The wind hurts as it grazes his skin, white undershirt fluttering violently against the bruises on his side. Behind him the sound of the ocean waves rises, distant below the edge of the cliff.
It is a beautiful day. Mugen grins at the line of soldiers holding guns pointed at him. They don't know the favor they're doing him. Soon he will be free.
He glances to the side where he knows Koza and her brother are hiding in the bushes. Maybe she'll understand what he is doing here today. Maybe she'll understand why. After all, she'd always dreamed of being free.
But to her free only meant breaking ties to Ryuukyuu, and more specifically, to her brother. It didn't bother her if she needed to bind herself to another man to do so.
He won't be that other man. He wants more than to leave this place—they've done that before to moonlight as pirates, though they've always been recaptured again. Escape in and of itself is not hard. The soldiers here have never had much control over their little penal colony
He wants to be free of it. To be free of all connections to it and to its people.
And the only way to do that is to die. Hence the need for soldiers with guns.
"Do you have any last words criminal?"
His smile grows more feral as he tells them he will chose death his own way—that he is in control of his destiny. They are the last words he speaks before he runs and jumps off the cliff edge toward the water below.
Perhaps he will die. Perhaps he will manage to swim away to safety.
Either way he will be free and either way, it is his choice.
He wasn't dead. It was the first cohesive thought that his mind formed as it climbed gradually toward consciousness. The second was that his plan had worked. The third was: ouch.
Opening his eyes, Mugen spent a desperate moment fighting down a wave of nausea before observing his surroundings with blurry vision. The place was cool and smelled of mold, a small room of dirty stone bricks that filled the dimly lit space with a despairing feeling of emptiness. A wooden door in one wall had a small barred window cut into it, and it was only through that singular opening that the little bit of light there was came.
His head was propped up against the wall, his body splayed out uncomfortably on the ground. A wide, white strip of cloth was tied around his bare waist. He wondered how many layers thick the cloth must be to prevent any blood from seeping through. His abdomen was not having a good day. Two injuries in less than twenty-four hours. Grunting at the pain, he managed to get himself sitting so that he leaned there with half-opened eyes, gasping for air and watching a strange lump that sat against the opposite wall.
The strange lump was covered in a blue blanket and looked like it might have been a person rolled up in a neat little ball. "Yo?" Mugen tried to yell. His lungs refused to cooperate and his "yell" came out as a ragged whisper. That seemed to be happening a lot lately. The lump didn't react, so he sat there, continuing to stare at it.
It wasn't very long until Mugen was bored with staring. That's when he reached painfully down to take off his one remaining geta (the other was missing) and throw it softly at the lump. He meant to throw it hard, but a gentle toss was all he could manage.
Nothing happened for the space of another shaky breath, and then the lump exploded into a mess of arms and legs and a face that catapulted itself to within centimeters of his.
"Good mooooooooooooorning," a sing-song voice said. Their noses nearly touched, and from this close, it looked to Mugen as if the large face before him had only one giant, dark eye.
"What the hell?" Mugen yelled/whispered. "Get offa me!" Jamming a hand against the wound in his stomach, he pressed into it to help control the pain as he struggled to plant his feet on the chest that belonged to the face. He pushed with his legs as hard as he could, replacing a yell of pain with a curse. A small body rolled away from him, landing against the opposite wall with a loud "thud." He realized then that it was a man, but a man with insane eyes. They looked autonomous, as if he had no control over them, and they wandered everywhere, skittishly, never focusing but always searching.
"Oooh, not nice. No. That's not nice. You're not very nice. What's your naaame?'
"Ooooh, no wonder. No wonder why you're not nice. You don't have a nice name. Mr. Shut-up? Your parents must be not nice too." The little man was standing, rocking on his heels as he did, arms waving wildly. His hair was black and spiky, sticking up in thick clumps that made his head look like an abstract sculpture. The lips were large and the eyes were larger, dwarfing a miniature nose. The head was big too, attached to a thick short neck on a thin short body. Everything was out of proportion.
Mugen couldn't help staring and he couldn't help feeling tense. If he'd had a sword he would have threatened to kill the crazy-looking man. "Shut up. I don't like your talking." His voice was getting used to speaking and his whispers were becoming more like gravely shouts.
"You like your name don't you, Not-Nice-One. I like my talking. They put me in here for talking. Talk, talk, talk. I talk to everyone. I hear too, so I have more to talk about. I hear secret plans from General and I talk, talk, talk. The Christians like to talk too. They talk about their God and how he sits on a throne higher than the shooogun. They talk and talk and talk until SLISH!" The man ran a finger quickly across his neck. "They deeeaaaaad!" The wild eyes settled suddenly, aimed at Mugen.
Mugen swallowed harder than he wanted to. "You're insane."
"No, no, no. I'm in-jaaaiiil. But not for looo-ooong." The man lowered his voice as if telling a secret. "Tomorrow's execution day. SLISH!" He then proceeded to dance in a small circle yelling "SLISH, SLISH, SLISH!"
Mugen tried to look calm, though the creature in front of him made him want to leap up and strangle it. Unfortunately, Mugen wasn't confident he could stand up right now. Instead, he smiled a sadistic smile and with an air of disregard said, "I've escaped execution before. Ain't a big deal." The truth was, any day could be execution day, and tomorrow would be no different.
The man laughed crazily. "Won't escape this tiiiime. No, no, no. They'll be extra careful with us. We're the shogun's special prisoners. We made Shinnyo mad, yo, yo, yo!"
"I'm gonna kill Shinnyo," Mugen said with confidence. He thought for a moment that he had no idea how he would, being not only a prisoner, but a very wounded prisoner. He drove these thoughts out immediately. Mugen wasn't one to doubt. It only got in the way, clouded his mind and brought fear. Mugen wasn't one to fear either.
The man was laughing too much to talk. It was high-pitched, like the sound a dying animal should make. It hurt Mugen's ears and he began yelling threats, no longer caring that he didn't have a sword to carry them out with. He had hands.
The man kept laughing and finally Mugen lunged forward with a roar that rose up from the pain in his stomach and came out through his lungs. He skipped trying to stand all together, but simply flung himself forward and tackled the man to the ground.
Mugen was unconscious before they hit the floor.
He considers, for only a moment, that the odds might be against him, as he surveys the twenty-or-so men that are armed and standing in front of him. They all want him dead.
The leader, a tall, slim, muscular man with long, choppy hair yells out the accusations of the crowd. " No street scum is going to steal from us and get away with it." He spits on the ground. "We have our own justice here."
Mugen shrugs lazily, his heartbeat quick but his gestures slow and relaxed. "I don't like your justice."
"Dirty criminal. Have you any last words in your defense."
A smile and then Mugen bares his teeth a little. "The food was good. The girl at the brothel was better."
"You hear him! Insolent and evil. He must be killed!" With that they advance, a mixture of swords and hoes raised in the air.
Mugen isn't stupid. He knows there are too many, and so he spins around to run down the dusty road, kicking up as much dirt as he can to block their view. He turns into the trees, hoping to lose them in the brush, or at least enough of them that he can kill the rest.
It's been only a week since he's run away from Ryuukuu and he's already running again.
Mugen moaned and opened his eyes. The crazy-man was leaning over him, flapping his hands in Mugen's face like a fan.
"You fell asleepy. But it's wakey-wakey time. We have a guest." The man gave Mugen a toothy smile and leaned back on his heals, gesturing toward the door.
Mugen used his elbows to push the top-half of his body upward, so that he could see the door beyond his feet. Light flickered behind the barred-window and he heard the sounds of the guards talking. Then, there was the jingle of keys.
"Listen," Mugen whispered to the crazy-man. "When they open the door we attack. Just dive at them and try to grab one of their weapons. How are you at fighting?"
"No, no, no. No fight."
Mugen growled. "Yes, fight. That's how we escape."
"No, no, no. That's not how."
"Stop saying 'no'!"
Mugen was about to reach out and strangle the man when the door swung open and Fuu came tumbling toward him. She squealed as she did, rolling, very painfully, into his lap. The door was closed again before he could think further about attacking the guards.
Fuu moaned, and then yelled, "Mugen," as if he didn't know his own name.
"Off," he gasped.
"Mugen, you're alive! How dare you scare me like that… What? What are you saying."
"Off… of… me…" he sputtered helplessly.
Her eyes grew wide as she looked down and realized she was sitting on his bandaged stomach. Bolting to her feet, she backed away muttering that she was sorry.
Mugen didn't answer. He was too busy coughing. He leaned onto his side fighting for air. Through teary eyes he saw her kneel beside him, her cheeks flushed.
"Mugen? Mugen, breathe you idiot."
He glared at her through salty wetness and tried to say something sarcastic, like, "Thanks for the advice," but he couldn't get past the first "T".
He felt Fuu's hands under his back and realized, with some surprise that she was sliding him into a sitting position, letting his torso rest against his chest. She grunted a little, and he wanted to smirk at that but couldn't spare the energy. He knew he was heavier than he looked. Leaning forward with her help, Mugen twisted his body slightly and supported himself with two braced arms on his left side, his head hung low between them. Fuu stayed behind him on her knees, offering extra support and rubbing his back.
A little pool of saliva had collected on the ground under him, and he stared down at it as the coughing subsided and he panted to catch his breath.
"That's disgusting," Fuu said.
He tilted his head and glared at her through sweaty, wet strands of black hair. "Not too disgusting for you to be touching me."
Her eyes flitted to her hand on his back and she suddenly rolled away from him so that he nearly fell over, just barely catching himself. "My mother used to do that for me when I had trouble coughing. It's an instinct I guess," she said.
He laughed at her bashful innocence.
Her brow lowered a little and she stood up, hands on her hips defiantly. "Well, you could be a little more appreciative. Next time I'll just let you suffocate." A pause, then, "It's your own stupidity that got you into this mess anyway. What were you thinking charging those guards? We thought you were dead. Don't you care that Jin and I thought you were dead?"
She threw her hands in the air and growled in frustration.
A wild, high-pitched laugh interrupted their bantering. Mugen remembered then about the crazy-man sharing their cell and Fuu seemed to notice him for the first time. Her anger softened and she looked both curious and a little unnerved.
"Who are you?" Fuu asked.
"Me? Me, me, me. Oooh, I'm Grinsen, and this is Mr. Not-nice-shut-up. Me think you know him already though. I'm sorry for that. Who are youuuuuuu?" The little man was standing across the cell from Fuu, but he leaned forward with wide eyes, as if to hear her answer better.
She couldn't answer though. She was too busy giggling. Mugen glared at her and then at the little man. "You think he's funny now, but you'll want to kill him when you realize he doesn't shut up," Mugen said.
"No, no, no. You no kill me, executioners kill me. Executioners kill all of us!" The man did his "slish" dance again.
Fuu stopped laughing. "Executioners?"
"Yup." Mugen gently laid himself down again, folding his arms under his head and sighing. "Tomorrow they're gonna kill us."
Fuu was suddenly bent over him, a leg planted on either side of his slim frame, her hands balled into fists and her very angry eyes looming over his. If he'd been wearing a shirt, he thought she'd be gripping the neck of it now. "This is your fault. You better get us out of this. I don't want to be executed tomorrow."
"Slish, slish, slish," Grinsen continued singing.
"Yeah, and I do."
"Slish, slish, slish."
"It's hard to be sure. Only someone with a death wish attacks the commander of the royal guard and then, while injured, attacks a troop of the royal guard."
"I knew what I was doing. I'm not dead, right? Besides, you and Jin might have used the chance to escape but I see you messed that up." He leaned on his elbows so that he was closer to her and she could get the full effect of his bared teeth.
"Well if you hadn't gotten into a fight with Shinnyo in the first place this wouldn't have happened! Why do you always have to fight with everyone?"
"Slish, slish, slish."
"Why not?" he smiled nonchalantly.
She raged uncontrollably. "Don't you care about anything?"
"SHUT UP!" they both yelled simultaneously, turning violently toward Grinsen.
Grinsen stopped in mid-dance, slowly lowering a raised foot to the floor and dropping his arms. His eyes widened and he looking suddenly like a wounded bird.
Fuu looked down at Mugen one last time, a look of frustration and contained anger on her features, sighed, stood up straight, and walked over to the sulking man who was now huddled in the corner. "I'm sorry. My name is Fuu," she said, bowing slightly.
Grinsen's face lit up suddenly and he grinned. He bowed back enthusiastically. "Greetings Fuu. I'm Grinsen. And this is Mr. Not-Nice-Shut-Up."
"Yes, I know," she said, glancing over her shoulder to give Mugen a dirty look. He stuck his tongue out at her. Fuu turned back to Grinsen. "Why are you here?"
The little man looked proud. "Because I know a secret."
Mugen was suddenly interested. "What secret?" he asked before Fuu could.
But he never got an answer, because there was a loud sound of footsteps outside the door and then it came swinging open. Shinnyo stood in a rectangular frame of dirty, yellow light, smiling confidently.