The Gozoku
Chapter Four: One Action

"Rise up above the masses of people that are afraid to act."
- Akodo's "Bushido"

Seppun Keizo had seen the changes in Kyuden Doji before his companions; they were subtle, small motions, the guardsman likened them to a game of go. As he strode through the halls of the beautiful palace, the bushi could not help but touch his katana nervously…

There was something different in the words and the actions of the Lord of the Doji…something that sent shivers down the Seppun's spine. Though the young prince thought little of remaining in the home of his mother, Keizo knew what Raigu's words really meant. The obviousness of the truth chilled him. The son of the Hantei was being held hostage by the Crane Clan Champion.

Moving out into the garden, the bushi heard the laughter of his master, and soon found Hantei Kusada, watching the fish, as he often liked to do. The boy's topknot was loose from his foolishness, but he looked up seriously as the Seppun came closer; even the prince was starting to understand something of the situation that he found himself in, and trusted Keizo as one of the men who had protected him from his first days.

"You seem to be enjoying yourself, Lord Kusada," the guardsman said, kneeling properly until the child permitted him to rise. The boy motioned automatically, those focused eyes so strange on the smooth, oval face the bushi had often associated with shirking duties and chasing koi along streams.

"We must take our leave of the palace, Lord Kusada," Keizo said softly, wondering if it was no coincidence that the prince was in the garden on his own. "You will have to leave behind the gifts that Lord Raigu has given you…"

The sound of feet settling behind him drew Keizo's attention; the Seppun samurai turned to place the Hantei behind him. Doji Raigu stood a few feet back from the two Imperials, his arms folded neatly. "I do not think that Lord Kusada should have to leave his gifts behind, Keizo." The Crane Champion stepped forward; the Seppun had never noticed how tall the Crane was until now, with his long hair trailing out in the soft wind.

"He is my guest, and a student of the Kakita Academies, and I will not have his stay with me made unpleasant in any way. Put yourself at ease, Keizo," the Champion said seriously, his eyes perfectly readied and controlled.

"Kusada will remain my guest for some time now; I have no intention of letting him go."

The Seppun glanced back at Kusada, but the Emperor's son only looked up at his yojimbo confused and seeming very alone. Keizo could not understand what would possess Raigu to make such a rash decision; such a thing would dishonor his entire family, and could only bring the fury of Fuwija to their doors. "You are being foolish, Lord Raigu."

Dark eyes focused on the yojimbo and his charge, one after the other. Raigu's voice was terse, controlled, "I would not act this way if I did not know where I stand. You do not understand why I am doing this, but you know that bushido is my guide…"

"No," the guardsman said, again checking to ensure that Kusada remained behind him. "You have always been a man of honor, Raigu-sama, but I cannot condone your actions now, simply on the virtue of your past. How is it bushido to hold hostage the child of our Emperor?"

The Crane looked at Kusada, and his eyes were as bitter as if he looked upon his greatest foe. "The honor of an Emperor is the glory of his Empire, Keizo. That is my reason."

The Seppun felt a drop of sweat slide down his cheek, his thick jaw trembling as he finally realized what the Crane had planned. The words tasted like ash. "You mean to…usurp the Mandate?"

"If that is what it takes to preserve Rokugan for the people," the Crane lord said with a heavy heart, "then yes, that is what am prepared to do. I tell you this because you too are a bushi, and I think that I know your heart."

Keizo looked down to where his hand waited on the edge of his katana; the Seppun had never been known for their iaijutsu; it was meant as a method to prepare for battle quickly, and would be almost useless against a master of the Kakita School.

Still, he had to try.

Doji Raigu sighed once, long and low, as he saw the Seppun take his stance in the soft grass. The Champion of the Crane placed his hand on the saya of his katana, knowing better than to think a true bushi could be stopped by only words.

* * *

It was a common misconception that Kakita kenshinzen were only strong while their enemies agreed to the dueling rituals; that against the likes of the Shadowlands, there was no point to such an archaic form. But as Seppun Keizo held his place, he wanted only to abandon his position and fall back to fight some other place. It was his enemy's stance, not his style, which trapped the Seppun in his position of defense.

In the moment it took for Keizo to read his opponent's technique, he saw the outcome. He would fight or die here, on this ground; the Doji's position had left him nowhere to move.

"I will not allow you to blackmail the Emperor," he said, swallowing his fear and focusing on his duty. Keizo's foot slid forward slightly, almost slipping on the soft grass as his tensed eyes focused on Raigu's blade. Readjusting, the yojimbo thumbed his katana from its sheath and concentrated…

Raigu's focus was so intense that it startled him; the white-haired bushi seemed to be hovering just on the edge of drawing, as if all his body prepared to draw his sword.

"Do not do this, Keizo."

"I do this only…only because I must, Raigu." Another bead of sweat touched the Seppun's forehead; behind him Kusada seemed to shrink backwards from the duel. "I am sorry, Lord Kusada," the bushi said, just before his sword flashed in the perfect light.

The solace of Kyuden Doji was split with a scream of shock and fury, a moment of pain amidst the serenity and calm…

* * *

Seppun Keizo's body lay in the grass a few feet from his master, a long line of blood flecked across the open ground. Doji Raigu closed his eyes sadly as he wiped the bushi's blood calmly from Shujuko's edge, controlling his expression using all of his internal calm.

Hantei Kusada stood where he had fallen, three drops of blood marring his frozen face. Raigu glanced down at the young man, his eyes still moist despite the control in his words. "I apologize for that, Lord Kusada. You may not understand why I have done this, but one day you shall."

"I will summon one of the Asahina to cleanse and tend to your purity, my lord."

With that, the Champion of the Crane Clan walked away from the prince and the dead bushi, feeling only his own pain as the Daidoji passed him to take Keizo away. Doji Raigu had accepted that his life or his honor could be lost in this battle for the Empire; those things were his to risk, and he would do so without regret or fear.

Seppun Keizo had been just as noble, just as dedicated as Raigu himself. The Crane stepped to the shadows within the palace, mourning a man he had barely known.

* * *

The court of Hantei Fuwija was spinning; everywhere she stepped, Kakita Chikuma was greeted by another barrage of rumor, spat by some mouth or passed through some hand. In her four years since beginning to serve the Shining Prince in the capital, the courtier had never seen it in such a state.

But stranger than that, the girl noticed, was the number of people who seemed not to care.

True, Hantei Fuwija commanded in word the loyalty and strength of every bushi and poet in the city, but recently, even among her own people, the Kakita had noticed a change. As the Emperor fumed over the continued presence of his son in Kyuden Doji, the Phoenix and Scorpion sought to dissuade his every action on behalf of the Crane. Those informants that she spoke to could give Chikuma no reason; even many among the two clans did not understand what was being done.

Her recent correspondence with Doji Raigu had answered none of the questions that the court answered; she could evade the Emperor's demands through ignorance no longer, and now the Kakita was forced to run.

"Running" in the court was a matter of not being available; it worked well against Scorpion and Crab enemies, who were ill-liked and thus easily turned away. Against the Hantei, however, she found herself at every moment attempting to be genuinely occupied; something that her honor did not allow her to fake.

By the end of the third day, however, the miharu were prepared to drag her forward; Chikuma appeared before Fuwija in private, irate and menacing on his throne. The recent activities seemed to have taken a toll on the Emperor recently; lines crossed his forehead and hung under his eyes, and the Crane glimpsed a few hairs that had turned grey.

"What does the Son of Heaven wish of the Crane?" she asked softly, knowing that he would not tolerate the simple truth that she did not know.

The Hantei stepped down suddenly, and for a moment Chikuma feared that he would seize her by the throat and shake. His eyes were livid, yet there was fear in his voice. "What has your lord done with my son, woman? Speak!"

Chikuma stepped backwards as far as the miharu would allow her; suddenly the ability of the Hantei to command life or death seemed quite palpable and real. The courtier's face revealed none of that, however. "My lord, I have only recently written to my master, and he assures me…"

"I will ask only once more," he interrupted, his clean-shaven face and topknot almost bristling in rage. "Where is my son, Crane? If you would prefer that Kyuden Doji answers to the Legions, then I will…"

"Come now, Fuwija," an old voice, almost mocking, hissed from the doorway, "That is hardly the behavior for the Splendid Emperor, the great Hantei."

"Bayushi Atsuki," the Crane woman barely breathed.

Fuwija looked up, past the Crane courtier, as the voice drew the attention of every one in the grand hall. Bayushi Atsuki came forward, dressed in a crimson kimono trimmed with black symbols; his mask was trimmed with silver, and revealed his mouth while hiding his eyes. "Surely the Son of Heaven does not need to threaten? The Emperor commands the Mandate of Heaven; surely it is a simple matter to convince the return of his only son…"

The Emperor scowled, forgetting Chikuma. "You know of this treachery?"

"I would speak to you on the matter in private," the Scorpion daimyo gestured absently towards the miharu and the Crane. "This is not a matter that should be wasted on those who are not yet concerned with it."

There was something in his words, some threat that Chikuma half-glimpsed between syllables, but before she could think further the words of the Son of Heaven startled her back to the current game. "Leave us, all of you. I would speak with Atsuki in private."

Chikuma bowed, and the miharu reluctantly followed her, each one casting a curious glance at the Scorpion as they passed him by. For his part, Atsuki did not speak, did not stir from his place until the mighty warded doors were sealed behind him. Then, with a hideous smile, he lifted his eyes toward the Lord of Rokugan.

"Let us speak upon this matter Lord Fuwija. Much has changed, and you must know."

One Word Shall Change the World.