Weapons of Choice

by

Silvrethorn

Kenjiro, a merchant, sometime smuggler, and citizen of the port city of Nagoya, ordered the vegetable rice bowl because it was the only thing the Three Cranes restaurant offered that didn't aggravate his heartburn. Not that he minded; the vegetable rice might be peasant fare, but Kenjiro was no snob about being born a peasant. He liked the vegetable rice bowl; and besides, for a man in his position, with fifty gold koban hidden away under his sash, it didn't pay to look too prosperous. Kenjiro hadn't risen from peasant to shopowner by taking foolish risks, and he didn't intend to lose a fortune in gold to a passing weakness for crabmeat.

Jin, a ronin swordsman from nowhere in particular, ordered the vegetable rice bowl because it was the cheapest thing the restaurant offered, and he wanted his dwindling hoard of copper mon to last through the next day. He carried nothing of value apart from his swords and the eyeglasses perched on his nose, but he was cautious about drawing attention to himself from pure force of habit. Though he and Kenjiro ordered at the same time, neither took more than a cursory notice of the other.

In the kitchen, Tomeo the cook took advantage of a moment's solitude to remove a small bottle from inside his kimono and pour its contents into the vegetable rice he was cooking. He scooped two portions of the doctored rice into bowls and handed them out with only a small twinge of conscience. A silver momme was a powerful salve for guilt pangs, and he couldn't take the chance of Kenjiro getting the wrong bowl. It wasn't like he was harming anybody; and besides, the pale ronin looked like he could use a good rest. Some people paid money for what Tomeo had just poured into the food. The swordsman was getting it gratis. He should be grateful.

Kenjiro ate the same way he did everything--quickly and efficiently. He spent a minute or two bantering with the restaurant's owner, then left. A few streets away from the Three Cranes, he began to feel profoundly groggy. He took several deep breaths and tried to shake it off, but couldn't. There was a tobacco shop nearby; he started to turn and go inside, but someone took his arm and steered him away. He knew he should resist, but he had no will, no strength. Helplessly he stumbled along, and darkness descended.

Jin was a slow and deliberate eater. He began to feel sleepy before he even left the table, but he put this down to the effects of a full stomach. Only a few buildings down the street, however, he began to feel extremely tired. The effort of walking up the street was like wading against a strong tide, and somewhere in the back of his rapidly fogging brain an alarm bell began to clang. This was not natural, not at all. Surely he'd been drugged. He needed to get off the street, and quickly, before he collapsed. But where? Staggering drunkenly, Jin turned up an alley. There was a sawmill there, abandoned, with heaps of moldy sawdust and shavings piled in a shed. Using the last fading ounces of his control, Jin crept into a corner behind one of the mounds and curled himself up. One hand drifted to his swords and closed around them. He meant to remove them and hide them in the shavings, but before he could do more than pull them free of his sash, oblivion overtook him and he slept.

Let us now leave Kenjiro to his unhappy fate. The lives of the destitute are more interesting.

X

Jin awoke in the wan light of a rainy dawn with his clothes rifled and his swords missing. This only worried him a little, at first. His glasses were where he'd left them--on his nose--and his meager funds were still on his person. He remembered intending to bury his swords, and assuming he'd done so he dug around in the shavings where he'd been lying.

He found nothing.

Perplexed, he excavated the side of the sawdust mound he'd slept behind. Still nothing. Nor did scuffling up the entire area with his feet turn up his precious blades. When he realized that he was digging over the same few places out of panic, he knelt in the shavings and forced himself think calmly and rationally. What did he remember? About the theft, nothing, but he could deduce that the thief was an opportunist, not a professional. A professional would have taken everything--swords, coins, clothes, perhaps even his life. Whoever took the swords hadn't known where to look for valuables, hadn't the nerve to look very thoroughly, and had ended up taking only what had been in plain view. Which, of course, were the very things Jin could least afford to lose.

Jin stood up with sigh. It all went back to the Three Cranes. His food had been tampered with, obviously, but it still made no sense. Why drug an almost penniless ronin just to steal his swords? Why not drug someone with actual cash?

Cash. Jin's eyebrows lowered in a thoughtful frown. You couldn't spend a sword, but you could...

Jin washed his hands in the trickle of rainwater coming off the shed roof, splashed some on his face, and shook the shavings out of his hair and clothes. He might never know who took his swords, but at least he knew where to look for them.

X

Koyo the Crocodile had earned his nickname from his snaggle-toothed smile, but he resembled his namesake in other ways, too. His grip--on both the goods in his pawnshop and the people who pawned them--was tenacious, his ability to scent prey legendary. His fear of being robbed--or, worse, raided by the police--prompted him to keep all the doors and windows but the front one locked and shuttered, leaving his shop as hot, foul and stifling as any reptile's lair. The accumulated funk of mildew, past customers and years of unisturbed grime made Jin wrinkle his nose as he stepped inside, but what he saw when his eyes adjusted to the darkness made him forget the smell.

His swords.

They hung with dozens of others on the wall behind the counter, their quality disguised by their plainness. Jin started toward them, but as he did a man suddenly rose from behind the counter, grinning toothily.

"Help you?" he barked. It was as much of a threat as an offer, and Jin stopped short.

"Those swords, with the blue hilts," he said, gesturing toward them. "They are mine. They were stolen from me yesterday."

"Yeah? They got your name on them?" Koyo's grin didn't waver a bit.

"There's a design on the guard of the katana. Eye and lightning bolt."

Koyo glanced back over his shoulder, then turned back to Jin, still grinning. "You can see that fom where you're standing." The grin abruptly vanished, and Koyo poked his finger at Jin's glasses. "'Specially with those cheaters on."

"I..."

"Look, pal. I paid two silver momme for those swords. If you think you're getting them for nothing you're crazier than you look, even if you can prove they're yours. Which you can't, so either fork over the asking price--that's three koban, if you're wonderin'--or get out of my shop." Insulting Jin was risky, but Koyo felt safe. The ronin's lean, weatherbeaten appearance said "vagrant" louder than his clothes and manners said "samurai." And besides, his swords were safely out of his reach. A wasp without a stinger was just another insect. Koyo's grin returned.

Jin stood rooted to the spot. He had expected an argument, but he hadn't expected the pawnbroker to be this rude. He had a wild, momentary impulse to leap over the counter, grab his swords and flee. Madness, of course--there were bound to be bodyguards lurking somewhere, and he'd be seized, beaten and thrown out on his head before he made it halfway across the counter--but his body must have made a move, because a large shape stirred in the shadows at the back of the shop and an enormous man came into view, eyeing Jin narrowly and flexing his muscles. Jin weighed his options for a moment, then decided on a dignified exit. Judging from the deep coat of dust on everything in Koyo's shop, the swords wouldn't be going anywhere soon. The only problem was how to get them back--and how to tell his two traveling companions that he had lost them in the first place.

X

Maybe it was the thought of the humiliation he'd endure if he turned up before Mugen unarmed, but on the way to find his companions Jin had an idea. He quickly turned onto the street that housed the city's eateries and walked until he found the Three Cranes, where he'd eaten yesterday. One look at the place, however, stopped him cold.

The owner sat on the doorsill, rocking himself and clutching his hair. The door-curtain was looped back, and looking inside Jin could see that the place was empty of customers. A woman and a young girl peeped at him from the kitchen, then vanished. Puzzled, Jin squatted down beside the owner.

"Has something happened here?" he asked. The owner looked up, taking in Jin's clothes and long hair, then bowed his head again.

"Oh, young master, a calamity," he moaned. "My best customer--my patron--was drugged and robbed yesterday, after a meal in my restaurant. My cook has run away. My customers are afraid to eat here. I am ruined. Ruined!" He buried his face and started rocking again. Jin looked thoughtful.

"What was this customer's name?" he asked.

"Kenjiro, the cloth merchant. Very generous, very kind. Ohhh, I'm ruined!" Jin ignored him and stared off into space, straining to remember. After a minute or two an image surfaced, a squat man with broad, coarse features and shrewd eyes. He described this man to the restaurant owner, who stopped his keening long enough to listen.

"Yes, that's him," he said.

"Did he order the vegetable rice bowl, by any chance?" asked Jin. The owner nodded, tears oozing down his cheeks. "Where can I find him?"

"In the Binya district, at his shop. The Peony Flower." Jin started to stand up, but the restaurant owner caught at his sleeve, then instantly let go, horrified. "So sorry, young master! So sorry!" For a commoner to grab the clothes of a samurai--people had been killed for less. He tumbled off the doorsill and cowered on the muddy street; when no sword-cut ended his life, however, he looked up cautiously. The young samurai had made no move toward his blades--because, the restaurant owner now realized, he wasn't wearing any. He looked a little higher, at the samurai's grave, bespectacled face, and made an unsettling realization.

"You were in my shop yesterday, young master," he said.

"Yes."

"You ordered," he paused and gulped, "the vegetable rice bowl."

"Yes."

"And you were...were..." His eyes went to the samurai's empty sash. "Ai! Ai! I'm ruined!" He threw himself face-down in the mud. Jin backed away.

"When I find Kenjiro, I will tell him the cook has left, and you and your house are not to blame," he said. The restaurant owner bowed, overcome with gratitude, but when he looked up the young samurai was gone.

X

Jin found Kenjiro quickly enough. Like the restaurant owner he was outside his place of business, but in a very different attitude. Far from weeping and lamenting, he was leaning against the wall, smoking his pipe and holding court with a steady stream of people who stopped by to commiserate with him over the robbery. Jin waited for the crowd to thin, then slipped in beside the merchant and, without looking at him, said in a low but perfectly audible voice, "A strange thing happened to me yesterday at the Three Cranes restaurant."

Kenjiro's head jerked around. The man beside him was a stranger, but also, on reflection, a bit familiar. That and the mention of the Three Cranes kept Kenjiro from stepping away and calling his bodyguards.

"I ordered the vegetable rice bowl, and shortly afterward I began to feel very sleepy. When I woke up this morning, I had been robbed," said the stranger.

Of course. Kenjiro remembered now. This man had been beside him in the eatery yesterday--people that tall were memorable, as were the eyeglasses. They had ordered the same dish.

"You too, eh?" said Kenjiro. "How did you find me?"

"I went back to the restaurant. The owner told me what had happened."

"And sent you here. Smart piece of work on your part. Why not just go after the thief?"

"Because I have little hope of catching him." The samurai looked up, or rather raised his eyes; Kenjiro was much shorter than the stranger. "I believe the trap was set for you. My misfortune was only incidental. However, I lost something of great value to me, and I assume the same is true of you."

Kenjiro stooped and knocked the ashes out of his pipe, then stood up and folded his arms. "And you have a proposition for me," he said with a wry smile.

"Help me recover my swords, and I will help you recover what was stolen from you."

Kenjiro continued to smile, arms folded. Then, completely without warning, he lashed out at Jin's face with his pipe. Jin's instantaneous parry sent the pipe spinning into the street, and Kenjiro laughed and stepped back, hands raised.

"Sorry, but young men tell me all sorts of things when they're looking for work." Jin relaxed, his hand dropping from his waist where it had flown seeking his sword. "I see in your case it isn't just talk. I believe if you'd had your sword, my head would be rolling down the street right now."

"Not necessarily." Jin watched a boy dart out of Kenjiro's shop and retrieve the pipe. "It would have been your hand."

Kenjiro burst out laughing again. "Oh you're the limit! Tell me about your swords. Any idea who has them? I suppose you'll need an advance to get them back."

"A pawnbroker named Koyo is holding them."

"Koyo the Crocodile?" Kenjiro stopped laughing.

"Yes. Is that bad?"

"How much is he asking for the swords?" Kenjiro's voice sounded strained.

"Three koban. But I don't intend to pay the full price," Jin added quickly, seeing Kenjiro blanch. "Koyo says he paid two momme for them. I'll repay him that, but no more. It's only fair."

"You're going to play fair. With Koyo." Kenjiro sucked his teeth and looked Jin up and down, then gave a humorless snort. "Well, it's been nice knowing you, young man. That bastard held onto six bolts of silk stolen from me for two years and screwed me out of ten momme to get them back, just so you know what you're up against. Do you have any idea how you're going to pull off this miracle?"

"Not yet, but I'll think of something." The ronin's eyes, calm, intelligent, confident, didn't waver. Kenjiro stared at him for another minute, then turned and went inside. A moment later he emerged and laid three silver coins in Jin's hand.

"That's three times what I'd pay a regular bodyguard," he said gruffly. "But if you can beat Koyo at his own game, it's money well spent."

"Thank you." Jin bowed and closed his fingers tightly around the money. This was half of his problem solved. The other half--well, first things first. He would have to face his traveling companions sooner or later. Better get it over with now, before things got any worse.

X

"In a pawnshop!" The chorused exclamation caused heads to turn all over the teahouse, and only the fact that Mugen was talking through a mouthful of cabbage kept it from carrying into the street.

"I didn't put them there." Jin raised his hands defensively. Fuu, a petite teenaged girl, looked horrified, but the young man beside her gulped down his wad of cabbage, eyes bulging with the effort, and cut loose.

"How the hell did you manage to do a dumbass thing like get your swords stolen? Why didn't you pawn 'em yourself?"

"And where have you been all this time? I was worried!" Fuu chimed in. Jin took advantage of a mutual pause for breath to give a brief summary of his adventures. The reception was about what he'd thought it would be; Fuu looked cross and Mugen looked disgusted.

"Trust you to poison yourself with cheap food," he grumbled.

"You're the one eating cabbage," Jin replied pointedly.

"You gonna order something, or just sit there and take up space?"

"I'll eat later."

"Huh. You're broke again." Later was a foreign concept to Mugen, especially where food was concerned.

"No, I just need to think."

"Ah, crap." Mugen glanced at Fuu, saw that she was busy frowning at Jin, and snatched a skewer of dumplings off her plate.

"Give that back!" Fuu grabbed Mugen's wiry arm, but he quickly switched hands and stuffed a dumpling in his mouth. Jin ignored them. He'd been trying for an hour now, and still had not the slightest glimmer of a plan. He was no fool; he knew Koyo was not about to hand over those swords without turning a profit on them, and one extra momme was not going to be enough. He needed leverage against him, but how? There wasn't enough time to mount an intelligence operation in a strange town, no matter how many enemies Koyo might have, or how shady his past and present operations. Violence? With only Mugen armed they probably weren't going to intimidate Koyo, and even Mugen was likely to have trouble with the hulking bodyguard in Koyo's shop. He could always threaten arson, but if his bluff was called he could hardly burn down a pawn shop just because someone else had pawned his swords there. Jin pushed up his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It was too hot and stuffy in this little hole of a teahouse to think properly...

Someone kicked Jin's ankle, bringing his reverie to a rude end. Fuu was still defending her food against Mugen; they were now engaged in a tug-of-war with the skewer containing the last dumpling. Fuu won the skirmish by deftly removing the dumpling, leaving Mugen with the empty skewer, and ended the issue by jumping up and leaving. Unperturbed, Mugen used the skewer to pick his teeth, then gave a loud, long belch. Jin looked up at him, but not with the annoyed expression Mugen's eruptions usually provoked. This was a very thoughtful look, and when Mugen saw it he immediately turned suspicious.

"What?" he asked defensively. He knew that look. It meant Jin was planning something; and that, in his experience, was never good.

"I have an idea," said Jin.

X

That night and the next morning, Mugen feasted. The fare consisted almost solely of bean dishes, but Jin was buying, and a silver piece paid for a lot of food. For once the two men worked together in complete harmony, absorbed in the process of perfecting their scheme, adding in a little garlic here, some wasabe there, and whatever other especially pungent seasonings Mugen could choke down. A leisurely stroll along the seawall to let digestion take its course capped the experiment, and when Mugen indicated that things were proceeding to plan they both set off for Hikaro Road in the pawnshop district.

X

Koyo the Crocodile did not meet Jin with a smile that morning. The ronin was not the kind of repeat customer Koyo encouraged, and the fact that he had reinforcements--a skinny, bushy-haired young man with a rooster strut and convict tattoos around his wrists and ankles--made him nervous. Koyo took his station behind the counter like a commander manning the battlements, and signaled to his bodyguard as he did so. The bodyguard lumbered out and took a position between Jin, who was standing at the counter, and Mugen, who was wandering the shop as nonchalantly as possible for a man who was literally bursting at the seams. Jin, without a word, pulled out the two momme and laid them on the counter. Koyo glared at the coins.

"What the hell is this?" he asked.

"Repayment for my swords. I would like them back now," said Jin.

Koyo snorted. "The price, Mr. Moneybags, is three koban. I don't see gold on the counter, you don't see those swords. Got it?"

"If you take the money, you lose nothing."

"Yeah, and I gain nothing, either." Koyo leaned over the counter and rubbed his fingertips together.

"On the contrary. You gain the use of your shop."

"Oh, you gonna burn the place down? I've heard that one before. You just try it!"

"I said nothing about burning. I'm giving you one last chance. Take the offer and return my swords, or my friend will make this shop uninhabitable."

Koyo's lip curled. Jin swept the coins off the counter and covered his nose with the sleeve of his kimono. Behind him, right on cue, Mugen let off a monumental, ripping fart.

The bodyguard, being closest, was the first to suffer. He clapped his hand over his nose and backed away, but in the unventilated confines of the shop there was no escape from the vapor. Two shifty-looking customers who had been browsing a box of erotica beat a hasty exit through the front door. Mugen, gray eyes gleaming with malice, advanced on the counter. He was in his element, doing something utterly obnoxious, absolute master of the space he occupied and the undisputed center of attention.

"You like that?" he asked, fixing Koyo with a slightly crazed stare and leering widely. "There's plenty more where that came from." He promptly demonstrated. Koyo backed away, but immediately hit the wall of swords. Trapped, he clamped his arm over his nose and tried to breathe through his mouth. Still leering, Mugen sauntered back toward the bodyguard, who knocked over a pile of cookpots in his haste to get away from him. Mugen followed, rubbing his stomach, and the bodyguard, with one anguished look at his employer, followed the fleeing customers out the door. Mugen heralded his departure with a triumphant blast, which finished the job of making the air in the pawn shop completely unbreathable.

Jin, at this point, was supposed to issue another ultimatim. Speech, however, had become impossible. Still breathing as shallowly as possible through the fabric of his sleeve, he laid the two silver pieces back on the counter.

"Fuck you." Koyo was as near to passing out as Jin, but he was damned if he'd let some mangy ronin extort those swords from him. He would die first.

The ronin apparently felt the same way. For the longest few minutes of their lives they faced each other across the counter, eyes locked, each silently daring the other to faint. Jin stood fast, but Koyo began seeing black spots. Even then he wavered, his immense dislike of being done out of money warring with his considerable instinct for self-preservation. In the end, preservation won out. Snatching the coins, he unhooked Jin's swords and slammed them down on the countertop, then with a wail of desperation sprinted for the front door and the fresher air beyond. Jin, swords in hand, followed hot on his heels. Mugen paused to fragrance the store a little more thoroughly before wandering out, where he found Jin breathing deeply and wiping his smarting eyes and Koyo nowhere in sight. The two blue-hilted swords, restored to their rightful place on Jin's left hip, glinted in the weak sunlight.

"So. Anybody else you'd like to bomb today?" Mugen asked, still grinning.

"No," said Jin, though the quick twitch at the corners of his mouth suggested otherwise.

"That's okay. I'm running out of ammunition anyway." Mugen scratched his belly and burped.

"Well executed, by the way," said Jin, re-seating his glasses and not quite looking at Mugen.

"Hell of a plan," said Mugen, not quite looking at Jin.. "You should get ideas like that more often." On that note they parted, Mugen presumably to deflate himself and Jin to pick up the thread of his unfinished business.

X

That afternoon Kenjiro looked up to find his young samurai friend standing in the doorway, looking much the same as he had the day before, with the exception of the two swords in his sash.

"Well, I see your score is settled," he said, greeting Jin with a smile. "And quickly, too."

"Yes. When you're ready, we can settle yours," said Jin.

"No hurry. I've already had a little chat with a certain former cook, and I know what sewer the rest of my rats are hiding in. We'll pay a call on them presently." He walked Jin to the back of his store and slid open the partition, waving the samurai into the private office. "Until then, there's plenty of time to tell me all about your meeting with Koyo. And I hope you're an excellent storyteller, young man," he added, "because I want to hear every detail."

X

Even with every detail it was not a long story, and the sun was still chasing the summer rainclouds when Sasoko, the self-styled king of Nagoya's yakuza, looked up from his stroll through the waterfront vice district to find the merchant Kenjiro blocking his path. Kenjiro seemed to be in a good humor for someone who had recently been drugged and robbed of a considerable sum of money. Looming up behind him, like a sapling over an oak stump, was a single lean, young and somewhat bored-looking samurai, with two other, regular bodyguards skulking resentfully some distance behind. Sasoko's own five-man guard fanned out to flank him, and Sasoko cocked his head and fingered the rosary that hung around his neck.

"You have something that belongs to me, Sasoko," said Kenjiro, smiling. "Fifty somethings, to be precise. I want them back."

"And what makes you think I have anything of yours?" Sasoko asked.

"Do you really want to know that?" Kenjiro's smile widened. "You could ask that cook you hired to drug me. Of course, he might be a little hard to understand with that broken jaw of his."

While Kenjiro and Sasoko sparred, Jin quietly took stock of Sasoko's bodyguards, calculating which one was likely to move first. None of them were samurai; they were all yakuza, armed rabble like Mugen, but most likely without his mind-bending natural fighting skills. Jin doubted any of them could hold his own against even an ordinary samurai, never mind an kenjutsu master like himself. A warning shot should do the trick, when the opportunity presented itself. Jin edged a few steps to Kenjiro's right, giving himself a clear shot at Sasoko.

"Get this pathetic bastard out of the road!" This was the cue Jin had been waiting for. As Sasoko turned to give the order, he saw Kenjiro's bodyguard move. It was only a flash, and he had no idea what had happened until rosary beads began to patter around his feet like raindrops. He stared stupidly at the cut string and the tiny slice in the kimono beneath it, then looked up at the bodyguard. The bodyguard stared back, every trace of indolence gone. His hand rested on his sword hilt; the eyes behind the glasses bored into Sasoko's, smoldering. A glance at his bodyguards told Sasoko that they were as dumbfounded as he was; they were all frozen in various stages of reaching for their swords, and none of them had any clue what to do next.

"My man here is the real deal. Twitch once and he'll cut you to pieces." Kenjiro wasn't smiling anymore. "Send one of those apes to get my money and you'll walk away from here alive. Do anything stupid and my man will cut your legs off before you can take two steps." He paused to let this sink in. "Well?"

Sasoko stood there for a long minute, gaping. Then he drew a wheezing breath. "Yuko, go get the money," he whispered.

"Master?"

"Go!" Yuko seemed to have taken Kenjiro's threat as much to heart as Sasoko. He took a cautious, shuffling step, and when Jin didn't slice his legs off he started running. A small eternity later he returned, clutching a leather drawstring bag.

"Put it on the ground in front of me and back away," said Kenjiro. Yuko did as he was told, never once taking his eyes off of Jin. Kenjiro opened the bag, looked inside, shook it, and smiled. "Now that wasn't so painful, was it?" he asked. Nobody answered; they were all still staring at Jin. "Now go. My business with you is finished. And by the way," he added, stopping everyone in their tracks, "have you been by Koyo the Crocodile's pawn shop lately? My friend here paid him a visit today. They say that monster bodyguard of his is still running. Remember that the next time you have an urge to lift an honest merchant's purse." Kenjiro turned away, laughing. Jin followed him, keeping a wary watch over his shoulder until Sasoko and his gang were out of sight.

Jin and Kenjiro walked together in silence for a little way. A lone dark cloud swept over, spitting rain, and they took shelter in front of a silversmith's shop.

"I thought people like you were only a myth." Kenjiro, who was rarely impressed by anything, sounded awed. He gave a slightly shaky laugh. "I've never seen anything like that, never. Apparenly Sasoko and his boys haven't , either." He paused, apparently working up his nerve. "I won't ask why you've turned ronin," he said finally, "but...would you like a permanent job?" Jin had been expecting this question, and he sighed.

"I'm sorry, no. I'm under an obligation to someone."

"Really? How much?"

"It isn't a money debt."

"Ah." Kenjiro stole a look at the samurai, but the young man's expressionless face told him nothing.

"I'll return your two momme when I am able," Jin said suddenly.

"Eh? Why?"

"I did nothing to earn so much. Those men had never faced a trained opponent. It was an unfair fight."

"Nonsense. I have my gold back. Koyo's been...been..." Kenjiro's face twisted as he fought a grin. "That was our bargain." Jin said nothing. He was one of the class to whom honor mattered, and Kenjiro could see that that honor wasn't satisfied. "Then again..."

Jin looked up expectantly.

"You're an educated man. I imagine you write a good hand?" Kenjiro asked.

"Yes." A shadow of puzzlement crossed Jin's face.

"I... Well, you see, I have a hobby." Kenjiro glanced furtively around, as if afraid of being overheard. "I write...poetry." He whispered the last word, so that Jin had to lean down to hear him. "That is, I don't write it. That's the problem, you see. My education was a little neglected. But I have them all up here." He tapped the side of his head. "I always wanted to put them down on paper, but I didn't want some clerk laughing behind my back. Do you think, maybe...?"

The samurai didn't answer right away, and Kenjiro winced inwardly. He had presumed. Asking a samurai, even if he was only a ronin, to do lowly clerk's work...what was he thinking? He stole a look at Jin, ready to retract his request, and was shocked to see that the ronin's mask-like reserve had softened. He looked--Kenjiro checked twice before deciding this--relieved, and after that long moment of silence the young man inclined his head.

"I would be honored," he said, softly, "to be of service."

X

The lanterns burned late in Kenjiro's house that night. In their light Jin knelt before a low desk, his hand moving swiftly and surely over sheets of paper as Kenjiro's voice, increasingly hoarse as the night wore on, droned over the slow cadence of summer crickets. After every poem there was a pause, and in this pause the samurai's hand darted in a series of movements as quick and precise as sword-strokes; on the bottoms and margins of the pages branches of yarrow bloomed, sparrows flew, and people in pleasure boats magically took form. Each and every poem, with its lines of neat characters that the poet himself couldn't read, was titled for him in this way. And if the little sketches were no more great art than the poems they illustrated were great poetry, it didn't matter to either man.

X

Fuu woke in the early hours of the morning to the sound of someone moving stealthily around the empty stable where she and Mugen were sleeping. She sat up quickly, batting at the straw caught in her hair, and peered through the gloom.

"Jin?" she asked softly.

"Yes." Faint light winked across the lenses of his glasses as the pale oval of his face descended. She heard him settling himself, pulling his swords loose from his sash--he had them back, then--and wrapping his arms around them, as he usually did when he slept in an insecure place. "Where's Mugen?" he asked.

"Up there." Fuu pointed to the hayloft, a gesture lost in the darkness, but Jin understood what she meant. "He keeps..." She wasn't sure how to put it nicely, so she left the sentence unfinished. "Where have you been all night?"

"Paying off a debt." Jin paused, and Fuu assumed he was finished. This was normally all she would get from him in the way of an explanation, but as her head drooped back toward the straw he spoke again.

"It's good to know that literacy..." he paused again, and a gentle, breathy sound indicated a yawn, "still has some value after all."

"What in the world does that mean? And by the way, what possessed you," Fuu sat up again, indignant, "to load Mugen up with all those beans?" But all she got in reply was a sleepy, unintelligible murmur from Jin and a rumble from the loft, and with this she had to be content.