I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Naoko Takeuchi.


Miiko hummed softly to herself as she sliced the vegetables, a happy — even jaunty — tune from her teenage school days (the Empire Darlings were long gone of course, the then-flavor of the month, though in their case they were good enough to be the flavor of the year and had some nice original songs).

She had trouble believing how much things had turned around since the night she'd wept out her grief on de Oro's shoulder. She'd woken up the next morning with her head still resting on that same shoulder, feeling so light she was surprised she didn't just float off on the breeze. Since then de Oro had ordered that she be accepted as a cook's helper and made sure to spend at least a few minutes with her every day, gently pushing her to think of her future and sharing stories of their very different childhoods.

She didn't expect her high to last, of course, she couldn't possibly be that lucky — especially with de Oro just about to leave the camp on another mission — but she could live with the nightmares she was sure were waiting for her that night. De Oro would be back to chase them away again.

"You do know that we aren't seasoning this stew with blood, right?"

"What?" Miiko looked over at Setiawan, an old man, hair gone white, skin browned by field work, one of the oldest debt slaves that had joined them after the raid that had saved her. She followed his gaze down to her hand and the pair of cuts in her forefinger beginning to bleed onto the cutting board, only now beginning to sting. "Oops."

Setiawan laughed as he took the knife away from her and set it aside, then walked over to the drawer with the first aid kit. "Okay, which of the men caught your eye?" he asked as he wiped her finger with disinfectant and waited for the alcohol to dry so he could wrap on the bandage.

"What?"

He said, "That's the kind of thing my girls did when they had boys on the mind." He wiped away the blood on the cutting board with a rag as Miiko gaped at him.

"What!? No!" What the young men would want ... an image of her dead master looming over her flashed through her mind and her stomach roiled.

"Woah, easy!" Setiawan spread his hands and stepped back. "My mistake, you can put down the knife."

"The knife?" She looked down again to find she was clutching the knife she'd cut herself with. She carefully set it down on the cutting board with a slightly shaking hand. "I'm ... not interested in men right now," she said.

"I can see that, won't make that mistake again." He motioned toward several large pots across the aisle on gas burners. "Why don't you stir those while I finish dicing the vegetables? Slicing vegetables needs a steady hand and we don't want the soup to burn, or de Oro won't get to eat before he leaves."

De Oro ... Miiko nodded jerkily, forcing deep breaths and already feeling calmer as she remembered the Mexican/Apache half-breed that had rescued her, then stepped over and accepted Setiawan's large spoon. She was not going to be responsible for him leaving hungry.

/oOo\

Giray Karakaya, sitting carefully in the collapsible chair in front of his collapsible table, glanced up for a moment with a sigh at the sound of the fresh rain spattering down on the roof of his extra-large tent. As any sane desert dweller, he had delighted in the rain when he'd first arrived in Daerah Selatan, but that delight had faded rapidly as he became aware that it was going to be months before he had truly dry clothes. At least the permanent housing of his merry band of marauders would be complete in the next few days (other than the cook shack and communal dining hall, of course — after meals getting rained out a few times they'd dropped everything to focus on those first so they were already up). Then they could get out of the tents.

He shrugged his shoulders as he turned back to his satellite-linked laptop. Inshallah, you have more important things to worry about. Such as the other band of marauders that had gotten the jump on his own band — the Christian marauders. Now if only the Court's intelligence back in Istanbul had finally sent a response to his query...

There was in fact a new message from his intelligence specialist. Giray quickly opened the response, and within second his face tightened. He stared at the message after finishing it for a long minute before finally transferring it to his mini-tablet sigh rising and grabbing his long raincoat and striding out into the rain. His second was going to need to see this.

/\

Malik Abd-al-Haqq rolled onto his back on his cot as a thoroughly soaked Giray stalked into his tent. The second in command of their merry band examined his superior's face as best he could in the dim light of the lantern hanging from its hook in the middle of the round tent's roof. Sighing at what little he could detect in Giray's expression, he sat up and rubbed his face. "That bad, huh?" he asked in a tired voice.

Giray chuckled grimly and pulled his mini-tablet out from underneath his raincoat. Turning it on and thrusting it toward Malik, he said, "Sorry to wake you up, but I had to share the lunacy. Read."

Eyebrows rising, Malik accepted the tablet quickly read the message — something easily accomplished, since it was a very short message. He handed back the tablet, then flopped back on his cot and tucked his hands behind his head. "I can't say that report fills me with confidence in the tactical brilliance of Istanbul," he remarked. " 'This land belongs to Allah' may be true enough, but that doesn't exactly tell us where to find the band of Christian interlopers we're supposed to seek out and destroy. And I noticed a distinct lack of intelligence on just who these Christians are, much less anything on how many of them there might be or how deep their support is."

"Now that's not entirely true," Giray said snidely, "it does speculate that their backing comes from the United States."

Malik barked a laugh. "Of course they're being backed by those maniacs! They have to be Americans themselves, who else is crazy enough to organize a slave revolt in the territory of an ostensible ally? But the report didn't have much to say about whether that backing comes from private citizens the federals are ignoring or from Washington itself. That might have a teensy impact on the resources available to them."

"Whatever their resources our marching orders are clear," Giray said with a shrug, "hunt down and kill these interlopers for daring to seek to seduce good Muslims from the true faith by fighting to free them from the shackles of their tyrannical pagan masters. How dare they do so before us, if only by a few weeks? So I want you to order our scouts to locate these people that the Imperial Army with its much greater manpower has failed to find."

"Well, that part of the analysis actually makes a certain amount of sense," Malik mused. "Between the corruption and laziness endemic in the Imperial Army units stationed here and the Emperor's ... apparent lack of concern, shall we say ... for the implications of that massacre, I doubt the Army has been trying all that hard to find the rebels — they might actually succeed, after all, and for some inexplicable reason they seem to think that would be bad."

Giray chuckled, somewhat more lightheartedly this time. "Who knows what the Emperor's thinking? Or if it's even the Emperor and not some faction instead? The Empire is a snake pit, trying to work out which daimyo or lord is trying to stab some other daimyo or lord in the back is pointless. At any rate this map of where the army's searched will come in handy, we can work out a search pattern and pass out assignments first thing after breakfast and morning prayer."

He lifted his eyes at the sound of fresh gusts of rain pounding down on the tent roof and sighed as he turned for the tent entrance. "I'll be happy when we can get out of this hellhole and back to something sensible — like chasing bushmen through the wilds of Africa, maybe. At least it would be dry!"

His subordinate's laugh followed him out into wet.

/oOo\

Mai dropped and rolled behind a stack of crates as shards of concrete kicked up by the submachine gun fire stitching the warehouse floor where she'd been a moment before peppered her torso and legs through blouse and skirt. Shit, shit, shit! I should have taken the time to kill that pig when I had the chance! Unfortunately, the 'pig' in question had been the same no-name thug then that he was now, and she'd had more important and immediate concerns than leaving one more corpse behind her. How was she supposed to know that he'd be part of the smuggling gang whose leader she'd fucked to gain access to? Or that he'd recognize her years later, even with black hair instead of the blonde she'd been? So much for the subtle approach.

She glanced up the stack she was hiding behind. It seemed stable enough, the bullets now hammering into it weren't shaking it at all, there was plenty room between the top of the stack twenty feet up and the ceiling — perfect. Crouching, she leaped straight up to silently land on one knee on the edge of the stack top. She rolled forward into the middle, paused, listened. For a moment she was worried when the gunfire stopped, until she heard the clink of an ejected magazine hitting the concrete floor followed by the click-clack of the first round of a fresh magazine being jacked into the chamber. That was quick, someone's been practicing. Wriggling to the edge, she peeked over and smiled. The goon that had blown her cover was standing in front of the previous night's fuck friend, the other two goons spreading out to circle both sides of the stack she was now on top of — perfect.

Backing up slightly, she rose to a crouch, drew two throwing daggers, then with two steps leaped out into empty space, rolled forward once ... twice ... skirt flaring, blocking her view of her target ... and she slammed on top the goon in front of the boss, breaking his neck instantly and riding his body down. Rolling across the floor, she let her momentum pull her to her feet and spun to face the other two goons now spinning around to face her. One throwing knife into a throat, another finding a heart, and she spun back around had two more large knives crossed underneath the boss's chin, pushing up to lift him on tip-toes before the bodies hit the floor.

"Well, lover, it seems I'm going to have to be blunt," she said, voice sultry — the same voice she'd used to catch his attention in his favorite bar the previous evening. "The rebels that hit the Meioh plantation, who did you get their weapons from, and who did you forward them to?"

"I ... I don't ... don't know wh-what you're talking about! I didn't h-have anything to do with that!"

She frowned at the denial, wondering if he was actually lying to her even now, then sighed as the fresh stink of human waste reached her nose. He'd voided himself in fear — if he was still lying even as terrified as he was, she wasn't going to get anything she could use out of him. Ah, well, at least I can make up for last night. "You know, lover, the hardest thing about last night was not laughing in your face at your delusion that you're the world's hottest lover instead of a fumbling incompetent. Why on Earth did you believe your usual whores?"

Then she yanked her knives across his throat and spun out of the way of the gush of arterial blood. She watched with cold eyes as the fourth body flopped to the floor, bent down to wipe her knives clean on his shirt, then strode for the warehouse exit. She doubted there would be a police response to the gunfire — not in this part of town — but it was possible that he'd paid those cops for protection as well as willful ignorance. In which case she wanted to be well away before they could arrive.

/\

Several hours later Mai left her hotel, now a mousy brunette, one more Japanese-American tourist (labeled as such by her floral print sun dress and floppy straw hat). Even as she blended into the crowd of sheep she was fighting to hide her seething anger — all that effort and nothing but a dead end in the only way that mattered. She didn't know how the Children of Israel had gotten their weaponry into the province, but they hadn't bought it from the Imperial Army or smuggled it into the province through the usual carriers. She was back to square one. Her employer was not going to be happy.

As she walked down the street toward the normal tourist attractions in the renamed Shirasaka, Daerah Selatan's capital city, she was trying to think of a new avenue of investigation and coming up blank when her eyes caught the headline of a newspaper displayed in its dispenser beside a café entrance, and she nearly stumbled. Nonchalantly buying one, she stepped into the café, bought a badly overpriced cup of the coffee she hated but Americans all seemed to love, and sat at a table slowly perusing the paper as she sipped her drink and considered what few facts the lead article had contained. So, Meioh-dono has sold her Daerah Selatan plantations to Tendo Ranko. I wonder why? It's not like it helps her 'Commoners' Lady' image, and it looks like she's selling them for a song. I wonder if her anti-slavery leanings are real instead of just a front? If Hawaii is any indication Tendo-san is going to hammer the human waste that's managing those plantations, whoever those Christian lunatics leave ... alive...

Mindful of the possibility of watchers, she forced herself to finish the paper before casually rereading the main article about the massive property transfer. Yes, Tendo Ranko was going to be touring her newest acquisitions — making a vacation out of it, it seemed. What if her manager ... Nabiki? ... was actually working with those Children of Israel lunatics, not just in agreement with their goals? What if she intended meet them while in the province? What if they took the opportunity to smuggle Mai's target out of the province and back to Japan?

That's a lot of ifs, but it's not like you have any other leads to Miiko, might as well cast out your line and see what bites. So, how do I attach myself to Tendo-san's party?