Late Winter, 1197

Bayushi Utsu knelt behind his small desk within the Scorpion Clan’s embassy, the brush poised in his hand whispering softly over the parchment laid out before him. To his left, another figure clad in robes marked with the mon of the Soshi sat in meditation, her head bowed to let the thick, black spill of her hair conceal her features. Before he was a cut-away in the floor where a small firepit had been constructed. As the Scorpion Champion filled each page, some he would set off to his right, but most he would place to his left. These the Soshi would take, chant over for a moment, and then feed to the flames.

From outside the rice-paper door, barely audible over the brushstrokes and softly crackling flames, a servant’s voice sought out Utsu’s ear. “My lord, Natsuki-sama has responded to your summons and currently awaits in the reception hall.”

“Offer her refreshment if you have not already done so,” the latter half of the Champion’s statement carried an undertone of steel. “When she is sated, bring her immediately.” It was customary among samurai of high rank to call upon their vassals and then force them to wait in order to make their own time seem rare and valuable. What luxury to spend time so idly, Utsu reflected.

Within moments, the door slid open for Bayushi Natsuki, formerly the personal yojimbo to the woman who was Otomo Hisahime. She stepped in the room with her customary confidence tempered by the wariness that years of service had instilled and dropped into a kneeling bow. “I have answered my Champion’s summons,” she said simply.

“Natsuki-san, welcome,” Utsu greeted, setting his brush down with a sharp click that cut through the velvet silence hanging over the embassy. He rose and returned her bow from the waist. “Have you had rice today?”

The yojimbo straightened, but did not rise. “I have, thank you, sama. I see you have made some changed,” she remarked as she took in the room.

“Though it served him well, my brother’s desk was too large for my purposes,” Utsu replied. “As he was fond of it, I have requested that our artisans refashion it into the heart of his shrine. The fire wards off the remnant of winter’s chill.” He noticed Natsuki eyeing the shugenja tending the flames uncertainly. “Juriko-san finds a final use for the documents that have outlived their usefulness’ they become offerings for the fire kami.”

“I did not realize our new Champion was so devout,” Natsuki remarked.

“It is more caution,” Utsu corrected. “Juriko is able to explain the details of the matter better than I.”

The priestess riased her head towards Natsuki, the curtain of her hair parting to reveal what was visible of her face. Her mask, thick porcelain painted crimson, completely covered her eyes. Two scorpion’s claws framed her face, their open pincers encircling her pale lips. “The kami of air are fond of secrets,” she began in a low voice. “The Master of Secrets has many that must be kept private and so those we give to the flames, where they become smoke, obscured to the air and those that might use it to learn that which our clan would keep.”

“Most cautious,” Natsuki agreed indifferently. She was already turned back towards her Champion. “If we might move beyond exchanging pleasantries, your messenger said you had a matter of some import to discuss with me.”

“The imperial mourning period is almost over,” Utsu began immediately. “Before our Empress went into seclusion to grieve the loss of her family, she tasked me with seeing that all preparations be made so that certain affairs may be executed as soon as piety allows.” He removed a rolled parchment from the pile of unburned documents and offered it to Natsuki.

As she accepted the scroll, Natsuki took note of the seal set in green wax. Her breath caught for a moment. “This is—”

“Your invitation to compete in the Emerald Championship,” Utsu supplied for her. “Given the recent tragedy, the Empire cannot afford to be without its protector. With Seppun Nenten among the slain, the position has need of a Champion and with Otomo Hisahime’s elevation, you have need of a position. Given your exemplary service and intimate knowledge of imperial workings, you are a natural choice.”

Utsu caught a flicker of emotion, too quick to identify, across Natsuki’s normally impassive face before she bowed her head. To her credit, she spent a moment to compose herself before speaking again. “My lord, I am unworthy of such honors.”

“In your case, it is not I who bestow them. If you feel you are not worthy of the Hantei’s personal recommendation, I advise that you spend the remainder of the mourning period aking yourself so.”

When Natsuki raised her head again, her lips were drawn into a thin line. “Hai, Utsu-sama.”

“Excellent. You are free to take your leave unless there is anything further you wish to discuss.”

“No, my lord. I will not keep you from your preparations.” She bowed once more and rose, leaving.

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