OIRAN: Chapter 5 – An Uneasy Alliance
by Haku Baikou

The ground was damp, the morning frost having melted, leaving behind a carpet of spongy moss and wet leaves that looked quite pretty, but, unfortunately, chilled Jubei's feet. A pervading cold seeped into his limbs and settled deep in his bones, stiffening his joints and exacerbating his cough. He'd smothered the noises in the thick sleeve of his haori and forced himself to remain quiet as he trudged along the forest trail behind Kitada and the rest of the men.

His chest burned as he breathed, and he had a growing collection of bloody flecks on his sleeve. And yet he dared not utter any complaints for fear he'd be left behind. Kitada and Kamatari looked at him in concern enough as it was. The old shirobei captain frowned with worry when he thought Jubei wasn't looking. Jubei feared that any moment, he'd be sent back to the small camp that had been set up downriver as their temporary headquarters. Or worse yet, that he'd be sent clear back to Shin Yoshiwara itself.

The entire day had been a disheartening affair, Kitada's best efforts producing only a few hints as to the whereabouts of Yumi and Mari. The girls were on a steam powered paddleboat heading slowly upriver. Kitada and his men knew that much. But despite hours of searching, there was no sign of any such vessel.

Which was not really surprising, Jubei thought, considering the damnable fog that had settled across the water and enshrouded the riverbank since early in the morning. It had showed no signs of clearing throughout the day, and now, as night approached, and the temperature dropped, it seemed to cling even more doggedly to the water and the land around it. Jubei hated the fog. It rendered their search efforts nearly useless. And it was murder on his lungs.

He sighed in relief when Kitada finally stopped ahead to consult with his scouts who were slowly reporting in. Jubei rested as inconspicuously as he could, leaning against a wide tree trunk. He concentrated on taking deep and even breaths despite the near-overwhelming urge to raggedly gulp in air.

He fingered the sword at his hip, as if he could borrow strength from the weapon at his side. He looked at the finely crafted hilt. Strange, that he had not chosen his own sword for this mission of theirs. He had, at the last minute, grabbed the other one. The one he almost never used. It was a strange weapon to him, but its craftsmanship was unequaled, finer than any other weapon he'd owned. And so, despite its rare usage, this particular weapon rested as easily in his grip as his own sword.

"How are you holding up, Jubei?" Kamatari's concerned voice interrupted his thoughts as the young onnagata came over to stand beside him. The petite actor was carrying that gargantuan scythe of his without any obvious effort, while Jubei could barely keep from falling over. The artist experienced just a touch of bitterness at that.

"Fine," he said as he straightened himself and stepped away from the tree. He'd be damned if he'd admit that, no, he wasn't quite all right. That he felt as if his chest were on fire. That his vision was swimming and distorting in fascinatingly aesthetic patterns that—though interesting to look at from an artist's perspective—surely didn't bode well for what was left of his physical stamina.

He must have hidden his discomfort well, for Kamatari nodded, seemingly satisfied, and turned his attention on the river, scanning for any signs of the ship.

Jubei studied the young onnagata's slim back. Kamatari looked strangely out of place amid the roughened soldiers of Kitada's command, thought Jubei. And apparently, Kitada's men thought the same, for several of them frowned slightly as they stole furtive glances towards the actor. Kamatari seemed not to notice. Which was for the best. Little did Kitada's men know, Jubei thought smiling to himself. Little did they know that the delicate-seeming onnagata could probably best most of them in a fight. Still, he couldn't really blame Kitada's men for doubting. Kamatari seemed a willowy sapling among oaks in this particular company.

The onnagata turned to look back at him and smiled reassuringly.

"She'll be all right, you know," said Kamatari.

"I hope so," Jubei replied.

"She's a survivor."

Jubei nodded in hopeful agreement and tried not to imagine Yumi alone and frightened, hurt, or worse…. There were times he cursed his artist's overactive imagination….

"…Not to mention a conniving bitch," added Kamatari with a cheeky grin. "Nasty women always come out all right in the end, Jubei. It's the nice ones you have to worry about…. Yumi ought to be fine."

"Thanks," Jubei said dryly.

"Nishida-san. Honjou-san." Kitada called softly as he made his way over to the two of them. The old captain looked troubled.

"Have they found her?" asked Jubei.

"No, not yet."

"What is it then?"

"It's… It's Takei."

"What?" Jubei frowned.

"My men report that Takei's apparently got men in the nearby vicinity. And Takei himself may be out here as well," the old soldier practically growled.

"Looking for Yumi?" asked Kamatari.

"Of course, what else?" Kitada answered. "They're headed this way."

"Oh. Shit," said the young actor.

"Do they know we're out here?" asked Jubei.

"Probably. I'd hoped to avoid them, but…" His voice trailed off as Kitada cocked his head to the side, listening. A faint rustling of noise could be heard in the distance, the sound of a large company of men, of horses, of carriages and carts.

Kitada shook his head. "Too late. They're almost here."

"Damn. He's going to take over," said Jubei. "You know that. He's going to take over everything."

"Hai," said Kitada-san unhappily. "If it were just that strategist of his, what's-his-name, we'd be all right. But if Takei's coming himself…. Hell, he won't listen to anyone, not even his own advisors."

"That arrogant, incompetent ass," Jubei muttered.

The old captain was about to respond when they were suddenly interrupted by one of the shirobei, shouting excitedly: "Kitada-taichou! Kitada-san! We've found them!"

The world froze for just a moment. And then Jubei was moving before the other two even realized what the soldier had said. Kitada and Kamatari quickly caught up with the artist and the three of them met Kitada's excited scout.

"They're just up the river, Kitada-taichou!" said the soldier. He must have run the entire way back, for his breathing was labored, and he looked ready to collapse.

"Shishio's boat? It's near?"

"About two miles upriver."

"You sure it's Shishio's boat? Not some other steamship?" asked the old Captain sternly.

"Hai, hai! I took a small rowboat. Got near, got a fairly good look. It's the one. I'm sure of it." The man took a moment to get his breathing under control. "They were in the middle of the river, near a small island about halfway between the two shores. I saw no other vessels nearby."

"Were you seen?"

"Iya, I don't believe so, Kitada-taichou. At least, no alarms were raised. And no one followed me. I checked."

The shirobei nearby had overheard and were suddenly quiet, awaiting Kitada-san's orders.

Their Captain and Jubei looked at each other, unspoken plans already forming in both their heads. Despite Jubei's current occupation as a woodblock artist, he was a trusted advisor to Kitada-san due to his past experiences with the Shinsengumi. Kitada's men were all quite familiar with the artist who often hung around their barracks, talking shop with their Captain. Many of the older ones remembered seeing Jubei spar with their Captain a few years ago when the artist was still in good health. He had usually won the matches back then. And so they trusted him almost as much as their taichou.

They were a disciplined group and waited expectantly as Jubei and Kitada moved off to the side to confer. Kamatari, blessedly silent for once, waited with the rest of the men.

"What do you think," asked Kitada-san. "You've met this Shishio fellow. You feel he knows what he's doing?"

"No doubt of it," Jubei answered grimly. "I'm sure he fought in the Bakumatsu. No one in the Meiji era has such reflexes. I'd bet what's left of my life on it. We're dealing with an experienced soldier, Kitada-san. And he has trained men. Who knows how many. Do you think you're men are up to this? It won't be an easy fight."

"Some of them are young and untested in actual combat," Kitada admitted. "But they've been trained well. And they're brave lads."

"I thought my fighting days were done long ago," said Jubei quietly. "This ought to be interesting."

"Jubei, perhaps…" Kitada hesitated.

Jubei frowned at the odd look Kitada gave him. He knew what was coming next. Kitada wanted him to stay out of the fight, to stand and watch and do nothing as the rest of them tried to rescue his dearest friend.

Jubei wouldn't allow it. Couldn't allow it.

He fixed Kitada with a hard stare that brooked no argument. He was Nishida Jubei, formerly of the Shinsengumi, and despite the fact that he was sick now and had never one of the best fighters of his company, he still had the strength and the will to do as he wished, to decide his own fate. He looked at Kitada, daring the older man to say the words, daring him to tell Jubei he couldn't join them.

Kitada swallowed, startled, Jubei knew, by the fierce look on his face. Kitada had never seen him angry, had never seen anything but the mildest of expressions on his face, even when they'd practiced together years ago.

Kitada cleared his throat awkwardly. "What do you think, then, Nishida-san? Watch and wait? They're bound to run out of supplies sooner or later. They'll have to come to shore."

Jubei smiled inwardly, relieved that the captain had backed down.

"Hai," he agreed. "Only difficult part is to figure out which side they'll go to. East or west? And if they don't land soon, we'd have to force them into doing it."

"Jubei," called Kamatari, hesitating to interrupt the two.

"What is it," asked Jubei, unable to keep the slight hint of irritation out of his voice.

"Jubei, Takei-san has arrived!"

In the excitement over finding Yumi, he had all but forgotten about Takei. The sight of the former lord's carriage coming to a halt before his very eyes forced upon him a situation he had hoped never to have to deal with. Before he could even protest, the carriage had stopped completely, and the vanguard of Takei's impressive company had surrounded the entire clearing.

Beside him, Kitada-san tensed. The old captain had been a former servant of Takei a long time ago, and to this day, Kitada made it very plain what he thought of the lord. His opinion of Takei was actually quite a common one. The only difference between Kitada-san and most other men, however, was that the Captain made his feelings quite obvious and public.

The carriage doors opened, and out stepped a giant of a man dressed in black gi and olive-green hakama. Takei kept his hair long, bound high in the fashion of warriors. Despite his considerable bulk, his movements were smooth and fluid, the telltale signs of a warrior well versed in combat. Even Jubei, who detested the man more than most, could not deny that Takei moved with the grace of one who had fought in the Bakumatsu.

As the former daimyo stepped down from the carriage, he was followed by a smaller, thin man with chin length hair and haunted, sunken eyes. Sadojima-san, Takei's rusuiyaku, or house manager. Or so that's what his public title was. Jubei knew, however, that Sadojima was much more than he appeared. He was Takei's right hand man. And considering Takei-san's inability for original thought, Jubei suspected Sadojima was actually the mastermind behind most of the former-daimyo's success in the post-war era.

Takei Ryuichi, unlike so many of his former peers, had managed to survive the Bakumatsu not only alive, but quite well off financially. His family estates were gone, his title lost, and his current fortune most likely couldn't match what he'd had before the war, but he was still considered obscenely rich by any normal man's standards. Somehow, with the help of his advisors, he had managed to amass a considerable fortune from the spoils of war, taking advantage of those less fortunate, and outright bullying any who opposed his business ventures.

He was slime in Jubei's estimation. A powerful man with considerable skill with a sword. But a far cry from a warrior no matter how proudly he carried himself.

As the former daimyo surveyed the scene, his eyes settled on Jubei and narrowed a bit.

"Nishida Jubei, my old friend. What a surprise to see you here," said Takei, his voice oily smooth. His voice was pitched for pleasantries, but his smile never reached his eyes.

"No more of a surprise than your presence here, Takei-san," Jubei murmured. "A powerful man such as yourself has no need to take personal charge of such an insignificant affair, surely."

"Hardly insignificant when my darling Yumi is involved," said the former daimyo. He turned towards the captain. "Kitada Zenko," Takei chided as his gaze slid over to the shirobei captain. "What are you doing dragging a sick artist out to a warrior's assembly? The poor wretch ought to be in bed."

Jubei bit down on a retort and kept his face impassive, unwilling to allow Takei the satisfaction of seeing him riled.

"Nishida-san has battle experience that is of value in our search," said Kitada, his voice rigidly neutral. "And as you can see, he is well enough at the moment."

"Aa," said Takei smiling. "Kitada, my men tell me you've found the boat. Is this so?"

"Hai, Takei-san." Kitada could not keep the bitter tone completely from his voice.

Takei's fleeting frown was quickly hidden behind a smooth grin as he motioned for his advisor to his side. "Have you met Sadojima-san, Kitada?"

"His reputation precedes him," said Kitada. "But no, we have not formally met." He nodded briefly to the other man.

Sadojima barely acknowledged the captain. The man looked tired. Or bored. Jubei couldn't tell which.

"And what are your plans for taking the ship?" asked Takei.

"We follow them. Attack when they dock for supplies--"

"Ridiculous," said Takei. "Absurd. We're not cowards, Kitada-san."

"Sir?" asked Kitada slowly.

"I don't savor the idea of waiting in the dark, skulking in the shadows as they dock."

Jubei was not at all surprised by Takei's reaction. But all the same, it took an effort not to blurt the first invective that came to mind. He watched Sadojima intently and saw that the rusuiyaku seemed to agree. The man had nodded almost imperceptibly at the shirobei captain's plan.

"To attack them while they're traveling would present difficulties," Jubei said reasonably.

Takei looked at them, his expression hard. "I can understand why an artist would wish to choose such a cowardly path. But a warrior, Kitada-san, ought to know better."

"Takei-sama," said Sadojima quietly. "Perhaps…" His protest died on his lips as his master turned his gaze on Sadojima. The man was instantly cowed. Sadojima was his house manager, and most likely, Takei's trusted advisor and strategist. But even he looked on Takei-san with no small amount of trepidation. Jubei wondered what kind of a master Takei was to make his own men fear him so.

"We catch up to them. We find boats. We attack them on the water. We bring Yumi home. It's that simple," said Takei.

Jubei bit his lip. It was hardly that simple.

"Takei-san," said Jubei. "Please consider—"

"Silence," warned the former daimyo. And to Jubei's dismay, by some unseen hand gesture of the former daimyo, several of Takei's men had their hands on their weapons. Which caused Kitada's men to be instantly on the alert, their hands also ready to draw their swords.

It was ridiculous. It was surreal. How the situation had escalated to the threat of violence within the span of minutes was beyond Jubei. They were supposed to be hunting for Yumi, not trying to kill each other.

"I have had a very bad day, gentlemen," said Takei slowly, voice dripping with venom. "I've had enough dealing with my offices burnt down. I don't need any more trouble. You have two choices, Kitada-san. Join us and help me get Yumi. Or you go back to Shin Yoshiwara now. I will not tolerate your presence otherwise."

Kitada motioned for his men to stand down. They did so reluctantly, never taking their eyes off Takei's troops.

"We'll join you," he said quietly.

Takei nodded, satisfied, and turned on his heel to leave. "Sadojima-san," he said, his back toward everyone. "See that the artist has a comfortable ride back home. He has no business being out here."

Son of a bitch!

"No!" protested Jubei, desperately looking toward Kitada who seemed unsure of what to do. Takei ignored him and kept walking. "I will not be left behind, Takei!"

Sadojima and two soldiers approached Jubei. "Come with me," ordered the rusuiyaku.

"Forget it. I'm not leaving," Jubei almost snarled.

Sadojima laughed. "We don't need a dead man with rotted lungs—"

Jubei didn't know what happened exactly.

He only knew that one moment he was facing a mocking Sadojima, and the next, the man was on the ground screaming, blood pouring down his face, and Jubei's right hand was cocked in a fist, throbbing with pain. He was breathing hard, and his face felt flush with exertion.

He was aware of angry shouts, of tugging against his sleave, of a messy commotion all around him. But all he saw was the blood pouring from Sadojima nose.

"Stay back!" A high pitched, almost womanly voice shouted near him. "He's staying, and that's all there is to it! Anyone fucking touch him, and you deal with me, understand?"

He blinked. Looked around. Came out of the strange state he was in to notice Kitada behind him, gripping his arms tightly to keep him from moving. Kamatari stood in front of him, his scythe in hand, facing Takei's men, who circled them angrily. Kamatari, in battle mode, had shouted the challenge to Takei's men.

"I hit him," said Jubei numbly. "I think I broke his nose."

"Yes, Nishida-san," growled Kitada. "I wish you hadn't."

"Not me. I'm glad you did it," Kamatari muttered without turning to face them.

Takei had turned to watch the goings-on. He spared only a quick glance toward Sadojima as his soldiers half dragged, half carried the rusuiyaku away. He was looking at Jubei with an odd, unreadable expression on his face.

"Nishida-san is obviously strong enough to fight, Takei-san," Kitada called. "I beg you to reconsider."

Takei smirked, seemingly more amused by the whole affair than anything. "So bring him then, if you must," he said dismissively. And with a wave of his hand, his soldiers backed off. Takei retired to his carriage, and his men began to move.

Kitada let go of Jubei's arms and began shouting orders for his men to move. They would be joining Takei's troops, and they would be moving quickly to catch up with the ship.

Jubei was left alone with Kamatari who looked at the artist with wide eyes.

"What?" asked the artist, still shocked that he had done such a thing.

"I've never seen you like that, Jubei," said Kamatari softly. "Your ki…."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be." The onnagata swung his scythe onto one shoulder and took Jubei's arm with his free hand. "You all right? Can you walk? You look a bit unsteady."

"I'm fine," said Jubei.

Jubei flexed the fingers of his hand. His knuckles were sore, but he was relieved to see he hadn't broken anything. He frowned, surprised at himself for succumbing to his anger, for acting on instinct. He hadn't done anything like this since the Bakumatsu, had always kept tight rein over his more aggressive emotions since the war had ended.

It didn't feel real to him, his sudden attack on Sadojima. Hell, the entire incident with Takei felt unreal, disconnected somehow.

"Really, Kamatari. I'm fine," he repeated. "Let's go. I don't want to fall behind."

The young actor was still staring at him. Kamatari looked as if he were about to say something, but then thought better of it. He kept his hand lightly on Jubei's arm and the two of them began walking, falling in with the rest of Kitada's men as they traveled with Takei's company upriver.

To be continued.

Japanese Terms:

Aa – yes (informal)
Bakumatsu – the period of revolution in which power shifted from the shogunate to the Meiji government
Gi – man's tunic or robe-like garment, worn with hakama
Hai – yes
Hakama – wide skirted pants worn over the gi
Haori – a jacket-like garment worn over one's kimono or gi
Iya – no
Onnagata – an actor who impersonated females in Kabuki theatre
Rusuiyaku – house manager
Shin Yoshiwara – the walled and legalized red light district in Edo/Tokyo
Shirobei – guards of Shin Yoshiwara
Taichou – captain

Author's Note:

I bet you thought this story was dead. Well, I do have to apologize. It has been ridiculously long since the last update. I've had writer's block for what seems like forever. I think I still have it, actually. This chapter is, to be honest, terrible. Absolutely terrible. But I decided to post it because if I don't, I will never get anywhere else with this story. It's like a brick wall I'm up against. It's keeping me from writing the rest of the chapters, so I'm hoping that by posting it and getting it out of the way, I can continue writing the rest of this fic.

To the reviewers - fenris-wolf, Shimizu Hitomi, Nameless, Eeevee, Rachel Wes, Fallen Virtue, unknownreader2003, Akai Kitsune, Sing, Brittanie Love, Akai Kah'ghe, The Bloody Queen of Hearts, I won't tell, and Angrybee:

Thank you so much for reading (although, after this chapter, I'm not sure you'll want to stick around.) I don't know how quickly I'll get the next chapter out. But I'll try my best. That's all I can promise you. And once again, please forgive the lackluster quality of this chapter. I am not at all happy with it, so I would understand completely if you had criticisms as well. I really wish I could get back into the swing of things. *sigh *

A bit frustrated,
haku baikou