“He who would not be a fool knows not to fear long knives but ones that may only strike close.” The Tao of Shinsei
Kachiko knelt in the darkness, her eyelids so softly closed. The air was still and the darkness was silent. No movement could be seen from beneath her kimono, not even her breathing was visible.
Very slowly, the moon crept into the night sky, and Kachiko waited. Quietly. Patiently.
There was a creaking sound then, the sound of footfalls on the nightengale floor of the Imperial Palace. The footfalls were steady and slow. A shadow moved across the screens of the room until they reached the sliding doorway. The figure knelt, slid the door aside, and entered on his knees, his eyes bowed.
“He is ready, my lady,” the servant spoke.
She said nothing, but rose gently, the darkness so full that only the shape of her kimono could be seen. She moved passed the servant, and out into the hallway, her footfalls silent.
Her soft steps led her down the hallway to another panel. She knelt before the door, slid it open and moved inside. Before her was a covered bed, four servants, two kneeling on either side, and the Great Lord, lying still under the thin blankets.
She stood for a while in the silence, listening to the man’s breathing. When she spoke, her gentle voice was like thunder across the great room.
The servants hesitated. Her dark eyes turned to dark fire and she spoke again. “Leave us.”
There was no hesitation in them then. They stood, turned and moved out of the room quickly, leaving her alone with the rasps of a dying man.
She stood in silence for a long time, as if listening to the Great Lord’s labored breath. Then, oh so slowly, she walked to him, her eyes fixed on his expression. “The Imperial Doctor has told me that I am brave to have want to see you, my Lord. They believe that you have the plague.” Her words were delicate and deliberate, striking every syllable with intent. “But we know better, don’t we?”
The Emperor’s face was unblemished by her voice. So young, yet so marked with the labor of living. “I see the poison has sucked away much of your youth.” Again, her quiet laughter filled the empty room.
“You are probably wondering when I had an opportunity.” She looked at the pathetic form of the Emperor, her voice rising with the slight hints of rage. “In truth, it was upon our very first night in this very chamber, oh great one. You are a fool.” She shrugged. “But then again, you are a man and so many of you are fools.”
It was then that her hands twisted. “But I had found a good man. A better man that you.” She fell then, her slight body moving fast. Her weight was atop of him and her hands cradled his face. “A better man than you. I remember the day you took our castle with the Six Clans behind you. You declared us without honor, defiled our name. You made us eta.”
Her voice broke on the last word, her whisper so harsh. The weight of her against him hindered his breathing, and she smiled. “And then you saw me. An older, wiser woman, you saw me. Something you had wanted for so very long. You saw me with my husband, my beautiful husband. . .”
She stopped. She felt the Emperor’s breath on her face as her weight squeezed it out of him, and she saw the single tear drop from her eye onto his cheek. Then, slowly, she stood once more. For a long time she was silent again, as if waiting for a response. But she knew that he could not respond. Could not speak. That made her smile.
“But I did not come here to taunt you, Great Lord. I have brought you news. Do you wish to hear it?” The Emperor was silent. “Very well. You see, it has come to pass only last evening that your great Emerald Champion has fallen.” She watched him carefully, but again there was no sign of recognition. “He was found dead this morning from a gaisha’s needle. Yes, the man you commanded to slay my husband is now in his grave,” and her voice fell to a whisper, “and you shall be following him soon.”
She paused like a cat pauses, just to watch the mouse squirm under its paw. “Know also Great Lord,” she whispered. “Know that I have exacted the revenge of my family. You lie here, wasting away while the Clans that support you are preparing for a war that will destroy themselves.”
The Emperor’s breath stopped, then stumbled. He coughed and then caught his breath once again. Kachiko smiled. “Yes, it is true. The Six Clans that helped you destroy us have moved against one another for your throne. The Alliance you worked so hard to achieve is no more. Despite the invading armies of barbarians from the north, and the shadows moving ever closer from the Shadowlands, the Clans have turned against each other in a desperate scramble for power.”
Once again, the room fell silent, save only for the breath of the Emperor. Suddenly, she looked up from his bed to the walls around them. Her eyes narrowed, searching through the dim light and her left hand moved in to the folds of her kimono.
“I must leave you now, Great Lord. There is something else that demands my attention. But do not fear, I will come back tomorrow to bring you the news of the day.” She knelt down, and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. There was a slight sound, the smell of acid and the Emperor’s broken body . . . twitched.
She rose up from the floor, her eyes fixed on a shadow. Her steps were cautious now and her gaze never wavered. A few more steps as she listened to her own footfalls deliberately creaking along the floor.
Then, a flurry of motion and a shadow leapt from its hiding place. In a heartbeat, she was against the floor, a heavy weight against her chest. She heard their weight slam on the floorboards, and she barely had time to hope the sound would be enough to alert the bushis downstairs. There was the rip of fabric and the tear of skin and blood was on the floor.
Once again, the room was filled with the void of silence. The Emperor’s breathing was not disturbed by the attack. He lay on his bed, motionless save for the easy rise and fall of his chest.
The two figures on the floor were still. Then, one began to move. Slowly at first, the pain of each motion very visible. It pulled itself across the floor, leaving a thick red trail behind its movements. A hand reached out, pushed the sliding panel aside and the figure fell again, tumbling down the stairs.
The two bushi who found the body were already half-way up the stairs. They saw it fall from the room, and rushed up. The elder lept over the body, his katana drawn. The younger stopped, his hand on his sword.
The younger lifted the still body and carried the it up to the Imperial Bedchamber, nearly slipping on the blood there. He set the body down onto the floor and moved to where his elder knelt.
They looked at the black garbed figure. It was a man, dressed in all the trappings of the ninja. “Look,” said the elder, pointing out a small wound in the ninja’s chest. The younger found the weapon close by and recognized it immediately. It was an aiguchi, the stabbing blade of Clan Scorpion.
They both turned to the figure the younger had carried up the stairs. Her kimono had fallen away, revealing the tattoo on her back. The Sign of the Scorpion. The newest (and rumored to be most skilled) concubine of the Emperor.
Just then, three samurai rushed in from the stairwell with two of the Emperor’s advisors. The three samurai looked at the bodies. “The Emperor’s concubine still lives!” they cried, but the Doctor was already looking over the Emperor’s still body.
One of the advisors approached the younger bushi. “What is that in your hand?” He handed the aiguchi to the advisor.
The advisor studied it, turning it over and over in his hand, his eyes wide with disbelief. “This is most curious. I would never have guessed that she would offer her life for the Emperor’s.”
The Doctor moved from the Emperor to his fallen woman. The others waited. When he rose, he spoke, “The wound is bleeding freely, but it is not serious. She will live.”
The samurai lifted her and carried her to her bedchamber where the Doctor would bandage and heal her. The advisor remained in the room, the aiguchi still in his hands.
“She was very lucky,” he said to the bushi. “If the wound had been even a little deeper, she would have been killed.”
“Yes,” the bushi agreed. “Very lucky.”
They turned, kneeled and bowed to the Emperor. Then, they left the room, the bushi assuming their post and the advisor returning to his duties.
And in her own bedchamber, the Emperor’s concubine winced in pain as the Doctor stitched her wound. Yes, it would leave a scar, but any suspicions to her treason would now be put to rest. The assassin was dead, his life given to protect the High Lady of Clan Scorpion. Everything was going according to plan.
There was another twinge in her side, but there was nothing could blemish Kachiko’s smile.
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