Silk hiding steel

Gatac 2013-12-07 05:03:28
IC Thread 25c - Kirika
Gatac 2013-12-08 10:52:25
Toshi and Copperhead have commandeered one of the mansion’s secondary kitchens as a triage room. In the confusion, several guests, their bodyguards and the servants clashed, though none came away quite as seriously injured as Kei getting shot through the leg. Accordingly, she takes the prime spot atop a hastily cleared table while the less injured are lying or seated outside, waiting to be seen. From what Kirika can tell walking by, nobody’s in danger of dying or suffering serious complications from the wait, but a few more helping hands sure wouldn’t hurt. Their complaints and murmurs are drowned out by the yelps of pain coming from inside. There, Toshi’s standing over Kei, holding her down by the shoulders and trying to distract her while Copperhead is cleaning and stitching up her wounds.

“Would you mind staying still?” Copperhead sighs, hunching over Kei and roughly using his elbow to keep pressure on her leg.
“Screw you!” Kei shouts back. “How about I shoot you and you lie here?”
“We’re just trying to help you,” Toshi says. “Please, let him work.”
Kei just growls as Copperhead adds and tightens another stitch.
Kirika walks over between and behind Copperhead and Toshi. “Kei, I presume?”
“Yeah,” Kei says through clenched teeth. “You are?”
“Kirika Kamura,” Kirika says with a bow. “I am here to discuss the problem we both have: Lady Ikishi.”
“Trouble you folks got me into,” Kei says. “Not going anywhere, so come on, let’s hear your pitch.”
“You are aware that Lady Ikishi’s policy for mistakes usually involves a blade to your throat, I assume?” Kirika asks.
“Yeah, my blade usually,” Kei says. “That’s the problem. What’s your solution?”
“We’ve carved out a pretty decently-sized area that’s independent from Ikishi’s more...clandestine control,” Kirika replies. “If she wishes to kill you while you are under our protection, she will have to declare war on her own Empire. I am offering you safety in return for your knowledge.”
Kei grimaces at that. “That’s what exactly? Matsumoto, Kargbeck, the Academy or one of the clan fortresses? These kinds of places, or something I haven’t heard about?”
“One of those, thereabouts,” Kirika replies. “I was not offering a perfect life, free of danger - you will be in danger as long as Ikishi is in power, I think you’ll agree.”
“I know where she has agents,” Kei says. “My best option is overseas. Gods! Boy, where did you learn to sew?”
“There is nothing wrong with my sutures,” Copperhead replies.
“Just get it done with, boy!” Kei barks. “And you,” she says, turning back to Kirika. “That offer needs a lot of sweetening. The way it is, I’m better off on my own.”
Kirika crosses her arms. “How do you plan on getting to the sea, then? A way that Ikishi has not seen, predicted, or heard of you planning?”
Kei smirks. “And your plan for that is…”
“Lord Matsumoto will be coming here soon to inspect the damage done, verify the stories that he will hear, and assume control of Lady Sarano’s holdings for the preservation of order,” Kirika says. “He will doubtlessly take some of the poor, tortured servants that were kept drugged here back to The Forge - under heavy protection, of course.”
“Better than nothing, I guess,” Kei says. “And you want everything I know in exchange?”
“Pretty much - but before that, I will know your role in Sarano’s house of nightmares,” Kirika says.
“So you can decide whether to kill me?” Kei asks, wincing one last time as Copperhead finishes the stitching. “Once I’ve spilled my guts, what do you get from keeping me alive?”
“If you were merely Ikishi’s agent in residence here, then...I will understand your inaction towards Sarano’s heinous crimes,” Kirika replies. “I do not believe in killing people that have not proven themselves beyond redemption.” She smirks. “I will settle for ‘enlightened self-interest’ and ‘following a better master’ with you.”
Kei chortles at that. “Get serious,” she says. “You don’t have the luxury to not work with me.”
Kirika’s blade is in her hands and at Kei’s throat in a flash. “Don’t I?” she asks, edge and fire in her voice. She can still feel her ancestors demanding that this wicked woman be punished for what she has abetted, and almost shivers as the warming rush returns to her skin. “You have committed more than a lifetime’s worth of abuses against a great many innocents, and I am under no illusion as to your lack of remorse. Know full well that this offer is a gift - and one I am offering through gritted teeth. Understood?
“Oh, I understand,” Kei says. “You want to kill the people responsible for this place, I’m up there on your list. No point in lying about that. My question is, if I work with you, and once I stop being useful, are you gonna come after me again? Is this a pardon or a head start?”
Kirika’s eyes narrow further. “I said that I would help you get to the sea. I have no intention of following you beyond our shores. And if you were to return...well, a sign of atonement beyond saving your own hide would help your cause.”
“Not good enough,” Kei says. “Spare me your intentions. I want your word that you and your friends will help me escape and then never cross my path again. Because the next time we meet, it’ll be my blade at your neck.”
“And if you cross ours?”
“Then that’s on me, and you can go ahead and do what you want,” Kei says.
Kirika nods, and withdraws her blade. “We will help you escape and then go our separate ways.”
“Good,” Kei says. “There’s more petty secrets to Ikishi’s cause than I could tell you in a month, but I assume you want to know what I know about her, Noronu and the High Lords, yeah?”
Kirika shakes her head. “Start with that, but we need anything and everything you know about her, her plans, and whoever she has crossed or destroyed. One does not take down an edifice like she has erected in one mighty blow.”
“Ikishi’s had nobles taken out for nigh on two decades now,” Kei says. “If you know of a dead one, assume it was her doing and you won’t go far wrong.” She smirks at Kirika. “Kamura, was it?”
Kirika nods in spite of herself, and her hand tightens on her sword. “Yes.”
“Then I hope your word is good,” she says. “I made sure he stood alone in his final hour. I would have killed him, too, but Ikishi didn’t want to get that involved - we just set him up and let nature take its course.”

The tattoos on Kirika’s arm tighten painfully and flow down toward her wrists, like chains that want to leap off her skin and strangle Kei. There is no burning vengeance to them, just cold, hard anger - all of the fire is in Kirika’s heart. Her eyes fill with tears as she looks back to Kei. “...why?” is all she manages to spit out.

“I didn’t ask,” Kei says. “He was in her way, she saw him as a threat, something like that. I don’t know if she even remembers. Doesn’t matter. There’s got to be a couple dozen sob stories like yours. Can I continue now?”
Kirika starts to hyperventilate, and lets go of her sword with one hand to wipe her eyes. She looks down to Toshi - who lets go of Kei and moves to steady Kirika with an embrace. “I can’t,” she whispers softly to him.
“I can question her,” Toshi whispers back. “Or Copperhead can, while we wait outside. You don’t have to do this to yourself, Kirika.”
“No, I do,” Kirika whispers. “I do.” She hugs Toshi tightly, and closes her eyes. “I wish Father could tell me what to do.”
“I’m sure he’d tell you to find out what you can and then honor the word you gave no matter how you feel about Kei,” Toshi says. “Just, you know, spoken more like a wise kensei.”
Kirika takes a deep breath, and can feel her father’s hand on her shoulder for just a moment, and that gives her strength. She gives Toshi another squeeze, and then lets go. “Thank you,” she whispers, and then looks back to Kei. She takes one more deep breath, and then nods. “Continue.” Her eyes say loud and clear that if she mouths off again, it will be the last thing she does.
“To avoid repeating myself, I’ll just say that’s usually how it went,” Kei says. “When Ikishi wants someone dead, she figures out who their enemies are, then she gets to work on putting them in a position where they can take out the target. Makes it much harder to prove anything, and even if you could piece on together, what’s the use, right?”
Kirika gives a quick nod. “Could you...write down all the others you remember?”
“Sure, for all the good it’ll do you,” Kei says. “On to the juicy bits?”
Kirika nods.
“The High Lords, then,” Kei says. “Boota’s skimming off the top. Hetechi’s boyfriend is under lock and key at the Void Tiger fortress. Itanu’s selling convoy routes to pirates. Homi took out the Emperor. Tsukareta...he’s just special. Ikishi put him through his apprenticeship, basically got him where he is today. And I don’t have the slightest idea what she’s got on Shira and Ishikawa.”
“Special how?” Kirika asks.
“Special friends, special in the head, take your pick, I think it’s both,” Kei says.
“What else do you know about Hetechi, Homi and Itanu?” Kirika asks.
“Hetechi’s playing for the other team, if having a boyfriend didn’t tip you off,” Kei says. “Not exactly accepted, but tolerated as long as he doesn’t make a big deal of it. Brilliant scholar, can entertain a whole hall for hours, but considerably less...colorful after we clipped his wings. Ikishi wanted him out of the way first - I don’t really see the threat, I guess she thought he’d figure her out or something. Homi’s a has-been, plain and simple, but he’s got connections and agents watching everywhere - Ikishi couldn’t plot anything without him getting wind of it. She just outmaneuvered him, and I guess in a few more months that problem would have solved itself anyway. As for Itanu - what can I say that ‘The Rat’ doesn’t encompass? He’s a liar and a cheat and a crook, it just happens that when you’re trying to sell rich convoys to pirates, you need to be good at creating those convoys in the first place. Itanu was a brilliant trader once, but without anyone keeping him in check, he’s working for himself. Easy to exploit, though. I guess he blabbed about me to that Northman, else you wouldn’t have known to come looking for me, right?”
Kirika is too busy resisting the urge to decapitate Kei to muster a good lie. “What else about the High Lords? Or, tell us about Noronu.”
“Ikishi needs the High Lords to run the empire,” Kei says, “and while technically it would only take five to acknowledge Prince Toshiro as the heir to the throne - after declaring the Emperor dead - she’d rather cover every angle and have it be unanimous. Makes for a better tale to tell the people, too. General Noronu’s both her fallback and her follow-up plan. If she for some reason can’t marry Toshiro and get the throne through succession, his forces would simply institute a coup - nobody could stand against them, but that would require pacifying the empire afterwards. What she really wants to do is to send the troops against the foreigners after she’s on the throne. Nothing like a good war to get the people on her side - the foreigners have no friends here. Take their gold and their fleet, then sail for San’in and bring them in line, too. And from there on...I don’t know. The mainland, perhaps. They’re all bickering little kingdoms, it would be easy to raid and conquer there.”
Kirika nods. “Anything else?”
Kei shakes her head. “Nothing in particular that comes to mind.”

Kirika nods, then turns and quickly walks away, past the injured servants and out of the kitchen. Toshi struggles to keep up with her, eventually falling into a jog for a few steps to get beside her. “Kirika?” he says. “Kirika, are you alright?”
Kirika shakes her head, but keeps walking and doesn’t say anything.
Toshi stays at her side. “Kirika, please, say something.”
Kirika stops and turns to Toshi, tears streaming down her face. “What?” she exclaims. “What can I say? I have stood before the woman that condemned my father, my mother, my whole life and family, to death and poverty, and I...I could do nothing! She nakedly admitted to arranging the murder of my father, and I have to let her go! Tell me, Toshi, what does one say?”
“Let me say something, then,” Toshi says. “Yes, it sucks not being able to get your revenge. When she dropped that she set up your father, I thought for sure you were gonna draw and go through her, the table and anyone else in your way. And you know as well as I do that nobody would have blamed you - hells, I’m pretty sure Copperhead would applaud if you went back in there and killed her now that we know everything she was willing to tell us. But you just proved you’re better than that. You gave your word and you’re going to keep it. That is honor, real honor, the kind a thousand duels won’t earn. It hurts and it’s not what you want right now and chances are, nobody but us will ever know exactly what you sacrificed here, but this choice - your word, and your dedication to keeping it - is something nobody can take away from you, ever. And believe me, I know you’re not just putting justice for the empire above justice for your family - you’re putting being a good friend to me over your own feelings. I can only hope that one day I can do something to repay this. But for now...thank you, Kirika. I swear to you, what we learned today will not go to waste. We will go and stop Ikishi from ever hurting anyone again. The people will learn that the last scion of the Kamura family is also its greatest champion. Our journey, it will be...legendary.”
Kirika wants to nod, to bow, to do...anything, but all she can do is collapse onto Toshi’s shoulders and weep. “...I just want my family back…” she whispers through sobs.
Toshi holds her throughout, keeping her embraced. “I know,” he replies. “I wish I could promise you more than justice.”
Kirika just sobs into her Emperor’s - her friend’s - shoulder.
Gatac 2013-12-08 10:53:17
With the fate of the mansion and the major players decided, the time has come for Kirika to meet with the Shadowwatch and hear their thoughts on how she approached this mission. (Fun history fact: Wikipedia does not list a date of invention for performance reviews.) In a quiet little chamber off to the side of the throne room, the tribunal assembles - three ninjas on one side, Kirika (plus Yukio for moral support) on the other. Yukio seems reluctant to release Kirika from their embrace, planting a soft kiss on her forehead before letting her go.

Kirika, for her part, seems muted and distracted, almost unconcerned with the three Shadowwatch standing before her. This is far from the truth: even if she’s not Shadowwatch herself, she knows that this is a big deal for her if she wants to stay involved in saving Toshi and Yukio, and she is fairly convinced that her actions here have not done much to help her out. However, all of that is being overridden by thoughts of Kei, her father, his betrayal and her ultimate failure to seek the justice that had long since been denied her and her family. Her heart feels as if it is made of lead, and she is doing her utmost to keep her head raised and back straight when all she wants to do is curl up in Yukio’s lap and cry.

“Let us not dawdle,” Homi says, quieting the others. “The task is done. Sidewinder, your thoughts?”
Sidewinder’s eyes wander from Kirika to Homi. Clearly, this is also a test for him, and he takes his time gathering his thoughts. “It could have been more coordinated, but I reckon the results don’t lie: we got the head honchos, we got the secrets, we freed the slaves. Clear win in my view.”
Homi nods. “Copperhead?”
“The planning was substandard,” Copperhead says. “Kamura-san shouldered too many risks and showed little inclination for rational debate of our options. She seems to believe that moral indignation will carry her through any danger and I fear for our collective safety if we let this misapprehension remain unchallenged. We did succeed at our mission, but I believe we could have done so at far less risk with a more level-headed approach.”
Homi nods to that, too. “Kamura-san, please give us your own opinion of how the mission turned out.”
Kirika takes a deep sigh and expels it slowly, trying to blow the dark clouds out of her mind. A moment further, then she nods and speaks. “The infiltration went off very well; everyone involved managed to easily penetrate the compound, but once we were inside, the realization that we had walked into a trap, even an inadvertent one, put a time pressure on all of us. Despite the distasteful nature of the cover, it was by far the most effective one we could have had in the time required, gave us access to the materials we needed, enabled us to have access to a woman that proved most helpful once she was freed from the drugs, and was not broken until I chose to break the cover. The unexpected development of my ancestors...expressing themselves so forcefully further complicated matters, and the arrival of Toshiba aided things, but I believe that we were still fully capable of completing the mission as we were. All in all, a success…”

She bows to Homi, Sidewinder and Copperhead and stays down. “But a disastrous mess of one. A standoff in the throne room of Lady Sarano is very much not what we need going forward, and there have been...other failures.” Her heart twists in her chest. “I apologize, Homi-san, Sidewinder-san, Copperhead-san.”
“I do not require an apology from you, Kamura-san, but I will take it in the spirit you intended it,” Homi begins. “What happened happened and is now fixed. My intent is to illuminate the events from as many directions as possible so that we can improve ourselves. Sidewinder -”
“Yes, Sir?” Sidewinder pipes up.
“You did not want to criticize Kamura-san too harshly for her first mission - I could see you did not tell the whole of what you thought,” Homi says, furrowing his brow. “I wish that we all trust that what we say to each other is meant to enlighten, not to oppress. Only honesty will help us. You speak truthfully when you say that the results are what matters, I agree in this. But in such a calculus, all results must be weighed. We have exposed Kamura-san’s true identity to a group of people, driven Sarano away, entered an agreement with an enemy agent and sent Lord Boota back into the tiger’s stalking grounds, trusting that he is better motivated to take our side than Ikishi’s. I do not condemn any of these things, but we must remain aware of them. A big picture is painted with a thousand details, Sidewinder - see that you keep track of as many as you can.”
“Yes, Sir,” Sidewinder says, bowing his head.
“Copperhead -” the senior ninja remains unmoved - “you are right to consider the issues of planning and risk management. I will always value your frank and clear opinions. Take care that you do not consider them inviolable facts, though. When Kamura-san had you treat Karla in preference to herself, she took a calculated risk that paid off handsomely. We are not so rich that we can afford to turn down success just because of the way we came by it. And if these past years have taught us something, it’s that we will not win without taking more risks than we have in the past. I ask of you that you do not look down on your allies for their ways of handling themselves. It will take many different weapons to bring down Ikishi.”
Copperhead’s resulting nod is minimal, but it is there.
“And you, Kamura-san,” Homi says. His face softens a little. “This was hardly the ‘disastrous mess’ you claim. I expect you to take the lessons of this meeting to heart and do some things better next time, but there is no need for you to prostrate yourself before us, or to think ill of yourself. You have seen the power of your skills in deception, as well as the power of your ancestors watching over you. You are a craftsman, and these are some of your tools - learn to use them well and cherish them. And if I may make a final request: do not think too deeply of what you have done here today, and in particular do not torture yourself with how it could have been if you had known every move in advance and planned them perfectly. Take it from an old man - life is far too short for regrets like that.”

Homi claps a hand on Kirika’s shoulder. “Know this: you have done well for yourself and your family, and honored your father with your conduct,” he says. “Now, I am sure you have much tension in you that seeks release. Go on, then, and find some rest and recreation.”
Kirika nods, and takes a moment to wipe her eyes again. “Thank you, Homi-san,” she says, and gives him another quick bow. “Could I speak to Sidewinder and Copperhead individually? I want to thank them for their help.”
“Certainly,” Homi says. “You are all free to go. Sidewinder, Copperhead, we’ll catch up later.”
“Yup,” Sidewinder says with a smile.
“Indeed,” Copperhead adds, affecting a sour expression as if he was contractually obligated to always balance out Sidewinder.
“Sidewinder, if we may have a moment?” Kirika asks.
“Sure thing,” Sidewinder says. Sidewinder and Homi saunter out, and with a squeeze of Kirika’s hand, Yukio follows them, leaving Kirika and Copperhead alone in the small room.

With the two of them alone, Copperhead fixes Kirika with an intense look. “If we are to work together, you must become more careful,” he says. “I cannot operate efficiently if my whole time is spent looking after you.”
“It is not necessary, Copperhead,” Kirika replies. “I am not your responsibility.”
“We can ill afford to lose anyone to carelessness,” Copperhead replies. “In that context, everyone is my responsibility. But enough of that. You wish to thank me?”
Kirika manages to smile at that. “Yes, I do. Thank you, Copperhead. I know - well, I have known for a while - that you and I do not see eye to eye on strategy or tactics, but you still followed my lead even when it was counter to your instincts. Even when it meant dressing you up with a whole lot of makeup.”
Copperhead’s face barely moves at that. “I’ve done worse.”
“And I want you to know that I always am giving your ideas serious consideration,” Kirika adds. “You know many things that I do not, and even if I decide to not follow your advice, your input is always welcome and considered. Believe me, if I had not…” She sighs. “I could feel it in my soul and through these marks on my skin that my ancestors were protecting me. And I know that is something that you cannot take into account, or something you might not even believe, but know that if not for that certitude, I would have taken that first dose. Okay?”
“I understand your motivations,” Copperhead says. “In confidence, Kamura-san, I am not as unsympathetic to you as you may perceive. It is simply the case that with your addition, the Shadowwatch now weighs three romantics against my rational approach, and I must make myself heard and understood. There is also…” Something that might be mistaken for an emotion if it weren’t, well, Copperhead creeps over his face. “Surely you have already concluded that Homi-sama will not live to see a second attempt at righting his wrongs - whether through enemy action or his age, he can already see the end of his path. I have served him faithfully for many years, masking his frailties where I can, but it is clear to me that he cannot accomplish what he set out to do without all of us doing our very best. I do not have it in me to disappoint my master, and I will follow him until his end. I do not require you to profess a similar commitment, but perhaps...perhaps in knowing where I stand, you may come to a better understanding of your own role in his design.”
Kirika gives Copperhead a confused look. “ not entirely sure what you mean, but I have already sworn to Homi-san that I will help him find his peace. A man like that deserves to live with a conscience clear of doubt and self-recrimination, and frailties or no, he has what it takes to give himself that redemption. Homi-san will know peace before he leaves this world, Copperhead. I swear it.”
“Indeed,” Copperhead says. “Well, are you done thanking me?”
“I have one last question, Copperhead,” Kirika asks. “Kei. What…” she lets out a sigh. “What do you think I should have done?”
“Do you wish to know what I think you should have done, or what I would have done in your position?” Copperhead asks.
“Either,” Kirika replies. “Both? I...I don’t know.” She sighs again. “That certainty with the antidote, my ancestors guiding was not there in that room. I thought I felt my father’s presence for just a moment, but...I don’t know, it might have just been me fooling myself.” She looks back to Copperhead. “So, I ask you. What do you think?”
“If it was up to me, I would have given her a stronger incentive to be truthful and complete with us, then eliminated her to prevent her causing future trouble for us,” Copperhead says. “However. I am beginning to see that there may be fringe benefits to your strategy that go beyond reinforcing a positive self-image. It is probable that at least one of the people you spared today will come to be favorably inclined to our efforts in the future. If you acquire a reputation for being fair and honest, this may be helpful in future encounters. I cannot speak to the dimension of what your father would have done or expected of you, but I am lead to believe he would approve, and that is something you seem to seek out.” Copperhead stays silent for a moment. “It would not have been outside our means to kill the people most instrumental to the conspiracy against the throne. If our goal was merely to stop Ikishi, we could have accomplished that. But Homi-sama’s aim is higher - he wishes to fix the damage done to the empire by ensuring a smooth succession with a just ruler on the throne. In light of such concerns, direct action may not be the optimal strategy.” He blinks. “I may have meandered beyond the scope of your question, Kamura-san. Please forgive me.”
Kirika smiles at Copperhead - she can tell that, in his own way, he’s trying to make her feel better, and she can’t help but give the stoic ninja a hug. “No apology needed, Copperhead-san. Thank you for your kind words.”
“...I acknowledge your gesture, Kamura-san,” Copperhead says, not returning the hug. “Please cease your physical contact.”
Kirika lets Copperhead go. “Yes, I’m sorry,” she says with a smile and a slight bow. “I have a friend that’s...kind of like you. I understand. But thank you anyway.”
“You are welcome,” Copperhead says. “Have my thanks in return,” he adds, with the slightest of bows. “Another time, Kamura-san.”
“Sooner than later, Copperhead-san,” Kirika replies with a bow of her own. “Please let Sidewinder know he can come in.”
“If he has not gotten into any further trouble in the meantime,” Copperhead says.

Kirika has a few seconds to collect herself before the door opens again, admitting Sidewinder into the room. The junior ninja looks a bit...embarrassed? “So, um,” he begins, “not sure you got much to thank me for. Not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, I just reckon I didn’t end up doing too much. Sneaking around is fine and all, I was just expecting a lot more gonnesmoke.”
“You kept Toshi out of trouble - and that alone is no small job and deserves a lot of thanks,” Kirika says. “He might not be as much of a bumbler as he was pretending to be, but I know that he’s still...excitable. And so, first, I want to thank you for keeping my good friend from getting into trouble.”
Sidewinder smirks. “Oldest of four brothers, I reckon I’m pretty good at keeping the prince outta trouble, even if it’s just that I know from looking at a leap how much it’s going to smart when you don’t stick the landing.” He shakes his head. “Trust me, anything he could think to screw up, I got there first.”
“And are the wiser for it,” Kirika adds. “I know I’ve said this before, but give yourself a break, Sidewinder. You are one of the most skilled shinobi in the Empire, you have nothing to prove to me.”
“I got plenty to prove to the others,” Sidewinder replies. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, though.”
“And I will add another - do you know why you were the one I asked to keep an eye on Toshi?” Kirika asks.
“I don’t rightly know,” Sidewinder admits.
“Because you are the only one that I trusted to manage the task unaided,” Kirika replies. “I knew that you are more than capable of handling such an important task without any input than me - Copperhead is very, very smart, but he likely would have simply bound Toshi, sat on top of him in a storage closet and called it ‘safety’, yes?”
“There’s more truth to that than I’m comfortable tellin’,” Sidewinder says with a wince. “So, uh...I don’t mean to be rude or nothing, but I’m not sure how exactly it is that you got living ink all over your body. I was of the mind that the age of wonders and miracles had come and gone, that all we had left were little tricks like Copperhead whips up, but now I ain’t so sure what to make of all that. I mean, is this just something that happens in your family, or could anyone get up to that?”
“I’m not entirely sure myself,” Kirika replies honestly. “My father had them, and then his spirit gave them to me. I never knew my grandparents, so I couldn’t tell you if they had them as well, but I’d imagine they did too.”
“Right,” Sidewinder says with a nod. “My point bein’, I ain’t carrying on a legacy. Might start one if I do it right, but I got nothin’ from my pa - then again, one man’s legacy is another man’s baggage. I suppose I find some favor in being free of that, but a man wonders how he measures up, especially so if he don’t know the measure.”
Kirika nods. “Sidewinder, about how many are in the Shadowwatch? Out of the whole of the Empire?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know the numbers,” Sidewinder says. “But I don’t exactly travel with the ones that don’t rate. I got the Shadowlord on one side and Copperhead on the other, and I don’t know what’s it gonna take before I’m right for that.”
“Would Homi-san have brought you here if he did not have every faith that you were the best of the best - of the best?” Kirika asks. “You were chosen, by Homi-san, of the elite of his elite, to accompany him on the mission that he has dedicated his very life to. I think that might at least entitle you to think that you are competent to do the job he has tasked you with - and might tell you why I have every confidence that you already are a great shinobi and tactician.”
Sidewinder shrugs. “Suppose it does. But enough of that, I just...I guess I want to thank you, too. For getting us moving forward. The prince might not always make the most considered choices, but he’s got an eye for good friends.”
Kirika gives Sidewinder a quick bow. “And thank you for your faith in me, Sidewinder. I know that Homi-san is much more than just a leader to you, and that you trust me with his safety speaks bounds about how much faith you place in me. And know that Homi-san will know inner peace and redemption in this life, and soon. I swear it.”
“I’ll hold you to that one,” Sidewinder says with a grin, then holds out his hand for a shake - not straight forward, but in a steep upward angle.
Kirika returns the gesture, but can’t muster the energy or enthusiasm to heartily clasp Sidewinder’s hand, and ends up being jerked towards him when he draws her in. “Sorry,” she mutters. “I’m sorry.”
Sidewinder turns the shake into a quick hug, patting Kirika on the back a couple times. “Just take it easy,” he says. “Kei will get what’s coming to her.”
Kirika’s next breath isn’t an easy one. “Maybe. Maybe she will never return.” She lets Sidewinder go and backs off. “Do you think I made a mistake?”
“Nah,” Sidewinder says. “We got her out of our hair for now, learned what we had to learn, and if she makes trouble again, shot from my gonne’s gonna be a little higher.”
“And Homi? Does he know?” Kirika asks.
“If he does, he didn’t hear it from me,” Sidewinder says. “Old man’s got enough on his mind already.”
“Copperhead has probably told him,” Kirika sighs. “I doubt he approves. If he is outside, could you...ask him to come in?”
“Sure,” Sidewinder says. “I reckon I got us a little bonfire to prepare, anyway. Be seeing you.” He makes for the door and trots outside to gather kindling, letting Homi and Yukio inside. The lady samurai quickly walks over to Kirika and squeezes her into a tight hug. Kirika buries her face in Yukio’s shoulder and takes a deep, slow breath.

“You wish my opinion?” Homi asks after a few seconds.
Kirika gives Yukio one more squeeze before letting go and facing Homi. “Yes, Homi-san,” she says. “Do you think I did the right thing? With Kei?”
“I agree with letting her live,” Homi says, “but I disagree with letting her go. We could detain her as insurance against future betrayal. People like her, motivated only by self-interest, will only honor their agreements until they believe they can profit better by breaking them.”
Kirika sighs. “I thought about it - I thought about a lot of things. But...I gave her my word we would get her to the sea in safety. The best I can do is guarantee that she gets there under the watch of those loyal to us, so we know she doesn’t break her end of the bargain and return to Ikishi’s side.” Her shoulders slump, and she bows to Homi. “I apologize for letting you down as well, Homi-san.”
“I will hear nothing of the sort from you, Kamura-san,” Homi says. “You are here to complete the mission, not to suck up to me. I wish to see you make such decisions and respect yourself for them. To bend your own sense of wrong and right to what you think I would most approve of is dangerous.”
“That is...not what I meant,” Kirika says, still apologetically. “I just...I already feel like I have failed my family to keep my word, and you have made good points - I might have harmed our cause on top of betraying my family, simply to keep my own stupid honor intact. I should apologize for putting myself before our cause, and...I’m sure you do not approve of letting my father’s murderer go unpunished. I know I do not.”
Homi steps forward and puts a hand on Kirika’s shoulder. “Kamura-san, your honor is not stupid. It is a precious thing that you must guard always. You and your family would be ill-served if you went back on the word you gave and murdered the woman. You are saddened that you cannot avenge your father’s death now - but you honor his memory in staying your blade. Kei exploited your honorable nature to save her neck, but this act cheapens her, not you.” He thinks for a moment. “Few choices are between good and evil - many are between two goods or two evils. It is an inviolable law of this world that you cannot have everything you want. Do not imagine that I condemn your choices. Reasonable men...reasonable women...can disagree on such matters, and it does not lessen my respect for you to see you walk a different path than I would.” He nods to her. “And I know that if such a time comes that Kei stands in our way again, you will act without hesitation. Am I correct?” Kirika nods. “Then that is what I have to say on the matter,” Homi adds. “Be true to yourself, Kirika, not what others think of you.”
“But…” Kirika sighs and takes Yukio’s hand. “What if I feel I have condemned myself? All I have wanted since my father did not return home was to see his killers meet the same fate as him, and now I have failed. If I cannot get justice for my own family...what am I?”
“A woman, wiser than a young girl swearing vengeance in her grief,” Homi says. “You want more than this now, Kirika. You understand now that there are things more important to you than revenge. You understand that while Kei may have carried out the plot, its architect is your true enemy - as she is ours.” He thinks for another moment. “I wish I could tell you how to make peace with yourself and free yourself from that which haunts you. If I knew such secrets, I would not have failed in my own quest for so long. I can only tell you this: the wound you carry will not simply disappear, though I think you are close to someone who can mend it and ease your pain. Do you understand this?”
Kirika nods as she reaches around Yukio’s waist. “I do. And...I still believe that you deserve better than you give to yourself, Homi-san. I meant what I said before.”
Homi nods back. “That is kind of you to say, dear. Is there more you wish to talk about?”
“I think the rest of this conversation is between her and I, Homi-sama,” Yukio throws in. Homi gives the two a wry smile. “Find me when you are done talking,” he mutters, then turns and leaves, shutting the door on the two lovers. Yukio wastes no time in drawing Kirika back to her, embracing her tightly. Kirika, for her part, just collapses into Yukio’s arms, unable to articulate the combination of grief, sadness, frustration and anger that is filling her up.

“I’m proud of you,” Yukio whispers to her.
“...why?” Kirika asks. “I am not.”
“Because you did the right thing,” Yukio says. “It is time for you to stop questioning that.”
Kirika gives an ironic chuckle at that. “When? When in all of this did I do the right thing?” She looks up at Yukio as her eyes start to moisten again. “This whole mission was a disaster, and it was under my command. We were all poisoned, I lost control tattoos, I suppose, I revealed my true name to our enemies…Homi was right, I made a great many mistakes today. And I have failed my father, my mother, all of my ancestors. I have proven that I am no hero, no true follower of my father’s teachings. There is nothing right about what I did.”
“And yet here we are, with the slaves freed, the horror ended and several vital secrets of our enemies in our hands,” Yukio replies. “If you wish to take credit for what went wrong, then you must also take it for what we accomplished here. I see that you keep thinking of yourself as a rogue, Kirika, but every day you do something that proves you the hero I know you to be. And nothing you say of yourself will convince me otherwise, because no matter how much you deny yourself, it is plain as day to anyone who looks that you are Ameda Kamura’s daughter, and second to none.”
“I am not sure I have the right to claim that, after what I have done today,” Kirika says. “No daughter should stand by and let her father’s killer walk away.”
“You’ve done no such thing,” Yukio replies. “Your father’s killer still awaits in the capital. And you’ve made no promises to spare her life.”
Kirika tries to think of a reply to that, but gives up. “I still feel like I have failed him,” she says as she slumps against Yukio’s shoulder.
“I know,” Yukio whispers, hugging her tightly. “I’m here.”
“I wish I could see me like you do,” Kirika whispers. “I wish I knew what you see in me that you love so much.”
“Stay with me and I will show you,” Yukio replies, kissing her on the forehead again.
“Always,” Kirika replies, and buries herself deeper into Yukio’s shoulder. Yukio gently lowers the two of them to the floor, placing Kirika in her lap and keeping a tight grip on her.
Gatac 2013-12-12 13:28:27
Kirika, Yukio, Toshi and the Shadowwatch are the last to leave the Sarano mansion behind them. With the slaves freed and the library of secrets destroyed, the place can no longer harm anyone. Although Yukio’s still keeping up with Kirika’s training by having her load up the wagons, she’s less pushy and lighthearted about it, sensing that her dearest is in no mood to be pushed. Toshi, Sidewinder and Copperhead make quick work of the other wagon, and soon enough the small caravan sets off, destination unclear.

Kirika rides near the front, back in her loaner armor and staring straight ahead as the caravan sets off, not really looking at any one thing in particular. So far as the armor allows her, she is hunched over, still burying herself in recriminations over what might have been. The steady trot of her horse’s hooves seems to slowly get stronger, until she realizes it’s actually the addition of Hiro Homi, riding his horse beside her. Even on horseback, the old man is sneaky.

“Where are we riding, Kirika?” he asks off-hand, his face shaded under his wide hat.
Kirika sighs, and looks further ahead. “I was thinking we could find someplace secluded and stay there while we prepare our plan to enter the capital, but…” she shrugs. “I don’t know where that would be.”
“I thought we were heading for just such a place,” Homi replies. “A farm in the care of your family, where your father trained Swift Fox. It is a mere two hours up this road, is it not?”
Kirika furrows her brow in thought for a moment, but then hangs her head. “I do not recall.”
“I’m sure we’ll find it,” Homi says. “It would serve our purpose well, and it is rightfully yours.”
Kirika scoffs a quiet laugh.
“I’m sorry,” Homi replies. “It seems I’m too old to understand my own joke. What are you laughing at, Kirika?”
“Rightfully mine,” Kirika says, and returns to looking straight ahead. “I think I would argue how much of any of it is rightly mine anymore.”
“Are you or are you not Kirika Kamura?” Homi asks.
Kirika shakes her head. “Who I am has very little to do with if I deserve it, Homi-san. Now...please, let us just ride there in silence. It will probably all be in ruins, at any rate.”
“It seems I did well in choosing to wear my hat,” Homi replies. “So that I may shield myself from your sunny outlook.”
Kirika’s head snaps to Homi with a furious glare. “Have you just -” She stops herself from speaking further, but clenches a fist as she returns to looking straight ahead.

Homi’s reply is silence; though he keeps his horse riding at Kirika’s side, he says nothing more, drawing his hat a smidge lower to shade all of his face. This makes the heavy hooffall of Yukio’s warhorse all the more obvious, cantering across the cobblestones until she’s riding to Kirika’s other side. Yukio’s riding in full armor without her helmet and gives Kirika a smile.
“Is it true?” she asks. “Your father had a farm nearby?”
“Apparently,” Kirika replies, straight-faced. “I did not recall where it was until Homi-san told me.”
“That’s great,” Yukio says. “We’ll have a place to rest up and plan our future travels. And fresh food, I hope - these rations are already disagreeing with me.”
“Maybe,” Kirika shrugs. She hasn’t so much as looked Yukio’s way yet as she sits up straighter in her saddle, her shoulders squared to the front and eyes fixed straight ahead. Everything about her posture is saying “leave me alone”.
“We’ll see,” Yukio answers, giving Kirika another smile that turns a little sour when Kirika doesn’t look at her. Yukio turns her head back towards the road, letting it sink a bit.

And that’s how the rest of ride goes.


There are a few things wrong with Homi’s description of the farm being two hours up the road. First off, it’s not actually on the main road, but down a fork and then another with no clue other than Homi’s sense of direction. The last five minutes of the ride are also considerably harder going, up a steep and narrow path that direly tests Sidewinder’s and Copperhead’s abilities at the reins of their wagons. As you crest the path, the farm itself comes into view, with the main buildings sitting atop a small hill with lush fields around it and a few terraced rice paddies - all of which disappears from view again as the path straightens out, leaving you to stare at a tall stone wall, the main gate barred by solid wooden doors with metal reinforcements.

“Your father didn’t like visitors, did he?” Yukio asks.
“The gates were always open, from what I recall,” Kirika replies, her brow furrowing for a different reason.
“ we knock?” Yukio says. Behind them, the whole caravan slowly comes to a halt.
“The walls look scaleable,” Homi offers. “But the fields are still being worked, so this may leave a bad impression on the current tenants. Up to you, Kirika.”
Kirika sighs, but then leans forward and heaves herself off her horse. She jangles and rattles up to the gate, which she pounds on with a closed fist. “Hello!” she shouts. “Anyone there?”

It takes some time for an answer to come, a distant “Hold on!”. After a few minutes, to the sounds of creaking wood, a sunburnt face appears to peek over the wall next to the gate. The farmer’s look is...worried. “How can I help you, Ma’am?”
Kirika shades her eyes as she looks up at the farmer. “My name is Kirika Kamura, my father was -”
“Hold on just a second, Ma’am,” the farmer says. “Heard all about you that I need to know. And it looks like you want to move in, so...just tell me, are you kicking us out?”
“” Kirika asks, confused. “Why would I do that?”
“‘cause you showed up in armor with another samurai riding beside you,” the farmer says. “And my family and I, well...we’re farmers, not fighters. With your dad’s death, I never thought I’d see a Kamura here again, and I didn’t know if you were here to uphold our agreement or forge a new one.”
“We are just looking for a place to stay and prepare for...something important,” Kirika says. “There are six of us, I don’t think that requires kicking all of you and your families out of your homes. And how do you know that I’m not lying about who I am?”
“That’s alright, you can have the main house, nobody uses that anyway,” the farmer says. “And, uh…” He shrugs. “I guess you just look a lot like your daddy to me.”
Kirika raises an eyebrow. “Okay…” She nods towards the gate. “Can we come in?”
“Sure,” the farmer says. “Let me just get some help, we barred the gate pretty good. back in a bit.”

The farmer’s face disappears again as he climbs down the creaky ladder on the other side, and then, for a bit, nothing happens. After a few minutes, there’s voices from the other side again, a few men plus the farmer, discussing the merits of opening the gate versus keeping it closed in barely audible whisper-shouts. It seems the farmer won that argument, though, because then whispers make way for shouts of effort and a deeper sound of creaking. The gate shudders as two of its bars are removed, then swings inward with the high-pitch squeal of unlubricated metal-to-metal movement. Behind the open gate, the farmer and a few men - one about as old as him, the others presumably their sons stand to either side of the small path.

“The house is just down this path, Miss Kamura,” the farmer says, pointing to the buildings on top of the small hill.
Kirika nods to him. “What are your names?”
“I’m Rowan,” the farmer says. “My sons, Yufuro and Kuwaru, this is Keshi and his son Raru.” The farmers nod their heads as their names are called. “I’ve told my wife Kiki to meet you at the stables, she’ll take care of your horses.”
Kirika bows to them. “Thank you for taking us into your home, Rowan-san.”
Rowan bows very deeply at being called -san. “Very generous of you, Miss Kamura,” he says. “But it’s no trouble at all.”
“So,” Kirika asks as she strains and hauls herself back up onto her horse, “I don’t remember much about this place. Can you tell me about it?”
“I’m not sure there’s a lot to tell,” Rowan says, walking alongside the caravan as it slowly moves towards the buildings. “This was a place of the Kamura family before your dad and before mine. The ground’s fertile and the well is deep, which has kept us fed in many winters when we could not make it to market. Your dad didn’t visit here too often - he let us do what we will in return for keeping the farm in one piece. I do recall him staying here for a long while, maybe...12 years ago? He was training a young noble, though I can’t recall -”
“Swift Fox, of the Matsumoto clan?” Yukio asks.
“Could be,” Rowan says. “Oh! Forgive me, Lady Matsumoto. I did not recognize your family’s colors.”
“You said they trained here,” Yukio says. “Does this place have a dojo, then?”
“...I think that’s not quite the word,” Rowan says. “There is a room with training materials, but the house is otherwise quite plain.”
"We mostly came here to get away from the manor house," Kirika adds. "Father never told me our history here."
“Doesn’t get much more ‘away from’ than this place,” Rowan says. “Perhaps we could tell you what we all remember about your father and this place over dinner, Miss Kamura?”
“Perhaps,” Kirika says, and sighs.
“Come, now,” Yukio says. “Let’s get our horses rested and our wagons unloaded.”
Kirika nods. “Yes, let’s.”


The farm buildings are arranged in a wheel shape around the tip of the hill as the hub. To the left of the path are the stables with an attached toolshed. Following that are several smaller, semi-independent huts: a cooking hut, living space for the farmers’ families, storage and such. Closing the circle is the main “manor”, though it is a far less ostentatious affair than the Sarano mansion or Matsumoto’s keep, looking like its single floor accommodates some common areas and three or four bedrooms. Contrary to Kirika’s fears, none of it can rightly be said to be in ruins, but many seasons have worn away paint and weathered the wood, while the inside is damp and dusty.

Kirika throws open the doors to the main hall from the northern exposure. “What has happened here since my family was...since what happened to my family?”
“Nothing much,” Rowan says, walking after her. “Five years ago, there was a storm, we had to nail some of the windows shut. And we try to keep it aired out. Oh, I guess there’s some...there’s some stuff we put in a chest, you know, scrolls and some clothes. Other than that, we didn’t touch anything.”
Kirika turns to Rowan as the rest of the group climbs down from their horses and wagons. “Why didn’t you move in here, sell everything that wasn’t nailed to the walls?” she asks. “Or at least stay in the house, this is almost three times the size of the houses down the hill a bit.”
“Our houses are perfectly fine, Miss Kamura,” Rowan says. “And this, this is a summer house - it’s not meant to be heated through the winter.” He looks at her, not dignifying the question about stealing with a response.
Kirika nods, not wanting to push Rowan any further on the village’s collective decision to respect her family’s property. “Well, thank you for looking after it,” she says, looking around the room. The great room is soberly furnished, with a table in the middle and a small fireplace in the back. Most of the room’s decoration must have come from the now-stored wall scrolls, of which only the nails in the walls and a slight difference in the shade of the wood behind them remain. Next to the fireplace stands a mount for a trio of blades, also empty. She turns back to Rowan. “What exactly was the nature of the village’s agreement with my family?”
“Your family owned the land and paid the taxes,” Rowan said. “We were to provide from the land, take care of Lord Ameda and his guests when they were here and keep an eye on the holding when he was away. In return, we could live here and do as we please with our share of the crops.” Rowan shrugs. “We would be happy to continue this arrangement with you, Miss Kamura.”
Kirika nods to Rowan. “That would be acceptable to me, as well.” She looks over to the rest of the group, where Yukio seems to be having an excited chat with Kiki about the horses while Sidewinder’s showing off a gonne to the sons. “We shall have to talk later, Rowan. I need to help my friends unload.” She gives him another bow, a deep one. “Thank you for all you have done to keep my family’s things and land safe.” She looks over the valley. “It looks like you’ve done an amazing job.”
“You flatter me, Miss,” Rowan says with a smile. “Get yourself settled in, we’ll start with the preparations. Oh, I’ll fetch the chest, too!” Rowan bows and turns to leave.

Kirika watches him walk off before returning to the wagon and hauling herself up into it to remove her armor in preparation for helping with the unloading.
Yukio saunters up to the wagon with a big smile on her face. “I love it!” she says. “Just needs some livestock, I’m thinking some housefowl, maybe a few goats?”
“Whatever you need,” Kirika says as she works at the straps for her chestplate.
“Kirika,” Yukio sighs. “You’ve been in this dour mood all day and I’ve just about had it. You don’t deserve what you’re doing to yourself...and we don’t deserve it, either. It’s time to put an end to it.”
Kirika pauses as her fist tightens around the leather straps in her armor, but says nothing for a moment. “Okay, then that’s the last you’ll hear of it.”
“No, that’s…” Yukio begins, but the thought derails and her head lowers. “I just wish I...could go into your heart, and help you fight your demons. It is clearly a long and hard battle.”
“Unless you can change the past or what I am, then I don’t see what can be done,” Kirika says as she carefully removes the shoulder guards and sets them down. “Now, let’s get this thing unloaded.”

Together, the two unload the wagon and carry the cargo in front of the house, where they are soon joined by Sidewinder and Copperhead doing the same for their wagon. Homi’s nowhere to be found - probably taking a stroll around the perimeter. Then, it’s broom time. A decade of abandonment will leave its mark in the form of a dust deposit layer, and you sweep out what seems like the topsoil of a whole field over the course of the next hours. Prince Toshiro is, of course, unavailable for such menial duties - instead, he’s embarked on a tour of the farm itself with Raru, the youngest son of the farmer families. He returns (conveniently) just as you’re done with the worst of the cleaning.

“It’s a pretty good farm,” Toshi admits casually. “I’ve seen better.”
“Ours wasn’t this nice,” Yukio says.
“Okay, so it was a little smaller and more...rustic,” Toshi admits. “But at least it was on flat land. Can you imagine tilling these fields, up and down the hill all day long? I mean, come on!”
Yukio rolls her eyes. Kirika says nothing as she focuses on the cleaning up.
“So, why did you dad own a farm?” Toshi asks.
“No idea,” Kirika says, giving an especially vigorous sweep and not looking in Toshi’s direction.
Toshi raises an eyebrow and looks to Yukio, who just shakes her head softly.
“Mystery for another day, then,” Toshi says. “Hmm, Homi’s taking his time. I better go check on him.”
“Okay,” Kirika says, and doesn’t look up.
“Okay!” Toshi repeats, darting off before Yukio can think to conscript him into helping them.

Yukio stares after him for a moment, then goes back to helping the others clean. They’ve got a lot of dust to go before this house becomes habitable again.


Checking on Hiro Homi leads to finding the old master on his way back uphill with a slight limp - nothing to worry about, he keeps telling Toshi, waving off attempts to steady him. Together, the two of them make their way back up the hill, with Homi drawing his hat down further to hide his clenched teeth. Even if he won’t let Toshi steady him, he accepts his hand for the last few steps, getting to the two of them up to the well, where Homi takes a seat on the edge of the stone ring.. Toshi lowers the bucket to get some water for the old master, not seeing Yukio’s approach until she’s right next to him.

“What’s going on here?” she asks.
“Oh, nothing,” Homi says.
“He won’t tell me,” Toshi adds.
“It’s nothing,” Homi insists, waving the topic away with his hand. “Our concerns should be with young Kirika.”
“So, what did you tell her?” Yukio says, glaring at Homi. “Every time she talks with you, she gets upset.”
“Because I am the face she has put to a voice in her head,” Homi says. “The voice that tells her that she is a failure.”
“What?” Toshi says. “That’s crazy talk. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“To you, it may not,” Homi says. “But this is the foundation upon which Kirika is built, Toshiro. Her father’s death, her running away, her hiding herself and surviving by means not of her choosing, that is what rules her.” Homi looks into the distances. “To change it, she not only has to face the pain of it all again, but abandon who she thinks she is and become a new person. It is pure agony to her, and I do not begrudge her animal instinct of sticking with the pain and shame she knows.”
“But if she does not get over it,” Yukio says, “then…”
“Then she will likely not succeed in this journey, yes,” Homi says. “Every failure, every wound will reaffirm her twisted vision of herself. And because she cannot reconcile being such a disappointment with anything good, she will push that away.” He turns to Yukio. “Has she told you that she does not deserve your love?”
Yukio’s throat is clenched too tightly to say anything, but she nods.
“Gods,” Toshi says. “That’s...what a horrible thing to say.” He shakes his head. “But she’s usually so confident…”
“Because she is a good person at heart,” Homi says. “Brave. Kind. Just. These are all strengths she can find in herself when the fates of others are in the balance. It is when she stands in judgement of herself that she falters.”
“But there’s got to be something we can do to help her!” Toshi says. “I mean, you’re her lover and her new ally and teacher, but I’m her friend, maybe I can talk -”
Homi raises his hand. “You want to help her and that speaks very well of you, Toshiro,” he says. “Yes, talk to her, by all means. But do not expect a resolution today. This is not a matter of just finding the right argument. There are no words of power that will take away the hurt of all those years.” He turns to his young disciple. “Toshiro, how do you heal a deep wound?”
“Um...I keep it clean, change the bandages…” Toshi stammers.
“No, this is treatment,” Homi cuts in. “You cannot heal the wound of another. What you can do is treat it so it will heal better of its own power. Do you see?”
Toshi nods slowly.
“You cannot talk away Kirika’s problems, Toshiro, just as you cannot fight the demons in her, Yukio,” Homi explains. “Healing must come from within. What is in our power is to help. To support Kirika, to be there for her, to soothe her and hold her when necessary.” Homi sighs. “It will be difficult - she will cry on your shoulders one day and shout at you to leave her alone the next.”
“Like a patient screaming at you when you clean his wounds,” Toshi says.
Homi nods to that, but instead of answering, only a sigh escapes his mouth. At the narrow strip between the shade of his hat and the edge of his chin, something sparkles briefly in the sunlight. “Yes, Toshiro,” Homi says, struggling with his own voice. “I was worried, Prince, for a long time, that I would find you cynical and rotten from your long hiding. But I see before upstanding young man of good breeding and temper, worthy of the throne.” He turns his head slightly, letting his smile become visible. “And Yukio . you, too, are noble in the best sense of the word. If the Emperor -” he falters for a moment - “he would approve,” Homi finishes.
“What is it, sensei?” Toshi asks, only to be waved off again.
“My heart is old, young prince,” Homi says. “Leave me be. Your friend is in much greater need of your company than I am.”

Toshi quits the conversation with a nod to his surrogate father, taking Yukio along with him. They don’t make it very far before Rowan accosts them with a quick “Excuse me, but Miss Kamura is -”

Crying. Toshi can hear the sobs from inside the house and doesn’t need to ask any other questions, breaking into a run with Yukio right behind him. “Kirika!” he shouts, almost bruising his shoulder when the doorframe stops his flight into the house. At his feet, Kirika - well, she once rested on her knees, but she’s slid further down to the ground over the last minute, cradling something to her breast. Around her, the contents of an old chest litter the floor: scrolls and bundles of silk, interspersed with a collection of woodcuts. Toshi picks one up - it shows Kaede Kamura, a master swordswoman from five generations ago, surrounded by a horde of bandits with a little boy behind her.

“...Kirika?” Toshi asks softly. Yukio doesn’t bother with questions; she pushes past Toshi and plops down on the floor next to Kirika, drawing her into a tight hug.
“No,” Kirika blubbers through tears and tries to shake her head. “Go -” and then she dissolves back into crying as she clutches the woodcarving to her chest.
Yukio makes no attempt to loosen her hug, and even Toshi realizes it’s that time - rather awkwardly, he kneels down on the other side of Kirika and sticks his arms around her, though he’s obviously not really sure how to connect to the existing hug. “We’re here,” Yukio coos.
Slowly, Kirika’s weeping starts to calm down. She leans into Yukio, but snakes a hand around Toshi’s back.
“We’re here, dearest,” Yukio whispers to Kirika. Toshi feels reaffirmed in his hug attempt and closes in, gently laying the woodcut back onto the pile. “Yeah, we’re here,” he adds.
Kirika takes a few breaths, then reveals what she’s clutching to her chest with a trembling hand. The woodcut shows the unmistakable Ameda Kamura and his wife, with a small face almost cut off at the bottom of the frame - Kirika. Toshi tears up almost immediately at the sight, while Yukio seems...stunned. “Your parents…” she mumbles.
Kirika nods her head, and clutches the image back to her chest.
Yukio holds Kirika close for a moment before she speaks again. “Your mother,” she says. “You never mentioned her name.”
“...Suzame,” Kirika whispers.
“She looks nice,” Yukio says, giving Kirika a peck on her cheek. “Do you want to tell us about her?”
Kirika looks at the floor for a few moments, and blinks some tears away. “...she was kind.”
“She has a kind smile,” Yukio says, cuddling up closer to Kirika. “And a beautiful daughter.”
“Happier times,” Toshi chokes out.
Kirika nods, and then starts to cry again.
“Shh, shh,” Yukio coos. “It’s okay. It’s been a long ride. Let’s get you a hot bath, you look tired.” She shoots Toshi a glance; the young prince seems to get the message and disengages from the huddle, sniffles and wipes his nose before wandering off to arrange for a bath to be drawn. Yukio loosens her obi and opens the side of her kimono, draping it over Kirika and renewing the embrace for added warmth. “I’m here, dearest,” she whispers.
“No,” Kirika sniffles. She looks after Toshi. “Come back,” she whispers.
“He’ll be back in a minute,” Yukio says. “We’re here for you. Okay?”
“I don’t need a bath,” Kirika whispers. “I just...can we just sit here?”
“Yes, of course, we…” Yukio begins, interrupted when Toshi reappears in the door.
“Bath’s getting drawn!” he says.
“Change of plans,” Yukio replies. “Grab a blanket and come back here.”
“Uh, okay,” Toshi says.
“Clothed,” Kirika says. “There will be clothes on everyone.”
“...h’okay,” Toshi adds, getting to rummaging through the unpacked gear from the wagon. He quickly finds a blanket and grabs that. Sitting back down beside Kirika, he throws the blanket over their shoulders before returning to the hug. “Anything else I can do?” he asks.
Kirika shakes her head.
“Just shut up, Toshi,” Yukio replies, drawing the three of them into a tighter embrace.
Gatac 2013-12-22 16:59:36
Kirika stayed quiet the rest of the night, only really saying much during the dinner with Rowan and his family and their tale of the farm and valley in the intervening years between the fall of the Kamura family and today. Rowan’s tales of harvests and storms seem a little quaint in comparison to the adventures found beyond the farm’s walls, but in its own way, the little community has stood the test of time. Of the ninjas, only Sidewinder attends dinner, giving a false name for himself and deftly avoiding all questions about his compatriots. And there are many questions: the kids, in particular, grill our heroes for their tale, looking for any scraps of knowledge about the larger world. Toshi and Sidewinder play their cards close to the chest - a farmer and a vagabond, respectively, with only small travel anecdotes - but Yukio unpacks a few more stories about her training as samurai and her adventures with Kirika at her side. It’s when she speaks of traveling to the city of the foreigners and hunting down a pirate that the kids’ “No way!”s reach a critical mass. It’s here where Kirika opens up a bit, adding details here and there, which inevitably leads to more questions. By dinner’s end, it seems like the kids are gonna have conversational material for months, a fact that doesn’t pass without some concern on Rowan’s face. But in the end, dinner concludes, night falls and the day ends with well-earned rest for everyone.

The next morning, Kirika rises before Yukio again - and again, because she couldn’t sleep all that well. She feels so very tired, and when she looks over what lies ahead of her, all she can see is more pain and heartache - two things she has in abundance. The pull to simply lay back down and stay down is strong, but Kirika knows that there are others depending on her, even beyond her friends and companions. So, she gets up, swallows the few tears that well in her eyes as she sees the woodcut of her family hanging on the wall, and heads outside to gather water.

Yukio’s just up, straightening her bedroll when Kirika walks back in. “Good morning, Kirika,” she says. “Did you sleep?”
“Some,” Kirika responds, hefting the pails of water.
Yukio nods. “Kirika…” she begins, but freezes when her courage leaves her again.
Kirika sets the water down, and embraces Yukio straight away. “Thank you for yesterday.” She then immediately lets Yukio go and disrobes to put on her exercise clothing. “But we don’t have time to talk about it, we need to resume my training.”
“...yes,” Yukio says. “I will be with you in a few minutes. Go get warmed up, please.”
Kirika nods and heads outside to run, leaving Yukio alone with her thoughts and her bedroll. Yukio goes through the motions of tidying up, lets out a deep sigh she’s been holding since the night before and then walks outside to join Kirika.


Rowan was being very polite when he said the training shack had seen better days; the doors don’t squeak so much as they screech, and the interior is stuffed full of dusty bric-a-brak that seems only tangentially related to the functioning of a dojo. At the sight of it, Toshi breaks out in preliminary sweat while Sidewinder just whistles. Yukio looks to Kirika with a determined smile. “Time to clean up,” she says.
Kirika simply nods - no sarcasm, no feistiness. “What first?”
“We need to clear the floor,” Yukio says. “After that, we sweep out the dust and put down some mats. Toshi, we’re going to need some brooms.”
“On it,” Toshi says, wandering off to get the cleaning supplies from the main house.
Yukio’s eyes fall on a bundle of practice staves lying near her feet; she bows down, scoops them up in her hands and lifts them from the floor. “Sidewinder,” she says, handing the staves to the young ninja, “find a place to put the practice weapons.”
“You got it,” Sidewinder says, hefting the bunch onto his shoulder before backing out of the small shack.
“Help me with the other stuff, Kirika,” Yukio says, taking a knee next to what appears to be a fallen practice dummy. Kirika walks over to the other side and squats down to help lift. Together, the two of them heave the dummy up and walk it outside, where they find Hiro Homi sitting on a nearby tree stump watching the whole procedure.
“This place has seen better days,” he says.
“Being neglected for a decade will do that,” Kirika replies.
“How much of it do you intend to restore?” Homi asks. “It’s easy enough to clean it out, but there’ll be a lot of work left to repair everything.”
“I’m not sure,” Kirika says. “I suppose we should make it livable, but I don’t see why we should bring it back to its former glory.”
“I see,” Homi says. “Well, don’t let this old man keep you. I’ll leave you to your training.” Homi slowly rises from the stump and limps away toward the main house.
Kirika jogs up after Homi. “Are you all right, Homi-san?”
Homi shows enough of his face to smile through his grimace. “Just a little accident from yesterday,” he says. “Toshiro was kind enough to help me back up the hill. Take care with your own training, Kirika, a twisted ankle is no fun at all.”
“Well, go lightly on it, Homi-san,” Kirika replies. “We - I wouldn’t want to do this without you.”
“Thank you, Kirika,” Homi says. He claps a hand onto her shoulder. “Go now. I can handle myself.”
Kirika nods and walks back to Yukio, but still looks over her shoulder to make sure Homi really is moving along all right.
“He’s fine,” Yukio says. “What about you, Kirika? How are you feeling?”
Kirika shrugs. “Fine.”
“Kirika,” Yukio begins. “I’m here for you. If you want to talk…”
“About what?” Kirika asks, her voice taking on an edge as she steps back into the dusty dojo.
“About...anything,” Yukio says. “About yourself, about us, about your family…”
“They’re dead, I failed them,” Kirika says point blank. “Now I have to move on, because we have an Empire to save. That’s about it.”
Yukio nods. “Then we will train,” she says. After a moment, she adds “I’m sorry for prying.”
“I understand,” Kirika says. “There’s just nothing you or anyone else can do to help. It’s not like we can change the past to where I didn’t have to let my father’s killer go free.” She sighs, and looks around. “What next?”
Yukio tosses her a wooden practice sword. “Let’s see some attacks,” she says, rising one of her own into a defensive stance.

The sparring ends up as a brief walkthrough of techniques, neither spectacular nor exhaustive, because there’s just so much more to do to get the dojo and the house back to a useable state. The dojo in particular is stuffed with odds and ends that may have once had a home on the walls or in a proper storage shed, and so the challenge becomes not just yanking all that stuff out, but also to find a place to put everything. Unfortunately, several of the wooden practice weapons haven’t weathered the intervening years well and will serve out the rest of their lives as firewood. Kirika’s role in dojo preparation is mostly heavy lifting - it seems everything needs to be moved somewhere else, and if it isn’t some 50 pound wooden chest, it’s a dozen practice swords. By the time the dojo is mostly squared away, the day seems to have passed with neither swordswoman quite noticing it, and Copperhead calls to dinner for the first meal cooked on the fireplace of the newly reopened house. Kirika eats another triple-portion and opts for a twilight run around the estate to burn off the extra energy, but by the time nightfall comes she’s well-ready to pass out. She hadn’t said much all day long about much of anything, and Yukio doesn’t press the issue, preferring to simply comfort Kirika and let the words come at her own pace. Yukio made an off-handed remark about sleeping in a bed that was actually hers as they dressed for bed, and instantly regretted it when Kirika’s expression darkened again. Inside, Kirika feels nothing more than a fraud sleeping here. Yukio climbs into bed with her, lending her some warmth but making no further moves. Together, the two drift off to an uneasy sleep.


Kirika gets up early before Yukio once again, and this time doesn’t wait around for her to get up. She’s in her workout kimono first thing and out the door, already feeling alert and energetic enough to add a couple laps of the estate to her morning body-weight exercises and stretching. Surprisingly enough, she’s joined by Toshi, who is apparently also getting back into a morning exercise routine, probably at Homi’s prodding. The young prince does a decent job of exercising next to her despite being nowhere near her fitness level by switching up his exercises a lot and inserting quite a bit of “stretching” and more than a few water breaks, but eventually he just sits down on a tall stone, wiping the sweat off his brow.

“Hey,” he wheezes, “you got a minute?”
Kirika grunts as she knocks out one more push-up and looks up at Toshi. “Yes?”
“It’s just, well,” he says, “we’re all here for you. You know that, right?”
“All too well,” Kirika replies, and goes into a third set of push-ups before Toshi can say more.
Toshi sighs. “How hard was it to let Kei go?” he asks.
Kirika stops halfway through to glare at Toshi. “You know, you were there.”
“And that wasn’t the time to ask you how it felt,” Toshi replies. “Now it’s just us. I thought, if I’m going to ask you, it has to be when we’re alone.”
Kirika goes back to her workout. “Look,” she grunts in between push-ups. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to you,” Toshi replies. “And...I want to...fix it.”
“There is nothing to fix,” Kirika replies, and finishes her third set. “I told this to Yukio yesterday. Unless you can undo what has been done, this is how things stand: I have failed my father and my family. I have let them all down, like I have done thousands of times before. I continue to be a disappointment, like I was before, and always will be. I don’t deserve the name I tried to reclaim, and I certainly don’t deserve the marks my father and his descendents wore.” Kirika stands up and starts doing squats. “Can you fix that?”
“If I could I would,” Toshi says. “I can’t do this without you. I need you, Kirika, I need your strength and your wit. And I realize it’s selfish, but without you, I won’t make it to the throne.” He pauses for a moment. “I need my friend, Kirika. And if there’s anything I can do to get her back...I want to know.”
“And you have her,” Kirika replies. “I don’t need to be happy to fight for you, Toshi.”
“But I want you to be happy,” Toshi says. “You’re my friend and seeing you hurt…”
“Is apparently not what the gods intend for me,” Kirika finishes. “I was happy, and then I met Kei. And now I will never be again, because of my failures.” She finishes a set. “Just...stop. We don’t have time for this, and there’s no point in it anyway. I am a failure to my family. I will try to not be the same for my friends.”
“Okay,” Toshi says. “I guess I’ll...see you around.” He starts to slink away, then turns to look at her one more time. “Sorry.”
Kirika sighs. “Don’t be. I appreciate what you and Yukio are trying to do - there’s just no point. Your comfort has little to do with my failings.” She fakes a smile. “But it is still nice of you to do.”
The corners of Toshi’s mouth curl slightly upwards. “I hope you feel better soon,” he says.
Kirika says nothing in reply until Toshi is well out of earshot. “Then you will be waiting a while,” she grunts as she rolls through another set.
Gatac 2013-12-22 17:00:23
The next few days pass in exhausting routine, as Yukio and Kirika step up their training. Kirika seems unstoppable, powering through every exercise Yukio can devise and shelving all complaint about tiredness or aching muscle, and it soon becomes clear that even Yukio’s swift order for new training equipment might not come quickly enough to keep the pace. While Copperhead has been hard at work restoring the mansion’s facade, Keshi and his son Raru have been turning a felled tree into new practice equipment, some to replace the spoilt training weapons, some for new devices according to Yukio’s designs.

What the estate cannot provide itself is stone for the weights; an order is swiftly dispatched to the nearest quarry, and when news comes that the stone weights are ready, Yukio prepares a horse cart first thing in the morning, hoping to have Kirika’s new training regimen in place before lunch. As the two climb aboard the cart, Kirika notices Toshi hiding behind the corner of a nearby shack, watching them; their eyes meet, and he smiles softly before turning and leaving to attend to his own instruction. With a crack of the reins, Yukio sends the cart moving, and soon it rolls down the hill, back to the road that connects the estate to the larger world. Yukio seems focused on steering the cart safely down the slope, but once they are rolling on level ground again, she turns to Kirika.

“I saw you do some pullups yesterday,” she says. “How many did you manage?”
“Twenty,” Kirika replies, staring off into the distance. “Five, four times.”
“That is...very good,” Yukio replies. “It seems the training kimono I bought for you will soon be too small. I can lend you one of mine, but we will have to acquire a new one for you at the next opportunity.” She pauses for a moment. “Do you...wish to talk to me?”
“About anything,” Yukio says. “You answer my questions, but you do not speak to me, dearest.”
Kirika shrugs, then looks down at her hands. Her heart aches in her chest, but… “I don’t have much to say.”
“I see,” Yukio says. She almost falls silent, but then seems to remember one more topic. “Copperhead has been working very hard to fix up the house. We should go thank him when we come back.”
Kirika nods. “I agree. Although I wonder why - it’s not like there’s much reason to.”
“Perhaps he simply needs something to do, and views this as a challenge to improve his own skills,” Yukio replies. “Or maybe he just wanted to do something nice.” She chuckles to herself, but it sounds hollow. “Maybe.”
Kirika can’t stand hearing the strained happiness in Yukio’s voice anymore, and wraps her arms around her love. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I love you.”
Yukio smiles - a good smile - and wraps her left arm around Kirika, drawing her into a hug. “I love you, too,” she says, giving Kirika a peck on the cheek before turning her attention back to the road. Kirika closes her eyes and leans into Yukio as she stays latched around her side, refusing to break off the moment until they arrive at the quarry.


The quarry’s another family operation. Two sons free the stones from the face of the rock, while the father teaches another how to work the stones and shape them; the mother is nowhere to be seen, but the rising smoke from the chimney speaks to her preparations for the next meal.

“Aye, there’s your order,” the old mason says, his back bent from decades of hard work as he walks over to a pile of finely-shaped stones with Yukio and Kirika. “My son’s work - look at that!” He runs his hand over the finely-sanded edges. “Aye, he’s got the right of it. Proud of him, I am. Now, if you need any help, my sons can help -”
Kirika grabs the smallest pair of stone weights with one hand, and one of the medium-sized ones with the other, and starts walking back towards the cart in silence.
“It’ll be no trouble,” Yukio says, passing the man some coin. “Thank you for your swift work. We may call on you in the future - the walls need some maintenance.”
“Only place I know here with stone walls is the old Kamura farm,” the mason says. “Och! That’s yours?”
“Hers,” Yukio corrects him. “That’s Kirika Kamura.”
“Aye!” the mason says, shuffling over to shake Kirika’s hand when she returns from the cart. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Kamura. I knew your dad, I did.”
Kirika manages to force a smile and bow to him. “It is a pleasure to meet you as well. Send my compliments to your son - his work is excellent.”
“I will, Lady Kamura, I will!” the old mason laughs. “Go and call me when you’re ready to work on the wall, we’ll come out and have a look-see.”
“We will,” Yukio says, then heaves two of the larger weights onto her shoulders, leaving the last pair for Kirika. Kirika manages to lift them both - barely - and walks back to the cart slowly but surely. Yukio walks with her, puts her weights onto the cart and then turns to help Kirika, but the young scion doesn’t take the help. Instead, she grunts and sets the stones down next to the cart. With one hand, she heaves one stone onto the cart, then grunts and, in one final push of effort, lifts the other up and onto the cart.
Yukio looks at Kirika all the while, and it’s through that that she sees Kirika’s tattoos when her sleeves ride up from lifting the weights. They’re not glowing like they were at Sarano’s mansion, but something’s going on with them - like a flicker.
Kirika climbs back onto the cart without a word.
“Kirika, wait,” Yukio says, climbing up beside her. “There’s something - I saw your tattoos move again.”
Kirika shrugs. “I have seen it too. Who knows why they do what they do. Perhaps it is them preparing to leave me.”
“I think your family is trying to help you,” Yukio says quickly - maybe a little too quick, too desperate to counter Kirika’s gloom. “That’s...what it seems like to me, anyway.”
Kirika scoffs. “Perhaps.”
Yukio abandons the debate by putting her arm back around Kirika and drawing her to her side. The rest of the way to the estate, she stays quiet, only occasionally moving to softly rub Kirika’s arm with her hand. Kirika leans into Yukio’s shoulder again, rubbing her cheek against her love’s firm muscles.


The next morning, Kirika decides to mix up her morning routine. Instead of just running around the perimeter of the manor, she ventures out into the woods, running along deer trails, leaping streams, dashing along the tops of fallen trees. These morning runs have been the only time she’s felt good about herself since Sarano’s manor, and that good burn and warmth in her muscles propels her faster and further along the wood. It’s when she comes across a larger stream that she sees something that gives her pause: Hiro Homi, kneeling on a stone in the middle of the stream, with the right sleeve of his robes rolled all the way back. He stares intently into the water for a few seconds, then his hand shoots into the cold water, and he pulls it back with a wiggling fish in his grasp. Having done whatever he wanted to do there, he gently lowers the fish back into the stream before rising - slowly - to his feet and turning to Kirika.

“Good morning, Kirika,” he says, managing a kind smile.
“Good morning, Homi-san,” Kirika puffs. “Catching breakfast?”
“That depends,” he says. “I myself do not care for fish; would you like one for later? You could use more meat in your diet while you train.”
“Sidewinder and Yukio have kept me in beef stew,” Kirika replies. “How is your leg?”
“Better, thank you for asking,” Homi says. “It seems Yukio is a harsh taskmaster. You’ve made much progress in your conditioning - the woman I met a few weeks ago would be wheezing after such a run. Congratulations are in order.”
“I will communicate your approval to Yukio,” Kirika replies as she stretches. First her arms, then her back, then her legs, all the stretched taut.
“And I see you are becoming stronger, too,” Homi says. Then he seems to think for a moment before he speaks. “I slipped, you know,” he says. “I had climbed the wall, and I was walking along it, surveying the lands around your estate, and - I don’t know how I lost my footing, but I did, and though I tried to roll into the landing, I could not prevent all injury. The first five minutes were the worst - until I could hobble to a stream and cool my ankle.” He shakes his head. “I should know my limits by now.”
Kirika raises an eyebrow. “I find it hard to believe that you simply fell off a wall while walking badly enough to hurt yourself.”
Homi smirks. “Do you? What do you believe, then?” he asks.
Kirika takes a seat by the stream and dips her hand in for a drink. “Were you actually running, by chance?” she asks with a smirk in return.
“I may have been walking swiftly,” Homi concedes. “Certainly not faster than any other ninja would, given the circumstances.”
“That would be a sprint, Homi-san,” Kirika replies. “And was that all?”
“Well, I heard Yukio and you talking about maintenance on the wall, and I can confirm that that is needed,” Homi says. “There were several gaps I found too large to step over. Mind you, I’ve vaulted larger gaps, though with more room for error in the landing, admittedly.”
“So, you were running at full-speed, jumped several large gaps, and then…”
“I jumped one gap too many, as I’m sure you’ve guessed,” Homi says. “I thought I jumped high enough for the second rotation, but the ledge I landed on was a bit to the left of where I thought it was, and altogether too narrow, so I felt my foot slip the moment it touched the stone. Now, I should have kept calm and trusted my second step to get me on better footing, but I became convinced that I would miss that one, too, and in lieu of hitting the stone wall edge-on with my head and chest, I leaned and tumbled toward the forest, hoping to catch myself on the plentiful brush. But again, when I saw all the branches coming at me, my apprehension got the better of me and I forgot to tuck and roll correctly. My whole weight landed on my ankle, and, well, the tumble I executed from there on down the hill was the best I could do under the circumstances, though not particularly elegant. At the end of my little adventure, I came to face-down on a mattress of soil and fresh shoots, with my ankle in pure agony.” He smiles. “You’ll be pleased to know that the part where I dragged myself to the stream was also not quite as slow as I first told it. I was able to hobble, at least. And clean most of the dirt from my face and clothes before Toshiro found me.” Homi shakes his head. “If I had told him what I told you...he would have rightfully scolded me harshly. I am too old to engage in such silly stuntwork, and someone of my experience should really know better.”
Kirika thinks for a moment, trying to picture what actually transpired in her head. “So...a rotation is a flip?”
“It is,” Homi confirms.
“So, you jumped slightly too low to do two flips in one jump,” Kirika says, her hands providing visual aid to her thought process, “misjudged your footing slightly, and instead of caving your head open on the wall, tumbled cleanly across the top of the wall instead, fell ten feet -”
“It’s really more thirteen, once you figure in the slope of the hill and the distance I pushed off to get clear of the wall,” Homi interjects.
“Excuse me, thirteen feet,” Kirika continues, “and instead of breaking your neck, you twist your ankle - but not so much that you’re off your feet for more than…”
“You saw me hobbling around on the same day,” Homi says. “I started putting some weight on it yesterday - it still hurts, but it is bearable.”
“Less than a day, then,” Kirika says, and raises an eyebrow. “If this is you off your game, then I think that will be more than enough for our purposes. There are maybe a handful of people that could do what you did and not be dead or paralyzed, Homi-san. You give yourself far too little credit.”
Homi harrumphs. “I missed my jump, lost my nerve on the landing and then my head on the escape,” he says. “My reflexes may have saved me, but how lightly I got off was in the hands of luck, not skill. And it was a silly idea in the first place, to attempt such a risk simply for my own amusement.” He shakes his head. “I made a mistake. Actually, not just one. But it is done now.” He looks to Kirika. “Can I trust I have your discretion in this? Toshiro would not let me out of his sight if he heard the truth of it, and I suspect Sidewinder would be right beside him.”
Kirika bows. “Of course, Homi-san. should think more highly of yourself. It sounds more to me like you made the kind of mistake that everyone makes once in a while. Yukio once misjudged her form on a lift, and could not sit up straight for two days, but that was no sign of failure on her part. She simply made a mistake. Not every mistake is a warning signpost of your own failure and demise, Homi-san. You are still one of the most skilled ninja to ever walk these isles. The only thing that will make that not true is if you believe it is not so.”
Homi nods. “There is a kind wisdom in your words, Kirika. I will think about it.” He sweeps his hand toward the deer trail. “Forgive me for keeping you, then. I imagine your run will continue, and we will see each other for lunch?”
Kirika nods. “I imagine so, Homi-san.” She stands up from her perch by the stream. “Promise me you will not be so hard on yourself, Homi-san. You are more vital and skilled than you give yourself credit for, and it pains me to see you weigh yourself down with undue criticism.” She smirks. “Or Sidewinder will undoubtedly start insisting on joining your morning exercises.”
“He is welcome to, if he has the nerve,” Homi smirks back. “But thank you for your words, Kirika. They mean much to me. It is good to have a counterweight to one’s doubts.”
Kirika bows. “See you later, Homi-san.” And with that, she rushes off back into the woods.

Homi looks after her for a bit, then hobbles back towards the estate. “You know the answer, Kirika,” he mutters to nobody in particular. “You just have to accept it for yourself.”
Gatac 2014-01-08 14:30:43
The training continues, picking up the pace as Kirika gets to break in her new stone weights. Under Yukio’s watchful eyes, Kirika does her exercises, fighting more weight with every passing day - and showing little sign of slowing down. Several times, Yukio steps in, doing the exercise first to test the load, then watching with increasing concern how Kirika repeats it. When will it stop? How much can Kirika take?


Kirika, ropes over her shoulders, strains to lift herself over the bar against the small weights dangling in front and behind her. She grunts and gasps for breath, and after a few seconds of slow but steady progress, pulls her chin up above the bar, and lowers herself back down just as slowly. A flicker runs across her tattoos, from her hands to her shoulders, as she shakes her arms out.
Kirika gives Yukio a stoic look. “How many more?”
Yukio’s hard at work hiding the astonishment that Kirika even managed one with the extra weight. “Um,” she says, “try another one.”
Kirika nods, and shakes her arms a few more times, waiting a half-minute more before adjusting the ropes and jumping up to grab ahold of the bar one more time.


Yukio watches Kirika finish out her first set of weighted squats, arms crossed. This was the third consecutive day of weight increases, and along with the ever-present flicker across Kirika’s skin, Yukio’s concern about what exactly is going on has been steadily increasing.

Kirika sets the thick wooden bar down on the rack behind her, as Yukio comes over from behind and puts her hands on her dearest’s shoulders. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Kirika answers.
“Do you want to take a break?” Yukio asks.
“No,” Kirika replies, and sighs. “I’m fine, let’s keep going.”
Yukio waits, as she often does, for her dearest to come back, to look at her and give her a smile, but instead Kirika’s eyes remain fixed forward, looking at nothing. It still stings to look at it, but it’s a pain Yukio has had to get used to. Silently, she grabs another set of weight and gingerly adds them to the ones already slung over Kirika’s shoulders. “Go,” she half-whispers.

Kirika nods, steps back, and shoulders the bar again. She strains a little on the first rep, but yet again, the increased weight barely seems to slow her down, and by the end of the set, she’s back up to speed. Kirika wordlessly wanders off towards the water barrel outside the open door after the set, stretching her legs a little along the way. Yukio stares after her, frozen in place. This...this isn’t working, she thinks. But what else can I do?

Kirika walks back in, wipes her lips and stands before the exercise area slumped like a pile of dirty laundry. “What is next?” she asks.
Yukio almost trembles in place. She wants to reach out, hold her, squeeze her until all is well again, but she knows that will not help. Yukio Matsumoto grew up powerful, and has never met a foe she could not best. But now...what can she do? Her eyes fall onto the weights, and she says the first thing that goes through her mind.
“The big weights,” Yukio says. “You will do this exercise with the big weights.” Before Kirika has a chance to protest - not that she would, but before she has the chance - Yukio’s crouches down next to the weights, picks up one of the pair of heaviest weights and lugs it over to the exercise area, shortly followed by the second. The weight bar groans as Yukio slaps the two weights onto the ends and fixes them there without even removing the weights already on it. With a deep breath from the burst of exertion, Yukio turns to Kirika. “Do it.”

There’s no sarcastic comment, no skepticism, no jokes - Kirika just nods, steps under the bar, and shoulders it. She braces herself, strains, and stands up with the bar balanced on her shoulders - which is more than Yukio already expected. One shuffling step forward, and Yukio already springs forward with her hands raised, ready to catch the bar - but does not touch it, in the end, afraid to interrupt what she has set in motion. Kirika groans with just the effort to slowly lower herself with the bar on her shoulders, but does not waver. Even through her green kimono, Yukio can see the flickers and flashes of Kirika’s tattoos up her back, down around her posterior and through her legs to the floor. Kirika bottoms out with a grunt, sucks in a gasping deep breath, and then starts to push back up. She strains and moans with the effort, and Yukio is afraid her dearest is about to tear a thigh loose as her legs and backside bulge and strain against the kimono’s fabric, but then Kirika begins to lift the bar. Slowly but steadily, Kirika stands back up with the enormously heavy bar over her shoulders as her tattoos blaze a bright blue through her kimono.

Kirika finally stands back upright after nearly ten seconds of effort, and gasps for breath. She takes a step back - not shuffling this time - and lowers the bar onto the rack. Her tattoos race with light as Kirika bends over and nearly collapses onto the floor. Yukio’s at her side in an instant, reaching down to pull Kirika to her feet and into an embrace. Gods, this was such a stupid risk to take...she could have hurt Kirika so badly...Yukio squeezes her tight, too shocked to speak.
Kirka takes a few more gasping breaths, then calms her breathing down. Yukio can feel Kirika’s legs and backside twitch with the residual effort, but even that calms down. “I’m fine, Yukio,” she says.
“Okay,” Yukio whispers, slowly releasing her grip and letting Kirika stand by herself.
Kirika stands back up, without a hint of hesitation or stutter. “How many more reps?”
Yukio just stares at her for a bit. “We’re done for today,” she says, a bit more firmly than she wanted.
Kirika shakes her head. “I can do more -”
“We’re done for today,” Yukio repeats.
Kirika shrugs. “Breakfast, then.”


That night, even moreso than before, Yukio can’t stay away from Kirika, keeping her in a deep embrace that has her spooned up against the scion’s back the whole night. But even this provides her little comfort, and as a consequence little sleep. What she sees in the night doesn’t help, either: through the silken nightgown and the blanket of the bedroll, Yukio can make out a faint sheen in the dark, coming from the tattoos that glow all over Kirika’s lower body and back. The urge to throw off the blanket, light a candle and have a good look is strong, but Yukio instead turns her head away, squeezes her eyes shut and her dearest closer to her, and desperately tries to get some sleep.

Some sleep being that indeterminate period between “way too damn late” and “too early”. Yukio’s eyes open to twilight inside the room, with only the barest hint of light outside announcing the imminent sunrise. She feels like she hasn’t slept at all, but given that she doesn’t remember consciously sliding her hand down to Kirika’s thigh, she must have. Sliding it back up, Yukio can immediately tell something’s changed here. What could once be best described as “juicy” now feels firm and tight, if somehow even bigger, and those muscles continue up the sides, across Kirika’s belly, and...down to the incredibly firm and rounder posterior that Yukio’s hands are now clasped to. In a different frame of mind, that would absolutely do it for Yukio, but here and now, it is worrying - worrying enough that Yukio puts her hand on Kirika’s shoulder and shakes her softly.
“Kirika,” she says, “wake up.”
“I have been awake,” Kirika mumbles. “It’s a little early for you to be squeezing my ass, usually.”
“We need to get up,” Yukio says. “There’s something going on with your body.”
“I told you, I’m fine,” Kirika replies.
Yukio’s not in the mood to be patient with Kirika. Without comment, she throws off the blanket, exposing the two of them to the first inklings of daylight and the cold morning air. “Look at this,” she says coolly. “Your legs did not look like this when we went to bed.”

Kirika looks down - and indeed, Yukio is right. What used to be slim and slender has been filled in with muscle and definition overnight. Kirika’s thighs are thick with layers of muscle tone, seemingly half-again as large as they were last night, her calves toned, and as she looks around behind her, the muscles on her lower back show clearly through down to a backside and hips that are clearly more substantial and hefty than the day before. Her tattoos still wrap around her legs and up her back and thighs, giving a slight shimmer in the first light of dawn as Kirika runs her hands over her legs and give her new muscles an experimental squeeze.

Kirika’s mouth hangs open, and she doesn’t say anything for a moment. “’s…”
“Of course,” Yukio says flatly. “Your ancestors. I made you lift more than you could carry, and they made you strong enough to do it.”
"...but why?" Kirika asks, in shock.
“Because they want to help you and protect you,” Yukio says, finding one of those kind smiles that used to be easier.
"Maybe," Kirika says. "Until my next failure." Still, a small smile appears on her lips. "Don't get too used to me looking like this, then."
Yukio’s smile fades from her lips. Wordlessly, she retrieves the blanket and draws it back over the two of them, then wraps her arms around Kirika again and draws her close.
Kirika will not be pacified, though. "You have to keep pushing me like yesterday, love," she whispers. "If...if this really is my ancestors' favor, and if it is...permanent, then we have to get as much as we can before what is doing this goes away."
“I don’t…” Yukio whispers, and her hand snakes out to find Kirika’s and squeeze it. “I don’t want to hurt you, dearest…”
Kirika gently kisses Yukio - a real, heartfelt kiss for the first time since Sarano's estate - and smiles at Yukio. "Never, love. You could never hurt me."
Yukio returns the kiss as the first rays of sunlight reflect in her wet eyes. “Say it again,” she whispers. “Say it again, dearest.”
Kirika presses her forehead against Yukio's. "You could never hurt me, love. Maybe -" she sucks in a stuttering breath as her own cheeks start to wet, "- maybe you are right, and this is a blessing, a sign. If it is, we should push it as far as we can. And I can't..." Kirika completely breaks down into sobbing but still continues, "I can't do this without you, my love."
“I’m here, dearest,” Yukio whispers, smiling through her own tears as she gently brushes her hand over Kirika’s cheek. “And no matter what happens, we’ll face it together.”
Kirika nods and just pulls Yukio close as tight as she can, crying into her shoulder. Yukio softly whispers to her, and the two linger intertwined until the sun has fully risen.


The first exercise of the morning sees Kirika hanging upside down from a pillar in the dojo, her legs tied to a beam to secure her. Gravity has gotten the better of Kirika’s kimono, exposing her midriff with its wriggling tattoos that seem to flow like small rivers in the valleys between her abdominal muscles. With a few grunts of effort, she bangs out a series of five inverted sit-ups; when she comes back down to rest, her view falls on Yukio, whose evil smile is visible at a single glance despite being upside down.

“Good,” Yukio says. “Now, with weights.”


Kirika groans and grits her teeth as she pushes off the floor for the twentieth time. Pushups are barely good enough for warmup now, but with a basket of weights tied to her back, there’s still some use to them. Kirika can’t resist the sigh of relief when Yukio empties out the basket and unties it.

“Five more,” Yukio says - then steps onto Kirika’s back. The young Kamura scion gasps in surprise, but keeps her arms straight as the tattoos go from shimmering to glowing to support the strain. Yukio pushes off the ground and plants her other foot on Kirika’s lower back, balancing on her with her full weight pushing down on Kirika. “Whenever you’re ready,” Yukio says.


Kirika lies on the bench, hands already wrapped around the bar, as Yukio stacks up the weights - in proper order this time. The small half-kan stones are the last on the bar, and Yukio wipes her brow before securing them.

“17 kan,” Yukio says. “You’ll be lifting yourself.”
Kirika nods, and then, with a groan of exertion that Yukio is very familiar with at this point, pushes the bar up off the holder. The tattoos spiraling up her arm glitter and shimmer as she lowers it, but they blaze to life as Kirika pushes the bar up, her arms, shoulders and chest straining against her poor training kimono.
“You will need new clothes,” Yukio says.
Kirika doesn’t reply as she lifts the weight four more times, and then carefully racks it. A smile breaks across her face and she jumps up. “Yes!” she shouts, her arms in the air - almost. Her kimono refuses to let her raise her arms much at all, as her shoulders and arms suddenly are straining against the fabric.
“I must correct myself,” Yukio says. “You already need new clothes.”
“Maybe I can stretch it out a little,” Kirika replies, and goes down into a squat as she crosses her arms close in front of her body, rounding her back - and instantly tearing the back of her kimono out, revealing the ripples of muscle on her shoulder blades. An instant later, her thighs break through the seams on her leggings, and with one long, loud, final rip, the crotch completely gives up, tearing open from front to back.
“Um,” Yukio says. Then she thinks about what she’s going to say, which leads to thinking about what she’s thinking, and then finally some words. “Stay here. I’ll go get my spares.”
Kirika smirks as she stands back up. “That might be a good idea - maybe.”

Yukio returns with a spare kimono in her size, the design of which can best be described as “austere”. It’d be going too far to call it a good fit, but with some straps of fabric ripped from Kirika’s ruined clothes to take it in where it’s too big for the Kamura scion, it proves a serviceable solution.
“Do you still have the strength to lift a sword?” Yukio asks.
Kirika grabs a bokken from the rack and wraps her hands around the grip tightly, her forearms taut with new cords of muscle. “Ready if you are,” she says, still smirking.
Yukio mirrors her smirk as she grabs a bokken of her own. “Then defend yourself!” she cries, raising the bokken for the first blow of their sparring fight.

Five minutes later, both Kirika and Yukio are bruised and sweaty - something merely inconvenient for Yukio, but a serious problem for Kirika and her borrowed clothes. Loosened by sweat and exertion, Yukio’s kimono is practically falling off of Kirika’s shoulders - shoulders previously soft and thin, now hard and broad, with triangles of muscles rising from her back to her neck. The front hangs open, revealing undergarments and the beginnings of abdominal muscles poking through Kirika’s soft belly. Legs and arms once slender are now starting to round out and fill in with strength, and the Kamura clan tattoos wrap over her whole body like before, still flickering blue here and there.
Kirika, breathing hard, bows deeply to Yukio - further falling out of Yukio’s clothes - and, breathing heavily, turns around to place the bokken on the rack.
Yukio follows her, standing behind her and leaning forward to replace her own bokken - a transparent enough excuse to kiss the side of Kirika’s neck and slide her free hand over Kirika’s exposed belly. “I wish to lie with you, dearest,” she whispers.
Kirika turns around, an uncertain smile on her face. “Yes, but...I...I…”
Yukio reaches under Kirika’s kimono to draw her into an embrace; her right hand snakes up Kirika’s back all the way through the too-wide collar to gently hold the back of her neck. “Shut up and kiss me,” Yukio whispers.
Kirika leans forward and drives her tongue in between Yukio’s lips. A moan of a very different sort escapes her throat as she wraps her hands around Yukio, down towards her butt, and lifts her clear off the ground. Yukio quickly plays along, wrapping her legs around Kirika; the pair stumbles back against one of the dojo’s pillars, and Yukio frees her left hand to grab onto the beam for stability as she returns Kirika’s kiss. Kirika slowly lowers them both to the floor, her hands venturing elsewhere as she rolls over, pulling Yukio on top of her as they both giggle.
Gatac 2014-01-08 14:31:19
It is inevitable that the work left over from the harsh winter must be caught up with in the spring, and providing the raw materials for the renovations of Kamura Manor doesn’t lighten the workload any. The task of chopping wood from the nearby forest, in particular, has fallen to Rowan’s sons Yufuro and Kuwaru, who have set up their work camp for the day at the foot of the hill. Having labored to remove the limbs and bark from a tree trunk, they’ve heaved it up onto a set of trestles to inspect their handiwork and plan for how to turn the ex-tree into more useful lumber.

Kirika had seen them working on the big tree all day, and now that she had cleaned up from her morning session with Yukio - and put away six bowls of her delicious stew - she decided that now would be a great time to actually introduce herself to them instead of hiding from them. Jogging down the path, she skids to a stop by the young men and their haul. “How are you both today - Yufaro and...Kuwaru, right?” she asks.

The two young boys look up at Kirika - and it is a very definite up. Her original travel clothes, once practical and comfy, are now tight around her body and riding immodestly high on her calves. What would normally be a winning combination with teenage hormones seems about as sexy as a ravenous tiger to the boys, being that they’ve seen Kirika swell from thin and comely to tough as the tree they just cut down in barely two weeks, and neither of them longs for the touch of 150 pounds of tattooed muscle. Yufaro lays down his axe and bows, pressing a hand onto Kuwaru’s back to get his slow-on-the-uptake little brother into a properly deferential pose.

“We are well, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says, careful to keep looking down.
“Please, stand up,” Kirika says with a smile. “How are things on the farm? And with you two? I’m sorry that I’ve been…” her smile fades for a moment, “...been busy the last week, haven’t gotten to know the people that took care of my family’s property so well.”
Yufaro stands up, hitting his brother on the chest to get him to follow, but keeps his eyes cast down, working hard to not meet Kirika’s look. “Things are going well, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says. Sensing the upcoming hole in the conversation, he continues. “We are about to cut lumber for your servant, Kamura-sama.”
Kirika tilts her head. “Servant?”
“I speak of the stern craftsman, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says. “He was...very precise in his instructions for the lumber.”
“Oh,” Kirika says. “Yes, he...can be. How else are things going?”
“...well, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says. The “Please go away” is left unspoken.
And completely missed by Kirika. “Well, why don’t I help you out with moving this thing up the slope?” she asks, grabbing the yoke of the cart.
Kuwaru almost jumps to help Kirika, but Yufaro holds him back, even hissing a quick admonishment into his ear. When Kirika turns to look at them, they have both deeply bowed their heads again. “Your offer is most kind, Kamura-sama, but this is our work to do. Please do not trouble yourself with such things.”
Kirika smiles. “It’s no trouble at all, Yufaro. I believe in pulling my fair share, which includes manual labor.” And with that, she leans into the yoke and pushes. It takes a fair bit of straining to get the cart moving up the slope, but once she gets her right foot set back and pushes hard. With a groaning grunt from her lips, the cart starts to roll up the slope. The next step is almost as hard, and she has to catch herself and the cart with another big strain, but after that, it’s much easier going, and in under a minute, she’s pushed the cart and log up the slope all by herself.

Once the cart is stable and stopped, Kirika turns around back to the two young men. “See?” she says as she wipes her brow. “No trouble at all.” She feels something rubbing against her legs - her hand goes to her thigh to find that she’s split her leggings underneath up and down both sides of both of her thighs. “Well, maybe not no trouble,” she mutters.
Both Yufaro and Kuwaru have followed her up the slope and are trying to not look at her split leggings even harder than they’re trying not to look into her eyes. “We are deeply humbled by your strength and compassion, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says.
“Yufaro, please,” Kirika says, walking over and putting a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t need to be so uncomfortable around me. I’m not going to punish you for failing to bow. And, you’re welcome.”
Yufaro still does not look up; in fact, he seems to shake at Kirika’s touch, as if he’s getting ready to step back and kowtow to her. “A thousand pardons for my rudeness, Kamura-sama,” he says. “I...I do not know how to behave before you.”
“Like…” Kirika says, pausing for thought. She takes a knee in front of Yufaro. “I would prefer to be friendly with those that live on this land, Yufaro. You, your brother, your father, everyone. I don’t know if this is the proper way, is my way. There’s no need to be afraid of me.”
Yufaro’s eyes wander in confusion, briefly meeting Kirika’s warm gaze - and the farmer’s son reacts instantly, throwing himself to the ground and groveling before her to stay lower than her. Kuwaru also seems confused by the whole affair, and just keeps standing with his gaze fixed to the ground. Yufaro’s voice is hard to understand, being that his face is almost pressed into the mud. “Your kindness humbles us both, Kamura-sama,” he says.
“Please, stand up,” Kirika stutters. “You don’t have to - I mean, none of this is necessary, I’m just...just…”
“My brother and I have to work,” Kuwaru says, speaking for the first time - a slow, even drawl. “Would you please leave us be, Lady Kamura?”
“Lady?” Kirika asks, stunned.

Kuwaru stares ahead, then seems to rock to one side before turning his head to his brother, who is still groveling on the ground. “Did I say that wrong, Yu?” Kuwaru asks.
“No, no didn’t,” Kirika says. “But...I mean, I’m not a...Lady. You don’t have to be afraid of me.” She pauses and looks to Kuwaru. “Are you afraid of me?”
Kuwaru nods slowly, but says nothing. Yufaro remains frozen on the ground, but eventually answers. “Please forgive us, Kamura-sama,” he says. “We are merely attempting to show the proper respect due to our liege lord.”
“And you, Kuwaru?” Kirika asks.
“What my brother said,” Kuwaru says, a well-worn phrase from his lips. He must have been told a few dozen times to leave it at that, but there’s an honesty to the boy that cannot be repressed so easily. “You’re big and strong. We will do what you say. Please don’t hurt us.”
That stuns Kirika even more than being called “lady”. “I...I would never hurt you, Kuwaru,” Kirika says. “You are under my protection. I would die for you and your brother.” She pauses. “Am I really that big and scary?” she asks tentatively.
“You’re bigger than anyone I know,” Kuwaru says, “except that other woman, and she is very scary. We hear her shout and scream every morning. Raru said you must be ogres.”
“Kuwaru!” Yufaro hisses.
“His pa hit him for that,” Kuwaru adds. “And our pa said not to say that to you, but he also taught us to be honest, and you asked.”
Kirika’s face turns bright red at the mention of Yukio shouting and screaming. “Well, thank you, Kuwaru. No, we are not ogres. She girlfriend, and she is helping me get big and strong enough to protect everyone, not just you two troublemakers,” she says with a smirk. “And you must have seen bigger people than me. How about your parents? Or any of the soldiers that come by here occasionally?”
Kuwaru silently shakes his head. “Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says. “I humbly beg your permission to get up.”
“Ah!” Kirika says. “Uh, yes, please. don’t have to do that to me.” Yufaro rises up, head still bowed. The entire front of his clothes is now covered in dirt. “Oh, Yufaro, hold still,” Kirika says, and starts brushing off his clothes with her hands.
Yufaro stiffens at her touch and squeezes his eyes shut. When he was imagining the first time he’d be touched by a woman other than his mother, he really wasn’t picturing this.
His terror at being touched by her stops Kirika cold. “...are you still afraid of me?”
“I...I don’t want to say the wrong thing!” Yufaro blurts out, and almost wants to throw himself back at her feet. His face is red like glowing steel being forged into a new blade.
“Oh, Yufaro, I guarantee there is almost nothing you could say that would be the wrong thing - except for not telling the truth,” Kirika says. “Just be honest with me, and you have nothing to worry about.”
“...yes, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says. “It’s just...our father taught us to always be proper in front of our betters, and’re our liege lord, but you don’t act like the samurai who come by our farm, and I don’t want to insult you.” More to himself, he adds “I never wanted to insult anyone…”
Kirika gives Yufaro a hug from her kneeling position. “You haven’t insulted me, Yufaro. I’m just...not used to being a lady of anything - and I don’t want to be like the Lords and Ladies I have seen. If it makes you feel better to act like this, then...I’ll just have to get used to it. But if you’re only doing it because you think you have to, don’t. Okay?” The beginnings of a...something brushing against Kirika’s stomach during the hug go politely unremarked.
“...okay, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro replies.
Kirika lets Yufaro go, and gives Kuwaru a hug too. “And thank you for being honest. You’re smarter than your brother gives you credit for.”
Kuwaru smiles brightly at that. “Thank you, Lady Kamura,” he says.
“By your leave, Kamura-sama,” Yufaro says, “I need to go...change clothes.” After a moment, he adds “These are dirty.”
Kirika nods with a polite smile. “Of course.”

As Yufaro hurries to leave, Kuwaru speaks up again. “Why are the other samurai so mean, Lady Kamura?”
Kirika sighs. “Because there’s a lot of bad things going on right now,” she says. “Times are hard, and they’re not getting what they’re used to getting, or what they think they deserve. And because lots of them are mean, greedy, or scared, they take it out on people that can’t fight back.” She gives him another quick hug. “But that’s what I’m here to stop. If you see anyone messing with your family, or any other of the families that live here, you let me know, okay? I’ll make them stop.”
Kuwaru nods and smiles. “I will do that,” he says. “And if you need our help, just call.” He pauses for a moment. “We’re not samurai, but we can fight.”
Kirika smiles. “Don’t tell anyone, but neither am I.”
Kuwaru looks confused for a moment, then nods solemnly. “I promise I won’t tell, Lady Kamura.”
“Okay,” Kirika says. She gives him a peck on the forehead, and stands up. “You should go back to your house and wait for your brother. But...wait a few minutes before you go into your room. Okay?”
“Okay, Lady Kamura,” Kuwaru says. He wanders off towards their little house, and once there sits down on a nearby stone and patiently waits for his brother.

So much for meeting the local youth.
punkey 2014-01-13 18:23:18
Though winter has released its icy grip on the lands, the days are short still, and darkness falls quickly in the evening. This goes moreso for the farm, far away from any big settlement and too sparse to justify nightlights. On one hand, the look at the stars above is incomparable; on the other, the lantern that Yukio and Kirika carry between them on their stroll is a very lonely source of light on a new moon, barely enough to light their next few steps. Kirika seems a little trapped walking arm in arm with Yukio, who occasionally pulls her tighter for a brief cuddle. As they round the dojo and approach the manor, Yukio sucks a deep breath through her nostrils.

“This is wonderful,” she says. “Can you smell the breeze coming up through the woods?”
Kirika nods after a second or so, her mind otherwise occupied. “Yes, it’s very nice.”
“You know what would make this night perfect?” Yukio says with a smile. “Some fireflies! Do you think there are any around here?”
Kirika raises an eyebrow, and looks at Yukio. “...maybe.”

Yukio looks back to Kirika, studying the curious mixture of her features with the muscled, tattooed body of a warrior. The smile gives away that she likes what she sees, and even angles the lantern to get a better look at her face. This part could use some work - not the lines, which remain as beautiful as ever, but the expression that has set in over the last week, the smiles that only come out on command, those once open eyes now carefully sheltered against any stray glance of what’s going on inside.

“Well, let’s cont -” Yukio begins, only to reflexively swat at her neck. Eyes widening, she pulls out a small dart and holds it out for Kirika to see. By the time her free hand is on the handle of her sword, she’s already on one knee and well on her way to the floor.
Kirika sighs as her hands go to the practice bokken Yukio insisted she bring. “Oh no,” she says dryly. “What is going on?”
A single figure steps out of the shadows, clad in black from head to toe. He takes position in front of Kirika, sizing her up for a moment, then dramatically reaches into the back of his waistband and withdraws a pair of nun-chucks. Whipping it around his body, he gives her a quick ten-second demonstration of his mad skills before shouting “KYAAAAAAAI!” and running at her, swinging the chucks in the rough direction of her head.

Kirika’s hands spin her bokken out of her waistband in an instant and raise it to block with the flat of the practice sword. The wooden rod bounces off the bokken with a loud THWACK, turning the nun-chucks instantly from a lethal weapon to a convenient handle. She grabs for them with her off-hand, then twists them and the arm that holds them down and behind the shinobi’s attack run. To be fair to the ninja, he tucks into the toss pretty well, but there’s just not a lot his scrawny ass can do with Kirika grabbing his strings and making him dance. He almost manages to let go of the chucks and twist his wrist free before he hits the ground, too, but at that point physics and he have an unpleasant encounter. He makes a noise like kicking a dead pig and rolls onto his belly for a gasp. which point Sidewinder speaks up, about fifteen feet behind Kirika and holding two wooden sticks crudely fashioned into training “gonnes”.
“Bang,” he says. “And bang.”
“Is anyone going to take this seriously?” Yukio asks, still lying on the ground.
“It’s kind of hard when you insist that I bring a practice sword to our perimeter walk,” Kirika replies, before turning around and trotting off towards Sidewinder. “Hi-ya,” she says, something resembling a smile on her face as she lamely swats the more-fake-than-fake “gonnes” out of his hands with the flat of her sword. She slowly twirls it around before bringing it down on Sidewinder’s shoulder. “Sorry,” she says, and gives him a good, firm kick to the chest to put him on his back too.
“What was that?” the nun-chuck’d ninja - clearly Toshi’s voice - pipes up. “Did you...did she bury the blade in your shoulder and then force it free?”
“Well, that, and she cheated,” Sidewinder says. “I walked up to her and shot her twice. You telling me those tattoos eat bullets, too?”
“At least she was gentle with you!” Toshi says as he gets up and pulls off the sweaty mask. “Still, pulling the sword free, that was a nice touch, realistic, you know?”
“Like a ninja standing around for ten seconds to show off his kata?” Yukio says.
“...but was it awesome?” Toshi asks. He looks to Kirika, who has taken the chance to sit down on a wooden bench made of a bisected tree trunk. “Honest opinion, please.”
It takes a second, but eventually Kirika sighs and looks to Toshi, something like a smile on her face. “It looked very impressive, Toshi.”

“Well, we’ve been keeping busy,” Toshi says as he picks up the chucks and twirls them some more. He’d probably do pretty well in a trick competition by now. “Not like you guys, though. What did you do for your workout, Kirika? Did you bench a mountain?”
“Something like that, I guess,” Kirika replies. She moves to stretch her shoulder from flipping Toshi onto his back, and after fighting against the constricting kimono, is rewarded with the pop-pop-pop-pop of a busted seam. “Damn, not again.”
“You want I should get you my coat?” Sidewinder asks, ever the gentleman in search of a lady in need.
Kirika sighs. “No, it’s not necessary,” she says, then gives him a smile too. “Thank you, though.”
“You’ll catch a cold,” Yukio says. “I’ll get a blanket.” She turns and wanders off, not staying for Kirika’s attempts to stop her.
“How you guys doing?” Sidewinder asks as he slowly saunters over to the bench. “I’ve seen you happier.”
“I’m fine, I guess,” Kirika replies, looking at the flag stones underfoot.
Sidewinder sits down beside her - not too close, but enough to be within arm’s reach. “And Yukio, how’s she?” he asks.
“She seems...happier, I guess,” Kirika says with another shrug.
“Gotcha,” Sidewinder says.
“How are you doing, Sidewinder?” Kirika asks. She turns to look up at him. “Actually, what have you been doing, I haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Getting this guy up to speed,” Sidewinder says, nodding to Toshi.
“Hey!” Toshi says, responding with a few more chuck tricks. “For your information, Sidewinder, I’m a natural talent with these. No less than Homi-sensei told me.”
“You ever think he was just being nice?” Sidewinder asks.
“You ever think about how many toilets the Imperial Palace has?” Toshi responds. “That’s right. When I’m Emperor, you’ll scrub them. All of them. Just keep it up. I’m remembering this stuff for later.”
“Am I gonna have to wipe up the blood from your broken nose, too, Emperor Face-Chucks?” Sidewinder says, then turns to Kirika with a raised eyebrow.
Kirika just shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Well, there’s not much more to tell,” Sidewinder says. “We’re just training, mostly. Copperhead’s really getting into the woodworking. Homi-sensei, well, you know, being Homi-sensei. Oh, speak of the demon...I should go check on him. Make sure he’s not taking a stroll of his own again. You have a good night, Kirika, Toshi.”
“Maybe it’s best that he does,” Kirika says, suddenly sitting upright. “Homi hurt himself, but I’ve been trying to get him to see it was a genuine mistake, not some sign of his inevitable decline or that he’s too old to be helpful to us anymore. We need him feeling like he is capable enough to be the Shadowguard - which I think you and I both agree he definitely still is, even if he is not a young man anymore - and letting him go out and explore his limits by himself would probably help more with that than having you standing behind him at all times.” She gives him a genuine smile. “Right?”

Sidewinder and Toshi both look at Kirika like she’s just grown a second head.
“Uh, right,” Toshi says.
“Suppose so,” Sidewinder answers with the benefit of an additional half-second to regain his cool. “I swear I won’t spoil his fun, but suppose something does happen - I don’t want to hear how he crawled back up the hill a second time, or hurt himself too bad to crawl. And all told, I ain’t so sure we’re the only ones around these parts. Where there’s woods, there’s bandits.” He pauses briefly.
“I’m not saying leave him adrift on his own,” Kirika responds. “Just...try to let him feel his own way back. He’s strong enough to stand on his own, and I think it might be best for him if he does. Do you agree?”
“Reckon I do,” Sidewinder says. “Still worried.” He smiles. “I can get close enough to watch without him knowing. He trained me pretty well, you know.”
“Indeed he did,” Kirika says with a nod. “Good night, Sidewinder.”
“Already is,” Sidewinder smirks, then wanders off, whistling a little tune - no doubt the seeds of his next annoying flute “masterpiece”.

“...why is everybody leaving?” Toshi asks. He looks to Kirika, then to the free spot beside her on the bench, then shrugs and walks over to sit down. As he sits in place, his hand slowly reaches out for Kirika’s, until he can put it on top of hers.
Kirika looks over to Toshi, startled, but then gives him a smile - one that decays from “warm and genuine” to “tired and affected” after a few seconds. She sighs and her shoulders drop again, but she still holds onto Toshi’s hand. “How are you doing, Toshi?” she asks, the fire gone out of her voice again.
“I don’t know,” Toshi says. “There’s a lot riding on me, and it’s getting pretty serious. On one hand, we’re closer to winning than ever before...but it’s getting harder, isn’t it? I never thought a place like Sarano’s house could exist, something twisted like that. All those slaves. Sometimes...sometimes I think I’m not ready for whatever’s next. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to get worse still, and do you fight this?”
“By being strong,” Kirika replies, letting go of Toshi’s hand to wrap her arm around him and lean against him. “You are strong, Toshi, stronger than me, stronger than you know. I know that you have what it takes to see our way through this. You know right from wrong, and have the strength of will to do the right thing.” She pauses, and they can both hear the unspoken words that she means to put in there. “I believe in you, Toshi.”
Toshi puts his arm around her in turn - barely. “I wouldn’t be here without you,” he says. “Without Kirika - or without Kasumi.” He squeezes her. “You’re my best friend, Kirika. And I believe in you, too.”
Kirika gives Toshi a squeeze back, but then sighs. “One of these days, someone will have to explain to me why.”
“Because you promised to help a down-on-his-luck conman get two horses back and that promise brought you all the way here to the side of the Emperor’s throne,” Toshi says. “I’m the Emperor. Whatever I sit on is the throne. Deal with it.” One corner of Kirika’s lips curls up slightly, but it doesn’t make a dent in her slouched shoulders or tired eyes. “Also, did I mention that you’re crafty like a fox, drop-dead gorgeous and could cut off a fly’s balls without touching its dick with your sword?” He squeezes her again, to no avail. “Now I’m actually a little glad they’re gone, I don’t want witnesses for something this sappy.” Kirika looks up from the ground to Toshi, a curious look in her eyes.

“When I fled the capital, I was not in a good place,” Toshi begins, slumped over with elbows on his thighs and hands folded in between his legs. “With my father’s...death, I lost everything. And taking a run at Ikishi almost sealed the deal. Homi pulled me out, but he made it very clear that I had to disappear. So I went and disappeared, tried to forget everything, tried to live like those years in the capital were just a dream. I had nothing but what I knew. I was proud and for the longest time I just didn’t have my shit together. A real recipe for disaster when you’re trying to be a conman. But for some reason, you were there, and you took an interest in me. Yeah, we called it being partners, but let’s be honest, you were babysitting me from beginning to end. Protecting me, teaching me - not that I was a good student - and catching me whenever I fell, and I fell a lot. There must have been a thousand times when anyone with a brain could have figured out that I was way more trouble than I was worth, but you stuck around, and not because you were stupid. You were my friend, Kirika. And I got you in trouble and I never looked beyond my own nose to see all the pain you were going through, and still you were my friend, always.”

He shakes his head and looks away. “And what did I do? I left, I never said goodbye, I just disappeared. I know you looked for me, had your contacts after me, not to hunt a ghost, but to find a friend. I’m just...I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to tell you anything. I just...I was afraid. That if we kept being friends, you would see through me eventually. I started over with Yukio, and bless her, but she would never have found out, not in a million years. Until I tried to be clever again, and failed, and got into a new mess, and you ran into me again. You had every reason to hate me. It would have taken a saint just to not want to hit me. But you...after everything I did to still helped me. Not because you thought there was profit in it, or even that I would learn from it - but because it was the right thing to do, to help a friend.”

Toshi looks back to Kirika and puts a hand on her shoulder. “You went with me wherever the path led us. You learned all about just how much I had lied to everyone, in how much danger I had placed you, just how impossible the stakes were. And you didn’t back down. You planned, you charmed, you fought your way through. I never heard you want to give up. I never heard you say: this far and no further. No, whenever it was hard, you stood fast. When it was difficult, you stepped up. When it was painful, you took the blow. Think about all the lives you touched, Kirika. Mine, Yukio’s, the ninjas, Ueki - Gods, that boy gets into more trouble than I do, that’s saying something - and Homi-sensei. You showed them all a better way.”

He puts the other hand on Kirika’s free shoulder and locks eyes with her. “But you - even when we were both playing parts for each other - I always looked up to you. I wanted to be more like you, smarter, tougher, smoother, because...because I’m a klutz, and klutzes need help to save the Empire. We need a hero. And you’re my hero, Kirika. Always been, always will. And I know that when you believe in yourself...that there is nothing in this world that can stop you.”

Kirika had been steadily tearing up and sniffling as Toshi’s speech went on, and at the end of it, there’s a long silence where she just looks into Toshi’s equally damp eyes. “...I...I was just…” she sniffles again, “...just doing what I was supposed to be doing. Nothing special or heroic about that.”
Toshi nods. “What you’re supposed to be doing,” he whispers, “is be a hero. And the Empire wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t special. Open your eyes, Kirika, please. How many people could do what we do...what you do?”
“Fail my family?” Kirika replies bitterly. “Disgrace their name? Break my promises? I suppose that only I could have done that, yes.”
“That’s not,” Toshi stammers, “that’s not true. That’s not true and you know that, Kirika, you’re just saying that but you know it’s not true!” He reaches for the sleeve of her kimono and draws it up, revealing the tattoos beneath. “Look at this! Look at it! This is your birthright, Kirika. You don’t just lose that because of one...thing…”
“A decade of shame, and letting the destroyer of my family go free,” Kirika replies, her jaw set, but her voice lacking anything more than tired resignation. “More than one thing. We do not know the reason why I was given these tattoos. I am not even sure of what happened anymore.”
Toshi jumps up from the bench and stomps around, then turns and points a finger at her. “Your father!” he shouts. “Your father came to you and gave them to you! Because he thought you deserved them! Because he was proud of you!” His voice shrivels to a bare whisper. “...or was that a lie?”
“I saw it, but…” Kirika shrugs. “Who knows what really happened. Or why. I certainly don’t.”
“No,” Toshi whispers. “No. I believe it. I believe it. Kirika, please…”
Kirika just slumps over on the bench, curls up and closes her eyes.
“Kirika…” Toshi whispers, but he’s cut off by a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s been a long day,” Yukio says softly. She gently sits down next to Kirika and wraps her in a blanket before lifting her from the bench. “We’ll see you tomorrow,” Yukio says, giving Toshi a quick peck on his cheek, and then she turns away to carry Kirika to their room.
“I’m sorry,” Kirika whispers to Toshi as she’s carried past. “I love you, Toshi, I just...can’t…”

Toshi has no words left to answer her. He squeezes his eyes shut, tears streaming down his face, and turns away to wander off into the dark. As Yukio shifts Kirika in her arms and turns, she loses sight of the young prince.
“It’ll all be better tomorrow,” Yukio says quietly.
“Maybe,” Kirika says.
Gatac 2014-01-29 13:58:04
Waking up the next morning feels a lot like someone splashing a bucket of ice cold stream water onto the faded embers of a campfire. If it was up to Kirika, staying cooped up in bed for the foreseeable future would be the plan, but there’s the matter of Yukio, whose stubborn refusal to accept Kirika’s fall into despair serves as a kind of squint-and-don’t-look-closely substitute for intrinsic motivation. Kirika gets up for Yukio, gets dressed for Yukio, and goes to train for Yukio. Kirika doesn’t have it in her anymore to fight the fog over her feelings or the dull, permanent ache in her heart. The only thing that provides some comfort is Yukio’s old kimono, now a lot closer to Kirika’s size; the warmth and the smell stir faint memories of better times.

Bent over in front of the dojo, Kirika rows the full set of stone weights upwards, again and again according to Yukio’s count. The wooden staff holding all those weights now groans with every repetition - they will soon need to have one made from iron - while the ache in her arms is only slightly soothed by the glow of the tattoos. Her eyes are still red and puffy from the night, and the cold morning wind blowing over the hill and into her face isn’t really helping her eyes to stop tearing up. When Yukio counts out the tenth repetition, humiliation strikes again with that sound of ripping fabric Kirika’s become quite familiar with. This time, she can feel her plain silk undergarment split at the seams of the sleeves, and the rougher fabric of the kimono rubs against her biceps as she sets down the weight and simply waits for Yukio to tell her what to do next.

“Um,” Yukio begins, “I think that’s enough with the weights for now. Maybe we could...maybe do a run? Do you want to change first?”
Kirika just sets the wooden rod down and shrugs, her eyes cast to the floor and barely registering the discomfort from her back and shoulders, or the torn undergarment - one of the last undamaged articles of clothing she owns.
“You can borrow one of mine,” Yukio offers, but the kindness is broken up by the sound of a split twig - as in, how a ninja politely announces his presence. She turns to see Copperhead stand behind them; without his large hat and with his sleeves rolled up to reveal his large, calloused hands, he almost looks relatable.
“I have observed your difficulties with your garments, Kamura-san,” Copperhead says. “If you wish it, my tailoring skills are at your disposal.”
“You’re a tailor, too?” Yukio says.
“I am skilled in many forms of manual labor,” Copperhead says. “It is, in my considered opinion, an excellent foundation for ninjitsu.” He turns back to Kirika. “Kamura-san?”
Kirika just sits down on the floor, crosses her arms across her chest, and tries to fold herself away.
“There is no need to be embarrassed by your changing clothing needs, Kamura-san,” Copperhead says. “Over the past weeks, you have gained a significant amount of height and muscle mass, which naturally requires a reassessment of your wardrobe. The change in height alone comes to about two and a half sun, based on my observations. My analysis of the tightness of your clothes versus their known size would further indicate an additional five kan of mass.” He pauses briefly as Kirika turns her head over to look up at him. “This is only a very cursory assessment, of course.”
“Er,” Yukio says. “So…”
“No doubt you are wondering about the reason for my appearance,” Copperhead says. “Chiefly, there is the matter of the manor house. I have done what I can with the repairs, but further work requires that Kamura-san inspect it and provide some guidance on her wishes.” Copperhead pauses for a moment. “Also, I have grown concerned about Kamura-san and thought it prudent to inspect her and offer some encouragement.”
“Why?” Kirika weakly asks as she continues to sit hunched over on the floor.
“Your question is ambiguous, but very well,” Copperhead says. “The reason for my concern is both your obvious physical changes and your similarly obvious emotional distress. I may not understand it, but I can recognize it. The reason for my wanting to offer some encouragement is ensure that you remain an effective fighter and leader.” Another pause. “A simple, rational concern, I am sure you’ll agree.”
“Is that all?” Yukio asks. “You’re not, you know…”
Copperhead cuts her off with a raised hand. “I have enumerated a perfectly adequate explanation. So, to proceed from the interrogation to the execution, my services are at your disposal, Kamura-san. Name an item or activity that will improve your condition and I will do my best to accommodate you.”
Kirika sits upright, and looks in Copperhead’s direction. “No, thank you,” she weakly says, and tries to smile at him. “I appreciate the offer, but...there’s nothing anyone can do.”
“Perhaps you would indulge me and take a tour of the restored manor house, then?” Copperhead asks.
Kirika sighs, and stands upright. “Of course, Copperhead.”


The outside of the manor house appears mostly unchanged, with only some obvious spots of new wood used for repairs - the next step is clearly a new paintjob, something Copperhead has left to Kirika to pick out. Open the doors, though, and Yukio’s first gasp of “Wow!” is pretty accurate. Again, the paintjob is missing, but Copperhead’s refurbished the walls, put in new flooring and still had time to replace and repair some missing furniture. Structurally speaking, everything is in place - it’s just a matter of decorating it and moving some stuff back in.

“I apologize for the unfinished surfaces,” Copperhead says. “I am still in the process of renewing the insulation under the roof. Depending on how long you plan to stay here, I may have time for some additional flourishes.”
“Such as?” Yukio asks.
“It is my opinion that a bedroom is not complete without an emergency stash of weaponry behind a false wall panel,” Copperhead says. “But I realize this is a matter of taste. What do you think of it, Kamura-san?”
Kirika is overwhelmed by all the work that Copperhead has done - she was aware that he’d been working on the manor house pretty much non-stop since they’d arrived, but now that she’s faced with the totality of what he’s done, she’s speechless - and feels all the more horrible that he went through the effort at all. “ didn’t have to do this,” she mumbles.
“It was a better use of my time than being bored,” Copperhead says, “or training with Sidewinder...but I repeat myself. Also, the prospect of potentially operating from this place without liveable quarters is...not encouraging. It is not entirely unselfish, as I much prefer to sleep in a bed in a house without drafty windows. I assume we feel similarly in this matter.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Kirika says. “Thank you, Copperhead. But…” her face screws up and she looks away, “...I...can’t…”
Copperhead folds his arms behind his back. “I could be more helpful if I knew what exactly was wrong with you, Kamura-san,” he says. Yukio glares at him but doesn’t have the words to tell him off.
“I...I’ve just...I don’t think I deserve any of this,” Kirika starts. “I’m a failure to my family, to my father, and now to my friends. I’ve let down Toshi and Yukio and Homi and everyone else, when you all need me the most. I let my family down, and now I’ve let my father down.” She looks at Copperhead, tears running down her face. “I’m a thief and a failure, and people like me don’t deserve things like this.”
Yukio can see on Copperhead’s face that he’s scrolling through about a hundred “unvarnished truth”-type responses on the lookout for something that’s a little less...crass. Finally, he seems to have located a more appropriate response. “I remain confident in your abilities, Kamura-san,” Copperhead says. “You are certainly deserving of the labor I have put into this project by the simple virtue of the deeds you have already accomplished.” After a moment, he adds “I’m sure your father would be proud of you.”
Kirika tries another smile for Copperhead as she wipes her eyes. “Thank you, Copperhead. But…” She slumps against the wall and slides down against it, folding her legs up against herself - and causing another loud rip in her undergarments, this time up her backside.
“There are also many men who would consider your recent growth very desirable,” Copperhead says.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Yukio says, adding a “Thank you, Copperhead” through clenched teeth as she helps Kirika back to her feet. “Come on,” she whispers. “Let’s get you changed.”

Kirika shrugs, and stands up. Yukio takes her by the hand and leads her outside. The sun has finally managed to fully climb over the horizon and Yukio raises her hand to shield her eyes from the incoming light. With a gentle pull, she steers Kirika back to their hut. Kirika follows meekly along, only expending the effort to be led along by Yukio and keep her undergarments from escaping from underneath her borrowed kimono entirely. Once inside the hut and safe from prying eyes, Yukio unfurls her bedroll and starts digging through her clothes. The choice between two white undergarments of identical construction seems to stymie her for a moment.

“Oh, Kirika,” she says, with a tiny bit of playfulness. “What am I going to do with you?”
Kirika just sits down on the floor again.
Yukio finally determines that one of the pieces is in slightly better condition and turns to Kirika. “Come on,” she says. “Get up, Kirika.”
Kirika does as she’s told, standing around like a display mannequin while Yukio slips her out of the kimono, removes the tatters of her old clothes and eases the new undergarment over her arms and onto her shoulders.
“There you go,” Yukio says, crouching to retrieve the kimono. “Tie it up.”
Kirika does as she is told and turns to face Yukio - and for the first time, Yukio notices she isn’t looking down at her, but across. Her head was flooded with concern before, and of course she knew Kirika was growing, but the numbers Copperhead rattled off just bounced off her, didn’t really get through - and now she’s looking at Kirika, at the sheer size of her underneath the hung head and finds herself out of words; her mouth hangs open a bit, but there’s no sound escaping. Kirika’s shoulders stand broad and tall, a triangular neck transitioning to round and bulging shoulders. Both the top and bottom muscles in her arms stand out like she’s smuggling rubber balls in them, and in between them is a tight and defined core. Yukio can’t imagine how Kirika’s thighs and calves fit into any of her old slim clothes - Kirika stands before her nearly unrecognizable from the thin and soft woman she first met, her willowy lines replaced with layer upon layer of hard muscle and definition that is even beyond Yukio’s own physique.
“Kirika,” Yukio stammers. “You’re…”
Kirika doesn’t look up. “I’m what?”
“Big,” Yukio manages to spit out. “I’ve...I’ve never seen anything like that. Your ancestors…”
“They were strong too,” Kirika replies, taking a seat. She hugs herself tightly, and Yukio can see the muscles on her back jockey for position.
Yukio walks over and sits beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “And they want you to be strong,” she says. Not exactly the poetry of the Unknown Sage, but it’s the best she can come up with in the moment.
Kirika doesn’t say anything, she just starts to cry.
“Oh, come here,” Yukio coos, trying to pull Kirika into a hug.
Kirika leans into Yukio’s shoulder and continues to cry. “I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she moans.
“Doesn’t matter,” Yukio says, drawing Kirika tighter. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll get through it.”
“Why is this happening to me?” Kirika sobs. “Is it something I did wrong?” She lets Yukio go and leans back, spreading her arms wide and looking herself over. “This...I look like you! Not!”
“Kirika, please,” Yukio says. “They’re just...they’re just trying to help you…”
“How?” Kirika shouts. “And why? I have done nothing to deserve any of this - which means this must be a punishment, but why?
“It’s not,” Yukio stammers. “Kirika, please, listen to me, it’s not -”
“How do you know?” Kirika continues. “How can you know?”
“I…” Yukio says. “I don’t know, but -”
“Then how do you know that this is not some sort of curse?” Kirika asks, jumping to her feet. “How can you, or anyone else, tell me what I know - that I am a failure, a fraud, and a liar? That I deserve to be punished for what I have done?” Her voice gets higher as Kirika becomes more and more hysterical. “Why do you and all of these other people follow me around and insist that I am some great hero when I have done nothing that shows that is true? Why won’t you just leave me alone?” she screams at Yukio at last.
“Kirika,” Yukio chokes out, tears welling up in her eyes as she reaches to grab Kirika’s hand. “Please, you don’t know what you’re saying. Please…”
Kirika pulls her hand out of Yukio’s. “Don’t!” she hollers. “Don’t pretend that you really care! I’m just some dalliance while you and Toshi have your little spat, and then you’re going right back to his side, because he’s the Emperor and I’m just trash, a worthless thief!”
Yukio’s up on her feet in a flash, and her hand is even faster, smacking into Kirika’s cheek with a slap that echoes through the hut. Underneath the tears, there is only rage on Yukio’s face. “Get out,” she growls.
Kirika doesn’t even hesitate - she just grabs Crane’s Dance and walks out the door barefoot in her borrowed undergarments, off into the forest. Yukio is left behind, just standing in the hut shaking with anger she can’t control, tears streaming down her face as she tries - and fails - to move. By the time she calms down enough to wipe her tears off and walk out, Kirika’s gone.
Gatac 2014-03-01 00:37:47
Kirika’s first steps across the manor grounds are stomping and loud, splashing through puddles and culminating in her vaulting over the fence surrounding the manor house. As she walks down the path towards the side gate leading into the forest, she begins to sniffle and cry as her rage and self-loathing wear off, and the more she starts to cry, the faster she starts to run. Before long, she’s at a full sprint, bawling her eyes out as she barrels towards the side gate. She blows through it and into the forest, over the damp ground, rocks and roots, not even looking where she’s going. Before long, she’s well and completely lost - and it only gets worse when she finally loses her footing on some slick leaves and falls head over heels down a hill.

At the bottom of the hill, Kirika rolls to a halt - and Crane’s Dance is gone from her hands. She forces herself onto her hands and knees and scrambles around in desperate search for the last gift her father left her, tears stopped by a rush of panic and fear. Leaves and bushes are searched through, but after a minute of frantic searching, the sword is nowhere to be seen, and she just collapses again, completely wracked by tears. Her family is gone, her friends are gone, her love is gone, and now the one thing her father left her is gone. As she sobs uncontrollably on her side, Kirika Kamura wishes she would die, right then and there.

The forest has fallen quiet, just as the soft breeze seems to have frozen in place; even the cold of the forest floor, still damp from the night, fades into the distance. All that can be heard over Kirika’s sobs are the sounds of soft footsteps walking up to her. Even through clenched eyes, Kirika can see the faint blue glow on her and around her.

“You look like you could use some help, Kirika,” a kind voice says. Kirika’s eyes fly open and she stares up at the silhouette of Ameda Kamura, holding his hand out to his daughter.
Kirika screams and backs up against the nearest tree and shields herself with her arms as best she can. “Oh, gods, I am so sorry, please don’t hurt me!
Ameda slowly withdraws his hand and shakes his head. He walks over to Kirika, then sits down beside her. “Kirika,” he says softly. “There is nothing you have to fear from me. You know I would never hurt you. Now, please, let me see your face.”
Kirika slowly lowers her arms, but can’t bring herself to face her father’s spirit.
“So many tears,” Ameda says, running his ghostly hand over her cheek. “What troubles you, my daughter?”
Kirika’s breath catches in her chest. “I...I...Yukio...and Toshi...and the Shadowwatch…”
“A name for every tear, then,” Ameda says. He just sits beside her for a moment before he continues. “I have watched you torture yourself over letting this Kei woman leave with her life. And I am here to tell you, Kirika, that your dealings with her were not a test for you to fail. You made a choice - a good choice. And I know it pains you to see her go, but what you gained there was more important than revenge. If I was in your place, I would have made the same choice.”
Kirika can hear the words her father is saying - can feel his breath on her face, his warmth against her shoulders, can all but touch him - but she can’t quite process what he is saying. “But then...why?” she asks, and sniffles.
“You will need every ounce of strength on your quest,” Ameda says. “It is as your partner Yukio told you - we are trying to help you, daughter. To protect you. As are your friends, Kirika. It is only your grief that has kept you blind to it.”
Kirika shakes her head. “Why do I feel like such a failure?” she asks. “Why does everyone insist on telling me that I should feel these things that I don’t, that I am a hero and a good person when everything I have done says otherwise? Why are you even here, after all I have done?” She wants to grab her father, but she can’t. “Why any of this?”
Because of what you’ve done,” Ameda says. “Have you kept a count of how many bad people you have defeated, how many innocents you have helped? Are you not the woman who showed mercy to the deserving and steel to the truly evil? Have you not given your time and your strength, again and again, to help the just causes of others? Where is the hero in this of which you are not worthy already? I do not see him. And I am not here to command your feelings, I am here to point out the facts.” He puts his arm around her, and she can feel his warmth against her skin. “There is only one person around here that thinks badly of you, Kirika, and that is you. You have taken on so much pain, so much punishment, but do you not see that it is only yourself who blames you? Your friends are not fools, Kirika. They are not mistaken or deceived in what they see in you. So I ask you - why? Why do you think so badly of yourself? What have you done that you cannot forgive yourself?”
“I…I let you down, father,” Kirika stammers, unsure of the answer. “For ten years, I let you down. I became what you fought against.”
Ameda smiles softly. “You were a child, hurt and alone and desperate. No just man can blame you for what you did to survive, Kirika. You stole from those who had plenty. And along the way, you kept on helping others, like your friend Toshiro. Perhaps the sages of ancient times could subsist on wisdom and moral certitude, but in our times, people need to eat. And that aside, this is a path you have long since left behind. A friend came to you in need of help, and you gave it - you are still giving it. You did not become the worthy successor to the Kamura legacy the moment I first appeared to you, Kirika. I just told you what was already true before. I say this truly: you have never failed me, Kirika. If you will not listen to your friends in this, then please listen to me.”
Kirika feels a little better hearing that - a little. “But that was before Kei,” she counters. “And now, with everything I have said and done - gods, I wouldn’t blame Toshi or Yukio if they never want to see me again -”
“Kirika!” Ameda says, and and when he grabs her by the shoulders, she can actually feel his strong touch. “That is enough. Get up.” Kirika jumps to her feet. “All this brooding has not helped you,” Ameda says as he walks around her. “Is it still your dearest wish to walk in the footsteps of your family?” he asks.
“Yes!” Kirika shouts.
“Then look around you,” Ameda says.

Kirika’s look sweeps the clearing as the blue glow around them deepens, even tingeing the sunlight falling through the treetops. More ghostly shapes appear, walking out from behind the trees, and as they get closer to Kirika and Ameda, their features become clearer. Ameda puts his arm around Kirika’s shoulder again while his other arm sweeps the growing crowd before them.

“This is your family, Kirika,” Ameda says, pointing out individuals. “Do you remember their stories? Hinjo Kamura, the Winter General.” A stern old man with a beard that reaches almost to his hips, granting Kirika a nod. “Kaede Kamura, who stood alone at the Divide to protect a farmer’s son.” A woman in light armor, carrying a sword in one hand and a spear in the other, with a bow slung over her back. “Zawa Kamura, hero of Stonesky.” A stocky, short man, wielding a sword almost as tall as himself, with a big smile on his face. “And someone you already know.”

Kirika feels another touch on her arm - and when she turns, she sees her mother smile up at her.

“We are all here to show our love and pride in you, Kirika,” Ameda says. “We all believe in you, Kirika. We all want to help you, which is why we have helped you as we have.” Kirika looks down at her new muscular frame. “And we are here to say that we are all proud of the wise, brave and merciful hero you have grown into. None of us were born heroes, my daughter - we all understand what you had to do to survive - and there has never been a Kamura that is not proud of what you did when confronted with the instigator of my demise.” He puts his hands on her shoulders once again. “Kamuras are brave, honest, and fair, but above all, we know right from wrong - and you gave her your word. A lesser person would have struck her down anyway, but you held to your word. What you see as your greatest failure, we see as proof that you truly are worthy of being the scion of the Kamura line.”
Kirika looks over the dozens of her assembled ancestors, and they all are smiling at her warmly. Some of them are shouting words of encouragement at her - most soundlessly, but she can hear Kaede’s voice at the edge of her hearing, telling her she would have done the exact same. Still, absolution doesn’t clear the ache and emptiness in her heart. “Thank you, all, can I carry on?” she asks. “I have wronged so many - and the ones closest to me most of all. The Shadowwatch would be right to not trust my advice, and Toshi and Yukio…” Kirika tears up again at the thought of their expressions. “I would not blame them if they never wanted to see me again.”
“They are your friends,” Ameda says. “I know it is difficult, but you must seek them out and tell them you are sorry. You cannot expect forgiveness if you do not first humble yourself and ask for it. But when you do, I am certain you will find that they are not as angry at you as you imagine.”
“But...what if I don’t deserve it?” Kirika whispers.
“That is for your friends to decide,” Ameda says. “They will surprise you in the best way - if you let them.”
Kirika doesn’t say anything for a moment, then embraces Ameda. “Why can’t it be you?” She looks over to her mother. “Or you, mother?”
Suzame Kamura smiles at her daughter, mouthing three words, but already her outline seems to become fainter. “Because it is not our place,” Ameda says, as his warmth slowly fades from Kirika’s shoulders. “We have bent and broken enough rules already. Our time in this world ended long ago, and it is time that we accept it.” He grabs her hand, and in this tight grip, she still feels the last bit of substance and warmth. “Listen to your friends, Kirika. And let them help you.”
“How do you know they will?” Kirika asks.
“Because even now, they are ready to stand by you,” Ameda says. “Listen, Kirika. Do you hear it?”
Kirika turns her head, and lets the wind carry the sounds of the farm downhill. The trample of hooves in the distance, panicked shouts from Rowan and his sons, the squealing of the old gate at the front.
“There are people that need you, Kirika,” Ameda says. “Go, and make us proud.”
Kirika smiles - a genuine one. “I will do my best.” She squeezes her father’s hand. “I love you, father.”
“We all love you, Kirika,” Ameda whispers. “Goodbye, my daughter.”
Kirika sucks in a breath. “Goodbye, father.”

Ameda Kamura does not respond; when Kirika looks to her side, she finds herself alone in the clearing, with no trace of her family and her tattoos silent again. Gripped in her right hand is Crane’s Dance, ready to be unsheathed once more. Off in the distance, she can still hear the whinnying of horses and the panicked shouts of the farmers - the people under her protection. She narrows her eyes at the thought, and sprints off towards the disturbance.
Gatac 2014-03-01 00:38:11
Rowan can only close his eyes and turn into the blow as the back of the samurai’s armored glove smacks against his cheek. The farmer stumbles back, and his arms briefly try to jump up before he forces them back to his side, steadying himself and bowing again. The blood in his mouth is mixing with saliva, making it impossible for him to say anything, and spitting on the ground in front of a samurai - well, Rowan knows no faster way to getting your head cut off. Behind him, Yufaro and Kuwaru lie in the dirt and seem frozen in place, though Kuwaru occasionally glances up at the samurai beating on his dad.

The samurai himself would be a sorry sight if he wasn’t currently brutalizing the farmers. His armor’s scales are dull, with some rusted and some others completely missing, and it’s hard to guess when he’s had his last shave, or haircut, or bath. One thing that is easy to guess, however, is when he had his last drink: too long ago.

“Don’t lie to me, peasant!” the samurai shouts, stomping forth and back before Rowan. “You grow rice, you have sake! What kind of hospitality is this, to lie to your esteemed guests?”
Rowan’s eyes clench as he swallows the thick wad of bloody spit in his mouth. “I beg your forgiveness, lord,” he croaks. “We truly do not have any wine left.”
“Then buy some!” the samurai shouts. He walks past Rowan and kicks Yufaro in the side. “You, boy! Up with you!”
Yufaro rises with a groan, but keeps his head down. “We do not have the coin to spare for wine, lord,” Yufaro says through his gritted teeth.
“Liar!” the samurai shouts, then shoves Yufaro - who trips over his brother and falls into the mud beside him.
Even the samurai’s laughter stinks. “There you go!” he says. “At least one of you is good for something!”

Yufaro picks himself off the ground, and his eyes go wide when he sees Kirika walk up to the commotion in her underwear, wielding only her sword and a face twisted in anger. As she strides forward, she can see the Shadowwatch ninjas stacked up behind the huts; Homi gives her a “We’ve got your back” nod. Rowan’s the next to see her, and his sigh of relief tips the samurai off in turn; he whirls about to face her, looks her up and down, then laughs cautiously.

“I’m sorry,” he says, hand wandering towards the hilt of his sword. “Did we wake you?”
Kirika gives the samurai a dangerous smirk. “You could say that.” Her hand rests on her sword’s hilt. “Apologize to Rowan and Yufaro, and then take your leave.”
“And why the Hells should I do that?” the samurai asks. “Who do you think you are?”
“My name is Kirika Kamura,” Kirika replies. “Of the Kamura clan of sword experts. This is my land, these people are my people, and disrespecting them is the same as disrespecting me. So, if you want to leave with your life, apologize to them and never come back.”
The last traces of the samurai’s smile disappear as he takes a step back. “That’s the wrong lie to tell a samurai,” he says. “The Kamuras are dead! All of them!”
“Not quite,” Kirika says as she takes a step towards the samurai. She turns her head enough to show the tattoos climbing up the left side of her cheek to her brow. “Do you see?”
“It’’s a trick!” the samurai cries, then draws his blade - with a scraping sound that does not sound very healthy. “You wanna play swordmaster, girl? Come here and face a real samurai!”
“You don’t want to do this,” Kirka cautions the samurai. “I don’t want to spill any blood today - please, let your ego take the wound instead of your body. Apologize, and leave for good.”
“Don’t tell me what to do!” the samurai shouts. “You think I’m afraid of a name? You’re not even dressed!”
“I don’t need to be,” Kirika says, flexing the arm and shoulder resting on her blade’s hilt. “Are you going to heed my advice, samurai?”

(Samurai’s Resolve: 1d20+7-3 = 13 SUCCESS - in a purely numerical sense, that is.)

The answer is: no. No, he’s not.

“I don’t scare so easy, girl,” he says. “Cut down bigger bitches than you, too.”
Kirika draws her sword and strikes her family’s loose stance. “Rowan, leave and take your sons. They don’t need to see this.”

Rowan nods, and his sons make no argument, either - they’re just glad that they’re still in one piece, and run for safety as fast as their legs will carry them.


Kirika: 1d20+11 = 16
Samurai: 1d20+5 = 19

The samurai moves towards Kirika and then makes a single attack.

Samurai’s attack: 1d20+8 = 16 MISSED!

Kirika attacks!

Kirika’s attack: 1d20+14 = 18 HIT!
Kirika’s damage: 1d10+9 = 14
Samurai’s damage save: 1d20+8 = 27 SUCCESS!

And again!

Kirika’s attack: 1d20+14 = 21 HIT!
Kirika’s damage: 1d10+9 = 14
Samurai’s damage save: 1d20+8 = 23 FAIL!)

The samurai rushes at Kirika, sword over his head and belting out a drunk war cry. In his scumbag life, he’s done that a couple of times, and it usually ended with his blade in somebody’s shoulder and peasants falling over each other to hand over their valuables. Sure, it wasn’t the best way of living, but it worked for him and kept him in coin and drink. However, when he was younger, he was careful not to try this with another samurai, but age and sake have driven what little sense he once had out of his skull years ago, and so he runs at Kirika like he honestly expects to win.

To Kirika’s credit, he doesn’t have to suffer long.

His first and only blow comes in from above with too much of an arc, easy for Kirika to all but swat out of the way with Crane’s Dance. The blade sings as she whirls around to dodge its adjusted path, building momentum for her own attack. With a blindingly fast spin, she slashes outward, opening the samurai’s belly and spinning him around. Before he has time to register the pain, she reverses the course of her blade and brings it to the samurai’s neck. Crane’s Dance slides through meat and bone with ease, and the samurai drops first to his knees and then to the ground with a final arterial spray. The head lands a second later, rolling a few times over the ground and leaving a little bloody streak before coming to a stop.

Kirika flicks her sword once, and the samurai’s blood slides off in a splat on the ground next to his body before the sword returns to its home with a wipe along her undergarments. She looks around, and she sees Rowan peering past the corner of his house. Their eyes meet briefly, and Rowan seems transfixed by the burst of violence, but after a moment he nods to Kirika and turns away, rushing off to make sure his family is safe. Kirika looks around for Homi and the rest of the Shadowwatch as she takes the reins of the dead samurai’s horse, and she’s not disappointed: the ninjas emerge from their hiding spots and walk towards her. Homi’s smiling, Sidewinder still has his gonnes drawn in case of a sneak attack, and Copperhead - honestly, who knows, but he looks satisfied enough.

Sidewinder’s the first to catch up with her, and all he can offer is a “Damn!”
“You appear much improved, Kamura-san,” Copperhead says.
“Not quite, Copperhead,” Kirika replies. “But...I am better. I had a talk with my ancestors.”
Copperhead raises an eyebrow. “Unorthodox,” he says, then looks over to the samurai’s severed head. “Apparently effective, though.”
“Indeed,” Hiro Homi says, limping into the conversation last. “I am sorry we did not intervene earlier; the situation escalated rapidly and I did not want to compromise our presence here as long as there seemed to be no risk to limb and life yet. Oh, Toshiro and Yukio are at the manor with the other farmers to protect them. I think that’s everyone accounted for.”
Kirika nods. “Thank you, Homi-san. And there is no need to apologize, they are not your responsibility, they are mine.” She sighs. “A responsibility that I have been shirking in my own self-pity.”
“If you wish to attend to that, Kirika, then you can do so now,” Homi says. “We will handle your...visitor.”
Kirika nods. “Then I think I will.” She turns to Copperhead. “And I will start with you three. Copperhead, you have gone far beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected with the manor house. Your efforts have been...astonishing, and I am forever in your debt for what you have done for this manor and restoring my family’s glory here.”
Copperhead does that ‘which of these responses is appropriate’ expression again, settling on a simple “Thank you, Kamura-san.”
She turns to Sidewinder. “How much time have you spent spying on me for Homi-san these last two weeks, Sidewinder?” Kirika asks with a smirk.
“Er,” Sidewinder says.
“No less than thirteen hours,” Homi says with a smirk.
“Sixteen or thereabouts, actually,” Sidewinder admits.
Homi momentarily stops smirking, but then smiles. “You are getting better and better, Sidewinder.”
“Ah, it ain’t nothing,” Sidewinder says.
“But thank you for your concern,” Kirika says. “I know you went above and beyond, even if...I don’t know directly.”
“Anytime,” Sidewinder says, favoring her with a nod.
“And Homi-san…” Kirika says, blushing a bit. “Thank you. For everything.”
“You are very welcome, Kirika,” Homi says. “I suspect we both owe each other much from these past weeks. I am just happy to see you back in action.”
“Well, we can talk about this soon,” Kirika replies. She looks up towards the manor house. “I have...two very important apologies to make.”
“Go,” Homi says. “We will speak later.”

Kirika nods to Copperhead and Sidewinder in turn, and turns to head up the hill. She looks over the undergarments she’s borrowed - covered in mud and sweat, with a nice line of samurai blood down the side. She sighs - another apology she needs to give, and ruining part of her love’s fine wardrobe is by far the least of them.
Gatac 2014-03-01 00:38:34
Kirika finds the manor house under lock and key, with Yukio standing guard outside in full armor with her sword at her side and a spear in her hands. When she turns her head and sees Kirika, standing tall and blooded, the spear drops from her hands, and she pulls off the helmet, letting it clatter to the ground, too. Her eyes briefly meet Kirika’s, but her head drops almost instantly.

Kirika swallows hard. “There...I think he was ronin...but there was a samurai,” she starts. “He was threatening Rowan and his sons.” She takes in a stuttering breath as her tears start to return. “And I gave him a chance to leave, but he refused, so I -”
“I’m so sorry, Kirika,” Yukio says. “I don’t...I didn’t want to, but...there is no excuse for hurting you.”
“Yes, there is,” Kirika says, taking a cautious step towards Yukio. “I have been…so horrible to you, and all you wanted to do was help me.” Kirika drops to her knees and bows to Yukio. “I am so sorry, my love. I...I am not better, but I want to start getting there, but...if you no longer want me, I will understand.”
Yukio takes a knee and gently grabs Kirika, helping her back to her feet. One hand cups Kirika’s chin and lifts up her face, showing two clear, reddened streaks through the dirt and grime on her face. With tears welling up in her own eyes, Yukio barely has time to smile before she leans in and kisses Kirika, and that in turn leads to a tight embrace. “I’m so glad you’re back, dearest,” Yukio whispers.
Kirika’s heart lights up at hearing those words from Yukio, and she squeezes her love as tightly as she can right back. “What I said...I…”
“It doesn’t matter,” Yukio whispers. “It doesn’t matter anymore, Kirika. You’re here. You came back for me.”
Kirika leans back a bit to look Yukio in the eyes. “I still don’t understand why you love me,” she whispers. “I love you so much, love, but...why me? After all I have put you through, why?”
“You’ve asked me that so many times, dearest,” Yukio says, a smile on her face. “I’m still not sure I have a good answer. You are so many things...your beauty, your mind, your skills, your heart - how can I choose one to love?”
“Not what,” Kirika says. “Why? Why do you…” she sniffles. “Why haven’t you left me?”
“I cannot bear it,” Yukio says. “The moment after...after I attacked you, and you turned, and you left me, it was...agony. I did not know what to do, and I...I thought, what never forgive me, and never come back, and…” She hugs her again. “It made me realize that there is nothing in this world that could replace you, or console me, if I lost you, dearest. It was a terrible moment, to finally know the words and have to fear I would never get to say them to you. You are the one that I want, more than anything else.”
Kirika buries her face in Yukio’s shoulder - from the top this time, no longer short enough to do so from the front. “Are you sure?” she whispers, hope edging into her voice.
“I’ve never been so sure about anything else,” Yukio whispers.
Kirika smiles, and moves her lips towards Yukio’s for a tender kiss. “I love you.”
Yukio returns the kiss. “I love you, too,” she whispers.
“But…” Kirika sighs. “I have to go talk to Toshi. And I think it would be best if I did so alone.”
“...okay,” Yukio says, reluctantly letting go of Kirika. “He’s inside, I’ll be...outside. I’ll wait for you here.”
Kirika smiles and wipes her eyes with one hand, the other still holding on to Yukio’s. “And I believe you, love. I really do now.” She can’t seem to spit out the words for a moment, as they stick in her throat. “I’ll never leave you again, Yukio. Don’t be afraid.” She smiles - it’s a weak one, but it’s more genuine than any other smile Yukio’s seen in the last two weeks. “I’m yours forever.”
Yukio’s out of words to reply with, but her bright smile and nod say enough.

Kirika rushes in for one last peck, then lets Yukio go and turns to head inside. The only thing giving her the strength to take the first steps inside is what just transpired - without it, facing Toshi would be too much to bear. Kirika feels horrible for what she has put Yukio through, but Toshi...ever since last night, all she can see when she closes her eyes is Toshi’s tearful face as she was carried away. A face that communicated nothing but sorrow and disappointment, a mortal wound that she delivered unto her best friend in the entire world. It’s that face that made her sigh and made every step so far like walking in clay, and now she has to face him again.

The door to the main hall is tied shut from the other side. “It’s me, Kirika,” she calls out. “It’s safe now, you can all come out.”
“...okay,” comes the reply in a familiar voice, and a moment later, the door unlocks. Kirika catches only a glimpse of Toshi pulling the door open before the farmers rush out past the two of them. Toshi doesn’t follow them; instead, Kirika can hear his steps slowly walking back into the manor.
Kirika steps inside just in time to see Toshi turn a corner and head down a hallway. “Toshi, wait!” She chases after him, finding him in one of the refurbished bedrooms. The place is in disarray from the many people hiding here during the samurai’s “visit”, but most telling is the collection of the Kamura family woodcuts strewn over the bed. Toshi sits on the bed beside them, hands folded and head slightly lowered as he stares at the wall. Kirika stops herself short of hugging Toshi - no small effort itself - and simply stands there, her hands folded. “Oh, Toshi,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry.”
“They were scared,” Toshi says. “So I got the woodcuts and I told them the stories...Kamura this, Kamura that.” He smirks bitterly. “Didn’t know a few of those guys, so I had to make something up. But I told them, it’ll be alright, you’ll protect them.” He finally turns to look at her. “Thank you for not making me a liar.”
Kirika takes a few hurried steps forward, then holds herself short again, once more folding her hands in a courtly fashion as a stop against sweeping her friend off his feet. “Thank you for believing in me,” she replies meekly. “Even when I didn’t.” It’s her turn to avert her eyes, down towards the floor. “It was all right, all along, Toshi. Everything you said. I just...I couldn’t believe that those words described me, wouldn’t believe it. I looked at myself, and all I saw was my failures, because that’s what I thought - I knew - that’s all anyone else saw, and when you said those things to me…” Kirika sucks in a stuttering breath. “I couldn’t help but deny it, because I didn’t want to believe someone like you believed in someone like me.”
Toshi smiles a bit. “Someone like me? Is that a compliment I just heard?”
“You…” Kirika smiles a bit herself as she lifts her eyes off the floor. “Well, you may not have been better than me, but you always had a good heart, Toshi. And now that you are not hiding yourself from us, I can see that you are far more capable - and compassionate - than anyone possibly imagined. You are…” Kirika falls to her knees and bows her head to the floor. “You are better than me, Toshi. Not just because you are my Emperor, but because you refused to give up on a friend that had completely given up on herself. Even when I broke your heart, you still believed in me. That is -”
“Hey hey hey,” Toshi says, jumping up from the bed to walk over to her. He takes a knee and grabs her hands. “It’s just me, regular old Toshi, okay? We can talk about this like two regular people, right?”
“But even after I -”
“Kirika!” Toshi cuts in, squeezing her hands tighter. “Yes, even after...whatever you were going to say. Now come on, enough of this, that’s...that’s not where I want to see you.”
Kirika slowly sits up, but still averts her eyes.
“Hey,” Toshi whispers, moving one of his hands to her shoulder. “Eyes up front, Kirika. Okay? Just...why are you doing this?” He smirks nervously. “I mean, I said whatever I sit on is the throne, but come on, let’s not do this...this...court...thing. It’s just me and you in here, okay? I promise I won’t tell the High Lords.”
Kirika slowly looks back to Toshi, her eyes red and wet yet again. “I - I haven’t stopped seeing your face last night,” she confesses. “I hurt you so badly, and you were so kind and honest and supporting, and I just threw it back in your face, I...I don’t deserve to be your friend, Toshi.”
“Do I get a vote?” Toshi asks softly. “Look, Kirika. I’m not going and tell you I’m not hurt. The way you...the way things happened, it wasn’t easy for any of us. And I feel really bad about it, too. Like, I had this whole story laid out for you and it didn’t work and I started to think, maybe I’m just not as important in your life as you are in mine, but…” Tears well up in his eyes, but he can’t look away.
Kirika can no longer hold back the hug she’s been wanting to give him since she first walked in the room, and wraps her arms around him. “I’m so sorry,” she wails. “I’m so sorry, Toshi. It did work, it did. When my ancestors appeared to me in the forest, they spoke of your words.” She presses her cheek against his. “You are the only one who knows me like that, Toshi. No man is more important in my life than you.”
A chuckle sneaks out of Toshi in between the tears. “When you put it like that…” he says, and hugs her back. “Was it...was it good? To see your father…”
Kirika nods. “You would have liked him so much,” she whispers, then chuckles. “He wouldn’t have trusted you at all - but he would have liked you.”
“Now I really feel like a politician,” Toshi says. He gives Kirika one more hug, patting her on the back. “Uh, Kirika...while we’re, you know, while we’re talking…”
“I mean, it’s probably nothing,” Toshi says, “and if it’s nothing I’ll forget it, I mean, you weren’t feeling so great when you said it, it wasn’t a good time for either of us, but -”
“Out with it, Toshi,” Kirika says, giving him a squeeze.
“You said you loved me,” Toshi says, “and, uh…”
Kirika leans back to look Toshi in the eyes. “Well, I do. Not like I love Yukio,’s not that far off. More than a good friend, less than a wife or husband.” She shrugs. “Like a big sister loves a younger brother. Don’t you feel the same way?”
“Oh, Gods!” Toshi sighs. “Thank you, I thought you No, that’s fine, that’s...if you want to call that love, then yes, I love you, too. As a friend!”
“And we’re going to politely ignore the protuberance through your kimono, then?” Kirika asks with a smirk.
“I won’t apologize for my good taste,” Toshi says. “Also, haven’t had a room of my own in two weeks and you’re just getting hotter every day and it seemed impolite to bring up the threesome topic again, so…”
“So polite of you,” Kirika teases. She sighs, and leans back against Toshi. “I have been afraid of losing Yukio ever since we first slept together outside Kargbeck. I know it is complicated, and that she is more restrained, but...there it is. But last night was the first and only time I was afraid I had lost you, Toshi, and the wound cut just as deep.”
“Yeah, well, you’re stuck with me,” Toshi says. “And, listen, about Yukio...our whole relationship was based on a lie. It doesn’t mean I didn’t love her...still love her, but: I know I’m not the guy...person...ah! Partner for her. That ship has well and truly sailed. And you know she’s madly, incredibly, absolutely in love with you, yeah? better to her than I was, okay? She deserves it.”
Kirika nods, her tears welling up again. “Dammit, Toshi, and I was just drying my eyes,” she chokes out. “But yes. I...I’m just now realizing how much.” She pinches her eyes shut. “After all I said, she never left my side, did she? Everything I did, all the love I rejected…” Kirika moans and leans into Toshi. “No one deserves someone that cares for them that much,” she cries.
Toshi puts on a brave smile. “Yeah, well, I didn’t deserve her either, I guess we both just got very lucky,” he says, then pats Kirika on the back. “You feeling a little better?”
Kirika nods as she pulls herself together again.
“Then come on,” Toshi says, rising and trying to encourage her to follow - not like he could pull her up if he wanted to. “Let’s get out of here.”
Kirika stands up - and, if we’re honest, drags Toshi the rest of the way up with her, now that she’s a good few inches taller than he is. “Where are we going?” she asks.
“Fresh clothes for you seem like a good idea right now,” Toshi says. “I’m sure the farmers will want to thank you, and I think it’s better for everyone if you don’t go meet them in bloody underwear.”
Kirika laughs. “Fair enough. But...I have to talk to Yukio one last time before we do this. Okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Toshi says. “I’ll...I’ll go grab the ninjas, talk to the farmers. We didn’t really introduce them, that was a bit rude, but hey, perfect time to fix it. You just show up whenever. In fresh clothes. Yeah?”
Kirika nods. She smiles at Toshi. “You really are good at nearly everything, Toshi.” She pulls him in, and kisses him in a more than friendly way.
Toshi manages a decent return on the kiss, considering his hormones and the real-life-ing of some of his more memorable dreams. Still, a gentleman doesn’t linger...too much. “But horrible at everything else,” Toshi smirks. Unseen by Kirika, his right hand hovers near her rear, but retreats before it makes contact. “Go. I’ll handle it.”
Kirika nods and runs off down the hall, leaving Toshi standing there.
“Gods damn it,” Toshi mutters to himself. His eyes sweep the area until they fall onto a bucket filled with water. He walks over, takes a knee and dunks his face into the water, keeping it submerged for a good while. Finally, he draws it back and gasps for air, shaking the drops from his face and slicking back the wet parts of his hair. “Better,” he says. “That’s...that’s a bit better.”


For Yukio, the worst part of being a samurai has always been the armor. Nevermind armor for women, armor for women of her size is a whole different story, and not a very easy one. Sure, it fits when it’s on and it protects well, but there are so many little bits and pieces, and somehow taking it off is worse than putting it on because it makes everything the armor was keeping in place shrug loose, too. Yukio’s had time to fix her undergarments and kimono, but when Kirika comes back to see her, she’s still retying the braids of her hair. When she sees Kirika, she smiles and stops braiding, instead shoving the whole half-braided mess into the back of her collar. The tears on Kirika’s face find mirrors in Yukio’s eyes as she rushes over to embrace her dearest.

“There you are,” Yukio says.
“You never left me,” Kirika whispers, out of breath from all of the emotion of the day. “I didn’t realize it until Toshi pointed it out, never left my side. All I was was horrible and moody and sad to you, but every day, every morning, every second, you were there by my side, pushing me along and giving me nothing but love. And I was so blind that I doubted your love and devotion to me, when all these last two weeks you have done nothing but prove that you would go through the worst pain, that you would love me even when I wasn’t loving you back, and…” Kirika, overcome with emotion, picks up Yukio with her embrace and spins her around, kissing her deeply all the while.
“Woah!” Yukio says, as soon as she’s back on the ground and her lips are free again. “Kirika, you…” She smiles at her. “You’ve apologized enough, dearest.”
Kirika shakes her head, but still smiles. “No. There will never be enough apologies, moments, kindness or love in the world to repay what you show me every single day. But I will try, love.” Kirika pulls Yukio back in close, and rubs her cheek against Yukio’s. “I will try every second of every day, for the rest of our lives.”
Yukio kisses Kirika on the back of the neck. “Thank you,” she whispers. Kirika, finally out of words, simply buries her face in her love’s neck and hair, inhaling her scent as she hugs Yukio as tightly as she can, and Yukio does so right back.
punkey 2014-03-24 14:24:13
There’s very little that engenders a deep-seated desire for closeness of all sorts than what has currently transpired today for Kirika and Yukio. So, it’s not surprising that the two of them quickly move inside to Kirika’s room in the manor and onto her bed. Cutting a man into thirds takes some of the edge off of Kirika’s desire, but there’s nothing that could have stopped her from spending the next few hours with her arms wrapped around her love and holding her close - sometimes whispering proclamations of love, sharing what transpired in the forest, and then saying absolutely nothing at all.

It’s only as the sun dips below the mountains on the westward side of the valley that they emerge from her room together - Kirika still trying to cram herself into her old kimonos, the current one a fine red silk number that now shows off her thick calves and barely crosses back over itself across her broad and muscular chest. Yukio makes a joke about Kirika’s growth, and even though she still feels a spike of unease in her chest at the reminder of what has become of her body, Kirika gives a chuckle just the same.

A smiling Toshi collects the two for dinner at Rowan’s house - the farmer was very (politely) insistent about that, to hear Toshi tell it. The trio can see the smoke rising from the house’s chimney against the last glimmer of daylight while Rowan and his sons stand outside, decked out in their best clothes and with their heads bowed. Toshi offers a slight bow in return - not that Rowan or his sons can see it.

“Thank you for indulging me, Kamura-sama,” Rowan says, leaning heavily on his manners. “We do not have much to thank you with, but we will gladly share it with you and your friends. It is the least we can do.”
Kirika bows back. “Thank you for your hospitality and your aid, Rowan-san,” she says. “And please, without the Kamura family present, this has been your farm. If anything, I owe you and all of those who cared for this land far more than a simple meal.”
Rowan nods, which is interesting to do considering he’s already bowing his head. “Please come in and have a seat.”

Rowan’s house is best described by the word “appropriate” - not very big, but big enough to fit his family and the guests of honor without too much of a problem. The table’s a little short, leaving the sons at the end with their plates on the floor and without cushions to sit on. Kiki doesn’t seem to get to sit down at all, being that she’s busy cooking and serving and generally tending to everyone, constantly sneaking around the perimeter of the table to keep everyone topped off - and apologizing for being out of sake approximately every twenty seconds. The dinner’s well-cooked, even though very limited by the available ingredients - Rowan went to the extravagance of not only slaughtering a goat, but also scoured his farm for the freshest produce he could find, leading to an eclectic assortment of greens, rounded off with rice and a creamy mushroom sauce.

After everyone has had enough time to fill their bellies, Rowan bows his head towards Kirika again. “Thank you again for your presence, Kamura-sama,” he says. “My family owes you everything, and we will not soon forget it. If you will forgive my boldness, I was surprised to find out that your companions Your father preferred to travel alone, as I recall.”
“Well, things are...more trying right now,” Kirika replies. “I could use the extra help.” She puts her hand on Yukio’s underneath the table. “And I think my current companions can handle themselves.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Rowan says. “Again I must be bold in my question, Kamura-sama, but could you please share with us what you intend to do about the robber? Yufuro and Kuwaru have buried his body, but...we are afraid he will be missed by whoever his liege was.”
“Judging by the state of his armor, not to mention his demands - if he had a liege, he would go to him for drink, most likely - and by the fact that no lord or lady would have a drunken belligerent like him for a vassal, I doubt he had a liege,” Kirika replies. “But if he does, and trouble comes, I will return here to put an end to it.”
“That is very good to hear, Kamura-sama,” Rowan says. “Word of the Kamura family’s return will surely keep other bandits away. We will be sure to speak of you to everyone around us of you - unless you wish to announce yourself in person, of course.”
“I think for now, it is best to keep the news of my return quiet,” Kirika replies. “We aim to make some powerful enemies soon, and I would hate to put your family and the other families here at risk.”
Rowan seems taken aback by that for a moment, but nods. “Of course, Kamura-sama. And to be truthful, bandits like this man are very rare around these parts to begin with. Once we have repaired the wall, I doubt anyone will think to rob us again.”
“Kamura-sama,” Kuwaru says. Kirika can see eyes darting over to him, with Rowan in particular torn between chastising his son for speaking out of turn and not acknowledging the embarrassment - in the end, he just bows his head deeper while Kuwaru keeps talking. “I was very afraid of that robber. I want to thank you for fighting him, and...I want to learn how to fight, too.”
Kirika smiles at Kuwaru. “And I would be glad to teach you. I remember my father teaching the others who lived and worked on our land to fight, and that is one tradition I would be glad to continue.” She looks over to Rowan’s older son, Yufuro. “And you as well, if you want. And maybe your father as well.” She gives the two boys a wink.
“I would be honored to receive your instruction, Kamura-sama!” Yufuro says, his back ramrod-straight as he bows his entire body forward.
“As would I,” Rowan says, bowing a little more fluidly. “Your father instructed me, years ago, but to my shame I have been unable to keep up the practice by myself. If you wish to establish your family’s dojo here, we will do everything we can to assist you.”
“Soon, I hope to recapture my family’s manor from the dogs that stole it,” Kirika says, her voice gaining a bit of an edge as her jaw tightens at the thought of her home. “But I want this to be a place of training and practice just as much as there. Perhaps...there are things we can do here to keep all of you in fighting form and shape, independent of whether or not there is a Kamura in the house.”
“Will the ninjas teach us, too?” Kuwaru asks.
Kirika leans over and mock-whispers to Kuwaru. “Perhaps, I will have to ask them - but I know someone who’s got some influence with them,” she says with a smirk.
“Cool!” Kuwaru blurts out.
“There is one final indulgence I must beg of you, Kamura-sama,” Rowan says, then turns to the kitchen. “Kiki! Bring it in!”

Kiki quietly walks in, head bowed, holding out a sturdy blue belt in her outstretched hands.

“I noticed that you wield your sword without a proper obi,” Rowan says. “We found one in your father’s old clothes, and my wife Kiki has cleaned it for you. We would be honored beyond measure if you accepted it as a token of our gratitude and wore it into battle.”
Kirika gasps, and with a bit of Yukio and Toshi’s help, gets to her feet. “The...the honor is all mine,” Kirika says, and wipes at the corner of her eyes as she takes the obi from Kiki, and bows deeply to her. “Thank you so very much for doing this for me, Kiki-san.”
Kiki backs up slightly to return the bow. “Your father was always good to us,” she says, the first time Kirika has actually heard her speak tonight. “His memory lives in all of us.”
Her words almost drag a sob out of Kirika’s lips, but she holds it together. “Yes, it does.” She unfolds the obi, strings it across her back and moves to tie it - and it’s strangely easy to do so. She runs her fingers along its length, and feels the reason why: the wear in the obi’s length where her father used to tie the same knot sits in exactly the same place with her as it did with him. Before, it would have been much further down, but after the last two weeks, it fits her just as it did him. Kirika gasps again, and gives Kiki and Rowan another deep bow with trembling lips. “Th...thank you both so very much.”
“We,” Kiki begins to stammer. “We, we also have some kimonos, and...they are yours, of course, if you would just give me some time to clean them…”
“Please, anything of my father’ would be one more thing I would have of him,” Kirika says, taking Kiki’s hands in hers as she towers almost a foot over the slight woman, nearly eclipsing her from the lamp. “I would be forever in your debt if you would do that for me.”
“I will get them cleaned for you right away, Kamura-sama!” Kiki says. “They will be ready for you in the morning!”
“Thank you very much for your hospitality, Rowan,” Yukio says, a hand softly gliding over Kirika’s shoulder. “I think we will take our leave now, yes?”
Kirika nods and sniffles a bit as she bows to Kiki one more time. “The meal was excellent, Kiki-san.” She turns to Rowan. “Thank you so very much for your hospitality, Rowan-san. I look forward to working with you and the other families to improve this farm.” And she smiles as she looks to Yufuro and Kuwaru. “And you two - manor yard, sunrise. If you want to learn to fight, first you need to get in shape, and that means exercise with me and Yukio. You want to look like me and her?” she asks, as she flexes an arm - not as much as she could, careful not to pop another sleeve.
“Yes!” Kuwaru blurts out.
“We will work hard to learn everything you can teach us, Kamura-sensei!” Yufuro says.
“And that starts by getting up early and having Yukio kick your butt,” Kirika says. “Understood?”
“Yes, sensei!” both boys shout, bowing to her almost in unison.
“We will all be there,” Rowan says.
“Excellent,” Kirika says. Toshi, Yukio and she all bow to the members of the house. “Thank you for an excellent dinner,” Kirika says. “Have a good night.”
punkey 2014-03-24 14:24:59
The goodbyes and thank-yous seem to go on for a few more minutes as everyone wishes to tell everyone else how honored and grateful they are for the evening, but finally the trio exits Rowan’s house and starts the walk to the top of the hill.

“That went well, I think,” Toshi pipes up. “No, I mean, great, it went great! So, teaching, huh?” He smirks. “So, is enrollment for your school closed already, or…”
Kirika wraps an arm around Toshi and pulls him tightly shoulder-to-shoulder with her as she smiles. “Oh, Toshi. Whatever made you think you had a choice?”
“Must be this Emperor stuff going to my head,” Toshi says. “Go a little easy on this son of the heavens, please.”
“I think he’s earned a break, hasn’t he?” Yukio says.
“No,” Kirika says with a smile. “Do you, really?”
“Actually...yes, I do,” Yukio says, smiling at Toshi.
“Listen to your dearest, Kirika,” Toshi says.
“Don’t push it,” Yukio whispers.
“Fine - you can show up with the little boys for their exercises,” Kirika teases.
“Generous as always,” Toshi says.

As the trio crests the hill, they spot Hiro Homi sitting on the tree stump that might as well have his name plate attached to it by now; he gives them a gentle smile and waves them over. “Good evening,” he says. “I trust the dinner went well?”
“Indeed it was, Homi-san,” Kirika replies.
“May I speak to you, then, Kirika?” Homi asks.
“Oh, we should prepare!” Toshi says, looking to Yukio. “For the training, I mean, I’ll help you -”
“Yes, let’s get that set up,” Yukio says, quickly catching the hint - but not before giving Kirika a quick peck on the cheek. “We’ll be at the dojo, dearest,” she says.
Kirika returns the peck. “I’ll be there to help as soon as we’re finished here, love.” She turns to Homi as Yukio and Toshi continue up the hill, and gestures for him to lead. “Shall we walk and talk, Homi-san?”
“We shall indeed,” Homi says and gets up from his stump. You almost can’t tell anymore that he injured his ankle, aside from slightly favoring his other foot as he walks, leading Kirika to the back of the Kamura manor. “What happened in the forest, Kirika?” he asks.
Kirika nods. “I saw my father again. He...told me I was being foolish, unfair and disrespectful to my friends, and that I needed to stop moping about. He also said that he would have let Kei go as well, that he loves me no matter what I have done, and that he’s proud of the woman I have become - that all of my ancestors are proud of what I have become, and that...this,” she gestures to her physique, “is their way of preparing me for what lies ahead.” She sighs. “It was amazing, seeing them all.”
“I am certain,” Homi says. No smirk, no grin - a real smile. “So, you wish to instruct the farmers in your way of fighting?”
Kirika nods again. “It’s the least I can do to prepare them, in the event Ikishi sends her forces here to harm them. And it was something my father believed in doing as well. They might not be able to complete the sword training, but my family’s techniques can be applied beyond a sword. And, well, this is my family’s legacy. I want it to continue on after me.”
“That is a good thing to do,” Homi says. “How long do you wish to stay here, then? Important as your affairs here are, our friends will soon find their way here - and then we must consider our next move.”
“It will probably be a few more weeks before Toshiba, Kagemaru and Takao return here, and a few more after that while we prepare for our grand entrance to the Capital,” Kirika replies, smirking at the thought of their plan. “That should be sufficient for them to be able to exercise and spar on their own.”
“I see,” Homi says. “Please tell me if you need our help. Otherwise, Sidewinder and I will start roaming the area. There is much to discover in these parts, I think.”
“Some of the children have asked if any of the ninja might be available for teaching duty, as well…” Kirika asks with a smile.
Homi frowns. “I could help out with weapon forms, but much of what we know, I do not wish to teach anyone,” he says. “Teaching ninjitsu to children is a despicable necessity for the clans, and therefore a despicable necessity for the Shadowwatch to gain recruits - but I have no desire to burden anyone with these teachings. If they were older, and grasped the weight of it…” He shakes his head. “I will be of ill help in training samurai, and I have no desire to train more murderers. Please disabuse them of their childish fantasies - gently.”
“All right, I understand,” Kirika replies. “But what I still don’t understand is why you insist on viewing your actions as so inexcusable and yourself in the harshest terms. You might not be what an ‘honorable noble’ might call an upstanding citizen, but as far as I am concerned, you are a good man who has done his best for his Empire, his Emperor, and his friends. Please, Homi-san, let me help you lighten your load as my father and ancestors did for me.”
Homi sighs. If they were next to the stump, he’d sit down, but as it is, all he can do is gaze wistfully at the night sky. “It is accepted that the Emperor is the one above all, guided to divine justice by the heavens themselves and dwelling among us to rule with wisdom and foresight beyond anyone else’s, is it not?” he says. “Have you heard the people yearn for his return, have you heard young Toshiro speak highly of him? Yet who really knew the man better than I did? His flaws, his indiscretions, his...humanity? And did I ever pause, in all those years, to consider whether I was doing evil in the name of a good cause, or if, maybe...if, just maybe, it was not worth it? If the only good I did was in the ‘honor’ of serving those appointed to be my betters. Should I not have said, at one point or another, that...that sometimes, I did no more than destroy the evidence of evil, all so the throne would remain immaculate in the eyes of all others?” He shakes his head again. “Certainly not all of it was bad. Many were the days when I felt truly responsible for the good of the empire, that my actions - though dark - served the greater good. But all too often, they served lesser ambitions, unworthy of what we consider an emperor to be. Who will hold me to account, if not myself?”
Kirika nods - certainly, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Knowing that Toshi is the heir to the throne certainly has put thoughts of who the Emperor really is into perspective for her. “Did you bend your orders to suit what you saw as the most good outcome?”
“Never,” Homi says, and the word weighs heavily on him. “I did as I was bid - oftentimes even without bidding. I allowed no chance of anyone coming forward to darken the throne. I was utterly relentless. In the face of allowing the Emperor to fall into disrepute - there was no compromise. None.”
“Was this...more common, towards the end?”
Homi nods, ever so slightly. “Before I realized his final madness,” Homi says. “At that point, only this...dire strategy I still follow was left to me. I cannot put into words the weeks it took me to accept it, however. Stratagem upon stratagem, all in desperate search of another way - all the while slowly realizing my own part in his reign. The tip of my blade sat at my belly every dawn. Only my hope that I could shepherd Prince Toshiro - and my fear of his fate without me - stayed my hand.”
“And often did you worry about this? Toshi was young, but he was old enough to know some of his father’s true character - and he does not remember the man you claim sat on the throne,” Kirika says.
“Oh, do not mistake my words,” Homi says. “The Emperor was hardly a monster - he was a decent man, in balance, before he was poisoned by Ikishi - but any man less than a saint would find himself in situations where the power of the throne hindered his judgment. Add to that the lesser man working for him, and his enemies scheming to ensnare him, and I would rarely find myself at rest. I did not worry then, so convinced was I of the need for my actions - then again, rare is the Shadowguard who does not posses the most absolute dedication to his duty. I do not tell you all this to condemn Toshiro’s father - but to explain why I judge my actions and my position so harshly.”
“And I assume you never shared these concerns with anyone,” Kirika says.
“I have avoided speaking to people of such treasonous views, yes,” Homi says. “I feel less threatened by the future these days, however, and I believe I can trust you to keep it in confidence and not count it against me.”
“Having concerns about what your friend was doing is not treason,” Kirika replies. “And I do not judge you harshly - or at all.” She pauses. “Is it that you see me as Toshi’s Shadowguard, of sorts? And you see that I...well…”
“Your methods are not mine,” Homi says. “And you may well chart a better course through the rapids of Toshiro’s reign than I could. I speak of my past - not your future. But is the thought alien to you, Kirika? If you could assume a place where you would be responsible for securing Toshiro’s place against all that lurks in the shadow of the throne, would you not do that?”
Kirika smirks. “I don’t see that as much different from what I do now, but...of course I would. He’s my best friend.” She stops, then starts again before Homi can speak up. “But that’s not what I am getting at. What I am trying to say is that Toshi and I have an agreement. He listens to me and respects my opinion, and I do the same for him. We’re open with each other, even though that means we fight - and just because he’s going to be Emperor soon doesn’t mean that’s going to change. But if you and your Emperor did not have that kind of relationship, if he knew that you were going to do whatever he asked of you, how he asked of you...then I’d say it’s his fault for asking you to do these things. He used your relationship towards his own ends - and to your detriment. If he knew you as well as you think he did, then he knew your doubts even if you never expressed them - and if he did nothing to change to spare you this pain? Then I’d say that you have nothing to feel guilty about.”
Homi smiles. “Your words are kind, Kirika, as they often are,” he says. “Surely there is blood on my hands and his, but the proportion of it is known only to the heavens. In any event, an old man’s conscience is not worth destroying the hope of a people.”
“Maybe not, but I don’t see the people here,” Kirika replies. “And I do see a brave and loyal fighter who gave his life to the Empire who deserves to feel like what he’s done is worthy of respect and admiration. You might not see yourself as a hero...Hiro, but even knowing what you’ve told me, that hasn’t changed my opinion of you one bit. You are a good man - if you weren’t we wouldn’t be standing here. These things might have been questionable, but they do not cancel out the many, many good things you must have done for the Empire - not to mention all the good you have done since Toshi fled the palace.” Kirika puts a hand on Homi’s shoulder. “I feel it, that you are a good man. I know that might not mean too much - believe me, I know how this works - but I hope it means at least a little bit.”
Homi smiles. “It means more than you may think,” he says. “Thank you for listening. And not share any of this with Toshiro. He is learning many valuable lessons traveling with you, but I do not think he needs to live in the shadow of his father to be a better Emperor than he was.”
“No, what he needs is someone kicking his ass all the way to the throne and beyond,” Kirika says with a smile. “So, go ahead and ask.”
Homi nods. “Will you succeed me as Shadowguard, then?”
“If Toshi wants me to...yes,” Kirika nods.

“Kirika!” Toshi shouts, his voice drawing closer together with footsteps. “Kirika, where did -” He rounds the corner, sees the two of them talking and grins. “There you are! Honestly, so many secluded places on this hill, you’d think your father hired a ninja to build this. So, uh, we got some stuff picked out for tomorrow, do you want to come take a look?”
Kirika takes her hand off of Homi’s shoulder as she hears Toshi arriving. “Sure thing, Toshi,” she says with a smile.
“You’re invited, too, old-timer,” Toshi grins.
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” Homi says, grinning right back.
punkey 2014-03-24 14:25:14
The next morning, Kirika and Yukio wearily help each other get up and outside for their morning exercises a good hour earlier - with their new trainees coming at dawn, time is limited. After tea and some high-rep/mid-weight exercises for each of them, the two women cool down outside as they wait for Rowan, his son Yufuro and Kuwaru, and the most reluctant student of all, Toshi. Tea is provided to help everyone wake up - Toshi’s suggestion to simply move everything a couple of hours back is not entertained. Rowan and his sons voice no complaints, however; as farmers, they are used to getting up early, and they’re all very eager to learn. Rowan has the steepest climb in terms of physical fitness before him, as a lifetime of farm work has left him strong and resilient, but shot his flexibility - so his workout is more of a physical therapy. The movements and stances come easily enough, though, much of it still half-remembered from long past lessons under Ameda Kamura himself. Yufuro’s got some strength work ahead of him, and his slavish attention to every detail of Kirika’s and Yukio’s instruction soon has him executing some textbook katas - but whether that will hold up in sparring is another question altogether. As for the instigator, Kuwaru’s the youngest and has the steepest climb ahead of him, but - bless him - the boy seems a bottomless well of energy and patience, good-naturedly enduring every order and correction as he works to match his older brother and father.

As for Toshi - it’s not that he’s out of shape, or stupid, or a klutz (though he does a very good impression of an out-of-shape stupid klutz when needed), but he’s gotten a little too comfortable, and getting his ass kicked by Kirika and Yukio pushes him to and past the line between ache and pain. Still, he persists, no matter how hard it gets for him, his mind set to overcoming his inner lazy bastard, and while Rowan and his sons simply walk back down the hill somewhat more stiff but feeling fine, Toshi holds strong just long enough for them to be out of line of sight before he collapses onto a bench, whereupon Kirika and Yukio haul him into a pre-made hot bath, prop him up, and let him pass out in the soothing waters while they prepare breakfast.

The next few days proceed, thankfully, without much drama. The masons Yukio and Kirika hired come around, Copperhead and Sidewinder head off on a scouting run into the mountains surrounding the valley (already bickering while still in hearing distance from the village), and the training proceeds better than hoped. Rowan and his sons are already getting into the training, while Toshi is starting to catch up. During lunch one day, Kiki comes up to Kirika and asks if she might be allowed to join - to which Kirika gives an enthusiastic yes to. Independent of her desire to see the village women learn to fight, if the whole family joins, it’ll make the rest of the village that much more likely to join. As for Kirika, Yukio’s backed off the weight just a bit - but has made up for it in reps. Kirika can still feel herself growing, but more slowly than before - she’s now just a shade shorter than Yukio - but the effort to fit into her old clothes grows more and more difficult each day. When Kirika blows out both sleeves and tears out the back simply lowering her arms in one of her more worn kimonos after Yukio has to pull it on both arms, Yukio tells Kirika point-blank that she’s calling in a tailor to make a new set of kimonos for her, and that’s that.

However, not all is as it was before - particularly, with Toshi. If you don’t know him, he seems fine, even happy, giving his all in the exercises and cracking jokes whenever he’s not out of breath. But Kirika does know Toshi, and the smallest of glances, those little pauses where he seems to run out of jokes, the way he avoids both Kirika and Yukio outside of the training - all that just isn’t him. Or, rather, a very particular him: the Toshi that’s upset about something Kirika did. Kirika gives him a few days to see if he sorts it out for himself, but when the hidden sulking continues, she decides to deal with it in her own way.
She finds Toshi sitting on a bench next to Homi’s stump on the hill - he dragged it there a day ago for the Shadowguard to sit on something more comfortable than an old stump - staring out over the woods below by himself. Kirika drops herself down onto the bench next to Toshi and gives him a warm smile. “Hey, Toshi. What are you doing?”
“Thinking,” Toshi says. It takes a moment for him to turn around and force a smile. “What are you doing?”
“Coming here to talk about that,” Kirika replies. “Toshi, I can tell when you’re upset with me, and right now, you’re still upset with me - and I don’t blame you.”
Toshi nods. “I keep telling myself it’s all okay now, but...I’m better at lying to myself than to you, apparently.” Only now does he look into Kirika’s eyes. “Look, I didn’t want to be a downer when you came back from the forest, that’s great and you’re doing a great job with the training, and...I just want to let go of what happened before. It shouldn’t be this damn hard to forgive my best friend, is.”
Kirika takes Toshi’s hand. “I know. And I have something I want to try.” She gets on her knees in the dirt in front of Toshi. “I’m sorry, Toshi,” she says, and smiles up at Toshi. “Even after all I’ve done, you still are here for me. I know what I’ve done and isn’t enough.” She stands up enough to wrap her arms around Toshi and give him a big hug. “You are more than a friend than I deserve,” she says as her eyes moisten. “I don’t know why you put up with me, do, and I’m grateful.”
“You know why,” Toshi says softly, returning the hug.
“Tell me again,” Kirika whispers. “Tell me again, so I can give you the response you deserve.”
“Because you were there for me, no matter how much crap I put you through,” Toshi says. “Because you always try to do the right thing, no matter what. Because you’re strong and smart and sexy. And because you make the most important person in my life happier than I ever saw her before. That’s why.”
“And I’m going to tell you what I told you before - there’s nothing special about that,” Kirika says. Toshi yanks his head back, but Kirika holds on tight. “Let me finish, Toshi. There’s nothing special about that because I was only returning the favor that you had done to me. Let me tell you my side of the story you told me. When I first confronted you, I saw someone who was hurt, lost and struggling, but with a good heart - someone like I used to be. Thought I used to be. And I saw you struggling, and...I had to help you. I knew that you were a good person in a bad situation, and I couldn’t just let you fall deeper down into the hole I saw myself in, so I made you stick with me, and in doing so, you reminded me that I could be like you again.” Kirika sniffles. “You always saw me as saving you, but Toshi, you were the one who saved me.”
Toshi’s gift of gab fails him, so he simply tightens his embrace. “Thank you,” he whispers.
“You’re my best friend in this world, Toshi - no, you’re more than that,” Kirika says. “Let’s go back up to the manor.”
“Okay,” Toshi says, releasing Kirika from the embrace. “There more thing I would like to clear up.”
“Which is?” Kirika asks.
Toshi looks down. “You don’t need to keep any secrets for Hiro Homi,” he says. “He talks in his sleep.”
“A bad habit for a Shadowguard, but not unexpected for someone burdened as he is,” Kirika replies. “Something I’m trying to help him with.” She adjusts her embrace slightly. “How much do you know?”
“Enough,” Toshi says. “Though only since he told you. When I walked in on the tail end of your conversation, I asked Sidewinder. He eventually broke down and told me about my father and what Homi did for him. I didn’t need those memories tainted...or more concerns about what I will do once I’m actually Emperor...but the truth is rarely what we want it to be, right?”
“Did he tell you that Hiro still maintains that your father was a good man?” Kirika asks.
Toshi nods. “I don’t find it very comforting,” he says.
“You should,” Kirika says. “Someone who is a decent man with that much power must be nearly a saint otherwise. And if you’re worried about yourself, don’t be. I know you, Toshi. You are too good at knowing what other people are thinking to blind yourself to what your decisions do to others - and I’ll be here kicking your butt.”
“Good,” Toshi replies. “Thank you.”
“Now, can we head up to the manor?” Kirika asks.
“Yes, we can,” Toshi says with a smile.
“I...talked to Yukio this morning, about some things, and I think it’s time you and I follow through on a promise,” Kirika says, and grabs Toshi by the collar, pulling him into a deep kiss as she slides her hand inside his kimono.
That gets Toshi’s attention in a hurry, and after a half second to recover from the surprise, he leans into the kiss and runs a hand over Kirika’s back. “Manor?” he coughs as they come up for air.
“Manor,” Kirika replies. “Would you like it if I carried you? Because I can do that now,” she whispers with a smirk.
“Not while I can still walk,” Toshi says.
“So, later on then,” Kirika says as she stands up.
“We’ll see,” Toshi says.
Gatac 2014-04-16 14:28:49
It’s no surprise that there’s been a bit of tension building within the relationship triangle of Kirika, Yukio and Toshi, so perhaps it’s not a surprise either that it takes a while all the kinks out. (And that’s a process none of the three can walk away from, if you know what I mean and I think you do, wink wink.) After extra-long sleep to recover a base amount of stamina, training resumes next morning, and Kirika’s glad to recognize the comeback of Actual Toshi over Fakin’ It Toshi - it might only be that his whole face smiles instead of just his mouth, but it’s a relief nonetheless, and doesn’t go unnoticed by Yukio, either. Kirika, for her part, is just glad to have her best friend back; the playful pushing and bumps that Kirika and Toshi have shared for a while might have gained an additional meaning, but the way he seems to anticipate her moves and springs to help without being asked is old school Toshi all the way. As for Yukio, she’s more glad Kirika and Toshi worked their issues out more than anything - and that it heralded the final return of the Kirika Kamura she fell in love with doesn’t hurt either. It might take more time to mend everything between the three of you - maybe there are things that will never be mended - but you all recognize now that you’ll get through this together.

The village training program is still stuck on the basics, which is not an indictment of the learning ability of Rowan’s family but instead the result of a steady trickle of new trainees showing up to the morning lessons. Yukio’s smile seems a little brighter for everyone coming to be taught in the arts of the Kamura school by its latest sensei, and when the latest headcount breaks two dozen and keeps going, she chooses an unguarded moment to give Kirika a big grin and two thumbs up. Kirika’s just happy that the villagers are getting involved in the training - the fear of reprisal by her steadily-growing list of enemies is ever-present in her mind, and she feels duty-bound to make sure that the people in her charge don’t suffer the consequences of her decisions. Rowan, in particular, is doing well; it seems her father’s lessons have stuck better than he thought, as he is breezing through even the more intermediate kata, and she’s waiting for the moment to suggest some more detailed one-on-one training to prepare him to lead the instruction in her stead. The masons watch with interest whenever they have a moment, but they’re too busy to join in - though they’ve patched up some of the smaller damaged spots in the wall around the compound already, the real work of shoring up the fortifications is just beginning.


Afternoons in the secret valley of the Kamura clan have a peculiar aspect - a cooling breeze blows from the far end, doubtless having been forced up the side of some particularly steep mountain. The moisture it carries speaks to time spent over a lake or a long river valley, and the scent in the air tells the story of a deep grove of cherry and hardwood trees, fragrant with flowers and leaves. Its arrival causes an involuntary pause to breathe it in, hold it, and gently exhale, a natural pause in the day.

And if that pause can be unnaturally prolonged by curling up with the love of your life, then so much the better. Kirika and Yukio are partaking of exactly such an elongated moment, seated together under a blanket on the wooden bench sat on the side of the manor house hill.
“Do you ever wish a moment could last a lifetime, dearest?” Yukio whispers, her hand gently stroking the small of Kirika’s back.
“If that moment was this one, yes,” Kirika whispers back, one hand slid through Yukio’s kimono and resting on her stomach, the other letting its fingers drift across her cheek.
“Then we are of one mind,” Yukio replies, and brings her head forward to kiss Kirika.
Kirika shifts her hand to cup her love’s chin as she presses into the kiss, and closes her eyes to better focus in on this one perfect moment.

The perfect moment for Hiro Homi to cough, that is. “Pardon me,” he says, with a not-at-all-sorry smile on his face as he stands just a little to the side of the entwined couple. “Sidewinder and Copperhead have returned. I thought you might want to hear their report.”
Kirika lingers a moment longer before opening her eyes and turning to Homi with a nod and a blissful smile. “Of course, Hiro. Thank you.” She looks back to Yukio.
Yukio raises an eyebrow. “Hiro?” she whispers.
Kirika simply nods in reply, and gives Yukio another peck on the lips. “Duty calls, love. I will return soon.”
“Don’t get too caught up,” Yukio replies with a smirk. “Duty is endless, romance is fleeting.”
“Not ours, love,” Kirika replies, and gives Yukio one last kiss on the tip of her nose as she stands up. Her eyes stay locked on Yukio’s as she tightens the knot in her father’s obi and adjusts Crane’s Dance, but then the moment has to end, and she looks to Homi, a more professional expression taking over. “I am ready,” she says with a nod.
Homi ushers her along, back around the mansion to the well, where Copperhead adjusts his large hat for shade while Sidewinder’s dipping his ladle into a bucket of cold water and greedily slurping up the contents. “We’re here,” Homi says. “What did you find out?”
“The bandit was ronin,” Copperhead says. “He had no lord to miss him, nor family or friends to seek revenge. There will be no retribution for his death.”
“But it didn’t go unnoticed, either,” Sidewinder says, drinking another ladleful between sentences. “Everywhere I went, people got to wondering where he was - turns out he was a right bastard who’s been pushing around everyone in a twenty-mile radius.”
“Hmph,” Kirika scoffs. “Glad I put an end to that, then.”
“You weren’t the first to try, though,” Sidewinder says. “So, they know he was ‘round these parts, and they know that whoever killed him must’ve known what they were doing. Seems like folks could put two and two together and come snooping around here, tryin’ to ascertain where you stand on...local politics.”
Kirika raises an eyebrow at Sidewinder. “Local politics?”
“Well, Sarano didn’t exactly have a lot of say in what went on around here,” Sidewinder says. “Around here, it ain’t the Empire, it’s villages - and sometimes families - that have power. Not that they’re warring or anything, but they don’t much like each other. If one of them could get in bed with you, figuratively” - he smirks at that - “then they’d be King Shit of the valley. Now if on the other hand you don’t buddy up with anyone, folks might think you’re here to muscle in and build your own turf. It’s pretty touchy. I’ve got like a half-dozen names of who I reckon are the more important players around here, but I guess the first question is, do you want to play that kinda game?”
Kirika sighs. “The larger question is will I be able to. The others should be arriving in a little over a week, and then a month after that, we are off to the capital. Making an alliance now means ruffling feathers, and if we’re not back in order in time for us to leave, that leaves everyone here in danger of a reprisal - not to mention putting everyone that we ally with in further risk of counterattack by Ikishi. This place might be provincial, but it’s not beyond her reach - I wouldn’t be surprised that some of the families are allied with her, which means we either deal with them before we leave - which would tell Ikishi that something has happened here - or it leaves a threat in place.” She draws in a deep breath, and lets it out in a sigh that flips up her bangs. “But it’s not like we can hide now, I suppose.” She looks at Sidewinder and Copperhead. “How much talk is there amongst the families, do you think, about what happened to the ronin?”
“I’m sure they’re all wondering, but I rather doubt they are comparing notes,” Copperhead says. “I recommend we leave them guessing. This place will be well-defended by the time we leave. None will dare to press their luck alone, and they have no incentive to work together.”
“And here I thought you’d say we should kill their leaders preemptively,” Sidewinder says.
“Might disarm the threat against this place, but the collateral damage will be unacceptable,” Copperhead says.
“And what do you think I should do, Copperhead?” Kirika asks.
“Continue as you have,” Copperhead says. “Give them no further information or incentive to act against you. We can keep up our reconnaissance of the surrounding areas and report on any further developments, if you wish.”
“Hmph,” Kirika says, and thinks for a moment. She doesn’t know if it’s her gut or her ancestors speaking to her, but the urge to do the precise opposite is strong. “How...are things in the villages? Are the people well-treated, with fair and good leaders? Or...not?”
Sidewinder shrugs. “Well, I’ve seen happier folks, but I’ve seen sadder folks, too,” he says. “You don’t need me to tell you that peasants don’t have it so good no matter where they live. But it ain’t like the big shots are going around beating people black and blue for shits and giggles. Ain’t saying I didn’t hear a sad story or two, but…”
“There’s no one family or town that’s a root for evil,” Kirika finishes.
“Well, we kinda took care of her already, you know?” Sidewinder says. “What’s left, you can’t really say one’s worse than the others.”
Kirika nods. Her tattoos itch slightly, but she knows that this is the right decision. “Then we leave it alone for now. If there’s no need to start trouble, we won’t for now.” She takes a deep breath, then looks back to Copperhead and Sidewinder. “Anything else to report?”
“Sadly, yes,” Copperhead says. “We were supposed to meet with a local agent for a more thorough assessment of the region. Unfortunately, she didn’t show for the meeting. We didn’t find out what happened - maybe she has simply shifted her rotation due to unforeseen circumstances - but I thought it was important enough to bring up. If someone has made her, the network might be compromised.”
“Did you look for any distress signs?” Kirika asks.
“We did and found bupkus,” Sidewinder says. “We didn’t exactly ask around on account of not drawing more attention, but I don’t see how one of our own could miss being followed and I don’t see one of our own getting disappeared without a solid plan. If we take as given that something went wrong, and I think that ain’t stretching too far, something went real wrong.”
“And you didn’t notice anything suspicious with any of the families?” Kirika asks. “Anything at all?”
“Many things arouse my suspicion, but none so strongly that I judged it worth the risk of exposing ourselves and drawing hostile attention,” Copperhead says. “That aside, I find it implausible that the local players could effect the silent removal of our agent. If we suppose that this was hostile action, it seems on a scale quite unlike those squabbling families - more fit for someone with wider reach, though I hesitate to jump to the conclusion that it is directly connected to Ikishi, as we simply have insufficient data at this time.”
Kirika shakes her head. “Believe me, you underestimate the locals at your own risk. Were you able to locate your agent’s dwelling?”
“Locate, yep,” Sidewinder says. “Didn’t go near it, though - never know who’s watching, or waiting. I guess that’s the next step, huh? Go and take a look, see what we can dig up?”
Kirika nods. “If there is going to be any clue as to what happened to her, it will be there.” She looks to Homi. “What was her cover here?”
Homi nods. “As I recall, she posed as a butcher,” he says. “It opens many doors, yet who would suspect someone of such low standing?”
Kirika smirks. “Then I suppose I have the perfect cover - but I will need to borrow one of your plainer kimonos, Copperhead. I still have...fitment problems with my own.”
Copperhead raises an eyebrow. “I suppose you will wish to learn how to part out a pig, too?”
“Yukio and I are just concerned family members,” Kirika replies with a smile. “You two will follow at a good distance, of course. And Homi-san, if you could watch over Toshi and make sure he doesn’t do something ill-advised, like follow us?”
“I will,” Homi says. “Anything else?”
Kirika looks between all three shinobi. “Not unless any of you have any comments?”
Sidewinder shrugs while Copperhead shakes his head. Homi does raise his voice. “Do you want me to supervise the training while you are away?”
Kirika nods. “Please, although we shouldn’t be gone more than a couple of days.”
“Good,” Homi says. “If you have any other needs, feel free to see me. Otherwise, you should prepare for your mission.”
Kirika nods. “Thank you, Homi-san.” She looks to Copperhead and Sidewinder. “And you two are dismissed to prepare.” The ninjas nod and saunter off to their respective quote-unquote quarters to prepare.
“How did I do?” Kirika asks.
Homi smiles. “You may not be surprised to hear that you handled the situation much as I would have,” he says. “On that note, an old man would be a more convincing concerned relative than two women of abnormal strength, but I trust your talents in this. In any event, just in case this was not clear, I wish to include you in all future meetings. Your best introduction to the duties of the Shadowguard will be to see them first hand.”
Kirika nods. “I thank you, Hiro. And I would agree, save for the fact that I am not an old man.” She smirks at Homi. “But I trusted that your agent here looked somewhat similar to Yukio and myself, otherwise a female butcher might have seemed a bit implausible.”
Homi nods. “An excellent deduction, Kirika. Now, please, make haste. If she yet lives, you may be able to save her - and if she does not, I would like to know as soon as possible.”
Kirika nods, and bows to Homi. “I will return as soon as I know for sure, Hiro.”
“Go, Kirika,” Homi says. “I will keep watch.”

Kirika nods and hurries back to the bench, where Yukio is in the process of shaking out the blankets and folding them back up. She smiles at Kirika as she puts the stack aside.
“What did they have to say?”
“The samurai was ronin, so that is good,” Kirika replies. “Both Sarano and Ikishi have limited influence here, and the local families and towns are not too suspicious of us as of yet.”
“I’m hearing a ‘but’ in there, dearest,” Yukio says.
“And there is one,” Kirika replies. “The Shadowwatch member stationed here has gone missing. She was positioned here as a butcher, which means that you and I are best suited to check her residence for hints of what might have happened to her.”
“Indeed,” Yukio says. “When do we leave?”
“As soon as we are ready,” Kirika replies. She gives Yukio a peck on the cheek as she stands. “Dress plainly, love. We’re the relatives of a provincial butcher, after all, concerned for her well being.”
“Hmm,” Yukio thinks. “I think I still have a kimono from my farming days…”
Gatac 2014-04-16 14:29:33
(Kirika’s Disguise: 1d20+9 = 17)

Suitably (re)dressed and with their weapons left with the ninjas, Kirika and Yukio take the hike to the next village, a little speck of land called Sweetwater. After the Forge and Sarano’s sprawling mansion, the village seems positively tiny, with only one main street and a few houses along it. It’s so small, the butcher’s house doesn’t even have a sign - presumably, anyone who would need to go there already knows where it is, not that that’s very hard to guess, being that it’s a) of visibly newer construction than the other houses and b) a bit away from the village “proper”, presumably because nobody wants to live next to a place that regularly handles stinky, squealing animals. It seems most everyone is working the fields around the village right now; the only one in sight is an old man with arched back, sweeping the porch of his house.

“Hello, honorable grandfather!” Kirika calls with a smile and wave as the pair approaches the edge of the village. She and Yukio hustle up towards the old man’s house, and give him a deep bow of respect. “My name is Kaori Furunaka, this is my sister, Yua Furunaka, and we are here looking for our sister, Oue Furunaka? We have not heard from her in a while, and Father has grown worried for her. She had sent letters to us from here before, do you know if she is still living here?”

(Kirika’s Bluff: 1d20+18+4 = 35
Old Man’s Sense Motive: 1d20+5 = 23)

“Oh, yes, your sister,” the old man says, looking up from sweeping and bowing to the two in turn. “That’s her house right there,” he adds, pointing with the back of his broom. “She’s been pretty busy for a while now, what with spring and all. I don’t think she’s back yet. Oh, where are my manners? I’m Noda Moto. My wife Wa and I have a house right over there.” Again, he points with his broom. “And what a pleasure it is to see two nice young ladies such as yourself. Will you be staying here, or are you just passing through?”

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 28)

Mr. Moto seems wholly unremarkable: a salt-of-the-earth farmer whose bent frame and barely moveable fingers speak to a life of hard labor with little time for any other pursuits.
“Oh, we were hoping to stay with our sister when we find her,” Kirika replies, keeping her smile on. “If we have to stay longer to find her, we might need a place. Is there lodging nearby?”
Moto smiles at that. “If you mean a guest house, well, this ain’t a place that sees many guests. I suppose Nabe’s got an empty bed since his daughter died, you’d have to ask him when he comes back from the fields. You’re probably better off in your sister’s house, all told. I can lend you a mattress or two if you need ‘em.”
Kirika bows again. “Oh, that would be very kind of you, Moto-sama.” She looks over her shoulder at the suspicious dwelling. “Well, we should probably go knock on her door and see if anyone’s home.” Once more, Kirika and Yukio bow. “Thank you very much for your help, Moto-sama.”
“T’wasn’t nothing,” Moto says, returning the bow. “You girls come knock if you need anything, you hear?”
“We will, Moto-sama!” Kirika says, and with a smile and wave, she and Yukio walk down the path towards the Shadowwatch agent’s house.

The agent’s house is quiet, and the sun shining through the windows shows no shadows moving inside. Like all the houses in the village, there is no lock on the door, so Kirika and Yukio easily slide open the front door and enter.
“Hello?” Kirika calls, keeping up the cover as she slides the front door shut. “Oue? It’s Kaori and Yua!” Once the door shuts, she abandons the visual pretenses and starts looking around the small house. It is essentially a single room with a table in the middle and a fireplace / cooking area to the side. Everything’s neatly put away, making the house look even emptier than it is - no decoration, no wall scrolls, no personal items on display.

(Kirika’s Investigate: 1d20+8 = 12)

Butcher’s tools, clothes, a few letters to her father (deliberately vague at that) and a small wooden box with fine engravings to hold her coin - Oue’s house is that of a simple butcher’s, offering no hints as to her secret career. Well - not quite. The coin box also contains a few loops of fabric to be used as a covert code for Homi’s Shadowwatch agents, but stacked up like this, they simply look like a small collection of fashion accessories, and the “distress” one is still in there.

“Well, nothing seems to be wrong,” Yukio comments. “She’s just...not here.”
Kirika looks around - she didn’t find anything on the first search, but that’s not too surprising. The Shadowwatch trains their people well, and she’s not as good at turning a place upside down as Toshiba is. “Still…” Kirika says, and looks at the chest of clothes, neatly folded and untouched. “How long do you think this place has been empty?”

Yukio runs her finger over a dresser, not drawing dust. “Can’t be more than a few days,” she says. He said she’s not back yet - so maybe he knows where she went and when she left?”
“Maybe,” Kirika replies. It wouldn’t be in the chest, and none of the walls seem like an obvious place - her eyes fall on the table in the middle of the room, and she smiles. She steps up to the table and tries lifting the heavy cutting surface. The surface yields, and with Yukio holding up the other end, Kirika gently lifts it off the main body of the table. True to her suspicions, there’s a small hidden compartment underneath, containing more coin, a set of somewhat dressier clothes and a scroll sealed with the emblem of the Throne. Kirika quickly retrieves the scroll, and they gently place the table top back in place before she opens the scroll.

This is to certify that the bearer of this sealed letter has done what was done in service of the Throne and only insofar it was necessary to avoid greater evil. You are hereby sworn to the greatest secrecy and forbidden from revealing anything you may see, hear or otherwise witness from here on until instructed otherwise by my agent. Assist my agent in any way you can, and you will be richly rewarded.

In the Name of the Emperor
Hiro Homi, Shadowguard

Kirika sighs, and lifts the table top enough to slide the scroll back in. “Nothing,” she says. “So, I think we should go ask Moto where she went off to after all.”
“I agree,” Yukio says. “What was in the letter?”
“Just a certification that she was actually who she really was,” Kirika says. She plucks the loops of fabric out of the coin box and closes that, too. “Come on, love. Let’s go see where our missing sister went off to.”


“Oh, she’s off to old Kinno’s place,” Moto explains, still sweeping his porch. “It’s out in the forest, he has a herd of pigs there, some special breed or something - I don’t know, he’s very proud of it, his granddad’s granddad started the herd, I think - or was it his granddad’s granduncle? Anyway, she left three days ago and hasn’t come back yet. It was an emergency of some sort, some of his pigs got sick and he needs her to go and cull the herd with him, though I don’t rightly know why that would take so long. Knowing her, she’s probably been called right to the next emergency.” He points the end of his broom further down the road, where a forest looms in the distance. “Now, where did you girls say you were from?”

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 27)

Moto’s clearly probing a little into their cover story, but doesn’t seem overly suspicious as a whole. A straightforward answer should satisfy him.
“The Forge,” Kirika replies, still with her most pleasant smile. “Father is a butcher himself, and we all work in his shop.”
“Oh, right, Oue mentioned that,” Moto says. “I was just thinking, she once mentioned a sister in Stonesky but there’s two of you, so that didn’t seem to fit together quite right in my head. Ah, girls, don’t ever get old like me, you’ll jumble up everything, too.” He chuckles. “So, I suppose you’ll be wanting to go visit old Kinno now, hm? I’ll send Oue after you if she comes back while you’re away.”

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 35)

The old man, while nice, has seemed just on the wrong (or right) side of suspicious this whole time to Kirika. Standing at a perfect spot to see anyone approaching the Shadowguard shinobi’s house, his gently probing of her cover, and his answers that inform without actually saying anything, it all read wrong to her, but she just couldn’t figure out why. She had applied all of her considerable experience to studying Moto for the slightest hint of duplicity, reading his stance, his cadence, his expressions - and finally concluded that he really does seem to be just an old farmer who’s probably never even heard of the Shadowwatch, Lady Ikishi or anyone else involved in this sordid little conspiracy. He’s just an old man who’s bored and therefore a bit nosy.

Kirika gives Moto one last bow. “Thank you, Moto-sama. Have a good day.”
“You girls take care now,” Moto says. “There’ll be stew for dinner, if you can make it back before nightfall. Consider yourselves invited.”
Kirika bows again. “Thank you very much, Moto-sama!” she says as she and Yukio walk off down the road. Once they’re out of earshot, Kirika leans over to Yukio. “Am I the only one waiting for the grisly end of this adventure?”
“I’m certainly tempted to call in the ninjas,” Yukio replies. “I’d still like to believe there’s an innocent explanation for this, however.”
“I certainly hope so,” Kirika says. “At this rate, it’s either completely innocent, or completely terrifying.”
“We just cleaned out a decades-long operation to enslave hundreds of people with drugs to collect blackmail material on every noble in the Empire,” Yukio replies. “How much worse can it get?”

Well beyond earshot back in the village, Moto keeps sweeping his porch. “Always knew there was something more to that girl,” he mutters to himself.
Gatac 2014-04-16 14:30:05
A twenty-minute walk takes Kirika and Yukio into the forest, and from there, it’s trotting along the dirt paths following the distant sounds of oinking that echo between the trees. Soon, they come across the first pen full of black-furred pigs, and man, they’re going nuts as the two samurai ladies ride past them.

(Kirika’s Notice: 1d20 + 11 = 27)

And Kirika’s sharp eyes can see why: the troughs for both feed and water are empty, and the pigs bear signs of fighting among each other, with a few mostly-eaten remains way in the back of the pen, half-buried in the muck. Looks like nobody has fed those guys in a few days.
“The pigs are starving,” Kirika says. “ not a good sign.”
“If you want to summon the ninjas now, I would not think any less of you,” Yukio replies, the color slowly draining from her face. “Gods, the sound...let’s make haste.”
Kirika nods, and the two hurry towards the farmhouse itself. Given that the squealing of the pigs is loud enough to wake up the dead, it’s not exactly reassuring that all that noise hasn’t led to anyone coming to see what’s up; the hut stands quiet, its windows and doors closed. There are no tracks leading to or away from it - at least none either of the two samurai would know how to find. Either they’ve simply blown/washed away over time, or the last visitor knew how to enter without leaving a mark.
Yukio swallows. “Let’s just check inside,” she says, “so we can be on our way.”
Kirika nods. Her hand goes by reflex to her sword on her side - which isn’t there at the moment. “Hells,” she curses under her breath, and braces on one side of the door inside. Yukio does the same, and once she nods to confirm she’s ready, Kirika knocks on the door. “Hello? Anyone home?” she shouts over the din. There is no answer to her call, and even repeated knocking from Yukio brings no reaction. Kirika tries the door -

(Kirika’s Athletics: 1d20 + 13 = 27)

- and after a few, er, enthusiastic knocks (with her foot), it opens. Kirika’s nose soon wishes it hadn’t. The foul smell of flesh rotting in moist air leads her into the house’s living room - and the corpse sprawled over the floor there. Considering that it’s an older man, Kirika guesses that this is old Kinno. The cause of death is similarly easy to guess: a long arrow made of thin metal that went straight through his head. A small spot of light on the wall leads her eyes to a small hole in the wooden shutter covering one of the windows. Before Kirika moves to look at anything though, she looks around for traps or any other threats before taking a step inside. Taught by experience in Cobra’s safehouse, Kirika’s eyes scan for all the nasty little tricks - tripwires, loose floor plates, poison spikes - but there’s nothing to be seen. Judging from the locked door and the hole in the window shutter, Kinno’s killer never even set foot in the house. The house seemingly clear, Kirika steps quickly across the room to the hole in the shutter. Lining herself up between the body and the hole, she peers through to see where the strange arrow came from.

That’s when she sees the second corpse - a woman, this time, pinned to a tree behind the house with an arrow through her neck. “Damn,” Kirika says, and runs out of the house. “I think I found her!” she shouts, both for Yukio and for the Ninja Twins. Yukio follows right behind her, and for once, Kirika can even hear the footsteps of Sidewinder and Copperhead some distance behind them, rushing to join her at the scene. Up close, the grisly diorama reveals some more details: one, there are bloody fingerprints on the arrow and the woman’s neck and upper body - her own, Kirika realizes, from a desperate struggle to somehow free herself from the fatal projectile. And two, a narrow scroll is tightly wrapped around the shaft of the arrow, sitting back towards the end as if the shooter wanted to make sure the arrow could still go through her neck and lodge into the wood without the scroll getting damaged, through the bloody fingerprints on the outside obviously spoiled that plan just a little.

“Gods,” Yukio whispers beside Kirika.
“Demons, more like it,” Sidewinder says. Even Copperhead seems disturbed, foregoing the chance to one-up Sidewinder’s words.
Kirka looks over the body. “Is this your agent?” she asks.
“Yes, it is,” Sidewinder says. “That’s Oue.”
“Sidewinder, I want you to figure out the angle she was shot from,” Copperhead says. “I will examine the wound.”
“Uh,” Sidewinder begins to object, but Copperhead turns his head and lifts his chin, letting Sidewinder see his eyes underneath the brim of his hat.
“I want you to do that now,” Copperhead says. Sidewinder bites his tongue, nods and wanders off, leaving the senior ninja alone with Kirika and Yukio.
“What do you think, Kirika?” Copperhead asks.
“I think that someone wanted to get our attention,” Kirika replies, and reaches for the scroll. “May I?”
“Be careful,” Copperhead cautions, but lets her proceed.

The scroll is wrapped tight, but instead of being tied together with a string or a bow, it seems like the top edge is glued in place - a glue that does seem to soften under Kirika’s touch, letting her peel off the scroll. Kirika unfurls it and reads the short message:

Oue Furunaka

You have failed the Throne!

Kirika shows the scroll to Yukio, then hands it over to Copperhead, but she’s fairly certain what this means already. “Ikishi?” she asks.
“That would be my starting hypothesis, yes,” Copperhead admits. “That said, we should be careful with our conclusions. I think we can safely conclude that the killer wanted to send a message, but it is not yet certain that it was intended for us.”
“It might be the local families, after all,” Kirika says, and turns her attention to the arrow.

(Kirika’s Knowledge Check: 1d20+8 = 23)

That’s no ordinary arrow, for sure; it’s not even one Kirika could see being made in any sort of mass-production, as it seems like it would be far too heavy to be fired by a normal bow - yet, it’s too long to fit on a crossbow. The metalwork is delicate, suggesting a master smith, and given the “hollow metal tube” design, a gonnesmith wouldn’t be a bad place to start looking.

“Foreign metal,” Copperhead says, adding his own impression. “Three of those arrows could be made from the same metal as the barrel of an excellent longgonne, and not much faster either. I don’t think we will find another arrow around here, though. Our killer doesn’t seem like the type to miss, and he knows it - he can’t have very many of those arrows, nor replenish them easily. I will believe that he did not retrieve the one that killed Kinno to avoid leaving behind evidence inside the house, but this one was meant to be found.” He pauses briefly. “Troubling.”
“Well, we can guess why they killed Oue, but why Kinno?” Kirika asks. “If we figure that out, we probably can start looking for the archer.”
“Hm,” Copperhead says. “What are your orders?”
“We start with the house and barn,” Kirika says. “And wherever Sidewinder has found the archer’s perch.” She turns to look for Sidewinder. Sidewinder’s already monkeying around in the trees on the other side of the house, but by his continued climbing, it seems clear he hasn’t found the right branch just yet. Kirika whistles to get Sidewinder’s attention, and points towards the house. Sidewinder looks down and nods, then goes back to branch-hopping.

Back inside the house, Kirika tries a more detailed look at the scene.

(Kirika’s Investigate: 1d20 +8 = 17
Copperhead’s Investigate: 1d20 +12 = 18)

There’s not much else to find in terms of hidden evidence, but the foul smell offers a different kind of hint: Kinno’s been dead for days and has started rotting severely, while Oue’s body outside looks considerably fresher. Maybe he was already dead when she came here - and with the door locked, it looks like she didn’t come in either. Maybe it was her doing exactly what you’re doing now - trying to figure out what happened - that got her killed; after all, she was standing right where the archer was when he killed Kinno.
Kirika realizes this at about the same moment Copperhead does. “Sidewinder,” she says, fear entering her eyes.
“Improbable,” Copperhead mutters, but doesn’t waste much more time than that. In a flash, he storms outside while fiddling with his gauntlets, then stops outside to scan the forest around them. “Sidewinder, be on guard!” he calls out.
Kirika’s right behind him, hoping that she can still prevent whatever’s coming - and then there’s a thump on the roof above and behind her. She turns to see Sidewinder perched over the house’s back door, looking down at the threesome below with gonnes in both hands. “I think I got his perch,” Sidewinder says. “And I’m pretty sure he’s long gone.”
“I will not settle for ‘pretty sure’,” Copperhead says. “If he surprised Oue, it is not impossible that he can surprise us. If he makes his home in the trees, then he could be anywhere around and above us - and we would only know it when the shooting starts.”
“I could do a round of the canopy,” Sidewinder offers.
“And be out of our reach while you do so,” Copperhead rebuts.
“We will keep our eyes out on the ground for our mysterious friend,” Kirika replies. “Sidewinder, keep an eye out for any other hides in the trees or on the ground - but be careful.”
“Gotcha,” Sidewinder says, then scrambles back over the roof and up the next tree.
Copperhead continues to eye the trees around them, and now that the squealing of the pigs seems almost ignorable, Kirika can hear a faint hum coming from Copperhead’s...everything.
“We are at a distinct tactical disadvantage,” he says. “Not the position I prefer to be in. I recommend that we leave and regroup at your estate. Homi-dono must be informed about this at once.”
“We are already behind, Copperhead,” Kirika replies. “We cannot afford to fall further back.” She looks to Yukio. “Do you see anything?”
Yukio shakes her head, her hand still at her hip for a sword that isn’t there. She spies it stuck through one of Copperhead’s leather armor straps and grabs it, producing an irritated grunt from the ninja. Kirika can only look around and worry - Sidewinder has Crane’s Dance.

After a generous half-hour of standing around in a place where starved-and-crazy masses of pigs are your least problem, Sidewinder comes jumping down the branches again the next tree over from Oue’s grisly end, with the least relaxed expression of relief possible. “Well, he ain’t here no more,” Sidewinder says. “Unless he can fit into a woodpecker hole.”
“Did you see anything in his other perch?” Kirika asks.
“Tracks in the wood from metal cleats, I reckon,” Sidewinder says. “Rubbed the moss off the bark where he learned against the trunk. Almost missed the ring-shaped track around the trunk - he tied himself in place, probably to sleep. Our new pal’s a patient one, I’ll give him that.”
“Hmm,” Kirika says. “Well, now that we’re probably alone, shall we find what made our pig farmer so worth killing?”
“I can investigate that alone,” Copperhead says. “You need to go back and warn the Prince.”
Kirika’s gut is telling her that this isn’t about Toshi, but she nods anyway. “And Sidewinder will stay here to watch your back,” Kirika says. “I think we’ve seen that this person is more dangerous than one of us can handle alone. See if you can figure out how they made that shot through a closed shutter.” She turns to Sidewinder. “My sword, please.”
“Sure thing,” Sidewinder says, untying the obi’s knot and handing the scabbard to Kirika.
“We will report back when we have concluded our investigation,” Copperhead says.
Kirika nods. “Good luck, and stay safe.”
Copperhead simply nods, and the two ninja retreat back into the house. Yukio takes up position next to Kirika, hand still on the hilt of her sword. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.
Kirika nods.
Gatac 2014-04-21 03:00:05
(Kirika’s Athletics/Push Limit: 1d20+13 = 23, +1 mph travel speed for an hour.
Subdual damage: 1d6 =5
Kirika’s Fortitude Save vs DC 12: 1d20+8=14 SUCCESS):

The roundabout way adds some distance - and terrain - to Kirika and Yukio’s path, but Kirika feels the need to make up for it with flat-out running the distance back to the estate. Her sandals crash over the roots and pound through the trails, and her heart beats in her chest, but Kirika and Yukio arrive back at the estate only an hour later.
Kirika slows to a jog as she breaks the forest cover by the front gate. “We’re here,” she calls back to Yukio. “Open the front gate!” she shouts towards the estate.
Yukio trundles across the finish line with some heavy breaths, having no air to spare to answer Kirika’s call. She takes a few seconds to rest her hands on her knees and just breathe, then straightens up and follows Kirika, still huffing. “I…*gasp*...hate…*wheeze*...running!” she manages to spit out.
Kirika wraps an arm around Yukio’s shoulders and gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Then maybe I’ll be training you, love,” she says as she hears the farmers move to unbar the gate.
“No thank you!” Yukio coughs, seeming to get some of her breath back. “The Gods made horses for a reason.”
Kirika sticks her lower lip out. “Like you gave me any choices, teacher.”
“Master Oa told me to teach you,” Yukio says. “If you want to go back to the War Academy and ask him if I should take up running with you, you’re welcome to do that. Until such time, I’ll stick with our current arrangement.”
Kirika pretends to pout for one more moment, then simply gives Yukio another hug and kiss on the cheek. “I love you, you know.”
“So do I,” Yukio whispers, and returns the kiss. “Dearest.”

This is, of course, the right moment for a Cockblock Cough, delivered by the master Hiro Homi himself. As ever, he’s standing right beside you despite making no noise whatsoever in his approach. “You’re back very early - and without the others,” he says. “What happened?”
Kirka instantly straightens up. “We have problems, Hiro,” she says. “Oue is dead - shot with a metal arrow, made like a gonne barrel. I believe she was investigating the death of a local pig farmer - also killed with the same arrow - and when she was standing at the spot where the lethal shot for the farmer was fired, the killer was lying in wait for her, and dispatched her as well.” She produces the note that was glued to the arrow. “And he attached this note to the arrow.” She bows to Homi. “My apologies for your loss.”

Homi nods solemnly - he’s lost too much too often to show more emotion at the news of death -, but his brow furrows as he reads the note. “All of that means nothing to me,” Homi says. “Your killer seems quite distinctive, but I have not heard anything about him. Perhaps we are only witnessing the beginning of his quest.” He bows his head. “I’m sorry I could not be more helpful. Where are Sidewinder and Copperhead?”
“Continuing the investigation on the farm into why the farmer was killed,” Kirika replies. “All we can deduce about Oue’s death was that it was by someone aware of who she really was, and wanted to send a message to you - whether that message was from Ikishi, or simply someone wanting revenge or to put a stop to Shadowwatch involvement in the area, we can’t tell. But the death of the farmer must be more complicated - and personal. There was no note left at the scene, no indication of why it was done. That means either there was no personal reason - money, or just to lure Oue out - or the reason is supposed to be obvious to those that the message is intended for. Sidewinder and Copperhead are there, trying to find out.”
Homi frowns. “I worry that we are spreading ourselves too thin, then,” he says. “We cannot travel alone with such a threat against us, and I alone do not feel confident in my ability to protect Toshiro. Do you believe that you would have more luck finding the assassin’s trail than Sidewinder and Copperhead?”
“Perhaps not more success - but certainly with less chance of being caught,” Kirika says. “Our killer already has spotted one Shadowwatch agent, and Sidewinder and Copperhead are very capable, but not exactly the most...normal of individuals. But with the walls secure, the estate is much safer than before, and we need to focus our efforts on finding and deducing this threat.” She thinks for a moment. “What is your assessment of Rowan?”
“He is far from ready for a fight,” Homi says. “The katas are one thing, but they are months of conditioning and sparring away from holding their own in battle. Were you thinking of his safety here, or do you have bigger plans for him?”
“I was thinking that if backup is what you are concerned about, then he has come along well, and that I will not be able to be here to direct the defenses of this estate forever,” Kirika says. “He will have to learn to step up eventually. At the moment, the killer’s animosity seems more directed towards the Shadowwatch than the Emperor - ‘You have failed the Throne’ sounds more like someone that believes there is a throne to fail - and so my concern is almost more with you, Hiro, than with Toshi. Rowan might not be ready to lead an army into battle, but organizing defenses and posting guards is something that he needs to learn, and now is a good of time as any.”
“I will consider it,” Homi says. “On to more practical concerns. If you encounter the assassin, you will be at a great disadvantage with your swords. Yukio, I assume Master Oa instructed you in the forms of the bow?”
“Indeed,” Yukio says. “I did not bring one, however.”
“You can use mine,” Homi says. “Rest a moment while I fetch it - unless there are more topics to discuss?”
Kirika shakes her head. “No, Hiro.”
“Then catch your breaths and rest your feet,” Homi says. “I will return in a few minutes.”

As Homi slinks off, Yukio turns to Kirika. “He’s not wrong, dearest. If the assassin finds his way here, I doubt Rowan - or any of the farmers - could survive an encounter.” Her face takes on a sharper edge. “I suppose we will have to find him first.”
“If he is as good as he seems to be, I have doubts that bringing Copperhead and Sidewinder back will help much,” Kirika replies. “A hunter like that requires plenty of cover - and having to climb the wall and cross the open fields should provide enough protection here for now.” She bites her upper lip in concern. “I think. I worry for Homi - this threat seems directed more at him than anything else.”
“Hmm,” is all that Yukio has to say about that.
Gatac 2014-04-21 03:00:31
Hiro Homi’s bow is, unsurprisingly, black. It also comes in three unassuming parts that slot together into a compact little composite bow that takes a surprising amount of strength to string and pull back, packing quite a bit of power into the small frame at the expense of making it quite difficult to use - not a problem for Yukio, whose quick motions reveal years of instruction among the empire’s finest bow instructors. Suitably armed for a ranged duel, you set off again - only this time, it’s to the stables first.

“We are taking horses and that is not a discussion,” Yukio says. “No matter how fast you might run, going on horseback will be even faster - and leave us less winded in case we might have to fight.”
“We can’t ride back through the village, that will blow our cover,” Kirika objects.
“We’ll take the paths through the forests and cut across some fields,” Yukio says. “That will keep us clear of the village and the old man’s eyes.”
“Well...err…” Kirika stammers. “I...can’t do that. I can ride on paths and roads, but that’s about it.”

Yukio puts two fingers to her mouth and whistles sharply; one of the horses immediately perks up its head and comes trotting over.

“Then you have a choice ahead of you, dearest,” Yukio says with a smirk. “You can try to keep up with my Lightning, or you can hop on with me.” As the horse trots past her, Yukio easily grabs on and swings herself up. “Which will it be?”
Kirika eyes the horse nervously, as she stares down at Kirika in turn. “...will you promise to be gentle?”
Yukio holds out a hand to help Kirika up. “Am I not always?” she asks.
Kirika hesitates a moment longer, then takes Yukio’s hand. Yukio’s hand tightens around hers, and despite Kirika’s recent increase in size, Yukio still easily yanks her upwards. Kirika barely has time to grab onto Yukio before the lady samurai whistles again and presses her legs against Lightning’s flanks.

(Yukio’s Ride: 1d20+15=27, boosted to 28 by Yukio’s Born In The Saddle
Subdual Damage: 2d6=8
Lightning’s Fortitude Save vs DC 14: 1d20+7=27 NOT EVEN OUT OF BREATH)

Thirty-five buttclenching minutes later, Lightning finally slows down a little, letting Kirika hear the squealing of hungry pigs. By the time she opens her eyes, they’re already trotting up to the wooden cabin.

“Good girl!” Yukio says, patting Lightning on the side of her neck. “Goood girl. And Kirika, you can stop trying to break my ribs now.”
Kirika’s eyes are as wide as her grasp around Yukio’s chest is tight. “...should have known this is what you mean by gentle…”
“I suppose the forest was a little rough, with all the branches,” Yukio admits. “But you should see what Lightning can do on an open road.” After a moment, she adds, “It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
“I will recover someday,” Kirika replies dramatically as she hops off of Lightning.
“Don’t listen to her,” Yukio coos to the horse, then unmounts and goes to whisper something in Lightning’s ear. The horse whinnies, then trots off a few yards to go munch some grass.

Inside the cabin, Copperhead’s still hard at work. “I see you have returned - with the Master’s bow,” he says. “Was there anything he could tell you about our opponent?”
“Sadly no,” Kirika replies. “Have we found any motive for our farmer’s death? Any ties with Oue?”
“Only that he had retained her services as a butcher and veterinarian before,” Copperhead says. “Not much else drew my attention. I have taken the liberty of organizing what correspondence I could find over there” - he points to three stacks of scrolls - “as well as his clothing and other possessions of note over there” - more stacks in the corner. “Perhaps you can discover something that I did not see. What are your orders?”
Kirika looks at the dead man’s possessions, then to the arrow that killed him, still embedded in the wall. “In the nearest large village, did you notice anyone with the smithy to make something like that?”
“Out of the question,” Copperhead says. “A local blacksmith might be able to make crude tools, but this requires sophisticated equipment - even I could not do such work without a well-stocked workshop. The Forge is the likelier origin, or perhaps the capital.”
“Perhaps,” Kirika says. She looks at the arrow a moment longer. “Search Oue’s house. Yukio and I only spent a few minutes in there - but be careful. The house may be at the edge of the village, but it’s still within the range of eye and ear. Especially keep an eye out for anything between Oue and the farmer - I suspect that he might have been killed to draw her out.”
“We will do so,” Copperhead says. “Sidewinder is keeping watch in the canopy, but I shall retrieve him. Best of luck in your search here.”
Kirika nods. “You as well, Copperhead. And be careful. Even for you. This threat seems to be particularly interested in picking off Shadowwatch.”
Copperhead smirks. “I am not such easy prey,” he says. “Until we meet again.” Drawing his hat down over his face, he turns and heads out of the cabin.

“So,” Yukio says, “turn the cabin upside down?”
“Possessions first,” Kirika says, reaching for the stack of the dead man’s things. “I will look over the letters, while you lay out his things?”
“Let us make it so,” Yukio says.

(Kirika takes 10 for a result of 18 on her Investigate.)

A search of the letters turns up nothing particularly interesting, and the quick once-over on the cabin seems to confirm that the killer never set foot inside. What’s more interesting, however, is a second look at Oue’s body - although Copperhead freed her from the tree and put her body in the shade for later burial, he seemingly didn’t think to search her. Kirika finds another letter on her - a lurid confession of love from the pig farmer, hearkening back to previous visits and falling in love with Oue over time. Except that Kirika can tell it’s a fake - the handwriting isn’t quite a match for all the letters she’s seen inside, and the paper is different, too. So Oue was lured out here to be killed - but for the killer to know about the pig farmer’s interest in her, he must have been watching the two before. And that means...someone at the village might have seen the killer.

Kirika looks over to Yukio as Yukio reads the faked letter. “I think that we should make our way to the village - quickly.” She reaches up and pulls the metal arrow out of the wall with a grunt.
“Are we still concerned about being seen on a horse?” Yukio asks.
“Indeed we are,” Kirika says, and looks over the arrow. The sharply tapered point of the arrowhead seems made specifically to pierce armor or light cover, while the rigid metal shaft seems to enhance accuracy at range. Though it is just as finely crafted as the arrow that killed Oue, there’s no message attached to it. In fact, there is no lettering at all - not even a manufacturer’s sigil or proofmark, as would be expected for a metal weapon. Kirika grunts - one more bit of proof that this was not produced in anyone’s public shop. She looks over to Yukio again. “We’re going to return someone’s very valuable-looking arrow.”
Yukio frowns as she grips the bow in her hands tighter. “Indeed,” she says.


A more leisurely ride on Lightning takes Yukio and Kirika to the outskirts of the village, where Lightning quickly earns a rest on a nearby pasture, trotting out to join the village’s grazing horses while Yukio and Kirika head into the village proper. Moto seems to have stopped sweeping his porch and has planted himself on a stool outside his house, while another old man with a rice flail slung over his shoulder sits next to him. They seem to be talking about something, but the conversation stops before you get into earshot. With a smile, Moto waves you over.
“Hello again!” Kirika calls, waving the arrow in her hand. “We found something in the woods!”
“And a nice day to you girls, too,” Moto replies. “See, Nabe, I told you! Nabe, these are Kaori and Yua, they’re Oue’s sisters. Girls, this is Nabeshin.”
“How do ya do,” Nabe says curtly.
“What do you have there?” Moto asks. “ arrow?”
Kirika and Yukio both bow respectfully to Moto and Nabe. “Yes! We saw it shining just off the path, sticking out of the ground,” she says. “Whoever shot it must have missed and shot it quite a ways! Anyway, it looks very expensive, we got it to bring back!”
“Darn rich kid hunters,” Nabe opines. “If’n you ask me, them boys should go play in their own backyards. I ain’t never seen nothing so fancy.”
“Hate to say it, but you might be out of luck there,” Moto says. “When those guys come along here, they ride right through, we barely get to see their faces. I couldn’t begin to guess who might have lost that one. Still, it’s a nice enough piece, should fetch a good price. Why worry about it? The way I see it, if some fancy-shmancy rich boy left it, he doesn’t need it back.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Nabe says. “How’s Kinno, the old bastard?”

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 29
Moto’s Bluff: 1d20+7=23)

Moto has a calm, unhurried way of explaining things - a way that would slip past most, but finally, Kirika’s sure that she’s caught him lying to her face. The old man knows more than he’s letting on.
“He was busy with the pigs, but he said that he had not seen Oue - but to send his best to her,” Kirika said. She smiled and winked. “I think he is sweet on her.”

(Kirika’s Bluff: 1d20+18 = 37
Moto’s Sense Motive: 1d20+5=19)

“That’s why he’s a bastard!” Nabe says. “None’a us had a chance with her, ‘cuz he took her.”
“That’s not what her sisters want to hear about, Nabe,” Moto says. “Well, I’m sorry, then. I thought for sure she was headed his way. Dinner’s the least I can do to make up for wasting yer time. How about it?”
“Well, I’d really like to get this arrow back to whoever made it,” Kirika says. “Are you sure you can’t think of anyone who could have made it?” She smiles.
“I really can’t,” Moto says. “Well, Nabe, I think I took up enough of yer time. See you tomorrow?”
“If I live that long!” Nabe chuckles, rising from his stool.
“Ah, only the good die young,” Moto teases.
“Then you’ll outlive yer grandsons!” Nabe replies. With another chuckle, he slinks off towards his own house.
Kirika watches the old man walk off, and once he’s out of earshot, she leans in. “I will tell you a secret, Moto-sama. I actually want to meet the person who made this for my father. He has been looking for a smith that can produce such amazing things for an invention he is working on - a motorized blade to cut meat more quickly. I’m sure you can imagine how much demand a butcher is in in a city like The Forge.”
“I can imagine that,” Moto says. “What did you say your father’s name was?”
“Takeshi,” Kirika replies. “Takeshi Furunaka.”
“Well,” Moto says, “then I’m sorry, but Takeshi Furunaka will have to find a blacksmith himself. I can’t help you.”
Please?” Kirika begs, batting her eyelashes in her most teasingly attractive way.

(Kirika’s Impress: 1d20+18 = 38
Moto’s Resolve: 1d20+5=19)

“Aww, hells,” Moto says, shaking his head. “He told me not to tell anyone, but...I reckon I know the fella who shot that arrow. I can’t tell you too much more, he was real mysterious, and...lean in a bit!” He continues in a whisper. “Agent of the throne!” He leans back and resumes talking. “You don’t want that kind of business, girls.”
“Oh!” Kirika says, pretending to look stunned for a moment. “Well, at least we can give him back his arrow?”
“If you can find him!” Moto says. “He passed through here a couple days ago, asking all kinds of questions about Oue. I didn’t want to tell him too much but he had a real official seal with him, so what was I supposed to do? He thanked me for my time and then he went off to the woods. Never saw him again.”
“What did he look like?” Yukio asks.
“Well, I don’t see so good anymore, and he was real keen on keeping his head covered and standing in the shadows,” Moto says. “He had a dusty cloak, but underneath, I’m pretty sure I saw this black outfit, like one a’ those ninjas? Except his right arm, that was all wrapped up in white bandages. I saw somethin’ glint in his quiver, I suppose that must’a been arrows like this one.”
Kirika sighs. “Well, thank you anyway. At least it’ll be a nice thing to show Father.” She bows to Moto. “Thank you, Moto-sama. Kinno-san suggested we look in the next town for Oue, so we might be leaving soon, or in the morning. Thank you for your help!”
“I hope you find her soon,” Moto says. “Sweet girl, your sister. Well, you two take care now, you hear?”
“You too, Moto-sama!” Kirika says. They both bow one more time, and then Kirika turns and hustles back towards Oue’s house. “Well, at least we have something now,” she whispers after they leave the old man to his porch.
“An agent of the throne, with an official seal,” Yukio replies in hushed tones. “Do you you think Ikishi might have turned someone from the Shadowwatch?”
“Then why would she have ‘failed the Throne’?” Kirika asks. “No, I suspect that this might be someone who has loyalties to the old Emperor and has a score to settle.” She nods towards the house. “Let’s ask the dynamic duo, first.”