A/N: Alternate Universe. Uruki/Takiko. The Genbu seishi live in 1653 Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. The seishi serve daimyo loyal to the shogun in the city of Edo (present day Tokyo). Stirrings of revolt and betrayal reach Edo, and Uruki is sent to investigate. Journeying north to Morioka, he finds a hardened seventeen-year-old girl who talks with the blade of a naginata. What she has to say could change Japan – and him – forever.
Chapter I – Girl of the North
- - - Uruki - - -
I've seen everything. Battles, burned towns, cowering orphans – the like. Serving the shogunate exposes you to things better left to dark alleys and closed mouths. I've worn the blood of men and fled the echoing cries of women. Women. Ugh. Ridiculous creatures. Hysterical, pottery-throwing, husband-smacking, angry things. Every time I call on my powers and transform into one it's taxing.
I have them figured out.
The girl blocking my path seemed an exception. There were no pieces of house-ware to throw though, so I could be wrong.
She was obviously a fighter. Katana scars marred her arms, and the outline of muscles honed from more than weeding gardens peeked out of her wide sleeves.
I knew I was gaping like an idiot. I didn't care. The novelty of the new always surprised me.
My eyes roamed her without apology. Harsh wind swept the road, swirling piles of snow into the air. God it was cold up here. I was north of nowhere.
The girl didn't seem to notice. She wore a short happi coat and stood like a man. Her hair was pulled in a high, tight ponytail, mirroring a male style. Practiced fingers gripped the end of a naginata.
She had appeared suddenly, brandishing anger as tangible as the weapon aimed for my chest. The wind always brought the smell of ill intent to me, but she'd snuck up on me through the forest while I led my horse, oblivious.
The point of her long spear filled the space between us, edging closer. "I ask you again samurai," her words were clipped and cool. "Why are you in Morioka?"
I frowned. Her lack of respect was appalling. She didn't even bother with my title. Addressing me almost as a ronin? Such audacity detracted from the pleasing set of her face.
The girl seemed to hear me. Her forehead furrowed in a scowl. "I'm not looking for your approval," she said. "I'll speak how I want."
I snorted. Be nice Uruki.
"Obviously," my words puffed out white clouds in the cold air. "You don't know any better."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Clouds of her own breath lingered at her chin.
She had a nice chin. Nice nose too. I'm sure she knew it.
"It means what it means," I recognized her tone. Women were so predictably vain, whether about looks or intelligence. "You're a village woman whose world is this big," I held up my thumb and forefinger close together.
The girl grit her teeth. "I'll be happy to make my world one person smaller," the naginata edged closer.
My eyes widened. It had been a long time since I'd been threatened. Most people knew better. "You think rudeness will grant my esteem?" Irritation began to mix with my curiosity.
"Grant esteem?" The girl laughed. "You talk like you look. How's that giant stick feel up your—?"
"Hey! Watch it!"
Who the hell did she think she was? Did she know who she was talking to?
The girl pulled a face. "Make me."
I spluttered. This was childish.
"What's wrong samurai?" Her voice grew mocking. "Nothing to say?"
What had I been thinking? She didn't have a nice anything.
"I don't have time for this," I stepped forward. "Get out of the way."
Her spear found a space in my armor, poking my skin. "You haven't answered my question," her eyes narrowed.
I grabbed the weapon, pushing it off impatiently. "I've no intention to!"
The girl growled.
I'm not kidding. Animal sound actually came from her throat.
"You will, or you won't pass."
Was that an ultimatum?
"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "I'm not going to not pit wills against a girl."
"Why?" Her naginata returned. She pressed it to my side with more force.
"Ow! Stop it!" I batted it away. "I have a mission to complete!"
"What mission?" She persisted.
"It doesn't concern commoners."
The girl appraised me, as I had done her. Her gaze flicked across the span of my shoulders and settled somewhere south of my waist.
She was making a point. She hadn't appreciated my earlier stare.
I resisted the urge to palm my front and straightened instead. I stood a head taller and looked down my nose.
Amusement lit her eyes. "Yet I still stand in your way. And this simple commoner shall not let you pass."
I dropped my horse's lead. He wandered to the roadside, digging to find grass under the snow. He wanted no part of our exchange. Smart beast.
"I don't mean you harm," I held my hands up, empty fingers splayed. "I'm just a traveler making my way across the countryside."
"Dressed in the Tokugawa crest? I think not."
I palmed my armor. "Why should my attire bar entrance?"
"Why should Morioka be of interest?" She countered.
I frowned again. This was starting to skirt the line of treason. "You speak as if you're an equal," I felt I should make it plain. She obviously needed to hear it. "Your husband ought to teach you your place."
The girl managed a harsh laugh. "Were I married, perhaps a try would be made," she hiked the naginata higher at her side. "Men need such things to bolster their fragile egos."
"Not married? At your age?" I smirked. "I can't imagine why."
Color rose in her cheeks. "This is the last time I say it. What do you want here?"
My hand casually fell to the hilt of Souren's sword. Fingers curled in warning. That would cow her. Women were all about self-preservation.
Her eyes followed my arm. "I see," small knuckles whitened around the naginata. She lowered to a crouch.
My eyebrows hiked high. "What are you doing?"
Her muscles tensed. "Preparing to run you through."
"WHAT?" My mouth swung open. "Forget place. You need a husband to teach you sanity."
"I manage just fine," her hands spread down the spear's shaft. "Somehow."
"You won't win," the wind carried my words, robbing them of volume. I had meant them to sound strong, but I had never fought a woman. For all my dislike, I didn't want to hurt one.
I just needed to cross.
She scowled again. "Turn back."
"I won't let you pass."
"Then you'll die."
A small smile stole the corners of her mouth. "So be it."
The smile was of resignation. Almost relief.
I couldn't do this. I could find another way. There had to be a second road.
"What's your name?" My mind was on the fork I had passed yesterday.
The girl's smile dropped. Indecision flashed in her face. She was surprisingly easy to read, holding no power of pretense. I thought of the guarded, coy women who filled Edo. Vultures the lot.
Her eyes locked with mine. "Takiko."
The fork was too far.
With a sigh, I pulled the sword from my waist. It rang. "I have to get to Morioka, Takiko."
I had orders to follow.
"You're welcome to try."
The thought didn't sit well. I forced my arm to steady.
We lunged at the same time.
- - - Two Weeks Earlier - - -
"You're an idiot Uruki," Tomite pulled his arrows from the tree's stout trunk. I knew he was rolling his eyes.
"I'm just saying," I shrugged.
Tomite tucked his bow to his back. He turned with a dry look. "I've lost count how many times my shots have saved your life."
"But my blade keeps you safe to fire in the first place," I returned.
The blue-haired man shook his head. "I'm not learning the sword."
"Oh?" He raised an arm. His fist glowed.
My hands braced air. "Don't!"
"You think I can't hold my own in close combat?"
"I was kidding!"
Blue shot from his fist. A ribbon of solid ice punched me in the chest. Cold stole my breath and knocked me back a step.
I fought to inhale. "Defensive much?"
Another ice beam slammed me to the ground. I landed on bent elbows.
"You wanna fight?" I snarled. Rising, I brushed my front with angry fingers. The ice crumbled off.
Tomite grinned. "Bring it, wench!"
My eye twitched. "You can't use female insults while I'm still male!"
He laughed. "You're so pretty, it's easy to get mixed up."
The twitch grew. "You're DEAD," I transformed, calling wind into my palms.
My kamishimo became tight as my chest expanded, and loose over my shoulders and waist. The garment wasn't wrapped to accommodate a woman's frame.
Tomite dropped his gathered arrows. He raised his other fist, grinning wider. "Upset Uruki-chan?"
"Upset I'll have to dress nice when they put you in the ground!" My female voice was high. I called more wind.
"That's enough!" A tall man appeared at the edge of the field. He crossed his arms and glared with his uncovered eye.
His gaze bored into my side, burning a hole.
The man knew how to glower.
Tomite pretended not to feel its heat. He kept his arms straight. "We're just sparring."
Hikitsu frowned. "Liar."
I released the wind. It left me in a rush as I changed back. "Don't be so serious," my voice was deep again. "We're not hurting any—."
"We weren't hand-picked by the daimyo to use our powers on each other. They're supposed to be a secret," he interrupted. "There are more important things than settling score."
Tomite grudgingly unclenched his fists. "What do you have for us?"
He and I both knew what Hikitsu's words on duty prefaced.
"There's news of rebellion in the north," he ignored Tomite's tone. "The daimyo requested Uruki."
I grinned, risking Hikitsu's disapproval. "You see. Sword beats bow."
"Sure," Tomite bent to retrieve his arrows. "Not like you're trying to compensate for anything, parading around with a blade the length of your leg."
A wave of water erupted from the field's periphery. It crashed into Tomite's backside, soaking through the spaces in his armor. He sputtered, straightening. The man wiped wet from his eyes.
"Hikitsu, you're an ass!"
"What?" A trace of smile touched the newcomer's face. "Such freak weather this time of year. It's strange how it doesn't even come from the sky."
"Yeah, yeah," Tomite shook water from his bangs. "Defending Uruki just cause you're in league together," he glared balefully at the katana on Hikitsu's hip.
Hikitsu lifted two fingers to his face in warning.
"Oh what're you going to do?" Tomite threw up his arms. "I'm already wet."
I backed up.
Hikitsu's smile sharpened to smirk. Water shot from his fingers. It flew towards Tomite, yawning wide in a great maw. The seishi turned to run, but too late. The flood swallowed him, sweeping out his stance. White, churning rapids carried him across the field towards a line of trees.
Tomite floated into the forest, disappearing. Expletives rose up behind him and the surging water slowly died.
The white seeped into the ground and Hikitsu pulled his hand from his face.
I swallowed, glancing to the trees. "So… rebellion in the north?"
"Yes," the tall man swept long hair from his shoulders. "The daimyo wants you to find their leader and silence him."
"A small town. Morioka."
"Do we have a name?"
"Only family. Okuda."
I repeated it wordlessly, committing it to memory. "More than I've gotten before."
Hikitsu nodded. "You're to leave immediately. Your horse and supplies are already packed."
I walked to his side. "And his followers?"
"Dispatch them as well."
The girl's strength surprised me. She met my strike with force. I bore down and she grimaced.
"I don't want to hurt you," I whispered.
"And I don't want you in my village," she grit out.
We broke. She swung the naginata around, aiming for my neck. I ducked and sliced my sword across her exposed side. The blade bit into her obi, ripping through. Blood bloomed at her hip.
She didn't cry out. Whipping the butt-end of her spear, she caught me in the jaw. My head snapped back. The girl dropped low and kicked her leg under me. My knees buckled and I fell hard.
Her elbow connected with my chin. Snapping bone echoed the blow.
I swore. My voice cracked as the word seared fire across my face. Spots darkened my vision.
I shook my head. Her elbow was returning. I grabbed her arm, pinning it up behind her back. She cursed, far more colorfully than I. Without an obi, her kimono was starting to open. She gathered it together with her free hand.
I pushed the shoulder over me, sitting up. The spots danced wildly. The road spun. "Who the hell are you?" I shoved my face to hers.
Fury splotched her cheeks. She drew in a quick breath and I could see she was going to spit. I grabbed her chin, turning it away. My fingers dug.
"Don't even try!" Speaking made everything blur, but I couldn't seem to stop.
"I told you my name!" She glared from the corner of her eye. I pushed her face further. "We're fighting over yours! What do you want with Morioka?"
I refused to let go. "We're here because you're a stupid girl doing a man's job. Who's supposed to guard this road?"
"I am! No one else stands up to the Tokugawa contribution collectors who come through."
I froze. She was no longer skirting the line. "That's treason."
She let go of her kimono and dug nails into my wrist. "I don't care."
I reached for her remaining arm, twisting it behind with the other. She didn't flinch. I twisted harder.
Her face returned to mine. Defiance fed her anger.
My mouth opened without thought. "What's your family name?"
I don't know what made me ask.
I wonder still.
Fear replaced her anger. I knew instantly.
"Okuda?" I pulled her arms tighter, forcing her close. "Takiko Okuda?!"
Her chest heaved against mine. Her breathing sped.
"Have you come to kill me?" She whispered.
I could taste her words. No light fit between us.
I couldn't answer. The leader was a girl? Her 'uprising' was refusing taxes?
"I'll take that as 'yes'," she spoke for me. The same smile returned. It held a different note than before. "Not today samurai."
I had relaxed my grip without realizing. She wrenched free and swung her fists towards me. She struck my temples from both sides and the spots merged together. Black followed the blow and oblivion swallowed me whole.