Bayushi Sunetra sat unmoving among the cramped network of stone and wood that comprised the higher levels of the Kaiu tower. The landscape was dotted with such structures, it seemed, with workshops, forges, and a myriad of other stout grey buildings belching black smoke into the sky. It was here that the weapons, armor, and siege engines that fueled the Crab Clan’s war against the Shadowlands were created. It was the birthplace of death, where the end of ten thousand demons had been forged. Under different circumstances, Sunetra might have explored the mysteries of this place more deeply. Today, there was no time.
A handful of men stood waiting in the empty room beneath her, their kimonos bearing different colors and mons, but with a single unifying emblem: the mark of Kaneka, the Shogun. These were his personal attendants, his most trusted and worthy officers. Their leader was a man named Shiba Danjuro, a genuine hero of the Empire, the Shogun’s right hand. She pitied the young Phoenix. Of late, the duties Kaneka had set before him had left a haunted, unpleasant expression on Danjuro’s handsome features. He was getting little sleep of late; she knew this for a fact because she was getting just as little sleep spying on him.
A door opened, and another figure entered. This man was shorter, wearing Crab colors with a Kaiu mon displayed proudly on the chest and sleeves. “I’ve come, as you asked,” he said gruffly, “but I have little time. There is much work to be done.”
“You are right about that,” a familiar voice said. A figure masked by a basket hat stepped forward as if appraising the Crab. “There is much to be done, and little time to do it. Welcome, Kaiu Kazu.”
“Who are you?” the Crab demanded.
“Who am I?” the figure said with a laugh. He removed his hat, revealing features that were known throughout the Empire. “I certainly am not the Shogun, that much is certain. After all, the Shogun is currently in his command tent, meeting with several of his officers, as their testimony will attest should the matter ever be questioned.” The man looked at Kazu frankly, the unspoken threat apparent in his dead black eyes.
Danjuro grinned wearily.
“Kaneka-sama,” the Crab said, bowing. “This is most unexpected. I did not imagine I was worthy of a private audience with one such as you.”
Sunetra frowned. Such a reaction was unusual from a Crab, who tended to frown on such subterfuge. If the notion of a clandestine meeting with the Shogun was intimidating to the Kaiu, he did not show it.
“Forgive me, Kazu, but I must be brief,” Kaneka said. “You were part of the Gozoku conspiracy, carefully monitoring supply line records and diverting what resources you could to be used by your masters. Atsuki and the others would distribute the materials to their agents or use them to fuel their melodramatic deceptions& whatever suited their needs at the time.”
Now Kazu’s face had paled somewhat, but to his credit, he did not shrink from the accusation. “I was,” he admitted. “I feel no shame in it. It was for the good of the Empire. Our ends were noble. I did not know I served Atsuki at the time, but I doubt that would have changed much. Are you here to kill me?”
“That has not been decided yet,” Kaneka said. “As you say, the Gozoku’s goal was noble, but horribly perverted by Atsuki’s personal ambition. I have Atsuki’s records. I know all of those who once served him. I offer you a final chance, to serve me. Together we shall bring order to the Empire.”
Kazu nodded, a smile on his face. “I would be greatly honored to join you, Shogun. I have long admired you, and I eagerly await for the day when you are the true power behind the throne, not& some weakling shadow of the Hantei.”
Sunetra saw Danjuro’s face fall ever so slightly, and recognized the expression of resignation on Kaneka’s.
“Repeat what you just said, please,” the Shogun said.
“I said that I am eager to help you in your quest for the throne,” Kazu said. “Your brother was never worthy.”
“Unfortunate,” the Shogun said quietly. In one smooth motion, he drew his blade and sliced the air, slitting the man’s throat. Kazu fell to his knees, choking as he grasped his neck, blood streaming over his fingers. Sunetra blinked in surprise; if not for her training she might have gasped. Kaneka flicked the blood from his blade with a practiced motion.
“Ambition must be tempered with honor, Kazu, or it becomes a stone around one’s neck,” the Shogun said. “Come, Danjuro. Let us leave this dog to his death.”
“Hai, Shogun,” Danjuro said quietly.
Sunetra withdrew into the shadows.