One man will save his master.
One man will kill him.
The Emperors court chambers were stark, barren, cold. As the Imperial Guard marched Ginawa through the corridors of the palace, the ronin forced himself not to stare at the absence all around him. Absences of light, of sound, and of movement – the palace of Otosan had become as empty as the grave from which Iuchiban had torn the rotted corpse.
Ginawa’s skin chilled at the comparison.
Hiroru was as good as dead. Stabbed from behind by his Crane lover, captured by the Emperor’s soldiers – or, at least, by those loyal to the false Emperor on the throne. All hope of rescue fled Ginawa’s mind as the golden doors of the throne room loomed before him.
Dried blood covered the floor, and Ginawa recoiled in horror. On a dais far across the smooth wooden planks stood the Emperor beside a tall, jade throne whose once-bright surface was shadowed and dark. Toturi looked up as Ginawa entered, his eyes dull.
“You.” Toturi stepped down onto the darkly stained floorboards.
“Hai, Toturi-sama.” Ginawa fell to his knees, pressing his sword to the floor before him. The guards, unwilling to venture this deeply into the darkness of the palace, had not even taken it from him. The Bloodsword did not hum its characteristic rage.
Toturi stepped toward Ginawa, and a bitter cold crept across the floor, mimicking the movement of the shadows.
“I know you.” The Emperor’s voice was robbed of emotion. He took another step toward Ginawa, his feet silent on the mahogany floor.
“Hai, Toturi-sama. It is me.”
“Who?” Bored, impassive, the Emperor began to turn away, fingering the sleeve of his golden kimono.
A pause as the too-black pupils bored into the ronin’s eyes, seeking something Ginawa did not know how to give. “Ginawa…?” A shred of recognition whispered through the Emperor’s voice. “Ginawa…”
“We fought together. I was your friend. Do you not remember Beiden Pass? Toshi Ranbo?” Ginawa caught an echo of Hiroru’s voice in his mind: How do you know this is not the Emperor?
“Ginawa, old friend.” Toturi’s eyes, now brown and pale, regarded Ginawa. “I remember…something. You were… Akodo…?” Toturi sank to his knees on the floor, Ginawa stared in horror and shame. “The Akodo – my brothers. Where are you now? Hantei!” Toturi reached for the ceiling, arching in paroxysms of fear and pain. Above him, the shadows whirled in strange patterns, faces without features, eyes without emotion or identity. “Hantei! Where is the Emperor? The Emperor is dead!”
“No, Toturi-sama. You are the Emperor. You defeated Fu Leng, killed the armies of the Tainted Lands…”
Toturi’s face clenched. “Hoturi? Kachiko… Someone must find Kachiko. She will know where the Emperor has gone.”
“Master!” Ginawa recoiled. “They are gone – all gone.”
“But Ginawa, you are here. Ginawa.” Without thought of propriety, the Emperor grabbed the ronin’s shoulders. “Help me. Save me. Tell me” – his eyes cloud once more – “who am I?”
Stunned, Ginawa did not even think to reach for his fallen sword as Toturi pushed him away, staggering back to the huge Jade Throne. Leaning heavily upon its stone arm, the Emperor spoke raggedly. “I cannot remember, sometimes. The shadows in my mind. I can think of your face, Kage’s face, the face of my mother. Arasou, my brother…” The throne room did not echo the plaintive, childlike strains of Toturi’s voice, as if the shadows swallowed them. The shadows hung from the walls like tapestries of night, waiting to cover the palace in darkness. Darkness…and nothing.
Ginawa scrambled to his feet, clutching at the burning red saya before him. “Toturi-sama!” When the Emperor looked up again, his eyes were as black as the void. “Go, Ginawa. Take your traitor Matsu with you, and go.” The Emperor’s voice began to change as his features slowly slipped away. His face became as smooth as an eggshell, and the shadows crept close. “Go!”
Outside the palace, with Hiroru semi-conscious on his shoulder, the ronin Ginawa looked back at Otosan-Uchi’s tall, shadowed walls.
“Ginawa, what happened?” Hiroru’s voice was weak, weary.
“Something has entered the Emperor’s mind.” Ginawa placed Hiroru on the ground and untethered the horses.
“Iye.” Ginawa shook his head. “Something else.”
“Where is Shizue?” Hiroru’s eyes sagged. “She will need me…” His body slumped in Ginawa’s arms.
Alone again in the woodland darkness surrounding the Imperial City, Ginawa looked up at the palace’s faint light. “Enough!” he snarled. “Tomorrow we begin again. The Emperor has been found…but not yet saved.”