Prologue
Vendetta

Comital Precinct, Tianjing

The Imperial capital consisted of five rings around the central Royal Precinct, one for each class of the nobility. Each precinct was a city unto itself with the estates of the noble families and everything needed to sustain their lifestyles, not only their household servants and personal guards but also merchants and artisans licensed to ply their trades in that particular precinct. The whole of the capital was divided into four quarters according to the Four Beast Gods. It was all designed to maximize the auspicious quality of the eternal capital, a gift from the ancestors to posterity for ten thousand generations.
In the Baihu Quarter of the Comital Precinct was the estate of House Suzuki. Lord Kunihiko was only a mid-ranking official in court, but he had the Emperor's ear, making a name for himself with his deeds on the battlefield and his ability to solve problems in the Empire where others would fail. Of course, making a name for yourself also made enemies.
The Wo people were few and not well-loved in general, which put Lord Kunihiko at a disadvantage from the moment of his birth. Fewer than one in ten of the titled lords were of Wo descent and there were many who would see fewer still. The measure of Han blood in his own veins and his Han wife--the great-grandaughter of the Wude Emperor--counted for little. If anything, they only served to inflame his enemies further.
More than that, to succeed you must be known and to be known you must have deeds. However, making your name known is a way to invite envy and envy can make devils of men. How many had lost their lives and honor to sate the ravening demon Envy?
Such thoughts were far from the mind of Lord Kunihiko. His bonsai garden was a refuge from fear, worry, anger, and all the negative emotions that consume the soul. It was a place of peace where the beauty of Nature was magnified by the skillful hand of Man. Some thought it was the height of arrogance to claim that Man could improve Nature, but the whole of civilization was driven by this very impulse. To deny Man's pursuit of mastery over Nature was to deny humanity itself. At least that was what Lord Kunihiko believed.
He was not alone in his garden. In years past, it was his custom to forbid any to enter, but then his daughter was born. When she turned seven, he permitted her to enter the garden and observe his craft. Gradually, he began to train her in the art of tending the garden and when she turned fifteen, he gave her half of the garden to tend as she saw fit. Much to his pride, her style was uniquely her own yet harmonized with his. The yin and the yang. She was more his other half than even his wife.
While they worked in the garden, they exchanged few words. There were abundant opportunities for idle chatter elsewhere. In this sacred space, silence truly was golden. And it was because they did their work in silence that their attention was immediately drawn to the door as it opened and the great clamor going on outside.
"What is the meaning of this!?" Lord Kunihiko boomed.
He was answered by eight black-clad assassins skittering into the garden like spiders. His daughter screamed.
One of the assassins reached into his jacket and held up an emblem of a golden lion trimmed in red and green, the seal of House Feng.
"My lord sends his regards," the assassin said.
The emblem then disintegrated in a burst of blue flame so as to leave no evidence.
"Coward!" Lord Kunihiko barked. "Meet me steel for steel if you be a man!"
Of course, an assassin had no honor. One of them charged at Lord Kunihiko with a knife. He dodged the assassin's thrust, took hold of his wrist, then drove his clippers into the assassin's neck. He then twisted and snapped the assassin's wrist, took his knife and finished him off with a stab to the heart.
Now armed, Lord Kunihiko stood up to take on the next challenger. However, as he already knew, assassins have no honor. Four of them took up blowguns to stick him with poison darts and two others struck him in the chest and stomach with throwing knives.
"Chichi'ue!" his daughter screamed.
The poison worked quickly, but Lord Kunihiko's bullish strength allowed him to resist it longer than most men.
"Run, Masako!" he shouted to his daughter.
To buy her time, he rushed the nearest assassin, driving the knife he had taken into the assassin's belly. The other one closest to him responded by stabbing Lord Kunihiko in the ribs. The four with the blowguns threw knives into his back, but even this was not enough to bring down Lord Kunihiko. With his bare hands, he took hold of the head of the assassin stabbing him in the ribs and wrenched his neck, snapping it with a dull crunch.
The four charged at Lord Kunihiko together before their comrade's body even hit the floor. They stabbed away viciously to bring him down at last. He punched one hard enough to knock him flat, but the next punch was weaker and the third had barely any strength to it at all. Finally, the poison and many wounds overcame him and Lord Kunihiko fell.
His daughter screamed anew. Though her father had given his life to give her an opportunity to escape, she had not moved from where she stood. Her legs gave way and she fell to her knees. Staring in horror at the sight of her father's death, her quaking hands slowly drifted down to the folds of her kimono. There, close to her heart. she carried the little knife that was her sole defense for life and for honor. A young woman of her rank and breeding was expected to defend herself or failing that, to die before dishonor. Her hand moved to bring the blade close to the veins in her neck, but something came over her and she decided that she would not die so easily.
Turning the blade toward the assassins, she charged at them blindly. This was, unfortunately for her, not an effective tactic against trained killers. The nearest assassin to her sidestepped her lunge and struck her in the stomach with his elbow. The girl doubled over and fell to her knees. The assassin then grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back.
As he readied his knife to slash her throat, the lead assassin said, "Hold."
The assassin's blade stopped little more than a centimeter from her neck.
"Our orders are to kill all of them," he said.
"I have something better in mind," the lead assassin replied.
He walked over and gagged her with a band of silk lest she resort to biting off her tongue, then took her by the arm and yanked her to her feet.
"Come, girl," he said. "Your hell has only just begun."
As the girl was dragged away, she reached out in vain for her father. He was beyond reaching, though. This was the day House Suzuki fell.