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Interlude: The Fall of Iku

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Listen, and listen well, my child, for this is a cautionary tale of keeping one's word when dealing with spirits.

In the country of Xifangsaifu was the province of Iku. Governed by the kitsune Kashiki Clan, it was a land blessed by bounty and spirits.

It all started two decades ago, give or take. Lord Kashiki was entertaining important guests, one of whom was Prince Guao, third son of the Emperor. It was Prince Guao that accidentally slew the Doe Maiden. 

Now, local superstition says that the Doe Maiden was a guardian spirit of the Iku province. Locals would leave small tributes to her, and believed it to be a bad omen to offend her.

All traditions hold a kernel of truth to them, and this was no different. The year following that hunt, crops were failing. Sickness was common. Small acts of vandalism occurred everywhere. People would report being harassed by fairies and spirits. It started small, but over the year, the number of incidents grew to the point that the whole province was in danger. Lord Kashiki did everything he could to appease or hunt down the spirits, but to no avail.

Then, one day, a group of travellers approached the Lord. They were a coven of witches. They had been passing through the province and stayed for several weeks. Many accused them of mischief and trickery, but nothing definitive. People being tricked out of their goods, but when investigated, it simply seems that they agreed to a poor deal with the witches.

However, despite the problems that were arising with the coven, there was some positive news. It seemed that wherever they went, the local spirits were appeased. Upon learning this, the lord sought them out to beseech their aid.

The witches agreed to lift the curse upon Iku. They asked that their reward be the patch of land where the Doe Maiden died. The spot had become a convergence of spiritual energy, and suited the coven perfectly for the new home. They say that as long they retain their payment, Iku's prosperity will be assured. Desperate, the lord agreed to their terms.

What the coven did remained shrouded in mystery, but starting at the next new moon, they went to work. Whatever they did, they travelled throughout the province over a month's time. Upon the following new moon, their work was complete. Crops began growing strong anew. The local spirits and fairies became helpful instead of troublesome. The province of Iku became prosperous once more. However, it was only shortly thereafter that tragedy once again fell upon the Clan of Kashiki.

Iku became prosperous again in less than a month. That was when Prince Guao pushed Lord Kashiki to uphold a previous agreement. Originally, the lord agreed to gift a piece of his land to Prince Guao. Within this parcel of land was where the Doe Maiden was killed and the witches' coven had set up their new home. In fact, the hunt where Prince Guao killed the Doe Maiden was part of his surveying his soon-to-be-his land. However, when Iku fell into chaos, the Prince refused to take ownership of such a troublesome land. Thus, the lord was willing to give it to the witches.

However, now that riches were booming, the Prince brought up the agreement, saying that he never formally refused the gift. He claimed that the land was rightfully his, and that Lord Kashiki must uphold his word. The lord felt he had no choice other than to uphold his fealty to the imperial family. He spoke to the coven, promising them another piece of land and more for their troubles, but the witches refused. The lord did not understand how much the witches coveted the land.

Loyal to his liege, the lord had his soldiers to evict the coven. The witches left peacefully, but reminded the lord of their promise. They would not punish the people of Iku by undoing their work, but those who try to break their vows will find that they will uphold them still in more distressing ways. The lord tried to find out what they meant, but the coven refused to speak with him anymore, and left as sudden as they came.

The lord searched high and low for the coven, but they seemed to have simply vanished. A month after, Iku remained as prosperous as ever, and the lord relaxed. In fact, it was a joyous time for him, for he had learned that his wife was pregnant with their second child. Nine months later, a son was born to the Kashiki Clan. However, a spurned witch can be as patient as they can be cruel.

Yasu, he was named, and he grew loved by his family, and was provided with the finest upbringing. He was the model child, mastering both the arts and arms. But beneath the kind smiles and gentle words lied ambition and a lust for power. 

Through secret communications, young Yasu arranged a conflict between his father and Prince Guao. The conflict culminated to Lord Kashki striking Prince Guao after the latter had insulted him. The insult may have been dire, and the strike done in passion, but for a lord to lay their hand on a royal was a crime of the highest order.

It was at the trial that Yasu's true colours were revealed. While Kashiki's eldest child, a brave and strong daughter, stood steadfastly at her father's side, Yasu convinced his father to accept the ultimate penalty to save the honour of their clan. The daughter was ordered by the emperor to be her father's second while he commits seppuku, but she refused, unable to accept the judgement of the royal court. 

Yasu then stepped forward and accepted the responsibility, and beheaded his father. For this honourable act (and with some previously made agreements between Yasu and Prince Guao), the emperor decreed that the province of Iku be inherited by Yasu, and not eldest child, for the daughter had disgraced her honour as a samurai by refusing to abide by a royal command.

In private, the daughter confronted her brother, realising his manipulations. It was during this argument that she shoved her brother. He bumped into a shelf, and an old metal heirloom fell and struck him across the face. To her shock, her brother's features changed to something otherworldly. 

The studious girl remembered the old tales and realised the truth. The old heirloom was forged from cold iron, and her brother's features revealed the truth of what he was: a changeling.

The daughter threatened to reveal the truth to the court, but Yasu told her that as a disgraced samurai, she would have no credibility. He had made enough dealings to ensure that much at least. Besides, he commanded the forces of Iku now. It would be a shame that they should fail in their duty to protect their mother from their enemies. 

The daughter was horrified, and Yasu gave his sister an ultimatum. She would forswear her samurai's oath and go into exile, to never again interfere in the affairs of Iku, or else their mother would pay the price. Out of fond memories of her past kindness, he promised that their mother would live like a queen, and that he would let his sister live in peace if she agreed to these terms. Seeing no other choice, the daughter agreed.

And so the next chapter of Iku began. Its fair and wise ruler was dead and shamed. Its true heir was disgraced and sent into exile. Another held hostage by a son who was not her son. And an oppressive pall fell upon Iku as Yasu worked the province all for his own ambitions.

So remember this lesson well, young Cethin. Always uphold your promises with powers beyond your comprehension.

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