"Only a friend can betray you."
- Bayushi's "Lies"
The young man smiled slightly at Usan, his smooth, oval face maintaining a soft calm that Yugozohime could not have managed even on command. "Have I said something strange, Usan? I apologize for this deception, but my sensei would not approve "
The Crane remained seated without motion, but Usan's voice betrayed his startled state. "It was you who sent me that message, not Lord Kusada."
"Indeed," Haekaru said, his eyes turning bitter for a moment. "In truth, that is why I am here."
Outside the house, rain had begun to fall. "My sister is in danger, Usan," the young prince told him. "More danger than I think she wishes to admit, and more than any one yojimbo, no matter how skilled, can defeat. I do not understand everything about Rokugan yet, but I know that my family is important to me. I want to help her, however I can."
Usan's green eyes flitted back and forth across the empty room, as if searching for some trap concealed behind the bamboo-painted walls. Thunder rumbled noisily over them. "Then it is true, just as I have heard it. There is a conspiracy against the Hantei "
"Nothing could be further from the truth, Usan," Haekaru told the Crane, ignoring the challenge in Usan's words. "The Gozoku exists for the benefit of the Empire "
The shoji slammed open suddenly, though only the Hantei seemed surprised.
"The Gozoku exists for itself."
Haekaru's large eyes went up to regard his sister, her small form wrapped in a plain kimono of grey and gold. To one side, the thick, looming form of Matsu Oki regarded the prince with dark ferocity; Haekaru did not cringe from it, but instead bowed as politely as he could.
"Usan, Oki-sama," she said without turning from him, "leave us, now."
* * *
In another time there would have been a time for polite conversation; comments on the tea that Usan had chosen for them, or a discussion on the art adorning the walls of the room. As it was, Yugozohime took a seat in a silence stunted by the rain striking the roof above them, placing her large sword beside her and lancing her eldest brother with a dark and challenging stare.
She waited impatiently for him to speak to her, lording her assumed position like some imagined god of war.
Haekaru's eyes drifted down to the Yugiri, cold and menacing in the room's guttering light. He looked up, testing Yugozohime's steel-grey gaze for a moment before speaking to his little sister for the first time in his life. "Allow me to introduce myself properly, sister "
"I know your name, Haekaru," she answered him curtly, obviously not used to being forced to keep her emotions under control. "Why are you here?"
"You are in danger, my sister."
Again those grey eyes threatened challenge, but the young prince ignored them and moved on. "There are those in the Empire who see you as a threat, Yugozohime; they can be dissuaded, but only if given patience and time. Your actions at your gempukku, they alarmed many "
"And what would you have me do, Haekaru?" she demanded bluntly, watching him as her brother pressed his hands together in muted thought. "The Gozoku is destroying the Empire, stealing what our founder nurtured and grew," she continued. "Or did you expect me to just walk away? I am a Hantei, just as you are it is our duty to rule. I will not hand Rokugan to your masters."
"I came here to help you, sister. I am not your enemy," he challenged her with his words, "and I will not let you make me one. Bayushi Atsuki seeks your life; I can convince him that this does not serve the Empire, but it will take time."
"Time that you can give me, Yugozohime."
She shook her head. "I do not fear the Master of Secrets."
Haekaru laughed. "Then you are a fool. The Gozoku are many things to many people, Yugozohime, but I do not doubt that there is venom in Atsuki's soul. I have already risked much to protect you," he said with sudden seriousness, "but it will not be enough."
"Leave this place tonight. Go into hiding, only for a few seasons "
She glanced at Haekaru, silencing him, and then looked down to her sword. For a long moment, there was only silence between them as she considered the sincerity that had passed between them. Then Yugozohime's callused hand touched Yugiri's sheath, lifting the sword as she rose.
"Forgive me," she said softly, "but I was never taught how to run from a fight."
Haekaru rose. "You will be killed, and that will prove nothing. We can change the Empire, Yugozohime."
She said nothing at first, genuinely shocked for a moment at his words. Then Yugozohime smirked darkly, as if she had glimpsed some dark ugliness beneath Haekaru's oath. "The Empire recognizes only one Emperor, Haekaru. There is no future for both you and I."
His small hand stopped her from leaving. "What will you do?"
"I have the student of Shiba Gaijushiko in my house, Haekaru, as well as a confession of Bayushi Atsuki's crimes. I am going to war, Haekaru," she promised him, stepping back into the hallway, "you can stand with me or step aside."
* * *
"You cannot do this."
The very words caused both student and master to glare at the Crane. Doji Usan maintained his composure as best he could under the circumstances, despite the knowledge that Yugozohime was now guilty of holding hostage an Imperial Heir. "You do not know what this will mean for the Clans, Yugozohime. You are not talking about a political campaign, you are discussing a war."
"Bah," Oki snapped sourly. "Justice needs no defining words."
"Justice is not found on battlefields."
"He will try and take her from you," Oki heard clearly as brief hesitation fluttered through her student's grey eyes.
Yugozohime looked up to Usan, her conviction still mostly undaunted by his words. "You do not understand what is happening here. I make this choice because it is all that I can. The Lion Clan will support me, and while I hold Haekaru, perhaps I can force their hand "
"He is your brother! How can you do this?"
"He will never let her go " Itagi's voice roared to her.
Usan remained defiant, standing between the princess and the house's main door. "How many lives is your pride worth, Yugozohime? This will not be a duel, where one lives and one dies," he almost snapped at the small girl, startling her with his sudden dedication to opposing her, "this will be a war, vicious and bloody on both sides!"
Yugozohime cast her eyes downward, for a moment revealing her own doubts. As she did, however, Matsu Oki moved behind the yojimbo
Without a word, the Lion slashed Usan across the back.
Yugozohime was certain that the slender Crane was dead, but somehow he tumbled in mid motion, flicking a deft snap of blood across her kimono as he drew his Kakita sword. Almost lazily, Oki blocked the strike aimed at her; she did not counter, nor did she look into Usan's cold eyes. The sensation of her action almost sickened her
"Traitor," the young Crane challenged. "Is this how my father died?"
Oki nodded, forcing herself to remain in control. "Yes, Usan, this is how your father died. I understand now that both he and you believe in the same Rokugan, but I will not live in an empire that chooses a coward's peace to a hero's war."
He grimaced in pain at the wound, and said, "And so you will build your ideals upon treachery and dishonor, Oki?"
"When the Gozoku's power is broken, and all three of them have been thrown down into pieces," Oki answered him as if his words meant nothing to her, "then I will gladly die for my crimes, at the Empress's command. You must die now, Usan. There is no other way."
Her sword, the blade of the first Matsu, flickered hungrily in the lantern light. Usan steeled himself for one final attack, but it was not his actions that drew Oki's eyes.
She looked to Yugozohime, but for the first time in her life, panic had seized the young girl. Yugozohime's eyes stared at Usan's back in silence, watching the fabric turn black as dark red blood welled up from his wound. Never in her life had the girl faced her sensei's own ruthless convictions with such clarity
Stepping backwards from both of them, she could not find her voice to speak.
"This is the path you have chosen, Yugozohime," her sensei told her sternly. Oki looked down at the Yugiri, "You are a samurai, and that sword was meant for war. I would not have given it to you if I did not think that you were strong enough to bear its weight."
"Choose now: your Empire or one man."
"If it were only that simple," a new voice, strong and ancient, suddenly emanated from the now opened door. All eyes turned to look past the daughter of Kusada, and Yugozohime's eyes widened at the form that blocked the door.
Dressed in ancient armor and a mask of steel, the form of Togashi Tsuriau loomed above the three samurai, his form touched by neither wind nor rain. The blazing eyes of the Dragon Clan Champion fell upon the raised sword of the Matsu Daimyo
"But it never is."
At Last, He Moves