The Daimyo’s Downfall

 

Onna Bushito’s home, whenever she visited Zamata, was one of many interlacing pagodas, interconnected by graceful white stone arches that bounded the gap between them. Set on the rim of the island of Dao Szeyukh, her home – like the others connected to it – was built above the Dragon Sea, held in place by magics wielded by the island’s foremost Artists. The Tengu was a flourishing culture, and as with all such, its population had grown exponentially until the island on which it was based could no longer support the constant expansion. So, with their phenomenal eldritch abilities, the Tengu had begun to devise ingenious solutions, such as houses in mid-air and beneath the ocean’s surface.

Onna left her home that evening with nothing more than her blue kimono, patterned with birds perching on stylized branches alongside beauteous red roses and held in place by a wide black sash, her turquoise slippers, a pin that held up her long, raven hair in a bun, a letter and her naginata; a weapon with a three-foot blade on either side of its hilt in the middle, making it more than six feet tall. It was slightly taller than she was, and people hastily cleared a path for someone walking with such a weapon. She walked, rather than flew, because she wanted to conserve her energies. Besides, she was in no rush and she wanted a little time alone to think. Pacing always seemed to help her think somehow, as if the motion set gears whirring inside her brain. Her slim, golden-toned face was as peaceful as the ocean deep.

She set off through Zamata towards its outer wall on the far side of the city from her home, from the ocean. There were not many people on the bridges or in the streets – most of the Tengu flew – and so Onna was granted a peaceful, quiet journey on which to contemplate what she must do. The naginata attracted a few stares, but she ignored them all and no one accosted her. No one would accost someone wearing such a sash as hers; a wide, black, silk sash emblazoned with the mark of the Machi-Bugyo.

As she strolled through the streets, her eyes were darting and alert, but her mind was preoccupied. She was rifling through tactics in her mind, testing a hundred different ideas. With almost infinite forms available to her, she had a wide range of abilities and means of attack and defense. She knew that the Daimyo’s house crest was made up of two tigers and a sword, and it was common knowledge that the tiger was Bakufu’s favourite animal. People said he had a score of them as pets. So, she reasoned that was the form he would most likely take in combat, probably mixed with that of a more dexterous human. Therefore, she needed a strategy to deal with a tiger.

She needed only to focus on her form and her blade; magic in combat was strictly prohibited in Dao Szeyukh. In a culture where the most powerful Artists could accidentally commit genocide by speaking the wrong words of power, the use of magic for aggressive purposes was considered one of the most dishonourable acts imaginable, on par with stabbing an enemy in the back. Once dishonoured, a member of the Kuge – the aristocracy – would be ruined in Dao Szeyukh, shunned as a pariah.

Onna climbed to the top of the city wall and, strolling its length, gazed out over dusky Dao Szeyukh, its plains and hills, its scrub and forests, its mountains and streams. It was a tropical island, a paradisiacal island, and she loved it. It was her home, and its people were her people. She was proud to serve the Shogun and His Holy Radiance.

Various ideas for taking out a tiger presented themselves to her, but she discarded the vast majority as predictable or inappropriate. She decided she needed to adopt the strengths of an animal with a hide thick enough that tiger claws would have trouble penetrating it, while also having strong claws of her own and a maw that could kill with a single bite.

She knew the creature she wanted then in a flash; a creature older even than the Tengu, a creature that fossils suggested had been around for aeons. The mighty crocodile was one of the oldest known extant species, and one of the most formidable, too. It had a thick hide, claws and a set of jaws capable of crushing bone like cracking a nut casing. Plus, she mused, if that failed, she could always fall back on her secret weapon; a technique she had honed for decades over her long life.

Finally, feeling she had done enough soul-searching, Onna Bushito made her way down from the outer wall and headed toward the city centre, wending her way through increasingly narrow boulevards between increasingly large buildings, in constant shadow as night drew in. The Daimyo lived at the very heart of Zamata, a seemingly inextricable tumour polluting the city. His family had ruled in Zamata for generations, and he had ties to all the rich and powerful in the region. He would not be an easy cyst to lance, she thought.

As dusk purpled the city and stars began to glow, Onna arrived at the Daimyo’s home; a walled-off pagoda far larger than hers. In a city where all had been forced to make space for one another, the Daimyo was alone in having massive, superfluous gardens inside his walls. He refused to make space for anyone. His pagoda was a mammoth monstrosity, fronted by wooden columns, with enchanted round, red paper lanterns hanging from the corners of the projecting, upsweeping eaves. There were three levels of such eaves, marking the three floors. The red-tiled roof slanted up like a concave pyramid to be topped by a tall, golden spire in the shape of a tiger; the Daimyo’s favourite animal.

Onna approached the thirty-foot walls and the black iron gate inset beneath an arch. The two guards there were smoking baui from a pipe; they watched her and her naginata near warily. Both wore cuirasses of enchanted leather embossed with the Daimyo’s house crest, and both bore pikes and had swords strapped to their waists, but one had taken the form of a centaur with wings and the other that of an upright arctic bear with more dexterous hands and a more human face than that beast. Neither wore trousers of any kind; the Tengu did not share the human taboo concerning nakedness. Human faces were the most expressive, however, the easiest to understand, and so most Tengu modelled their features at least partially after humanity.

The centaur showed her his palm. The wavy umber hair on his head matched the bay colouration of his horse-body. His wings were folded by his flanks. “Halt! Who goes there? This is the private property of Daimyo Hudu Mashimoto Bakufu. Trespassing is not permitted.” His voice was brisk, clipped, and he blew smoke as he spoke.

She waited. He did a double-take when he saw the emblem on her sash, but he said nothing further, only narrowed his almond-shaped eyes.

Finally, she said, “As you can plainly see, I am a Machi-Bugyo, here on the Shogun’s business. As such, I go where I please.”

“What is your purpose here?” the arctic bear growled suspiciously, white fur rippling in the sea breeze.

Onna slipped the letter from a pocket inside her kimono and proffered it to the guards. The centaur snatched it, opened it and read it. She knew what it said, of course. It was in the Shogun’s own hand, commanding all those that read it to aid Onna Bushito in her mission, to allow her entry, and not to impede her in any way, on pain of death. The centaur visible paled and gulped, before allowing the bear to read it. The bear’s fur was so light in colour that Onna could not tell if he too paled, but he appeared shaken.

The guards exchanged looks and were silent for a long minute. Onna waited. Finally, the centaur said, “Why are you here, Hatamoto? Do you mean to arrest the Daimyo? Or kill him?”

Onna stared at him coolly for a second. “I mean to arrest him, but I think we both know that is unlikely to succeed.” She gave her naginata a meaningful glance.

The centaur nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “Our Daimyo suspected this night would come, and he offered to pay us to protect him even so. We will not throw in our lot with a dishonored man, however. He is dishonoured, is he not?”

Onna nodded. “I am to ask him on the Shogun’s behalf to commit seppuku.”

The centaur nodded. “Then, we cannot stain our names by standing by him. You are right, though. He will not give in to your demands. He will not commit seppuku. Ever since he made the offer of payment, we have known he had no honour.”

“Then why not leave before now?”

The centaur shrugged and handed back her letter, before fishing in the leather satchel he wore over his shoulder and pulling out a keyring, which he also gave to her. “It can be hard to find well-paying work. In any event, we are sorry to have slowed you down, Machi-Bugyo.” He bowed to her, bending his horse-legs and dipping his torso. “Gods be with you.”

“And with you,” she replied, nodding to them.

They hastily disappeared into the night. She was glad; she had not wanted to kill them.

Unlocking the black iron gate with a black key on the keyring, she slipped through and set off through the lavish gardens. Neatly clipped hedges bordered immaculate lawns inset with marble paths, copses, fountains, flowerbeds, topiary, statues, and climber-draped gazebos to provide a shaded spot from which to admire it all. The profligacy made Onna grind her teeth. The more she learned of Daimyo Bakufu, the more she looked forward to doing her duty.

Once past the gardens, she approached the pagoda itself, where more guards were posted by the columns. All had striped orange and black fur, claws, fangs, and most walked upright and bore weapons, though some prowled around on four paws, tails swishing. All bore some aspect of the tiger; the Daimyo’s favourite animal, she recalled. He must have insisted his guards favour the form. Somehow, she knew the letter would not be enough to buy her passage this time, but she resolved to try it nevertheless.

She did not get the chance.

Before she made it to the columns fronting the Daimyo’s home, a tiger-like figure sprang out of the gum tree she was passing under and bore her down to the grass, scratching at her with claws and snapping at her with fanged jaws. The grass bristled her skin, and the tiger-guard’s breath was rancid in Onna’s face. She kept calm, though, despite the gouges on her skin, and fought back. She had dropped the naginata, but she sought to punch the guard and throw him off her. He quickly pinned her arms, leaving her face vulnerable to a bite.

Her flesh flowed like water, her bones rapidly reshaping. She quickly transformed even as he bit down and escaped his grip as her arms retracted into her body. Dodging his teeth and coiling into the form of a scaly snake, she enwrapped him in moments and began to crush the life out of him. He changed form as she had done, again and again, trying to escape, growing wings, a beak, a trunk, scales of his own, arms, claws, hooves … He tried everything he could think of to escape, but Onna had him firmly in her coils and she would not let go. She squeezed until he stopped moving and then deposited the corpse of an unrecognisable meld of man and beast on the ground.

It had all happened fast, so the other guards had not yet reached her. They were coming, though, she saw; coming fast, bounding across the grass. Keeping her green scales, Onna granted herself legs and arms once more and scooped up her naginata. Though she was a death machine herself, she was even more efficient with the unwieldy weapon.

She tried shouting out to the guards, her voice feminine but firm, steely. “I am a Machi-Bugyo, here on the Shogun’s business! Stand aside or feel my wrath!”

They ignored her, did not even slow. She stepped to meet the guards’ attack, spinning her naginata like a performer’s baton, but striking out with perfect timing to split the first guard’s face in half as he neared. Blood ballooned up into the air, and the naginata kept twirling, humming slightly as it did so. The blades were made of lacquered bloodwood, enchanted to cut through anything – even stone – once triggered with a word of power by the bearer.

One of the tiger-guards lanced a lacquered wooden spear at her belly, but she danced aside, leaping and spinning to cave in the skull of a different guard to her right whom she caught unawares. Before the fragments of his sundered skull had hit the ground, she was carving a red line across another guard from shoulder to belly button. They hounded her from all sides, but she was like a leaf drifting to and fro in the wind, unpredictable as a lightning storm, and as deadly. She changed form as she fought, lengthening her arm a few inches when her reach was short, growing a turtle shell to protect her back, and shrinking herself when ducking would not do.

Her mastery of the Tengu’s innate ability was unmatched, and so even when the guards tried to copy her fluid-form tactics, it was she who came out on top. Men and women both in the shapes of tigers fell to her blade, to her claws, even to her snapping jaws. The difference in gender was arbitrary among the Tengu; being shapeshifters, they could take whatever form, or gender, they pleased. Part of the reason Onna enjoyed a petite, feminine form was that it was so often underestimated.

A dozen guards had ringed her. She slew seven, and the remaining five fled into the gardens, all bearing at least a minor wound to remember her by, a couple missing limbs. Being Tengu, they would be able to regrow them – eventually.

Onna shook her head; evidently this Daimyo was not worth dying for. She would take an arrow for the Shogun or His Holy Radiance in a heartbeat. She proceeded up a few steps, past the columns and pushed open the carved and painted double doors. The ground floor was dominated by a grand hall, a pompous reception chamber for the Daimyo with friezes on every wall, a sculpted ceiling, gem-encrusted golden columns and a mosaic floor made of priceless sapphires, rubies, quartz, topazes and black pearls that delineated the Daimyo’s house crest – two tigers in a red circle pouncing at one another over a field of blue, while a straight sword stuck up between them, hilt at the top.   

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