The Unicorn could hardly refuse a visit from a celestial Kami, a city governor, and a Jade Magistrate with only two guards – but the court (such as it was in the tents of a temporary encampment) was more than a little tense. There also seemed to be far more Unicorn Samurai around than they would have thought likely – especially given the view from Kochige’s cloud-vision spell. Quite a few of them looked a little foreign as well. Hmm. Had anyone ever been sure that the Unicorn had actually dropped contact with all the groups they’d encountered – and intermarried with – while they were outside the Empire? They’d swung through the desert as far as Senpet, then down through the plains to the west, and through the Shadowlands.
Just wonderful. If the Unicorn were calling on their allies and connections, they might have almost as many warriors as the rest of the Empire combined. Still, the Unicorn had been being sneered at for centuries: what had them so worked up now? And – at this point – was there anything that could be done about it?
Najite got the brunt of this one. He was so good at lurking unseen that it didn’t take long for him to find out that the Unicorn believed that the Crane and Lion had united against them in the Imperial Courts – where the Unicorn had the most difficulty in operating – and that there was little choice left except all-out war. Apparently their belief was based on a document they’d captured from a messenger who’d defended it to the death – and which had been protected with some serious magic that they’d had a great deal of difficulty bypassing. All in all, enough to make sure that it was either genuine or a very subtle plant. Of course, if it was a Scorpion plant – and it apparently had put the Unicorn firmly in the Scorpion camp – subtlety was to be expected. Still no information about just what had been in it though.
Unless it was being kept around here. In the Clan Champions trunks?
There was a bit of silence when Najite casually wandered off, apparently strolled past the guards, then searched the Clan Champions tent under the noses of the watching samurai without being noticed, located and brought them the document in question – and then returned it just as casually after Kochige had a look at it. Just a courtier, oh yes.
Hm… The document involved a secret agreement to manipulate the emperor into transferring the Unicorn’s clan status to the Fox – on the grounds of excessive gaijin contamination and blood – whereupon the Unicorn would be stripped of most of their privileges and broken up, while – at the same time – the Fox would be promoted to unwanted major clan status and stripped of the protections that the Emperor had granted the minor clans. According to the letter, the scheme was on the edge of success. It had apparently been sent from the Crane to the Lion.
Confound it. That was actually all too plausible. The Crane and the Lion probably would have no objection to such a scheme, and might even be in on it no matter who had proposed it. Nothing obvious to mark it as a forgery, and nothing that they could easily counter.
Kochige took a look at the physical document. Hm. The Ink was a typical Sparrow clan formula that was exported all over the Empire. Not uncommon, although the Crane typically used their own ink. The paper had tiny reddish particles of clay in it that had stained it in a slightly mottled pattern as it was drying; it had probably been made with river water, running through cultivated lands. The color was typical of the floodplains near the center of the empire, rather like the water he’d seen in the great central river. The depth to which the ink had penetrated the paper showed slow brushstrokes, but the skill was considerable: there was no reason to work so slowly unless you were taking great care – such as when imitating another hand, or at least concealing your own. Probably not a secretary, even if one would be trusted with such a document. Whoever it was had been right handed, and bent closely over the work judging from the length of the strokes. The ink had been dried with grains of sand – an unusual commodity in most places, to be found only near the beaches and great central river, and unlikely to be transported in quantity. Unfortunately, anyone might carry a vial in a writing kit. A hair stuck in the ink was from a samba deer; Samba calligraphy brushes were difficult to manage, but offered exceptional fine control in a skilled hand. They were exported by the Dragon and Phoenix clans, since the samba deer was found only in the northern mountains. The Crane rarely used such brushes, since they generally regarded their own brush craftmanship as superior. His analysis of the brush strokes (a science he had just invented with his investigation check of 124) indicated a furtive personality.
Unfortunately, while that was enough to make most of the group reasonably sure that the letter was a forgery, none of it would exactly be definitive – or even readily explainable – to anyone else.
Who could they get to vouch for Kochige that would get the Unicorn to accept his analysis and cancel their war?
They considered trying to convince the senior Unicorn advisors and/or the priests. None of those seemed likely to succeed – and, even if they could convince them, there was no guarantee that the Clan Champion would listen. At this point they’d need some really spectacular backing to be sure that the Unicorn would cancel their war. It would be pretty hard to stop the gathering of the troops now, and the longer it took them to come up with something, the harder it would be. It might be too late already.
Well, they could try downgrading the forgery, but – at this point – the Unicorn might not even look at it again anyway, much less look closely, and they would probably get suspicious if there were sudden obvious flaws.
Wait: that ancient Ki’rin Diplomat had wanted to locate Shinjo – meaning that even the Unicorn didn’t know what had happened to her. If there was anything or that could convince the Unicorn to listen, it would be their founding Kami.
OK, it was a ridiculous longshot, but there really didn’t seem to be anything else that was likely to work.
Information first. Ninsei visited the priests to listen to the complete history of the clan. Kochige went to the Elders. Michio checked the City of Jewels – a good thing the Kami of Vacations was still willing to provide the occasional gateway – and Najite got in touch with the Tortoise: you never knew what might be in the Imperial Archives.
According to the priests, Shinjo had refused to assume a persistent or stable human form (Hm. That would maintain her nature as a shapeshifting kami and avoid mortal aging). As a Kami of Motion and Freedom, she had been more than willing to explore outside of the Empire. Upon leaving the Empire the Ki’Rin had headed straight for Senpet, mingling with the people of the burning sands and the nomads of the steppes along the way – although they’d spent many years finding ways around or through the undead-infested mountains of the burning sands. The Ki’Rin had spent a relatively peaceful century (at least once they got used to being seen as a young and relatively uncivilized bunch) in Senpet after they’d settled some initial altercations at the City of Jewels. Shinjo had spent a great deal of that time talking with both the lesser priests of Senpet and the priests of madness – and then had gathered the Ki’Rin and departed (with a slight implication of the Ki’Rin having worn out their welcome a bit) on a grand sweep around the western half of the continent. Shinjo had ridden out about halfway though – in 442 – to deal with some mighty power of darkness, and had not returned – although her children eventually had. There were several, inconsistent, accounts of her final battle, as well as of an earlier appearance and disappearance – but most of them looked a bit like later embellishments woven around a disappearance that had never been explained.
Shinjo’s children had been shapeshifters with a strong supernatural nature as well, and had given instruction and guidance on the remainder of the great trip. Along the way the Ki’Rin had encountered many friends and many foes – but, when they reached the borders of the Shadowlands, they were lured inside, instead of turning to the east and returning through or around the Naga Forest as they had been instructed. Their trip through the Shadowlands had been neither easy nor pleasant, and the people of the Empire had not exactly been welcoming.
After that, the story was quite familiar.
The Elders could locate almost exactly where Shinjo had been lost to them. They could confirm that she had been warm and friendly, fascinated with new things, and inclined to advise the clan that had gathered around her, rather than attempting to rule it. She had left most matters of humans to humans and – during and after the visit to Senpet – had restricted her interactions with the clan even more, advising them only when asked. She had sent regular messages home initially, but became erratic about it as time passed. Her children had remained with the Unicorn for some centuries without showing any signs of aging, and had displayed a variety of magical powers – both beneficent and destructive – during that time, but had eventually given into the wanderlust they had inherited from their mother and departed. Before then, they had fathered or borne many children, both human and equine, including the ancestors of the chief priests of the Unicorn. Such children had also shown innate magical powers, albeit relatively minor ones compared to those that their semi-divine parent had displayed. Those bloodlines still ran strong in the Unicorn clan.
The old records of the City of Jewels recorded the arrival of the Unicorn, and some initial conflicts that were soon resolved. Apparently their relationship had been fairly good, and they had even coordinated occasional efforts against the fiery undead which lurked in the mountains of the burning sands. Shinjo had seemed somewhat disturbed by what the priests had told her – and apparently had not entirely approved of the priests of madness, since she had and forbidden any of the Ki’Rin to study their ways (although she made no attempt to actually interfere with their practices). Unfortunately, such records were fragmentary: the history of the City of Jewels had been turbulent, and much had been lost.
The Imperial Archives recorded early messages from Shinjo – advising Hantei of what the Ki’Rin had encountered. Afterwards there were a few messages from the time she spent in Senpet, mostly advising her siblings to limit their involvement with humanity to advice and guidance instead of trying to rule them. Such messages had been ascribed to confusion resulting from too much Gaijin influence, and disregarded. Beyond that, there had been warnings that the eventual return of Fu Leng was inevitable, information derived from her continuing explorations – and then nothing.
OK: it didn’t really look like her departure had been entirely involuntary – and her children had seemed to be fully supernatural, not mere human-spirit crossbreeds. There were hundreds of human-spirit crossbreeds scattered across the Empire – indeed, tens of thousands shared that heritage – and their abilities and limitations were pretty well understood. Shinjos children did not seem to fit the pattern. On more direct evidence, Ninsei and Kochige had noted some interesting things about the highest-ranking Unicorn priests: a segment of them seemed to be directly descended from Shinjo’s offspring – and still had a strong supernatural nature. THAT should have faded centuries ago.
Well, that was a decent starting point, but nowhere near enough information to actually get anywhere. At this point, for all they knew, she could have just merged her essence with the entire clan; it would have allowed her to travel and explore in all directions at the same time.
Next up: consult the Kami. Kochige was still busy attempting to figure out what was going on with the Unicorn priests, and Michio and Najite were attempting – with modest success – to divert the Unicorn and counteract the more militant types and the Scorpion Clan manipulations – so that left Ninsei free to be hurled into the heavens. That was useful on Michio’s end as well: it got him a good deal of attention, and made an excellent stalling maneuver.
The guardian of the gates complained as usual, but didn’t make any real objections to Ninsei traipsing in and out of the Celestial Heavens yet again.
Bayushi still didn’t approve of what the Scorpion were up to, and was still willing to talk to them – so he was first. Unfortunately, the Kami of Secrets didn’t actually know much this time around: Shinjo had never returned to the heavens, and had been out of contact for centuries. He believed that Amaterasu might know more – but she was pretty cranky on the subject of Shinjo; apparently she felt that the entire topic was something of an embarrassment. Most of the rest of the founding kami would like to hear from her again.
As far as the Crystal Tomb was concerned, it had been intended as a gift; Shinjo was supposed to technically be a “Demon”, and so could not normally enter the celestial heavens; ergo, he’d arranged freedom of the cosmos, immunity to aging, considerable protection from injury and magic – and a backdoor to the celestial heavens – shortly before he’d departed Ninjen-Do himself. And yes, it had been a surprise – which might have been poorly judged, but she’d forgiven him for it eventually. Apparently over the centuries she’d learned enough that it was no longer necessary anyway.
Hm. OK: off to the Jade Palace to speak with Amaterasu.
The guards provided him with an annotated copy of “Subjects on which the Sun Goddess is quite touchy” – a volume of some 346 pages. If he wanted to talk about Shinjo, they recommended visiting Karrloth, the Fortune of Technology and Medicine (apparently a gaijin import) first for some extra protection from Fire and some healing supplies. Ninsei took that advice – and was very glad of it later.
Amaterasu was pleased to have visitors, but every time she got annoyed over something, she started emitting streams of superheated plasma – and Shinjo seemed to be among the subjects that she found most provocative. She was also oddly willing to talk to – or at least at – him on a variety of topics. She ranted a bit about how Shinjo was a terrible, undutiful, embarrassment, how she had been refusing to accept her communications for centuries now, how they had never gotten along, and how a wide variety of human behaviors and historical events annoyed her. She vaporized the entire palace when he attempted a direct inquiry, sending Ninsei blazing back to Ninjen-Do near the Mantis Isles in a shower of tons of condensing jade. Ninsei gathered it up into a block and hauled it ashore with him; you could never have too much jade. The goddess of the sun seemed to consider him a very naughty child… It was a good thing that he’d had all his personal fire-protection magic up and hadn’t quite run out of Karrloth’s healing supplies though.
Well, Najite was a courtier: they sent him up for another try at it. He had a hard time getting by the guardian, and did worse on the healing he needed – despite being far more durable than Ninsei – but managed to get a bit more information. It seemed that Shinjo had taken up with – or married – someone that Amaterasu thought was totally unsuitable. In fact, someone that was the polar opposite of a suitable match… He also got a directive before she blew up her (freshly rebuilt) palace again: “go to hell”. Wonderful. How he had the supreme powers of the cosmos gratuitously cross at him. With a temper like that it was no wonder that she had family problems.
Back at the Unicorn encampment, Kochige had determined a few things about the priestly bloodlines. It looked like the power they’d inherited was a self-sustaining dipole of primordial dimensional energies – creation and destruction, void and shadow, light and darkness – which fed on each other. If you inherited the spark at all, it would rapidly build to its full power. Without the encumbrance of mortality that would have granted Shinjo’s children considerable power to break down and rebuild their forms as well as to simply create and destroy. Even with a physical body to dampen things it gave the priests a fair amount of power without any need of invoking other spirits.
How it worked was simple enough – except for how it tended to be associated with the firstborn, although that made little difference – but how could it have happened to begin with? Shinjo would have contributed the power of creation – the power of Toshigoku, the Celestial Heavens – but who or what could possibly have been the father? It had to have been some primal power to contribute such a pure and terrible force of destruction. Some mighty gaijin deity perhaps? Shinjo was the most adventurous and venturesome of all the gods, she might have chosen or accepted such a consort. Of course, that would be yet another reason why the Unicorn might be touchy on the subject of “gaijin blood”.
After they got back together there was a good deal of information sharing and a lot of discussion. Would running off with a gaijin god have upset Amaterasu that much? After all, she’d been in the habit of adopting gaijin into her clan – and at least it would have been a god of some sort. The rest of them had mostly married mortals; surely that was at least as unsuitable a pairing as a gaijin god. What could she be so vehemently against?
Hm. Maybe there was something in pre-imperial theology? The problem was old enough that its roots might well predate the Empire. There were some tales of elder entities – and Kochige had been helping Shigure negotiate with the primal Lords of Destruction.
Oh dear. It was a tremendous jump on very little solid information – but they were gambling incredibly anyway. It fit so well though… A rebellious young goddess. An entity as opposite to her mother as possible. A power of darkness and destruction. A born opponent of the creator gods – and a being who could offer the goddess of travel and exploration access to the other half of the cosmos. Rocan the Destroyer, the Black Sun of the Underworld. Lord of the night, cold, and death.