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All Glory to the Righteous Emperor

By Rich Wulf

Doji Yasuyo reined in her steed sharply, eyeing the horizon with a scowl. There was nothing to be seen, no invading enemies, no Bloodspeaker invasions, not even an Imperial dignitary in need of an escort. Strangely, she felt disappointed. While she certainly wished no harm upon the Imperial City and was pleased that the borders held true, she could not help but wish for some form of distraction for her troubled mind.

Combat always served that purpose. Violence carved away all confusion, left only the brutal essence of life, the simple truth of steel. The Way of the Crane was also the way of compassion, but Yasuyo could not deny that she was a warrior. An enemy she could face with steel was an enemy she could defeat. But what of the enemies she could not see? Those who did not seem to be enemies at all?

With a heavy heart she nudged her horse onward. She did not relish the idea of what lay ahead. She had always embraced truth as a noble concept, but for the first time in her life she wished the truth was not what she sought. The bitter memories that drew her here surged forth, unbidden.

----------------

Yasuyo was always impressed by Kyuden Kakita. It was a fortress, designed for the defense of the Crane Clan, but despite its fierce exterior the interior held a subtle serenity that always calmed her. The halls were solid, unyielding stone but echoed with the music of a distant samisen. The towers presented a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape, and also the perfect vantage point for defending archers. The mix of a warrior's practicality and an artist's eye for beauty struck a tone with her that always made her feel welcome.

"Konnichiwa, Doji Yasuyo," came a silken-smooth voice from behind her.

Yasuyo stopped and turned to face the woman who had addressed her, recognizing her immediately. Kakita Kyruko was a vain woman, just beginning to show her age. Her hair was that unnatural dark black shade that came only from artificial dyes. Her face was painted thickly with makeup intended to draw attention from her wrinkles, giving her a faintly ghastly appearance. Yasuyo offered the older woman a thin, polite smile as she slid the door closed and stepped into the audience chamber.

"Welcome, Yasuyo-san," Kyruko replied. "I apologize that Master Noritoshi or his wife cannot attend you personally, but they have assured me that it will not be long. I have been instructed to entertain you in their absence. Please, have a seat."

"Very well," Yasuyo said stiffly. She knelt at the small table in the center of the room, setting her daisho on the floor beside her.

"Is that Naishi?" Kyruko asked, kneeling across the table from her. "I have heard legends of what you did with that blade in Toshi Ranbo, tales of the bold and clever warrior, but of course what Crane has not heard the Legend of Toshi Ranbo?"

"No," Yasuyo said with some regret apparent in her voice. "This is not Doji Yasurugi's sword." She bowed her head as she accepted a cup of tea offered by a silent servant. "I returned Naishi to Master Kozue, so he could pass it on when it was needed again."

"Intriguing," Kyruko said. "I am a woman who does not share or surrender power easily, and I was quite the warrior in my youth. I do not know if I could set aside a Yasurugi blade."

"Then, with no undue respect, it is likely you would never have been chosen to wield it," Yasuyo said, sipping her tea and looking pointedly away from Kyruko. She immediately regretted the arrogance of her words, but something about the older woman irritated her. Perhaps it was a fear that she, too, would become a bitter, garishly painted flower of the court when age robbed her of her strength.

Kyruko chuckled. "Of course," she said dryly. "I doubt Lady Doji would have had an interest in me. I have always shown a marked streak of independence. I prefer to think for myself." She sipped from her tea and smirked at Yasuyo's deepening frown. "I do not mean to imply that your will is not your own, Yasuyo-sama. Incidentally, my congratulations on your impending marriage. Lady Akiko chose your husband well."

"Domo arigato, Kyruko-san," Yasuyo said stiffly, not missing the subtle insult. "It seems your time away from the Imperial City has not dulled your awareness of current events. My betrothal was announced a mere six years ago."

"And the news is as glorious today as it was then," Kyruko said evenly, regarding Yasuyo with an oddly intense scrutiny. "I wonder. When the marriage takes place, will you swear fealty to the Phoenix or will he take the Doji name? Many men take the name of their Doji brides; will Kaneka have such humility? The latter would surprise me considering he did not even have the respect to take a Phoenix name when the Emperor commanded he swear fealty."

"The Phoenix are a clan with a history of internal problems," Yasuyo said. "Kaneka likely did not wish to show one family favor over another."

"Odd that his brother Sezaru had no such reservations," Kyruko replied.

"Sezaru's mother was once Isawa," Yasuyo said. "Kaneka's mother was& not."

Kyruko smiled politely, letting the uncomfortable matter of Kaneka's parentage drop. "I suppose it is not for me to judge," she said, "but what a proud woman you must be, to wed the most powerful man in the Empire."

Yasuyo set her tea cup down carefully. "You are mistaken, Kyruko-sama. Akodo Kurako is betrothed to the Righteous Emperor. My husband-to-be is his brother, the Shogun."

"Then it is you who are mistaken, Yasuyo, if you believe the Emperor truly retains any power," Kyruko replied.

"Dangerous words, Kyruko."

"You misunderstand," she said with a sigh. "I am as loyal to the Son of Heaven as any true Crane, but I am practical enough to recognize the facts. The Shogun's troops have occupied the Imperial City for months now, ostensibly protecting the Emperor from his enemies. None can enter or leave Toshi Ranbo without his scrutiny. Already some petitioners have been detained for weeks, the Shogun's forces refusing them admission to the Imperial Palace. The Legions obey Naseru, but it is Kaneka who delivers their orders. If he were to command them as he wished, none could question him, for only a suicidally foolish officer would defy the Shogun and interrupt the Emperor to confirm his commands. The Righteous Emperor may hold the throne, but it is your fianc who wields true power over Rokugan."

"The facts can be twisted, Kyruko," Yasuyo said. "Kaneka occupied Toshi Ranbo to protect his brother from the Bloodspeakers. It is difficult to say what truly occurs in Toshi Ranbo without being there."

"Quite true," Kyruko answered. "The truth can be twisted. Time and distance have a way of making us perceive things differently than they are. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Most do not share my fears, and believe the Shogun's concern for his brother is legitimate. But is it any surprise that so much of the Empire prefers to assume the Shogun's intentions are honorable considering the history of the Toturi Dynasty?"

"What do you mean?" Yasuyo demanded.

"Am I the only one that remembers Toturi Tsudao?" Kyruko replied. She looked at Yasuyo for a long moment, then shooed the curious servants with a dismissive wave before continuing. "Tsudao sought to claim her father's throne on the basis of the strength of her legions, and we Crane supported her. Before that her own father, Toturi, claimed the throne on the single merit that he had slain his predecessor. Again, time and distance paint things in a favorable light, allow us to remember things other than they were. If Kaneka's ambition is to hold the throne, I would not be so eager to denounce him for it. Two out of three Toturi Emperors have taken the throne by force. If any member of the Toturi Dynasty can be said to hold with tradition, then that man is Kaneka not Naseru."

"Toturi and Tsudao were heroes," Yasuyo replied. "You assign them ambition that never existed."

"Ambition and nobility are not mutually exclusive," Kyruko replied. "No man claims such power as an Emperor holds without ambition. Tell me, Yasuyo. Why is it that when a villain does terrible things for noble reasons, we revile him, but when a hero does noble things for selfish reasons, we forgive him? Is that not hypocrisy? Or is success the final judge of whether a man is a hero or villain? Our Mantis brethren say success washes away all sins,' and I think there is some truth in that. Is the opposite true as well? Is failure the greatest crime? I wonder, Yasuyo-chan, if the spirits of slaughter had consumed you and your cousin in Toshi Ranbo all those years ago and then turned upon the Lion forces, would we remember you as a tragic hero or an abominable villain?"

"What is your point, Kyruko?" Yasuyo asked tersely. "Your philosophy is becoming tiresome."

"My point is that ignoring your future husband's actions, or painting them in any light other than the stark truth, serves no purpose," Kyruko answered. "If he proves to be a traitor, as his bride you will share his fate. Such is the law. After all, a woman who lets her husband betray the throne is either guilty of complicity or ignorance, and in matters of betrayal both are unforgivable. I would not presume to accuse Kaneka of that which he has not done, but I must beg you to be cautious, Yasuyo. If he truly does not intend to challenge Naseru, he must make it clear before he does his reputation greater harm." Kyruko sipped her tea and glanced around silently to insure no servants were hiding nearby. She spoke again in a low voice. "And if he does seek to challenge the Son of Heaven, you have no option but to help him succeed, Yasuyo. Death and dishonor are your only alternatives, and I do not wish you such a fate."

"And who are you to speak to me in this way?" Yasuyo demanded harshly. Her face was growing dark with rage. She found it difficult to hold her temper in check, but she would not shed a fellow Crane's blood, especially when she was a guest in another samurai's house. "You are an old woman, forgotten by her own family, tucked away here, close at hand, where your sharp tongue will cause no trouble. You presume to question the Shogun's honor? I am the cousin of the Crane Champion do you realize what would happen to you if I told Kurohito what you have said here?"

"I do," Kyruko said seriously. "And you know I would not risk giving you such dangerous advice if my concern for you was not sincere. I had hoped to help you because you remind me so much of myself, though I was never granted the same opportunities to prove myself that you were handed by the gods. I admire you, Yasuyo. I wish to see you stand strong, either beside the Shogun or beside the throne if he chooses to seize it." She rose, smoothing her kimono over her stomach. "Do not let your honor deafen you to what I would say. I have a warning to give, but I fear if you cannot accept even this simple advice that you are not prepared to hear it. I shall find a less offensive attendant to entertain you until Noritoshi-sama is available." She moved slowly toward the far door, leaving Yasuyo in uneasy silence.

"Wait, Kyruko-san," Yasuyo said, rising to her feet.

Kyruko looked back at Yasuyo, dark eyes meeting crystal blue.

"What warning do you have to give?" she asked.

"You have truly proven that you are as bold as the legends say," Kyruko replied. "I am pleased to say you are as clever as they say as well. Now listen well, for your Shogun is in danger, and you will owe me greatly for the information I now offer."

----------------

Yasuyo returned her attention to the present, not dwelling further on the details of her meeting with Kyruko. There would be time enough to face the truth, if it was indeed the truth at all. Toshi Ranbo lay just ahead, and already she could make out the Imperial patrols that surrounded the city constantly. Those would be the Shogun's soldiers Kaneka's soldiers.

Yasuyo reached behind the neck of her kimono, pulling out a scrap of blue silk and tying it around her face. Her hair was similarly concealed beneath a black cap, and her traditional blue armor was replaced with a thin silken kimono and wide shouldered haori. From a distance, she might be mistaken for a Scorpion courtier. Such a disguise grated at Yasuyo's sense of honor; she did not enjoy pretending to be something she was not even if she did not actually plan to lie about her identity to anyone. Even so, she could not argue against necessity. She was a hero in Violence Behind Courtliness City, and her face was all too easily recognized by samurai and peasant alike. Yasuyo could not afford to be recognized just yet.

She made her way carefully across the plains, avoiding the Shogun's patrols. A small gate at the southwestern end of the city stood open, as it always did. This gate was rarely closed or guarded, as she knew from past explorations, and the fetid stench of the leatherworker's district immediately reminded her why. She paused only long enough to leave her horse at a stable, slipping the stable master a few copper coins to insure his discretion. She then hurried through the streets as quickly she could, giving thanks that her improvised disguise blocked at least some of the odor.

Outside of the leatherworker district the streets were more heavily patrolled. Groups of samurai bearing the Imperial mon patrolled in groups of half a dozen or more. One band marched toward her now. Her first instinct was to duck into an alley, but she remembered the advice Kyruko had given her. Yasuyo approached them openly and without fear, walking briskly. They paid no attention. Yasuyo kept walking, surprised that the gambit had worked. Kyruko had said that outside the walls she might be stopped and asked for traveling papers, but once within the city, the guards would assume that she had already passed inspection and wouldn't give her any trouble so long as she did not behave suspiciously.

It had worked. Now to find out if the rest of what Kyruko had said was true as well, that her husband had kidnapped a Crane courtier and held him here against his will. She continued onward through the streets, making her way unerringly to the noble district. Toshi Ranbo had expanded greatly in the years since she had battled the spirits of slaughter here with her cousin, Kurohito. It was the Imperial City now, the center of the Empire's culture, politics, and military. The Emperor's laborers had built heavily upon the existing neighborhoods, but it was still the same city that she remembered.

She soon found the house that Kyruko had informed her about. It was a small noble's estate surrounded by a low wall, not unlike the many others that lined the streets. What struck her as most peculiar about it were the four guards lingering by the gate. They wore neither the Imperial Chrysanthemum nor the mon of any clan. They had the nondescript brown armor of ronin, and each wore a folded iron fan at his hip. Yasuyo knew them on sight.

At one time, the Lion and Crane had fought tirelessly for control of this city, and it switched hands numerous times. Concerned that the war-weary populace might revolt against both sides, the Crane issued an edict forbidding any non-Crane residents to bear weapons within the city. The Lion saw the wisdom of the law and maintained it during the times when they conquered and held the city. This gave rise to an order of ronin who called themselves the Iron Fans, who were angered that the endless war between Lion and Crane left their samurai little time to keep the streets safe. The Iron Fans assumed the role of vigilantes and carried the weapons that were their namesake in the place of forbidden swords, wielding them with deadly efficiency. According to their reputation the Iron Fans were fiercely independent, but relatively honorable as ronin went. Yasuyo had always respected them for maintaining order in such a chaotic city but what were they doing here? Ronin orders did not maintain estates in this part of the Imperial City. Could they be mercenaries?

She watched the house for several minutes. Eventually, a samurai approached the guards. He wore the brilliant golden armor of a Phoenix, marked with the Legion Chrysanthemum - one of the Shogun's own officers. He saluted the ronin and hurried inside at a brisk pace, a pace very similar to the one Yasuyo had used to get past the earlier troops and hope none noticed.

Her curiosity piqued, Yasuyo circled into a nearby alley. She found few handholds in the outer wall but scaled it with some effort. Peering cautiously over the lip, she was surprised to find broken glass fixed into the top of the wall. Yasuyo carefully stripped off her outer haori, laying the garment over the top of the wall. She climbed over, grimacing as the glass bit her palms through the silk, and dropped to the courtyard below. The ground was much lower on this side, the surface elevated so that archers could see and fire over the wall more easily. At least that was fortunate; she would have an easier time getting back out. Finding her haori ruined, Yasuyo tucked it under a loose stone so it would not be found and continued toward the house.

She approached a low window, ducking when she heard voices within. She peered cautiously over the sill then ducked down before she was seen. Within, she had seen the Legionnaire as well as two Iron Fans. An elderly monk and a young man in the blue silken robes of a Crane sat on the floor while the Phoenix stood over them. She could hear his shouting from here.

"It is to your advantage that you tell us more, Takeji," the samurai demanded. "You will remain here until I relent."

"I can tell you no more, Danjuro-sama," the man said plaintively. "I dare tell you no more. Release me from here. I have a wife, a family. I will be missed."

"Unlikely," Danjuro replied. "Was it not your indiscretions that got you involved in this?"

"Tell your Shogun he will have nothing!" Takeji hissed. "He knows he cannot hide me here forever. The Emperor will realize I am missed. The Hidden Guard will come for me and then this will be over!"

"Then you had best tell us what you promised," Danjuro said, his tone oddly sympathetic.

"Imagine your wife's disappointment," said the gravely voice of the monk, "when she hears that you are dead."

Yasuyo could hide in the shadows no more. She could not stand by idly and hear one of her kinsmen threatened. She vaulted over the sill, tearing through the paper window with a kiai shout, her sword appearing in her hand in an instant. The blade remained in its saya; even after what she had heard she was not prepared to kill Imperial soldiers.

The two Iron Fans charged her, the paired tessen from which they took their names appearing in either hand with a snap. She deflected the first man's flurry with her saya, kicking him hard in the chest and then striking him senseless across the chin. The second man's sharpened fan sliced across her hip, tearing her kimono and leaving a trail of blood across her flesh. She grimaced and slashed at the man with her sheathed sword. He attempted to block with a tessen, but her saya struck his hand with a crunch. Yasuyo brought her sandal's heel down hard on the man's bare foot and then drove her elbow into his throat. He tumbled backwards in pain, fans flying from his hands.

"Not the traditional style I am accustomed to from a Scorpion," Danjuro said, eyeing her carefully as he advanced, hand on his sword.

Yasuyo said nothing, only pulled her mask and scarf away. Her long white hair spilled over her shoulders. Danjuro's eyes widened in recognition and in that moment he was lost. She charged forward, striking the Phoenix's hand away from his sword with one blow and then striking him hard on the temple, sending his helmet flying to land in the corner with a clatter. Danjuro fell to his knees, eyes wide, then slumped on the tatami mats. She looked past him. The monk was gone, no doubt having fled during the battle. Takeji merely knelt where he had before, visibly shaking and staring at her with horror.

"Doji Yasuyo?" he stuttered, looking up at her in shock.

"Come with me, Takeji," she said, gesturing at him quickly. "The Shogun's soldiers will not hold you here while I live." He did not move, only shook his head dumbly. He sickened her, a fragile flower of the courts so shocked by combat he could not be moved to save his own life. She reached out and seized his wrist.

"No!" he said, yanking his hand away with surprising strength. "Do you not see, Yasuyo-sama? They will kill me if they find me!"

"You will be safe in Kyuden Doji," she replied. "My cousin will protect you from the Shogun when he finds out what has happened here."

"Kyuden Doji?" Takeji replied, eyes widening in further horror. "Not there!"

"You don't really seem to understand what's happening here, girl," said a gravelly voice.

Yasuyo turned quickly to see the monk standing at the window, blocking her escape. He looked rather unkempt for a holy man, with wrinkled robes and a few days' stubble on his chin. He scratched his shoulder nonchalantly as he watched her.

"Out of my way, Brother," she said, holding out her sheathed sword again. "I am taking Takeji from here."

"You aren't leaving until the Shogun arrives, Yasuyo-chan," the monk said, spitting on the floor. "I've already sent the guards for him."

If that was true, she had little time to waste. Yasuyo did not relish the idea of attacking a monk, but she had already sacrificed a great deal of her honor thus far. She lunged at the shabby old man. He moved with startling speed, ducking inside the arc of her blow. He spun, seizing her saya in both hands and wrenching it free of her sword. She staggered, thrown off balance, unwilling to strike randomly with a naked blade. He turned and delivered a fierce palm strike to her midsection, then struck her across the temple as she had struck Danjuro. Her strength fled her, and she felt one of her knees hit the floor heavily. The monk spun, delivering a kick to Yasuyo's chest. As the room faded away, she felt the old man's hands seize her before she fell, lowering her gently to the floor.

----------------

Yasuyo awakened to a sharp pain in her side. Her hand moved there only to find thick bandages wrapped around her stomach just under her torn kimono, covering the wound the Iron Fan had left her. She was lying on a palette in a small room, lit by a single metal lantern. Her head throbbed savagely and her swords were gone. The monk who had defeated her sat on the floor beside her bed, sipping from an unlabeled bottle and fiddling with a puzzle box in his other hand. He did not even look at her.

"She's awake," the monk announced. He looked down at her with a grim smile. "Sorry about your head, Yasuyo-chan."

"Where are my swords?" she demanded.

"I have them," said a familiar voice. A tall, broad-shouldered figure in brilliant orange armor stepped into the room, carrying Yasuyo's swords under one arm. She recognized his eternal scowl and weathered, unpleasant face at once.

The Shogun, Kaneka, her husband-to-be.

"Arigato, Heigai," Kaneka said to the monk. "Please excuse us."

The monk nodded. "Don't envy you this battle, Kaneka," he said under his breath. "Glad I never got married." He made his way out of the room, sipping from his bottle with a sharp intake of breath as he tasted whatever was inside.

"Do you plan to allow me a samurai's death?" Yasuyo asked him.

"No," Kaneka said, sitting beside her bed. He put her swords beside her, well within reach, then drew his hands away. He looked at her evenly. "Do you plan to offer me one?"

Yasuyo sat up on the palette and snatched her daisho, tucking the blades beneath her obi. She left one hand on the hilt of her katana. "What did you kidnap Doji Takeji?"

"I didn't," Kaneka said. "I made him a better offer."

Yasuyo frowned and waited for a better explanation. She did not stand or remove her hand from her sword.

Kaneka sat on the floor nearby, just out of her sword's reach. He pulled off his helmet with one hand and set it on the floor, letting his topknot fall over one shoulder. "What do you know about the Shadowed Tower, Yasuyo?"

"Some sort of internal rebellion the Scorpion had a few years ago," she said. "Many Scorpion samurai died, but that is all I know."

"A gross simplification, but that's the tale the Scorpion tell others," he said. "The truth is a little uncomfortable for them. It was a conspiracy against the leadership of the clan, led by a returned spirit who used maho-laced sake, opium, and other substances to sap the will of the weak. The Shadowed Tower had quite a web of blackmail and extortion going for a while, and Doji Takeji was one of its victims. It seems he has a few uncomfortable addictions, and while under the influence of them he had a romantic affair with a Shadowed Tower agent. His wife is a higher ranking member of the Doji house, so if the truth ever got out she would have disowned him. His career, his honor, his life, would have been destroyed. You know how unforgiving Doji brides are."

"Not amusing," Yasuyo said dryly. "Go on."

Kaneka nodded. "For a time," he continued, "Takeji smuggled resources and information to the Shadowed Tower. When the Scorpion put the rebellion down, it seems that the agent who had dirt on Takeji ended up getting her soul nailed into a tree. I imagine it was quite a relief for him."

"That doesn't explain why he was here," Yasuyo said.

"I'll get to that," Kaneka answered. "Takeji has always been an ambitious man, especially after his brush with the Tower. He wants to ultimately increase his status so that he'll no longer be indebted to his wife, who apparently thinks very little of him. In short, the man is a worm. A few years ago, he was contacted by a group seeking to accumulate power and influence in the Imperial City, a group that intends to reduce the Emperor to nothing more than a figurehead. They call themselves the Gozoku."

"I've heard of them," she said, "but they haven't been around for centuries."

"They're a new group with the same goals of the original," Kaneka answered. "This new Gozoku gave Takeji a position as a clerk, sorting and cataloguing intelligence they gathered on their enemies. While checking their archives, he found something very disturbing."

"What was that?"

"A record of his own affair with the Shadowed Tower agent," Kaneka said.

Yasuyo frowned in confusion.

"Don't you see, Yasuyo?" Kaneka asked. "Only Takeji and his Scorpion lover should have known about that incident, and she's dead in Traitor's Grove. The Gozoku has access to Shadowed Tower records, records the Scorpion would have destroyed or kept for their own use if they were ever found. Whoever is in charge of this new Gozoku are the same people in charge of the Shadowed Tower, but they slipped up and tried to recruit a victim of the old organization. The Shadowed Tower built their power on blood magic, Yasuyo. I won't let whoever is responsible for that escape justice."

"Why did Takeji come to you?" she asked. "How did you learn any of this? I find it difficult to believe a Crane would trust you with this sort of information."

Kaneka chuckled. "True, much of your clan harbors a grudge against me for a few of the things I've done," Kaneka said. "Takeji didn't come to me. He came to one of my allies, a man who is also Gozoku, who was horrified to learn of their connection to the Tower."

Yasuyo's blue eyes studied Kaneka for a long time. Her expression was resigned, and somewhat sad. "You are Gozoku as well, aren't you?" she asked.

Kaneka's eyes widened. "An impressive guess," he answered. "Yes, I am."

"You disgust me," Yasuyo replied. "You swore before the throne that you wouldn't seek to become Emperor again."

"And I don't intend to," Kaneka answered. "The Gozoku don't want to remove the Emperor, and neither do I. I believe that the Empire is too large for any man, even a man as capable as Naseru, to rule alone. I believe the Empire needs an Emperor as a symbol, a figure that represents everything a samurai can aspire to, but that an Emperor is just a man. Place too much responsibility upon him, and he'll make a mistake. The people will realize he's not really a god after all, that he's just as flawed and useless as the rest of us. We can't have that, Yasuyo. The Son of Heaven needs to be above the rest of us, apart from the rest of us, for his sake and our own. Naseru doesn't recognize that. He's a good man, but he tries to do too much. He's arrogant."
"And you are not?" she replied.

"I'm not an Emperor!" Kaneka snapped. "When I make a mistake, my officers correct me and things are rectified. When the Emperor makes a mistake the courtiers nod and smile pretend the Son of Heaven is infallible and thousands of people die. All glory to the Righteous Emperor. Look at what happened in Kaeru Toshi. I have an army at my command that could have challenged the Unicorn and Lion. I still have allies on both sides. If Naseru had sent me there, I could have ended that war in three days. We both know that. Instead, he was so afraid that I would make a bid for power that he sent me to the Kaiu Wall. I'd like to find the children of the Utaku, Ikoma, and Mirumoto who died in that war, bring them to the Imperial Palace, and ask Naseru if he thinks crushing my imaginary coup was worth the deaths of their parents. Yes, Yasuyo, I do believe in what the Gozoku stand for, and that's why it disgusts me even more to find out what sort of evil helped them build their power. Why do you think I'm still here in the Imperial City when my clan is at war with the Mantis? Why do you think Heigai is here when every other monk in the Empire is out chasing after Rosoku's books of enlightenment? I'm not trying to usurp Naseru's power. I'm trying to contain him, to prevent from making any more idiot mistakes and giving the Gozoku another chance to sink their hooks into him."

Yasuyo moved her hand away from her sword. She folded her arms over her knees, hugging her legs to her slim chest as she mulled over everything she had learned. She had no doubts that Kaneka was telling the truth. The man had his flaws, but he was no liar. What disturbed her most was the chilling amount of sense he made.

"Why were you working with those ronin?" she asked, searching for any sense in this mess.

Kaneka gave a crooked grin, twisted by a small scar on his cheek. "Because I can trust them," he said, "and because ronin can go where my soldiers can't, see what they can't, do what they can't. There are advantages to being a ronin, you know."

"So what do you plan to do?" she asked.

"I plan to find out who's really behind the Gozoku," Kaneka said, "and when I find them, I plan to send them to Traitor's Grove."

"Traitor's Grove?" Yasuyo asked, surprised. "Why?"

"Partially so the Scorpion can finish what they start," Kaneka said. "Partly because I know the Scorpion will offer them all the mercy they deserve. Takeji knows more about whoever is in charge, but he's afraid to talk. All he's told us is that they have powerful connections within the Crane and Scorpion, which confirms some of what I already knew. I believe we can make him talk, given time. Though now I'm not sure if we have that much time."

"And why is that?" she asked.

"Because with one word to the Emperor you could ruin all of this," Kaneka said. "Naseru is surrounded by Gozoku spies, many in the Imperial Guard itself. They're the real ones usurping his power in this city. If they find out what I've discovered, they'll go so deep I'll never find them."

"Then why did you tell me?" she asked.

"It was that or kill you, Yasuyo," he said, "and I'm not prepared to murder a samurai just to guarantee her silence, especially not one that I respect."

"And to whom you're betrothed."

"There is that," he admitted. "I am not a perfect man. I am not a perfect samurai. But I will not let the Gozoku turn me into a murderer. So what say you, Yasuyo? If you still plan to take Takeji from this place, I will let you. But know, if you do so, that they will find him and that you have killed him. I'll keep fighting them, even without Takeji. Even if they know I'm coming, alone if I have to."

"No," Yasuyo said. "Not alone."

Kaneka's craggy face twisted into another crooked grin. He was not a handsome man, but the longer Yasuyo spoke to him the more tolerable her future marriage seemed.


 

 

Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!