The Gozoku
Chapter Seven: Beginnings and Ends

"Beginning or ending? It depends on where you stand."
- Bayushi Atsuki


Through the next few years, the Gozoku was always present, their changes to the Empire always focused, behind Gaijushiko's vision and Raigu's goals. With each turn of a phrase or spoken word, the triad found another courtier, another samurai or another shugenja who chose to share their views. What started as a trickle swept through every clan and family, and even into the house of the Emperor through the methods of truths and lies.

It was not always pleasant, and even the Shiba Champion could not deny that many obstacles still remained. That was where Bayushi Atsuki's clan had earned its place in the alliance; dealing with the enemies who managed to evade the challenges and strokes of Raigu's blades.

It was a decision that the group shied away from when possible, but each one for different reasons knew better than to doubt this truth.

So it was for five years of dawning splendor, as the proclamations of the Hantei brought bounty to the Empire once more. The peasantry praised the skill and wisdom of Hantei Fuwija, never knowing the price that was paid to bring glory and bind truth…

* * *

Shosuro Norihisa seldom stopped to consider how strange his life had become in recent years; the Bayushi spy had become comfortable, even elated with the challenge of spying upon the Emperor and dodging miharu and Imperial honor guards. As he crept down the empty hall of Otosan Uchi, the ninja could not help but wonder how his life would have turned out without Atsuki's decision to challenge Heaven's own son.

It would probably not have been nearly so interesting, the ninja decided as he slipped silently into the Bayushi daimyo's private room.

"You are late."

The ninja bowed, his slender eyes searching the dark room for his master. The past few years had done much to wither the Scorpion Clan Champion; the man that came into view was more stooped, more skeletal than Norihisa remembered his lord…apparently mastering an Empire was indeed a difficult thing.

He bowed low. "My apologies, Atsuki-sama. The miharu…"

Atsuki's voice had lost none of its power, and the shadowed form of the samurai made his servant almost forget the marks of age. "Avoiding the miharu is your concern, not mine. In time, Gaijushiko will turn their ears as well. What is more important is the Hantei. How fares his health?"

The ninja's eyes narrowed further beneath his mask, as if he was trying to see into his master's soul. Each day the Bayushi's requests for information became more intricate, and by now even Norihisa had forsaken his attempts at understanding more than a few words. "Lord Fuwija's health declines daily, my lord. The Isawa and Seppun that attend him believe that it will only be a matter of days before he dies."

"Not good," Atsuki hissed, his mind obviously already at work. "Fuwija has never opposed us, but now he is dying…what does such a man have to lose?"

"Perhaps it would be better if he did not linger…"

Norihisa blinked once, in confusion. "Lord Atsuki…?"

The Gozoku mastermind laughed; it was a cold, humorless sound. "It was nothing, Norihisa; a passing thought perhaps, but nothing more. Inform Kakita Chikuma of the Emperor's condition; it is doubtless that the Imperial Advisor will be able to put this news to our use."

Bowing once more, the ninja was gone, leaving Atsuki to look out of his window on the gardens spread out below. All of Otosan Uchi seemed to burn with candles and lanterns at the whim of the Imperial House, as if prayers and a few fires could keep the Hantei safe from Meido's call.

Hantei Fuwija would die a pawn, Atsuki knew. He was not worth a dagger in the night, and he would not be able to reclaim his throne.

Content in that knowledge, the Scorpion looked to other things.

* * *

The last few years had changed a great many things for Kakita Chikuma; often, late at night she considered that time in the gardens, when she swallowed her personal feelings and agreed to help stifle the power of the Hantei. Now, the courtier found herself as the Imperial Advisor, wielding the power of the Crane Clan and stretching out for allies in the Seppun, Otomo and the Miya houses.

Those she touched with favor gained gold and honors, while those that she scorned found their lives and futures destroyed.

Dressed in robes fit for an Empress, the Advisor stood silent, watching the court from the side of the vacant throne. The courtiers of the Six Clans had barely glimpsed Hantei Fuwija these past four weeks; whether Gozoku or not, they knew what was coming. Kusada's ascension was no longer a matter of question, but merely a matter of time.

As if he tugged at simple strings upon a kimono, Shiba Gaijushiko moved the court towards action; Chikuma had always been impressed by the way the older man wove his decisions, convincing his allies that they were actually the choices of other men. He was unknowable after all this time, even to her.

The Imperial Scribe laughed from his seat at the bottom of the dais as a grim Crab bushi finished speaking. "I would not think that such a thing is possible, Hida-san," the Phoenix Champion's voice carried clearly. "Surely there should be no vote; the Imperial Advisor can doubtless choose well."

Chikuma had learned many things about the leader of the Gozoku in these recent years; he was calm and soft-spoken, with a voice trained to carry only when he chose to make it so. Sweeping her long hair behind her, the Crane descended, much of the discussion subsiding as she examined the samurai before her with a practiced, almost bored sweep of the eyes.

He was dressed well for a Hida, in modest clothes with simple patterning and price. His face was fairly old, and he seemed versed in courtly customs, knowing enough to kneel to the Advisor when the Emperor was not present in the court. "Hida Yosenkai," he announced with a bow. "I speak for Hida Tadaka-sama."

"You do us a great honor in coming so far," Chikuma responded, her eyes more trained on the scribe than on the rather blunted features of the Crab. "What concerns you that you seek Gaijushiko's wisdom, Yosenkai-san? Speak, and I may help you."

He looked at her long and silent, as if his mind could not decide which path to choose. Then, the older man spoke darkly, "My lord has been told that the Son of Heaven is dying, and that his son is too young to receive his gempukku for more than a year. Who will stand in the place of the Emperor until then, Chikuma-sama?"

By the challenge in his words, the Crane could tell that the Crab was ready for her to say that Chikuma herself would take the Emerald Throne.

She almost laughed at the notion; a woman, on the pinnacle of the Celestial Order. Since Raigu's choice, Chikuma had already seen many things change in the Empire, but such a thing was beyond her scope to see. "I would think that Lord Tohojatsu would do his nephew's memory well…should the Son of Heaven truly pass on to Tengoku so soon."

Yosenkai seemed to soften, and Chikuma smiled brightly as the ease at which he was played. The Crab and the Lion were both so tactless; it was hardly difficult to see that Gaijushiko had prepared for this eventuality, in case the Son of Heaven passed away. Otomo Tohojatsu had always reveled in the feel of wealth and power.

But more importantly, the Otomo had served in the Imperial Legions during his younger days, stationed in the Crab's northern lands.

And now the old man would have his power, by the hands of the Imperial Scribe. The advisor bowed once to the Crab, and then to the Shiba Champion…her eyes lingered upon the older man as he smiled, a silent congratulation heralding the things to come.

* * *

"I know who you are…what you are."

The great figure moved in the darkness, illuminated only by a pair of golden eyes. Atsuki followed the shadow, wondering at what the creature truly looked like. "You seem to think highly of that fact," said a voice both quiet and yet ringing like thunder. "A trait many of your predecessors shared."

The Scorpion looked into those eyes without fear. "Have you ever changed the world, Togashi?"

It was a deeper silence, more telling than any words could be. The Bayushi laughed darkly, his face tensed with spite. "It is something that you can never know." He hesitated for a moment, wondering where to draw the line between power and fear. "I have done what you never dared to, Togashi."

"I have changed the world."

Togashi's voice was unreadable as he said, "I know."

Atsuki removed his mask now, his wrinkled face looking into the face of the Dragon, hiding nothing and seeing nothing in return. "My predecessors have always come to seek your knowledge, Togashi. They have used your wisdom for the benefit of my clan…"

"But you have nothing that I need to know."

In the darkness, the Kami shifted, his eyes still unknowable as he peered out upon the Master of Secrets. Then there came that same voice, like distant thunder. "You will take the answers for your own."

"Even if I go to Toshigoku, I will have no regrets," the Scorpion told Togashi, his small, black eyes burning with enjoyment at each word. "We have become the masters, and taken what a man with the blood of Heaven could not maintain. The Mandate of Heaven is mine."

Atsuki rose, lifting his daisho and returning his mask. The Scorpion turned away from the immortal Dragon, and had almost escaped him when more words spoke to both his ears and his mind.

"All mortals have one chance to change the world, Atsuki. What matters is not only the moment, but also what comes at the end."

He turned, wondering what secret the last Kami's words held, but by the time it took for the Bayushi to face him, Togashi's presence was already gone.

* * *

Three weeks later, the court mourned the death of the Hantei Fuwija, the Splendid Emperor. It is said that the Shining Prince called for his son only days before his final passing, and that his last hours were spent in Kusada's presence, passing on the secrets of the Hantei line.

When asked about these words, Doji Raigu and Shiba Gaijushiko dismissed the idea as trite nonsense; indeed, the Imperial Scribe recorded nothing from his master's final hours of life. Several among the Crab and Dragon cited this as an unforgivable oversight, but their words would amount to nothing in the face of the man who was scribe to a second Hantei.

It has been said that there was a single moment, when the Crane and Phoenix were called to attend the ascension of the regent that Fuwija was able to speak to his child alone. With a shaking hand, the Emperor motioned for his child…

At that moment not even the Shosuro could hear the Hantei's whispers, and no source records the Shining Prince's final words.


An Emperor Rises.