The Gozoku
Chapter Nine: Champions


"'No one binds me - I am the Emperor.' 'A contradiction in itself.'"
- The Tao of Shinsei



Mirumoto Chokuto had been chosen as the Topaz Champion six years ago, and after that his legend had only continued to grow. The Dragon were already saying that he would be chosen as the next daimyo of the Mirumoto family, and that his swordsmanship surpassed all others. In every way, the famous bushi was a true servant, willing to demonstrate skill and to sacrifice in the name of his Emperor…

Chokuto would come to help him. Kusada knew that he would.

It was no simple matter to dispatch the messenger; the Hantei had grown strangely accustomed to the constant attention of hidden eyes. The Miya would ride hard, north of the city to lessen suspicion; the young lord doubted that even Atsuki knew that the Mirumoto swordsman had recently moved to visit family near Kyuden Seppun.

He only hoped it would be enough.

The Hantei rubbed his hands against the chill in the air as his scribe entered. Ayatsuro bowed to the Shiba Champion, stepping back as he moved to Kusada's side. "Your palanquin has been prepared, Lord Kusada. If you do not hurry, you will miss the opening of the Test."

The Test of the Emerald Champion…Kusada's last chance for real strength. The Gozoku had not expected it from him, but it concerned him greatly that Gaijushiko seemed to not even care. Even a samurai such as he could be shaken…unless the young Emperor was truly wasting his time.

He locked eyes with the older man, wondering at the boundless depth that was reflected in those eyes. He knew that Gaijushiko held the knowledge of the soul of Shiba…that such wisdom had been turned against him was a thought that shook even the Hantei.

"There is no need for you to treat me as an equal here, Shiba. There is no one here save for myself and your spies."

The Champion denied nothing, a greatly dissatisfied look filling up his face. "You have grown into a fine young man, Lord Kusada, and in my eyes already done a service to your family's name. Do not carry your father's reckless nature forward…it does no good here."

Kusada closed his eyes sadly, his voice tightly held. "You know that only an Emperor can rule the Empire, Gaijushi…and you are no Hantei."

Never in his life had Hantei Kusada been struck in anger; his training had been simple and rarely direct confrontation, with the strikes being leveled with soft practice swords. Gaijushiko's hand threw the Emperor to the ground with a shocked shout…a shout that would have once drawn a chorus of Seppun guards.

"Such arrogance from a samurai, especially one of the most noble line? I have seen what the Hantei have done with the Mandate of Heaven," the older man said sadly, not one hint of anger showing through his stoic face. The Hantei tasted blood on his lips, and surprisingly Ayatsuro was beside him. "They deserve better than you, Kusada. You disgrace your very blood."

"Lord Gaijushiko," the Empress said coldly. Her tone drew his attention, shaking the Shiba from his rant.

Gaijushiko bowed to the fallen man, as if to aid him. "I…should not have spoken to you like that, lord Kusada. You are…what you are. Just as I." Then the Phoenix turned, and was gone.

"He should not have struck you," the Crane said as she watched the slender man rise as if he had slipped into a dream. Kusada's hand was flecked with blood, and he looked down upon it with quiet wonder. "He has no right to touch the Emperor."

"I overstepped my bounds," he replied somewhat absently as she wiped his lip with a silver piece of cloth. The Emperor turned back and looked at his wife, "You surprised me as well, Ayatsuro. I thought you were Gaijushiko's pawn."

"Many things have changed in the world, my lord," the beautiful woman said with a toss of her long black hair, "but not all things. You are the Emperor." Her eyes, so different from Inosenko's, transfixed him with their determination and passion.

"You alone are the Hantei."

* * *

Doji Raigu tightened the ties on his arm guards, pulling the silver tassels smoothly until he felt it grow firm. The samurai's dark eyes narrowed slightly as he looked out upon the field of combat that awaited him; a field marked by brilliant streamers and a growing throng of the samurai of the Six Clans. The Crane Champion had full knowledge of what Kusada had hoped would transpire here…

But no one would step forward to save the Hantei from his illusions of capture and undeserved manipulations; Raigu was master of the One-Strike Style…the blood of Kakita himself ran through his veins.

None of you are worthy of this, the bushi thought as he stepped out onto the field.

* * *

Otomo Reju was an unassuming man; his plain brown robes and black hat suggested little of the noble, so little that even Shiba Gaijushiko had nearly missed him at the Emperor's Winter Courts. With a bland, soft face, he did not seem at all the type of man who controlled vast fortunes that his father and grandfather had cultivated…

Another reason not to judge appearances, the Shiba Champion chided himself, nodded respectfully as the Imperial courtier knelt low.

The Otomo were hosting the Test of the Emerald Champion; Gaijushiko had almost expected Kusada to attempt to keep Raigu from the game. He had not expected to see an Otomo before him also, "You do me too much honor, Reju-san. I am not the Emperor."

One look told him that the courtier knew well. "You are not the Emperor," Reju said honestly, his voice quite mundane. "But I have seen things change…things that the Emperor has not done."

"You have cultivated prosperity, meted out honor…and brought great glory to both Empire and Clan."

Gaijushiko looked at the man before him differently than a moment earlier; Reju's eyes and words showed no hint of deception or half-truths behind him. The soul of Shiba could see through almost any lie. There was respect and hope in those words more than anything was.

Such a look from a man he had never spoken with made the encounter with Kusada rush back to the forefront of the Shiba's mind.

"You think too much of me, Reju-san. I am as flawed…as most men are."

The Otomo rose, adjusting his tall black hat as he did. He looked at the Phoenix with a sad smile. "I have seen some of the burdens that you have taken upon yourself, Lord Shiba. I know that, despite your…position, you are mortal and may falter from time to time. If I am to lend my family's resources to you, I do not ask for perfection…"

"I ask only that you try."

Gaijushiko looked out to where the Emperor would watch the ceremonies; he would never trust the Phoenix, now. "We will try together, Reju-san. Between all of us, I believe that will be enough."

* * *

Kakita Chikuma bowed to the assembled dignitaries, analyzing with one glance the mindset of the crowd. The Lion and Crab Clans were desperate for some kind of action; they had not forgotten what Shiba Dohrei had done to the Akodo after the ill-chosen words of one tactless girl. The Dragon were few, and most of those left were merely couriers…not a threat, only sent to bring back news.

As she looked over at Doji Raigu in his long grey kimono and brilliant arm guards, the courtier knew in her heart how the day would end.

Bayushi Atsuki crept forward to take his place as the Master of Ceremonies, his serpent voice reserved and calm. "Pining, Chikuma-san? That hardly follows your reputation as the 'Black Fan.'"

She ignored the Scorpion daimyo, going automatically into the many greetings and phrases that preceded the opening of the Test. Chikuma hated the nickname that the Lion had given her after what had happened with the Matsu samurai-ko; it hurt her soul more than once to know how people feared what she could do to them…

It hurt more that she deserved such words.

As she continued the proclamations, the single change that Atsuki had requested entered smoothly, and simple twist of a few ancient words. Several eyes rose to meet her when the Advisor finished, a snap of her golden fan signaling the announcement was done.

"The duels shall be to the death, Chikuma-sama?" That question from a confused young Phoenix; Dohrei's sister, who knew her brother was to take to the field.

"To the death," the Gozoku said coldly, her beautiful eyes fixed only on Doji Raigu's perfect form. "The Hantei wishes to see the resolve of his finest samurai. Should one yield, however, then of course the Scorpion will allow no blade to fall."

Behind his mask, Atsuki was smiling; Chikuma could feel it, like the touch of cold fingernails against the nape of her neck. The dark gazes of the Lion, Crab, and several other competitors showed her that they were determined to fight the Gozoku's rising actions…that no yielding would come from these duels.

For a chance to strike down the Champion of the Crane, the other clans would risk anything…

Hiding her fear deep inside her heart, Kakita Chikuma turned as the Emperor and his wife stepped forward. Kusada's pale face glanced back and forth among the crowd…

* * *

No member of the Dragon Clan had stepped forward to become the defender of the Emperor.

Not even one.

His heart sank as the truth came upon him. Beneath his breath, the Emperor's voice was shaken. "He did not come."

"My lord Kusada?" The Imperial Advisor's voice was calm and charming amidst the summer air. "May your champions begin?"

Despite himself, the Hantei sat, placing one hand upon Ayatsuro's hand. The Empress smiled at him radiantly; it was almost enough to make him forget what she represented, of the mockery that he had become. Beyond the crowd, Doji Raigu waited, watching Kusada as if what was to come would be a personal call.

"Begin," commanded the Emperor as sunlight split the day.

Hope Has Fallen…