The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Three: No Matter the Cost

"Better to have a graveyard of dead enemies, than a single angry one."
- Bayushi's "Lies"


Hantei Kusada looked out on the eternal city, his thin kimono allowing the Emperor to feel the heavy warmth in the summer air. Even in the heights of the capital the evening hung heavy like the breath of the dying; it caused the man to shudder, when he heard movement to his side.

Gliding to the balcony like a phantom in her white and blue, Kakita Chikuma smiled her sad little smile as the Emperor tried to hide his tiny flinch. "How is my daughter?" Kusada asked the Imperial Advisor, doing his best to keep his emotions contained.

"She is sleeping," the Crane told him quietly. She hesitated, something that she rarely did anymore.

"I see."

For a moment, the two of them were silent, looking out at the darkness of the night. Neither one of them had the heart for the words that would normally be spoken. Chikuma was certain that Kusada already knew what was to come.

His three year-old daughter had been offered to the Matsu as an alliance with the Gozoku.

In little time the Lion had agreed.

The Hantei looked over at the Imperial Advisor, studying her beauty as she looked up into the moon. After a moment, she turned to face the younger man. "I am sorry, Kusada."

He just nodded, turning away from her to look out into the night. "I know. You never married, Chikuma…though I know that there were many suitors from every clan…"

The Kakita said nothing for a moment, rubbing her pale hands along the grain of the wooden rail. When she answered, the Imperial Advisor's voice was troubled, "I do not regret the decision that I made. There were…too many duties…"

"You mistake my intentions," he said, looking across the city to the ocean. "You chose the right path. This world is no place for mothers and daughters, anymore than for fathers and sons. Had I known the pain of losing my own family, I would have chosen no one to share this life. It would be better to be alone, than to know love and see it taken away."

Chikuma looked at the young Emperor sadly, as if she searched him for some steel behind his words. Then she smiled in that sad little smile. "Have hope, Lord Hantei Kusada."

He looked up to the moonlight. "I fear that soon hope will be all that I have."

* * *

Ayatsuro could feel her life slipping away from her; she could see herself dying in the reflection of the assassin's black eyes. Beneath that red hair the other woman was silent, her very breath dwindling to almost nothing as she turned to look over one shoulder and then the other, gauging the position and weapons of the Crane.

"In the name of the Emperor," commanded a deep voice, "stop this now."

The assassin turned to stand face to face with Doji Raigu, his white hair pulled back and his kimono trimmed in greens and blues. Standing calmly within range of the assassin the Emerald Champion analyzed the situation with a sweep of his dark eyes. When he spoke again, it was with that same deadly composure, fully confident and calm.

"Release the Empress and you may go."

Silence stunted the audience suddenly, and Raigu drew a few glances even from the Crane guards. Looking past Tenshu's body the Empress saw Bayushi Atsuki turn away from the scene in silence; she could not see Gaijushiko, but Ayatsuro knew he would not be pleased.

"Why would you let me go, for one person's life? I will kill more of you," the assassin hissed at Raigu, tightening her grip on her sword. "Why not finish this now?"

The woman's grip on her sword tightened, causing Ayatsuro to grimace in fresh pain.

The Emerald Champion was immovable. "You have my oath, assassin. Free her and you may fight another day. Refuse, and I kill you here." He touched the ancient sword Shujuko calmly, taking a stance and aiming at the woman's throat.

"Samurai do not fear death," he said calmly. "But they do fear failure. Fall here, assassin, and you fail."

All mouths were silent as the assassin removed her katana slowly, turning to the darkness and quickly dashing away. Doji Raigu called for the shugenja to be brought forth immediately, and Hantei Ayatsuro was tended to, while the Emerald Champion drew ire from his allies' eyes…

* * *

"That was foolish, Raigu," Bayushi Atsuki said angrily as he watched the shuegnja tend to the unconscious Empress. "Ayatsuro was not so important. She has done all she could in producing a son. This assassin has plagued us for years, and now it may be years again before she is caught."

"I agree with Atsuki," the Shiba Champion said coldly, no expression slipping past his ageless face. "Ayatsuro produced an heir to the Hantei. Her life would have been worth the assassin's death."

"Life in death, Raigu," Atsuki reminded him. "You know that game."

The Emerald Champion looked over his companions quietly, his body covered in the shadows of the nearest tree. His voice was quiet when he spoke. "I do not expect either of you to understand this. Ayatsuro is not a sacrifice. The Emerald Champion protects the Hantei; bushido does not permit such trades in the name of justice."

He was immovable. "I will not speak of this matter again."

Beneath his jade mask Atsuki's eyes became slits of annoyance. "So then, what would you do to stop her?"

"Whatever I must," the Crane replied curtly, signaling with a turn that the conversation was done. As the Crane took his leave of the two champions the Scorpion hissed in annoyance, staring at the man's back with unmistakable venom as he walked away.

"He is a fool. Blinded by his pride."

"And yet," Gaijushiko commented evenly, "he did preserve the Empress's life."

Atsuki's wrinkled hands slid along the edge of his fine mask in irritation. "A meaningless victory. Do his good intentions rid us of this assassin, Gaijushiko? Raigu is not equipped to handle a killer of this kind; it will take him months to get another chance to take her head."

"The Imperialists will hear of this, certainly," Gaijushiko commented. "We must move quickly, before they grow bold enough to strike."

"Can you deal with this assassin, Atsuki?"

"Yes," the Scorpion Champion replied coldly.

Gaijushiko watched sadly as the Empress was helped to her feet. "Then do so, no matter the cost."

* * *

It was two weeks later when Chikuma found herself in control of Rokugan, handling all of the affairs of state while the Emperor tended to his wife. As the Imperial Advisor comforted the fears of the courtiers and diplomats she heard many rumors; rumors that would come to a head when the Scorpion Champion agreed to see her in his room.

"You have been quite busy lately, Atsuki…"

"You could at least call me 'Atsuki-sama,'" he replied coldly, not looking up from his latest work. "What a rude advisor the Emperor has."

"Think nothing of it. Rudeness is something that we all share during a crisis…particularly when we are feeling betrayed."

The Scorpion did not turn to face her or acknowledge her challenge, but Chikuma noticed that the brush ceased its constant sweeps. "Betrayed, Chikuma-san?"

"Yes." The Imperial Advisor moved to the window, looking out on the front of the castle where Doji Raigu addressed his magistrates. "There are too many rumors for it to be ideal chatter, and too much truth for it all to be misdirection and lies."

"You are hunting the assassin on your own, Atsuki."

The Scorpion chuckled. "Hunting, Chikuma? That is not the case at all. I have already set in motion the end of this little game of murders…in another week it will be done."

Rising unmasked, Atsuki regarded the Crane, letting her see the cold determination hidden behind wrinkles and lines. The Master of Secrets smiled unpleasantly as he watched the Imperial Advisor observe him, letting his sincerity be revealed in the harsh angles of his face. "Of course, for my plan to work, someone has to die."

"Again with your sacrifices. Lord Raigu feared such a thing…"

Atsuki turned away, looking out into the city beyond the walls. "An assassin does not appear without a target, Chikuma…and an assassin that has tasted the flesh of an Empress is doubtless even more difficult to please. It is that simple."

Chikuma grimaced at the explanation. "You are an evil man, Bayushi Atsuki."

"Evil is a matter of opinion," he replied, obviously insulted. Atsuki glanced back at her again, his withered flesh rippling into another bitter grin. "I only do what the Gozoku have asked of me, Chikuma. No matter the cost. This is about justice, not revenge."

"But the blood that will be spilled in the name of this justice will not be yours," she snapped back at him, for the first time in years letting go of her control. "What good is the Gozoku if we spend all our time stopping the enemies that we are responsible for?"

"Not 'our' enemy, Black Fan."


Kakita Chikuma froze even as she prepared another argument, a single bead of sweat sliding down her cheek. "What do you mean, Atsuki? You know who this assassin is?"

"I know enough to infer the rest," the Master of Secrets said as he produced a finely folded letter. "About you, the assassin, and most importantly the past that you both share."

The Imperial Advisor listened to the Scorpion Champion, dread drawing close to her as his words revealed the truth.

The Killer is Named…