The night breeze blew gently across the balcony. Akodo Kaneka let the wind wash over him, through him. He willed it to take away the tension, the frustration, and the anger that boiled inside of him. It was quite ironic, actually. On the battlefield, he had always been cool and even-headed. It was only when he had been introduced to the high level politics of court following his father's death that the rages had begun. Honor and power he understood. It was the games the courtiers played, the deceit and manipulation that maddened him.
The sort of games his "beloved little brother" Naseru would play.
A fresh wave of hostility surged through him at the thought of Naseru. He knew somehow that it was his half-brother who had set in motion these infuriating games. He would have expected to find Naseru's supporters among the Crane and Scorpion, but even from the clans he considered his allies there were those who seemed bent on his humiliation in court. Shiba Yoma of the Phoenix, even Ikoma Fudai from his own clan... there seemed no court where he would be safe from their manipulations.
The whisper of the shoji screen behind him signaled the end of his reverie. The breeze suddenly carried the sound of the shuffling of feet and light a light murmuring, as if many voices were speaking behind fans. Kaneka grimaced. "I have nothing I wish to discuss further this evening, Higatsuku-san," Kaneka said curtly.
Even without turning around, Kaneka could sense the Scorpion's smile. "You malign me, Kaneka-sama. My friends and I merely wished to enjoy the evening breeze, as did you apparently. Surely you cannot fault us for enjoying such simple pleasures?"
"I fault any course of action beneath which lies a deceitful motive." Kaneka turned his head slightly to gaze at the Shosuro and his entourage over his shoulder. Many of the Scorpion's sycophants from other clans were with him, as was the infamous temptress Bayushi Yasuko. "But you would know nothing of that, would you Higatsuku?" Many of the courtiers turned to watch his response.
"Of course not, my lord," the courtier said slyly. "I am but a simple servant of the Empire, striving to aid Rokugan in this most fractious of times." Higatsuku walked to stand near the railing a comfortable distance from Kaneka. "Much the same as you are, Kaneka-sama. I can only imagine the burden you must face in your struggle to ascend the throne." A chorus of cunning smiles had broken out among Higatsuku's entourage, and Yasuko tittered behind her fan.
Kaneka's eyes narrowed. "I only desire that which is my birthright. I am the eldest child of the Emperor Toturi I. This," he waved his hand toward the court chambers behind them, "is only a distraction."
"I cannot imagine who could doubt your legitimacy, my lord," Higatsuku tugged idly at a wrinkle on the sleeve of his kimono while flashing Yasuko a charming smile. "So few of the Winds share as many characteristics with Toturi as you. For example, who else among your siblings has spent time as an unwashed wave man, as did your father for many years? I can think of none."
A burst of apprehensive laughter rippled through Higatsuku's hangers-on. Some looked at Kaneka warily, as if anticipating a violent response. The sound of their response masked the cracking sound that issued from the railing where Kaneka had clenched it. His knuckles were white and the wood seemed ready to splinter in his vice-like grip. "What did you say, Scorpion?" he whispered.
The Wind's hoarse whisper brought an immediate end to all conversation. The night was eerily silent for a few brief seconds before it was shattered. "Kaneka-sama! Higatsuku-san!" came a boisterous voice from the shoji screens. "We thought you might have retired for the evening! Please, come and join us. We were just having a discussion on the nature of the samurai and would enjoy each of your thoughts on the matter." Their host, Otomo Baiken, was as cheerful as ever and completely oblivious to the obvious tension on the balcony.
"Of course, Baiken-sama," Higatsuku said quickly. "A fortuitous coincidence, as lord Kaneka and I were just discussing the virtues of bushido extolled by his father. I am sure he would like a moment to gather his thoughts." The Scorpion and the Otomo disappeared into the building quickly, while Kaneka was still reeling from Higatsuku's words.
"No one speaks ill of me, or of my father. You shall learn that soon enough, Scorpion." The man Rokugan knew as the Bastard calmed himself so that he might re-enter court. "And I will teach you, whether through my means... or yours." With grim resolve, Kaneka strode through the door back into the midst of the courtiers, predators who longed for his blood.
* * * *
The morning sun shone brightly through the open screen as Shosuro Higatsuku
moved about his chambers. There were many things to be accomplished today, many
subtle tasks to be performed so that the Scorpion might gain a foothold with the
Otomo. All things considered, it should be remarkable easy. Smiling, he turned
toward the door to his chamber to leave.
Akodo Kaneka stood, arms crossed, blocking his exit.
Higatsuku stopped abruptly, then backpedaled a few steps before regaining his composure. The smile on Kaneka's face told him that his shock was evident on his face. Higatsuku grimaced inwardly at the notion. "Kaneka-sama," he said smoothly. "You startled me. I... was not expecting the pleasure of your company so early in the morning. And in my chambers, no less. Rather unorthodox, do you not think?"
Kaneka's grin only widened. "You were hoping perhaps to find another instead? Perhaps… perhaps your friend Yasuko? I think you would not have found that unorthodox at all."
The courtier scowled. "I have no idea what you mean, Kaneka-sama."
"Oh, I believe you do," Kaneka said simply. "I am not a fool, nor am I blind. Perhaps the others think you are playing at some game, but I know your affection for her is genuine."
Higatsuku's brow furrowed. "Why have you come? This is most…"
"It is unorthodox, as you have said, Higatsuku," Kaneka interrupted. "But you and I are unorthodox men, are we not? Such things as you said to me last night, for example. Not to mention the fact that I allowed you to keep your head after such a blatant dishonor. Indeed, you should be thankful that I am feeling so unorthodox." Kaneka remained in front of the doors, preventing Higatsuku from leaving even if he were to attempt to do so.
"You speak the truth, certainly," Higatsuku said carefully. The Scorpion was clearly on the defensive. Having entered his chambers to confront him in private had unnerved him. Kaneka was careful to keep the cold, menacing smile. "I do not know what I could have been thinking, uttering such a thing. I beg your forgiveness, Kaneka-sama. On occasion, even I fail to think before I speak."
"I find that very doubtful, Higatsuku. In fact, I am quite sure that you never say anything without first fully considering its ramifications. That is the reason I restrained my blade last night. Because I wondered what your motive might be. And now I think I understand." He walked calmly across the room.
"I could not understand what the point of such a thing would be, especially when my reaction, the thing I most wanted to do, was to cut you down. But of course, that would have been an advantage for you, would it not? The Wind with close ties to the Lion, the enemy of the Scorpion, disgraced and with no chance of ascension."
"Lord Kaneka," Higatsuku began, "surely you cannot think that I would... "
"The Scorpion Clan," Kaneka continued, cutting Higatsuku off abruptly, "besieged by one of the heirs to the throne. My brothers and sisters would surely have been eager to see restitution done to you. What a great boon, to have all three Winds in your debt."
"Never!" insisted Higatsuku. "We would never be so base as to... "
"And in the court of the Otomo!" Kaneka's voice grew louder to drown Higatsuku out. "How mortified they would have been! How eager to atone for such a heinous act in their own court! Yet another benefit for the Scorpion. And all because of a single dishonor you spoke of my father. Such a small price to pay." Kaneka leaned in very closely. "Is that not so, Higatsuku?"
Higatsuku tried to swallow, but found he could not. He cast his eyes down, desperately searching for something to say. But there was nothing.
Kaneka straightened suddenly. "Were you aware of my supporters in the Mantis Clan, Higatsuku? There are many. They would be incensed to learn that I was present at Aramasu's death. I think that their anger would be mitigated, though, by knowledge of the Scorpions present at the time. Such as yourself. Oh, you did not strike the death blow, but it was by your order that Kamnan did so." Kaneka's grin reappeared. "There are many Mantis who would stop at nothing to see such a man dead, Higatsuku. And then your death would serve no purpose whatsoever."
"No," Higatsuku croaked, having finally found his voice. "It would not."
Kaneka nodded. "If you ever speak to me again as you did last night, Higatsuku, then you will find yourself dead at the blade of another within a week's time. And my name will never even be suspected. Do you understand?"
Higatsuku nodded mutely. Kaneka frowned. "No. No, I do not think you do."
With a sudden, smooth motion, Kaneka's arm lashed out. His closed fist struck Higatsuku directly in the mouth, sending him sprawling to the floor. The Scorpion coughed and gasped, spraying blood and bits of tooth on the chamber floor. Kaneka quickly crossed the floor and placed a foot on the wrist of Higatsuku's sword arm. The other he placed on the courtier's throat. The gasping sounds suddenly became a strained rasping.
"Now," Kaneka whispered through clenched teeth. "I have learned some of your tricks, fool, but not all. Not nearly all. I need someone with your talents if I am to ascend the throne. And so I give you a choice, Shosuro Higatsuku. You may give me your oath of fealty... or you may give me your life. I will take either."
Kaneka released the pressure on Higatsuku's throat ever so slightly, just enough for the Scorpion to form words. "I... will... serve you, Kaneka-sama. Allow me... to live... and I am yours until death."
Without another word, Kaneka lifted his foot from the courtier's throat. The Scorpion gasped for breath, nearly choking on the blood from his tattered face. For several long moments, Kaneka merely stared at him. "Tell no one of our alliance, Higatsuku. It shall be our secret for now." He turned to leave the room. Just before disappearing through the doorway, he glanced back one last time. "And clean yourself up. No servant of mine should appear so bedraggled."
* * * *
Several days later, Higatsuku sat in the darkness. These were far different chambers, much less elaborate. Located as they were in an inn in one of the less respectable sections of Otosan Uchi, however, that was to be expected. Higatsuku rubbed his fingers across his lips absently, feeling the smooth, unbroken skin. He had been sitting in the darkness for nearly an hour. If he did not return to Baiken's home soon, the others would suspect something was amiss.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, Higatsuku heard a rustling sound from the window behind him. Turning, he was not at all surprised to find a black-clad man crouching deftly in the third story window entrance. Higatsuku bowed deeply. The other regarded him wordlessly for a moment, then said simply "The shugenja I sent to you has healed your face?"
"Hai, Tai-sama," Higatsuku said.
"Good," Bayushi Tai replied. "It would not serve the clan for your countenance to be ruined. Your face is far to recognizable in court."
"It is my honor to serve, Tai-sama."
"Yes, yes," Tai waved his hand. "Is it done?"
"It is," Higatsuku nodded. "Kaneka reacted as you said he would. Although," he rubbed his chin delicately, "I was… unprepared for the brutality of his actions."
The Scorpion spy laughed roughly. "It was decided to withhold that information from you, Higatsuku. The genuineness of your response only convinced Kaneka of his own cleverness."
"Yes, well," Higatsuku replied. "I was most impressed with the great accuracy of your prediction. The so-called 'Forgotten Son' reacted exactly as you foresaw."
Tai shook his head. "It was Yojiro-san who prepared this plan, Higatsuku. His agents in Ryoko Owari studied Kaneka for months. Yojiro knows the man perhaps better than he knows himself."
Higatsuku cleared his throat. "He is perceptive, of that there is no doubt." He hesitated. "He… he mentioned my… affection for Yasuko."
"Indeed?" Tai sounded mildly surprised. "Perhaps there is a depth to him we have not anticipated. But it matters little. He is ours for now, for as long as we require him. Yours is the most important part in this, Higatsuku. He can never suspect your role in this gambit."
Higatsuku bowed very deeply. "He shall not, Tai-sama. I shall be ever…" Higatsuku's voice trailed off. When he had risen from his bow, Tai was gone. Only the rustling of the wind gave any indication that anything had been moved at all.
"…vigilant," Higatsuku finished.