The Gozoku
Chapter Seventeen: Wind and Snow

"Distraction breeds disaster."
- The Tao of Shinsei


Kusada was always impressed how Winter Court always proceeded, despite the whispers and the blood. The Emperor frowned as he watched his wife's performance, her hands sliding back and then forward delicately, smoothly guiding her shining sword.

He had never thought to ask where Ayatsuro had trained; it was unusual for the Empress to have experience as a bushi, and despite his perfect composure, Kusada wondered if even Bayushi Atsuki had been surprised to learn of her skills.

Apparently Raigu had truly wished to defend the Emperor…but that was only practical, protecting his precious pawn.

A final whirl of the katana signaled the end to the Empress's demonstration, accompanied by a single peal of sound as she expertly sheathed her sword. The court laughed and clapped in excitement immediately, most of them surprised and elated at the Hantei's flashy display.

"That was amazing," Kusada said warmly as his bride approached him, her face lightly stained with small beads of sweat. "It has been a long time since I saw the Kakita techniques."

"I am hardly worthy of the praise," Ayatsuro said politely, handing her blade to an attendant. "My father insisted on the schooling, but I have never excelled in the sword."

"You give yourself too little credit. I know what I see in a sword."

Behind his face, the Emperor's mind drifted to Raigu, Keizo, and the duel so long ago.

* * *

"Your duty is to watch the Emperor and report to me on his actions," the Scorpion Champion hissed angrily. "It is not the position of a mere ninja to interfere."

Shosuro Norihisa lowered his head in silence, submitting to the scolding like the dutiful servant that he was. His position around the Hantei afforded the shinobi a certain freedom that he had become accustomed to; it galled him to be questioned now. Even by his lord.

"The Emperor was in danger. I made my choice."

"You made your decision," Atsuki replied coldly, "but you left something behind."

Norihisa nodded slowly, already knowing what the Scorpion held in his wrinkled hand. The small tanto that the ninja had thrown during the scuffle, still stained with blood from striking the bushi's left knee. He thought it was doubtful that anyone had noticed it in the melee, but it had been a risk nonetheless.

He would have done it again, given the choice.

"I did not choose you to make these kind of mistakes, Norihisa," the Bayushi said coldly, hurling the dagger toward his servant with a flick of the wrist. The Shosuro caught the weapon easily, lowering his eyes until the older man turned away. Atsuki returned to his painting, his brush again gliding over a samurai's emerging form.

He knew his master better than to think that he was truly angry at the ninja. What Bayushi Atsuki hated was not knowing what was coming, and the assassination attempt had taken the Scorpion by surprise. There had been no warnings or ripples in the underworld; it was difficult to believe that his spies had missed such a thing.

"Could it be related to the killings in Otosan Uchi?"

"Unlikely," Atsuki replied. "The murders there were faster and more skillful from what I have heard; I doubt that Ayatsuro or Kusada would have survived an encounter with that one."

Norihisa nodded as he let himself slip back into the shadows; he liked it better when Atsuki could not see him, and the practice in deceiving the Scorpion Champion was always a welcome thing. "Raigu believes that the assassin may be connected to the Lion Clan; they have never cared for Kusada's weaknesses, and Gaijushiko's absence seems to rekindle some of their old bravery…"

The ninja listened intently to his master's tone. "You do not agree with the Emerald Champion."

"No, I do not. The Ikoma lack the resources to procure a skilled assassin; even if they had the means, it is unlikely that their honor would permit such a crime."

"Then, there is a new player…"

The Gozoku mastermind snarled at the idea. "Go back to your mission, Norihisa. I will attend to mine."

* * *

Yasuki Eirin had never felt safer in the darkness; that was the place for Scorpion and killers, and hardly the place for a merchant to slip away. His father had taught him the importance of standing in the open: that was where no one looked for you, making it curiously simple to hide.

So the Crab took a seat in the gardens, smiling pleasantly at a few passing Crane ladies as he fished the letter from his kimono.

Not that he really needed to read it. There was nothing written that the court did not already know.

Mochiko had attacked a pair of Gozoku dignitaries in Otosan Uchi; she had been busy since that first encounter, and the count continued to grow. The local magistrates were no match for the cunning of the Matsu ronin; the idea made Eirin smile in his own perverse way.

There were already rumors that the Emerald Champion would be departing for the capital within two weeks.

The rapid progress did not really surprise Eirin; those who served the Gozoku considered themselves pretty much invincible, and it was unusual for them to face an opponent with Mochiko's skills. With certain powerful exceptions, the Gozoku were soft, pampered diplomats and nobles…they fought their battles with fans and flowers, letting lesser bushi swing their swords.

Sooner or later, though, his mind told him, the wrong person will die. When that happens…

"A letter from home, Eirin-san?"

It took a certain control not to immediately rush to hide the letter, but instead the Crab merchant raised his eyes with a smile as he calmly returned it to his coat. "Unfortunately, there are few at home who think to write to me, Reju-sama." He rose and bowed to the Imperial stiffly, again considering how small and soft his opponents could seem.

"They are busy people," the older man replied warmly. "I am certain that they are concerned for you."

Eirin nodded politely, wondering if Reju had glimpsed something in the brief moment before he had spoken. "What place could be safer than the Emperor's Winter Court?"

"That depends on what you fear."

The Yasuki glanced over at the Gozoku supporter slowly, running one hand slowly over his smooth, round chin. "Certainly not assassins, then."

There was a moment, after the statement, when Otomo Reju allowed his eyes to linger on the Yasuki, staring at Eirin calmly for what seemed like a very long time. Then, the courtier just let his face drop into a smile.

"Certainly not, Yasuki-san."

* * *

A black stone took three white stones, bringing a smile to the monk's eyes. Gaman's fingers slid over the board with haunting fluidity, fighting for supremacy of the game. His opponent furrowed his brow in heavy concentration, his eyes following each movement of the stones.

"You are more skilled than any of them give you credit for," he said with a friendly grin.

Hantei Kusada smiled, placing one stone back in its place. His motions were swift and decisive, as they always were when no others were near enough to see. Only Gaman had learned the truth about the Emperor's assassin; even Bayushi Atsuki would not believe it, if the truth were ever known.

"I only did what was required," the Hantei replied calmly. "I had to know…"

"And if they did not value your life so highly, you would be dead. It is strange, to see you relying on the skill of your enemies…"

"They have limits," Kusada said simply. "Limitations are things that I need to know."

"Limitations that I can use."

Gaman nodded at the Emperor with his small smile, his thin robes little proof against the languishing cold. Rubbing his gloved hands together the monk said, "I know that you would risk your life for your Empire, that you would die for Rokugan, for the Hantei. But…"

"I may have need of you one day, Gaman." Kusada's eyes slid up to stare at his opponent intently. "You will help me, won't you?"

There was no compromise in those eyes, which so many others saw as a home for ignorance and weakness. The master of the Four Temples looked towards his Emperor with a serious expression; somehow he knew of what the Hantei planned to do.

One day, Hantei Kusada would fight the Gozoku.

On that day, the Brotherhood of Shinsei would be forever changed.

"The Brotherhood will always serve the Emperor," Gaman replied after a moment.

Hantei Kusada rose with a smile, bowing to his guest and walking away from the unfinished game. As he watched him go, the monk could not help but feel the ebb and flow of the world around him. Hantei Kusada would change the world…

He would destroy the Gozoku, or he would shatter the Emerald Throne.

Suddenly the small man felt the chill of winter more acutely, and wondered how much of the feeling was a product of the cold.

The Future Calls…