The Gozoku
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Lessons

"Learn from the past, or it will become your future."


Hantei Haekaru was the kind of student that most sensei dreamed of encountering once in their lifetime; he was a prodigy in the truest sense of the word. At seven years old, the child was already quickly learning and maturing from the lessons and experiences of his teacher, surpassing even Gaijushiko's expectations as he was tutored in philosophy, politics, and the Tao.

One day, the Shiba knew, he would no longer be able to guide the destiny of the Empire.

Looking at the young boy's bright eyes, the old man knew that he had no need to fear that day.

"What shall we discuss today, Haekaru-san?" the Shiba Champion asked his student, as the two of them walked through the twisting gardens that formed within Shiro Shiba. Dressed against the cold air the man looked down on the small boy with a smile, always pleased to watch the workings of his agile mind.

"Why did we leave Otosan Uchi, Gaijushiko-sensei?" The boy's small face was filled with doubt. "I thought that was where a Hantei was supposed to be."

Gaijushiko smiled, his ageless face now produced a few deep lines. "An Emperor's place is where he can best serve his people, Haekaru. Many among those who serve you are Phoenix; do you not find it easier to understand how to better support them here?"

"'An Emperor's place is where he can best serve his people,'" Haekaru repeated slowly, glancing over the quiet gardens with a deep concentration that his teacher knew well. "But why is it that you say an Emperor should not lead a war?"

"You are a samurai among samurai, Haekaru-san," the Phoenix answered. "Do you honestly think that you can serve only with a sword?"

"Which is more powerful," Gaijushiko continued. "A voice that inspires a thousand, or a single sword that slays all who face its blade?"

Haekaru remained silent for a moment, turning the answer over in his mind. Gaijushiko knew that the boy was certain which was the right answer, but he had trained the Hantei to ask "why." Simply knowing the answer was not enough for the young Hantei…

"The voice," Haekaru replied.

"And why is that?"

The young Hantei smiled brightly. "Because all swords break or dull with time. A voice can echo through the lives that it influences, always present to give the future strength."

"One word can do more good, or more evil, than any sword," Gaijushiko said solemnly. "I am glad that you are beginning to understand that now. The power of Rokugan should not be ruled by one bloody blow and murder, Haekaru-san…this world deserves honor and wisdom to show it the way."

The Hantei nodded. "But Gaijushiko-sensei, can words protect the Empire?"

"Ideals protect the Empire," he answered the boy seriously. "Akodo knew this, as did Kakita, and Mirumoto too. Anyone can fight, Haekaru…"

"It takes a truly brave man to believe. You can give them that, Haekaru, if you are noble and strong."

"I will not fail them," was the simple, serious reply.

* * *

"Lift the sword."

The boy drew breath painfully, raggedly, his small form shaking from the effort it took to stand.

"Lift the sword."

Behind dark brown hair a pair of brilliant green eyes focused on the blade resting against the ground.

"If you are strong enough," the voice urged through cold fire, " then you will lift your sword."

He was only nine years old, a slender, scrawny child with a long, bobbing braid. Over the past hour, his reserves had been tested and tested, and by now they were at an end. The man before him raised his own katana easily, the wind stirring the edges of his short white hair.

The boy lifted his sword again.

"Good," the boy's father said seriously, lowering his blade into a practiced stance. "The shugenja have told me that you may never be a strong man, but I know better than to trust blindly to fate. You will be a strong man…"

"Because that is the duty of a student of Falling Rain."

The boy just nodded, his small hands fighting to maintain his grip on the sword. His eyes glanced to one side of the small dojo where his mother watched him, her pale face filled with worry as she watched her husband test the small boy. Beside her sat a silent, cold figure of a man, his green mail and white hair clean and perfect, leaving no doubt as to whom he was.

Even the boy knew Doji Raigu: his mother's eldest brother, and the Champion of the Crane.

"Defend yourself!" the shout came as the samurai lunged at the child, his sword slashing through the air. The boy reacted, his body leaping aside despite his tired muscles, dodging at the last moment and spinning his heavy sword. Steel bit steel loudly in the next moment, and the boy's mother let out a happy laugh.

Tracing the child's sword down to his own side the man smiled. "I barely managed to block that this time, you know." He lowered his sword, and the two bowed to one another. "You are improving. Go and wash yourself. We are done."

Nodding, the boy took his leave of them, bowing lowly to the Doji lord before he did.

"He may be weak as a girl, but he has spirit," Doji Tashimi said with a smile, sheathing his Kakita Blade. As one of the senior instructors of the Falling Rain Dojo, the bushi was considered a good judge of character, even though many thought he flattered his own son. "What do you think of him, Raigu-sama?"

"He is weak," the Crane Champion agreed. "But his drive surpasses that."

The man's sister smiled slightly. "I am glad that you had the time to come visit us. I know that you are busy…"

"I make time," he replied.

Tashimi nodded at the other man's irreproachable dedication; it was what Doji Raigu was known for. Even with the man's duties, the quiet man did his best for his family and his clan.

That even included visiting his youngest sister, married away to the son of a minor dojo a few miles from the Kakita Academies.

"One day he will overcome that weakness," Raigu's sister, Shinoko, remarked warmly. "He will be strong, brother…like you."

"No one should have this kind of strength, Shinoko," the Crane Champion said softly, his words seeming strangely somber as he sat before them sipping at his tea. "I will pray that you make him stronger, just to be safe."

Tashimi nodded, his short hair dancing as he did. "I will, Raigu-sama. You have my word."

* * *

"How many years have you been hanging from ceilings, Norihisa? Watching the Emperor make love to his wife, following him and pawing through his belongings while he is asleep?"

"As long as he has been Emperor," the Shosuro answered from the shadows.

Atsuki nodded, as usual not bothering to turn and give the ninja a look at his face. "A long time, and we have never faced a more difficult opponent than this assassin. Skilled, well equipped and quite confidant…"

"You are gloating, Atsuki-sama."

The Master of Secrets smiled. "Of course I am. It has been almost a year, Norihisa, since the last assassination; people are forgetting, and soon no one will remember at all. It seems so…sad, that those people who died did so for only a year's worth of infamy…"

"My name will be more infamous, Norihisa," the Scorpion joked. "I promise you that."

"I believe you," the Shosuro answered, quickly enough that the Bayushi gave the shadows a glance.

Atsuki smiled, his unmasked face wrinkling horribly as he did. "You are so certain?"

"The truth is difficult to destroy, Atsuki-sama," Norihisa answered seriously. "No matter how you fight it, we above all others are proof that someone will know."

"That is true," the Scorpion Champion admitted, returning to his painting with a grin. "I suppose that one day, the truth about the Gozoku will be known too?"

Norihisa chuckled, though the sound was lost in the darkness of the room. "Which 'truth' is that, Atsuki-sama? The one that we believe in, or the one that our enemies seem to strive so hard to see?"

"Does it matter, how the world remembers you, Norihisa?"

"I am a ninja," the Shosuro replied honestly. "The world will not remember me at all."

Bayushi Atsuki nodded, silently waving his servant away. Rising from his seat, the older man strode to the edge of the small room to his window, looking out across the gardens to the city beyond the walls.

He could not help but wonder about future, and the world that he himself might not live to see.

"That will not happen," Atsuki promised, fighting his own mortality. "I will not allow such a thing."

Another Day Ends…