Hell and Heaven are in the Hearts of Men
The Elemental Council
If Asako Wataru felt any unease from the sudden roar, he did not show it. With the stoic, practiced ease of a courtier, the aged Phoenix spread open his fan as he withdrew it from his obi and idly wafted it before his face. Perhaps it was merely a passing fancy, but the small room did seem to be growing warmer by the second.
“To think that the Crab could allow such a disaster to occur at their own Kami’s palace!” the Master of Fire continued, slapping his palms down on the flat, stone table before him. “At such a cost to their guests! To us! Reprisals must be meted out!”
The air around Isawa Mikato’s shoulders now rippled visibly and Wataru was certain that the change in temperature was not his imagination. He felt his forehead flush, and was unsure if it was due to the heat or his own base emotion. During his many years of service to both his clan and empire, the emerald magistrate had never been in the presence of the Elemental Council; he now hoped that this would be their only meeting. Though these were his kinsmen, standing before them was enough for him to realize the gulf of power that existed between him and them. He had seen shugenja chant from scrolls to beseech the elemental kami do as they wished, but this was altogether different. The fire kami were rousing themselves simply in response to Mikato’s anger and, despite the heat, he shuddered to think of those Crane and Lion who had seen his power brought to bear. ‘Kinsmen,’ the magistrate thought to himself, ‘as if they could even be considered men.’
“Calm yourself, Master Mikato.” The voice of the Master of Water was quiet, but seemed to fill the room, suffusing it with its placid tone. The heat abated, though that did little to ease the magistrate’s nerves. “Wataru-dono knows far better than ourselves the cost suffered.” Asako Manami turned to the aging Phoenix who quickly lowered his gaze deferentially. Wataru silently thanked the ancestors that social convention kept him from having to meet her too-wide, too-deep eyes. “You have our deepest sympathies for your loss, Wataru-dono.”
“I thank you, Master Manami,” Wataru returned, forcing his voice devoid of emotion. Courtesy and etiquette were the courtier’s weapons, and Wataru wielded both as skillfully as any Mirumoto did his daisho. As Mikato knelt down at the low stone table, the magistrate closed his fan with a snap and returned it to his obi. “That concludes my report. I am thankful that the Masters would show such regard towards their vassal, but I will waste no more of the Council’s time with my own personal matters. With their permission, I will leave them to deliberate a course of action beyond my station.” The Council nodded their assent and, bowing as low as his age would allow, he backed slowly from the chamber. Once past the threshold, a servant slowly slid the shoji screen shut with a soft hiss that perfectly covered his own exhalation of relief.
“An impressive man,” Isawa Seimei broke the temporary silence with his characteristic innocuous tone, tapping his closed fan against his lips. “With a handful of words, he takes the responsibility of Mikato-kun’s outburst upon himself and quickly excuses himself from the embarrassing situation.” The statement hung in the air for a moment. As the other three Masters waited to see if Seimei’s musings were leading anywhere in particular, Mikato shot a frown towards his friend. Seimei remained oblivious to their reactions.
The youngest among the council, Yabu Kyouhakushiro, awkwardly cleared his throat. “Yes, we should forget neither Wataru-dono’s loss nor his dedication to service. However, the incident at Kyuden Hida is still the largest issue at hand. Let us focus our attentions there.”
Mikato opened his mouth to reply, but Manami was quicker. “A military response would be impossible. Our forces would have to cross through either Lion or Crane territories.” She leveled her gaze at both Seimei and Mikato. “I trust all present realize the reception our forces would likely receive from either?” The Master of Fire’s eyes blazed, his jaw clenching as if it were some great dam ready to burst. Seimei merely arched an eyebrow towards his peaked cap and pursed his lips.
“Agreed,” Kyouhakushiro replied. “I believe for now we should wait to see the Crab’s next move. Should the Shadowlands attack again, the Empire will need their strength. I also believe that, given the exceptional circumstances, we should attempt to renegotiate our marriage contract with Hiruma Ashida.”
As the others continued their debate, the eldest among them remained silent. Isawa Nanashi, the Master of Void, rarely spoke and usually only to break a deadlock created by the other Masters. Manami and Mikato would likely continue to argue while Kyouhakushiro strived to play the conciliator. It had happened so many times before and Nanashi saw no reason why this instance should disturb the established pattern.
He inhaled and the voices of the other Masters went silent. He exhaled and the room went black. He did not feel when his body breathed again, for his spirit had departed to commune with the Void. As always, when his communion came to an end and his bodily senses slowly returned, the passage of time had been indeterminate. The other Masters had already departed; apparently they did not wish to disturb their elderly companion. Only Seimei remained, an unreadable smile playing across his face.
“Did Master Nanashi wish to speak with me?” he asked plainly.
The Master of Void nodded, his mane of white hair floating around him as a cloud. “Astute as ever, Master Seimei.” It had been the first time he had spoken in several days. His voice had grown weaker by imperceptible degrees, but weaker nonetheless. “There is one among the Lion who is owed a favor from you, is there not?”
Seimei’s smile deepened. “Hai, Master Nanashi.”
“Then let us see what we can do to settle our accounts with him.”
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