"Strategy is nothing more than knowing how to deceive."
- Mirumoto's "Niten"
From the moment that his father died, Hantei Kusada knew that he was a prisoner.
A prisoner, and a pawn.
It had seemed like such an absurd idea in its infancy, that the clans could manipulate and control the actions of the Hantei. Had he not seen it himself, the young man would have laughed at the suggestion, but he found very little to laugh about. Tohojatsu's brief regency had paved the way for the Gozoku through a number of concessions of independence passed over to the clans.
The Gozoku did not hold him hostage, as much as they held the Empire itself.
"You seem troubled."
"I find very little to be happy about, at these times."
From her place beside the Emperor's bedside, the young woman rose and approached her lord. Kusada had known Doji Inosenko from a young age; at the Academies she had captivated him with her beautiful figure and sharp, intelligent blue eyes. Of all the Crane in the capital, she was the sole one the Emperor trusted
The only one he would have shared his life with, had he the power to make such decisions.
"I know that this has been difficult for you, Kusada," she said to him, pushing long white hair back over the shoulder of plae blue kimono. "But you do not need to fear anymore. Why do you trouble yourself so?"
"Because I am Emperor as was my father."
Inosenko's large eyes tightened; she had learned much about the Hantei's situation, and despite her lord's machinations, somehow the Doji remained near. "I will help you, Kusada. I know that that you can be the Emperor that Lord Raigu wishes to see."
A slight noise against the door drew the pair's attention. "Speak," Kusada said softly, knowing already what was to come.
"My lord," a miharu's gruff voice carried, "the court awaits you."
Kusada nodded, and allowed the attendants to enter and finish dressing him. This was an auspicious day for the young Emperor for today, he chose his bride.
* * *
Doji Raigu was dressed in his finest kimono, blue and white with silver threads along his sleeves. As the Crane Champion entered the court, he was aware of the murmurs and questions of the courtiers; it was a common thing for the bushi nowadays to draw attention with every turn of fan or blade.
The samurai strode to greet his assembled guests with deep bows and proper dignity; he saw many faces that were familiar to him already, turned to his goals in the last bountiful years. The entire Imperial Court was wreathed in fresh splendor brought forth from Fuwija and his regent's reigns
And now there was a new Hantei, sitting upon the throne.
"He seems well suited to the position," Shiba Gaijushiko observed quietly, watching Kusada look out upon the crowded room. The young Hantei's pale, handsome face was tensed and controlled; he knew who to look towards and met with Raigu's eyes.
The Doji nodded with a bow to the Phoenix Champion. "It is an important day for the Son of Heaven, Gaijushiko-san. For all of us."
A parting of the crowd announced the arrival of Bayushi Atsuki, his gnarled fingers tensed around his obi as if holding back some imagined chill. Like Raigu, the Scoprion lord was clad in fine silks, though his were black with trim of gold and silver, reflecting oddly the light of the great hall.
He ignored the bows of his own courtiers and diplomats, his current mask beaten of iron, totally hiding his narrow eyes. The old man's voice was heavy, as if he forced each word to fall. "Greetings to the both of you. How fares our lord?"
Raigu glanced about, his piercing gaze forcing a few of the court's eyes away. "Lord Kusada seems to have taken well to his father's position "
"I disagree," Atsuki muttered, interrupting the Crane. "He will never be his father."
These words meant many things to the assembled courtiers and bushi, but to the Gozoku, the meaning was plain. "He is stronger than his father," the Bayushi said openly, drawing a few smiles from behind moving fans. "He will not adhere to the limitations of the last Hantei."
The Imperial Advisor called for the offerings, each one a beautiful arrangement prepared by the masters of the Crane. Doji Raigu watched each woman step forward before Kusada, content in the duty and discipline behind their perfect eyes.
Doji Inosenko was the last to come forward. Beside the Crane Champion, Gaijushiko rubbed his smooth chin and focused intently.
Strength or weakness, independence or compliance, Kusada would reveal himself here and now.
* * *
They were watching him, even more closely than the rest of the Empire, as Hantei Kusada rose from his throne. Those three, more than any others, understood the gravity of what was about to happen now. At that moment, as he looked out at the beauty that the Gozoku had assembled for their Emperor, a thousand different options cascaded through the young man's mind.
A life of triumph, denying the triad here and now, and standing beside his love as the Empire stepped into a new golden age.
A life of disgrace and failure, controlled by the Gozoku until his death, remembered only as a weak and unskilled line in the line of the Imperial Hantei.
Shiba Gaijushiko's eyes were focused on the Son of Heaven, as Kusada's thin lips fluttered with quickened breaths. The Phoenix Champion looked deep into the eyes of the boy and made the truth known to him; the Gozoku would destroy the Celestial Order if forced to, rather than let the Hantei continue onward as a corrupt and despotic dynasty that the bushi thought them to be.
That the bushi believed him to be.
Hantei Kusada looked down at Doji Inosenko, radiant in a red kimono trimmed with white doves and pale pink leaves. In another life, another world, he would have asked nothing more from the Sun Goddess than to be with her.
The Emperor announced his decision, and the Hantei's word was law.
* * *
That night the three held council.
"So he chooses Doji Ayatsuro; a woman that he has never spoken to, and on top of that one committed to our cause." Bayushi Atsuki ran a hand along his mask's metal edge in quiet thought as he spoke, "Hardly the decision you suggested, Raigu."
"Lord Kusada has been close to Inosenko since the last few years of his training." The Doji Lord was not looking at the Scorpion, but rather letting his dark eyes settle on the length of the long, empty hall. "He has broken her heart; he would not do so without reason. Chikuma has told me that Inosenko has returned to our lands already." They could see the Crane's sadness in his words.
The Bayushi nodded in sarcastic sympathy. "Perhaps Ayatsuro stirred more than his heart "
From the side, the Phoenix chuckled at the idea. Gaijushiko's youthful face wrinkled, "I think that you were more right than any of us knew, Atsuki-san."
"Explain that," the Scorpion said.
"Fuwija ceded to our demands because he held someone important to him; his son has understood that. He will distance himself from Inosenko from this point on, I think he will distance himself from anyone that we would 'use' against him."
Raigu's voice approached respect as he responded, "It is an admirable decision, but irrelevant. Tohojatsu has effectively placed the true power of the Empire into the hands of the provincial lords and clan daimyo. Without the Gozoku, he has no Empire."
"You think him incapable of treachery?" Atsuki asked with a smile that seeped through his mask and into each word. "How strange."
"You know something more than we, Atsuki." The Crane's eyes narrowed slightly, though more from annoyance than genuine distaste.
Gaijushiko's voice was more dispassionate. "What does the Emperor plan?"
* * *
From morning to evening, nothing had changed on the Emperor's bedside; the windows remained open to let in the soft light of a dying day. Hantei Kusada looked out over the Imperial City, his heart more aware than ever of everything that had changed. The Doji had taught him to listen, and in these changing times many rumors reached even an Emperor's ears.
"You seem troubled," his wife said from her place beside him, her pale skin haunting beneath a robe of greens and gold.
The young man turned and untied his long hair, letting it fall down and veil his face as he moved. "Not at all," he lied smoothly to the Gozoku servant, "I know my place in the Empire, a Hantei upon his throne. For now, I will be content with that."
Ayatsuro smiled, her large, dark eyes wholly focused on her husband. "I am pleased to hear you say that, my lord."
Pressing his eyes closed the Emperor submitted to the embrace of his warden, allowing the stirring feel of human contact to dispel what it could of the long and hurtful day. His mind was awash with thoughts of the coming morning
One more chance to seize hold of the game.
A Challenge is Made