Interludes: The Sword which is No-Sword, Words Like Mist, Shadows in the Wainscotting.
With the Oracle settled down, Shigure started pushing for one of his pet projects: trying to do something about the apparently-perpetual Lion-Crane border conflict in Toshi Ranbo. It was just too hard on the local peasants – and a useless drain on the empire. It wasn’t as if anyone was getting anything out of the place: The ongoing warfare had the place almost five years behind on its taxes, let alone on actually making a profit.
Most of the rest of the group had to agree, but also knew that they couldn’t be officially involved. Still, that didn’t mean that they couldn’t provide magical support. Admittedly, they’d be badly outnumbered – even deploying the now-officially-Rokugani yobanjin troops – but surprise, Shigure’s skills as a general, the city’s current shortage of shugenja, and the fact that (in the middle of the winter) the place was currently commanded by an expert administrator rather than an especially skilled battle commander, might make it practical. The attack plans got fairly elaborate – but it mostly revolved around (1) using Ninsei as a figurehead (and Shigure acting slightly more crazed than usual as his “hired mercenary leader”), (2) coming to a prior agreement with the Crane, as to possibly putting a neutral plug into this ongoing drain on their resources (and hopefully getting a little support), (3) luring out a portion of the Lion garrison, (4) magically driving a tunnel under the (somewhat ruinous) walls, (5) attacking in the middle of the night using some group-effect nightsight enchantments courtesy of Smoke, and (6) deploying as much area-effect attack magic (preferably going with a rain of flames) as could be managed.
Overall, they managed to get some ashigaru armor and common weapons out of the Crane and the attack actually went quite well: they inflicted quite a few casualties, and let the noncombatants, youngsters, and wounded withdraw on terms of them personally refraining from attacking – meaning that they’d have to trade positions with troops elsewhere before an attack could be launched. While the Lion clan was sorting that out, the group got the Imperial Magistrates in and started paying off the back taxes – making sure that, in the winter and with with minimal transportation available, it would take months, putting the lion in the awkward position of having to attack imperial tax collectors if they wanted to do anything before spring.
The Lion started pulling up a sizable army, with a competent general, and a selection of heroes, as well as sending in a couple of Courtiers to try and schedule a fight somewhere away from the tax collectors. In the general confusion, this led to a drinking contest that resolved nothing – but did delay things long enough to involve some Crane diplomats, more imperial magistrates, and an assortment of other people while most of the group faded into the background to pursue their own projects, research, and training programs.
Unfortunately, at the negotiations, most of the talking got left to Ninsei and Shigure – and while “We took it and paid the back taxes” was a good point (Ninsei’s “Mine!” was less so), neither made any attempt at backing it up by calling in or promising favors, offering private deals, promising additional payments, stressing the benefits of having a neutral buffer zone for awhile, negotiating, or much of anything else. Still, the Imperials liked having the taxes paid (despite the one Magistrate who was upset with Shigure), the Phoenix liked the idea of a break in the fighting, and the more experienced Crane courtiers wanted at least a temporary break in the useless fighting.
The upshot was to leave Shigure in charge for a five-year trial period as an imperial appointment due to the ongoing dispute – not coincidentally the same period the taxes had been delinquent for – albeit with one adviser/observer each from the Crane and Lion clans to assist him in running things. Thanks to Crane and Phoenix pressure, the council even took the groups requests into consideration – and requesting the local Lion intelligence specialist and the Crane lady they’d already travelled with (rather than Ninsei) was reasonable enough. Sadly, Shigure – as usual – felt hat any form of compromise or concession was a complete loss.
Meanwhile, Michio attempted to train a few of their soldiers in a lesser form of his enhanced sweep technique (only a few had enough talent, even if Okari did know how to provide the necessary magical enhancements) and then headed off to the Phoenix to demonstrate his skills, get more training, warn them about the upcoming plague, get interviewed by a few of their Shugenja, and pass on his information about just how dangerous their two remaining Black Scrolls had become.
Kochige headed off to get whatever Taint he’d picked up on his trip to Jingoku treated by the Monks. He didn’t want to go near his family – or research anything – until he was sure that that little problem was under control.
Okari had some research to do – but was also somewhat desperate to find out his current status with his clan, who he’d been supposed to marry, and whether they were all going to be accused of horrific crimes as soon as the Fox spread the word. Meanwhile, Smoke wanted to see a bit of the Empire in his usual quest for strange new experiences, and could also do a couple of bird-transformations easily enough. Combining those two errands led to Okari discovering that the Orrery had apparently swept up extra people from the Thousand Years of Darkness in the time move. Fu Leng’s palace attendants had offered them a choice of “entertainment” during their visit – and he, wanting to get general information and to find out about the status of the Fox in this world without arousing any additional suspicions had requested the company of any young Fox women who were about. They’d simply talked – but he’d considered them clan members, and they’d considered themselves assigned to him, and the Orrery had moved them through time as well, dropping them in the Fox clan chambers in the palace in the present day. After all, that’s where they’d been physically. They’d simply cleared out ahead of the news.
Three young women… who’d never seen the sun, were filled with information about the thousand years of darkness and a possible future of Rokugan, and who had been sent to serve him in any way he desired by the palace manager of “Emperor Fu Leng”. No wonder the clan had quietly sent for him, that the clan champion had been filled with suspicion, or that – now – every Fox priest in the Empire was being notified to keep an eye out for information on their little group. At least the clan was still investigating (apparently the champion had stepped down while he was recovering – and recognized that the scroll he’d been carrying had been influencing him) rather than ordering assassinations. How was he EVER going to explain this?
With only a couple of months to go before the plague struck the Phoenix, Shigure – on the theory that he wasn’t actually in charge of anything – elected to leave his nephew in charge of Toshi Ranbo and headed off to the Phoenix lands. Along the way they ran into an old project of Igaskikako’s – the descendants of some cats that she’d tried imbuing with a bit of the Lying Darkness. Fortunately, the Lying Darkness had apparently found that cats made relatively useless agents, and that cats with magic with which to indulge themselves made even worse agents. They’d taken advantage of the thousand-year cycle of dimensional interactions to set themselves up in a private realm on the borders of Chikushudo and Ningen-Do and were busy eating, sleeping, and being pampered. Unfortunately, they’d decided to grant a child’s wish for a wedding like her big sisters (she’d always fed them a lot and been nice to them), and untangling the mess took some effort by the Shugenja. Shigure fell for the “cute” facade and refused to get involved, and the Shugenja wisely decided to go with “cute” and avoid a direct conflict with dozens of shadow-magic-using cats. They eventually made a deal – and some good deductions about just where the Phoenix might fail to look for a plague source.
Along the way, Smoke decided to move in with the Cats – and accept their little realms gradual transformation into one – and Alex turned up again. Apparently all the fishing around in the interdimensional spaces had intercepted one of his little trips.
8/6/6 XP, Free Emphasis for Sword or Battle, a minor favor from the governor of Mamoru Kyotei Toshi, a minor agreement with the Demon-Ninja-Shadow-Cats (free fish in exchange for random gossip).