This is but written by a humble cloud-scorpion, of the seventh-cluster cloud-culture sky-crawlers. While walking the dawn above, trimming the clouds into arching ribbons as was his commissioned task for the autumn-trees moon festival, this cloud-scorpion was enamored of the Lady Mantis at her work, and endeavored with utmost speed to learn more of the red-knife wielder.
Traits: Lady Zakuro stands slender of build from years of combat and years of delicate apparatus-crafting, slightly larger than the average female mantis-kind, at 157 cm, as per her tailor's last measuring. As a member of the high mantid court, she possesses the unique appendage traits common to the nobility—longer wings, specialized barbs on the augmented four walking legs that allow for precision maneuvers, and more durable spikes on the raptorial arms' grasping scythes. Her long hair is crane-wingtip black, her hands chitinous but flexible, and her face lovely enough, it is said, to grace a lady phoenixes's cosmetics catalog. She has an affinity for smooth cotton robes, though much of her courtly wear was done in silk, red to match her lower body carapace. Rare is the occasion when she dons her centipede-demon-shell armor.
Nature: Lady Zakuro wears three masks with others: her distant but pleasant court manners, her intellectual and discerning craftsman negotiation skills, and the playful, unshakeable private persona known only to those she would trust her back to in a fight. Unerringly polite with new acquaintances, she is slow to temper with most topics, but will not hesitate to engage in threat displays should her displeasure rise high enough. She apparently avoids laughter in crowded places; it is said that growing up in the mantid court, she never quite figured out how to laugh in an non-unnerving way.
History & Associated Parties: Born into the high mantis court of the sun-brushed islands, "Little Ren" was the first-born daughter of a lesser court artisan and her spearman-guard husband. It was never the best match in standing, but the young lady mantis nevertheless adored her parents for their steady affection for each other and ease of brushing off disrespectful comments.
Lady Ren was on pleasant enough terms with the other children in the artisan quarters, until their classes concluded and the young adults were expected to compete for placements in the craftsman quarters. Ren was sorted into the second of the three circles, to her outrage. Placed to work mass-producing luxury paper goods, she was a troublemaker to her tutors, always attempting to swap colored papers with her friends to create multi-hued flowers rather than the single-shade decorations that had been ordered by the other insect palaces. The artisan name she was given after her first year of skilled work, "Shiritori Zakuro", was intended to be a rebuke.
A little after the tutors had relegated her to merely cutting the papers for the other artisans to fold, a passing noblemantis had noted the young lady's skill with the paper-cutting knife far outshone her paper folding. Lady Zakuro was asked to join the mantid court's secret nighttime dueling ring: a place where one could play the court's game of favors and friends regardless of their family standing. She gratefully accepted, and spent countless nights first observing, then mimicking, then eventually training with the mantid duelists who faced each other in the large courtyard in the dead of night. Masks were worn to disguise appearance, but Ren was made aware of certain other individuals who fought with knives: the empress's right-hand jewelry-smith's apprentice, the kitchen's seventh-in-line pastry chef, the young boy mantis with no family name from the lawmaker's guild.
With time and practice, as well as many injuries hidden with her flowing craftman's robes, she fought her way with speed and wit to the highest-tier, the eighth circle of the duelist ranks. However, with her newfound notoriety, Lady Zakuro realized she needed to find a way to keep her weapons from being traced to her quarters. Thanks to her newfound duelist contacts, she bullied the court mages into teaching her linking magic—which she would later incorporate into her trademark "steadfast" apparatus. Her iconic knives would turn to blood (some say wine, or red mantis tears) when handled by anyone besides their mistress.
Eventually, a renowned mountain spirit came from the north to visit the mantid court, and Zakuro disappeared with them into the high forests where crystals could be crafted in streams clear as moonlight. Whispers around court spread and her story leaked out as she made her new home. When she returned years later, having developed a reputation as an esteemed apparatus crafter, those who once scoffed at her and her parents had to turn their eyes away when she smiled at them.
Approach: Lady Zakuro rarely leaves her workshops, and tends to receive commissions on a referral-only basis, through her other insectkin contacts. Should one encounter her at a public event, it is advised to have a mutual friend initiate the conversation.
Should you visit her dwelling, she will insist on pouring you tea. If you dislike the beverage or are unable to partake of physical refreshments due to vow, curse, or temporary inconvenience, mantid manners merely require dabbing a little of the tea onto the dominant hand, paw, wing, leg, or other appendage. It is said that the tea is made of leaves plucked from the Forest of Truth, and will produce a painful freezing sensation when in contact with those who wish the Lady Zakuro harm. Incidentally, unaware enemies who visit and manage to escape are left with several red knives embedded in various sensitive spots. In all encounters with mantids, grace and poise, and no sudden movements.
"To properly understand the circles the Lady Zakuro walked, perhaps a little background of the mantid court would be welcome. The mantids love circles. You see, there are three craftsmen circles, the first, second, and third. Those sorted into the first circle are the much-lauded and desired, those sought for commissions, one-of-a-kind pieces only. The second circle handles luxury decorations and accessories, mass-produced. The third conduct repairs only, never creating any new work of their own. They were said to be equal, yes, but no one wished to be a pillowcase-fixer when they could be embroidering the empress's next summer robe. Little Ren aspired to the first circle, but was placed in second because of her parents' court standing.
"The duelist circles present a different game of numbers. Members are expected to make challenges to those above them in rank, to move up in the eight "revered circles". The rules for victory were fairly simple: be silent, and draw blood. There was a focus on swiftness and silence, and in respect for the court machinations during the day, duelists were expected to only strike where clothing could cover up the scars. A noisekeeper would disqualify any duelists whose noise would threaten the secrecy of the ring. Making no noise whatsoever could sometimes mean just as much standing as successive victories, and as a beginner, the Lady Zakuro found herself the keeper of many scars, but few cries, thus earning her the begrudged respect of the more senior duelists. It is known, after all, that the female mantids are often the most vicious." ~Miotsukushi
"Ren-chan is a dear friend of mine. You know she wears strands of paper cranes and kusudama in her hair, yes? Tied with cord of silk? She tells me that they remind her of her past, and though the memories may weigh on her mind, she continues on and will be all the stronger for it. Some say she is simply vain. It may be true. Yet I have heard tell of her commission contacts saying each kusudama is a promise to herself she has yet to fulfill." ~Usugumo
"This is the legendary apparatus master known throughout many records of the Serpent's Hand as merely "Z.S.", who classified the widely-used item Loyalty designations. She had many words to say, this is true, but she never took up writing. More interest in molding wood, clay, bone, metal, than ink upon parchment. Or perhaps she never wanted it to be written in her own hand, should she be incorrect. Still, many young spiderkin, myself included, volunteered to write for her, and she happily invited them to her workshops, where she would chatter about materials, affinities. What dyes to use, what material would hold a grudge. Those were charming days." ~W.S.
Some say she murdered her competitors of both the workshop and the fighting ring. Others say she dueled them for their silence, to ensure she would be the sole eminent mantis-kind apparatus crafter. Yet others whisper that she married her male competitors, and then murdered them.
I, for one, refuse to believe that Master Ren ever murdered anyone to further her career. If she ever raised a blade against another outside the duelist court, I, for one, refuse to believe it was not in self-defense. And I do believe they would have deserved what then transpired. —Suetsumuhana-Hime
Where do YOU think she gets the blood for her red knives? —Hanachirusato
Fools. Why would you ask for courtly gossip from the ladies of her paper-folding days of boredom? You should have come to seek myself first. Blood carries all sorts of problematic oversoul-spiritual loyalty-reaction issues, and is additionally a rather complicated substance to work into a form that it does not take willingly outside the body. Furthermore, extraction by injury results in exposure to all sorts of trace elemental impurities from the environment, and as example, so thus even a fire affinity can be quenched by a light mist in the air. It should be obvious that she uses fine iron powder and water-based red flower dye. —Court Magician Takonatsu
Well, I heard that she eats the heads of her boyfriends when they have become boring. —Tänzer
Enough. Enough!! Your words, I should never have asked for them. What a miserable venture, this all has been. I shall indeed speak to her, on my own, if the all of you would cease your unhelpful chattering. This manuscript is useless. I would not have any further eyes look upon it, least of all its intended. —Grauen Wolke