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Blade in the Snow (set in December 1867, Japan)

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Psychoblue
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Posts: 16
Joined: December 2011

Blade in the Snow (set in December 1867, Japan)

Post by Psychoblue » Mon January 2nd, 2012, 2:49 pm

Author's Note:Hello everyone! This is what I wrote for National Novel Writing Month 2011, and what I intend to get published as an e-book once everything is drafted and I have a cover ready for it. Before I do so, however, I would like to share it with those more savvy with historical fiction (or in this case, historical fantasy) than myself. I'll consider it the final trial :)

As I posted in another part of the forum, there is scant little literature on the Bakumatsu Era (at least in English) and I'm hoping that my story will change some of that. I'd also like to use this thread to discuss certain liberties I took in regards to certain tech and events available at the time and talk more about this particular era in history.

I'll be posting this twice a week, and once everything is drafted I'll delete this thread and post the e-book link. I hope you enjoy, so get it while it's hot!


---------
Chapter 1: The Web of Promises

In the winter of 1867, Japan was about to enter a culture war that would determine who would control power in the country: the young emperor who spoke of modernizing the nation to meet the same standards set by the Western world, or the long-reigning Tokugawa Shogunate who hoped to cling onto what power it still had.

This is the tale of two star-crossed lovers who met during this volatile time, each on opposing sides of the opposition. It is the tale of relics of the past being opposed by the innovations of the future. It is the tale of a young man's path to adulthood, and a young woman's struggle for independence.

It is the tale of a man's blade cutting through evil so that he can create a bright future for his lady of the snow…

----------

"Lord Miyamoto…he has returned."

Nodding his head quietly, Naofumi slowly stood up and slid open the door to his room to step outside. There was a part of him that had been concerned for his son's safety, given that Edo was going through difficult times and bearing the unpopular Miyamoto name would make him a possible target, but it seemed that all of his worries had been for naught. His son had returned safely home, and now Naofumi would get to see him again after a week of absence.

Walking to the entrance of the Miyamoto grounds, Naofumi watched the servants of the house bow before him, as per the customs of the nation he had protected for so many years, and allowed himself a smile before moving on. This world is changing…too fast for me to keep up like I could when I was only fighting samurai and bandits, Naofumi thought as he looked towards the forest to see the carriage that his son left Edo in escape the cover of the trees. My thankfulness for Shun returning isn't just for my sake…it is for the sake of this country who need thinkers like him to lead them into the new age.

The long peace that the Tokugawa Shogunate gave the people of Japan when they took power over 200 years before gave the citizens plenty of time to focus less on war and more on literature and philosophy. While there was still an occasional uprising that had to be suppressed, for the most part the concerns of the country did not fall upon peace. It gave Japan a chance to step back and look at the legacy they had created: a legacy that included art and religion as well as war and combat.

But when Commodore Perry arrived on the shores of Japan to initiate the Convention of Kanagawa, the time of recollection ended and instead the people of Japan started looking towards the future. The philosophy of seclusion had ruled the country for 200 years, and now that the seclusion had ended with the opening of Japan's shores, the people were realizing the Tokugawa's long rule over the country for what it was: a militaristic usurpation of power where the true ruler of Japan was nothing but a figurehead. Naofumi Miyamoto, long considered one of the greatest warriors the Shogunate had to offer, was one of those who believed that power should reside with the Emperor, and as such lost favor with the Tokugawa.

As the horse-driven carriage finally came to a stop, Naofumi approached the door of the carriage and waited for it to open, looking forward to seeing how the week away from home had changed his son. Whereas Naofumi had been trained to be a warrior all of his life and was only recently delving into the world of politics, his son Shun was renowned as a bright youth. Shun immediately realized the potential that the opening of Japan had to offer, and how modernizing Japan would pave the way for an alliance with all the nations in the world. To that end, he put his studies first and his sword second, recognizing the importance of diplomatic relations over warfare in this new age.

As the door opened, the brown-haired heir of the Miyamoto stepped out of the carriage with a smile on his handsome face. With his purple lotus-print kimono and hakama, Shun's unconventional thinking made him a bit of eccentric, so there was a part of Naofumi that worried if Shun's quizzical personality would get him into trouble in Edo, but it was too late to worry about that now. Shun was home safely, and that was all that mattered.

"Welcome home, my son," the dark-haired Naofumi said with a smile as he put his strong hands on Shun's shoulders. "Though it has only been a week, your aura has changed. There is an air of responsibility to you now."

"It is for good reason, father," Shun said with a smile of his own before turning to the carriage. "I did not return from Edo empty-handed."

Opening the door of the carriage, Shun leaned inside and whispered something too quiet for Naofumi to hear…before reaching inside with his hand and leading out a complete stranger to the head to the Miyamoto. Wearing a white kimono with colorful flowers printed all over it, the stranger took Shun's hand and carefully stepped out of the carriage so that Naofumi could take a glimpse at his guest. To say that this young lady was beautiful was no understatement: her long black hair seemed like it was made of silk, and her serene face and soft lips seemed to glow as if calling out for someone to kiss them.

Looking at the young lady's icy blue eyes, and then back to the lustful gaze on his son's face, Naofumi didn't have to be a scholar to realize who this woman was to Shun, and why he had brought her back with him. While normally, bringing home such a woman would be a happy occasion, Naofumi's smile disappeared once he put two and two together. "My son," Naofumi said sternly, snapping Shun out of his lovesick daze while the woman reached inside the carriage to pull out a blue umbrella, "what is the meaning of this?"

"I-isn't it obvious, father?" Shun said with a stammer, taken off guard that Naofumi was speaking to him the same way he would speak to one of the several enemies he had accumulated in his long career as a warrior. "I met this woman in Edo and she stole my heart at first sight. As soon as we met eyes, I knew that there was no way I could possibly leave her in Edo."

"I did not send you to Edo in my place to consort with women, Shun," Naofumi replied harshly.

"Do you have so little faith in me that you would think I would abandon my duties in the clan, father?" Shun turned away from his father's piercing gaze and towards the woman, who was staring off into the forest as if she didn't even realize Naofumi and Shun were talking about her. "Look at her, father…why would anyone want to flirt with other women when a goddess like her exists? I would not have brought her here if I wasn't sure that she was my destiny."

"'Your destiny,' you say?" Naofumi said with a scowl before approaching the woman and getting a better look at her. Shun had only recently reached adulthood, and it was only natural that he would be smitten with someone as beautiful as this girl. She seemed to be about the same age as his son, as well…but what was she like as a person? Shun was not someone to be attracted by looks alone…unless this woman was bewitching him? It was a real possibility given Shun's place in the rapidly changing political climate of Japan.

"Young lady, what is your name?" Naofumi asked curtly.

But the woman did not respond, still looking out into the forest as if some unseen force was mesmerizing her. Annoyed with the lady's impudence, Naofumi put his hand on her thin shoulder and forcefully turned her around to face him. "I asked you a question, woman," Naofumi growled with the same fury that earned him the moniker "the Raging Demon" when he was a general in the Shogunate army. "What is your name? What family are you from?"

Still no answer…and not even a tinge of fear, either. It was like this woman was nothing more than a doll and not a human being, at all. Perhaps Naofumi misjudged his son and his being enamored with this stranger was a strictly superficial thing. Leaning in to whisper harshly into the woman's ear, Naofumi was beginning to get a strong dislike for this woman. "You will answer me now or I will make you pay for seducing my son…"

Though he couldn't quite hear what his father was saying to her, Shun could tell from his body language that something very bad was going to happen unless he intervened. "Stop bullying her, father," Shun protested as he forcefully pushed Naofumi away from the woman. "Her name is Harumi: her parents died long ago so she has been without a family for years. She was working as a musician for the court at Edo, and that's how we met."

"Then she can tell me that herself," Naofumi grumbled.

"She's mute, father."

At that moment, the anger and resentment Naofumi felt towards the woman that had taken Shun's heart hostage turned into guilt for the innocent young lady that he had wrongfully mistreated. Looking into the woman's mystifying blue eyes again, Naofumi waited for them to spark with some kind of gratification that Shun had made a fool of him…but there was none. The only kind of emotion Naofumi could detect in the woman's eyes was a sense of boredom, no doubt coming from how he had needlessly threatened her while being ignorant to her condition.

"…bring her into the guest room," Naofumi ordered his servants that had been watching the scene unfold very carefully. With a bow, three of the servants stood at Harumi's side as she gently rest her umbrella against her shoulder and slowly started walking towards the estate. Even the way she walks has a mysterious grace to it, the man mused as he tucked in his brown kimono which had been ruffled by his anger. Perhaps that is why Shun is attracted to her: she is just another puzzle for him to solve.

Turning back to Shun, Naofumi did his best to regain his composure and talk to his son about the true reason he was went to Edo. Naofumi felt ashamed of himself for getting so upset over Harumi: Shun's intellect was second to none, and Naofumi normally trusted Shun's advice moreso than he would his own political advisors. If Shun believed that Harumi was a good woman, then that should have been good enough: Shun was not reckless enough to let lust get in the way of his better judgment.

"How did the meeting with the Emperor go in Edo?" Naofumi finally asked.

"Poorly, father," Shun said dejectedly as the two walked back to the estate. "The Shogunate wants to cling to power even when the people cry out for them to be disbanded. His Excellence was hoping to convince them that they would hold seats in his court should they cooperate, but they think he is too young to properly execute this 'Meiji Restoration' he has planned." Shun clenched his fist in frustration as he continued. "Why do they think that His Excellence's age has anything to do with his wisdom? He might be young, but the Emperor knows that now that Japan has opened its shores, it will stagnate unless our technology and knowledge are at the same level as the Western world that we so blindly ignored for so long…"

"Both you are the Emperor were fortunate enough to be young enough not to remember what it was like before the convention of Kanagawa," Naofumi assured his son. "I was only slightly older than you when I watched Commodore Perry sign the treaty that opened our shores, and like you I believed that Japan must change with the times if it wants to retain its pride. But you have to remember that most of those in power in the Tokugawa are old men, and they do not adapt to change as readily as you or the Emperor would. You need to be patient or-"

"Shh!"

Suddenly cutting off his father's words of comfort, Shun turned westward with his expression becoming as stern and battle-ready as his father's. The young man reached for his katana sitting at his hip and very slowly unsheathed it while walking to the west. Something had obviously caught the young man's attention, and if it was enough to force him to pull out his sword, it must have been something very bad. Another reason Naofumi trusted Shun's judgment so much is that he seemed to be able to immediately detect bad intentions of those around him, even when they could not be seen.

"…what is wrong, my son?" Naofumi said quietly.

"…something wicked is moving closer," Shun whispered as his eyes followed the unseen enemy. "It's heading towards…oh, no…"

Suddenly taking off towards the estate, Shun left his father in the dust as sprinted away towards what appeared to be the guest room. Damn…maybe I was right about not trusting this woman, after all, Naofumi thought to himself bitterly as he too rushed back towards the estate even though he wasn't quite as agile as his son. Already she has brought bad fortune to our clan!
---------------

"Right this way, Lady Harumi," the servant slid open the door for the guest room and motioned for her to come inside.

Silently complying with the servant's request, Harumi stepped into the spacey guest room and inspected it. There was a wooden floor lined with mats and a vase sitting in the corner of the room: it was what she expected a guest room of a minor vassal lord's estate to look like…except for a large object that caught her eye. On the far right wall of the room was a large black table with white keys jutting out from the edge. She had seen the instrument before, but seeing it in an estate such as this caused her body to tense in excitement for just an instant.

Sensing her surprise, the servant turned towards the piano and smiled. "It's called a piano: it's a musical instrument that an American envoy gave our lord as a gift for being so crucial in assisting the Emperor in foreign relations," the man said as he walked over to the piano and sat down at the bench in front of it. Waiting for Harumi to come over to where he was sitting, the servant started pressing keys and created a simple tune. "…this is all I can do right now, but in the next couple of days another ambassador is coming to meet with our lord. Perhaps he can teach us how to-"

To the servant's surprise, Harumi sat down next to him on the bench and, rather than let him continue to show her how to use this "foreign object," she placed her slender fingers on her half of the piano and started playing a tune of her own: one that was much more complex and impressive than his. The tune was different from what the servant was used to hearing from those who came across the instrument, or at least different from those who were from Japan.

The musical motif and level of skill made the servant think that she was specifically trained to play the instrument, particularly by someone outside the country. "…it is unfortunate that you cannot speak, Lady Harumi," the servant said with a thin smile as he stood up from the bench and let her play the piano in full. "I imagine the children in town would enjoy you teaching them how to play the pia-ACK!"

Harumi jumped up slightly as the servant's sudden cry startled her from her playing, causing her to hit a sour note. Turning to the servant that had been kind of her, Harumi's eyes widened when she saw that something was jutting out of his head: a long white rope that was threatening to pull his head right off of his body. Before she could stand up, the servant was forcefully pulled backwards and towards the door…where he was impaled by the pike of a short man dressed entirely in black, with only dark red eyes and furry brown skin being revealed to her.

The stranger's victim convulsed for a second before falling limp, the points of the pike having pierced his heart. Pulling the pike out of the corpse before quietly laying him down, the stranger crawled into the room on all fours before scaling the walls like an insect and looking down at Harumi. "…why do you stare at me with such fear, my comrade?" the stranger croaked as he pointed his pike in the young woman's direction. "I've come to take you home…do you fear home?"

Harumi said nothing as her blue eyes met the intruder's red eyes. Whereas her eyes were gentle and carried a quiet serenity, the intruder's eyes flashed with bloodlust and violence and carried a demonic fire that only a cold-blooded killer could possess. Reaching for her umbrella and holding it to her side, the young woman gulped as the intruder skittered across the ceiling. "Did you forget your mission, my comrade?" the intruder squawked quietly and he pointed the pike in Harumi's direction. "You were supposed to return three days ago…with the head of the boy. Why is the boy still alive, my comrade? Why are you here playing music with the boy still alive, my comrade?"

Hopping down from the ceiling and landing in a hunched position, the intruder prepared to pounce as Harumi's free arm started to reach for the handle of her umbrella. "Why have you betrayed us…my comrade?"

The intruder did indeed pounce…but it wasn't towards Harumi like he might have originally wanted. Instead, he jumped straight into the air and performed a half-flip to instead perch himself upside-down on the ceiling like he had earlier. The reason being: he had avoided a fatal sneak attack from Shun, who had tried to impale the intruder from behind with his katana. "Stay away from her, devil," Shun growled as he looked up to see the intruder staring down at him with those crimson eyes. "Otherwise, I'll have no choice but to cut you down where you stand!"

"Standing…kekeke," the strange murderer chuckled eerily as he watched Shun slowly move to where Harumi was standing and put himself between her and his enemy. "Look at me, boy…do you think that I am standing, like a man? Am I not clinging to the ceiling as easily as you walk on the floor? I am up here, and you are down there…what can you hope to do from down there?"

"I don't know," Shun replied as he readied his weapon for an attack while the intruder did the same, "but whatever you're doing, you've killed members of the Miyamoto house and are threatening my bride-to-be. You're lucky I'm giving you the option of escaping at all!" Turning to Harumi, Shun pointed towards another door. "Harumi, get out of here. Leave this to me!"

But no sooner had Shun finished saying that, the masked intruder peeled off his hood and revealed his true face: a face that made Shun calling him a devil not too far off. Instead of having a nose and lips, the intruder instead had sticky mandibles and fangs, as well as six dots on his bulbous forehead that moved around like eyes. Shocked at the monstrous creature's true face, Shun was paralyzed for just a moment: long enough for the intruder to spit out a large ball of webbing that exploded upon impact and surrounding the door in sticky webs, blocking any kind of escape.

"W…what are you?" Shun whispered as the creature hopped back down to the ground and stood upright with his two-pronged pike at the ready.

"My name is Kumogen, boy," the intruder said as he lunged forward for a killing thrust. Snapping out of his shock, Shun quickly lifted his sword and caught the pike with his blade. Planting his feet and using all of his strength, Shun let out a shout and pushed the pike away while Kumogen altered his hold so that he wouldn't be pushed over. "I have come on behalf of the Black Sun to reclaim my comrade!"

Seeing Harumi tried to go for the other door, Kumogen again spat out a batch of webbing from his deformed mouth and created a wall of sticky mess to prevent her from escaping. "The only way I'm going to let you get your hands on her, demon, is if I'm dead," Shun growled as he lunged towards Kumogen and attempted to deliver a forward stab of his own. Lifting his pike to catch the blade, the spider-like intruder chuckled again at Shun's bravado before kicking him away with both feet and causing him to bounce against a wall.

Skittering away from Shun until they were on opposite sides of the room, Kumogen spat out more webbing, only this time it was a thick rope, and attempted to hit Shun's head. Fortunately for the young man, he regained enough of his senses just in time to duck under the strand and avoid getting a face full of webbing. With a mighty chop, Shun cut the web strand and caused Kumogen to topple over from tugging at nothing, giving Shun the opening to attack.

Jumping into the air, Shun pointed his blade downward just as Kumogen had moved onto all fours, watching the intruder look at him with those eight eyes of the spider. But not only did he have the head of a spider, he also had the dexterity of one as well. Skittering backwards on all fours, Kumogen narrowly avoided Shun's stab and punished the young swordsman's failure with a forward flip kick. As a result, Kumogen's heel came crashing down on Shun's head to stun the swordsman momentarily.

"Your problem, my boy, is that you fight like a human," Kumogen clicked as he readied his pike to skewer the boy. Standing upright and lunging forward, the freakish warrior rushed to Shun with the intent to run him through like a knight at a joust. Sadly for him, such recklessness was rewarded with Shun falling onto his back to avoid the pike yet again, and then slash at Kumogen's legs. This time, Kumogen wasn't quick enough for the blade to become lodged into his right ankle, causing him to shout out in pain with an inhuman shrill.

Rolling to the side and pulling the blade out, Shun readied his katana for the next exchange while Kumogen leapt into the air and perched himself onto the ceiling. "And your problem, devil, is that you fight like an animal," the young man retorted as the creature's black blood dripped from the wound and onto the floor. "Raw aggression isn't the only aspect of the art of war. A true warrior must be able to analyze the situation and react accordingly."

"Bah! Humans always talk about tripe like logic and reasoning, but in the heat of battle, all one truly needs is power," Kumogen scoffed before spitting out a web at his pike and pulling it up to the ceiling with him. "Humans can only fight other humans because they are all on equal ground. Walking on two feet, using two arms: that is the limit of human anatomy that humans must accept…"

"…and I take it that you're not human?" Shun asked as Kumogen slowly crawled across the ceiling waiting for a chance to strike.

"I am a Black Sun ninja, boy," Kumogen growled before pouncing off the ceiling to fly towards Shun with his pike in front. Unable to parry an attack coming at him so quickly, Shun instead evaded the attack by rolling to the side. However, not all of him was able to completely dodge, as a piece of his kimono was caught on the pike. With the cloth tearing from his body as he dodged, Shun looked up to see Kumogen picking up the scrap and dangling it in front of him to mock the young man. "We are beyond human limitations, and as such we are beyond your feeble swordplay!"

Spinning his pike around, Kumogen let out a beastly grunt before charging Shun again, this time rapidly thrusting his pike forward hoping to skewer Shun with at least one thrust. He's not just throwing those stabs at random, Shun thought nervously as he weaved his head and body to and fro to sway past the stabs. Each one of these thrusts could pierce me if they hit, and I'm not sure how long I can play defense…

…so I guess it's time for me to attack!


Letting out a shout, Shun rolled forward under Kumogen's tenth stab and rose up for a thrust of his own: a kneeling stab that struck Kumogen in his abdomen and, for a very brief moment, Shun could feel the blade pierce through the man-spider's thick skin. Once again, Kumogen let out a shrill howl as he rapidly backed away before the blade could be plunged deeper. But the damage had been done: Kumogen was now bleeding from both his foot and his stomach, and Shun only had a scratch on his back from where Kumogen had caught his kimono.

"This is your last chance, demon," Shun said sternly as he lifted his katana upwards so that it was pointing parallel to his line of sight. "Whatever Harumi was to you before, she's not anymore. She is now a member of the house of Miyamoto, and anyone who says otherwise will answer to me." Watching Kumogen once again leap up to the ceiling, Shun lifted his head and narrowed his eyes. "You can tell that to whoever it is you work for!"

"How do you know…that my comrade WANTS to be your bride, my boy?" Kumogen said between strained breaths. Turning his head towards the young woman, who had remained standing next to the piano during the ordeal, Kumogen's maw twisted to form as best of a deranged smile as he could manage, given his obvious facial limitations. "My comrade's mission was to kill you in Edo, and yet you took her into your home? What makes you think that she will not kill you later, and my being here is nothing but a ruse?"

"Because I trust her," Shun said with a smile as he turned to Harumi and waited for his icy blue eyes to meet his own. "I don't know what she did before we met in Edo, and I don't know what the future holds…but the night we met had to have been destiny." Turning back to Kumogen as he again tried to impale Shun with his pike, this time straight from the ceiling, Shun parried the pike and pushed it aside before thrusting his blade directly up and scratching Kumogen in the arm. "We have already acted upon our passions, demon: I know what lies in her heart, and it's not murder!"

"'Acted on your passions,' eh?" Kumogen squawked as he turned towards Harumi again. "My comrade…it would seem that this boy has confused you and seduced you. The Black Sun sent you to Edo so that you could use your wiles to get close enough to slay him…but it seems the deception has become reality." Pointing his pike towards Harumi, Kumogen's red eyes flashed with murderous intent before rearing back for a lunge. "If that is the case, my comrade…then you are nothing but a rogue agent, and you'll have to die alongside your seducer!"

Between Kumogen's killing intent, his hideous appearance, and very dangerous weapon, anyone else might have frozen in terror and allowed themselves to die at the man-spider's hand…but all Harumi had to do was casually move her head to the size, and the danger from the pike was avoided completely. As a result, instead of piercing Harumi's soft flesh, the prongs of the pike instead broke through the top of the piano sitting in the room and lodged itself to a point where Kumogen could not easily pull it out.

Seeing his opportunity, Shun lifted his katana and, with a swift cut, completely severed Kumogen's forearm that was still outstretched from trying to pull out his pike. Black blood squirted from the wound and stained the floor as Kumogen fell to the ground and thrashed about madly from the pain he was in. With the severed hand still gripping tightly on the pike that was now acting as an unusual ornament for the Miyamoto's piano, Shun rushed over to Harumi's side and was about to ask if she was OK…only to see that her facial expression showed that she wasn't.

Whereas she robotically moved her head to the side to avoid Kumogen's stab, her eyes were now wide with shock as Kumogen's black blood was now staining her kimono, and she was doing her best to stifle a scream even with her silent disposition. Poor Harumi…she didn't have to see that, Shun thought bitterly before wrapping his arms around Harumi in an attempt to comfort her. "Please forgive me, Harumi," he whispered as he held her close, feeling her heart racing. "I didn't mean to scare you like that…"

Shutting out Kumogen's screams of pain, Shun focused on calming his future wife, feeling guilty about startling her and staining her with foul blood. Thought it seemed like forever, only a few seconds passed before Harumi's heart stopped racing and she returned Shun's embrace. "I'm so sorry about that, Harumi," Shun apologized again as the two lovers held each other even as Kumogen continued shrieking. "I should have been more thoughtful of your feelings before doing that. Next time I'll try to be more careful."

"Careful…CAREFUL!"

Kumogen screamed with such ferocity that Shun was forced to break his hold from Harumi and turn back towards his quarry. Pointing his katana at the monster that was stumbling back to his feet, Shun shouted back. "The fight is mine, demon! Get out of my house and never back come back, or I'll make it so that you'll lose something other than your arm!"

"It's easy to talk like that…when you have a weapon, my boy," Kumogen hissed before rearing back his head to fire off more webs. "I wonder if you'll be so brave…when the tables are turned!"

A thick strand of webbed rope raced towards Shun, but instead of aiming for his head like last time, Kumogen instead latched onto the hilt of his katana, causing Shun to pull back as hard as he could as Kumogen's thread tugged at it like a rope. "You're smug, my boy…I hate that," Kumogen grunted as he tugged on his web, threatening to pull Shun's weapon from him. "When I get your weapon, I'll cut you to ribbons and then I'll finish what I started with my ex-comrade! What do you say to THAT, eh?"

"…it's yours."

As soon as Shun quietly uttered those two words, Kumogen immediately understood what Shun's plan was, but it was already too late. Letting go of his katana, Shun let the blade go flying towards Kumogen with the force of a sling. As a result, the blade lodged itself into Kumogen's head, going through his mouth and out of the back of his neck. A terrible gurgling sound came from the creature as his arms flailed wildly and more black blood squirted from the wound.

Until finally, Kumogen went limp and fell onto his back in death, slain by his own aggressiveness.

There was a long, uneasy silence as Shun stared at the creature he had just defeated. Though his father had given him considerable training in swordplay, sparring with a blade and fighting with it were two very different things. Somehow, Shun had survived his first fight to the death with a foe that couldn't be considered human. But there was a bittersweet truth to Shun's victory that didn't come until he played back Kumogen's words in his head.

Harumi was once a part of that monstrous clan, and now that he had slain one of their own, there would likely be more to come.

Finally breaking the silence was the sound of someone pounding on the web-covered doors of the room, snapping Shun out of his trance and causing him to turn back to Harumi. The young woman seemed to have a distant look on her face, no doubt worrying about the same things Shun was worrying about. Shun didn't particularly blame Harumi for wanting to separate herself from this "Black Sun" sect if monsters like Kumogen were a part of it, but he wasn't going to stand for them trying to pull her back into their world of murder and mayhem.

Unless…that's what Harumi would have wanted.

"…Harumi," Shun finally said as he walked over to Harumi and sat down next to her on the piano bench. "Believe it or not, that was the first time I killed someone, and if I had my way I'd never have to do it again…but if it means protecting you, I'll do what I have to make sure that you're happy." Putting his hands on Harumi's shoulders, Shun watched her lift her head to face him before continuing. "But I need to know something…is being here with me what you want? Are you OK with marrying me even with all of this hanging over our heads?"

To that, Harumi smiled gently at Shun: a thin smile that warmed Shun's heart even though he had just taken his first life. It was the sort of sincere smile that convinced him a week before that Harumi was indeed his destined woman, and it was the sort of smile that convinced Shun that he would go through any trial if it meant seeing it again. Even if it meant that he had to put his life on the line to make her happy enough to see it again.

"…then I won't disappoint you, Harumi," Shun said with a smile of his own before watching the guards break through the webbing. Reaching over to pull his katana out of Kumogen's corpse, Shun shook the fresh blood off with a single swipe before putting it back into the sheath on his hip. "I'll do whatever it takes to make sure that we can live happily…no matter the cost."

Psychoblue
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Posts: 16
Joined: December 2011

Post by Psychoblue » Tue January 3rd, 2012, 3:38 pm

Chapter 2: Duel of Strings

Due largely to the Emperor's decree of accelerating the modernization of Japan, Yokohama had become an extremely lively port city the past several months. While the harbor had always been active due to how close it was to Edo and its shoreline location making it an ideal fishing town, it had become almost chaotic as Japan opened its trade routes to other nations. Because of that, ships from all over the globe brought their technology and culture into the once-secluded Japan and introduced the citizens of Yokohama to the Western world and philosophies.

One group that seemed particularly divided on whether or not to embrace the Western philosophy was the local mobs, collectively known as the Yakuza. With the opening of Japan's shores, the Yakuza now had a slew of new products they could smuggle around the country for those who wanted them, but at the same time it forced them to interact with the foreigners. While some of them saw this as a welcome challenge and a chance to meet new business partners, there were many Yakuza that were in a seat of power in the Tokugawa Shogunate and didn't like the idea of consorting with the foreign powers that were threatening to encroach on their positions.

Keigo Kobashi, on the other hand, didn't really care about the conflict between the Tokugawa and the Emperor: he had a family to feed and all he really had to worry about was business. Whoever won the culture war in the end would affect his professional life very little, so there was no point worrying about all of that. Besides, he had his own problems to worry about with the mission the Yakuza gave him on this cool afternoon.

"The ward of Miyamoto clan has just been betrothed. Take his new fiancé hostage until the Miyamoto clan cooperates with our demands," the goatee-sporting man read back the letter in his hand as he scratched the large brown shishi tattoo that completely covered the left side of his torso (a tattoo that probably could have been done by someone who better knew what he was doing, he recalled). I can't believe I have to be stuck on kidnapping duty: I joined the Yakuza because I wanted to have some purpose, and instead I'm reduced to being a crook.

While he might have been carrying a work of art on his person currently, Keigo was once a humble gambler and street peddler just trying to earn his keep in the world. Back then he had no family to worry about, as he was an orphan on the street, but little by little he built up his reputation as a competent musician and entertainer while the local mobsters gambled and drank to their heart's content. Eventually, one of the Yakuza at the gambling hall told Keigo that he had talent, and asked if he wanted to become an honorary member of the family.

Since that time, Keigo now had a beautiful wife and two daughters: a family that he married to become a member of Yokohama's gangster sect. People now paid him real money for his talents to come to gambling halls across the region, and more importantly, Keigo had a purpose in this world.

Unfortunately, Keigo's purpose at the moment was to kidnap a young woman in an attempt to shake down the Miyamoto. The Miyamoto were notorious among the Yakuza as holier-than-thou do-gooders who saw the Yakuza as "a blight on the new Japan" and gave them many headaches by shutting down their gambling halls. Keigo didn't see how kidnapping the Miyamoto's heir's lover would do anything but piss them off further, but it wasn't his place to judge.

He might have been a Yakuza, but he was still a street peddler at heart. He just wanted to make a decent living.

Putting the letter away, Keigo looked up from his post to give one last look over the trap he had set for the Miyamoto woman. He had two other peddlers stationed just a few meters away, and they would be used to distract whatever bodyguards she would have on him. Then when them out of the way, Keigo would call the woman over to his stand and he would do what he did best: entertain with his shamisen. He had to do it in a way that kept her attention just long enough for the Yakuza's strongmen stationed as a sake stand close by to whisk her away before the bodyguards realize what is going on.

Then once they had lost the bodyguards, Keigo would send the ransom note to the Miyamoto's house and, ideally, the Miyamoto would comply with the Yakuza's demands unless they didn't mind the woman being sent back to them with some of her appendages missing. It was a dirty plan that didn't sit well with Keigo, but he had little choice in the matter. He had a family to feed, after all.

Looking up at a nearby rooftop, Keigo saw his lookouts give him the signal that the target was approaching, and it was time to get out his shamisen. Opening the brown wooden box that had been sitting next to him, Keigo looked carefully at the twin instruments that had followed him around for his entire career as a peddler. "Always carry a spare," his sensei told him. "Without your music, you are nothing: always make sure that you are never without your music."

Keigo turned to his fellow peddlers, and saw two armed men walking over to their stand, indicating that those were indeed the bodyguards that the Yakuza mentioned. There was a woman holding a blue umbrella standing over them, curious what they were looking at, but after a minute or so she lost interest and began walking in Keigo's direction. Here she comes, Keigo thought as the woman in the white flower-print kimono walked in his direction, the shade from her umbrella obscuring her face. Sorry about this, sister, but a man has to do what a man has to…wow.

Once the woman was standing him, looking at his shamisens, Keigo got a good look at the woman's face and immediately understood why anyone would want to rush to get engaged with her. She was absolutely gorgeous: she didn't have any makeup as far as Keigo could tell and yet she was beautiful enough to inspire someone to write songs about her. Unfortunately, Keigo's admiration for the woman's beauty was tempered by the fact that he was the one stuck with the job of making her life hell.

"…see anything you like, sister?" Keigo finally said as the woman continued to look longingly at her instruments. Once the woman turned to look at him with her crystal blue eyes, the Yakuza peddler began his charade. "Those two shamisen were given to me by one of the greatest musicians in Japan. He told me that music has the power to change the mood of a person or place. With the right music, you can turn a bunch of blood-thirsty bandits into merry drinkers!"

Noticing the listless expression on Harumi's face, Keigo pointed at her lips and gave her a wink. "Hey, sister, that's not the kind of face someone as gorgeous as you should have! The best geishas in Kyoto can't compare to you, so you better put on a smile and make the world shine!"

The woman turned away from Keigo and looked back at her bodyguards that were still being occupied by his fellow peddlers. Then she looked up and saw the lookouts watching her from the roof, and then turned her head to see the two big men watching her carefully from the sake stand, at which point they quickly turned away to avoid making it seem like they were watching her. In a little under a minute, it was as if the woman was already starting to suspect something was amiss…which meant that Keigo hadn't even played a note and was already a massive failure.

Shit, Keigo thought as he reached for one of his shamisens and pulled out his pick. I gotta salvage this!

Strumming his shamisen like his sensei taught him, Keigo watched the woman turn back around to face him and breathed a sigh of relief before doing what he did best. The shamisen was traditionally a very tame instrument used to illustrate moments of deep thought and mystery, but Keigo prided himself on breaking away from the norm. His shamisen was meant for entertaining his guests, and being most of his guests were rowdy drunkards, he preferred his shamisen to be a little more lively.

Gently bobbing his head, Keigo felt himself get lost in his music. The people of Japan entered combat with a sword, and men from the west entered combat with a gun, but Keigo was someone who entered battle with his shamisen. His music was as real as any weapon, capable of completely changing the tide of emotion of anyone who listened. Music had the potential to change the world itself, without having to get someone's hands dirty with blood.

It wasn't until the woman sat down next to him that Keigo realized that he had completely forgotten why he was there in the first place. Something about this lady makes me want to make music, and not just because she's a total babe, Keigo thought as she looked down at the second shamisen still sitting in the boxt. I guess I have something to prove to her, and see if I can get a smile on her face.

When the woman suddenly reached for the other shamisen and held it in the same way, Keigo raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Hey, sister, do you know how to use that thing?" Keigo asked as the woman carelessly plucked the strings with her fingers before reaching into her kimono for something. "That thing cost me quite a bit of money. I'd be pretty pissed off if you broke the strings on that thing and I'd be left with a useless piece of crap!"

But when the woman pulled out a shamisen pick of her own, Keigo became quiet as she put it to the shamisen and carefully strummed. After a few seconds of making sure she was in key….the woman then proceeded to make Keigo feel very inadequate by playing the shamisen even more skillfully than he had a moment ago. Not only was this woman extremely nice to look at, she had serious musical talent to go along with it.

Keigo played very close attention to the way the woman's fingers danced across the strings, rapidly moving up and down as she strummed the strings of her shamisen. I've never seen a playing technique quite like that before, Keigo thought as he stroked his chin thoughtfully, watching her fingers slide up and down the shamisen as the rapid beat of her tune intensified even further. The way her fingers move across the bridge of the shamisen: it's like she's slashing the strings to get them to do her bidding.

Taking his eyes away from the shamisen for the moment, Keigo turned to see the woman's expression as she played the shamisen. Whereas Keigo would bob his head to keep with a beat, the woman's head was completely still barring the very slight movement of her lips as she reached a more difficult riff. The lady was nothing short of a goddess of music, playing such a complicated and fast-paced tune as if it was a beginner's piece.

When the woman finally reached the end of her song, the sound of applause entered Keigo's ears, causing him to snap back into reality and turn to see that a crowd had gathered around him. Looking past the group of people to see his lookouts shaking their heads in exasperation, Keigo suddenly realized what the woman was really shooting for when she picked up his shamisen and started playing. She was trying to draw a crowd of people around her to prevent Keigo's kidnapping attempt from taking place.

"You were playing a fool's game, friend."

Turning his head around to see the bodyguards that had accompanied the woman standing in front of him, a wave of panic passed through Keigo's body. Had the bodyguards figured out his game, as well? Were they going to take him to the Miyamoto's boss Naofumi and put him on trial? Naofumi was once a warrior known as "the Raging Demon," because of how ruthless he was on the battlefield and how no one seemed to be able to touch him with his spear Raijinmaru. Was Keigo going to be fed to Naofumi and drawn and quartered?

"…you'll have to do better than that if you want to impress Lady Harumi," the bodyguard continued as he slung his spear over his shoulders and gave Keigo a smug grin. "No one touches Lady Harumi when it comes to music. The young master Shun first met her in Edo when she was playing music for the Emperor's court meeting. If you think you can match someone who even the Emperor acknowledges as a talent, then you're even dumber than you look."

"W-what was that, asshole," Keigo growled as he stood up and got in the bodyguard's face. "My shamisen is the best on the island! You better watch your tone when you talk trash about my craft!"

"Well, don't look now, friend," the bodyguard said with his grin growing wider as he pointed to Harumi, "but it seems like our Lady is taking your craft and claiming it as her own."

Hearing the sound of coins clinking, Keigo turned back around to see that the crowd was showering Harumi with coins as a reward for such a performance. At this point, Keigo didn't care at all about whatever plan the Yakuza had for the woman, not that it mattered anyway since she had effectively made any kind of kidnapping attempt impossible with all of the attention on her. What mattered now was that this woman was showing him up and challenging his pride as a musician. No matter how beautiful or talented she was, she couldn't compare to Keigo's resolve as a peddler.

Sitting back down next to Harumi and picking up his shamisen, Keigo gave the woman a quick glare of jealousy before picking up his pick and start playing his own tune. "Hey, sister, I was willing to go easy on you since you're new around here," Keigo said as he interrupted Harumi's music with his own, forcing her to stop and listen to his counterattack, "but since you want to show me up, I think it's fair that I do the same to you!"

Pouring all of his talent and soul into his music, Keigo began banging his head as his beat ran through his body and projected itself onto the shamisen. There was no way he was going to lose to this outsider that in mere minutes ruined his reputation as a musician and as a Yakuza henchman. What would his wife think if he told her that he wasn't able to bring home any money because of the sweetheart of the Miyamoto's spoiled brat of a son?

But Harumi didn't seem to want to wait for Keigo to finish his counter-attack, and then she started playing alongside him. "Hey sister, this isn't a dual act," Keigo protested as he intensified his playing even though Harumi was as listless as ever. "Who do you think you are, trying to steal my spotlight? You think you're cool because you don't show any emotion when you play? Passion is everything!"

But as Keigo turned away from Harumi to focus on his shamisen, he noticed that the crowd gathering around them had intensified, and the money being through in front of them had gone from coins to gold pieces. Some of the foreigners that were making port in Yokohama had joined in on the crowd and began tossing their own coins into the pile. Some of them started throwing pieces of paper into the pile, but Keigo was willing to look past their weird currency.

Their duel was drawing a crowd, and the crowd was willing to pay him handsomely for entertaining them.

As Keigo continued playing with Harumi keeping up with him every step of the way, he wondered if this is what it was like to play in front of a large group of people, all eyes on him watching in marvel how he danced across his shamisen. Maybe this lady wasn't so bad, after all. Whoever this Shun is must be the luckiest man in all of Japan, Keigo thought as he continued playing to a rain of coins and cheers. If I were him, I'd never let Sister Harumi out of my sight. What does he have that's more important than watching her work magic?

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Vaulting over the charging behemoth, Shun quickly pulled out his katana and prepared for battle. What had started as a test sail of the new boat the Americans were offering to the Japanese had just become a duel at sea. One of the workers had asked Shun if he was the son of the Miyamoto and if he had a fiancé named Harumi. When Shun confirmed this, the big man suddenly lashed out at him with arms as thick as tree trunks. He hadn't really paid much attention to the man when he asked that question, since word in Yokohama tended to spread fast about things like marriage, but now that the man was attacking him, Shun realized that perhaps he should have been more wary when they left port.

The man was well over six feet tall, wearing a black cap, a white buttoned shirt, and dark jeans that he had seen some of the other Westerners wear. His skin definitely stood out even among the rapidly diverse ethnicities of the Yokohama harbor workers, looking as if it was made of silver with the late afternoon sun shining off of him like metal. Taking a look at the sun emblem on his belt buckle, Shun had a feeling why the man attacked him, but had to make absolutely sure. "Excuse me, sir," Shun said matter-of-factly as the big man turned around and took a puff from his pipe. "Are you by any chance an agent of the Black Sun?"

"Heh…you're as sharp as they say, guv," the foreigner said in an accent that Shun hadn't heard before. "The name is Jonathan Steele, from jolly ol' England. Those Black Sun blighters sent me over to your backwards country to stir up some trouble, and no sooner did I get 'ere I got marching orders to take out some brat named Miyamoto." Blowing out smoke from his mouth as he put his pipe in his pocket, the big man cracked his knuckles and smirked. "Bloody thing, ain't it? Here we are out in the middle of the drink with nowhere for you to run, and you're stuck out here facing me. Ain't that a kick in the bum?"

Taking a quick look around, Shun surveyed his current location. If he were on land, then Shun could dance around this much bigger opponent and figure out how to beat him by using his agility to wear him down until a weakness was found. Unfortunately, that was not the case here: instead, Shun and his opponent were standing on the deck of what the Americans called a "steamboat," with a fire pit burning below the deck to burn the coal that acted as the boat's power. Not only was there not much room to move around, but if Shun became careless his battle might ignite the boat and then they'd be goners for sure.

Hearing the sounds of rapid footsteps approaching, Shun turned his head to see the crew of the boat marching onto the deck with rifles in their hands. "Stay back, everyone," Shun said as he held his hand out, turning back towards Jonathan. "This one is mine: don't interfere."

"Oh, we got ourselves a hero," Jonathan said with a smile before he charged forward with his shoulder in front of him. "You think just because you got a sword that you own the bloody place. You're no different from the lil' wankers back home who think because they have a uniform, they're suddenly invincible!"

Letting out a shout, Shun held his sword out in front of him and charged forward to meet the big man head-on. If we fight too long, the ship might get damaged from our battle, the young man realized as he readied his blade for his attack. I'll have to end this fight quickly before it gets to that point…but first I need to see what this man is capable of, and that means testing him in battle!

"SEIYA!"

With a swift horizontal slash, Shun's blade clashed against Jonathan's abs as they passed by. The two combatants slid to a halt after their exchange, given Shun a chance to assess what the man did. No bruises or cuts, Shun thought as he inspected his body to make absolutely sure Jonathan didn't hit him when he wasn't paying attention. He's strong, but he doesn't seem particularly fast.

Turning around to see what happened to Jonathan, Shun's relief quickly turned into concern when the big Englishman turned around to show absolutely no damage on his metallic hide. Given the slash on his shirt, Shun definitely knew he made contact with the exchange: the unfortunate truth was that his attack had absolutely no effect at all. "I was afraid of this," Shun said out loud as Jonathan looked at the scratch on his shirt and grunted. "Your skin is made of metal, correct?"

"The term that me doctors gave it was 'organic steel.' It's some variant of some long-winded Latin name that I can't recall off the top of me head," Jonathan explained as Shun dashed forward for another attack. Grabbing onto the young man's head as he ineffectively tried to cut Jonathan in the same place twice, Jonathan lifted Shun into the air and, with a single rotation of his arm, flung the boy several feet away. "I was making my living in the carnival as a strongman when the Black Sun offered me a chance to make some quid."

Almost being flung completely overboard, Shun reached out for the railing of the boat and just barely latched onto it with his free arm. Quickly lifting himself back onto the dock, the young man breathed a sigh of relief before looking up to see Jonathan rapidly charging towards him. He has to have a weak point, Shun told himself as he lifted his katana and rolled under Jonathan's legs as he came close enough. And if he's a man, then the next place would be to try here!

With another shower of sparks, steel met steel as Shun's katana slashed at the one area of the body that no man should ever leave open. It was a dirty tactic and as the son of a vassal lord, Shun should have known better than to try it. But against a literal man of steel that wanted to kill him, fighting on a terrain that could collapse around them and drag them and bystanders to a watery grave, Shun could repent after he won.

Or, more accurately, IF he won.

"Not bad, boy," Jonathan said with a smirk as he rubbed where he had been cut in between his legs. "Going for me nads is what I would've done, too." Looking at the small tear in his jeans, Jonathan adjusted himself slightly so that he didn't expose himself mid-battle before reaching down to pick up one of the planks on the deck. "But guess again: that's not where the kink in me armor is." With a mighty heave, Jonathan not only pulled the wooden plank out of its hinges, but lifted it over his head as easily as if it were a wooden stick. "Too bad for you, guv, I'm willing to bet there's a lot more kinks in yours!"

With a swing of his new weapon, Jonathan swatted Shun with the plank and sent him crashing into one of the cannons mounted to the ship. Shun let out a cry of pain as the metal cannon collided with his spine, but he forced himself to stand back up after a few seconds of horrible pain. With how hard I crashed into that cannon, it's a miracle I can stand up at all, Shun thought before rolling to the side to avoid Jonathan's plank coming down on his head like a hammer. But now I need to worry about having worse reach as well as worse strength. There has to be a way to get in…

Lifting his plank once again, Jonathan let out a shout before bringing it down in a long-reaching vertical chop, splintering the deck with its force while also breaking his weapon into wooden pieces. "Bugger," the steel-clad Englishman grunted as Shun charged forward with his blade pointing in front of him. Jumping high into the air and letting out a shout, Shun lifted his katana over his head and brought it down right on top of Jonathan's head. If it were anyone else, Shun would have delivered the killing blow.

But unfortunately for Shun, Jonathan was certainly not "anyone else," and all he did is scowl at the katana that was now sitting on top of his steel head. Lifting his mighty hand and wrapping it around Shun's leg, Jonathan pulled both the katana and its wielder off his him and smashed him hard against the ground like a whip. Shun groaned as the wooden deck met his face, but then Jonathan lifted him up and smashed him against the ground three more times, each groan becoming increasingly louder.

Seeing that the young man wasn't moving as he lay on his stomach, Jonathan wiped off a trickle of blood that splattered on him and looked down at his enemy. "It's a bloody shame I have to kill you, chap," the big man grunted as he lifted his massive foot up to squash the youth like an insect. "If it weren't me you were facing, this battle would have been over much faster. Maybe in heaven, you'll figure out where you went wrong!"

But the crushing boot never came down, as Shun suddenly rolled over and kicked out the big man's other foot with both of his legs. Losing his balance, Jonathan suddenly toppled over onto one knee, the ship vibrating in the water as he came down. Flipping back to his feet, Shun let out another shout and lifted his katana before bringing it down on the back of Jonathan's neck with all of his might…but all that did was cause his katana to vibrate violently in his hands like a tuning fork until it popped out of his hands and slid across the deck of the ship.

Before Shun could run after it, Jonathan had already regained his wits and rammed his massive fist into the young man's stomach. With his steely body and massive frame, Jonathan might as well have delivered a cannon shot to Shun's midsection as he felt something break inside of the young man. A spray of blood came from Shun's mouth as the fist lifted him into the air before being pulled out from under him and allowing him to fall back down to the deck. "Like I said before, guv," Jonathan stated as he pulled Shun back up from the ground. "If this were anyone else, you would have won this pretty easily. You've got a good head on your shoulders…which makes me sad that I'll have to cave in your pretty face in a tic."

"H…heh."

Jonathan raised his wool-like eyebrow in curiosity as a quiet chuckle came from the young man's lips. Then a confident smile formed on his face even as a trickle of blood came down from his mouth. "…I don't like that look in your eye, guv," Jonathan said as he applied more pressure on Shun's head, causing him to clench his teeth in pain but not lose his smile. "You think you got the bloody answer to your little predicament?"

"I do," Shun replied honestly.

"Then how about you share it with the class, eh?"

A faint grinding metallic sound entered Jonathan's ears as soon as he said that. Turning his head to see if the sailors on board were going to try some kind of sneak attack, Jonathan saw that none of them were moving from their spot on the deck…but were watching something intently. It was as if they were hoping for something to happen…but what could Shun possibly do to turn such an impossible battle around?

Then when he looked down, he noticed that the katana that Shun had dropped was no longer sitting on the deck. Turning back to Shun, Jonathan's eyes widened in horror when he saw that the katana was instead being gripped in his hands, with the blade pointing directly at his face. Jonathan tried to lift his big hand to block the thrust, but it was too late for that. With a shout, Shun plunged his blade past the big man's fingers, towards his face…

…and skewered Jonathan's right eye as easily as someone would spear a fish.

Letting out a roar of pain, Jonathan tossed Shun away and screamed as red blood poured from his wound. "Crikey ****, it hurts," he bellowed as he fell down onto his back kicking his feet up in agony. "Why does it hurt so damn much! I'm the bloody Man of Steele! There's no bloody way you should've been able to hurt me!"

"I didn't think of that until just now, when you picked me up," Shun said as he slowly stood back up and lifted his katana. "The way your eyes were moving around, I figured that had to be the only opening you had." Pointing at the blood on the tip of his katana, the young man waited for Jonathan to stand back up before continuing. "…I figured it would either be your eye, or your mouth, and I didn't want to stab you through the mouth if I didn't have to."

"How…how very considerate of you, chap," Jonathan said with a hiss as he covered his empty eye socket with his hand as the blood dripped from his face. "But how the hell did you get your sword back when I was holding you the entire time?"

"An idea that I got from your comrade Kumogen," Shun replied as he held his katana into the air. Pointing to the black armguard on his left hand, Shun pulled on his katana with the other hands until a faint glimmer caught Jonathan's remaining good eye: a thin wire that was coming from the katana and ending at Shun's hand. "After dealing with his webs, I decided that I'd need to figure out a way to make sure I'd never have to part with my katana again…so I wrapped a wire around this guard and attached it to the hilt of Henshinken."

"Henshin…ken?"

"'The Transforming Sword," Shun explained before pulling his arms out of the sleeves of his kimono, letting it fall down and hang across his hakama.

It was at this point that Jonathan noticed something peculiar about Shun's torso: there were three oddly-shaped scars peppered across his lower abdomen, left pectoral, and just below his collarbones. "…those are some interesting looking scars there, guv," Jonathan said lowly as he noticed that they seemed like the marks were branded into the boy like a hot iron. "How did a nice thing like you get scars like that?"

"They were kisses, from Harumi," Shun replied before slowly stepping to the side and putting Henshinken back into its sheath. Watching Jonathan's gaze follow him, Shun pointed to his scars as he continued. "Through her lips, I have sworn to create a world where she can be happy, away from the bloodshed and violence that makes her sad…and if you Black Sun bandits try to ruin our happiness, then this is the end result!" Suddenly turning his head around, Shun belted out an order. "Do it!"

Following Shun's gaze, Jonathan let out a gasp as he stared directly into the nozzle of a cannon that just had its fuse lit by one of the sailors. Before he could even scream, Jonathan was sent flying overboard with the cannonball crashing into him at blinding speed, the two of them crashing hard into the water. "AAGH! HELP ME!" He screamed as he flailed helplessly in the water. "I CAN'T SWIM! HELP ME! HELP M-"

To his surprise, the same plank that he had used to attack Shun was tossed overboard with him, falling into the water before floating upwards. Quickly paddling over to the floating plank, Jonathan looked up to see Shun smiling down at him while the other sailors cheered. "Harumi and I are going to be married on the final day of the year," the young man informed Jonathan as the ship continued sailing back to the harbor, leaving Jonathan stranded in the ocean. "You're my guest of honor: don't be late!"

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"Hey sister, it's getting late. Shouldn't you be heading home?"

Keigo turned around to see that Harumi still hadn't moved from her spot at the harbor, patiently waiting for whatever it was she was waiting for. The duel between the two of them wound up lasting almost a full hour until Keigo's fingers finally gave out and he could no longer play…which of course made any kind of kidnapping attempt impossible. As such, the lookouts on the roof had left their post, and the big guys that were supposed to do the muscle work of the abduction had gone on to other things.

However, it was the type of failure that benefited Keigo more than hurt him. Their duel had yielded so much money that Keigo had to buy two fish buckets from the harbor to carry all of it. And Harumi, the quiet woman that she was, just bowed to Keigo when it was all said and done and just stood up to stare at the ocean. "…hey, sister, I'm going to head off now. My family is probably wondering about me," Keigo said as he lifted one of the buckets and placed it next to Harumi. "This is your half of the money. I'll need to train harder if I want to keep up with-"

"Harumi!"

Hearing the woman's name called out, Keigo turned around to see a young man in a purple kimono and white hakama limp in their direction, covered in bruises and cuts like he had just fought an army all by his lonesome. "Hey, buddy," Keigo put himself between the kid and Harumi, not sure if someone as beaten up as him was a friend. "How do you know Sister Harumi?"

"I'm her future husband Shun," the young man retorted before wincing in pain and clutching his back. "H-How do you know her?"

Pushing aside Keigo, Shun walked behind Harumi and gently tapped her on her shoulder. Once Harumi turned around to face him, a look of surprise came across her face as she saw the welts that had formed around his chest and neck. "…it's nothing too serious," Shun said with a thin smile before embracing Harumi. "I'm sorry I had to leave you alone for so long today…but I didn't come empty-handed."

Pulling away from his future wife and reaching into his kimono, Shun pulled out a white lotus flower and smiled as Harumi's expression upon seeing it. "I found this just outside the docks. It's probably the last lotus flower left…" Reaching into Harumi's long black hair and placing the flower just above her left temple, Shun took a step back and widened his smile upon seeing her with the lotus in her hair, "…but I think it's fitting that you have it. You're more beautiful than all the flowers in the spring, Harumi, so I think you should have the last flower that tried its hardest to outmatch you."

Keigo once again stroked his chin as he watched the couple walk away from the harbor ledge and back towards the road, with Shun picked up the bucket of money with a quizzical look on this face. "…hey, Sister Harumi," Keigo called out to the woman, and to his good fortune she stopped to turn around and face him. Holding his half of the money in his outstretched arm, Keigo smirked as he continued. "From now on, you're 'Boss Harumi.' If you ever need anything, you come to me and I'll make it happen. You hear?"

And then, Harumi smiled at him. For all of the humiliation he had to suffer at her hands that afternoon, and for how his reputation as a competent Yakuza became forfeit because of her obviously superior intellect…Keigo felt that it was all worth it, just to see Harumi give him that warm, serene smile.

As Harumi unfurled her umbrella and walked off with Shun, Keigo look at his bucket of money and smiled. "Boss Harumi…it has a nice ring to it," Keigo said to himself thoughtfully as he turned around to pick up his two shamisen. "Next time, boss…I'll be the one making you play catch-up with me!

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