"I never saw a woman more tortured by the burden of a name "
- The Journal of Otomo Reju
Shiro Matsu was not a beautiful castle like Kyuden Doji or the others that Usan had visited; even decorated for the coming visit of the Emperor the place reeked of sweat and blood. As he moved through the halls the Crane tried to stay out of the way of the busy workers as they strove to complete their final tasks.
The servant led him to a small dojo set in the tiny gardens of the castle, leaving the Doji to his thoughts after bringing him some bitter excuse for tea. Usan sipped the drink more out of boredom than thirst as he waited, wondering how long the Matsu daimyo would make him wait.
He had heard that Matsu Oki would be a difficult samurai to tolerate and of course he knew the truth of his predecessor's death.
Usan's small hands closed tightly around the simple cup, his bright eyes shuddering as he sought the calmness of the Void.
It was at that moment that the dojo's door slid open, a small figure drawing the swordsman's attention as they quietly entered the room.
The girl was not old enough to be more than a student, her black hair cropped rudely short and a smoldering edge in her steel-grey eyes. As she moved to take a seat before him Usan saw things beneath the gawky youngster's simple kimono; trained reflexes and strained muscles from years of discipline and pain.
"Yugozohime-sama," the Crane said respectfully, pressing his face briefly to the ground.
"You are my yojimbo, then?" she asked him, almost mockingly, her eyes falling on the delicate nature in which Usan's hands cupped his drink. "It is so considerate of the Doji Raigu to send his best swordsman "
He just smiled, figuring it would gall her. "My uncle is a kind man, despite his reputation, Yugozohime-sama. My name is Doji Usan, and have no doubts that you will be safe here."
"I am always safe here," the Imperial Princess answered coldly, her eyes daring him to play his little game some more. "But if you wish to waste your skills and my time then come along. I need to practice my kata for my father's visit tomorrow "
She challenged him with a strangely personal hatred, "Try and stay out of my way."
Usan just bowed politely, hiding his expression with long bangs of brown hair.
* * *
From the stories that surrounded the Matsu daimyo Usan had expected something between woman and demon, slavering for blood and conflict as she howled defiance to the skies. Now, as he sat beside her in the main dojo of the Lion castle, he had to admit that some stories did grow quite tall.
Matsu Oki was not so offensively muscled as the Hantei's daughter, though there was no doubt to her strength from her callused hands and scars. With her hair dyed a dull gold and dressed in an older fashion kimono and hakama the older woman kept her face perfectly placid as she observed her student's progress, correcting each flawed motion with a simple hiss or sigh.
As for Yugozohime herself, Usan was more curious than anything, watching her smite the air fiercely as she moved. He had heard that women trained by the Lion were cruder and louder than tigers, but even the Doji was surprised by the loud shouts that the Hantei sent ringing through the air.
As for the sight of a sweating, muscled Imperial woman, Usan simply closed his eyes for a moment and tried to remember the geisha in the Kakita provinces.
He was almost back in a room, embracing one, when a string of grating words broke the dream in two.
"You seem awfully calm for a yojimbo, Doji," Matsu Oki muttered softly, her harsh black eyes not turning from where the young girl trained. "I would have thought that the Emerald Champion would have instructed you better in this task. Your duty is important."
"She seems safe enough for the moment," Usan replied curtly, his own voice trying hard to sound as cold and sharp as hers, "with all of the Matsu family surrounding her. Surely your people are up to the challenge of it, Oki-sama?"
She did not turn to face him, but instead rose with a weary sigh. "You are just like the last man sent here," Oki rumbled disapprovingly. "And like him you will die for some empty words."
The Lion samurai-ko turned to take her leave of her student, but both women froze at the sound of a thumb moving a sword. Though Doji Usan did not look up, there was a palpable challenge showing through in his words.
"I could ask for nothing more than to be like that man, Oki-sama. He was my father."
Matsu Oki said nothing for a moment, considering the young Crane with an emotionless face. "Whom do you think you are talking to with that hand on your sword?" she asked quietly, her rage seething beneath her controlled, blunt features.
Again there was that calmness, that benign rage. "My father's murderer, unless the magistrates lie."
"Usan!" Yugozohime snapped at her yojimbo, but Oki waved away the Imperial's protest, taking a moment to study the slender man.
"Let us leave it at that for now," Oki said at last, ignoring the fact that her enemy did not remove his hand from his sword. Then, without a word to her student the Matsu daimyo turned her back to the Crane yojimbo and strode quietly from the room.
A moment later a loud crack echoed through the dojo; Usan turned back to the young Hantei in silence, his own anger for once driving the calmness from his eyes.
"If you ever speak to Oki-sensei like that again, Doji Usan, I swear to my ancestors I will kill you where you stand."
"I apologize," he said, quite obviously lying but politely sincere. "You have my word it will not happen in your presence again."
Hantei Yugozohime just nodded. "For now, that will have to be enough."
* * *
It had been a long time since Yugozohime had found the time to allow her mind to speak in silence; training under Matsu Oki was difficult and often painful, leaving no time for the idle thoughts or old dreams. But now, as she washed the sweat from her body in preparation for her father's visit, the Princess found herself turning to the past.
"Have you ever met my father, Usan?" she asked the Crane, guessing that he waited just outside the bathhouse door.
"Only once, Yugozohime-sama," he replied lazily; she imagined he was probably almost asleep from his tone. "At the Test of the Topaz Championship, he was there to place his blessings on the winner's blade."
She nodded. "What kind of man was he, Usan?"
Again, that contented, lazy voice, devoid of a dedication to duty or the Emerald Throne. "As I said, I met him but once. I was only a boy then, not a man. It is not the place of children to judge the Hantei."
Yugozohime dunked her head beneath the water for a moment, letting the hot water sooth her aching muscles for a moment longer before she rose. "I have not seen him in seven years," she told the Doji, though she was quite certain that he did not care. "I hardly remember him at all."
"I am sorry to hear that, Yugozohime-sama," Usan said with something that approached true loss.
"I am not," she replied curtly as she stepped from the warm water back into the cold spring air. "He is the Emperor; even if I have not seen him, I know what he is. Too many people have seen the truth behind the Throne, Usan "
"The truth, Yugozohime-sama?"
She cursed softly, annoyed at his evasive words. It was unthinkable that Doji Usan did not know the truth of the Gozoku; Raigu would not have sent a yojimbo that did not know the truth. In the past years, Oki had shown the Princess the truth behind her father she knew of the conspiracy that had controlled him all his rule.
That would control her brother's rule, and the line of Hantei.
"Never mind," Yugozohime snapped after a moment, chiding herself for letting her emotions run unchecked. "Send the servants in now, Usan. I am ready to be dressed."
* * *
"It has been a long time, Reju-sama."
Otomo Reju had been given the gift of mellow aging, his soft face hiding worry and care. Folding his hands behind his back the courtier smiled, glancing over one shoulder to where the voice arose. "Yasuki Eirin, if I recall. It has been a long time."
Striding across the floor of the main hall of Shiro Matsu the chubby Crab bowed to the Imperial, his dark blue robes now marked with a magistrate's seal. In the years following Atsuki's blackmail the Crab had flourished within the Gozoku some even suggested that the Master of Secrets would name the man his heir.
Reju would not believe such a thing. "What is a magistrate doing here, Eirin-san? Surely you do not think that someone would offend the Emperor in the Lion Clan's halls."
The Yasuki almost lost his composure for a moment, but, like normal Eirin managed to remain in control. He smiled once more at the older courtier, made some tiny slight at Reju's tall hat being out of style and vanished, leaving the Otomo to other things.
"His little games with you never cease to amuse me," hissed the Scorpion Clan champion, surprising Reju with the ease that he had crossed the crowded room. Despite his important position, few of the milling court realized whom it was that now stood beside the Imperial; Reju bowed low.
"Eirin is just testing the waters," Reju replied with a small smile that he hoped looked fully at ease. "I am certain that he meant no harm."
Atsuki laughed, cold and rasping, and suddenly there the Court realized that one of the Gozoku had arrived. There was a moment of silence, before the Court could recover and return to their polite games. "Eirin always means harm, Reju. That is why we let him play our game."
"As you say, Atsuki-sama if I may ask, when will the Emperor arrive?"
"Soon enough," the Scorpion replied, "but after the Princess's demonstration. We wish to see for ourselves what kind of person Hantei Yugozohime will be."
Reju recognized the bitterness in the Scorpion's voice that he reserved for his worst enemies. "You believe that she may be a danger to the Gozoku?"
"Gaijushiko, the Gozoku, or Matsu Oki," Atsuki responded. "It is clear that such people can control the fate of the Hantei."
The Game Begins