The Gozoku
Chapter Fifteen: Footprints in the Snow

"I do not fear a man who hates me openly, for that is all he is capable of doing."
- Bayushi's "Lies"

Atsuki loved the chill of winter, even when it crept into his bones. Wrapped up in a warm kimono and blankets the Master of Secrets smiled as his palanquin covered the last mile that would take him to Winter Court. The Champion smiled as he considered the plans and ploys that would unfold in Kyuden Seppun during the long, cold months that were coming…

He almost pitied Raigu, wasting the season in the Akodo halls.

It was not uncommon for Kusada to hold his court among the Seppun during the winter; he was close to them, and the Four Temples seemed a second home. The Bayushi smiled as he wondered whether the Emperor felt more at ease away from the capital: it was a foolish feeling if it existed, for nowhere was he without Norihisa's eyes.

Or Ayatsuro's eyes, for that matter.

Atsuki did not understand the Empress fully; he had not known her prior to the marriage, and their respective missions afforded little empty time. The Scorpion had learned only that she had been a student of the Kakita Academies, and that she had claim to a prestigious family line.

It was obvious that she had succeeded in at least one of her duties; the Bayushi frowned as he thought of Gaijushiko and the Hantei's young son.

In time, the boy might be a threat to them. He would be Kusada's son, and Gaijushiko was too honest to train a pawn.

Folding his arms about him, the Scorpion's mind turned to more vicious things…

* * *

A single glance told Otomo Reju that it would be an interesting winter; his eyes were filled with growing machinations, some in the name of the Gozoku and others in the interest of the Hantei. As the Imperial courtier listened politely to the stories of one of the Ikoma visitors he let his mind wander, drifting over each individual and searching both hearts and minds.

Akodo Geboshi had dressed in his finest court attire; that being said, the old samurai still looked plain standing there with his white beard and greying hair. Reju knew that the Lion hoped to see some of their taxes lightened with Shiba Gaijushiko's absence; they even courted the Emerald Champion, for all the good that it would do.

Standing there bearing his dark Crab Clan colors proudly, Yasuki Eirin was more of a surprise. Reju had heard that he had been stationed in Ryoko Owari; he was a wealthy man, but his ability to procure an invitation to Winter Court had been a surprise. The Otomo could only imagine what schemes that bland, chubby face was hiding…

Turning his attention back to the Ikoma, Reju promised to play that game another day.

* * *

Hantei Kusada's eyes were tense as he considered the game before him; the board was stacked against him, with only a few pieces in play. As he moved, the Emperor could feel the mocking smile of his enemy, ignoring his intentions as if he was nothing more than a little boy.

"You are cheating," he muttered with a scowl.

Hantei Ayatsuro made her most innocent expression, looking across the go board to where her husband hunched in thought. Kusada ran a hand through his long hair with another grumble, and she smiled at him, wondering if she should let him win.

He hated it when she did.

He hated losing even more.

She liked best these moments when the two of them were alone together; they were seldom, and usually came in the dead of night. Ayatsuro's smooth hand slid over the black stones that she commanded with a smile. "You still have a chance, you know."

Kusada said nothing, pursing his lips into a sour face as she removed another three of his stones.

The sound of footsteps signaled an end to their little private moment as the Emperor turned from his place in the snow-covered garden. He seemed to brighten as the Imperial Advisor appeared from around a corner, followed by the cold-looking form of the monk, Gaman.

The Empress smiled, happy to see a little more warmth on Kusada's face.

"Good morning to you both, Lady Ayatsuro, Lord Kusada," Kakita Chikuma said with a polite smile, her white hair braided intricately to match the pattern of her emerald robes. She looked down at the go board with a small smile, but said nothing of the game.

Gaman was not so merciful.

"It does not seem that you are doing so well this day, Lord Kusada," the monk observed as he stifled a shiver or two. "Or is it merely that you plan to surprise us with the true brilliance of your coming strategy…"

The Hantei smiled as he placed a white stone in one corner. "Remember that Fu Leng thought that he had already won when Shinsei came."

Ayatsuro's stone clicked audibly on the board, signaling an end to the game. Both Gaman and Kusada blinked in silence at the abruptness of his defeat, but the Imperial Advisor merely shook her head and laughed at the surprised faces of the two men.

"Perhaps it would be better if you did not call your wife 'Fu Leng,'" she said.

The Emperor nodded dutifully, rising from his place with a deflecting grin. "Perhaps I am just not meant to win in matters of strategy. I should leave such things to more competent players…would you agree with that, Gaman?"

That broad face slipped into a small smile, as the monk took the Hantei's place. "You forget that you have the blood of heroes, Lord Kusada…"

"And a hero need not face the Dark One all alone."

Hantei Ayatsuro wrinkled her face at the comment and resolved herself to give the man a thrashing worthy of Fu Leng.

* * *

Norihisa hated the winter; it added difficulty to the game. The idea of slipping on snowy walkways and rooftops had little appeal to the ninja, and he detested the cold and the wind more than Atsuki's demands for constant updates on the Hantei.

Every two hours, except when he was sleeping…it made the game of go seem like a very long day.

And now the world was sleeping…the beginning of a very long night.

Dropping down to one of the walkways, the Shosuro prepared to make his next rounds. Winter Court was filled with all kinds of interesting characters, and even the Master of Secrets had only so many ninja to spare. Norihisa started past the garden silently…

It was then that he noticed the footsteps in the snow.

It was not that there were not a hundred other tracks from the morning, but Norihisa had watched each of them being made. These tracks cut across the garden directly, skirting the open areas near the go board to linger in the shade. Leaning down to touch the imprint the ninja frowned.

They had been made recently, and bordered the Emperor's room.

Cursing, the Shosuro vanished back into the kyuden instantly, his footsteps and drawn dagger making no sound at all…

* * *

One sound was all the warning that Kusada was given, but for some reason the noise shocked him back awake. The Emperor's eyes shifted up towards the ceiling; a piece of steel descended, followed by a body's black form.

He cried out shock and alarm as the assassin fell upon him, but at that moment motion and a thick pressure veiled his eyes.

Steel struck flooring as the Emperor tumbled, his desperate motions untangling him from the blanket that had crossed his eyes. Ayatsuro was awake, and had flung her bedding between her husband and his attacker; she surprised him with her fluidity, as well as the fire blazing in her eyes.

Kusada shouted for the miharu, but he knew that they would not arrive in time.

The assassin was dressed in a black kimono, and wore a daisho at his side. Holding his wakizashi in favor of the longer katana he smiled, a vicious glee filling up his eyes. "You are in the way," he breathed coarsely as Ayatsuro interposed herself between the two.

Again she surprised her husband, lowering into a fighting stance and narrowing her focused eyes. "Then make me move."

Everything happened in an instant, but the keen eyes of Hantei Kusada did not miss a thing. Lowering his shortsword, the assassin lunged to stab Ayatsuro, but the Empress fell to one knee as he passed her, her left shoulder barring him from reaching her lord.

At that same moment, her slender hands seized hold of the man's katana, drawing it horizontally with an amazing amount of grace. The assassin slashed his sword backwards at her, but before steel could touch her the man staggered, allowing Ayatsuro's katana to retrace its path.

Blood splattered through the chamber as the attack pierced the killer's ribcage, severing nerves and tendons, instantly destroying the threat that he once was.

As the assassin fell backwards with a surprised gurgle the doors burst open, revealing the faces of hurried Seppun guards. Hantei Kusada smiled in relief as his wife let the katana fall to the floor, her eyes shifting over to him, inspecting his body with her eyes.

"Are you injured?" Ayatsuro asked nervously, ignoring that her own kimono flecked with blood.

The Emperor shook his head. "I am safe, now."

Beyond the light of the miharu's lantern, Kusada imagined that he caught a relieved sigh…

Snow Falls…