L5R - Birds in their Nests - A Post Winter Court story

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Sat Oct 21, 2017 5:30 am

This is a sort of prequel to my other stories.


Birds in their Nests

Otosan Uchi, Summer 1218

Utaku Yamada was tired. It had been a long ride from Phoenix lands, weeks on the roads riding in the late summer heat. Something that she would normally enjoy but was more difficult now due to the burden she carried. She stroked Yoru’s neck affectionately. He understood everything and had been there with her from the beginning.
She approached the gates of Otosan Uchi. Yamada didn’t really like cities though she had been to quite a number of them in her travels. But coming here, she didn’t like what it represented. It was an end, an end to all that had been of her life. And when she left, it would be the beginning of something else.
Once through the gates, Yamada made her way through the streets and over the bridges. As went further in, through poorer distracts and towards the wealthier, she noticed that the conditions improved. In the poorer districts there was a lot of rubble to avoid but as she neared the centre of the city conditions began to improve. She began to see more rebuilding, and sometimes whole buildings that had been reconstructed. Despite Yamada’s dislike of cities, she was impressed by how much was recovered from the utter devastation it had been sitting in for decades.
After searching for what seemed like hours, Yamada found the right house. In the Chisei District, near the wall that divided the inner and outer districts. Separating the house from the street was a stone that seemed to be fashioned from the rubble that littered the streets. The wall had two wooden gates, one wider presumably for horses and deliveries, and another narrower gate. Painted on it were three white birds in flight holding a pale blue ribbon that fluttered in a breeze.
Yamada smiled. This was definitely Kyoumi’s house.
The gate opened, a man came out. Clearly a servant, he bowed low to Yamada.
“Utaku-sama, I bid you welcome to the house of Kakita Kousuda and Kyoumi,” he said. “Please, allow me to take your horse.”
Yamada dismounted, carefully and with a little difficulty. She stroked Yoru’s nose and the handed the reins to the servant who took him in the side gate.
It was then that Kyoumi emerged from the house. She wore a cornflower blue kimono decorated with a pattern of silver leaves and birds. Her brown hair was tied back in a fox tail with a green silk scarf. She was pleased to see Yamada, but there was something else there behind her stormy grey eyes. A secret? What did she know now in her work with the Voice of the Emperor?
Yamada dismissed such questions, if she was supposed to know out such things there was time for it. And if she wasn’t…
Kyoumi made a formal bow to Yamada. “Utaku Yamada-san, welcome to our home. I do hope you will be as comfortable here as you would in your own.”
An odd thing to say, given what Unicorn “homes” are like, thought Yamada. She bowed in return, with a little difficulty. These formalities between them seemed a little funny given how well they had known each other at Shiro Mirumoto last winter.
“Thank you for having me, Kyoumi-san,” said Yamada.
“Please, come in,” said Kyoumi, leading Yamada into her home.
Kyoumi and Kousuda’s home was a haven of colour and order amid the ashes of a ruined city. Here and there were little touches that reflected their personalities, their origins as well as their hopes.
A stream of white gravel ran parallel to the dividing wall and meandered along until it entered in a sort of circle in the middle of the courtyard. Breaking up the bareness of the white stones were a few rock formations and flowers in pots. Right at the end of the stream in a brightly coloured pot that Yamada knew was Kousuda’s doing was a small almond tree.
They crossed the gravel stream on a small wooden footbridge and after removing their outdoor shoes entered the house itself.
The house was constructed simply of paper and wood, but inside again were personal touches. Yamada could see some of Kousuda’s paintings on the walls, one she clearly recognised was of Chrysanthemum Lake in Unicorn lands. There were also some poetry scrolls on the walls that were clearly Kyoumi’s.
The main room had a brightly coloured carpet on which was a table with a glass vase with a subtle ikebana arrangement. On the floor around it were richly embroidered cushions. A shoji screen divided the room, on it was a delicate painting of cranes in flight.
The sliding doors to the courtyard were open and Yamada could see the other buildings that surrounded the open space. One was small, probably the servants’ house, the other was better described as a shed and had a stout lock on the door.
“I know it isn’t much…” Kyoumi began to say.
“No, no, it’s lovely,” said Yamada earnestly. “I love the little touches you have made, the traditional and the new.”
Kyoumi managed a smile, but there was still the formal demeanour. “Kousuda has been called out, but he will be back this evening,” she said. “Can I get you something to eat? Or would you prefer to rest after your long journey?”
“Please, Kyoumi, don’t put yourself out,” said Yamada, trying to work out what was happening with her friend. “You are the one doing me a favour by having me stay with you. Don’t feel as if you have to change things to be more accommodating, because I know you are.” She smiled, trying to reassure her. “And yes, I think I will have a rest.”
Kyoumi relaxed a little, showing Yamada to a guest room.

The guest room was simple with simple furnishings and a few decorations. And it would be Yamada’s home until the spring.
One of the servants, a girl names Izumi, helped Yamada out of her armour and helped her change her clothes. Then she asked if Yamada wanted her to draw a bath.
“No thank you,” said Yamada, “perhaps later.”
Once alone, Yamada laid on her side on the futon. She wore a yukata in a pale mauve that was almost white, tied with a white obi. Her hands around her belly that was only just visible through her clothing, feeling the movement of the child inside. The only remnant of her brief marriage to her late husband. Utaku Nakura, once Yasuki.
It had been six months since Nakura had died. Six months since he had been cut to pieces while she had held him in her arms. Six months since she had told him he was going to be a father. And all gone in the one day.
Every day she thought of him. Every day she remembered his smile, his voice, his touch; his warmth next to her when they slept together at night. Every day she remembered the plans they had made, the life they were going to build together, the family they had wanted to start. And every day, Yamada had to push those memories back, lest they grow into the possibilities of what would never be.
Ashes upon ashes. The ruins of what she had lost last winter fell upon the ruins of what she had lost as a child. She had had a family then, a home, and lost it when the Unicorn lands had fallen to the Onyx and her world had ended.
She felt a hand—or was it a foot?—striking the wall of her belly. He—and Yamada knew it would be a he—was already a comfort to her, even before he was born. Her son would never know such loss, she would make sure of it. A family, a home, what she and his father had wanted to give but no longer could.
She had a promise to keep after all. And a dark duty to perform. But not yet, not now, not until the spring.

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Sat Oct 21, 2017 5:31 am

Dinner was more relaxed. It seemed as if Kousuda knew something was bothering Kyoumi and did his best to lighten the mood.
It worked. Yamada had never doubted the former Ide’s way with words, but this was rather impressive. It wasn’t long until he had them laughing over one of his stories from Medina al-Salaam. Yamada had heard the story before but didn’t mind hearing it again. It was when Kousuda had gotten into an altercation with some Yodatai traders that somehow he ended up getting the better of.
When the meal was over and Izumi served tea, Kyoumi asked Yamada about her time in Phoenix lands.
“It was…interesting,” Yamada said, placing her tea cup on the table. “Our priority was making sure the terms of having the Blessed Herd in Isawa lands were understood and that we will be left alone.”
“And will it happen?” Kousuda asked.
Yamada sighed. “It will, for now at least. Things were very difficult there, with many of the Isawa in rebellion there is basically no leadership. Kyuden Isawa was abandoned, after what we heard about what happened there we didn’t want to go near the place. We managed to find someone in the Shiba who understood what we needed, but it is probably not going to stay that way for long. It will change, we just made sure we would be ready when it does.” She looked at Kyoumi. “You remember how Karasu managed to find us an Emerald Magistrate? Kitsuki Masayoshi is still up there. Shinjo Saeki-dono says we will still need her.” She took a sip of tea. “How is Karasu? Have you heard from him lately?”
Kyoumi nodded. “We’ve had letters, he’s working well with Hikahime and the Legion. I have heard good things and we can expect more.”
“What’s it like?” Kousuda asked. “Up there, where the herd will be?”
Yamada knew what he meant. She cast her mind back, remembering what it was like when they finally arrived at Garanto province. The green meadows where the herd would roam and graze. If only she could have stayed… “It’s not home, but it’s very close,” she said. “If they are left alone, they should be safe.”
Kousuda nodded. He and Yamada exchanged a look, a sharing of a common kinship between the children of Shinjo that nothing could take away.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Yamada.
She sent Izumi to her room and the girl returned with a box. Yamada put it on the table and opened it. Immediately the scent of pine filled the room. Kyoumi smiled, inhaling it gratefully. Inside were three sprigs of pine, their fronds forming a frame around three pinecones.
“I know you spent some time in Phoenix lands,” said Yamada. “There is something unique there that isn’t like anywhere in Rokugan. Especially Isawa Mori, which is where these are from.” She pushed the box towards Kyoumi.
“Oh, we couldn’t accept it,” said Kyoumi, looking longingly at the box. “You need not have gone to such trouble.”
“It is you who is going to a lot of trouble by having me stay with you,” said Yamada. “This is but a small token of what you have done for me.”
“This is a wonderful gift,” Kyoumi said, knowing her lines and playing her part very well in this. “It reminds me of my time in the Phoenix lands when I was at the Artisan School. It is too much.”
“Then I am very glad to have given such a good memory,” said Yamada. “And I know you will use these to add the beauty you have already created in your home.”
“Then I accept, with thanks,” said Kyoumi.

After dinner, Kyoumi excused herself saying she had work to do for the Voice. Yamada and Kousuda went to check on the horses. The stable was at the back of the house and was rather small, but adequate for Kousuda’s horse, Yoru and any other guests that could be staying there.
Yamada talked with the groom, asking detailed questions. When he revealed that he was of Unicorn blood, Yamada knew there was no reason to question him further. When he left, she tended to Yoru, he wasn’t fond of stables so she made sure he was comfortable.
“There’s quite a lot of Unicorn living in Otosan Uchi now,” Kousuda told her. “So, it’s not difficult at all to find someone who understands horses.”
“How are you finding it here, Kousuda?” Yamada asked. “Staying in one place? In a city? I know the Ide did it more, but we have been nomadic for a while now.”
“I’m liking it,” Kousuda said. “Truth be told, Kyoumi feels a little shut-in here too, I don’t we would have come here were it not for her work with the Voice.” He sounded as if he wanted to say more, but chose not to.
“You don’t have to pretend, Kousuda,” Yamada said. “You’re happy here with Kyoumi, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Kousuda managed a smile. “Tell me, how are thing with you?”
Yamada didn’t answer at first, she rested her head on Yoru’s nose. Feeling his warmth, smelling his smell. “I survive, I guess,” she said, her voice low. “I go on, I do what I need to.” She turned to face him, her face a mask that betrayed nothing. “I never did thank you for that day, Kousuda-san. For what you tried to tell me, how you tried to stop the duel. You were right.”
“It would not have made much difference,” Kousuda reminded her.
“It would,” Yamada said. “Nakura would have had dignity.” She looked down. “He wanted to end it that way, I talked him out of it.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Yamada-san,” Kousuda said, trying to reassure her. “He made the choice, and you know why.”
“I have to,” said Yamada, “it’s all I can do.”
Kousuda nodded, not saying anything further. They then shut up the horses, going back to the house.
“Listen,” Kousuda said. “I want you to know that I am very happy you are here. For Kyoumi, she needs friends right now.”
“She seems under a lot of strain,” said Yamada.
Kousuda nodded. “I have to be away until winter,” he said. “Knowing you will be here makes me feel a little better about leaving her.”
“Can you tell me what is troubling her?” Yamada asked.
“She will tell you in her own time,” Kousuda said.
Yamada nodded. “She needs you, but I will try to be there for her.”

In the night, the memories came as they always did. Flashes of what had been, what would never be. It was much harder to dismiss them at the night than it was during the day.
She felt her son move inside her. Another one that Nakura wasn’t there for.
And he will never know his father, Yamada thought sadly, Or me.
She laid down on the futon, cupping her hands around her belly. Closing her eyes against the darkness.
But sleep was far from her that night.

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Sat Oct 21, 2017 5:33 am

Kousuda left the next day, and not with a little hesitation. He said he couldn’t be sure how long he would be gone, but he would definitely back by winter in time for the Imperial Court.
“And to see the little one,” he promised.
“his absence was felt not just by his wife Kyoumi but also by Yamada. Kyoumi’s ambivalence was harder to avoid. Towards her new role with the Voice of the Emperor, her role as hostess and even probably Yamada’s pregnancy. It’s like they walked in circles, like an unbroken horse shy of the one who would one day trust them.
And it was more than a little frustrating.
So, rather than mirror Kyoumi’s intricate dance, Yamada tried to keep herself occupied. While she didn’t have any official duties for the Unicorn Clan while she stayed in the city, she did want to keep informed on what was happening. Particularly with the decisions she had been involved in making.
There was also a little sadness, because she wasn’t part of these plans, only observing. And that at a distance. Six months ago when she had arrived at Shiro Mirumoto, she had always assumed she would be leaving the mountain to ride to take back the Unicorn lands with the clan. To return home, just as they all had wanted. Not sitting in a house in the middle of a city, newly widowed and six months with child.
There were letters she wanted to write too. Particularly to Nakura’s family, trapped behind Onyx lines in the south. To introduce herself, but also explain what had happened and the reason for her decisions about her and Nakura’s child.
She gave a sad smile, trying to attempt the letter for the third time in as many days. She had wanted to meet them. His parents, his brother and sister. They had made plans, dreams spoken of in the small, brief world they had shared together.
Perhaps, Yamada thought, our child will know them someday…
The door opened and she could hear Kyoumi arrive home. She put down her brush and packed away her writing things. The letter could wait another day, and perhaps when she could be sure it would get to them.

They had fallen into a routine in the last few days since Yamada had been staying. Usually Kyoumi was in the Forbidden City in the mornings with the Voice. In this time, Yamada would go over her correspondence, read or sit in the garden. After Kyoumi returned, they would have the midday meal and then Kyoumi would show Yamada some of the city. They would return for the evening meal, and then Kyoumi would work late into the evening.
That afternoon, at Yamada’s suggestion, they went to the Temple to the Seven Fortunes. It was but a short walk from Kyoumi’s house on the far side of the Chisei District.
Rather than one temple, it was a series of large shrines to each of the fortunes. Like much of Otosan Uchi, they showed signs of recent repair. As had the school in the centre of the temples which Kyoumi said they were trying to open as soon as possible for the children of the district.
There were quite a number at the shrines, talking to the monks, nuns and shugenja who tended them. But the most people by far were around the Shrine to Benten. Most of them women. For one of Benten’s vassals was Hujojuko, the Fortune of Fertility.
Yamada and Kyoumi joined the queue for the shrine. It was rather long but moved quickly. As they neared the entrance to the shrine, Yamada could see inside. A shugenja seemed to be saying prayers to the expectant mother while a nun of Hujojuko handed them what looked to be a strip of cloth.
They were almost inside when Yamada caught the eye of one of the women coming out. She clearly did not want to be there or be seen there. But the surprise of seeing her at all made Yamada blurt out her name.
Yukari’s head whipped around at the sound of her name. But she first looked behind her, back inside the shrine, then at Yamada.
“Yamada, Kyoumi,” said Yukari, nodding to them in greeting.
“It’s a….surprise to see you, here,” said Yamada, a little awkwardly.
“Yes,” said Yukari shortly. “For me as well.” She looked over her shoulder again.
“You must come and visit,” said Kyoumi warmly. “Tell us about your trip to Zogeku.”
“Yes, of course,” said Yukari. She sounded genuine, but clearly not inclined to chat. “I’ll have a note sent ahead, perhaps tomorrow…”
“Yu-ka-riii!” A high, sing-song voice pierced the air. Al eyes turned towards its owner, a tall woman wearing the black and white of the Spider Clan. All eyes, except Yukari’s who hid hers in clear irritation.
The woman made way over, she had an almost regal bearing that was not hindered by the swelling of her belly. And despite the difference of a few years in age, there was clearly a superficial similarity between the two women.
“Imoto-san, you escape me again!” she scolded. “There are people you need to meet!” She turned to regard Yamada and Kyoumi. “And aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”
Yukari looked as if she would rather be anywhere else doing anything else, but she compiled.
“Momoko-chan, this is Kakita Kyoumi and Utaku Yamada, we met at court at Shiro Mirumoto last winter,” she said, sullenly as if she were reciting lines. “Kyoumi-san, Yamada-san, this is my older sister Daigotsu Momoka.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Daigotsu Momoko-san,” said Kyoumi sweetly. You must be very proud of your sister, she has managed to help so many people with her skills in diplomacy.”
“Proud, perhaps,” said Momoko. “Surprised, yes. She knows full well what will make the family proud.”
Yamada noticed that Yukari didn’t speak, but she clearly wanted to. Fortunately, they were almost inside the shrine just then.
“Will you excuse us?” said Yamada. “It is our turn.”
“Of course,” said Momoko with a winning smile. “We will wait for you.”
Yamada and Kyoumi headed inside, bowing to the shugenja and monk. The Benten shugenja said the requisite prayers for a safe birth and delivery. The nun pressed the strip of cloth into Yamada’s hands. An obi, red in colour and wider than usual.
“Remember to wear it to keep your baby warm,” said the nun, saying blessings before they thanked them walked away.
When they came back to where Momoko and Yukari were, the tension between the two sisters had clearly increased. Yukari looking down rather sullenly, Momoko with her wide false smile.
“I wish many blessings on you for you and your child, Utaku-san,” she said. “Bringing children into the world is one of the best ways we can serve as samurai.”
“Thank you, Daigotsu-san,” said Yamada. She thought she heard a derisive snort from Yukari.
“Tell me, is the midwife attending you any good?” Momoko asked. “Such things are vital, and I ask as the sanba that has attended all of our family is highly skilled as well as knowledgeable.”
Yamada was caught a little off guard by this. “Uh…I don’t think so…”
“Splendid!” said Momoko. “I shall make sure that she calls on you this very evening!”
“Thank you,” said Yamada, feeling a little awkward.
Yukari stood sullenly behind her sister, not wanting to say anything and clearly wanting to be on her way.
“I would like to stay, Daigotsu-san, but I think the walk and the heat of the sun are a little trying,” said Yamada.
“May we call upon you tomorrow?” asked Kyoumi.
“Of course, of course!” gushed Momoko. “I remember my first, I bid you farewell then.”
“Do we have to go and see her?” Yamada asked as they walked away.
Kyoumi nodded. “At least once, perhaps Yukari would like someone else to talk to.”
“Hopefully, we can always laugh about it later,” said Yamada.

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Sun Oct 22, 2017 8:46 pm

The midwife arrived that evening as promised. She was a short woman, solidly built and probably of mid to late forties. She wore a simple brown cotton kimono with her greying black hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. Her name was Kokoro, but she insisted Yamada call her Oba, Auntie.
Accompanying her was her young apprentice. A girl hardly past fifteen called Nibui. She carried the midwife’s tools in a large bag and did not speak much. But this was hardly noticeable was Kokoro talked far too much.
Yamada was not quite sure what to make of her at first. By her caste, a midwife was an eta, these people—or rather non-people—dealt with necessary but undesirable things. But like a geisha, also an eta, they seemed to inhabit a peculiar place of trust when they were plying their trade. A geisha had her okiya; a midwife the birthing room.
Much later, when it was drawing nearer to Yamada’s time and she felt comfortable talking more freely to Kokoro, she shared her thoughts of this. But the midwife only smiled.
“You are not the first to ask that my dear,” she said. “Every mother is a mother and every baby is a baby, and every baby is born the same way from the Imperial Palace down to the huts in the eta village.”
But that day, there was a little bit more formality. At least at first. They went to Yamada’s room and Nibui was sent to make tea. While she served it, Kokoro asked Yamada some questions. Firstly, about Yamada’s general health and then about her monthly courses and when they had stopped. She then she calculated from a metal circular calendar Nibui removed from her bag.
“If we are right about this, my dear, this puts the little one’s arrival in the month of the Rooster, early autumn,” she said, more to herself than to Yamada. Nibui noted all of this down in a little book. “That is not much time, since this month, the month of the Goat, is almost over.” She turned to Yamada, shaking her finger at her in a mock scolding way. “You should have come to see me earlier, young woman!”
Yamada laughed, Kokoro was starting to grow on her.
“Now, I need to ask about your mother, my dear,” said Kokoro. “Did she have children other than you?”
“Yes…oba,” said Yamada. “Four of us altogether. All girls, I was the youngest.”
“And am I right in guessing your mother is not in the city?” Kokoro asked gently.
“No,” said Yamada quietly. “She died when I was a child, along with the rest of my family.”
“You poor dear,” said Kokoro gently. “You do need women around you for the birth, remember. Ones you can trust.”
“I think I can manage that,” said Yamada. Kyoumi of course would be there, but she secretly wondered if the Crane girl was up to such a task.
“Now come,” said the midwife, patting the futon after Nibui had unrolled it. “Let us see how the little one is doing.”
With Nibui’s help, Yamada removed her obi and kimono until she was down to her undergarments. Nibui then helped her lie down on her back. Kokoro trained hands then ran over Yamada’s belly, feeling through to where the growing baby was inside. She applied a little pressure, and Yamada felt the baby move.
“A little fighter, this one,” said Kokoro with a throaty laugh. “Yes, there is the head, give me your hand, dear.” Kokoro guided Yamada’s had to just underneath her ribcage. She felt something solid there, round, moving beneath her hand. “Still standing up the little one is, but there’s time and room for him to move.”
Yamada felt something hard press outward against the walls of her belly. A hand? A foot? It was hard to tell.
“Let’s leave the little one now,” said Kokoro, letting Yamada sit up and put her kimono back on. “You are carrying fairly low, which can mean a boy. “She gave Yamada a pointed look. “From what I have heard, your family, the Utaku, have rather firm opinions about that.”
“We do,” said Yamada, sipping her tea. “But…my husband died last winter. It’s…all I have left of him.”
“I know, dear,” said Kokoro, patting Yamada’s hand gently. “Babies come whenever they want to, even in the middle of a war. We make the best of things.”

Kokoro gave Yamada careful instructions, saying she was to have warm foods and to eat fish bones as it would help bring on her milk. She also left a packet of tea, which would help with this as well as other common pregnancy ailments.
Yamada and Kyoumi saw the two of them off. But she was so inclined to talk was Kokoro that she dallied in leaving. It was only when Nibui pointed out the lateness of the hour—the only time she had spoken that evening—that Kokoro realised they should be on their way.
“I shall see you in two weeks,” said Kokoro to Yamada. Then, she turned to Kyoumi. “I expect you will be needing my services soon, Kakita-sama.”
And with that, she left.
“Kyoumi?” Yamada looked at her curiously as they went inside. “What did she mean by that?”
Kyoumi looked a little embarrassed. “Well…”
“You mean, you’re…”
Kyoumi nodded.
For a moment, Yamada forgot all propriety and gave Kyoumi a warm hug.
“That’s wonderful,” Yamada said, then remembering herself and stepping back quickly. “I’m sorry, I’m just so happy for you.”
“It’s fine, I understand,” said Kyoumi.
“How long have you known?” Yamada asked. “Does Kousuda know?”
“Yes, we have known for a little while now,” she said. “And thank you for your good wishes.”
Yamada smiled, the first real smile Kyoumi had seen since she had arrived. The first one that was not tinged with sadness. And then she started to giggle like a girl.
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting her hand up to her mouth in an attempt to stifle her laughter. “But both of us…at the same time.”
“I know,” said Kyoumi, joining in the laughter.

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Sun Oct 29, 2017 4:15 am

On their walk to Yukari’s sister’s house, Yamada saw more of the city. It was still surprising how much recovery and rebuilding had gone on. For so long the old capital had been abandoned, resettlement was only really possible once the taint was removed from the city for good.
It’s like new growth, thought Yamada, new life after a great storm.
But the new growth was very different from the old. Gone was the quaint rusticness of the old Rokugani style, in its place were new innovations and even foreign influences. How much there was varied from district to district, there were still more traditional structures such as in the Chisei District where Kyoumi lived. But in the Sereko District where a number of prominent kuge of the Spider Clan had their homes, there was a definite emphasis on the new rather than old. And there was a definite Zogeki influence, at least that was Yamada’s best guess.
The Spider Embassy was a prime example. They passed by it so Yamada was able to see it fully. The painted wood in the black, white and scarlet of the Spider Clan. The intricately carved columns inscribed with the mons of the different families. The intricately sculptured gardens hidden partially behind screens.
There was also a rather small, modest house at the rear of the embassy. So unremarkable that Yamada would have overlooked it had Kyoumi not pointed it out. It was the official residence of Susumu Shibatsu. Champion of the Spider Clan but also brother to the Emperor. It was certainly small and unassuming, particularly since the walls to the Forbidden City where the Imperial Palace was located were only a stone’s throw away.
Literally in their shadow, Yamada thought as they passed, perhaps that says more about him than anything else would.
Momoko’s house was one of several that bordered on a large and elaborate garden. A servant received them at the door and led them through to the gardens where a large group of people had gathered. Sitting, standing, talking in groups. Dressed impeccably in court clothes of a number of different colours. Perfect make up. Decorated fans and parasols.
The sort of people that Yamada usually went out of her way to avoid.
And in the midst of it all was Momoko. At the centre of all affairs like a queen bee in charge of a hive. She introduced Kyoumi and Yamada to the various people, Kyoumi managing to find the right words with ease and Yamada with a little difficulty.
The names and faces blurred a little, but there was one who stood out to Yamada. A young woman wearing a kimono of a soft apricot colour patterned with white butterflies. Momoko introduced her as Asako Tomiko. She was a little younger than Yamada, and there was something resembling actual sincerity and candour in her voice and manner. This contrasted starkly against the false courtly graces of the others.
She was also very interested in how Yamada had recently been to Phoenix lands.
“It has been very hard to get any news of what is happening,” she said to Yamada. “I have not heard from my brothers in several months.”
“Can you tell me their names?” Yamada asked. “I did speak with a number of Phoenix while I was there, from different families.”
“Their names are Isawa Tenji and Isawa Higoshi,” she said, looking at Yamada closely.
“I am sorry, but I can’t help you,” said Yamada. “I definitely did not meet anyone of that name, but there were a number of Isawa I saw. So that does not mean I did not see them.”
“No need to apologise, Utaku-san,” said Tomiko. “I have been away from home for a number of years, living here. And it can be…hard to not know what is going on.”
“I know exactly what you mean, Asako-san,” said Yamada. “My clan is fighting to take back our lands, it is hard to hear news of what is going on. And I thought I would be there, part of it.”
“I am sure you are doing your duty well here, Utaku-san,” said Tomiko, a fleeting glance at Yamada’s belly.
Yamada smiled, perhaps there were good things about being here after all.

Later on, Yamada walked the gardens, seeking peace from the constant chatter of the courtiers. The sun was hot and she was glade for the shade of the white parasol Kyoumi had loaned her.
Like the city itself, the gardens here were a mixture of old and new. With the traditional pine, maples and bamboo, Yamada spotted frangipanis, roses and white vanilla orchids.
She crossed a small footbridge that spanned a stream and walked into a training yard. A simple paved courtyard with weapon racks on either side filled with practice weapons for anyone who wished to use one.
And it was there that Yamada saw Yukari, dressed in her court furisode decorated with spiders, practicing katas. Yamada approached, watching Yukari and admiring her form. Uncompromising in its strength and speed, no hesitations. Unlike anywhere else, it was where Yamada could see Yukari’s true self. The blade could not lie.
Then she stopped, she acknowledged Yamada with a nod. “You couldn’t stand it either?” she asked with a wry smile.
Yamada smiled back. “I was there for as long as I could,” she said. “But I have to tell you, I have an easy reason to escape.” She touched her pregnant belly.
Yukari gave an amused snort. “When you put it like that, it almost sounds tempting,” she said. “Almost.” She sheathed her sword. “I know we couldn’t talk properly yesterday Momoko is…” She shook her head. “How have you been? Well, aside from…” She glanced at Yamada’s belly.
“Surviving, I guess,” Yamada said, taking a seat on a bench. “It’s like something else has taken control of my life and it hasn’t happened yet. So, here I am waiting until it does. Waiting, which is something I’m not very good at.”
“You’re not the only one who is waiting,” said Yukari, sitting down beside her. She was quiet for a long moment. “I’m getting married soon.” She said it as if she was required to do disagreeable but necessary, which to Yukari it was.
To anyone else, Yamada would have expressed warm wishes. But to Yukari? “Should I congratulate you?”
“Well, that would be the traditional thing to do,” said Yukari. “Not that you have ever struck me as particularly traditional.”
Yamada gave a small laugh. “That’s about right,” she said. “I can see one advantage of you getting married though. Your sister.”
“That is true,” admitted Yukari. “She’s not the only one of my family to be at me for to replenish the clan’s numbers. But she is the loudest and the most annoying.” Yukari gave a frustrated sigh. “She’s planning the wedding, which I hoped wold keep her at bay. But it hasn’t, and she’s gone and invited half the city every other day to introduce me to them.”
“You realise, she will be on to you next to have a child,” Yamada said.
“Ha! She can shout all she wants,” said Yukari tightly. “Isawa Tatsumi and I have an understanding. There’s other ways to replenish the clan. This war has made a lot of orphans. Many of them need homes and families.”
“Yes,” said Yamada thoughtfully. “Yes, they will.”
A servant approached them and bowed low.
“Utaku-sama,” said the servant. “Kakita Kyoumi-sama wishes me to tell you that she is leaving now, but you are in no way obligated to go with her.”
“Please tell her I will come shortly,” said Yamada. The servant ran off. Yamada turned to Yukari. “Please, come and visit us. It’s far quieter in Kyoumi’s house and I am alone most mornings.”
“I think I will take you up on that,” said Yukari. “After all, there aren’t that many people in this city who actually say what they mean.”

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Sun Oct 29, 2017 7:44 am

Kyoumi was not inclined to talk on the way back. She walked quickly, her face was set in concentration. When they arrived back at her house, Kyoumi quickly excused herself and retired to her bedroom for the rest of the afternoon, only emerging for the evening meal.
It was late when she came out, wearing a casual cotton yukata patterned with coloured fans. She looked rather pale.
“Should we send for Kokoro?” Yamada asked. She knew what was going on even if Kyoumi wouldn’t talk about it. “She could have something that helps with…”
“No thank you, Yamada, I’ll be fine,” said Kyoumi quickly. She took a tiny sip of tea, a small mouthful of plain rice, then ran back into her bedroom.
Yamada could hear her from the table, it was then no surprise when the servant girl Izumi came out, saying her mistress hoped Yamada would excuse her for the rest of the evening.
Yamada finished her meal alone, pregnancy had not hampered her appetite. But what was ailing Kyoumi was common. Yamada hoped that Kyoumi would at least be sensible about it, but she doubted it.

It didn’t stop there. Over the next few days, Yamada noticed Kyoumi looked increasingly pale and fatigued and would frequently excuse herself. She also ate very little. And she refused to talk about it, saying that it was nothing and her duty came first.
Yamada bit back her words of approach she wanted to say to her. She admired Kyoumi’s dedication, but what good did she do if she was like this? It must be an embarrassment having to excuse herself while in the Imperial Palace. And from what Yamada knew of Hida Kozan, he wouldn’t be very sympathetic.
Finally, when there came a morning when Kyoumi could hardly rise from her bed without fainting. Yamada took charge. She told Kyoumi to stay in bed, sent word to Hida Kozan that Kyoumi needed to be excused for a few days due to illness. And she sent for the midwife.
Kokoro spent a lot of time with Kyoumi. When she was done, Kokoro came out to speak to Yamada.
“You did well to send for me, Utaku-sama,” said Kokoro, her eyes to the ground and her tone deferential, as it always was when she was outside the privacy of Yamada’s room. “This should pass, and I have given her a tea that should help.”
“Thank you for coming, Kokoro-san,” said Yamada warmly.
“No need, Utaku-sama,” said the midwife, bowing solemnly. “It is my duty to all women, no matter their station or rank. Do not hesitate to call for me if you need me.”
When Kokoro left, Yamada went into see Kyoumi. Knocking first then sliding open the door when Kyoumi bid her come in. She looked pale, lying in bed. She tried to prop herself up to a sitting position when Yamada came in.
“Don’t tire yourself out,” said Yamada, she sat down on the tatami mat next to Kyoumi’s bed. “You need to rest, and you will.”
“But I have…duties to perform,” she said, sounding a little exasperated.
“I know, but making yourself ill doing them won’t help you, your baby or Kozan,” said Yamada patiently. “Do you think the Utaku would send a shiotome in your state into battle? She would be a danger to herself and a hindrance on everyone else.”
“That’s different,” Kyoumi argued.
“Not very,” said Yamada. “Besides, I don’t think Kousuda would forgive me if he knew I let you get you into this state.”
Kyoumi closed her yes, laying back on the futon. “Fine, you win for now, Yamada.”
“it will pass soon,” said Yamada hopefully. “But until then…”
“Yes,” said Kyoumi, meekly like a young girl. “I’ll be good.” She added, a little mischief on her voice.

The tea did help to remedy some of the sickness, but not the fatigue. In a few days, Kyoumi was able to resume her duties but she had to cut her days short and return from the Forbidden City earlier. Often bringing some of her work back with her.
Their outings together around the city were less frequent, so Yamada sometimes went out by herself. Seppun Hill, where the kami fell to earth, was a place she went to often as it was very near Kyoumi’s house. Another place she went now and again was to watch the Last Legion—now the Emerald Legion—train on the outskirts of the city. But as the summer went on she found the distance hard and exhausting, even if she rode Yoru there. The stallion seemed to understand though, as patient as ever and he even seemed to know what was going on as he nuzzled Yamada’s growing belly a few times.
There were also more Unicorn arriving in the city, establishing themselves in the new houses or setting up camp wherever they could. Utaku Shironoya, who had been in Otosan Uchi for some time, showed her around what had been arranged for the civilians that were arriving. This included the children of those fighting to take back the Unicorn lands. They were looked after in large groups of around the same age, mostly Utaku men and a few older women.
“We of course would be happy to take care of your child, should you return to active duty Yamada-sama,” Shironoya said, with a smile and a bow.
As the summer went on, soon it was time for Yamada to accompany Kyoumi to the Temple of Benten to receive her pregnancy obi. Kokoro’s visits become more frequent, seeing each of them separately on the same day.
They had visitors from time to time. Yukari of course, Tomiko a few times as well as a few of Kyoumi’s friends and some of the Unicorn living in Otosan Uchi that Yamada had met.
They also attended Yukari’s wedding, the most reluctant people attending being the bride and groom. Yukari’s sister Momoko was in her element though, presiding over the proceedings as if she were the one who had been married.
At some point in the evening, Yamada managed to find a seat and was relieved to be off her feet. Then she realised she was sitting next to Asako Tomiko whom she had not seen for a few days.
Yamada tried to engage her in conversation, but Tomiko seemed distant. She wasn’t disinterested, it was almost as if something had upset her. But before Yamada could say anything else to her, Tomiko walked away.
Yamada stared after her in shock. Had she done something wrong?
“It is understandable, given what has happened,” Yamada overheard a masked Scorpion courtier say to her Spider companion. “With what happened to her brothers, it’s showed up at all.”
“So brutal,” remarked the Spider. “All those Isawa, and with the Phoenix fighting amongst themselves, there’s no checking that one who calls himself the Obsidian Hand.”
They walked off, leaving Yamada stunned by what she had overheard. This had to be Shiba Michio’s work. What exactly had he done to Tomiko’s brothers? How many Isawa had been killed?
But try as she might, Yamada couldn’t find Tomiko.

It was the next afternoon when Yamada finally managed to ask Kyoumi about what she had heard the previous night. Kyoumi listened patiently to Yamada, nodding at intervals.
“Yes, that was Shiba Michio,” said Kyoumi, her voice was serious, her voice grave. “From what I have heard he has gathered a few followers, they call themselves the Black Hand.” She shook her head. “It’s…awful what he is doing, what they are doing. Their tongues are cut out, their hands are nailed off and nailed to a board. Then they are left…to die.”
Yamada winced, that was horrible. “But, if they’re the ones rebelling…”
Kyoumi shook her head decidedly. “There are better ways to deal with such things.” And that was all she would say about it.
But later, when Yamada was alone in her room she had more time to reflect on it. What she now knew about the task ahead of her. What influence could she have over Michio? He was being guided by heaven, by Lord Moon himself. Would she be able to stop things like this?
They could have deserved it, Yamada told herself, and there are more, others who deserve judgement.
She shivered, pulling the blankets close around her. She could feel her baby shift a little inside her, there was not as much movement now. This worried her sometimes, by Kokoro said it was normal as the baby grew and ran out of space.
Soon he would be born. Soon she would leave this place and join Michio. Soon.

As summer ended the nights became cooler, the days longer. The leaves started to turn and birds began to disappear, seeking out their warm home in the south away from winter’s chill.
The coming of autumn also was the beginning of Yamada’s confinement. Starting just before her baby was to be born, and ending a month after the birth. During this time, Kokoro explained, she was to stay in the horse and rest as much as possible.
“And wrap up warmly,” said the midwife. “The wind is chilly, the baby must stay warm.”
Kokoro also insisted on a diet of “warm foods” and tasked Kyoumi with making sure it was stuck to.
“But what about Yoru?” Yamada asked Kyoumi later. “He needs exercise. He can’t stay in the stable all day.”
“Don’t worry, I spoke to Utaku Shironoya,” said Kyoumi reassuringly. “He will send someone daily to attend to him.”
In the coming days, Yamada’s world grew smaller. And it felt strange for her life to be arranged around her, like she was a child again and needed to be cared for.
One afternoon, Kousuda arrived back. He was pleased to be home but was a little amused to be greeted by two pregnant women.
“What has been going on here while I’ve been away?” he asked, trying to contain his laughter.
Yamada scowled at him, trying to stalk away but it was more like a waddle.
Like a brood mare, she thought in frustration.
At dinner, Kousuda was full of news from the road. Particularly from the Unicorn.
“They have managed to take back Far North Village,” he told Yamada. “I don’t know all of the details, but I do know the Crab troops we were promised would only just have arrived.”
“It would have been the Dragon that assisted us. Lord Shikei was very keen to help, renew the old alliance,” said Yamada, remembering back to her meeting with him the previous winter. “It is so good we have a foot hold…but if only I could be there.” She sighed. “Have you heard anything about the Legion? Of Hikahime? I asked down at their barracks when I was there, but they couldn’t tell me anything.”
“Not as much,” Kousuda said. “All I have heard is they are heading south, though there’s a number of things they could be doing. I supposed we will have to ask Karasu when he arrives for court.”

While he was home, Kousuda spent a considerable part of his day locked in his workshop. A small hut on the far side of the garden. From the explosions Yamada could hear inside, she didn’t need to be told to stay clear.
Then one night, a few days after Kousuda had returned, Yamada woke up from a deep sleep to find her bed soaked. She quickly sat up, lighting the lamp. It wasn’t blood, it was water. Her heart beat fast, she could feel her belly contract, strong and hard.
“Izumi!” Yamada shouted. The girl had been sleeping in the next room in case she was needed during the night. “Go and wake Kyoumi and then run for the midwife.”
“Is it…time…Utaku-sama?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” said Yamada. “The baby is coming.”

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Mon Oct 30, 2017 2:21 am

The story is about half-way, but I wanted to say I have enjoyed writing it so far. And I've enjoyed looking into this side of Rokugan, a very closed world of women that is definitely there but not talked about.

And now, I give you Harun's birth.


Kyoumi was with Yamada before even Izumi was out the door. She had thrown on an old yukata, her hair hastily tied back with a scarf. She was calm, not even the slightest worry showing on her face.
When the contractions came, and they came often, Kyoumi was right there as Yamada breathed through them. Encouraging her, holding her hand.
Izumi then arrived with the midwife who immediately took charge. Kokoro gave curt, quick orders to her apprentice Nibui and the servants, then giving all her attention to Yamada.
“Hello, my dear, I heard your baby was coming and it looks like he is,” she said cheerily. “Nothing to worry about. Let’s just get you on your back for a moment so we can see how baby is doing in there.”
Kyoumi and Kokoro rolled Yamada onto her back, Kyoumi staying near Yamada’s head while the midwife examined her.
“Very good, baby is right where he should be,” she said, getting back her up to a kneeling position with Kyoumi’s help. “Up now, there’s the dear. All we need to do now is await his arrival, which I don’t think shall be very long.”
Kyoumi and Kokoro then removed Yamada’s clothes, including her undergarments and dressed her in a loose yukata which they tied loose over her chest. On the other side of the room, Nibui was laying out a series of large cloths on the floor with assistance from Izumi and her mother Sumiko. And when that was ready, Kokoro and Kyoumi helped Yamada move onto it, rolling up some more lengths of cloth for her to lean on or rest upon if she wanted to.
The contractions were strong, but Yamada was able to bear them stoically. Resting gratefully between them, even managing to drink some tea and have a few bites of food when Kyoumi offered it. The food and drink gave her much needed strength to fight the pain, letting herself only make a low moan when the pain reached its peak. She bore it because she had to, it was the duty of all samurai women to bear children, to have heir to carry on the family legacy. Duty was what she had had with her all her life, this was but one more.
Besides, she had seen women in labour before. Utaku women normally gathered around the mother for a birth, not just the nearest relatives such as her mother’s and sisters, but as many as the birthing chomchog could fit. This was something all women and girls needed to see, the duty that was ahead of them.
I know what happens, thought Yamada, I can do this.
Through it all, Kokoro was calm, almost relaxed but still perfectly in charge. She kept talking to keep the mood light. She told jokes, related stories from the births she had seen, asked Kyoumi about her and debate with Sumiko the best way of cooking daikon.
The contractions then started to come stronger, harder. Hitting her body with the force of a horse at full gallop. The room swam before her, the faces and voices blended together. She called out to them, confused. She wanted her mother, her sisters, her husband. Where were they? Why weren’t they helping her? Why wouldn’t anyone help her expel this weight, this boulder inside her?
“Mother…mother…where are you?” Yamada called out, her voice was high and fearful, like a child.
“Please, don’t shout,” said Nibui reproachfully. “It can worry the baby.”
Yamada turned towards her, flailing out a hand that collided with Nibui’s face and sending her sprawling on the floor.
Kokoro chuckled. “Stay with me, my dear, this is good,” she said, smiling reassuringly at Yamada and at Kyoumi. “Breathe, you are doing so well.”
That brightened Yamada a little. She grabbed Kyoumi’s hand tight, panting, beads of sweat rolling down her face. The pain intensified, buckling her knees and she would have fallen over had Kyoumi not held her strong.
“Stay strong, Yamada,” she said, looking into her eyes reassuringly.
“Is it almost over?” asked Yamada. The question was not directed at Kyoumi, but anyone who might tell her yes.”
“Not quite, my dear,” said the midwife, her voice coming from behind Yamada. “Baby is almost at the door and you are doing a splendid job.”
Yamada closed her eyes, leaning hard on Kyoumi, groaning loudly. Why had she thought she could handle this? How could any woman do this more than once? This was a battle, unlike any she had fought, her own body fighting against her. She fought hard, but it sapped her strength.
“Baby is at the door now,” said Kokoro. “You have been so strong my dear, this is the last part. Bear down, bring him into the world.”
Somehow, spurred on by Kokoro’s words, Yamada found the strength to go on, to fight just a bit longer. She crushed Kyoumi’s hand from the effort of it, bellowing curses as if she was charging into battle.
And then, cutting through her shouts and urging of the other women, was a cry. Soft at first, like the mew of a kitten. Then louder, robust and full of life. Yamada wept tears of joy.
“My baby, my baby…” she said breathlessly, she lay limp against Kyoumi. She smiled, the pain completely forgotten. “Let me see him!”
“Here he is,” said Kokoro, holding him up. He was small, wrinkled, red and pale. “A fine boy, you should be proud.”
Kyoumi helped her lie down, but Yamada’s eyes were focused on the bay. Her baby, hers and Nakura’s. Their son. Her arms ached to hold him, but she waited. Watching Kokoro bathe him in warm water. She wiped away the pale grease to reveal dark, dusky skin.
Yamada laughed. “Look at him! He’s a little Moto!” Smiling at everyone. Happy at the whole world and wanting the world to share in her happiness.
But that was nothing compared to what she felt when her son was put in her arms. It was like a new dawn after a long night, a brilliant flower opening on a bright spring morning. To hold her child, her son in her arms was more happiness than she thought her heart could hold.
Nakura, where are you? Can see our child? Our son? He’s so beautiful and perfect. I love you…
She ran her fingers through his hair. Soft black hair, curling against his head. He opened his eyes to look at her. Brown and gentle, like deep pools of water.
Just like his father…
She stroked his cheek tenderly, calling her son by his name.
“Harun.” It had been her father’s name, the dark wild Moto who was descended from the Ujik-kai of the desert. That had been humbled by the love of her strong, silent mother.
Things were going on around her, but Yamada didn’t care. She felt them wash her, change her clothes. She didn’t fight, so long as they didn’t take Harun away.
When they were done, Kokoro then helped Yamada put Harun to her breath. He nursed easily, hungrily, then falling asleep in Yamada’s arms. She smiled at Kyoumi, she was tired.
“Thank you, for everything,” Yamada said.
“Rest now,” said Kyoumi, covering both mother and child in a blanket.
Yamada was asleep before Kyoumi even left the room.

When she woke up hours later, for a moment Yamada thought the night before was some sort of dream. But Harun slept beside her. His eyes buttoned shut, wrapped in a white blanket.
For a while she just laid there, watching him sleep. Then Harun started to wake, crying softly.
Izumi, who had been sleeping on the floor in the same round, roused herself and helped Yamada sit up so she could feed Harun, putting firm cushions behind her to support her back. She then brought Yamada a tray of food and some tea, and then when Harun was asleep once more she helped her dress and fix her hair.
When this was done, and Harun was sleeping in her arms again, there came a soft tap on the door. It was Kyoumi.
“How are you this morning?” she asked, sitting beside Yamada. “Have you rested?”
“I have, you need to rest too, Kyoumi,” Yamada reminded her. Kyoumi’s baby was due in late winter, early spring.
“Oh, I did,” she said, her grey eyes bright and cheerful. She looked down at Harun sleeping in Yamada’s arms. “May I…may I hold him?”
“Of course,” said Yamada, holding Harun out for Kyoumi to take.
Kyoumi cradled Harun in her arms, smiling down on him as he slept, stroking his curly black hair. In the daylight, the darkness of his skin was more noticeable, contrasting sharply against the white swaddling blanket. “He is a little treasure, Yamada,” she said. “I’m guessing his looks favour your Moto ancestors?”
Yamada nodded. “I named him for my father, Harun.”
“Well, hello there, little Harun-kun,” she said softly.
“Kyoumi,” Yamada said, feeling as if what barriers remained between them had been swept away the night before. “I want to thank you for what you did for me last night. You being there gave me the strength I needed.”
Kyoumi shook her head, still smiling. “I hardly did anything,” she said modestly.
“You did everything just by being there,” she said. “And I would be honoured to do the same for you when your time comes.”
Kyoumi looked a little embarrassed by Yamada’s candour. But she took it in her stride. “Well, thank you and I was glad I could be of help,” she said.
Harun took this moment to open his eyes and looked up at Kyoumi.
Those soft brown eyes, so much like Nakura’s….
He then turned his head towards Kyoumi’s chest, moving his mouth in a way akin to a gulping fish.
“I think he needs feeding again,” said Yamada, taking Harun from Kyoumi.
Kyoumi discreetly left, returning a short while later to ask if Yamada could receive a visitor. When Yamada said yes, Kyoumi opened the door to reveal Iuchi Hiroshige.
“Hiroshige-san,” she said gladly, nodding in greeting to him as she couldn’t stand to bow. He had been the Unicorn delegation’s shugenja at court the previous winter. He had presided over Kousuda and Kyoumi’s wedding and Nakura’s funeral. He also spoken much needed words of comfort to Yamada on the night after Nakura had died. And here he was again, to do the purification as he had done on that fateful night.
“It is good to see you again, Yamada-san,” he said. “You are looking very well. How is the little one?”
“Very well, he is sleeping,” said Yamada, looking down at Harun with a smile.
“Not to worry, I can do all of this without waking him,” he said, reaching down to take the baby from her. “What is his name?”
“Harun,” she told him.
“Harun, a strong name, may it serve him well,” Hiroshige said solemnly. He held Harun in his firm capable hands as he performed the purification rite and the blessing. His ease with babies was no surprise as he was both a father and a grandfather. “May the way always be clear for you, Harun. May your steed be swift and the wind always at your back.”

Later on, Yamada sent for Kousuda. The former Ide was jovial, gladly holding Harun in his arms, perhaps thinking it would not be long until he held his own child.
But there was a reason Yamada wanted to speak to him.
“I know you’re a Crane now,” she said. “But if you don’t mind, would you be able to do a Unicorn tradition? Just this once?”
“Of course, Yamada,” he said. “What did you have in mind.”
Yamada smiled. “I think you’ll know.”

In the stables at the back of his house, Kousuda saddled his horse. His tack was in the pale blue of the Crane, but around his horse’s neck he tied a string of bells and tassels. Purple, but Yamada said Yoru wouldn’t mind if Kousuda borrowed it.
As he rode by the side of the house, Yamada could hear the hoofbeats on the stones and the jangling of bells.
Kousuda then rode out onto the streets of Otosan Uchi, proclaiming to all he encountered that a child had been born in his house that day. A boy named Utaku Harun.

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Thu Nov 02, 2017 10:53 pm

The month that followed was a bit of a blur to Yamada. Kyoumi, Koko and even Kousuda were constantly urging her to rest. And given Yamada was up through the night feeding Harun, she didn’t have a lot of energy to fight them.
Kokoro visited constantly, always with Nibui in tow who was very much subdued towards Yamada. The massive bruise around her eye she had had from when Yamada had struck her took a while to fade.
Just before the month of confinement was up, Kokoro examined her and pronounced her fit and healthy. But warned her that some of the changes that her body had undergone from carrying a child could be permanent.
“And you should not find it hard at all to bear more children,” she said confidently. “As long as everything went as it did before.”
“There will be no more children,” said Yamada. Her voice had a finality and coldness that even Kokoro did not question.
There might have been, once, added Yamada in thought once Kokoro had gone.
She looked down at Harun sleeping soundly on the tatami mat, his tiny little fist clutching the soft white blanket that covered him. So beautiful, so peaceful and innocent sleeping there. She loved every day she spent with him, but now each day was one closer to when she would have to leave him.
She touched his cheek, gently stroked his hair. Her promise to Michio, so easily made. But now…

When Yamada emerged from her confinement, the dying warmth of summer had been replaced by the chilly winds of autumn. The skies above Otosan Uchi were often grey and windswept, the maple trees shedding their leaves. But there was still colour. Kyoumi’s camellias were beginning to bloom, filling the garden with their white, pink and red blossoms.
A month on from his birth also signalled Harun’s entrance into the world and his blessing at the shrine. On a blustery day, Yamada wrapped Harun up warm and they all set off. Kyoumi and Kousuda walking together, along with Yukari as well as Shinjo Saeki.
Saeki had been the Unicorn Ambassador at the court in Shiro Mirumoto. She and Yamada had also travelled to Phoenix lands to secure the new home for the Blessed Herd. She had recently arrived in Otosan Uchi on her way south and was pleased to be included in the party.
Later, Kyoumi and Kousuda hosted everyone in their home. Tea and cakes were served as well as some hummus and flatbread.
Saeki took Harun on her lap, smiling as his hands explored the toy she had given him—a wooden horse on wheels. He also played with Saeki’s long hair, but she didn’t seem to mind. She had children of her own, she explained, all at Journey’s End Keep where many Unicorn still were.
“I do hope to bring them back here, and as many as we can manage,” she said. “Thanks mainly to you, Kousuda-san.” She nodded at him in this. His negotiations with Spider Champion Susumu Shibatsu had led to many Unicorn moving to Otosan Uchi, having a home in Rokugan while their ancestral lands were taken back. “It may be many years before the Unicorn Clan can gather on the steps once more, but we will.”
Yamada nodded in agreement, but she felt a little awkward.
Like everyone else, she fully expects me to join the war in the spring, she thought, and I’m lying to her, and everyone else.
Yukari’s gift to Harun was a toy katana. He seemed most interested in it, which she hoped was an indication that he would go and kill some Onyx before they were all gone.
More visitors came with gifts, some Yamada had struck acquaintance with during her stay in the city. And there were some Unicorn as well, Utaku Shironaya as well as some other shiotome that had had babies that year. There were polite, making little conversation as was the nature of Utaku women. It was a strange feeling for Yamada, to feel apart from her own family.

As the Month of the Dog drew to a close, reports came through of the armies settling down for the cold months of winter. Otosan Uchi prepared for the remembrance of the dead with the Bon Festival. Rows of lanterns adorned the streets of the city and the servants gave the house a thorough cleaning.
On the morning of the festival, the entire household gathered before the family shrine. Offerings of food were made for the ancestors of the household, and those were dead who did not have family to remember them. Asahina Hiroki, a shugenja who had come for the occasion, led the prayers.
Bon was about remembering the dead, their spirits returning to speak with the living. And to Yamada, this particularly year had never felt more poignant.
Harun might never truly know his father, but perhaps from Yomi his father might know him.
The Parade of the Dead down the Emperor’s Road was something to see and they all came out to watch. Revellers danced, rattling bells and banging drums. Harun, tied securely to Yamada’s back, seemed to like watching the dragon dancers, leaping and whirling in the bright coloured silks held aloft on the poles. Of particular interest to Yamada were the Obsidian and Jade Dragons. They intertwined with each other, mirroring the others movement but in a different way. The Jade Dragon so lithe and elegant, the Obsidian wild and menacing.
And then, as the day drew to a close, many people went down to the harbour where the setting sun cast a halo that gave Golden Sun Bay its name. Small lanterns were released into the water, each having the name of a person who had died that year written on it. And as it had been another year of war and famine, many, many lanterns were set loose upon the water.
When it came time for Yamada’s turn, she put the brush in Harun’s hand and she guided it with her own to write Nakura’s name. She then set it loose on the water, watching it join the sea of light as fireworks exploded in the sky.

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Tue Nov 07, 2017 10:33 pm

As autumn went on, Harun continued to thrive. He was a curious baby, content to watch things and grasp things in his reach with his tiny fists. Like the tail of the kite that had been And he was almost always held. By Yamada, by Izumi or Sukine. And by Kyoumi or Kousuda. They said it was good practice.
Kyoumi though found her own pregnancy rather trying. The sickness passed but the fatigue did not. Kokoro put her on a diet of strong teas and broths to build up her energy. But this only seemed to help a little. Kyoumi, of course, insisted on continuing her duties with Kozan as usual. This caused more than a little disagreement between her and Kousuda until a compromise was reached. Kousuda had her promise to reduce the time she spent in the Imperial Palace, and to travel there by palanquin rather than walk. Kyoumi also agreed to get skilled assistance with her duties. Two scribes worked with her on rotation, taking down dictation from Kyoumi while she rested, running messages back and forward from the palace, or reading long documents for her and preparing summaries for her to read.
“I feel useless,” she said to Yamada. They sat on the terrace with Harun lying on a blanket between them, trying to eat his tiny fists. “But you do know what it’s like to feel capable, but unable.”
Yamada nodded. She had started getting back into her training and had found it very difficult at first to get back into fighting shape after the birth. At least now that Kousuda was home she could go to the Unicorn dojo some days. She even took Harun sometimes.
“It won’t be for long,” Yamada reminded her. “Just until the spring, and then you’ll have your child in your arms.”
Kyoumi gave a feeble smile and said nothing.

As autumn turned to winter, Otosan Uchi began to fil up with people arriving for the expected Imperial Court. Yamada was interested in what was going to happen over the course of the winter, but was glad to be very much on the periphery of this. Of course, staying in Kousuda and Kyoumi’s house she would be aware of what was going on.
And there were people she was looking forward to seeing. One of them she happened to encounter entirely by chance when she was out one afternoon.
She had been out to see Yukari with Harun. Things had much improved for Yukari since her marriage. She told Yamada she didn’t have to see people unless she really wanted to. Momoko had always been pressuring her younger sister to be more social, but when Yamada visited it was her husband Tatsumi who usually opened the door. He was far more open to visitors and conversation and seemed to take a delight in Harun.
Yamada was on her back, Harun secured in a sling on her back, crossing the Emperor’s Road into the Chisei District, when she saw them. The bright emerald green banners with the golden chrysanthemum and laurels. The Emerald Champion had arrived.
The crowd moved aside to let the large contingent through, Yamada moved with them trying to get a spot where she could see. First came the soldiers, in many colours all marching under the banner of the Emerald Legion, samurai and peasant marching side by side. There were waves, there were cheers. The people of Otosan Uchi had not forgotten them, back when they were the Last Legion and seemed to be the only thing between them and the hordes of the Onyx.
After the soldiers came some of the officers, some astride a horse, some on foot. And behind them, astride a white horse was the Emerald Champion himself, Kakita Karasu.
The reception he got from the crowd was slightly more muted. Not much was known about him before his appointment a year ago, and to many he seemed far too young for the position at the age of twenty. But Yamada, who had been instrumental in that, knew better. And she had hoped, hoped a lot.
She watched him as he rode by, tall and confident on the white mare. An impressive figure in the green armour of the Emerald Champion with its tassels, laurels and gold accents. The sword of the Emerald Champion at his side, his banner held aloft behind him.
What Yamada was most curious about was how the responsibility weighed on him. She remembered that afternoon a year ago at Shiro Mirumoto when she had first put the idea to him. To her surprise, the brash, flashy Kakita duellist she had met at the start of court had been truly humbled by it and the immense duty it meant. This had only helped matters.
But Karasu wasn’t betraying anything now. Beneath his green and gold helmet his expression was set and determined. Slightly detached from what was going on, but not enough to convey aloofness. Yamada watched him pass by, he didn’t see her or Harun, but then that was no surprise.
He’s probably trying to stay on that horse, she thought to herself with a wicked grin.
She turned to go, but another cheer at someone else riding by made her look back. Riding behind Karasu was an older man on a gaijin-bred war horse. He wore the purple of the Unicorn, covered in bright chain mail and his helmet had a horn on each side.
Yamada drew in a breath in surprise. That helmet, that armour, that wild Moto hair. It was unmistakable. It was the former Shogun of the Empire and founder of the Last Legion. Moto Taigo.

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Tue Nov 14, 2017 10:24 pm

Yamada walked back quickly, her thoughts whirling. Her mind turning back to a year ago, back when it seemed an impossible task to get the Last Legion recognised. The price to get most of the Great Clans on their side was for the Unicorn Clan to support Akodo Kano, who at the time had declared himself Shogun of the Empire.
It was something that still did not sit well with her. To pass over the actual Shogun, Taigo. who had been appointed by the Emperor and was a member of her own clan to support Kano, someone whom most people had concerns about how far he would go to secure peace and order. By doing this, they had accomplished much, the results of which she had just witnessed. But she still wished there had been another way.
When she arrived back at Kyoumi and Kousuda’s house, Sumiko met her at the door.
“A visitor has arrived, Utaku-sama,” she said, holding Harun while Yamada removed her shoes.
“I’ll feed and settle Harun first, Sumiko,” she said, taking Harun from her. “Please convey my excuses and tell them I will be in shortly.”
It’s probably one of Kyoumi’s friends, Yamada thought when she was in her room.
When Harun was safely asleep, Yamada changed and then emerged from her room to see the guest. And she got a shock. Sitting at the table with Kyoumi and Kousuda was Doji Arami.
“Arami!” Yamada smiled in surprise. “When did you arrive? So quiet, but so very like you.”
“It is good to see you too, Yamada-san,” Arami said, standing up from the table and coming over to give her a courtly bow. “I only just arrived today, Kyoumi-san and Kousuda-san have generously invited me to stay while my residence is being made ready.” The words he said were perfectly conventional, but were spoken with a grace an elegance that at the same time did not draw attention to himself. “You are looking well,” he said.
“As are you,” said Yamada.
And different, she added in thought. Doji Arami, the quiet and unassuming courtier had walked away from Shiro Mirumoto with the post of Imperial Agriculturalist. He had spent the months since touring much of Rokugan on behalf of the Imperial Treasurer. Visiting farms, assessing the conditions of the land, talking to the peasants and assisting them with new ways of farming. But on that time on the road had had an effect, his lily-white skin had been touched by the sun. He looked thinner, leaner from the months of travelling.
But that wasn’t the only reason Arami had Yamada’s respect. Arami had been one of the signatories of the Shogun Treaty and the Last Legion Treaty, and an invaluable help to Yamada with the latter as she had written it herself and had needed help with the language.
And through the network of contacts he had made with the Emperor’s Chosen, he had saved the life of the peasant general Hikahime when she had been on trial for her life before the Emperor. Had Arami not helped, had Hikahime been executed, the Legion would likely have rebelled. Yamada may have been the one who was able to get the legion legitimised, by it was Arami who had saved it.
But all of this and the more he had done seemed quite removed from Arami’s demeanour. He was full of gifts, some special daifuku that was the first of a new recipe he had managed to get from a peasant far to the south in Crane lands. They ahd some at the end of their meal and it was soft, sweet, and very good. There was also a little jar of honey for Harun, rare and as precious as gold in these times of famine and want.
Arami was full of stories as well, telling of his travels in the lands of the Crane and Lion clans that he was able to visit. Speaking of the places he had visited and the people he had met.
“Many were happy to see that they had not been completely forgotten,” he said. “The harvest should be slightly better this year, but there is hope for next year and the year after.”
And hope is all we have for that, thought Yamada. Aloud, she said, “I assume you are quite a rider now, Arami-san,” she said. The Unicorn had shown their gratitude for him saving Hikahime by giving him a horse. A placid mare named Mari. Yamada had also made sure that Arami had a groom that travelled with him that could show him how to take care of his horse as well as show him how to ride.
The Doji gave a small smile. “The groom you sent with me, Sesuke, has been very patient with me,” he said. “It was a little slow at first, but with Mari’s faithful service I have been able to cover far more distance. I cannot thank you and your clan enough, Yamada-san.”
“It is we who should be thanking you, Arami,” said Yamada sincerely. “First you save the legion, now you save Rokugan.”
“Indeed,” said Kousuda, nodding in agreement.
“Thank you,” was all Arami could say.
Seeing Arami was a little embarrassed at all this praise, Yamada changed the subject.
“I saw Karasu-sama coming in,” she said. “In the full Emerald Champion regalia. Some of the Legion were with him, it was something to see.”
“Oh yes, Sumiko said the whole street was talking about it,” said Kyoumi. “I sent Izumi with a note to invite him here, but he sent one back saying he would call by later.
“He did?” Yamada asked, a little surprised.
There was a knock at the door and Izumi went to answer it.

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Fri Nov 17, 2017 2:57 am

When Karasu arrived, it was early evening. Izumi opened the door and she immediately dropped to her knees and pressed her face to the floor as was appropriate for meeting the Emperor’s Champion. When Karasu bid her to rise, she led him into the room and formally introduced him.
Everyone rose from the table and bowed formally to Karasu. How he reacted to this, Yamada couldn’t tell as Karasu’s on was impenetrable. It was still him, the weight of power and responsibility had not changed him much. But there was an effect, that couldn’t be denied, and this was only more noticeable as the evening went on. There was a distance between him and everyone else, a formality where there had once been easy camaraderie. Even between Karasu and Kyoumi who had been close. Karasu had changed, not too much, but enough.
He of course had changed out of his armour and the attire he wore was not formal, but clearly showed his difference in station. He wore a juban of a pale yellow with black hakama, covering that was a quilted jacket of emerald green.
Tea was served with some of Arami’s daifuku and the conversation turned a little lighter, led mostly by Kousuda. He asked Karasu about the Legion, of which Karasu was more than happy to speak of.
“When we arrived it was a little…mixed,” he told them. “The Legion was legitimised, we had supplies and weapons…but there was also the change in leadership.”
“I was worried about that,” Yamada confessed. “But it does look as if you managed to solve that. I noticed Moto Taigo rode in with in you.”
Kousuda’s eyes grew round with surprise and he swallowed his tea quickly. “Moto Taigo! You didn’t say he was with you!”
Karasu managed a slight smile that still didn’t break his on. “His help had been invaluable, him and Hikahime,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn from them, from both of them.”
Yamada nodded in approval. This was what she had been hoping for. A year ago when he had been appointed Emerald Champion, but he had been open to learning and in time would become the leader that the Legion needed.
Providing of course he wins the tournament, Yamada added in thought.
“How did things go with the Shogun?” Yamada asked. “Have you met with Akodo Kano-sama?”
“Well…” Karasu trailed off, deep in thought. “Let’s just say they could have gone better, and could have gone a lot worse,” he said. “We did manage to agree on terms though, and boundaries. The old Last Legion would become the new Emerald Legion, staying as it was. His army and any that the clans would send to him in support would form the rest of the Imperial Legions, with far more traditional organisation.”
“The Emerald Legions aren’t taking new recruits?” Kyoumi asked.
“We are, but only those who are free to volunteer themselves,” explained Karasu. “We’ve had a fair few Phoenix fleeing the turmoil in their lands, peasant and samurai, bushi and shugenja.”
There was a soft cry from Yamada’s room. It was Harun, he was awake and needed feeding. Karasu met her eye for a moment, a curious expression on his face that she couldn’t quite identify. She gave him a small smile, then excused herself to leave and tend to Harun.

As always, Harun was calmed by the sight of her and settled quickly on her breast. She tried to treasure every moment she spent with her son, right up until the day when she would have to leave him behind and she would no longer be his mother.
But now Karasu was here, that future was beginning to change shape. And almost before she was ready for it. Could she do it? It wasn’t really a choice. She had given her word to Michio, and now he was under the power of the Obsidian Dragon that promise mattered more.
Harun would have a good life. A father, and a mother now Karasu had married Asako Hitomi, brothers and sisters from the war orphans they would adopt. He would want for nothing.
But still, when she thought of that she felt the urge to hold Harun even tighter. Not to let him go. She looked down at him in her arms, his soft brown eyes looking up at her sleepily.
“This is the way it has to be, Harun-kun,” she said to her son. “And I guess a good start would be now.”
Yamada wrapped a white blanket around him.
“Let’s go and see your father,” she said, carrying him out with her.

Harun’s arrival in Yamada’s arms was met with smiled and sighs. Harun just seemed content to watch them all, his soft brown eyes taking in everything. She sat down at the table next to Arami. He turned towards them, holding the end of his fan out so the tassel dangled. Harun’s eyes watched it move, his chubby hands grabbed at it.
“Such quickness,” Arami remarked. “He’ll be a duellist yet.” He looked at Harun’s dark hands, perfect in their tininess. “He favours your Moto father, I am guessing?”
Yamada nodded. “I was hoping for that, a little,” she said. “None of us did, from myself or my older sisters.” She looked sad for a moment. “He does have Nakura’s eyes,” she said, smiling a little.
Karasu had been sitting quietly at the end of the table. Just watching, saying nothing. Again there was that expression on his face. A sort of softness, gentleness that Yamada had not seen in him. There was something else there too, a sort of amazement or wonder, as if something was slowly dawning on him.
“Would you like to hold him?” Yamada asked. But she already knew the answer.
She placed her son in Karasu’s arms. He seemed a little nervous at first, holding Harun as if he were fragile and could shatter like glass.
But then, gradually, he felt a little more confident. Gently, he stroked Harun’s curly black hair, gently touched his cheek, let Harun’s tiny hand clasp his finger.
Karasu whispered gently in Harun’s ear, his words with the softness of a butterfly’s kiss. “Hello, my son.”
And Harun, happy, warm and safe where he was, fell asleep in Karasu’s arms with a smile on his face.
Karasu looked up, his on completely gone from his face, the raw emotion having replaced it. In his face wasn’t just the respect of a person who would keep a promise, in there she saw a new father. There was the tenderness and love he would give Harun. There was also the fierce steel that would protect Harun from harm.
Kyoumi saw it too, she and Yamada met eyes across the table. Reassuring, comforting. Perhaps, at least for Harun, everything would be all right.

Kyoumi retired early, Arami went with Kousuda into the study to talk over trade and agricultural figures. Karasu went to leave, but Yamada wanted to talk to him first. So, after Yamada put Harun to bed, she joined Karasu outside on the terrace.
Out there, the air was chilly but perfectly still. The garden shone bright in the pale moonlight, the leaves and stones white with frost.
Karasu stood still, leaning against a pillar, the emerald green of his quilted jacket looked pale and sickly in the moonlight.
“I’m guessing you went to the palace after I saw you ride in,” said Yamada, her breath coming out in clouds in the cold air. “Is that where you are staying for court?”
“No,” Karasu said. “I’m at the barracks. Easier if there’s news and the tournament will be there.”
He was quiet, but Yamada knew what he was thinking.
“You’re going to win,” she told him. “Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s not all,” he told her. “Even if I do win, the result is not going to be as legitimate as it should. The Great Clans will send who they can spare, which is not the same as sending their best.” He looked at her, seeing the concern on his face. “Don’t worry, I’m confident I can make it go right in the end. So much of this job is about appearance, at least while I am here.”
“I think you know how to do that better than I do,” Yamada said quietly.
Karasu laughed, and it felt good to hear it. It lessened the distance between them a little.
“To be perfectly honest,” said Karasu. “I like this, this responsibility I’ve been given.” He sounded a little excited. “To serve, to help, to be of real use, to fight and to end this war.” He looked at Yamada again. “I only wish I could ask for your help, Yamada. Quite a few of the Legion know about you and what you have done, Hikahime saw to that. But to have you with our cavalry…”
Yamada pictured it in her mind. Riding Yoru at the head of a cavalry charge against the Onyx.
Oh, to be there…
She quickly dismissed it from her mind.
“I wish I could accept,” she said, truly meaning it. “But we all have our duties, our part to play. We have to fight this war, and end it so the children do not have to fight it for us.” She looked up at the moon. “I hope Harun will never have to fight in it.”
“So do I, Yamada,” said Karasu, his voice grave and solemn. “So do I.”

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Mon Nov 27, 2017 4:47 am

The Imperial Winter Court began in earnest, Karasu visited as often as he could which was not as often as he liked. His wife Hitomi came more often though, she had also been at Shiro Mirumoto the previous winter but Yamada had not really met her. She was gentle and quiet and Yamada thought she would make Harun a good mother. She would sometimes carry Harun in the sling when she and Yamada would walk around the city, usually going down to the Imperial Legion barracks where Karasu usually was if he was not in the Forbidden City.
Harun began to be a bit of a favourite down at the barracks, some of the soldiers would find excuses to come in to speak to Karasu. Harun laid on a blanket on the floor, sucking on the soft toy horse that Karasu had given him.
Kousuda spent much of his day in the Forbidden City, and some evenings. As did Arami. The evenings they were not there, they brought news and gossip to Yamada and Kyoumi. Like the Emperor’s new Golden Throne, though it was made of shakudo that was only a little gold and mostly copper. It was ornately decorated with the mons of all the nine Great Clans in brilliant coloured enamels.
Privately, it made Yamada feel a little uneasy. Such a lavish thing when many in Rokugan were suffering the trials of war and famine. But she didn’t question it, a new throne was needed as the old Steel Throne which had been in use since the days of the Toturi Dynasty was still in Toshi Ranbo. And Toshi Ranbo was still held by the Onyx.
The scarcity of food from the famine was something Yamada kept in mind when preparing for Harun’s Okuizone, his First Food Celebration. She managed to procure the traditional set of dishes, red lacquerware for a boy, but lavishly celebrating food seemed somehow wrong. The food they usually ate was simple and in frugal servings. Miso soup, plain rice, pickles from the vegetables from the garden. Sometimes supplemented with flatbread and hummus that Kousuda favoured.
She talked this over with Sumiko, voicing her concerns. It seemed a bit trivial to speak to Kyoumi about. Sumiko assured Yamada she would do what she could with the limited resources available to her in the household. And several says later, she told Yamada she had succeeded in procuring what was necessary. She said nothing of how, but was especially gracious towards Arami for the rest of his stay.
The day of Harun’s Okuizone came. Yamada dressed Harun in festal clothing of purple and deep blue, an homage to both his parents. Karasu and Hitomi arrived at the appointed time, and with them was another guest.
“I do hope you don’t mind,” said Hitomi apologetically. “But she has only just arrived and assured me she did not want to miss this.”
Hitomi stepped aside to reveal who was standing behind her. Yasuki Yamase, eldest daughter of the Yasuki Damiyo. Yamada had known her at Shiro Mirumoto, she had been nakodo for her marriage to Nakura and Yamada had had to “bargain” with her in the Capturing of the Groom on her wedding day.
Right after court was over, Yamase had managed to get back to Crab lands where things were far worse than in the rest of Rokugan. She had promised Yamada she would tell Nakura’s family what had happened, if they were still alive.
And now, she was back.
Yamada welcomed her warmly inside, having her here for one of Harun’s rituals of life was a good sign. A member of Nakura’s own family, she led them all into the house. Izumi came out and put Harun in her arms, he seemed to regard the gathering sceptically.
Yamase had brought gifts for Harun as well. One was a wish doll, traditionally made by Crab mothers for their babies to guard against evil spirits. It was from Nakura’s sister, Momoibura.
“I do want to meet her,” said Yamada. Nakura had told her much about his sister as they were especially close. “How was she with…what happened?”
“Death is so constant there,” Yamase answered. “She was saddened by Nakura’s death, of course. But the news I brought her of a child on the way seemed to help.” She took out a small bamboo scroll case from his sleeve. “And this is my gift for Harun-kun, to make sure he knows his Yasuki heritage.”
After the customary offering and refusals, Yamada accepted it. She opened the case and inside was a scroll sealed with a wax Yasuki mon.
“Save it until he is older,” said Yamase. “Hopefully by then it will be known who he favours.”

There was a happy mood around the table that they all seemed to share. It was as if the war, the famine and everything else was gone for just that moment and they were like any other family in Rokugan celebrating one of the rituals of life.
Through one way or another, Sumiko managed to acquire food that was simple as well as celebratory. And it all looked good on the red lacquered dishes. There was steamed rice mixed with adzuki beans, a whole steamed carp, miso soup with a large piece of tofu in it, simmered spiced chickpeas and some pickled vegetables, endamame beans and a dried plum blossom fruit. And last of all were some smooth stones that were from the local shrine to help harden Harun’s teeth.
Yamada sat with Harun in her lap, trying to take interest in the rice she was offering him with the chopsticks. But he kept turning his head away, far more interested in the people watching him.
“I don’t think he is used to seeing this many people at once,” said Yamada.
“It’s all so new to him,” said Kyoumi with a smile.
Yamada tried to tempt him with the rice again. Harun flailed his arms wildly, knocking the chopsticks of Yamada’s hand, spraying them both with rice.
“It seems you are disarmed!” declared Karasu with a laugh. He took Harun so Yamada could brush the rice off her. “No doubt the first of many,” he said, holding Harun upright.
With a bit of help from Izumi, Yamada managed to get the rice off her hair and clothing. Harun was in Hitomi’s lap now, Karasu offering some tofu to him.
It was a touching scene, but a little painful for Yamada to see.
They already look like a family, she thought, gentle mother, doting father…but it should have Nakura and me. Everything I value was taken from me, and now I am giving the rest away.
Arami, who sat next to her around the corner of the table, was the only one who looked her way. To see that bittersweet feeling show on her face for just a moment. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t need to. The fact that he saw and that she knew he had was enough.

After the meal was done, Yamada took Harun to her room to feed him and put him down to sleep. When she returned, the conversation had turned a little more serious. Yamase was talking, her voice low and serious. Arami poured tea while they listened to her, pouring one for Yamada as she sat back down.
Yamase painted a grim picture of the lands of the Crab Clan. Much of the land had been overrun by the Onyx forces, and what wasn’t could not always been relied upon to be free of the Shadowlands Taint.
“I managed to get as far as Kyuden Hida,” Yamase said. “There’s too many people there than should be, but so many have nowhere else to go. It’s not only the Onyx that are killing the Crab, there’s hunger, there’s disease.” She looked at Yamada. “There are so few children being born there, and more are needed to replace the dead.”
Yamada nodded gravely. “’I do hope you secure the aid you need, Yamase-sama,” she said. “Is that why you have returned.”
“That is one reason,” said Yamase. “I will also be representing the Crab at the Test of the Emerald Champion.”
Yamada quickly looked at Karasu to see if there was any reaction, but it was as blank and penetrable as any Crane.
“Who else will be competing?” Kousuda asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“It’s just been finalised, I saw it this morning,” said Karasu. “Mirumoto Tanaka from the Dragon, Daigotsu Yukari for the Spider Clan—”
“Yukari?” Yamada asked in surprise. “She didn’t mention anything about it.”
“Akodo Tetsu will be there for the Lion,” Karasu continued. “Shogun Kano is here too, no doubt to see if he wins.”
Yamada nodded grimly.
“Shiba Eraki will be representing the Phoenix, Yoritomo Taketada for the Mantis,” Karasu said, counting them on his fingers. “And Ide Nekome for the Unicorn.”
“Ide Toboku-dono’s daughter?” Kousuda asked. Karasu confirmed with a nod. “Oh Yamada, I saw Toboku-dono earlier. She gave me this, and wishes to meet.” He gave Yamada a scroll sealed in wax with the Ide mon.
Yamada took it. “Of course, I will be glad to see Toboku-dono,” she said. “Do you know what she wanted to see me about?”
But Kousuda shook his head.

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Sat Dec 02, 2017 10:20 pm

Ide Toboku, the Ide family damiyo, arrived the next afternoon. She was a woman in her forties, dressed in the Ide fashion of the gaijin-style deel with the fur trimmed hat and glass-beaded jewellery. With her was her daughter Nekome who was a few years older than Yamada, and was very quiet through the entire meeting.
It was a little unusual for Toboku to make a call to the house of one with lower status than herself. The proper protocol was for Yamada to visit her, but this was very much the Ide way, accommodating to a fault. Besides, Kousuda had also said Toboku had asked about Harun.
And when the welcomes were over with, Toboku presented her gift for Harun. A furin, a traditional glass windchime painted with dancing horses in bright colours.
Tea was served, pleasantries were traded. And then, when there was a lull in the conversation, Toboku finally got around to the object her visit.
“In these times of strife, it is always important to celebrate the rituals of life,” she said. “But I also bring word from Lord Moto, from what he has told me about you, Utaku-san, you acquitted yourself very well in the Imperial Court, even in the face of your own personal tragedy. Your actions brought considerable success for the Unicorn.”
“You are very kind to say so, Ide-dono,” said Yamada, bowing at Toboku’s praise. “I only wish to serve as best I can.”
“Such dedicated service should be rewarded,” said Toboku with a smile. She took out a leather scroll case decorated with the mon of the Unicorn in deep purple and sealed in wax. Yamada knew such a thing could only have come from Moto Chinua himself.
Yamada broke the seal and took out the scroll. It wasn’t a letter, it was orders. A commission giving her the rank of Taisa, with orders to take command of the Fourth Utaku Battlemaiden Legion in the spring. It bore Chinua’s official chip as Champion of the Unicorn Clan and Leader of the Khol.
“Taisa…of the Fourth Legion,” Yamada said, reading it again and again, a little dazed. “This…this was my mother’s command.”
Toboku nodded. “You have earned it, Utaku-san,” she said.
“I…thank you,” said Yamada. It felt awkward, Yamada knew there was no question in Toboku’s mind of her not accepting it. Yet this was what Yamada knew she had to do. And more, this was what Yamada had always wanted, if was after all why she had even been to Shiro Mirumoto in the first place.
She heard Harun waking up in the next room, Yamada excused herself, glad to have a reason to leave the table. She returned later with Harun in her arms.
“Mind if I hold him?” Toboku said.
Yamada handed him over with a smile. The Ide damiyo held Harun in her arms, smiling and talking to him but he seemed more interested in playing with her necklace.
“I do hope we can make a better world for you, Harun-kun,” she said. “And perhaps between all of us, the war could be over by the time you grow up.”

After Toboku had gone, Yamada sat in the living room a while, thinking. Harun was content to roll around on a blanket, wiggling his toes at the ceiling.
“Something is wrong, isn’t it?”
Yamada turned to see Kyoumi sitting behind her.
I should have known better than to try and hide what I was thinking from a Crane, she thought.
“Yes,” said Yamada. “It’s difficult to explain…ever since I have arrived here it is as if I have been lying to everyone. And to people to expect me to fall into line as I should do…as I always do.”
“You could explain it to them honestly,” Kyoumi suggested, but even she didn’t sound completely convinced about that.
Yamada shook her head. “I don’t think I could ever explain it to anyone in a way that could be understood,” she said. “Not even to Lord Chinua himself. It’s easier this way, but I am asking you, Kousuda, Karasu and everyone to lie for me. To protect me when I am…deserting the clan.”
“Not just for you, Yamada,” Kyoumi reminded her, looking down at Harun trying to eat his toes.”
“I know,” said Yamada, smiling at her son. “Will he understand all this though?”
“He will,” said Kyoumi. “I will make sure, we all will.”

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Thu Dec 07, 2017 10:36 pm

The day of the Test of the Emerald Champion arrived, and the entire Imperial court went down to the Imperial Legion barracks. At least, the ones who had enough influence to manage to get seats. Kousuda went to the first day, bringing back the results. Yukari had been eliminated, as had the Phoenix and Mantis candidates.
Kyoumi had wanted to go, not just to see Karasu compete but to see the tournament was not something that happened every day. Traditionally, the tournament was in summer and was held on the Plains of Thunder east of the Shinoimen Mori. But these were extraordinary circumstances, the year of Karasu’s temporary service was up and the Plains of Thunder were well behind the Onyx lines.
Finally, after a little arguing on Kyoumi’s part, Kousuda agreed she could attend the final day: the iaijutsu duels. And so, on a particularly frosty morning, they all went down to the barracks and took their seats high in the stands that had been erected overlooking the vast parade ground that had been prepared for the event.
The stands were a general who’s who of the Imperial court, with notables such as the Kakita and Ide Damiyos sitting close to the box where the Emperor and Empress would sit when they arrived. Closest of all was the Emperor’s won brother Susumu Shibatsu, Champion of the Spider Clan. He sat with his wife Susumu. Everyone else standing underneath the erected awnings that ringed the courtyard. And there was someone else there, not in the stands, standing by himself wearing armour in the colours of the Lion Clan. It was the Shogun of the Empire, Akodo Kano. Like Karasu had said, he was there to make sure the Lion candidate won.
They day was cold, so they wrapped themselves up warmly and Kousuda passed around some tea. Harun seemed content to stay where he was, in the sling and warm beneath Yamada’s fur-lined jacket, his brown eyes peeping out at everything he saw.
Behind the stands, Hitomi came out of one of buildings of the barracks. She made her way up the stands to where they were sitting.
“How is he?” Kyoumi asked.
“Nervous,” said Hitomi. “But he won’t admit it.”
“He will be fine,” said Kousuda reassuringly.
Yamada nodded in agreement.
Below them, there was the sound of taiko drums signalling the beginning of formalities. The four remaining candidates came out one by one and were announced by Miya Kiyokaizu, the Imperial Herald to subdued applause.
“Yasuki Yamase, daughter of Yasuki Tono, representing the Crab Clan.”
Yamase emerged, wearing subdued deep blues, her face blank and impassive as she bowed.
“Ide Nekome, daughter of Ide Toboku, representing the Unicorn Clan.”
Nekome wore the deel and fur hat of the Ide like the day Yamada had met her. Looking more like a courtier than a bushi.
“Akodo Tetsu, son of Akodo Nobu, representing the Lion Clan.”
Tetsu came out, in browns and golds, smiling at a woman in the crowd who wore shugenja robes.
“Kakita Karasu, son of Kakita Toshiken, representing the Crane Clan.”
Karasu got the loudest applause of all which still managed to be subdued. He was dressed in a light blue jinbei and matching hakami with a black kataginu.
After this, the judges were announced, all Master Sensei from the prominent dojos of the Empire. Kakita Kenshin from the Kakita Duelling Academy, Mirumoto Hatsuto from the Iron Mountain Dojo and Akodo Kagetada from the Akodo Kensai Dojo.
“The test will proceed as follows,” continued Miya Kiyokaizu. “Ide Nekome against Yasuki Yamase, then Kakita Karasu against Akodo Tetsu. The winners will contest the championship, may the fortunes favour your blades.”
Karasu and Tetsu drew back, standing on the side lines. Someone came up to talk to Karasu.
Is that Moto Taigo? Yamada wondered, but it was impossible to tell from this distance.
The shugenja prepared the ring while Yamase and Nekome waited. Yamada and Kyoumi exchanged a silent glance, they both had a good idea how this would go. Yamada felt a little sorry for Nekome.
“Yamase and Nekome took up their stances in the duelling ring. Complete silence fell over the arena but for the faint sound of the wind. Even Harun was quiet, peeping curiously outside Yamada’s jacket. The Yamase struck, her sword slicing through the air and cutting odd one of the tassels of Nekome’s hat. A gasp went through the crowd and there was polite applause. Nekome bowed to concede and then left the arena, Yamase went to one side to wait while the duelling ring was purified again.
When Karasu entered the duelling ring, Yamada could see Kyoumi and Hitomi tense up a little. But Karasu himself looked perfectly at ease, the wide ‘wings’ of his black kataginu making him seem crow-like. After him and Tetsu bowed, it was over in a flash. Yamada barely saw Karasu move, let alone see his sword. All she saw was part of Tetsu’s sleeve fall to the ground, brown against the white snow, his sword barely out of its saya.
Tetsu bowed as the crowd applauded, a little more enthusiastic than before. Yamada quickly glanced at the Shogun, just as Kano turned and left, his face unreadable.
There was a few minutes break, some people sitting down stood to stretch their legs, Kousuda poured more tea. Then the sound of the taiko drums summoned everyone back to their seats, and as the Imperial Herald announced the arrival of the Emperor, they all bowed low. When they were permitted to rise again, Yamada took a good look at the changed composition of the Chosen. Yasuki Makoto had stepped in to the position of Imperial Chancellor after Toku Hikaru’s unexpected death. Susumu Kuroko, the daughter of Susumu himself, was now Imperial Advisor.
The duelling ring was purified again. Karasu and Yamase bowed formally to the Emperor, making solemn oaths to carry out the duel with the honours traditions of iaijutsu handed down from Kakita himself. They were then permitted to make one final display of arms before the duel would commence.
Karasu took out a silk scarf, a bright blue. He tossed it in the air and with a blur of steel it lay in eight pieces on the ground.
Yamase’s demonstration was different. Five thin steel plates were brought out by attendants and lined up in a row. She bowed, swung her sword slowly to warm up, just touching the first plate, then with a single slash of her sword cut through all five of them.
Strength against speed, though Yamada, it never changes.
They then took up stances in the duelling ring, bowing formally to each other. Between the two there was no certainty how the duel could turn out.
Then, to the astonishment of everyone, Yamase broke her stance. She stepped forward and spoke to Karasu who then broke his. They spoke for a moment, Yamase seeing to argue while Karasu kept shaking his head. There was a little confusion from the crowd about this.
The two then seemed to come to some agreement. Yamase stepped back, drew her sword and angled it out in a salute. She then bowed low, like a vassal to a superior.
A loud gasp of astonishment went through the crowd.
Kousuda stared in shock. “She…concedes?”
Kyoumi nodded quietly as if she knew this was going to happen all along.
The realisation of this took a few minutes to full hit Yamada, even when Karasu was kneeling before the Emperor and making the oath and receiving the Armour and Sword of Emerald Champion.
When this was over and the Emperor and Empress had left, many came forward to congratulate Karasu and probably ask him for favours. Yamada hung back, only pleased that not only was she there to witness this moment, but Harun was there as well.

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Mon Dec 18, 2017 8:18 am

Court was abuzz with what happened at the tournament according to Kousuda. Kakita Karasu was not the first to win the position of Emerald Champion by his opponent conceding, this had happened fifty years previously with Shosuro Jimen, but the rather dishonourable circumstances around it had been revealed much later.
Kousuda had been inspired to paint something on this for the art exhibition that was coming up at court and he spent many evenings on it. He was home a lot more in the evenings to be with Kyoumi, his subordinates taking over a lot of his duties.
The midwife Kokoro had confessed to Yamada that she was concerned about Kyoumi’s pregnancy and felt confining her to bedrest would be perhaps safest for mother and baby. It was a bit sad to Yamada that Kyoumi accepted this with little complaint. The pregnancy was a real trial on her body, in contrast to Yamada’s which had been far less taxing. Kyoumi had also told Yamada that se=he was determined to have more children, and with Kokoro predicting a possibly difficult labour and birth…
She has courage, thought Yamada with some admiration, and she will need it.
Late one evening, Yamada came across Kousuda finishing his painting. It was of the exact moment that Yamase had conceded, painted in the traditional old Rokugani style. Yamase was depicted bowed, he sword behind her in a salute. Karasu stood across from her, his head slightly inclined to accept Yamase’s submission.
Behind them in the background, were the stands filled with the people of the court, the Emperor and Empress in the centre, solemn and splendid in their majesty. Looking through the stands, Yamada could see Arami, Kousuda, Kyoumi…and herself with Harun cradled in her arms.
“What do you think?” Kousuda asked. “It should be exhibited in the exhibition tomorrow.”
“I like it,” said Yamada. “Could I possibly have a copy?”

She brought the painting down to Karasu at the Legion barracks a few days later. After the ritual offerings and refusals, Yamada unrolled it on the table between them. Karasu looked at it for a long time.
“Yamada, you really didn’t have to do this,” said Karasu. “You have done so much already…”
“I know, but I wanted to,” she said. “Besides, its not just for you.” She looked down at Harun, he was lying on the blanket like he always did when Yamada brought him to visit. This time he was playing with some large cloth-covered beads on a string.
It was sentimental, it was silly, but it was a little way she could leave some of herself for Harun. At least, before he could be told the truth.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you, Karasu-ue,” said Yamada. “What was it that you and Yamase spoke about?”
“At the tournament?” Karasu asked. “Well…” He trailed off for a moment, remembering. “She told me she was conceding, and I told her not to.”
Yamada stared at him. “Why?”
Karasu frowned at her. “I think you know, why,” he said.
Yamada nodded, of course Karasu wanted to win it in his own right. It had been more or less handed to him a year ago, not that he didn’t deserve it. “She has her own destiny to follow,” Yamada said. “And until then…”
“It will be you?” he finished.
Yamada nodded.
Karasu sighed. “Yamada, this must be very hard for you. I’ve seen it for myself. If there is anything that I can do…”
Yamada shook her head. “You are doing it already,” she said. “We all know what we need to do, but that doesn’t make it an easier.”
Karasu nodded silently. Like Kyoumi, he had seen Yamada at her most vulnerable. Right after Nakura’s death a year ago. There was more too, his patience with training her for the duel to the death that never happened, and then when she had gone to him first proposing her plan to have him named Emerald Champion.
Could there have been something more between them than the ties of friendship and duty? Perhaps, if events had gone a little differently. It was impossible to tell; and it was pointless to speculate.
There came a knock on the door.
“I should go,” said Yamada, getting to her feet. The door opened and she turned to see who it was. She froze. “Moto Taigo-sama.” She made a low bow.
Taigo raised a bushy eyebrow. “Utaku Yamada-san,” he said, giving her a bow that was slightly lower than would have been due to her status compared to his. “I have been meaning to meet you, this battlemaiden I keep hearing about. He handed a scroll to Karasu. “The news you have been waiting for, Karasu-ue,” he said, then turned back to Yamada with an intriguing look. “Would you mind if I borrowed her a moment?”
“Of course,” said Karasu.
“But…Harun…” She looked down to see him fast asleep on the blanket.
“He should be fine here until you get back,” said Karasu. “If he wakes, I’ll tell you.”

As they walked alongside the training yard, the stories Yamada’s father Harun had told her came back. The Khan’s March on Toshi Ranbo under Taigo’s father Chagatai. Her father had been a young man there, just a gunso in the Khol, but he had told her of him.
We would have followed him to Jigoku itself, he had said to her.
And now she was here with his son Taigo, a legend in his own right. He had formed the Last Legion from nothing to start his own war on the Onyx Empire.
And we took that away from him, Yamada thought with a little guilt.
The training yard was full of people practicing with wooden weapons under the watchful eye and harsh voice of the drill instructor. They stopped for a moment, Taigo watching them with a satisfaction.
“New recruits, Moto-sama?” Yamada asked.
Taigo nodded. “Most of them came in since the tournament.” He looked across at Yamada. “And able to give themselves.”
She almost smiled. The Last Legion had been founded as a refuge that would accept anyone as a recruit, peasant or samurai. But this had had to end when it became the Imperial Legion, and it had been a rather heated meeting in Yamada’s yurt when that had been decided.
“Hikahime told you, did she Moto-sama?” Yamada asked.
“Hikahime told me a lot of things, Utaku-san,” said Taigo. “How you saved her life, even going before the Emperor himself. How you convinced the Lion Clan to support the Legion.” He looked at her again. “For someone who is not a courtier, you certainly made a name for yourself in the courts.” He gave a slight nod, a sign of respect.
“Thank you, Moto-sama,” she said, feeling herself blush under his praise. “But I would not have done that without the help I had, particularly Doji Arami.”
“Of course,” said Taigo. “But you are the one whose name I keep hearing.”
The continued to walk, and Yamada knew she had to say something about the guilt that plagued her.
“Moto-sama I…wanted to apologise to you,” she said. “What was done, the deals we made to make the Legion legitimate…I have felt badly about it ever since and wished it could have been different.”
Taigo stopped, stared straight through her as if he could read her thoughts. “Is that regret in your voice, Utaki-san?”
Yamada flinched a little, she felt like she was a child again and her father had called her into the carpet for something she had done. “I…hope not, Moto-sama,” she said. “But what was necessary to get the Legion recognised, we had to support Shogun Akodo Kano-sama over yourself, who had founded the Legion…”
Taigo shook his head. “That matters little now, Utaku-san,” he said. “Look at where we are, look at what has happened. The Legion started as it did because that was what it needed to be…now that it has been officially recognised it will need to be something else. And as for Kano…” He frowned and shook his head again. “That was bound to be a problem no matter how you set up that shogi board. Spare yourself any grief on my part, Utaku-san, I am pleased that it was done at all.”
But there was one last thing on her conscience. “And Akodo Dairoku-sama?” Yamada asked. “I...I know it seems as if I used her to get the Lion back to the negotiating table, but my support for her as Shogun was genuine.”
“Cast that out too,” Taigo said. “And Dairoku, she lives still, and free of the taint still. Rest your mind on her, she does her duty for her clan and the Legion as a Deathseeker.”
They walked along in silence for a few more minutes.
“Getting the Lion to move, that sounds like a battle in itself,” said Taigo. “Chinua said there was a story behind that, but he didn’t have time to tell me when I saw him. Could you tell it?”
“Of course, Moto-sama,” said Yamada. She told him the whole story, right from her handshake with Akodo Kibo, to the disagreements on the dais among the Chosen. Taigo listened eagerly, laughing at intervals.
“It’s better than I thought,” said Taigo with a grin.
They had come to the other side of the courtyard, to the exterior wall of the barracks where the snow was rutted under the archways from all the comings and goings.
“There’s another reason I wanted to speak with you, Utaku-san,” Taigo said. “I would have sent for you had I not seen you there. You have talent and experience; such things should be encouraged.”
“Thank you, Moto-sama,” said Yamada.
“I want to offer you the chance to be the Legion’s voice in the Imperial Court,” said Taigo.
“But...surely there is someone better trained than me,” said Yamada.
“Better than someone who can stand up before the entire court the day after her husband was killed in front of her?” Taigo challenged. “No, I think you best, Utaku-san. The Legion will need a clear honest voice in the months to come, and you have more than proved yourself.”
Just like with Ide Toboku, Yamada was presented with an irresistible chance to serve her clan. This time to stay in Otosan Uchi, have Harun close to her and Kyoumi and Yukari close by. But she had given Michio her word…
“Moto-sama, you honour me with this,” she said. “But I am afraid I cannot accept, I have been offered the command of the Fourth Utaku Battlemaiden Legion.”
“Well, I can’t compete with that,” said Taigo with a sigh. “Your own command, I can understand the allure.”
His face was unreadable as they walked back. But all Yamada could think of was that she lied to him. She had lied to Chagatai’s son. She had lied to one of her heroes.

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Mon Dec 18, 2017 10:09 pm

It was New Year’s Eve and the households of Otosan Uchi were alive with the flurry of cleaning. Kyoumi’s house was more exception, Sumiko and Izumi busy most of the day. Wanting to get out of their way, Yamada sat with Kyoumi. Usually Kyoumi would read of dictate letters, but today she did none of these things and, instead making light conversation. But Yamada knew there was something was wrong, and she was trying to distract herself.
“Kyoumi,” said Yamada carefully. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there? Please, tell me.”
Kyoumi shook her head. “It’s nothing, Yamada,” she said, trying to brighten her voice. “I’m just tired…”
“No,” said Yamada seriously. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there? It’s too early for anything to be happening.”
Kyoumi didn’t answer, but for a moment she let her on slip and Yamada could see how much pain she was in.
Great Fortunes help us…
“Izumi!” Yamada shouted. “Run and fetch the midwife!”
Izumi poked her head around the door. “Is it time, Utaku-sama?”
“Just go,” said Yamada.

The last day of the Imperial Winter Court was always a busy one, the clam delegations making their reports as well as trying to get in any last minute petitions. Kakita Kousuda was watching the Spider delegation make their report, trying to keep his attention focused but it was difficult.
A servant came in, going straight to Kousuda. The servant bowed low and whispered in Kousuda’s ear. Kousuda’s face went white, the fears he had been nursing were now realised.
Abandoning all appearance of propriety, Kousuda turned and ran out of the throne room. He was running so fast he barely noticed the emerald green gauntlet that intercepted him.
Kousuda looked up to see Karasu, resplendent in his emerald green and gold armour. But in Karasu’s eyes he saw a mirror of the same fear that filled his own heart. Karasu put a hand on his shoulder.
“Be loud,” he said. “She needs to know you are there for her.”
Kousuda nodded. Karasu let him past and Kousuda took off at run.

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Sun Dec 24, 2017 12:35 am

Kokoro had come promptly, but Izumi’s search for a shugenja fruitless as all seemed to be attending to the rituals of the New Year. So Yamada told the girl to sit in front of the gate and wait until she saw a shugenja walk past.
Once in the birthing room, Kokoro took charge. She bade her apprentice Nibui to make a calming tea and then had Yamada sit by Kyoumi and rub her back. The midwife was all calmness and reassurance with Kyoumi, but was also worried. Yamada noticed how serious Kokoro was, with none of the usual jokes. After examining Kyoumi, she and her apprentice had a quick consultation in the corner.
Kyoumi showed great strength in keeping her composure though she was clearly in a lot of pain.
“Kyoumi, you don’t have to keep quiet if you don’t want to,” said Yamada. “It’s not weakness, I won’t judge you.”
Kyoumi shook her head, and when the pain ended she explained it all to Yamada. “I need to keep quiet, my…my cries could summon the spirits of those babies who died at birth…they would take mine away from me.”
Yamada had never thought the Crane particularly superstitious, but she also knew now was not the time to question anything.
Kokoro came over, her voice all gentleness. “My dear, it does look as if baby is on the way, but we need to help baby a little.” She smiled reassuringly at Kyoumi. “We will need to turn baby around.”
A flicker of worry crossed Kyoumi’s face. “Turn?”
Kokoro nodded. “Once baby is at the door, hopefully things will go smoother. Are you ready?”
Kyoumi nodded mutely.
Kokoro then helped Kyoumi onto her back and then directed Yamada to sit beside Kyoumi’s head and hold her hands firm. The midwife then took out a wooden rod out of her bag, wrapped a cloth around it then offered it to Kyoumi to bite down.
“No,” said Kyoumi softly. “I won’t need it.”
Kokoro looked as if she might argue, but decided not to.
Throughout it, Yamada watched Kyoumi’s face, her eyes focused on the Crane girl’s. Yamada could see the strain there, the strength she showed in trying to cry out. But it proved to much, Kyoumi made a low moan, like a wounded animal.
Something else was happening, there seemed to be a little wind in the room as if someone had opened a window. Nibui, who was assisting Kokoro, looked around worriedly.
And then they heard shouts, screaming from the next room. The sound of a man trying to shout as loud as he could. Kyoumi stopped moaning, the ghost of a smile on her face.
“He’s here,” she said.
Yamada nodded. That was clearly Kousuda, his shouts to try and divert the attention of the souls of the deceased children Kyoumi had been wary of.
“Just a little longer, my dear,” said Kokoro, her voice a little strained.
Knowing Kousuda was there gave Kyoumi the strength she needed. When the baby turned inside her, all she made was a soft cry.
“Well done, my dear!” said Kokoro, smiling at Kyoumi. “Baby is at the door, and soon we may…oh yes, the little one is starting to show themselves…”
But Kyoumi had passed out from the pain. She didn’t hear Kokoro, or notice the water that was leaking from her womb. Yamada sponged Kyoumi’s face with a wet cloth until she opened her eyes. Then she and Kokoro helped Kyoumi onto her knees.
“I did this for you,” said Kyoumi, her voice barely a whisper, her smile faint.
“You did,” replied Yamada. “And now I will be with you, Kyoumi, when you become a mother.”

By Kyoumi’s baby took its time being born. Noon turned to afternoon, to evening. Kyoumi finding her ordeal so exhausting that they laid her on her back again to try and get her to rest. And throughout all that day she was so quiet, barely making a sound.
Harun had to be brought in a few times so Yamada could feed him, and several times she had to leave the birthing room so she could tend to her son’s needs. It was during one of these times in the early evening that Arami returned. His on was perfect, his greeting conventional. But Yamada see the concern in his eyes. Yamada knew what he wanted to hear and how much she needed to say.
“She is doing well, and she’s very brave,” Yamada told Arami. “But there are…difficulties.”
Arami’s perfect on faltered a little. Yamada smiled at him reassuringly.
“She had courage, Arami,” Yamada said. “Have faith in her, I do.”

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Mon Jan 01, 2018 5:33 am

Happy New Year every one! The nest few hours will bring the final two updates.

Arahime’s breathing was due to a friendly kami that had decided to ‘adopt’ Kyoumi. It was named Awa, and hovered around the newborn like a cloud. Kyoumi told her all this several days later when she had rested more, but she wasn’t sure what had happened in the birthing room that night.
“I suppose Kozan-sama will want to look into it when I return to my duties once my confinement is over,” she said.
“Kyoumi, don’t expect too much of yourself,” Yamada said gently. “You have been through a great ordeal, you need to rest.”
Kyoumi smiled quietly. “I said the same to you,” she said.
“And that is how I know it’s right,” countered Yamada.
They both laughed. Yamada sighed. There was something natural and easy about them sitting there, sharing tea. Yamada holding her son, Kyoumi holding her daughter. They could be anywhere in Rokugan, two young women talking about their children, their husband, the weather…
If it were like that, we would have been happier, thought Yamada, we would not have these duties hanging over our heads.
“May I hold her, Kyoumi?” Yamada asked, sitting Harun next to her.
Kyoumi nodded and handed Arahime over wrapped in a blanket. Yamada took the baby in her arms, holding her low so Harun could look.
“This is Arahime-chan, Harun-kun,” said Yamada. “Isn’t she pretty?”
Harun had a look for a minute and then crawled off to look at something else. Yamada only laughed and had a closer look at the baby, peeling away the blanket a little. Arahime’s eyes were shut tight, Yamada could feel the soft breeze of the air kami that helped her breathe.
“She’s beautiful, Kyoumi,” said Yamada.
There was a small ache inside her, that knowledge that she would never have a daughter of her own. She and Nakura had spoken of it, but there would be no child of her body to pass on the traditions of the Shiotome. No daughter to wield the blade Kyokan that had once been Yamada’s mother’s.
Yamada looked at Arahime closely. “Kyoumi, where is her hair?” Beneath her wraps, Yamada could tell the newborn was bald.
“It fell out last night,” Kyoumi said. “It happened while Kousuda gave Arahime her bath.”
“Is that…a worry?” Yamada asked.
Kyoumi shook her head. “The shugenja Inone said that It happens sometimes. Her hair will grow back.”
Yamada handed Arahime back to Kyoumi. “I…I wanted to thank for having me here, Kyoumi,” she said. “Letting me stay here in your home, all that you have done…”
“It is I who should be thanking you, Yamada,” said Kyoumi. “You being here has been such a help and comfort.”
Yamada smiled. “You are a true friend, Kyoumi.”
Kyoumi took a sip of tea. “I guess with spring here, you will be leaving us soon.”
Yamada nodded. “As soon as the thaw comes, I gave Michio my word.”
Kyoumi nodded Mutely, holding Arahime a little tighter.
“I did not realise then how difficult it would be,” said Yamada, smiling as she watched Harun investigate a pile of blankets.
“Don’t ever think that he won’t know you,” said Kyoumi. “He will, we will all make sure when the time comes.”

In the next few days Arami left. His house was ready and no sooner than that then he had to leave it. He was hoping to cover more ground this year, and wished Yamada well before he rode off with his small party. Yamada didn’t tell him where she was going or why, she wasn’t sure she could explain it properly and he would find out anyway.
After Arami left, Yamada began to make preparations. First Kokoro found a wet nurse for her and then the midwife helped Yamada with the weaning. Harun didn’t seem to mind after a while, but it was a stab to Yamada, not just preparing for the future but removing their closeness.
She then went through her possessions, putting them away in a patterned lacquered box for Karasu to hold in trust until Harun came of age. There was her papers, an assortment of documents from the court last year: drafts of the Last Legion Treaty, wedding invitations, letters between her and Nakura. With them she put in her wedding kimono, the sandalwood fan Nakura had given her, the purple and blue kimono she had given him as a wedding present. She kept the origami Crane netsuke, his gift to her.
On the top she put in the scroll that was Yamase’s gift to Harun, next to it a letter from Yamada to Harun once he came of age. Then locked the box tight.
She then wrote a letter to Nakura’s sister Momoibura, telling everything she could about her and Nakura’s brief courtship and marriage and what their hopes had been. She also explained her reasons for Harun’s care, for his own protection in case there were any still angry at Nakura might go after his son.
I do not wish for my son to not know of his Yasuki heritage, Yamada wrote, but hopefully there will be a time where you can tell him yourself more about who he is.
The next day she went to the Crab Embassy where Yamase was staying, but was directed to the Legion barracks. So she went down there, with Harun in his sling as Yamada didn’t want to be parted form him any more than necessary.
When she arrived she was directed to the dojo, where she came upon Yamase and Karasu sparring. They didn’t see her, so she quietly waited. And they were going fast, the bokkens clashing each constantly, the advantage going back and forward. Karasu’s attack was swift and elegant, Yamase’s strong and efficient.
Karasu attacked, his bokken arcing perfectly through the air as it came towards Yamase. Yamase stood firm, her bokken in a guard position. So firm was her defence that Karasu’s bokken shattered on impact, shards of wood exploding everywhere.
There was a long silence as two looked at each other.
“So that’s why?” Karasu asked.
Yamase nodded, then they both turned to Yamada.
“How much did you see?” Karasu asked her, the edges of his mouth twitching into a grin.
“Enough,” said Yamada. “I am glad I found you, Yamase, I knew you would be leaving soon.”
“And you too?” Yamase asked.
Yamada nodded. “There’s a lot we need to talk about.”

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Mon Jan 01, 2018 7:21 am

This is the last Chapter of Birds in their Nests, a very different story that looks at a very different side of Rokugan. A story that I am very proud to have written. Thank you all for your patience with my posts, and I hope I have done justice to how it should be.

Will there be more after this? The answer is yes, but in it's own good time.

Karasu’s quarters were in the process of being packed up in anticipation of the Legion moving off. There was a subdued mood as Karasu made tea, making small talk about his plans for the spring.
“Hitomi has gone ahead to Shiro Yogashi,” said Karasu. “There’s probably a lot to do to make it habitable. Next winter we all of us be there.”
“All”. That referred to Harun as well. Usually that would pain Yamada, but she had prepared herself., put it away from her. The pain was still there, but she could only see it from a distance.
“Did you manage to get the aid you needed Yamase?” Yamada asked.
Yamase nodded. “From the Mantis and Zogeku,” she said. “Arami was able to secure some deal where the Zogeki paid the taxes they owed by giving aid to the other clans. I will be going ahead, so the ships will be a welcome sight when they arrive.”
Yamada took out the letter and gave it to her. “I want you to give this to Momoibura…if you can,” she said, remembering at the last minute that she could be dead. “I…tried to explain everything, but I don’t think I can.”
“She will understand more than you think,” said Yamase. “I suppose you will be going to join Michio?”
Yamada nodded.
“From what little I know of him, he is hard to find when he doesn’t want to be found,” Karasu said. “Not much word gets out of Phoenix lands, even now as the roads are starting to open.”
“He will be found when if wants to be found,” Yamase said quietly. “You will find him, Yamada, and when I need to find him I will. I hope it is not too long.”
Yamada looked down at Harun where he was sleeping on the Tatami mat between her and Karasu. Perfectly at peace.
“I gave Michio my word,” Yamada said.
Karasu looked sombre but nodded gravely.
A knock at the door disturbed the mood. It was Moto Taigo who opened it, coming in and bowing quickly.
“My apologies, Karasu-ue, but this cannot wait,” the Moto said quickly. “A heimin has arrived from Phoenix lands, you need to hear what he has to say.”
“Bring him in,” says Karasu. Yamada and Yamase got up to leave but Karasu motioned them to sit. “Stay, if it’s about what I think it is, you’ll want to know about this too as you are both far more involved than I am.”
Taigo brought the peasant in, he stood at the door while the peasant fell to his knees and pressed his face to the floor.
“You may rise,” said Karasu, his voice taking on an air of authority that Yamada hadn’t heard before. “Tell me your name.”
“Atagi, my lord,” said the peasant, rising to his knees and keeping his face lowered. He looked dirty, as if he had travelled a great distance, and nervous. Yamada poured him a cup of tea, he drank it under her reassuring smile.
“Now, you have something to tell us, Atagi-san?” Karasu asked. His voice was kinder, but their was still that authority in it.
“I come from Shinsetsu Mori, my lord, it is a day’s journey from Kyuden Isawa,” Atagi began. “The village is no more, my lord, not after the Black Hand came.”
“The Black Hand?” Yamada asked.
“Yes, my lady,” he said. “He is most terrible, dressed in black and has a hand like obsidian that crushes his victims. And he has followers, many of them.” He took a sip of tea with a shaking hand and continued. “Our lords, the Isawa, were in the village. We did not know why as they did not tell us. But the Black Hand found them. He and his followers fought the Isawa, they almost destroyed the village in the battle. Many of us fled, I hid and watched. I saw the Black Hand himself cut down many of my lords, that terrible hand of his protected him from harm.”
Yamada pictured it in her mind. Michio, with his hand of obsidian, protected from all that would touch him.
“The ones that would not submit were rounded up, with their children,” continued Atagi. “They refused to kneel, so they took the children and killed them where they stood. The Black Hand said it was a mercy.”
Yamada shuddered, she knew Michio’s deeds were horrible, but not like this. Karasu looked away but Yamase seemed unaffected.
Atagi looked down, roughly wiping away tears. “My apologies, my lord.”
“No need,” said Karasu. “What did they do to the rest of the Isawa?”
“They killed them,” said Atagi. “And not straight away like the children. First, they cut off their hands and cut out their tongues, the dogs were let loose on their bodies and they died in agony. Their hands and tongues were nailed to board and left for all who came by to see.”
Atagi took a few deep breaths, looking down.
“Thank you, Atagi-san,” said Karasu. He looked at Taigo. “See that this man and anyone else who came with him is fed and provided for.” He turned back to Atagi. “The Legion could probably use a man like you, one who can observe and report back what he has seen.”
Atagi bowed low. “I thank you, my lord.”
“Now go, we will talk later,” said Karasu.
Taigo took Atagi out, when he had gone Karasu looked between the two women, his face grave.
“If this was anyone else, I would stop it,” said Karasu. “I would have to, it would be my duty to. But I can’t, can I?”
Yamada shook her head. “Michio’s authority comes from Lord Moon, anyone who goes against him goes against Heaven itself.” She took a deep breath. “I should have been there, I could have saved those children.”
“What would you have done?” Yamase asked. “Marched them through the countryside to safety by yourself?”
“Yes, if I had to,” said Yamada. “They were innocent, they need not have died.”
“This is a war, Yamada,” Yamase said coldly. “Many will die before it is over, even the innocent. You cannot save them all.”
“No, but I can save who I can,” said Yamada. She looked down at Harun, he opened his soft brown eyes to look at her, giving her a smile. All she could think of was those children torn from their parent’s arms, slaughtered where they stood. She turned to Karasu. “I will be leaving soon, tomorrow evening. Are you ready?”
“Are you?” Karasu asked.
Yamada took Harun in her arms, smiling down at him. “No,” she said. “But I need to be.”

Yoru was saddled and readied, Yamada’s box of possessions was secured. Harun’s possessions were packed up as well. The gifts he had been given, blankets, his little clothes. They would all be going with him to his new home and new family.
That evening, Yamada made her farewells to Kyoumi and Kousuda.
“Thank you for everything you have done,” she said to them. “Your home is the first place that has felt like a home to me in a long time.”
“Remember, Yamada, you will always be welcome here,” said Kyoumi. “And we hope Harun will see this as a home as well.”
Yamada shook hands with Kousuda, then she embraced him like a brother. Two Unicorns wishing each other farewell. “I’m counting on you to make sure Harun knows how to ride,” she says.
Kousuda chuckled. “Of course.”
She mounted Yoru and Kousuda passed Harun up to her, securing him in front like how Yamada used to ride with him around Otosan Uchi, like she used to ride with her father. This would be the last time.
“Good fortune to you both, always,” she said, blinking back tears. Kousuda and Kyoumi waved as Yamada rode off.
Down at the barracks, Karasu was waiting for them. He helped Yamada unload and she went through what she had brought.
“The wet nurse will be coming soon, she should be able to explain more to you,” said Yamada. “This bundle is Harun’s things he needs now, the box is for when he makes his gempukku. And this.” She unlooped a cord from around her neck where she kept the amulet Akodo Zetsubou had given her on the last day of court. Amethyst, engraved with the mons of the Unicorn and Crab. She handed it to Karasu.
I am glad Zetsubou and Kibo aren’t here, she thought, they may have tried to stop me from what I am about to do.
“When it is time to tell Harun about his heritage, how much do you want told?” Karasu asked.
“You will know that better than I will,” Yamada replied. “For you will know him.”
She looked down at her son, this would be the last time she would hold him in her arms. Would they see each other again? Perhaps, but not like this. His soft brown eyes, so like Nakura’s, watched her with perfect love and trust.
Forgive me, my love, for what I am about to do…
She held him close to her breast, one last time. She touched his soft, curly hair, one last time. She kissed him gently on the forehead, one last time.
Her son, Harun, born of the love that had been between her and Nakura. He had been formed and borne from her body, she had comforted him through the long hours of the night. Her son, Harun, who bore the name of her own father.
She placed him in Karasu’s arms. “This is my only son, Utaku Harun, who is all I have left in this world,” she said. “I entrust his care to you.”
“I will raise him, and cherish him as if he were my own flesh and blood,” Karasu promised. “He will have my protection, and my name. He will want for nothing.”
Yamada nodded. She felt as if her heart was breaking, a piece of her very flesh had been torn from her. Tears could wait, tears were for later.
Yamada mounted Yoru. “Take care of the Empire, Karasu,” she said. “Harun, Arahime and all the other children will need a Rokugan to grow up in.”
“I will,” Karasu promised. “Yamada, will I see you again?”
“Perhaps,” she answered. “There will come a time when you need to find me, you will know when.”
As Yamada wheeled Yoru around, Harun started to cry. Each wait was like a stab in the heart to Yamada. He needed comforting, he needed her. She rode off, not looking back.
She could still hear Harun’s crying when she left Otosan Uchi, blinking away the tears that fell onto her own face. But she kept riding, urging Yoru to keep going into the night.

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Fri Sep 13, 2019 10:46 am

This girl acted a little odd, but Laurel did not really mind. She liked interesting people. Her eyes remained focused on the big tail as the other person climbed back up and sat down again. She nodded along to the girls activity. I getcha. Sometimes its nice to just step away and look from the outside. She glanced down at the little people moving about their lives. Her eyes trailed around the crowds for a few moments before she glanced back up at the other tree-dweller.

A little company wouldnt hurt. She carefully walked her way closer to the trunk before climbing a little higher, managing a branch relatively close to the tailed-fellow. Laurel remained close to the trunk and plopped herself down, sitting in the comfortable corner the tree made with its branches. She reached up and pulled the stringed instrument and its bow from her back and set them in her lap, ready to play. Oh, my names Laurel. Mind if I jam out a bit up here?
Справочник недвижимости России - http://scifinews.ru

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