The Gozoku
Chapter Two: The Phoenix

"If the general is wise, he knows that a single man can halt an entire army."
- The Tao of Shinsei

Shiba Gaijushiko had lived a long life in the service of the Emperor, fighting for the life and spirit of Rokugan with each breath for more than three decades of politics and war. The Champion of the Phoenix Clan had never failed with the guidance of the immortal Shiba to point him towards righteousness…

As he watched the Hantei deal with the Crane and the Lion so harshly, those past victories came back to him, making the current situation more difficult to bear.

In his younger days, Hantei Fuwija had been a strong, dynamic Emperor; he had commanded the Great Clans through his great proclamations and laws, placing the needs of the Empire above those of his throne. Now, he had grown brazen with the idea of becoming a great hero, personally commanding armies like a common rikugunshokan whose glory was at stake.

It pained the Soul of Shiba to see the arrogance and pride that his brother's children had come to…it made the ancient part of him mournful, wistful for long forgotten days. Gaijushiko could not deny that he shared that feeling with the spirit equally; he missed the old Fuwija, a friend from younger days.

"You may see him," the square-jawed miharu said bluntly, "but be certain not to take too long. Our lord is in need of his rest tonight."

Gaijushiko handed his ancient daisho over to the Seppun guardsmen with a bow and entered the Emperor's private chambers, bowing as the Empress swept past him to find some solace in another room. The Champion of the Phoenix knelt before Fuwija as the other man retied his evening clothes loosely. "It has been a while since you have come to the Imperial City, has it not, Gaijushiko?"

The bushi's still youthful face let show a few wrinkles as he nodded. "That is true, my Emperor. The demands of the Phoenix have taken me far from the Hantei, Lord Fuwija. It does my soul well to see your returned and uninjured."

The Emperor's eyes flashed at the Champion's last words, as if he had spoken poorly or seen something that was not meant to be seen. "You have come here for a reason, I take it?"

"Of course, Lord Fuwija." Gaijushiko bowed again in apology, finally understanding why the Emperor's rest was so important on this day. "I did not wish to trouble you in court, as exhausted as you were, my lord. But the matter of the Lion Clan…"

Fuwija made no reaction to the statement at first, but Gaijushiko's eyes were too trained in playing the old courtly games. His face was calm, wholly confident…

Gaijushiko had learned early in life that anyone so confident at the beginning of a problem was definitely something of a fool. "Akodo Mekurachi made a suitable reparation for his transgressions against the Crab. You saw it yourself," Fuwija said evenly, not letting emotion slip into his words. "Consider your own problems with them finished also. I doubt you will see more troops near Phoenix lands."

The Shiba Champion bit his lip for a moment, before continuing, "But Lord Hantei, the Lion will see their honor as being cleansed by Lord Mekurachi…they will not consider…"

"You concern yourself with too many matters," the Hantei said half-jokingly, seeming to dismiss the Champion's concerns like a worried child. "Surely the lands of the Phoenix Clan had enough problems to warrant your attention without these phantom threats, Gaijushiko. Trust in the Hantei to do what is best for the Empire, my friend."

"As you command," the Champion said evenly, but even at that moment, the plan was being set.

* * *

There were few in the Empire who would consider such an opinion; even for the good of the Empire, it was something that one simply would not do. As Shiba Gaijushiko stood on the edge of Golden Sun Bay, watching the sun rise, his short topknot bobbed slightly as the wind rose, chilling his body as the idea chilled his soul.

Even after his conversation with the Emperor, it was doubtful that Fuwija had much concern for the slaughter of peasants. Whether the Lion were doing it for food and supplies made little difference…their deaths would be the same. Though the battles had diminished over the decades, Gaijushiko knew the Lion Clan too well to believe that their daimyo's death would be much of a deterrent to them; he himself had slain two of them during his life.

So Hantei Fuwija again placed himself into an unknown field of battle, trusting the bushido of his followers to hold them back from striking at his hand.

It was a foolish thing to do, especially for an Emperor; the Shiba daimyo had seen many great men fall to similar weaknesses over the years. As the waves crashed against the shore, the need for a change became stronger to the Phoenix Champion. It was a demand from his inner guide to restore the honor and wisdom that the Hantei once stood for…

It would mean his death and worse if Gaijushiko failed to accomplish his mission…but a samurai feared neither one of those things. The daimyo called out over his shoulder, "Dohrei-san."

The champion's yojimbo was a tall, thin man who wore his beard thick as if to compensate. "Lord Gaijushiko?"

"Make preparations for us to travel to Kyuden Doji within the week. I shall inform the Masters of the change in our plans." The Phoenix regarded his fellow bushi with deep scrutiny, "This should change nothing of our daily plans until then; do not trouble the court with this news."

Bowing smoothly, the tall bodyguard was gone by the time that Shiba Gaijushiko was done looking at the sunrise over the waters of the Golden Sun Bay. The samurai could already feel the sensation of tears slipping free of his eyes.

By the time this plan was finished, Gaijushiko knew that he would weep for the choice many times.

And weep for other things as well.

* * *

In the recent years, following the famous Victory with No-Strike the Phoenix Clan had prospered greatly; the champion could see the strength in their courtiers and samurai, and knew it as he had watched it spring up from once salted fields. It was this strength that Gaijushiko would need to borrow for the future of the Empire to flourish…

And for that, he needed the sanction of those five who ruled the Clan.

As he sat in his opulent room within the Imperial Capital, the Phoenix Champion stared at the blank piece of paper darkly, carefully weighing every possible way that he could say such a thing. Outside the window, the world was all sunlight and warmth, but Gaijushiko knew only worry and stagnant cold. The knowledge that he was doing what was right, both for the people of the Empire and for the Hantei was little consolation for the samurai.

He knew all too well what such a plan, even in its infancy, could do to the Clans and the Empire. It was not a decision to be made lightly, for such whimsical ideas as mere power or control.

Doji Raigu would understand that. He had to.

Shiba Gaijushiko began writing his letter, still wondering if his last letter had been a good decision after all. The Phoenix had known the Scorpion Clan Champion for twenty years; he was familiar with what the Bayushi stood for, and knew that for them, the ends would justify the means.

Still, it was difficult to trust one of the Clan of Secrets with the greatest of secrets…

With all those thoughts, Gaijushiko sent the letters, his heart ready for the battle to come.

* * *

Hantei Kusada was a handsome young man by now; the twelve years of his life had been rules by the privileges and the schooling that were the traditions of his family's dynasty, and that poise and grace shown through in all things. Dressed in a pale silver and gold kimono, the young man laughed brightly as a koi splashed about the pond of Kyuden Doji's legendary gardens, his Doji guardians smiling at the spirit of the boy.

"He is excelling at his studies, Raigu-sama?" the Seppun ambassador asked quietly to the Doji, as the two of them watched the child play.

Doji Raigu shook his head solemnly. "Iwane-san, Master Kusada has no drive to excel. He shirks his lessons, and his father's commands regarding the boy…"

Seppun Iwane's face was stern, and his topknot almost shivered in surprise. "You think to place the failure of your clan's sensei upon our Lord?"

The Doji watched as Kusada chirped happily about the garden, ignoring the insult and wondering idly how Iwane had gained his position among the Hantei. "Ayano-sensei trained me, Iwane. I will not see her skill insulted by the laziness of a mere boy."

"A 'mere boy'…" the Seppun hissed, glaring at the Champion as if shocked to the core of his bones.

"A child for now," came the voice of Shiba Gaijushiko, small and soft between the two men. The Shiba Champion moved to take a practiced place between the Seppun and the Doji, "In time, Hantei Kusada-sama will come to understand the greatness of the destiny forced upon him, Iwane-san. Surely even Raiju-san," the Phoenix offered, glancing to the Crane, "was once only a child as well."

Iwane crossed his arms and glanced over to Kusada; the boy and his guards had drifted deeper into the gardens, no doubt chasing after some colored butterfly or fish inside the crystal streams. Giving one more look to the Crane Champion, the Seppun bowed, and followed them, leaving Raigu and Gaijushiko listening to the distant commotion from the garden doors.

"I am sorry that you had to involve yourself, Gaijushiko-san," the Doji said, his black eyes narrowed. "I should not have spoken."

Gaijushiko tensed slightly; the next few moments were the most important to his plan. "You fear speaking the truth now, Raigu-san? That is not your reputation."

The Crane touched his katana, and for a moment the Shiba feared he had misspoken his words. "Bushido has taught me to make my words matter. I should not have wasted them on a man," the word was tensed, as if challenging, "like Iwane, who lives only to tell the Emperor how perfect his son is every day. Words are meant to have meaning; they are worthless in the face of a fool."

"You are a true samurai, Raigu." Shiba Gaijushiko stared at the Doji daimyo for a long moment before continuing. "Tell me what you think of the current regime."

Raigu never hesitated. "Our Emperor has become an arrogant seeker of glory; his laws are in place, but they are new and frail. He punishes the Crane 'for our actions' and the Lion 'for their inaction' in the battle against Oni no Usu, crippling our ability to enforce those very laws that he demands we do not neglect. He slanders bushido with his decisions, and his failures to police the new provinces limits his power in the new western provinces…"

Gaijushiko smiled; he had found a kindred soul. "What would you do about this, Raigu-san?"

"He is the Emperor," Doji Raigu responded evenly. "I can do nothing more than serve."

"Let us speak tonight about servitude and honor, Raigu-sama."

The Doji looked into the eyes and heart of the Soul of Shiba, and knew what was to come.

A Choice is Made…