The Shinzahou Chronicles
Introduction and Disclaimer

"Itami sae 'chikara ni suru' sou chikatte, ne?"

We'll even turn our pain into power – wasn't that our vow?

(Chichiri, Aoi Jiyuu, Shiroi Nozomi)

So this is part four of the Shinzahou Chronicles.
Cookies for anyone who's got this far :D It's appreciated :D Especially large cookies for Gauri92, whose diligent reviewing always makes Vraie happy :D

So things got a bit intense at times in the last story. I'm not sure how people feel about Jin's demise - to be honest with you, I hated the fact that he died myself. But in order to further and continue the plot, he had to...sometimes it's hard to sacrifice a character even knowing you need to do it. I hope noone is too put off from reading by the fact he's dead. (Or maybe you're happy he died, though - I might be the only one who was at all fond of Jin after all!)

For anyone who does have any vague fondness for the self-sacrificial bandit - he makes a guest appearance in the prologue to this story ;)

By now, Amefuri's true identity has been properly revealed, even if not to all the characters involved. I wanted a Seishi who broke the rules - who resented his situation and who would let that resentment go to extreme lengths. Obviously, since Watase Yuu hasn't given any kind of official identity or background for Amefuri yet, this is all speculative on my part. However I'd like to think that he and Toroki are believable characters, and as time goes on, their connection to one another (and Toroki's fateful prophesy!) becomes more and more significant.

Things are picking up pace again, basically. Aoiketsu is spying in the south, but it's not as simple a mission as either he or his people back home think it will be. There's an element of treachery and deceit in this volume, as Kutou's antagonist shows proper claws for the first time. If you haven't worked out what's going to happen yet I won't spoil it for you, but I think there will be lots of clues to it in this story. Oh yes, and the truth about Aoiketsu's identity will also be firmly revealed in this story, too. Though I think (in fact I know) that some people have already guessed it - the facts of it and how it came to be will somewhat be explained in this tale. ((I think)).

So they're all heading North once again, this time to face the Genbu Shichi Seishi who guard the Shinzahou.

Although it's proving to be a lot harder to interfere with destiny than Hikari or her companions ever fully imagined...

This part is called Genbu no Takara - Genbu's Treasure. Obviously the Shinzahou is Genbu's treasure, but if you consider that Hokkan is the land of Genbu, there is another 'treasure' in the Northern territories whose existance/survival is about to become a little bit more significant. She has already been introduced fleetingly. Yep, I'm talking about Hyoushin's sister Lirayi - whose survival from slavery is about to make life very complicated for the Kutou Commander!!

You may or may not have noticed, by the way, that the Yuugi song quotes that start each story have some kind of bearing on the story. Last time the quote was in Jin's honour. This time - Chichiri's quote - it might be Shishi and Hikari's overcoming Jin's loss, or it might be something else completely. There are a lot of characters in this segment for whom the quote may apply...I'll let everyone else decide which it fits most :)

Brief note - Regarding the Meihi Tribe (Ignore if easily bored...)
There's a lot of Meihi-ish stuff going on in this story - including Hyoushin's past. So this babble to come now does have some relevance :) I realised when writing this story that Lirayi and Lilaihi could sound similar when spoken, even though I don't think of them that way. So far as I'm concerned, anyhow, Lilaihi would be pronounced "Lila-ee-hee" and Lirayi as "Li-rah-yee". I did originally consider writing them separated - Lila-Ihi and Li-Ra-Yi - but I thought that looked a little odd...:S Plus it complicated the way the names were meant to be (ie I wanted "Rayi" to be the Meihi word for 'hope'.). I also wanted Meihi to be very different (and softer sounding) than the language the characters are speaking. (Chinese Japanese. Let's not even go there...) So...(geekish Vraie), that's why they ended up the way they were. (I hear the character's names when I write them, and that just seemed to be what came up. LOL). I imagine written Meihi language to work similarly to written Chinese or Japanese in that they're comprised of characters - so Lila and Ihi would be two characters, Li and Rayi two, etc. (Yes, I've achieved new levels of geekdom...this is pushing even the Kii language theory in my Tenchi Muyou arc - can I help it if language interests me??)

Continuing on that theme, although I expect Kintsusei and co refer to the tribe as "May-hee", Hyoushin and his people would probably say it "Meh-ee-hee.". (Yes, the second part of Meihi and the second part of Lilaihi are intentionally the same. I'm not just uninventive.)

By the way, I think the Meihi wouldn't have actual family names, although Hyoushin does have one to go with his Chinese name and this will be referenced in this story. He calls himself Hyoushin of the East, after all - the best way I could find to put that into character name form was 東氷心 (Tou Hyoushin) (Woot, fanfic characters with name Kanji. Another point on the geek scale for Vraie. But pretty much all my characters have names that mean something after all...).

(Tou 東 is the character for "East" and is the second character in the country name "Kutou" for that reason ;)).

In case of any confusion – Meihi words (and sounds) don't mean anything in any real language. They're just the product of my overly fertile imagination ;)

Disclaimer version 2.1
Watase Yuu is the owner of FY and the characters, not me!! Any added characters (ie Hyoushin, Aoiketsu, Shishi, Jin, etc) are of my own creation, except for when they tie in with Watase Yuu's world – they are based on concepts and frameworks entirely unrelated to any other source. (This includes all reference/character biography/fleshing, background and detail given to the Byakko Seishi "Toroki" and "Amefuri" although the concept of Byakko Seishi belongs to Watase Yuu.)

My interpretation of Toroki and Amefuri are unique to me and are not to be duplicated in any other source without permission. The Meihi tribe, their language and appearance are entirely of my creation also, and ditto goes for them in terms of fan-fiction re-production.

(And the same goes for any other OCs I happen to have thrown into the mix!)

Volume Four: Genbu no Takara

Souun, Kounan-koku
Seven Years Earlier

"The city's so busy today."

Shishi cast a glance around her, her bronze eyes sparkling with excitement and anticipation. "It's the festival, isn't it, Papa? Everyone's come to Souun from all over Kounan - there must be a thousand people here!"

"Yes, an' you shouldn't be one of them, chibi." Tasuki shot her a rueful grimace. "Your Ma's goin' to go mad when she finds out you were usin' those tunnels to sneak out after me again. I've told you - you ain't even a pint size bandit yet - you ain't big enough to start roamin' the countryside an' I don't want my head ripped off by your mother if she thinks I've been takin' you on bandit business."

"I just wanted to come." Shishi pouted, putting her hands on her hips. "Jin's come. Why can't I? He's only three years older'n me."

"Jin's a boy, lion cub." Kouji reached across to ruffle her wild red hair playfully. "An' even if that don't matter to you, it's a different matter when you're stuck in the middle of a crowd o' hostile bandits. Your Pa's right - you ain't big enough to be fightin' villains. So pipe down a while, huh? At least grow into your sword before you start wantin' to swing it around."

Shishi's expression darkened, and she folded her arms defiantly across her chest.

"If Jin can go so can I." She said firmly. "We stick together."

"Kashira, something's happening up ahead." At that moment the young boy himself spoke up, excitement in his own eyes as he gestured to a gathering crowd in the centre of the town square. "I think some kind of performance is goin' on - do you think it's the circus that some of the other guys were talkin' about?"

"Circus?" Shishi's eyes widened with hope. "Papa, can we go see the circus? Please?"

"What do you think this is - a family day out?" Tasuki demanded, and Kouji laughed, amusement in his dark eyes.

"She's got you wound around her finger, jus' like her Ma." He remarked playfully, and at this Tasuki sent his closest friend a warning glower. "Let the kid see the performers, Genrou. It won't hurt, an' besides, Anzu did this kind o' thing once. The cub's bound to be curious to know about know that. It ain't like she hasn't heard stories."

"We're not here for that." Tasuki reminded hs companion, and Kouji shook his head.

"I know, but it ain't like you'll get a thing done with that one tagging along anyway." He said wisely. "Look. I'll take the guys an' we'll gather the supplies we need. You take Shishi an' amuse her for a while...we'll meet up back here in a while an' it won't be like we've wasted any time."

"I suppose." Tasuki glanced at his daughter, then sighed, hoisting her small form up into his arms as he met her gaze head on. Shishi stared back at him with hopeful, eager bronze eyes that were so like his own and Tasuki frowned, knowing he was beaten.

"You are trouble." He said bluntly. "Goddamn women...even at this size, they're nothing but a hassle. God knows where you get it from, kid, runnin' around the place like a crazed loon - but okay. You win. I'll cut a deal with you. You don't tell your Ma that you were sneakin' out of the mountain, an' I won't tell her you did, either. Okay? We'll tell her I took you to see the long as you don't run out after us again, you understand? There'll be a time when you're old enough - but now ain't it, an' noone wants you killed."

Shishi eyed her father thoughtfully for a moment, seeing the flicker of wolfish affection that lurked beyond the serious expression on his face and she beamed, nodding her head as she wriggled down from his grip.

"I promise." She said solemnly. "I won't tell Okaa-san that I followed you."

"Jin, what do you want t'do?" Kouji cast the youngster a glance, and the boy frowned, clearly trying to decide between acting the grown up bandit and following his childish curiosity. Tasuki offered him a rueful grin.

"If you want, Jin, you can come help me keep Shishi under control." He suggested. "It might take two of us to stop her jumpin' in and tryin' to join the damn circus - I could use your help."

"All right." Jin's expression cleared, and from the relief in the boy's eyes, Tasuki knew he had made the right call. "I'll come help you, Kashira. I'll protect Shishi, just like you said."

"Then we'll see you in a while, Genrou." Kouji's eyes danced with amusement. "Good luck. That brat's just like you in every respect - so you'll damn well need it."

With that he was gone, and Tasuki glanced down at his daughter, meeting Shishi's eager, excited gaze with a startled one of his own.

"Like me, huh?" He murmured, and Shishi beamed, nodding her head.

"Okaa-san says so too." She agreed. "I'm just like Papa. An' I'm going to be Kashira too, when I grow up."

"Worry about the growin' up first, huh?" Tasuki rubbed his chin ruefully. "Babysittin' the cub at the town circus - shit, I've gone soft in the head. Some Kashira I am, if I can be run around like this by a brat of seven years old."

"I'll be eight soon." Shishi seemed unconcerned. "And that's only two years off ten, which is what Jin is. Besides, nothing bad is gonna happen to me, right? You're Kashira, right? I've seen you blaze up the Kaou-zan creeps when they come messin' round on our mountain - noone's gonna come cause trouble if you're here."

"That doesn't mean Kashira wants to burn down Souun, you idiot." Jin cuffed the young girl playfully and Shishi glared at him indignantly, a spark of anger in her bronze gaze.

"Don't hit me!" She exclaimed. "Just because I'm smaller'n you doesn't mean you're better than me, Jin-kun! I'll be stronger than you are one day - you wait and see! I'm gonna be Kashira an' then you won't be able to hit me like I'm just a little kid any more."

"Providing you don't get yourself killed first, either of you." Tasuki grimaced at her. "Are we goin' to see this act, then, or are we standin' here? Shit, I swear if that bastard at Kaou-zan ever finds out I'm takin' kids out on day trips..."

He trailed off, shaking his head, and Jin cast him a concerned look.

"Will it be a lot of trouble, Kashira, if they see us?" He wondered. "Are we going to have to fight Kaou-zan because we're going to see the circus people perform?"

"I damn well hope not." Tasuki responded frankly. "Come on, the pair of you. Else they'll be clearin' off an' so will we. I don't want to leave the mountain exposed wi' just Anzu in charge for too long - which is why we don't want to attract too much attention. So shut up, both o' you. We're here, an' you'll get your way, Shishi. Jus' don't kick up a fuss...okay?"

Shishi pulled a face, but she did not seem too displeased with the instruction, for she slipped her small fingers into her father's brawny, sword-calloused fist and Jin darted ahead of them, finding gaps through the crowd for them to push through the gathering audience. As they reached the front of the melee, Shishi let out a delighted gasp and Tasuki grinned, nodding his head.

"Tumblers, jus' like your ol' ma was, before you started runnin' her ragged round the mountain." He said teasingly.

"Anzu-sama used to perform like that, Kashira?" Jin asked curiously, and Tasuki nodded.

"She and her sister were acrobats - better'n this pair, if my memory serves." He agreed. "O' course, she gave it up when she came to the mountain, though. But she's still pretty agile now - s'why none o' those Kaou-zan bastards have ever laid their hands on her. They can't keep up with a former circus tumbler."

"That's why Okaa-san is Okaa-san." Shishi said decidedly, with all the random confidence of a seven year old. "Because she can do anythin' and Kaou-zan can't do a damn thing to stop her."

"Noone would ever say you weren't biased, kid." Despite himself, amusement glittered in Tasuki's bronze gaze. "Though it's for sure there ain't many women like your Ma in the whole o' Kounan, let alone in the western mountains. I wouldn't have let her near Reikaku-zan if she was anythin' less than that...keep that in mind, Jin, for when you start gettin' to the stage o' bringin' home girls. They gotta be able to stand the mountain - you understand? There ain't no weak women on Reikaku-zan."

"I don't want to bring home any girls." Jin snorted. "Girls cry an' make a fuss over stuff. An' they paint their face an' tell guys lies to get them to give more money."

"I don't tell lies!" Shishi objected indignantly, and Tasuki clamped her hand down on her shoulder, sending her a warning glance.

"Shut up, else we go home." He ordered. "Stop yellin' idiot things. Jin wasn't talkin' about you. Were you, Jin?"

"No." Jin looked bewildered. "I was talkin' about proper girls. Not you, Shishi. You're're Kashira's cub."

Tasuki glanced at the young boy, a rare flash of perception piercing through him as he realised Jin's remarks stemmed back to the boy's own uncertain early childhood.

"That stupid whore of a mother of his sure gave him a rude awakenin' to the world." He reflected grimly. "I guess I'll haveta keep an eye on that. Sometimes he says things...Anzu's mentioned it an' she's right. He has a funny idea o' men an' women an' I gotta knock it outta him. He's a bandit now - he doesn't need to know about brothels an' courtesans an' why his ma kept changin' her name to hide from her debts."

"The tumblers have finished, Papa." Shishi jerked him back to reality at that moment. "Do you think, if I asked her, Okaa-san would teach me to do that stuff? Like they did?"

"You're already enough of a monkey. You don't need any trainin' in how to be a better one." Tasuki said bluntly. "Forget it, chibi. Besides, you want to be a bandit, not an acrobat, right?"

"Yes, but..."

"So focus on your sword." Tasuki told her firmly. "You master that before you worry about anythin' else."

Shishi sighed, looking dissatisfied, but she subsided, and Tasuki shook his head slowly, eying her ruefully as, not for the first time, he half wished that Suzaku had blessed him with a son instead of an impetuous, hairbrained daughter.

"You are really more trouble than you're worth, sometimes." He reflected aloud, and Shishi poked out her tongue at him, not noticeably crushed by his tactless observation. Before the discussion could continue, however, there was a collective gasp from the crowd as the energetic acrobats were replaced by a strange individual, long silver hair flying loose in the wind as he settled himself down before the crowd. A strange instrument was clutched beneath his fingers, and to Tasuki's uneducated gaze it looked like a nikou, although he knew as soon as the man began to play that it was not. An odd, eerie tune echoed up from the instrument, capturing the crowd in a minute, and Shishi's eyes became big as she pushed forward to see the man more clearly.

"What kind of a man is he?" She murmured, and as Tasuki followed her gaze, he shook his head slowly. The strange creature that now sat before them was pale as the moon, long argent-gilted hair flowing loose around his tired, thin features and he clasped his instrument to him closely as if it were something more than just part of his act. His eyes were a deep violet colour, which in other circumstances may have been considered attractive, but the stranger's gaze was dull and clouded, with no sense of anything in them at all. Tasuki frowned, wondering at the contrast between the man's soulless demeanour and the magical sound of the music he had begun to play.

"I don't know." He admitted. "Someone from the East, maybe. I ain't never seen a guy like that - he's not from Kounan, that's for sure."

"He's like a ghost." Jin breathed. "Like a real live ghost, Kashira. Do you that what he is? Could he be a dead guy?"

"Don't be stupid, Jin. Dead people can't hold musical instruments." Shishi said frankly, before Tasuki could respond. "That's just dumb."

"Dead people don't usually play for circus acts, either." Tasuki responded ruefully. "No, Jin. He ain't a dead guy. He's some kind o' tribesman, that's all. From some tribe outside o' the South."

"His music is pretty." Shishi murmured, and as if he had heard her words, the man met her gaze, a faint smile lighting up his sober, tragic features. Shishi stared at him for a moment. Then she dimpled, acknowledging his gaze with her own wide grin. The strange man began to play a different tune on his instrument, his gaze never leaving Shishi's face, and Tasuki saw a faint flicker of life in the otherwise empty eyes. As he finished his tune, there were cheers and calls from the crowd, and Shishi clapped her hands together.

"That was cool." She decided. "Papa, can we stay longer? Please?"

"Looks like they're packing up for the day, kid." Tasuki shook his head. "An' we have other things to do. Kouji an' the rest'll be back soon an' I oughta be doin' my share. There'll probably be stuff for the both o' you to carry back, too - since you insisted on doin' the walk down, you can do your bit goin' back too."

"Boring." Shishi sighed. "Do I have to?"

"Yes." Tasuki ruffled his fingers through the girl's hair playfully. "That's the price you pay for sneakin' through tunnels - take it as Kashira's orders, okay? Sooner you start obeyin' them, the sooner you'll find yourself a proper bandit. Got it?"

"I guess." Shishi looked despondant.

"We'll split it, Shishi." Jin suggested. "You an' me. If you like."

"I can carry it on my own." Shishi shook her head. "I'm not weak, Jin. I'll be able to manage it. You'll see."

Tasuki opened his mouth to interrupt what could potentially become a battle of obstinate wills when a shout from across the square alerted him to the sudden commotion that had begun to unfold. In the centre of it was the pale-skinned musician that had so charmed Shishi with his unusual music, and as Tasuki watched, his brows knitted together in confusion. It was not clear immediately what had caused the problem, but as he drew closer, he found he was able to pick up faint snippets of the conversation.

"You damn well do as you're told an' you do it now!" One of the circus officials were saying, his tones distinctively edged with the harsh notes of the Eastern dialect. "You don't talk to people without our say so - you're our property, or did you forget that, you stupid old man? You're nothin' but a piece of circus property an' the people o' Souun don't want to hear anythin' trash like you has to say."

"You're nothin' but a slave an' a freak, so do as you're told else you'll get a beatin' like no other." The second man added. "If you want to eat tonight, you'll get your ass back where it belongs an' don't even think o' speakin' out of line again. You play when we tell you an' you leave when we tell you. It ain't hard...even a stupid tribal idiot like you can manage to understand that, can't you?"

"I..." The pale man held up his hands in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture, and Tasuki saw a flicker of faint uncertainty in his amethyst eyes. "I only..."

"Don't you answer me back!" The first man exploded at this, and with a flick of his wrist he'd pulled a whip from his belt, cracking it in the direction of the unfortunate musician. The man flinched back as the whip came down again, this time glancing across the performer's cheek. As the crowd drew back, clearly not wanting to become involved in what was turning into a messy situation, Tasuki felt a flare of anger rise up inside of him. He narrowed his gaze, his fingers straying towards the tessen.

"Papa, they're going to kill him!" Shishi exclaimed. "You have to stop them...Papa, you have to!"

"Jin, take Shishi an' go wait by Iwai-san's market stall." Tasuki's brows knitted together and he pushed his daughter in the direction of the young bandit boy. "Do it an' don't question me - jus' go there an' wait for Kouji. I don't want you gettin' involved in somethin' nasty."

"But Papa..." Shishi protested, and Tasuki shot her a glance.

"Don't worry." He said softly. "I'll sort it. This is Reikaku-zan territory - an' I ain't settlin' for this behaviour in Souun. Jus' go with Jin an' wait for Kouji. Okay? It'll be fine."

"Come on, Shishi. Let the Kashira fix it." Jin grabbed Shishi by the arm, pulling her forcibly out of the way, and now the children were out of his line of sight, Tasuki stretched his fingers, pulling the tessen from his back as he drew closer to the commotion in the centre of the square. As he did so, several of the townsfolk recognised him, and gasps and whispers went around the surrounding spectators as they realised their Suzaku-appointed guardian had taken exception to the blatant display of slave-owner violence in the centre of Souun's usually calm streets.

So engrossed in their actions were the circus owners that they did not register Tasuki's approach until the bandit reached out his hand to grab the flail of the whip in his hand, pulling it forcibly from the man's grasp and tossing it down on the ground.

"What the hell are you doing?" The man reacted indignantly, and Tasuki's eyes narrowed, fire flickering in his bronze eyes.

"That's my line." He said quietly. "Where the hell do you think you are, you piece of scum? Or don't you know that there ain't no slavery in Kounan?"

"Get out of the way - this ain't your business." The second man snapped, as Tasuki neatly put himself between the men and the bleeding, bewildered musician.

"You obviously don't know how things work in Souun, then." Tasuki rolled back his sleeves, more gasps coming from the crowd as the glitter of Suzaku's symbol flared against his skin. "This is Reikaku-zan country. An' I'm Genrou of Reikaku-zan, which means nothin' goes through this town without goin' through me first. I say you stop, you stop. Else you an' your little band of idiots will find yourself more than a little worse for wear."

"You want to fight, is that it?" The first man retrieved his whip, pulling a blade from his belt as he glared at Tasuki, and the bandit smiled, a cold, humourless smile.

"Damn right." He retorted. "If you bring disgustin' behaviour into Kounan, I'll fight you with every ounce I got."

"Then we'll kill you, you idiot." The second man snorted. "There are two of us and one of you - and you'd fight to protect a worthless piece of circus property? That man's not worth defending - he belongs to us and everything he does is dependant on our orders. He's not a person for you to defend. He's a dirty Meihi an' he's not worth anything better. There ain't a way to treat those people but violence. They don't understand jus' yellin' at them."

"And I'll tell you again, there's no slavery in Kounan." Tasuki brought his tessen down against his hand with a thump to emphasise his point. "You're the ones who really don't understand. Crossin' Reikaku-zan's bandits ain't a good idea...if I were you, I'd escape while you still have the chance."

"We don't run away from anything." The first man snapped, and Tasuki shrugged, raising the tessen as it glittered with flickers of amber energy.

"Your call." He said quietly. "I guess I'll show you the hard way."

He raised the weapon above his head, and all around him the crowd shifted back, aware of the danger of the situation but unwilling to withdraw and miss seeing the legendary wolf of Reikaku-zan release his divine fire on the circus owners. Ruefully Tasuki realised that he'd become the next stage in the community entertainment, but even so, he knew he could not back down.

He turned to glance at the still cowering Meihi behind him, jerking his free hand towards the back of the crowd.

"Get outta here." He said brusquely. "Go! Now! Else you'll get caught up in it - an' I ain't tryin' to hurt you."

The man stared at him for a moment, then stumbled to his feet, taking a few uncertain steps backwards. As he did so, Tasuki heard the sound of a blade moving through the air and he frowned, countering it with his tessen as he fixed the interloper with the darkest glare he could muster.

"Rekka Shin'en!" He exclaimed, as he felt the rush of hot energy whip through his body and out of the glittering silver fan. It flared across the square, catching the edge of the circus' carefully constructed display and sending panicked performers running in all directions.

"The next one is you two." Tasuki turned his attention to the two owners who suddenly did not seem so cocksure as they stared at the still glowing tessen in alarm. "Let me introduce myself properly. I'm Tasuki, one of Suzaku's Celestial Warriors. This here's my friend the tessen, an' he doesn't like slave traders or slave owners any more'n I do. That's worth a penalty - you ain't paid toll yet, an' I don't mind takin' it from you by force if I have to. If you don't want to be chargrilled to a crisp, I suggest you take your cowardly asses away from this place an' do it fast. I don't want to see scum like you in Souun or ever, else it'll be your life. You understand me?"

The men faltered for a moment, and Tasuki raised his tessen warningly.

"Do you want to risk it?" He whispered menacingly, and the men took several steps back from him.

"What the hell..." One of them murmured. "You..."

"You heard what the Kashira said." Kouji's voice came from the crowd, and suddenly Tasuki was aware of his second in command at the front of the melee, his own sword drawn as he eyed the circus men coldly. "Clear outta here. Leave your stuff behind - Reikaku-zan'll be takin' it as toll for your insult against the people of Souun...but you ain't welcome in the western mountains."

This was too much for the two men and they fled with a yell, the one dropping his whip in his hurry to evade the enchanted harisen and the sword-wielding bandit.

Tasuki sheathed his tessen, meeting Kouji's glance with a rueful one, and Kouji grimaced.

"You do like to make a scene, don't you." He murmured. "Oh well. Shit, Genrou, I guess there's no such thing as a quiet trip to Souun when you're with the bandit posse."

"Jus' shut your face an' collect up from this place." Tasuki ordered. "I mean what I said - collect their takings as toll. I won't stand for slavery, Kouji - an' not right in front of me, right here in the middle o' Souun. What did you expect me to do - jus' stand there an' let a guy be beaten to death in front of me?"

"No, of course not." Kouji shook his head. "All right. Saiyo, Gai - you heard the Kashira. We're takin' toll."

As the bandits hurried to do their leader's bidding, Tasuki turned back towards the crowd, approaching the huddled form of the beaten Meihi and pausing at his side, crouching down as the older man raised his gaze.

"Why...?" He whispered, and Tasuki smiled, shrugging his shoulders.

"I don't believe in slavery." He said simply. "That's all. An' I don't believe in someone gettin' whipped t'death in the middle o' the place."

" T...Tasuki." The man said softly. "That's your name, ojisama?"

"Yes." Tasuki nodded. "You heard that, huh? You speak Chinese, then?"

"Living with those people, it's impossible not to learn." The man agreed, reaching a rueful, resigned finger up to touch the whip-gash that sliced across his cheek. "I'm grateful for your kindness, Genrou of Reikaku-zan."

"It ain't kindness. It's common sense." Tasuki said frankly, somewhat embarrassed by the simplicity of the man's remarks. "But look. We chased them outta here. You don't gotta go back with them. If you come with me, I know someone who can treat your wounds, an' then..."

"I'll have to go back to them." The man shook his head, and Tasuki looked startled.

"Why?" He demanded. "They treat you like that - why wouldn't you take your chance to be free?"

"So long as I travel, I might yet find my brother." The man smiled slightly. "Besides, it is the life I've known for so long...I don't know that I know any other way to live, now."

"But they'll kill you, if you go back to them now!"

"No...I don't think so. I think you frightened them too much for that." The man shook his head again. "You are a kind man indeed, for helping me. I'm grateful for that. Many would not have intervened - but you did. I won't forget that. Suzaku's men have kind hearts, it seems."

His gaze fell on Tasuki's still exposed right forearm, and Tasuki frowned, shrugging his shoulders.

"Little use it seems to be, if you're just goin' to go back." He murmured.

"Papa! Papa, is he all right?"

At that moment Shishi came tearing across the square, Jin in hot pursuit as he tried to grab her by the arm.

"Shishi, Kashira told you to stay with me. Shishi! Get back here!"

"I want to see if the old guy's okay." Shishi responded, dropping down at the injured man's side as she raised her gaze to his. "Are you all right, Ojisan? Did they hurt you?"

"You..." The man gazed at her for a moment, then he smiled, a faint flicker of life in his tired eyes. "Ah, now I see. You enjoyed my music, didn't you, musume-chan? And now I understand why."

He glanced at Tasuki.

"Your daughter takes after you." He murmured. "You should be proud of that, Genrou-sama. She has the same kindness in her eyes as you do in yours. The song I played is an old traditional song of my people - and it always holds the most appeal for the ones who have true goodness sealed away in their hearts. This child is one to be proud of, I'm sure of it."

"I'm going to be Kashira like Papa one day." Shishi agreed, pulling her hankerchief from her pocket as she reached across to wipe the blood from the man's cheek. "Did they hurt you anywhere else, ojisan? You play such pretty music - why did they hurt you at all?"

"Because they're scum, Shishi." Tasuki said quietly, and Jin nodded his head.

"They're bastards who think they're better'n anyone else, so they hit out an' beat people who are weaker." He said frankly, and Tasuki shot him another startled glance, inwardly wondering what exactly the boy knew of such things. He nodded.

"Exactly." He agreed. "And I don't think you should go back to them, ojisan. Whatever you say, there must be somethin' we can do to help you, an'..."

" duty is to go back." The Meihi shook his head, pulling himself unsteadily to his feet, and Shishi hurried to help him, eliciting a grateful smile as her reward. "Thank you, musume-chan. Or no...Shishi? Is that what your father called you? A lion cub indeed...keep that lion's spirit, child. One day I'm sure you'll find a way to make the most of having it."

He smiled, bowing his head towards them.

"Thank you again for your kindness, Genrou-sama." He murmured. "I won't forget...that the people of Kounan have good hearts."

With that he shuffled away in the direction the two miscreants had headed, and Tasuki frowned, watching him go with a mixture of emotions in his heart.

"Are you going to let him go back?" Kouji's voice at his right hand startled him and he turned, shrugging his shoulders.

"I can't stop him." He said helplessly. "To make him do anythin' would be as bad as what they were doin'...he wants to go back an' I don't think I can force him not to."

"Seems a waste, when you saved him like that." Kouji reflected. "They might kill him, you know."

"Yeah, I know." Tasuki frowned. "But right now...look, Kouji, I want to make sure these bastards are driven outta our patch. So we'll take the supplies, the toll an' most important, the brats back to the mountain. Then you, me an' a bunch of the strongest guys'll come back out. We'll make sure they're driven over the border into Sairou - an' if we can, we'll make sure those bastards die of fright before they lay a finger on that old guy again. Whatever he thinks...noone deserves t'be treated like that. Damn Eastern bastards...I won't stand for it. Not in the shadow of my mountain - Hakurou-sama wouldn't have taken it an' nor will I."

"All right." Kouji nodded his head. "I agree. We might have issues - poverty, disease, bandit rivalry. But we ain't so low as to permit that kind of behaviour on the people here. I'll come with you. Don't worry. We'll make sure they know not to come back if they value their lives."

"Aniki, what was that man?" Jin asked curiously. "He was white as a ghost - but he bled, so he really wasn't one. What was he - do you know?"

"A Meihi, I think." Kouji reflected. "I don't know much about them, but I think they're a tribe from the North...from Hokkan originally. I've heard a lot of them were made slaves in Kutou - but I don't know if it's true. They're a peaceful people, far as I know. When my folk were involved in the smugglin', generations back, they sometimes encountered Meihi on their travels. They're a people who don't kill, or even fight - they jus' live separate from everyone in their own community. Own language, own culture...everythin'. Poor bastards didn't stand a chance when the East started imprisonin' an' slaughterin' tribesfolk. I guess there ain't many of them left now."

"An' that ojisan was one of them?" Shishi said softly. "That sucks. He shouldn't have to be a slave. Should he, Papa?"

"No, he shouldn't." Tasuki said darkly. "But that's the East for you, kid. A lot of twisted shit goes on there...that's why we fought a war with them, before you were born. Keep that in mind, the both o' you. Kutou's a warped kind o' place, even glad you live in Kounan, okay?"

"Right." Kouji glanced up at the sky. "As your pa says, Shishi - sometimes the world outside the mountain ain't as perfect or as excitin' as you'd like - remember that, next time you wanna sneak out. There's a good reason why you shouldn't run riot all over Kounan - jus' because we're peaceful here doesn't mean everywhere is. There are folk like those bastards in all places - watch out for them else you might find yourself gettin' killed."

"Let's go back to the mountain." Tasuki said frankly, as he saw the expression on his daughter's face become uncharacteristically thoughtful. "We'll make sure those guys don't come back to Souun, for sure. But for now I wanna get the kids away from here. We've caused enough of a scene for one day."

He frowned.

"I hope that old guy will be all right." He added.

"We'll do our best to make sure of it." Kouji promised. "At least as far as Reikaku-zan territory stretches. Don't worry, Genrou - there'll be no murder of slaves on your territory...we'll make sure of that!"