"We were not defeated."
- Matsu Itagi
Matsu Oki stood on the edges of the Hiruma provinces, gazing out into the darkness that covered the blasted land. Beyond her vision, beyond the fires of her encamped legions, there arose the shrieks of monsters and the howls of terrible things. The Shadowlands beckoned, called to the Matsu daimyo to challenge them, to march past the Crab legions and recover her brother from their hands.
Her brother, Matsu Itagi. The Champion of the Lion Clan.
Thoughts of the past overwhelmed the young daimyo; there had never been anything that Itagi could not do. When he had entered the Shadowlands, Oki had wanted to believe in him, to believe that even all of Fu Leng's power was no match for such a man.
But the Shadowlands remained silent, and Itagi had not returned.
The sound of heavy footsteps caused her to bristle, but the voice was cold and hard like iron ground to dust. His name was Hida Tadaka, the Champion of the Crab.
"You should return to the tents with your men, Oki-san," he told her, casting a hateful gaze across the broken, tortured land. Bone-bleached by the moon the mountains beckoned to Oki; she ignored the Champion and his warning, crossing her lean arms against the growing cold. "There are worse things here that roam the night."
"I am a Lion," she spat back at him. "We do not have your tact with caution or fear."
"If I return with your brother, Oki, will it spare the Crab of your family's hate?" Tadaka's weary face turned back towards the legions, where Lion and Crab bristled at one another as much as with the enemy beyond. "We cannot afford this hatred, from our own kin."
She sneered at him. "If the Crab could have borne this burden, Tadaka, then my brother would have never have come. Go to the Shadowlands and seek him, if you think it will avenge your own weakness," she said, still imagining her brother was calling to her.
"I will succeed once you have failed."
* * *
She would destroy them all.
Oki watched with silent pleasure as Yugozohime achieved her gempukku; the Hantei had achieved the goal quickly, on the eve of her fourteenth year. Before the invited courtiers and diplomats the princess passed every rigor, enduring the suffering that made the Matsu the fiercest of their clan.
The Emperor had not attended. Oki had always known that he had been weak.
A slight cough from the assembly drew her attention, even as an inner whisper reminded Oki that not all others were weak. The three faces of the Gozoku watched the display in silence, no emotion slipping past them, no distaste showing through. Were they not her enemies, Oki would have even admired them; Raigu with his bushido, Atsuki with his guile, and Gaijushiko with his great dream.
Not that it mattered, Oki remembered, watching as Yugozohime came to the apex of the ritual of names. She was the one destined to destroy all three of them. Oki believed in that truth more than she believed in anything more than bushido, or her new Champion's words.
They had followed her every moment, from the time her brother had died
* * *
She was standing there, at the edge of a great, empty plain, with all the shattered land spread out before her like the corpse of some great beast. To either side, Oki looked back upon long lines of gold-washed soldiers armed with iron and steel. The Matsu daimyo drew her family's Ancestral Sword from its sheath in preparation
Her hand hesitated, wavering and then the katana clattered to the ground.
* * *
"You have trained the girl to be a murderer," Shiba Gaijushiko said bluntly, surprising even Oki with the lack of art with which he used his words. The Phoenix Champion judged her with the gaze of an immortal. "This is not what her father would have wished for her "
Oki said nothing to the other man; as if nothing had happened, she calmly sipped her tea. The two had met at arrangement in an expression of peace between Matsu and Shiba; after the Battle of No-Strike, however, such gestures were words and little more. It was obvious that the Phoenix understood the truth behind Yugozohime; Oki had expected it, and drawn wisdom from the spirit's words.
"You must beware him, Oki. You must find the weakness in the Kami, not the man."
She opened her eyes slowly, calmly, smoldering the urge to strike the Gozoku down. Despite his age and small stature, Gaijushiko was known as a warrior; such an action would doom her, and place Yugozohime back in the Gozoku's hands.
It could all still be undone, with but a word.
"The Matsu are a family of warriors, Gaijushiko-san," she told him evenly, fighting to maintain control. How it galled her to be near this man, who sat calmly and lightly even as he defied the Celestial Order itself! "What would you have us teach her? Surely the Hantei has a right to learn the art of war."
"'The Hantei?'" he inquired innocently, but the voice hissed for her to beware.
"There is no point to this, Gaijushiko-san. I know that court is not my field " Lifting her eyes to hers, the Matsu daimyo bowed humbly, "Forgive me if the Emperor is not pleased with his daughter's progress at my school. You have my word; I will never again order her to draw a sword."
The Gozoku hesitated, if only for a moment. "You have never been one to refuse a challenge, Oki-san. That is not your nature "
"I do not fight when I cannot win. Itagi taught me that."
* * *
She rushed forward, seizing hold of him even as the Kuni tried to force the bushi away. Itagi's body was wracked with horrible injuries; his arm had been torn away, and was wrapped in crude bandages that did nothing to hide the deep gouges and cuts since then. Oki gritted her teeth as she fought for the words to say to his; Itagi's face was shadowed, and when he spoke, his breath was weak.
"We were not defeated " he whispered, glancing back towards the twisted land of Fu Leng's realm.
Then, with a final gesture, Itagi squeezed her hand, drawing blood with the gesture; one last fight before he died. Behind the fallen champion, Oki raised her eyes to see Hida Tadaka, his own body nearly as rent as her brother's, the Ancestral Swords of both Crab and Lion hanging limply in his hands.
"I am sorry," he said, with what little strength was left in him.
For the first time that she could remember, Matsu Oki simply cradled the fallen and cried. There would be no revenge or reprisal; in the Shadowlands, such things were merely empty words. There was only the mournful silence as a second champion joined her brother, complete with the finality of death
* * *
From that day, the Hantei's training changed greatly; Yugozohime left the walls of the castle, taking residence in a small house outside the city, and met with her former sensei only every couple of days. Rumors swirled about what could have passed between student and teacher to divide them, and many whispered that the Princess's return to Otosan Uchi was at all times "mere days away."
Looking out over the city, Gaijushiko ignored the empty words. "She has bought some time, that much is certain," he commented to the darkness of the room. "Matsu Oki is more clever than I expected. To challenge her handling of the subject is to challenge the honor of her words."
"So difficult," Atsuki commented from his seat in the shadows, "but questioning her actions is hardly difficult at all "
"Enough. I do not wish to play your game, Atsuki-san. Not today."
The Master of Secrets moved to the window, his black eyes boring into Gaijushiko after he glanced out, past the walls, to where the Emerald Champion drilled his men. "I notice that Raigu is not present today, Gaijushiko. I think you have come here precisely for my kind of game."
"I will not allow anyone to undermine Haekaru's future; not even his own sister, if it comes to that." Gaijushiko's immortal gaze grew haunted, as if Atsuki could actually see the weights being stacked upon Shiba's soul. "We must deal with this threat now. I have already hesitated for too long. Haekaru wishes to meet his sister personally; I cannot deny it, but I do not trust that girl."
Beneath his mask, Atsuki smiled, wondering if his family's founder had ever thought to see Shiba's wisdom turned his way. "He has never forgiven you for Chikuma, even though it was I that brought her to her end. You embarrassed him again during Kusada's visit to Shiro Matsu "
"Raigu trusts my motives." Gaijushiko said without so much as a pause. "I trust him enough to hear his words when he feels that they must fly. My duty is clear."
The Scorpion turned away from his ally, staring down into the gardens, his face and voice shrouded by his family's mask. "When will it be enough for you, Shiba?"
"What do you mean, Atsuki-san?"
He turned back, measuring his companion like a Kakita before a strike. "When will the Gozoku's influence be enough for you?"
"The Hantei must be guided properly," he said evenly. "That is my only design."
"So be it," Atsuki muttered darkly, and then, without answer, he was gone.
* * *
It had appeared while Yugozohime was being lectured on the tenants of bushido, reciting lines from memory in the small room that served as her training hall. The courier had insisted that it be delivered to Doji Usan, but the slender Crane boy was perplexed even more than most.
He knew no one in Otosan Uchi, much less anyone who could send such a command.
Returning to his small room for some silence, the Doji bowed and opened the scroll that bore the Hantei's personal mon.
"What is this?" Usan asked himself, holding the paper tightly in his hands.
The word "assassin" had been traced in fine calligraphy, the single mark upon paper trimmed in pale gold and sealed with the symbol of the Hantei.
A New Ally