I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Naoko Takeuchi.

As an irrelevant aside (a Useless Fact, to use the Animaniacs label), the slang I used for the for chapter title is said to have come from pre-Civil War riverboat gambling. They'd have a marker called a buck (originally a buck-handled knife, not a buck knife) placed in front of the player currently dealing so everyone would know who it was. If a player didn't want to deal when his turn came up, he would "pass the buck."


Hiroshi stared at the blank screen of his tablet, his mind just as blank ... such as wasn't charging off in random directions. When he'd called Nabiki to inform her of the attack on Father Bill he'd expected her to rush home, not to tell him to deal with it, that she had enough on her own plate for the next few weeks! What did he do now? What would Nabiki do?

The image of Nabiki and Kodachi enthusiastically ... ah, frolicking on a beach popped into his head — the video he'd seen (along with the rest of the Empire, it seemed from the rapidly climbing number of views). He blinked, blushed, and fervently hoped that Nabiki never learned he'd downloaded it. He'd deleted it and scrubbed that bit of his tablet's memory, but he wasn't sure that was enough to fool a determined hacker of Nabiki's caliber.

But at least the memory jogged his mind back into motion. Okay ... first thing, security. The almost-simultaneous attacks on Father Bill and Kasumi can't be a coincidence, so who else might be at risk? The Tendos (including 'Ranko') and their guests were both well off the island — Mori, the otokodate boss most likely to have ordered the attacks, had extensive territories (including Juuban) but only on the largest Nipponese island — and had the Amazons for security — in case the attacks had been ordered by someone with a longer reach (unknown enemies of Meioh-dono came to mind) — so they should be fine. Including Kasumi, thanks to Ryoga being in the right place at the right time.

Hiroshi could feel himself relaxing as he realized that, at least for the moment, there were no immediate fires that needed to be put out — just a general alert to everyone in Nabiki's nascent organization, and he'd sent that out before he'd called her. So, that leaves the question of who carried out the attack, and for that the best starting place are the assassins. He refocused on his tablet, bringing up the link to the Neriman and Juuban police databases, typing in the needed password.

/oOo\

Mori Hachemon woke up as the door to his bedroom slid open and his majordomo peeked in. "My pardon for waking you, sir," he murmured, "but Sanda-san is on the com. He needs to speak to you immediately."

Hachemon groaned but sat up ... carefully, to avoid waking up Sué, his latest mistress. The previous evening she'd informed him that she was pregnant again, and they'd celebrated their unalloyed happiness late into the night. She needed her sleep now, more than he did.

Slipping out of the bed, he padded naked toward the bathroom. "I'll take the call in the library."

A few minutes later, bladder empty and wearing his finest robe, he settled at his favorite chair and pressed the 'accept' key on his table. His 'on hold' wallpaper cleared to reveal the worried face of his second. "Boss, sorry to bother you, I know you were up late celebrating."

Hachemon wondered for a moment how Michio had known, before remembering that Hyun Ku Sin had woken him up — Sué got loud when she peaked, so by now all the servants would know how late they'd been; his majordomo had undoubtedly warned Michio before passing the word. Shrugging aside the irrelevancy, he asked, "So what new terrible crisis has beset us?"

"It's more like a continuation of an old one. Two of our gurentai, Konda Tagashashi and Sawamatsu Ho'okele, tried to kill Father Bill this morning. He survived, Konda is dead and Sawamatsu is in police custody. They're both native to Juuban, and Takado-dono has already called in their families' debts."

Hachemon felt his expression freeze as a lump of ice seemed to blossom in his chest. Keeping his voice steady, he asked, "You did pass on that we're pulling out of Juuban?"

"Yes." Hachemon felt the lump of ice grow when his second didn't loudly defend his competence. Michio continued, "It gets worse. There was an attack on the Tendo residence at almost the same time — Tendo Kasumi had to be the target, seeing how after yesterday all the Empire must know that Nabiki is in Daerah Selatan on a working vacation along with the rest of the family." By this time Hachemon must have looked positively sick, because his lieutenant hastily added, "Kasumi wasn't home, apparently she'd wanted a private vacation and the Amazons Nabiki's hired as bodyguards smuggled her out after the rest had left. But the Amazons killed all the attackers, and the lording police have already identified them ... they were the Idane Squad."

Hachemon closed his eyes for a moment in dismay. "We weren't the only ones they worked for," he finally said.

"True, they did take other jobs ... when we didn't have anything for them. Short jobs. And they were the only ronin we worked with."

Opening his eyes with a sigh, Hachemon smiled wryly at his old friend. "At least Kasumi's still alive, if she'd been killed I doubt we would have outlived her for long."

"You really think so?" Michio frowned thoughtfully. "Sure, the Ice Queen would probably assume we were behind it and come after us with everything she has, but —"

"But we would be swarmed by Nerima's martial artists. Nabiki hasn't used any yet, but to avenge her sister she'd pull out all the stops. And you saw how close the Tendos have become to Meioh-dono."

"Yes, very close," Michio agreed dryly. "But why does that matter? Meioh-dono may have inherited a powerful lording, but she's new to power, she's been downsizing for almost a year to something more sustainable, and ... 'the Commoner's Lady', she's been operating with a light touch."

But Hachemon was shaking his head. "Forget that 'Commoner's Lady' nonsense — at least thinking that it means that she can't be ruthless. She didn't rise to the top of our fashion industry on just the strength of her designs and a soft heart. She may be choosing to use Nabiki as her public executioner, but that doesn't mean she can't provide covert support — don't forget that Takado-dono is her first vassal, not Nabiki's, at least in practice. And as the Commoner's Lady, she has possible recruits for spies and espionage throughout the entire Empire that no one else has. And she may even have the Emperor's approval, if not necessarily his support. She is dangerous."

Michio had been growing pale, and now he swallowed nervously. "Right, so what do we do?"

/oOo\

Hiroshi sat in his room, staring at the glass in his hand. It was half full of the worst rotgut he'd ever tasted, brewed locally for the poorest of the poor, but it was hardest liquor he could find. And he'd already refilled the glass twice. The discussion he'd had with Father Bill, that night that the Mori gurentai had first tried to lean on the preacher, kept running through his mind. He hadn't changed his mind about the Nipponese character that made it necessary to go after families, but he was finding that personally giving the order was a lot harder than just talking about it — and he had been the one to pass the family names of the two would-be assassins on to Takado-dono's people.

At least the ronin that attacked the dojo weren't native to Nerima or Juuban, he thought as he knocked back his glass's contents. We won't be calling in any debts their families might have. He'd made the mistake of actually looking up the files on Tagashashi and Ho'okele's families ... including photos and video clips.

He was in the middle of refilling his glass when the musical bars sounded informing him that Yui was calling, the heavy beat startling him enough to send a splash of booze across the table. Setting aside the bottle, he grabbed his tablet and punched the 'accept' button. As soon the window with her face popped open he snarled, "I thought I said I wasn't to be disturbed!"

Yui shrugged. "Sorry, I know how much you wanted to enjoy your pity party."

Hiroshi sighed, leaning back and rubbing at his face. "I know. It's just ... a year ago a bunch of us charged into the Kuno mansion because of this kind of shit, my best friend right behind me. Only he didn't make it out. Now we're on the opposite side and Moani, Ho'okele's younger sister, is just beginning to shift from 'too cute for words' to 'unspeakably beautiful' — when she goes on the block as a full-use slave to keep the rest of her family from starving the bidding on her is going to be intense."

Yui's eyes softened, and she reached to the side to pull the staff that had become the badge of Nerimans everywhere into view. "I know. I was there, too. How drunk are you? We've got someone on the line that claims to speak for the Mori otokodate."

"You do?" Hiroshi straightened in his seat. "Who is he?"

"He didn't say, I didn't ask. It's not like it would mean anything to me."

"Point. I'm not that drunk, put him through." A moment later the face in the screen changed to reveal a man, the camera far enough away to show his business-suit-clad upper torso and the surface of the table he was sitting at. Hiroshi straightened even more, then hurriedly placed the tablet on a stand facing him. That done, he ducked his head in a slight bow, taking the opportunity to glance at the corner of his tablet's screen for the 'record' icon. He was very glad Nabiki had had him memorizing names and faces of the more important people in the Empire's underworld. "When Yui told me a spokesman for the Mori otokodate was calling, I wasn't expecting the second most powerful man in your organization."

Sanda Michio's face showed none of the surprise Hiroshi was feeling ... or anything else. "I was expecting to speak to the Ice Queen."

"She left me in charge while she deals with her recent acquisitions. She left me in charge."

Now one eyebrow rose. "Yes, after that recent video the entire Empire knows where she is. But I would have thought she would be rushing back after this morning's attacks."

Hiroshi stared at him for a moment, then shrugged with a grin. "So did I, but she told me to deal with it."

"She did?" Sanda stared at him, then smiled thinly. "It seems we're both talking to the second-most powerful people in our respective organizations."

Hiroshi froze, mind gone blank. Sanda watched him for a long moment, then started to chuckle. "The thought never occurred to you, did it? Ah, how liberating it must be to belong to a newly-formed criminal enterprise."

Hiroshi shook himself free of his shock, and grinned weakly. "Uh ... yeah, I guess so. I was thinking my promotion was temporary — but if she likes my performance it won't be, will it? Anyway, unless you want to wait a few weeks I'm the guy you gotta talk to. And I kinda doubt we can wait that long."

"No, we can't." Sanda sobered. Leaning forward, he said, "To speak plainly, the Mori otokodate is not responsible for the attacks this morning."

Hiroshi's eyes widened. "Really? Because the gurentai that tried to kill Father Bill worked for you."

"Yes," Sanda agreed, "and so did the ronin that assaulted the Tendo compound ... well, mostly. They did take the occasional outside job, when things were slow. But not often."

"I see." Hiroshi grinned. "You aren't helping your case."

Sanda shrugged. "No, but facts are what they are, and easy enough to check. They must have been suborned, somehow. Yesterday, after the video of Nabiki cavorting with Kodachi on the beach went viral, Mori-san decided not to contest control of Juuban. I sent out the order for everyone to pull out of the lording myself."

"I see," Hiroshi repeated, lips twitching. Who knew that a video of girl-on-girl sex could shut down a burgeoning gang war? Then pushing aside the moment of humor, he leaned back, frowning thoughtfully, mind racing as he tried to remember all the side comments Nabiki had made that, in retrospect, might have been a subtle education in power and its uses. "We can't just take your word for this. If you want to avoid a war, restitution must be made — they were your people, after all, even if someone else might have been calling the shots."

"Agreed."

"Restitution for Father Bill's medical bills, and for the cost of repairing the Tendo compound."

"Agreed."

Hiroshi blinked. That instant acceptance was not what he'd been expecting. Though he supposed any otokodate as large as the Mori had funds in plenty. He needed something else, something to make Sanda wince... "Preachers like Father Bill in your territory bordering Juuban, without interference. We'll supply protection if needed."

It was Sanda's turn to blink. He stared at Hiroshi for a long moment, before demanding, "Why? With their pacifism Kirishitan preachers make poor recruiting tools, just the opposite."

"No, they make fine recruiting tools, if their religion is as ... muscular ... as Father Bill's. Whatever else he may be, he is no pacifist. But it only works if you provide an organization — a cause — equal to the fire he lights in those that listen to him."

Sanda's eyes narrowed. "And you believe that will be you?"

"Yes." Hiroshi leaned forward. "We are the true otokodate. We will protect the common people from all who abuse them." He stared sternly at Sanda for a moment, then grinned. "Which will make us attractive to the common people as we expand our territory."

Sanda leaned back in his chair, gazing thoughtfully at Hiroshi. "It seems Meioh-dono isn't the only one seeking the title of the Commoners' Lady," he finally mused. "Should you really be telling me all this?"

Hiroshi shrugged. "As you said, facts are facts — and it'll be obvious soon enough, anyway. Besides, it's too late — at this point crushing us would take so much firepower it can't possibly stay in the shadows. It might even attract ... imperial attention." When Sanda paled, Hiroshi grinned again. "Of course, there's an easy way to protect yourself from us, just become more like us in how you operate. After all, it'll be hard for us to get popular support in your territory if you already enjoy it."

After another long moment of silence, Sanda murmured, "You aren't an organization, you're a movement."

"There's no reason we can't be both. You can, too." Hiroshi grinned as another thought occurred to him. "In fact, I think I'm going to make it a condition of our cease-fire — when members of Tagashashi and Ho'okele's families got on the block so the rest can survive you will buy every one of them, and then free them immediately. All of them, whatever the cost — especially Moani."

"That's going to be expensive," Sanda mused, "especially Moani."

"Yes, it will," Hiroshi agreed. "And won't it make you look good?"

"Yes, it will." Sanda considered the demand for a moment, then shrugged. "As expensive as that is, it won't cost as much as a mutually suicidal war." When Hiroshi puffed out a sigh of relief, shoulders sagging slightly, Sanda grinned. "You didn't do badly, for your first time. I'll pass on your demands to Mori-san, but I believe he'll agree to them."

"I'll pass them on to Nabiki as well." As Sanda reached toward his tablet, Hiroshi hastily added, "I'm sure she'll want to verify your claims that you didn't order the attacks yourself. If — when — they prove out, I imagine when she returns she'll want to discuss a united front against whoever tried to set us at each other's throats."

Sanda paused for a moment at the statement, then nodded. "Not a bad thought. I'll pass that on to Mori-san as well, we will be awaiting your call."

His image vanished from Hiroshi's tablet, and he reached out with a suddenly shaking hand to close his phone app. Only now, he realized he was drenched with sweat. Let's not do that again anytime soon. He took some deep breaths, waited for the shivers running through him to ease off, then brought up his notes app. Nabiki would watch the entire recording of their conversation, of course (probably split screen so she could watch both him and Sanda at once), but she might want his own impressions. Best to get them down right away.

/oOo\

Michio's image vanished from his tablet, replaced by Hachemon's 'thinking' music playlist of quiet, soothing, peaceful pieces. Hachemon leaned back with a sigh as he considered the cease-fire that his second had worked out with Tendo's second — a second they hadn't known she had (and neither had the second, apparently).

As deals went it wasn't bad. Yes, they'd be paying for Father Bill's medical bills, but that was just a flesh wound. Yes, they'd be paying for the damage done to the Tendo compound, but again that was a pittance. From the lording police reports he'd acquired, the compound hadn't had any kind of armoring, just an undamaged stone wall that the Idane Squad had ignored to go through the wooden front gate, to attack a wooden home residence — a pitiful defense, but cheap to repair. (Hachemon doubted they'd stay that way for long, after this.) And yes, he'd have to buy a couple families at auction and free them, the costliest part of the deal. (Like Hiroshi, Hachemon had seen photos of Moani and she was going to be expensive.) But as Hiroshi had told Michio, it would make them look good to his own people. Maybe even good enough to balance out the cost, as much as that kind of good will and loyalty could be measured. No, the Mori otokodate had definitely gotten off lightly.

Which meant that he could turn his thoughts to the other bombshell Michio had dropped on him. Nabiki's starting a movement ... no, that's too ... too passive, what was that English word? — a crusade! In the Empire, of all places. After two millennia, who'd have thought it? Whoever tried to set us at each other's throats, that's who!

The soothing calm his music had encouraged shattered and unable to stay still, he jerked to his feet, shaking with the anger that flashed through him — someone had tried to crush the nascent Meioh-Tendo crusade (and it had to be both of them, working in tandem) with his people's blood, his treasure!

He found himself gasping for breath and fought for control. He had to be calm, collected, in control when he called his hackers to start digging. And after that, he would be calling his sensei in the martial Arts for an impromptu training session — he wanted to hit something very, very badly and might as well put it to use.