Author's note:

(-sigh-) All right. This's much against my better judgment, but any of my readers who support my cousin in her overzealous RuroKen-as-Khrysalis-knows-it whimsies might have to share blame on this one. She's seen lots of encouraging comments for badgering me into writing stories and updating that she had increased it sevenfold lately.

Well, this is that sequel to Brother of Dragons I mentioned in its first version…which I shouldn't have mentioned at all, because once the idea hit me, it didn't let go until I sketched out a bit of a plot for it, and, as is my custom, I went ahead and experimented with an opening chapter to see if it looked liked something I was going to relish. It does, in case you want to know.

I'd put it away for months, to be retrieved later when I was ready to work on it again, but my cousin, who freely gets into my notebooks and files looking to see if I've written anything new, found it and, well… You may by now know how she is.

But this is all there will be for a while. Just this chapter, and I won't be coming back to the story until both Brother of Dragons (version two) and The Mindsifter are finished. Working on many stories at once is the key that keeps me from getting any form of writer's block because it keeps my creativity fresh and flowing, but there's got to be a limit somewhere, and there are, of course, those who had not read the original version of Brother, so that does need to be finished first. The purpose of my baka itoko getting me to put the first chapter up is that she feels I'll probably be encouraged to continue, as well as obliged to finish since I've started. Not only is she manipulative, but she knows me well.

See you here again after those two stories were finished.


1
Lodgings in Suruga

"Jailor! Hey, this one's got plague! Come haul him out!"

"Yes, get rid of him! Get him out!"

"Warden, he'll have the whole place infected!"

I swore under my breath. Yahiko, who had been standing in front of me, took a step back too far and bumped into me. He stayed where he was, hands loose by his sides.

I'd never known such a place of human misery until I came here. I had been in a lot of dungeons--too many by anyone's standards--but this one was by far the worse. Absolutely stank with the memories of generations of prisoners. And these, a whole score of fresh ones, squatting in the darkness that was broken by a thin, dusty ray of light falling through a window grating overhead, was the worst assembly of prisoners I'd ever seen. They varied in race and health, from the big toughs that loitered at the choice positions near the cell door to the poor fools broken by torture, lying or moaning in the far-back corners.

A week in this damn dungeon, trying to protect my two friends. Forcing my share of rations on Yahiko and down Kenshin's uncooperative gullet, fending off those toughs who seemed to think the two of them were easy pickings. Trying to keep Kenshin, ill and sometimes out of his head from the taipan bite, from being recognized by rubbing dirt into his red hair, overshadowing him as much as we could, hushing him when he talked in delirium.

He was over the worst of it now, was back in his head again, and the swelling was even gone down in his leg. But he was still going to be almost useless for days, and I hadn't gotten much sleep. I was irate and cranky, and a good fight would only do me good, I figured. But this was a prison, and a respectable one at that. Veterans of riots and attempted breakouts. I swore again, more loudly.

The warden's pockmarked face shoved itself into the eye slit on the metal door. "I want some order in there now, or it'll be lead coming through here instead of rations," he said.

"We'll behave," one of the prisoners said in a low voice. "Just take out a sick one so he doesn't spread plague to the rest of us."

He pointed at us, the uneven rows of men parting so the warden might have a clear view of Kenshin, pale and panting on the stone floor, shifting like he was trying to get up. I reached down and grabbed a fistful of the back of his shirt, hauled him to his feet and supported him there. He winced only slightly when he put weight on the leg that had taken the bite days before, but he didn't make a sound.

"Fine, haul him out here and we'll take care of him. Can't have plague in my jail."

The warden moved away from the eye slit, and several of the toughs moved away from the door toward us.

Yahiko stepped in front of us. The boy was thirteen, had a sturdy body and carried himself well, but he probably wasn't going to be any more help against them than Kenshin was now. "We already told you! It's not plague, it's a snakebite! He's got the marks on his leg you can see!"

The man who'd spoken the warden edged closer, shaking his head. "Can't take a chance. Cell's really tiny, too crowded. Got to get the sick out. Besides, once he's gone, there'll be more food for the rest of us. Now move aside before you get hurt."

"It's a snakebite," the kid persisted, as if saying it louder would make them listen. "You can't get a snake fever from anything but another snakebite."

"Ridiculous. Nobody survives being bitten by a taipan," he said flatly. He wasn't going to believe it wasn't plague.

"You don't understand. He was raised by…" The kid trailed off, wisest thing he'd done in a while. Our friend was raised by dragons, and because of them he'd known the herbs and how to mix the remedy that had saved his life, but if Yahiko blurted that out, well… If they just thought he was infected with disease, they'd probably take him out to one of the mass graves outside the city walls and shoot him. If they found out he was that red-haired Wild Boy that had been causing trouble in the western lands lately, they'd probably publicly torture him to death. They had some harsh customs in Suruga. Execution was public entertainment. Bring your whole family. Have a picnic.

And even if they didn't connect him with the outlaw, being a Wild Boy didn't exactly get you any sympathy.

"Sano…" Kenshin murmured, voice still hoarse. "Maybe…you should just--"

"Shut up," I told him, and he did fall silent, but probably more because he just didn't have to finish than because I told him to. I hadn't known Kenshin all that long. Hell, not long after I first met him, I'd tried to fight him. Wild Boys make tough opponents, I'd heard, and it wasn't hard to tell he was one, what with him always wearing animal skin clothes, and his hair all long and wild like that.

But he had a family farther down in the more peaceful south, in a tiny little town called Iyo, a ways outside of the much larger, and more famous Tottori. A young wife and little three-year-old son he said also had his Wild Boy looks. Didn't seem right we should throw him to these dogs when he had people waiting for him to come home.

"Just forget it," I told him. "Besides, you owe me dinner at your place, remember?"

He didn't take his eyes off the prisoners still edging toward us, but he smiled a little. "Would it help if I told you my wife can't cook to save her life?"

"Can't be that bad," I said, which made him smile a little more. Could it?

Well, I had more important things to worry about than the culinary skills of his wife. Like getting us all out of here alive.

Dirty hands stretched out toward us. "Just hand him over. It'll be over quick."

"Don't think so," I said, just before I punched him in the face.

He flew back into his comrades, and then hell erupted around us.

Fighting in a tiny cell isn't as much fun as it sounds. Not much room to even draw back, but I did what I could, thrusting Kenshin behind me. We'd already talked this out once, and he wasn't too happy with the agreement, but I was glad he did as I told him, latching onto me with both hands and pressing his face on them to protect his head. He still couldn't even stand up well by himself, let alone help me fight.

Yahiko, beside me, was beating down a stout, bald man with swift blows of elbows and fists. The kid was feisty, been on the streets for years doing what he had to to survive. Then, with a bloodcurdling war-whoop he might have taken from Kenshin stories about Wild People, he hurled himself into the stream of guards pouring in from the doorway.

I didn't waist my breath cursing the kid, just trying to wade through to get closer to him. He had the idea. If we got nearer to the door, and into more open room, we'd do better.

The odds were suddenly in our favor because of that open door, though. The prisoners, in a moment of unbelievable mass good sense had stopped caring about getting one sick man out of their cell and started fighting the jailors instead, clawing their way toward the door and possible freedom.

The pockmarked warden was in the middle of the fighting, beating at bodes left and right with a cudgel. I forced my way toward the man, seized his weapon, wrenching and twisting at its lanyard until I heard joints crack in the wrist it was tied to. The warden fell back, and I felt Kenshin hand on my elbow.

"Sano," he said softly, but I hesitated before handing him the baton. He was a swordsmen, and a damn good one, too, when he wasn't getting himself bitten by snakes. Had to be a little embarrassing, that the man could handle huge flame-breathing dragons, but a little brown adder in the grass had taken him down.

I decided now was not the time to mention it. "Just keep hold," I told him, and he did, one hand still twisted in my shirt to help him keep his precarious balance as he used the baton as best he could to keep people off my back.

Yahiko was just a few steps away from us, and the three of us managed to force our way through into the wardroom. It was a writhing mass of fighting bodies. I saw the warden again, down and disarmed, trying to crawl out from beneath the fight.

There were men coming in from the torture rooms now, and since I had a clear shot at them, I met them at the top of the steps. My first blow was partly wasted on the edge of the helm one of the warders wore, but it still sent him tumbling back down to the lamplit doorway at the stairwell's bottom.

I caught up with the kid and we drove toward the ascending stairs, where more guards were. These, too, were wearing metal hats, so I tried to slant my fists toward their necks. From one, there was a snap and a scream as a collarbone gave away.

I didn't have time to be sympathetic. I could feel the old battle-rhythm. Even having to be careful of Kenshin in case I dislodged him or he took an especially hard hit and fell beneath the fight, I let it flow. If I felt a cudgel nick my arm or rake my ribs, the pain only quickened the tempo. We dodged aside, drove forward, I heard Kenshin parry and strike with his weapon.

The song of it in my ears, all around me. I felt all-powerful, invulnerable, men falling left and right before my fists.

But then there was a new commotion from above. Fresh defenders came streaming through the archway. Iron guardsmen of the province's elite army, well armored and even more well trained. They had swords.

Suddenly I wasn't having so much fun. Even if Kenshin wasn't weak from snake venom and had good steel in his hands, I wouldn't be feeling quite so enthusiastic.

Their commander came through the arch at the top and watched them come down. He caught my eye longer than he should have, but there was something eerily familiar about him, about the way he moved. He was very lean, had a hand on the hilt under his cloak, but he stayed on the edge of the landing to watch us below him. His features were concealed under the lip of his iron hat, blocked by shadow. He leaned aside to whisper to a lesser officer, who started down the stair. Then, again with a terrible familiarity to me, all calm and taciturn, stared down directly at me.

Or so it looked like. I hoped he wasn't.

After that, the fight was short and brutal. The luckier prisoners fell before the overwhelming reinforcements, under vengeful cudgels. The ones who weren't so lucky, or were too violent for keeping in the eyes of the guards were hacked or skewered.

Yahiko was disarmed of a cudgel he'd picked up from somewhere and wrestled to the ground, putting up one hell of a fight all the way down. A guardsman forced his big, leather-vested body between me and the kid. I was distracted again when I felt Kenshin ripped away from me, his clutch on my shirt so tight that I felt the seams tear in the back, but before I could do anything at all to help him or the kid, a shirt was called over my face from behind and I was dragged down to my knees by the weight of a lot of bodies.

Not to be outdone by Yahiko, who I could still hear yelling and grunting from beyond the stinking cloth covering my face, I fought on against the fists hitting me from directions I couldn't see. At any second now, I expected to have cold steel in my guts, but for some reason they only kept pummeling.

I could probably hold out longer than they could--I was built to be durable--but I couldn't see what they were doing to my friends. I could hear a few last random thuds and moans, hoping it wasn't either of them.

I had not way of counting how many men were on me now, but there were enough to force my arms behind my back, enough to keep them there for tying. I could feel not one, but two sweaty biceps around my neck, trying to wear me down by choking off my air.

I could hear the surviving prisoners being herded back to their cells, feet shuffling or marching, orders and curses shouted above it. Then there was another voice that froze me, a loud and piercing one. A voice I knew. Damn! The one from on top of the stair…

"Stop it, Sanosuke. Uncover his face!"

The shirt was wrenched away. I saw the wardroom first, littered with bodies. I saw, without being certain if I should be relived or not, that Kenshin and Yahiko had not been taken back with the other prisoners. Two of the guardsmen held Kenshin up by each arm. The Wild Boy was disarmed, and not even supporting his own weight between them, breathing hard through his clenched teeth in short, shallow bursts. He was an awful pale green. But, sick and exhausted as he looked from his excursions, he didn't look like he was injured too bad in the fight. Yahiko, still struggling some against the ones who held him, had a line of dark red running down his face by his ear, and an ugly round bruise forming around the left side of his mouth and jaw.

"I think these three are the ringleaders," one of the guardsmen said. "This one's ill. Plague, the prisoners were saying."

"He was snakebitten!" Yahiko said, stopping his struggles in his exasperation. "He got struck by a taipan in the outer forest a week ago. It's not plague."

The one from the stairs stepped in front of me, blocking my friends from view. I swallowed hard, my eyes on his boots first, before traveling up his well-oiled armor, and finally at the shadows cast by the low-worn helm. "I don't know how you ended up in this hellhole," he said, reaching up with gloved hands to take off the helm, "and I'm not sure I want to know," he added. "However…"

The metal hat came off slowly, then was tucked under his arm, the movement slow and fluid. A cat's grace. The irony of that seemed purposeful. Unlike the reddish-brown fur with black stripes covering his face, or the symmetrical whorls that made up a cold, wet cat's nose, or the tufted, pointed ears atop his head, or even the blazing yellow eyes that glared down at me, kneeling on the floor.

"You have two seconds to explain yourself," he said.

I wasted one of those seconds with another hard swallow, glanced at what I could see of the side of Kenshin face, one of his violet eyes wide as he stared at the back of the commander's head.

"Whoa!" I heard Yahiko breath. "Is he a Tipu?"

Time was up, and I had a sense of the general seriousness being suck out of the room. I felt really stupid and awkward. But then, this man had always made me feel that way.

Instead of trying to explain myself--would have been useless with him anyway, for all he had ever listened--I just kind of grinned up at him. "Hello, Grandpa," I said.

He rolled his eyes in irritation, bared thin, sharp canines at me and moved off to one side, allowing me to see my friends again.

Kenshin and Yahiko looked at me, looked at my grandfather, then at each other.

"'Grandpa…'?" they echoed.

Well, you'd think at least Kenshin wouldn't be so surprised. His sister was a dragon.