Hooks and Barbs

Ryoko Owari Toshi, following the Emerald Championship
Spring, 1198

“Such an interesting turn of events!” Arisa laughed, perhaps a bit too loudly. Few of the other patrons of the House of Plum Blossoms, one of Ryoko Owari’s many sake houses, made any notice, however. “I mean, can either of you believe that Hige, of all people is now the Emerald Champion?”

“It certainly helps when one clan is permitted three competitors to the others’ two,” muttered one of her two companions into his drink. Though his kimono was colored with a dye favored almost exclusively by the Doji as much for its rich blue color as its costliness, none would ever dare to think that a face so utterly plain could ever belong to a Crane.

“Oh, don’t get all sullen just because he beat both of your clansmen one after the other, Yasu-kun,” Arisa chided, wagging her sake bottle at him reprovingly before taking another long drink. “Natsuki-san has been serving the Otomo as a yojimbo since her gempukku and Hisahime’s from her own gempukku to ascension. She was competing as an imperial, not a Scorpion.”

“And now we have yet another Scorpion among that number whispering in our Empress’ ear,” Yasunori continued to lament. “I had hoped that a new Champion would bring an end to the Empire’s woes.” He sipped morosely from his own bottle. “How foolish of me.”

“Feel free to perform the three cuts if you feel so strongly about our new commander, then,” Arisa countered cheerily. “Your second had better be as fast as Hige, though. I’d imagine you’d start complaining the moment steel met flesh.”

“A shame, then, that no one is as faster than our new Champion,” he paused to take another sip, giving their other, silent companion a sidelong glance. “Apparently.”

After serving as an Emerald Magistrate alongside Yogo Arisa and Shiba Yasunori for two years, Yotsu Rei had quickly learned to take in stride the barbs her two companions threw each others’ way. She had also learned to tell when their conversations turned from empty insults to business. She motioned subtly for the shamisen player to strum louder and leaned forward to join the conversation. “You mean Hida Ban’s disappearance.”

“He certainly made a fool of Kakita Kanahime in front of the most important people in the Empire.” Yasunori let the comment hang for a moment.

“Please,” Arisa rolled her eyes. “Kanahime’s a nit. She’d be too scandalized to muster up the nerve to take any retribution against Ban so soon after it happened.”

“But would another Crane?”

Rei frowned in thought. “I don’t think so. The Crane wouldn’t risk such a scandal at such an important event, especially with Ikoma Sakon-sama present. He could easily turn such a display into a means to weaken the Crane’s current political power.”

“Which is currently holding the Lion’s armies at bay,” Arisa continued. “Perhaps the Scorpion did it,” she provided wickedly. “To create the illusion that such a scenario took place.” She paused. “Or perhaps to ensure another Scorpion’s position in prominence, as Yasu-kun suggested.” Another pause followed by a shrug. “Or any number of other reasons, really.”

“I don’t think foul play was involved,” Rei pushed Arisa’s suggestions aside. “I was standing closer to the dais than either of you. Neither of you could have seen the amount of revulsion on his face following his victory. I think whatever kept him from competing against Hige was of Ban’s own choosing.”

“At the very least we can conclude, by virtue of venue, if nothing else, that it is a remarkable enough scenario to warrant investigating,” Yasunori said, looking once again at Rei for confirmation.

The Yotsu nodded. “We will begin our investigation now.” She rose and, with a flick of her wrist, several bu fell from her kimono sleeve to clatter on the table. With a final toast, the three magistrates departed the sake house and went their separate ways into Ryoko Owari.


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Hooks and Barbs

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