The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Four: Plans within Plans

"One must learn to see what is seen and see through what others wish you to see."
- The Tao of Shinsei


It was during one of the last days of summer that Yasuki Eirin again made contact with Mochiko, following his sources and the clues that she left behind. The merchant moved down the side streets of the Temple District quietly, his narrow eyes shifting back and forth slowly, more cautious since the encounter between Raigu and the ronin.

This game was becoming more dangerous, and Eirin was a fool to think that he simply stood above any possible blame. The Emerald Champion now knew exactly what Mochiko looked like, and wherever the Crab turned there were pictures drawn depicting the samurai, her kimono and her stupid, battered hat. It was only a matter of time.

His thoughts stopped as Eirin arrived at one of the half-finished temples in the city, calmly stepping past the piles of lumber and discarded tools to step into the shadows of a half-finished room.

"I thought that you had forgotten," the assassin's voice said from his right. Eirin turned, but only saw a puff of kiseru smoke and a silhouette. "I know that you don't like these meetings to be face to face."

"The situation requires nothing less," the merchant replied calmly.

Though he could not see them, the Yasuki felt the sensation of Mochiko suddenly focusing on him with her eyes. "Tell me."

"You know that the Emerald Champion has been searching the city for you," Eirin said simply, plopping himself down on a pile of stacked wood. "His magistrates have been recalled from many of the outlying provinces to deal with this…"

"Good," Mochiko replied bluntly. "Fewer problems for Katai and the others."

The Crab did not reply, but simply continued his explanation. "But that is not all. Rumors in the court swirl around Bayushi Atsuki; some say that he has taken personal control of part of this 'investigation.' He will be meeting with his informants again in three days."

Mochiko's breath skipped a beat. "How do you know this? The Scorpion's secrets…"

"Can be bought, like anything else." The Yasuki smiled a content smile. "It is said that Atsuki has even dispatched assassins to distract the court from his little meeting; eliminating some lesser opponents and, of course, blaming you for the crimes."

"But we know his plans…"

"We know something of them, yes," Eirin said as he dug a folded letter from his kimono. Searching it for further information, the merchant nodded again. "But we don't know enough to make it useful yet. Atsuki is known for his secrecy. He won't make his meeting easy to find."

The assassin was silent for a long time as she considered his words in silence, and then came a smile that the Crab could feel if not see. "Bayushi Atsuki…one of the three heads of this demon…"

"I want this one, Eirin." Mochiko turned and walked away. "Make it so."

* * *

It was not easy searching through the Imperial Court for secrets, and Eirin knew that the Bayushi outclassed his efforts in almost every way. With so little time, there was no place in his plans for the usual bowing and sincerity; Eirin was a Yasuki, and he gained his information the way that the Yasuki had learned to do.

When bushido slandered you and the Crane Clan hated you, only money could make many the people of the Imperial Court even look your way.

Two days later the Yasuki leaned heavily against one of the balconies of the Imperial Assembly, rubbing one hand over his face. Eirin heard the footsteps coming up to him, symbolizing more information to come.

Drawing upon his inner willpower, the Yasuki prepared for the eventual polite words.

The Crab grimaced when he recognized Otomo Reju's voice.

"It is strange to see you here so late in the day, Eirin-san," the Imperial courtier said with mild suspicion, his left hand doing its best to hold his tall black hat tightly against the light wind. "Hopefully all is well in the Crab Provinces…"

"Well enough," Eirin replied curtly. He had no more strength to be polite.

Taking a place beside the other man on the balcony, Reju looked over the Imperial City with his dark eyes. For a moment, neither man said more to the other, but when the Otomo spoke again, he made a point not to meet the other man's gaze.

"You are planning something, Eirin."

"Yes I am. Is that a crime?"

Reju finally glanced over at the other man coldly, but kept his voice in check. "No. Each of us has their agendas, for better or worse. I have been working towards repairing the crops in the southern Phoenix lands, and you…"

"And I have been planting seeds of my own. Your innocence is trying, Reju-sama," the bigger man said as he turned away. "You know better than most of the people in this city what is happening, and on which side people stand. Do something about it, or clear my path."

The Otomo said nothing for a long moment, and Eirin smiled as he started to walk away.

"You can't win this war through murder, Eirin."

The Crab just smiled. "Murder is a tool both sides have used before, Reju-sama. I assure you that the Yasuki are not interested in that aspect of your little war."

"Then why?"

"Because some people still believe in honor, Reju-sama," the Crab said with a mocking smile, "and those people are just too useful not to use."

* * *

"I don't feel good about this, Atsuki-sama."

The Scorpion nodded. "Even so, it needed done."

Otomo Reju just nodded at he returned to his place on the balcony, looking out onto the city and suddenly feeling drained. "Do you really believe that Eirin controls the assassin?"

"No one controls a true assassin," the Master of Secrets commented seriously. "They do what they do because it favors them, somewhere in their mind. They enjoy settling things with swords and poison…like a samurai, but the other person rarely has a sword."

"You seem to know a great deal about these people, Atsuki-sama."

The Master of Secrets just smiled beneath his mask.

* * *

The house had been in existence for more than a hundred years, built by a wealthy Kakita dignitary on the low cliffs that rose up to one side of where the city's river met the sea. It was a beautiful structure, well tended and used for several parties throughout the year…

It was large, out in the open, and did not even have a wall. The rear was a balcony built into the stonework, cutting off all escape save for the rocky sea.

As a noble's retreat, it was paradise.

As a meeting place, it was death.

Standing in the shadows that shrouded the alley across the street Mochiko waited, her long line of trailing smoke the only sign of the assassin's form. As the rising wind stirred the refuse and tattered kimono the ronin place her hand upon her katana, allowing her nervous fingers to play with the line of beads that encircled the sword.

She had never thought about removing the adornment, even though it sometimes hampered the speed of her draw. Looking down at the worn beads, Mochiko remembered why those small things were so important…in a way, she hated them for the purpose that they served.

Every time that she touched them, Mochiko remembered her. More than the common memories, or the occasional letters, or Eirin's words the beads were a reminder of Inosenko and what she had refused to represent. As the assassin stood there in the darkness she listened to the sounds of the wood against her saya…

She wasn't wrong for doing this.

It was something that had to be done.

Looking back over her shoulder the ronin frowned, almost expecting to see Matsu Mochihime asking her if she really believed those lies. Drawing her sword, she took a moment to consider it, tracing its deadly curve along the surface of the keen, unreflective edge.

It wasn't the sword of a samurai anymore, Mochiko realized. It never sparkled, never shined. Whatever power there had been in it had vanished a long time ago, replaced by a more silent and sinister form of strength.

One day I am going to throw you into the ocean, she promised the sword angrily.

A light sprang up in one of the windows on the building's second floor. Mochiko traced a path along the shadows to the side door of the large structure, already calculating the presence of spotter and guards. She crept forward from the darkness with her sword still drawn…

But not yet, she thought as the blade cast its shadow across the empty road. Not yet.

Night Has Come…