The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Two: Crossed Swords

"In the sword, you can find truth."
- Kakita's "Ken"


It had taken more than a year for Eirin to prepare for it, buying what was needed with promises, secrets and lies. The Yasuki moved slowly through the underbelly of the Imperial Court, knowing all the while that he was being watched by wary eyes.

The full power of the Yasuki merchants was now behind him, and it was a fool who believed that such power could be fully tucked away. And so he flattered and gifted the members of the Gozoku that he was able, playing upon his fortunes to turn their looks the other way.

So it was that the Crab merchant was invited to the private residence of Doji Tenshu, the magistrate currently assigned to deal with the enemies of the Emperor's Law. While there, Yasuki Eirin made many observations, and was said to have greatly enjoyed his tour.

After that it was a simple matter to arrange a party.

It was common knowledge that everyone who was anyone would be there.

* * *

The letters from Inosenko always managed to find Mochiko; they came from various sources, carried by a monk, a peasant, or sometimes Katai. Nothing the woman wrote had anything to do with aiding in assassinations; the ronin knew from the formal tone that the letters were in honor of a former friendship, one that had ended long ago.

It was a noble way to preserve the body, even though it housed a wayward soul.

Tonight, however, Mochiko did not wish to think about things like friendship and honor; she focused only on her mission, like a tiger stalking prey. It was not a simple matter to navigate the streets of Otosan Uchi just outside the home of a high magistrate, especially on the night of a party when the area filled with nervous yojimbo and untrusting eyes.

She did not need Inosenko to warn her of the dangers here tonight.

Making her way to the wall that marked the east garden, the ronin slipped over and into the game. To her right Mochiko could see and hear the beginnings of Tenshu's grand party, complete with dancers and acrobats and the polite laughter of professional liars.

Even the air seemed charged with beauty and wonder, as if grace and elegance could hide the true depravity of the Gozoku's core.

But while the south gardens were set aside for the entertainment, it was the east garden that held the most splendors in the Doji's home. Standing before a perfectly clear reflecting pool the assassin nodded once more to Eirin's wisdom; this would be the place to wait for the unwary.

Tonight there would not be the blood of minor politicians or dignitaries.

Tonight, Mochiko promised her katana, you will taste true Gozoku blood.

* * *

"You seem to have prospered greatly since I last saw you," the small courtier said coolly, his dark eyes showing no smile at all. "All of this time spent in the Imperial Courts, Eirin…it is fortunate that the Crab Clan allows you so much time to spare."

Dressed in robes a tab less fine that the Imperial, Yasuki Eirin feigned politeness as he cursed his luck for the second time. Of all the Gozoku, only Doji Raigu distrusted him more than the wealthy Otomo; he had never forgotten their exchange during Winter Court all those years ago, and now it was obvious that the other man remembered too.

Reju's eyes told Eirin clearly what words were hidden beneath those pleasantries.

I do not trust you. I never will.

"My clan has ever been the enemies of polite society, Reju-sama," he said smoothly, "but we Yasuki know that not all battles can be won with only courage and swords."

"Indeed," the Otomo agreed with perfect inflection. "One might need subterfuge as well."

Eirin arched one eyebrow at the comment but after a moment decided to let it pass him by. A fight with Reju would prove nothing to the Gozoku tonight.

There was no sense in flattering until he saw who would live and who would die.

Continuing his conversation with the polite, dangerous little courtier, Yasuki Eirin hoped to see the Otomo fall.

* * *

Hantei Kusada was not in attendance, and it was reported that the Imperial Advisor attended him with "issues of the throne." But despite his absence, the Hantei had commanded that his wife present herself, and among the fresh beauties of the Court the Empress's grace shone even brighter than before. Flanked by her host and Shiba Gaijushiko, Ayatsuro listened politely to the games being played out before her, bowing graciously to compliments and letting gossip pass her by.

There was much these days that she had learned to pass her by.

Gaijushiko had fostered her second son to the Crane in the old traditions, and when Ayatsuro thought about her youngest, her daughter, the Empress knew that her future was the same. Since his "adoption" even she had not been permitted to speak with her eldest child; on this the Shiba Champion was heartless, and whenever she looked only that determination shown through his black eyes.

"You seem anxious, Lady Hantei," Doji Tenshu commented from her left side, drawing Gaijuhiko's attention back to her face. The Crane magistrate seemed truly concerned for her; it was common knowledge that the Empress had suffered from illnesses since her daughter had been born.

She shook her head gently, coaxing gentle ringing from the adornments in her long black hair. "You worry too much on such a wonderful night, Tenshu-san. It is merely the heat that bothers me…"

"Perhaps I need a moment, away from these lantern lights."

* * *

A famous Crane artisan had crafted the reflecting pool, and a hundred tiny mirrors scattered moonlight to all edges of the garden clearing. To one side, a small stone bench offered both shade and comfort to the weary Empress, who sighed as she sank gently to the seat. Beside the Hantei, Doji Tenshu stood in attendance to the lady, his handsome face warm against the reflections even as his hard eyes surveyed the scene.

He sensed something, in the darkness, just beyond his gaze.

"You have a beautiful home, Tenshu-san," Ayatsuro said with a small smile, letting her large, dark eyes gaze into the depths of the pool. "It feels so tranquil…"

The words froze in her throat as both heard it…the unmistakable sound of a sword being drawn.

There was only a few seconds to react as the assassin lunged from the shadows to strike them; in that moment Tenshu was shouting for his guardsmen, and the Empress threw herself hard to one side. Mochiko's sword struck the Doji hard enough to make him crash backwards into one of the trees, the seconds stretching as Ayatsuro looked back upon the bloodied blade.

"Who are you?" she asked, ignoring the rising uproar of the party. Ayatsuro knew what was about to happen, and that help would not arrive in time.

Lowering her blade to point at the Empress Mochiko said nothing, the moonlight scattering off the pool and her katana, its hue reddened by the gore upon the sword. The only sound was that of breathing, and the ringing drops of blood on stone.

She thrust at the prone figure with a snarl, her weapon piercing Imperial flesh…

* * *

As the Crane soldiers came upon the scene they froze in horror, following the path of the assassin's sword with their pale eyes. Mochiko looked down heartlessly upon the silent form of her target, watching the expensive golden kimono darken as the woman's blood began to flow. "This is the price of your arrogance, Gozoku."

She was not prepared for the Hantei to raise her eyes. "This is yours."

Looking down at the bloody spot in the woman's kimono again the assassin traced her sword's path with her keen eyes. She had not noticed the Empress's motion at the moment that she had connected, but now she understood what the Hantei had done.

"You used your hand to deflect my attack slightly…"

Ayatsuro nodded, grimacing at the truth in her own words. "And now your sword…is buried in my flesh." The Hantei gave her attacker a gaze worthy of a bushi. "You will never draw it out in time…this is where you die."

Mochiko felt no fear of death. "I will not die alone, Empress."

"I am not afraid to die with you, assassin. I am ready."

Then came that moment when all of them tensed their bodies, Mochiko watching in amazed respect as the Empress used all of her remaining strength to close her pale fingers around the blade of the bloody sword. Behind her, the Crane fanned out in a ring to contain the assassin...Mochiko watched them darkly, fully prepared to die.

It was worth it, the ronin lied to herself as she looked at the dead magistrate and the dying Empress. All around her stood the guards and servants of the Gozoku, surprise and horror filling their eyes. She looked once more into the face of Hantei Ayatsuro.

"Let us end this."

The Time is Now…