A tale of the Scorpion Clan. Nothing more needs to be said about this one. Read it!
A Moment’s Hesitation
By Lucas Twyman
Edited by Fred Wan
How many seconds in a man’s life?
The summer days grew long as the Jade Sun hung lazily in the sky, asserting its temporary dominance over the Obsidian Moon. As the strength of the moon waned, so did the power of the Scorpion: with winter came long nights and the greatest courts. The Scorpion believed they ruled the courts, and there was no doubt that they ruled the nights.
As always, Bayushi Paneki awoke before dawn. In his prime – such a short time ago! – he arose fresh and prepared for the day, despite often late nights. His natural heartiness required him only a few hours of sleep, a trait he shared with Hajioki and Ogoe, among the greatest of Champions past. Even sickly Shoju taught himself to survive on little sleep; the less one slept, the more time one had for work, and the more time one had to learn. Rising before dawn gave a daimyo time to reflect on the upcoming day; time to memorize the names and histories of all dignitaries they might meet, time to study documents and issue orders that required the utmost security, and time to meditate on the shape of days to come.
Unfortunately, this morning, like most recent mornings, Paneki was unable to follow his normal schedule. Shortly before his normal waking time – as a boy, he trained himself to always wake at the same time every day regardless of the season or weather, and always awoke within a minute of the appointed hour – he was forced out of his restless sleep by a terrible coughing fit. It took him several minutes of recovery before he realized the bitter metallic taste that lingered in his mouth was his own blood – blood that now stained his hands.
He stood slowly, and silently cursed himself for his lethargy. There was so much still to do, but he was uncertain if his body could handle the rigors of another busy day. It would have to be tonight – any longer, and he risked succumbing to his condition before cleansing his shame. Paneki walked to the far corner of his small cell and lit incense to begin his morning prayer. After asking the Heavens for strength, he gathered up parchment and pen and began composing his final commands.
* * * * *
“You are certain about this?” Paneki asked the shugenja.
The Scorpion Champion’s hand opened and closed impotently, grasping for something to lean on, but he managed to pull back before touching any of the plants in the lush garden. The Shosuro Gardens had always made Paneki uncomfortable – and rightly so, as the flora resembled the Shosuro themselves; the more enticing and exotic the plant, the higher the chance of danger. Every plant in the garden – from the bright foreign flowers to the grasses and ferns to even the bark on the trees – could be distilled, refined, or administered directly for medicinal (or less savory) purposes.
“The elements can be misled, but they do not lie,” the old herbalist replied. “The flow of your internal energies has been severely redirected. Your inner Fire is growing too powerful and hungry. It is consuming your Earth and boiling the essence of elemental Water inside you.” He rubbed his white beard thoughtfully, and picked up a low-hanging branch, examining the underside of the leaves closely. Turning back to Paneki, the Shosuro continued, wearily, “Even with all my skill as a priest, I cannot correct the imbalance. Your fire has grown too hungry, too loud, too arrogant to listen. It will burn itself out, and you with it.”
Paneki narrowed his eyes. “So, you are saying that I have a fever, and you cannot cure it?”
The herbalist closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, my lord, what I am saying is far worse.”
Jutting out his lower jaw, Paneki looked uncomfortably at the ground, and ran his tongue along his front teeth. For a moment, he deflated, his skin becoming as pale and thin as paper. It was more uncalculated emotion than he had allowed himself in many years. He coughed and gripped his chest, then straightened himself and willed himself back into a semblance of composure.
“I suspected as much.”
The old man only nodded. Inwardly, Paneki felt a second’s amusement at the lack of condescension and emotion in the old man’s response – a true Scorpion, this old one.
“My lord, I can provide you with herbs to dull the symptoms, but I cannot do more than that. Any treatment sufficient enough to affect your Fire would douse it altogether, killing you outright.”
Paneki rubbed his forehead. It was damp with sweat – the day was warm and the garden moist, but he normally should have been able to keep his cool. “How long do I have?” he asked bluntly.
The herbalist looked his daimyo in the eyes, his voice firm. “With proper treatment and your remaining days spent in convalescence, five months. Maybe six.”
Gritting his teeth, Paneki felt his face flush. “I will not spend my remaining days idling in bed, old man. If I have little time left, all of it will be spent preparing the clan for the future.”
The old man frowned, but did not argue with his Champion. “Then you will be lucky to have four.”
* * * * *
Paneki lay the pen back down, wrapped the parchment, affixed his seal, and left the orders by the door for his servants to retrieve. As he turned back to his wardrobe, he heard the paper door to his chamber slide open and close, the orders safe in the hands of his trusted aides.
Four months. It was not enough. How could it be?
Holding a small mirror in a trembling hand, the Master of Secrets slowly began applying the caked make-up provided to him by one of the actors in his confidence. He was uncertain if the cosmetic was accelerating the drying out of his skin, as it seemed to look worse every morning, but today was the last day he would have to wear it. Eight minutes it took him to put it on – perhaps a minute less if his hands remained steady, perhaps a minute or two more if his condition was particularly bad. In those eight minutes, he could be signing treaties, studying the movements of the Destroyers marching from the south, organizing the efforts of his spy network, attempting to determine where along the chain of command the source of the orders the Shosuro assassins received originated – every morning for the last three months, eight minutes were lost. The sacrifice of time for appearance was one of the first sacrifices he had learned to rationalize; how many minutes of his life were wasted learning about the latest fashions? How many hours of time, how many lives of work, were spent by his inferiors, harvesting silk and cotton, sewing new clothes for their betters, shaping the latest trends, transporting goods across the Empire so the Champion himself could look his best in court?
When he met Tsudao, when he drove away that dog of a Dragon that threatened her, he wore a kimono designed by the most popular seamstress in Shosuro lands, specially commissioned to be worn by a man on the front lines, cut to not impede movement, but styled to appear regal and in command. Had he not worn his finest garment that day, would he have projected enough force to cow the Dragon and catch the eye of the future Empress? Were the minutes he spent crisply folding his obi that morning worth spending? He rewarded the old woman, wore her work again when he was announced as the Scorpion Champion. When he maintained his appearance for court, he maintained his strength. Twenty minutes spent looking proper and authoritative could buy him a place in any court. Twenty minutes spent looking attractive could ingratiate himself with any courtier; it could give him access to rumors that could topple a dynasty or end a war. Most men could not calculate the cost of a minute spent this way.
Paneki was all too aware of each moment’s price – and what each moment could be worth. With the fire in his breast now burning with every breath, the price of a minute was all the more keen.
While Paneki prided himself on not being a superstitious man – considered it a requirement of his position, in fact – he had been witness to more than his fair share of supernatural judgment and punishment. Hantei, Toturi, Bishamon, and more – representatives of Heaven that had cursed his family during his or his father’s generation. Now he found himself cursed and laid barren, his thoughts strangely sympathetic towards the fields of grain cursed by the Fortune of Strength only a few years ago. Dressing himself, like sleeping alone, was his only concession to superstition; he would not allow his wife or child to accidently touch the stain on his soul, nor would he allow a servant close, lest the dishonor he bore spread like a spiritual flashfire. While he was uncertain of the failure for which he had been cursed (a question that vexed him; the only question he could not satisfactorily receive an answer to, and his mind bobbed from idea to idea – was it his failure in foreseeing the Destroyers? His failure in stopping the Spider? His attempt to maneuver a Scorpion towards the Throne?), he would not allow his curse to touch those he loved.
How strange, this idea of love, but it was true. Paneki loved his clan and his Empire. A villain and an animal he could sometimes be, but his heart was violently patriotic. He would not allow his family, clan, or Empire to suffer for his shame. His dishonor must be cleansed before he died of natural causes. A lesser man, a less important man, might die from their curse, bleed out in the fields or in a bed surrounded by their family, but while Paneki did not know the reason for his curse of illness, he knew that he could make the final sacrifice to remove his shame.
At sunset, he would perform the three cuts. Until that final hour, he would prepare his clan. Not a moment could be wasted.
* * * * *
The arrival of the Emerald Champion was usually accompanied by tremendous fanfare, but, today, the Champion’s entourage was small and swift. As Jimen entered his court, Paneki feigned surprise – his informants in the Imperial City had already told him Jimen was on the move, but he knew that the Champion meant to be unexpected. Despite the magnitude of the message he surely carried, Jimen could easily have delegated the delivery to a Miya herald. Jimen, for his part, most assuredly knew that Paneki’s sources had told the Scorpion Champion of the Emerald Champion’s impending arrival, but still managed to return Paneki’s false surprise with a feigned appearance of satisfaction. More than any man Paneki had met, Jimen enjoyed allowing both sides to take their lead in the dance; conflict with the man was almost ritualistic, with the victor being the one who introduced something new and unexpected at the end, rather than the one who pressed the issues too early.
Small talk, formal rituals, traditional greetings; how much time would Paneki have saved if he hadn’t spent so many hours in court on trivialities? How many precious seconds were spent allowing a rival to smirk and think he had triumphed, before dashing the man’s hopes and crushing his spirit? What had he gained, what had the Empire gained from these moments of delicious anticipation?
The two Champions exchanged glances, and both bowed deeply. Paneki normally spoke to Jimen with a sense of superiority, but today it would be best for the Clan if he showed the Emerald Champion proper deference. Jimen must be made to feel that his position was power enough, that his place as the Emerald Champion was far more important than taking any sort of jurisdiction over the Scorpion. The clan would be more powerful, and the Empire more safe, with multiple competent men sharing power.
“You have looked better, old friend,” Jimen said, his mouth curled into a small smile.
Paneki raised an eyebrow. “So we are friends now, Jimen?”
“Have we ever not been friends, Lord Paneki?”
Paneki found himself smiling at the audaciousness of the man’s attitude. “I assume that you have news for me? Or is the Empire in such wonderful shape that you have time for leisurely visits to Bayushi Castle?”
Paneki was sure he saw a look of surprise behind the half-mask of the Emerald Champion’s mempo. Jimen nodded and raised his hand; a servant sprinted forward and placed a rolled-up document in the Emerald Champion’s hand, which he presented to Paneki.
“The Empress gives her permission. In fact, her Voice made clear to me that you should act as swiftly as possible, if your condition was indeed as dire as you indicated.”
Paneki nodded. “I have already made arrangements. I will travel this afternoon to Bayushi’s Shrine and tonight I will cleanse my family.”
“So soon?” Jimen said, but Paneki was unsure if there was admiration or just surprise in the question. “A pity. The game is losing one of its finest players.”
Paneki took a step forward. There was a flash of hot anger, red and strong through his head. He could feel himself begin to sweat. “You have never learned, have you, Jimen?” he said, in a cold whisper, “This is life you are talking about – the fate of the Empire is more than a game.”
Slowly, patiently, Jimen nodded. “The fate of the Empire is the only game worth playing.”
Paneki breathed in deeply. “Forgive me. My illness has left me short-tempered.”
“I noticed nothing, my lord,” Jimen said, conciliatory.
Paneki nodded. “That reminds me. I spoke with Shosuro Yamane several months ago. He asked after you. I could tell he was expressing disappointment about losing his finest apprentice.”
Jimen narrowed his eyes suspiciously, then brightened and smiled widely. “His loss was the Empire’s gain, I am sure you would agree,” he said, boisterously thrusting his chest forward. “That reminds me: have you chosen your replacement? I hope you have chosen wisely,” he said, placing his hands behind his back, “After all, this is perhaps the most important decision you ever make. Think of it: all the power and knowledge of the Scorpion. Secrets that could shake the Empire to its foundations, hidden wisdom that could destroy even the most powerful individuals. Imagine all that in the wrong hands.”
Paneki tilted his head forward. “We do not need to imagine such a thing, my old friend.”
Swiftly excusing himself, Paneki turned and headed for the door. He had no more time for games.
* * * * *
The sun was beginning to change color, its light reflecting off the clouds and filling the evening sky with red and purple. Paneki’s entourage was small, but intimate. Twenty men — a priest, Bayushi Shinobu, and the finest of the Bayushi Honor guard – all clad in robes so white they glowed with the colors of the setting sun.
The ride would be short, but Paneki led them in an indirect route around the palace. As they traveled along a path north of the castle, Paneki stopped and raised his hand to order his fellow riders to pause.
The guards exchanged glances, but followed their daimyo’s command. Paneki dismounted and walked up a small hill, ultimately facing southward, looking over a small garden. After a few moments, a small procession of guards and handmaidens appeared, one carrying a swaddled bundle. A few seconds more and Bayushi Miyako, the Lady of the Bayushi, exited from a small door partially hidden in the wall of the ancient castle. She approached the handmaidens and gathered the bundle into her arms, smiling down at it, making bright faces and obviously cooing. A small smile crossed Paneki’s lips. Miyako glanced up at the place where Paneki stood, smiling widely, and began walking through the winding paths of the garden.
Every evening, before dinner, Bayushi Miyako tended to their son personally, walking with him in the gardens north of Kyuden Bayushi. Every evening, Paneki watched her in seclusion at the northern end of the gardens. It was the only moment he allowed solely for himself, but he still justified it as a service to the clan: his son must know that he once had a father. The line of Bayushi must have awareness of its continuity. Blood and loyalty, loyalty to blood, was all the Scorpion ultimately had in the Empire. No allies would last forever. No member of the other clans would ever truly trust them. The truths passed down from father to child were all the Clan had.
“My lord?” the priest called from the road. “The sun is beginning to set. We must make haste to the shrine.”
“One moment!” Paneki snapped, turning swiftly towards the road, and back towards the gardens. “One more moment,” he said again, this time barely above a whisper, “one more moment is all I ask. Is it too much to ask for a single moment in time for myself?”
Paneki watched as his wife and child walked further along the winding paths, Miyako taking steady, practiced steps as she walked through the small maze of hedges and trees lining the path’s edges. Finally, she exited the garden, standing at a peak of a hill several hundred feet from where Paneki himself stood. The sun began set behind her, silhouetting her and her child in a lush crimson.
Miyako was attractive, but not beautiful. From her mother, she had inherited the thin face and striking nose common in Shosuro women, and from her father she had inherited her eyes – keen, intelligent, wide with a child-like questioning humor. Unlike her brothers, who were sometimes crude or uncomfortable among their peers (like their father), Miyako conducted herself with a surprising dignity and class.
Paneki and Miyako stood silently, a hundred yards of hilly garden between each-other, their eyes locked together. He whispered to her, but she was too far to hear. It did not matter; she understood. She shifted their son in her arms, held him forward to see his father for one final time. The child was surprisingly alert for one so small, and Paneki again found himself smiling: the exhaustion and heat must be getting to him; his mask was crumbling. He looked again at his wife, and though neither said a word, they understood. There was no room for love in their relationship, but both held their partner in the utmost respect. It was as a proper Scorpion marriage should be; love was dangerous, sloppy, and painful. It could give strength, but it could also be exploited as a weakness.
Paneki looked up at Heavens, squinting at the setting sun. Turning back to his wife and child, he bowed deeply.
Miyako might never be a good Scorpion, but she had been a good wife.
* * * * *
As he held onto the reins with his left hand and trusted his steed to guide him, Paneki studied the map held in his right. “You are sure these movements are accurate?”
Bayushi Shinobu nodded. “Yes, my lord. The bulk of the Destroyer force still marches through Crab lands and moves on the larger cities, but small detachments appear to be traveling along those four routes, searching for something.”
Paneki followed the lines with his eyes, continuing past their peaks. His eyes widened with realization. “The Tombs.”
“My lord?” Shinobu asked, confused.
“The True and False Tombs. They are headed to them.” Paneki turned slowly to face Shinobu. “The prison of Iuchiban and his followers.”
“But Iuchiban is dead, is he not?” Shinobu narrowed his eyes, and his voice continued, first hesitantly, then with more certainty. “But there must be other objects enclosed within them. Cursed artifacts of the Bloodspeakers, magical items used to bind their dark magics, ancient wards that could be used to protect the things held within: all could be used against us by our enemies.”
Paneki nodded. “Astute. When you return, you are to delegate that knowledge to the proper channels. See that the demons do not step foot in the Tombs. Only one well-versed in the secrets of our clan could delve them successfully, but it is best not to take the risk.”
Shinobu nodded, then glanced at Paneki’s obi. “My lord…” His voice trailed off, uncertain.
Paneki rolled up the scroll and handed it back to his second, then placed his hand lightly on his wakizashi. “Keen eye, Shinobu. My katana is not here. Irregular, but necessary. The sword of our clan has already been placed among its brothers and sisters, waiting for my worthy successor to claim it, and my soul of my family’s direct line has been left for my son. I need only my honor today.”
“Honor, my lord?” Shinobu said with a small smile – the honor of a Scorpion was one of the most common jokes told during the courtly games of the Bayushi.
Paneki nodded, and Shinobu’s face quickly became dour. “A Lion’s wakizashi is his honor. A Crab’s blade is his duty. Our blades are our loyalty. I will cleanse whatever sin has cursed our clan with my loyalty, Shinobu.”
Paneki fingered the hilt of his sword. “Of course you do, Shinobu. As much as your keen sword-hand, your insight is why I have chosen you to be my second. You have proven yourself in court and on the battlefield. Many consider you a hero of our clan.”
“Your words honor me, my lord.” Shinobu showed no emotion behind his mask. Paneki couldn’t help but smile in approval.
“My son will be the daimyo, Shinobu, but he is too young to take that place. His mother is a good woman, but not a Scorpion. He will need a teacher, and the clan will need a guide, and of all the men who have worked beneath me, you remind me the most of myself.” Paneki watched the bushi closely, gauging any reaction, and found none. ”You will serve as my second today, and ensure that I do not cry out and shame our family. Then you will watch over my son’s blade, until it is time for him to bear it. That you are somewhat unknown and unexpected will work to our advantage. Our enemies will not be able to judge your capabilities immediately, which will give you time to learn and develop the needed skills. Consider yourself lucky – or cursed, perhaps. Had I more time to groom my replacement, I may not have chosen you.”
Shinobu nodded his head slightly, in deference. “I will do my best to meet your expectations, my lord.”
The horses rounded a bend, and the ancient shrine to the Scorpion Kami could be seen through the evening gloom. Paneki stared straight forward at the shrine, examining his final destination. “You will exceed my expectations, Shinobu, or the Empire will pay the price.”
* * * * *
The priest called out again and again in a low, booming voice, chanting to please the kami as he tossed offerings of rice and salt in each corner of the shrine. More time given to ritual, more time given to proper deference and decorum: Paneki felt himself growing weaker, and fought back the desire to pat the perspiration that seemed to pour down his face. Finally, the shugenja returned to the entrance and bowed, and the Scorpion daimyo and his guard entered the ancient shrine. The building was small, even humble, with high ceilings and a sense of somber reverence hidden behind its quiet and bare interior.
Paneki sat in the middle of the shrine, atop a long paper mat with sigils and wards drawn upon it. Behind him, Shinobu took his position, and there was a faintly audible click as the bushi prepared to draw his sword. Around the room, the men of the honor guard stood, their white robes blending in with the pure white paper of the shrine’s walls. Each stood in attention as Paneki removed his saya from his obi and presented it to the priest, who knelt before the small stature of Bayushi and raised up the wakizashi to be blessed. The priest bowed deeply to all present, then presented the Scorpion daimyo with his blade.
There was so little time in a man’s life: so much more he could have done. How strange, to think it took only seconds to examine the final foot of steel between life and death.
Paneki breathed steadily, and placed his hands around the hilt of his wakizashi, gripping the blade firmly, like a middle-aged farmer grasping the handle of the same grain thresher he had used his entire life. He closed his eyes and drove the blade into his stomach, shuddering but not releasing more than a slight gasp as the cold steel slide through him. The first cut came and went, a harsh burn that felt like leaping from a warm bath into a pile of jagged ice. The second cut was slower, and he felt his chest rumble. There was seemingly the hissing sound of a hot blade being cooled in water. He pressed on to the third cut, and felt only a distant warmth.
Bayushi Paneki, the Champion of the Scorpion Clan, Master of Secrets, hero of the War of Spirits, personal friend of Toturi the Second, the Blade of the Underhand, Defender of the Empire, shuddered once, leaned his head back, and slumped forward, his hands falling open in his lap, his head hanging limp. In that final moment, every samurai in the chamber exhaled sharply.
His sword raised high, Bayushi Shinobu, Paneki’s second, hesitated for a moment. His lord had not cried out once, hand not trembled before the pain. That was something legendary, something only found in the apocryphal stories about the heroes of the Lion, about men whose strength came from Bushido rather than flesh. He swallowed deeply and readied the final strike.
Shinobu’s leg was pulled out from under him. He tumbled backwards, his head slammed on the ground. A gasp came from one of the temple priests. Dazed by the blow to his head, Shinobu realized he was screaming, a terrifying howl that became higher and higher pitched as he looked down and saw his leg being torn wholly from its socket in his hip. A final sickening tear and he blacked out. Blood splattered across the room in a long arc as Shinobu’s leg was flung away.
Grown samurai, men who lived to die on the battlefield, shrieked as blood splattered across their pure white robes and painted a sudden and nightmarish picture on the clean white paper doors. Paneki’s head cocked from side to side and his eyes slammed open. His handsome features were pulled thin and taut, and his eyes were pale and empty. Thick, viscous blood leaked from the corners of his smiling mouth — the remains of his crushed tongue. His nostrils flared wildly but his chest did not rise or fall with breath.
One guard shook his head and readied his spear, but the dead man pulled the wakizashi from his gut and flicked it into the air, catching the guard in the throat. The former daimyo’s entrails tumbled from his stomach with a wet, audible series of thumps, but he still shot up to his feet. The falling bushi, pawing involuntarily at the blade cutting off his last life’s-blood, knocked over a standing lantern, catching the wall on fire and casting darkness around the room. There was a swift scuffle and more lanterns shattered against the wooden floor. A sickly-sweet gust of wind caused the candles around the room to gutter and die, transforming the shrine into a nightmarish realm of flame and shadow.
And then there were screams. So very, very many screams.
* * * * *
The temple burned. A single figure, the only survivor, slowly pushed its way out of the wreckage, silhouetted by the rising flames and curling smoke. It tilted its head slowly and basked in the cries shattering the last lingering summer twilight, then turned and began its long, terrible march to the north.
How many seconds in a man’s life? Always one too few to change his fate. – Tangen’s “Lies”
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