Chapter Three: The Scorpion
"Never presume a man is incapable of treachery."
- Tangen's "Lies"
Bayushi Atsuki had never believed in trust.
True, in the world that he lived in, ideals like trust and integrity were more tenuous, but even among the Scorpion, the Champion trusted no one beyond his need of them. Even as the spies of the Shosuro were dispersed across the Empire, so too were the spies spread about one another, watching for insurrection from within as well as from threats beyond. Each of them was expendable, so long as the daimyo remained strong.
Many Scorpion thought Atsuki too nervous or paranoid to serve his place effectively; they thought that age was beating the old samurai, and that he should step down. Only the immense power and personal determination of the Bayushi made such a thing impossible but that power was fading from him slowly, and Atsuki felt in more surely than the call of old age.
It was then, when he was considering the future of the Scorpion Clan and his place within it, that Atsuki witnessed Hantei Fuwija's return and proclamations of blame. He could see the future of the Scorpion in words like those one day; against the Clan of Secrets, such accusations were merely a matter of time.
The whole idea was laughable to the Scorpion daimyo. He had been a young Champion when Fuwija had instated many of the new laws that now governed the Empire; he knew that such demands were seldom followed without threat of prosecution or capture, especially in the lands of the western Crab and the Lion lands.
The glimmer of unclaimed provinces was too much for the daimyo to handle honestly, and without the eyes of the Imperial Magistrates, their dishonor would not be checked by fear.
"You seem distracted today, Lord Atsuki "
Behind his golden mask, the Master of Secrets narrowed his eyes. He detested it when subordinates spoke to him; it spoiled his concentration and Shiba Gaijushiko's letter required all of the subtlety the Scorpion could spare. "How is it that you can tell my mindset from outside the palanquin, Norihisa?"
The ninja laughed, an odd expression for a shinobi, even one posing as a mere palanquin guard. "Your breathing is more shallow than it was earlier. Is the Phoenix letter truly so entertaining?"
The Champion touched the Ancestral Sword of the Scorpion in muted wonder, his mind suddenly filled up with the thought of what Bayushi himself would do. A wrinkled smile spread out amidst a wrinkled visage as he wondered
"My lord?" Norihisa asked again, more worried now.
"You sensed no breathing at all that time, eh Norihisa?"
The ninja's voice was ashen. "I apologize, Lord Atsuki. I should not have toyed with you "
"As if I were an addled old man, Norihisa?" There was the usual snap of annoyance in the words, though the samurai left it there more for effect than actual distaste. A man who thought himself superior could aspire to great things in the Scorpion provided that he knew where the limits were drawn.
There was only silence from the outside of the palanquin, and Bayushi Atsuki allowed himself a single crooked grin. "I think that we are going to get along with one another quite well, Shosuro Norihisa. Just make certain that you are standing beside me when the world changes "
"My lord?" the ninja asked softly, but the Champion would say no more.
* * *
The three Champions met in the garden of Kyuden Doji, their conversation muted by the falling darkness and the splashing of the nearest waterfall and stream. Bayushi Atsuki had never noticed how certain places in the Fantastic Gardens were perfectly positioned to afford maximum secrecy, even in the open--it was a trick that the Scorpion would remember from now on.
"You are proposing that we usurp the Emerald Throne, Gaijushiko?" Doji Raigu's voice was hard and focused; he was younger than either of the other two, but neither one matched the fire in his eyes. "Such a thing is worse than betrayal "
"I have no intent to overthrow the Celestial Order, Raigu-san," the older man said evenly, glancing over towards the Bayushi daimyo in an attempt to somehow gauge his mind. "I know better than most what that might mean. But you agree that Fuwija has slandered and cast aside bushido; he risks his own life without a thought for his subjects. Such a thing betrays both Akodo and Shinsei's words."
The fact that Doji Raigu had not drawn his sword said much to the Bayushi; the Crane was a man wed to the words the first Akodo had written; he would never abandon the words of the code, but its spirit was something he could never know. The Scorpion nodded, seeing already which way things would fall, "You speak the truth, Gaijushiko-san, though it pains me. The Bayushi have already heard rumors, of those daimyo who seek to take advantage of the Son of Heaven's proclamations."
"Surely we could speak with the Hantei," Raigu offered, but both of the elder men could tell a weakened voice for what it meant inside. "Explain the situation "
Shiba Gaijushiko's smooth face wrinkled in sadness, and his hand idly touched his topknot before he spoke. "Fuwija will not listen; he thinks himself too wise to require our aid. I have watched the Hantei change through the experiences of the Soul of Shiba, Raigu-san. I know what total power has done to that once-great family."
Atsuki's voice feigned sadness, for he had lost the true emotion long ago. "Then we must take from the Hantei the Mandate of Heaven until they are fit to use it, the good of the Empire should not rest in untrained hands."
"You speak the truth, and I can think of no others who I would ask to bear this burden." Gaijushiko's small mouth trembled, for he knew how important the next moment was. "Raigu, the power of our three clans command the strength of the Imperial Court, and more. Will you help us, join with us, to repair the damage that the Emperor is doing? In the name of bushido, will you do what is right?"
The Crane lord finally nodded, one hand resting on his sword. "For the good of the Empire then, I will become the Hantei's villain "
Bayushi Atsuki laughed hoarsely. "Strange to hear you say that Doji. I thought such words were mine."
* * *
Things started small.
The three daimyo had no illusions about what they had decided; they risked the lives and honor of their families in this choice for control of the Empire, and any misstep could end their dreams upon Seppun swords. Each one needed time to prepare the people and the resources to carry out what needed to be done. They decided to meet that spring, all forsaking Winter Court to their lessors for the time that was required for such a thing to rise.
When they met once more, in the garden of Kyuden Doji, Bayushi Atsuki could not help but smile as three Champions bowed to each other with ready eyes. The Scorpion had considered going to the Hantei many times with their treason; such a deed would have brought both wealth and power to the Scorpion, and made their lord famous for centuries to come.
Only one thing had stopped the Master of Secrets from doing so, it had become a gnawing thought in the rear of his vision; the challenge that the idealistic Gaijushiko had presented to him, even though he did not believe. Was it possible, could one steal the Mandate of Heaven?
What kind of man would it take to do that, to stare into the eyes of the Hantei and challenge him?
How strong did a samurai need to be, to proclaim to his lord and master that the world was about to change?
"Are you prepared?" Shiba Gaijushiko asked the other two men.
Doji Raigu nodded, his young face seeming slightly more creased with focus than when they had met in the fall of the previous year. "There are many among the Crane and the Imperial Families who have sympathy for our cause, more than I anticipated; the Seppun seem to be concerned only that Lord Fuwija keep his respect and position "
"That is best," the Phoenix said. "We will need to return the power smoothly, in time."
The Crane daimyo nodded again. "Also, regarding the child Kusada I believe that we can keep the boy separated from this plot."
Atsuki laughed, almost too loud for the gardens, and Raigu bristled. "I have met Hantei Kusada only once in my life, Doji, and I know that you are being foolish. Fuwija raised Kusada more than his mother; he is his father's son, an arrogant brat who knows too well what power and respect is due his name. He will never accept our regency, even in secret."
"Mind your words. We must protect the child from both his father and our own decisions. He may yet learn to be the Emperor that Rokugan desires and bushido deserves," Raigu said coldly, staring daggers at the Scorpion Champion as he did. "We need only give him proper guidance, and proper time."
"And until then, Doji?"
"We shall watch over him," Gaijushiko interrupted, his abruptness startling the two men. Both Champions stared upon him as he continued, a heavy concentration in his eyes. "We will hold the boy here, at Kyuden Doji; Raigu-sama and his bushi will oversee him, and make certain that the Seppun do not overstep their place. Meanwhile, I will go and speak with the Son of Heaven "
"You plan shows spirit," the Scorpion Champion saw from behind his smooth mask of beaten gold, "but I fear you lack the stomach to complete it. Leave this part to me, Shiba which reminds me, what sanction have your Masters given for this decision, or do you act alone?"
Gaijushiko's wide eyes narrowed slightly. "Why do you care to ask?"
Atsuki smiled, though of course that was not something the others could see. "Because to deny the Emperor is to bluff him, and in order to do so I must know which pieces I have to play."
"The Masters have bowed to my decisions on this matter," Gaijushiko said after what seemed a very long time. He watched the Scorpion as he continued, "They want nothing to do with this personally, but they will not oppose our goals. They have no time for politics, so long as the Celestial Order is preserved."
Feeling the cold metal edge of his mask with a callused hand, Atsuki nodded, glancing back to the Shiba along with the Lord of the Crane. "Then we have our plan, Gaijushiko-sama? Raigu-san shall deal with the heir to the throne, and I will speak to Fuwija himself when that time comes."
"There is more to this plan that you have not discussed with us, Shiba," Raigu commented idly, watching as the older man turned to look at the gardens of the Crane. "If we are to work together, then I would know what it is that you have planned."
Shiba Gaijushiko bowed in a mute apology. "There is one more step to assuring our strength in the Empire, and that place stands between the Emperor and his son. If the Fortunes favor Lord Fuwija, then we will have no need for the favor that I will arrange."
The Phoenix lord bowed and took his leave of the two of them, leaving only footprints that quickly vanished in the soft grass. Doji Raigu and Bayushi Atsuki bowed and began their separate missions
It was here, in the shadows of white blossoms that the conspiracy truly had begun.
The Three Paths Unite