"This life is no longer my own."
- Hantei Yugozohime, Year 435
There were many whispers in the weeks that followed, swirling around the young girl like a rising gale. The Gozoku never turned its eyes from Shiro Matsu; words like "revenge" and "restoration" were threats that remained all too clear. Even as the daily life of the student returned to some semblance of normality there was an unsettled presence: a promise of conflict that despite all else remained.
Usan ignored the situation as best he could, spending only the time required of him guarding the Emperor's daughter. Amidst a strict, demanding regime of training, tests and lectures on bushido there was little danger, and time had a way of lessening Kusada's words.
By the third week Usan found himself resting comfortably in one of the inns outside of the gloomy castle, sipping adequately aged sake happily as he stifled another long yawn.
"I just wish that I had found this place sooner," he commented to no one in particular. "No more need for that Matsu tea."
A pair of footsteps drew his attention before they reached him, but Usan just looked up happily, a smile on his pretty face. "I had not expected to see you here," he said honestly. "Have you found yourself a new sword yet?"
The ronin did not look amused.
Mochiko removed her beaten kasa and took a seat beside the Crane samurai, her expression still pinched into a frown. "Swords of quality are difficult to come across when you live like I do," she muttered, sounding as annoyed as she looked. "Do you mind the company, or do you prefer to get drunk alone?"
"Always happy for company," he chirped brightly, the bleary glitter in those large eyes making her wonder if he was not already past his prime. Mochiko called for a bottle and started drinking, her speed and control surprising even the slender boy.
"You are a serious drinker," he commented, his soft voice once again showing the measure and control that Mochiko remembered from their duel. "But you did not walk all this way to find sake, did you?"
The ronin did not answer his question, her dark eyes matching his gaze as she swallowed another glass without a word. When he did not relent, she sniffed in annoyance. "No, the booze here is hardly up to my standards. I got spoiled with Otosan Uchi's stuff years ago."
"I heard you are the yojimbo for the Hantei's daughter," she said, prompting Usan to sip his cup once more. "Shouldn't you be spending your time at her guard?"
He chuckled lightly. "I will hear words of this from her, my friend. I have no need of it from you. She seems to have all the Lion Clan dedicated to her safety that should be enough barely enough to account for a single skilled Crane kenshinzen."
He smiled at his own joke, but Mochiko gave him no answer other than rolled eyes. She was looking for something in his words, and Usan knew it, though he could not even guess at what the strange woman hoped to see.
In the end, she just sniffed once more at the young man's comments, calling for more sake with a grin. "So, tell me about this princess. I have heard all kinds of rumors; that she has feuded with the Scorpion or something. There was also a rumor about the Imperial Court's visit "
"What do you want with her?" he asked her calmly, his eyes still focused as he rose to his feet.
"I want to protect her," the ronin told him simply, nothing but honesty showing on her face.
Usan smiled. "That is my job."
"You obviously take it quite seriously," Mochiko muttered as she glanced across the table to where three fallen bottle lay scattered across its length. "Do you even know who her enemies are, boy?"
"Everyone, from what I have witnessed. It is the entire Empire that she wishes to destroy."
* * *
"You are weak."
Hantei Yugozohime lifted her head slowly, painfully, revealing the face of a woman that had been beaten half to death. Blood trickled from her left temple, mingling with that which trickled from her mouth and nose. One eye was swollen almost shut and was blackened, yet those words seemed to galvanize her soul. Pulling her bloody bokken back into her hands.
"I am not weak," the Hantei answered breathlessly, lowering her wooden katana at the seated form of Matsu Oki.
To either side of the princess two bushi raised their own wooden blades in answer. "Prove to me you are worthy of the name of Hantei," Oki said with a snap of her fan.
The Matsu charged her, but Yugozohime crouched low and slashed left, shattering a leg at the knee. Rushing under the falling attacker she gained a moment; the second swordsman found his vision blocked by his companion, and his head was slammed wide by the time that he had moved clear.
Both men struck the ground without uttering a single sound of pain or protest; the third man tried to smash the Hantei's left shoulder, but she met him with a wooden blade.
Pushing back, she staggered and then kicked him heavily, knocking him off his feet and pivoting to strike the fourth man. Yugozohime felt ribs crack as she slashed him along the left side heavily, but she wasted no time as the man struck the ground.
A look of surprise crossed the face of the bushi she had sent sprawling, a moment before his life ended with the crushing descent of the bokken's blade.
Yugozohime almost faltered the moment that combat ended; to either side one man writhed in silent agony, while the other two would never stir again. The Matsu daimyo rose slowly, her brutal eyes challenging the bruised and bleeding Hantei.
"Prove your strength," she demanded bluntly.
The student attacked the master. Oki's katana slashed Yugozohime's left shoulder to the bone.
When the servants were called for the dead and wounded Oki had already retired for the evening, leaving her wounded student crouching on the ground with a hand pressed over her bloody arm. By now, they knew better than to attempt to offer the princess aid of comfort, and left her to suffer in the silence of the room.
Leaving a trail of blood, Hantei Yugozohime returned to her room in silence, only then permitting one of the Kitsu to heal her wounds. She fell asleep, battered and exhausted, but with a single destiny as always pressing on her mind
* * *
"Oki is killing her, you say."
The man before Bayushi Atsuki nodded respectfully, his whole body still pressed respectfully to the floor. He did not look like much, but Norihisa assured him that he was a capable spy. "I have inspected her bandages nightly, Atsuki-sama. These are not the wounds made in simple practice and there is more."
The Scorpion nodded, and his servant continued, drawing out a paper marked with the Lion Clan's seal. "This document contains the names of those men that have died recently at Shiro Matsu. I noticed something strange in them."
Atsuki took the letter and read it quickly, then chuckled beneath his mask. "You see it too, Lord Atsuki," the spy muttered as the Master of Secrets set the paper aside. "They believe themselves to be quite clever, but no Ikoma can match my eyes."
"Oki is sacrificing her own kin to train this girl to kill other samurai. She will be a monster to deal with by the time the Lion are finished," the old man replied tersely, "but she will only be a warrior, not a ruler, when they are done. People do not fight hardest for a murderer "
"Then, we should do nothing?"
Behind the mask, Atsuki smiled. "Of course not. She would split the Empire into pieces like a barbarian invader, leaving nothing of our culture and advancements behind. Kill her and be done with it."
"We shall prepare," was the spy's final reply.
* * *
Things came into focus slowly and painfully; the end result of too short a reprieve combined with lost blood. Yugozohime stared up at the ceiling for a moment before struggling to move her injured arm. There was a mixture of pain and pressure, but the limb refused to move.
Steeling herself, the Hantei fought once more to raise it, but that same pressure held her, combined with a quiet, stern voice.
"Do not move. The wound is deep."
Yugozohime's grey eyes shot to her left and focused, a feeling of surprise and invasion rising at seeing Doji Usan sitting to her side. The Crane had placed his hand firmly on the blanket that covered her shoulder, and was managing, just barely, to hold her wounded shoulder down.
"What are you doing here? You had orders to stay away from this room."
For the first time since he had spoken to Oki she saw Doji Usan grow serious, his bright green eyes dulled in the shadows and his voice menacing and calm. "Those rules do not apply when I smell blood on the air, Yugozohime-sama. Your injury "
"It is none of your concern," she shot back, unable to decide how to react to his sudden concern. Yugozohime rose to a sitting position, and this time Usan did not fight her. "That I live should be enough for you. Since when do you care about me anyway?"
Usan looked about to say something, but at the last moment he seemed to change his mind. She winced at the pain of Oki's sword stroke, but covered the motion with more words. "You should not be so afraid to be truthful in front of me, Usan. Unless there is some truth that you fear "
She waited, challenging him, daring denial of the conspiracy that shaped his life.
"I am not your enemy, you know," he said curtly, rising and retrieving his katana from the ground. She felt her face burn in embarrassment, but the young swordsman simply strode towards the door. Sliding it aside, Yugozohime saw that there was a small gathering of Lion bushi waiting anxiously; most shot venomous gazes towards the yojimbo, but every one of them let him pass them by.
Behind them all stood Matsu Oki, a fierce hatred smoldering in her eyes. Yugozohime did not see them, but she heard words pass between them; words of hatred and control, matched to an oath of duty and revenge.
"I heard that you denied my bushi entry, Doji. They were unable to rouse the Hantei for her morning kata."
"You nearly killed her. She is only a child."
"She is my student. Her life is mine, not yours."
"She is Hantei. Her life is her own."
So did the second year of Hantei Yugozohime's training pass with the ruler of Shiro Matsu, filled with strife and conflict, whispers and spies. The seasons passed by her quickly, their sounds muted by cries of combat and their scents tinted with the aroma of sweat and blood
The Path Goes On