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"The best leaders inspire by example. When that's not an option, brute intimidation works pretty well, too."

/oOo\

The Emperor sat stolidly on his throne as the Shogun that ostensibly served at his pleasure rose to a kneeling position from his obeisance. The Shogun looked wary in spite of his long experience at maintaining a calm exterior, and reasonably so — people were not usually summoned to the Imperial Palace by a full squad of the Emperor's Hands in the very early morning. The number of Hands was actually more disturbing than the late hour; usually only one was assigned a particular duty, depending on the moral authority of whom he represented to enforce obedience.

Of course, the Emperor was having his own trouble maintaining his composure — though in his case, he was fighting to keep a grin that belonged on some monster from the ocean depths from spreading across his face. In spite of the risks what he was about to do posed to both the future power of the emperor and his own life, he was looking forward to the upcoming 'discussion'. He glanced out of the corner of his eyes at the same bland, nondescript Hand (currently dressed in the robes of a palace slave, his collar marked with the Imperial seal) that had reported to him after the auction where Ranma was sold. The Emperor remembered his thoughts at the time of the Empire as a garden. Returning his attention to the man waiting for him to begin, he thought, I am going to enjoy trimming this outgrowth back.

He simply sat and gazed at the man whose presence he had demanded for a few minutes, as the Shogun grew more and more tense. Finally, the Emperor broke the silence. "They tell me," he said nonchalantly, "that you are again preparing to intervene in Nerima."

At this, the Shogun relaxed, confident this time in the security of his position. "Yes, your Majesty," he replied, seeming to actually inflate with assumed importance. "The people of Nerima have risen against their lawful lord, and from the reports I have received he is dead. Order must be restored and the guilty punished, lest their example breed more such uprisings."

So confidence makes you self-righteous, does it? "But my own reports make it clear that the so-called uprising is already over, the mobs that burned the government offices and slave center, invaded the Kuno estate and surrounded the law enforcement headquarters dispersed, and the estate guarded by a contingent of your own domestic crowd control forces. And have you received a request for your intervention from the Family that is sovereign in Nerima?"

"What Family?" the Shogun replied. "The only surviving member of the Kuno Family is an eighteen year old girl known only for her rampant cheating in rhythmic gymnastics martial arts competitions and how many men and women she has taken to her bed, both serially and simultaneously. She is incapable of dealing with the situation her Family's lording finds itself in."

"I don't believe the laws governing the Shogun's intervention in local affairs makes any reference to the competence of the resident noble," the Emperor said thoughtfully, then twitched his shoulders. "Not that it matters, the Family currently sovereign over Nerima is no longer Kuno, it is Meioh."

The Shogun stared, his voice rising in shock. "What?! When ... ? Who ... ?"

" 'Who' is Meioh Setsuna, a fashion designer whose name your wives and daughters — and accountants, to their regret — will be familiar with, even if you are not. 'When' was within the last several hours. She was in Nerima when the so-called uprising took place, and decisively intervened. Afterwards she asked Kuno Kodachi if she would accept adoption into her family, and Kuno-san agreed. Meioh-dono called to request my acceptance of her elevation to nobility and I provisionally did so, so as to give her the authority to take those immediate actions necessary to stabilize the lording pending her appearance here for her official recognition as head of the Empire's newest Family."

The Shogun settled back, silent for long moments. Undoubtedly calculating the shift in the political winds, as best he can when he doesn't know the new Lady, the Emperor thought. At least he's competent in this arena ... unfortunately. If he wasn't, I could have discharged him years ago.

"Very well," the Shogun finally said. "As order has been restored, I will hold off intervention until an investigation into the night's events can be carried out. But if it reveals what I expect, I will intervene to see justice done if Meioh-dono does not. Such an assault on a member of the nobility by his own people cannot be tolerated."

"Of course," the Emperor replied blandly, "and here is what your investigation will find. Daichi?"

As naturally as if the name was the one he'd been born with, Egami glided forward to offer the Shogun a memory stick pulled from a hidden pocket in his robes.

The Shogun accepted the memory stick without taking his suddenly hard eyes from his Emperor.

"The memory stick has all the details," the Emperor continued, "but I will summarize. Your investigators will find that Kuno-dono ordered the kidnapping of a girl of the samurai class whose attentions he had been unable to secure through legitimate means, as well as an assault on her family resulting in the death of her fiancé's father and the maiming of his mother. Kuno-dono also had his people kill several of that family's allies with a bomb, as well as a presently unknown number of innocent bystanders that were also his own subjects. That as a result his outraged subjects rioted, resulting in the destruction of several government buildings. Furthermore, that under cover of the riot one of the Kuno Family's numerous enemies launched an assault on that Family's estate, resulting in the deaths of Kuno-dono and a number of Family retainers. Unfortunately, there will be no video footage able to identify any of the rioters, and the mansion's attackers were ronin."

He paused, waiting for a moment as his dumbstruck Shogun struggled for words, then continued. "As a result of these events, you are going to issue a series of new laws." Egami pulled another memory stick from his robes and handed it to the Shogun. The Emperor said, "The new laws will limit the amount that can be bid on a debt slave to the amount of the debt, with time value factored in; eliminate the automatic assumption of an individual's debt by his family; limit voluntary assumption of debts to adults; eliminate the power of the nobility to demand immediate full payment of debts from anyone that is not subject to them; prevent the holder of a debt from bidding in the debt auction; and revoke the law banning foreign majority ownership of businesses headquartered within the Empire that you instituted after Americorp acquired the Kaima Clan holdings."

"But ... but there's almost no connection between most of those laws and what happened in Nerima, and even less between the findings Your Majesty is demanding my investigators produce!" the Shogun protested. "Do you really expect people to believe it?"

The Emperor twitched another shrug. "Most commoners will believe it," he said nonchalantly. "I suspect the more astute commoners, most of the samurai and all the nobility will believe that our newest Lady paid you a massive bribe — the amount Meioh-dono bid on Ranma-san at the auction a few weeks ago actually makes it possible." Pausing thoughtfully, he considered for a moment, then added, "But I believe you are right about the new laws needing a bit more relevance. Include another making it treason against the Empire for a noble Family or Clan to launch an assault on the home estate of another Family or Clan — and so punishable by the crucifixion of the lord or daimyo, the selling of his family into permanent slavery, and the reversion of all his holdings to the Emperor. My people will have the details for you later today." After we've let a few hours go by, to hide the fact that they're already written up. The Emperor again hid a vicious smile — he was beginning to truly understand just why his fractious nobles enjoyed their Great Game so much.

The Shogun stared at his Emperor in shock, then straightened, expression firming. "No, this is unacceptable. The position of Shogun cannot be smeared with such false assumptions — when new laws are issued, they cannot be seen as being at the behest of one faction or another. The Emperor may have the responsibility of ensuring that the nobility and my people obey the laws, but the responsibility of determining what those laws are is my responsibility and I will not be dictated to!"

For long moments the Emperor fought to keep from laughing, the time lengthened by the mix of self-satisfaction and faux-moral outrage on the Shogun's face. When he was again certain of his control over his expression and voice, he nodded to Egami. The disguised Hand again reached into his robes to produce a third memory stick. The Emperor said, "I am pleased that you are concerned with the reputation of your position. Then you should have no objections if I release the details of the payment made to you by Kuno-dono's Master of Servants, seeking your intervention after the Saotomes involved themselves in the raid on the otokodate slavers. True, you returned the payment after our meeting when I made it clear that I would judge such an intervention to be contrary to current law, and those details are also included. Still, such behavior raises doubts as to your impartiality. I would have no choice but to ask for your resignation from your position as Shogun in order to uphold the integrity of the office." And the shame of your dismissal would mandate your death by seppuku to cleanse the honor of your Clan.

The Shogun blanched, mouth moving silently as he tried to respond, then bowed to the floor as the Emperor rose from his seat. The Emperor bowed his head slightly. "I will await the report of your investigators by the end of the week."

The Shogun rose at the abrupt dismissal and stumbled from the room.

As the door closed behind him, Egami returned to the Emperor's side. "You're playing a dangerous game," he murmured. "You aren't usually so blunt in your threats."

"Yes, well, the people I normally deal with aren't so certain that they are untouchable," the Emperor replied wryly. "The increased security is in place?"

"Yes, Your Majesty, I checked as soon as the reports from Nerima started coming in tonight. Do you really believe it will be necessary?"

"Absolutely," The Emperor replied. "I know it has been long centuries, but don't forget there was a time that assassinating emperors was a standard political tool. If the Shogun is sufficiently offended, or any of the more powerful Houses conclude that I've decided to involve myself in the Great Game instead of merely acting as referee, those days may return."

"True," Egami reluctantly agreed, then chuckled. "At least those new laws will have the plantation owners screaming, considering their abuse of multi-generational debt slavery — especially the South Asian and Hawaiian planters."

"Yes, the thought of their howls of protest helped make my decision to involve myself an easier one," the Emperor agreed with a wry smile as he sat back down on his throne. "Bring in Meioh-san."

/\

At the sound of a clearing throat, Kodachi glanced up from the tablet she was trying to read (and failing, in part due to nerves and in part because of the constant ache from ankle and ribs) to find a bland, utterly forgettable man, one of the palace slaves, standing in the doorway.

"The Emperor is ready for you now," the servant intoned.

"Thank you," Setsuna replied from where she sat beside her new heir. Rising to her feet, she turned to help Kodachi stand, something made more difficult by the formal kimonos they both wore. She made sure the teenager was securely on her crutches before she turned back to the slave.

The slave bowed obsequiously. "Forgive me, my lady, but the Emperor wishes to speak to your heir alone."

Setsuna's eyebrows rose, but she nodded to the slave before smiling reassuringly at the suddenly stiff Kodachi. "I'm sure His Majesty simply wishes to be assured that you haven't accepted my offer under duress, you'll be fine," she assured her.

Kodachi nodded jerkily and followed slowly after the slave. Remember, fear whatever Deity is out there, and no one else.

By the time she reached the room where the Emperor sat waiting, she was shaking. Her ankle throbbed, every swing forward on her crutches sent spikes of pain shooting through her from her tightly bound ribs, and she was beginning to wonder if refusing to accept more medication for the pain after she'd learned who she would be seeing had been such a good idea.

She maneuvered herself to face the Emperor, ignoring the slave hovering at her elbow, but as she started to kneel for her obeisance the Emperor spoke.

"Please, no need for that. At this time of night we can skip the formalities. Daichi, fetch her a chair."

The slave hastily brought over one of the chairs against the walls, then again hovered as Kodachi carefully eased herself down.

Once she was settled and the slave stepped back, the Emperor asked, "Meioh-san, just how serious are your injuries?"

"Thank you for your concern, Your Majesty. A sprained ankle and several broken ribs, nothing serious," she replied, bowing in her seat as well as the tight bandages around her torso permitted. "I will be fine."

"I am happy to hear it. And Ranma and Akane, did he and his fiancée come through the night unscathed? Will you be able to unlock Ranma's curse?"

Kodachi's eyes widened — he knew about Ranma! She stuttered slightly before getting her voice under control. "Ranma and Akane both came through the night physically unharmed," she replied. She wondered for a moment whether she should add that Ranma was currently being kept unconscious by intravenous drip until his mother could be present, but decided against it. She continued,"We don't know if or when his curse can be unlocked. The only person that might know who survived the night is currently at the hospital with a severe concussion. Once she manages to escape the doctors' clutches I am certain she will tell us."

The Emperor chuckled slightly. "I will ask Meioh-dono to give me an update when you know more," he said. Sobering, he gazed at the teenager for a long moment, until she was fighting to keep from squirming in her seat. Finally, he said softly, "Kodachi, while Meioh-dono's offer to you is as brilliant as it is unprecedented, it means that your Family's name will vanish from our history. Most Clans and Families would rather go down fighting than surrender their identity. Is this truly your will? You are not under any kind of duress?"

Without hesitation, Kodachi shook her head. "No, Your Majesty, there is no duress. In truth, I found the decision an easy one to make. The Kuno Family has destroyed enough lives, my father wholesale and I and my brother retail — the world is better off without us."

"No," the Emperor disagreed instantly, "while you are certainly right about your father and arguably so about your brother, I believe you will yet make your mark on the world, and a positive one — even if under a different name."

"I thank you." Kodachi bowed her head, as much to hide her blush as politeness. Then her blush turned fiery with mortification as she failed to suppress a jaw-cracking yawn.

The Emperor waved off her stammered apology. "It is early, and you have had a long day and night. But my discussion with Meioh-dono shouldn't take long, and then you can seek out your bed. Daichi, escort Meioh-san to a couch where she can rest until then."

/\

Setsuna forced herself not to straighten, not to take a deep breath, to keep her expression under control as she walked into the meeting room to find the Emperor seated on a small throne. While he had provisionally accepted her ascension to lordship (ladyship?), it was just that — provisional. She didn't think he would rescind his decision — the result would almost certainly be catastrophic for the Kuno holdings and so for the Empire — but a single bad misstep and it could all collapse.

Stopping at the distance prescribed by tradition, she knelt and bowed, waiting for the Emperor's permission to sit back on her heels. She waited in the silence as her nerves vibrated like plucked strings.

Finally, the Emperor spoke. "The analysts I woke up when you called are impressed. While their conclusions are tentative at best, based on what we'd already learned and the few facts that have come in so far of tonight's events, it's fairly clear that you knew what was coming and positioned yourself to intervene. What they can't figure out is how you did it — you would have to have intelligence sources for whoever organized the Neriman uprising, whoever arranged for the street samurai assault, and within the Kuno household itself. Not to mention a great reservoir of the blessings of the kami to draw upon in order for everything to fall out just as it did, when it did.

"But then, most of my analysts aren't aware of the Shadow World, or the part you play in it — both as organizer of disparate defenders against major threats and as manager of your own little band of Magical Girls. Were you aware that the Imperial Household is able to detect and differentiate magical signatures?" He paused for a long moment, then smiled thinly as Setsuna sat frozen in place, gaping. "I see you did not. My people reported that your Magical Girls were responsible for preventing a number of the attacks on Kuno holdings."

He leaned back slightly, a hint of relaxation in his posture. Even as her mind raced, considering the implications of the Imperial Household's unexpected capability, Setsuna found herself relaxing in turn even though she knew his kinesthetic cue was deliberate. After a moment, the Emperor continued, "Until now, you have concerned yourself solely with your fashion lines, investments, and protecting the Empire from supernatural threats. Why the change?"

"Because we are at a cusp point," Setsuna answered instantly, her face once again under control. "For centuries, humanity has mostly been drifting, war after war piling up death and misery with almost no improvement except in technology. That was bad enough when we had advanced to the point that we could destroy entire civilizations, but the latest advances are giving us the capability to destroy humanity entirely — even possibly by accident. This cannot continue."

"So ... you act for the good of the Empire?"

"Of humanity," Setsuna corrected, "and for the Empire as much as that permits. It is my home, after all."

"And your team of Magical Girls?"

"Will be involved in the Great Game only in the most extreme of circumstances or for personal reasons. Not only are they needed for the supernatural threats to the Empire and its people, but the last thing I want is for the other noble Houses to begin seeking out magical cannon fodder of their own — street samurai, high end martial artists and wild talents are bad enough already."

"I am very glad to know you realize that," the Emperor said.

He fell silent, gazing at the emerald-haired woman kneeling before him for long minutes, before finally nodding. "Very well, I confirm your ascension to the status of Lady by virtue of your adoption of the last survivor of a noble House. My people will include it with this morning's news releases, and I will accept your formal fealty in ... say, one week. That should give you enough time to get at least the preliminaries settled for your new position.

"And now that that is decided, I spoke with Kodachi about Ranma, and she informed me that you do not yet know what will be needed to unlock his curse. Let my people know if there is anything I can do to help and keep me updated as to his status regardless. Is there anything I can do to aid your transition?"

Setsuna's shoulders slumped slightly as relief washed through her — it was finally really done. She drummed one set of fingers on a knee as she fought back a yawn, then nodded. "The biggest help right now would be if the Imperial Army continued to guard the Kuno — the Meioh installations where it is currently stationed. The unsettled situation, along with the addition of my own security to what the Kunos already had, should do for the rest until I can see to the sale of those properties that exceed our capabilities to defend..."

/\

Egami returned from escorting Meioh-dono and her heir to their transportation home (and providing occasional discreet aid to the exhausted Kodachi along the way), his obsequious manner falling away like a discarded cloak as soon as he was alone in the room with the Emperor. He strolled over to join his sovereign in looking out a window at the nighttime, shadow-haunted garden below.

Without preamble, the Emperor asked, "So, what did you think of Meioh-dono?"

Egami took time to consider everything he'd seen and heard before he finally answered. "Confusing. In person, I found her on the verge of treasonous and more softhearted than her activities in the Shadow World and the coup she pulled off tonight would indicate. Certainly, her request that any Imperial charges against the Hibiki boy be dropped is understandable, he's a magnificent tool if you can direct him — and she's clearly managed it, somehow. But her request for your people to provide her with a list of residents of Juuban that were sold into debt slavery because of the previous Kuno-dono's economic assault, and her desire to use the proceeds from her sale of excess Kuno — formerly Kuno — holdings to pay for their freedom is less explicable.

"And then, there's her near treason in putting the good of the world over the good of the Empire. That kind of universalism always indicates a descent into fuzzy-minded sentimentalism."

The Emperor chuckled. "Her plan for Juuban does have its practical side — certainly, they will give her an unequaled reputation among the commoners," he disagreed. "Your distaste for the Christians may be clouding your judgment a little."

"Well ... perhaps," Egami reluctantly agreed, "though at least our Shinto Christian variety of that superstition is rendered mostly harmless by their pacifism, and I'll admit their missionaries are a great help in the holdings we took away from Dar al-Islam."

"Nor are Christians the only universalists," the Emperor added. "While Amaterasu rightly favors her children, Kannon pays no heed to the origins of those she helps."

Egami turned to stare at his liege,shaken by the hint of ... respect? ... in his leige's voice. "Surely you don't believe Meioh-dono is an incarnation of Kannon!"

The Emperor shook his head without looking away from the garden. "No, from all we know of her involvement in the defense of the Empire — and the rest of the world, apparently — along with what she allowed to happen tonight, she's much too ruthless for that sweet, gentle kami of mercy. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn she is her sister."

Taking a deep breath, the Emperor turned from the window to face his Hand. "Meioh-dono is to be given free rein and supported when it is possible to do so discreetly, but until I say otherwise she is to be a primary focus of the Household — both normal intelligence and supernatural investigations. And redouble our efforts to break the protection against scrying on her Magical Girls, see if we can finally learn who they are." The Emperor chuckled wryly when his Hand's eyebrows climbed. "A bit much for a woman I've just said I trust, I know, but tonight she has made herself a Power in the Empire — perhaps the Power, and in more than one area. And that means the stakes are too high for me to not make all necessary precautions, seeing how our Shogun is useless for anything but maintaining his position and raking in the bribes.

"Now update the standing orders, and get what sleep you can for what's left of the night. I suspect the rest of the day — and the weeks to follow — will be busy enough to make the few extra hours worthwhile."

Egami bowed and left, and the Emperor again looked out at what little could be seen in the nighttime shadows of the neatly kept garden for a few more minutes before turning away to seek his own bed.


The quote at the beginning of the chapter comes from 's build-your-own Disincentive calendars, the entry for Arrogance.

And that part about a time when Japanese emperors were routinely assassinated is very much historical, in the centuries up to at least 600 to 700 A.D. if not later — since anyone of the Sun line could serve as emperor (or empress), the standard way for the ambitious that weren't of that line to gain control of the state was to assassinate whoever currently held the throne and install their own puppet. There's a story of one such intended puppet who, on learning that a group of armed retainers were coming to grant him this 'honor', took to his heels and was never seen or heard from again.