L5R : Jade Winds
This tale takes place about thirty years before the present campaignIt was getting dryer. He rode among the shallow ravines and wind carved precipices, covered with scraggly bushes. The Great Salt Sea couldn’t be more than two days east, perhaps less. Even here in the surrounding badlands, the ground was parched. It would be good to see the grasslands of home. They had been traveling too long.
He didn’t like the terrain. It was superb ambush territory. He had ridden point for a column before, but only under Moto Sensei’s supervision. Now Moto Sensei was on the other side of the Sea, and if the Khan’s Yobanjin Emissary came to grief, the shame would be entirely his. Bandits were not unlikely, and Ide Sama had told him to be wary. Ide Sama was not a man to waste words, and knew well that wariness, for a scout, was a way of life.
Well, one basic was to vary pace and path. He urged Dosojin into a gallop and turned towards the west. Soon they thundered up a tallish hill topped with scraggly pines. He glanced quickly around the horizon, hoping that any foes would have been surprised by the sudden change of vantage and been slow to take cover, but saw nothing.
Bakka. No help for it. He whickered to Dojosin, who obediently knelt in a bramble thicket He cursed, and began to climb the sturdiest tree. Climbing was no fit business for a Horiuchi, but Bushido permitted no slackness. From the uppermost branches, he could see and not be seen. He was getting too far ahead of the column anyway. He could wait a thousand or two breaths and see what stirred. His open eyes lost focus, the better to see movement across his field of vision, while his mind wandered back to his arrival in this land.
For the first few weeks after they had arrived in the Yobanjin Court, His duties had been light. Ide-Sama and his assistants had been busy, and the Battle Maidens of his Honor Guard were more inclined to mock a callow youth of 16, and of the Light Horse at that, than to dally with him. He was just starting to examine the possibilities among the gaijin serving wenches when Benten must have smiled upon him.
Tessa was long of limb and of hair, green eyed and gorgeous. She was also a Countess, a rank of some weight among these Yobanjin. He would never have approached her, lest he embarrass the Khan in a strange court, but as luck favored him, he had no need. Tessa was as hungry for adventure as he, and from the diversity of her tastes, should have been born a Unicorn. She collected exotica, and was as happy to add him to her collection as he was to begin his with her.
They first met at a reception in the Palace. A tour of one of the less-popular picture galleries led through a hidden door and a more intimate tour, to his delight. Afterwards, she was more careful, lest her husband learn of them. Apparently, it mattered among the Yobanjin that an unhappy wife sought pillowing elsewhere.
He would go to one of the theaters littering this strange town. The performances were tedious at first, but his command of the language improved rapidly. The dancers were fine, some of them, although the fight scenes were terrible. After a couple of hours, one of Tessa’s maids would slip through the darkened theater and lead him quietly to her private box.
Damn. The lookout had been well concealed three ridges over. But the shift change had been clumsy. He picked out a ravine that would pass behind the lookout, out of sight. He still had a little time, and he needed to know what they were spotting for. It wasn’t likely to be good.
Two bands, about thirty riders each, concealed on each side of the main track, with a spotter to alert them. Not bad. Not good enough, but not bad. He returned to the hilltop as he had come, then rode back openly to the main track. No need to send a warning back. A point rider moving openly down the road would be warning enough. He rode slowly, to buy time. His mind drifted again.
Tessa had tired of him first, of course. One does not stay exotic forever. But the Yobanjin brewed strong beer, the dice rattled freely in their pavilions, and when they favored him, their courtesans were no less accommodating. He recovered. He even kept visiting the theater: the plots of the plays had begun to make sense.
He was in the kill zone now, although he was perfectly safe at the moment. The jaws of the trap would not close on a single rider, not while they anticipated larger prey.
When the screams began to the right, as the Utaku took the ambushers in the rear, he and Dosojin were ready. Moving as one, they darted up the gentle slope the attackers had thought to ride down. As he crested the ridge, his lance dipped, and he bellowed loudly as he rode down a rider who was facing the wrong way.
The Emisary’s Honor Guard had been only a dozen Utaku and a half-squad of light horse. The light horse, himself excepted, were elsewhere, presumably escorting Ide-Sama to safety while the rest served as a distraction. He wished it had not been his karma to join the forlorn hope, but regret was idle. Thirty armored knights would have been a challenge even for a dozen Utaku. With another thirty to aid them, and the advantages of height and encirclement, it would have been a slaughter. Even caught by surprise as they were, there could be only one outcome in the end. But the Utaku were not fighting to win, and neither was he. After a thirty second eternity, with two Utaku and perhaps a dozen of the foe down, the Battle Mistress winded her horn and they fled westward at a gallop.
Eleven now, and moving too fast to hide their trail. If the foemen, whoever they were, had had enough, well and well. If the pursuit was determined, it would still take them a few minutes to sort themselves out and begin. Their horses were fresher, but half th fast ones had been thinned. A stern chase was a long one, but the odds were poor. If they scattered, two or three of them would no doubt be run down, but the others would escape into the broken countryside. He chafed, waiting for the inevitable order.
The pursuit was determined. Their lead was perhaps a hundred and fifty heartbeats. They ought to be peeling off, one or two at a time, but Battle Mistress Naoko did not give the order. Then to his horror, Gunso Shinjo, the other light horse, the Emissary, and his three assistants rode up out of a side canyon and joined the flight. What were they doing here? They ought to have been far, far away! Now the Emissary was at hazard!
The wind carved ravine twisted and turned. He could hear the pursuit over the music of the hooves, but not see it. The footing was treacherous: even now, they must ride single file along the left side of the ravine to avoid a sinkhole, perhaps three spans deep and five across. The few moments it took to shift from line abreast to single file must have cost them near to half their lead, although the enemy would by similarly delayed.
He glanced back, and was startled to see Ide Adoko, yuriki to the Emissary, bringing up the rear, and throwing a handful of purple power into the sinkhole. Before his astonished eyes, the sinkhole shimmered and vanished, appearing instead to be smooth ravine floor. Simultaneously, a thicket of thorn bush appeared right where he had just ridden. The yuriki did not slow, and they galloped together around the next bend in the ravine. Here they found the others waiting, resting. A few moments later, they heard the thunder of hooves behind them, followed by the screams of horses and curses of men. From the sounds of it, the first three or four ranks had fallen in at full gallop.
The Guard stood, formed to charge back the way they had come, silent as statues, listening to the chaos a few lengths away, around the bend. It took the pursuit several minutes to recover their order: apparently “His Grace” was among the injured. They had no stomach for further travel into the badlands.
When they had departed, the Unicorn moved on more leisurely. The days’ rides were shorter, and the kadiss flowed freely around the campfires. For the rest of the journey, the Emissary was quite merry. Proud as any warrior of his cleverness (and as bottomless with the bag of kadiss), he was content to share news of their mission, now that its success was assured.
The first night, the Emissary took Ide Akodo by both hands, praised him before them all, named him Iuchi Adoko, and gave him thanks for his loyal service masquerading as an Ide these last six months. Horiuchi was flabbergasted: the quiet attaché was actually a Stormcaller!
His surprise was as nothing when next the Emissary called him to honor before them all, praising him as essential to the success if the Khan’s mission. He stammered, thinking that Ide-Sama spoke of the ambush he had seen, and hastening to state the simple truth that no student of Moto Moro who could not have done the same would have been allowed gempuku, much less placed in a position of responsibility.
Ide-Sama agreed, laughing, with his humble assessment of his deed. “It is not of your eyes that I speak, young Horiuchi, but your innocent charms! Did you not listen, on the outward journey, when I spoke of our mission to the Yobanjin, to gain their King’s permission for armed escorts for our caravans?”
“Yes, Lord”, he said, more confused than ever. Several of the Maidens seemed especially amused (at least his fellow lancers seemed perplexed).
“And did you not realize that the bandits who have preyed upon our caravans were none other that the retainers of Duke Sforza, through whose holdings we ride, and who has been so unhappy with the reduction in tolls we negotiated with the Yobanjin in the year of the Pear Blossom?”
“No, Lord” was the only answer he could make. Ide-sama’s mirth increased, although his eyes were somehow kind.
“Ah, Horiuchi-san, you are a good rider, but not yet ready to joust in the plains of the Court (though you seem well able to please a woman). Tell me, did you not even realize that the lovely Countess Tessa was wife to Count Ochini, who spoke for the merchants among the Yobanjin hurt by our recent losses?”
That had been the fellow’s name, hadn’t it? But . . .
“Or that your dalliance, if exposed, would have embarrassed him greatly, and cost us his support? That without his support, we would even now be returning in shame, having failed the Khan?. Even the trade concessions we . . . persuaded . . . the Dragon to offer up in North Wall City would not have been enough.
He dropped instantly, pressing his face into the dirt in token of remorse. The Utaku tittered, and one or two of the Ide were grinning broadly now.
“I assure you that the Duke knew. His efforts to expose the scandal were unceasing. Indeed, it kept him out of worse mischief while we were in the palace. Your deftness in managing your affair did surprise me a bit: we only had to cover for you twice! Of course, the smitten Countess’ maids did much our work on her behalf, rather than ours. When he could not expose you, his position at court over the negotiations became untenable, leaving him no better option than to try to prevent the treaty’s return to the Khan.”
“Did it never occur to you to wonder at your good fortune? That such a highborn beauty should have been smitten by a callow youth, and chosen him above her many other suitors? Rise, Horiuchi-san, and give thanks to your true benefactor, Iuchi Adoko!”
The shugenga was smirking, now. Indeed, they were all smirking. It was too much. He stood, clasped the woman by both hands, gave a great guffaw, and said “The triumph was yours, but the pleasure was mine!” He seized the kumiss skin from a nearby maiden, took a great draught, and passed it to the Iuchi, laughing. Cheers erupted around the circle.
“So I say to you indeed, Horiuchi-san, the success of this mission rested upon you more than any. If ever you find yourself in court again, you must be more aware of the prevailing winds. But for an unbroken horse, you rode well!”