The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-One: Gifts and Favors

"A man will feel obliged for everything you have given him."
- Bayushi's "Lies"


"I am still unsure what Lord Gaijushiko plans to do to deal with this assassin," Kakita Chikuma admitted calmly, her smooth hands bending slightly to pour tea. The liquid swirled up to fill the small cup instantly, its slender tendrils of warmth soothing in the cool morning air.

Doji Raigu said nothing as he listened to the Imperial Advisor, his dark eyes watching her as she poured herself the tea. Though she was not a master of the ceremony, Chikuma's grace and beauty were difficult not to notice; he accepted the drink reverently, sipping it and glancing out into the nearby gardens.

"He has spent much of his time enjoying the works of the artisans recently. The young prince accompanies him almost constantly," she added, pausing long enough to take a delicate sip from her cup. "He does not seem worried that the assassin remains at large."

"This assassin is not the true problem," the Emerald Champion said.

"Raigu-sama, what do you mean?"

Doji Raigu placed his cup down gently, allowing Chikuma to pour him more tea. "My father was a skilled warrior, Chikuma-san; he killed many members of the Crab Clan on the battlefield, and in duels. Yet in the end, the Yasuki traitors remained unpunished…why do you think that was?"

She looked up at the Crane Champion, seeing nothing but truth behind his eyes. Raigu continued, "My father was a man of action, but wars are won in ideals. There was nothing for the Crane to believe in the way that my father fought. They saw the Yasuki for what they truly were, and wanted nothing of them anymore."

Chikuma nodded slowly. "So, we must deal with the Imperialists before the assassin…"

"That is precisely what I believe Gaijushiko intends to do." Raigu hesitated for a moment, lost in thought as he sipped his tea. "However, there is someone that can help us, who he will not consider."

The Imperial Advisor nodded, understanding at once what her lord's words meant.

* * *

The rafters of the row house came into focus slowly, as if Mochiko's eyes needed time to regain their strength. Shifting in her place the ronin grimaced, feeling a new tightness in her leg as she shifted to one side. She did not recognize this place as anything familiar…but at least it was not a cell.

Sitting up with another groan Mochiko looked about the room through long bangs of red hair, studying the fresh bandaged the wrapped her uncovered leg. The ronin's daisho leaned nearby in a corner, and the only sound in the small room was the knocking of the beads against the wooden sheath.

A door opened, and the samurai-ko tensed for a moment. Yasuki Eirin gave her a nervous glance as he entered, his round face revealing his shock.

"Feeling better, I take it?"

Mochiko fished through her nearby kimono for her kiseru, ignoring the merchant as he took a seat near the far wall. "No offense, Eirin, but your place is a shit-hole, and by the places I have seen that means a lot."

"Sorry about that," the Yasuki replied blandly. "My family owns this series of houses; I figured this would draw less attention than something flasher. Besides, I could not carry you much farther."

She nodded, still pawing through her folded clothes. "I guess that I passed out."

"After you killed our attackers," Eirin said, producing her pipe, which she snatched from him immediately. "Actually, you surprised me, fighting so well with such a wound. You even kicked them for a while before collapsing…"

"I'm a Lion," she said curtly. "Surviving battle is what we are taught to do."

Mochiko looked down at the bandages again. "Did you do this, Eirin?" He nodded, and she let out a laugh. "I never thought that someone like you would have any experience in this sort of thing; are merchants commonly trained in battlefield medicine?"

"Crab merchants are. My mother was a Kuni," he explained. "In the south, everyone fights. Those who can't fight tend the fallen."

"I can respect that mentality. And I guess I owe you," she said as she pulled her kimono over her form. She reached out to her katana, tucking it back into her obi as she rose. "I should get going again though. I lost a couple hours…"

"You were sleeping for almost two days."

Mochiko stopped, studying the Crab for a second, searching Eirin's round face for a lie. Despite the fact that she found nothing, the ronin still felt tired to the bone. It was not the kind of exhaustion that could be solved by a long slumber; it seeped into her body, weighing her down like a stone.

"I'm leaving. I'll be in touch."

* * *

"My question is simple: why come to me?"

Kakita Chikuma blinked at the question; she had expected it, but sometimes it paid to feign surprise and flatter her target's "foresight." Standing in the garden dressed in blue and gold the Imperial Advisor allowed herself a genuine smile. "Because I know that there are some things only an Emperor can do."

Hantei Kusada turned to look at the Gozoku representative over his right shoulder, the motion veiled for a brief moment by the swishing of his long hair. The Emperor searched her face for false sincerity, but even if it existed, she knew that he would see none.

"What do you intend for me to do, Chikuma? These 'Imperialists' are not my servants, anymore than your servants are. They serve their own honor…"

"But they will listen to you." The Kakita said pleadingly. "I know that you do not agree with what the Gozoku has done to the Empire," she admitted, watching his expression. "I have seen that it brings pain, knowing what they…no, we have done to you."

Kusada faced her now, seeming to pity her even as he considered his own plights. "And yet you still ask more of me…"

She nodded. "I have watched you for a long time, Hantei Kusada. I know the kind of man that you are, and the kind of man that you are not."

"Do not let the Imperialists and the Gozoku destroy the Empire."

"The power to stop this conflict is yours."

Kusada stopped, shocked by what the courtier was saying. He looked at Chikuma in stark silence for a moment, his pale face not changing at all. The Kakita smiled, bowing her head and moving closer to the Emperor, allowing him to better meet her pale green eyes.

"All of your life you have been controlled, Lord Kusada. Even we do not know what kind of leader you truly could be." Her eyes were beautiful, but when he looked the Emperor could see the sadness that he had seen long months ago. "We are giving you that chance now."

"Give the command. Stop the bloodshed. You are the only one who can."

The Hantei smiled warmly at the Imperial Advisor, amazed at what he heard. "I expected to hear demands and orders from your masters; I was prepared to bear the brunt of any of their words. I had already decided to oppose the Gozoku's wishes on this…"

He looked at her. "But I was wrong. The lives of the people are more important than the goals of either the Gozoku or the Imperialists."

"I will speak to them, Chikuma. For now, I will make them see."

* * *

"You lie more convincingly than even I am capable. It is a wonderful talent you have cultivated, Black Fan. I am certain that your lord will be pleased."

Kakita Chikuma turned to one corner of the garden, where Bayushi Atsuki sat quietly, his dark kimono adding shadows to the sunlit air. Looking up from his book, the Master of Secrets gave the approaching courtier a slight smile, his current mask of white giving her a view of the twisted grin.

"I would think that you do not believe in anything," the Imperial Advisor said with a cold glare.

"I believe in results, which you have given," he replied impassively, setting down his book to study the Crane with those narrow, dead-black eyes. "None of us could have changed Kusada's mind. As I said, you do a service with your words…"

"But I would be careful before revealing too much of your heart."

Kakita Chikuma seemed to stand there in thought for a moment, considering the Scorpion Champion as if trying to decide what he truly wished her to see. He could see her keen mind wrapping itself around his philosophies…she searched them, searched hard…and then, finally let go.

They would never agree on Rokugan's future. No matter the field.

Turning back towards the palace the Black Fan gave one last glance to the Master of Secrets. Her green eyes flashed with passion, and when she spoke it was with courage and command. "I told you once that I would always serve the Empire, Atsuki-sama. I meant that…and I do not serve with empty words."

"What I said to Kusada, I did so out of Lord Raigu's wish to end this conflict peacefully, and the emotion I showed him was true." She turned away, walking calmly back towards the afternoon light.

"And how will you fight for something that you do not believe in, samurai?" he asked her, freezing Chikuma in her tracks with the venom in his words.

She turned back a final time, looking at Atsuki's dark and silent form. For a long time, the two regarded each other in silence, too aware of the other's nature not to fear them, and to knowledgeable not to give some measure of respect.

In the end, Kakita Chikuma had no answer to Atsuki's question. She returned to the castle in silence, leaving only silence in the garden air. The Master of Secrets watched her go with a smile, casting his eyes to the future, pleased at what was yet to come.

* * *

So did another year come full circle in the Emerald Empire, filled with subtle machinations and whispered, covert wars. Winter Court was held in Shiro Akodo, where Hantei Kusada asked for the Imperialists to stay their hands. Though many among the Crab and Lion clans believed that the Emerald Champion had pressured the Emperor, most bowed to his wishes for an end to this growing conflict.

That following summer Shiba Gaijushiko cemented the peace by using the artisans of the Empire to celebrate Rokugan's glory, turning the eyes of the samurai to their duty to the land and its people, while their oath to the Hantei remained quietly hidden away. The title of Imperialist became dulled through these machinations, though the Gozoku knew better than to think they had seen such ideals truly destroyed.

And in Otosan Uchi, the murders continued, their effectiveness bound loosely by the Emerald Magistrates' tightened guards. It became a common occurrence to hear of the death of a magistrate or diplomat at the sinister monster's hands.

So did the Empire endure both blood and violence, until the summer of Hantei Kusada's twelfth year…

The Balance Shifts…