Up. And down. Up. And down. Up. And down.
Sweat glistened down tanned skin and crimson scales. The slow rhythm of rising and dropping, like the sun shining through the windows. Light glinted off the equipment inside, off of weights and chains and racks–not made for torture, but for improvement.
“Most men would want a spotter,” the voice of the woman called Yumin echoed from the doorway.
“Most men are weak,” Rokuhara Daigo, Daimyo of Sora and Lord of Fuwa-jo, stated, “They fear injury. They fear pain. They fear death.”
“And you don’t?”
Daigo gripped tight the bar in his hands, then sat up. He planted both feet firm on the ground and stood, still holding the barbell as he stared at the woman with orange hair, brilliant like a new dawn. “A man has no need to fear what cannot touch him.”
She smiled. “This samurai feels true sorrow to say so, but she must disagree with her great lord. Men fear the untouchable so much more easily than the tangible. Pity cannot be held, anger cannot be grasped, death cannot be forced back. So men fear them deeply.”
He snorted, the sound echoing. “Then they’re not trying hard enough.”
She just smiled. The ronin who came to him with the head of a golden ogre in her hand was, as ever, as inscrutable as the flames he could not help but see her as.
Flames could be many things. Warmth, home, destruction, rage, lust, purification…
He set his barbell down and drank deep from the pitcher of water at his table. Once his thirst was satisfied, he dumped the rest over his head, letting the cold soak the thick muscles of his broad, bare chest.
One hand matted down his short, red hair. No hint of stubble hid his sharp features, and his red eyes gleamed like rubies as he looked down at his vassal. “They’re here then.”
“Gathered in the gardens as you wished, my lord.”
Her lord. “You know how to speak properly.”
“Of course this samurai does, Lord Rokuhara.”
She bowed as he walked past her. He knew she would follow.
More servants scurried about while guards patrolled. Drakes, mostly. The lizardfolk followed those with dragonblood as naturally as angels to a god. Not that Daigo would ever blaspheme, no.
He detoured, taking time to bathe and dress. His kimono was threaded with gold and bore the visage of a dragon over the mountains. Fitting.
“You kept us waiting, dragon,” were the baleful words Kogetsu greeted him with as Daigo strolled into his gardens. The irises were in full bloom. A good sign.
“Lord Kogetsu! We nobles are guests here!” Nakazono said, rising to his defence, “Do not be rude to our noble host!”
“Do not worry, Lord Nakazono,” Isozaki said next, “This lady has seen these two do this many times. You need not be concerned with Lord Kogetsu’s temper.”
Kogetsu sneered but said nothing, as he always did and always would. The human had no spine, not truly.
Daigo took his seat. “There is a new face in this garden.”
The new face in question straightened. Saruta, the monkey lord. “Yes, Lord Rokuhara. This lord thanks you for your gracious hosting.”
There was an amused sniff from Nekotani. Six lords total then.
Daigo was the tallest of the Daimyo at the table. Tallest of the Gororan Daimyo in general, perhaps. It was a fitting quality. Dragons rose above all other beasts.
Rokuhara, Kogetsu, Isozaki, Nekotani, Nakazono, Saruta. Dragon, Rabbit, Sheep, Cat, Horse, Monkey. Though species didn’t always match heraldry.
Kogetsu Teijo, white-haired and dressed in woven moons, was human. A lean, severe example of a human, but a human nonetheless. Daigo approached him first because he was a man of petty resentment and desired control, who complained of upjumped peasantry and good old days he had never lived.
Isozaki Iwa shared Kogetsu’s white hair, but where his was long and straight, hers puffed and curled like a sheep’s wool, akin to her woven clouds. The noble satyr was older, plumper, and had a far firmer spine. Daigo was approached by her instead. Their interests aligned, so she thought.
Nekotani Umeko, golden-haired and slit-eyed, joined through curiosity. She paid enough attention to notice her neighboring lords had meetings and approached for amusement, lacking investment but willing to complain of Kawajiri’s many faults. But then Torahiko Hiroto, the chief of Rainfall Island’s guardian tigers, stood at peace talks and spoke to the empress, and the cat couldn’t help but fear for her family’s position. She was ailuran, not tigrin, and the difference between a cat and a tiger seemed so much starker now that the Torahiko had influence.
Nakazono Nobuhito shaved his brown hair short. It was an interesting look for a hornless satyr. A bold look for a man that wasn’t. Isozaki brought him. He had grievances he felt were legitimate, concerns that built with each failure the Shogun racked and each misfortune his people faced. The theft of the Temple Core some months ago was what solidified his will to see Kawajiri overthrown.
Saruta Masahiko, brought by Nakazono and vouched by Isozaki was bright. Plain features, but vivid pink hair, a common trait for the clan of Blooming Flowers in Autumn. There was a tale there that Daigo knew. It was why he was certain Saruta would be an ally, aside from the more pressing and personal reasons the daimyo had.
A servant poured them all tea. Once every cup was steaming, Isozaki started the proceedings with a clap of her hands.
Daigo tuned out the platitudes. Greetings weren’t something he bothered with and the conversation that arose from it was filler at best. Saruta and Nakazono both assumed confidence, yet avoided deep discussion. Nekotani played along, Isozaki chatted cheerily, and Kogetsu brooded. Perhaps he would have made a better Himuro...
“The archduke Garoti has seceded from Sollamava, yet he goes untouched from retribution,” Daigo stated during a lull. Eyes went to him.
“...Heh, this lady almost forgot you were a man and not a silent mountain,” Nekotani quipped.
“Why is that, do you think?”
“...Eh? Ah...she...you were being quiet and you’re huge, so…” She swallowed, her throat unprotected. Foolish.
“The Lord Garoti goes unpunished for his trespass because of his relations.” Isozaki smiled, stirring her tea. “The second queen of the Lucene is his sister, and her king husband has supported the Garoti’s claim of secession. Indeed, there’s word that the Lucene are accepting the Garoti under their protection.”
“What?! That’s–That’s absolute madness!” Nakazono cried, “Is that any different from outright claiming the land of a sovereign nation?!”
“It is this lady’s understanding that the Garoti intend to remain a nation of their own.” Isozaki took a sip. “Mm, lovely~. But yes, it looks as though the Garoti intend to trade a Sollan flag for the Lucene, in deed if not word.”
“In deed indeed~.” Nekotani giggled, her confidence regained. “The real question though is what we nobles should do about it. The Garoti neighbor us, don’t they? Masa, your land is around that area.”
“This lord’s city is closer west than the northeast where Garoti would be. The closest lord there would be…” Saruta scowled. “Buki is the closest city.”
“Oh, so then the dog is the closest lord. Hm, are you sure about that one? The distance between your city and Inukai’s are likely about even to the Garoti province.”
“Mutts aside, is this an issue?” Saruta inquired, his attention on Daigo instead of the cat pouting at being ignored, “Do you think the Archduke Garoti will cause problems for us?”
Kogetsu sneered. “Of course not, monkey. This isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity, and one this lord intends to take advantage of.”
“Lord Kogetsu, you knew about this?” Nakazono asked, his brow still creased in concern.
“This lord keeps up on information, horse. In fact, this lord–”
Daigo sat back and half-listened as Kogetsu started his rambling. The gist of it all was that the Rabbit of Gorokiva sent messages to the Scorpion of Sollamava, offering support and an alliance through marriage, which the Archduke Garoti Siromo accepted with gusto.
“Oh, so you actually found Shiho?” Nekotani queried with a small smirk.
“As though this lord–” In short, Kogetsu already knew where his wayward daughter was. It wasn’t unsurprising. Everyone at the table knew the truth of the matter.
“You arranged a marriage for your daughter while she’s gone missing?!” Aside from Nakazono. “Not only that, but isn’t she close to forty??”
“And? Age isn’t a factor in marriage.”
“Wh-Of course it is! Not only is it a big factor if the people in question are too young, but she’s an adult! Arranging a marriage like this at her age, it’s..it’s bizarre!”
“Katsuro has her,” Daigo stated to cut the argument short.
“Wh-You-Your brother? Lord Rokuhara, you knew–”
“Yes, yes, he knew, stop with the complaints, horse. You’re giving me a headache,” Kogetsu groused, “This lord didn’t call for an intervention as a favor to the dragon here.”
“It wasn’t a favor,” Daigo stated.
“Beh, fine, it was because this lord had no use for that runaway and it was more convenient to let her stay in one place. Now this lord has an opportunity to use her, and he’s taking it. Shiho will marry Siromo’s son and an alliance will be formed to all of our benefit.”
Nakazono bristled. “And how is that? How does siding with an arrogant traitor aid us?!”
Kogetsu scoffed. “Like this, horse.” And snapped his fingers.
Daigo watched. The whole table watched. Nothing happened.
It was only when Kogetsu sent him an irritated glare that Daigo deigned to wave a hand and call forth the servants the rabbit wanted. The servants in question carried chests that opened to show rows of weapons. Glistening red steel that carried flickering flames in one, deep, vivid purple blades that reeked of toxin in the other.
“And there’s more where these came from.”
“...Er, ah…” Saruta pulled at his collar. “This...lord thought we...is this not intended to be, er…Th-This lord knew there would be violence, surely, but we would be defending against the Shogun, not…”
“What, you’re worried now that the steel came out?” Nekotani raised an eyebrow, false amusement barely concealing nervous irritation. “Sometimes, to fix things, blood needs to spill. Teijo’s just making sure it isn’t our people that are losing that blood.”
“...The people of Gorokiva are our people though. Even if…” His concerned words were met with irritation and pity at most.
Nakazono had pity. “Masahiko, we nobles have a duty to this country. This lord doesn’t agree with Lord Kogetsu’s plans, but we must do our part to remove the usurper Shogun. Think, what hasn’t he done in his years ruling? Stolen from our peoples through inane taxes? Created arbitrary bans? Demanded we do not act, even when our neighbors face threats? Even when random disasters have plagued our towns without explanation? Even when the temple of our god lost its core?! All he’s done since taking that seat is stoke rivalries and demand ‘self-reliance’! Even you can see how he tears at us, favoring and coddling based on some metric of ‘productivity’, even as everything else is set by the wayside!”
Isozaki spoke next, carrying conviction even in her soft tone. “For over twenty years now, Shogun Kawajiri has promoted his ideals of growth and prosperity by raising taxes on all towns and cities, highest for we of the noble houses, and then using the money as rewards to support those cities that make a specific quota of production in whatever field the Shogun has decided is most essential to them. Steel and iron ore for Atsu, fruits for Nobi, vegetables for Mosa, glassware for this lady’s home of Suna, so on and so forth. Each great city turned to specific productions, to the point that production began to overtake them. Such as flowers within Hana. So many that they bloom even where unwanted, for the sake of a picturesque city in eternal bloom.
She said what everyone present already knew. Yet the reminders made Saruta nod, concern turning thoughtful. “This lady knows Kawajiri Shingo believes he is aiding Gorokiva. She knows he wants to encourage the people to focus on what is profitable and valuable. And she knows that the end result of such thinking will see our nation turned into a workshop, relentlessly building and exporting and isolating. Atsu makes ore, but no longer sends it to Buki to make weapons. Kama crafts blades alone and no longer sells mining tools to Ishi. Our neighbors now have ships to sail the skies, yet their construction is barred in our lands. Only the empress owns one, so it is said, though can you truly believe the shogun has not had one built for himself?”
“...” Saruta, who owned a skyship himself and had flown it to meet with Nakazono and then come to this meeting, shook his head. “No, this lord can’t. Especially when Moku and Joki always so conveniently ‘meet their quotas’.”
“There was once a city called Numa. Wet, dour, and muddy. Closer to Autumn than the brilliant blooming mimicry of Spring known as Hana, yet it was ruled by a clan of monkeys, agile and skilled.” All eyes were on Daigo as he spoke. As proper. “One monkey, the head of the clan, was said to love flowers. He wanted, more than anything, to see his dour land turned into something brilliant. He first went to his neighbors. The rooster cared nothing for his neighbor’s wants, and shut him out. The dog, ever jealous of his territory, snapped his jaws at the monkey’s approach and chased him all the way from the province.
“The monkey traveled further, but he found no aid in the lands of Summer or Winter. The heat would crack his lands and trading his meager cold for a sharper one seemed ill-advised. So he went to Spring, and met a dragon. The great lord of Sora, the masters of the sky.
“The monkey went to bow, but the dragon caught his head and bid him to sit instead. Monkey and dragon shared a drink, and the monkey told the dragon of his dream. And the dragon nodded her great head, and carried the monkey to a great hill by the northern mountains, where a dead tree sat. She bade him to carve a castle from the tree. Then she would do the rest.
“It took many days and nights, but the skillful monkey succeeded in his task, crafting a grand castle from the wood. The dragon laughed in delight, and declared it perfect. And with her breath, she set the castle ablaze. Yet before the monkey’s eyes, the flames turned into brilliant blossoms, blooming with a ferocity that turned the valley from the warm tones of Autumn to the wondrous greens of Spring.
“The monkey was overjoyed, but he felt ashamed. He had nothing to give in turn for this generosity. But the dragon shook her great head. He had told her his dream. That was enough for her. But a monkey has pride too, and when he returned to the dreary lands of his clan, where he announced the blessings of their new home and bid his joyous people to move, he stayed behind for a time, and began to work once more. The second palace he crafted was even greater, and when he returned to his friend, he declared it was his gift to her in turn. That the dragon lord of Gorokiva would always have a home in the land of Autumn.
Daigo stared directly at Saruta. “You know who your ancestor was, Saruta Masahiko. You know who the palace of the Shogun was always meant for.”
“I do.” No hesitation. Resolute, and proud.
“Even then, the Rokuhara have always been charitable. The position is not passed by birthright, but by worth. By a declaration from all lords of Gorokiva that the worthy shall take the seat. Shingo never was declared worthy. He became Acting Shogun upon my mother’s murder. And he has never left that seat since. He is a usurper, and worse, an incompetent one. Do you agree?”
“I do.” Equally immediate. Perfect.
“Then welcome aboard,” Isozaki said, smiling, “We are all glad to have you, Daimyo Saruta. Now then, before we get back to enjoying our noble host’s hospitality, this lady would like to bring a few things up. Namely, it seems a second paladin of light has entered our lovely country, though the new one is in the company of a druid and a paladin of judgment, instead of an angel.”
“What, they couldn’t find an angel for the druid to travel with?” Nekotani quipped.
“Yes, actually. Remember, the only angels of judgment are Zemava’s cardinals, and they don’t leave their holy city, so it seems a pair of paladins are their substitutes. A pair with some interesting quirks to them.”
“Is there a point to this?” Kogetsu groused.
“What type of quirks?” Nakazono inquired.
“Well, according to this lady’s sources, the paladin of light is something of a noble brat from the Order Centola while the paladin of judgment is Vlahos Polina, younger sister to Vlahos Tisma.”
“Oh, so we definitely can’t kill her then,” Nekotani noted, earning an alarmed look from Saruta.
“What? Ah...was that...a prospect?”
Nekotani waved a hand. “Mah, mah, calm it down, it wasn’t a proposal, just a note. Three foreign paladins are in our borders, and they each have value because of their pedigree and the fact that they’re basically representing their respective countries. The paladin with the thunder angel is from the Order Popola, right? So her relative is the new Pontiff running things, and it looks bad if our country lets harm come to her. Same for the paladin Vlahos there; if she’s related to a hero, that gives her high prestige, and we can’t let her get hurt otherwise the hero Vlahos might come looking for vengeance. Our country might even face problems with our direct neighbor, and that’s never good, right?”
“So it’s agreed, no hurting her.” She smirked. “But what about the third paladin? The Centola?”
Nakazono frowned. “Are we really considering assassinating a third party merely to make Kawajiri look bad?”
“Hey now, this lady didn’t suggest assassination! Just that we don’t need to prioritize her safety, out of the three.”
“If it matters,” Isozaki continued, “This lady’s sources did say Paladin Centola was speaking with the usurper for some time, then left with his bodyguard in tow. Possibly regarding a matter of a draconic criminal in Natsuno and a ‘kidnapped daimyo’s daughter’.”
Kogetsu sat up, scowling. “What?! That scaly bastard, is he trying to poach this lord’s daughter!? Does he think he can use her as leverage against this lord!?”
“This lord has trouble believing Kawajiri would go that far,” Nakazono muttered.
“But what if he would?” Saruta inquired, and Daigo almost smirked. Thinking like that, assuming the worst...what a fantastic showing.
He stood, drawing eyes. “Samurai Yumin will go and retrieve Lady Kogetsu. Enjoy the gardens while the matter is handled.”
Then he strode away, listening as Kogetsu complained of his brusqueness and Isozaki waved it away in favor of tea, snacks, and chatter.
He picked a small sitting room and let his kimono loosen as he strode to a chair the size to pretend at being a throne. He had fond memories here, of warm days and gentle fingers in his hair.
Daigo looked to the woman called Yumin, who smiled and clapped. No other servant was in the room. The door was closed, the windows were warded, and the walls were silenced. If any had ears, they’d been cut off ages ago. “This samurai is impressed, oh great lord! Your manipulations were masterful!”
“No they weren’t. This dragon rambled about old stories and stated facts. To call that masterful is delusional and arrogant.”
Her smile didn’t shift. “It worked though, didn’t it?”
Daigo let his smirk show. “It did. Saruta makes six. Half, exactly, of the great noble clans.”
“And that’s enough for your plans to work then, oh great lord? This samurai seems to recall something about each Daimyo’s forces numbering in...oh, what was it? Twenty thousand?”
“So six altogether would give you around a hundred and twenty thousand soldiers to work with, right? Assuming your noble conspirators can muster their forces properly.”
“An army is not at the ready at all times. A soldier has a life outside of combat, unfortunate as that is. They farm, they craft, they hunt. They are expected to answer when called and they receive benefits for that preparedness. There are factors to consider though. A coup is very different from repelling an invasion, or even having a skirmish with a neighbor. Loyalty needs to be taken into account.”
Yumin tilted her head. “Do the noble Gororans often skirmish?”
“Not often, not recently. Peacetime makes people restless, and our nation has been in a state of ‘peace’ for a long time. Before Kawajiri, war games would be held to keep troops active. Now, we are to maintain peace to show the world we are a noble, united people.”
“Steel and valor starve in times of peace.”
He rested his cheek on his fist. “Is that a saying in the Sun Lands?”
“One from home, yes.”
“Liorzula, as you say. Where in Liorzula?”
She smirked. “Here and there.”
“I’ve never been to either.”
Her smirk widened. “Perhaps we’ll visit sometime.”
“Perhaps. A leviathan was said to be in Sollamava, aiming to bring that nation and Zemava into a great war. The reason Garoti seceded is because of a revealed conspiracy.” Daigo smiled as he stared into the leviathan’s eyes of beautiful jade. “I always did wonder what the purpose of your shop was.”
The smirk remained. “It has been very useful in convincing people of Kawajiri’s incompetence, hasn’t it?”
“It has. I know, you know.”
“I have a secret shop, you have secret plans. You’ve hired on many more guards lately. People dissatisfied with the current state of their nation.”
“And accepting that the Empress must be convinced of a better way. Not harmed, no, we are still loyal on that count, but the shogun must go. Such are the facts they all accept.”
“Is this a practice your allies are also participating in?”
“Possibly. Did you bring that second leviathan into Gorokiva?”
“The shop does need someone to run it. I can better focus on certain duties otherwise.”
“Good. Your demon is here then.”
The smirk twitched and Yumin sighed into a wry smile. “Yes, she is.”
“Have her kill the Paladin Centola while you retrieve Kogetsu Shiho. If possible, link it with the incidents Kawajiri has failed to fix.”
“Sounds good. What about your brother?”
“Bastard brother. Raze the town of criminals, rescue the wayward princess. Contracts have been written with the Sapphire Serpents Mercenary Guild. They’ll assist you with the rescue that Kawajiri never bothered with. Until now, or so it will seem.”
“So this samurai is to have an escort of mercenaries then? How generous. Are they aware of your greater plans?”
“Some. Their competitors, the Vermillion Furies, enjoy favoritism from Zemava, where they run all the Adventurer Guild halls. The Sapphire Serpents would enjoy a similar arrangement with Gorokiva. As well, the irony of having Kawajiri overthrown with aid of a guild with such a name appeals to me.”
“Heh. Then this oh so loyal samurai accepts these important missions, oh great lord.” She bowed deep, then straightened with a smile. “Is there anything else?”
“You have a larger plan of your own.”
“Hm, do I? A massive coup overturning the order of a nation seems like enough of one.”
“Your ally wanted war between two nations. Not a simple exchange of power. My allies would see me as a new Shogun in a stable Gorokiva, with them as favored nobles. You want something different. Death and destruction alone doesn’t sound right. Chaos and weakening, perhaps.”
“Perhaps. Would you stop me if I intended to kill every single person in Gorokiva?”
“Does Kawajiri die too?”
“Then it’s fine.” He would survive, as would anyone important.
Yumin laughed there, sudden and surprised. “You really are a heartless dragon, oh great lord. No need to worry though, I don’t plan a genocide. Let’s just say...the shallowfolk of this country have a very, very interesting tendency to align themselves with animals, to hold them as the symbols they embody. So I thought it might be interesting to bring out those beasts.”
Daigo nodded, not minding that outcome. In fact. “Would you give rise to more dragons then?”
“Maybe? We’ll have to see what happens. Why do you ask? You have branches in this family, don’t you?”
“I do.” And every one of his lessers was a backbiting leech. “I want to know if there will be more competition.”
She laughed again. It was a pleasantly harsh sound. “As if anyone could compete with you, oh great lord.”
And with one final bow, the leviathan he knew as Yumin turned to leave.
So he spoke again. “One more thing.” She stopped, and he smiled. “Bastard though he is, Katsuro is still family. Make sure his death is a good one.”
For an instant, her smile sharpened, and Daigo had a thrilling glimpse of the beast underneath, before it hid again in the depths of false humanity. “As you wish, my lord.”
He covered his laugh as she left. It wouldn’t do for anyone to hear his amusement and think it a weakness.
Physical strength mattered, but even then, as long as vulnerabilities were known, weakness existed. That was what killed Rokuhara Hitomo. It wouldn’t kill her son.