The Golden Tower
by Shawn Carman

Kitsuki Tadashi gripped the vessel's side and steeled himself against the incessant pitching and rocking as the ship climbed the waves. And for not the first time, the courtier wondered if he had angered someone in his family to receive such an appointment. The Mantis court was not a particularly glamorous assignment, especially given the internal conflict that had erupted between forces loyal to Yoritomo Kumiko and Yoritomo Kitao. Tadashi was certain the clan must be terribly uncivilized to resolve their differences with open warfare. Inter-clan politics could be difficult, but were rarely so severe that violence was necessary.

Voices from the tiny cabin behind him caused Tadashi to grimace. Of course an unpleasant journey to an unpleasant assignment could only be complemented with unpleasant travel companions. "Tadashi-san!" a woman's voice called out from the cabin's entrance. "Are you going to stay out there all afternoon? The sun will surely discolor your delicate complexion!"

Tadashi frowned and steeled his nerves. The trip to the Mantis islands should take another three days at most, meaning their journey was almost complete. He had tolerated Horiuchi Shoko's strange humor for quite some time now, and could deal with it for another three days. "Of course, Shoko-san," he answered with a forced smile. "Even if I wished to remain here all day, I could hardly deprive myself of your company for so long a time."

The courtier turned and straightened his robes before returning to the cramped cabin. "Although if we encounter another storm, I daresay you will wish you had spent some time on deck when you had the opportunity."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Shoko said with a smile. "It seems to me that we'll have enough time to enjoy the tropical weather when we arrive at Kyuden Gotei. And besides, the sea air dries my skin terribly."

Tadashi refrained from frowning in disgust, but it was a near miss. He knew from first hand accounts that Shoko was a skilled warrior and shugenja, but her attention span left much to be desired. Without something to occupy her attention, he had noticed she had a tendency to lapse into vacuous conversation. And he had nowhere to go to escape it.

Smiling politely, Tadashi turned and entered the cabin to while away the hours with mindless conversation.

* * * * *

The weather worsened during the night. The wind was roaring so loudly that Tadashi could do little more than doze, and even then he was wakened every few minutes by the storm's intensity. Finally, he gave up attempting to sleep altogether and began preparing for the day. He was straightening his obi when the ship hit a reef.

The lurch was so sudden and so severe that Tadashi was thrown across his tiny quarters and rapped his head sharply on the port wall. He staggered to his feet, only vaguely aware that he was bleeding. He forced the doorway open and lurched out into the main cabin despite the fact that the deck was tipped precariously to one side. There was shouting out on deck. Tadashi threw open the door and looked about to see what had happened.

The deck was in chaos. The Tortoise crewmen he had hired were running about in every direction, shouting about rope, repairs, and something about taking on water. The ship's captain, a swarthy man by the name of Burekku, was standing calmly near the ship's port side, Horiuchi Shoko at his side. "What... what is going on here?" Tadashi shouted above the roar.

"You are injured," Burekku said flatly. He reached over and seized the sleeve of Tadashi's kimono and tore it, then handed the patch of cloth to the courtier. "You had better stop the bleeding. If we end up in the water, you'll draw sharks."

Tadashi looked at the captain in mute horror. "End up in the water?" he finally managed. Even in this crisis, he maintained a placid calm; his Kitsuki training insured that. "What has happened? Are we sinking?"

Burekku gestured to the gray skies, his rough kimono rippling in the strong wind. "The storm has died down somewhat, but the wind is still strong. It drove us into a reef.

Shoko-sama is holding the hull together with her earth magic, but we're going to have to make for land to repair the ship.

Where?" asked Tadashi.

The captain pointed to a small island on the horizon. "There. It's large enough to serve our purpose. Nothing much there, though."

"Can we make it?"

Burekku smiled slightly. "We'll find out soon enough."

* * * * *

The ship made it to the island safely. Shoko had held the hull secure, but the hold had taken on a considerable amount of water before her spell took effect. As a result, it took a surprisingly long time to reach the small island. Tadashi counted every second.

Once the ship made landfall, the crew erupted into frantic activity. Burekku directed his men like a general on a battlefield. Several grabbed tools and headed inward toward the scattered trees while others worked to drain the water from the ship's hold. Still others inspected every inch of the ship, looking for further damage.

Horiuchi Shoko finally released her spell, and promptly healed the wound on Tadashi's scalp. The pain subsided quickly, but the dizziness remained. Tadashi sat heavily upon the beach, but Shoko insisted he get to his feet. "A wound such as yours can be treacherous," she claimed. "You need to walk around for a while and regain your bearings."

"I would like to rest," he had muttered. "Perhaps sleep for a time."

"Fine," she said matter-of-factly. "As long as you realize you may never wake up."

Supremely irritated, Tadashi consented to walk with Shoko for a while until she was confident his injury would not threaten his life further. His attitude was poor, but Shoko seemed content to walk in silence, and after a while he began to feel much better. Perhaps there was something to the folk tales of

the sea air ' s healing qualities after all.

The two had been walking for nearly half an hour when Shoko smiled at him. "I think you will be fine, Tadashi-san. If there were any lingering effects of your wound that my spell could not correct, they would have appeared by now. We can return to the ship so that you may rest if you like."

Tadashi frowned, pointing farther down the beach. "What is that?"

Shoko raised her eyebrows questioningly. She looked down the beach where he was pointing, but frowned. "Are you feeling well?"

"I feel perfectly fine," Tadashi insisted. "There is something lying along the beach down the coast."

"I don't see anything," Shoko insisted.

Tadashi frowned again and headed down the beach. Shoko called after him, but he ignored her. Fate had placed him in the courts, and while he excelled there, at his core he was as much a magistrate as any of his brethren. The world was laid bare to a man who appreciated detail, and no one found detail of more importance than Kitsuki Tadashi. He truly saw nothing in the water, but he noticed unusual ripples in the water, bubbles that should not have been there, tears in the rough beach vegetation that did not belong. He could sense something was there as surely as if he could see through the darkened water. Even as his mind raced through the possibilities, he came to a stop on the beach. None of his experience could have prepared him for this.

"Tadashi!" Shoko called, running after him. "What in the world are you... oh my!" Her voice trailed off as she saw what he had discovered.

"What... what is ...."

"Go get Burekku," he commanded. "Go now."

The Unicorn shugenja turned and ran back toward the ship as Tadashi carefully studied his find from a distance. Just under the water were the decaying corpses of half a dozen dead people. No, not people. Their lower bodies were long and slender, and in place of legs they had broad, fishlike tails.

Burekku seemed far less impressed by the sight of the dead creatures than Tadashi and Shoko. "Ningyo," he said casually. "They're some sort of water spirit that serve the Naga. It's not uncommon to see them on long voyages, particularly in the deep currents. I've heard of a dead one cropping up now and again, although I admit six is a bit much."

"These are clearly not spirits," Tadashi insisted, pointing to the terrible wounds many of the bodies bore. "These creatures are flesh and bone, just as you and I are, and something terrible happened to them."

"Shark attack," Burekku said. He seemed utterly unconcerned.

"No these bite marks were made after the ningyo were already dead," Tadashi said, his voice clear and decisive. "This was no shark attack."

Shoko frowned. "How can you possibly know that?"

The courtier pointed to the wounds. "These are too clean. I've seen battle victims before. Wounds like this would be far more severe. The bodies were already dead by the time the sharks found them."

Hearing Burekku's snort of derision, Tadashi picked up a stick and pointed to a small mark on one of the corpses' necks. One of the sailors turned and retched at the notion of touching dead flesh. "Do you know what this is?"

"A minor scratch. Probably caused by debris in the water or a submerged coral reef."

"Very possible," Tadashi admitted. "However," he probed the wound with the stick's tip, causing more sailors to recoil in disgust. He noticed that while Shoko paled, she did not look away. Burekku was unaffected. "Aha, here we are." With one last flick of his wrist, the stick Tadashi was using tore free of the wound. A single arrowhead fell from the ningyo's neck to the sand below. "Burekku-san, if there are sharks who practice archery, especially with this degree of accuracy, I think I will be returning to the Dragon lands."

Burekku scowled, his face darkening in anger. "No one shoots at the ningyo. They are good fortune to sailors. This shouldn't happen."

Tadashi stood and surveyed the sea. After a moment's calculation, he turned and asked "The currents that wash up on this beach, they come from the northeast?"

" Yes," Burekku confirmed. "It's a strong current. Plays havoc with trade routes."

"Take me in that direction," Tadashi said firmly.

The captain ' s brow furrowed. "Our arrangement was finalized before we left, Tadashi-sama. Changing it in mid-joumey is never a good idea."

"I will double your fee."

Burekku rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then turned to regard his men. "Gather what additional supplies you can find, men. We're going to be out a bit longer than we expected."

* * * * *

The ship had sailed northeast against the currents for three days when Tadashi first noticed the tower. The courtier stood near the prow, constantly scanning the horizon for any clue to the mystery that had produced the dead ningyo. The Tortoise crew seemed unnerved by his intensity, and gave him a wide berth. Burekku likewise did not bother him, although whenever Tadashi shouted out a course correction, the captain grudgingly responded. Only Shoko stood by his side, occasionally questioning his actions but never truly interfering with his vigil. She was standing nearby when he first saw the tower.

"There," he muttered under his breath. "There it is."

"What is it?" Shoko asked. "What do you see?"

"There is a tower," Tadashi said, "a golden tower in the middle of the sea. There are three vessels surrounding it."

Shoko squinted at the horizon. "Are you sure?"

"Certain."

The shugenja shook her head. "How can you see all that? I only see specks."

"Training," Tadashi replied curtly. "Kitsuki eyes are sharper than most. You should be ready in case there is a battle."

"Battle?" asked Shoko incredulously.

Tadashi paid no attention, but turned to find Burekku. "Captain, if you and your men have weapons, I would suggest you prepare them."

Burekku's eyes narrowed. "Tread carefully, Dragon. I do not enter combat lightly, not for you or anyone else."

"You sell your loyalty to the highest bidder, mercenary." Tadashi said flatly. "I have purchased it, and I expect you to fulfill your end of the bargain. I saw the boarding weapons stored in your hold. Do you intend to put them to just use, or are you nothing more than a pirate?"

The captain's expression grew cold. "No one calls me a pirate."

"Then act like a samurai and fulfill your agreement," Tadashi commanded. "Prepare your weapons."

"We will discuss this again," Burekku said grimly.

"I expect we shall," Tadashi agreed.

* * * * *

Tadashi's predictions were correct. The vessels surrounding the mysterious tower were pirates. Burekku recognized their vessels and identified them as a band that had been harassing the northern trade routes for nearly six months. The pirates apparently mistook Burekku's ship for reinforcements, as they did not react to their approach until it was far too late.

The first two ships were defeated within moments. Shoko warped the hull of one, twisting the wood until it gave way and broke apart. Half the ship was underwater before the crew even realized what had happened. The second maneuvered to attack, but the pirates had little chance. Again, they were brought to ruin in very short order by the sailors ' archery and Shoko's magic. The third vessel turned and fled at the sight of a second ship sinking beneath the waves.

"Pull up alongside the tower," Tadashi ordered. "But slowly. We must be cautious."

Burekku and Shoko both looked at the tower cautiously. Many silent forms could be seen moving around its base and along the top. "Are you certain that is wise, Tadashi-san?" Shoko asked.

"I did not come all this way to leave without the truth," Tadashi said. "I share your concern, however. If anything happens to me, you should depart immediately .

"We will," Burekku assured him. The captain ignored Shoko's look of disgust.

As the ship drew near, Tadashi gazed up at the tower from the starboard side. It was truly a thing of beauty. It seemed to be composed of coral, grown directly from the reef on which it sat. Its color was unusual: a deep gold, the color of the rising sun. As he looked, there was a great commotion in the water between the tower and the ship. It seethed and broiled as if subjected to great heat, and then a column rose between the two.

A long ningyo sat atop this bizarre column of water. He regarded Tadashi with an impassive stare, obviously wary of treachery. His bearing was such that Tadashi instantly recognized him as a leader of his people, and bowed accordingly. "Greetings, lord of the tower. I am Kitsuki Tadashi of the Dragon Clan."

"If you have come here to pillage our tower like the others, you will find that we are well prepared for your treachery," There was no condemnation in the creature's voice, only curiosity and concern.

"My comrades and I discovered that some of your people had been killed," Tadashi explained. "We came to investigate. We mean no harm to you."

"Your aid is much appreciated, Ta-da-shi," the ningyo stumbled over Tadashi's name. "The other humans have assaulted us without end for weeks. We have had little time to prepare an adequate defense. Now that you have driven them away, perhaps we will have time."

"They'll return," grumbled Burekku.

"And we will be ready , " the ningyo replied. He gestured to the north. Tadashi looked in that direction and, for a moment, though he saw the shape of an enormous serpent vanish beneath the waters. "In the meantime, allow us to demonstrate our gratitude to our saviors." The creature gestured to the tower, where a portal opened and crude stairs appeared on the tower's exterior. "We would be honored if you would allow us to prepare a gift for you and your Dragons, Ta-da-shi."

"Thank you, my lord," Tadashi said with another bow. "We are unworthy of so generous an offer, but if accepting it will allow our two peoples to grow closer to one another, I would gladly accept your gift and offer one in return."

The ningyo waved the notion away. "You and yours have already given us your friendship and support when none was required. Such generosity is rare among your people, we have learned. If you are a representative of this Dragon Clan, then we are already your allies." The creature inclined its head respectfully. "Please, allow us a short time to put our affairs in order. If you will return in one cycle of the Pale Eye, my people will show their gratitude to the Dragon in a manner befitting your noble people."

Tadashi smiled. "Then we will return, my lord. I eagerly await building an alliance between our two peoples .'" The ningyo ruler nodded again and retreated into the tower, his soldiers likewise disappearing into the waves. Tadashi smiled as he turned to face his traveling companions.

Perhaps he would not be stranded in the Mantis courts for long after all.

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