"When the enemy charges us with urgency and strength, let him go by."
- Mirumoto's "Niten"
The road that led to the Emerald Champion's holdings was wide and well traveled, passing through the streets of the Imperial City where the shoreline met the sea. As they moved, the four magistrates made certain to supply their charge with ample room amidst the crowded street, though many took one look at the man's weapon and simply stepped away.
"You have chosen a good time to come to Otosan Uchi," Doji Tenshu said to the Shiba as he glanced back at the dour man. "Summer is such a beautiful season in the Emperor's gardens; when you kill this assassin, perhaps the Emerald Champion will honor you with a feast."
"We all have heard of your prowess," added another one of the Crane magistrates, a slender man who had introduced himself simply as Yashio. "Your fame spreads even in the Emperor's Court."
"What do you know about this assassin?" Honkai's voice was grimmer than the magistrates had expected of the young bushi, but upon hearing it Tenshu immediately changed to a more serious and focused face.
The Doji continued walking as he spoke, his trained voice loud enough only to carry through their small pack. "The assassin is a woman."
"A woman?" Honkai's voice showed his own genuine surprise.
Tenshu nodded. "And there is more. Our shugenja have spoken to some of the spirits of the victims, and Lord Raigu has examined the corpses of those the assassin has slain. Our enemy is a student of the Matsu Ryu "
Honkai said nothing in reply to the Crane's statements, preferring to dwell on the matter in his own mind. In many ways this would make his job simpler; female samurai were not a common occurrence among the Imperial samurai, who wished their women to be pretty, dainty and weak. A student of the Matsu should have stood out quickly to the Emerald Champion
But this was an unusual Matsu, possessing stealth and subtlety unusual for her kind.
" some even believe that there is an revolt on the way." Tenshu's droning tone pushed aside the Shiba's subconscious, catching his attention with dire words. "And that the assassin is an Imperialist, paving the way with blood."
"This makes things more difficult for me," Honkai replied. "I am a warrior, Tenshu-san, not a politician."
Doji Tenshu just smiled back at the Shiba. "Do not concern yourself, Honkai-dono. I am sure that your lord will see to such things."
* * *
One of the first things that a courtier learned to watch was a person's appearance; it told a lot about the situation, when you watched a samurai enter a room. Shiba Gaijushiko stepped from his palanquin with a stern gaze and a smile. He glanced up at the towers, and then the heavens, as if searching for something in the bluest part of the sky.
The Champion of the Phoenix Clan returned to the game with a new focus, and with him came the tiny form of the next Hantei.
Kakita Chikuma bowed low to the Imperial Scribe as he strode forward, his tiny student following the man's footsteps with an amazing poise. The Crane was astonished as the level of control and understanding that she saw in the eyes of the little child; from his smile Gaijushiko noticed, and was pleased.
"It has been a long time, Chikuma."
She bowed once more. "Just over a year, my lord Gaijushiko."
He turned to one of his attendants, and told them to take the young prince to his quarters; Chikuma noted that he said nothing concerning the boy's father, and guessed that Kusada would not be permitted near the tiny child. "He has grown much in such a short time," the Imperial Advisor said as she watched him. "It amazes me to see such grace in such a tiny form."
"He has a heavy burden, Chikuma," the Shiba said with an ancient look in his eyes. "He understands that, even now."
"He is still only a child, and has only just seen his second autumn come. How can you burden him so?"
Gaijushiko glanced at the courtier with another warm smile. "I sometimes forget that you are a woman, for as well as you hide your heart. But understand that I teach him as I do for one reason because we may not be there when he needs us, Chikuma, and the Empire must endure after we are gone."
"Come," he continued, "and let us deal with this new problem as soon as we can. The prince will expect his lessons soon."
"You do not seem concerned by this problem, Gaijushiko-sama. Should I believe my sources, when they say your pieces are already in play?"
The older man glanced at the Imperial Advisor for a moment, his eyes once more the sad objects that she had come to know. "I wish that we did not face the burden of these so-called Imperialists, Chikuma. The Empire cannot be served by this bloodshed."
"We must end this, and soon."
"The Imperialists or the assassin, Gaijushiko-sama?"
"First the heart, Chikuma. Then the sword."
* * *
It took a little doing, getting lost in the underworld, but Otosan Uchi was like any city, and the more it glittered the more it had to hide. Mochiko didn't much care for the company of criminals and opium addicts, but her choices were limited the dark side of the Empire suffered from Raigu's crusade as she suffered, and so they provided an adequate place to hide.
Adequate but nothing more.
The ronin found Yasuki Eirin sitting in the presence of one of the many women that filled this so-called inn. Glancing down at the merchant in his fine robes the bushi considered throttling him for good measure him, or his willowy, pretty, vulgar little girl.
"You do not approve," the man observed as he waved the prostitute away, smirking as she feigned a little pout. "I am only trying to blend in to the environment it would hardly do for a member of the Crab Clan to be seen in such a place."
Mochiko said nothing, setting her daisho onto the table that divided her from the Crab. She glanced around the open room and then at the round-faced Yasuki, disgusted at how freely he sat down beside graft and vice. "I suppose that this is your kind of meeting place? Hidden among drunks and whores?"
"What better place to hide a respectable merchant?" he asked her. "Surely no one would ever admit to being here, much less being here long enough to see someone else."
Resisting the urge to agree Mochiko removed her battered kasa, tossing it to the floor with a weary hand. Eirin's smooth face worked itself hard not to recoil as the ronin's visage. "Who did this to you?"
She knew what he was seeing, and despite herself Mochiko colored from the sight. Behind her red hair the ronin's face was swollen and blackened along the right side, and both her eyes were heavily lined from lack of sleep. They were the marks of her last assassination the Shiba had died hard.
"It's nothing," Mochiko said to him. Her tone left nothing more to say.
"You are exhausted," he said after a moment, pouring the ronin a cup of sake, which she swallowed fast to miss the bitter taste. "This search of the city has dragged on for weeks now, and despite his failures it seems that the Emerald Champion is not discouraged at all. I have been worried that it was too much for you to handle alone."
"Is that why you are in the city?" Mochiko asked mockingly. "Ready to dirty your hands?"
He shook his head. "No. You know that I am not a warrior, but now that I am here I can supply you with a more important things than another sword "
Eirin rose with a smile. "My family keeps a house in this district, Mochiko."
At the thought of a night away from lice and garbage, all thoughts of safety and caution fled the ronin's mind.
* * *
Eirin was not the kind of man made for bearing heavy burdens; his whole frame shook with effort, as he braced Mochiko's staggered form. "I have trouble believing that you cannot hold your sake," the Crab snarled, beads of perspiration dotting his chubby cheeks as he struggled with the lantern in his free hand.
Beneath her kasa the samurai-ko said nothing, her dangling hand still clutching her long sword. The two of them had been staggering down to street for what seemed like forever; Mochiko felt pain acutely with each motion, stabbing at her as she lurched forth.
Which was more embarrassing, she wondered: lying to Eirin about her drinking, or admitting to the Yasuki that she simply could not walk any more. Either one seemed a mockery of her stamina, but despite Katai's bindings the leg wound had only gotten worse.
Besides, she admitted ruefully, it is past time for him to shoulder some of the load.
She sensed them before Eirin's bobbing path froze suddenly; the Yasuki inhaled sharply, his black eyes glancing down the narrow street. Lifting her head, the assassin sensed three figures half hidden in the darkness; dressed in horribly patterned kimono, they barred the duo's path with drawn knives.
Men from the opium den, Mochiko realized sourly. Common riff-raff that would never in their lives offend a samurai, unless they found out drunk or unarmed.
"Let me go," she said to Eirin coarsely, watching as the would-be heroes advanced upon their prey.
It would be a mistake that they would regret for a long time.
Four shocked breaths to be precise.
* * *
Footsteps scraped the empty street under the moonlight, converging on the reflection of the blood. Stepping forward with an empty gaze, the Shiba knelt before the slain. Honkai's eyes slipped back and forth across the three men like an artist observing a canvas.
He smiled. "Matsu Ryu. Reverse Hand Draw."
As if the man's words were a catalyst a lantern blinked out of existence somewhere down the empty street, leaving Honkai to listen to the sound of a closing door. For a long moment, the Shiba stood there among the corpses and considered the black path ahead. A long line of row houses extended as far as the samurai's vision could show him, their colors washed cleanly by the light of the silent moon.
Shaking his head with a chuckle, Shiba Honkai shouldered his lance once again. Turning away from the dead men without another motion the samurai vanished, his footsteps receding once more into the night.