Silk hiding steel

Gatac 2014-04-21 03:01:20
Coming back into Oue’s house, it’s quite remarkable how a pair of ninja can completely take apart the interior of a building without making much noise or being seen from outside. Sidewinder’s going through the fake letters to Oue’s father, while Copperhead’s almost out of sight, crouched as he is in a big damn hole he tore into the floor. Sidewinder gives the two samurai a nod as they enter.

“You turn up anything?” he asks.
“Why the hole?” Kirika replies.
“If a house is built by a ninja,” Copperhead says, “they have the freedom to hide things anywhere. Where better to bury things than in a place most people would not think to dig?”
“That’s Copperhead-speak for ‘We really need to find something’,” Sidewinder snarks.
“I take it you’ve found a secret message embedded in the letters, then?” Copperhead throws back.
“Yes, actually,” Sidewinder says. Copperhead stops digging and stands up, turning towards the younger ninja. “The problem is, I can’t read it. It’s not our cipher.”
Kirika walks over. “May I?”
Sidewinder hands over a scroll. “Here, see those strokes? At first I thought it was nothing, but they’re thicker than the others. It’s all over those letters, once you know what to look for. Trouble is, that ain’t what we were taught.”
“I am not familiar with such a secret code, either,” Copperhead adds. “Perhaps Homi-sama…”
Kirika looks the scroll over. The thicker lines aren’t evenly distributed - they’re in some kind of broader pattern. She smirks, and tilts the scroll until she’s looking at it almost edge-on.

(Kirika’s Investigate: 1d20+8 = 22)

It takes a bit of squinting and getting the angle of the light just right, but Kirika’s little trick seems to be the solution. As she strains to make out the subtle effect, she can read the following message:

Homi in area. Traveling with other people. Please advise.

Kirika’s smile at her figuring out the code instantly changes to a frown. “Looks like you have a spy problem,” she says, first showing the scroll to Yukio then passing it to Sidewinder.
Yukio raises an eyebrow; while Sidewinder reads, she seems to have figured out what to say. “So, Oue was a double agent? But...why kill her?”
“Well, dang,” Sidewinder says. “Don’t I feel stupid now.”
“Can you tell the difference?” Copperhead snorts.
“Hey!” Sidewinder says. “Out of line, pal.”
“Hrm. Yes, I suppose we were all fooled.” Copperhead takes the scroll and reads it himself. “This raises more questions than it answers.”
“What about the others?” Kirika asks.

Sidewinder and Copperhead pick up scrolls and hand them over to Yukio and Kirika. Working together, you quickly browse through the secret messages hidden within. These are letters that Oue received, all purportedly from her father but with a few subtly different scripts, indicating multiple authors. Most seem like normal status reports, many encoded with the Shadowwatch cipher and presumably the part of her work that wasn’t treason. The few messages in the secret cipher seem to be inquiries about the movement of other Shadowwatch agents in the area. Whoever was in contact with her seemed to be keeping an eye on Shadowwatch and would ask her to investigate whenever someone slipped out of their sight.

“Well, at least it seems that Oue was killed before she had a chance to let her masters - probably Ikishi - know that Homi is here in the company of mysterious strangers,” Kirika says, frown still on her face. “Small blessings.”
“Well, if she was selling us out, I can see how that’d be ‘failing the Throne’,” Sidewinder opines. “Still don’t tell us a lot about the assassin, though.”
“I can help with that,” Kirika replies. “Moto-sama - the old man outside - was questioned about Oue a few days ago by a man in a dusty cloak, black clothes, with a Throne seal and white bandages wrapped around his right arm.” She looks between Sidewinder and Copperhead. “Sound familiar?”
Sidewinder’s blank stare turns to a questioning look at Copperhead.
“Hrm,” Copperhead says. “Perhaps an obscure clan…”
“But you don’t know, either,” Sidewinder says.
“Hrm,” Copperhead repeats, seeming to strain for an answer. “I may have heard of such a man. The bandages around his arm -” He looks to Kirika. “Before we set out with Homi-sama to meet you, I heard a rumor about a man with a badly mangled arm being brought to the capital. We did not have time to investigate it any further, as securing the Prince took priority. I thought nothing of it until now, because surely a man with such a grievous injury could not recover the strength to use a bow within weeks - nevermind one with the power our assassin wields.”
Kirika looks down at herself, then back up to Copperhead. “It seems that we live in an age of miracles. But what made this one man so noteworthy? I’m sure injured people are brought to the capital all the time for healing.”
“It is not that common,” Copperhead says. “While there are good and less good physicians in the Empire, it is generally held that it is better to be treated by whoever is at hand than to risk the ardours of a journey to a better one - the science of healing is the same, even if the individual talent is not. To have one rushed into the city under the cover of darkness is more unusual still. But as you said, it was still not that great of an incident. Lesser minds would have already forgotten about it.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Kirika replies. “Well, we can’t be sure whose side he’s on - Oue certainly has failed the Emperor by falling in with Ikishi, but she also might have failed Ikishi in some other way.”
“If you serve two masters, you end up pleasing none,” Yukio says.
“Oh, I’m sure you handled that fine,” Sidewinder says with a smirk - causing Yukio to blush, while Copperhead has to literally take the moment to step up to his colleague and bop him on the back of the head.
“Getting back to the matter at hand,” Copperhead says, “I would like to continue my excavation just to be sure we have missed nothing further. Do you have any more suggestions, Kirika?”
“How much more are you planning to dig up, and how long will it take?” Kirika asks.
“As much as I reasonably can without carrying dirt outside,” Copperhead says. “I assume that anything buried deeper than that would have either drawn too much attention when it was buried or would be useless to Oue if it had to be retrieved in a hurry, so I shall limit myself to a few feet. Much deeper and we would hit the water table, anyhow. Give me two hours.”
Kirika looks around. “And if we helped?”
“Thank you for your offer, but I would rather you do not accidentally disturb the ground,” Copperhead says. “Besides, in such a small house, we would be getting in each other’s way more than we could help each other. So, please leave me to the task. I’m sure there are other things you could do that would help us more.”
Kirika crosses her arms. “There are three options, Copperhead. We leave you alone - which would leave you defenseless if the killer does come back, which none of us want. You stop digging and come with us - which you do not want, and we might possibly miss some key item. Or we all stay here and dig to finish this in the next fifteen minutes.”
“Or Sidewinder stays to guard me while you two confer with Homi-sama,” Copperhead says.
“And if the killer ambushes us in the forest? Or comes after the estate?” Kirika replies.
“All the more reason for you two to hurry back to the estate and fortify your position there,” Copperhead says. “My investigation here concerns the honor of a Shadowwatch operative. That need not be your business, but it is mine. Sidewinder and I will be fine here.”
Kirika narrows her eyes. “On the contrary. Homi-san has let me know of his consideration for endorsing me to Toshi as his replacement. I have been the Prince’s protector for many years, and it seems Homi-san wishes me to be your sister in arms in a more official capacity. The honor of the Shadowwatch is my honor, and furthermore, Homi-san put the decisions of this investigation in my hands - which you well know, Copperhead. It is my head that the risks here fall on - and I will not split our group up further with such a lethal adversary about. You and Sidewinder are too valuable to risk out here alone - or waste if needed back at the estate.” She rolls up her sleeves. “So, make room, Copperhead. We’re all digging.”
Copperhead nods. “If that is your wish...Kamura-sama.”
Sidewinder rolls his eyes at Copperhead’s theatrics. “Yeah, enough with the chit-chat,” he says.
Yukio nods to that. “Let’s make a bigger hole,” she says, then glares at Sidewinder, as if daring him to make another smart remark. Sidewinder holds up his hands in mock surrender - then the two share a smile, and it’s off to digging.


Twenty minutes later, you’ve shifted as much ground as you dare without undermining the house. All you have to show for it are old coins and animal bones, no doubt buried there long before the house was built. Kirika wipes her forehead with a rag - one of Oue’s more tatty leg wraps - and nods. “Satisfied, Copperhead?”
“Only the assassin’s throat between my hands would satisfy me,” Copperhead replies. “But...we have done all we reasonably can here. I recommend that we clean up and then make haste in our return to the estate.”
Kirika looks to Sidewinder, then Yukio. “How about you?”
“Count me in on that sentiment,” Sidewinder says.
“I agree,” Yukio says. “There’s nothing to find here.”
“Okay then,” Kirika says, wiping her face. “Let’s get moving. I saw a horse wandering around the edge of the clearing at Kinno’s, let’s take it and we can ride back together - quickly.”
Gatac 2014-04-27 01:55:59
Fortunately for Kirika, the ride back doesn’t prove as swift, as Kinno’s horse is nowhere near fast enough to keep up with Lightning at full tilt. That said, you do make it back to the estate - only to find Homi opening the gate for you, with nobody else in sight.

“Come, quickly,” Homi says. “I have had everyone take shelter for the time being. Now, tell me what you’ve discovered.”
Kirika hands over the incriminating scrolls, the most recent one already open. “You look at it from the edge,” she says.
“I’ll take a look once we’re in the manor,” Homi says, accepting the scrolls. “Sum it up for me, please.”
“Oue was informing on the motions of Shadowwatch agents to someone - probably Ikishi,” Kirika says. “Fortunately, her latest dispatch on your arrival with persons unknown was not sent before our killer dispatched her. I got a rough description from a local - male, wore a dusty cloak and black clothes, carried an expensive bow that shoots these arrows -” Kirika produces the arrow pulled out of the dead farmer’s wall, “- and had white bandages wrapped around his right arm.”
“Hrm,” Homi says. “I feared this might happen. I was too busy watching my own back and ensuring Toshiro’s safety that I neglected the network outside the capital. Still, it is a great loss” - he looks to Copperhead and Sidewinder - “for all of us.”
“Indeed,” Copperhead says.

You hurry into the manor, with a worried-looking Toshi holding the door for you - and joining the impromptu strategy session that follows. Homi goes through the letters, seeming to get more and more upset as he reads the secret messages.

“Oue sold out a half dozen of her brothers and sisters,” Homi says. “If our enemies know their names and locations, they are in danger - they might, indeed, already be dead.” He bangs a fist on the table. “Damn it all! We were so close to finally being in a position to hurt Ikishi, but now…”
Kirika nods. “A dire problem - but one we will have to address tomorrow,” she says. “Our killer might be a potentially deadly threat - or a potential ally. ‘You have failed the Throne’ is a condemnation that cuts both ways, and we still have no idea who he is. Unless the description and arrow have reminded you of anyone, Homi-san?”
Homi can only shake his head. “It does not,” he says. “All I can say is that he must have started recently, as I have not heard of anyone like that ever before.”
“Copperhead said he recalled hearing of someone with a badly injured right arm being brought to the capital under cover of darkness shortly before you left,” Kirika says. “Might you know anything about that?”
“I don’t,” Homi says. “I had much to prepare...I’m sorry. If we had made the time to investigate…”
Kirika puts her hands on Homi’s shoulders. “Hiro, you had a prince to save - one that needs quite a lot of saving, usually. It was simply bad luck that the one thing you let slip turned out to be important, but it is not catastrophic.”

Toshi says nothing - the implication that there’s now a murderer running loose simply because he was more important clearly doesn’t sit well with him, but he doesn’t have anything to add to the discussion itself. Copperhead’s eyes narrow a miniscule amount under the brim of his hat - enough so that Sidewinder claps a hand on his shoulder and gives him a weak smile.

Homi sighs. “Bad luck or not, Kirika, the problem remains.” He reaches up to gently touch one of her hands. “We will not beat the assassin by being several steps behind and only reacting to what we find. We must figure out a way to get ahead of him. For now, we are as safe as we can be here. I think we have some planning to do.”
Kirika lets her hands slide off of Homi’s shoulders, but gives his hand one last squeeze first. “Well, he has the advantage of acting first, since we do not know where he is, he has the advantage of invisibility, both because of his ability to hide and that we do not know what he looks like, and he has the advantage of knowledge, since he knows what his targets are and we do not,” she says. “I think we need to take those advantages away from him.”
“Easier said than done,” Toshi pipes up. “The way I see it, we don’t know enough to fight him - and the only way to find out more is to wait until he kills again.” He pauses for a moment. “What if we give him a target? That way, we’ll know where he is and who he’s coming after.”
“A very risky strategy,” Homi says. “What if he figures out it’s a trap and does not show? Or, worse, what if he shows up and we cannot stop him?”
Kirika smiles. “I’ve already thought of how to take care of both problems. The first, the target must make as much noise and stink as possible. I’ve got a few ideas on how to do that. And as for the second, I’m counting on it.”
“Wait, what?” Toshi goes. “You want him to beat us?”
“He’s a hunter, Toshi,” Kirika says. “He was good enough to beat one of the Shadowwatch’s best - betting on spotting him before he takes a shot is unwise. But after he fires his kill shot -”
“- which will kill someone because, you know, kill shot -” Toshi throws in.
“He’ll be nearly impossible to miss,” Kirika finishes. “Sidewinder, Copperhead, both of you, and possibly Homi-san will be watching and waiting, while I draw him out. And I won’t be dead, because I won’t be where he’s expecting me to be.”

Copperhead smirks, but Toshi’s having none of it.

“Okay, but he’s shooting at you, how can you not be there?” Toshi asks.
“Easy,” Kirika replies. “I’ll be underground.”
“...can someone explain this to me?” Toshi says.
“Oue’s house,” Copperhead says. “We excavated the ground beneath it, and nobody knows.”
“He killed the pig farmer with a single shot through wooden shutters - that’s not the kind of skill you develop to only use occasionally,” Kirika says. “So, when I draw him out and take cover, he’ll very likely try for the same shot. With the pit providing cover, I give him the opportunity with a dummy made out of Oue’s clothes, and that will let you all spot him.”
“Huh,” Toshi says. “Okay, I can see that. How do we make him come after you, then?”
“Either he is still watching the village, or he has moved on,” Kirika says. “If he’s moved on, then he’s no longer a threat at the moment, but if he’s still watching the village, then, well…” She smirks. “I have his arrow. I’ll just loudly call for him so I can give it back.”
“And how do you know he won’t shoot you while you’re out in the open?” Toshi asks.
“I’ll...just have to speak and run very quickly,” Kirika says.
“Very reassuring,” Toshi says. “At least put on some armor.”
“The strategy rather depends on him not knowing that I am a threat until I announce it myself, Toshi,” Kirika says, and nods towards the arrow on the table. “And it’s not like any armor that would be concealable would stop an arrow like that, anyway.”
“Right,” Toshi says. “Well, you guys look like you could use some food and rest first. Maybe we can think of a better answer than ‘run really fast’ in the meantime.”
“I’ll go look for some padding,” Yukio says. “We might not stop this arrow, but anything that could slow it down will help.”
Kirika turns to her. “Only if it doesn’t restrict my arms or slow me down.”
Yukio nods. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s a lot of ground to cover, too,” Sidewinder says. “He could be anywhere in bow range, after all.”
“That’s close enough,” Copperhead replies. “I’ll get him.”
Kirika looks Homi’s way - the old master sighs and finally nods. “Good, we’re all in agreement,” she says. “Let’s break to prepare. Copperhead, don’t bother making me a meal - I’ve got a dinner appointment to keep.”
Yukio squeezes Kirika’s hand. “I think you mean us, dearest.”
Kirika squeezes her hand back and gives her a peck on the cheek. “Of course, love. Both of us.”
Gatac 2014-05-01 10:30:59
Homi’s quick exit from the discussion has Kirika looking for him afterwards - but she doesn’t have to search long. She finds him sitting on the bench behind the manor, looking out over the forests beneath as he has done on many days before. When he notices her approach, he turns to her and gives a faint smile, patting the spot on the bench beside him.
Kirika returns his smile twice over, and takes the offered seat. “I hope you don’t expect a similar treatment to the last person I sat on this bench with,” she jokes.
“I’m sure it would be a good death,” Homi replies with a smirk. “What can I do for you, Kirika?”
“Well, first I would like your assessment on my plan,” Kirika replies. “I still have much to learn from you, Hiro.”
“I suppose my first question is, why maintain the disguise as a peasant?” Homi asks. “Once the fighting begins, the villagers will know you are not who you claimed to be. You are placing yourself in considerable risk, and if I may say so, you are not the best target - Sidewinder is the swiftest runner among us, while Copperhead’s armor turns many weapons. Why you?”
“Because I have the cover already to not appear suspicious - his or her bow will not be pointed my way automatically,” Kirika replies. “And it is my plan. I would not ask someone to put their life at risk in this way. I am well aware that this is...not the best idea, it seems unfair for me to put someone else in this much danger.”
“You don’t want anybody to get killed on your watch and your orders,” Homi says.
“And I am here and capable of doing it myself,” Kirika says. “It doesn’t seem fair to ask Sidewinder or Copperhead to take an arrow meant for me.”
“You are aware, though, that your position as Shadowguard will require you to give such orders - and that both Sidewinder and Copperhead would follow them without question,” Homi says. “This need not be the moment. But something to keep in mind.”
“That’s why I added that I am here,” Kirika replies with a nod. “Any other questions?”
“Where would you place everyone for your plan?” Homi says.
“Copperhead would be best positioned above the path leading from Oue’s house into the woods, I think,” Kirika says. “Sidewinder, above the path leading out of the village beyond her house.” She pauses. “And I would like to put you above the village itself, Hiro.”
“Is there a bench there, too?” Homi says with a chuckle. “What do you need me for, exactly?”
“Covering a full circle is very difficult for two, but much more reasonable with three, and we only have three shinobi here today,” Kirika replies. “I need you to keep lookout, and help chase down our killer if need be.”
“He’s surely faster than I am,” Homi says, “but I suppose an old man is a better guardian than nobody at all. One more thing: if we cannot capture him, should we let him run - or try to kill him?”
“That depends on him,” Kirika replies. “If he makes no move to harm anyone else, then let him run. If he threatens you, kill him.” She sighs. “It’s as close to leniency as I can get.”
“Very well,” Homi says. “A word of caution: if you do intend to take him had best not drive him toward Copperhead. He is taking Oue’s death very personally.”
Kirika nods. “I will speak to him after this, should not take this personally, either, Hiro. You made a mistake - one. And an understandable one at that. We do not know how whoever had turned Oue had done so, there might not have been anything you could have done to prevent it, and you are dealing with an unprecedented situation.” She puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do not punish yourself for this. Just focus on not making the same mistake next time.”
Homi softly shakes his head. “That I can quite easily do - as I will be in no position to make this mistake again.” He gives Kirika a smile. “Do not worry about me. My mind is on the task at hand. But do speak to Copperhead. Take one thing from me - you do not wish to see him lash out in anger.”
Kirika gives Homi a vigorous nod. “I am sure of that,” she says. “And you’re still the Shadowguard, Hiro - and better at it than anyone.” She smirks at him. “I still have much to learn from you, Sensei. Don’t think you’re off the hook yet.”
“Gods willing, I shall suffer your questions for many years to come,” Homi says. “I will see you when we depart, Kirika.”
Kirika nods. “See you then, Hiro.”


Kirika finds Copperhead off by himself at the well. Sitting cross-legged with his back against the stone, he has a small blanket in front of him covered in the parts that make up the right gauntlet of his armor. He seems to be so lost in the tinkering that he only looks up when Kirika’s almost next to him.

“What do you require of me?” Copperhead says.
“Just discussion,” Kirika says, and takes a seat opposite Copperhead. “I’m concerned for you, Copperhead.”
“Like Homi-sama is?” Copperhead answers. A hidden mechanism in his gauntlet clicks as he jimmies it with a fine metal tool. “Your concern is noted, Kamura-sama. Rest assured that I will fulfill my orders with maximum efficiency.”
“It’s not your performance that concerns me, Copperhead,” Kirika replies. There’s a pause before she continues. “Did you know Oue?”
“I did,” Copperhead answers without missing a beat. “She was one of my instructors when I was recruited into the Shadowwatch. We had a sexual relationship that we terminated at Homi-sama’s urging.”
Kirika nods - and is more than a little surprised. “ do you feel, Copperhead? I couldn’t help but notice that you’re more than a little agitated.”
“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Copperhead says. After a moment’s pause, he continues. “I...there used to be something between Oue and me that went beyond our shared duty. It was a long time ago. Yet my thoughts return to it. Now, more than ever, I must focus on my duties. Indulging in what the fastest way to lose control. And when I lose never ends well.”
“And so is ignoring and repressing it - believe me, I know that very well,” Kirika replies. “I’m not asking for you to describe your every last thought and emotion, Copperhead, but as Yukio and Toshi have spent much time these last few weeks telling me...speaking truth to your feelings and thoughts can help with many things - focus being one of them.”
“My feelings have never been more than a dangerous distraction,” Copperhead says. “When I was seven, my master - at the time - saw me brought before him, as I had murdered three older children of the clan over a slight to my sister. He recognized that there was a mind suited to our grisly livelihood, trapped inside a boy who could not be made to restrain his impulses. Rather than kill me, as would have been his privilege, he used the old teachings of the masters before him to cleanse my mind of evil spirits. To an unbiased observer, it would have looked a lot like having me tied down while he threaded a needle through my nose and pierced my brain in a few very particular spots. It is a testament to his skill that I not only survived, but prospered from there on. The angry child within me could not be killed, but I found I could now easily restrain him and use his viciousness only as needed. As a result, I remained undistracted by the vagaries of feelings and attachments, nor did I have to brave boredom or lack of motivation. The many skills you see on display in me now are a testament to a life spent learning as much as possible. But to feel again - to allow myself to lose control - that would be to set off a powder charge against the foundation of the palace I have built in my mind.” His eyes lock onto Kirika’s. “Was this explanation cogent enough or do you require me to explain further?”
Kirika nods slowly. “I...understand what you are saying, Copperhead, still have feelings. I saw them when we found Oue’s body, when we discovered that she had been giving information to another, and even when we both thought Sidewinder was in danger. The only ones who do not feel are those that are dead - and you are not dead, Copperhead. What you have said is an explanation as to why you feel less - but it does not mean you do not feel at all. I can see the anger and hurt, and I do agree that letting it out would be counter-productive, but only if it happens uncontrollably, which is what will happen if you do not speak on it.” She returns his firm gaze. “So, this time, if you want, tell me what you are feeling - not why you believe you should not be feeling it.”
“I have never denied that I have feelings,” Copperhead says, leading Kirika to raise an eyebrow. “They exist within me. To deny that is to deny reality. What I did say is that they cannot be allowed to rule me again. And rule me they will, if I give them an inch. You wish to know my feelings? I am sick to my stomach with anger. It is a hole within me, the hunger of starving a hundred years without dying. I have seen a thousand flashes of the assassin’s death at my hands, right before my inner eye. If the child had a say in my actions, I would have gone to the village to torture every last detail out of Moto-san. Perhaps killed him, and his wife, and everyone there, simply to feel the brief satisfaction of taking a life.”
“And Oue herself?” Kirika asks.
“I lusted after her,” Copperhead says. He pokes the gauntlet again, producing a much more pronounced ker-chuck from the mechanism inside. “She was not the first woman I encountered, but to a boy raised in the darkest night, she was the sun. It was a selfish desire, and often pushed me to my limits simply restraining myself from...forcing her into relations with me. She recognized that I had these feelings, and I suppose she either mistook them for genuine affection, or else found them fitting her own needs. I will not bore you with details - suffice it to say our relationship, once consummated, was intense, and we frequently had more bruises to show for it than anything we did in training or out on missions. This did not pass Homi-sama by, and though he gave us a few weeks to see if we would end it or at least learn how to control ourselves better, we did not achieve this, despite his repeated and steadily more insistent words. When the time came to give the order for us to be separated, and for Oue to leave the capital, she was devastated - here, perhaps, I had the briefest flash of empathy for her, a moment of love, but mostly I was deeply horrified by how badly I had let my feelings get the better of me. I pledged to myself this day that my life would belong to Homi-sama, with no more...distractions.”
“But then, we find that she has turned against the Shadowwatch,” Kirika says.
“A turn of events that deeply disappointed me,” Copperhead says. “Having had some time to reflect, however, I can see how a promising young Shadowwatch agent ordered to these backwoods and thereby denied every chance of regaining her self-worth would turn to betrayal - an all-too-common need for approval and meaning in one’s life. It is most inconvenient for us. But if that was all that had happened - I would not be upset. So long as Oue lived, she had the chance to right her path. Now that you know my story, I doubt you are surprised that I believe in redemption. With her life ended, however, the dishonor will stain her name for all eternity.”
Kirika shakes her head. “You look at what your first master did to you as redemption from yourself - I get that. And you still love her, independent of whether or not you acted on it. But Copperhead - we might very well need this killer alive. He might even be an ally. Have you considered that possibility?”
“Of course,” Copperhead says. “Are you ordering me to take him alive, Kamura-sama?”
“I am asking that he not be killed if he is not an immediate threat,” Kirika replies. “And not permanently maimed, if possible. And I am asking that you trust me to be private with your feelings, Copperhead. If Homi-san and Toshi consent to me assuming the role of Shadowguard, that would put me in position to lead you - and knowing your thoughts and emotions could help me, both plan with and for you. I might not have had needles inserted into my brain, but I know at least some of what you are going through, believe me. And talking...talking helps take the edge off.”
“My feelings do not require privacy - or empathy,” Copperhead says. “I have no secrets from you, Kamura-sama, and your questions will always be answered truthfully. Give your orders, and I shall find a way to see them done. The rest is...noise.”
“Then promise me that you will let me know when the noise becomes too loud?” Kirika asks.
“I promise this, but I require a promise from you in turn, Kamura-sama,” Copperhead says. “I have spent two decades blessed with clear thoughts and the power to chain the boy within me - but there are no guarantees that the procedure performed on me will stay effective, and no prospect for a renewal or another method to achieve the same aims. If it should fail - if I should fail - end me, immediately, and with no false mercy. My soul could not endure the pain of my redemption being undone, and the harm that would come to others from the boy unleashed again.” His stare bores into Kirika. “Promise it.”
Kirika nods. “I swear it. And part of that promise is that I will try to quiet him inside of you.”
“I shall bear your attempts, then,” Copperhead says. He turns back to the gauntlet and pokes it a bit more - Kirika can now see small sparks dance over the ornate-but-obscure pattern on its surface. Copperhead seems to wear the shadow of a hint of a smile at this success.
Kirika knows when she’s pushed far enough on a topic, and she definitely has today with Copperhead. “That’s very...different.” She looks back up at Copperhead. “What makes your tricks work, if I might ask? Is it something similar”
Copperhead smirks. “It does not involve the Heavens or the spirits, if that is your question,” he says. “But there are many techniques so obscure that, when applied with sufficient showmanship, they may look like an act of the Gods themselves. Substances and mechanisms both subtle and powerful, beyond the crude machinery around us. Perhaps what is trickery now will be commonplace to your grandchildren...but for now, rest assured that it is potent enough to serve us well. Homi-sama has quite the flair for dramatic entrances, and I gladly support him in that, such that people think him in league with powers darker than words can speak.” He looks to Kirika again. “To explain them all would require you to spend years replicating my studies. The details need not concern you.”
“You might want to write them down somewhere, it’d be a shame for the Shadowwatch to lose them,” Kirika replies. “And I think I’ve got enough mystical wonder for one person as is.” She smirks at that.
“Indeed,” Copperhead says. “If you have no further question, there is still much for me to prepare.”
Kirika nods, and stands up. “I’ll leave you to it, then. But, Copperhead? I am...different than Homi-san. I know he has aided you in many ways, but he has left you alone to fend with this demon inside of you, by all accounts. I meant it when I swore to end your life if you lose control, but I also meant it when I swore to listen to you - and the boy - and help calm his screams. Is this something that you want?”
“ is not,” Copperhead says. “What I want is to serve, and die with honor. Understand this, and you will never do wrong by me.”
Kirika nods. “Then I will respect that. But if that changes, know that I will be there to listen. Understood?”
“It is understood,” Copperhead says, then goes back to tinkering.
Kirika nods. “Then I will see you when we leave, Copperhead.”
“I will be ready,” Copperhead says.
Gatac 2014-05-01 10:33:57
And that takes Kirika back into the manor, where she finds Toshi and Sidewinder in one of the guest rooms, sitting at a table with a stack of the Kamura family woodcuts on it.

“Ah, Kirika!” Toshi shouts, smiling at her. “Come here!” He gets up and pulls out a chair for her.
“Heck of a family you got there,” Sidewinder says. “The Prince was just telling me about ‘em.”
Kirika smiles. “Thank you, Sidewinder.” She walks up behind Toshi and puts her hands on his shoulders somewhat firmly. “As to why he is doing this right now?”
“I heard he told it to the farmers,” Sidewinder says. “I figured we’d pass the time with it. Heck, might even make for a good song.”
“Far be it for me to interrupt this distraction from your preparation for the plan that puts my life in jeopardy,” Kirika says sarcastically, but takes Toshi’s offered seat anyway. “So, where were you?”
“Oh, just here and there,” Toshi says. “Honestly, we were...kind of done with those stories, so we talked a little about, well, what the two of us did, way back.”
“And it’s not like there’s much to plan for,” Sidewinder says. “Bad guy shoots, gives away his position, we tackle the sonuva.”
“I would like to get him or her alive, but if they threaten you or anyone else?” Kirika says.
“I’ll keep adding holes until he’s done bein’ threatening,” Sidewinder says. “So, yeah, the plan ain’t real complicated.”
Kirika nods, then looks to Toshi. “So, which of our crimes are you exposing?”
“Oh, a scam here, a theft there,” Toshi says nonchalantly.
“I ain’t never heard of so many folks needs a lesson in humility, but darn if you didn’t get one over on all of ‘em,” Sidewinder remarks. “So, I’m thinkin’, some kinda ballad, maybe? A story for folks to tell when the times are hard.”
“Yes, well, let’s postpone the songwriting for now,” Toshi says. “You have an assassin to catch.” He adds a sigh. “Kind of wish I could go help you, but I’m too important to have fun now.”
“Perhaps not in the chase and capture, but I could certainly use your help in the questioning if we get him or her alive,” Kirika replies. “If this truly is a misguided attempt to defend the Throne from Ikishi, then perhaps the words of the true Emperor might open him or her up.”
“It might,” Toshi agrees. “In my experience, though, sake works better.”
“I will try that first, then,” Kirika says with a nod and a smile as she puts a hand on Toshi’s shoulder. “I don’t want to see you cooped up in your palace either, Toshi, believe me. If you and Hiro do end up selecting me to watch over you, I’ll try to make sure Heaven’s Son finds his way out every once in a while.”
“And here I thought the party always comes to the Emperor,” Sidewinder snarks.
“Careful, friend,” Toshi says. “That party might pass you by if you keep sassing the Emperor.”
“Didn’t mean to offend, Your Highness,” Sidewinder says, then turns back to Kirika. “So if you’re going in as the butcher, does that mean you’re not packing the sword, either?”
Kirika nods. “Not that it will do me much good against an arrow like this,” she says as she holds it up. “I’d rather die with Crane’s Dance intact than break it trying to deflect this thing.”
“Fair enough,” Sidewinder says. “You talk to Copperhead yet?”
Kirika nods.
“He ain’t well, that’s for sure,” Sidewinder says. “Ain’t never seen him this shaken.”
“As in, on the brink of displaying an emotion?” Toshi says. “The man’s lost the only woman he ever cared about and found out she was a traitor to the cause on top. If anything, he’s taking this far too well, if you ask me.”
“Ain’t nothing well about Copperhead,” Sidewinder says. “Never been. Kirika got the whole story, I reckon.”
Kirika nods again. “There’s a dark childhood underneath that anger.”
“We’re all a big family of fucked-up children,” Toshi says. “Do you ever get this...urge to just reach out and fix the world?”
“All the darn time,” Sidewinder says. “This job is the closest I got so far. What business are we in, if it ain’t fixing the empire?”
“Well, I think you both know my position on that,” Kirika says with a smirk.
“Indeed,” Toshi says. “So, uh. Kirika? I had this whole thing in my head about what you’re doing, but I figured it could do with less filler, so here it is: be careful.”
“Plan on it,” Kirika replies. “And you, Sidewinder? What do you think?”
“I can only agree with my Emperor’s wisdom,” Sidewinder says. “Once you get to shouting, you run, and you run good. We’ll take it from there.”
Kirika nods. “Thank you, both of you. I’ll try to come back in one piece.”
“See that you do,” Toshi says. “I’ll be waiting.”
Kirika’s hand returns to Toshi’s shoulder - this time with a soft touch. “Sidewinder, you’ll be positioned behind Oue’s house, leading deeper into the forest. You, Copperhead and Hiro will have time to get into position while Yukio and I have dinner.”
“Gotcha,” Sidewinder says. “We’ll get ‘im.”
“I certainly hope so,” Kirika says. “I’d hate to go through all this effort for nothing.” She pauses for a moment. “Actually, that would be incredibly embarrassing, if they’ve already moved on and we do all of this for nothing. Promise me you won’t laugh if that happens.”
Sidewinder smirks. “Permission to snicker in that eventuality, Ma’am?”
“Provisionally granted,” Kirika replies.


As the sun slowly sinks towards the horizon, Yukio and Kirika return to the village in their disguises as Oue’s sisters; glances to the side show Shadowwatch taking up the positions as planned, though there’s no sign of the assassin yet. As Moto’s house comes into view, Yukio silently takes Kirika’s hand and squeezes it. Kirika squeezes it back, and it feels like a far harder thing than what she has planned when she lets Yukio’s hand go.

“I wish there was another way,” Yukio murmurs.
“As do I,” Kirika whispers back, trying to keep her lips as still as she can.

The street before them is empty; even Moto-san is no longer working outside, and the stools that seated him and Nabe have also been removed, presumably taken inside for the night. With a deep breath and one final look to Kirika, Yukio steps up to the door and knocks.

“One moment!” Moto answers. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” Several moments later, he opens the door and greets the two ladies with a smile and a handshake. “I’m so glad you could make it. Please, come inside.”
Kirika and Yukio both bow. “Thank you for inviting us, Moto-sama,” Kirika replies.
“Think nothing of it,” Moto says, and leads you two into his house. It’s about the size of Rowan’s hut, but the interior is even more sparse, and judging from the worn crossbeams holding up the roof, it’s been in dire need of repair for about as long as Moto’s been unable to climb a ladder and do it himself. Still, four walls and a roof on top.
“Oh, hello!” comes the greeting from his wife Wa, a (put lightly) plain-looking woman who seems about a decade younger than her husband. She’s wearing her best (read: least dirty) kimono, and has her hands folded in front of her legs as she bows deeply to you. “Welcome to our humble home!”
Kirika smiles and bows to Wa in return. “Any place where you are welcome is a palace,” Kirika replies. “Thank you very much for having us.”
“Please, have a seat,” Moto says, pointing to the two cushions on the floor. The table is set with a bottle of sake, a pitcher of water, some cups and bowls for the stew, as well as a big bowl of steaming rice. “How goes the search for Oue? Have you caught up with your sister yet?”
Kirika opens her mouth to slide out another smooth lie, but then takes a deep breath and looks to Yukio. Yukio simply nods back to her. Kirika looks back to Moto and Wa, and takes a seat. “Well, sort of. First, I must make a very deep apology. We are not sisters, but we are not here to harm you.” She produces the letter that Oue had stored in her table for Moto and Wa.
“You seek Oue,” Moto says as his face hardens. “Just like that man. What has she done that so many people are after her?”
Kirika sighs. “She has been killed - by the first man,” she says. “She stopped sending word back to the Emperor, and so we left to find what had happened.” Kirika bows her head. “Sadly, we found her killed by one of the same arrows that you saw in the first man’s quiver - as was, I’m very sorry to say, Kinno.” She bows again. “I apologize for lying to you earlier, but...we suspect that he is still here, and it was not safe to speak outside.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Wa says, visibly shaken. Even Moto can’t quite keep it off his face.
“I invited you into my home,” he says bitterly. “You will have dinner, and then you will leave, and you will never return. We are good, honest citizens of the empire, and we want nothing to do with any of this. Is this understood?”
Kirika raises her hands to show her lack of threat. “And I believe you and wish no harm to come your way,” she replies. “We do not work for Ikishi or the capital, you need not worry about their attention coming your way.”
“Who is Ikishi?” Wa asks, but shrinks back when Moto glares at her.
“Enough talk of this,” Moto says. “Please, serve the dinner to our guests. They have places to be tonight.”
Kirika looks down. “I apologize for my deception, Moto-sama. I know it is not enough, but I tell you this because we believe the threat might still be outside, and I want you and Wa to remain safe while we determine what is going on.” She looks to Yukio - really, actually looks to Yukio, as opposed to merely looking her way like she had been before in Moto’s presence. “She will stay in here with you both to protect you in the event that they come after you.”
“How safe are we if secret agents and hired killers pass through our little village?” Moto replies. “Go on, finish your business.”
Kirika bows her head again. “I apologize profusely, Moto-sama.”
“That doesn’t help,” Moto shoots back.
Gatac 2014-05-03 12:01:58
So, the dinner isn’t very good, and we’re not just talking about the food here. The chilly remains of conversation have fully frozen, and nobody dares to speak as they shovel their portion into their mouth. The sake remains politely untouched. Kirika catches glimpses of Wa - she seems less deathly offended and more scared and confused about the whole situation, but with her husband laying down the law, she doesn’t dare to ask more questions. Eventually, bowls are emptied, and Wa quickly collects the dirty dishes and rushes off to wash them, removing herself from Awkwardness Ground Zero. Moto’s only act is a silent bow and a hand pointed towards the door. With nothing left for them inside, Yukio and Kirika move toward the exit.

“Do you still want to do this?” Yukio whispers.
Kirika smirks at Yukio. “It’s a bit late to ask that question, don’t you think?” she whispers back.
“We could just walk out and go home,” Yukio replies.
“The others are in position, love,” Kirika says. “And we need to know what is going on.” She looks back to see if Moto is looking their way, which he is. She holds off on the kiss she wants to deliver and simply squeezes Yukio’s hand. “I know you are scared for me. I will be fine, okay?”
“Okay,” Yukio whispers - very quietly. She squeezes the hand back. “Good luck, dearest.”
“Thank you, love,” Kirika replies, and then slides the door open.

As quickly as she’s stepped outside, she closes the door again. Her eyes briefly land on Oue’s cabin, but then focus on her nonchalant walk for a breath of fresh air. Ten paces forward - and ten paces closer to Oue’s cabin - seems all she can prudently do, and so she stretches hear arms skyward. As she lowers them again, she lets the arrow slide out of her sleeve and into her hand. Time to do this, she thinks.

“If you are here,” Kirika shouts. “I have something that belongs to you!” She shoves the arrow into the air. “Come and get it, and we will talk!”

Kirika starts running for her dear life, sprinting through the dusk with only a view to Oue’s house. That brief moment of doubt - is he really here? - gives way to certainty with a sharp whistle that zooms past her, embedding a gleaming arrow to the left of her path. Then another, to the right, and another to the left. He’s not just there - he’s playing with her. Kirika would smile right now, if that wouldn’t take focus away from her running flat out for cover. She makes it to Oue’s house, ignoring the arrow that THUNKs into the door frame right in front of her, and busts inside, scrambling to get down into the hole while Copperhead’s improvised mannequin stands tall as a distraction.

However, no arrow finds its way through the shutters quite yet. Instead, there comes a raspy howl.

“Kasumi Kagawa!” the assassin shouts. “You have failed the throne!”
“How might I have done that?” Kirika shouts back, moving the dummy slightly.
The response is immediate: a shutter splinters from impact as another arrow zooms past her, this one embedding itself into the dummy’s head. Kirika knocks the dummy to the floor.

(Kirika’s Sneak: 1d20+8+4 = 29
Assassin’s Notice: 1d20+18=22)

For a few moments, nothing. Has he fled? Is he lining up a new shot? The question is answered with another THUNK - this one coming from the wall just above the door. Kirika stays crouched low, trying not to give the game away - and then she hears it. The wall shakes as weight pulls on the arrow stuck into it, the whirring of something sliding along a rope - gonnefire! Sidewinder’s handgonnes are lipping fire, and Kirika keeps low - until the door slams open with the sound of splintering wood, sending the black-clad assassin tumbling into the house!

(Assassin’s Reflex Save DC 20: 1d20+10=19 SO CLOSE BUT NOPE
Kirika’s Reflex Save DC 15: Kirika uses Cagey to automatically succeed.
Assassin suffers his own unarmed damage: 1d4+2 = 1d4+2=6
Assassin is sprawled.)

The assassin tries to roll with it, digging his metal spurs into the wood to slow down, but he was counting on a little more length for his landing - and the dug-out floor of Oue’s house doesn’t offer it. The voices of her ancestors tell Kirika to get the hells out of the way, and she does, leaving the assassin to hit the dirt next to her. They also told her to grab something heavy, but Kirika didn’t need to be told that, and so when the assassin hits the floor next to her, she’s ready with a big rock to hit the bastard in the head with.

(Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+9-2 = 20 HIT!
Kirika’s Damage: 1d10+4 = 1d10+4=14 OUCH)

Hey, kids! Did you know that hitting your friends on the head with a big rock won’t just knock them out, but give them a skull fracture? Well, the assassin obviously knows, because he just barely gets his head out of rock’s way - but the flash of panic in his eyes is very real.

(It’s Initiative, everybody!

Assassin: 1d20+16=22
Kirika: 1d20+11 = 30


Kirika tries to pummel the shit out of the assassin.

Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+14 = 17 NOT ENOUGH Kirika spends an Action Die: 1d6 = 2 THAT’LL DO
Kirika’s Damage: 3d6 + 12 = 26
Assassin’s Fortitude Save vs DC 23: 1d20+8=13 CAN’T CATCH NO BREAK

The assassin is now Fatigued.)

...and that dumb look is just an open invitation for Kirika to kick him in the face, and a few more to the ribs as he rolls over. Ouch, that’s gotta smart.

(Assassin takes a half action to stand up, then attempts to shoot Kirika.

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+18-1=35
Assassin’s Damage: 1d6+1+1d4=4 NO BREAKS, NO BREAKS AT ALL)

However, Kirika realizes that the assassin’s not done for when he rolls out of the way of that last kick and nocks an arrow in the blink of an eye - that one just takes a bit of fabric from her kimono’s left sleeve, but the fight’s far from decided.

(ROUND TWO! Kirika pummels again.

Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+14=20
Kirika’s Damage: 3d6+12=21
Assassin’s Fort Save vs DC 21: 1d20+8=17 NOPE

Assassin is Fatigued II now.)

Kirika’s eyes narrow, and she bats the killer’s bow out of the way and delivers three more quick blows to his head, rocking his head back each time. “This - is - Yukio’s!”

(Assassin figures it’s now or never and attacks with the Multi-Shot trick, expending a use of Combat Focus to boost his attack roll.

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+19=26
Assassin’s Damage: 2d6+2d4=12

...and attacks again, expending his second and last use of Combat Focus. He’s bleeding arrows, but at this speed it probably won’t matter.

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+19=37
Assassin’s Damage: 3d6+3d4=21)

The last blow sends the assassin reeling back and forcibly bumps him against the edge of the dig. But it does not stop him - like a madman, he nocks three arrows at once, and when Kirika barely gets out of their way, he does it again, drawing some actual blood - but fortunately not scoring any solid hits. Still, if he pulls that again, Kirika might have a new career as a pincushion to look forward to.


Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+14 = 22
Kirika’s Damage: 3d6+12=23
Assassin’s Fort Save vs DC 22: 1d20+8=17 MEGANOPE

Assassin is Fatigued III now.)

The second arrow gives Kirika a good cut on her arm, and now she’s completely out of snappy comebacks. Instead, she just growls and leaps forward, a sharp kick knocking the bow up high, and leaving the killer’s gut completely exposed for a devastating roundhouse snap kick that doubles the masked killer over, knocking the wind out of him.

(With no uses of Combat Focus left, the assassin’s running low on steam. Figuring that he has to stop the pain train somehow, he attacks with a Daunting Shot.

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+16=24 Hit!
Assassin’s Damage: 1d6-1+1d4=5

Kirika’s taking a -2 penalty to attack rolls until she hits the assassin again. He follows it with one more Multi-Shot.

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+16=35
Assassin’s Damage: 3d6-3+3d4=14)

Kirika’s follow-up turns sour when the assassin dodges her last blow and rakes his nocked arrow along her arm before firing it off. The sudden rush of pain forces her to recoil, and his next three-in-one shot forces her further back - but his quiver’s starting to look pretty empty, and for once, the ninjas are making sure their footsteps can be heard from outside, closing in on the hut.


Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+14-2 = 20 Hit!

Desperate soul that he is, the Assassin tries to Parry…

Assassin’s Reflex Save: 1d20+7=24

...wait, what? He actually made a save?)

Kirika’s next barrage comes hauling in, but whether it’s reading her moves or just the “Stop the pain” defensive reflexes, he weathers the blows long enough to shove her back, giving himself just enough space to reach back and grab for his last arrow.

(Not willing to let go off his final piece of sharpened metal, the assassin goes for a stab!

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+14=16 FAIL

...and again…

Assassin’s Attack: 1d20+14=24 HIT!
Assassin’s Damage: 1d8-1=5)

Grasping the arrow in a reverse “icepick” grip of his left hand, the assassin lunges for Kirika! The first swipe goes wide, but the second draws some blood from her forearm when she moves to block it.


Kirika’s Attack: 1d20+14 = 29 Hit!
Kirika’s Damage: 3d6+12=21
Assassin’s Fortitude Save vs DC 21: 1d20+8=17 WHY DID I EVEN ROLL THIS?

Assassin is now...Fatigued IV, and probably has a good-sized concussion to show for it.)

Kirika cries out as the arrow cuts a gash in her arm, but refocuses that pain into an elbow blow that strikes the killer right in the temple. His head recoils back once more, and this time when he snaps back, Kirika can see that his eyes aren’t exactly pointing at her - or anything - anymore.

Swaying back and forth, with bow and arrow dropped to the ground, the assassin stumbles back a step, then fishes a flash bomb from a pouch and holds it up - but the look on Kirika’s face tells him that that is a really, really bad idea. It’s either that or the total exhaustion that sees his knees give out, and he slumps to the ground, lying on his side - still somewhat conscious.
Kirika takes a knee next to him - but still just out of arm’s reach. “Drop the arrow and the flash bomb, and I’ll get you some help.”
The assassin holds up both hands, as if looking at what he’s got left to use, then drops his arms and lets go. Both arrow and flash bomb land in the dirt as he draws a few labored breaths.
Kirika knocks both of them away, then looks up towards the doorway. “All clear!” she shouts, then looks back to the killer. “I’m going to take your mask off so we can see how much damage I’ve done.” She reaches for the mask, but doesn’t touch it yet.
“It doesn’t matter,” the assassin says - he doesn’t stop her, though.
“Which?” Kirika asks. “The medical assistance, or your mask?”
When the assassin doesn’t answer, Kirika grabs for his mask and pulls it off. Underneath is the flame-scarred face of a man, further bloodied by their fight - but even through the injuries, he seems...familiar. “Got stupid,” the man says. “Played with you. Should have...should have known you were...tougher than I thought, Kasumi.”
Kirika checks his eyes - both of his pupils manage to still be the same size, so he’ll probably survive this. “You have me at a disadvantage, you know - well, you know who I used to be, but I don’t know who you are.”
He gives her a pained, gasping laugh. “Of course,” he says. “Why remember me? Barely knew me. Poor Ramma, up in the trees...while you burned the camp below...and left me behind.” Another rasping breath. “I was only a mercenary...went with Toshi and the ninjas to maybe earn some money in the Forge...didn’t work out so well.”
Kirika’s eyes go wide with recognition. “Ramma…” Her eyes narrow again. “Then you know that I was stealing the horses when that tent caught fire. should have...Well, maybe sending word was a bit difficult, but...I would have helped you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ramma says, flexing his bandaged arm. “I went...a different way. Made...different friends.”
“Ikishi,” Kirika says.
“She has a plan, Kasumi,” Ramma says. “Get...get out of her way.”
Kirika scowls at Ramma. “Her plan involves killing Toshi as a pretty central step, so that’s not going to happen.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ramma repeats. “She won’t...won’t stop. This...won’t stop.” His bleary eyes focus on her for a second. “I’m tired, Kasumi…”
“It will if we stop it, Ramma,” Kirika says. “We can stop it.” She helps him sit up and looks him over again. “You don’t have to fight for her, Ramma. You can make a choice.”
“Already did,” Ramma says.
“You can make a different one - still,” Kirika replies.
“Kirika?” comes the call from Sidewinder outside. “We...we have a bit of a problem out here.”
“What’s wrong?” Kirika calls out.
“Well,” Sidewinder shouts back, “I’ve got a bead on three more ninjas staring us down - and Homi-sama’s between us.”
Kirika looks at Ramma. “Yours?”
Ramma nods. “ done with sending...people after you alone,” he coughs.
“And you know what she is plotting to do?” Kirika replies. “Kill the Emperor, take the Throne for herself? You are willing to aid her in this?”
“My friends...won’t leave without me,” Ramma says. “And if I’m not alive, your friend won’t be much longer…” He coughs again. “I’ve made my bed.”
“Bullshit,” Kirika says with a smirk. “My name - my real name is Kirika Kamura. I have committed countless crimes and dishonors - but my ancestors still accept me as one of their own. The Emperor’s Shadowguard trusts me with his charge’s life. And I have made many mistakes, but what I have learned is that it is never too late to start to make amends. All you have to do is decide to turn around and walk another way.” She helps Ramma to his feet. “You can make that same choice, Ramma. Who are your people outside? What are their names?”
Ramma coughs again. “Can’t tell you,” he says. “If you know...they will attack. Help me put the mask on. Maybe...maybe they won’t think you know about me.”
Kirika grabs something, all right - a handful of his arrows, and puts them in his hand. “Or you could help us, Ramma. You say inside here, I go outside and pretend to negotiate a trade for your life. Your first strike should give us the surprise we need to get the upper hand.”
“Go,” Ramma says.

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 21)

It’s hard to read Ramma through the wounds and confusion, but he seems to want to help her - though not in the way she intended for him. There’s too much fear, too much surrender in him to shoot back at the people he’s pledged his allegiance to.
Kirika stops him. “Ramma, do not lie to me. There is too much at stake - my life, my friends’ lives - for you to hide things from me. If you want to help, I need the truth.”
“What truth?” Ramma says. “That they will kill you if they believe they have to? You have not met people like them...Kirika. They are devils. Look at me.” He points to his bandaged arm. “I wish I had the words,” Ramma says. “Needles and poisons...the arm is still broken, but it moves. Only she has the tinctures that ease the pain of it.”
“Gods above, Ramma,” Kirika says. “I...I know someone who can help you. Convincing him might be tricky, but he can help.”
“I’d like to believe it.” He grits his teeth again. “Devils. All of them.”
“I have faced devils before, Ramma,” Kirika says, fire flowing into her gut. “I have killed devils before.”
“Then perhaps you will win tonight,” Ramma says. “The last man or woman standing is the winner, yes?” He sighs. “ what price?”
Kirika looks Ramma in the eyes. “I will not let them continue to torture you the way that they have, Ramma. It is barbaric, it is wrong. I will not stand by and let this happen to you.”
“I will,” Ramma says. “If it saves lives...I will. But...if you won’t change your path, you’ll face them again. Be ready for it then.”
Kirika smirks briefly. “Well, I guess I should prepare.” Her smile fades. “Anything you can tell me, before we walk outside?”
“I...cannot,” Ramma says. “Forgive me.”
“There is no need,” Kirika says. She puts her hands on his shoulders as the fire in her gut feels like it’s going from metaphorical to literal, and even she can see the kata tattoos start to shimmer and glow. “I will come for you, Ramma. I swear it, you will not be Ikishi’s victim for too much longer.”
“I will wait for you, then,” Ramma says. He grabs the mask from Kirika’s hands and very gingerly pulls it over his head, gritting his teeth as the fabric rubs over some of his wounds. “Go,” he says.
Kirika helps Ramma to the door. “Good luck, Ramma,” Kirika says.
“Good luck to you, too,” Ramma says.

Kirika steps outside into the ongoing standoff on Main Street with Ramma before her, an arrow held to his neck. On her side, Sidewinder and Copperhead stand - Sidewinder with both gonnes out, while Copperhead has his arms raised into a fighting stance with his chain-weapon coiled around his right arm. On the other side, three figures stand. All are dressed in black, except for a white highlight on each of them. Leftmost is a lithe figure with a quarterstaff, with an obviously female shape underneath the tight combat suit. She wears a white headband. The rightmost figure is also tall and thin, but seems to be a man - though it’s hard to tell, what with him holding Hiro Homi as a human shield with a dagger to the old master’s neck. In the middle stands a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a striking white sash crossing his chest and holding a sheathed straight sword.

“Tell me you got a plan,” Sidewinder whispers.
“Whatever it is, it surely involves this,” Copperhead says, then slides Crane’s Dance out of his gear with his left hand and hands it to Kirika.
“Are we ready to talk, then?” the burly man in the middle - obviously their leader - asks.
“You know you are working to murder the true Emperor, yes?” Kirika asks. “Ikishi can and has betrayed the ones that she sent after us before you. Put down your weapons and help us restore the Throne, instead of serving the one strives to usurp it.”
“We are not here to have this tedious discussion,” the leader says. “More pragmatic concerns are ahead of us. Such as the fate of your friend here. Shadowguard Homi has served for many years - perhaps too long. So, tell me: what do you want with our friend, the archer?”

(Kirika’s Sense Motive: 1d20+15 = 25)

With a few subtle moves of her eyes and eyebrows, Kirika beams an unheard message to Homi: Are you all right?

(Kirika’s Notice: 1d20+11 = 26)

Homi’s eyes seem locked forward, as does his facial expression. He manages to jerk his head into a nod, then to the right, seeming to point at the woman - and showing off a small needle stuck into the side of his neck. Kirika nods. “I propose a trade - him for Homi-san, and we go our separate ways. Fight another day.”
“I see we are already in agreement,” the leader says. “Lady Ikishi wants to speak to you, Kamura-san. I only let the archer take you on because he promised he could subdue you. I see now that he was mistaken, and that we have greatly underestimated you. In any event, there is no need for further bloodshed. Present the archer to us, and we will part ways peaceably.”
Kirika nods. “This is acceptable.”
“Very well,” the leader says. “Shall we deal, then, Kamura-san?”
Kirika tilts her head towards Ramma - the broken shell of a man who has long since learned not to fight his fate any more. He just sighs. Kirika nods towards Homi. “Pull the needle from Homi-san’s neck, first.”
The leader turns to the gaunt man at his side and looks at his hold on Homi. “I think not,” he says. “You can safely remove it once we are gone. There was altogether too much fight in the old man when he captured him - he might think to fight us, and I would hate to kill him.”
“And if you already have?” Kirika asks. “The needle might be poisoned, and we would be trading for a dead man. Remove it so he can speak to us.”
“Very well, but do not push me further,” the leader answers, then turns to Homi. “You saw what we did to you when you were rested. You will barely stand when this needle comes out. Choose your strategy accordingly.”
The gaunt man removes the needle from Homi’s neck, producing a scream from the old ninja master. Sidewinder brings his guns to eye level, but Homi quickly follows his pain with words. “Stop!” he shouts. “All of you, stop! I am unharmed.” The gaunt man quickly reasserts his hold on Homi, dagger still hovering close to his neck.
“What will it be, Kamura-san?” the leader asks. “Peace...or blood?”

Kirika moves her head behind Ramma’s, ostensibly for cover from attack, but really for a different kind of concealment. “Stay strong, Ramma. I will come for you,” she whispers.
“I know,” Ramma whispers back.
Kirika shoves Ramma forward. “Take him, and release Homi-san.”
The gaunt man releases Homi, and the two hostages limp forward, sharing a look as they pass each other in no man’s land. Copperhead takes immediate possession of Homi when he’s in reach, examining him for wounds, while the gaunt man hooks Ramma’s arm and steadies him.
“You have made a good choice today, Kamura-san,” the leader says. “I of course do not have to stress that trying to follow us will be your end. Go on and tend to Homi-sama.” He bows slightly. “I look forward to seeing you again.”
Very soon,” Kirika intones.
“Consider Ikishi-sama’s invitation, too,” the leader says. “There is much she has to discuss with the man who would be Emperor, and his friends.”

His piece said, the leader turns away, and the others follow behind him as they walk off into the darkness. It takes a few seconds for Sidewinder to lower his gonnes.

“I don’t know who that was,” he says, “but I reckon I don’t like him very much.”
“Agreed,” Kirika says as she moves to help Homi. “Are you all right, Hiro?”
“I will be fine,” Homi says. “You, on the other hand, are bleeding.”
Kirika’s eyes follow Homi’s to her arm, and one of the wounds Ramma had inflicted. “It is nothing, just a scratch.” She eyes the trees around them. “We have much to discuss, everyone. There is a new mission - we must rescue the archer.”
Copperhead’s glare nearly burns through Kirika, but he says nothing.
“A discussion best saved for a more secure location,” Homi says. “Go and fetch Yukio, that we may be on our way.”
Kirika nods. “Agreed.” She looks to Sidewinder and Copperhead. “Thank you for your aid - and I will explain everything.”
“That had better be a darn good explanation,” Sidewinder says.


The walk back is a long and quiet one, with Sidewinder occasionally falling back and circling around to discourage anyone following you, but nothing of the sort turns up - looks like your opponents made haste in the opposite direction, probably heading North to the capital. Homi recovers quickly from the attack, but Copperhead still steadies him as a matter of course, while Yukio bandages the cuts on Kirika’s arms. The pain has dulled slightly by the time you make it back to the estate long after dusk has given way to night; Toshi’s there to greet you, along with Rowan and his sons, both wielding sticks while their father hefts a heavy spade.

“Oh Gods,” Toshi says. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“You should see the other guy,” Kirika jokes as the group walks inside the front gate. “Close it up and lock it tight,” she tells Rowan.
“Will do,” Rowan says. “If you need those wounds looked at…”
“We can handle it, Rowan, thank you for offering,” Toshi interjects.
Kirika shoots him a glare.
Toshi returns a “What?” look, then turns back to Rowan. “Really. Thank you. But you guys should get back to your house now and lock it down for the night. If anything happens, we’ll handle it.”
“Got it,” Rowan says. “Let’s hope that’s the last we hear of that bastard. Well, you have a good night, all. If you need us, you know where to find us.”

As Rowan and the boys walk off beyond earshot, Toshi turns to Kirika.

“What the hells happened?” he whispers.
“We captured the archer - and it’s someone we know,” Kirika says. “I’ll say more inside the manor house.”
“Fine,” Toshi says.

Five minutes later, you can all rest your aching feet inside the manor’s main room while Toshi bars the door.
“There, we’re secure,” he says, rattling the door to make sure it’s jammed nice and solid. “Can I get a straight answer now?”
Kirika looks over the others - Yukio hasn’t left her spot immediately next to Kirika’s side since she first saw the few minor cuts she received from Ramma, and the two ninjas are sitting nervously next to their master, Sidewinder focusing more on Homi, and Copperhead more on Kirika - he’s obviously looking for an explanation. “The archer is Ramma, Toshi. Remember him?”
“Yeah,” Toshi says. “Yeah, I remember the guy. A little loopy, we picked him up on the way to the Forge, he kinda abandoned us when we got there.” He frowns. “I really didn’t figure him for one of Ikishi’s agents.”
“He’s not,” Kirika replies. “In the confusion after we raided the Eagle’s camp, he was burned and injured very badly, and Ikishi got ahold of him.” She looks to Copperhead. “He said that they use needles and poisons to force his arm to move, even though it is broken, and I suspect more besides, and they gave him a mask that he said helped him to see. Is this possible?”
Homi nods. “The shadowskins allow their wearers to see in the dark,” he says. “Perhaps a similar process was used to create the mask. As for the needles, I got a rather close look - these are mystical arts that make their home on the mainland. I don’t know enough about them to tell you what is possible and what is not, but we would be fools to underestimate their means.”
“Okay, hold up,” Toshi says. “Can we get to the part where you captured him and learned all about what happened to him and you then apparently let him go because he’s not here with you? Because that sounds like it might be important.”
“I was getting to that next, Toshi,” Kirika says. “The plan to draw the archer out went perfectly - until he slid down a line towards the house and barged in. He did not expect there to, well, there to not be a floor, and that let me get the upper hand on him. That was when I found out who he was, but they had captured Hiro, and Ramma demanded that I save myself and Hiro and to be traded back - but he wants our help.” She looks over the group. “He’s in constant agony, I could see it in his eyes. Ikishi didn’t fix him - she broke him so much that he could be used against us, but the old Ramma is still in there, and he needs our help. I think that was why he insisted on trying to subdue me instead of killing me outright like Ikishi wanted, he wanted to talk.”
“They?” Toshi asks.
Kirika nods. “There were three others that were pulling his leash, but I did not get the best look at them, Sidewinder, Copperhead and Hiro did.”
“I had the lady in my sights,” Sidewinder says. “When I’ve got two gonnes on someone and they don’t even look nervous, that’s when I get worried. Didn’t see much of anything on her in the way of gear, but...she’s the one who took down Homi-sama, so I reckon we’re gonna want to keep our distance.”
“She was very swift, indeed,” Homi says. “As quick as Sidewinder, maybe - the trees and rocks certainly seemed no obstacle to her when she came barreling at me. Before I knew what had happened, she had jumped on me, hit my face and forced me to the ground. Then she struck me - and I could feel my body cramp up in an instant. The needle she pushed into my neck merely seemed to maintain the effect. The other man who carried me, I did not see much of.”
“Neither did I,” Copperhead says. “Their leader was obviously the biggest threat. He had a mainlander weapon, too, and he carried himself like a swordsman would. The fabric of his clothes was unlike that of the others - heavier, perhaps some form of armor.”
“...okay,” Toshi says. “So what you’re saying is...we have a big problem ahead of us.”
“Ramma said that they are here to keep us from reaching our goal - which I assume means the capital,” Kirika says. “And that means we will probably be dealing with them sooner rather than later.”
“What concerns me more was that they apparently had orders to capture you, Kirika,” Homi says. “Their leader said that Ikishi wanted to speak to you - and you, Toshiro. How assured is she of her victory if she issues such orders?”
“...oh, we’ll come visit her all right,” Toshi says.
Kirika looks to Toshi. “Oh, we’ve dealt with people with similar amounts of self-confidence before,” she says with a slight smirk.
Toshi smirks back. “We’re all about confidence,” he says. “Let her think she holds all the cards. The bitch won’t know what hit her.”
Kirika looks back to Homi. “At any rate, she probably wants to offer us a chance to go along peaceably with her plans, that it will be better for everyone, so on and so forth.” Kirika turns back to Toshi. “Like that manor lord that wanted to make us his house pets.”
“Pets indeed,” Toshi says. “You should all rest. I’ll keep watch for the night.”
“As will I,” Kirika replies.
“Well, I cannot just leave you two to fend for yourselves,” Yukio adds.
“Then we will rest,” Homi says. He rises from his seat. “Though we cannot claim victory just yet, it feels good to have new faces to put to our enemies...and a few clues to their methods. But we can speak of it tomorrow.” He nods to Kirika. “Well fought, Shadowguard.”
Kirika smiles, and bows to Homi. “I am not Shadowguard yet, Homi-san.”
Homi returns the bow and smile, while Copperhead stares at her. Kirika turns to Copperhead and nods to him. “Speak your mind, Copperhead.”
“You seem very quick to forgive this ‘Ramma’ for his actions,” Copperhead says. “What proof do we have that he did not just tell you what he thought would let him slip our grasp?”
“The head trauma I had inflicted would have made lying very difficult for anyone,” Kirika replies. “But I looked him in the eyes, saw the agony he was in and heard the desperation in his voice, Copperhead. He is a man trapped and begging for a way out, not conniving a trap of his own.”
“If Ikishi sent him, she is no doubt aware of his past and his feelings,” Copperhead says. “A man may be a part of a trap he never intended.”
“And that is reason to leave him to languish in his own Hell?” Kirika asks, eyebrow raised.
“It is reason to proceed with care,” Copperhead says. “I will be the last to spurn a poor soul in need of deliverance from hostile circumstances, but where Ikishi is involved, deception must be suspected.”
“All the more reason to proceed as soon as possible, to take the advantage,” Kirika replies. She pauses and thinks for a second before continuing. “I...we will...we will get the full information on Oue when we rescue Ramma, he would know more than we would. And we will make sure that vengeance is delivered to those who deserve it.”
“Ikishi cannot possibly die as painfully as she deserves,” Copperhead says. “But I am sure we will do our best nevertheless. In any event, I am...content, for now.” He yawns. “And in need of rest, as we all are.”
“Yes,” Kirika says. “Sidewinder?” she asks as she looks to the other ninja.
“I could do with today being over,” he says.
“Then for you, it is,” Kirika says, and looks over the three Shadowwatch members. “All three of you, go get some sleep. We will wake you for breakfast in the morning.”
“Very well,” Homi says. “Until then. Good night to you all.”

As the Shadowwatch makes for an empty guest room, Yukio walks over to Toshi and gives him a peck on the cheek.

“For holding down the fort,” she says.
“Save it for when I make tea,” Toshi says. “I think we could all use a cup, right?”
Kirika sighs and wraps her arms around Yukio from behind. “I think we all do, after today, let alone for the night watch.” She rubs her face into Yukio’s neck, giving her a few pecks on her neck as she rubs herself against her love’s back.
“...I’ll get right on it,” Toshi adds.
Yukio turns around and grabs Kirika, pulling her close for an embrace. “He gave us a few minutes, dearest,” she whispers. “I do not intend to waste them.”
“Oh!” Kirika gasps, then smiles and leans in.
Yukio kisses her on the cheek. “Hold me, dearest,” she whispers.
Gatac 2014-05-19 11:07:25
Kirika stands near the open slider, looking out over the dark of the valley. After the excitement of the last few days, it seems like a tranquil paradise, beyond the reach of the turmoil overtaking the outside world. But tranquil is not a word that could describe how Kirika is feeling at the moment - her hands fidget with her kimono and run over the hilt of Crane’s Dance, and her back feels tight and tense. Sighing, she walks around the room to the other open door, the long way, yet again.

The silence is broken by the splashing of lukewarm tea in Toshi’s cup; the conman / future emperor swirls it around, tastes of it, then makes a face.

“Hey, Kirika,” he says. “How about I take the door for a few and you get a new brew started? I mean, whatever’s out there doesn’t look like it’s coming for us tonight.”
“That’s the problem,” Kirika whispers, as a shiver runs up her back. The ancestors are agitated, but not in a thirst for blood kind of way. Instead, the tattoos loop and coil against another as if they’re circling the wagons.
“I don’t see it that way,” Toshi says. “It’s nice to have a safe place to rest our heads for once.” His semi-permanent smirk fades. “You’re still thinking about how to save Ramma, aren’t you.”
“Yes,” Kirika says. She looks at Toshi. “Aren’t you?”
Toshi sighs. “I’d feel better about myself if I was,” he says. “It just feels Ikishi’s already starting her moves against us, while we’re still scattered all over the empire. I’d feel a lot better with the others here, or at least a sign of life from them.”
Kirika shakes her head. “You didn’t look into his eyes, Toshi.” She turns to him. “You remember the look in Karla’s eyes, when she was still affected by the drugs? It was that, but he was aware of how trapped and how much pain he was in. He knew exactly how hopeless his situation was.”
“Well, then there’s the question I have to ask,” Toshi says. “What if he doesn’t turn? I mean, don’t get me wrong, your successes in turning Ikishi’s pawns to our side are incredible, but even the hottest lucky streak ends sometime, and we’re gambling on a lot if we’re making ourselves vulnerable to a man of his...talents.” He turns his head away. “I hate to be the heel in this, but...we need to think about how we can defeat him, too, if it comes to that.”
Kirika sighs. “A sword. Like everyone else.”
“They had a guy with a sword, too,” Toshi says. “Sidewinder said he’s probably a mainlander. And if they’re not soft in the head, they’ll put him in the front and have Ramma work behind their lines. You may not get this close to him again.” Toshi sips on the lukewarm tea again, then balks at it all over again, having seemingly forgotten his last taste in the meantime. “Blech. Then again, you’ve gone through everyone with a sword so far, too. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic.”
Kirika smirks a bit at Toshi. “I meant figuratively. But I don’t think he needs turning, Toshi. I think he’s trapped. He’s trapped and in pain - and he needs my help. He begged me to leave him, but he also said that he knew I would save him. I can’t let him down.”
Toshi nods. “Far be it from me to make a liar out of you, Kirika. If we’re to save him, then that’s what we’ll do. So, what’s our plan now?”
Kirika turns back towards the open door. “First, we need to find where they’re going. And then we need to get out ahead of them. They will likely be tending to their wounds - or at least will be slowed down by Ramma’s injuries.”
“There’s really only one place to go North of here,” Toshi says. “Even if they’re not headed for the capital, I’d put a jade chip on them stopping to rest there at the least. On the other hand, there’s also not a lot we can do to bypass them, if they are waiting for us along the way. There’s really only the trade road and the river.” Toshi scoffs. “Unless we get a slice of ninja magic and grow wings.”
Kirka smiles, and kisses Toshi. “Or we float. You’re a genius, Toshi.”
“I have my moments,” Toshi says. “This genius requires some fresh tea to stay awake, however.” He holds up the nearly empty kettle for Kirika to take. “Not my turn,” he says, with his smirk back in full effect.
“Yes, yes,” Kirika replies, smile still on her face. “I’ll take care of it.” She steps over towards the fire - much more lightly on her feet, fills the kettle from the bucket in the corner, then places it over the fire, next to which Yukio is sleeping peacefully on her off-shift. Kirika kneels down next to her and kisses her on the cheek. “Wake up, love. We’ve got a plan to go kill some bad guys.”
“Mmh,” Yukio says, savoring both the warmth and the kiss for a few seconds. “I’ll be up in a moment. How long did I sleep?”
“Two hours,” Kirika replies.
Yukio yawns. “No wonder I feel so slow,” she says. “When you’re done explaining for your plan, it’s your turn to rest, and I will not have it any other way.” She looks over to Toshi. “How are you holding up, Toshi?”
“I’m fine, Yuki-chan,” Toshi replies. “You’ve both earned your rest. Don’t worry about me. As long as I have hot tea, I’ll be good to go.”
“And same here,” Kirika says. “We haven’t got time for me to waste on things like sleep, love. Ramma is counting on us.”
“Very well,” Yukio says, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes. “Then fill me on your plan, Kirika.”
“Tea first!” Toshi calls over his shoulder.
Kirika throws a cushion at him. “Tea is coming, oh Son of the Heavens. Isn’t patience one of the divine virtues?”
“So is obeying your Emperor!” Toshi replies, rubbing the back of his head from the mock injury of getting hit by the cushion.
“I will let the water know its Emperor demands it boil faster,” Kirika replies, then looks back to Yukio with a smile on her face.
“So,” Yukio says, “what is your plan, then?”
“We cut them off,” Kirika says. “There is a rest area north of here, but the river runs around and past it. We raft down the river, cut them off, and sneak in to rescue Ramma while they aren’t expecting it.”
Yukio nods. “Sounds like it could work. Should I ask what we’re using as rafts?”
“Some of the logs cut down for the manor,” Kirika replies. “Between the three of us, we should be able to move them and lash them in an hour or so.”
Yukio considers that for a moment. “We’ll need to pack our weapons tightly to keep them dry,” she says. “Are the ninjas coming with us?”
Kirika pauses for her own consideration. “Sidewinder and Copperhead. I don’t want to bother Hiro - and he’d probably disapprove, anyway.”
“Speak to them, then,” Yukio says. “I will prepare our weapons.”
“And the tea?” Toshi asks.
“And the tea,” Yukio affirms.
Kirika stands up and smirks at Toshi as she walks past. “You’ve gotten bossy since you’ve been outed as the heir of the Empire, you know.”
“I need to practice commanding my loyal subjects,” Toshi says.
“You must be really desperate to be practicing with us, then,” Kirika says, then stops, turns on her heels and gives an exaggerated bow to Toshi.
“You are excused from our court, peon!” Toshi volleys back, that smirk of his growing into a grin. “Away with you!”
“At once, my Emperor,” Kirika replies, and shuts the door behind her.


Kirika cracks the door to where the Shadowwatch are sleeping ever so slightly. Inside, she finds that the time for sleep is over, if indeed it ever started. Homi lies on his bed, bruises dotting his bare chest, while Sidewinder dabs a damp cloth on his forehead. Off to the side, Copperhead seems to be mixing up a poultice of some sort.

“Close the door, please,” Homi says.
“Hiro!” Kirika exclaims, rushing in to his side. “Are you...what happened?”
“The struggle with the woman...did not end as quickly as I told you,” he said. “I like to think I gave a good account of myself, but even so she beat me quite severely. The nerve block she applied after that fortunately kept the pain at bay...but there is only so much you can cheat bones as old as mine before the aches come back.” He waves a hand toward Sidewinder to dismiss him and pulls himself up. “It could be worse. I’ll be back to form in a few days. Please, don’t worry about me.”
“You are my responsibility, Hiro,” Kirika says, taking a knee in front of him. “And I am your friend. Do not tell me that I should not worry about you when you are injured this badly. not feel the need to hide your injuries from me. It does not help me think of what to do next - and it is unfair to me as someone who cares about you.”
Hiro lowers himself back into bed. “Yes, you deserve better from me,” he says. “But as Copperhead can confirm, it’s not as bad as it looks. I did not want to worry you over a few bruises, but I see that I should have kept you informed nonetheless.” He puts on a smile as he turns to face her. “What brings you here, then?”
Kirika smiles as well - but in a more sheepish way. “I...came to ask Copperhead and Sidewinder to join me on a rescue mission for Ramma. Tonight.”
“Then ask them,” Homi says. “If I don’t miss my guess, Toshiro is still awake - he can ably take care of me while you are away.”
“I disagree, Homi-sama,” Copperhead says. “You require my full attention.”
“If Kirika has need of you, then you will go with her,” Homi replies, with a hint of what Kirika figures can be a rather nasty scolding tone when it’s used at full power.
“Of course, Homi-sama,” Copperhead says, lowering his head.
“Well, there’s a compromise here,” Kirika says, and turns to Copperhead. “If you can provide me with some kind of distraction - something that will survive a trip over and possibly through water - then that would suffice if you feel you would be better served here.”
“What kind of distraction do you require?” Copperhead asks. “Loud noises, a flash of light, something more sophisticated?”
“Something that will draw the attention of foes the caliber that we face, without being obvious as a distraction,” Kirika replies. “Subtle is better.”
Copperhead nods. “Whisper-bombs,” he says. He goes off the rummage through his gear, then produces a small sack and draws a metal ball from it. “I started with flash-bomb bodies, but without the blackpowder - I filled them with other volatile chemicals instead. Do you see the lines here?” He runs his fingers along a seam stretching around the ball. “I’ve drilled a series of very precise holes into the sphere and covered it with clay. A hard impact will be enough to agitate the reactants inside and crack the clay open to expose those holes. The escaping gases leave no smoke, but the sound they make passing through the holes can easily be mistaken for a distant whisper. I do not believe our adversaries have ever encountered something like this.”
Kirika turns it over in her hand. “Perfect,” she says, and smiles at Copperhead. “Thank you, Copperhead. Stay here and tend to Homi-san’s wounds.”
“Of course,” Copperhead says. “Good luck on your mission.”
“Thank you,” Kirika replies, and then turns to Sidewinder. “And I suppose you want to know what you’re in for,” she says with a smirk.
“I reckon I better wrap my gonnes nice and tight, whatever it is,” Sidewinder says. “Are we going for a swim?”
“We’re rafting down the river to get around our new friends - tonight,” Kirika says. “There’s a rest stop north of here that they are doubtlessly stopped at, but after that, we can’t guarantee anything. The plan is to locate them, deploy the distraction, grab Ramma, and get out.”
Sidewinder nods. “Gotcha. I’ll get to packing and meet you outside.”
“In light of the occasion, I will spare you my concerns over the recklessness of such a strategy,” Copperhead adds.
“Any plan where the element of surprise is key is, by nature, reckless,” Kirika replies to Copperhead with a smirk. “Have you ever participated in a successful plan that was not?”
“On occasion,” Copperhead says. “It is quite remarkable what one can achieve with a day’s warning, two able hands and a mind fit for the task. But no matter - your path is set. I wish you the best of luck. You in particular, Sidewinder - you have the most need of it, after all.”
“Love you, too, partner,” Sidewinder replies with a smirk.
“All right, you two,” Kirika says. “I will go to build our raft, you prepare to depart,” she says to Sidewinder, then turns to Copperhead and Homi. “And you get better. Thank you, for your efforts and knowledge, Copperhead.”
“Anytime, Kamura-sama,” Copperhead says.

Kirika stands up and excuses herself. On the way back to her room, she starts to shuck her nicer kimono. She’s got a lot of logs to carry, and it’d be a shame to shred one of her last good set of clothes.


An hour later, clothes have been changed, weapons secured and logs shlepped to the river, whose wide, majestic curves in this leg of its length make for an easy start. Hopes of remaining dry are quickly squashed, but at least you manage to stay on top - until the river turns sharply and narrows, that is.

(Kirika’s Athletics: 1d20 + 13 = 30)

Sidewinder’s the first to almost take a bath - his hand loses grip on the slick bark, and in a terrifying second, he slides halfway down into the wet. A quick grab from Kirika catches him, but it’s the work of grueling weeks of training that has given her the strength to pull him back up. His gratitude remains limited to a quick nod, as the river picks up pace and shunts you through a quick set of rapids.

(Kirika’s Acrobatics: 1d20 + 9 = 29)

Kirika must have had a logger somewhere in her legacy - working together with Yukio, she shifts the weight of the log from side to side, wriggling through the rapids and threading the needle of the rocks that threaten them at the sides. Sidewinder’s clap on the shoulder is still wordless, but as much of a gesture of appreciation as he can muster with his focus still on the ride ahead.

(Kirika’s Sneak: 1d20 + 8 = 24)

As the miles go on, the river calms down again, and by the time you float past the small village where Takao picked a fight some time ago and approach the campgrounds beyond, it’s easy, almost placid going. With a few quick hand signals, Kirika directs the log’s path toward the shore, gliding to a soft stop in a dense thicket of reeds. With only an hour left until dawn, the moon is already quite low, and every rustle of the plants around you seems a sound too much in the still night, but you carefully creep forward until the reeds before you flicker in the light of a campfire. Peeking ahead as far as you dare, you can see enough to confirm your suspicions: Ikishi’s agents are laid up here for the night. The swordsman sits cross-legged by the campfire, warming his hands. A bit off the direct heat, you can see Ramma lying down on a blanket, his arm unwrapped but studded with needles whose metallic heads glint in the light of the fire. The woman is bent over him, carefully extracting one needle at a time as she inspects his mangled arm. Kirika listens intently to whatever they might talk about, but the conversation seems to play out only as Ramma’s muffled grunts of pain and the woman’s silence.

Kirika’s brow furrows - the third member of this little team is nowhere to be seen. But they can’t wait around forever, so Kirika taps Yukio on the shoulder and points out a tree surrounded by small bushes a few meters away from both the swordsman and the woman. Yukio nods, then takes the whisper-bomb from Kirika, winds up and pitches it - with more enthusiasm than precision, but close enough. The impact is a thud that has both the swordsman and the woman snap their heads toward it, and then, as promised, the sound effects begin. Perhaps describing it as “whispering” is giving Copperhead’s skills too much credit, but it definitely sounds moreso than any other sound one might encounter in the dark. The swordsman grabs his blade and stands up, then moves to investigate. The woman briefly turns back to Ramma and lays a hand on his chest, then grabs her staff and gets up to follow the swordsman and cover his back. Kirika nods to Sidewinder to follow her lead, while leaving a hand on Yukio’s shoulder to tell her to stay back and cover their exit. She and Sidewinder hustle low over the ground to get to Ramma, and before he can react, she’s there with a hand over his mouth to quiet his surprise.
“I told you I’d come for you,” Kirika whispers. “Come, we haven’t much time.”
“You shouldn’t have come,” Ramma whispers back. “There’s no way you’ll -”

(Kirika’s Notice: 1d20 + 11 = 20)

...and there’s the third guy - the gaunt man’s over by the horses, browsing through the saddlebags. But he won’t be busy forever, and the others are likewise bound to find the source of the whispering sound, even if it is a small metal ball in the darkness.
“Well, we are here now,” Kirika says. “And we can get you out. Can you walk?”
“I will try,” Ramma says.
Kirika lets Ramma go, and turns around. “Climb on my back. I’ll carry you until we can get clear.”

(Kirika’s Sneak: 1d20 +8 -4 = 11. 1 Action Die: 1d6 = 4.)

And audacious as it is, it almost works. It’s only when you’re just three steps from the reeds when the gaunt man finally turns and sees what’s happening. “They’re here!” he shouts, reaching into the saddlebag at his feet.
Kirika doesn’t have time to look back or even curse at their failure. “Sidewinder, spook the horses!”
In a flash, Sidewinder fills his hands with his favored handgonnes - and the gaunt man pulls out a set to match him! Sidewinder gets his shots off first, though, firing just over the heads of the horses, and the resulting panicked trampling makes the gaunt man quickly roll away. The tactical advantage is short-lived, however, as the swordsman and the woman come running back towards the campfire.
By that time, though, Kirika is up and booking it towards the raft. “Get on now!”

(Kirika’s Athletics: 1d20 + 13 = 32)

With nigh-superhuman effort, Kirika and Yukio drag the raft out to water with them and jump on, while Sidewinder remains a step behind them to cover them. The gruntwork pays off as the raft floats into the water, and while the swordsman chases you through the reeds, he stops at the edge, realizing that he can’t catch up. However, that still leaves you well within the range of the gaunt man’s gonnes, and there’s a bit of a collective “Oh shit!” as he wades up beside the swordsman and takes aim. The swordsman, however, quickly shouts “No!” and raises his hand, signalling the gaunt man to stand down. Kirika looks behind back at them, with the two seeming ready to concede this match.

But there’s three of them.

The woman comes barreling out of the reeds, running alongside the river’s shore - and aimed at a bent tree that leans over the river. “Rocks!” Kirika shouts. “Grab rocks and wait for her to get on the tree!” Yukio and Sidewinder bend down and reach for the riverbed to snag some rocks, but the wait isn’t a long one - the woman springs up from the ground like she’s stepping on air and easily finds the largest branch of the tree, running along the main body. Even Sidewinder has to whistle in appreciation, but that doesn’t stop him from pitching the rock in his hand as she approaches the end of the branch.

(Woman’s Resolve: 1d20+16=35
Woman’s Acrobatics: 1d20+16=18 makes for 23 feet distance, +50% for Wuxia I: 34 feet.)

The rocks don’t seem to faze the woman, but the launch still seems troubled - she windmills with her arms as she sails through the air toward the raft.

(Kirika’s Acrobatics: 1d20 + 9 = 22)

The disadvantage of a flashy aerial stunt like this is that it’s not exactly hard to predict where you’re going to land. Kirika takes full advantage of that, spinning in place and kicking out at the woman just as she lands on the tip of the raft. For a moment, she seems to actually lose balance and topple backward, but quickly bends over backwards and stabs her staff into the water. By the time she’s flipped into a handstand and then lowered her feet back to stand on the staff, the raft has floated further away, and it seems obvious that she can’t close the distance again without a running start. She meets Kirika’s eyes briefly - then closes hers and shakes her head.
Kirika nods in respect, then turns back to their rescuee. “Ramma, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Ramma grunts through gritted teeth.
“You don’t look fine to me,” Kirika replies, and crawls over the slick raft to his side. “What is the matter?”
“My arm,” he grunts, clutching his injured limb with his other hand. “It feels like it’s on fire again.” He looks at her. “I can deal. Get us out of here.”
Kirika puts a hand on his shoulder. “We have someone who might be able to help you,” she says, then turns to Yukio and Sidewinder. “As soon as we’re around a few more bends, let’s beach this thing, get dry, and start making our way back to the manor. We should be able to be there by noon, if we’re lucky.”
“You got it,” Sidewinder says.
Kirika turns back to Ramma, and smirks at him. “I told you I’d be back for you, I just didn’t say how soon.”
Ramma smiles at her through gritted teeth, but then squeezes his eyes closed - it’s clearly taking most of what strength he has to keep from crying out.
“Shh, it’s okay,” Kirika says. “We’ll get you help - I promise.”


You land the ramshackle raft a few miles downstream and set out for the trek back to the estate. Though thoroughly soaked on the river, Kirika is already steaming off the water as the power of her ancestors comes to the front again, though not with the clear-cut rage that is so familiar to her now. Something about that woman...Gods know what, but it’s not good news.

“Neat trick,” Sidewinder says, wringing out his own clothes as best as he can. He steals a disapproving glance at his gonnes, which will need a good cleaning to get them back into shape after the wildwater ride.
“Are you alright, Ramma?” Yukio asks, helping the archer climb the shore.
“Been better,” Ramma breathes through his set teeth.
Kirika moves to his side, wrapping her arm around his shoulder. “Come, let me help you.” Despite her gentle touch, Kirika can feel the jolt of pain rush through Ramma when she touches him even near his injured arm, and backs off. “Gods, I am sorry, Ramma.”
“Thanks,” he breathes, then puts his good arm on Kirika’s shoulders to steady himself. “How far?” he asks.
“Sixteen kilometers or so,” Kirika replies, and looks around. “If we get into the trees and sit down...close to me, I think we should be ready to leave in a half-hour or so - but we do not move until you are ready.”
“No time,” he grunts. “I’m as rested as I’ll get. Waiting will make it worse.”
Kirika nods. “Then Yukio will help you walk.” She looks to Sidewinder. “Are you all right, Sidewinder?”
“Just fine,” Sidewinder says. “Went better than I thought it would, that’s for sure. Copperhead’s little toy sure is something.” He looks to Kirika. “Not that we’re gonna tell him I said that, yeah?”
Kirika shakes her head and smirks. “One of these days, you will say something nice in an unguarded moment and he will be in earshot. Do you feel up to scouting a minute ahead? Keep an eye out for any livestock fords or hiking trails crossing the river.”
“You got it,” Sidewinder says. He takes a knee, unrolls his pack o’ gonnes and picks two fresh ones from the lot, shoving the fouled ones into empty pouches before rerolling the pack and slinging it over his back.
Kirika’s hand goes to Crane’s Dance at her side - and at the touch, she feels a wave of heat intense enough that all the remaining moisture from the river steams off her body at once.
“Woah!” Ramma says, turning his head away from the cloud of steam, while Yukio just smiles.
“Sorry, sorry,” Kirika replies quickly, lifting her hand off of her sword. “I’m so sorry, Ramma, it’s just...I have a...err…”
“Don’t care,” Ramma grunts. “Let’s go.”
Kirika nods. “Let’s. Sidewinder, lead the way.”
“On it,” Sidewinder says.
Gatac 2014-05-19 11:08:08
To his credit, Ramma’s not wrong about being as rested as he’s going to get, keeping good pace despite, well, the pain. And to his further credit, he bears it mostly in silence, though after a few miles he begs a strip of leather from Sidewinder’s pack and spends the rest of the trip with his teeth firmly set on it. Before the end of the seventh kilometer, Ramma’s pace goes from “slow and plodding” to “faltering and barely on his feet”. Against his protest, Kirika insists on him transferring from walking to being carried, starting with on her back. For ten minutes or so, he really does sound slightly better, but before long the agony returns to his voice.
“I’m sorry, Ramma,” Kirika whispers as he groans from the jostling as they move up a hill.
Ramma just whimpers as he bites down harder on the leather.

Sidewinder’s scouting turns up a cattle ford just past the rapids that almost ripped him from the raft on the way downriver. It is, however, still a major river, and rather than risk any one of you wading through it carrying Ramma alone, you quickly gather some strong branches and cannibalize Sidewinder’s pack for further leather straps, rigging up a quick stretcher for Ramma. With Sidewinder up front to chart the path, Yukio and Kirika carry Ramma across together. From there, it’s three kilometers of silence and willpower, but after a long night and an agonizing march through the morning, you make it back to the estate more or less in one piece. The thought of going up the hill after all this seems like a particularly brutal finish, but fortunately, help is at hand within a minute of Rowan’s calls at the top of the gate. His sons, the ninjas and even Toshi quickly rush down to help, and with many helping (and rested) hands, you quickly usher Ramma behind the safety of the walls and into the manor house. One particularly bright note is Homi-sama, who’s still not well enough to help carry Ramma but at least on his feet and there to lend some moral support. It’s too bad Ramma’s too unconscious to appreciate it.

“I see you achieved what you set out to do,” Homi says, as Copperhead and Sidewinder gently shift Ramma into a free bed. “How is he, then?”
“Bad,” Kirika breathes as she slumps against the floor at the foot of the bed. “They were poking him with all sorts of needles - some of which are still in him - and he was in increasing agony the entire walk back.” She looks at Copperhead. “Anything you understand at first glance?”
“More of the mainlander’s nerve-blocking technique,” Copperhead says. “I am not versed in it, but I will do my best to treat the wound and his general condition with what I do know.”
“Remarkable how a man in his condition could give you a good fight just last night,” Homi says. “Did you have another chance to observe our enemies, then?”
Kirika nods. “The woman is more than an expert with her needles - she jumped ten meters to reach our raft before I kicked her off. The thin man carries at least two hand-gonnes, and takes orders from the swordsman.”
“Hmm,” Homi says, looking to Sidewinder. “Another man with a two-fisted gonne style?”
“Looked like he knew which ends go bang, too,” Sidewinder said. “That list ain’t so long.”
“There was more, though,” Kirika adds. “The swordsman ordered the thin man to not shoot at us, and the woman...she seemed concerned for Ramma, and more sad at losing him than angry at being beaten by us. I suspect that they might not be as closely aligned with Ikishi as we have feared.”
“You think they can be turned away from her cause, then?” Homi asks, the beginning of a smile on his face.
Kirika shrugs. “I don’t know, but at the very least, they seem to have more respect and honor than Ikishi.”
“I see,” Homi says. “Perhaps you should catch up on the rest that is due to you now, Kirika. You have done enough for one night.”
Kirika hauls herself upright, looking at Yukio, Sidewinder and Copperhead, all three of them starting the long and laborious process of tending to Ramma’s wounded body. “Not as long as Ramma needs aid,” she says. “I feel fine, Hiro. ancestors have been quite busy in my ear the whole way back. I feel wide awake.”
“You know your own body better than anyone else,” Homi says. “If you have nothing else, I shall be browsing my records. Perhaps we can identify the man with the gonnes and gain a clue about the swordsman and the woman from that.”
Kirika nods. “Please, we will eagerly await anything you have.” Homi nods and takes his leave, giving Kirika the chance to turn around and join the others at Ramma’s bedside. “What would you have me do, Copperhead?”
“Please fetch a new bucket of cool water, Kamura-sama,” Copperhead says, resting the back of his hand on Ramma’s forehead.
Kirika nods. “At once,” she says, and runs out the door.


While Sidewinder and Yukio get some well-deserved rest, Copperhead and Kirika continue the battle with Ramma’s wounds. Though Copperhead remains outwardly impassive, Kirika can read the growing frustration in his movements as he mixes up concoction after elixir, some of which is given to Ramma to swallow, rubbed on his wounds, injected with a needle or...presented with less tasteful ways of delivery - all to little effect on his fever and deep unconsciousness. More disconcertingly, some of the needles that are still stuck in his arm are working their way out, and nobody’s foolhardy enough to touch them. After another panacea seems to have done preciously little but stain Ramma’s lips greenish, Copperhead checks his temperature again, then grabs the cloth from his forehead and dips it into the bucket of water again. Well, the bucket - not so much water left.

“Kamura-sama,” Copperhead says. “Would you kindly?”
Kirika nods, and grabs the bucket. “And what is next, after this?” she asks.
“Some rest for both of us,” Copperhead says. “We have tried what can be done for him, and I can feel my concentration slipping. Better that we leave one of the others to watch over him that we poison him by mistake.”
Kirika nods again. “So, he is getting better, then?”
“He is not getting worse,” Copperhead says. “We will have to see how he is in the morning.”
Kirika gives Ramma a worried look. “If he makes it that long.” She looks back to Copperhead. “Be honest with me, Copperhead. Can you save him?”
Copperhead looks at her for a good long while. “I to alternative courses of action,” he admits.
She eyes the needles still sticking out of his arm. “We know that there is one way to at least get him well enough to attack the source of his pain,” Kirika says.
“I cannot recommend that,” Copperhead says. “To tell you the truth, it may not be so impossible to save his life - if we did not have to contend with the arm.” He coughs. “Though I have to add that I have never amputated a limb before. That said, if we delay much longer, he may not pull through in either event.”
Kirika shakes his head. “I will not be cutting the limb off of a friend that I promised to rescue just to avoid discomfort of my own.” She looks back to Copperhead. “If this was Sidewinder, lying here, would you hesitate to do what I am suggesting?”
“I already know Sidewinder’s wishes for the eventuality that is incapacitated to such a degree,” Copperhead says. “What are you proposing, Kamura-sama?”
“I do not believe that Ramma’s former associates will leave him behind,” Kirika says. “They might not know where this place is - but they know where we were before. If I were in their position, I would start at Oue’s village, and ask around about where we came from. If this is true, then the woman will be there. She can save Ramma.”
“And extract a fee from you, in one way or another,” Copperhead says. “What do you imagine that to be?”
Kirika shakes her head. “I’m not sure, but…” She looks back to Ramma in time for him to twitch and moan once more. “It’s not a price Ramma should have to pay.”
Copperhead nods. “If it is your command, I will help you convey Ramma to the village,” he says.
Kirika smiles and shakes her head. “I will worry about that if it comes down to it,” she says. “I will not start by delivering him straight into their hands - not a particularly strong negotiating position. Stay here, and do what you can. I will return soon with word, I hope.”
“I shall, as the youths of the capital say, ‘hold it down’,” Copperhead says. “I admit I’m not sure from whence this turn of phrase originated, but I find it appealing nonetheless. All will be kept in order while you are away, Kamura-sama.”
Kirika nods to Copperhead, and swiftly turns and leaves.

But before she can go anywhere, there is someone else she must speak to first - in a manner of speaking. Yukio is still sound asleep, and so Kirika writes her a brief note with a piece of charcoal.

Love -
I have gone to get help for Ramma. I’ll be back soon, I promise.
- Your Dearest Kirika

She leaves the note on the table next to Yukio’s bedroll, and plants a kiss on her cheek. Yukio smiles and snuggles tighter to the version of Kirika in her dreams, but doesn’t wake up. Kirika smiles for a moment, simply watching Yukio sleep, but then stands up and hustles towards the door. A quick visit to the stables - while carefully sneaking past the kitchen where Toshi is working on dinner - sees Kirika on the back of her usual horse and from there to the side gate. She adjusts her kimono and obi as the gate closes behind her - and the white sash she fashioned to wear on top, to broadcast her peaceful mission as loudly as possible. She takes a deep breath, looks back up the hill behind her to the manor house, then with a cry and a kick of her heels, heads off for the village at top speed.


Ten minutes later, Kirika gallops into the little village in the forest that started her down this whole path, and slows her horse down with a gentle “whoa” and slight pull back on the reins. The streets are clear, except for the masked woman, who stands in the middle of the street with her staff by her side. Somehow, she looks both relaxed and like she’s been waiting for Kirika in this exact spot for hours. As the horse trots forward, Kirika feels her tattoos start to protest, with an eerie feeling that seems to follow her like a shadow, and when she’s close enough to get out of the saddle, her tattoos are aglow and slithering over her limbs.

“Hello,” the woman offers from behind her mask.
Kirika bows to the woman. “Hello. My name is Kirika Kamura.”
“I am called Yu,” the woman says. “I assume that you have come here to seek help for Ramma. Is this correct?”
Kirika nods. “Yes, I have. Our healer is able to keep him stable - but he is still unconscious and feverish. Please, come help save my friend’s life.”
“I will save him,” Yu says. “However, it will not do him much good. Over the last months, I have only just managed to heal him this far from his wounds. Even if he were to get complete rest, as I have repeatedly told him he needs, it would still be a month or longer before I could be certain he would heal on his own. That is not a length of time the Lady Ikishi will tolerate us both being missing.” She bows her head. “I am sorry. You clearly care for your friend, and I do not wish to bring you bad news like this, but I believe it would be best for everyone if you handed Ramma over, back into my care.”
Kirika shakes her head. “Not after seeing what Ikishi has done to him. It’s barbaric, what she’s making him do, you have to see that.”
“I agree,” Yu says. “Much of it, he does to himself - or rather, the potions do. They dull the pain of healing and grant him the power to fight, but he is...very different, and will not listen to me.” She bows her head. “I hope that, following his defeat at your hands, Ikishi will see that he cannot fight in this shape, and needs time to heal properly. If I -”
“Ikishi will kill Ramma the instant he is of no further use,” Kirika interrupts. “You know it, I know it. Sending him back with you would be a death sentence. Or, even worse, she will drug him even further, and what little Ramma she allowed to remain above the surface of her potions will go under completely and be drowned forever.”
“She will listen to me and see reason,” Yu says. “Our...leader was not lying when he extended her invitation to you and your friends, Kirika Kamura. Lady Ikishi truly wishes to see and talk to you to discuss the future of this Empire. I realize that you have no reason to trust what we say, but I remain hopeful that we can come to a solution of some kind.”
“I have already seen Ikishi’s future,” Kirika replies. “The return of the lost heir to the missing Emperor - poisoned by her order. Attacking pirates and marauders from foreign lands - aided and abetted by her orders and her chosen High Lords. Fear and desperation mounts, and then after a great defeat for the Empire - orchestrated by her hand, no doubt - Emperor Toshiro ‘commits suicide’, and her hidden army in the Firelands comes forth to save the day. She wishes to seize power through murder, deceit and complicity in the death and destruction of the people we are fighting to protect, through the murder of my friends. Look me in the eyes and tell me that is a future worth having, Yu.”

(Kirika’s Impress: 1d20 + 18 = 36)

Yu’s eyes waver for a moment before she looks back to Kirika. “It is not, but it is also not the truth,” she says. “I do not agree with some of Lady Ikishi’s methods, but I have seen another side...a woman I swore I would fight for. You speak as if you can read her mind, but you have never met her. You do not know that she is capable of...kindness, and of helping people, and of keeping promises.”
“I have seen how she acts when no one is watching - or when she thinks there will be no one left alive to speak,” Kirika says. “Anyone can be anything they want when others are watching, believe me. It is when we stand only with ourselves that we reveal who we truly are.” She stands tall, her tattoos flickering into momentary flame. “Ramma has seen the true heart of Lady Ikishi, and I seek to set him free from it - and I have a proposal as to how we can accomplish this.”
Yu nods. “I will hear your proposal, then.”
“Teach our healer what he needs to know to stabilize Ramma for now, and share what you know of his condition,” Kirika says. “He is a brilliant healer - but he is operating in the dark. With the light of your knowledge, he will be able to find the path back for Ramma. As for Ikishi, you must only tell the truth - we recaptured him from her grasp.”
Yu shakes her head. “My people have entrusted me with the ancient art of Qi binding,” she says, “and I am forbidden by my vows to teach them to a foreigner. Your friend Copperhead would know - his old master learned but a fraction of the art from my predecessor, and thereafter wielded such terrible power over his clan that we were eternally shamed by our lapse. I can only teach truth, which can just as easily heal as it can destroy, and such knowledge must forever be guarded. That aside, the careful balancing of Qi in a man’s body to achieve what is necessary to heal Ramma is already at the limit of my own capability. To instruct a novice would require years, if not decades.” She meets Kirika’s eyes again. “I have said that I wish no harm to come to Ramma, and I stand by it. If you will not hand him over, I will surrender myself and come with you to treat him until he is fully healed. But know that others will come to look for us and bring us back. Men of - I do not wish to insult them, but of lesser scruples. I leave this choice to you, Kirika Kamura. What would you have me do?”

Kirika thinks for a moment. “How much would Ikishi insist on reacquiring Ramma?”
“Him, she might be convinced to let go,” Yu says. “He was a late addition to our team, has proven unstable and easily goaded, and I have always stressed that his injury might mean that one day he would no longer be able to fight. I, however, will surely be missed - and I cannot risk breaking the arrangement my people have with Lady Ikishi.”
“And how long have you been allowed by your sword-wielding ‘friend’ to search for Ramma?” Kirika asks. “I presume he is not here, because then I would probably not be on my feet, but rather on my face.”
“I predicted that Ramma would fall ill quickly without my care, and that you would rather risk fighting us than let him die,” Yu says. “That you would come here to seek us was more of a lucky guess. Even so, our leader gave me this day to attempt a negotiation on my terms. If I do not return by sundown, he will know that I have failed to do as he asked.”
“And if Ramma longer useful for Ikishi, but still in need of care, would you be permitted to see to him?” Kirika asks.
“He would still insist that we all return to Lady Ikishi,” Yu says. “However, I understand that you are loathe to leave Ramma to his fate alone.” She thinks for a moment. “What if you were to accompany us? I will guarantee your safe passage.”
Kirika smirks. “I believe that you believe that will be enough, but you will excuse my skepticism.” She shakes her head. “I was thinking...more that you offer proof of Ramma’s incapacitation - or death, and then we deal with the issue of healing him in a more clandestine fashion.”

“It is said that you are skilled in the art of detecting lies like few other people are,” Yu says. Still holding her staff in her right hand, she reaches up with her left to pull her mask off her face. The brown hair, tanned skin and rough features of her mainlander heritage become obvious at once. “I have been truthful with you, and what I have not told you, I have made no attempt to hide. I will not lie to my comrades or Lady Ikishi, either. My word is bond, Kirika Kamura. If I offer you safe passage, then I will give my life before you receive a single scratch. And believe me - my life is not easy to take.”
“And I do - but I also know that Ikishi has the resources to make it so, regardless.” Kirika sighs, looks away for a moment in thought, then looks back. “That includes lies of omission, I’d expect.”
“Naturally,” Yu thought. “I considered searching for your hideout by following your tracks, but if I found it, I would have to tell Lady Ikishi - and that is a wholly unnecessary blow against you that I feel would have undermined any trust you could place in me. If you turn and walk away, I will not follow, and you will have lost nothing.”
“And yet you seem to think that she’ll do all right by the Empire,” Kirika muses.
“I think in bigger terms than this Empire,” Yu says. “Her plans will lead to turmoil in the near future, that is true. But the Empire as it existed - as it would resume existing if Toshiro came to the throne against the resistance of the coalition Lady Ikishi has built - was not a good thing. It exploited its people, waged wars on the region and proved resistant to any positive change.”
“I have learned that Toshiro’s father was not as good of a man as he would like to have thought,” Kirika replies with a nod. “But Toshiro is not his father. Also, justifying Ikishi’s plot to murder him based on the threats that she has already put together is not a very convincing argument - and neither is arguing that a world built on murder, betrayal and subversion could ever be one that is just or fair.”
“I do not know what her plan for Toshiro is,” Yu says, “but she has never spoken of murdering him in my presence.” She bows her head. “That said, I cannot prove it is otherwise.”
“If she plans to rule the Empire and have the control that you speak of her having, Toshiro will either have to be dead or incapacitated to the point where death would be preferable,” Kirika replies. “There is literally no other way for it to work. Not to mention that Toshiro has already taken a bride - which means she would have to die first, and both he and I feel very strongly about that not happening.”
Yu sighs. “Perhaps it as you say, then, Kirika Kamura. Much as I wish to think better of Lady Ikishi, I do not know her heart and her thoughts, and I cannot tell myself with enough certainty that her plan is not exactly what you describe. Yet I have very little choice but to do right by my people, and Ikishi has held up her end of our agreement for many years.”
“Which is?” Kirika asks.
“We are a simple folk, five yì in all - too old and scattered to have a name,” Yu says. “From all sides, we are pressed by those who covet our lands, and we yield as we cannot fight their armies. We have too little food, and not much of value to trade for it - it is only our ancient arts that hold sway, and even then we have had more trouble with foreigners trying to press us for our secrets than we have gained from those in search of true enlightenment. Lady Ikishi, many years ago, offered to support us with money, weapons and food, arranging for us to be protected by some of our old enemies from the worst of our current ones. She asked in return that one of our priestesses be given to her in service. I am that chosen soul. She has never tried to steal our arts, merely asked that I put them to use for her.” Yu smiles briefly. “It was a good trade for my people. I will not dishonor it.”
Kirika’s expression is considerably darker. “And in return, she placed people that want to kill your friends and family in amongst them, and if you ever waver from her side, everyone you know and love dies. That sounds like Ikishi to me.” She shakes her head. “If only Toshiba had sent word by now…”
“Who is this Toshiba of which you speak, and what was he supposed to report on?” Yu asks.
“He’s...supposed to be obtaining a fighting force for us, an experienced one,” Kirika says. “And with that force, we could send a detachment to protect your people - one that wouldn’t have orders to turn around and slaughter them if you decide to not follow our instructions to the letter.”
“And who will clothe them and feed them?” Yu asks. “Security is only one part of our troubles. Even if we were amongst ourselves and our borders eternally fixed now, we have been driven from the fertile lands we once lived in. We would only be free to starve.”
“That’s something that we could devote effort towards, and in the meantime, this force has...significant reserves of food and clothing,” Kirika says. “Some could probably be spared.”
Yu raises an eyebrow. “Your friend is in the Firelands, isn’t he?” she says. “You speak of the force my brother is assembling for General Noronu.”
Kirika is surprised for just a moment. “Your he a good man?”
“He is my brother,” Yu says. “That said, he is not quite as...principled as I am. But I cannot judge him for it; without my training in the arts, he has as much to fear from this life as any other man, while I can afford to be...generous.” After a moment’s thought, she adds “He is a good a bad situation.”
Kirika breathes a sigh of relief. “Oh, good. Then he’ll probably be all right.”
“This does not settle the question of how my people would be helped by breaking their arrangement with Lady Ikishi,” Yu says. “You can offer what we already have, and less of it, too. And to top it off, you would ask us all to break our promise.” Yu shakes her head. “You know as well as I do that I cannot make such a choice.”
“I am offering a partnership to protect your people now and remove Ikishi’s threat of death, and a promise to help your people in the future - and without demanding a hostage or two on top,” Kirika says.
“That is for our elders to decide,” Yu says. “If you wish to open a negotiation with them, I will tell you how to find them. But this does not change our dilemma now.”
“No, it does not,” Kirika replies. “So, here is what I propose. You share what you know about Ramma’s condition, and get him stable. How often does he need to be dosed with Ikishi’s potion, by her orders?”
“Once a week,” Yu says. “But as of late, Ramma has...demanded it more often. He can scarcely work without it.” She taps a pouch hanging on her belt. “I can lose this, but I do not know if it will last you long enough to matter. As I have said, I cannot teach you or anyone else how to improve his condition.”
“That’s fine, it only needs to last long enough to figure out a way to get him off it completely,” Kirika replies, giving the pouch a sour look. “I’ve seen how Ikishi’s potions work - the sooner it’s purged from his body, the better. Once the control of the potion is broken, he’ll probably actually sit still long enough for your knowledge and Copperhead’s to actually start to work.”
“Shall I come with you, then?” Yu asks.
Kirika thinks for a moment. “No,” she replies. “There is a clearing a half-mile from here by the side of the path. Wait for us there, I will bring Copperhead and Ramma. We will work there as long as you are able, and then we will decide what to do from there. If we prove ourselves to be a wiser partner than Ikishi, then stay, if not, nothing you know will lead back to us.”
“That is acceptable to me,” Yu says. “I will attempt to get a message to my comrades saying that I will be a little longer, until sunrise. I hope they trust me enough to give me that time. If they come looking...I will attempt to dissuade them, but know that if the blades spark, I will join their side in the fight. Is this acceptable to you?”
“For Ramma’s life, yes,” Kirika replies.
“Then our meeting is concluded,” Yu says. She rips the pouch from her belt and tosses it to Kirika. “Perhaps your friend can make something of this in the meantime.”
“He certainly can,” Kirika replies. She looks the pouch over, then looks back to Yu. “What can you tell me about Ramma’s condition, before I go? Any detail might help.”
Yu shakes her head. “I only know the flow of his Qi,” she says, “which I cannot share with you. I am sorry.”
“Of course,” Kirika says. “But this potion, it adjusts that flow?”
“Adjust is a kind word for it,” Yu says. “It dulls pain and sharpens his eyes, I know that much. Lady Ikishi has never been forthcoming about how she prepares it, however, for fear Ramma would turn against her in his less clear moments if he even imagined that he did not need her help.”
Kirika smirks. “That is something Copperhead excels at, Yu.” She bows. “I will deliver it with all available haste. Good luck, Yu. I hope that we have the chance to lift Ikishi’s heel from your people’s throat very soon - independent of what happens today.”
Yu nods. “Thank you for hearing me out,” she says. “And please tell Hiro Homi that I am sorry for hurting him. He than other people I’ve had to subdue. I lost focus for a moment.”
“I think he might actually take that as a compliment,” Kirika says as she hauls herself back up onto her horse. “I will see you soon.”
“Indeed,” Yu says, pulling her mask back on. “Until then, Kirika Kamura.”
Kirika nods. “Until then, Yu.”
Gatac 2014-06-28 02:19:24
As Kirika rides up to the front gate of the estate, she sees Yukio standing there waiting for her. Her smile is weary, but the samurai still embraces Kirika when she unmounts.

“I was worried about you,” Yukio says. “Your letter was...very vague. Where did you go?”
“To the village,” Kirika responds cautiously. “I was hoping that...the woman from last night would be there, and I could petition her for aid.”
Yukio raises an eyebrow. “And?”
“She has agreed, and more besides,” Kirika says. “It seems that she is from a small mainlander society - one that Ikishi has ‘protected’ by buying off their enemies and placing them as their guards. If she breaks from Ikishi’s orders even slightly, all of her people will be slaughtered. She is willing to help us, but…”
“But she’s in a tight spot,” Yukio says with a nod. “Did she at least tell you how to help Ramma? His fever’s getting worse.”
Kirika shakes her head. “She’s bound by her people’s oath of secrecy over their methods, but I have arranged to meet with her between here and there, and she will spend as much time as she is able helping us.” She pulls the pouch of drugs out of her kimono. “And she gave me this. It’s the drugs that Ikishi got Ramma hooked on that let him fight and, according to Yu, made him violent and unstable. He was given them once a week at first, but recently has demanded them more than once a day - and you know what that means.”
“He’s addicted,” Yukio says. “But Copperhead might be able to purge it, now that we have a sample.” Her smile grows fuller. “Good. But the meeting with her...I’m not so sure. They’ve ambushed us before. Are you sure we can trust this woman?”
“She was...too honest, if anything,” Kirika replies. “She is a good person, forced to do Ikishi’s bidding because she holds her family at sword’s length. Speaking of which, I need to speak to Toshi. Rectifying her people’s situation will be key, no matter what happens here.”
Yukio nods. “He made dinner,” she says. “Come on. You must be hungry by now, dearest. Tell us all about it at the table.”
“No time, love,” Kirika says as she bends over to kiss Yukio. “I’ve got to get this drug to Copperhead so he can create a cure, I’ve got to talk to Toshi and then we need to move Ramma to the meeting, all as soon as we can. Yu only has until morning to work with us.”
Yukio shakes her head with a soft smile. “Of course,” she says. “Go to them. I will saddle Lightning for you.”
“Thanks, my love,” Kirika says with a smile, then mounts up again and spurs her horse back to action. “I will see you soon!” she shouts behind her.


Kirika finds Toshi and the two younger ninjas at the table, eating a thick stew that does its best to disguise its precise ingredients. Toshi looks up and rises from his seat.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” he says.
“It is edible,” Copperhead comments. “Homi-sama is watching over Ramma. What did you find out?”
“Many things,” Kirika replies, breathing quickly from her hustle up to the manor house. “We must prepare Ramma to be moved - the woman will be meeting us in the forest to help bring him up to where we can heal him, but she can only work for tonight.” She tosses the pouch to Copperhead, who catches it in one hand. “That’s the drug that Ikishi has been dosing Ramma with - and the cause of his madness, no doubt. She said that it dulls his pain but renders him violent and mad, and he has become addicted to it. No doubt that the withdrawal from the drug is half of what is killing him now.”
Copperhead nods. “I will go prepare the countermeasure at once,” he says, “but that will require a few hours. I will ride to join you as soon as it is done.”
“Then I reckon I’ll come with you,” Sidewinder says. “Make sure nothing funny goes down.”
“And I’ll…” Toshi begins, then smirks. “I’ll save you some stew.”
“Actually, you will come with us,” Kirika says. “Yu - the woman - her loyalty to Ikishi only exists because she has agreed to feed and ‘protect’ her people. Her definition of ‘protection’ is hiring her people’s enemies to serve as their guards, so if Ikishi decides that Yu is no longer cooperating -”
“Shit,” Toshi says. “So...what do you want me to do about it, there? I mean, I like getting out of here for a spell, but why do you need me there?”
“Because she needs the assurance of the Emperor that her people will be protected and provided for,” Kirika says. “I was thinking that a detachment from what will hopefully be our new Firelands army would suffice.”
“Okay,” Toshi says. “I’ll try my best to be...regal.”
Kirika looks to Copperhead and Sidewinder. “Any objections?”
“I would caution against a ranged ambush in the forest,” Copperhead says, “but it seems they are left without an effective combatant in his regard. Still, I would like to have an exit strategy. Can we lose them in the trees, if we have to?”
“Not likely, Yu has made it clear that she will put her people’s survival first, which means we’d have to lose her,” Kirika replies.
“Hrm,” Copperhead says.
“Aw, are you worried about things going pearshaped without your big brain at the scene?” Sidewinder pokes.
“Always,” Copperhead says. “If you do get outmatched, do try to be taken alive so I can rescue you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sidewinder says. “Come on, Kirika. Let’s get going.”
Kirika just smirks and shakes her head. “Yes, let’s.”


As for Hiro Homi, he takes the news that he was a harder target than Yu thought quite well, though Toshi accompanying Kirika and Sidewinder is less well received. Still, the old ninja can find little fault with the need to convince Yu that there’s something on offer for switching sides, and is in no condition to come with them and supervise the transaction in any event. With the master’s blessing, Kirika mounts up on Lightning and Sidewinder takes the wagon with Ramma and Toshi in the back, while Yukio takes another horse to bring up the rear.

The journey is free of Ride rolls and random encounters, and so sees you back at the clearing while the sinking sun still breaks through the nearby forest canopy, casting an ethereal glow over the cleared ground, with Yu in the middle of it, folded up into a meditative stance with her staff at her feet. She seems indifferent to the approaching clop-clop of horse hooves, remaining still and deep in concentration.
“How did it go with Ikishi’s representative?” Kirika asks as she dismounts.
“I sent my message as soon as you left,” Yu says. “They have not come for me, so I must assume they have granted my request. Where is your friend Copperhead?”
“Formulating the antidote for the drug,” Kirika replies. “He will be here later, if this takes more than a few hours.”
“Good,” Yu says. She rises up from the ground, stepping on one end of the staff to bring the other up for her hand to grab. She taps the ground once, then tilts her head a bit to the right. “Who is the man with Ramma?” she asks.
“That is Emperor Toshiro,” Kirika says. “He insisted upon being here to reassure you personally that your people will be looked after - and he is your aide for tonight, if you need it.”
Toshi climbs out of the back of the wagon proper to greet Yu, who holds her right hand in front of her sternum and bows her head. “It is my understanding that you are a Prince, still,” she says. “You have my utmost respect in either event.”
“Uh, yeah, thank you,” Toshi says, giving her a nod. “Kirika’s selling me a bit hard, but yes, I am the heir to the throne. And I’m going to do everything I can for your people.”
“A promise whose weight you appear to realize,” Yu says. “We can speak more of it later. For now, I have a patient to see. Please bring out Ramma and place him on the ground. I need to inspect him.”
Kirika nods. “At once. Come on, Tos - my Prince.”
Yu smirks. “Toshi, is it?” she asks.
Toshi turns to Kirika. “I blame you,” he says, playing at being offended.

Together with Toshi, Kirika unloads Ramma and carries him to a blanket spread on the ground. Yu kneels beside him and wastes little time undoing the new bandages around his arm, tracing what’s left of the needles and growing a worsening frown.
“I can see why you are worried about his health,” she says. “I will require hot water.” She eyes one of the needles in his arm with particular worry. “And if you have sake, it would not go amiss, either.”
Kirika nods to Sidewinder, who gets started right away on a small fire. “And we did not think to bring sake, but if it’s to clean the needles, we can do so in the flame and then cool it in the heated water. That should make them safe to use again.”
Yu nods. “That will be good, yes,” she says. While Sidewinder’s off to gather firewood, Yu turns to Kirika. “What is your stake in the future of the empire, Kirika Kamura? I am curious to hear your aims in your own words.”
“My stake?” Kirika asks. “Toshi is my closest friend, and his wife Yukio...means a great deal to me. I made a promise to protect them both, and I keep my promises. And...I want to make things better. Better than they are, better than they were before. I know very well how bad things have been under Ikishi’s sway, is part of who I am to want to change things for the better.”
Yu nods. “Will you speak with Lady Ikishi, given the chance?” she asks.
“If ‘the chance’ means that I have at least three clear escape plans and plenty of head start,” Kirika replies. “She turned Hiro Homi’s own son against him with her flattering words and ‘kindness’, and then sent him to murder all of us and drag Toshi back to her feet.” She shakes her head. “I also know what Ikishi’s words are, Yu - and they are rarely the truth of the matter.”
Yu considers that, then nods again. “Then your path ahead will be drawn with blood,” she says. “You cannot abandon it, and Lady Ikishi will not stop opposing you.” She shakes her head. “If this can be resolved without my death, I will return to my people. This world sickens me.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Toshi says, drawing the looks of the three women around him. “If I can claim the throne, then I’d like you and your people to come here. This empire has plenty of soldiers and assassins - but it needs more healers like you. Trust me, running away from the world isn’t the answer.”
Kirika nods in agreement. “We...we both know that to be true.”
Yu gently strokes Ramma’s mangled arm. “Perhaps,” she says. “All I know now is that I am tired of seeing people suffer for the designs of others. I will pray for guidance from my goddess.” She looks over to Sidewinder, who’s stacking up a small pyramid of wood. “How is the fire?”
“Coming,” Sidewinder replies, pulling out his powder pouch and sprinkling a bit onto the kindling before fetching a knife and a piece of flint. Several sparks later, the campfire springs to flame, and the young ninja sits back satisfied. “I don’t suppose you know where we can get water, then?” he asks.
“There’s a small brook beyond those trees,” Yu says, pointing to the edge of the clearing.
“Much obliged, Ma’am,” Sidewinder says, then saunters to the wagon to grab some cookware.

Sidewinder eventually returns with a pot of water and fixes it over the fire, while Yu gets to work on Ramma’s arm. Whatever she’s doing seems to involve tracing lines on his arm that only she can make out, and then gently stabbing thin needles at certain points. The sight is more than a little disconcerting, but Ramma soon seems to be breathing easier, though he still doesn’t wake up.

“Heads up,” Sidewinder says, just the sun prepares to sink below the horizon. Hands go to the handles of gonnes and swords as two horses approach the clearing - ridden by Yu’s erstwhile “friends”, the swordsman and the gonneslinger.
“No,” Yu says, then turns to Kirika. “I did not tell them where I would go! Please, I had nothing to do with this.”
Kirika’s hand goes to her sword - but the blade stays in its home for the moment. “I’d explain your intentions here in a hurry,” she says.
The swordsman unmounts from his horse and turns to face Kirika. “You seem to have something that’s not yours,” he says. “I thought that, before I decide how I’m going to deal with this situation, I would like to hear why you’re so interested in your friend Ramma. You’ve certainly risked a lot for him, again and again. That intrigues me.”
“Honestly, I didn’t get much chance to know him when we met before,” Kirika replies. “But he agreed to come along with us, and these injuries are a result of his journey with us - and I protect and look after those that walk alongside me.”
The swordsman chuckles. “What a Kamura answer,” he says. “I look forward to our duel. Pack it up, Yu.”
“I’m not done treating him,” Yu says.
“Didn’t you hear?” the swordsman says. “Ramma already has someone to look after him. He’s no longer our problem. Now come. We have places to be.”
Kirika stands up and walks between Yu and the swordsman. “If you plan on leaving us with Ramma, then allowing Yu the time to stabilize Ramma should not prove a hindrance to your plans.” She keeps her gaze focused on the swordsman, reading his face - and the whispers of her ancestors - for any clues as to who he is or what he is thinking. “How much longer to get him stable enough for us to aid him?”

The swordsman’s face is unreadable behind his mask, but Kirika can feel her ancestors whisper about his sword - a weapon not of this land. It is Ameda’s voice that breaks out of the chorus for just three words: “Be on guard.”

Yu sighs. “If I am to stay for it, another hour,” she says, then turns to Toshi. “You made a generous offer. Can I trust you?”
“Of course,” Toshi says, eyes still on the swordsman.
“Then look here,” Yu says. Toshi looks to her, then to the cluster of needles she’s pointing to. “Remove one and wait ten minutes. If he starts to twitch, keep him warm and wait for the antidote. If he takes it well, you can remove the next one. When they are all out, he will wake up.”
“Not taking your vows very seriously anymore, are you?” the swordsman says.
“I take one very seriously,” Yu says, then stands up. “Goodbye, Kirika Kamura. I hope you can see Ramma to a better road than I can.”
Kirika nods to her. “And I hope to see our paths meet again soon.”
Yu nods, then gathers her things and goes to climb up on the gunslinger’s horse. The swordsman mounts up, then pulls the reins to get his own horse moving out of the clearing.

Kirika waits for the swordsman to reach the edge of the clearing, then calls out. “How do you know of what a Kamura would say?” she asks.
The swordsman slows down, whipping his horse around one more time to face Kirika. “Like I said,” he calls to her, “I look forward to our duel!” Being done with his smug dick act, he turns and rides off.
Kirika’s hand stays on her sword, and she looks around for any further intrusions. But the shadows around the clearing are only those of the trees, with only a fox darting between them to pass for an observer of the scene.
“You know,” Sidewinder opines, “that fella is starting to tick me off good.”
“I’m not a fan either,” Kirika says. “But he seems to be involved for reasons beyond Ikishi’s lies.” She looks back to Ramma and Toshi. “Both of you okay back there?” Her eyes turn to Yukio. “How about you, love?”
“I’m good,” Toshi says.
“Likewise,” Yukio adds.
Toshi checks on Ramma, feeling his forehead with the back of his hand. “Uh, I don’t actually know how that’s supposed to feel,” he admits, “but he’s not sweating anymore.”
Kirika nods, then looks back to Sidewinder and Yukio. “All right, we’re staying here until Copperhead gets here and can assess Ramma. Circle up and stay on guard. Toshi, keep doing what Yu told you to do.”
“Got it,” Toshi says.

Three needles and (thankfully) no twitching later, more hoofbeats sound, though the profile of his large hat gives Copperhead away easily even in the dusk. He rides over to the wagon and unmounts.

“Ikishi’s skill with poisons is remarkable,” he says. “Fortunately, I had the time to set up a rather better work space for myself than my improvisation in Sarano’s manor. Work proceeded apace, and I made haste to join you as soon as I had synthesized enough antidote for a first trial.” He looks around. “Did your new friend not show?”
“She did - as did her handler,” Kirika says. “But they only demanded that Yu come with them. She gave Toshi instructions to care for Ramma before she left, though.”
“I see,” Copperhead says. “What instructions were those?”
“Remove those pins, one by one,” Toshi says, pointing to the half-done job. “He should be awake when they’re all out.”
Copperhead leans over to catch a better look, then reaches into his armor to withdraw a folded piece of paper. He unfolds it to reveal a detailed diagram of the needles in Ramma’s arm, then goes over his notes, comparing them with the current state and adding a scribble about the purpose of the night-night cluster. “Fascinating,” he says. He looks to Kirika. “Is there anything I can do for you while we wait, Kamura-sama?”
“You can help guard, unless you feel your time would be better spent monitoring Ramma’s condition and learning what you can from Yu’s instructions…” Kirika responds with a smirk.
“Indeed,” Copperhead says.
“Actually, there’s something you can do for me,” Toshi says.
“What is your command, my prince?” Copperhead says.
“As soon as Ramma wakes up, you will burn those notes - and I forbid you to write down or tell anyone else what you remember of them,” Toshi says. Kirika nods.
“Very well,” Copperhead says, though his disappointment is obvious. “May I know why?”
“We promised a friend,” Toshi says, nodding to Kirika.
“And we keep our promises,” Kirika adds. “Right, Copperhead?”
“Of course we do,” Copperhead says. “It will be done.”

Two needles and nine minutes later, Toshi pulls the final pin - and Ramma’s eyes fly open as he coughs his way to wakefulness. “Drink this,” Copperhead orders, emptying a vial into Ramma’s mouth. The archer gamely keeps it down until Toshi gently rolls him on his side, whereupon Ramma throws up a small wad of tar-black goop. Toshi rolls him back on his back and wipes the rest of the substance from his lips, while Yukio rushes to get him a ladle of the now-cold water.

“Where are we?” he asks. “How long was I out?”
“We’re in the forest,” Kirika says. “And you’ve been out for the better part of a day. How do you feel?”
“Better,” he says. “Which is still pretty bad. I’ll live, though. Did we get away from them?”
“Yes - and no,” Kirika admits. “I had to ask Yu to help stabilize you, and then the swordsman and the gonneman showed up, and the swordsman ordered her to come with them.”
“Yu…” Ramma mutters. “So that’s her name.” He sucks down another breath. “Not to seem ungrateful, but if this is all done now, can we please get moving? I’m - argh! - looking forward to a roof over my head and a warm bed under me.”
Kirika nods. “Our questions can be saved for when we are moving,” she says. “Sidewinder, take Yukio’s horse, Yukio, Lightning is yours. I will ride in the wagon with Toshi and Ramma, Copperhead, take the reins. Any objections?”
Nods all around. “Let’s move,” Toshi says.
Gatac 2014-06-28 02:19:49
The wagon sways gently from side to side as you journey back to the Kamura estate. Ramma’s justifiably at the center of both Toshi’s and Kirika’s attention, but with some cool water in him (and more importantly, Ikishi’s drugs out of him) he looks a damn sight better. Copperhead has also seen fit to fix his injured arm in a sling to keep it from worsening again, a limitation that does not sit well with the anxious archer, but he bears it, well aware of where the alternative took him.

“I don’t think I’ve thanked you yet,” Ramma says. “I thought you might get up to trying to rescue me - but not so soon, and so brazenly.” He smiles. “Well done, and thank you for it.”
Kirika smiles back. “It wouldn’t have been so brazen if the plan had worked as intended,” she replies. “I’m still not quite up to Shadowwatch standards in that department, I guess.”
“The best compliment any plan can get is that it works,” Ramma says with a smile. He looks to Toshi. “And thank you for coming, too. You really didn’t have to stick out your neck for me.”
“Yeah, well,” Toshi says, “running from these bastards is getting old. And I think hiding away from every problem isn’t going to serve me very well as an Emperor, either. Best to break that habit now.”
Kirika beams at Toshi as he finishes his speech. That’s the Toshi she’s been hoping to see come out. Still, there are more pressing matters to attend to, and she turns back to Ramma. “So, I think you can guess that we have questions.”
“Of course,” Ramma says. “I’ll tell you what I know. What do you want to hear first?”
“What did Ikishi have you doing?” Kirika asks.
“For the first months, I simply recovered,” Ramma says. “She had a bow made for me, and wanted to be sure I could handle it before she let me go. I don’t think she wanted me to go at all, but there was this ronin snooping around in the capital that was causing her a lot of headaches, so she told me to go and kill him.” Ramma shakes his head. “He had a ninja for backup. Knocked my first shot off-target, and my arm told me right there that I wasn’t ready, so I retreated. Went back to her place to heal up. She started giving me the - well, the drug. It gets pretty hazy from there, there are days I don’t really remember - I think I might have gone to kill more of her enemies. I only know there was another urgent problem here, one of her moles who was thinking of coming clean to the Shadowguard...we were sent to take her out. I...I guess I did. Then you showed up. And I was so angry, I just - I had to go after you, too. You know how that went.” Ramma shakes his head again. “That’s the short of it, anyway.”
Kirika looks Copperhead’s way - the ninja is very, very much turned away with his eyes locked forward, not even betraying a single quiver of the anger he must feel over Oue’s murder at Ramma’s hands. Deciding to save that for the end of this little discussion, Kirika turns back to Ramma. “What do you know about the ones you were travelling with?”
“Our leader is, well, he’s a swordsman. I haven’t seen him fight, but he’s clearly one of Ikishi’s friends - he speaks his mind to her, and I’ve heard to two really get into it, but he’s very much on her side in this. I’ve never seen him without his mask. Same goes for the young man with the gonnes, but he’s more...hired help. He does the job, but he’s not a member of the club, you know? The woman - Yu - is the only one I got close to, since she took care of my wounds. She never seemed to belong with a couple of killers like us, but I never heard her complain either. I think Ikishi’s afraid of her, though. And Ikishi’s not afraid of a lot of people, so good on you getting Yu on our side.”
“She’s not there yet, but she’s close, I think,” Kirika says, and throws a glance Toshi’s way. “We still need to get her people out from under Ikishi’s threat.”
“We’ll need to figure out how her arrangement even works,” Toshi says. “Say that Yu betrays her - how do the soldiers on the mainland get their order to start killing people? It is too far for a messenger pigeon, so I can only think of a message carried by sea - so if we can seize Ikishi’s ships or at least prevent them from putting to sea, we might have some leverage.” Toshi nods. “I’ll look into it.”
Kirika nods. “And what about this drug that Ikishi gave you? Anything you can share about that at all?”
Ramma shrugs. “It takes away pain, fast,” he says. “At first, that’s all it did, but the more I used it, the more...time I lost. It’s not that I was out, just that - I would suddenly stop and wonder what I’d been doing, like I was walking in my sleep. Those times got longer, and I started to pick fights. Yu knocked me on my ass more than once. But the power!” Ramma almost smiles. “When I took it and the effect started, I felt invincible. I could see everything. Draw my bow as if I was plucking a flower for a pretty lady. I knew it wasn’t good for me - but...I never planned to live long. Better to go out as a devil in a fight than an old cripple in a bed.”
“You look to be doing all right to me,” Kirika replies with a smirk. “What do you think, Copperhead?”
“It was fortunate we were able to help him,” Copperhead says. “Someone else might have put him down like the rabid dog he was becoming.”
“Uh...thanks?” Ramma says. “Look, I’m - Copperhead? I’m sorry that I killed Oue. I know that she was a fellow Shadowwatch agent.”
“You have no idea what she was to me,” Copperhead says. “I suggest you spare me further apologies.”
“Okay, let’s calm down a bit, both of you,” Kirika says. “Copperhead, you know better than I what the effects of that drug would be. Ramma was being driven mad by Ikishi - let’s save our venom for the ones that were actually conscious of what they were doing, yes?” She turns to Ramma. “And Ramma…just leave it alone for now, hm?”
“If you do not wish my opinion, don’t ask it,” Copperhead says, but leaves it at that.
“Yes, um,” Ramma says, “what was your other question?”
“How do you feel now?” Kirika asks. “Really feel.”
Ramma shakes his head. “I’m still hurting pretty good,” he says. “Bad about the killing, obviously.” That last one’s a lie, about as easy for Kirika to see through as a thin pane of glass.
Kirika cocks an eyebrow, but decides against uncorking that particular bottle with Copperhead already probably contemplating poisoning Ramma’s next five meals. “How bad does your arm feel? Copperhead needs to know if he is going to give you the care you need.”
“Find a cold mountain spring and stick your hand in it for a minute,” Ramma says. “About there right now. Spikes when I jostle it. I expect it’ll get worse when I get up. I think I could use a nightcap after dinner - you guys do have something to eat where we’re going, right?”
Kirika nods. “That we do.”


Back at the manor, Kirika finally gets her dinner alongside Ramma, who compensates for the disappointing lack of sake with a double helping of stew. While the smacking of Ramma’s lips fills the manor hall, Kirika sees Homi lurking in the half-shadow of a corner, passing a skeptical look at Ramma that softens when he meets her eyes. All Kirika can do is sigh and smile Homi’s way. The old master nods, then steps forward, and Ramma actually looks up and stops eating as Homi gently walks up to the table and sits down.

“I believe I know where to go looking for the gonneslinger,” Homi says. “Runo Kusanagi. A bandit that used to be part of the Oni’s gang, until he struck out on his own, calling himself ‘Firebolt’.” Homi rolls his eyes. “You understand why I had reservations about recruiting him, but the choice was rather limited. Fortunately, I became aware of Sidewinder’s talents before I could make the mistake of approaching Kusanagi, but apparently Ikishi thinks he’s worth the headaches he undoubtedly causes her.”
“You think he might have problems taking orders from Ikishi?” Kirika asks.
“Not so much that,” Homi says, “but I believe he is a very efficient conduit between her coffers and the finest...whatever it is that he seeks. I hesitate to assume the sophistication of a geisha. With coin his chief concern, he should be rather open to...outside influences.”
“Not to mention, we know the current Blue Oni, which might help or hurt,” Kirika says.
“I feel kinda insulted knowing a dirtbag like that was in the running for my job,” Sidewinder opines, but Homi shakes his head.
“Believe me, Firebolt was only ever considered for the way he handled his gonnes,” Homi says. “At which he is, despite his other failings, reportedly excellent.”
“No kidding,” Ramma says. “I thought handling gonnes was all about careful aim and discipline, like shooting a bow? This man - Firebolt - he goes into a tavern with a brace of six gonnes and a minute later he’s the only one left standing. He doesn’t stand back, he prefers to get close - and he’ll grab whatever’s in reach to kill you with. Even if it’s your own blade.”
“And that’s his thing?” Sidewinder asks. “Walk into a place, kill the hells out of everyone?”
“Pretty much,” Ramma says. “He’s one cold-hearted bastard about it, too.”
“Sounds like a pleasant conversationalist,” Kirika replies.
“If you like it when a man brags about ‘putting the whores in their place’, you’ll love him,” Ramma says. “Not that he has more respect for other men, mind you.”
“Again,” Sidewinder says, “you were casing this guy?”
“As a warrior,” Homi insists. “And whatever his merits in bar fighting or...whoring around...might be, you are an excellent scout and reliable operative on top of your talents with the gonne. There is no need to feel slighted - I chose you, and I have never regretted it.”
“I’m sure daddy still loves you best, Sidewinder,” Kirika says with a smirk.
“Phew, that’s a relief,” Sidewinder says, then cracks up and claps Homi on the shoulder. “Don’t take it so hard.”
Homi smiles and puts his hand on Sidewinder’s. “I’m not,” he says. “In any event, we have stolen one of Ikishi’s agents from her, made friends with another and zeroed in on a third, all in a day’s work. I think I can take a joke after such a good result. Well done, everyone.”
Kirika nods. “Indeed. I think everyone performed remarkably under pressure and duress,” she says, giving a nod to Copperhead in particular. Copperhead reacts with the tiniest nod. “But we all know that there is more to come for us, and that it will be even more difficult than what we have faced here. We have to prepare for our lost lord’s triumphant return to the capital, and that means we have a lot of work left to do.”
“Indeed,” Copperhead says.
“I got nothin’ to add to that,” Sidewinder says.
Homi just gives her a nod.
“And as for you, Ramma,” Kirika says, turning his way, “I think that tomorrow you need to go meet the people that will be looking after you while we’re away.”
“Sure,” Ramma says.
“They’re very nice people, and I want you to look after this place - and them,” Kirika says. “They know how to fight - more or less - but they need guidance. Do you think you can do that?”
“Sure,” Ramma says again. “After all this business, I could use an easy gig like that. Just don’t plan on me settling down here - I mean, I’ll stick around as long as you need me, but I’m not a roots kind of man.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Kirika replies. “But since you’re not going much of anywhere while that arm heals up…”
“Free board and lodging, hells, I’ve had worse engagements,” Ramma says. “And I owe you on top.” He nods. “You’ve got a deal.”
Kirika nods. “Thank you, Ramma.” She looks around the table. “Unless there is anything else…”
“Get some rest,” Homi says. “Promise me, Kirika.”
Kirika nods. “Soon, I promise,” she says as she stands up. “But I have one more thing to attend to, first.”


Kirika just has to follow the faint giggles and hushed voices through the kitchen and out the back to find Yukio and Toshi, sitting on the bench behind the manor and gazing up at the stars, with Yukio’s arm wrapped around Toshi’s shoulders. Kirika smiles as Yukio leans in to plant a kiss on Toshi’s cheek - it’s good to see the two of them happy together again. She spies the flat rock that Homi spent so much time sitting on, and climbs up onto it herself, her legs crossed as she admires the stars herself and waits for a better moment to come in.

“Oh!” Yukio says, a few seconds after Kirika has sat down, and turns to face her, smile on her lips and blush on her cheeks. “Sorry, we didn’t hear you,” she says. “How are things with Ramma?”
“He’s all right,” Kirika says as she stands back up and walks over. “I think Copperhead has decided against poisoning his food or killing him in his sleep.” She waits for either one of them to indicate where she should sit in this little arrangement. Yukio holds out her other arm, indicating for Kirika to sit beside her so she can hug both her lovers in one go, and Kirika gladly takes the invitation.
“I hope Copperhead will recover from this blow,” Yukio says. “He is more affected by all this than he is willing to admit, and - I’m sorry, it’s a horrible thing to say, but he scares me when he gets like this.”
“I think he will - revenge is a wonderful cure for what ails him,” Kirika replies. “Ramma knows well enough to respect his boundaries, as well.”
“I heard Ramma talk about a ronin in the capital,” Toshi says. “Do you think he means...Takao?”
Kirika nods. “Fairly certain he did,” she says. “I suppose we should be thankful for his ninja friend, and Ramma’s injury.”
“That’s not what I’m thinking about,” Toshi says. “If that’s the last time Ramma has seen Takao, but didn’t kill him, then...what exactly happened afterwards?”
Kirika frowns. “Well, either he’s still involved with some trouble or other in the capital, or we have one more mission to accomplish there.”
“Right,” Toshi says. “How’d you like the stew, Kirika?”
Kirika nods. “It was pretty good, Toshi.” She smirks. “Was cooking part of Emperor-to-be schooling?”
“Not exactly,” Toshi says. “It just that Yukio can’t cook.”
Yukio smirks and puts him in a friendly little headlock. “Say what?”
“I meant that after long days of working the fields and doing all the work around our farm, my dear Yuki-chan was too tired to cook and deserved to be doted on by me!” Toshi mock-panickingly spools off.
“Aww, that’s sweet of you,” Yukio says. “But he’s right. I’m not good at cooking. I was waited on in my youth and the academy provided for our meals, too. Toshi, on the other hand, had to learn to cook after he left the capital.”
“I can’t claim to be a chef,” he says, “but if it’s not poison, I can make it edible.” He shrugs out of Yukio’s embrace. “Sometimes even if it is poisonous. There were a lot of snakes around the farm, you know.”
“The pan-fried cottonmouth was pretty good,” Yukio opines.
“Don’t worry, though,” Toshi says to Kirika. “This one was all rabbit.”
“But back to what I wanted to say,” Kirika says, still smiling. “I’m proud of you, Toshi. You really were the Emperor today. With Yo.”
Toshi blushes a little. “It felt good,” he says. “Now we have to deliver on our promises. But we can do it. We just ran circles around Ikishi’s hand-picked squad of assassins. I think we’ll do just fine.”
Kirika hops up and plops herself down on the other side of Toshi, and leans in to give him a kiss on the cheek. “I think we will too,” she says, looking at both Toshi and Yukio.
Yukio hugs the two of them. “I think it is time for bed,” she says. “And after that, we can sleep.” Kirika raises an eyebrow to Yukio, who turns to her and gives her a wink.
“Oh boy,” Toshi mutters. “Here we go again…”
Gatac 2014-06-29 05:44:28
Three light raps at the door flick Kirika's eyes open, but getting to her feet proves immediately more difficult than usual. This is only partly due to her usual position upon waking up - wrapped in Yukio's arms, this time face-to-face as she shoves her face into Kirika's hair - and mostly because of the third person under the covers, Toshi, who's sidled up next to her back, one hand resting comfortably on her ass - oop, no, not just resting comfortably. As the knocking continues at a nearly sub-audible level, Kirika turns her head towards Toshi as best she can.
"You enjoying yourself back there?" she whispers.
“Oop!” Toshi yelps. “Uh, there’s someone at the door, I was about to wake you…”
"I didn't say I minded," Kirika says with a smirk. "But I do need to get the door, so, if you wouldn't mind..."
Toshi’s hands retreat. “Uh, no!” he says. “You go on ahead with...the things.”
Kirika gently slides out of Yukio's arms, leaving her a kiss as she does so, then rolls over the top of Toshi, giving him a kiss as well. "Thank you, Toshi," she whispers.
“I will be waiting with more...backrubs...when you’re back,” Toshi replies with a smirk.
"Well then," Kirika says as she smirks back and lifts herself to her feet. "Just a second," she calls in a sing-song tone as she puts her kimono from yesterday back on with a quick knot. "Who is it?"
“You better wake up Yukio, too,” comes Sidewinder’s call from outside the door. “Daddy’s at the gate, asking to see you lot.”
Kirika freezes. "Matsumoto-sama is here?"
“Ayup,” Sidewinder says. “Copperhead’s stalling him right now, but you can imagine that ain’t the greatest conversation ever had in the empire, so I do suggest you get moving.”
"No need to stall him," Kirika calls. "Let him come up to the house, we'll be ready and dressed by the time he's here. He'll probably insist on seeing the grounds, assessing the security." She looks over to Toshi. "Get up and...make yourself presentable," she hisses.
“Yeah, yeah,” Toshi replies, climbing past Kirika - with one hand moving the sheets so everyone remains covered - to Yukio’s side, where he puts a hand on her shoulder. “Yuki-chan!” he says. “Yuki-chan, wake up!”
“Waaaaaah?” is Yukio’s eloquent reply.
“Get up, get dressed!” Toshi cries. “Your father -”
“Father!” Yukio all but shouts, sitting up straight and throwing the sheets off. Toshi looks at that for a moment, then gamely offers her the sheet in her hand to cover herself again, but she’s already climbing to her feet. “Kirika, go, stall him, please!”
"Sidewinder and Copperhead are already on it, love," Kirika says as she shucks off her wrinkled and dirty kimono and walks up to her and gives her a kiss. "You might want to fix your hair before he shows up, though." Toshi enjoys the view a bit, then climbs to his feet, too.
“So I guess we’re postponing the bath, then?” Toshi says, digging through their possessions for perfume and a comb for Yukio.
“This is not the time for your jokes!” Yukio snaps.
Sidewinder coughs from outside the door. “I’ll just be on my way, then.”
"Yes, thank you, Sidewinder," Kirika replies, then looks back to the two people in the room searching for clothes. "Yukio, relax," she says as she comes up behind her and runs a hand down her side. "It's not like your father doesn't know about the two of us. I'm sure he can imagine that we're not sleeping chaste in two separate bedrolls."
“That doesn’t mean he has to see us like...this,” Yukio says, briefly taking and squeezing Kirika’s hand before she bows down and picks out some clean underwear.
"You make it sound so wrong," Kirika says as she gives Yukio one last caress on her butt before pulling up some clean undergarments. "There's nothing wrong about us, at all." She smirks at Toshi as he looks their way. "Any of us. When there's nothing but love here."
“And that is very good,” Yukio says, “but let us...wrap this love in something more presentable for now. Yes?”
"I was not suggesting we greet your father as we woke up this morning," Kirika replies as she throws on a fresh kimono and knots her father's obi. "My sword, please," she asks Toshi.
Toshi grabs and hands her Crane’s Dance while pulling his obi tight with one hand - all that practice in quickly getting back into his clothes after nightly escapades clearly paying off.
"Thank you," Kirika says as she slides Crane's Dance into place and gives the obi one last tug to settle it into its well-worn crease. A bit of perfumed oil gets run through her hair, then she rolls her arms and neck, muscles working against the fabric. "Ready, or shall I go on ahead?"
“I’m good,” Toshi says, running a kind of...perfumed grease?...through his hair to slick it back into form, while Yukio tightens the knot on her obi and gives Kirika a silent nod.
Kirika walks over and puts the last of the oil on her hands in Yukio's hair as an excuse to give her one more kiss. "Then let's go meet Father."


The threesome exits the house just as Matsumoto-sama comes walking down the path with the confident stride of a man who’s very, very secure in his ability to kick ass and take names. Yukio rushes forward to bow to him, which he acknowledges with a nod. Kirika walks up as well, and gives him a respectful bow as well. Matsumoto looks at her, eyebrows on the rise.

“A good day to you all,” Matsumoto says. “It is good to see you, daughter - and you, Lady Kamura. I see you have spent the time since your departure from my house quite wisely, though I admit a certain...surprise at the extent of your training.” He smirks. “Very well, then!”
“If you would come inside, father…” Yukio says.
“With Lady Kamura’s permission,” Matsumoto says.
"You are always welcome, Matsumoto-sama," Kirika replies with a bow. "And, please, I am not a Lady. I am just Kirika."
“Hrm,” Matsumoto says, his expression darkening. “I’m afraid that is not a point of negotiation. A daimyo needs vassals, and you have claimed this estate and its name for yourself. It would not be proper to address you as any less than a Lady.”
Kirika is surprised. "Oh. I...I suppose I have not thought of it that way. I was just...this is my father's farm, and I am taking care of it and the people that work it. Because it's the right thing to do. I...I do not see myself as a noble because of that."
“Hah!” Matsumoto laughs. “What is a noble but a man or a woman who rises to protect the people under their care? You forget that I started with no name, Lady Kamura, just a sword and my will. This empire will not heal when good people wallow in modesty while the wicked elevate themselves. Take heart!”
"I will, Matsumoto-sama," Kirika says with another bow. "Then...I guess Lady Kamura it is." She still shifts uncomfortably and feels her back tense up as the words pass her lips.
“And are you not the equal of my daughter, Lady Matsumoto?” he asks. “You certainly look it.”
Yukio blushes and smiles slightly as Kirika stammers. "I...I want to think so, but I believe I have some ways to go yet to be your daughter's equal in any way."
“Hrm,” Matsumoto says. “We will see.” He looks around. “I like your estate! Somewhat out of the way, which is not to my taste, but it is hard to argue with the beauty of it! I see that you are in the process of fixing the wall, and your people are under arms, too! This will serve us well in the days to come. Now, may I impose on you to enter your home?”
"Of - of course," Kirika stammers, still shaken up by the whole "Lady" discussion. She stands to the side and gestures for Matsumoto to lead - before remembering that as the Lady, she should go first, and steps back in front to lead the procession. Yukio falls in at her father’s side, while Toshi - is nowhere to be seen. He must have snuck away when everyone was facing Matsumoto. Kirika looks around for Toshi, then to Sidewinder and Copperhead. She raises her eyebrows at them, with Copperhead remaining stoic as ever while Sidewinder offers a quick “He’s hiding over there” nod to the training shed. Kirika turns to Matsumoto. "Pardon me, Matsumoto-sama, but I have to take care of something in the training shed. Yukio, could you show your father the view from the manor over the valley? Perhaps the bench?"
“Of course,” Yukio says, taking her father by the arm in a move that clearly surprises him for a moment. “This way, please, father.” The two of them wander off - and once Matsumoto has turned away, Toshi pokes his head out of the shadows, surveying the scene.

"What are you doing over there?" Kirika hisses. "Get your scrawny butt over here right now."
“I didn’t want to ruin their reunion,” Toshi says, stepping into view. “He’s just…” Toshi sighs. “I’ll say something stupid and ruin it. Just...handle him. I’ll go clean myself up a little more, and prepare.”
Kirika's expression softens. "I don't think it would be very becoming of the Emperor if he were to hide behind the throne every time one of his more important Lords came calling," she says.
“Yeah, but…” Toshi fumbles. “It’s just…” He gives up and shakes his head. “Just let the two have a few minutes. We’ll come in, I’ll say I was planning our next moves.” He turns to the ninjas. “Right?”
“Yep,” Sidewinder says.
“It is as you say, prince,” Copperhead concurs.
"No, no no," Kirika says as she walks up to Toshi, and puts her hands on his shoulders. "What is the matter, Toshi? Really."
“The matter is that we were in bed last night, okay?” Toshi says. “He never liked me having a relationship with Yukio. He only warmed up to me when we were apart. Now his sweet little daughter is lying with me again? He’s going to hate me. I can’t just...I need more time to prepare for this.”
"He never hated you, Toshi," Kirika replies. "He was just...waiting for you to prove yourself, and disappointed you chose to run instead of standing up to him to declare your love."
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Toshi says.
"It's the way of looking at it, believe me, I know," Kirika says. "And do you think turning bright red and vanishing the instant you see his face is going to convince him of anything other than the fact that you slept with his daughter again? He probably already knows what all three of us did last night already, and did you see any disappointment on his face?"
Toshi’s face shifts to horror as he thinks about that. “Gods, you’re right,” he says. “...ew. How can he...I mean, if my daughter...ooookay. Okay. Let’s just get this over with before my shame drags me down to the hells themselves.”
Kirika claps his shoulders one more time. "He's only disappointed you didn't stand up to him and prove yourself worthy. You're Prince Toshiro now, Emperor-to-be. You have the strength to prove yourself now, I've seen it. Just, you know, be yourself." She smirks. "Confident and brave Toshi."
“As long as you’re there to cover a retreat,” Toshi says, then nods and sets off to join Yukio and her father.
Kirika rolls her eyes and looks to Copperhead and Sidewinder. Copperhead says nothing, while Sidewinder smirks at her. "Is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life?" she asks.
“Won’t be a problem as long as you can keep Matsumoto away,” Sidewinder opines.
“The Prince’s courage does seem rather allergic to Matsumoto-sama’s presence,” Copperhead adds.
"Stay behind me, Emperor, or I'll bring you with us when Yukio and I visit her father!" Kirika play-acts out loud. "Hmm, seems like a plausible enough threat." She nods for the Shadowwatch twins to follow her.
Sidewinder turns a laugh into a cough by covering his mouth, while Copperhead simply falls in behind her.


A short journey to the bench behind the manor finds Matsumoto and Yukio quite close to another, with his hands on her shoulder - almost as if they were hugging before they heard your approach. As it is, Yukio sweeps her free hand over the manor, as if to indicate its size.

“We are indebted to Hiro Homi’s man, Copperhead, for his fine work in the renovation,” Yukio says, then fully separates from her father and smiles to Kirika. “Ah, here they are now!”
“Toshiro!” Matsumoto exclaims. “What have you been up to?”
“Important matters of state,” Toshi quips, even giving Matsumoto a wink. Sidewinder’s eyes go wide, but Matsumoto laughs.
“I see!” Matsumoto says. “Copperhead, Sidewinder, good to see you, too. Where is your master?”
Sidewinder and Copperhead bow, Sidewinder moreso than his stoic partner.
“Homi-sama is resting at this time, lord,” Copperhead says. “Shall I wake him?”
“Leave him be,” Matsumoto says. “We’ll speak when he is awake. So! A fine estate indeed, Lady Kamura. Where are your other friends now?”
"Preparing the ground," Kirika responds. "The ninja are off procuring an army from Ikishi, and Takao has gone ahead to the capitol to see what we might face."
“Hm!” Matsumoto says. “Have you heard back from them yet?”
"No," Kirika replies. "The ninja are off in the Firelands, so that's to be expected, but...we are concerned about Takao."
“I see,” Matsumoto says. “Oh, before I forget - I gathered it was your doing that saw that crazed Northman woman come after the pirate. I would greatly appreciate some warning before you do something like this again.”
"What?" Kirika exclaims. "Is he okay? Is she okay?"
Matsumoto laughs. “I do believe they’ve settled up, though she took one of his eyes and he cracked six of her ribs,” he says. “If I had known about her coming, I could have set up a somewhat more...regulated duel. And gotten to watch it, too.”
"Gods above," Kirika says, looking skyward for a moment. "How are things between them now?"
“They share a bed,” Matsumoto says. “I hesitate to call their relationship one of love, but it is a very practical arrangement, as I think the woman - Karla, was it? - was looking for a place to stay and Olafsen, well, he’s no longer the kind of dashing rogue would could woo one of our women. Having the two Northmen together does make for a certain pleasing symmetry, and let me tell you, the bandits know very well to steer clear of these lands now.”
Kirika's eyebrow raises. "I was expecting some kind of reconciliation - possibly after they beat each other senseless - but I was not expecting a relationship to form over those bruises."
“I have made it clear to her that there are alternatives,” Matsumoto says. “I would house her in my manor, if she wished - but she has not taken me up on the offer, preferring the company of Olafsen.” Matsumoto shrugs. “The heart wants what the heart wants, does it not?”
"Indeed it does," Kirika replies, sending another blush through Yukio’s - and Toshi’s - cheeks, which puts color in Kirika's as well.
“Did I speak too honestly?” Matsumoto says with a sly smile.
"Not at all, Matsumoto-sama," Kirika replies with a smile. "Not at all. Come, let me show you the rest of the manor and then we can talk more deeply about what has happened."
“Lead on, Lady Kamura!” Matsumoto says, but not without smirking at Yukio and deepening her blushing further.
Gatac 2014-07-19 04:50:17
"...and so, we brought Ramma back here to rest and recuperate," Kirika says, gesturing in his direction as he sits on some cushions in the great room. "And we're back here to the great room. As you can see, Copperhead's made some excellent repairs to the building, and we're making progress on putting everything back to its former glory when my father was in charge here."
“Very good!” Matsumoto says, taking it all in. “You will serve as a fine vassal, Lady Kamura -” his face turns to smirking again - “unless you have not reached the ends of your own ambition yet.”
Kirika nods. "I know that my family owned - owns other properties around this region, and that they are either held by others, or sit empty like this one did. I will be taking all of them back as soon as this matter with Ikishi is settled."
The smirk turns to a grin. “I rather like how you call it ‘this matter’,” Matsumoto says. “You don’t seem to think much of her as an opponent.”
"On the contrary, Lord Matsumoto, I think that she will be an immense pain in my backside and is a foe of great reach and power - as I've already experienced myself," Kirika replies. "I understate the scale of our endeavor more to disguise the scale of the task than to minimize it."
“Hm!” Matsumoto says. “In any event, you can be assured of my help. I have impressed upon Han, for example, that there have been rather a lot of injuries in my domain by blacksmiths rushing their work, being too tired from lack of sleep, and general carelessness. He has assured me that all further work on weapons for the capital is being done to the absolutely highest standards possible, and that for the glory of the throne, nothing less than perfection is acceptable. I have already ordered the substandard improvised forges dismantled as a threat to public health as well.” He nods to Kirika. “You can imagine that this has lightened our shipments of weapons considerably, and even if we were forced to reverse course, it would take months to return to the level of production we had under Sarano’s power.”
Kirika smirks. "I suppose that is the price you pay for safety," she replies. "You said you had other news?"
Matsumoto nods. “That is news best shared with all of your friends,” he says. “I hope it is not too much of an imposition if I stay here while we await their return.”
"Never," Kirika says, slightly disappointed in having to wait for information. Her hand rests on her sword, which gives her an idea. "Then, might I propose a bit of entertainment in the meantime? You implied that my father and you sparred somewhat regularly?"
“Indeed we did!” Matsumoto says. “And what great fun it was!” His eyes follow her hand to her sword. “I would be more than happy to continue the tradition with you, Lady Kamura.”
Kirika bows just enough to show her gratitude, but not enough to take her eyes off of Matsumoto's hands. "I would be honored, Lord Matsumoto."
“Capital!” Matsumoto says. “Daughter, fetch my training blades from the horse, would you?” He turns back to Kirika. “I didn’t want to presume, but I brought one balanced in the Kamura style, too, if you wish to use that instead of marring Crane’s Dance.”
Kirika nods. "Thank you, I would." She looks in Yukio's direction as she stands to fetch the sparring tools. Yukio gives her a smile and a nod, then hurries off to fetch the training weapons.
“Do you prefer your sparring with armor or without?” Matsumoto says. “Your father preferred them without; he liked the decisiveness of a short fight. But as the host, I leave it to your discretion.”
"Without," Kirika says. "Armor simply gets in the way." She bows one more time to Matsumoto. "If you will excuse me, I should go change into something more appropriate."
“As should I,” Matsumoto says. “In five minutes, at your dojo?”
Kirika nods. "In five minutes."


Four minutes later, Kirika steps quickly into her sparring room, shucking her sandals at the door. Inside, Matsumoto sits on the training mats in the lotus position, his plain (and dull) training swords (a katana and a wakizashi) laid out beside him. As Kirika enters, he grabs them and rises to his feet, fixing them in his obi. Kirika's sword is in Yukio's hands, who hands it to her and it quickly finds its place in her obi as well.

Kirika bows to Matsumoto as the others clear the center of the room. "Are you ready, Lord Matsumoto?" she asks.
Matsumoto bows back to her. “I am,” he says.
"Then let us begin," Kirika says, her hand going to her sword.


Matsumoto: 1d20+16 = 32
Kirika: 1d20+11 = 23


Matsumoto uses two Handle Item actions to draw his katana and short sword.)

Matsumoto’s eyes narrow as he reaches to unsheath his two weapons. Kirika, deciding not to press her advantage, draws her own sword and wait for Matsumoto to come to her, her eyes focused on finding the right way to work to the inside of his defense.

(Kirika uses Aim! +1 to all attacks against Matsumoto as long as he doesn’t move more than 5 feet in a round.


Matsumoto uses Two-Weapon fighting, accepting a -2 to all attack and skill rolls this round. He then enters Martial Stance - +1 to all attacks and +3 to damage. He uses his second half-action to attack with both weapons!

Matsumoto’s Attack: 1d20+18 = 33 HIT!
Damage: 1d10+3+3 = 13
Matsumoto’s Attack: 1d20+18 = 24 HIT!
Damage: 1d8+3+3 = 11)

Matsumoto’s opener is a stunner - after carefully positioning his feet, he comes whirling at Kirika, two wild slashes that come incredibly fast - no wonder the man got where he is now by dueling!

Kirika can't have him beating up on her like that for long - she slides in to knock him off his balance and open up his defenses.

(Kirika tries to trip Matsumoto: 1d20+9 = 18
Matsumoto’s Acrobatics: 1d20+3 = 15 TRIPPED! Matsumoto loses his stance and is sprawled!
Kirika attacks with Triumphant Strike: 1d20+14+1 = 22 HIT!
Kirika’s Damage: 1d10+9 = 18
Kirika’s Healing: 1d6 = 5)

One of the disadvantage of striking with a weapon in each hand is the momentum shift - if you're not careful, it can leave you open to a quick strike. Kirika takes full advantage of this, sliding in and shoulder-checking Matsumoto in one lightning-quick move, setting him off balance and leaving him wide open for her twirling mid-strike at his side. She swings around with a mighty "KIYAA!" like her father taught her, and the strike lands home solidly.


Matsumoto uses Reposition to get back on his feet.

He then tries to threaten her!

Matsumoto’s Intimidate: 1d20+19 = 38
Kirika’s Resolve: 1d20+5 = 13
Stress Damage: 1d10 = 4

Kirika’s Stress Resistance 10 soaks it.)

Matsumoto grits his teeth and swings back into position, studying her stance intently. “You use your father’s tricks well,” he growls. “But they will not be enough!” he bellows. His is a voice that could convince a mountain to back down - but there is no fear left in Kirika to leverage, as her ancestors rush to aid her and harden her mind against Matsumoto’s games.

(Kirika activates Darting Weapon for -2 to Attack and Skill rolls, then tries to trip him again: 1d20+7 = 10 + Action Die: 1d6 = 5
Matsumoto’s Acrobatics: 1d20+3 = 11

And Matsumoto goes down again! Sprawled.

Kirika’s Attack #1: 1d20+14-2+1 = 20 HIT
Kirika’s Attack #2: 1d20+14-2+1 = 26 HIT
Damage #1: 2d10.hi+9 = 15
Damage #2: 2d10.hi+9 = 19)

Kirika smirks. "I know more than just my father's tricks," she laughs, and strikes the start for her favorite grand-aunt Kaede Kamura's best one-on-one tactic, a stripe of tattoos bursting into light. Kaede was never one for timidity - trusting that her speed would eliminate all comers, she struck fast and counted bodies later. And all those sparring duels with Matsumoto gave Ameda Kamura excellent insight into his stance - and the slipshot footwork that placed it on wobbly feet. Kirika surges forward again, zigging where Matsumoto expects her to zag, and again his wide movement is more like wide-open to her addition of momentum, spinning him out again, and this time tasting the dulled blade both over his back and across his arm.


Matsumoto tries to Bull Rush Kirika, but can’t apply his Run Through trick due to Kirika’s No More Tricks ability, so he’ll have to settle for moving her - if he can.

Matsumoto’s Athletics: 1d20+17 = 20
Kirika’s Athletics: 1d20+13 = 33

And he can’t. If there was a double-sprawled, he would be it now.)

Matsumoto’s stopped making conversation - still on his knees, he surges forward to trip and grab Kirika in a rush! But alas, fortune doesn’t smile upon him, and Kirika meets his charge with a well-rooted push that sees him outleveraged and thrown back.

“She’s no little girl, father,” Yukio throws in from the sidelines.
“Here,” Toshi says, holding out a paper bowl. “I made agemochi.”
“Oh, thank you,” Yukio says, grabbing a few of the hot morsels to snack on as the fight continues.

(Kirika just does two regular attacks.

Kirika’s Attack #1: 1d20+14+1 = 17 STILL COUNTS
Kirika’s Attack #2: 1d20+14+1 = 30 NICE ONE
Damage #1: 2d10.hi+9 = 15
Damage #2: 2d10.hi+9 = 17)

Kirika almost feels bad as she slashes upwards and through, then follows it with a solidly delivered cross at the gut level. Matsumoto grunts with pain at the first and actually doubles over a bit at the second; he's definitely starting to look like he's getting the raw end of this sparring match.


Matsumoto throws it all on Two-Weapon fighting, accepting a total -4 due to being Sprawled, all in the hopes of getting something out of three attacks.

Matsumoto’s Attack #1: 1d20+15 = 35 which would be a threat, if Kirika didn’t have threat range reduction from Horror...HIT
Matsumoto’s Attack #2: 1d20+15 = 26 HIT
Matsumoto’s Attack #3: 1d20+15 = 30 HIT
Matsumoto’s Damage #1: 1d10+3 = 8
Matsumoto’s Damage #2: 1d10+3 = 10
Matsumoto’s Damage #3: 1d8+3 = 6)

However, the tiny spark of concern in Kirika seems misplaced as Matsumoto immediately follows with a whirlwind of slashes from his crawling position, forcing Kirika into a few swift moves to substitute pain on her arms and legs for more vital strikes. Beat-down as he is, Matsumoto’s still dangerous!

(Kirika uses Darting weapon, then tries to Disarm Matsumoto before attacking twice!

Kirika’s Disarm: 1d20+14+1-2 = 29 + Action Die: 1d6 = 2
Matsumoto’s Counter: 1d20+17 = 34 WEAPON RETAINED!

Kirika becomes flat-footed - which doesn’t matter, as she still has her other half-action.

Kirika’s Attack #1: 1d20+14+1-2 = 16
Kirika’s Attack #2: 1d20+14+1-2 = 17
Kirika’s Damage #1: 2d10.hi+9 = 16
Kirika’s Damage #2: 2d10.hi+9 = 17)

Kirika sees her chance to trap Matsumoto’s sword, and Ameda’s sure he’s got this one - but if he should have learned anything from his sparring, it’s Matsumoto’s sheer bloody-mindedness, so the samurai lord keeps his grip on his sword, although the effort opens him up to two more cheap slices as Kirika works the situation as best as she can. Matsumoto scrambles back to his feet, and for a second, they ring each other again, testing their defenses - until Matsumoto bows, flips his sword around and sheathes it, to be followed by his wakizashi.

“Excellent!” he beams. “I yield to your skill, Lady Kamura. Your father always chastised me for my footwork - I suppose he had a point. Did you see what you wished to see?” He turns to Yukio, Toshi, and the ninjas who have inexplicably (and silently) joined the audience. “Are you entertained?” Matsumoto shouts, grin on his face as he wipes the sweat of his brow.

Yukio bows to her father. “It was a...stimulating display,” she says, blushing at Kirika.
“Whoo-hoo!” Toshi opines. It is not clear which side his enthusiasm is meant for.
“Nice moves,” Sidewinder says.
“Brash, but certainly effective,” Copperhead says.
“A remarkable duel indeed,” Hiro Homi says, before bowing to Matsumoto. “And a late greeting to you, Lord Matsumoto. Please excuse my earlier absence.”
Matsumoto makes a point of bowing deeper. “I am humbled by your presence, Homi-sama,” he says. “I am glad you liked our duel.”
“Indeed I did,” Homi says. “What are your thoughts, Kirika?”
"I dismissed Lord Matsumoto's fortitude and power too much late in the match," Kirika says as she slides the training sword back into her obi and wipes her forehead. "I forgot how dangerous he is, even when dealt a few good blows, and it let him start to come back at me."
Homi nods. “It is easy to dismiss an opponent on his knees who cannot seem to keep you from striking,” he says. “But the fight is not over until your opponent yields it - one way or another. Lord Matsumoto is indeed a very swift and deadly fighter, but he is also a persistent one, well used to the rigors and pains of fighting. Although you were in the position to exploit the weakness of his technique, you now understand very well how he gained victory in many battles. Something that may serve you well in your next duel.”
"Yes, Hiro," Kirika replies with a bow. "Your wisdom is, as ever, welcomed and well-received." She turns to Matsumoto, who can’t quite suppress his smirk at the familiar way Kirika and Hiro Homi address each other now, and bows to him as well. "Thank you very much for the opportunity to spar with someone as experienced as yourself. I'm sure that your daughter will be making sure I learn the lessons you have taught me today for the next week, at least."
“I expect nothing less of her!” Matsumoto booms, already back to his usual magnificence. “Can I impose on you for a bath, Lady Kamura?”
"Please, it would be my honor," Kirika replies.
“Excellent,” Matsumoto says. “Come, daughter! We should speak, you and I, while I wait for the water to be heated.”
Yukio glances at Kirika, then back to Matsumoto. “Of course, father.”
“We will be making use of the bench behind your manor, Lady Kamura,” Matsumoto says. “If you could send someone to fetch me when the water is ready…”
"I will do so personally," Kirika replies with a bow.
“Very well!” Matsumoto says. “Come, Yukio.”

The two of them wander away, Matsumoto with his usual confident stride, Yukio with her hands folded and her head bowed, following slightly behind him. After a few steps, Matsumoto stops, and Yukio freezes in place, too. He turns, looks at her, and then gives her a tender smile before putting his hand on her shoulder. She looks up, and he draws her into an embrace that ends after a few seconds with a strong clap on her back. The two continue walking, but this time side by side, with Matsumoto’s arm around Yukio’s shoulders - and after a few steps, Yukio puts her arm around her father, too. Kirika's smile reaches its widest point all day before she turns to ask Toshi where the wood is kept for the baths.


It’s a good thing Copperhead’s spent some of his tinkering time improving the estate’s well, because otherwise filling up the bathtub in a hurry would be a right pain. As it is, it mostly comes down to keeping a good fire going under the heating vessel, which produces a more or less constant stream of hot water that is slowly filling the tub. Toshi chucks another piece of firewood into the smoke underneath, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his jacket.

“Phew,” he says. “I hope that’s it, or I might have to pull rank on that bath. How do you like the agemochi, Kirika?”
Kirika pops another one in her mouth as she stands up. “Delicious, Toshi. Thanks.” She walks over and peers into the firebox under the heating vessel. “It’s my turn next, anyway.” She stands back up and works out one of the bruises in her shoulder from her sparring.
“Thank you,” Toshi says, holding out a piece of wood for her to take before he sits down. “Aotaka’s right, you know. This is a very nice estate. I’m going to miss it when we leave.”
Kirika smirks as she taps the piece of wood in her off hand. “I think that the place we’re going to is quite nice as well.”
Toshi smirks. “It has its charms,” he says, then turns his head at the sound of footsteps to see Yukio walking towards them, without her father. She gives them both a smile and a nod as she approaches. “Hey,” Toshi says.
“Hey,” Yukio says, then turns to Kirika. “I’ll...I’ll try to be direct. You’re both here, that’s good, this involves both of you. So. It’s…” Kirika studies Yukio’s expression while she thinks of what to say next - she’s not upset, but she recognizes Yukio’s “what do I say next” look very well. Yukio notices Kirika noticing and sighs. “First off, my father is absolutely fine with...whatever you might want to call our relationship. I’ve made it clear to him that there is a lot of love and caring and, as I said, he respects that. But he brought up an...inconvenient topic.” She turns to Toshi. “The crux of the matter is that as Emperor, you will need a heir - as soon as possible.” She looks over to Kirika again. “But I...I just don’t know.”
“Don’t know...what?” Kirika asks, unsure if she wants to know the answer.
“Am I ready to be a mother?” Yukio says. “I’ve...I’ve never wanted to be like other women. I went to learn war, and now I’m traveling with you and all dangers and secrets aside, it’s just so...I feel so alive. But now I feel like I’m going to be this...addendum. The mother of Toshi’s son. Anyone could be that.” She shakes her head. “I know you don’t think that of me, but what will everyone else?”
Kirika walks over to Yukio and puts a hand on her shoulder. “They will think whatever you want them to think, love,” she says. “If you are afraid of being seen as weak and demure, to be hidden away, demand respect, command attention, get into fights, and have adventures. My father told me of many Kamura women who bore children and went on to have great adventures afterwards.” She looks over at Toshi. “Certainly Toshi would support you in being seen as you - and we - wish you to be seen.”
“Absolutely,” Toshi says with a nod as he gets up. “Yukio, when I’m Emperor, you can be anything - do anything you want. I mean, not that you need my permission - but, look, I will support you no matter what. And, you know, what’s wrong with being a mother? Like Kirika said, it doesn’t mean your life is over - not by a long shot.”
Yukio bites her lip.
“But you don’t know if you want to,” Kirika says for her.
Yukio nods. “I really don’t,” she says.

Toshi puts a hand on her shoulder. “That’s not a choice we have to make now, Yuki-chan,” he says. “Come on. People two decades my senior have ascended and started new dynasties then. We have plenty of time to decide. We’re still so young, and there’ll be plenty of excitement to keep us busy even after we get rid of Ikishi. And...why the hells do we need a dynasty, anyway?” Toshi tries to keep his voice steady. “We do what is right for us, Yuki-chan. Your father knows the politics as they are - but we will just make our own rules. Okay?” He looks to Kirika with a subtle “Back me up here” glance.
Kirika nods. “There are many, many steps left on this road that we are on, and we will find a way to make sure that you are happy, love. I swear it.”
“You will, won’t you,” Yukio whispers, then grabs both Toshi and Kirika and draws them into a hug. “I’m so glad I have you two for this,” she says.
Kirika returns the hug on both Yukio and poor Toshi, who squeaks a bit under the pressure from Yukio and Kirika. “I couldn’t be anywhere else but by your side, love.” She sneaks in a peck on her lips. “And besides, you can’t become with child right after we defeat Ikishi - you have to be by my side when we ride through the gate of my family’s home.”
“I wouldn’t miss that for the world,” Yukio says, suppressing a sniffle. “Oh, look at me,” she whispers.
“Are you sure you’re not already -” Toshi begins, trying to lighten the mood - and earning a playful slap on the back of his head from Yukio for it.
“Don’t even think it,” Yukio says, but then softens her expression and rubs the back of his head. “Thank you. Both of you.”
Kirika smirks and gives Toshi a tap on the shoulder as she nuzzles in against Yukio’s cheek. “No thanks are needed, love,” she whispers.
Yukio hugs them once more, then slowly lets go. “Excuse me, please,” she says with a thin voice. “I need to go blow my nose.”

As Yukio walks away, Toshi turns back to Kirika. “Well, that’s not how I wanted to have that discussion,” he says quietly.
“It’s how it was going to happen sooner or later,” Kirika says as she watches Yukio walk off. She turns to Toshi. “Are you really okay with passing on having children?”
“Yeah,” Toshi says. “I mean, hells, the way she puts it, I’m not sure I even want children anyway. It’s...if we have kids, I would want to spend all the time with them, but I know as Emperor that’ll be difficult. So, why have kids that are just going to be raised by strangers and grow up not knowing you? And...something Yu said, about this empire being a bad thing. Maybe I’ll be the last Emperor.”
“Or maybe you just won’t be your father,” Kirika says. “That is what you are afraid of, yes? Being distant, barely knowing your children, serving your own power, not the people.”
“Pretty much,” Toshi says. “But...I’m not…afraid afraid of it. I...maintain a respectful awareness, you know? And Yu’s warning goes beyond having a good guy or a bad guy on the throne. Maybe it’s the throne itself.” He raises his hands. “I’m not putting my silver on any option right now. I’m just saying, there are things to consider once this crisis is over. I meant what I said about writing our own rules. Maybe we can do something better than just recapturing old glory.”
Kirika smirks. “Maybe we can.” She gives Toshi a hug. “When did you get so wise, then?”
“Maybe I’ve always been and you’re just now seeing it,” Toshi replies with a grin. Kirika backs her head off and gives him a skeptical look. Toshi just nods at her. “We all have to grow up,” he says.
Kirika sighs as she rocks them both back and forth. “Maybe someday I’ll feel that way.”
“I’m certain you will,” Toshi says. After a moment of silence - and turning around to make sure Yukio is nowhere near - he bows forward to continue in a hushed tone. “But if we do have a kid and it’s a son, what do you think about Hideo? Huh? As a name? I think that’s a good one.”
Kirika smiles. “I think it sounds great. And you will be a great father. And Yukio would make an excellent mother.”
“Yeah, but she’s not ready to hear that right now,” Toshi says. “Anyway.” He then looks to Kirika again. “What about the second dynasty in this hut? Any...plans?”
Kirika sighs. “I want to, but...finding a man is...difficult, and, well…” She blushes despite herself. “You know there’s complications.”
“I think that will be the title of the play commemorating our adventures,” Toshi says with a smirk. “No reason to hang your head, Kirika. Stranger things have happened.” He pauses for a moment. “...much stranger things.”
Kirika cocks an eyebrow again at that.
“I mean, seriously,” Toshi says. “If I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that we cannot dismiss anything out of hand. Going by the odds we’ve beaten so far, finding you a man will be child’s play.”
Kirika sighs, and looks out the door where Yukio walked. “Maybe.”
Toshi claps her on the back. “Come on now. Aotaka’s coming to take his bath any minute now, and I don’t want to see his sweaty samurai dad nipples.”
“Gods, Toshi,” Kirika chuckles, then starts. “Oh, Gods! He’s waiting for me!” She dips her hand in the bath - perfect. “Thank you for reminding me, Toshi.” She gives him a peck on the cheek before running out the door.
Toshi grins as he watches Kirika hurry out and follows with more measured steps, his expression turning thoughtful again as he mutters to himself. “Or maybe Mamoru…”