The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Broken Threads

"In the end, someone must pay for an ideal. Be sure it is not you."
- Bayushi Atsuki


The damage was more than most bodies could have taken; there were deep wounds and minor lacerations all over the ronin's body, and her lungs were half flooded with bitter water from Golden Sun Bay. All in all, her every moment alive was a testimony to Mochiko's endurance and resolve…but those moments were growing shorter, and there was nothing she could do.

Katai had not been certain of coming to Otosan Uchi, especially given all of the duties he had among the band. Had it not been for the tone of Inosenko's letter she would not have come.

Now, as she dragged the dying ronin into the lee of a broken fisherman's hovel by the shore, Katai almost wished that she had not come. Drawing out her tanto, the woman made several long strips of bandages from her kimono, reducing it to nothing and cutting away Mochiko's dripping clothes.

Who could have done this to her? she wondered as she did what she could for her leader, sealing the puncture wound in her side and binding the huge gashes in her chest and neck. There was only so much that the ronin's crude first aid could do to help her; as she watched dark blood seep up into the bandages Katai knew that it would not be nearly enough.

Looking down at the unconscious woman for a moment, Katai felt her hands shaking with rage.

"Don't die," she said, wrapping her in his cloak, "I'll bring help soon."

Left only with her underrobes and sandals, the ronin dashed off into the night.

* * *

"She is dying," said a heavy voice, filled with concern. "We cannot let her die."

"Since when does her death concern you?" The second voice was strange, as if the words were memories from the moment they were born.

Mochiko struggled, but there was no strength left in her. A pair of hands touched her wounds gently, and the first voice, calmer than before, spoke again. "She does not deserve to suffer and die for nothing…"

"You do not know her," said the dream voice. "She has taken many lives."

She tried to move, tried to open her eyes. Motion came in jerking spasms, catalyzed and punctuated by pain. The samurai-ko could not help but wonder if it really hurt much more than she was feeling; if this was just an afterthought, a reminder that she was about to die.

"Do you want to live, child?"

Yes, she whispered to the darkness beyond her. I do not want to die now.

"Why? Why do you deserve salvation from Toshigoku…from your own fate?"

There was silence in the black void as Mochiko saw her past actions, each one of them an inexcusable crime. For the first time, amidst only herself the ronin saw clearly; she had killed people in the name of vengeance, and for nothing she had taken so many lives.

"All in the name of what was taken from you? Can you say that you deserve life?"

The moment was terrible, like the climax of a nightmare.


* * *

"She's waking up!"

Consciousness focused itself slowly and painfully, taking pleasure in the throbbing behind the ronin's eyes. As the aches receded to a corner of her body Mochiko found that she could manage to turn her head slowly, following the voice to look at Katai.

Katai, shivering in the dimness of a hut, her body clad only in a thin mockery of a robe and her young, smooth face filled up with a warm smile. "Are you all right, Mochiko? How are you feeling?"

"My throat hurts," she managed to hiss, surprised at how difficult talking was. Beside the young ronin there stood a young woman dressed in a red kimono, her long hair tied up into three long braids. She smiled pleasantly at Katai and then bowed to the prone woman.

"You are fortunate to have survived, Mochiko-san. I am Shiba Uiko," the small woman said simply, then rose as if to leave.

Katai caught the samurai-ko's stare. "Do not worry, Mochiko; Uiko-san is the one who healed your wounds. She is one of Inosenko's friends here in the Imperial City," she looked over at the girl and smiled. "You owe her your life."

Mochiko said nothing, glancing to one side at the small hut. Shiba Uiko just stood there for a moment, as if waiting for permission to leave. Katai just nodded, letting the younger woman see herself out. Then she smiled again. "At least your attitude is recovering."

"It was pathetic," Mochiko said after a moment. "That man…he beat me like it was nothing at all."

"Shiba Honkai…" her companion muttered as she rocked back on her seat and closed her eyes. "They are already saying that he is a hero for slaying the assassin of Otosan Uchi in a one-on-one duel."

She did not reply to this for a moment, glancing over to a pile of bloody rags. Smiling weakly, Mochiko laughed at her almost naked companion. "I guess that I owe you a new kimono for all the trouble…I'll buy you one, when we go home."

Katai glanced at her, running one hand through her poorly cropped hair. "Home?"

Mochiko nodded, jerkily pulling herself to a sitting position. "Honkai killed the assassin," she said, breathing heavily. "There is…no way that I can keep up with things now. We…I lost this one to them. Enough people have died for now."

"What about Eirin? Do we let him know?"

"First we get out of the city," she answered, staring out the broken doorway and across the sea. "It will not be easy, with everyone looking for me."

Katai stood up with a smile, walking over to paw through a small bag. "Uiko was kind enough to loan us a couple of her kimono," the young woman said happily. "We'll draw less attention fully clothed."

Taking the red kimono that she was handed Mochiko nodded, gingerly letting the soft fabric slide across her still-tender wounds. "I guess that Uiko was hurt, just like Inosenko…she took a big risk in coming to help you, Katai."

"I know," he answered guiltily. "It isn't like I had a lot of options."

Mochiko nodded. "It is fine, Katai. This battle is over."

"Let's go."

* * *

The temple grounds were alive with the sounds and sight of nature, as if the birds and creatures enjoyed even the stifling heat. Inosenko stood in the shade of one of the nearest tree, trying not to think about anything but the birds' simple songs. It was not easy to find emptiness…

Especially when your life was about to end.

Glancing to one side the monk was given a stern look from her newfound warden; one of the four men that had arrived to detain her until the Emerald Champion arrived. Under normal circumstances, Inosenko would have gloated at the ability of her friend to arouse the ire of Doji Raigu himself…

Now things did not seem so funny, as she looked at the ready swords of the Emerald Magistrates.

"To think that I could come to the end of my life like this," she said to no one in particular, settling down gently to take a seat in the coolness of the grass. She let her fingers play along the smooth green slivers slowly, plucking a few dead pieces from the ground.

The sound of distant hoof beats was a signal, and the magistrates all raised their eyes. Inosenko looked out to the east, beyond the open gates of the monastery to the source of the approaching sound.

"Doji Raigu," she said quietly.

* * *

She was waiting in the temple when the Emerald Champion arrived, opening the doors and entering quietly so as not to disturb the silence of the holy place. As his footsteps came closer Inosenko closed her eyes and steeled herself, idly working her arms against her bonds. It showed how little the magistrates trusted the small monk, that they had decided it safer to bind her before leaving her alone.

"It has been a long time, Raigu-sama."

Behind her there was only the sound of settling armor, and the daunting silence that Inosenko could sense as much as hear. She heard the sounds of him loosening the ties to his helmet, and almost shivered when he reached down to touch her former family's ancient sword.

"It has been a long time, Inosenko-san. Explain yourself."

She did not hesitate. "There is nothing to explain. The Gozoku have usurped the Mandate of Heaven; no matter what you believe, we know what that will bring. You have hurt people and destroyed lives…I take full responsibility for what this assassin has done in the name of justice…or revenge."

Raigu remained calm, though she almost believed his hand tightened on the sheath of his sword. The monk smiled slightly, hoping that her next words would not be true. "So now you can take your revenge, Lord Raigu. My life for Chikuma-sama, and the assassin's life as well."

The Gozoku drew his sword.

"I am not interested in vengeance," he said evenly, deftly cutting the monk's bonds away. "I am interested in justice."

Her eyes looked up to meet the Emerald Champion's gaze immediately, but within those cold eyes she saw nothing more than cold disdain. "If you protected this assassin then you share the guilt for her murders. Monk or no, you have taken the blood of many samurai…"

"You have killed others like a bushi, and now we will see how you will die." Raigu sheathed his sword slowly, waiting for Inosenko to rise. "You will die for the crimes that you have committed, Doji Inosenko. Nothing you can do will change that fate. But how you choose to meet it…"

"That power is still yours."

The monk stared at him, looked deeply, and then bowed slightly to her foe. Casting off the last of her severed bindings, the monk strode quietly back into the sun.

* * *

Doji Inosenko was executed on one of the first day of spring, in the thirteenth year of Hantei Kusada's reign, honoring her request to live out the remainder of the year. With the death of the monk and the disappearance of the assassin the matter was considered finished, and the Gozoku turned their eyes to other affairs. The deaths of those involved were ignored, or dismissed quietly…

Order was preserved, and Rokugan moved on.

An End Has Come…