Summer 1198

Natsuki entered from the window. It had been a small game they had played in simpler times in order to avoid wagging tongues and whispered rumors. She had eschewed all trappings of clan and honor, garbed now instead in close-fitting uwagi and zubon. Rather than the mask of red velvet and golden lotuses, a fierce black mempo covered her nose and mouth. “Hantei-sama,” she prostrated herself, raising her voice so it might be be heard through the heavy screens of the mempo and downcast face. “I beg your forgiveness for the intrusion, but I must ask you to come with me immediately. You are unsafe here.”

The Empress seemed unsurprised at Natsuki’s entrance, but drew her lips into a firm line at her report. “Natsuki-san, explain yourself.”

The steady tromp of feet echoed down the corridor and a pit grew in Natsuki’s stomach. She rose and was at the Empress’ side in a moment. “Please, Hisahime, we have to go now!” The use of her former name brought the girl back into the Empress’ eyes, but for only a moment before that cold, impersonal mask of authority returned. It twisted Natsuki’s heart, knowing that she had taught her how to wear that mask.

The shoji screen flew open, and the Empress Guard burst into the room, sasumata leveled. The sight of Natsuki gave them a moment’s pause, but the captain recovered quickly. “You dare intrude into the Empress’ personal chambers? Seize her!”

“Please, taisa, allow me the honor.” Kakita Kanahime let drop her polearm and stepped forward into a duelling stance, her hand resting on the hilt of her katana, palm facing upward. “We’ve done this before, Natsuki,” she said, her voice cold and even. “We both know how this will end.”

“No,” Natsuki returned, adopting her own stance. “We have never done this before.” With the flick of her thumb, the pommel of her blade slid open and several small, black balls tumbled out, bursting into billows of thick, stinking smoke.

To their credit, several of the Empress Guard charged into the choking cloud without reservation. They thrust wildly with their sasumata, tears streaming from their faces, throats burning from the smoke, hoping to snare something with their weapons. When the smoke finally cleared, neither the Empress nor Natsuki were in the corridor.

Months ago, during the attack on the capitol, several samurai had managed to find their way into the Imperial palace, bypassing the Seppun guardsmen and warded entrances. It had taken Natsuki the better part of a month scouring both the interior and exterior of the palace to find their means on ingress, but she finally succeeded in the storeroom. For the weeks after, the passage preyed upon her mind; she ought to inform the Seppun of the breach in their defenses, but a voice in the back of her head argued against it, telling her to keep the knowledge of it to herself. She whispered a short prayer of thanks to what was undoubtedly the guidance of Bayushi himself. This breach, ironically, now served as the Hantei’s salvation.

Natsuki placed the limp form of the Empress against a sturdy, oak barrel and stretched her aching back. The months on the throne had hardened the Daughter of Heaven, but her face, though puffy and tear-streaked from mild poison that had rendered her unconscious, looked once again like Hisahime’s. The Scorpion plucked a small handkerchief from her obi to blot her eyes clear.

She took a deep breath to clear her head. Hot-blooded adrenaline had been necessary for her initial escape, but the grander game was now beginning, and the stakes required a more collected approach. The Empress Guard had yet to raise the alarum; that confirmed her fears but still worked in her favor. However, she knew it wouldn’t be long before the Seppun were informed. That would make things more complicated, but the Scorpion excelled at having mitigating pieces ready to play.

The voice from the shadows was like cloth dragged over gravel. “We lost one to your traps, Natsuki-chan.”

Natsuki prayed that the man she now knew was behind her did not see her start at his sudden announcement. “Then we’ve begun earlier than we expected,” she replied testily. True, her nerves were running ragged, but it was that Hakase had still managed to surprise her that grated on her. “I trust it was disposed of.”

“Of course. I had two of the others drag it off to one of the deeper pools and weigh it down.” His cackle was low and sadistic. “Nothing like disposing of corpses to show them they’re no longer samurai!”

In Natsuki’s brief experience with Shosuro Hakase, a minimum of conversation seemed ideal, so she simply nodded and moved past him and into the sewer tunnel. Assembled within were ten young men and women, all clad in simple peasant’s clothing. Each carried a large bundle over their shoulders, perhaps the size of a small woman.

“You have entered the Gauntlet,” Natsuki announced and noted with satisfaction how they all straightened visibly, a mixture of pride and fear. “Each of you is to walk about the Imperial City carrying your parcels. You are to look suspicious by attempting to not look suspicious. Should anyone attempt to halt you, bluff. Should they then attempt to detain you or inspect the contents of your parcel, run. If they catch you, die. Do NOT abandon your parcel. Obey these rules and, should you survive, you will be wearing your mask by day’s end. Are there any questions?”

The assembled remained silent.

“Correct. There are never questions.”

The magistrate halted the palanquin as it made its way down the docks to a waiting ship. “Your papers,” he demanded of the peasants as they gratefully set their burden down.

“Oi!” a voice shouted from the junk’s deck. “What’s this?”

The magistrate turned from the peasants towards the woman that now stood atop the ship’s gangplank. “Excuse me, sama. My orders are to inspect all containers leaving the city.”

“Sama,” the woman chuckled. “You’re a polite boy, aren’t you? Tell me, what makes you think I’m deserving of that level of respect?”

The magistrate drew his lips into a firm line at the woman’s goading. “I find that erring on the side of courtesy is best when operating in the Imperial City.”

She guffawed gracelessly. “So you’re a man who plays the safe bet! Good for you that sense pays off sometimes.” She moved down the gangplank with the loping swagger of one who spent much of her life at sea. “I am Shambala, Daughter of Storms, Champion of the Mantis, Captain of the Tou no Tourou, Breaker of Men.” She delivered the last title as she leaned in shamefully close, her voice both promising and threatening.

The magistrate retreated to a respectful distance. “Forgive my impertinence, then, Shambala-sama,” he stumbled over the exotic name, “but my orders stand as given. I am sure you must understand their necessity”

“Must I?” She arched an eyebrow. “You must be a worldly boy, to work at the docks,” Shambala said, matching the magistrate’s retreat. “No doubt, you’ve heard all sorts of unsavory things about my Clan. Why, it’s practically scribed on your face. It’s shameful the reputation we’ve gained,” She stopped her advance at the palanquin and rested an arm atop of it. “And now, a matter has drawn me from my far-flung duties to the capitol of the Empire itself in order to meet with someone who does not wish for his reputation to be muddied by tongues that wag over associations with disreputable folk such as myself.” She pushed off from the palanquin and again began moving towards the magistrate. “Such associations can be rather damaging to a person’s reputation should someone with a mind to harm discover them.” Shambala had backed the man to one edge of the pier. “I suggest you do what comes naturally to you; err on the side of courtesy.” She leaned in close, her smile wicked, and her voice once more threatening. “Take the safe bet.”

The now-ashen magistrate nodded meekly, fumbling to find his way around Shambala while maintaining a safe distance. With one last glance at the palanquin accompanied by an almost apologetic bow to those inside, he hurried off to the next dock.

“We shall not forget this loyalty, Shambala-sama,” Natsuki promised from inside the palanquin.

“So long as you can afford it.” The Bride of Storms’ smile was like a dagger over her head. “The Mantis Clan is at your service.”

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