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Their situation had all the signs of being a serious one. They were outnumbered roughly four-to-one, the opposition was grotesquely bigger in physique, and she was positive that at least one, maybe two, gunmen hid in the forest surrounding them. Truly, the odds were against them.
Yet her heart rate did not increase beyond a marginally more solid 'thump-thump'. Gone was their conversation and easy banter of travel, all eyes and minds focused on the approaching battle. There was no getting by it, even if the bandits surrendered. He would never let them go.
Onime no Kyo, the total embodiment of evil, violence, force. He saw their ambush as a challenge, the ultimate high, and she was certain that the ground would flow with blood before they departed.
One man, unshaven and more muscled than the rest, stepped forward. "We'll be taking your money, your equipment, and your woman. Leave now and you save your own life."
It was a well rehearsed, though brief, speech. Others behind him leered at her and at the sword still sheathed at Kyo's side. She wondered how many steps they would have let Kyo take, providing he met their demands, before striking him down anyways. Not that it mattered; the red samurai had just clicked his sword free.
"I have no money worth taking, the armor you'll have to peel from my dead body and the wench…" Kyo tossed a careless nod in her direction. Now her heart did still slightly. "Have her."
She felt it and was fairly certain every man there could read it on her face. Instant terror mixed with teeth-grinding rage. He meant it too, every word. They were near broke, he valued his equipment more than his life, and she apparently was disposable. That actually hurt, she realized.
Following Kyo for the better part of a year, helping him recover his true body, and then supporting him emotionally afterwards was draining. She could claim it was a great adventure, a worthy cause, a romance of the ages, but in truth Kyo had only ever been little more than a bounty.
If her heart had not become involved, binding her to his path, she would have left when the others did and gone back to chasing the money. Her uncle wanted her home and that meant eventual submission to a man and family. It was not such a poor future, nor was it something that could be too far off.
She straightened her posture, put back her shoulders, and gave Kyo what she hoped was a death glare.
The bandits closed, losing their lives one or two at a time. With the three-barreled pistol flashing, she took the hidden gunmen and three others. The rest fell to Onime no Kyo, slayer of more than a thousand men. They chose their fate so she felt no pity. It was how she felt about her self, and now she would move on.
Kyo cleaned blood from his sword, sheathing the blade with grandeur as if it was the One True Muramasa. It was not, only because said blade had disappeared after their defeat of Nobunaga, drifting away in golden shimmers as its creator had. Armor creaked as he began searching the bodies, taking money and food, leaving anything he felt was of no use.
She watched, silent. It was the silence that drew his attention, had him gazing at her. Without a by-your-leave she turned and began walking, in the direction from which they had come.
"Woman," he called, annoyed at even having to do so. "We're headed north."
"Go to hell!" She did not even hesitate, just kept walking.
So his words to the ruffians had angered her, he knew they would and had counted on her anger to see her through. She was difficult to protect as a woman, but as a warrior he knew she could take care of her self. It was just a matter of provoking the warrior from the woman.
Regarding the sky for time, the distance he knew they still had to travel; Kyo decided he could allow her a bit of time to sulk off her anger. He distanced himself from the bodies and found a comfortable tree within view of the road to rest against. He doubted it would be too long before she came seeking him and they could continue onward.
Night fell as she approached the village. The remainder of the day's travels had brought her back to their starting point but instead of stopping there she had continued on, westward now, back towards her uncle's estates.
It had been a stretch to reach the small community, knowing a short-cut that took her through the forest rather than around had helped greatly, but making it all the way to her family that day was not possible. It was dangerous to travel the roads in deep night, mainly because of wild animals and lurking youkai, but also she needed time to resolve her self to the life that awaited her at home.
Had her brother not been a clan assassin, had he not hunted a powerful and determined samurai, had she not seen him killed, she knew that the life she was returning to would have begun five years ago. 'Distractions' her uncle would call it, and she supposed it was so.
"Good evening, Miss," the stout innkeeper greeted her. She smiled in return, wondering if he would recognize her. "Would you like a room for the night?"
"Yes, please. I will actually need two nights." She withdrew a portion of her funds and handed them to the man. "Meals too please. I have traveled very far and am so hungry."
He smiled again, accepting the payment, and led her to a modest room with access to the inn's inner gardens and pools. "Will this do, Miss?"
"Yes, thank you."
"For such a lovely woman, it is a pleasure," he said, an assessing twinkle in his eye. "Shall I have tea brought to you?"
Tea. What would she give for a cup of hot, soothing tea at that moment? "Most certainly, thank you again!"
He left and she felt a slight pang of guilt for the servant or daughter he would rouse to serve her, but after the day she had had, the guilt washed away on a passing evening breeze. Tonight she needed to concentrate on eliminating her headache and relaxing her tired body, and then prepare her self for the steps she needed to take on the morrow.
She would need a new kimono, one that was full length and proper attire for a woman of her station. Her uncle would have more made, but on her meeting with him again, the first time in five years, proper appearances would need to be made. Also, there was the issue of her hair and face. Both needed grooming, and maybe some of the fine powder courtesans so favored to lighten her travel-tanned skin would make a better impression on her uncle.
A soft knocking at her door signaled the arrival of her tea. She knelt at the door, pulling the screen back and looked to the face of the figure that stood beyond. For a moment her world froze and her blood ran cold.
The shadow was tall, too tall to be a woman, dressed in the traditional shirt and pants of a samurai. The instant before he stepped into her room, she saw Kyo's face, his angry eyes and violent demeanor. Fear welled inside her, that he had tracked her here, and was going to punish her for leaving. He regarded her as a servant after all.
She pushed back from the door, tripping over the futon and blankets in her haste.
"Miss," the man entered her room, hastily setting the tea tray down and crouching near her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Are you unwell, miss?"
It was not Kyo. "Yes," she said, a sigh of relief escaping her throat. "Please forgive me, it's been a long day and I was startled. I was expecting a woman, I guess."
He smiled then, the gesture drawing her attention to his smooth good looks. Funny how she had not 'seen' another man since her travels with Kyo began. This one though was a good example of what had probably passed her by.
Piercing blue eyes that reminded her of a lake nearby were set under strong solid brows of midnight black. His hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, reminiscent of the day's training but emphasizing the square cut of his jaw and clean-shaven skin. Broad of shoulder though not overly muscled, he was as fine a male specimen as Kyo.
With a slight squeeze to her shoulder he stood, helping her to her feet. "My father was reluctant to wake the maids. He was most insistent I deliver your tea, and truly, I can see why."
She blushed prettily, from her toes to her hairline, and looked towards the tea tray for a moment. "Thank you for coming. I don't believe I've ever been waited on by a samurai before."
Was she flirting? When he smiled easily and gave a small chuckle she realized that was exactly what she was doing.
"I train at a dojo local to here. My master would hardly call me a samurai yet so you needn't worry." He winked then gave her an expression akin to horror.
"What is it?" The way she looked, how she acted, the fact she was traveling alone…
"I don't even know your name, Miss. Please excuse my poor manners." He formally bowed to her, fully from the waist and held the position. "I am Takada Genrou, of the Takada Inn. Please, accept my apologies for not saying so sooner."
Her hand came to her mouth, flattered. "Apology accepted," she said, grateful her words brought him back to an upright stand, his smile easy again. "I am Shiina Yu…"
"SHIINA!" He drew back, pale and shocked. "Not, of the Shiina Dojo, of Master Shiina?" She only nodded. "How are you related to my master? NO!" He was backing towards the door, his hands up as though to pacify a wild animal. "Please don't answer that. He'll have nothing less than my head just for being here."
He turned and she knew that her uncle would come that night. A man like Takada obviously valued honor and would go to her uncle immediately. "Please," she begged. Her voice stopped him at the threshold. "Please don't tell him yet. I need time to prepare before I see him again."
Even hidden in the shadow she knew his face showed amazement. "I cannot do that, Shiina-sama. I have to tell him." Her shoulders sagged in defeat and Genrou turned back into the room. "He will not be disappointed in you. You're spectacular."
He smiled at her slight blush. "Can you bring me a kimono at least? Anything will do, just so long as it's of length." She gestured to her travel stained, shorter attire. "I can compensate you or whoever will sell it to me."
"Of course, but no charge. My father will want to return your funds to you as well. Master Shiina has been very generous towards my family and we always return the favor."
He left then, bowing to her before closing the door.
She had almost forgotten how it felt, to be respected and treated like the member of a prominent family that she was. Kyo had never indicated recognition to her name and if any of the others had heard of her family before, they had kept silent as well.
Arranging the futon again, she sat and enjoyed a cup of tea. Across the garden a light appeared, no doubt the innkeeper rousing his wife and preparing a messenger to send to her uncle. Or would Genrou be the one to go?
Another knock on her door, this time a woman of age and a young girl, they had brought her a kimono and bone comb. She allowed them to primp and preen over her. After a time she heard the thundering sound of hooves and knew her uncle had arrived. It was only a matter of minutes now, of waiting, for him to call her.
She was ready, though when the moment finally came, and Genrou stood at the door to escort her to the other men, she thought of Kyo and wondered where he was.
He was going to thrash the woman once he caught up to her. Full dark had come, settling a mild night over his head as Kyo made his way west.
Back at the bandit ambush he had lost patience for her childish tantrum after roughly ten minutes and gone in search of her. Close to an hour of checking the nearby streams and glades produced no sign, and so he had returned to the road. Her tracks led away from the direction they had been traveling and as he had followed, it became more and more evident she had not turned back.
She had told him to go to hell, and then left him.
Kyo realized this by the time he reached the first village. The innkeeper, surprised to see him back after having left that morning, was of no help. The woman had not returned to his establishment and he came to discover that she had not stopped at the restaurant where they had dined, had not lounged in the springs where they had bathed, and in truth had not even seemed to stop in the village at all. Kyo had found a farmer on his way back into town that had however seen her on the road to the west.
"The only place of note in that direction is Dojo no Shiina, sir." He had scurried away in fear after that, terrorized by Kyo's threatening aura.
By then night was upon him.
Anger, annoyance, and frustration were up front in his mind at that point. He had not stopped to wonder why, after all the teasing, the battles, the outright insulting, she chose to leave him. The last draw, apparently. Now he thought of that.
Her village was nestled amongst a valley, backing up to a forest of bamboo and maple. In the early fall, leaves on the trees were only starting to turn red, making the forest the color of blood at night.
He found the inn easily enough. A conveyance of horses stood outside the main entrance, some with mounted guard, but most unattended. Several people exited the inn, shadows in the dim light. They mounted and turned to leave as he approached, heading off away from Kyo and disappearing in the night.
Unconcerned, he shouted to the innkeeper and made his way into the building to find a room and his delinquent woman.
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