A Fork in the road

Gatac 2013-05-10 14:36:09
IC Thread 23, wherein we go camping and figure out our next destination(s).
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:40:04
Toshiba’s taking his turn in the back of the wagon, his back propped up against his pack and the stowed Oni armor. He sits and watches the leaves rustle, the birds flutter, then slides out his flute. It’s been a while since he’s even looked at it; influence of the Oni, or were they simply too busy? The woodsman racks his brain for a tune, then finally puts the instrument to his lips and begins to pipe a lilting melody. He catches Sidewinder’s eyes from underneath the Shadowwatch ninja’s hat and smiles, remembering the ditty the gonneslinger played before their duel. Sidewinder smiles.

“Okay, there’s a surprise,” he says. “Didn’t figure you for a flutist.”

Goodly country folk
Pursued by magistrates
Since their infancy
”, Toshiba finishes. “One finds ways to amuse oneself on cold, lonely nights in the woods. ‘Twas not too far from here where I lived for many months.” Toshiba regards his flute for a moment. “Truth be told, there was a time where I wanted very little, but that time is past now, like this instrument’s finish. Did you know you could use this as a means to infiltrate underwater?”
“Can’t rightly say I did,” Sidewinder says. “What happened to the last Oni?” he asks. “You got him?”

“Aye,” Toshiba replies. “He left me for dead, and I left him just plain dead. Arbalest to the head, if you were curious. Do you know if I felled the same man who slew your brother?”
“If your question is, were you the one who wore the armor when he was killed, then no,” Sidewinder says. “And you did not kill him before you wore it, either. But...since you put on the armor, you’ve become the man who killed him. Stop me if I’m not making much sense.”

Toshiba grins, but there’s not much smile to it. “Stop, then. You speak as if you were to kill a man, then pass the knife to me, then I would have the blame...” Toshiba stops too, thinking it over. “Actually, I do see some logic there, from a certain point of view. The armor, like our fantastical knife, carries its past with it like a heavy weight. We all do. But I am neither Toshiba Shiretoko nor the Blue Oni, much like you are no longer... well, I suspect ‘Sidewinder’ is not your birth name.” Now the smile is genuine.
Sidewinder echoes the smile. “Isn’t it strange? Everyone asks about the name. My point was more...if you pick up a bloody knife, you can hardly expect to keep your hands clean.” Sidewinder runs a hand along the brim of his hat. “You know why you fascinate me? I don’t know where the armor came from. You ask Homi-sensei, he’s got answers - shadowskins, swords forged in dragonfire, and even more exotic fare...but he does not know where the Blue Oni came from, either. And I love a good mystery.”

“Maybe it knows,” Toshiba says in all seriousness. “I never asked it. Or tried to ask anything of it. It may be a bloody knife, but my hands have not been clean for a long time now. This is what this quest is, for me. A new Emperor for the Empire, and a new name and a new life for myself. A man can change.”
“What’s that new life of yours gonna look like?” Sidewinder asks. “Suppose we win. Toshiro on the throne, bad guys in the ground. What are people like us going to do? Take a day off and go back to stopping the next conspiracy? Throw it all away and wander the earth? I don’t see myself on a farm, or in a mansion.” His expression sours. “Drunk, face down in an alley. That’s how people like us are supposed to end up.”

“That’s how most people end up, Sidewinder.” Toshiba shakes his head. “We will have changed the course of the Empire. We will have deposed possibly the most powerful woman in the world. We will be friends and advisors to a new Emperor. Until that dark day in an alley far from now, I intend to do whatever I want.”
Sidewinder smirks. “Fair enough,” he says. “I’d like to go home, you know. Visit my old clan. How about you? You don’t seem the type to get homesick.”

“There shall be a period of requisite decadence, of course,” Toshiba replies in all seriousness. “Then I was thinking, if the Emperor’s reign was sufficiently stable, of hunting and killing those who oppress the weak, all the while ensuring that the Empire does not stray too far from the heavenly ideals to which it once aspired.”
“Eternal vigil, hrm,” Sidewinder says. “I’ll meditate on the wisdom of that approach. You do me a favor and wake me when we make camp, alright?” He leans back and pulls his hat down over his face.

Toshiba nods, then lets his legs dangle from the rear of the wagon. He starts playing again, the soft high notes mingling with the birdsong.

Temperaments never-changing
Fought the establishment with
banditry's methods.

“Yee-haw,” Toshiba says to himself.
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:40:52

After a day’s ride to the northwest, you make camp in the woods, where you once defeated the bandit known as Eagle and burned down his camp. Though bandits still linger in the woods, they have grown less bold, and surely they want no trouble with a caravan as large as yours. Yukio rides her horse toward a small tree, climbs off it and secures the reins to the wood, then moves to help Kirika, who’s not quite accustomed to moving around in the armor Yukio provided to “sell” her as a mercenary escort. With strong arms, she holds Kirika while the smaller woman climbs off the horse.

“We’ll need to work on the dismount,” Yukio says. “Nobody’s going to believe you’re a ronin if you can’t handle riding in armor.”
"Is it the bamboo, or the lacquer that makes this so damn heavy?" Kirika groans as she heaves a leg over and steps/falls off of the horse.
“That’s actually the light one,” Yukio laughs, banging a gloved fist against the plate armor covering her chest. “However, few ronin ride in fine silk kimonos. I had to put you into something that would pass muster.”
"I feel like I have been weighted for diving. How I am supposed to fight in this, I have no idea," Kirika says, but stays standing. "How do I look?"
“Like you’re on your first escort job,” Yukio says. “For what it’s worth, you do look like a warrior, just an inexperienced one - easy to excuse given your age. Maybe you could pass as a bandit who is making the jump to the other side, if we rough up your looks a little - that hair is far too orderly and long! We should braid it and dust it, and you will stop washing your face. But I have something else for you to wear, too.”
Kirika sets her helmet down on a stump. "Ruining my hair? I suppose that next you will have me in burlap and rolling in the mud."
“Nothing so extreme,” Yukio says, walking over to retrieve a roll from the back of one of the carts. She throws it to Kirika, who is briefly forced back by the impact of catching it. “New kimono. Wear it for training and under your armor. It’s rough, but you’ll look the part.”
Kirika unrolls the pack: all that's inside is a earthy greenish-brown but otherwise plain cotton kimono. She runs her hand along the fabric, and smiles. "It feels like it would be light, and breathe well." She puts the pack carefully down and rattles over to kiss Yukio. "Thank you, love."
Yukio smiles. “How about we break that in, then? It’ll take a while to get the fire going - and when we’re done unloading, we can do some pushups to pass the time.”
Kirika gives a mock gasp and smacks Yukio in the shoulder. "This was your plan all along, wasn't it?"
Yukio smirks. “I can be tricky, when I want to.”
Kirika rattles as she steps backwards, shaking her finger at Yukio. She grabs the bundle, then gives Yukio a look. "I will need aid getting changed - and up into the wagon for privacy..."

Getting out of the armor is the last help Kirika gets from Yukio for the night. As it turns out, Yukio’s not entirely sure if they really packed everything...so that means everything needs to be unloaded from the carts. Kirika can barely pull some of the gear free, let alone lift it out of the carts, but Yukio’s evil ideas don’t end there - some items need to be lifted, inspected from multiple sides, why don’t you flip that roll around and shake it to the side to make sure everything’s tight, I bet we could do great squats with this, I told you that goes there, pick it up and put it in its proper place - the litany goes on for nearly an hour, and by the time Kirika’s packing it all back into the carts, she feels like her legs and arms are about to snap, while her back protests with every heave and she can’t turn her head properly anymore. Yukio quietly helps her finish up in time for dinner to be cooked. With them all done, Yukio grabs a sweaty, achey Kirika and draws her into a hug.

“A good start, dearest,” Yukio says.
"Uh-huh," Kirika half-laughs, half-moans as she latches onto Yukio for support in remaining standing.
“Aww, did I work you too hard?” Yukio coos. “Some of that gear-checking was probably not strictly necessary tonight...”
"I can...take it..." Kirika grunts. "Now, help me sit down."
"I will do you one better," Yukio says playfully.
Kirika smiles, but her smile quickly turns to confusion when Yukio's hands don't go for her body in the way she was hoping - instead, she gently lays Kirika down and grabs her ankle.
"Just relax, dearest," Yukio coos, and slowly raises Kirika's leg.
The stretch instantly begins to ache, and before her leg is even halfway raised, Kirika is grasping wildly at the ground and moaning in pain. One last push, and she shouts with pain. Still, when she releases, Kirika groans with the relief of her muscles being stretched back out.
Yukio gently strokes Kirika's cheek. "Tomorrow, you will ride in the wagon - but we will unload again as well. I know this hurts, but it will feel so much better when we are done."
Kirika's face is contorted with pain, but she nods.
Yukio bends over and kisses Kirika. “Be strong, dearest,” Yukio says. “You have to be strong...”
"I will be, love," Kirika groans. "For you, anything. I want to be as strong as you."
“Then you will need to eat,” Yukio says, helping Kirika sit up and scooch closer to the fire. “Come on. Samurai who have seconds grow up big and strong.”
"Oh gods above, yes," Kirika says, and carefully hauls herself up. "I have never been so hungry."

Never before in the history of the empire has a simple roadside stew tasted so good. Kirika wolfs down her bowl, then gets a second and lays into that, too. Yukio has to stop her a few times, afraid that Kirika’s body will simply spew out the food if it comes in too fast. But even with fighting Yukio for the spoon sometimes, Kirika still manages to pack away three bowls before she feels sated enough to reluctantly put the crockery aside.
Kirika wraps her arms around Yukio. "Whatever you put in that stew, I already feel so much better." She kisses Yukio. "I cannot wait for tomorrow morning's training."
“You say that now,” Yukio says. “Just wait for the sore muscles to really set in. I shall remind you of your words tomorrow, if need be.”
"Bring it on," Kirika says.

Kirika delivers one more kiss - and a caress of her backside - to Yukio, who just draws Kirika into an embrace. “Try to get some sleep soon, dearest,” Yukio says.
"I will join you when you do," Kirika promises, and nearly hops to her feet. She feels so full of energy that she goes for a jog around the camp. The display comes to an end when she finds her path barred by a held-out tonfa - with Hiro Homi standing to the side of her path. With a wordless nod, he beckons her to sit next to him at the campfire.
Kirika takes a seat next to Homi. "What can I do for you, Homi-san?"
“I have thought about our conversations in the morning,” Homi says. “It has occurred to me that you have not asked me what secrets we learned from my son. Perhaps you have already deduced from my silence on the topic that Yo faced his end with sealed lips.” He stares at the flickering fire. “I feel it was important to dispel any possible ambiguity, so that you may not be tempted to think that I am keeping information from you.”
Kirika nods sadly - she knew that Yo, unfortunately, could not be left alive, but that Homi killed his only son himself is an extra tragedy heaped on top. "I...I..." she stutters, before reaching out for Homi's shoulder by reflex. "How are you?"
“Deeply saddened,” Homi says, the lowered volume of his voice the only outward indication of emotion. “You should know that, as far as I am concerned, Yo’s death is merely another thing Ikishi must account for.” He smirks. “A gentle lie, compared to others I’ve told.”
Kirika meets Homi's grim smirk with a sympathetic look of her own. She reaches her arm across his back, turning up her efforts to comfort Homi. "Still," she simply says.
“Tragedy follows in the wake of all conflict,” Homi says. “I saw it plain as day on the pirate’s face when he became part of the web of conspiracy, and I saw it in every stroke of yours during our battle - like, at any moment, you were about to turn around and look to your father to see if he would approve of your form with a curt nod. Surely even Ikishi has an excuse for her plans.” He takes a breath. “There are questions that keep an old man like me awake at night, Kamura-san. Some of which I may yet find an answer to, but many I suspect have no answer to grasp for us. If you wish my advice? See to it that your pain does not haunt you into old age; it is a miserable way to live.”
Kirika nods, giving Homi a comforting squeeze on his shoulder. "Without friends to share the load with, no warrior, shadow or otherwise, could live with themselves for long - not even the Shadowguard. I know you feel you must walk this path alone, that it is a burden only you may carry, but believe me, Homi-san, sharing what you carry makes it feel all the lighter. When I finally had the courage to tell Yukio the truth of who I am..." Kirika sighs. "I felt unburdened beyond simply half-load."
“Of that, I’ve no doubt,” Homi says. “But the secrets that burden me are not mine to reveal. A lifetime of service to the throne stains the soul. I ran out of personal scores to settle decades ago - all that is left are the things that nobody can know, done in the service of the Son of the Heavens but never under his order, that the throne may remain pristine and pure. The empire prevails, and roundabout thrice a century a man’s soul is damned for it. It seems a small sacrifice - and all duty ends eventually, even if it is only in death for one like me.”
"It is still not a burden you should carry alone," Kirika says. "And no man deserves to feel damned - no matter the reason, Homi-san. If you are not able to say that you did what you did for the good of all, and stand up straight? Then I would ask what you had to do, yes?"
Homi smirks. “It shall be good to travel with you, Kamura-san,” he says. “Perhaps we will have a chance to discuss what I have done at some point. But the journey has tired me considerably. I bid you good night.” He motions for her to get up.
Kirika does stand - but she doesn't walk away quite yet. "I do not mean to pry, Homi-san. Do not take my statements as an attempt to persuade you to spill all your secrets - I just..." She sighs. "I see a man who deserves to hold his head high, a man who has done his best to protect the man he swore his life to protect, and now has done that same level best to protect his charge's legacy and only son. This doubt and self-recrimination is not only harmful to our cause, but it is not what someone like you deserves. And I will not stand for anyone besmirching your character, even yourself." She bows to Homi. "That is all, Homi-san."
Homi stares ahead into the fire. “Then please leave me to my thoughts,” he says.
Kirika bows again. "Of course, Homi-san. Just know...you have a supporter in me."
Homi nods. “Thank you.”

As Kirika leaves, Homi’s eyes continue to stare into the dancing flames. Fire...that’s something this old man gave up years ago. It’s gotten difficult to keep going, with every morning bringing a new ache in his bones, but he remains determined to see this through. Still, Kirika’s words haven’t fallen on deaf ears. Maybe there is a way for him to feel better - and if there is, he doesn’t have much time left to change his path.

Kirika, for her part, jogs over to where Yukio has already set out their bedroll - a new one, obtained before leaving the Forge, large enough for both women to share. Kirika strips off her new exercise kimono quickly, climbs in, shaping her body against Yukio's back. She starts to rub her hands around Yukio's back and torso, trying to warm her love up through the kimono Yukio is still wearing.
“Kirika,” Yukio murmurs, “are you undressed?”
"No," Kirika replies, whispering in Yukio's ear. "I was too warm for my new kimono, but I have my undergarments still on."
“Might want to put the kimono back on,” Yukio says. “Gets pretty cold this time of year.”
"Or I could just share your warmth," Kirika says, nuzzling up against Yukio's neck.
“Mmh,” Yukio goes, “maybe...” At that, she turns around in the bedroll and opens her eyes, giving Kirika a small smile. Kirika feels Yukio unhook the belt of her kimono under the sheet, and soon, the samurai woman draws her into a close embrace. “There, that should be good.”
Kirika undoes her slight undergarments as Yukio wraps her kimono around her and draws her in. Yukio gives her a quick kiss. “Sleep tight now, dearest.”
Kirika returns the kiss, wrapping her arms around Yukio's body and pressing herself up against Yukio. "You don't feel chilled now?" she asks, feeling quite warm herself, but worried for Yukio.
“If I get cold, I will roll us closer to the fire,” Yukio says. “I will try not to crush you, dearest.”
"I feel fine, it is you I am concerned for," Kirika replies. "If you need my warmth, it is at your disposal."
“Mmh, it seems rude not to take you up on the offer,” Yukio says, tightening her embrace. “I love you,” she whispers.
Kirika's heart sings, and she can't help but returning the embrace and adding a deeply passionate kiss in return. "And I love you, Yukio," Kirika whispers after they both momentarily come back up for air.
Oddly enough, neither tenderness nor hushed conversation can coax further snogging from the two tired women - but falling asleep in each other’s arms is pretty nice, too.
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:41:16

It’s a long time to be stuck in the rear of a wagon, but as one of the non-riders on the team, that is the fate that befalls Kagemaru. Still, there’s enough room to stand up in the wagon, and that is enough room to practice. Kagemaru twirls the ninja-to he has “inherited” from Kiara experimentally, getting a feel for its weight distribution and handling. In their training, Kagemaru never had much use for blades - too messy - but things are getting serious out here, and it’s time he prepared himself. Soon, he’s sorted out some moves - the blade is small enough to slide under someone’s defense, provided they get close, yet a quick lunge should let him rake it across a decent arc.

(Kagemaru uses Blade Practice to gain the Blade-Weaver Basics feat.)

At the campsite, Kagemaru leaves the unloading to Yukio’s training practice for Kirika, and with Toshiba and Kiara ranging out to secure the site and gather firewood, there’s not a lot for him to do - except hone his throwing skills and test the depth of the shadowsuit’s seemingly endless supply of shadow-shuriken. He embeds about a dozen into a nearby tree before some start to dissolve into thin smoke when he draws the next one. Is it the number, or is it that the shuriken disappear by themselves after a minute or so? This calls for further testing...


The next throw stops short of the tree, as the shuriken has become embedded into a tonfa held out by Hiro Homi.

“I think you have neutralized the threat of this disguised rootwalker,” Homi says with a smirk. “I can tell you more about your suit, if you wish it.”

“I sure could use a few answers. The more time I have spent with this suit, the more questions seemed to crop up.” Kagemaru answers, as he puts back two more Shadow Shuriken that he already grabbed from his garb.

Homi nods. “I will tell you more, but this tale requires that you hold your breath.”

Does that mean that he will only talk as long as I can hold my breath? What is he up to? “Uhm.. sure?” Kagemaru responds as he breathes in as much air as he can and releases it again a few times to widen his lungs. Then he breathes in and holds it.

“These suits are the only remains of the 4th dynasty’s Shadowwatch,” Homi begins. “The Guard was a sorceror of great skill, and it is said that he enchanted a loom so that it could weave the very shadows - but the process had to be conducted in complete darkness, any light would dissolve the incomplete suits. You can imagine that it took him a while to figure out how to weave and sew without being able to see anything. In any event, the suit, once completed, looks mostly ordinary in light - but that is only because it disguises itself as such. What it is is living shadow that cannot escape its current shape - except in certain, very specific ways the Shadowguard built into the suits. Your shuriken are one of these applications - perhaps the most mundane. I’m sure you have also noticed that your suit reacts the darkness - it adheres to it, in a way, and it drags you with it. It becomes one with every shadow it stands in. This was the principal goal of the suit, to blend into the darkness so well as to almost become entirely invisible. But it was not enough to simply hide anywhere - any ninja must leave his hiding spot to rest, to eat. The Guard was more ambitious than letting such things stand in the way of his needs, however. Therefore, he built the suits to sustain their wearers. Tell me, Kagemaru, since you put on the suit - have you felt tired? Hungry?” Homi looks at Kagemaru with a smirk. “Do you feel your lungs yearn for air? No?”

Kagemaru’s eyes widen as he realises, that he hasn’t eaten for days. He noticed that he doesn’t feel really sleepy when he goes to bed... it’s more like a habit.

“I see,” Kagemaru says calmly “I noticed something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Can you tell me more about the abilities of the suit?”

“It will keep you alive,” Homi says. “There are legends that there is one of those suits out there still being worn by a member of the old Shadowwatch, who has walked the empire for nearly four hundred years now - but as I’m sure you will agree, a ninja who has had four hundred years to train is very difficult to find if he wants to hide. In any event, these suits have been used by the ninja clans since then - the wearers can lie in wait for weeks, even underwater or packed into airtight containers. I have heard of one being smuggled into a castle inside a barrel of wine. But the most amazing ability of the suit is also the hardest to master - you can will the magical bonds to weaken, and the shadowcloth will seek out the nearest darkness and drag you with it. With some practice, you can travel through shadows faster than any horse can ride. Even into the shadow of an enemy.” Homi points towards the campfire, where the rest of the crew has assembled. “You see Sidewinder over there? I want you to focus on the shadow the flames cast behind him. Don’t walk or move. Will yourself to travel behind him. And then come back here. Use the shadow of the tree.”

“My will...” Kagemaru mutters as he focuses on Sidewinder. His shadow is flickering on the ground, animated by the crackling campfire. Move there! Do it! The ninja tries to force the suit to move, but nothing happens.

Wait... nothing the suit did with me was forced. It all came naturally when I was ready. The more I was in tune with the suit, the more it did for me. With that, he stands upright and closes his eyes, trying to feel his suit. After a few moments, he can feel the suit reacting. Kagemaru opens his eyes and focuses on Sidewinder’s shadow once more. It seems different now. Almost alive. The suit crawls over his skin, like it’s getting ready to pounce. Like it wants to pounce. And then, in a flash, Kagemaru is behind Sidewinder. Copperhead barely has time to look surprised before Kagemaru pivots and focuses on the shadow of the tree besides Hiro Homi, darting back in an instant. The suit seems tight and tensed now, like it’s finally gotten to be free for a bit before being forced back into shape.

“Before you make too much use of this ability,” Homi says, “always keep in mind that the suit is made of shadow. It does not exist to serve you, it exists to be free. You and your will keep it chained and under control. Many users do not have discipline. They use its power too freely, darting from shadow to shadow, thinking themselves like Gods - but they lose themselves in it. The shadows dissolve them, tear at their body and soul, until they are merely an echo haunting the suit. Treat the suit as you would any deadly weapon, with respect, and you will avoid such a dark fate.”

“Thank you for your guidance, Homi-Sensei. I will honor your words and be careful with my actions.” Kagemaru says with a bow to Homi.

“Take care, Kagemaru-kun,” Homi says.

As Kagemaru leaves to rejoin the others at the campfire, Homi brushes over his tonfa, retrieving the shadow-shuriken - then hurls it behind him, pinning a shadow-shape to a tree. The shape hisses and flails, but cannot escape from its current location.

“Youuu!” it gargles. “Why do you help the skinthief?”
“Because he doesn’t deserve to end like you,” Homi deadpans. “I need him focused and capable, not lost in the darkness.”
“Release meeee!”
“As you wish, spirit,” Homi says, then plunges a throwing knife with a green-tinted steel blade into the heart of the shape. The shadow dissolves into oil and whispers before disappearing entirely, while the throwing knife seems to rust to nothing in seconds before blowing away in the wind.
“Let this be a warning to you,” Homi whispers into the dark woods. “Your magic is strong, but I know all the tricks. You serve us. Never forget your place.”
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:41:51
The first thing Kirika is aware of is brightness, a painful brightness that makes her squint, even though her eyes are still closed. She feels Yukio’s skin pressed up against her own and squeezes in a bit to share her warmth, and that’s when Kirika notices that the warmth and energy she felt the previous night has left her as well - and that it’s damn fucking cold out. If it wasn’t for her being nose-to-nose with her love, there’d be frost on Kirika’s lips. Still, she’s awake, and Yukio is sound asleep still, judging by her quiet murmurs and half-hearted attempts to trap Kirika in close to her. Kirika slides back, and is instantly blinded again, and through her squinted eyes, she figures out what woke her up: a beam of early morning sun, peeking through the leaves off in the distance. Judging by the angle, it must be one of the first rays of sunrise.

“Hmph,” Kirika grunts, and backs out and rolls underneath Yukio’s strong arms. She’s half-out of the bag when she sees that there are others nearby: Toshi, still sitting next to the small fire - which, judging by his bleary eyes and collection of ashes at his feet, he has kept going all night. Behind her, she hears a single leaf crunch, and rolls over to see Hiro Homi, walking a path around the camp’s perimeter through the shade of morning as he passes under a large elm.

“Getting sloppy, Homi-san?” Kirika asks quietly, still somewhat sleepy as she wriggles back into the bedroll to put on her undergarment.
“Misjudged the humidity,” Homi replies. “My eyes are not as sharp as they used to be. I have located a nearby stream if you wish to cleanse yourself, but if I were you I would wait until we boil some water over the fire; spring seems to be quite late to these woods.”
“Strange weather, added to the list,” Kirika mutters as she climbs out of the bedroll and slips on her sandals. She grabs the pot from nearby Toshi. “Morning, Toshi,” she says with a smile.
Toshi acknowledges her with a grunt, but doesn’t turn away from the page he’s working on. He seems to be writing...what exactly is he writing? The characters are familiar, but they don’t seem to come together into words that Kirika recognizes.
Kirika is no stranger to this mood from Toshi, and simply hefts the pot with one hand and walks towards the stream. She fills the pot, careful not to get even slightly damp, and staggers back with the handle clutched in both hands. Kirika carefully places it over the fire, then grabs her kimono from last night - carefully folded and kept between her bedroll and pad - and shucks it on before taking a seat next to Toshi. She looks over his shoulder - still writing this strange new gibberish.

“What are you doing, Toshi?” Kirika playfully asks.
“I’m writing down everything I figured out from Olafsen’s records,” Toshi says. “When I’m done, we can destroy the records in the fire. If we’re stopped and searched, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have documents in Hanse with us.”
Kirika nods. “It’d be suspicious, at the very least. Perhaps we could hide them somewhere hard to find, perhaps send them back to Matsumoto-sama, somehow, just in case?”
“Homi-sensei has scouted the area for landmarks,” Toshi says. “I guess we could put them in a pouch and bury them someplace only we would find them, just in case we ever need them again. But I don’t see the use - we’re not going to convince anyone with the originals, they’re only worth as much as their information.” He looks up from the sheet to Kirika. “You think maybe somebody else could translate them and get more out of them than I did?”
Kirika shrugs. “I am simply reluctant to destroy the chain of evidence linking Olafsen to Ikishi. You never know when such proof might be useful.”
“Fair enough,” Toshi says. “I’m more concerned about being found out. See this?” He points to the sheet he’s working on. “It’s a cypher. Homi-sensei, Sidewinder and Copperhead know it - Cobra...I haven’t asked Homi-sensei, but he’s out of the picture, anyway.” He pinches the bridge of his nose. “The point is, if we’re caught with this, I can just pass it off as writing practice. Anyone outside of Shadowwatch will just see nonsense.”
“If ‘caught with’ is the right term for a piece of paper with some characters written on it,” Kirika says as she squints at the page. “I’ve never seen you use this before. It must be quite a good code, because I can’t even tell where the message starts or ends.”
“That’s why it’s taking me a while, I’m rusty,” Toshi says. “I didn’t use it after I left because - well, Homi-sensei told me not to reveal myself or my skills more than I had to. Even if Cobra hadn’t caught wind of it and reported back to Ikishi, I don’t think I could have kept it under wraps if I had a reputation of writing letters that don’t make words. Certainly some ninja clans would have known the idea of a cypher, even if they couldn’t decrypt our messages. Besides, what use did I have for it? A secret diary, maybe?”
“Sweet notes to Yukio, maybe,” Kirika replies.
Toshi just looks at her for a few seconds.
Kirika realizes what she said a second too late. “Oh, Gods above, I am...incredibly sorry, Toshi, I...I don’t even know how to apologize for that. Wow.” She shakes her head. “That was...incredibly insensitive of me.”
“I accept your apology,” Toshi says flatly. “And, just to be pedantic, that would mean showing her I can write code and teaching it to her. Not a secret I could share with her.” He looks down at the page again. “Too many secrets.”
Kirika had held back a moment ago, but now she can’t help herself. One arm goes around Toshi’s shoulders and rubs his arm opposite her as she leans her head against Toshi’s. “I’m sorry, Toshi. About all of this. You did what you thought would keep her safe, I know it.”
“I tried,” Toshi says. “Anyway, down to business. There are seven High Lords, Homi-sensei included. I think that, thanks to Olafsen, I know how Ikishi is manipulating two of them. I’ve also discovered that one of Ikishi’s agents, this ‘Kei’ woman Olafsen mentioned, is operating from Lady Sarano’s court. Given Sarano’s age, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kei is manipulating her on Ikishi’s orders. That could certainly make things very complicated around here if Kei takes more overt action against us or Yukio’s father. What do you want to hear first?”
Toshi hasn’t shucked off Kirika’s attempt to comfort and soothe him, and she looks down at the page at an angle as Toshi talks. “Start with the broader view,” she says.

Toshi shuffles through his papers. “Okay, the High Lords - keeping this short, I need to tell the others, too - but the High Lords, like I said, seven. Homi-sensei. Lord Hetechi, the bureaucrat. Lord Shira, the warrior. Lord Itanu, the sailor. Lord Boota, the agriculture supervisor. Lady Ishikawa, the investigator. And Lord Tsukareta, the engineer. With me so far?” Kirika nods. “Itanu is responsible for all sea trade,” Toshi continues, “and it seems he had a...certain arrangement with Olafsen. Olafsen left much of his shipping alone, but once in a while Itanu would send out a convoy of unarmed ships with trade goods that he considered expendable. Olafsen would attack the convoy, loot the goods, then fence them and pay a cut directly to Itanu. So, not only was he stealing from the imperial court and the people of the empire, but he’s also - via Olafsen - responsible for the sailors killed in those attacks. Not the kind of secret he’d want to come out - and with Olafsen working for Ikishi, she found out, of course.”
"If that is not the reason she approached Olafsen in the first place," Kirika says. She frowns. "Itanu does not sound like the kind of person you'd want in your court, Emperor."
Toshi smirks a little at being called Emperor. “He would not have gained his position if he was not very skilled at what he does - trade and diplomacy flourished under his command. But yeah, skimming off the top and selling your own people out to pirates? He’s out.” Toshi sighs. “Which leaves the matter of how to neutralize Ikishi’s leverage on him.”
"Well, if he is not to be included in your court, and is not particularly popular with the other High Lords - and if he isn't now, treason like that certainly will make our case for us - then the solution presents itself," Kirika replies. "We simply burn him. Reveal his secret, and have him chased from the palace in disgrace. The trick is finding someone with his skills and knowledge, but without his horrible attitude towards the Empire. But, you know as well as I, nobles like that like to have a 'trusted second' that accompanies him everywhere and participates in all business dealings - except the illicit ones. Adds legitimacy. And the more clean-cut and pure?"
“The less suspicion they draw,” Toshi says. “I’m not sure one could follow Itanu around without becoming a little dirty in the process, but anything would be an improvement here and we do need somebody with the requisite skills and knowledge.”
"Well, yes," Kirika admits. "Either he's the most trusting and pure-hearted person we're ever likely to meet, or he's even more devious than Itanu. We should probably find that out first." She chuckles. "If he is as pure as new-fallen snow, I would not have put it past Itanu to arrange an 'accidental' breach of some minor protocol to hold over his head."
“Let’s find out more before we go deeper on that,” Toshi says. “The other Lord I think I’ve figured out is Hetechi. Olafsen beats around the bush a lot, but I think he captured Hetechi’s lover on a raid and handed him over to Ikishi. As long as he’s her prisoner, Hetechi will do what she tells him to.”
"So, we find him, rescue him, and deliver him to Hetechi, tearful reunion results and he's on our side," Kirika replies. "Sounds like a mission for our ninja siblings."
“My thoughts exactly,” Toshi says. “The four others...we’ll have to find out.”

"Sounds like fun," Kirika replies. "And this 'Kei' woman?"
“A real piece of work, apparently,” Toshi says. “Olafsen writes she could have been a pirate. Had a way of ordering people around that made them pay attention. I don’t know what precisely she’s doing to Sarano, but it’s probably not very nice.” Toshi shrugs. “I guess she’s not an immediate problem to us, seeing how we’re headed out of here, but it doesn’t feel right leaving the valley with her still running around.”
"Particularly as she's a threat to the Forge and Matsumoto-sama," Kirika replies. "Do you have any idea who she might be?"
“Hrm,” Toshi says. “Ikishi had a maid - at least I thought she was a maid. Older woman, braided hair, never met Ikishi’s eyes - or mine. This Kei woman seems more confident and outgoing than that, but I also don’t know anyone else it could be. If it is her, I can recognize her. But my information is also ten years out of date and probably incomplete, so...I’m not sure.”
Kirika shakes her head. "Not what she looks like. But somewhere in Olafsen's words on her, there must be clues to what she is like, how she acts, what she says or does. That is how we will find her."
“He only described her as acting like a pirate captain,” Toshi says. “I’ll go over it again, see if I missed something.”
"That might be enough," Kirika replies.
“We’ll need to get somebody into Sarano’s mansion in any event,” Toshi says. “You feeling up for a con on a haughty noble?”
Kirika smiles. "Always."

Toshi smiles back, then his face slowly returns to neutral. “I do love Yukio, you know. For all that I’ve used her, and lied to her, and put her in danger...I love her. But I understand that she doesn’t feel the same way about me any more. And that’s alright. I can’t demand that. You two are obviously very happy together and I just want you to know that that is fine by me.”
Kirka returns to stroking Toshi's shoulder. "I know, Toshi. But you should know that does not mean you have to cut yourself off from her. We both love you, Toshi. Very much. Not in a romantic way, perhaps. But you know that I care for you, and you know that Yukio still very much cares for you as well, no matter what you have done."
Toshi nods. “Thank you.” The second word is almost swallowed by his yawn. “Could you check the water?” he asks. “I think I really need some tea before I fall asleep right here.”
"Sure," Kirika says, and stands up. The water's hot, but not making-tea hot. "Needs more time." Kirika sits back down. After a minute of sitting and staring at the pot, Kirika pokes Toshi in the shoulder. "Yukio told me about your proposal," she says with a smirk.
“It’s been up in the air since Kargbeck,” Toshi says. “I think we’re all comfortable enough with the current situation that we can discuss it. You know, openly. Nothing to be ashamed of, really.”
"Not at all," Kirika says with a nod. "Which is why you asked Yukio to ask me for you. Instead of coming to me directly." She smiles.
“Yes, I didn’t come to you,” Toshi says, then gets a juvenile smirk. “So to speak. But, seriously, I just thought that, you know, back in the day...I mean, obviously you’re gorgeous, Kirika, but...I didn’t know how you felt, erm, feel about me.”
Kirika looks at Toshi and smirks. "You're still scared of me."
“You’re Ameda Kamura’s daughter!” Toshi blurts out. “You’ve been getting all wiry and slicing people in half, and you’re very scary when you want to be. And since the...tattoos, it’s like...looking at you is like getting punched in the courage. Like I see you, and I know I better not get in your way, in any way.”
Kirika drops a bit of the playful smirk for a softer look. "Yeah, but I'm still...I guess I can't say 'Kirika Kamura' or 'Kasumi Kagawa', but I'm still me. I'm still me, and you know me, as well as anyone, even Yukio. I mean, Yukio and I, we have this...connection, this instant level of knowledge of each other, but you're the only person here who's known me for more than a few months."
“Yeah,” Toshi says, then smirks. “Those damn horses. If they hadn’t missed the snakes...well, I wouldn’t have gone and borrowed Matsumoto’s horses, they wouldn’t have been stolen from me, I wouldn’t have gone back to the Forge...we might have never seen each other again. It’s a little weird, I guess, when you look at the bricks destiny builds its houses from.”
"I think destiny is the right word," Kirika replies. "I think that all of us, here, this is how it was meant to be. You were meant to run into me in that alley, because then we would all have gone back to meet Yukio, we would have met Toshiba on the road...all of this. It is what was meant to happen. I do not know why, but...there is no other explanation."
“Yuki-chan would say it’s the will of the Heavens,” Toshi replies. “It was a lot easier to crack jokes about our ancestors watching over us before your father appeared to you, Kirika. We are part of legend already.”
"Part of your legend, maybe," Kirika replies. "I mean, you're descended from...how many generations of Emperor?"
“23,” Toshi says. “24 if you count the Black Month and General Shinseki’s crowning. I prefer to ignore it.”
"And you were worried about my father watching over us," Kirika replies, her smirk returning. "Imagine all those generations of Emperor that are your direct ancestors standing around us, right now."
Toshi smirks. “We would need a lot of benches,” he says. “Shinseki could stand over there” - Toshi points to a bifurcated tree next to where Toshiba’s bedroll is - “and fume at the real Emperors.”
Kirika chuckles. "You are the real legend here, Toshi. I couldn't see it before - which is a credit to you, I think - but now? I know that you have what it takes to be a great Emperor." She laughs again. "And as such, I should make an apology for almost dislocating your shoulder when you ran into me in the alley. I was just surprised, and, well, it hurt when you ran into me."
Toshi sits up straight and strokes an invisible beard. “Kirika Kamura, you have served the throne for ten years, and your blade has ended no less than three hundred enemies of our divine grace. In recognition of your efforts, the throne hereby pardons your grievous violation of our personal space. Let it be known throughout the land that the mercy of the throne is truly great and wonderful. You may withdraw from our heavenly sight now.”

Kirika's smile grows. "Thank you, your eternal grace." They sit next to each other for another minute before Kirika speaks up again. "You still haven't asked me, you know."
“Well, do you want to?” Toshi asks.
"You are a very pretty man, Toshi - even I've noticed that," Kirika responds evenly. "That said? Not at the moment. But eventually?" She seizes Toshi's head and plants a kiss on his lips, sticking her tongue deep into his mouth and giving it to him well and good for a few seconds before letting go, and giving him another smirk. Toshi smirks back - then grabs her head and pulls her in for another kiss, returning the favor.
“Eventually is fine by me,” Toshi says.
Kirika smirks back. "Then there you go. And the newfound Emperor-like confidence? Certainly helps your odds."
“Well, I no longer need to look like a farmer,” Toshi says. “I do clean up nicely. You’ll see.”
Kirika sits back, smile still on her face, returning the level of the discussion to that of good friends. "I suppose I will." She's actually a little surprised when Toshi doesn't run off, but instead stays seated right next to her and actually gives her a shoulder bump. She returns the gesture, and they both return to watching and waiting for the pot of water to reach a boil, seated side-by-side as good friends.

Unseen by the two, Homi gives them a look and shakes his head softly. “Kids,” he whispers to himself.
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:42:18
The clatter of wood announced Kiara's arrival as she dumped her load onto the ground a safe distance from the fire. Her steps were, as per ninja-standard, silent as she sidled up and plopped herself across from Toshi and Kirika. One quirk of the brow later, she shook her head with a smirk, "With all this face sucking, I can't tell who's with who these days."

Her subtle movements never translated to subtle words, a point quickly evident by her jumping into the conversation, "What's the end game anyways? Get the fancy chair? Hide out in the woods 'til retirement? Continual battles?" Her voice seemed to go up in a tone of anticipation at her last words.
“The ‘fancy chair’,” Toshi replies. “Secure the throne, dismantle whatever remains of the conspiracy and get the Empire back on the right path. But if you’re spoiling for fights, I’m sure I won’t run out of enemies for the foreseeable future.”

“Huh, I fail to see the appeal.” Kiara mused, raising her arms above in a languid stretch, “Get stuck with all the paperwork, have to deal with all the squabbles and backstabbing politics. Hardly seems worth it."

She paused mid-stretch, her eyes glancing over at Toshi's, "Think it would make any difference?" The ninja abruptly stood, beaming a grin, "Well, no matter to me. You know you've got friends. Share the backstory some time."

Kiara flounced merrily away, never seeming perturbed at anything. She gave Kage a prod in the side as she passed by, slipping quietly back into the outskirts of the camp to forage and scout out some trouble.

Kiara doesn’t have to scout for trouble very long - down by the river, she finds a female ninja in Ayami colors crouched on a tree stump, as if waiting for her.
“Hello, Kiara,” Nagani says. “We need to talk.”

“Feels like it’s been a while.” Kiara answers wryly, her motion frozen with perfect stillness, "I am curious as to how far in the know-how the Ayami is. Any messages?"

Her senses were subconsciously heightened, listening for every sound, her eyes flitting across the trees. She appeared neither pleased nor displeased to see one from her home clan, merely curious, and perhaps a bit cautious on what news may spring.

Kiara’s perked ears and sharpened eyes make out no further presence; Nagani hops off the tree stump and slowly walks towards Kiara.

“The newest information I could give them was that you were hunting the pirate Olafsen,” Nagani says. “Bringing Sadatsugu back home took me the better part of three days travel, and then I had to spend a few days picking up your trail again.” She bows her head. “Master Sinan is...unsatisfied with my performance. He has reassigned me to other duties, so this is my final message to you and Kagemaru: report, in person, to the clan fortress in all haste.” Nagani looks back up Kiara. “I wouldn’t keep him waiting.”

“Thank you Nagani, we will go back, as soon as we have planned our next steps with the rest of the group. I wish you luck on your future travels.” Kagemaru says as he walks up next to Kiara.

Kiara bristled, her tone taking a sharper edge, "Not pleased with you? You can't expect a ninja to simply pick up our trail right away." The implied verse being that it was silly for anyone other than Kiara to be able to track Kiara. It could also be her slightly rebellious nature kicking in; having been able to become a leader of her own clan and travel freely for so long meant that she wasn't used to Ayami clan orders as much. Her fond memories of childhood kept her at bay though, and she gave a grudging nod of agreement. It would be nice to visit the clan again.

"How will this play out with the others?" Kiara glanced over at Kagemaru, "They seem to have a lot of goals to cover. Not sure if they'd be up for a ninja sidebar."
Gatac 2013-05-10 14:55:25
One by one, you all wake up, attend to your morning rituals and finally assemble around the low campfire. The thick rice gruel served for breakfast has been expertly seasoned with local herbs and augmented with some game meat by Copperhead, and his tea is pretty damn good, too. You rather suspect he just glared at the pots and snarled "Be tasty...or else."

Toshi lays out his discoveries for the benefit of the group again: seven High Lords, each with their own estates around the capital, one is Homi so that's covered, two where Toshi thinks he figured out how Ikishi is blackmailing them. That leaves four completely unknown, though. Further, Lady Sarano - in charge of the valley that includes Toshi's farm, the Forge and the Ayami clan fortress, has probably been compromised by an agent of Ikishi, an older woman named Kei.

"So," Toshi says, "I think we should take care of the threat to Lady Sarano first. Kei is in a position to deny us support if she had seized the Lady's power, and I think she may know a few things about Ikishi. So, yeah. Everyone agree with me?"

Homi throws Kagemaru and Kiara a look, as if to say "Are you going to bring up your summons to your clan or do I have to?"
MikeS 2013-05-11 00:17:12
Takao falls very quickly into the rhythm of the seasoned traveler. He is on horseback, but it's evident that he rides mostly for expediency and doesn't enjoy it much. He doesn't avoid conversations, but does not actively seek them out, either, which, since he does not really belong to either group of ninja nor is really close with the Toshi-Yukio-Kirika trio, means he is riding mostly by himself.

This does not appear to bother him, though. Of the entire group, he appears the most content. There are worries, but they are other people's worries, and he chooses to share them, rather than having them forced upon him. There will be planning, but at this point, too little is known to bother with deep contemplation. Instead there is the road, the road that will take him to new places and situations, just like it has over the past years. Places where his blade may do good. Like all roads, it deserves to be traveled with an open mind, and that is exactly what Takao is doing. It may appear like he is daydreaming, but he is paying intense attention to everything around him. It is like a form of meditation, an exercise to sharpen the mind.

When the party breaks for the night, he makes to help unload the wagon until he realizes that Yukio intends to make an exercise out of this. He instead goes to find a place for his bedroll, then finds out what the watch assignments are, and scoops down two servings of dinner, offering the cook a compliment. Finally, he beds down for the night, making sure to leave both Yukio and Toshi ample room for privacy. It is very clear that, in Takao's mind, he is not their equal, but pledged in their service, and affords them the according respect and distance, and it will take time to wear down that perception, if it ever happens.

The next morning, Takao listens to Toshi's findings with the rest of the group, then volunteers:"A traveling samurai with the right papers would surely be welcome to stay at Lady Sarano's court for a few days without attracting undue attention. This would give me a chance to size up the servants and do some investigation to determine which one of them might be Kei."
Gatac 2013-05-11 00:28:21
"A decent idea, silent ronin," Copperhead says. "I can provide you with the papers you will need. I assume Kamura-san and Prince Toshiro will accompany you and will therefore also require forged documentation?"
punkey 2013-05-11 21:21:16
Kirika nods. "Indeed we do. I'd never pass up the chance to ruffle a few noble feathers."
Gatac 2013-05-12 03:55:58
"Hah, yeah," Toshi says. "Yes, we'll need papers. It's been so long since I've had to infiltrate a noble court." He looks to Yukio. "No offense to your father."
Yukio smiles back. "None taken."
Toshi turns to the ninjas. "What about you guys?"
Admiral Duck Sauce 2013-05-15 09:12:39
Toshiba speaks up. "I can assist Takao with revealing Kei's identity. I could pose as a craftsman - I know my way around wood, forge, and alchemy. Or I could infiltrate her court silently, makes little difference to me."

He pauses. "Or perhaps the Ayami already have an agent within the Sarano household, and they could simply tell us who Kei is. I doubt my former master would allow a noble court to operate so closely to the Ayami's seat of power without keeping a close watch."
Nevina 2013-05-16 19:47:39
"Nothing we can't find out." Kiara pipes up, her eyes not leaving the food. It was difficult to discern whether her look was that of the hungry stalking its prey, or of utter suspicion. "A visit the old home headquarters seems to be right in line with what we need."

The ninja scooped a bowl of the rice porridge, giving it a curious prod before shrugging and tilting her head back, downing it with a little shake. Utensils were overrated.

"Is this a group activity to hit one place, then another, or are we wanting to do all these things at once?" She cast a hesitant glance around, unsure if splitting up would be terribly wise at this point. Efficient, sure, but that would mean less defenses.
Gatac 2013-05-17 09:33:36
"We are not welcome at the Ayami's fortress," Homi says. "If you take to the skies, you will travel faster than we can on horseback. Conclude your business with your clan and rejoin us at Sarano's estate."
Admiral Duck Sauce 2013-05-17 09:50:41
Funny how if he repeats our decision, but rephrases it like an order, it sounds like it was his idea. I shall have to remember that trick. Toshiba nods and gets up to fetch his gear. "I shall expect Sarano to be made a most forthright ally by the time we return from the Ayami," he says with a smile.
MikeS 2013-05-18 01:33:32
Takao considers, then says: "Perhaps we should not arrive at the same time. My skill as an... actor is not, shall we say, keen. A skilled observer will notice small inconsistencies, and I will draw attention. However, I believe this is a good thing: while I draw Kei's attention, the rest of you have potentially have an easier time spotting her or getting access to Lady Sarano, as long as you do not appear associated with me.

"I am vaguely familiar with the region, and there is a minor lord within a week's travel, Lord Takeshi Aramuro, who is just important enough to warrant travel papers and some politeness towards his retainers, so I could pose as one of his samurai."