"The world around us is in a constant state of change."
- Kakita's "Ken"
It was in that moment, when the Emperor demanded that the Bayushi recover his child, when everything that Atsuki had wondered rushed to the forefront of his mind. A life of ignoble deeds in service to an iron dynasty chained by his ancestors' oaths to a family that condemned and neglected his role. Another life, a life of command, standing in the shadows of true power as a Scorpion was meant to do.
In that moment, Bayushi Atsuki made his choice, and changed the world with a single word.
For some reason, the word resounded loudly, as if the very kami surrounding them felt jarred to hear it spoken in this room. Hantei Fuwija stared at his once-servant blankly, searching for some stupid jest or mistake hidden beneath the mask's slitted eyes.
He found nothing.
"What is this treachery?" the Emperor asked, hardly believing what he had heard. His eyes turned backwards, to where he kept his family's sword. "You have betrayed me, Atsuki."
Atsuki did not smile, despite the fierce joy he felt in denying the mighty Hantei. He looked deep into the man's eyes, and saw no readied contingency, no plan for escape from this situation. "You seem surprised to hear that a Bayushi would betray another in the service of the Empire, Lord Fuwija. You of all people should know, that has always been our duty as demanded by Hantei."
The Emperor stepped backwards another step, some of his fierceness coming back into his vision as his mind finally overcome the shock of the Scorpion's plan. "For the Empire, Atsuki? You know better; the Hantei are the Empire!"
A look of disgust, barely noticeable, flicked across the edges of the Bayushi's hidden face. "Not true, my lord. The Emperor, the magistrates, the clans they have never existed merely to further their own goals, no matter what so many samurai may believe." He looked toward the Emerald Throne, and wondered what it felt like, "Should the Emperor not exist to guide the Empire, as Hantei did long ago?"
"You have no right to judge me, Bayushi," Fuwija said coldly, all his ire forced upon Atsuki's family name. "I am the Hantei. You have always served my word with honor before "
"Before you risked your life as if you were a common bushi seeking glory," the Scorpion finished. The thought still disgusted him, but Atsuki could see no sign that the Emperor was ready to parley. "I have watched you, my lord. Yes, I have watched as you crippled your Left and Right Hand before the entire Imperial Court, Lord Fuwija. You announced your self-inflicted weakness to all. We will not let this continue; too much is at stake for the Hantei to be consumed by pride."
"You said 'we,'" the Emperor replied, his voice more hesitant than it had been a moment before.
Atsuki looked up and nodded, feeling that the battle was closer to an end. "I did, my lord."
Hantei Fuwija remained where he was standing, his mind working feverishly despite the forced calm that had overcome his face. As he maneuvered through the possibilities and options, the Emperor could find only one answer, which he gave after turning and stepping back up to his throne. As he moved, he seemed to grow suddenly older, stooped by the coming decision even as regret filled those black eyes.
"My son is the heir to the Empire, Atsuki. Should any harm come to him "
"None will, my lord." It was not that the Master of Secrets cared about the Hantei's child; what he had heard of the boy did not impress him, and it might be more agreeable to see a nephew take the throne. "Now, let us discuss more pleasant things."
The Champion told the Emperor many things in the next few hours, all the while his black eyes narrowed in elation as he looked down upon the Emerald Throne.
* * *
When the three met once more with one another summer had come to the Empire, and with it came the festivals that the people of Rokugan so loved. As bright streamers and ikebana filled Kyuden Doji like brilliant frozen rainbows Bayushi Atsuki stepped from his palanquin, his mask a bright red with white edges and a single emerald tear marked upon one side.
Beside him, Shosuro Norihisa stood dressed in the black robes of a samurai and watched the Crane soldiers, a borrowed daisho ready at his side.
"Has the Emperor arrived yet, Norihisa?" the older man asked after the two men had passed the Doji House Guard. "It is unlikely that he would miss the celebration of his son's birth, especially in his late mother's house."
The ninja glanced to his lord through a simple wooden mask, his narrow gaze as always perfectly calm. "We have heard that he arrived last night, Lord Atsuki."
Both men stepped out into the Fantastic Gardens, and Atsuki smiled slightly at what he saw. The Emperor sat in the center of the party, his every side flanked by beautiful Crane courtiers and smiling Phoenix artisans. Fuwija was dressed in his normal robes trimmed with gold tassels; the Scorpion noticed the eyes of the Hantei upon him already even as the Scorpion guessed at what the courtiers truly smiled for.
"You have your duties, Norihisa," the Scorpion said with amusement in his eyes. The ninja nodded, and moved calmly into the bright and shining crowd.
Atsuki smiled slightly as Fuwija glanced down to his where his son watched a trio of Kakita acrobats tumble along the open ground. Neither father nor son seemed totally as ease as they watched the performance; perhaps there was more guile in them than Gaijushiko had suggested. After all, they knew when to be afraid.
"You are going too far, Atsuki."
The Scorpion had not heard the Phoenix Champion come upon him, but Atsuki neither jumped nor stuttered as he glanced to his right. Shiba Gaijushiko was dressed simply in white and orange, with his hair arranged in a slightly more fashionable topknot for the prince's birthday. "Too far, Gaijushiko-san? Humor an old man, and explain yourself a little more."
The Shiba laughed once, causing his hair to dance and bob. "A fine thing to say to one who greeted you on the day of your ascension to champion, Atsuki-san." His tone turned serious again, once the reaction had turned some of the more curious away. "Your tone with your superiors has not improved."
"Lies and rumors," the Scorpion responded. "Who would defy the Hantei?"
Both men regarded one another for a moment; then, with the reverence of a shugenja, Bayushi Atsuki bowed and stepped aside. "I apologize for my words, Gaijushiko-san. Opposing the wisdom of the Phoenix is not something that a knowledgeable Scorpion would do."
The Shiba arched one eyebrow at the statement, but folded his arms and turned back to the show. A play had just started, one of the new works of the Crane's current master writer; both men noticed that Doji Raigu made no motion to come and greet them, as they watched the beginning of the first scene.
"I heard that Raigu killed a man in a duel, here in Kyuden Doji."
"His hand was forced," Gaijushiko replied sadly, watching as the actor playing Osano-Wo strode about the area, his fearsome makeup drawing gasps from some among the crowd. "It is unfortunate that the Doji was made to do something like that in his own home, and especially in the presence of young Master Kusada "
"Such actions have their place," Atsuki replied openly, "and their time."
Shiba Gaijushiko stood there for a long moment, ignoring the Bayushi as he watched the rising action of the play. Though they did not understand what was being said, the courtiers and bushi were listening to the two champions; an idle comment could do great danger here.
"You do not seem to share my opinion, Gaijushiko-san. Do you think that Lord Raigu was wrong in using force when he had no other way?"
The Phoenix glanced over at his ally, a slight frown marring his face. "We are men of both action and principle, Atsuki-san, and I know that Doji Raigu is of the same mind. He would never use force, never waste a life when it was not required."
"I wish that all the Emperor's samurai acted the same."
To the rest of the listeners, this closed the debate on the subject; courtiers hid their faces behind fans and moved on to more interesting gambles, while several of the bushi allowed their eyes to return to the play. But for Bayushi Atsuki, those words had been a grant for greater action
He would speak with Doji Raigu, before the end of the day.
* * *
That night, in secrecy and silence, the three met once more in the gardens, though this time they did not come alone. Three more figures stood in the shadows beside them, swathed in bright colors listening to the whispered words of their lords.
Kakita Chikuma was dressed more simply than she had that morning; her dark hair was pulled up in a long tail that bobbed and danced as she turned from person to person, studying their expressions as well as their words. The Crane courtier listened for a long time in silence, her face the perfect example of prepared and frozen calm.
Shiba Dohrei wore his expressions more plainly; the tall bushi listened intently to each word that his master spoke, letting all other words slide unnoticed past his gaze. With his daisho at his side, the samurai seemed ready for battle as Gaijushiko explained himself and the triad's secret 'war.'
Compared to the representatives of the other clans, Shosuro Norihisa seemed quite underdressed and plain. Hidden beneath a mask of wood and paint the ninja said nothing as the words were spoken, his eyes more interested in the darkness beyond the hanging lantern light. Even when the explanation was finished, the Scorpion said nothing, content to trust the opinions of his lord.
"You would blackmail the Son of Heaven, Lord Raigu?" Chikuma's face was filled with worry, and she looked upon her lord as if he was an oni in disguise. "This cannot be right."
"It is the case," the Doji answered sadly. He glanced over at his allies, one and then the other, before continuing. "You know more than most what has been happening in these recent years, Chikuma. The laws grow weaker with each hour, and without a declaration for the Test, the position of Emerald Champion remains unfilled. Lord Fuwija cannot control the Empire on his own indeed, perhaps no single man can. Rokugan has exceeded the size that is manageable for a single empire."
"People suffer for the will of the Imperial Line, rather than being protected by them," Shiba Gaijushiko added sourly, his youthful face for once showing many worry lines. "I am sure that you have seen these things, Chikuma."
"We all have," the Crane woman sadly replied. "But still "
"This alliance of the clans, this gozoku," Doji Raigu said after a moment, "can change what has transpired in recent years. The Clans would be free to police their own borders, without undo interference from the Imperial Legions or the Hantei."
Bayushi Atsuki tapped on his mask's metal edge, a ringing sound that drew the other's eyes. "'Gozoku,' Raigu-san? A bit melodramatic, but it seems to suit our goals."
"It seems a bit early to waste time on titles," Gaijushiko said sourly, rubbing the edge of his kimono sleeve as he watched the party still lighting Kyuden Doji's halls. "There is still so much to do, which is why we have asked the three of you to come here. There are already many who are prepared to preserve the peace of the Empire "
The three told their servants what the next months would hold for them, their words forming the foundation for the power that the Gozoku would soon be