The Gozoku
Chapter Eighteen: Street to Street

"Following a false light only leads you deeper into darkness."
- The Tao of Shinsei


Spring came early to the Imperial City, bringing with it new life that delighted the eyes and danced along the ears. All of Otosan Uchi was alive with spring festivals and celebrations, their colorful banners and outfits filling the streets. The people of Rokugan welcomed with joy and relish the end to a long, cold winter, cheering the return of their Emperor as surely as they cheered the fading snow.

In the middle of that splendor stood Mochiko, a battered kasa pulled low over her crimson hair. The ronin's dark kimono was wrapped around her like a shroud, as she stood on the edge of the Imperial celebrations, her eyes watching for things that wished not to be seen.

A knowing glance passed between two officials.

A conversation between an Emerald magistrate and a caravan guard.

Each one by themselves a thing that meant nothing…but Mochiko knew what to look for, and knew what those signs meant.

The Emerald Champion was in Otosan Uchi. He had returned from the Akodo provinces quietly to prepare to greet the assassin that challenged the safety of "his" city, and with him he had brought his most talented men.

Mochiko smiled toothily around her pipe, then moved deeper into the streets…

* * *

This will not work.

That single thought echoed through Doji Raigu's mind as he watched the festival absently; the Emerald Champion was more annoyed than usual, as he watched the occasional glimpse of green and gold where a magistrate moved. It seemed unlikely to the Crane lord that such a trap would truly fell what seemed a competent assassin…

But then, he remembered, that was not truly his purpose at all.

For a month the Doji had considered his opinions; he was certain that his men could capture this assassin in the city, but doing so would incur many casualties, as neither the Champion nor his men knew the foe. Today, the assassin would commit another murder; Raigu had seen no knowledge to suggest it, but he knew that would be the case.

Assassins lived among crowds and confusion…a true fanatic would not miss a chance such as this.

And when he struck, the Emerald Magistrates would be there to test this killer. One way or another, Doji Raigu would see what kind of person his enemy was.

* * *

Mochiko preferred to deal with her enemies close and personal; it allowed her to use her significant size and speed to the best advantage, and it was easier to correct any mistakes. In this case, however, such an attitude was hardly conducive: there were many enemies waiting to see her make a motion, and so the ronin could not afford more than a ripple in the pool.

Slipping into the back door of an empty warehouse Mochiko allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness: this was how she operated, and how Eirin supplied the things that she needed to kill. Running a hand over one of the boxes marked with the Yasuki mon the ronin located the hidden compartment; she checked once more for prying eyes.

Seeing none, the ronin slid aside the small door and reached into it, retrieving a yumi and a single, flesh-cutting arrow.

Yasuki Eirin was not honorable or noble, but he never let her down.

Holding the single arrow, she also knew he did not believe in mistakes.

Moving to the one of the small windows of the warehouse Mochiko let her breathing grow slow and shallow, creeping up to the shutters and easing them open enough to see. The building offered a good vantage, allowing the bushi to see the travelers as they arrived from the West Hub Village. In a sea of celebration and bright colors a shot would be difficult…

Would be, Mochiko thought with a smile, if the target weren't such an arrogant man.

The rider was a man named Soshi Akashatsu; he felt himself quite important, having bought his way in the Imperial Court. Mochiko hated men like him who used money and allies rather than skill and determination to advance their desires and achieve their goals. Dressed in a deep red kimono, the Scorpion approached the assassin's position mounted on a small pony, his silver mask glinting horribly in the midday light.

Most warriors would shield their eyes from such radiance.

For Mochiko, it was the perfect place to aim.

* * *

It always amazed her at the speed that an assassination happened; one shot hissed through the air like a serpent, striking the shugenja full in the face. He toppled, the sound preceded by the shout of his yojimbo; Mochiko dashed without looking at shock and surprise filled the street beyond.

Throwing open the rear door the ronin's legs sprang into motion; she moved quickly down the side streets and winding alleys that separated the entrance street from Otosan Uchi proper, already hearing the shouts that heralded a hurried rush of magistrates.

Footsteps told her that a few of Raigu's dogs had been faster than the others; Mochiko quickened her pace another time, running up the stairs that led to one of the nearest rising shrines. On this day, no workers would be attending to Kusada's latest masterpiece; it was just she and her pursuers as she reached the top of the stairs.

"Halt in the name of the Emerald Champion!" was the cry behind her the moment that Mochiko turned. Three runners with bared swords were close upon her, their badges of office displayed openly now, and their eyes narrowed in anticipation of a fight.

The former Lion sprang upon them, her sudden change of direction bringing another shout to their throats. Mochiko's katana was bared in a rattling cascade of pushed aside Tao beads, cutting through the first man's raised katana to bury itself in his chest. To her right, the second runner tried to adjust himself to the uneven surface that the stairs provided, while the third man, further down, was forced aside by his companion's corpse.

Not wasting the moment Mochiko slashed the second man before he was ready, her blade moving horizontally to slash through his stomach and send him smashing to the ground. The ronin knew that her Matsu techniques afforded her an advantage in this first flurry of combat; against the quick reactions of the Emerald Magistrates, that benefit was something she was in desperate need of.

"Halt or die!" rang the cry from the third man as he dodged past his slain companions, but Mochiko had already rushed back up the stairs. Sliding to a stop on the plateau that the workers had constructed the assassin froze her pursuer with a gaze.

"You are under arrest," he proclaimed loudly, his Crane heritage showing plainly in his pale eyes and handsome, high-cheeked face. The ronin watched his hands as they held his katana, revealing the tattoos that marked him as a member of the Daidoji. "Surrender, or die where you stand."

Mochiko sheathed her bloody sword with a vicious hiss, taking a long, extended iaijutsu stance.

The Crane did not follow her suggestion, but instead merely tilted his blade. He gave her a look that said she had been defeated; behind him the sounds of searching grew closer, reminding the assassin that she had little time.

"So be it. Here I come."

She attacked, charging him with her head bowed and hidden beneath her kasa; the Crane thrust his blade down vertically, attempting to parry the Matsu's draw. Steel kissed steel in a collision that echoed off the hilltop; the power of the ronin's strike threw her enemy's sword out widely…

That same momentum caused the assassin's body to pivot, whirling her around to again face her staggered opponent, her steel gaze meeting his widened eyes.

Blood splattered across the ground with a single deft motion, staining the sanctified soil in the brilliant colors of pain and death.

* * *

Doji Raigu strode past the corpses of his magistrates calmly, his face pinched into a slight frown. Behind him came a few of his more skilled assistants, most of them unshaken even by the fallen gore.

The Emerald Champion's keen eyes traced the path of the skirmish cleanly; he paused at the top of the stairs, glancing back down to where his men examined the slain. "The assassin most likely killed Fasuto with a leaping blow, before he could adjust his stance."

One of the other men produced a broken sword blade; proof that the attack had shattered a hasty attempt at a guard. Raigu nodded without emotion, following more of the combat. "Jisho most likely never had time to retaliate…"

"His bones were cut cleanly through," one of the magistrates said with a nod.

"The assassin retreated up into the temple area," the Emerald Champion said as he strode up to where the final man's body lay. "He most likely parried and swept Daisen's parry, then pivoted, using the power of the draw…"

"Matsu Ryu?" one of the men asked the older samurai.

Raigu nodded. "But more precise than I have ever seen it. And deadlier by far."

"With a killer of this caliber in the city…" one of the magistrates started.

"Even lord Kusada may not be safe," Raigu said with a serious, almost savage gaze. Turning away from the dead man the Emerald Champion addressed his lieutenants. "We must stop this assassin before her influence extends, and soon. We will form a dragnet, and police both the Hubs and the city…"

One of the men bit his lip in thought before speaking. "This plan will not be easy."

Doji Raigu just glanced past the man to where Daidoji Daisen had fallen, staring at his own reflection in the darkened pool of blood. "Justice seldom is."

First Blood…