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     Bustling bodies filled the streets of Kawanura. The nobility boasted robes of heavy silk, emblazoned by family crests. Commoners meandered around them, content with their duller, cheaper attire. Though only specks of clouds drifted above, a considerable number of the people held up their raincatchers, not chancing the prospect of a full day without skywater. Aromas of noodles, fresh produce, and cider swirled through Aiya’s nostrils, and the hypnotic rhythm of violins in the background was so melodic at times she felt as if she had begun floating. There were gobi fish in the stand right next to them too, its stench a fraction of that in the coastal towns and port cities of River, but a stench nonetheless. 

     It was a warm start for winter, Third Day on the second week of Yin.

      Aiya, Ira, Shozhu and Koji followed the rest of the Takasa family, Lord Arusuke, his wife, and three other children, having somehow lagged behind and gotten sidetracked along the way. 

     “How many clans do you think will dedicate soldiers to this Forgery heir’s cause if father agrees to an alliance with him?” 

     “You really think we’ll hand over manpower to them, Aiya? I’d say he’s come at the worst possible time. I mean, what’s in it for us?” Koji asked.

     “Forgery is already the largest weapon producer in the empire,” Ira said. “The only thing we can offer is manpower. Not to mention they are a more central province, a deeper relationship with them can only be a good thing.”

     Shozhu waved for them, sauntering on with his slight limp. The pudgy man had been distracted by a street musician, stopping to drop a few coin bits in his basket. The musician nodded once, eyes still lowered as his fingers worked furiously upon his flute. “Let’s press on, young ferrets. His lordship is already at the meeting grounds.”

     Aiya dodged a serious-looking noble man, whose cloud-patterned navy blue robes seemed a size too small. He did a double take after noticing who she was, and stopped to profusely apologize.

     “My lady, forgive my indifference! I failed to notice you, my lords.”

     “A small thing, Lord Ona,” Aiya said, putting on a smile. “You may be on your way.” They briskly went their separate ways, the man complaining to the merchant as they walked away. 

     No one recognized the five of them as Ginju, because no one knew who, or even what, the Ginju were. To everyone else, they were men just short of monsters, hidden or perhaps locked deep away in the High Lord’s dungeons, waiting to be unleashed and cause havoc. But here they walked, free as doves, enjoying the festive atmosphere the meeting had brought upon the city. The announcement this morning had also been a shock to the cityfolk, and the streets were shortly after flooded with three times the traffic as usual. 

     She ignored the burning ache in her bicep.

     Children laughed, adults droned or chattered in excitement, and Aiya couldn’t help but be intoxicated by the thrill. The Takasa clan had sent two large waves through River society on very short notice. Aiya noticed a number of Kotonese people among the throng. Her eyes darted from one to another with slight aversion. Unlike most Erru who were tawny, they were a terra-cotta skinned people whose features appeared scrunched together on the upper half of their faces. Each man or woman avoided eye contact, avoiding being noticed in any way, the lank of their limbs kept rigid at their sides. They didn’t look sad, or scared, but observant in what was just ahead of them. 

     Kotonese represented a significant portion of southern fishermen, close to one half. They’d occupied Egaisha a long time, perhaps the most stagnant group of any of the Erru people on the continent. Despite their majority population in some towns of the south, the sight of one was enough to evoke feelings of revulsion. Even the common Erru thought of them as low, an unmotivated and mischievous race. The mental image conjured up by the mere mention of the Kotonese was a base person simple in their ways, groveling, wretched, undignified. A scowl skipped across her face before diverting her gaze.

     A pair of Ushin in dirty white burlap robes strode together, wearing wide brimmed straw hats atop their heads. Ushin warriors, commonly known as the poor man’s  Jodai, made their living as mercenary soldiers for hire against bandits and thugs. They might police the streets of a countryside, or save city shop owners being robbed, or act as escorts to a caravan  traveling through dangerous roads. Unlike Jodai, they were of low birth and far from military grade.

They went through shops, long-ribboned women spinning to the hum of stringed instruments. Crowds gathered around firetaming performers. They joined the crowd standing outside a caravan, waiting for the beginning of a story.

      “Before River, we were a people of Tetsuo. Before Tetsuo, we were only men, whose main pastime was strife, as much as it is today. Before men, there was only the Empress,” the storymaster cast his voice, settling like a blanket over the audience. His hands moved in hugely exaggerated gestures. “The Erru have always been a squabbling people. Hundreds of years before even the earliest era of the empire, we fought against one another among innumerable tribes. It was a far more treacherous time back then. Spirits and monsters roamed from place to place, and much of the land suffered an endless torrent of freezing rain.

      “Times became unbearable as war became necessity. Across this same land of mist and rain, starvation, plague, and despair took the lives of many. However, there would come a savior. A woman in robes of white whose bronze skin radiated like the rising sun. The woman was said to be the daughter of the Shinti, an immortal, who walked the earth, watching over each creature, all the same. Being part man, she felt responsible for her half-kin. She witnessed the carnage throughout the lands, as tribes turned on tribes, father on son and mother on daughter. Thousands of men lay torn to pieces in the valley of Zakura, where demons feasted on them from First to Seventh Day. 

     “The woman in white was not to interfere with the Shinti’s creation, but finally her desire for order got the better of her. The greatest warlord of the time, a man named Kozuku of the Uchiname tribe, came to the woman to request her aid in exchange for his eternal servitude.

     “‘None under the heavens can ever be eternal in body apart from me,’ the woman answered. ‘But in name, your honorable words today will make you so.’ 

     “Thus she became his head, and he her vassal. She banished the monsters and spirits from the physical realm to the spirit realm, where most hide today, lurking with resentment and fear. She and Kozuku took to conquering all his enemies, until they stood united under one banner. Thus the immortal woman became the Empress, sovereign over all peoples. 

     “Many would submit in fear at the first sight of her, but there were those who would stop at nothing to protect their hold on power. Many tribes of the north came together as her armies rampaged across their borders. Her Sovereign was not bothered by this, and demanded her troops stand aside so that she could conquer these northern Erru all by herself. Ten times ten thousand men with spears and swords and clubs stood before her. But there was no intimidation in any part of her.

     “With a simple gesture, she conjured up storms of lightning and mists and wind. These were no ordinary storms, but storms of spells, causing those inside to shrivel into frozen husks of themselves. They screamed, cried out, and more quickly than any other army had before, died. It was a gruesome sight to behold, and one that was never forgotten. That is why, to this day, the Empress causes Wailstorms, and the frostsickle they inflict.  They are a mere display of her power, the wails the last cries of her enemies brought to justice by the storms.”  

His tale had drawn the audience into a sort of trance, so that Aiya didn’t even notice Shozhu before he had to pull them onwards. Off in the distance were the meeting grounds, an expansive circle of cobbled stone surrounded by wooden fencing. Inside the fence, there were already a number of noble families gathered around a central tower. Commoners congregated outside it.

The crowd parted, making way for the late-arriving nobility. When they made it into the inner circle of the meeting grounds, Aiya watched her family standing on the stage beneath the tower. Below them, lower River clans stared reverently. 

     Lord Arusuke perked up as a Jodai guard approached him from the opposite side of the circle. Arusuke wore the same light blue Takasa robes, except for a white gobi fish patch on his chest. Lady Uaya wore a similar patch. Together they represented two halves of the patterns of chaos and harmony.

     The two made the perfect duo, both in their forties, Arusuke tall with an ever present distinguished look on his face. Uaya sat contently, pretty with red lipstick and an alluring smile. When one got to know them, however, one discovered Arusuke’s strong face took on an irritable and self-centered quality, and Uaya’s smile was a simple facade to hide a personality as fiery as a viper. Aiya seldom spoke with their daughters, Yuuki and Ari, the unblessed of his daughters. Even at fourteen and twelve they were crass and simple-minded. Kitani, eldest unblessed son, was a year older than Ari, a selfish brat that reminded Aiya of a yellow-back monkey, with his long limbs and knobish build. 

     The Jodai whispered something into Arusuke’s ear. His deep blue lamellar armor glinted in the sunlight. The man was the servant of Arusuke, as were all other Jodai in River, noble men of every level trained in the sword since the age of two. The title of general granted authority closest to that of the High Lord himself.

     Aiya had always seen Jodai as tall, straight-backed warriors with an appetite for ruthlessness. Though she hadn’t ever been in the midst of battle, her interactions with them proved true. They were among the most honorable and dignified men in person, but when facing opposition they fought like ravenous wolves and stole the heads of their enemies as trophies. She’d seen the aftermath of their craft and it was never a nice ending for those who’d stood in their path.

     Arusuke held up a hand and the crowd hushed. 

     “Hold on,” Shozhu demanded. They were at the front facing the stage, stopping so as not to disrupt the ceremony. They’d watch from afar, keeping their ears open for any dissenting noble opinions. Not far from them, the crowd was making way for three Forgery caravans. The caravans came not twenty feet from the crowd as guardsmen hopped around to escort the passengers out.

     Aiya picked up harsh whispering behind her: “I can’t take this. When will we receive our own caravans to parade around the city?”

     Aiya turned to see a wispy haired, solemn faced old man violently nudging a younger looking one. “Lord Takasa protects us, watch your tongue and mind your blessing!”

     The young man noticed Aiya and reluctantly piped down. She turned her attention back to the caravan, noting the bold red painted wood complimenting matching red wheels. The doors were opened, and out stepped an orange robed man with hair so long it fell past his shoulders. He had a determined expression to him, clean shaven with strong features. He was also surprisingly…young. Young and unexpectedly handsome.

     The Forgery heir walked on stage, men from the other two caravans stepping out to follow suit. He waited for the rest of them, presumably trusted subjects and counselors of his, to stand behind him. He was a spectacle opposite to the Takasa family, facing the crowd with those closest behind him. He opened his mouth to speak with a rich, deep voice that suggested he’d spent more years on the earth than at first glance.

     “My name is Lord Yomenuura Sen, heir and soon-to-be highest lord of Forgery province. And you, colleagues of the River, are an honor to stand before. Underestimate not my gratefulness for the opportunity.”

He turned from the crowd to Arusuke. The short speech had seemed slightly rehearsed. Still the crowd watched in anticipation. Lord Sen was led into the tower first. Soon, Arusuke and his family followed in silence, the buzz returning to the crowd.

     “Let’s go,” Shozhu said, stepping forward. The doors remained open and as they walked through, a chill ran down Aiya’s spine. The events of the day’s unfolding had finally begun to weigh on her, as the conversation in this room could very well alter the course of River. The inside was modest, nothing but the polished floor and ashwood walls, filled with a foreboding quiet. Jodai guards stood off to the sides. 

     She recognized the goateed man sitting next to her father as general Yun, whom she had limited interaction with. Unlike his soldiers, he wore a robe with swords tucked at each side. His gray hair was pulled back, just long enough to form a ponytail. 

     Aiya waited for one of the lords to speak. Koji fidgeted as she resisted the urge to sniff. The young Forgery lord cleared his throat.

     “We thank River for this welcoming occasion. Lord Arusuke has been gracious to us, and we wish to make the most of our meeting today. Your time today shall not be in vain.” He bowed as he said this. His next words were spoken with more conviction. “As you understand, the relationship between me and my family has been less than ideal as of late. The conflict concerning my sister has continued for too long. Through our own persistence, we’ve managed to hold back her advances. However our resources have been dwindling, and not all who fight under my banner remain faithful. Therefore, I come today as lord of Forgery to humbly and formally request an alliance between River and Forgery.”

     He looked up with hard eyes boring straight into Arusuke. “I understand River has experienced dwindling relations with Agriculture, especially as of late. With the joining of our forces, my last living rival would be pincered between us, overpowered and forced to give up her conquest for the throne. We would be forever in your debt.”

     Moments passed before Lord Arusuke’s answer. “Interesting. You speak more of your own province’s interests than ascertaining mine. Who’s to say you’ll keep your word if we do lend you aid?”

Quite direct of you, Aiya thought.

     “Your lord, with respect, such an act would not only be foolish, but selfish.”

     “Yes,” Arusuke mused, “and possibly advantageous. You’re young, thinking yourself honorable, yet only concerned with your own gains during negotiations. Not just inconsiderate but inexperienced. I expected a speech of more character. Something revealing intelligence.”

Sen twitched at this. Some of the men around him moved uncomfortably.

     “Lord Arusuke, perhaps I was not clear enough about your own benefit from this. I understand we do not come from a place of close companionship, and your own misgivings are of a more personal nature. Yet we serve the same Empress, and are both served by our respective people. We possess resources you lack. The conquest for Tarshan grows more heated by the day. You are the second closest in proximity to it. You may soon want a cheap way of getting them. We could supply you greatly in high quality steel, of course.”

     Arusuke eyed the Forgery lord. “I suggest you think before you speak, boy. For what sensible purpose would we expend bodies in your own power struggle with no guarantee of a return on investment? We already have enough soldiers taxed out of us each year. I suppose next you’ll suggest we stoop as low as to draft commoners.This was supposed to be a negotiation, instead you offer a half-assed plea!” 

     “Pardon if I speak out of turn,” said a large white-haired man next to Sen, “but Lord Sen is fully accustomed to court politics, and his presence demands respect.”

     Arusuke paid none of it. “He’s barely more than my eldest son. If he’s to be the next High Lord, the future of Forgery does not look bright.”

     Aiya grinded her teeth in agitation.  The situation was not progressing how she’d hoped. Were an agreement met, it would further cement the firm rule of Takasa, and that might mean less midnight excursions to murder insurgent clans.

     Sen now looked angry. “I assure your lordship I’ve enough experience to not come to you as ignorant as you presume.”

     The white-haired man grew bolder. “I refuse to listen while my lord is mocked and his accomplishments undermined!”

      “Surely the boy can speak for himself,” Arusuke said, not caring for the offense being given, “I’m simply helping him understand his place: An innocent pup pretending to be one the wolves. He’s yet to even grow a wisp of chin hair.”

     Sen glared at Arusuke, a dangerous look in his eyes. “Your careless threats might prove reckless and dangerous. I advise you show some of the respect you so readily expect for yourself.”

     “Oh, the pup attempts to growl,” Arusuke said, challenging. “But will he actually bear his teeth?”

     The man shot up from his sitting position. He was surprisingly bulky for a man his age, somewhere in his mid fifties. He was at least a head taller than every other person in the room, appearing like an ape. “Lord Sen will receive his due reverence! I won’t take anymore from this River scum! ”

     “Down, Juso,” Sen said. The man hesitated. Finally, he sat with reluctance. 

     “I am greatly dismayed at our conversation so far, Lord Arusuke. It seems it was a mistake to have been so optimistic for this talk between us. For some foolish reason I assumed you’d be more reasonable.”

     Arusuke chuckled. “What would a child understand about reason?”

     Aiya was appalled by the malice in Arusuke’s words and actions. Even for him, she’d expected a more civilized performance in court politics. He had no intention of bringing this anywhere. He was purposefully antagonistic, knowing Sen needed him more than he needed Sen.

     The man named Juso bounced to his feet again. “I’ll have no more of this!”

     “You’ve no choice but to.” This time the words came from general Yun, who still sat coolly on the floor. “What Lord Arusuke says is true, whether or not you accept it. This was agreed to as a meeting between lords, not dogs, and any further interruption will force my own involvement.”

     Juso took a step forward. “I hope you understand what you are suggesting could unwittingly cost you your life.” His hand went to his sword hilt. “An honorable duel with me is not likely to end well.”

     Yun merely smiled. “Hmph. If that’s what it will take to silence your barking, then so be it.”

     “Back, Juso!” Sen commanded, but he ignored him.

     “I humbly apologize, my lord, but I must uphold your honor above all else.”

     He unsheathed his blade. “I, general Juso of Forgery under Lord Sen, accept an honorable duel between me and the River Jodai scum before me.”

     Aiya’s eyes darted from him to Yun. Such sudden escalation of the scene made it surreal. 

     General Yun stood, a whole two heads beneath Juso, unsheathing his own sword. His blade sung softly as it slid against the metal scabbard. 

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