The Gozoku
Chapter Eleven: Like Falling Leaves

"Samurai have no reason to be cruel."
- Akodo's "Bushido"

Hantei Kusada watched as the autumn leaves fluttered down to touch the surface of the water, his own reflection dancing and shifting as their echo passed his way. The Emperor's long black hair trailed out in the cool wind like a banner while his youthful face studied the pool with a detached gaze.

It had been seven years since the boy had become a ruler: seven years of watching, as the Gozoku used him as their pawn. Kusada had watched as the three samurai raised their dreams of a golden rebirth higher and higher, and each day he became more accustomed to the change.

The reflection of his "shadow" in the water was simply another of those now-trivial things.

Kusada had never considered having his silent companion dealt with; the observer was too competent to be captured, and it would simply mean the appearance of a new, unknown pair of eyes. This man had likely been with him from the earliest days of the conspiracy: they knew one another, though no words had ever passed between them.

Those dark eyes had been upon him during his failure at the Test of the Emerald Champion.

Those familiar eyes had been upon him when he went out to dedicate a temple or shrine.

Those dispassionate eyes had been upon him when he had made love to his wife in their bedroom.

It was strange, but amidst an uncertain future, the Hantei took some strange solace in the presence of those nameless eyes.

His own eyes drifted back to the palace behind him, and Kusada could not help but wonder what was to come of the day. All the Empire was prepared to rejoice for their lord at the birth of his first child, but the Emperor could only wonder at what fate awaited the Hantei to come.

Past chances seemed so elusive to him now, drifting away from him like wind-blown leaves.

The sound of many footsteps stirred the man from his reverie, even as the Imperial Advisor and her entourage stepped out into the shining light. Kakita Chikuma's face was reserved and respectfully as she bowed to the Emperor, "A son has been born, my Lord Hantei."

Kusada let go both leaf and caution, passing the Crane to return to his home.

* * *

Hantei Ayatsuro had never felt such relief or exhaustion; her body ached and pounded, as if still releasing the exertion of the day. As she drew breath after quiet breath the shoji slid open, letting a long finger of light slip into the room. A smooth hand touched her forehead lightly, revealing a delicate touch that few would have though the man before her could know.

"My lord," the Empress said softly. "A son."

Kusada's smooth face was normally a mask of worry, but as he looked down upon her, the Emperor's gaze was unusually serene. In the years that she had known him, the woman had learned much about her husband's mannerisms; he did not hide true happiness well. That smile warmed her heart as she lay exhausted before him, and for the thousandth time Ayatsuro wished that the world were different than it was today.

But behind the Emperor loomed the quiet gaze of Kakita Chikuma, her green eyes a silent reminder of duty and failure's price.

"The priests tell me that the child is healthy," the Imperial Advisor said coolly, her voice drawing the bitterness back to the Emperor's eyes.

"And what," Kusada asked softly, "does Lord Gaijushiko tell you, my advisor? Surely he has an opinion on this matter…"

The Black Fan touched her obi noiselessly, holding Ayatsuro in her gaze. "The Shiba have asked that the child be fostered to their lands, my Emperor. When he is old enough, Lord Gaijushiko wishes to take personal command of the young prince's tutelage."

Ayatsuro saw his heart submit, as it always did, to another thrust of the Gozoku's sword. As his hand continued to brush the warm forehead of his wife, Kusada nodded. He surrendered his own child, without so much as a protesting word.

"Tell the Phoenix that I am grateful for their offer…I take it that there are no objections from the Crane?"

"Lord Raigu shall attend court tonight, but I may speak for him," Chikuma replied with that same steely coldness. "The Doji respect the wisdom of the Shiba, and are glad to permit the Shining Prince to follow in their way."

The Hantei bowed his head. "So be it, Chikuma. Now let me see my son."

* * *

A flourish of motion danced across the paper, each turn carefully and deliberate, creating imagery and art from strokes and curves and sharpened lines. As his hand skimmed the surface, the samurai concentrated on the movements of his brush along the darkness, his growing image springing up, unyielding from his mind.

When it was done, a great dragon swirled in the embrace of a hand and a cherry blossom, his scales staggered and layered like the armors of old. Bayushi Atsuki leaned back from his work with a small smile, one of the few genuine features that still managed to touch his face.

"Passable," the Scorpion commented, retrieving a white cloth to clean his paint-touched hands.

It was to the sound of riders that the Bayushi moved to his window, looking down with unmasked face upon the latest arrivals of the day. The Champion of the Scorpion Clan had been in the Forbidden City for the last week, attending to the more subtle arrangements for the new Hantei. As he watched, Atsuki smiled more sinisterly as the Emerald Champion stepped from his place.

Raigu had born his position with the usual marks of a distinguished Crane Champion: dignity, excellence and quiet poise. As the younger man removed his helmet he glanced up to meet the gaze of his ally, his long hair sliding down to form an ivory frame.

They would meet tonight, to discuss the future…it was a subject that the Champion felt more acutely now, as he looked upon the face of the lord of the Crane. When he had first met him, Raigu had possessed the cheap beauty of youthfulness, but now he had gained the nobility that the Scorpion compared to the Emperors of old.

"It will be a long meeting tonight," the samurai commented.

Norihisa's voice came from somewhere towards the far corner, as always unassuming and reserved. "Lord Raigu has already sent a message for you, Lord Atsuki. I did not wish to interrupt your painting."

The Scorpion turned towards the ninja, but was hardly surprised when he did not see the Shosuro's form. "Is your life so boring that you have time to play at being a courier, Norishisa, or is it simply that you enjoy the presence of my art?"

"Your technique has improved greatly," the voice replied jokingly. "I am surprised that you do not attend the cultural needs of the Hantei."

Atsuki shook his head with a sneer as he retrieved his mask and his daisho, once more swathing himself in the cold accompaniments of command. Sarcasm and art notwithstanding, he knew that it had been more than a year since the three masters had gathered together…

It would be a very long day.

* * *

That night the Imperial Court celebrated in grand fashion, offering gifts and honors in the name of Kusada's firstborn son. In the gardens of Otosan Uchi artisans and entertainers vied for the attention of the Splendid Emperor, setting the autumn air ablaze with white streamers and prismatic kimonos.

Doji Raigu watched the display with a silent, weary gaze. The Emerald Champion had little time to spend these days on festivals and plays; his time was stretched tightly between the laws of the Empire and the daily business of the Crane.

At times, Raigu wondered if he was indeed still a member of the Gozoku or merely another pawn placed more prominently in play.

"You seem weary, Lord Raigu," spoke a voice familiar to the Crane lord. Otomo Reju bowed to the Emerald Champion, his tall black hat almost toppling from his head as he did. The courtier held a small cup of sake in his right hand, and his fine golden robes reminded the Doji of the wealth that made the man's support so valued to their cause.

"The duties of the Emerald Armor are not something that I wear lightly," the man replied, allowing his hand to settle on his family's sword.

Reju nodded, his round face tilting artfully towards the nearest of the Imperial guards. "Indeed. I have heard that there have been several problems in the Lion Provinces. The daimyo have grown more reckless, and ignore the Emperor's decrees…"

Raigu's face grew harsh. "Enough. I did not come here to be reminded of my duties."

"I apologize," the courtier said quickly, bowing his head as a servant might do. He glanced up again after a moment, "But Lord Raigu, if I may ask, why are you here? You have not attended the Hantei's court in many months…"

The Crane narrowed his eyes, a sweeping gaze testing the distance between the two men and the rest of the smiling court. When he was satisfied, Raigu frowned and said, "There will be a meeting tonight. Lord Kusada's heir is important to the restoration of the true Hantei line."

Reju just nodded, his small eyes still watching the Emerald Champion closely. "I see. I was under the understanding that Lord Gaijushiko had requested that his family be responsible for the young Prince's education. The Imperial Advisor has already spoken with the Emperor…"

"There is more to this meeting than you tell me, Lord Raigu," the Otomo finished with a confident grin.

"Concern yourself with the duties we demand of you, Reju-san. The Gozoku act in the interests of the Empire…or have the recent years changed your mind?"

"They have not," Reju said quickly, never losing his poise. "I have never seen the Empire so flourish in art and culture," the courtier said with a long glance over the grand party, "and the height of the Emperor's coffers continue to rise."

The Otomo turned back to regard the Crane Champion. "As do your coffers, unless I am mistaken."

Again, a hand shifted, resting more heavily upon the ancient sword. Doji Raigu turned away from the courtier without answering, his eyes focused on some other goal. Reju watched him in silence for a moment: it was obvious that something greater than Kusada's child concerned the Gozoku lord.

"A complication," the courtier said to no one in particular. After one more moment watching the Emerald Champion take his leave Otomo Reju returned to the party, his thoughts more troubled as he crossed the fallen leaves…

Night Falls…