The Gozoku
Chapter Sixteen: Preparations

"You cannot hide from yourself."
- Akodo's "Bushido"


Placing one hand on his katana, Doji Raigu waited amidst the snow. Winter seemed to be moving so swiftly past him; he missed the presence of his former companions, and detested the stark boredom of the Akodo halls. The Lion were so artless in their guile and gifting; it sometimes surprised the Emerald Champion that they possessed such skill and subtlety on the field of war.

He turned at the sound of footsteps, and bowed to his visitor with a serious gaze. Dressed in the green and gold of an Imperial servant, the Crane could not help but shine like the sun…

But Bayushi Atsuki did not seem to notice the splendor, wrapped up in his black mask and blood red robes.

It had surprised the Doji that Atsuki had demanded to come and see him; the Scorpion enjoyed dealing with the problems of the Emperor's Winter Court, and was not easily lured away. To risk the dangers of treacherous roads and bad weather, something dire must have touched his mind.

"You arrived here faster than the Lion expected," the Emerald Champion said to his peer.

"Better that this information reached you by my mouth than surprised you," the older man replied. "There was an attempt on the Hantei's life."

Raigu's eyes narrowed. "Was he injured in any way?"

"Not at all," the Scorpion replied. "My man and his wife afforded themselves well…"

"Damn you, Atsuki, you should not play these games." The Crane stormed over to the nearest window, glancing down to look over the trampled snow. "I know that you enjoy such tests of your servants, but this is dangerous…"

The Scorpion Champion spoke coldly, masking a snarl. "I did not arrange the murder of the Hantei."

Doji Raigu turned, staring back at his masked companion. "Then who?"

"Who indeed."

* * *

Mochiko's eyes gazed up at the ceiling, doing her level best not to notice the biting cold. Though the new base on the outskirts of Beidan Pass did a great deal to lessen the group's danger, it was filled with roaring winds and often had heavy snow. The samurai-ko seldom considered things like the weather to be a danger; her life was usually not safe enough to bother with the passive threat of such things.

Freezing to death seemed like the death of a commoner, its slowness and delicacy seemed unlike the end that Mochiko so often saw for herself.

Outside, the sound of an axe striking wood rose up to reach her; there were only a few members weathering the window on the hill near her, which meant that it was likely Katai.

The young man had grown more useful recently, especially with all the problems that had accompanied the move. They were all getting good at living among thieves and murderers…

Mochiko's thoughts were interrupted, as the axe ceased to fall. A few moments later, Katai came trudging into the small mountain hut with his arms heavily loaded, a strange look of contentment crossing his young, hairless face.

"You ever knock?" She asked bluntly, rolling over to try and gain more of the blanket's warmth.

Katai laughed out loud as he started a small fire, pulling off his long scarf and tossing it onto a loose scattering of clothes to one side of the room. "Like you always do, right? Samurai etiquette, or something like that…"

"I think of it more as 'don't give your boss an excuse to stab you with a sword.'"

He just smiled and set himself to the task of cooking; one of the many things around a house that Mochiko had never learned how to do. As the younger ronin busied himself with seeing what was available he left the former Lion to her thinking…

She knew what the Yasuki was suggesting…and it went against everything that she believed.

Just as the Gozoku did.

"Fuck," she cursed after another moment, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. The chill remained in the room from when Katai had opened the door. The sensation of cold air on her skin did little to improve her mood.

Across the room, she noticed that Katai was looking at her, and she made an angry face as she searched for wherever her kiseru had gone.

"What the matter, Katai? Never seen a girl before?"

She smiled toothily at his embarrassment, but Mochiko knew that he was probably more alarmed than allured. The samurai-ko's short undergarment showed off her arms and shoulders, densely muscled and marked with several deep scars. It was a body like this that made her glad to pull on her dirty brown kimono; it suited her better than the reminders of countless fights.

Katai smiled nervously, handing her a bowl of cooked rice. "Sorry…I guess I deserved that, barging in and all…"

"Shut up, Katai," she replied coldly. "You are making a fool of yourself."

He nodded, and they ate their meal in peace.

* * *

Inosenko loved the lingering days of winter, and even the chill that crept up through her bare feet did little to diminish the feeling. For nature, winter was a time for death and dying, but for Rokugan, the monk considered it a time for rebirth. There were no wars, no battles…it was an if the whole land was brought a peaceful sanity on behalf of the snow.

But now, those days would be ending, as inevitable as the rising sun. Inosenko sighed at the thought of such stark regularity to bloodshed and chaos, a moment before she heard the sound of nearby feet.

Speaking of inevitable, the monk thought with a louder sigh.

"Come in, Mochiko."

The voice was more subdued than she remembered. "Thanks, but this way works fine."

She narrowed her eyes at the comment, but then settled down to take a seat. "As you wish, Mochihime. I take it that you are prepared to start dealing with the caravans in Beidan Pass…"

"Katai is ready for the caravans; he will make a dent in their profits very soon."

Inosenko remained silent, sensing something strange between the breaths and words. "I see." The monk hesitated, wondering whether she really wished to know.

"What is wrong, Mochihime? You seem…"

* * *

"…different somehow."

Beneath her kasa the ronin pinched her eyes closed in determination; she had come too far to not tell her now. Swallowing her pride, Mochiko's voice was ashen. "It's…nothing," she lied despite herself, cursing the weakness in her heart. "I have to go."

The sound of a shoji sliding open stopped her, and Mochiko turned to face Inosenko's frail form. The monk looked half-starved from the long winter, and her pale skin seemed almost blue from the cold. At that moment, she felt nothing but pity for the smaller woman, seeing no strength in her despite the gaze of hardened blue steel.

"Mochiko," Inosenko said darkly, using the ronin's name, "you are lying. Can you not trust me?"

The ronin paused before replying. Suddenly the shorter name seemed sinister and oppressive.

"I can always trust you," Mochiko replied sadly. "You always…always do the right thing."

She stared daggers at the monk. "I know that about you."

"You don't believe in half-measures, Ino…Inosenko. You don't break your word, or your code…no matter the cost. Not even when it robs you of your life, your man, and your future." Mochiko made certain that her kasa hid the sadness in her gaze. "You're a strong person, but you are too pure for this fight."

"I am going to try something different…something that they have yet to see."

The monk closed her eyes and nodded, perhaps hearing more in the tone than in the words. She moved closer to the ronin, touching the side of her katana; Mochiko watched as Inosenko braided a long line of Tao beads around the sword, binding it as if to seal the blade.

"Eirin always wanted to see you act as an assassin," she said after a moment, "but I told him that murder was not the cornerstone of your soul. We argued over your life as if it was ours to toy with. I suppose that I should have realized whose choice this really was."

The monk stepped away from the ronin, her look of somber pity more hurtful than any words. "I do not think that we will ever see one another again, Mochiko. Farewell."

At that moment, as the shoji sealed the world between them, Mochiko felt the cold of the world more acutely than a moment ago, and wished to be called "Mochihime" if only one more time.

* * *

The footsteps of the three men were easy to follow amidst the lingering fallen snow, even with the darkness that accompanied another moonless night. It took a few moments, but the swordsman closed the distance, making certain to keep the water from her blades. There were only a few streets that led out of the pleasure quarter; getting ahead of them was simple, provided you knew what to do.

She was waiting as they passed the last alley before the merchant quarter, watching which ones stumbled and which ones still walked with poise.

The last sound the three men heard was the sound of beads being loosened, followed by wet footsteps and the hiss of biting steel.

Death Has Come…