Though a Bird Can't Fly, That Doesn't Mean It Never Will.
Chapter 4: Pirates, Parasols and Painted Faces
"I can't die here! I have things do to... a promise to keep!"
Zoro stared at the strange rubber boy who had somehow, beyond all odds, managed to regain his lost swords AND block a hailstorm of bullets meant for him. His attention was focused most of all, on Kuina's white katana, the most treasured of all his katana. He had almost resigned to never seeing it again. And facing the ugly consequences if — no, when Kuina finally caught up and found out he had lost it.
"Well? Do you want to die here?" asked the straw-hatted rubber boy as the bullets he had blocked miraculously bounced off him and back at the firing squad.
The marines were still stunned, but could not be counted to remain so for long. He could see some of them drawing their standard-issue cutlasses already.
The choice he had to make balanced on the edge of a knife, and finally, he made it.
"Are you the child of the devil?" Zoro said with a chilling grin rather reminiscent of a shark. "Forget it. Rather than die here, I'll accept your deal and become a pirate."
And with that, a line was crossed.
Out in the Four Blues, she would find him. Somehow.
This was the thought in Kuina's mind as she made her way from the Shelltown Marine Base to the inn by harbour, her brow furrowed with worry.
A few of the townspeople turned their heads to glance at the young woman elegantly sashaying her way down the busy streets, with a dazzlingly pretty parasol over her shoulder to shield her from the cruel afternoon sun.
"A real lady," they said to themselves, "Look at that fine kimono! You don't see many young girls wearing those nowadays. And look at the way she walks. Small, delicate steps, with her powdered face and eyes glancing demurely downwards..."
Which was all ineffable rubbish and twaddle, really. Ichii-san had advised her against advertising her handicap to strangers who might seek to take advantage of her, so Kuina had been obliged to- as much as she hated having gunk on her face- paint her face and train her hair as to hide her burn scars and the tell-tale opaque eyes. She was walking slowly because she was finding it hard going. The marketplace was thronging with people and extremely noisy, making the use of Ichii-san's technique to listen and sense the direction of objects difficult.
But she was managing, albeit slowly. The problem now was she had hit a dead end with regards to the location of Roronoa Zoro.
She and Zaito-san had arrived in Shelltown just that morning. Her first instinct had been to run to the marine base, find Zoro, and break him out. That idea was quickly overridden by the mental image of Ichii-san's scowl telling her she was an idiot for even thinking so. Indeed, Kuina had since learned the value of discretion and diplomacy. As much as she still disliked it, there was a point to trying the soft approach first.
So she pretended to be a curious tourist and wandered over the the execution grounds to gather more information.
After the initial scare at finding the execution grounds empty, she had been much relieved and mortified to find her journey had been rather pointless. In fact, according to an amiable young marine recruit who was cheerfully sweeping the grounds, Roronoa Zoro had left town almost a week ago, very much alive.
The relief had lasted only as long as until she found out WHO Zoro had left Shelltown with.
With great effort Kuina kept her voice calm as the chubby young recruit rambled on. Once she had initiated conversation, he really was quite a chatterbox.
"Yeah, there was this great fight about a week ago. Helmeppo was going to back out of his deal to release Zoro if he survived, and Luffy — that's the pirate with the straw hat I mentioned — made a deal with Zoro to get him his swords back if he'd become a member of his crew."
"COBY! Get back to work! You're supposed to the clearing the grounds, not flirting with young girls with parasols!"
The marine officer's appearance had been most unfortunate, because "Coby" was thus unable to provide her with any further information and after a few stammered apologies and a red face, resumed his sweeping.
With nothing left to go on, she thanked him and headed back to the inn where Zaito had checked in, even more troubled than when she had arrived.
"You've been sneezing all morning," commented Usopp.
"Yeah, what a pain." Zoro had thought the portion of the deck near the cannons of their brand new ship, the Going Merry would be a great place for a nap, but as it turned, the cannons held an irresistible fascination for the pointy-nosed youth, and Zoro's hints that he wanted to be left alone hadn't quite gotten through.
"Maybe someone's talking about you," Usopp muttered as he played around with the cannon.
Zoro flashed a boastful grin. "Probably those cat pirates we saved your village from." He wished he had had a chance to fight Kuro back at syrup village. That man had had the feel of a challenging swordsman. It would have been a good test of his skill. And a sword on each of his fingers — why hadn't he thought of that?
And there Kuina was always saying that he, Zoro, was obsessed with having more swords than a person should be able to handle. Imagine if she had been there and met that Kuro guy, her jibes would have caused that uptight fake butler to pop a vein, even if his crazy attack allowed him to move faster than the eye could see —
Suddenly, he frowned.
"Why are you looking at me so scary-like for?" yelped Usopp.
Zoro ignored him. He had remembered something.
Back at the inn, Kuina listened to the inn-keeper's little daughter play as she sipped a cup of green tea. Zaito had gone about to do whatever it was that traders did, most likely realise his consignment of fine kimonos and gather new goods to transport to the next town. Kuina, having made her way back on her own without incident, was fuming.
It had been all too clear what had happened. Zoro had gotten in trouble, was about to be executed when some unscrupulous pirate on the lookout for more muscle for his crew had seized the opportunity. Blackmailing Zoro into joining his crew like that — that was unfair to say the least.
In her mind the image of this "Straw-Hat Luffy" became to take shape: A sly, conniving pirate relying on his cunning mind and hired muscle to get by. To think that Zoro had fallen into the clutches of a such a scoundrel!
The worst thing was all was the knowledge that it was probably her katana that had induced Zoro into giving in to this pirate. Kuina knew Zoro well enough to know he wouldn't care so much about losing his two common katana (or even his life), but losing the Wadou Ichimonji was another matter entirely. So, indirectly this was her fault.
She gritted her teeth. No, she would not accept this. There had to be some way of getting Zoro out from under the yoke of a such a dishonourable brigand, and she, Kuina was going to find it.
Of course, that would involve actually finding Zoro. And the problem was, she had no idea where he was now.
"Beautiful!" enthused the clothing store-keeper as Zaito uncovered the lid of the kimono-box.
"Fine silk from Silver Silk Island, West Blue. Hand stitched by the House of Ichii here in East Blue. This one is in particular, very finely made."
"Indeed. When I ordered them I didn't realize they'd be this fine. I think I might keep this one for my wife," the merchant confided with a surreptitious glance at Zaito, "haven't been in her best books lately."
The old man clucked in sympathy. "Matrimony at home is a delicate balance."
The trader was about to reply when he suddenly started and stared in amazement into the distance. Puzzled, Zaito turned to look behind at the ocean. What he saw made him take a step back in horror.
"Is that a Jolly Roger on that ship?"
"I think I'll be closing the shop early today," said the store-keeper nervously.
The figure of the traveling merchant was already hurrying away towards the direction of the inn.
Kuina was on her third cup of tea when Zaito-san burst into the inn, more terrified than Kuina had ever sensed him to be.
"Zaito-san, what is it?"
"Pirates. We should get away from the harbour quickly!"
The owner of the inn, a woman, looked skeptical. "We have a marine base here, surely no pirate would be mad enough to..."
A resounding crash interrupted her as a young marine crashed through the door, sending wooden splinters flying asunder. He landed hard, and did not get up again. Judging from his pained gasps, he seemed to have suffered some sort of chest injury.
"How disappointing," an out-of-place but melodic voice came from outside. "I was expecting a bigger challenge than that from the Marines."
Kuina stood up, her hand reflexively reaching for her parasol. Zaito drew back from the door, placing himself between her and the door as the owner of the voice strode into the inn as if she owned it.
Later, Kuina would reflect, based on the another eye-witness's description of the pirate, on how ridiculous she must have looked.
"That pirate? She was dressed from head to toe — in black leather of all things! Even the skirt! Well, I'd say "dressed" but that's a generous term for it, really. Honestly, her outfit? Just a leather bikini top, that leather skirt, and high heeled boots — you know the type which goes up to your hips? Must've been really uncomfortable... uh — so I heard. Weapons? Yes, had quite a few, didn't she? Let's see... there was that holster with that pistol — well I think it was a flintlock pistol —anyway she wore that thing strapped to her left thigh, and she had another on her right shoulder. Oh, and she had pair of those exotic ji-lian swords* too. If you ask me, the extra guns seem rather like overkill, don't you think? 'Course, I might be a little biased, having seen the business end of them and all...
"Oh yeah, she was sporting a black headband with artificial cat ears. I have no idea why she was wearing those — I mean she had this haircut with heavy bangs, and she even tinted 'em with red streaks! And she had to keep tossing her head to keep her hair out of her eyes — which were red, by the way. Weird, huh?
"How old was she? Not too sure myself, but I don't think she could have been older than fifteen."
But Kuina had not had the luxury of a narrator at that very moment, so her first impression of the owner of the voice had been:
"What are you two doing? Get me a drink to celebrate my victory!"
If Kuina could see she would have thought that the two pirates who followed in her wake were dressed rather oddly; in fact they would have reminded her of cats. Judging from their hushed whispers they weren't too fond of the girl either, she could hear their muttered complaints from where she stood:
"... can't believe who she thinks she is!"
"What is the captain about, even considering her as first mate?" said the first, whose deep, purry voice and heavy, square build made him reminiscent of a rather fat and scruffy Persian cat.
"If you ask me," said the second, whose sharp and mewling voice suggested a Siamese feline counterpart, "Captain Kuro hasn't been the same since he got beaten up by that straw hat pirate kid."
At that last sentence, Kuina's attention was suddenly piqued. Straw-Hat?
In an instant her mind started racing. The odds of there being two pirates well-known for wearing straw-hats were very slim. And this Kuro had fought him recently... if she could find out where maybe she would be able to get a lead on the whereabouts of Zoro!
Before she could react to obtain more information, however, the nightmare girl had whirled around angrily and glared at the offending pirate underling.
"I heard that," she snarled. "Don't you think I don't know you're doubting my ability because I'm a girl!"
With that last word, she lashed out with her ji-lian, catching the siamese cat-like pirate and sending him crashing into the bar counter with great force.
"I, Kitty Raven the Hunter, will be the greatest swordswoman who will also be the most beautiful queen of the pirates, more than that overrated Shinchibukai empress Boa Hancock! And Captain Kuro will fall in love with me and make me his first mate!"
Other than the illogical run-on career progression of greatest swordsman - queen of the pirates - first mate of some pirate that "Kitty" seemed to have planned, Kuina couldn't help but wonder who this Captain Kuro was and why in Four Blues did he even have such an annoying admirer? Inwardly Kuina cringed and hoped fervently that she herself had never sounded that conceited in pursuit of her own dream.
But deep inside, she knew of one time when she came close to it.
It had all started out with an argument shortly after she had arrived at the kimono-maker's house. She had had a visit from Zoro as usual, and they had talked about being the greatest swordsmen in the world again. As usual. All had been fine until it was time for Zoro to go home and her time help with preparations for dinner.
She'd been keeping quiet, doing her part, when out of the blue, Ichii-san had spoken out.
"So, you actually believe you can be the world greatest swordsman?"
"Yes, and don't tell me I can't!" She had snapped back. She had always been particularly sensitive on that point. In her short lifetime, being surrounded by naysayers and being repeatedly told that she would never be able to realize her dream, had made that phrase something of a taboo for her.
Ichii-san had been silent after that, but she could tell that the old woman had heard her retort. It wasn't much of a surprise to her afterwards when Ichii-san spoke again. "You do realize that you will still lose out in brute strength to a male swordsman, no matter how hard you train, do you not?"
She gritted her teeth. She was so tired of hearing this!
"I'm going to be the world greatest's swordsman! And no one is going to tell me different!" she snarled.
"Yelling at your elders is not how a lady acts, Kuina."
Now she was being patronizing. "What would you know?" Kuina ignored the directive not to yell. "What would an old kimono woman obsessed about being ladylike know about swordsmanship anyway?"
Everyone was staring at her now, and she knew it. And it made her angrier than ever.
"All you do is stay here and wallow away in obscurity!"
"That is enough, Kuina," Ichii-san said quietly. There was a new tone to Ichii-san's voice that Kuina hadn't heard before. It sent a chill down her spine. But some horrible impulse kept her defiant.
"No it isn't!"
"Yes it is. I don't like my apprentices making fools of themselves by talking about things they don't understand as if they did."
This really was too much. She knew she was a bad seamstress . She was a bad cook. And she was blind and despite being over sixteen and from a fairly rich family, no boy was ever going to marry her. Not that she cared about such things anyway.
But if there was thing she DID know about, it was swordmanship. And here was some snobby old woman telling her she didn't?
"DON'T TELL ME I DON'T UNDERSTAND SWORDSMANSHIP YOU OLD HAG!"
The silence that followed her outburst was deafening. It was a full minute before Ichii-san voice broke the tense atmosphere.
"You have a sword, don't you? I believe I saw it when we were throwing away your old clothes."
"You're not confiscating it," she instinctively moved towards her room. "It's my family's meitou."
"A poor swordsman attaches far too much importance to his sword," Ichii said disapprovingly, "nevertheless, go get it and come see me in the drying yard."
"What are you planning to do with it?"
Ichii-san voice sounded irritated. "Isn't it obvious, girl?" the old woman walked over to her sewing basket. "I'm challenging you to a duel."
"B-but —" stammered the siamese cat pirate, wincing where the ji-lian had scored gashes similar to what had happened. "I wasn't the one who said that..."
"Whatever," drawled the girl, "that'll teach you a lesson for disrespecting me — WHERE ARE YOU GOING?" The second sentence was directed at the other pirate, who despite his bulk, had until then had been doing a rather stealthy job of sneaking away.
"I was just checking!" whimpered the fat cat. "Besides, I think Captain Morgan Axe-Fist would be at the marine base, not in this inn here..."
"Oh that's right." said Kitty with a yawn. "I have to kill that Morgan guy who got famous from 'capturing' Captain Kuro to become first mate. Captain Kuro said so."
"You... won't find... him there." The marine who had been thrown in had regained consciousness, and despite his injuries, was drawing his cutlass. "Court martialled... Commander Ripper is in charge now."
"I guess I'll just have to settle for killing HIM then. That should get me a nice bounty." drawled the pirate.
"He's a good captain... and I'm not letting you kill him!"
Kitty laughed. "You actually think you can beat me?"
"I won't let you hurt any more people!"
With that the marine charged at the pirate, who contemptuously engaged the injured man.
"Kuina, quickly!" Zaito-san whispered. The inn-keeper had already bundled her daughter out of the inn and Zaito was whispering for her to follow. With a jolt, she realized that the distraction was probably what the marine had been hoping to accomplish with his otherwise ill-conceived fight with Kitty.
"But Zaito..." she was protesting at leaving the marine to be killed, but her feet were obediently following Zaito out of the inn, until —
The shot of the flintlock pistol was unexpectedly loud.
Kuina cringed, expecting to hear the marine's dead body hitting the floor. But she could only hear him holding his shoulder where the shot had grazed him.
The shot fired by Kitty, who had for some reason switched from her swords, had almost missed him. And gone on to hit the next thing in its path.
She couldn't see the red blood that was rapidly staining the old man's grey and white robe, but she could hear the sound as he slumped to the floor, a victim of the pirate's stray shot. Kuina froze in horror. This couldn't be happening... not Zaito-san who was always so kind and considerate... and it was all her fault that they had come here.
Red. The memory of the colour of blood, in her mind's eye. Everything was turning red.
This couldn't be happening...
"This couldn't be happening!" she had thought, as she lay with her back against the flagged stonework of the drying yard. It was one thing to lose to Zoro in an honourable fight, but to be beaten so decisively with so little effort — it shouldn't have been possible.
Despite her handicap, she had the vitality of youth, and years of hard training, and a far superior weapon in the Wadou Ichimonji. It was inconceivable that she should be beaten by an equally blind old woman armed with sewing scissors as if she were some bumbling beginner.
To reiterate — with a pair of sewing scissors.
"Hmph. Back in your tomboy outfit again. It makes such an unattractive sound when it moves," Ichii-san had sniffed at her earlier when she had showed up at the drying yard in her exercise clothes and with the Wadou Ichimonji under her arm. "At least you're not ruining one of your komons*."
"Let's just get on with it," Kuina grumbled in reply, "where's YOUR sword? I can't hear it."
Ichii-san smiled thinly. "I decided that these were adequate."
The snip-snip sound of the implements were too familiar to Kuina's ears for her to not recognise them.
"You're fighting me with sewing scissors?"
"Actually they are still overkill, but I'll make it easy for you. If you can cut my kimono, you win the duel. If you lose, you spend dinner time mending everyone's torn clothes."
"Now you're just insulting me."
Kuina gritted her teeth as she took her position and eased the Wadou from its sheath.
"Enough delay. Hurry up so I can get back to making dinner," Ichii continued, unruffled.
The old woman stood there, the absurd scissors clasped to her chest. At the back of Kuina's mind, she knew there was something unusual with the kimono-maker's stance and she should beware, but she was far too angry to think now. The katana flashed in her hand as for once, she attacked first, with more ferocity that she ever remembered having.
Cut the kimono? She would cut it into ribbons! She would —
She nearly lost her balance as her katana was parried by Ichii's scissors. She barely recovered herself in time to dodge Ichii's counter attack. With scissors.
Shaken, Kuina quickly backpedalled and put some distance between the old woman and herself. The shock had dissipated her anger and she was beginning to think.
Common sewing scissors should not have been able to stand up to the fire-folded steel blade. In fact, her katana should have just sliced through the inferior metal. And they weren't special scissor blades. She had handled those scissors enough times to know that they were just that. Common scissors for cutting cloth.
How were they different when Ichii held them?
"No brooding!" Ichii-san's voice was gleeful as she sprinted forward in a flurry cascade of coloured silk.
Kuina could hear the fluttering fabric. If she could just cut it with her katana she could win, but the maddening thing was Ichii was on the offensive and all she could do was defend. How could an old woman strike so hard? Even Zoro's blows never had this much force behind them.
"Overlock Onslaught!" Ichii was moving so fast, it was as if the world was spinning in a spiraling shower of stabbing scissors, with Kuina herself desperately parrying for dear life as the attack quickened in pace. With a sinking feeling she knew she couldn't keep this up. She had to counter or one of the attacks would slip through.
Finally, Ichii-san seemed to tire and Kuina seized her chance. No more holding back. No more mercy. She lunged forward.
And the Wadou Ichimonji cut through air, striking nothing.
Too late! Something concentrated gouged into her from the side with so much force she could hear her ribs crack and the breath forced out of her lungs. She was flying through the air, her katana flying from her grip to noiselessly embed itself into the wall.
She landed flat on her back on the flagged stone floor, gasping in pain from the burning sensation from her side.
Kuina could hear the clang of a pair of scissors being dropped near her.
"No dinner for you then, it looks like." The old woman's voice had a ring of amused triumph in it.
Ragged gasps were the only replies Kuina could muster. This couldn't be happening.
"A true swordsman would have realized it even before they drew their sword," Ichii-san said as she turned to head back into the house. "I told you, didn't I? You don't know as much about swordfighting as you think you do."
It was beginning to rain. Kuina could feel the faint patter of the droplets as they made contact with her upturned face.
"Is this the part —" she had finally caught her breath enough to speak longer sentences again. " — where you tell me a blind girl can never be the world's greatest swordsman?"
"I didn't say that," Ichii's voice sounded slightly amused. "But if you go on fighting the way you fight right now, I doubt you ever will."
"Because you are depending on brute strength and sheer speed to fight, and if you pitt yourself against a man of equal skill, you will still lose."
Tears streamed down Kuina's cheeks. "No! I won't accept it! I won't accept it!"
"Men are stronger than women physically. You should accept it."
"No!" Zoro's face appeared in her mind. She had made a promise. Not even the loss of her sight could induce her to give it up. "I will be the world's greatest swordsman one day. I am not giving up!"
"Who is asking you to give up?" Ichii-san paused at the doorway, as the low rumble of thunder was accompanied by the heavy drops of an autumn shower. "I'm just trying to get you to understand that as a girl, to achieve your dream, you're going to have to stop trying to fight like that boy. Instead, learn what it is that women are stronger than men at and focus on that."
And with that, Ichii-san entered the house, leaving a much humbled girl behind in the pouring rain.
"Bah, I missed — wasted my bullets. Never mind, I'll finish you off with my swords."
The pirate Kitty the Raven Hunter advanced on the beaten marine, grinning like a mad cat —
— and was promptly hit in the face with a teacup that had come hurtling across the room.
"WHO THREW THAT?" the pirate-girl, unaccustomed to such indignities, screamed in rage.
Both the fat cat pirate and his skinny counterpart pointed at figure at the doorway.
Kuina stood there, her unseeing eyes somehow focused on the object of her hatred, the outside light giving her the appearance of being incandescent with rage.
"It is dishonourable," said Kuina coldly, "for a swordsman to continue fighting against an opponent who has already been beaten. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you? You are no swordsman. You're not even a marksman. You're just an ill-mannered wench with too many toys who doesn't really know how to use them and doesn't care a whit about who gets hurt!"
"And what do I care?" sneered Kitty as she wiped green tea off her face. "What are you going to do, girly girl? Whack me with your umbrella?"
Kuina's mouth curved into a grim smile. "Something like that."
She put the last if her possessions into her bag, and fastened the straps securely.
"You shouldn't go unarmed," Ichii-san said, "there are bandits and pirates out there who won't give you any quarter, lady or not; blind or not."
"Yes Ichii-san. I am going to take leave of my father at the dojo first, and I will take one of the dojo swords from there with me."
"Don't bother. Take this."
With that Ichii-san proffered the parasol that she carried everywhere with her.
The common observer would have thought this strange, but she, Kuina, who had lived with Ichii-san long enough knew that the parasol was no ordinary umbrella, accepted it reverently. It was very pretty, a pale white with scalloped edges and a pattern of red cherry blossoms and golden birds all over. It looked ordinary enough, except that it had a slightly thicker base than normal, was significantly heavier, and the tasseled handle was slightly different.
"Draw it," commanded Ichii.
Kuina obeyed. Carefully she drew the blade from the hidden sheath in the umbrella handle.
Even as she drew it she could sense that this was no ordinary sword. Its blade was straight, lacking the curved edge found in katanas. Even without her eyes she could sense there was something different about it. Unlike her Wadou, which had a perfectly straight and aligned hamon along the cutting edge, this entire blade was a fine mass of dappled bright silver and black-green lines, giving it the effect of rippling water whenever it caught the light.
"It may only be a shikomizue*, but this sword is on par with many good katana," said Ichii. "It is made of a special damascened steel* smelted from ores which used to be found in the Grand Line. Its name is Koyojaku*. I had it for many many years when I travelled the world."
"It is beautiful."
"Yes. Perfect for a woman to wield. That blade is sharp and light, yet strong and supple and discreet. But all the same, take care of it, for the blade is more slender than that of a normal katana's, which means you can't be as rough with it. And keep it hidden when not in use. A lady does not have to advertise her wares."
This triggered a sudden snort of laughter from her protege.
"And a lady does not snort, Kuina!"
"I apologize, Ichii-san," Kuina replied demurely.
"I am going to cut your face up until it's scarred bad," threatened Kitty, whirling her ji-lians around. "Let's see how your pretty dresses and high and mighty manners help you then!"
"You're a bit too late for that." Kuina stood where she was, holding Koyojaku, still sheathed, close to her chest.
"Forget it, you're not worth my killing. Sham! Buchi! Get rid of her!"
"Because if you don't I'll kill you!"
The two cat pirates seemed to be used to this treatment, for they came towards her, cringing in fear. At least that would be what one who looked at them would have thought. But to someone whose main input from the world came from sound, the cries of fear they gave rang false and phony, and she was ready. And right now, in her anger, she was in no mood for mercy.
"Ittoryu: Running Stitch!"
Kuina darted quickly toward them to avoid their 'surprise' attacks, and then weaved in between the two cats on their approach. As she ran past, she could sense the surprise of their faces, the half moment before both pirates crumpled, hands trying to staunch the flow of red that seemed to have come from nowhere.
"How?" the one called 'Sham' gasped as the pain from the cut began to override the shock. The stabbing movement of the needle-like sword flashing in and out of the sheath had been almost too fast to follow.
"BITCH!" bellowed Kitty, charging towards her and swinging her flashy twin swords hard in hopes of landing a hit on Kuina.
Kuina could feel the pounding of her feet against the wooden floor, the vibration telling her extended senses exactly where her opponent was. With such a clear indication, Kuina knew exactly what to do. And she did it.
Now, an experienced swordsman knows that the worst thing about swinging a sword wildly is swinging it wide. When that happens, much time is lost recovering one's balance from the first effort and executing a second try quickly is impossible. The other thing is that it leaves one completely open to attack.
In addition to this, charging is a terribly bad choice of attack because it takes a while to stop due to the inertia of the body running. It also makes one less observant than normal. A more controlled fighter who wasn't swinging wildly, for example, would have not have had their opponent dodge their attack by simply crouching to the side. And a non-charging attacker would certainly not have been unable to stop.
And if they had been able to stop, they would not have impaled themselves on the blade that their crouching opponent had simply extended.
Kitty lay gasping on the inn floor, her blood staining the weathered wood. "Not fair! I'll kill you —"
Kuina held the Koyojaku's point an inch away from Kitty's throat. "Don't go putting ideas into my head."
Kitty's eyes widened. "Please... my parents ruined my childhood... It's not my fault!"
"I don't see what that has to do with this at all."
"Kuina-chan," Zaito's feeble voice broke her out of her reverie. The old man was attempting to sit up from where he had fallen.
"Zaito-san! Are you hurt badly?" Relief didn't keep her from keeping a wary eye on the pirates, however.
"I will live, Kuina."
"You don't understand... No one understands..." Kitty whined.
Kuina ignored her and directed her attention to the other two pirates. She had done her best not to hit them at their vital spots, and thanks to that they seemed very much alive. They saw her focus on them, and shrank away at her unseeing gaze.
"...no one loves me!"
"This strawhat boy," Kuina said, raising her voice so it could be heard over Kitty's crying, "tell me where your Captain Kuro met him."
"Captain Kuro, sir?"
Kuro of a Thousand Plans, one of the most intelligent pirates in the four seas, had been sitting brooding in his cabin.
"Kitty hasn't come back. Neither has Sham and Buchi," his subordinate continued.
"But Captain Kuro sir, that means the marines beat them!"
"Good for the marines. It seems dear old Morgan was that capable after all."
"But sir, didn't you send them to kill him?"
"That's what I told her — to get rid of her! " snarled the bespectacled man. "Honestly, you imbeciles! Did you really think I would want such a useless floozy who shows up out of the blue and demands to be my first mate?"
The cat pirate was so scared he could only cower.
"Although," said Kuro, grinning as he pushed his slipping glasses back into place with his palm, "Ggod riddance. Don't you love it when everything goes according to plan?"
After the fight and things had calmed down, the innkeeper had insisted that she and Zaito stay at the inn to recover. Kuina was impatient to get going, but she knew that Zaito's injuries needed tending to.
"Thank you for taking care of Zaito-san," Kuina bowed to the innkeeper. "I'm sorry to have to burden you with my responsibilities."
"Don't be ridiculous," the innkeeper refused her effusive thanks. "After what you did about that pirate and all, it's the very least we could do."
"Well, you wouldn't happen to know if there is a boat that goes to Syrup Village, is there?"
"I'm afraid not. It isn't much of a popular port, but there are many merchant boats going to Loguetown, and some will pass by Syrup Village. You might be able to convince their captains to drop you off there."
"Thank you. I am in your debt."
Zaito sat up in bed, his wounded arm and chest covered in bandages. "Are you sure about this, Kuina-chan? "I am not quite sure what Ichii-san would say if they knew I let you travel on alone."
"I will manage, Zaito-san. Please get well soon."
"Kuina-chan, wait a moment," the old man picked up a black lacquered box on his bedside and offered it to the young woman. "It is customary for a young girl to receive this gift when she comes of age on her 20th birthday. I may have missed it by a year or two, but I would like you to have this, nevertheless."
It would have been rude to refuse. Kuina accepted the box. It felt familiar. Gently her hands lifted the cover.
The whole expanse of the Four Blues opened before her. There, in its box, in all its glory of watered silk and swinging sleeves... was the kimono she had sewn herself. Her favourite kimono.
"They say the great works require the creator to put a little bit of themselves into it to make them come alive," said Zaito, conversationally, "when I saw this kimono, I realized that a certain ambitious young woman had put so much of herself into it, it would be such a shame if such a work were to end up in the hands of someone who would not appreciate it."
"Zaito-san, this is too expensive a gift! I couldn't..."
"Kuina, whether you realize it or not, you've expressed your own dreams and desires in the making of this kimono. These things, you shouldn't let them go."
Explore the different seas and the Grand Line, find Zoro, and become the greatest swordsman in the world...
Kuina smiled, and hugged the kimono close to her chest. "I understand. Thank you, Zaito. Truly."
Her hands travelled down the handle of the shikomizue, feeling characters carved into the hilt. "I-X-O-R-A?" she muttered aloud.
Ichii-san smiled. "That was the name I used when I travelled the world — after I left my home island, and before I settled here..."
The was a pause.
"Ichii-sama, why didn't you ever go back to your home island?"
"When you go out there Kuina, you will understand," her voice still seemed distant. "Once you go, you never travel backwards."
Kuina left the inn behind and made her way through the streets of Shelltown and to the harbour. People were still talking about the Pirate Kitty's suicidal attack, most of them praising the marines for talking care of the menace so quickly.
Kuina didn't mind. Drawing attention to herself wasn't in her interest at the moment. Finding a boat was.
She paused to listen to the crying sounds of the gulls, the crashing sound of the waves in their incessant dance with the moon.
Somewhere out in the Four Blues, she would find Zoro. Somehow.
After all, she had many things to do and a promise to keep.
To Be Continued...
 Ji-Lian = Chicken-Claw Sickles. A type of sword where the point of the blade is shaped like a spear point combined with a sickle.
 Komon = A more casual make of kimono with fine patterning.
 Shikomizue = Sword-cane, usually a concealed blade disguised as something innocuous like a walking stick (same as what Brooke uses) or in this case, a parasol.
 Damascened steel = A special kind of compound steel made of two different types of steel hammered together multiple times. Supposedly, this gives the metal superlative qualities . Don Krieg's "indestructable" armor in the Baratie arc was made of Wootz steel, of which damascened steel, also known as Damascus steel, is a variant of.
 Koyojaku = Weaverbird.
Once again, thanks so much for the wonderful comments and reviews! They kept me going, especially at the parts where I would keep getting stuck.
This chapter was significantly harder to write, especially when trying to balance the dichotomy of Kuina's controlled "ladylike" facade and her natural tomboyish attitude. Fight scenes are always hard to write in an interesting manner when you don't have images to back you up. The extra amount of research I had to do didn't help speed things up either.
There's also a bit of gentle fun-poking at badly-written One Piece Mary Sues in the form of Kitty Raven. The original idea had been for Kuina to run into Kuro himself, but I figured Kuro was too smart a pirate to do something as stupid as walk into Shelltown and cause trouble. Using that excuse to get rid of an unwanted fangirl however... now THAT seemed like a very Kuro-like thing to do.
This chapter is a tribute to Zaitoichi, the famous blind swordsman of fiction which is one of the major inspirations for this fic. But I'm sure you all noticed this already, given the obvious naming of the characters Zaito-san and Ichii-sama. ;)
Some more responses to comments people left:
Infinite Freedom: I seem to recall that Luffy wanted a swordsman for his crew. Zoro can't truly fulfil that position if he is the first mate. Thus Kuina could take that position.
A: Erm... I don't quite understand why Zoro can't be both swordsman and First Mate at the same time. But if theoretically if Kuina were to join the crew (not saying I plan for her to, but just going logically along) it'd probably make more sense for her to be the tailor/swordsman #3 (after Brooke) given her kimono -making skills.
Hm. Nami would be overjoyed to have a personal tailor, for one. And Sanji would probably have a field day with another girl in the crew.
Aoihand: You're taking the characters on a interesting route and the idea of Kuinambeing 'ladylike' is intriguing, something along the lines of 'traditional mould' of a samurai (Although Zoro is noted for showing these aspects of honour)
A: I have to admit, along the traditional lines, I really liked the idea of Zoro and Kuina growing up to be polar opposites in terms of sword-styles and appearances. Zoro's fearsome outward appearance hides his more traditional code of honour and compassion (As seen in the Sarbody arc) while Kuina's demure ladylike-facade hides her inner ferocity and dangerousness. Makes for a great contrast!
Lastly, I doubt anyone here follows TLS, but for halloween I did a quick artpiece of TLS characters in anime costumes, including One Piece. The link's at
lonelypanel(dot)com/2009/10/happy-halloween(dot)html , if anyone cares to see.