The Gozoku
Chapter Six: Power


Gaijushiko would have preferred to start the next plans smaller; as the Soul of Shiba a part of him was infinite, and could afford to wait for opportunity to come. But Raigu and Atsuki were mortal, and as mortals they strengthened the Gozoku quickly and rapidly.

The sudden appointment of Kakita Chikuma to Imperial Advisor had been only the latest in a growing list of Fuwija's announcements. As the laws and orders improved, most people did not notice it, but some worried that another influenced the actions of the Hantei.

That they did not yet see the connection was irrelevant. The Shiba Champion knew better than to be complacent, and simply trust that he had the benefit of time.

An example was required.

* * *

Matsu Mochihime had served the Emperor for six years since her gempukku; she was brash and arrogant, totally assured of her future standing at the side of the mighty Hantei. She had served in Fuwija's Legions five years ago against oni and undead under his commands. Mochihime was noble, honorable and forthright…

An example made of such a bushi would put the rabble down.

Gaijushiko regretted that Raigu would not be present at court for another week; the Crane Champion would have added an air of finality to the issue, rather than forcing the Matsu to live on in shame. As the Imperial Scribe rested in the teahouse at the edge of the Western Hub Village his dark eyes wavered…

Perhaps Atsuki was right that he had no stomach for betrayal, but that was a shame a samurai endured with honor and pride. Let the Bayushi stand in the shadows; Gaijushiko would do only what was needed, to raise a true Hantei into the light.

Matsu Mochihime arrived a few moments later, releasing her katana and greeting the scribe with a long bow. Like most Matsu woman, Mochihime was muscled and stocky, with her hair cropped short just above the shoulders and a constant look of irritation frozen upon a rather blunt face.

"Good day, Gaijushiko-sama," she said, obviously repeated rehearsed lines. "The Lion Clan hopes that the day finds your burdens light."

The Shiba hid his emotions perfectly, offering her to sit with a smile and a nod. Mochihime's ancestors had slaughtered Phoenix peasants in battle for more than three generations now…it was strange for her to wish the Champion anything but pain. "And to you the same, Mochihime-san."

He referred to her as an equal, and in one phrase ingratiated himself to her heart. "I apologize for asking that you come so far for a private meeting, Mochihime-san. I asked this because many people have spoken to me of your dedication to Lord Fuwija, and I fear that something has changed within his halls."

Her face became more serious, if that was possible, a look of murder in those deeply slanted eyes. "Who would threaten the Hantei, Gaijushiko-san?" She was referring to him as an equal now also; a sign that the Matsu had already forgotten where she was and with whom she spoke.

The Shiba knew now that the plan could not fail.

"You have heard the rumors, I am certain," he answered her evenly. "Even among samurai, I know that such things spread. Doji Raigu lobbying for both the appointment of the Imperial Advisor, and now 'suggesting' that Lord Fuwija choose a new Emerald Champion…"

It was all too easy, to paint the eyes of a Lion with words of hatred for the Crane. "Raigu…but how can he threaten the Son of Heaven? Even Itagi-sama speaks highly of the Champion of the Crane…"

"His honor is above question, but his motives do not hold the same." Gaijushiko painted a version of the Gozoku with Raigu as a singular leader, revealing nothing of the alliance between the Phoenix and the Scorpion, and twisting the facts behind Keizo's death and the tutoring of the son of the Hantei. By the time that he was done, Mochihime looked ready to charge to the halls of Kyuden Doji…

The Matsu's thick hands trembled. "What can we do? This insult…"

"Raigu is above accusation," the Shiba answered, "but his puppet-Advisor is still fresh and new. The accusations of two bushi who have long served Hantei Fuwija could still do much damage."

"I will see you in court tomorrow as soon as I can arrange it, Gaijushiko-san. We will show them for what they are."

"Yes, Mochihime, we will."

* * *

From the moment that the doors burst open, Matsu Mochihime was an outcast, though she did not notice at the time. Dressed in her Legionnaire armor, the samurai had expected to look commanding, but of course Kakita Chikuma had prepared. Dressed in shockingly simple fashion, the Imperial Advisor did not hide beneath fashion as the bushi stomped towards her.

Her beauty and poise were enough to make Mochihime redden, as the Crane looked down from beside the Emerald Throne.

"What business do you have here, Matsu-san?" she asked politely, and Mochihime felt more than noticed the court go silent at her words. Suddenly the soldier felt as though she had blundered into an ambush…and Shiba Gaijushiko was nowhere to be seen.

"W-where is the Emperor's Scribe?" she asked angrily, "or the Emperor himself, Crane?"

Chikuma smiled; she was radiant, a fact that made Mochihime wish that her face were not so square and sun-scarred. "The Emperor and Lord Gaijushiko," she said happily, "have gone to visit with his son in Crane lands. I hope that I may speak for Lord Fuwija on this matter, Matsu-san."

"You may not," Mochihime snapped angrily, knowing now that she had been betrayed. Her anger got the better of her, choking off reason. "Your clan has seized control of our lord, and I serve the Emperor, not the Crane! I will speak with him alone!"

The silence among the courtiers was stifling, and Mochihime saw the Ikoma hide their faces from her gaze. She heard Kakita Chikuma's fan close angrily. "You will not see the Hantei."

Mochihime sneered, "You dare…"

"The Emperor does not need the advice of ronin," the Crane finished, shocking the samurai with her words. "Or do you wish to remain Matsu, and have your insult slander both the Hantei and your family's names?" There was a great viciousness in the Crane woman as she looked down upon Mochihime, and for the first time the Matsu understood that words could cut like steel.

She stood there, surrounded by the eyes of the Six Clans, and gnashed her teeth in vain. "This is not over, Kakita."

The Imperial Advisor's eyes were like ice as the now-ronin turned and stormed from the throne room, followed by a few courtiers of her clan. Ikoma and Akodo approached to try and sooth the insult of their sister, but Chikuma had already been told how to punish the Lion, before Mastu Mochihime's little rant had began.

* * *

So it was that the Gozoku smote the face of the Hantei's Right Hand in full view of the Empire, forcing Fuwija's orders to punish them harshly for every word the Matsu had said that day. Mochihime was exiled, her name stripped and broken, while the Phoenix Clan inherited her family's eastern holdings and lands, many of which had been seized before the battle of Victory with No-Strike. While the Akodo gasped, their eastern armies were commanded to disband by Miya heralds…

This was the first lesson: defy the Gozoku and defy the Hantei.

But the Lion Clan was a clan that believed in the strength of their lord, and their honor: another army was marshaled, and it marched on Shiba fields. To their surprise, the Lion general Akodo Deruku did not find an Imperial Herald waiting for his legions.

Instead there were the banners of Shiba Dohrei, the newly appointed general of the Phoenix armies.

In the next weeks, the courtiers would quibble over which side attacked the other; even among the bushi who survived the brief battle, few could truly say. For two days, the forces clashed with one another, Shiba patience and Isawa magic against Akodo tact and Matsu might.

At the end, Akodo Deruku stood before the Shiba legions, his armor cracked and his hair wet and matted, demanding a duel with angry words. His troops had been shattered by the arrival of the Fourth Emerald Legion…a legion commanded by a member of the Crane.

Shiba Dohrei came forward slowly on his pony, his armor still clean and untouched from battle, and his face all but hidden behind his helm and thick beard. "Your troops have retreated, yet you remain to prattle for your honor. How can a man who has sacrificed so many lives still think that he has such a thing to lose?"

"Be silent, Shiba," the Lion snapped angrily. "I know what has happened here, and will avenge this insult in your blood. Fight me if any part of you still respects the Code." There was no recklessness in the samurai's face as he spoke, and as the former yojimbo dismounted, the Akodo regarded him with the deadliest of calms.

The fight started before another word was spoken, with both swords hissing as they were drawn.

Akodo Dohrei struck almost exactly where he was aiming; the Shiba's armor opened, but the sword stroke felt no bones. The taller man retreated, his mail crumbling around him after the blow from the samurai's trained arm. Deruku pressed his advantage, charging the floundering Phoenix, and it was all that his opponent could do to block the long sweeps of his enemy's flashing blade.

"What do you mean, you know what happened?" Dohrei's face was heavy with sudden exertion, but as his stricken armor slid free the Phoenix gained the advantage, slashing at the holes left between the broken pieces of the Akodo's mail.

Deruku parried, his weathered face tensed and in control. He returned the stroke, and the Shiba nearly lost his sword. "Shiba soldiers," the Lion hissed, "Crane politicians! We have figured out your alliance, as well as your plans for the thro…"

The bushi stopped, his eyes still tensed for battle, but no more words came from his lips.

Dohrei froze, waiting for his opponent to finish, but Akodo Deruku would never speak again. From the back of the Lion general rose a single black shafted arrow, its tip prepared specifically to pierce Akodo mail. As he fell, one thing was certain.

The Lion understood something of what was changing the Empire, but a little knowledge was the most dangerous thing of all.

A Hero Falls.