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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Sellsword:

Chapter 1

It was a sunny day, but the clouds and wind made the grassy hill pleasant enough.  Halfway between asleep and awake, a man of indeterminate age chewed on a long reed and contemplated absolutely nothing.  That was when his view was interrupted by a sheet of parchment with a drawing of five men held taut directly above his face.

The man closed his eyes as if to wonder if this were really happening.  "If this is a prank, you picked the wrong target, kid."

The voice of his invisible assailant, because all he could see was a picture in front of his eyes, wasn't a bratty boy's, though.  It was worse.  It was the sound of a very serious, very impassioned girl.

"I want to hire you for a hit job on these five men."

"And why is that?"  The man sighed, studying the faces of the five perpetrators.  He didn't recognize any of them.  But then, he didn't know a lot of people.

"Because I can't forgive them."

"Heh.  That's a good reason."  The man admitted, a smile creeping over his face despite himself.  "And?  How do you expect to pay me for this 'hit job'?"

"I have five hundred olon."  The girl said tautly.

"Give it up.  You couldn't hire the town drunk for something like that."  The man pushed the paper away, shoving her halfway down the hill until she caught her balance along with it.

The girl gave him a frustrated look.  Apparently to her, five hundred olon was a lot of money.  "Then. . ."  She unloosed the obi of her kimono, her face gradually growing redder as she closed her eyes and slowly lowered her loosened robe down her shoulders, exposing her breasts on down to her waist.  "My body. . ."  The girl suggested, her arms trembling with the wish to cover up again.

"No good."  The man waved his hand in annoyance.  "I've had dozens, three of them prettier than yours.  I can have a dozen more just by walking into town and asking, which certainly sounds a lot better than going on some long hard death defying journey, so you may as well put your clothes back on."

The girl teared up as she pulled her kimono back over her shoulders and tightened her sash, giving out half a sob.

"Then what is it you want?  What else can you ask of me?"

The man wondered about that, nibbling on a stalk of hay while looking up at the clouds.  "You know, you're right.  What else is there, really?"  The man thought about it for a brief moment, happily taking in the view again, before coming to a conclusion. 

"How about a reason for being?  Give me that, and I will hunt these men to the ends of the Earth."

"A reason for being?"  The girl asked, sniffing as she looked down with flushed cheeks full of confusion and humiliation.  "But how could I possibly give you that?"

"Use your imagination."  The man suggested cheerfully.

"God?"  The girl suggested hopefully.

"No good.  I don't believe in any, singular or plural."

"Love?"  The girl asked.

"Are you volunteering?"  The man tilted his head forward to look at her face down the hill quizzically.

"I can try. . ."  The girl said bravely, looking back into his merchandising eyes.

"Try, you say.  But what if you fail?  What do I get out of it then?"  The guy complained.

"If I fail to love you, or if you fail to accept my love as a sufficient reason for being?"  The girl asked.

"Wouldn't either equally be a failure on your part?"  The swordsman asked.

"Suppose I combined it with other things."  The girl struggled to stay above water.

"Like what?"  The man asked, finding the girl amazingly resourceful.

"Pride, honor, justice, victory, a sense of accomplishment. . .down this path, I could provide it.  If you'd just accompany me to the end, I'm sure many reasons for being will pop up."  The girl said excitedly, putting her hands together in prayerful enthusiasm.

"'You're sure', huh?  I guess that's better than 'you'll try'."  The man sighed, closing his eyes.

"Isn't it?"  The girl asked.  "I will definitely give it to you, your reason for being.  Definitely, absolutely, down this path!"

"And if it is your love?"  The man asked, just to be sure there wasn't a catch.

"I will definitely give it to you, everything I can give, for as long as I live."  The girl promised.

"Are you sure you don't want to just hire another hitman for a lower price?"  The man asked quizzically, not especially wanting to take on such a long and difficult road if he could avoid it.

"You're the only one that would stand a chance."  The girl bit her cheek angrily.

"I don't know about that.  Why, Kuro must be ten times as strong as I am."  The swordsman offered blithely, not seemingly offended at his own incompetence.

"They got him already."  The girl sighed.

"Are you kidding?  And you want me to beat them when he couldn't?  Wait, did you already go through this whole production with him and now you're trying again?"  The swordsman sat up, glaring.

"No, no, it seems he picked a fight with them just to show off, but he couldn't even beat Vaj. . .the pubs. . .I served as a waitress at the pubs in town and talked to all the customers about your types, the wandering types. . .and it's just public knowledge. . .you're also public knowledge, that's how I found you. . ."  The girl looked away, trying to avoid his wrath.

"So these five are real big shots?  And Kuro was no match for their weakest member?"  The man chewed on his grass stem angrily.  In fifty duels he had never bested Kuro once, and now he never would.

The girl clapped her hands together excitedly, her resourcefulness finding a silver lining to everything.  "That can be your first reason for being!  If you beat Vaj, you can finally surpass Kuro!"

"Oh, well, gee."  The guy sighed.  "When you put it that way."

"When I put it that way?"  The girl repeated, nodding hopefully, leaning halfway over to hear his voice better.

"Oh, hell.  I guess it doesn't matter either way.  If I already had a reason to stay alive, I wouldn't be sitting here staring at the clouds.  Guess it wouldn't hurt to try my sword against someone who beat that Kuro.  The name's Jin.  Ukizake Jin."  The man sighed, standing up and brushing the dirt and grass off his back.

"In that case, my name's Harukaze.  Ukizake Harukaze.  Pleased to meet you, Jin, I'll be under your care from here on."  The girl bowed back at him.  Jin's stalk of grass fell forgotten to the earth.  The girl had guts.  He'd give her that.

* * *

"So?  Do I get to know what these men did to you?"  Jin asked curiously as they left town together, a bundle of belongings on both their backs.  Apparently 'Vaj' operated in Hoai province, around two hundred spans from here.  Jin didn't really care about long walks.  He'd been wandering the country most of his life, and had taken about every major road to every major town along the way.  He stayed in inns when he had money, and under haystacks or trees when he didn't.  It was a living.  Anyone good with a sword could always make a living.  That was the sort of world they lived in.  But this was the first time a girl had chosen to walk alongside him.  He wondered how ready she was for the long days ahead. 

It wasn't the hardship, though it was hard on anyone.  It was the isolation and the tedium.  Girls simply couldn't stand it.  It was a lifestyle that winnowed out women rather quickly and efficiently.  If they couldn't gossip with their neighbors, women weren't interested, period.  This girl was going to learn quickly and brutally how little gossip he had to offer.  And then what?  Would she run back home to her bar, her steady source of employment, her normal life that offered everything a normal life could?  Or was she different from the rest?  Did she really intend to see this through?  He couldn't tell.  He had never been a good judge of character, but she wasn't like anyone he had ever met before, so there was nothing he could compare her to anyway.

"Would a loving girl share all her secrets with a man?"  Harukaze wondered out loud, looking up into the sky.

"Sure she would."  Jin said, though his answer was solely for his own satisfaction.

"I guess it can't be helped then.  Technically I love you with all my heart and soul."  Harukaze's brows furrowed as she dwelled on that.

"That's right you do."  Jin agreed, pleased to see she understood her position.  Could this slip of a girl understand a real concept like keeping her word in the fullness of its spirit as well as its letter?  Well, it was early yet.  There was no need to praise her that much.

"I guess you could say they never did a thing to me."  Harukaze admitted.

"That's quite a grudge."  Jin laughed.  This girl was something else.

"Don't look down on me.  I'm still explaining!"  Harukaze gave a pouty glare at her husband.  "My family ran up a humongous debt with these guys, gambling.  In the end they came to collect the hard way.  I was twelve at the time, so I didn't merit their attention.  My big sister was sixteen though, so they took her."

"And this was?"  Jin asked, eager to know his new wife's age.

"Four years ago."  Harukaze said.  "Of course my parents tried to stop them.  We're actually from the bushi class.  Father owned a dojo and was still very skilled.  But they killed both my parents in a flash and dragged Akikaze to the brothels.  They also took everything of worth from the house.  Our clothes, our weapons and armor, some vases from Qin.  No amount was enough to pay back our debts."

"And the government looked the other way?"  Jin asked.  "If you're from the bushi class, just go complain to the Emperor."

"Some of them are bushi too.  Besides, when it comes to debt collections or the like, the government just assumes a 'reap what you sow' attitude.  They don't take any pity on people indebted to the government, after all."  Harukaze shrugged helplessly.

"So am I supposed to cut down the entire Imperial Army and Police force while I'm at it?"  Jin asked.

"No, the government has a 'reap what you sow' policy for debt collectors too.  They figure if you want to deal in drugs, gambling, prostitution, usury, smuggling, piracy or whatever, you can deal with the consequences yourself."  Harukaze says.

"So it cuts both ways."  Jin whistled, slightly relieved.  At least he wouldn't have to wage a revolutionary war just to put himself in a position to kill his men.

"Just so."  Harukaze said wistfully.  It's obvious she wished the government would get a little more involved in cases like hers.  But then, however you looked at it, the government probably would have sided with the 'bad guys,' even if they had gotten involved.  Honestly, Harukaze's grudge could have been the life of a million different families all across the country.  And the villains were probably no more villainous than a million other men all across the country, either.  What a bother.  He had hoped for something a little more extraordinary, given her extraordinary determination to somehow avenge this crime.

"If they haven't done anything to you, there's no sense in going through so much pain and suffering yourself.  Volunteering your body like that, and your life savings, don't you have any common sense?  Cut your losses.  Start your life over.  Tomorrow's a bright new day and all.  You're your own worst enemy.  The debt collectors have probably forgotten all about you by now."  Jin counseled.

"I haven't forgotten them though."  Harukaze said sternly.  Her face looked to have a very inflexible resolution about the issue, especially around her jaw.  "More than a bright new tomorrow, I want to make them pay for what they did."

"People have forgiven far worse.  Why go so far this time?"  Jin asked.

"Because I care.  I know other people don't care.  But I don't understand them.  I care like it happened yesterday.  I care because I'm not some sort of lifeless corpse.  Even if everyone around me somehow whisks their feelings away, even if no one else cares about words like 'justice' or 'honor,' I do.  I just keep caring about it.  It keeps boiling up from the depths of my soul and consuming every second of every minute of every hour of my day.  I lived on my own for four years, saving up money from my jobs, searching for information about these men, every second of my life was just for this.  For the chance to show them that someone, somewhere, actually cares about the things they've done.  That not everyone could just forget their older sister like she was nothing.  One younger sister actually cared in Niron.  Maybe I'm the only one.  Maybe I'm just crazy.  But it hurt me to see her dragged away to a brothel, too weak to stop it, too young to even take her place.  More than anything that could happen to me from here, the pain of ignoring those feelings is worse."

"I'm going to cheat on you as often as I like."  Jin let her know ahead of time.

"Yes, husband.  Actually, that isn't any different from a normal marriage in this country."  Harukaze looked straight forward, erasing any emotions she could from her face.

"You're right about that."  Jin laughed.  "I guess most men have enough respect not to say it out loud though."

"Or so little respect they don't say it out loud."  Harukaze replied woodenly.

"Ha!  You might be right there too."  Jin shook his head.  He had never been interested in marriage before.  He could die at any moment.  He'd never be around his wife anyway.  She would demand all his money for God knows what needs.  She would nag him about meaningless things like sleeping around while he was on his journeys, or settling down and having a respectable business.  Kids were all annoying brats.  And he could get all the sex he wanted from reputation alone.  Plenty of women were eager to have the son of Jin Ukizake.  He was the finest swordsman in Ido, and all Niron knew him to one degree or another.  But a wife who promised to love him so much she would become his reason for being?  That was another story.  A wife like that, who, rather than a torment, was a solace in this dark world, was such an original being, such a legendary myth akin to the phoenix or the nue, that she wasn't out of the question intolerable.

"Is it loving to offer myself now, or should I wait until we reach an inn?"  Harukaze asked.

"You keep asking me what a girl's love is like.  Don't tell me you haven't loved anyone before?"  Jin sighed.  Sixteen and she'd never met a man she liked?  And a bar maid at that?  Surely she wasn't actually a virgin. . .

"I don't know anything about love.  All I know is hate.  There are a lot of things I hate.  I've fallen into hate many times.  I'm theorizing love could be the opposite of that, but I don't really know."  Harukaze confessed.

"You don't perchance hate me already, do you?"  Jin asked, somewhat perturbed.  She looked like such a nice girl, too.

"Now how could I possibly do that, when I love you with all my heart and soul?"  Harukaze asked him, her eyes wide and admiring.

Jin nodded.  He had demanded one thing from her, he couldn't go and demand the exact opposite at the same time.  If he had wanted her to be honest, instead of loving, he should have made that his condition to go on this journey from the start.

"My apologies.  My last question might have been out of line."  Jin regretted.

"Apology accepted, Jin."  Harukaze wrapped her hand over his and gave it a mild squeeze.  "But about my question?"

"Before that, are you a virgin?"  Jin asked.

"Yes.  But I resolved something like that wouldn't matter when I began my mission, so don't let it worry you."  Harukaze said quickly.  "You don't have to feel guilty about deflowering someone like me."

"Deflowering your wife is considered pretty normal, however you look at it."  Jin brushed that objection aside.  He wasn't exactly troubled by that.  It was something else.  It was just that he'd never been with a woman who clearly felt she was infinitely superior to him.  It didn't sit well in his mind, being looked down upon.  Her pride.  She acted like she didn't have any, so she could degrade herself in an instant.  But that just hid an even greater pride.  A pride as vast as the ocean, one that pitied him as a worthless cur, not even important enough to notice whether he took her or not.  It didn't sit well.  If a woman addressed him with pride like that, it didn't suit him to act like he didn't have any pride at all.  It didn't suit him to fulfill her low expectations of him, to confirm this senseless superiority of her pristine grandeur over him.  No, he wouldn't take her.  Not now, and not tonight.  Not until she begged him for it.  And wasn't playacting, either.  Only then could he satisfy his pride.  A girl like her, who'd accomplished nothing in her life, a tavern mistress, looking down on Jin Ukizake?  Ridiculous.  Like he'd play along with her.  There's no way he could let things proceed at her pace like this and escape a man.

"Are you worried I won't perform well enough?"  The girl asked worriedly.  "I thought men were satisfied with pretty much anything that moved. . . Or do you have a fetish for older women?"

"Stop with the hyperactive imagination!"  Jin snapped, turning his focus back to this extremely irritating girl.  Just earlier today he had been contentedly enjoying his meal of inedible greenery.  Why did he have to put with this?

"Your proposal's denied.  Categorically.  I'll find another room, with another woman, tonight.  And every other night too.  And if no one offers, I'll use some of those savings of yours and hire a whore."  Jin said.

"Why?  I'm free.  Plus, you said I was pretty. . ."  Harukaze leaned back, her arms lifting up to her breasts, looking hurt.

"This conversation is over."  Jin said flatly.

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze looked meekly at the dirt road in front of her.

"Your father led a dojo.  Does that mean you can fight, too?"  Jin asked, changing the subject.

"A little.  Not like you."  Harukaze didn't sound like she was bragging or hiding anything.

"If bandits attacked could you hold your own?"  Jin asked.  Niron was full of bandits.  Hell, from a certain point of view, he was one of them.  There were always more second and third and fourth sons than there were rice plots of land to employ them on.  Occasionally the government rounded them up and sent them to war against Qin just to clean up the roads again.  It was a pretty hopeless endeavor considering Qin was at least ten times as populous as Niron, but that was precisely why the wars worked so well.  The problem was the years in between where the second and third and fourth sons multiplied like flies again.  The government hadn't found a solution to banditry in peaceful years.  Jin doubted they ever would.

Harukaze let a knife slip down her kimono's sleeve from a hidden pocket into her hand, then whipped her arm in a practiced motion.  The hilt of the knife quivered back and forth as the blade pierced the tree trunk in front of them dead center.

"I guess you'll do."  Jin admitted.

"Would it have worked on you?"  Harukaze asked.

"Buyer's remorse?"  Jin smiled.

"No.  Just an idle girl's hopes spoken aloud."  Harukaze quickened her pace a bit to retrieve her dagger.  Jin stopped and stood still until she had replaced the knife into her sheathe, surprised to see how far away he still was when she turned around.

"Try to kill me."  Jin offered.

"Is that loving?"  Harukaze asked dubiously, her eyes searching his out.

"Usually."  Jin laughed.  Truth to tell, only a few girls had ever said they loved him, and he was certain none of them had ever meant it.  Oh, they might have meant it at the time.  But that didn't mean they actually meant it.  Not in a meaningful sense, which meant for all time.  How a truly loving girl would act was as much his guess as hers.  He was hoping she would finally answer that question for him, somewhere down the road.

Harukaze let a knife fall into her hand and threw it at his face full speed.  Jin didn't have to think about it.  He caught the knife by the hilt a few feet away from her desired target through pure instinct.  A second later, his left hand had snapped out to catch a second knife out of the air, still vibrating against his palm with a thirst for his blood.  Jin didn't have any time to be surprised.  Harukaze had pulled back her kimono sleeves to reveal a needle-loaded crossbow and fired.

Jin dropped the dagger he was holding and seized the crossbow bolt out of the air.  Her bow didn't have enough string to fire a truly dangerous strike.  Harukaze's face became more annoyed as she pulled out a third stiletto from her obi and charged him.

He took five steps forward and grabbed her wrist on the far side of her stab, stopping her motion with infinitely greater strength.  He heard a slight snick as a blade emerged out of a hole in her kimono at the knee as she struck for his crotch.  He twirled around her knee to end up behind her back, still holding her right hand which was holding her knife in an extremely awkward position that bent her painfully into the dirt.

"Give.  I giveeeee."  Harukaze said in a squeakily strained voice.

Jin shook his head, studying this viper of a girl one more time.  "Really?  No more tricks?"

"This is how a girl fights. . ."  Harukaze squeaked.  "I only did what you asked."

Jin let go of her arm and helped his witch to her feet.  "If women could kill men with a few dumb tricks, men would never have been born.  Remember that."

"I thought I could at least make you draw your sword."  Harukaze sighed, rubbing her shoulder as she picked up her various lost hidden weapons.

"Aren't you glad you couldn't?"  Jin smiled.  Maybe now she'd realize he was better than her.

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze said with a smile.  "Though now I just want to see how you really fight even more.  I'm doing this because even if there's one chance in a thousand you'll win, at least that's making some sort of gesture.  But now I'm thinking you could beat Vaj one in a hundred times."

"Oh, well, gee."  Jin sighed.  Why she was boasting about how strong the people she hated were was beyond him.  But she certainly knew how to put people back in their place quickly.

* * *

"Are you ready to go?"  Jin asked, masking a long yawn with one hand.  The inn they had stayed the night at was as good as they came.  It included meals, women, and baths as well as futons to sleep in.  All of this luxury was coming out of Harukaze's savings, which suited Jin just fine.  She had offered them, after all, and he was the one putting his life on the line.  But for some reason he had hurried to the second room they had rented out to see her while she was still asleep at the break of dawn.  It was no good, she was wearing a light sleeping kimono she had apparently packed away for the journey, and was as covered up as she was on the road.  She wasn't cute at all.

"Give me a minute."  Harukaze spoke from under her covers.  "What time is it?"

"Dawn.  We travelers have to make use of every hour of light if we want to get anywhere."  Jin said.

"Really?  I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were in a rush."  Harukaze yawned, and then sat up, rubbing her eyes.  She crawled across the floor to her knapsack and pulled out an ivory comb to start brushing her long silky hair back into order.  Jin stood at the doorway and watched, content as a man at the zoo.

"It will really just be a few minutes, so can you wait at the entrance?"  Harukaze asked, looking over her shoulder as the light of dawn framed her face so brightly he couldn't see it.

"Sure."  Jin shrugged.  He walked back to his room and picked up his packed bag, checking to see that nothing was missing or had been moved, then sighed as he looked at his untouched futon.  Lone swordsmen couldn't afford to sleep in beds, they were too easy targets for unscrupulous louts.  For years his sensei had taught him the art of sleeping while sitting, his sword in hand, tucked against a corner of the wall, listening for anything untoward.  It had saved his life twice.  Once from a brat of a kid who had tried to avenge his father Jin had killed earlier that day, and once from a jilted girl who didn't like that he was leaving for the road next day.  Strangely, not a single hired hand had ever tried to kill him in his sleep.  Maybe it was some sort of gentlemen's code in the underworld:  No explosives and no cheap shots.  Everyone wanted to live and die by their skill, not chance, and everyone wanted a good night's rest.  Too bad women and children hadn't signed in.  A good night's rest was a foreign concept to his life.

The one other precaution he took during sleep was to always sleep in a different corner of the room, based on coin tosses, so they couldn't shoot an arrow through the rice-paper walls and stick him from afar.  No one had tried that trick on him yet, but he wouldn't put it past an ingenuitive enemy.

He had lived a long time in this profession.  He wasn’t about to get cheated out of all his hard work by an assassin’s arrow.  Debt collectors he didn’t really care about, but Jin had a vituperous aversion to cowards.

Jin bowed to the innkeeper respectfully and complimented her on her establishment.  He had come and gone across Niron so often that it was good to be in the good graces of any innkeeper anywhere, just in case.  Then he sat on a log outside the inn used for outdoor diners and waited for his wife to emerge.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.  I’ll wake up earlier tomorrow.”  Harukaze promised, bowing to Jin as she emerged from the door.

“It was nothing.”  Jin shrugged it off.  Actually, it had been a cruel prank on his part, but he didn’t feel the need to admit that, now or ever, really.  Sadly, just to maintain his innocence, he would have to be waking up at dawn for the rest of their travels together.  Well, these things happened.  Dawn was as good as any other hour, in the end.

“How are your feet?”  Jin asked.

“I’ve trained my body for this day.  I can carry a warrior’s load or walk a warrior’s march.”  Harukaze reassured him.

“Where do you keep your muscles?”  Jin asked, smiling.  He certainly hadn’t seen any when she’d given him a peek yesterday.

“Huh?”  Harukaze asked, her eyebrows coming together.

“Nothing.”  Jin laughed.  Strength and muscle size weren’t highly correlated anyway, probably even less so among women.  He had seen children carrying enormous loads on their heads of rice or water or cut grass with nothing but sticks for legs.  People couldn’t be judged by appearances.  Just take this girl in front of him.  She was as evil as the darkest abyss, but he was the only one who knew it in Niron.

“As a girl who’s desperately in love with you, I find myself curious about your background.”  Harukaze said as they stepped out onto the road.  Jin wondered about breakfast, but since they were ostensibly ‘late’ already he really couldn’t say anything about going back inside for a bite.

“My background?”  Jin asked, trying to think back on his life.

“For instance, are you bushi or nin?”  Harukaze asked, eyeing his sword.  It was a fine sword, but she had never seen it drawn.  It was part of the bushi code not to ever fully draw a katana unless you meant to kill someone with it before it was sheathed again.  For cutting meat and the like, there was always his wakizashi.

“I suppose I was bushi at one point.  Certainly when father was still paying sensei to train us all up in the dojo.  Kuro and I were sensei’s finest students.  But neither of us lived up to his expectations.  He offered Kuro the dojo, but we had already agreed to enjoy a meaningless life of women and sake instead.  The government offered us positions in the next Qin expedition as officers, and the police had an open invitation to any graduates of the Kensui school, but, well . . .  one drunken murder led to another, and suddenly my parents didn’t want anything to do with me, and then I got angry about that and killed some more people, people who thought they could charge me too much on my bills or gave me dirty looks like they were better than me. . .and suddenly the only jobs people were willing to offer me was to kill someone or other, which I’ve been doing to this day.  I figure if you’ve managed to offend someone so much they’ll pay someone to kill you, then the people I’ve killed must have all been bad guys.  I guess you could say it’s a life of no regrets.”  Jin said.  He hadn’t opened up so much with another woman in years, but Harukaze was his wife.  He had to do his part, he figured, for their love to become a magnificent raging inferno of eternal passion and romance to be passed down through the ages.

“So that’s why your tongue is so nimble.  Can you read and write?”  Harukaze asked.

“As well as anyone else, I suppose.  I do have one really good death poem saved up, when I meet my better.”  Jin said.

“Oh?  What is it?”  Harukaze asked, leaning closer to share in his secret.

“Who knows.  I’m sure it will come to me at the time.  Death poems require inspiration.  Inspiration is the key.”  Jin said.  As though he’d ever share his death poem with a woman.  That was a world reserved solely for the warriors who put their lives on the line.

“And I was expecting something so good, too.”  Harukaze pouted, slouching back away.  “Well, at least I can give you a grocery list of things to buy and you won’t just stare at it and scratch your head.”

“When would we buy groceries?  We’ve got 500 olun.  More than enough to buy prepared meals along the whole way.”  Jin complained.

“495.  And four of that was for your woman.”  Harukaze corrected primly.

“Hmm?  So how many days does that give us?”  Jin asked, taking a fine-looking stalk from a weed off the side of the road and chewing on it for breakfast.

“500 olun minus 5 a day.  Are you a dunderhead?  It’s one hundred days.  One -- hundred -- days.”  Harukaze repeated slowly in case he couldn’t understand Niron at normal speed.

“Don’t worry about it.  Here, I’ll just kill some other people along the way and refill the coffers as we go.”  Jin offered to calm her down.

“And what happens if you lose some dumb fight for money before you do a single thing for me?  No thanks.  Instead, we’re going to save on ingredients, since I can’t stop you from hiring women, even though there’s a perfectly nice girl at your side who’s perfectly willing.  Honestly, unbelievable, to think I’m hiring a guy who’s part of the system that put my sister up for sale in the first place.  For all I know he’s hired my sister, and he probably beat her too, it would be just like him, out of control murdering fool, to hit anyone who looked at him funny, and he’s supposed to be avenging her dishonor, maybe I should put his face on the drawing too and just sort of slink it in as the sixth. . .”

“What are you going on about?”  Jin asked.

“Nothing, husband.  Just a prayer to the gods for another day of good weather for our journey.”  Harukaze squeezed his hand to relax any suspicions and gave him a bright smile.

“Well, okay then.  But I’ll spend as much as I like, and we’re eating however I like.  If you love me, it’s only sensible to let everything go my way.  If we run out of money, I’ll get more in no time.  I’ve done this all my life, there’s no way I would die out of the blue.  Got it?”  Jin asked.

“Yes, husband.”  Harukaze nodded meekly, keeping her head fixed apologetically on the road ahead.  Assuming they covered ten spans a day, Jin would fight Vaj in twenty days anyway.  She could hire her next assassin with the remaining 400 olun.

Chapter 2

"These are all from my memories of four years ago, so don't be surprised if they look a little different now."  Harukaze lectured, holding the paper up in front of his face as they walked.  This was definitely dangerous.  What if the dirt road still had a rock or two propping up and he stumbled over it?  For a beloved husband, he didn't feel like he was getting the care he deserved.

"Now, the one on the far left is Vaj.  He's a foreigner from beyond the seas, with white hair.  He's still young so I guess he had a traumatic event in his past, or maybe they're just born that way overseas.  Anyway, you can't miss him.  He doesn't wield a katana, or fight like we do.  He has this weird combo called a rapier and a maine gauche for duels.  Since criminal types don't wear armor he doesn't need anything thicker than his little pointy thingie to kill with.  He'll parry with his maine gauche and attack with the rapier, but sometimes it's the opposite!"

"Got it, Vaj has white hair and his weapons have weird names."  Jin nodded.

"Do you even have a tactic or strategy to beat him yet?  We're almost there."  Harukaze pleaded.  She knew Jin was strong, but his blase attitude about everything was so undermining.  How could she have confidence in someone who never cared about anything, even his own impending doom?

"Tactic?  The better swordsman will win.  That's how it's always been."  Jin rolled his eyes.

"Okay, fine.  I'm only asking because I love you so much and I don't want anything bad to happen to you.  Do you understand?  Don't make me cry over your grave as your bereaved widow."

"You're really getting into this, huh?"  Jin laughed.

"Getting into what?"  Harukaze pouted.  Jin could never concentrate on anything.

"Nothing, go on.  By the way, I can't see the road ahead.  Are you trying to make me trip?"

"There's nothing to trip on.  It's dirt from here to tomorrow.  Our next target is a shorter walk than this one."  A gust of wind attacked her paper and she had to let go of one half for fear it would rip.  She carefully spread it out again when the wind was gone, shivering.  Hoaido was colder than the rest of Niron.  It was a miserable place to live that no civilized Nironjin would bother with.  She couldn't wait to get back south again to the main island.

"He's the man on the far right.  It's hard to tell what his face looks like because of that giant beard, but he has this characteristic walk where he only swings one arm.  I'm sure he never got over that, so just watch for the one arm swing."  Harukaze lectured.

"Are you cold?"  Jin asked worriedly.

"Of course I'm cold.  It's freezing out here.  Why aren't you cold?"  Harukaze complained.

"This is nothing.  The real north is the island after this, Futo.  I'll admit I don't like it there, but this is kind of refreshing.  It's too muggy on the main island."

"What on Earth sent you to a howling wilderness like Futo?"  Harukaze shivered just thinking of the next island up.

"I think he was some sort of renegade monk who had made off with the temple donations.  Monks are a hardy breed, he figured no one would chase him there.  But, well, then there's people like me who are even harder.  Too bad."  Jin commiserated, thinking back.

"So you're okay with killing defenseless monks?"  Harukaze complained.

"Heck, it's the death penalty for theft in this country, even if you're a doe-eyed girl.  A man's got to make a living."  Jin said, chewing on a stalk of grass he'd found somewhere on the road.  Was his stomach made of iron?  Mutant herbivore.

"The bearded man's name is Masato Kuchiida.  He uses a naginata, it's really huge, and holds it in a lazy boy style.  At least he did four years ago.  If you can just dodge his first swing you should be able to kill him from there, but don't try to block it, your weapon will snap like a twig!"

"Got it, the one armed man is strong."  Jin nodded to himself.

"All of these men are stronger than Vaj!"  Harukaze reminded him.  "And he isn't one armed, he just swings one arm when he walks.  His other arm is always carrying that naginata around propped on his shoulder, okay?"

"Make up your mind, is he one armed or lazy?"  Jin complained.

"You never listen to me."  Harukaze whined.

"You just never make any sense."  Jin retorted.

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze sighed.  She had to get control of her emotions.  Lovers didn't nag their partners, even when they deserved it.  This was the basics of the basics.  He just made such a snarl of them.  Why was he attracted to every single girl on Earth besides her?  It was so insulting.  Every single night, it's not like she locked the door or anything, but he was always laying with some other girl just one rice-paper-wall over.

"The third man's name is Gero."  Harukaze finally said calmly and pleasantly, like a proper wife.

"What kind of name is 'Frog?'"  Jin complained.

"It's the name he chose for himself, okay?  Take it up with Gero."  Harukaze pushed her description forward hurriedly.  "He has a lot of knives, but he's also good with other weapons.  Watch out for chains with weights and blades at the end, shuriken, you name it."

"Hmm.  Sounds like you."  Jin mused.

"We're nothing alike."  Harukaze bit her cheek angrily.  "Gero has fine silky black hair, red cherry lips, long eyelashes, and basically is prettier than a girl.  You'd love him."

"Nothing wrong with a good looking boy now and then."  Jin agreed.

"Really?"  Harukaze squeaked.

"Why are you acting offended when you're the one who brought it up?"  Jin laughed.  Harukaze didn't know if he'd trapped her in another prank again or whether he was just a shameless libertine.  Maybe it was better to just not know these things.

"The fourth target is second to the left.  See how his face is all smushed flat?  You can't miss a face like that, it's like his nose is just drawn on instead of actually three dimensional.  He doesn't have a weapon, he prefers martial arts.  But I think that has to be a lie.  He probably just keeps a weapon hidden somewhere and all his kicks and punches are just feints to distract you.  People have seen spear points stab right into him and instead of piercing his skin, the shaft of the spear just splinters and breaks though.  Also, he's been sliced by a katana and it snapped off at the haft instead of going in.  He's perfected the iron skin technique.  Maybe you could stab for his eyes or something."  Harukaze offered.  She was really out of her depths when dealing with freaks like that.  She was out of her depths with Vaj from the very start.

"Got it, the fourth opponent is invincible.  So I guess there's no real point introducing the fifth, huh?"  Jin suggested.  Harukaze ignored his defeatism and ploughed on.

"The fifth is the boss of the gang, though it's been four years, and it looks like the gang has broken up and the men work in all different places now.  The point is he's the strongest, so I wanted you to live at least up until him by taking care of the small fry first."

"So the invincible guy without a nose has already been demoted to small fry?"  Jin sighed.  He felt sorry for the guy.

"Never mind no-nose.  By the way, his name is Sasato Taiji.  And the leader's name is Yahiko Nomura.  Got that?  Yahiko doesn't use any tricks.  He's a samurai from a distinguished clan.  He has tons of money and is the greatest swordsman in Niron.  Whatever he says goes and even the government steps around him.  It's said that his blade has cut down a thousand men but is still blue with dew from its first quenching."

"A magic sword?  Now we're really in trouble."  Jin laughed.

"It's not magic!  It's just a turn of phrase, okay?  He's so good with his sword it's uncanny, okay?  If you want to be the greatest swordsmen in Niron, if you want history to record your name, all you have to do is beat Yahiko Nomura.  You can take his sword and give it to your sons as an heirloom.  That's a reason for being, right?  Samurai love taking beautiful swords from defeated foes, and here's the greatest foe with the greatest sword, just waiting for the taking."

"I told you I'm not samurai anymore.  And despite the no doubt hundreds of sons I must have sired, I don't especially want to track one down and give him a blue sword as a reason for being."  Jin retorted.

"You walk like a samurai.  If you were nin, you'd realize the difference.  Vagabond or not, poor or not, outlaws or not, bushi all keep their pride.  We don't know how to stop."  Harukaze encouraged him.

"A fine inheritance.  Here son, I don't have any land, but this sword is blue."  Jin laughed.

"Never mind about the sword's color!"  Harukaze snapped.  "What matters is your son will be proud of you.  He'll be proud to be your son, because you defeated the great Yahiko Nomura.  Don't you realize how wonderful that makes you, husband?  No one has ever beaten Yahiko, not even in a practice duel, not even when he was ten years old.  He's a genius beyond geniuses.  His sword sings through the air and plays the music of the gods.  And you don't have to go searching for one of your slut's kids, who are probably just nin stock anyway.  You have a proper bushi wife right here."

"Bushi?  When all your land was impounded to pay for a debt?  A bushi bar maid?"  Jin shook his head.

"My father's blood is bushi blood, and so is my mother's, and so is mine."  Harukaze clenched her fists until they were white for lack of blood.  "And so is my sister's.  I'll kill anyone who says otherwise."

"You'd better let me handle that, Haru.  You'd probably trip on your knife and land on the tip or something."  Jin reasoned.

Haru?  Was he simply too lazy to call her by her full name anymore?  Actually, had he ever called her by her name before, even once?  Wasn't it just 'you' or 'hey' or 'wife' at best?  Haru.  Was that good or bad?  She couldn't tell.  Jin was never serious about anything.  It was probably just an accident anyway.

"Plus I never thought your blood was bushi quality from the start.  The way you hold your head, I wouldn't stop short of the Empress of Niron.  From the way you look at me, forget a lowly bushi, you're clearly a direct descendant of the Sun God."  Jin grinned.

"You've just associated with the wrong people.  All bushi care about their appearance and honor and manners."  Harukaze blushed.  She wasn't sure if he was praising her or insulting her.  She couldn't understand Jin.  He was slippery, like a fox.

"The important thing isn't me.  It's Yahiko Nomura.  Before we fight Yahiko, you have to get much stronger.  The strongest in Niron.  Nothing short of a god can beat a god.  Yahiko is the god of swordsmen, okay?  So before dawn or something, train and train and train.  We can't die until we cut off the serpent's head.  If he survives, then it's like only his henchmen have to pay for his crime, and when has any crime boss cared about his henchmen?  For the sake of my vengeance, he has to learn the penalty for his crimes with his own head."

"If he's the strongest in Niron, training before dawn isn't going to make any difference."  Jin sighed, discarding his previous chewed stalk and snapping off another from off the road.  Apparently the taste of fresh juicy weeds was better than sake.  Well, being around drunks wasn't enjoyable anyway, so she was all for it.  Not that it stopped him from drinking sake every night at the inn, drinking her precious savings away as quickly and voluminously as he could, without a single assassination to show for it.

"Besides, aren't you worried about Nonose?  He's invincible!  Freaking invincible!  How am I supposed to reach Yahiko in the first place?"  Jin asked.

"It's not Nonose, it's Sasato. . .oh never mind.  Are you going to just run away now that you know your enemies?  I can give you a reason for being, but I must tell you that it starts with you not running away.  It starts at this very moment.  Cowards don't have any reason to live.  They should just go rot somewhere in a ditch."  Harukaze sneered.  Bushi should meet their deaths bravely, even if said deaths were certain.  Had he forgotten everything he was ever taught?

"A deal's a deal.  No one's ever had reason to call me dishonest."  Jin said stiffly.

"I know."  Harukaze said, a wash of relief flooding through her.  "Everyone at the pub loved that about you."

"Do you love it about me?"  Jin asked.

"Of course, husband.  I love everything about you."  Harukaze said, a little confused.

* * *

Harukaze stared at the ceiling of their inn, glad to be under two layers of covers and still cold from the Hoaido evening road.  Even after her hot bath, it was like the cold had gone on so long and so deep that it just wouldn't come out again.  Her next target was also in Hoaido.  But after that it was all south.  She'd return to blessed civilization soon enough.  The problem tonight was something else.  It was their last night before his fight with Vaj, who was a prominent gambling den master of the town.  He was only a few blocks from where they were staying.  And yet here she was, alone, again, and on the other side of the wall some girl was making moaning sounds like she was slowly dying.  It had to be fake.  Why couldn't Jin see it was all fake?  None of these women were real.  She was real, but he wanted them over her anyway.  Even though it was their last night together, and by all indications he was going to die tomorrow.  She'd given him some olan, but from what she could discern, he'd earned much more much faster from other clients.  It simply wasn't enough.  She had somehow failed him.  Failed him so miserably that she hadn't been able to give him any happiness at all, to the point that he rejected her entirely.  He kept to his side of the deal, but had she kept to hers?  The gods knew she had tried.  But had she tried hard enough?  Was this really okay?

There was some sort of crazy pip pip breathing through the wall and before she knew it Harukaze was standing up and cold again in her light kimono.  This was ridiculous.  She could at least tell the whore/slut to quiet down.  Surely she was bothering the whole inn like this.  Her padded socks were silent as she tiptoed out of her room's door and got on her hands and knees before knocking on the sliding door to the room next door.  The whore/slut went thankfully silent, and then there was a great deal of rustling before the door slid open.

"Haru?  What are you doing?"  Jin looked at her kneeling form in consternation.

"Please, just this night. . .I know you don't have any appetite for me. . .but maybe if. . .it were a threesome. . . I could be of some use to you. . ."  Harukaze begged, tears of humiliation welling into her eyes.

Jin sighed.  "Go to bed, Haru.  I'll see you in the morning."

"Tomorrow you'll almost certainly die."  Harukaze whispered fiercely.  "Just this night.  Just this night, let me fulfill my duty."

"And I'm telling you I have no need of you.  You're fulfilling your duty perfectly.  Have I ever once complained?"  Jin asked sternly.

"Your complaints are like daggers to my heart, precisely because you never say them."  Harukaze sobbed.  "I know I'm not loving, I'm just a spider full of poisonous hate, but, if it were a threesome, if we could just pretend. . .I know I could be of use!"

"You're being a real bother now.  Be an obedient wife and don't make me repeat myself another time.  Go.  To.  Bed."

Harukaze nodded, a clamp of iron around her heart.  She had failed, and he wouldn't forgive her for it.

"Good night, husband."  Harukaze pushed her forehead to the tatami-mat floor before slinking away from the door.

When she settled back under her covers in her room, glad to be warm at least in one sense again, she heard Jin's angry voice through the door.

"Forget it!  I'm not in the mood.  Just go.  Never mind.  Phwaw."  There were a few apologies rushed by the girl and then the opening and closing of the door next door.  Strangely enough, Harukaze thought she heard the ring of a coin next.  But she finally managed to close her eyes and sleep peacefully, now that the awful noises had stopped.  She met her dreams with a tiny smile on her lips.

* * *

"Grasseater Jin."  Vaj said, his opponent being escorted freely to an audience chamber.  They both had their hands casually close to their weapons, and there was very wide space between the two, but Vaj hadn't stood up yet.  Harukaze, of course, had stayed at the inn.  She couldn't reveal herself, or else hiring new assassins one after the other wouldn't work very well.  If only she'd been a man, she could have just fought the duel herself.  But the other men would never have stood for it, and it's not like she could cut her way through an entire organized crime group.  Besides, she would have lost.  Miserably.  In any case, he wouldn't have any audience to show off his grisly end or his glorious victory.  She'd just have to take it on faith that he'd won when he got back.

"What on Earth brings you here?  Is it about your friend Kuro?  I assure you he challenged me out of the blue.  He was drunk, so I told him to cool off for a day, but he just wouldn't take no for an answer.  He kept insisting he would put foreigners like me in their place.  It really wasn't my fault."  Vaj defended himself.

"Hah!  So he died drunk, huh?  I guess he had no regrets, then.  And Grasseater?  It's Ukizake Jin.  Ukizake's a fine name as is."  Jin complained.  People in Hoaido didn't have any respect.  Attaching nicknames no one had ever asked for.  He felt a little self-conscious that he was chewing on a two leafed reed on one side of his mouth at the moment.

"See?  So you understand, no hard feelings.  Here, how about I give you a free roll of the dice down the hall, and we'll call it even?"  Vaj proffered.

"I'm not sure I was friends with Kuro anyway.  But I'm glad you treated him fairly.  No, sorry to say, this is about something else.  One of us has to die before we leave the room.  Unless you're sick or something?"  Jin taunted.

Vaj's foreign face colored brilliantly.  "I don't run away from duels.  Nironjin don't know when to quit, do they?  I beat him, and I can beat you too.  If you want to die, fine, I'll be your partner."  The white haired man stood up out of his chair and grabbed both of his swords, long and short, in his right and left hands respectively, from the wall they were hung on.

"Before we begin, ask these attendants to leave the room.  If they value their lives at least."  Jin begged a favor.

"What, you don't trust them not to join in?  If you were worried about my honor, how did you survive to walk this far into my own home?"  Vaj became even angrier.

"I'm sorry to imply anything about your honor."  Jin quickly apologized.  "It's not that.  It's the Kensui school of swords.  We're pledged to never reveal our secret techniques to the outside world.  I have to kill anyone who sees, and it's just a total diversion and waste when I have to concentrate on stuff like that."

"Kuro did say something about the Kensui succession technique's secrets.  Not that his secret move worked anyway.  Actually, why do Nironjin have to name every single swing like it's some unique miracle anyway?  Never mind.  We are both honorable men.  I accept your terms.  Men, leave the room."  Vaj motioned with his sword carrying hand like swatting at a fly.

"It's a shame."  Jin sighed, drawing his katana out of its sheathe.  It was a beautiful sword, that had once belonged to his father, and his grandfather before his father, worth at least ten thousand olan.  It had been made by the master swordsmith Muriama, whose works had never been paralleled before or since.  The Emperor did not have a finer blade.  It hadn't failed him yet.

"What now?  Another condition?"  Vaj called from across the room, limbering up his muscles on his limbs and checking his footwork.

"You just don't come off as evil, no matter how you look at it."  Jin said.

"Barging into my place of business and demanding I die, no matter how I look at it, you're the one at fault here, Ukizake."  Vaj agreed.

"See, there you go again, listening to my opinion and being respectful by changing my name back.  Not evil to the very end.  Sorry, Vaj.  The gods must be playing some sort of joke on you.  Are you ready?"  Jin spat out his reed to the side and stepped into a normal defensive overhead stance, like his instructors had taught him so many years ago.

"Begin."  Vaj agreed.  He slid forward, one foot in front of the other, and stabbed for Jin's eye.  Jin had already measured the distance.  The rapier wouldn't reach, even if he didn't move.  It was a feint to bring Jin's sword out of position.

Vaj kept his balance and stopped, inching forward one slide at a time.  Then he lunged for Jin's face again.  Jin backed up, testing the speed of the man's stab.  Swordplay was footwork.  The faster feet would win.  If Vaj's second feint was at half his total speed, which was the normal practice, Jin was going to die.  No wonder Kuro didn't stand a chance.

Vaj's face was a calm concentration, his eyes darting constantly to Jin's overhead sword and his elbows and his knees, looking for the one strike he absolutely had to avoid.  He bent his knees and plunged forward again with his rapier, but then shifted his weight and pivoted back away, sure that the katana would plunge this time, his maine gauche surging forward in his left hand to block the blow.

Vaj had guessed right.  Jin had already lunged forward at the same time with his killing blow.  The maine gauche slid in between Jin's curving blow to the neck in a perfect parrying position.  Vaj wasted no time and recovered his weight to finish Jin off with one more stab with the rapier.  Neither party had ended up moving to the side even once.

And then Jin's katana was cutting through Vaj's waist with unbearable sharpness and strength.  His eyes glassed over with a look of utter confusion.  His lips bubbled with the blood of one angry protest.

"How?"

Jin didn't mind answering him, not anymore.  But Vaj was dead.  Even if he took the time to explain now, it was too late for anyone to make use of it.  He put his foot on the corpse and with a heave pulled his katana out  from whatever bones it was buried deep in.  Then he shook his blade free of most of the blood onto the tatami-mat floor.  Lastly he took a thin white cloth and slid it along his blade, until it was spotlessly beautiful steel again.  He sheathed his blade and opened the door a little sheepishly.

"Sorry, guys.  I guess this gambling den goes to the second in command from here."  Jin apologized.  He had tried gambling off and on, when he had the money.  It wasn't especially fun.  But certainly nobody deserved to die just for providing a place for men to enjoy themselves.  Harukaze was going to hell after this life, no matter how you looked at it.

Chapter 3

"You're back."  Harukaze stared in amazement at the image before her eyes.  Jin was alive.  He wasn't even hurt.  His clothes weren't even mussed.  He was, in short, exactly the way he looked when he had walked away at dawn.

"He had white hair and answered to the name 'Vaj,' so I'm pretty sure I got the right guy."  Jin smiled proudly.

"How?  You said you could never beat Kuro."  Harukaze couldn't find her breath.  It was all simply too good to be true.  He was back, and a man who justice could never reach was dead.  Her justice had reached him.  The justice of a twelve year old little sister had defeated one of the strongest men in Niron.  It was too sweet.  Too impossibly sweet to hold.  It was a feeling she just had to let go to even feel.

"I couldn't.  Not in a hundred spars.  But sparring and killing is different.  I never wanted to kill Kuro before, and it's a move that only works once per anyone who sees it.  So you see, I wasn't about to waste it on Kuro over a wooden sword sparring session."  Jin explained, feeling a little bad that Vaj wasn't around to listen in.

"A secret technique?  You knew you were going to win from the start?"  Harukaze's eyes widened, feeling cheated.

"How could I know that until we fought?  For all I knew I was going to my death.  And it's not really a technique.  If you want to give it a name, call it phantom blade, but the Kensui school doesn't teach it.  The move doesn't exist.  You see, my shoulder is double jointed."  Jin demonstrated by rolling his entire shoulder out of place, making it hang half a foot lower than the laws of biology normally allowed.

"Kind of uncomfortable putting it back, but. . ."  Jin shrugged, tightening his muscles as he raised his shoulder back into place.  "For a trained swordsman, who can see the arc of a blade coming from the first motion of the arm, they block where they have to block.  They just can't help themselves.  Fights are too quick to do anything but what your instincts demand.  All I do is change the arc of the blade at the last moment, and suddenly I'm unblocked again.  Even the god of swordsmen can't expect that.  Maybe I haven't killed a thousand men, but I've got to have passed one hundred by now.  The reason is a birth defect.  Sad, huh?  But a man's got to make a living.  By the way, this is my trade secret.  All anyone knows when they hire me is that I always win.  They don't get to know how."

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze agreed, stars in her eyes as she looked at her hero.  Someone who could face even Yahiko Nomura.  The man of her dreams was right before her eyes.  The gods had given her the instrument of her revenge.  He was the perfect tool.  Handcrafted to perfection.  She'd never snap at him again.

"I won't blab."  Harukaze promised.

"What are you crying for?  Sorry to see me back?"  Jin complained.

"I. . .I'm just so happy. . ."  Harukaze sobbed, trembling.  Hoaido was too cold, and they had to stay here at least another week.  "Akikaze. . .sister. . .I. . .I did it. . .part of it. . .I just can't believe it.  Do you think she'll hear about it?  Do you think she'll think it's me?"

"No."  Jin laughed.  "No one would ever guess it's you."

"Maybe the gods will tell her."  Harukaze prayed.  She'd never find Akikaze, not if she searched brothels throughout all of Niron.  She would have a different name now, and a different face.  She had known that from the start.  But she wanted to reach her anyway.  Somehow.  Why not through gossip?  It wasn't impossible.  The 'I love you' that surpassed space and time.

Jin took off his outer kimono and wrapped it around his wife, tying the straps firmly down over her obi.  "It's a real bother when you shiver from the cold all day.  It hurts just watching, so get it together.  One arm whoever is up here too, right?"

Harukaze nodded, leaning into his chest, tears still streaming down her face.  "One Arm is in Ibindo.  It's fifty spans to the west, at the sea.  There's a road leading to it straight from out of town, so it won't be a problem.  And I'll buy you even the expensive sake tonight, so. . .thank you, Jin."

* * *

"I've been thinking."  Harukaze suddenly said as they walked along the cold desolate road to their next target.  She was wrapped in two kimonos, her day and night change of clothes, which she was extremely unhappy about getting dirty but too cold to avoid anymore.

"Mm?"  Jin responded noncommittally.  He was happy to walk spans without saying anything, which she tried to respect as his loving wife, but this time she actually had something important to say, so she forged ahead.

"Next time I want to come with you to the battle."  Harukaze said.

"It's one-on-one.  Plus I insist there aren't any witnesses, so it would be unfair if I also requested you stay.  It would look like we were ganging up on our opponent."  Jin balked.

"So don't insist there aren't any witnesses."  Harukaze suggested.  "We'll be like your seconds, one for our side and one for theirs.  We can even pledge that second to secrecy if you like."

"One of them would break their words eventually, and then my entire fighting style would be undermined."  Jin said.

"You'll just have to bear with that.  In the end, I didn't hire you just to kill these people.  My vengeance can't be satisfied with just that.  You see, what if all five of my targets were to suddenly keel over from strokes?  Would I be happy with just that?"

"Most certainly not."  Jin grinned.

"Precisely.  I was thinking what I really wanted, and it wasn't these people dead.  That's part of it, but not even the major focus.  After all, if I just waited long enough, they would all die of old age anyway.  Because I'm younger than them, I could even live long enough to see their deaths.  But that doesn't interest me in the least.  So if it isn't seeing their deaths that I want, what is it?"  Harukaze asked rhetorically.

"You tell me."  Jin offered.

"It's something related, but different.  I don't want to see them dead, I want to see their faces when they die.  I want to see their faces when they realize who I am, what I'm there for, and how their own actions led to their sudden gruesome misfortune.  I want them to engrave my face in their eyes as they bleed out and realize that the gods were watching, justice was watching, and they have come to exact their due.  I want to mock them and taunt them as they die with curses that will follow them all the way down into hell.  You didn't even tell Vaj why you were there.  He died wondering why Nironjin were such bullies, fully convinced he was innocent and had done nothing wrong in his life.  What a waste!"  Harukaze fumed.

"Wasn't it your idea to keep your identity secret though, so even if I lost, they couldn't trace it back to you and plan any reprisals?  That way, you could just hire some new instrument of your revenge and keep trying, hitman after hitman, to finally bring down your quarry like a pack of hounds hunting a stag."  Jin asked.

"That made sense at the time."  Harukaze agreed.  "But that was when I thought you were weak and were going to lose.  I've reformed my opinion of you!  If it's you, you'll definitely win, so I don't need to be anonymous, I don't need to avoid their reprisals against me.  I'm staking my life on the idea that you'll win every time."

"But that's crazy.  You said Vaj was the weakest member of their group.  There's no proof I'll be able to beat the remaining four just because I beat him."  Jin objected.

"It's now established that you actually stand a chance against my enemies."  Harukaze persisted.  "I can't say that of anyone else in Niron.  Do you have some sort of backup you intend to suggest to me to carry on the war once you fall?"

"I don't really keep track of who else works in my line of business."  Jin shrugged.

"Well, fine, but I do.  And like I said, you're the only one anyone spoke highly of.  I investigated every potential hire through pub gossip and it always came back to either you or Kuro, and by the time I was ready Kuro was already dead.  I suppose the next best hire would have been Noito. . . but that's besides the point!  Even if Noito were stronger than you, you said yourself that I was delusional to think 500 olan could hire a hitman for a job this difficult.  Because you wanted some whimsical priceless good, I managed to hire you with the assets I had."

"And fine assets they are."  Jin smiled.

"Right, but, do you really think Noito would agree to make the same deal?  Or anyone else on Earth?  Have you ever heard of hitmen seeking the meaning of life instead of coin ready for hire?"

"I guess I was acting a bit whimsically there."  Jin admitted.

"So there you have it.  Even if I stayed anonymous and hidden, I would never be able to repeat this quest again.  No one would ever agree to fight for me again, and even if they did, they wouldn't be strong enough to succeed like you have.  There are no further benefits to staying anonymous.  In fact, there weren't any to begin with.  But there are huge benefits to actually being there on the scene, where I can talk to the people you're about to kill and let them know who I am and why this is happening first."

"Except for the huge minus of my secret technique being revealed to the world, thus making me too weak to beat any of our future foes."  Jin went back to what really mattered.

"That's your problem.  Besides, there's no proof these people are in communication with each other.  They're spread all over Niron.  By the time the rumors spread we'll have killed all five."  Harukaze coaxed.

"What if I kill all five, and then the rumors spread such that I can't win any future fights again?  How will I continue my line of work?"  Jin asked.

"I don't know, husband."  Harukaze sighed.  "But I asked for vengeance, and I don't feel like I'm getting vengeance on these people yet."

"So no matter what, according to our contract, you insist on being there?"  Jin asked.

"On this matter only I insist on being selfish, husband.  I won't cross you in anything else."  Harukaze promised.

"Phwaw.  I suppose it's only fair.  When my secret's leaked I can worry about what to do then.  Maybe I'll become a fisherman instead of a hitman.  I can sell that blue sword of Yahiko's for a nice boat and net and take to the raging seas."  Jin mused.

"Yes, let's do that!"  Harukaze brightened into an enormous smile, clapping her hands together.  "I'll cook dinner for you every night and say 'welcome back, thank you for all the hard work!'"

"Well, no harm in trying my hand at fishing for a while."  Jin nodded, coming to a cheerful conclusion.  "Very well, Haru, we'll let as many witnesses watch as they want, I'll make this my final hit, and go out with a bang.  Why not?  Once I've beaten the strongest swordsman in Niron, it's not like there's anything else to experience in this job."

"Good, then that's settled.  I guess the next order of business is where we're walking."  Harukaze changed the subject.

"I thought you said Onearm was straight down this road."  Jin frowned.  He didn't mind walking places, but walking around in the cold for no reason wasn't exactly the best way to spend a day.

"He was."  Harukaze said, then she noticed his angry look and waved her hands disarmingly.  "He still is!  It's just a tiny detour!  When we were at our last inn, I asked about any new information concerning our target, and I just happened to hear that he'd moved a few months ago.  He left his job as an enforcer in town and became a monk, of all things.  Then he founded an orphanage with all his previous earnings and lives with them, taking care of them all and overseeing the whole business.  Everyone was talking about how commendable it was for someone to turn to religion like that."

"Was he the one who killed your parents?"  Jin asked.

"What does it matter who killed them?  They were all in it together.  Each of the five contributed in their own way to the situation.  They're all equally guilty."  Harukaze said fiercely, as though she'd thought over the subject, and who to put on her list, for a long time.

"Fair enough.  So we just need to be on the lookout for a signpost saying 'orphanage this way' and turn off, right?"  Jin asked.

"There isn't a sign, but there is an oddly shaped rock.  I'll know when to turn when I see it.  But can you believe it?  The man has the gall to make me an orphan, and then he goes and founds an orphanage.  How can he be such a hypocrite?"  Harukaze growled.

"Maybe it's the opposite.  He felt bad about making you an orphan so decided to make it up by founding an orphanage."  Jin suggested.

"Who cares?  He didn't offer to adopt me.  Does he think charity to strangers will make up for the harm he did to his original victims?  The two are completely unrelated."  Harukaze complained.

"Just to be sure, if he had offered to adopt you, would you have agreed?"  Jin asked, laughing.

"Of course not!  He killed my parents!"  Harukaze shouted.

"So he did kill your parents."  Jin nodded, content.

Harukaze blushed and looked down at the road in frustration.  "Okay so fine, he was the one.  Vaj ran the gambling den that got my family so far into debt in the first place, though.  And Yahiko is the leader who oversaw it all and the ultimate recipient of all the ill-gotten gains.  So you see, it's stupid to have some sort of tunnel vision and only hate this one cog in the system.  The entire system did it, together.  They all condoned it.  They all benefited from it.  The blood is on all their hands."

"I get it."  Jin placated her.  "Why hate one person when you could hate half the world?"

"Exactly!  You understand!"  Harukaze smiled happily, only to frown when she saw his face trying furiously to keep a straight line.  "You!  Why can't you take anything seriously?  I thought we were having a moment!"

"How about you?"  Jin asked, smiling.  "Isn't there anything you like?"

"I like vengeance."  Harukaze said defensively.

"Something other than that."  Jin stipulated.

". . ."  Harukaze went silent, pondering the issue for a while.  Jin seized the opportunity to find a new tasty stem to consume from the side of the road.  When he returned, she gave him a challenging gaze with her hands on both her hips.

"I've got another, which is more than you can say, who doesn't like anything."  Harukaze boasted.

"Oh, I don't know, wine, women, song. . ."  Jin looked up into the sky to think the list over.

"Do you want to hear what else I like or not?"  Harukaze interrupted.

"Very well, what is it?"  Jin sighed, looking back down to his excited and confident wife.

"I like talking about how much I hate the people I hate and why!  I could discuss how detestable and rotten people are forever!"  Harukaze bragged.

Jin didn't know whether he should laugh or cry.  Haru was beyond hopeless.

* * *

"Excuse me, is there a one armed man here?"  Jin asked to a crowd of kids gathered at a river to bathe and wash their clothes.

"A one armed man?"  The children looked at each other curiously, then shook their heads.

"Looks like we're at the wrong orphanage, Haru."  Jin said, turning around to go back to the main road.

"Stop!  Waitttttt!"  Harukaze pleaded, tugging on his kimono as he physically dragged her just by continuing to walk forward.  "He isn't one armed!  I kept trying to tell you!  He swings only one arm when he's walking!  That's all I ever meant!"

"Can't you keep your story straight?"  Jin complained, turning back around again.  The things she made him do.  Pick up fishing.  And now hunt two armed men.  Where would it end?

"Father Kuchiida only swings one arm when he walks."  A boy volunteered, watching their antics with a finger in his mouth.

A few of the other children giggled, agreeing.  "It's really strange!"

"Is Father Kuchiida at home?"  Harukaze leaned forward to be eye level with the children and asked sweetly.

"Yes, he's always around, except when he goes in to town to go shopping.  He scares the bandits away!"  A young boy spoke admiringly.

"Thank you.  In that case, we'll be on our way."  Harukaze bowed and started to head for the barracks-like dwelling that seemed to provide a roof and a bed for at least twenty orphans.

"Are we going to chop this guy down in front of the kids?"  Jin asked.

"Why not?  He chopped my parents down in front of me."  Harukaze shrugged.  "But first let's make sure he remembers who I am.  I want him to die knowing I hate him."

"Fine, fine."  Jin agreed, sucking on a blade of grass.  "Look, there's Onearm."  Jin pointed at the figure who was pulling water from the well with a series of extremely strong heaves.

"Masato Kuchiida!"  Harukaze shouted, breaking into a jog towards his home.  "Do you remember me?"

Masato turned with a look of surprise and caught the rope so all his work of raising the water bucket up the well wasn't wasted.  "Pardon?"

"Do you remember me?  Do you remember what you did to my family?"  Harukaze reached a safe distance away from the man and gave him a venomous glare.

"I'm sorry, no.  Did I do something to you?  If so, I certainly apologize."  Masato said.

Harukaze's eyes widened into even greater fury, if that were possible.  Jin simply stood protectively near her to the side and waited for his turn to come.

"I was twelve years old at the time.  I wasn't good enough for your brothels.  But my older sister was.  Do you remember her?  Do you remember killing my mother for getting in the way and begging you not to take her?"  Harukaze demanded.

"I'm sorry, I've collected so many debts from so many families."  Masato Kuchiida shrugged helplessly.  "I'm sure you're correct, but as you can see, I already left that line of business.  You're right, it's a terrible thing to do, debt collecting.  I reflected on the matter a year ago and decided to devote myself to God instead.  I intend to bring balance to my karma through a peaceful life of charity and good will.  I hope you'll forgive me."

"Forgive you?"  Harukaze asked, as though the words were foreign to her and she didn't know their meaning.  "You want me to forgive you?  Fine, I'll forgive you -- on one condition.  Turn back time and give me back my family, happy and whole."

"As you can see, I'm not powerful enough to do something like that."  Masato shrugged apologetically, taking his water bucket carefully out of the well and pouring it into a container.  "Now, as you can see, I have a lot of children to tend to, so I don't know what more I can say.  Would you like to join us all for dinner?  I was hoping to heat this water and put the rice in by now."

"Kill him."  Harukaze spat.

Jin took in her face and saw an overwhelming hatred to the point of tears.  She was so angry she couldn't even express it in words anymore.

"Well, there you have it, Onearm."  Jin said apologetically.  "You'd better take up your weapon, she can't be convinced once she's like this."

"I don't have any weapon.  I swore an oath of pacifism to God when I took up this new course in life."  Masato said.  "I can't harm a fly anymore, I don't even eat meat.  If you strike me down, it will have to be as a defenseless, harmless man of God.  All I can do is stand here and await your blow."

"Really?  I guess that makes this easy, then."  Jin said, thrilled at his luck.  He walked forward a few steps and drew his katana.  He aimed carefully for the man's neck and swung with all his might.  His sword was true to its worth.  Onearm's head rolled away, completely severed in a single stroke.  Blood gushed as the body lost its balance and fell to the ground.  Jin gingerly stepped away before it could stain his only traveling kimono and wiped his sword clean with an oiled cloth.

"I hate him.  I hate him so much, Jin.  Can we kill him again?"  Harukaze asked hopefully, her eyes glued to his bleeding corpse.

"I'm afraid not."  Jin commiserated.  He didn't much like Onearm either.

"Go repent your sins in hell."  Harukaze spat on his corpse.  Then the two walked away to find lodging for the night at the nearby town.

Chapter 4

"I don't like riding in a boat."  Jin Ukizake complained as they watched the shore lazily pass by them.  Nironjin feared the open sea and with good reason, their flimsy keels and sails were no match for even a smidgen of bad weather, and they had no way to navigate back to shore once they had lost sight of it, which generally meant a nameless death in a vast sea of nothing or a crash landing on hostile Qin territory.  Jin didn't have to worry about storms or navigation, the boat they had hired to ride on had its own crew that was carrying all sorts of pickled goods south from Hoaido and regularly took passengers as well as cargo so long as they were paying more than the merchants in the south were for a similar amount of weight transferred South.  The problem was he felt defenseless on a boat.  The people around him knew more about the sea than he did, and could use that knowledge to kill him at any moment.  He was always the strongest in every situation.  Feeling weak and vulnerable made him want to randomly draw his sword and slash everyone in sight until he was back in control again.

"Yes husband, I'm sorry."  Harukaze bowed her head contritely.  "It's just that Niron is made up of islands and we needed to go south again, so it couldn't be helped."

"I'm not talking about a little ferry between the two nearest points from Hoaido to Onshu to Koku.  That takes at most an hour and you can see both sides of land before you even step onto the boat.  This is totally different.  We're going to be riding a boat even when there's good land right next to us we could perfectly well be walking on."  Jin said.

"We need to hurry if we're going to outspeed the rumors of my vengeance and our quarry flees to places unknown, and boats are faster.  Besides, I'm tired of walking when a perfectly good boat can get us there in one third of the time effortlessly."  Harukaze explained.

"I thought you said you were fit to walk anywhere?"  Jin needled.

"But husband, I thought you said you were going to become a fisherman.  Isn't learning to like riding on boats the most basic of the basics to fulfilling that desire?"  Harukaze smiled innocently back.

"This boat and that boat are different.  Phwah!  Nevermind."  Jin sighed and hit his head against the side of the boat in frustration at being pinned in.  What if all five of the boat crew jumped him with daggers right now?  He could barely keep his balance on this wretched deck, and there was nowhere to run so that he could fight them one by one again.

"If there were at least some sake on this boat, but all we get is some wretched juice, and we're supposed to ride this thing for ten days?"  Jin asked again.

"But just think, ten days to reach all the way from northern Niron to southern Niron.  Plus, it will be so much warmer.  Isn't that wonderful?"  Harukaze asked.

"Plus there are no women on this boat."  Jin complained.

"Not even one?"  Harukaze asked, raising her eyebrows in surprise.

Jin sighed.  Vipers who spit on repentant beheaded monks really shouldn't classify themselves as women, but that wasn't the real problem anyway.  The problem was they were in a contest and he still hadn't won.  But even telling her the nature of the contest would mean her victory in the contest, so the sooner he changed the topic the better.

"You ought to be careful though.  I can't protect you on this damned boat from five men, and I'm sure these nin haven't seen anyone as refined and youthful as you in their whole lives.  No doubt they'll attack us tonight in our sleep."  Jin warned.

"Then, husband, would it be too much to ask that we share the cabin we rented for the night, for my own protection?"  Harukaze asked.

"Of course I'll protect you."  Jin said.  "But I already told you I'll lose."

"We'll fight together if these good natured merchants of Niron suddenly feel an uncontrollable desire to face off against one of the most renowned swordsman in Niron for one lowly woman in the middle of the night."  Harukaze smiled.

"So long as you understand."  Jin sighed, looking at the perfectly stable land just a span or so away.  Maybe he could swim the distance.  But he'd have to knock Harukaze out and carry her on his back to continue on his mission, and she might be upset after that, so it really wasn't a viable option.

"If we have ten days together, let's find something fun to do with it.  Can you fish off the side of a moving boat?  Maybe they could teach us how."  Harukaze suggested.

"I suppose with nets we could scoop up something."  Jin thought about it.

"Throwing a net over the side and hoping fish swim into it?  Is that the entire job?"  Harukaze's brows knit together with a look of disappointment.

"Well, eventually you haul the net back up, now full of fish, and then you have to gut the fish, and then you have to skin the fish, and then you have to bring the fish to market, and then you have to sell the fish by talking about how great your fish are, much better than the fish to your left and right, and you have to deal with the smell of fish being so strong you can never wash it out again for the rest of your life."  Jin predicted.

"On second thought let's farm rice."  Harukaze suggested.

"If you want to spread your own manure along the soil and walk around in a sea of manured water barefoot half the year with your back permanently bent over, becoming an aged crippled grandmother by age twenty or so, all for the cheapest commodity on Earth that, once the taxes are done, are barely enough to buy a few fish with as a special treat, go ahead."  Jin advised.

"Are you telling me nin all live like this?  Surely there's some better deal."  Harukaze pleaded.

"Well, I'm politely not mentioning the best way a nin woman can get ahead in life, but if you insist. . ."  Jin started.

"Don't say it!  Ugh!  What kind of choices are these?  Why doesn't everyone just live in the city and have decent jobs like innkeeper or tailor or candle-maker?  Aren't there shrines?  I'll become a shrine maiden."  Harukaze decided.

"That might put our marriage a smidgen in jeopardy."  Jin remarked.

"I'll found a school then.  We can teach children how to read and write."  Harukaze suggested.

"I'm not sure illiterate peasants could follow your advice on career plans, in that case."  Jin said.

"Is life really just a series of miserable, degrading, back-breaking days of pain and humiliation, poverty and want, until the day you die?"  Harukaze asked in outrage.

"Oh, I hear they sing and dance sometimes.  Around fires."  Jin shrugged.

"Well that really makes up for all of the rest, doesn't it!"  Harukaze sniffed.

"That's why I want to know."  Jin lay back on the deck, staring up at the blue sky, thankfully free of any clouds.  They would stop at night, so as not to accidentally collide with any rocks or reefs, and they would stop if it became too cloudy, and disembark until the storm ended.  They could only really travel when the sky was like this, but it was certainly a way to pass the next ten days, looking at such a pretty clear sky.

"What are we here for?"  Jin asked.  "Why bother?  Is this some sort of joke?  What is the meaning of life?  Why live?  What's a reason for being?  You can't tell me so that I can gut fish in order to stop my stomach from hurting every day.  If I hadn't been born, my stomach wouldn't have started hurting in the first place."

"You know the answer already, if you went to a bushi school like you say:  it's to glorify the gods.  We humans were made so that we could worship them and praise them, not only with rituals and offerings, but also by making our whole life a living sacrifice to their glory, by being as bright and beautiful and honest and upright as we can be, just like the gods told us to be.  The better their creation acts, the better our Creators look, and so therefore the one thing gods want from us most is to shine."  Harukaze said.

"Spoken like a perfect shrine maiden in training."  Jin smiled fondly.  "But do you really think you shine in front of the gods by killing people?"

"Definitely.  It shows I have a passion for justice that surpasses my own material self interest.  It means I'm living on the same heavenly plane of spiritual existence they are.  Why, you could say this entire journey is a pilgrim's progress."  Harukaze said, lying down to look at the sky beside him.

Jin felt uncomfortable.  She was too near him, and for some reason she was extremely embraceable right now.  Plus, her words were too reasonable.  It was as though the reason for being really was to be found in God, like she'd suggested in the first place.  She was so brimming over with confidence and happiness the moment she brought her faith up.  But his reason for being couldn't be God, because God didn't exist.  If that were the only answer, then he'd be left with nothing at all to hope for.

"Tell me another answer."  Jin snapped.

Harukaze took his hand in hers, and intertwined her five fingers between his, as the two lay side by side staring up at the blue sky.

* * *

Harukaze couldn't believe it.  They had been alone together for ten days, a man who would mate with a chicken given the chance, and he hadn't touched her.  He hadn't even groped her, kissed her, anything.  Even when they both jumped overboard to take a dip in the ocean and get as clean as humanly possible given that the water was salty, he would swim to the other side of the boat and never even look at her.  They slept together in the same room every night, and he sat in a corner holding his sword in front of him like some sort of deadly barrier in case she thought of raping him in the night.  Everything was reversed!  He had killed two of the five people she hated most in life, and made her deliriously happy each time.  He hadn't hesitated for a moment at fulfilling his duty, but he had no interest at all in letting her fulfill hers.  It was like she was some sort of charity case.  She was as loving as she could possibly imagine a girl to be with him.  He had said quite nonchalantly that all the other boys in the boat were no doubt attracted to her.  So what was it?  If she wasn't ugly and she wasn't bitchy, what could be driving him away?

Was Jin just toying with her?  Did he think this was funny?  It was completely within his personality to enjoy watching her frustrated face as night after night passed together, but did that really trump his sexual desires?  She was sure that once she'd removed all the competition, he'd finally settle for her.  He had made do with boys after all!  But apparently this plan had also failed.  Even without having anyone else around, he never once took out his desire on her.  He just quietly chosen a corner and didn't even watch her undress, pretending to fall asleep instantly, even though she took a long time changing between her two kimonos in case he wanted to change his mind and take her in the act.

Ten days had passed and she hadn't made any progress at all.  If only she could have asked her mother what a proper love was like.  If mother were around, or even her older sister, she could have asked for tips and advice.  Maybe there was a special smile or way of making your eyes twinkle that made boys feel truly loved.  Maybe she wasn't blushing the right way, or there was a secret string of words that meant "I love you" better than "I love you," which she'd tried many times already.  But she was sixteen and completely unpracticed in love, she'd never even felt the nearest glimmer of the feeling, and there was no one left to turn to in this world to learn it from.  All she knew was that thoughts of him plagued her night and day, waking and dreaming, and even after thinking about him so much she was still confused and her emotions still ranged all over the place without ever settling anywhere whenever he was nearby.  He was an insufferable lout.  He was kind and understanding.  He was a carefree heretic.  He was noble and faithful.  He either neglected her or insulted her, depending on his mood, but never showed a hint of affection or desire for her even after all this time.  He'd die for her.

What was she supposed to think?  What was she supposed to feel?  It was all tangled up.  Everyone at the tavern had been simple.  Some boys were respectful and just liked to see her, regular customers she could chat with.  Others would try to feel her up and she'd draw knives on them, and then they would stop.  All boys fit into one or the other category.  Boys were either harmless puppies or mad dogs.  Why wouldn't Jin just choose a role and go with it?

"Finally.  We're finally off that wretched boat."  Jin stretched, grabbing his pack and putting his arms through the straps to settle the weight on his back.  "Back on solid ground, where feet work, and no one can drown you, or throw you overboard, or corner you with a fire, or poison your food. . ."

"More importantly, we're in Koku, where it's warm, and our next target lives."  Harukaze interrupted.  The merchants had been perfectly nice puppies, just like the boys at the tavern, afraid of Jin's swords and their obvious higher status and happy to take their olan.  Did he enjoy worrying?

"More importantly, we're at a port, which means there's sake somewhere nearby.  I say we split up from here.  Go see a hairdresser or whatever you do for fun."  Jin suggested.

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze bowed her head, handing over five olan tablets, which should be enough for the most extravagant party.  All she did for fun was plot revenge, or imagine the people she hated dying.  Well, the two had had some fun on the boat writing poems back and forth by continuing each other's verses, but she couldn't do that without him, so that was out.  He was a fine poet, like any proper samurai should be.  Someone so smart who took pleasure in the dumbest activities mankind had to offer.  So tangled.  So very tangled.

"Then, I'll be seeing you.  I trust you can fight off anything short of a mountain boar on your own."  Jin waved his hand, sauntering away with a look of glee at getting to be with a woman, or perhaps a boy, or perhaps a chicken again.  Harukaze sighed.  Ten days, and she'd even stripped in front of him every night, not that he bothered looking.  She cupped her breasts to check if they were just too small for a boy to notice or care, but they felt just fine to her.  She should sleep with someone else just to make him jealous.  But that wouldn't be loving, and then he'd feel betrayed and leave her.  Something like that, the disgrace and the disgust on his face, would be worse than death.  Nevermind.  She could have fun without him.  And she didn't have to descend to material pleasures.  She could try on some new kimonos.  Maybe if she bought something new, he'd like how she looked better.  She supposed anyone would grow tired of a girl wearing the same outfit, however colorful, for a month.  She could sell to the store what she was wearing, which clearly wasn't working for her, and try whole new color schemes.  The shop owner could give some tips on how to smile, too.  Maybe she could buy some makeup?  The dust of the trail would ruin anything she put on, but, if it helped get through to him. . .

* * *

"Remember, he uses lots of projectiles.  Your phantom blade is meaningless if you can't reach him."  Harukaze warned.

"I remember.  We'll just have to see who's faster.  Then again, you said this guy was stronger than Vaj, so really I'm just walking to my death, huh?"  Jin smiled wistfully.

"If you think that, come up with a better plan first!"  Harukaze begged.  He couldn't die on her now, when they weren't even halfway through.

"Oh, I thought of a plan.  I could stuff my kimono with tatami mats and just walk forward taking all his shuriken like a scarecrow.  But it was just too dishonorable.  You couldn't call something like that a duel."  Jin shrugged.

"It isn't a duel, it's a hit!"  Harukaze corrected.

"My hits are all duels.  There's a difference."  Jin corrected sternly.

"Yes, husband.  Sorry.  I didn't mean. . .  I'm sorry."  Harukaze bowed her head.  Jin took a moment to relax and then put his hand on her head and patted it.

"I know you didn't mean anything, Haru.  You're just worried about me."  Jin said cheerfully.  "But winning isn't everything.  Like you said, if your enemies all died of heart attacks, what would be the point?  And if I killed someone through a cowardly trick like that, what would be the point?  The significance behind every event isn't what happens but why.  We're trying to enforce our code of honor on the world, right?"

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze agreed meekly, her head still being squished downward by his hand.

"Then what are we going to do if we lose our honor first?"  Jin asked.

"That would be a problem."  Harukaze admitted.

"So there you have it.  I can't have any plans for these fights.  My enemies don't get to know ahead of time and form plans on their side, so it just wouldn't be honorable to make one-sided preparations."  Jin explained.

"By the way, you never said what sin this guy committed against your family.  Did he pass by and laugh at your parents' graves or something?"  Jin asked, letting her head go.

"Just please win this fight, Jin.  At least this fight."  Harukaze begged, her eyes locking onto his with an earnest passion.

"When you look at me like that. . ."  Jin sighed, looking away.  "I'll definitely win, so stand back and make sure he doesn't accidentally hit you with one of those devices of his."

"He won't miss."  Harukaze stressed.

"Right, well, I already promised I'd win.  Okay?  So just stand back and stop looking into my eyes."  Jin implored.

"But I have to talk to him, so I have to stand. . ."  Harukaze started.

"Okay, well, at least don't look at me anymore!"  Jin snapped.  "You're distracting me!  At a crucial moment!"

"Sorry."  Harukaze bowed.

"And what's with that blue kimono?  I'm trying to start a duel here and you're filling me with distractions."

"You told me to have fun, so I  just. . ."  Harukaze bowed again.

"Phwah."  Jin spat his coveted sappy stem from his mouth, something he hadn't had access to for ten days, and tossed her out of his head.  "GERO!  Get out here, GERO!  You've pissed off the wrong person, and I've come to collect your head for it!"

A lot of people on the street turned to look at him, noticed the two swords at his belt that denoted his bushi rank, and decided to quickly vacate the premises.  One disheveled man who looked like he hadn't slept anytime recently emerged from the gambling den, with an angry glare.

"I think you've pissed off the wrong person, sir.  Do you have any idea who --  sister?"  Gero stopped midstride, his eyes widening like saucers.

Harukaze gave him an intense stare, her arms crossed in front of her.  Even though she'd imagined this confrontation so many times, she still couldn't control her nervousness.

"Hello, Fuyukaze."  Harukaze gave a cold nod.  "I see you're still gambling."

"Is that it?  I can't believe you.  What happened with Akikaze was a tragedy.  I asked them to give me more time, that if they'd just loan me another thousand olan, I could win back all I owed them and more."  Fuyukaze looked at Jin with disgust.

"But they had the right to collect your debt.  The debt you got by gambling with our family name.  You sold your own sister away for the pleasure of tossing the dice a few more times.  You sold your own parents' blood for another throw.  It was you, Fuyukaze.  It's all your fault.  Everything.  You're a monster.  And now you're going to die for it."  Harukaze grabbed her wrist to make sure she wouldn't try and throw one of her knives at her older brother herself.

"Look, I've been winning recently.  Maybe we could find Akikaze and buy her back."  Fuyukaze offered reasonably.  "Of course I feel bad about that too.  Didn't I tell you I was sorry at the funeral?  But there was nothing I could do without money.  You know it's impossible to oppose Yahiko Nomura."

"Sometimes sorry isn't enough."  Harukaze stared into her brother's red-rimmed eyes.

"This frog guy is your brother?"  Jin asked, a little set back.

"I didn't want you to think this was just a glorified family quarrel."  Harukaze bit her lip.

"Isn't it?"  Jin asked.

"Well, yes.  But it's different."  Harukaze said.

"How is it different?"  Jin asked, his voice still neutrally curious.

"Because I really do hate him.  With all my heart and soul.  I hate him so much I'm trembling with it."  Harukaze explained.

"I thought I told you not to keep any secrets from me."  Jin complained.

"I couldn't tell you.  If I had told you who I wanted dead, you would've refused.  You would have preached to me about filial duty or something."  Harukaze explained.

"Oh, I don't know.  If you had tried to explain, maybe I would've been completely understanding.  Well, I guess that's neither here nor there.  Do you two want to have a drink, perhaps talk about all the years you've missed, or can I start this duel already?"  Jin asked patiently.

"Why don't you stay out of this?"  Fuyukaze glared at the swordsman.  "I suppose she scrounged up some sort of assassin because she knew she couldn't beat me herself, but she hasn't told you how strong I am.  She's clearly mad, to try to kill her own brother like this.  All I did was gamble a bit, just like everyone else.  It's Niron's past time.  Who knew I would lose so many times in a row?  These things happen.  They could happen to anyone."

"The problem is they happened to Akikaze."  Harukaze shouted at the top of her lungs.  "You could never understand that, brother!  Your heart is too shriveled to understand something that simple!  So I'm doing the only thing I can to teach you what you refuse to understand yourself!  Pawning your family for money isn't right!"

"You've become really cheeky since I left, Harukaze.  Who are you to lecture me, the head of the family?  It's not like being a courtesan is such a bad job.  You get the best clothes and lots of love."  Fuyukaze jibed.

Jin drew his sword.  "I'm counting to three, so please act to defend yourself."

Fuyukaze's face became an indignant shade of red, forcing his eyes off his kid sister to this upstart sellsword.  "If you're so eager to die, then die."  A knife slipped out of his sleeve and into his hand, and then in a flash was heading for Jin's forehead.

Jin knocked the blade out of the air with his own, sprinting towards his opponent with an urgent desire to close range.

Fuyukaze ran away, tossing daggers behind him as he sprinted.  Jin grimaced as he blocked, his own need to be safe slowing him down.  In a moment Fuyukaze had hopped up the walls of two buildings to the top of a roof, just like a frog, and started throwing shuriken down at his opponent.

Jin dodged behind a corner, his back to the building across the street's wall.  Was this even a duel?  What kind of sword school did this stupid family attend, the school of 'anything goes martial arts'?

"No use hiding!"  Fuyukaze gloated, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.  Suddenly he was overhead and a chain was smashing towards Jin's head.  He only barely had time to slash his sword up to catch the chain before its iron weight at the bottom crushed his skull in.  Fuyukaze laughed and jumped to the next roof over, jerking the chain with him.  Jin's priceless katana was ripped out of his hands effortlessly.

"Do you have any idea who I am?  I doubt you could even beat my sister!"  Fuyukaze gloated from on top of the next roof over, getting out a sling and loading it with some smooth stones from a pouch.

"I don't even have a sword and you're still going to shoot at me?"  Jin complained.

"This is how I fight!"  Fuyukaze shouted angrily, and whirled his sling over his head into a whirring bzzz that tore through the air, and then launched another killing blow at Jin's head.  Why was it always perfectly aimed at the head?

Jin dived across the alley and broke through the door of whatever house Fuyukaze was standing on.  It was unoccupied except for a toddler, no doubt the people living here were going about doing their daily work, which was probably for the best.  In close quarters, Fuyukaze couldn't rely on his ranged weapons.  So long as he stayed indoors. . .

"Are you sure about that?"  Fuyukaze taunted, having apparently already leaped to another roof.  "If you stay indoors, Harukaze will be defenseless, you know."

"I'm your opponent!"  Jin shouted, drawing his shorter wakizashi, his only remaining weapon, such as it was.

"Then come out and fight, coward!"  Fuyukaze taunted.  "I'm running out of patience!"

Jin looked around the house and grabbed a table, the plates pouring down one side and sending the toddler crying into the corner.  He jumped back out of the house and heard an enormous thunk against his new wooden shield from a sling stone.  He charged across the alley and tried to spy where Fuyukaze had run off to next.

He heard the rustle of a chain and instinctively raised his sword arm to protect his head.  The man always aimed for the head.  It was just enough.  Somehow Fuyukaze had gotten behind him and tried to snap his neck with the chain, but now it was caught around his arm, and a tug-o-war had begun.  The problem was Fuyukaze had so much better leverage.  Jin strained his muscles, trying to stretch the chain back away from his neck again.  The chain was taut though, as Fuyukaze put both his arms into pulling Jin's arm back into his body and losing the contest of strength.  Jin gathered his ki from every corner of his body and pushed, both his hands with a literal deathgrip on his wakizashi, but the chain only barely gave.  He could hear Fuyukaze's heavy breathing as his feet slid forward behind him.  The man was leaning into it and he could stretch both his arms out to their full length.  It was hopeless.  He really was stronger than Vaj.  And he really had never let Jin even get close.  What a cheap way to fight.  Well, Jin guessed he couldn't complain, in the end.

And then the chain went loose.  There was a bubbled gasp of surprise, and then the sound of a falling body.

Jin turned around with surprise to see Fuyukaze's back pierced by two throwing knives.  Harukaze stood panting at the far end of the alley, looking at him fearfully.

"I just couldn't. . .just this one. . .I couldn't let this one get away."  Harukaze panted.

"I see."  Jin said, feeling disgusted.

"He was going to kill me next.  He said it himself."  Harukaze pleaded again.

"I see."  Jin walked in a wide radius, looking for his family heirloom.

"You did nothing wrong!  It was my decision!  Hate me if you want!"  Harukaze bit out.  "I didn't want you to die!  He took my family once!  I wouldn't let him take it from me again!  No matter what!"

"I see."  Jin said, climbing the roof of a trashed building and finding his katana still entangled in one of Fuyukaze's chains.

He had never before cheated in over a hundred duels.  He felt loathsome, and all of that loathing fixed onto this lone girl, who had stolen his honor.  They had come together, and instead of fighting one on one, they had fought him together.  He hadn't asked for it, but the whole world had seen it.  He had lost his honor, his name, forever.  Why did she take that from him?  What was her idea of honor?  Did she have any pride at all?  What were all her big words at the beginning of their journey together about?  She was just a hypocritical lying nothing.  She had tricked him into this fight, and now she had tricked him out of his fight.  Jin angrily tore the chains away from his sword and checked it for any chips.  It seemed to be fine.  He slammed his sword angrily into its sheathe.

Jin jumped down from the roof.  Harukaze had turned her brother's body over and slit his throat for good measure, and then hidden her knives back away up the sleeves of her dress.

"I'm leaving.  Don't follow me."  Jin said.  And then he walked somewhere far away where he wouldn't have to see her face, ever again.

Chapter 5

"Don't you get it?"  Harukaze shouted at his back, a quaver in her ragged throat.  "I love you!"

Jin turned around, looking at the girl down the street crying, her new kimono full of swirling white lines drifting like clouds over a peaceful sky blue.  It was his favorite color.  She had figured out that much just by watching him.  She was sixteen years old, and thin.  She looked helpless, but she was actually a dangerous serpent, deceitful in every way.  She would say anything if it meant achieving her objective, and she had told him she loved him many, many times.  But he believed her.  She had sacrificed everything to save him.  Not because she took it lightly.  But because she loved him more than all the rest combined.

Which meant, she loved him not only more than her own life, but also more than the entire meaning of her life.  This wasn't a love you meant 'at the time.'  It was a love she meant 'for all time.'

If the girl down the street were really crying because she was afraid of losing him, and not because she was afraid of losing her instrument of revenge. . .

How much was his honor worth, in the end?  Surely if it could be exchanged for one single girl's love, it had been traded fairly.  Actually, wasn't he far better off than before?  He'd always had his honor, but he'd never noticed it doing him much good.  This was the first time he'd ever had a girl's love. . .and a girl's love could do anything.

It could turn everything upside down.

It could turn daily life into bliss.

It could turn pleasure into paradise.

A woman's love was the greatest prize on Earth.  If it were true.  If it stayed true.  Will she be true?  Will she?  Jin looked at Haru's face closely, trying to see her soul through sheer force of will.  Are you the brightest gem on Earth?  The jewel of jewels?  The fire the gods chase in vain and fall short of?  Could she really shoulder his 'reason for being' all on her own?  She'd certainly made sure he wouldn't have any of the rest.  Honor, pride, justice, that was all hopelessly gone now.  But at the very beginning, she had thought love was sufficient alone.  What if it were a love like that?  What if she loved him so much it could carry the entire burden for the rest of their lives?

In that case, she was still fulfilling her promise.

In that case, he was the one breaking his.

"Can you finish what you've begun?"  Jin shouted angrily at the girl down the street.

"Will you?"  Harukaze shouted back.

"Beg me to bed you!"  Jin shouted.

"Down a street?"  Harukaze blushed red.

"Shall I stay or shall I go?  Choose now, wife!"  Jin shouted.

"Bed me!  Please bed me!  Bed me bed me bed me!"  Harukaze shouted at the top of her lungs.

Not such a bad trade, all in all.

* * *

"I've got it!"  Harukaze clapped her hands together happily.  She had been in a very bright mood since last night.

"Got what?"  Jin asked noncommittally.

"A perfect life for after we beat Yahiko."  Harukaze explained.  They were walking back towards Onshu for their last two targets.  Nonose to start with, and then the big boss to top it off in the very heart of the Imperial capital.  Hopefully they would be able to find and challenge those two before word got out that Jin played dirty and stabbed people in the back with his lady love.  Given that they had left early in the dawn and were heading straight for their targets, it seemed reasonable enough that rumor wouldn't somehow manage to outpace them.  But as a result, it was unlikely he would last much longer in this line of business even if he did win the next two fights.  He would just be attacked by a gang of ruffians wherever he tried to enter his target's residence and die to a bunch of unskilled nin with rocks or the like shameful exit.

"We take his blue sword as a trophy and bring it back to your old master, and then together we'll inherit the Kensui dojo!"  Harukaze looked up at him with a 'how's that?' smile.

"The dojo I was kicked out of for drinking and lazing about all day instead of studying?"  Jin asked.

"Who cares?  If you beat Yahiko, that makes you the top swordsman in all of Niron, and all using the Kensui school of swordsmanship.  You will have brought great honor to his name.  All will be forgiven.  Plus, we'll have tons of students who come to train under you, with your newfound reputation.  Business will boom."  Harukaze predicted.

"I guess it would, at that.  And with Kuro dead, I probably am the best Kensui swordsman in Niron.  It sounds good.  We'll try that.  Who wants to gut fish when we can sit on a throne and live off of past successes instead?"  Jin agreed heartily.

"Right?"  Harukaze bubbled, free of her nightmares of looking like an old hag by age 20 from the strain of farming.  "And I can help out too."

"With your anything goes martial arts school of dirty tricks?"  Jin bristled.

"No, silly!  With reading and writing and religion.  You know the parents of bushi want their children to grow up as good nobles suitable to serve in high positions.  If you just train them how to be rogues and thugs no one will send their kids our way."

"Hmmm.  So long as I don't have to teach them nonsense I don't even believe."  Jin nodded.

"Though you have to admit, my school kicked your school's butt."  Harukaze smiled.

"Wait, you're now going to take pride in the same brother you hated yesterday 'with all your heart and soul?'"  Jin looked down at his shameless wife.

"Why not?  I can be proud of his skill regardless of what else I hate about him.  Moreover, it was my father's school of martial arts, he taught it to all of us, and I can be as proud of him as I want."

"It's a wretched school.  I wouldn't have lost in a fair fight."  Jin complained.

"And the way you killed Vaj was fair?"  Harukaze retorted.

"Anything hand-to-hand is fair."  Jin replied.

"What a convenient definition!"  Harukaze huffed.

"Next you'll say it takes skill to shoot a crossbow or throw a bomb.  Why have swords at all?  Hey, let's just shut down all the dojos while we're at it and give our children toy bows to hunt with."  Jin said.

"Worried about losing our new job as head of the Kensui dojo?"  Harukaze smiled happily.

"Of course.  I only got it a couple minutes ago.  It would be a shame to lose it now."  Jin patted his wife on the head.  It really had been a good idea.  He could make a lot of money training students without taking any further risks with his life.  His life had suddenly shot up in value somewhere in the recent past, and he felt like sticking around for more of it now.  At least long enough to hand his firstborn son Yahiko's blue sword and give him a few tips on how to swing it.

"By the way, we're both bushi, so our children will also be bushi.  If we raise them right, they should be able to find a position in court or the military.  But if you teach them the gods are all nonsense and to sleep with every other boy in the dojo. . ."  Haru warned.

"I'll tell my children whatever I want."  Jin said.

"Yes, husband."  Harukaze gave up meekly.

"But you can tell them whatever you want, too."  Jin smiled.

"Really?"  Harukaze's breath caught.  "Even if I do nothing but insult you all day long?"

"Err. . .I take it back."  Jin said.

"No, no, don't take it back!"  Harukaze pleaded.

"Well then don't undercut me in front of the kids!"  Jin complained.

"I'll leave your name out of it. I just want to insult cheaters, drunks, bums, fools, people who can't control their temper -- "

"That's all me!  You only want to insult me!"  Jin spluttered.

"See?  You see how hard it is to live with people who can't control their tempers?  We definitely don't want our kids to turn out like that. . ."  Harukaze wheedled.

"Do as you like."  Jin growled.  "But I'm going to teach our daughters to hate liars, grudge bearers, whiners, people who rely on underhanded hidden weapons, and -- "

Harukaze burst out laughing. 

"Sorry, you just really resent losing, don't you?  Sorry, go on."  Harukaze waved her hand at him to give permission.

"I won what counted."  Jin reminded himself.

"That's right, husband.  What matters is brother's dead and there's only two to go.  Our journey's almost over, and we still have enough to make it back home.  Where is home, by the way?"  Harukaze asked, counting the olan in her purse.

"Hmm?  Oh, it's a nice little village that sits on the hills above the port of Saka.  We send rice down to them and they send tax collectors up to us.  A very efficient trading system, really."  Jin said.

"That sounds wonderful.  Can we see the ocean?"  Harukaze asked.

"The ocean out one window and the mountains out the other.  The most beautiful place on Earth."  Jin assured her.

"If I were to speak of beauty,
I would mention your hair"

Harukaze began an impromptu poem.

"But your hair's true beauty,
sleeps with me there."

Jin finished.

"You promise I'm beautiful, right?"  Harukaze asked again.

"Easily the fourth best body I've seen."  Jin promised.

"I was third when we first met!"  Harukaze complained.

"Yes, well, I met a really splendid girl on the way to -- "  Jin explained.

"Nevermind where!"  Harukaze flushed.  "I'm beautiful, right?  You'll bed me every day now until we die?"

"Yes, love."  Jin agreed softly.  Last night was worth repeating every day into eternity.

Harukaze shivered with pleasure, and then the two had to step off the road because they were in each other's arms kissing with passionate fury.

* * *

Jin and Harukaze arrived at the gate to a glamorous quarter of the old city.  No one who didn't have business in this district could enter it, which protected the whores from unwanted attention.  Inside there was more than available women, however.  There would be food and drink, singing, music, and dancing available, all based on how much you were willing to pay.  There were also a great deal of men with weapons to make sure customers treated their whores well and that the whores didn't think of running away anywhere.  In short, it was a normal place like a dozen others Jin had entered over the years without thinking twice about it.

Jin fished out ten olans just to be safe and asked the guard at the front gate.  "If it's possible, I'd like to arrange for a girl by the name of Akikaze.  Do you have someone like that?"

The guard pocketed the coin first and then got out an official looking book to make a signature in it.

"There's no woman by that name.  Name's change so often in this business, who knows though?"  The guard shrugged.  "Does she have some distinguishing trait?"

Harukaze stepped forward.  "She had fair skin and no calluses on her hands from work.  Have you heard of a girl like that?"

"Sorry."  The guard shook his head.  "Whores come and go so often, you realize, sometimes they're traded between brothels, other times a client buys them out for his own exclusive use, and so on.  It's best not to fall in love with one of our women.  Before you know it, they're gone again.  Leave personal matters at the front gate, as it were."

Jin clapped the guard on the shoulder.  "Very true.  So, what kind of woman can I buy for ten olan?  I had a hankering for that particular lady, but I won't say she's irreplaceable."

"How about Shikako?  She's a pretty one.  And the mistress will -- ?"  The guard looked at the girl who seemed out of place in this transaction.

"She's coming too.  She's into this sort of stuff.  A complete pervert.  This was her idea from the start, and you know how it is when they get fired up."  Jin said.

The guard shook his head in commiseration for Jin.  "Well, so long as her perversions don't go so far as to damage our workers, we can look the other way.  I trust you'll rein her in?"

"Oh, certainly."  Jin smiled.

"Then, let me escort you to your room.  Shikako will be joining you shortly."  The guard opened the door to the flower district and the three walked through a carnival like atmosphere full of men and women laughing and drinking.  The women didn't seem to be having as much fun as the men, and they looked a little tired and worn, but Jin had quickly learned to ignore signs like those and believe their bright smiles and encouraging words instead.  What was the use in worrying about it?

The guard handed them off to the innkeeper, who poured them two cups of sake and invited them to take a bath first.  These sorts of invitations were of course orders.  Whores did not have time or patience for dirty people who had just finished a day's travel.  Luckily for Jin, he didn't have to avoid being excited by Haru anymore, so they accepted the offer gladly and stepped into the heated tub together.

"Was 'total pervert' necessary?"  Harukaze asked, her face red with indignation and embarrassment.

"Why else would you enter the flower district?  Sightseeing?"  Jin asked cheerfully, staring at his wife's body like it was the first time he'd ever seen it.

"Even so. . ."  Harukaze blubbered quietly into the water, her face buried in the water and her arms hugging her knees.  "Now he's going to think I'm some sort of shameful woman for the rest of his life."

"It would be terrible if anyone thought poorly of you anywhere in Niron."  Jin sympathized.

"It would.  I have my family's honor to think about, and my own, and besides, it hurts when people dislike you, even if it's a stranger."  Harukaze said.

"If it helps, if we kill the brothel keeper, the guard will probably realize we were lying about our reasons for entering."  Jin said.

"You're right!"  Harukaze brightened up.  "Let's finish our bath and find Nonose.  I knew that reasonably speaking Akikaze wouldn't be here, but there's still someone we can meet."

"This place doesn't seem especially cruel.  Just a brothel like any other."  Jin commented.

"What are you talking about?  It's not like any other.  It's the brothel that imprisoned and raped my sister.  I don't care about what other brothels do to other women.  I don't even care about what you do in other brothels.  At least, not much.  Though I wish you'd stop now. . ."

"To tell you the truth, I haven't had the energy to even think about such a thing anymore."  Jin said.  "And the village we're returning to is too small for easy access anyway."

"So you'll -- ?"  Harukaze looked over at her husband hopefully.

"Oh, you never know.  Maybe a girl I meet while shopping will sweep me off my feet and before I know it. . ."  Jin started.

Harukaze gave him a wide-eyed look of mixed hope and despair.

"Well. . ."  Jin sighed, leaning over to kiss her on the lips.  "The odds of that are pretty low, huh?  I doubt I'm going to fall in love twice."

Harukaze didn't have to move much to be embracing her husband yet again, and they proceeded to make use of their nudity with fervent urgency.

When they were done, they got back out of the tub, their hands still lingering around each other even as they dressed, their eyes still looking greedily at body parts clothing was obscuring once more.  The two just couldn't stop.  It was like their passion came from somewhere outside their bodies and just compelled them to want more.  Jin hadn't been seized with this sort of longing, which he generally considered just one more problem to be solved like hunger or sleepiness, in his entire life.  Harukaze hadn't imagined such feelings had even existed before.  It was a wonder the two had even managed to take enough time off from making love to walk this far.  That's how hard it was to stop.  Now that it had begun, neither wanted it to stop.  And the enemy in front of them was supposedly 'invincible.'  The odds that Jin wouldn't be coming back from this next encounter, just a few minutes away, were too high to ignore.

"The point."  Harukaze tried to control her breathing again.  "Is that I hate Nonose for what he did to Akikaze.  Not for what he did.  I could forgive the latter.  I can't forgive the former.  He has to die for providing the incentive for the debt collectors to take her away from me over my parents' dead bodies.  Without him, none of this would have happened.  My parents would still be alive, Akikaze would be safe and happy, and I would still be living with them.  We may have lost our house, but we wouldn't have lost. . .you understand, right?  What if I were taken from you?"

"I'd hunt the bastards down and kill them."  Jin said.

Harukaze nodded.  "It took me a long time, because I wasn't strong enough on my own.  But I'm finally here.  He's the worst sort of scum, he hurt me more than anyone else on Earth, and now I'm going to kill him.  I don't want to stop, Jin.  I want all of them dead, everyone who's responsible, no matter what."

"I made a deal."  Jin slid his katana and wakizashi into place, horizontal and wedged tight by his kimono's sash.  "I honor my deals.  However, I don't want you interfering again like last time.  It was unacceptable then and it's still unacceptable now."

"In that case, promise me you'll win this time."  Harukaze begged.

"I promise.  So stay out of it.  Every time I think of how you interfered, it pisses me off so much I want to. . .Don't make me feel this way again."  Jin demanded.

"I'll stay out of your duels."  Harukaze promised, a little afraid of his face.

"Alright, let's go find the big boss."  Jin said, stepping to the innkeeper's desk at the front entrance.

"This service is terrible."  Jin complained loudly.  "The sake tastes bad, the bath water was cold, and Shikako hasn't shown up yet.  I demand to speak to the owner of this institution.  I paid ten olan for this?"  Jin angrily gestured at his surroundings.

"Sir?  Everything is as it should be. . ."  The woman replied with a look of genuine surprise.

"Do you filthy nin think you can treat me like this?  I'm bushi class.  I will not be talked back to by nin.  Summon your owner, nin.  I have the right to cut you down right here, and if you contradict me again, by God, I'll exercise that right."  Jin said, putting his hand lightly on the hilt of his sword.

"Please, sir, this is not a place for violence.  I will talk to the owner.  There's been some sort of mistake.  We mean no disrespect."  The innkeeper bowed, real fear making her cringe back from the desk.  Bushi could kill any nin who didn't show bushi proper respect, as judged solely by the bushi themselves.  The government did not look fondly upon disturbers of the natural order, the peaceful hierarchy of rulers and ruled, as set forth by the very gods at the beginning of time.  If a bushi said a nin had given them smack, then they had done so, and the case was closed.

"Stop groveling and go."  Jin leaned back against the wall, more satisfied.  The older woman bowed once more just to be safe and ran for it.

"Will he come?"  Jin wondered.  "Maybe she's just going to summon the guards on us."

"He'll come.  Remember, he's not afraid of swords.  If we're trouble, he's here mostly to deal with it in the first place."  Harukaze promised.

"Good."  Jin said.  Another opponent stronger than Vaj.  He sighed and stepped out into the open grounds, where his sword arm would have more maneuverability.  It was just a matter of waiting now.

Jin nodded to himself, and then went back inside the inn to steal the innkeeper's ink brush and paper that kept the accounts and receipts.  Technically, all of the whores in the brothel were working to pay off their debts.  If they ever managed it, they were free to go, though only a very few ever made more money than the 'expenses' of the interest on their debt, plus clothes, room, board, security, etc, etc.  Even so, every record was kept diligently and added or subtracted to the total.  For that one in a thousand chance, all thousand whores worked as hard as they could for their freedom, and therefore that chance was very carefully maintained and displayed for all to see.

He had a different purpose for the brush and paper, however.  He had thought up a new death poem, and it would be helpful if he got it down on paper before he faced an ostensibly invincible foe.

With the last character finished, he read it over again and then nodded, satisfied.  Much better than the doggerel he and Haru had traded on their boat ride.  This was suited to a warrior's death.  Now just to put it somewhere where it wouldn't be missed if he died.  There was no point writing it out if no one saw it afterwards.  He decided to roll the sheet of paper into a ring and tied the ends together as a sort of paper bracelet.  That would do.  Only the blind would miss a clue like that.

"I hear you have a complaint?"  A hugely muscled man stepped forward wearing a thin silk vest that only covered a few portions of his muscled upper body.  His face wasn't as pretty as his abs, however.  It seemed to be wider than it should be, and the body parts were all out of place.  Like Harukaze had said, his nose seemed to stretch out like a canvas across his face, instead of ever reach the third dimension.

"Not exactly.  She's the one with the complaint.  I'm just here to enforce it."  Jin pointed to his wife, who was glaring at the man fearlessly.

"Four years ago, you bought my sister.  What happened to Akikaze from there?"  Harukaze asked sharply.

"Who knows?  I don't keep track of every worthless whore in the entire district.  That's what record books are for."  Nonose looked at the two, turning his head slowly as his own anger began to grow.

"Then, show me these records.  What did you do to her?"  Harukaze asked again.

"I have no obligation to tell you.  Oh, that's right, she killed herself.  A month in."  Nonose grinned.

"Liar."  Harukaze said.  "You're just saying that to hurt me. . ."

"So what if I am?  I don't like people who come barging in here and causing a fuss.  I think I have just the plan for you two.  How about I kill this troublemaker and enlist you in place of your dead sister?  It has a certain symmetry to it, no?"  Nonose flexed his fist.

Jin drew his sword.  "That sounds fair.  If you die here, you agree to let both of us go on our way.  If you win, you get to keep the pretty girl."

"Done."  Nonose agreed in front of the gathered crowd, leering at Harukaze.  "You don't know who you're messing with, mister."

"You don't know how angry I am, trash."  Jin replied, slowly rotating his sword until his whole body was twisted almost backwards away from his foe.  His feet shuffled forward, the blade as far away from his opponent as possible.

Nonose walked forward, his muscles tensed like a blowfish holding air, and went within Jin's territory still smiling with confidence.

Jin unwound like a coiled spring, his sword tip reaching lightning fast speed, as he surged his leg muscles forward into one single strike.  His one armed deathblow went diagonally up from the man's left side to his right shoulder.  It was too fast to dodge.  It was too fast for the human eye to even realize it had happened, or for the brain to acknowledge it needed to do something about it.  It was the Kensui school's strongest strike, using Niron's sharpest blade, a blade fit for the Emperor, but passed down generation through generation within the Ukizake house.  If he couldn't pierce Nonose's steel skin technique with this, well, that was that.

Nonose's smile became a death rictus as he fell to the ground, any number of vital organs pierced through in an instant.  The man's body barely held together via a few uncut ligaments and bones.

The crowd looked at their owner’s body in astonished silence.  Jin sliced his sword once more through the air, splattering off his enemy’s blood, then calmly took out his cloth and wiped it clean.  As he passed the rag along his sword, he had an eerie sense of alarm, like the sword was still vibrating in pain.  He raised it into the firelight to search for cracks, but there was nothing visibly wrong.  He ran his fingertip down the sword again, and again it made his stomach knot with a feeling of unease.

“Jin?  I think it might be best if we got going.  I mean, I know he guaranteed us safe passage, but. . .”  Harukaze pulled on his kimono sleeve.

“Hmm?  Oh, right.”  Jin looked up at the crowd, which was looking at him with a sense of awe.  Nonose had a reputation not just in this town, but across all of Niron.  This ending wasn’t supposed to happen.  No one, least of all Nonose, had expected it, and they were still searching for an answer about what to do about it now.

“Let’s go then.”  Jin suggested, sheathing his sword.  Steel skin or not, his sword was better than steel,  it was a Muriama blade.  The result was preordained.  Martial arts hokey pokey couldn’t stop reality.  Jin wondered how the man had lived this long.

Chapter 6

"Look at that castle!"  Harukaze Ukizake pointed excitedly.  "It must be ten stories tall!"

"Totally ornamental.  All you have to do is set fire to the base.  Then who cares how high it goes?"  Jin Ukizake looked at Yoto's famous landmark.

"Get into the spirit.  It's the capital!  This is where all the gods live.  See, there's the shrine to Tsukisama, and over there is Amaterusama."  Harukaze pointed, grabbing his sleeve to turn him with her other hand.

"I've been here before, you know.  I'm not like a certain underage naif."  Jin tousled the hair on top of Haru's head.

"Well I'm going to enjoy my first time."  Harukaze said firmly.  "Over there is the wooden platform.  They say if you make a prayer and then jump off of it to the ground below, the gods will grant it."

"That's a fatal drop."  Jin pointed out.

"So?  Do you think the gods grant prayers for free?"  Harukaze replied.

"What's the good in a prayer you don't live to see?"  Jin said, chewing on a nice new green shoot as he gauged the fall.

"The moment before you die, when you know, for just a split second, that your dreams will come true."  Harukaze explained.

"What's the use if you only know that for a split second?"  Jin asked.

"You don't get it, do you?  A split second of accomplishment is better than an entire lifetime of failure."  Harukaze put her hands on her hips.

"How about you make my life easier and jump off the cliff, then?  You could ask the gods to strike Yahiko down with lightning."  Jin suggested.

"I already told you it's pointless unless I do it myself.  What's the use in Gods getting my revenge?  I won't share my revenge with anyone."  Harukaze said.

"You're sharing it with me."  Jin said.

"You are me."  Harukaze smiled.

"Fine, fine."  Jin twirled his stem in circles with his tongue.  "We're in Yoto.  So where's Yahiko?  Let's collect his blue sword and go home already."

"You're going to win, right?"  Harukaze asked worriedly.

"If he relies on a proper swordfight, well, phantom blade has never failed me before."  Jin said.  "I'm more afraid of your brother, honestly."

"He's not going to come back from the grave to beat you again, you know."  Harukaze teased.

"You know what I mean.  Anyway, I have no intention to lose here."  Jin said, spitting out his plant and walking down the street to pick another promising one.  They tasted better fresh.

"The sword isn't really blue you know.  Only the dappling on the edge."  Harukaze pointed out.

"Is there anything you didn't lie about?"  Jin sighed.  So much for his treasure sword.

"You just never listen to me.  I said my family caused the debt, right?  I never said I didn't have a brother.  I never said our third target wasn't said brother.  It's not my fault if you don't connect the dots."

"Uh-huh."  Jin said noncommittally.  "So, where's Yahiko's place?"

"If he's really, truly out of your league, I won't demand you simply walk to your death."  Harukaze said, her eyes looking into his.  "You've killed four of the five people who destroyed my life.  I didn't think I'd ever make it this far.  There's no shame in quitting here."

"You'd never really accept that."  Jin Ukizake said, staring back into her eyes.

"No, I wouldn't."  Harukaze looked down.  "I. . .think I'd hate you too, if you stopped now.  I'm sorry."

Jin smiled.  That was the Haru he knew.  "There you have it.  So, Yahiko's place?"

Harukaze pointed to the castle.  "He's the captain of the watch, now.  He's the king of the underworld, but even the underworld serves the Emperor.  The Emperor gets his cut too, for staying out of the way."

"Heh.  Typical.  But if he's so high ranking a bushi, he couldn't very well turn down a duel of honor.  It won't be a problem."  Jin said, sizing up the building.  He'd been on hits before, but never right under the Emperor's nose.  He was getting a little excited.  The fight to determine the best swordsman in Niron.  He'd always wanted a challenge like this, at least once in his life.
It didn't take long to reach the castle gate.  Compared to the month they'd been walking hither and yon, it felt like the blink of an eye.

"My name is Jin Ukizake.  If you don't know, my clan owns ten thousand ri of land, and I'm their firstborn son.  I'm here to see Yahiko Nomura.  He's offended my wife's honor, and I demand a duel to settle the issue."  Jin said to the guards at the front gate of the Emperor's palace.

"Jin Ukizake?"  The guard asked questioningly.  "Wasn't he disowned?"

"I apologized to my parents and they reinstated me.  This is besides the point.  Is your lord going to turn down a challenge or will he accept it?"  Jin said with an edge of impatience.

"I'll inform the lieutenant."  The guard shrugged, and went inside the castle.

"Your family's that important?"  Harukaze blinked.

"Of course.  Muriama blades aren't handed out like candy."  Jin said.

"Are you going to apologize to them and get your lands back like you said?"  Harukaze asked a little hopefully.

"Me?  Apologize?  To that old geezer?  I'd rather die!  Arrogant bastard, trying to tell me what a bushi could and couldn't do, going on and on about things that didn't matter, I'd like to see his face right now. . ."

"Okay, okay!  Forget I mentioned it!"  Harukaze said, grabbing his arm and pressing it to her bosom.  "We'll be just fine either way!"

A higher ranking warrior stepped out of the front gate to take a look at the castle's guests.  "He has the same face.  He could be Ukizake's heir."

"I'm glad that's settled.  Now the real question is, does this nation accept insults to the wives of bushi, or is there anything sacred left in this world?"  Jin asked.

"What did he say?"  The guard asked, still unconvinced.

"He didn't say anything.  He just ordered her parents killed and her sister into a brothel.  Is that good enough for you?"  Jin asked.

"I. . .suppose that could be considered an insult. . ."  The guard looked taken aback.  "Very well, I will bring it to lord Nomura's attention."

"Thank you.  We'll be waiting."  Jin gave a slightly polite bow.  Then he sighed and sat down, propping his back against the stone wall to stare at the sky.

The door closed again, and Harukaze sat down beside him.

"I love you, Jin."  Harukaze said, their collective die cast.

"I love you too, Haru."  Jin replied, closing his eyes and looking at the sky in his mind.  The purest, deepest blue he could fathom.  A reason for being.  This was probably good enough.

Neither of them said anything more.  There wasn't anything more to say.  They must have waited an hour sitting against the wall before the guards came again.

"Yahiko Nomura remembers ordering something like that.  He has accepted your challenge.  You may both enter, if fighting in the open courtyard is acceptable?"  The guard asked.

"It's acceptable."  Jin agreed, and the two entered the Imperial Palace's front yard.  Harukaze squeezed his hand one last time and then retreated to the outside circle of any reasonable swordfight that the troops had collectively formed.

In a few more minutes, Yahiko Nomura walked out of the palace, wearing a brilliant white kimono decorated with golden cranes, with his katana and wakizashi likewise sheathed in gold-chased white scabbards.  He had long hair that floated a foot above his head in a top knot that floated back down to his shoulders and a clean-shaven, cold-eyed face of a hawk.  The man's walk seemed to imply that he had never been afraid of anything in his life, nor had he met anyone in his life who wasn't afraid of him.  Jin saw those eyes fasten on him and forced himself to meet the gaze and not look away.  He'd be damned if he shamed himself in front of this many people, greatest swordsman in Niron or not.

"Jin Ukizake.  I've heard good things about you.  You're a hundred man slayer, correct?"  Yahiko said, his brisk pace coming to a halt.

"That's probably true.  I never kept count.  How about you?"  Jin asked.

"Unfortunately, my duties keep me away from the front lines, most of the time.  But it's always a pleasure to cross blades with truly skilled opponents.  I've walked away from a strategy meeting concerning our future deployments in Qin.  Please make this a bit entertaining for me."

Jin stared at Yahiko Nomura, a little disquieted.  All of his opponents had been confident.  But this was over the top.  Did Yahiko truly think he was of a completely different species than the people he daily murdered and stole from?  He didn't seem happy or sad about his crimes, it was like he had some sort of diplomatic immunity from them, simply because he was strong.  He wasn't even in the same league as the previous four.  Jin felt like his courage would just dribble away the longer he bandied words with this man.  Never mind trying to get this man to reflect on his sins.  It was enough if they could simply win and put this matter to rest.  It was time to close the book.

Jin drew his katana.

Yahiko nodded, and drew his own.  It sparkled in the sun's rays, a wavy pattern on the first quarter that really did look like morning dew.  The sword and the man matched each other.  Jin calmed himself down and approached his opponent in a descending spiral, his sword held in a normal defensive overhead posture.

Yahiko Nomura held his sword in front of him with both hands, the tip following Jin's footsteps as the holder pivoted carefully to stay in line with his opponent.  Every sword duel, no matter how many circles you made, ended up being a battle of straight lines.  Sidesteps were impossible in a battle where hands were quicker than eyes.  All you could hope for was getting a tiny advantage before that one linear strike that determined it all.  Yahiko's stance wasn't unprecedented, just unorthodox.  Jin had fought this type before.  With the phantom blade, Yahiko still wouldn't manage to block.  It was okay.  If he could just get in range, it would be okay.

Yahiko's body flashed forward, his sword aiming for a killing thrust as his arms straightened out to their full extent.

Jin peddled backwards furiously, striking his sword down to knock Yahiko's thrust clear of his chest.  The two swords met and Jin's cracked in two, the top half flying away into the dirt a couple feet away.

Yahiko twisted his wrists and struck again, his reflexes faster than a scorpion's sting.  His blue sword stabbed straight into Jin's unprotected chest.

Jin gaped at his broken Muriama sword haft in bewilderment.  "No fair."

Yahiko ripped his sword clear of his opponent by cutting all the way back out again, and then kicked the corpse to the ground.

"Honestly.  What a waste of time."  Yahiko stared coldly at his opponent's corpse, flicking his sword clean of blood.

"Did you really think you could challenge me?"  Yahiko asked, looking at the dead sellsword with indignance at such a meaningless fight.  Then he wiped his sword clean and returned it to his sheathe.  A piece of paper wrapped around his foe's wrist caught his eye, and he knelt down to strip it off.  He unfolded the piece of paper and cleared out its wrinkles to read what was written.

"How stupid."  Yahiko said, tossing the paper on top of the dead man's corpse.  It soon became illegibly soaked in blood.

"You, woman."  Yahiko Nomura said, looking at the paralyzed Harukaze for the first time.  "What will you do?"

"I. . .I ask that you bury me with my husband.  I too am an Ukizake.  I beg the right to harakiri."  Harukaze whispered through emotionless lips.

"Granted.  See that it is done."  Yahiko nodded with a bit of respect towards the shattered woman and then walked back into the palace doors.

Harukaze drew a knife from inside her sleeve and knelt down to the ground.  A guard drew his sword and stood behind her.

"I ask to have the honor to send you on your way, bushi."  The man said formally.

"Granted. Thank you, sir."  Harukaze whispered.  Then she stabbed herself in the stomach.  The pain didn't last long.  The man behind her followed it up with a decapitating strike that sent her head rolling nearly to the body of her husband.

The strip of paper twisted and curled with its maker's blood, the ink slowly running off its appointed place.  The death poem was simple and short.

"A snowflake. . .falls.
A frozen heart. . .thaws."

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