"Wisdom comes in finding the opportunities that dilemmas present."
- The Tao of Shinsei
The monastery rested in the rolling hills north and east of Beidan Pass, built of a half dozen structures shielded from the worst of the wind and rain. The light drumming of falling rain rose as twilight descended on the simple buildings, sending the monks back into their rooms to prepare in silence for the coming day.
To one side of the temple, however, one of them lingered, watching the glimmering light as water slipped down from the steep, sloping eves. Dressed in the plain, coarse robes that were the trappings of poverty and wisdom, the figure looked out towards the setting sun. For nearly an hour those eyes followed the dying embers of evening, watching and waiting as if for some heavenly sign.
"You are late," she said angrily.
The ronin stared daggers at the monk from beneath her battered hat. "Couldn't be helped."
"Come inside. It's too cold out here tonight."
* * *
The room was little warmer than the outside air, its simple walls only the simplest shield from the wind and rain. Taking a seat beside the door the ronin set her katana aside and glanced about the dwelling. "Hardly the kind of place that I would have thought to find you."
Doji Inosenko smiled a little at the samurai, her left hand drifting up to run through what little remained of her close-cropped hair. It had been years since she had decided to vanish from the minds and eyes of her kinsmen, and yet the samurai-ko made the same comment every time.
"You look well, Mochihime."
"Mochiko," the woman corrected, as she did every time.
Inosenko nodded. "Of course. You look well."
In truth, she did not. The former Matsu had changed a great deal since their meeting seven years ago, and despite all of the aid that her new life afforded her, the Doji considered most of the changes for the worse. Scars crossed the bushi's tawny forearms, and her face was shrouded by long, unruly bangs of poorly dyed red hair.
Digging through her soiled kimono, the younger woman produced a long pipe with a forced smile, bowing a little in appreciation of the monk's polite words. "You too, Ino. The boys wanted to say hello, but it wouldn't take. A few still watching you, you know."
Inosenko nodded. "Scorpion, mainly. Raigu wrote me out of his game a long time ago, but the Bayushi has even placed spies here."
Mochiko took a long drag of her pipe and exhaled, smiling as the monk wrinkled her nose to the smell. "Is it safe to talk here?"
"How long has it been," the former Crane asked, "since you felt safe?"
The ronin laughed, rubbing a long scar that ran down the left side of her neck. "You are avoiding the question, Ino." Mochiko dug through her kimono and produced a small bag, tossing it to the ground with a little grin.
"What is this?"
"Loot," the Matsu said like a cheap thug. She unwrapped the package with one hand without slowing her manipulations of the pipe, "Taken from some of Raigu's boys. It seems that caravan groups get paid more and more for passing along the roads near Foshi "
"It is getting harder, I take it," Inosenko said as she sifted through the loose piles of silver and gold. The koku and treasures that Mochiko brought her always went to the same purpose; as bribes used for gathering information to assist in future raids. "Even with everything that we know."
Mochiko nodded curtly, her old, serious demeanor slipping through. "Yeah, they are getting tougher. The Emerald Champion is doing his best to keep down crime and corruption," the ronin snorted at the irony, taking a second to stare at the end of her pipe.
"We were not important, in the long run."
Inosenko pulled her robes tighter against her body, trying to ignore the gauntness that accompanied her new life. "I take it that you have done something to get us noticed?"
The laughter was louder than the monk would have liked it; the ronin rose from her seat and shook her head, keeping her pipe tightly clenched between her white teeth. "Not yet, Ino, but sooner or later I think that I will. That is exactly what worries me about this little game of ours "
"We seem to be making so little difference, even after all these years."
The Doji smiled. "Be more concerned with good actions than great ones, Mochihime."
"Mochiko," the ronin corrected sourly. "I'll be back in three weeks like we planned."
* * *
"It is easy for you to sit here and say that," Raigu said calmly, his rough, callused hands sliding along the edge of the palace's west wall. "How long has it been since you attended to matters outside of this palace, Atsuki-san? Have you spoken with your magistrates?"
Bayushi Atsuki wrapped his arms around his body angrily, wondering for the tenth time what business has detained the Phoenix for so long. "I am aware of the situation, Raigu perhaps even more than you know. The provincial lords are governing their own territories, and in some cases they are ignoring Imperial law. It makes your job difficult, policing an empire that no longer pays proper tribute to the Emerald Armor."
The Crane looked his ally in the eyes for a moment. "You seem disinterested."
The Master of Secrets nodded. "I am, Raigu. Your affairs are just that yours. You chose to wear that armor, and the Scorpion Clan has devoted everything that you have asked for to you in these recent years. Using troops and edicts to enforce the Mandate of Heaven foolish, and a waste."
"You play at something greater "
"Always," the Scorpion replied.
Casting his eyes across the sleeping city with a frown, Atsuki considered a last dried mark of black paint upon his hands. "You are Gozoku, Raigu, and that means that you need not act alone. It was the Hantei who assumed that a single samurai could deal with the problems of Rokugan alone "
"We must be more realistic, if we are to succeed."
The sound of footsteps on the cold stone alerted the two Champions, who silenced their conversation and watched the nearest set of stairs.
Shiba Gaijushiko's face was the same as ever, appearing calm and ageless as he rose to meet the rising wind. Dressed in his finest kimono, the Phoenix Champion regarded Crane and Scorpion for a moment, before offering each one a long and lingering bow.
"My apologies for the wait. I was attending to the young Prince."
Neither man replied.
* * *
They had come to know one another's ways and opinions deeply in the recent years; this was hardly the first time that the Gozoku leaders had cause to clash. The burdens of guiding the fate of an empire were something that the three appreciated; they could not afford petty division, especially now.
Now was the beginning of a problem. It would require a unified choice.
"When I heard about your request for the Hantei's child, I made certain that Chikuma made it seem to be unopposed." Raigu's white hair caught the wind and drifted slightly as he continued, "But in truth, I am concerned what reason do you have for breaking the traditions of the Kakita schooling the Emperor's son?"
Gaijushiko's face became unusually grim; it was a face that even his bushi seldom saw, for it was normally hidden beneath the trappings of war. "I do not wish this is become an issue, Raigu, but my opinions on this are quite clear. The Kakita did train both Fuwija and Kusada men unsuitable to act in the interests of Rokugan."
"I will not submit this child to the same fate."
The Crane nodded slowly, watching for compromise and seeing none. "So, you believe that the instructors of the Shiba can do better than my own people?"
A smile crossed the older man's face. "I said nothing of allowing my sensei near the boy."
"To the point with it," Atsuki demanded bluntly. "It is too cold to play these games."
"I will train the Hantei's child," Gaijushiko said. His statement shocked the two men, though each one was too practiced to show their faltered poise.
The Scorpion placed a hand on his mask, rubbing the rough wooden edges as he considered the Shiba's plan. "That will make things more difficult, for all of us. You will not be available to either of us; who will watch the courts while you school this child?"
"Kakita Chikuma has learned from my motions," he replied with a smile. "I have boundless faith that she can manage our interests, while your informants hold Kusada's hands."
"I have faith in your decision," the Doji said after a moment. "But this will all but remove you from the stage "
"It is for the future of the Empire, and the Hantei line. Surely you can understand the need for such a sacrifice, Raigu?" The samurai could see his companion searching for support in him; Gaijushiko's eyes were adamant, but he knew better than to force his will.
The Emerald Champion nodded. "Take the child. Train him as you will."
The Shiba Champion bowed to his companions. "Then I leave the Gozoku in your hands."
* * *
"This is a miscalculation," Atsuki snapped coldly as he watched the Phoenix lord return to his chambers. "His delusions of a golden future cloud his mind to the truth."
Raigu nodded. "Gaijushiko carries the Soul of Shiba, Atsuki-san; he does not see as we see."
The Master of Secrets snarled in annoyance at both the situation and the cold. "And I noticed that you did not mention to him the problems growing in the outer provinces "
"There is some opportunity to be found in this decision," the younger man said evenly. "Our will may bear what Gaijushiko's heart could not."
The Crane's eyes flashed white in the moonlight. "Tell me what we must do."
A Plan is Formed