The Gozoku
Chapter Fourteen: Changing Tactics

"Spend all your time on contingencies."
- Bayushi's "Lies"

Matsu Mochiko had known these men.

It was hardly the first time that former companions had fallen in a raid on a caravan; Doji Raigu commanded the loyalty of the Emerald Magistrates, be they Lion or Crane. But this time, as she stood surrounded by the scattered remains of Matsu and Akodo the ronin knew that something was wrong.

"All Lion," she commented darkly. "Every one."

As if her words attracted him, one of the raiders came running over to her, his plain face covered with concern. Mochiko recognized Katai immediately; the young bushi had his yumi slung over one shoulder as always, and his faded kimono fluttered in the cold wind.

"Reinforcements have been dispatched from Shiro Matsu," he told his commander, a heavy pack of valuables slung over his hip.

The ronin ran a hand through her red hair with a curse; she knew that Shiro Matsu was not being used as a station for the Gozoku's personal soldiers, and it would mean more Lion graves. Glancing back at the remaining treasures, Mochiko snarled.

"Break off and vanish; we'll meet back in two weeks."

Katai looked at the ronin knowingly. "Inosenko?"

Mochiko nodded, and then was gone.

* * *

"Every one of them were Lion bushi, Ino. More importantly, not one of them was carrying an Imperial Seal." Mochiko cursed as she dug through the recesses of her kimono for something to fill her pipe. "They were Lion Clan magistrates, not the Emerald Champion's guards."

Inosenko nodded, running her hand over a letter that looked as if it had been folded many times. "Raigu has disbanded large portions of the Emerald Magistrates; apparently your raids had a greater effect than you believed."

"So, we should prepare for him to throw everything at us?" Mochiko asked with a smile that curved around the kiseru in her mouth.

The monk shook her head. "Raigu has released his magistrates…and not to service in the Legions. Members of every clan, but particularly the Lion and the Crab, have been ordered to return to their home provinces. The provincial governors have been handed direct control over their taxes and territories…"

Mochiko nodded solemnly and said, "In other words, I will be fighting my own kin."

Inosenko nodded slowly, reading over the battered letter again. "Raigu is clever; he knows that while he delegates responsibilities, our actions fall upon those who have done no wrong." She raised her head. "They know that your support is mainly among the Matsu and Ikoma; how many of your men were once Lion Clan like you?"

"Too many," she admitted sourly. "They will not keep killing their friends."

"We will need to move."

"I would agree with you," the monk said, "but it is not difficult to believe that our enemies likely know what we intend to do. They will be watching for movement, Mochiko…and they know who you are."

The samurai-ko snorted at the information; luring members of the conspiracy out was important, even if that meant that her body drew some swords. "It isn't the first time that I've been slashed, Ino…more importantly, your eyes keep most of the threats at bay."

"I do not think that will be enough this time, Mochihime."

She folded the letter and tucked it away. "I think that we will need more."

* * *

The streets of Ryoko Owari were still crowded with winter on the horizon, filled with a mixture of the impoverished and the elite. Beneath her battered kasa, Mochiko stared out at the world through a haze of annoyance: she hated leaving her companions, and hated leaving her province more.

She did not know these lands as she knew the Lion territories; it was dangerous to have enemies in this city, where any teahouse could hold spies and any alley could be blind.

Swallowing her concerns the ronin spent the next hour going from person to person, piecing together directions from the information Inosenko had given her. Mochiko had known better than to ask the monk to accompany her: for all the good that she wanted to see happen the young woman had no stomach for harsh realities like bad weather and trampled roads.

Or samurai corpses, her mind added idly as the samurai-ko continued her search.

It wasn't that Mochiko condemned Inosenko for her weaknesses; she had lived in the world of commoners long enough to know that strength came in many forms. The ronin had never doubted that she could not have cultivated the network of informants and allies that the monk had.

She had no stomach for pleasantries; truths were better delved out of a sword.

Turning a corner the ronin found herself in the merchant quarter; a bridge crossed the river that divided the city, allowing Mochiko some room to check her map again.

"Looks like the place," she said to no one in particular.

Time to find out what kind of man this "Eirin" was.

* * *

"You have got to be kidding me."

Yasuki Eirin blinked once from where he stood at the front of his small shop, a look of confusion crossing his smooth, pudgy fat. The merchant smiled as politely as he could at the rough-looking ronin before him, offering a bow and a happy, "Good day, go-ronin-san."

The woman gave him a toothy smile, manipulating her kiseru to one side of her mouth. "A damn shopkeeper. Not what I expected at all."

"Excuse me?"

She snorted a laugh and tossed something at him, striking the merchant soundly in the chest. Eisin stumbled backwards, his hand reaching up to trap the small round object against his body. "What are you doing?" he demanded in a mixture of anger and surprise.

Mochiko smiled again as the Yasuki's eyes looked down at what was in his hand. It was a wooden bead, the color of the ronin's hair. The symbol for Emperor was carved upon its face.

"By Lady Doji," he barely breathed.

"Right…though you should remember that you are Crab Clan now."

* * *

The back of Yasuki Eisin's shop was fairly sparse and simple; Mochiko assumed that the Crab did good business, if his reserves were this low. Sitting there against one of the walls the ronin stifled a yawn poorly; for all of the shock that the Yasuki had shown her, he had very quickly and discretely brushed her aside.

There was still almost an hour of daylight, and she assumed that meant money to be made.

Echoing footsteps caught the ronin's attention; Mochiko let her hand settle on the handle of her sword. The outer door slid open smoothly, revealing Eisin's broad face once again. The Crab stepped backwards at her expression, but the samurai-ko just chuckled and puffed at her pipe.

"I apologize for keeping you waiting…Mochiko-san, I take it," he said taking a seat beside her. "I had a few patrons still to see."

"You could have just sent them away, you know…"

He shook his head, sending his short ponytail dancing about. "Actually, that is not true. I have a duty to my clan…a duty that Doji Raigu seems determined to destroy. He hates the Yasuki for what happened during the war years ago; it is all that we can do now just to keep our kinsmen fed."

"So that is why you are helping Inosenko."

He nodded grimly. "Indeed."

Mochiko smiled again, knowing full well how it seemed to unnerve the soft man. "Good, then you won't mind being a bit more helpful. We are in the need for money, and a cover for moving to a different base."

Eisin's thick eyebrows knitted in concentration. "The money I can arrange immediately; for the rest, it will take some time."

"Time your time, Yasuki," she replied coolly. "I'll be hanging around here until you are done."

* * *

By the following morning Mochiko's pack was filled with golden koku, and the plans were in motion to move the ronin's band. Shouldering the now-heavy pack the samurai-ko smiled slightly. "I have my opinions on merchants, Yasuki, but I'll say that you do work fast."

Eisin nodded, his thick fingers idly rubbing the edge of his robe. "What will you do with all this, Mochiko?"

"What I have been doing. Raiding caravans, stealing gold."

The Yasuki's voice grew tighter, filling up with a determined strength. "My family can supply all the gold that you require, Mochiko-san. And it is not caravan guards that we wish to see dead."

"What are you suggesting?" the ronin asked curtly.

"Simply that common bushi are not the true targets of your sword. With your skills, my resources and Inosenko-san's information…"

A single glance from the ronin silenced him. Mochiko's hand drifted down to touch her katana, and for a moment she stared at the battered edges of her simple sword. "You make a good point about my sword, Eirin…I didn't start that little vendetta for this blood."

The Crab smiled a little until as the ronin turned and marched down the street with another comment. Winter was coming, and those thoughts would follow her home.

The Rules Have Changed…