"True nobility comes not from being superior to another man, but being superior to your past."
- The Tao of Shinsei
Everything was fine until Mochiko reached the upper level; the house was quiet and unguarded, with only a few locks and bars in place. But as she neared the center room of the second level, things became more difficult. A vanguard of four samurai stood ready, their Seppun armor shining as they nervously touched their swords.
They never stood a chance.
Within moments the assassin continued, coming to the final door. As she moved, Mochiko glanced over the bodies of the Seppun curiously; each one bore the mon of the Emperor, something that Atsuki's agents seldom wore. As far as she knew, the Master of Secrets preferred to lurk in the darkness
No turning back now, she told herself grimly at her eyes settled on the door.
With one hand on her katana, the killer forced aside the door.
* * *
She was seated calmly and dressed in white robes, seemingly prepared for a funeral. Her long hair was freshly washed and combed like a long black fan. As she lifted her head, those pale green eyes focused on Mochiko, staring up, underneath the kasa to reveal a knowing gaze.
"Chikuma " Mochiko barely breathed.
There was a moment, only one, when the courtier seemed to hold her breath in anticipation, her beautiful eyes tracing the bloody droplets that slid slowly down the assassin's sword. Mochiko lowered the blade slowly as she looked over the small room, her gaze returning to Chikuma only when she was certain of what she saw.
No weapons. No guards.
Not even one.
"What is this?" the assassin demanded coldly, her instincts warning her of a trap yet to be sprung. "Is this some sort of sorcery, or merely some poorly planned trick?"
"It is no magic, and no feint," the Imperial Advisor answered with as much courage as she could manage in the face of the samurai-ko's ire. "You are the assassin. I am your prey."
Mochiko felt her fingers tensed around the silk of her weapon, as if her very body remembered what this person had done to her all those years ago. "You are not Bayushi Atsuki," she said evenly. "This is a trap, or something worse "
Chikuma's composure fluttered, and for a moment Mochiko almost expected the other woman to cry. Then, as if she too was a true bushi, the Kakita steeled both her face and her words, looking up at the dark samurai with the cold composure of an Imperial lord. "This is an end, for both of us."
"We are not so different, Mochihime. Assassin of the flesh, and assassin of the soul."
"I don't think so," the assassin snapped coldly. "We are not the same. You are Gozoku."
But the Kakita simply nodded, as if nothing the fallen Lion could do would deny her truth. "That is true. Yet we both have destroyed lives, ruined families all in the name of what we believe to be right."
Her eyes looked up, meeting the resolve in the assassin. "It is time for this to reach its conclusion."
Mochiko said nothing, watching silently as Chikuma slowly lowered her head. With her black hair veiling her face, only her voice revealed the fear that filled the Imperial Advisor. "I ask only that you make it quick. P-please."
Silence hung in the air for a second, the only sound that of nervous breaths.
"What is this shit?" Mochiko demanded, her coarse language causing the Crane to meet her eyes. "Damn it, is this the kind of person that you think I am, Gozoku? I don't kill because I enjoy it, and I don't waste my sword on fools who want to die. If you can't sleep with what they have done then strike your stomach and be done with it." Mochiko turned away in disgust.
Chikuma raised her head, slowly and sadly. "I am not a fool for doing this, Mochihime. I believe in something that you do not. I am willing to pay for that ideal." She hesitated for a single moment; just long enough to draw back the assassin's eyes.
"I am a samurai, after all."
"No ideal should have led you to this, Crane."
"I could say the same of you, Lion."
Mochiko cursed angrily, looking down the edge of her sword. As samurai, all the people that she had murdered should have been prepared for death at any moment, but as Mochiko looked at the Imperial Advisor she saw for the first time a conviction that defied the power of the assassin's blade. Kakita Chikuma knew that her life was ending, but that fear was something she had overcome.
The assassin lowered her kasa, hiding her eyes. "Tell me why."
"Because we needed to present a genuine target to you, in order to draw you out. No lies would be as fool-proof as a true risk "
"That is not what I meant," she interrupted angrily, and then waited amidst the sound of dripping blood.
Chikuma bowed her head, more emotion showing in her voice than in her frozen form. "I have seen too many sacrifices made on behalf of this struggle, Mochihime: you, your brother Banichi, Shiba Dohrei, and now Doji Tenshu too. Those, and countless others left murdered, dishonored or betrayed. I I have never accepted the true responsibility of my duties, the lives that I destroyed, until now. If you must commit murder, then I will stand against your sword."
"No matter your reasons, this is wrong. Neither the Gozoku nor the Hantei are worth this. It is abhorrent to both ideals."
Anger overcame Mochiko, her face burning at the other woman's judgment of her path. The assassin moved to stand behind the courtier, cleaning her sword and raising it high. Her heart ached, but her will was iron. "When you are ready, Chikuma-sama."
This is not wrong, said a voice somewhere inside the assassin. This is justice.
A single hand slid up slowly, pulling her long hair over her right shoulder, revealing the neck's smooth nape. For a long moment, there was no sound in the small room, or indeed in the entire world, save for the sound of the Kakita's breath. Removing a black paper fan from her obi Chikuma bowed her head in silence as if she held a sword.
"T-thank you for your mercy, Mochihime. I am sorry for what we did to you."
The assassin did not answer her, but for an instant she lowered her sword. Chikuma saw, and shook her head. "I am ready," she said with a moment's determination.
* * *
Outside the palace, the soldiers of Bayushi Atsuki and the magistrates of Shiba Gaijushiko ringed the large house, all their eyes focused on the single light in the upper room. From his seat on his pony, the Master of Secrets scowled in annoyance.
It was taking longer than expected. He had thought to have already heard Chikuma scream.
For a moment, the Scorpion Champion wondered if the Imperial Advisor had guessed his intentions; no, that was foolish, considering that even Reju had not known to what end he had been used. But as Atsuki watched from the darkness he could not help but wonder at the strange calmness that he had seen in Chikuma's eyes.
"It has been a while since the assassin entered the house, Atsuki-sama," the nearest Shiba magistrate observed. "We should go in now."
"We shall continue to wait," the Scorpion told the man. "We have waited years for this moment. It does no harm to wait a little longer."
The Shiba folded his arms in annoyance, returning to his silent observation of the single lighted room. With a smile, Bayushi Atsuki waited for the signal. He was in no hurry.
The battle was already won.
* * *
And there was silence once again.
Lowering her sword with eyes closed Mochiko let out a slight shudder, fighting what she had believed was a long-dead urge to stop and cry. As the assassin looked down on the body of Kakita Chikuma she could not help but feel a deep emptiness clenching at her body as she stood and watched the silent flow of blood.
Something had died with the Imperial Advisor in that moment, and for her part, Mochiko had forgotten how much pain failure could bring.
There had been no purpose, no honor in that strike.
It had not been about justice it had been about pride.
It was in that moment, in the depths of despair that the four appeared in the corners of the small room, their hands clutching long daggers and their faces and bodies swathed in black. The assassin's eyes widened as she raised her tear-streaked eyes to the face of one of the ninja. "You were here the whole time," she hissed furiously.
"You were her allies and you watched her die."
"Her death was not our concern," one of the men said coldly. "But yours is."
At once the four shinobi began to whirl about the assassin, their quick movements causing the single candle to flicker and gutter, casting weird shadows across the length of the room. Standing there in the whirling circle of death, Mochiko sneered at herself and the Gozoku. She looked down upon the body of Kakita Chikuma, and then suddenly glanced up at the ninjas' spinning wall.
"You let her die," the assassin said to no one in particular, striking the edge of her kimono suddenly across her katana, clearing it of blood in a single violent stroke.
"You let her die!" she screamed as the shinobi charged.
* * *
Outside the house, the Scorpion Champion smiled, his keen eyes seeing clearly how the ninja's sword wall was causing the light inside the room to quiver and shake. A quiet murmur passed through the small group of magistrates and bushi as they too noticed the effects of the dancing fire, and before he could ask the Shiba gained his answer through Atsuki quiet eyes.
"You have your duties. Finish this, now."
He nodded to the Master of Secrets, turning back to the source of the guttering flame.
Ordering his men to fall in behind him the samurai started forward, moving with calm purpose as they approached the front door. As he watched them enter, the Bayushi looked back up to the upper level, where he thought he had heard the sound of someone's screams.
Somewhere in the shadows a crane cried out in unison as it soared from the nearby water, its call heralding fear, as if only it truly knew what was to come. As he watched the form vanish into the night, Bayushi Atsuki smiled, glancing back to the house with a malevolent grin.
Struggle all you like, he told the assassin with a smile. No matter what you accomplish, it will not change a thing.
One Has Fallen