The Gozoku
Chapter Nineteen: Imperialists

"Pure force cannot succeed alone. One needs strategy as well."
- Akodo


In the summer of Hantei Kusada's eighth year the Gozoku waged war upon the mysterious assassin and all their allies, bleeding the streets red with blood. Doji Raigu personally led a dragnet throughout the city and the Hub Villages, capturing and confiscating weapons, information and supplies. It was said that the Emerald Champion executed more than fifty criminals in his search of the Imperial City…

The city's common opinion was that the assassin was not among the dead.

Otomo Reju despised such strong-arm tactics among the Gozoku; he believed that the world would live better under peace and compromise than Rokugan's eternal cycle of death and war. As the courtier listened to the courts he was beginning to hear the sounds of another challenge…

More dangerous than any assassin, "Imperialists" was their name.

In the recent years the Crab and the Lion had grown more independent; they balked at the idea of challenging the courts of the Crane and the Phoenix, and applied their resources to other wars. Those who remained were harder, more determined…and worse, they knew.

Only a little, but they knew when they looked into the eyes of Doji Raigu or Bayushi Atsuki. And with that knowledge came a determination that Reju admired, and a hatred as merciless as steel.

"They must be dealt with."

Reju glanced over at the Master of Secrets slowly, trying not to meet his eyes. In the months since Kusada's near-assassination the Scorpion daimyo had become more difficult to deal with, and he saturated the city with informants and spies. He had been one of the first to hear about the Imperialists…

He intended to be the one to put them down.

Beside the Otomo the Imperial Advisor nodded her head in agreement; Kakita Chikuma had dyed her long hair white and braided it in the current summer fashion, and even in the soft twilight her beauty made Reju's pulse rise. "They have little influence for the moment, but that may change. For the time being, their own daimyo pay them little mind, preferring to submit to the Hantei's decisions rather than oppose a united front."

"We cannot trust that will remain so," Reju said tersely. "This assassin compliments their worries, and we do not know how much these Imperialists know."

"They know enough to be dangerous, Reju-san," the Kakita said coolly, "though they do not understand what they see. So far the three clans have managed to operate independently…"

The Master of Secrets glanced down into the darkness. "But if we intend on dealing with this assassin, that may no longer be the case."

Chikuma nodded to the Scorpion Champion, her long hair dancing as she moved. "Indeed. Lord Raigu believes that there are significant assets being used to favor this person. It will take more than searching the city…"

"And yet your lord continues to waste his time."

Her pale green eyes slid over to bore into the masked Scorpion, and for a moment Reju thought the Advisor would reply with more than words. Chikuma's voice was clipped and controlled as she said, "He proceeds because it hampers the assassin's movements, and prevents the deaths of his prey."

"I understand that you place little importance upon the lives of other people, Atsuki-sama, but these targets are our allies…and our friends."

* * *

It was getting difficult.

Mochiko hadn't thought much of the dragnets when they had started; they were simple to avoid, taking only a little patience and time. But now, as she pulled her sword slowly from the body of her target the samurai-ko was more conscious of the threat that Raigu's plan represented.

It was common knowledge that the Emerald Champion knew the assassin was a samurai; a samurai that could kill like lightning and endure pain, discomfort and deep wounds. What Doji Raigu's plan attempted was not a strike like in iaijutsu, but a long, drawn out and grinding war.

Her hand slipped down to her left leg, where the bushi had slashed her with his sword.

He had been good.

In the first weeks it had been easy to find rest and healing; the temples of the city flourished under Hantei Kusada, and the Hub Villages had many inns with open doors. Now, as the assassin limped slowly back into the shadows she could not decide on a safe place to spend the evening…the magistrates prowled the city relentlessly, and a place that was safe one day might be certain death the next.

So it was that Mochiko settled in the ruins of a fallen temple, binding her recent wound in silence and fighting the urge to sleep. She would risk the open air of the summer, rather than trap herself in some row house or alley hole.

"Does it hurt?" a voice asked softly.

Mochiko bristled, then lowered her eyes. "I am too tired to hurt…I barely feel it at all."

Katai stepped from the shadows in concern, the trappings of a traveling merchant hiding all from the ronin's worried face. She crept forward and knelt beside the former Matsu, giving her a drink of fresh water and then pouring some onto her bloody leg.

"This should be treated by a doctor," the smaller samurai-ko said, examining the sword wound.

"Anything from Eirin?" she asked without giving a reply.

Katai nodded, removing her hat and retrieving a paper tucked into the weave. The ronin handed her the note and ran a hand through her short hair. "You should leave the city for a while, Mochiko. It is getting more difficult, just to track you down. It took three days…"

Again, she ignored the smaller woman, her eyes cold behind red-dyed hair. "This is from Inosenko, Katai…"

"Yeah," she said as she tore a strip from her kimono to produce a makeshift bandage, "her letters tracked us down in Beidan Pass. Apparently she still hears a lot about stuff, like the 'Imperialists' and all that. Guess that she wanted to help you out…"

Mochiko said nothing, reading silently over the lines.

"Things are going to get bloodier quickly, Katai."

"Shiba Gaijushiko is returning to Otosan Uchi."

* * *

From the Shiba ports it was three weeks to the shores of Otosan Uchi; few travelers risked such a long sea voyage, particularly in the face of the rocky Phoenix coast. Those who did make the trip often were usually men who plied their goods between the far north and the Imperial City; and where there were merchants, there were ready guards.

Guards that most often found their skills unneeded among the empty rolling horizon of the blue waters, and passed the time in violent storms.

The samurai was seated with his back to the mast of the small ship, his arms folded and his head bowed as if asleep. At a glance, he seemed quite ordinary, his simple hairstyle normal and his face hidden behind a short-cropped beard. But resting on the man's shoulder rose a strange weapon, its three prongs extending from the central shaft like a cross before the sun.

It was that long pole that drew the men's attention; they watched the bushi for a while, but soon tired of that game. "Hey samurai," one of them called out sharply, "What kind of weapon is that there?"

"It's not a weapon, Goro! The bastard stole half of someone's torii shrine!"

"Don't make fun of the samurai's stick," another mocked happily. "He might challenge you to a duel."

When he did not reply the small group pressed him closer, their leader staring at the sitting man through narrow eyes. "A man with such a strange-looking weapon, maybe to scare the riff-raff away? I have never seen a spear like that one…can you use it, or is it for display?"

A pair of eyes drifted up to look at the speaker, their frigid nature making the leader back away. The samurai rose slowly, his small, thin form controlled and silent as he moved.

"You asked about my weapon," he said simply, "but a samurai's yari is not for show. To demonstrate I must kill you with it."

Those predator eyes, so strange on that casual face, slid over the guards. "Do you wish to see?"

* * *

It all happened in one shift of the boat in the water, accompanied by the sound of a kodachi being drawn. The small samurai turned his weapon's long shaft with one twisting motion, bringing up the tail end of his yari up sharply to smash his attacker's jaw.

As the man staggered all eyes went to the bushi's weapon, the motion shaking sheathes from its three ends, unleashing bright edges into the midday sun. Continuing its spinning motion, the samurai brought his whirling staff down and extended, its blades slashing out from just below his arm.

One thrust and the guardsman was dying, impaled upon the longest of the three blades.

One man cursed under his breath as the shocked group backpedaled suddenly, their startled hands dropping away from daggers and swords. The slender samurai lifted his eyes to trace the bloody smear that marred the center prong of his weapon. He stood there for a long moment, watching the blood slip down from the blade. He looked up, slowly, as if fully expecting his audience to be gone.

Another long, ferocious glance and they were.

The rest of the voyage passed in muted tones, the passengers watching the samurai nervously as he washed his cross-shaped yari in the sea. As the ship reached the ports of the Imperial City the merchants all hastily disembarked, eager to ply their fortunes away from the bearer of the strange blade.

Standing amidst the departing sailors and guardsmen stood four Emerald Magistrates, their allegiance displayed prominently by their jitte and crests of jade. As the samurai strode down the gangplank with spear stretched over his small shoulders the four men bowed low to him.

"I am Doji Tenshu," one of the magistrates said politely, his long ponytail catching in the sea winds. "We appreciate your prompt arrival. Your name?"

"Shiba Honkai," the man replied evenly, his eyes sliding back and forth among the four men. He adjusted his hold on his yari before continuing.

"Hatamoto to Shiba Gaijushiko, sent here at his bequest."

Tenshu bowed low to the spear master. "Follow me, Honkai-dono. Your duties await."

The Challenger has Come…