The Gozoku
Chapter Thirty-Five: Voices and Swords

"She was our enemy. She was born as such, and she always will be."
- The Journal of Otomo Reju


It was not normal for the Imperial Court to find itself gathered in a place like Shiro Matsu; the place put them on edge with the starkness, the grimness, and the lingering touch of sweat and blood. Here is a place where you are the intruder, those old feelings warned them, and suddenly there was little comfort in the trappings of power and the Empire's laws.

Shiro Matsu was a place for the primal, and amidst the polite milling before the demonstration, the courtiers could hear the rumblings of a Lion's roar.

"What do you mean, Gaijushiko-sama?" Matsu Oki demanded, looking slightly comical with her warrior body draped over by an expensive red kimono with golden lines. "We will await the Emperor. He is the reason that my family has arranged this…"

"We do not serve you," she finished curtly, drawing the attention of several gazes and giving wing to more nervous eyes.

Though it all Shiba Gaijushiko remained elusive, ignoring Oki's words but making certain to consider the meanings that they bore. "The Emperor has been detained, but he will arrive shortly. Certainly you do not doubt that the Imperial Scribe in my ability to ensure that nothing is missed?"

One simple statement and the Lion daimyo was trapped in her words. To press the issue was to insult the Shiba, indeed all of the Phoenix Clan…

In short, it would give the Gozoku an excuse.

Oki nearly struck at the bait, but something held her; Gaijushiko allowed himself to show slight surprise as the woman paused, her eyes shifting as if she listened to another, and an eventual resignation spreading to her tanned face. "Certainly the Imperial Scribe is capable in his duties," she replied with a bow that did nothing to hide her gaze.

"I will have the servants complete their preparations, and my student shall begin her demonstration in the main hall."

"Excellent," Gaijushiko replied, his immortal spirit aching at the presence of some game he could not see. Matsu Oki bowed to the Phoenix, then took her leave of him, allowing subordinates the job of tending to the courtiers, guiding them to seats where they could chat and await the coming game…

* * *

From the moment that she strode to the dojo's center they were aware that she hated them; Yugozohime left no doubt in that, as the girl took her position with a scathing gaze. At the arrival of the young girl the assembled group grew silent, watching the thirteen-year-old with a mixture of shock and wonder as she prepared for the first techniques of the day. And as they whispered, Atsuki listened, but his eyes never left that gaze of hate.

"What have the Lion done to her?" Otomo Reju asked in muted repulsion, watching the muscles on her forearms tense as the princess thrust her saya into her narrow belt. "She looks nothing like a Hantei should."

Do not look at the surface, fool, Atsuki warned silently, seeing the truth in Yugozohime's grey eyes.

"She is so small," commented one of the nearby diplomats. "Do you really believe she can draw such a heavy sword?"

She stared at the Master of Secrets, and he had no doubt that she could.

One of the most famous works in the Empire had been written by Tangen, and he had promised that those that bore such open hate were weak, and nothing to fear. But at Bayushi Atsuki watched her prepare himself he wondered…would Tangen have written that, had he even once have met those eyes?

"So be it," he murmured, watching as the small girl prepared herself. "Show us who you really are."

* * *

Usan had taken a seat far to the left of the assembly, paying just enough notice to keep an eye on both the court and the dojo's main room. Yugozohime began her kata with a yell that startled most of the diplomats; Usan chuckled under his breath, wondering if that was exactly what the Hantei had in mind.

She's good, Usan noted as Yugozohime flowed through forms, demonstrating to the crowd both the stiff kata of the Lion Clan as well as the power of the Matsu Ryu.

And her sword…Usan had seen many weapons turned against him in his life, but most of them paled in comparison to Yugozohime's mighty blade. Thick and longer than a normal sword, the katana's edge bore no delicate markings or hamon; a master of the field had built it for killing, not for show.

Her movements revealed extra weight in the cutting edge, removed from the pommel; she controlled it perfectly, cutting through bamboo and demonstrating other difficult cuts with ease. Usan was certain that most of those there did not see the message behind each sword stroke…

They were techniques made for killing people…no ritual, no hesitation or empty finesse.

For a moment, Doji Usan found himself so curious about the young prodigy as she slashed her targets to pieces; why was the world her enemy? Was this nature the Lion's doing, or was the fury that he looked at her true being?

Then, like most things, the questions fled him, and he allowed himself to settle back and relax in peace. Before the Crane, things divided and collided, but inside Usan just stifled a yawn.

Whatever happened would happen regardless, whether or not he took a moment to rest his eyes.

* * *

"You have gone too far."

Doji Raigu raised his head from his bow sharply, falling in behind the Emperor as Kusada stormed past the doors of the Matsu castle. The Emerald Champion could see the annoyance, no, the anger in the Emperor as he moved towards the distant sounds of the demonstration. He could hear nervousness in the man's voice as they walked.

"Why do you deny me even this, Raigu? What is there to gain?"

"Those men that detained us," the Crane answered calmly, making certain they walked far from any listening ears, "were not mine."

"They were Gozoku, and you know it."

"I do," he answered, a single snap of his hand ordering the guards to open the dojo doors, "but I tell you they were no men of mine, Kusada-sama."

The Emperor did not answer, as all eyes beset him from the wide training hall. His own eyes looked to the small girl in the center of the room, her back turned to him in completion of a long, leaning sword stroke that had divided three pieces of bamboo perfectly. Kusada felt his body shudder as she turned, her short hair barely veiling those same steel-grey eyes.

Eyes that settled upon her father coldly, speaking clearly of inner hate.

He for her own father, more baleful than for the Gozoku who stood at his side.

"Kanzen," one of the senior instructors signaled, ending the demonstration with one word. Yugozohime sheathed her heavy-looking sword and turned her back on the Emperor, neither bowing nor acknowledging the polite applause of the court as she walked away. Her Crane yojimbo hopped up as if he had been sleeping, then followed the princess immediately, barely managing to match her stride.

The Lord of Rokugan could find nothing to say in the aftermath of such a thing. He simply hid his shock behind calmness, and let Gaijushiko spring forth with whatever words he wished to speak…

* * *

That night they met once more.

It was twilight by the time Yugozohime had prepared herself to speak with her father; Kusada was dressed simply and warmly against the cold, his long, graying hair tied back in a long tail. As he approached, the young yojimbo bowed his slight form before the Emperor.

"Doji Usan," he said, in a voice more boy than man. "I am at your service, Lord Kusada."

The Emperor smiled politely, watching his daughter make her way across the small garden. "I remember you, Usan," he said without his eyes leaving her, a mixture of joy and fear in his words. "It has been three years since the Test of the Topaz Champion."

"A long time, Lord Kusada," the Crane answered with a nod. He looked to Yugozohime, "I shall intrude on you no more."

Kusada nodded as the yojimbo withdrew to one side of the garden, leaning back against a tree to observe and not be seen. Yugozohime had dressed in a simple, yet elegant golden kimono, her short hair now untied and brushed to touch her shoulders. Without a smile, the young girl took a seat to one side of her father; Kusada noticed the tenseness in her movements, and that she did not sit any closer that she had to.

"I have not seen you in a long time, Yugozohime," he said, wondering if he seemed as nervous as he felt, his hands clasping and unclasped with his words. "I see that the Matsu have trained you in swordsmanship…"

She was waiting to hear his opinion on that. Kusada just smiled weakly, "Your mother will be pleased to hear it."

"And what do you think, father?" she asked him, her large hands rubbing over the smooth silk of her kimono sleeve.

"I think that true strength does not come with a pair of swords," he answered honestly, daring to match the challenge in her eyes.

"Ch, what do you know of strength, father?"

Kusada looked at her sadly, finally understanding the truth behind those eyes. "I have watched the exchange of strength and weakness all my life, Yugozohime…I have seen it given and taken away. It does not come with a sword, or a title…or with Hantei's blood."

"You are the Emperor," his daughter said to him coldly, "but you do not even deserve the name."

Hantei Kusada's heart was breaking, but he did not show it in his quiet gaze. When he did not answer her, Yugozohime shook her head in disgust, rising and starting back the way that she had come. Doji Usan's slender form started after her; he looked back at the Emperor, surprise still somewhat evident on his pretty face.

"Protect her, Usan," Kusada said simply as he let the night's shadows hide his pain from the bushi. "She has chosen a difficult road."

The next day Hantei Kusada returned to the Imperial City.

He would never see his daughter again.

Tears Fall…