren said. "It is an honor to meet the son of two distinguished heroes of the Clan Wars."

"It is an honor to be that son," Mareshi said, "one that I strive always to be worthy of."

Nichiren started to reply, but his words were lost in a commotion of raised voices. Courtiers all over the room glanced towards the source of the noise and then away, pretending to be absorbed in their own conversations while still listening intently. Mareshi made no such effort: he had recognized one of the voices as Hirohisa's. "Excuse me," he said, bowing to the two Cranes, and then he started across the room towards his kinsman.

Hirohisa stood facing off against a shorter Crane man with the Kakita mon on his right shoulder. Next to the Crane man stood Doji Saori, a delicate-looking woman with hair that fell almost to the floor in a shining wave of white. She seemed to be trying to moderate, without noticeable success, the quarrel between the two men. "Kakita, I think perhaps you accuse me of cowardice," Hirohisa said.

"Not at all," the Crane man replied. "It is certainly possible," he lightly stressed the word, "to practice a cowardly style without becoming a coward." Mareshi could hear the conversation die away in the rest of the room as everyone strained to hear what would happen next.

"The founder of Niten, Mirumoto, was no coward," Hirohisa said, "and I will kill the man who says otherwise."

"You see?" the Crane said, looking pleased. "Dragon-san has proved my statement: Mirumoto practiced Niten, and yet no one calls him a coward."

Mareshi was stunned by this near-insult of the first Dragon Thunder, and from the expressions on their faces he could tell that many of the Cranes around him felt the same. Hirohisa glared at the Kakita but before he could speak Saori stepped forward. "Funaki-san, Mirumoto-san," she said smoothly, "this debate is all very interesting, but the true test of a style--or its student--is in practice. Perhaps we should arrange a test of kenjutsu to settle this matter."

"Saori-san," Funaki said, and got no further.

"Doji-san," Hirohisa said louder, "that is an excellent idea." He bowed to her. "Send for my swords; we can do this now."

Saori looked at Funaki. "Yes, of course," he said, looking irritated.

Soon Funaki and Hirohisa stood facing each other in the center of the room, paper targets dangling from their sleeves. The rest of the court stood in a circle around them, silently watching. Mareshi found himself with Osei and Nichiren, near the front of the crowd. "This test is of skill," Saori announced in a loud, clear voice. "The first man to damage one of his opponent's targets will be declared the winner." She stepped back into the crowd. The two men bowed to each other and took their stances. Hirohisa had his katana in his right hand and his wakazashi in his left as he adopted one of the Iron Blossom stances: katana held slightly to the side and pointed up, wakazashi held horizontally across the heart. Funaki held his katana in both hands, blade held up with the hilt just below his right shoulder. It was a solid stance, Mareshi thought, but even as he studied it Funaki shifted to bring his blade lower and towards the center in a more defensive stance. There was a whisper of sound from Osei, and Mareshi glanced at her. Their eyes met and Mareshi realized that the Kakita woman had seen what he had seen: Funaki was not going to win, and he knew it.

There was one more moment of silent stillness and then the two men sprang at each other in a whirl of steel. When it was over Funaki's targets drifted lazily to the floor, each of them cut into three pieces. Saori stepped forward and smiled at both men. "Mirumoto Hirohisa is the winner," she said. Hirohisa smiled slightly in return and sheathed his blades in two smooth motions. Funaki bowed stiffly to Hirohisa, mumbled something, and stalked off.

"Your kinsman is a swordsman of great skill," Osei said to Mareshi.

Mareshi nodded. "His name is well-known within the Dragon Clan."

"Funaki's name," Nichiren said dryly, "is well-known within the Crane Clan."

Before Mareshi could think of a response Osei bowed to the two men. "It is getting late," she said, "and I think I will retire for the evening. Nothing useful will be done here tonight."

* * * * *

"Your performance last night was most impressive," Nichiren said.

Hirohisa accepted a cup of tea from a servant and bowed his head slightly. "Thank you, Daidoji-san. No style can match the strength of Mirumoto's Niten, and I was pleased to remind the Crane of that."

Mareshi accepted his own cup of tea and hid a wince. Nichiren smiled genially as a cup of tea was set before him. "Indeed, Niten is a style most worthy of respect. Kakita himself showed this in the duel where he killed Mirumoto's son. Such an honor, to be in a duel with the Emperor's own Champion!"

Hirohisa's expression hardened slightly and he stared challengingly at Nichiren. "And you, Daidoji-san? What do you think is superior?"

"Yarijutsu," Nichiren said, and picked up his cup.

Hirohisa nodded, then drank his own tea. The Daidoji held the yari in such regard that it was part of the family's mon; one couldn't really accuse Nichiren of not being sincere.

"This room has a beautiful view," Mareshi said, trying to steer the conversation into safer channels.

Nichiren glanced at the tall, open windows that looked out over one of the castle's gardens. "Indeed, it does. I find that the beauty and serenity of the gardens is a great help in focusing the mind on the discussion at hand."

"Perhaps we can finish focusing now and start discussing," Hirohisa said.

Nichiren finished his tea and set the cup aside. "Of course, Mirumoto-san. In what way can I aid you? The letter that preceded you said that you are pursuing a matter of interest to Lord Satsu, but there were no specifics."

"The matter is somewhat complicated," Hirohisa said, "and very delicate. You are familiar with my family's mission of finding powerful, and possibly dangerous, nemuranai for study and disposal? It is Lord Satsu's wish that we make an arrangement with the Asahina family to further this effort."

"Why then come here? Why not go directly to the Asahina?"

"The Asahina are a strange and perplexing family," Mareshi said. "They are both priests and craftsman, ascetics who detach themselves from the world and then dedicate themselves to creating things that are useful for those who still dwell in it. It is Lord Rosanjin's hope to gain the help of another Crane family in dealing with them."

"I see," Nichiren said slowly. "And this arrangement? You wish the Asahina to aid you in studying the nemuranai you discover?"

"No, Daidoji-sama," Hirohisa said. "We wish to go through the nemuranai they have accumulated, and determine which ones must be destroyed."

There was a moment of thundering silence that no one wanted to break, and a sparrow's song floated in from the garden. "Mirumoto, I do not think I understood you correctly," Nichiren said. His face had hardened into a mask, and Mareshi could see the agitation of the water kami around him. The fire kami, curiously, still looked bored.

"We wish to destroy any dangerous nemuranai the Asahina possess," Hirohisa repeated calmly.

"And who are the Mirumoto to decide what is dangerous? And who are they to pass judgment on the Asahina's ability to care for dangerous things?" Nichiren sounded angrier with every word. "Did Rosanjin think that such an insult as this could go unnoticed, or did he somehow think that the Daidoji have no care for their kindred's honor?"

"Daidoji-sama, no insult is meant," Mareshi said. "The Asahina have provided two Keepers to the Empire; we of the Dragon Clan understand the degree of wisdom this implies. We offer our strength and our service as a show of respect, nothing more."

"If the Asahina are wise, then they don't need your services," Nichiren replied.

"If only the world were so," Hirohisa said. "We who live in the mountains appreciate how valuable distance is, and how seeing a situation from a different perspective yields new information. The Asahina family produced two Keepers, but it also produced Yajinden."

Nichiren leaned forward suddenly, and Mareshi had a sudden vision of the Daidoji throwing himself bodily at Hirohisa. The vision passed in a heartbeat and he found that his hands had reached for weapons that he didn't have. Hirohisa had not moved in the slightest. "This discussion is over," Nichiren said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

* * * * *

"The arrogance of it!" Nichiren raged. "The sheer, brazen gall of it!" He circled around his room, looking, Osei thought, like he was searching for something he could destroy.

"It is very odd," Osei said. She had been out on the balcony of the neighboring room practicing her ink painting and had, consequently, heard every word.

"Odd? Insane! Why would they imagine that the Asahina nemuranai were their concern? Why come here, to the Daidoji, with their idiotic claim? From start to finish, it makes no sense at all!"

"Perhaps it isn't supposed to. Perhaps it is a riddle."

Nichiren stopped pacing and stared at her. "You think that Togashi Satsu sent two samurai all the way to Kosaten Shiro to tell us a riddle?"

"The alternative," Osei said, "is to think that Togashi Satsu sent two samurai all the way to Kosaten Shiro to insult the Asahina family."

Nichiren stared at her a moment longer. "Osei-chan," he said quietly, "you are a jewel among women. We will send you to Shiro Daidoji to learn the art of war, and then even Akodo generals will tremble at the thought of facing the armies of the Crane."

Osei opened her fan to hide her blush. "Nichiren-san, you go too far. Even if I am correct, we don’t know what the riddle is about."

"True." Nichiren folded his arms in front of him and thought. "I must send a report to Lord Kikaze and Asahina Sekawa at once, with what we currently know. Then we will go riddle-raveling. Where should we start, O mighty sage?"

Osei smiled. "With the riddle itself. What do Hirohisa and Mareshi know of their lord's motives? I wonder especially about Mareshi, he was ill at ease both last night and this morning."

"Yes," Nichiren said. "I will speak with Mareshi, you deal with Hirohisa."

Osei nodded and rose to her feet. "I'll draft Saori to help, after last night she should be able to ingratiate herself with him."

"One imagines that Saori could ingratiate herself with any man, at any time."

"I was speaking of Saori, not Soh," she said with affected dignity, and was rewarded with a laugh from Nichiren. "And it is a pity that neither of us will ever write a memoir: today we witnessed something unique in the history of the Empire."

"And that is?" Nichiren asked.

"A Dragon samurai referred to a Crane family as 'strange and perplexing'."

Nichiren laughed again. "Go, O sage. And when you do see Saori, you might suggest that she stay away from Funaki. I saw him in the dojo this morning--he's been drinking all night, I think."

Osei shook her head in wordless commentary and left the room.

* * * * *

Mareshi stood in the middle of a garden near the main keep, contemplating its elegant combination of form and function. It was, like all of Kosaten Shiro's gardens he had looked at, beautifully designed and immaculately maintained. It was also, like all the other gardens he had looked at, a death trap. The cheerful-sounding stream that fed the pond at the far end of the garden was studded with sharp spikes, cunningly made to be almost undetectable. The lily-spangled pond itself was twice as deep as a casual look suggested, more than deep enough to drown an unwary man in armor. It, along with the high, thick hedges that gave the garden its serene sense of isolation, would drive any sizable force of attackers into the field of fire of archers stationed on the tea house in the next garden over. Did the Daidoji send their siege masters to the Kakita artisans for training in garden planning? Mareshi wondered. Or did they sponsor their own covert school of battle gardeners?

Gravel crunched on the path behind him and Mareshi turned to find Daidoji Nichiren walking towards him. "Greetings, Mirumoto-san," he said cordially. "You are finding the afternoon pleasant, I hope."

"Very much so," Mareshi said. "The gardens here are quite amazing."

The two men exchanged bows. "I hesitate to disturb your contemplations," Nichiren said, "but I feel that there is more to discuss of this morning's business. Perhaps you have a little time?"

"Of course," Mareshi said, wondering what more he could say. His mission was certainly part of some deep, subtle plan of Lord Satsu's, but he had no idea what it was. Nichiren led him over to a pair of stone benches that gave an attractive view of the pond and they seated themselves.

"First, I wish to apologize for my actions this morning," Nichiren said. "I was far too hasty in ending our discussion."

"No apologies are needed," Mareshi said. "We had somehow given the impression that we thought little of the Asahina, and you were naturally disturbed."

Nichiren was silent for a moment. "Your mother was a Naga," he finally said, "and her people now sleep alone in the Shinomen Forest. You would feel concerned if you heard of some threat to their safety, would you not?

"Of course," Mareshi said.

"My family is named 'Daidoji'--Defenders of the Doji--but it is our honor to defend all the Crane families, and the Asahina most of all. The Kakita have many great warriors, and the Doji have the knack for borrowing other people's armies, but most Asahina would rather die than pick up a sword. So we die in their place."

"Such a death is full of honor."

Nichiren nodded. "But this means…when one picks a fight with the Asahina, one picks a fight with the Daidoji. Is this what your lord really wishes, Mirumoto-san?"

Mareshi carefully kept his face neutral. "I do not understand, Daidoji-sama. We have no intention of fighting the Asahina."

"Indeed? You demand to go through their temples so that you can destroy their property, invoke their greatest shame, and then call it peace? The ways of the Dragon are even stranger than I had heard. Or perhaps there is something else? What lies behind this riddle, Mirumoto-san?"

"I am sorry, Daidoji-sama, but I do not understand you. Please forgive my foolishness."

"I am told that wisdom can be acquired in meditation." Nichiren stood up. "You will have much time for it, as I have spoken to the commander of the gate guards--you and Hirohisa will not leave Kosaten Shiro until I permit it." He gave Mareshi a cold, steady look. "As I said, we take threats to our kin very seriously."

"I am sorry, Mirumoto-san," the servant said, bowing very low. "Nichiren-sama is not in his suite, and I do not know when he will return. Would you like to leave a message?"

"Tell him that Mirumoto Hirohisa would like a meeting with him," Hirohisa said. What he really wanted was to challenge the man to a duel, but there was no point in leaving that message with a servant. He brushed off the rest of the woman's words and headed back down the hallway. His attempt to visit the geisha houses in the castle town was cut short by the gate guards, who had politely informed him that he was not permitted to leave the fortress grounds. The encounter had left him in a bad mood, one that was not improved by the sight of Kakita Funaki walking towards him.

"So, Dragon, how are you today?" Funaki asked, stopping in the middle of the hallway. He was slurring his words slightly and reeked of sake.

"Sober," Hirohisa answered. "Which is more than can be said for you."

"Better a drunk hero," Funaki said, "than a sober coward!"

"You are beneath my notice," Hirohisa said, and attempted to go around the drunk man. Funaki snarled and threw a wild punch at him. Hirohisa grabbed his arm, pivoted, and smoothly threw him into the wall. Wooden lattice snapped and paper shredded, spilling Funaki into the room beyond. The women in the room scattered like startled birds, shrieking. Funaki picked up the brazier they had been burning incense on and charged back towards Hirohisa, swinging it wildly.

Hirohisa evaded the swing, grabbed Funaki's arm again, and threw him into the opposite wall. The Crane was struggling to his feet when a pair of guards raced around the corner. Hirohisa held up his empty hands. "I am unarmed," he said calmly, and then pointed towards Funaki. "He attacked me." The guards looked from Hirohisa to Funaki, then exchanged glances with each other.

"He's lying," Funaki slurred.

"Funaki-sama," the one guard said.

"Nikutai!" the other guard shouted.

"FIRE!" screamed a woman from the shattered room.

"Daidoji-sama, I think this is most unfortunate," Mareshi said.

"Indeed," Nichiren said. "Fortunately, it will all end amicably when you lord decides to explain what he really wants. Whenever that will be."

"I," Mareshi started, and then trailed off into silence, looking at something behind Nichiren. "Daidoji-san, the keep is on fire."

It took Nichiren a moment to understand what Mareshi had said, and then he whipped around to stare at the keep. Drifts of smoke floated out of a room on one of the middle stories, and as he watched a few pale flames licked towards the neighboring room.

His room.

"Blessed Lady Doji," he said, and then let the prayer trail off. He couldn't think of what to pray for. The fire gong boomed out its warning.

"Daidoji-sama!" Mareshi said. "What can be done? How can I help?"

Nichiren stripped off his haori jacket and handed it to the Dragon. "Wear this," he said.

"Why?" Mareshi asked, confused.

"It will make you look enough like a Crane that you should be able to get out of the gates. You must do your best to leave: the confusion and grief will cause people to make assumptions, and I would not like you to suffer for my actions." He bowed deeply to Mareshi and then ran towards the castle, ecstatic fire kami trailing in his wake. Mareshi watched him for a moment, stunned, and then started to run to where he remembered seeing a guard barrack. He would find a guard and volunteer his aid; fire was everyone's enemy.

Osei jerked to attention at the sound. "Kakita-sama," her maid yelled, "it's the fire gong! What do we do, what do we take?"

"Idiot," Osei said, "you get out of the castle. In the middle of a fire you don't have time to pack your luggage--" she collapsed on the last word. Luggage, she thought. Nichiren's luggage. She stared numbly at the floor, wondering exactly how much gaijin pepper Nichiren had, and how much damage it could do to the castle. It would be considerable, she was sure, and there would be questions. If she died here, she wouldn't have to be the person questioned.

"Kakita-sama?" her maid said. "Kakita-sama, are you all right?"

Osei closed her eyes and wished for death with all her might. Then she pushed herself back to her feet. She hated what Nichiren did, but he was relying on her. She would find a way to explain this. She would find a way to explain it away. "I'm fine," she said to her maid. "Run."

Mareshi staggered back to his feet, trying to remember what had made him fall. Thinking was difficult: there was a roaring noise he couldn't identify and the air was choked with smoke and ash. He almost tripped over a smoldering board lying in the grass before him, and then he remembered. He turned around to look at the keep and almost fell down again. Most of the wall of the keep facing him was gone, as if it had been peeled away from the rest of the building by a giant hand, and as Mareshi watched another section detached and fell, burning, onto the ground below. The rest of the keep was on fire, and many of the buildings that surrounded it were starting to smoke. He was still alone in the garden, but all around he heard voices shouting orders, weeping, or screaming uncontrollably.

Lord Satsu, Mareshi thought with horror, was this your plan?

* * * * *

The halls of the Imperial Palace seethed with the news; Mirumoto Masea could hear the air humming with it as she strode through the halls. She needed to find out what was really going on, needed to find someone who she could trust to have actual news, not gossip or speculation. She turned a corner and saw Hitomi Vedau at the end of the hall, looking out a window. Masae headed towards him at the fastest walk propriety allowed. "Vedau-san! I must speak with you."

Vedau turned away from the window and bowed to her. "Keeper of Air," he said.

Masae bowed back. "Vedau-san, what is happening? What happened to Kosaten Shiro?"

"It caught fire," Vedau said.

Monks, Masae thought despairingly. "Why did it catch on fire? And why do I hear reports that the Dragon Clan are responsible?"

"I do not know," Vedau said. "I believe that Lord Satsu recently sent a delegation to Kosaten Shiro for some matter or another, but I was not told if it included fire-setting."

"We must find out what is going on, quickly! The Crane delegates here already talk of war."

 "War with the Crane? That would be good, very good," Vedau said.

Masae stared at him. "Good? There is no reason for our clans to be at war--we should be helping them, helping Sekawa spread what we have discovered about enlightenment."

"There can be no enlightenment without hardship," Vedau said. Masae felt a chill go down her back as she realized that she had once stood at this very window and said those very words to her brother. The large monk smiled, and her chill deepened. "The Crane will show us the way."


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