Pursuit of Perfection
by Aaron Frede
(Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction and in no way represents an official L5R Story, all characters and anything to do with L5R or the Emerald Empire of Rokugan is copyright of FFG)
2015 Vancouver Fall Kotei winner Angus Campbell
Story Result: The Spider will save Doji Dainagon
Doji Dainagon walked slowly through the winding gardens of the Esteemed House of the Crane carefully watching the artisans as they tended the flowers and the courtiers as they sowed the seeds of their schemes. She lamented the choices in fashion that she saw, months behind the newest trends of the Imperial City. Kimonos with patterned cuffs, narrow obis, and off color mons were just a few of the outdated styles she took in with one glance around the garden courtyard. How the city had fallen from its former glory as one of the most influential fashion centers in the Empire. She had fond memories of living in Kyuden Doji, but nothing could rival her position as an adviser to the Emperor himself. Her dream of living in the Imperial City had been realized beyond what she could have hoped for, and while an adviser of art and culture didn't carry the same prestige that some of the other advisory roles did, Dainagon had been quite successful in expanding her sphere of influence.
She paused near a bed of flowers to watch a young artist as he carefully pruned the blooming bushes, making precise cuts with steady hands, as careful as a bushi executing a kata. The hanakotoba arrangement was striking, and told a tale of a tragic love triangle. The grouping of red and yellow roses with yellow tulips and camila told of two lovers and a jealous rival who's love was not returned. The next bed, which contained a mixture of primrose, freesia, and peony chronicled the spurned rivals violent attack and the valiant actions of the beloved. Finally the third bed, with its tiger lily and red spider lily told the tragic end of the lovers who would be lost to each other forever.
Dainagon wondered which one the artist was, the spurned, or the bereaved. All art was born from personal experience, and she knew that this young man carried a secret within him. She was of a mind to approach him once he had finished and strike up a conversation, curious if she would be able to unwillingly coax an answer from his replies to her questions.
“Dainagon-sama what a pleasure to have you back in Kyuden Doji”
Dainagon's thoughts were cut short as she was engaged by one of the courtiers who had been slowly drawing near. Turning to face him she favored him with a coy smile.
“Thank you Doji-san. I have been away for too long, the wonderful gardens here are a welcome sight.”
“Yes, even the gardens of the Imperial Palace surely cannot compare to the beauty created here by the finest gardeners in the Empire.”
Dainagon grimaced inwardly at the careless comment that could be construed as an insult to the Emperor, but her practiced exterior didn't reflect her distaste in the slightest. “Well the Emperor's gardeners create some exquisite displays, but there is something different about the gardens here, I guess it holds some fond memories of times past.”
“We have some budding young artisans here who I am sure would be most welcome as members of the Emperor's gardening staff and could help the gardens of the Imperial Palace to give you the same fond memories. With your position as adviser to the Emperor the appointments shouldn't be too difficult and I would be happy to provide you with some names of some of the finest flower artists in Kyuden Doji.”
As practiced in courtly ways as Dainagon was even she couldn't stifle the laugh that swelled within her at the poor young mans inept attempts at politics, he was as clumsy and naive as a Crab.
Her gentle laughter had confused him and now he awkwardly shifted his balance from one foot to the other. “Your candor is certainly a change of pace to the complexities of the Imperial City Doji-san, if I hear of an opening within the Imperial Gardens I will be sure to keep your generous offer in mind.”
The man's beaming expression indicated that he had not caught Dainagon's thinly veiled insult. Dainagon hoped for the sake of her clan that he wasn't representative of the quality of the diplomats currently residing in the Crane capitol, or the Scorpion would find themselves ruling the courts in the generations to come.
“Have the rumors of the fighting in the Colonies reached the Imperial Palace as well? They say that the Spider are laying waste to everything in their path.”
His mission evidently accomplished in his mind he turned the conversation to gossip without any semblance of transition. Dainagon made a mental note to have one of her aides seek out his sensei later and have a word about the young man's dreadful conversation skills.
“Rumors from the Colonies are never in short supply, it seems every year there is something wild happening there, be it war, or madness. Rogue elements of the Spider clan, Shibatsu has claimed. He will make every effort to oppose them and keep the Spider loyal to the throne.” Dainagon mercifully granted the young man a scrap of information, eager to end the conversation.
“Surely Shibatsu cannot be trusted, after all he was raised by the Spider was he not.”
“I would be cautious when questioning the honor of the brother of the Divine Emperor.” Dainagon spoke with more vitriol than she had intended, but she was losing her patience with the sloppy conversation, and in truth she had respect for Shibatsu, he was not in an enviable position.
Rebuffed the young man hesitated and straightened his robes nervously. “They say that there have been dark creatures spotted with the Spider forces, beasts of all natures, some even tainted.”
“Dark times indeed, let us hope this darkness is restrained to the Colonies, unlike the darkness that has begun to take the gardens.” Dainagon gestured to the fading sun. “My apologies but I must be going Doji-san.”
Dainagon bowed as she excused herself and the young courtier left her in peace. She glanced around for the flower artist she had been watching before, but was saddened to realize that he must have left while she was tied up in conversation.
Dreadful fashion, unbearable conversation, and a missed opportunity for intrigue the day certainly couldn't get any worse than this.
The muscles in his forearm clenched, tightening the grip of Daigotsu Jemaru's fingers around the wooden rail of the ship, steadying himself against the bobbing and swaying of the deck under his feet. Jemaru had never been at sea before and the experience was at the same time discomforting and exhilarating. He disliked the lack of control over his movements, and the tacky residue of salt on his skin, but he enjoyed the feeling of the cool wind rushing past him and the tingle of fear caused by the powerful walls of water as they rose and looked ready to engulf the wooden vessel. Each time however, the boat swayed slightly as it rose with the wave and descended safely down the other side before being picked up by the next wave that followed. The endless caress of the sea against the hull carried with it the threat that at any time, should the ocean decide, the boat could be blasted into a million splinters and sunk to the bottom of the depths.
Before the fleet had left the Colonies, Daigotsu Kanpeki had promised his fathers blessing upon the privileged few who would make the first strike against the Empire, and that none who sailed would come to harm. The men had brazenly embraced this protection, until a vicious storm a few days into the trip had dashed two of the ships together in a violent fury, sending both vessels and their crew to the dark unknown below. The event had caused Jemaru and his men to realize that the sea was a power of its own, beyond control. Some of the men had even claimed that in the stormy night sky they had seen a great creature with piercing green eyes staring at them from the clouds, although Jemaru dismissed such notions as effects of sea sickness. Most of his men spent the majority of their time retching into buckets or over the side of the hull, and it took every ounce of Jermaru's willpower to ensure that he didn't do the same. Shourido demanded nothing less than complete mastery of ones body and the unsteadiness of his feet upon the deck of the ship was the only exception Jemaru allowed himself, a sign of respect for the power of the sea that flowed beneath him.
Jemaru glanced to the huddled masses of his soldiers and felt a surge of contempt. They scorned his belief in Shourido but they knew nothing of power. Most of them would argue that Shourido was a path to power only for those who refused to embrace the might of the taint. Jemaru however knew better. He knew that the taint provided him with strength and strength alone, and that the other tenets of Shourido opened for him a world of power incomparable to the taint alone. The path to true power lay in the fusion of both, and so he embraced the blessings of Daigotsu, as well as honing his will and determination. One day he would have mastery of all the dark virtues and those within the Spider would see his power and recognize the truth of his beliefs.
He gazed out upon the sea as the sun set on the horizon without the faintest idea of where the fleet actually was. All he knew was that the time had come. Kanpeki had told them that during the night of the 16th day of their journey they would arrive at the shores of Rokugan, and begin their conquest: the beasts knew the way. From the prow of each ship iron chains with links bigger than Jemaru's torso descended into the dark waters; at the other end of those chains lay the creatures that propelled their vessels faster than naturally possible. Most of the men under Jemaru's command stayed clear of the bow of the ship, the occasional sight of the back of the beasts that pulled them causing involuntary shudders that were unseemly for warriors of the Spider. Only the Chuda, and the throngs of undead zombies seemed comfortable in such proximity to the creatures. Jemaru understood their apprehension. When the Chuda had first summoned the beasts they had been uncontrollable and destroyed half of the stolen fleet and many soldiers before the Chuda were able to bring them under sway with their foul magic. In truth Jemaru himself was afraid of them but he refused to let his fear show and forced himself to walk to the front of the ship multiple times throughout the day as an example to his troops.
As the last sliver of the sun sank into the sea, the sky turned the brightest shade of red Jemaru had seen since the beginning of their journey, like the first gout of blood from a fresh wound, a good omen for what was to come. Steadying himself he turned towards a cluster of samurai crouching near the deck of the ship. Their faces were a mixture of exhaustion and fear, and their garments were specked with spittle and bile. Jemaru grabbed one of them roughly by the collar and pulled him up.
“On your feet mongrels!” His voice carried on the wind across the deck of the ship. “You are warriors of the Spider, the most powerful clan in Rokugan, for the rest of this journey you will behave as such.”
When the men did not react as quickly as he liked Jemaru reached out with his other hand and hurled the soldier in his grip over the side of the ship with an inhuman bellow. In an instant everyone on the deck was standing in a passable formation, albeit one that quavered and swayed unsteadily.
“Prepare yourselves.” Jemaru's gaze was like a ghostly scythe as he swept it through his troops, its touch bringing a chill to their bones. “Tonight we shall set the first sparks that will grow into an inferno that will engulf Rokugan!”
The roar of his troops brought a smile to his face as Jemaru turned and stalked to the front of the ship, hand reaching out to grip the iron chains that held the mighty beasts below. He heard the battle cry echo from some of the nearby ships and savored the fervor that flowed through his veins. Tomorrow would be the first day in the new era of Rokugan.
Smoothing her kimono with both hands, Dainagon nodded to her attendant who opened the shoji screen as she stepped into the room. Inside, craftsmen young and old all turned towards her and bowed low. Dainagon didn't leave the capitol often, she preferred to be at the Emperor's side, but he had recently dispatched her on a journey of great importance. He was planning on commissioning a piece of artwork in honor of his mother and so Dainagon was visiting cities of each clan and examining the work of their best painters and sculptors to choose someone suited for the task. When Dainagon had first heard of this project she had immediately went to her Champion, Doji Makoto, to discuss how the Crane could use this appointment to garner favor with one of the other clans. Although on the outside it was an Imperial appointment and Dainagon was clothed in an aura of impartiality, in truth everyone knew that most of the members of the Imperial Court served more than one master.
Dainagon moved throughout the room in measured steps, making sure to pause at the right times, step closer or further away from various pieces to gauge them from different angles, and to ask pointed questions of the various individuals. This was all something she could do while her mind was elsewhere, running through the possibilities of which clan would bring the most benefit. The Crab were embroiled in the middle of the Scorpion/Lion war, trying to hold back the monsters that had sprung from the second pit while both of the other clans were more interested in pointing fingers and avenging slights, so they were probably too busy to offer be of service to the Crane any time soon. Choosing a Mantis could go a long way to mending the lingering rift that was an after effect of their war in the Colonies. Although Makoto felt that the clans were already on stable ground Dainagon didn't think that the Mantis would so easily forget. The Phoenix and the Unicorn were both busy fighting over the Phoenix's astrological reading of the curse within the Moto line. The Spider, on the other hand, were an interesting consideration. Since the recent demotion of Daigotsu Kanpeki, they were pariah's and could be deeply indebted to the Crane if this would help to bring them back into the Emperor's good graces. However there was the chance that Seiken was still angry enough at Kanpeki that he would overrule a Spider artist all together. That left the Dragon, who could be very grateful for the opportunity to partake in this project since the former Empress was at one time one of their own. They out of all the clans would value the appointment the most, perhaps that gratitude could result in some favors to the Crane.
Dainagon finished her tour of the room and surveyed the assembled crowd.
“The Emperor thanks you for your willingness to partake in this project, and for your continued contributions to Rokugan. I will not be making an appointment until I have visited each of the clans, but until that time I encourage all of you to press on in your craft. Art is the lifeblood of Rokugan. In art we honor the lessons of our ancestors, and pass down these teachings to future generations. Through art one can connect with the soul of another, and provide a window into eternity. Without art we are hollow shells drifting through a meaningless existence. Your pursuit of perfection brings honor to your ancestors, and to the Empire.”
With a final bow she exited the room, eager to return to her chambers and draft a letter to Makoto before retiring for the night. She couldn't help but feel guilty about giving such a motivating speech knowing that she had no intention of choosing any of the artists in that room. In her heart she believed every word that she had said, but sometimes one's duty to one's clan was greater than one's convictions. On her way she paused on one of the open walkways between the the East and the South wing where her quarters were. The cool night air felt refreshing on her face and the stars sparkled brilliantly above her head. She had always enjoyed the view from the upper levels of the city. In the distance she could faintly make out the ocean, although the sky disappeared in that direction, shrouded by dark clouds indicating a coming storm. Dainagon smiled at the thought of falling asleep to the calming cadence of the raindrops against the tile roof. With a final glance towards the distant sea she turned and walked inside.
The relief Jemaru's men felt from finally getting solid ground under their feet had not lasted long due to the marching pace that he had set. Their orders were to begin their assault before the sun rose and Jemaru did not intend to fail his lord. The rests had been brief and infrequent, sweat dripped from the faces of the living, while the undead shambled on beside them without any sign of discontent. Jemaru had never seen the creatures move so quickly before and had been surprised that they had kept up, every so often a Chuda moved throughout the ranks of the creatures whispering words of a secret incantation that Jemaru assumed urged them to swiftness. Jemaru strode with determination in every step, at the last rest he had told his troops the next stop would be outside the city gates. That had seemed to inspire some; others would only be happy when they had blood dripping from their swords. As the city gradually grew larger on the horizon, the clouds above rumbled a low quaking groan like a great beast awakening from a long slumber, and the first drops of rain splashed upon the army. Tiny rivulets flowed down the crest of his helmet and dropped onto the skin between his shoulders running in a miniature river down his spine. The sensation tingled and he wanted to shake his head to break the flow, but he willed his body to ignore the foreign feeling.
After an hour of marching through the rain Jemaru brought the company to a halt at what he thought was a safe distance from the city to ensure that the sound of their approach wouldn't alert the sentries. The lack of moonlight and clouds had covered their approach thus far, now it was time for the final stage of the plan.
“Mitsuru.” He spoke the name firmly and then waited steeling, himself.
“Your wish Commander?”
The silky reply was hardly more than a breath, but it was directly into his ear as the Goju materialized right beside him. Only Jemaru's superior control of his body prevented him from startling, but the Goju's face bore a sickly imitation of a smile regardless, as if he was grinning from a private joke. Jemaru hated the creatures of shadow even more than the mindless undead due to their unpredictability, but their skills were considerable and he had need to them tonight.
“Do what you were brought to do.” Jemaru didn't voice the threat that his tone contained, he didn't need to, and he doubted it would have an impact on the actions of the Goju regardless.
“Your wish Commander.”
Jemaru unsheathed his katana and ran his finger along the blade drawing a thin line of bright red blood as Mitsuru moved towards the city. The small cluster of wraiths was semi-visible for a few moments as they drifted through the night before they dissolved completely into the darkness.
Dainagon awoke to a flurry of sound, voices outside her door shouting her name and screams from outside the walls against the background of the rain that now seemed sinister rather than soothing. She lay in her bed clutching the sheets to her chest. Panic and confusion paralyzed her from action as her mind tried to make sense of the stimuli.
The sound of the screen sliding open and rapid footfalls approaching put her in a state of panic and she tried to will herself invisible upon her tatami mat.
“Dainagon-sama, we must leave now, the city is being overrun.”
Dainagon stared blankly at the young Crane bushi, overwhelmed in the moment.
“A thousand apologies my lady, but we must leave.”
The young man reached down and lifted Dainagon from the mat supporting her with one arm and started walking towards the door. After a few steps Dainagon's mind regained some control over her movements and she released herself from the grip of the Crane bushi.
“What...How...” The questions she wanted to ask were like the currents of a spring river, swollen from melted snow, all attempting to fit through too small a space simultaneously. Her words came out in a jumbled torrent. She took a deep breath to calm herself and get her emotions under control, all her training in courtly composure had never prepared her for anything like this.
“What is happening?” She tried again to get an answer from her guides.
One of the young men turned toward her and put on finger over his mouth while the other peered around the corner of the hallway before motioning them forward. They continued on in silence and soon they were out of the main compound and in the streets of Kyuden Doji. Dainagon could see fires dotting the city while her ears took in a macabre song of shrieks and shouting, punctuated by the staccato of clashing blades.
“It is the Spider, they appeared out of nowhere and got inside the walls somehow.” One of the bushi whispered as they stole through the empty streets. “The call to arms was too late, and we were too disorganized, they overran our defense within minutes and the order was given to evacuate as many people from the city as possible. Many have left already, but many are dead as well. When we get to the Western Gate there should be a horse waiting so you can catch up to the others making for Shiro Daidoji.”
Dainagon didn't ask any more questions as she realized that no better answers would be provided. Instead she followed silently, trying to gather her composure. She had been in many high stress situations before, death was preferable to many of the outcomes of a political blunder. She had brought honor to her family in her accomplishments. A sign on one of the buildings that they passed caught her eye, and she abruptly turned around slipped through the door that was left ajar.
She had nothing to fear from death. If it was time for her to meet her ancestors then so be it, but she certainly wasn't going to suffer the embarrassment of dying in a nightgown. As she quickly scanned the clothing store for something suitable, one of the young bushi ran into the room with a bewildered expression.
“Dainagon-sama!” The level of his voice was the closest a whisper could be to screaming as he reached out to take hold of her arm.
She quickly slapped his hand away and glared at him with all the indignation she could muster. Cowed, the young man lowered his head and waited for her.
Selecting a kimono off the rack that was of passable quality she slipped it on and tied it around her waist. It was a size or two larger than she normally wore but she couldn't be too picky given her current circumstance. Satisfied she exited the store with her guard in tow.
As they rounded the next corner a lone form wearing armor of white and blue walked down the street with an uneven gait. Her companions called out to their comrade and when he turned to look at them Dainagon sensed something was wrong. His face didn't show a trace of fear or panic, it was almost expressionless. Perhaps the samurai was in shock.
Her guards approached the man and once they were within reach Dainagon gasped as she watched the wandering soldier's face break into a feral smile. He thrust his sword forward impaling one of the unsuspecting guards through the belly. To the other guards credit he reacted instantly lashing out with his sword in a series of strikes. As Dainagon mutely witnessed the fight a ghost seemed to separate from the traitorous Crane and float above the form of the now motionless body it had once inhabited which was falling under the blades of her guard. With inhuman speed the ghost creature flew behind the remaining guard and reached out to take hold of his head with both hands.
Dainagon turned and ran as fast as she could, refusing to look back as the strangled screams of her companion chased her through the night. She randomly chose a path through the streets looking in vain for a familiar landmark so she could orient herself, but the city had changed so much since the last time she had lived here. Her feet were bleeding from running on the dirt and stone and her breath was coming in ragged gasps from the exertion. A cough escaped her dry throat as the ever present smoke took its toll and she paused for a moment to catch her breath. Over the noise of the death throes of Kyuden Doji she heard heavy footfalls and cruel laughter approaching. As quietly as possible she eased open the door of the building she was leaning against and crept inside.
The assault had gone smoother than Jemaru had anticipated. The Goju had eliminated the sentries and opened the city gates giving them the element of surprise. Even after the alert had been raised the defenders of the city were unprepared for Jemaru's troops. It amused Jemaru that the battle of Kyuden Doji wouldn't be a glorious story told to his descendants, the jewel of the Empire had been sacked as if it were a remote village on the border of a minor clan's territory, rather than a metropolis that was the capitol of a Great Clan. Jemaru wondered if the other strikes that were scheduled for that day would go as smoothly. Regardless, the Empire would know that the Spider were a force to be feared by this time tomorrow. Kanpeki's plan was in motion, and the fighting was just beginning.
Jemaru halted his patrol outside the door of a building when one of his samurai bent down to the ground to examine the dark glistening trail that led to its entrance. The mans finger came away with a residue, putting it to his tongue and nodding at his commander he confirmed Jemaru's suspicions - the substance was blood, human blood. He motioned to his samurai and they kicked the door open. The interior was disheveled, food scattered from open cupboards, various kimono strewn across the floor, and furniture out of place. In the corner was a Crane woman, unsteady hands wrapped around a broken sake bottle. Her body trembled in fear but the expression on her face was one of grim determination. As his men laughed and advanced toward her she glanced up and beneath a veil of hair her eyes locked with Jemaru's.
A jolt ran through his body like a surge from the power of the taint. Her eyes, light blue like the purest ice, perfectly spaced apart from her nose. Her skin was without blemish aside from a black soot mark that stained one cheek. Her cheeks were full and her chin was strong. She was the embodiment of perfection, a piece of Shoruido incarnate.
“Hold.” His voice rang out and stopped his men in their tracks, but two of the undead creatures that were with him continued forward towards the woman.
Jemaru took one swift step and moved his arms simultaneously, his right arm arced downward severing one zombies head from its body while his left arm extended straight and true, sending his broad bladed spear through the chest of the other creature impaling him. The thing strained against the spear that held him in place but Jemaru yanked him backwards and brought his blade around to decapitate the shambling horror.
Sheathing his katana he smacked the bottle out of the Crane woman's hands and she crumpled to the floor.
“You are too perfect a creature to let go from this realm.” He knelt down beside her and looked her in the eyes. The fury in her glare impressed him. “I claim you as my own, you will be safe, but you will be mine. You will be my inspiration in my pursuit of perfection.” He traced one finger along her jawline up to her ear and smiled when he felt her tremble beneath his touch.