"Wherever there is light, there must be shadow."
- The Tao of Shinsei
It was with the dawn that the meeting of the three Masters commenced in the gardens of the Emperor, their whispers guarded by the polite cover of a demonstration of Kakita artisans, and watched over by their servants' loyal eyes. Many things had changed in the years since the three had dealt with the assassin in the Imperial City.
Most important of those changes was to be dealt with immediately
"Where there were three, I now count four."
It was no secret that Bayushi Atsuki had passed his fiftieth year a few years ago; the Scorpion Champion seemed hunched and withered, his black kimono and mask in denial of the spring dawn. From behind narrow slits the Master of Secrets regarded the newcomer for a moment, but it was the voice of Gaijushiko that attracted his attention with its poise.
Gaijushiko, was still seemed untouchable by time and trial, spoke calmly as he always did. "Do not forget the ideals upon which I set this alliance, Atsuki-san," the Phoenix almost chided. "In truth, the Gozoku exists for this man alone."
Hantei Haekaru was radiant in his sixteenth year, his black hair bound up in a traditional topknot and his slender features perfectly controlled and reserved. Dressed in robes almost befitting a true Emperor already the Shining Prince simply bowed respectfully to Atsuki.
"I understand your opinions, Atsuki-sama; an outsider has no business here." Haekaru's smooth face remained totally impassive despite the passion in his words. "But my sensei has instructed me deeply on the Gozoku, and I did wish to meet the two of you again."
"It has been a long time, for both you and Raigu-sama."
Doji Raigu did not respond to Haekaru save to bow to him low and respectfully, nor did he show any reaction in his body or face. His face, though still handsome, was lined with slight markings of age as he watched them, and no member of the meeting doubted that he wore more scars of age. Like each of the three, he has dismissed retirement two years ago, and still commanded both the Crane Clan and the Imperial Legions to the present day.
No mortal force had opposed him, but they could tell he felt the weight of time.
Gaijushiko ignored the silent stare of the Doji Champion, turning slightly to favor Atsuki with his words. "I know that it has been a few years since we bothered to meet in person, Atsuki-san; I do hope that this meeting is worth the time."
"I make no habit of wasting time," the Scorpion responded as he glanced from the Shiba to the Hantei. "This involves a family matter for young Lord Haekaru "
"My sister," the prince responded quickly, his intuition earning a momentary glance of surprise. "She was fostered to the Lion Clan, and they began her the final stages of her instruction last spring. She may receive her gempukku within two years."
Atsuki nodded. "They are training her to be a warrior," he corrected, "and the Matsu training would never describe itself with such a delicate word."
"A warrior," Gaijushiko repeated softly. "I was unaware "
"It is worse," Raigu said, not favoring the Phoenix with his gaze, "than you yet know then. The Matsu daimyo has done all she can to avoid our presence; Yugozohime's yojimbo have all been murdered in duels or other 'accidents.' Four men in the past year."
The Shiba nodded; he had heard that Matsu Oki had been affected deeply by the death of her brother Itagi in the Shadowlands, but he had no idea what these actions might mean. "What do you think that they are planning, Atsuki-san?"
"I am not certain, but the Matsu's determination is little problem for my spies. I have asked Lord Raigu to dispatch another of his bushi as a yojimbo to the Princess. We are confident in his ability to maintain a vigil on the problem, and to keep us informed."
"He is my sister's son, Usan," Raigu told Gaijushiko coldly, his perfect tone no veil to his inner chill. "He is a master of the sword, even at such a young age."
Haekaru ran one finger along his chin, as if he was thinking. After a moment, the young man spoke, drawing the attention of all. "Is he loyal to us?"
The Master of Secrets hissed in annoyance. "There is no 'us,' child. You are not yet worthy of being either Gozoku nor Hantei."
Gaijushiko ignored the comment, allowing his ally this small fit of rage. "Is Usan a member of the Gozoku, Raigu-san? Does he know the goal that we seek?"
The Emerald Champion's face wrinkled slightly, showing a larger number of small, painful lines. "No. Usan does not think of anything but his own place, and I felt no reason to force my oaths upon him. He has always served the Crane Clan well. This will be no exception."
"Unacceptable," the Phoenix said bluntly, surprising the Crane. Gaijushiko's ageless eyes were filled with determination as he said, "We must be served by believers, Raigu-san. The Gozoku has no need of faithless men."
"What do you know what the Gozoku needs, Gaijushiko?"
Atsuki's question drew the Phoenix to him, but the Bayushi gave the other man's skilled words no time to fly. "You have been absent for the better part of these years, delegating responsibilities to subordinates, burdening us with your duties even granting our spies to this boy. Do you even remember what it was to bear the burdens of Rokugan, or is the mere mantle of sensei enough for you?"
Gaijushiko remained impassive, holding out one hand to make his student pause. "If there are any doubts about my loyalties, Atsuki, then I will hear them. We all have our missions to the future," he looked to Raigu for some answer, but the Crane ignored his gaze.
"I will always do what the Empire requires of me."
* * *
After the meeting had ended Hantei Haekaru was confused and nervous; he had not expected to see such anger directed at his sensei, even if he had known that a portion of that was because of his own presence. The Prince followed the Shiba Champion closely as the two men strode through the gardens, watching the deep thoughts before him as if he read the wind through drifting leaves.
"What did you think of them, Haekaru-san?" the Phoenix asked him suddenly, startling the young Imperial from his thoughts.
"Lord Raigu seems so cold and distant to us, Gaijushiko-sensei, and Lord Atsuki "
"Raigu truly is cold and distant, Haekaru; the burdens of leadership are all he has ever known. As for Atsuki," the older man chuckled mirthlessly, "there is no joy left in him, save that found in spreading bitterness and disdain. He is a powerful ally, but I do not care to play his game."
"I did once," Gaijushiko finished sadly, "and it may have cost me Raigu's trust till the end of our days."
Haekaru did not ask the question that he wished to; such things were easier to discover through the courtiers and scribes than by attempting to plumb the depths of his teacher's mind. Instead, the boy glanced back to where the four of them had spoken in the shadows, "What will happen now, Gaijushiko-sensei? We spoke for a long while; is that the end of things?"
"On the surface, yes," he replied with a smile, "but you should know that this is surface alone. Atsuki's agents will watch the Matsu more closely, no doubt aided by Raigu's title of Emerald Champion, as well as this possible yojimbo he has dispatched. We operate better like this, and are more difficult to trace."
"As for your sister, what would you do, Haekaru-san?"
"I do not even remember her," he said softly, for a moment letting his gaze fall to the grass by his feet. "I think that I would wish to meet with her before I decide whether she is a threat or not "
"Impossible," he told his appreciate sadly. "Your future is too important for such a risk."
Haekaru bowed, but only after a moment of calm consideration. "Then what will you do, Gaijushiko-sensei?"
The older man smiled. "I shall watch your father, and wait."
* * *
"She was such a beautiful child," Hantei Ayatsuro told her husband as she looked down upon the sleeping city from the Forbidden City's northern wall. "It makes me wonder how this long absence has changed her? What kind of daughter will she be?"
Smiling, she glanced over at the Emperor, ignoring the servants as they raised paper umbrellas against a gentle evening rain. "How I envy you, to be able to go and see her " her voice shuddered and the Empress fell silent, but the man beside her just bowed his head in mute respect.
The years had not been kind to Hantei Kusada, and scored his thin face with lines of age. After thirty-six years of life there were few indignities that life had not brought to the Emperor, and yet as he looked out upon the city, he could not help but worry that the worst was yet at hand.
Beside him, his wife slowly died of an illness for which the Seppun could do nothing. He hated his own weakness constantly, but never so much as when he had been told the truth on that day.
"I do not know that I wish to see her, now," the Emperor said after a moment, trying not to meet his wife's teary eyes. "It has been years since she was sent away to the Lion she is not really my daughter anymore."
Ayatsuro touched her husband's hand with her own, lightly, though the servants grew nervous at her contact with their lord. Kusada just smiled, accepting the human touch happily as she said, "You are her father, and she is Hantei."
"Nothing can change that, my husband. Go to her " she hesitated, knowing that the next words were so important, and that they were words the Gozoku would not wish her to say.
"Do not live with regrets."
The Emperor nodded to the wisdom of his warden, squeezing her hand once more.