Swords Crossed: Chapter 1: The Journey of a Thousand Miles ( closed, and started)

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'Turns in small fingers,
Dawn's light glimmers, shining gold,
Five thousand peaches!'

There! That's it! Finally, Nathan had one that wasn't terrible. One down, only forty-nine to go. He was so pleased that he had half a mind to go over to the fruit stall and thank the child for the inspiration. No, wait, that would be a bad idea. Instead, he resolved himself to smile in her direction, although her back was turned so she couldn't see him. That was probably for the best as well. The child was not the only one drawing his attention. The other was a grown woman, and even from this distance Nathan could see the scar across her face, and the blindness of her eye when she turned. It must have looked even worse up close, as the child, so brimming with confidence just a moment before, shrunk from the woman.

'Innocence of joy,
Withers before stern scarred gaze,
A small thing once more.'

Huzzah, he was on a roll!

At that moment, the first potential recruits seemed to emerge. Down the street came a small group of soldiers. They were five in total. The man at their head wore armour that gleamed from head to foot, although he looked to be in his early sixties at least. The one who arched at his right hand was pale looking for a native, with a shirt of shimmering steel scales and a Naginata slung across his back. He turned his head in Nathan's direction, and Nathan hurriedly dropped his gaze, certain that the man had been scowling at him.

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Akira scowled at the Westerner, who sat alone in a doorway across from the Inn they had sought out. A spy? Possibly. he was scribbling in a notepad as he sat their, and the man would have a perfect view of anyone who entered or left the building. Akira would be sure to keep an eye out. Just outside the Inn a stall was selling fresh fruit, and a number of people had gathered there. Akira saw a hard-looking, scarred woman, blind in one eye, another Westerner, who spoke in a flamboyant tongue that Akira did not know, and a small girl who eyed the peaches greedily. There could be enemies in the crowd that was gathering, Akira knew too well that some of their usurpers were not above using children as catspaws. Toguso wanted to stop and buy some peaches himself, but Akira shook his head. Better to get inside as soon as possible

When they were through the threshold, Akira directed two of his men to stand guard at the door, with a good view of the common room and any unfriendly faces that might lurk within. He sent Togusa through to see if he could find a back entrance, through which an assassin might enter, or else they might make thier escape if necessary. The man they were looking for was clearly apparent. The old Westerner lounging in the common room with a thick mustache and rainbow cloak. Across from the man, a monk with a staff made conversation. Such an unassuming appearance could mask foul intent, and a staff could be lethal in the right hands. Nevertheless, Kazuki Sato approached, bowed in greeting, and took a seat. Akira preferred to stand, never more than a stride away from his master.

"You are the one they call Emmett?" Sato offered to the man, while Akira remained silent, ever watchful.

"That coat of yours looks like it's been through a travel or two. I wonder what has brought it here of all places; far from it's owners home, no?"

"Oh, I've been in Japan for quite some time. I wager you would have been barely out of boyhood when I got here," Emmett replied jovially. He was about to go on when he heard noise outside. Turning his head, he saw men in armour moving to door, and one walked straight through, towards the back. Emmett didn't move from his position of relaxation aside from taking one foot off the table and planting it firmly on the floor. With a flick of his wrist, he could bring knives from his sleeves into his hands.

The oldest of the group sat across from him, and a younger man, pale for the Japanese, stood watching him, sternly. "You are the one they call Emmett?"

"What if I am, and what if I'm not?" Emmett replied, casually. "Now, it seems to me," he said, looking at Akira, "men armed and armoured such as yourselves are in service, possibly to some local lord or such. If you are, your being here for me can be nothing but bad news, surely."

But no, he recognized the man sat across from him. A Shogun of the Sato line, whom Emmett had seen on occasion in his days in the court, entertaining nobles and military officials with the Bard's practices, and maneuvering pieces in the game of espionage. He wondered if the man recognized him. "But if this is who you serve, somehow, I think not." Continuing in an undertone, he asked, "which means you must be here to join me, Shogun Sato?"

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Mujo strode into a large square, lined thickly with buildings. One sign caught his eye, a lotus blossom painted over what looked to be a stream, underneath which was which it said "the Floating Blossom". It looked reputable enough that he could possibly find work for a lord or merchant needing a warrior, but just down to earth enough that he thought he could get the news and information concerning the city. Mujo was nothing if not methodical. This would do fine. He walked casually towards the building, with the fruit vendor outside with a crowd. Though he noticed at least one person with a sword, many gave cautious looks to the somewhat stranger ones on his back. A man with two full length swords, particularly ones of exotic make was unusual. Still, that was part of why he liked them. Though he prided them as his choice weapons, a side advantage was that they drew attention away from the tanto strapped to his boot.

The door of the inn was ajar, and he could hear conversation inside.

It was the second time she wished she had brought more fruit with her to the city. She had sold the weapons and clothes, but people were more eager to buy fruit. She would remember it, if they returned to this part of the world again. Meiya had sat down behind the stall, out of view, when she'd finished unpacking the crates.

Ayamine took the customers coins, for her fruit, making sure that everyone payed more than she had bought them for. Some she'd even ask more coin of than others. It was the reason why she didn't keep any prices on some of her wares. The crowd grew smaller in size. Ayamine wondered why, until she saw the one eyed and a foreign man. People like that were worse for business than having Shirogane towering behind her, glaring at those looking her way.

"Sono perfetti!" The foreigner said, but she didn't understand a word of it.

Ayamine needed to get rid off them as soon as possible, but the woman remained in the back, and the man didn't seem to know her language. The thought of giving Shirogane the signal crossed her mind, but they hadn't done anything to her more than scare away the simpleminded peasants of the city. Their coin was still good to her, if they meant to purchase.

A little girl appeared, and when the woman with one eye could have stepped up she let the girl do it instead. Ayamine thought it kind of her. It didn't solve her current problem.

"Please! Please! five thousand peaches please!" Ayamine had some peaches left, but that order combined with the copper coin the girl held up made her giggle. Children were at least easy to get coin off. She didn't need to feel guilty either, since it was the parents paying and if they sent a child it was on them. She took the coin out of her hand, pocketed it and gave the girl two of her largest peaches.

She figured it best to get rid off the menacing looking woman soon too, so she turned to speak to her. "What do you want, miss?"

Reiko jumped in anticipation as the merchant lady took her coin. She hadn't thought about how she was going to carry so many peaches.

"I can make a few trips." She said to herself, she held up her hands above her head, awaiting the first bag of what would be many. Reiko looked up, as she felt the two peaches, one in each hand. Oh, maybe she doesn't have any bags, that's okay. She quickly cradled the two peaches in her left arm and held up her free hand expectedly.

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"Sono perfetti!"

An Italian, more and more foreigners seemed to be entering Japan each year. A prospect that the locals will find less and less appealing, I'm sure.

Amaya let the girl go before her, why not? She was clearly more excited about the prospect of peaches. As the child hurried towards the counter, Amaya glanced to her side, noticing a group of armoured men draw close to a tavern across the way. She narrowed her eye suspiciously, why are Shogun here? It was about the same time she noticed a man, a tall man, with two blades strapped across his back. Interesting.

"Please! Please! five thousand peaches please!

The ronin raised an eyebrow. Good luck with that. She watched as the merchant woman took the coin, pocketing it quickly as if expecting the gods to take it from her grasp should she delay. She gave the girl two peaches, clearly 2 less than such a sum of rinyu would afford her.

As the girl cradled the fruit, holding her hand up again, the merchant woman turned her attention to Amaya.

"What do you want, miss?"

Her eye narrowed, but her pose did not change. "I want you to give that girl two more peaches."

"I want you to give that girl two more peaches."

Ayamine kicked Meiya twice, but not in a way that meant to hurt her. Meiya stood up. She'd heard the conversation, now she just needed to leave. "I'll go see to our business." She left, but Meiya didn't go far, when she was around the corner she stopped. Shirogane had given her a knife. She wasn't supposed to run away.

"Will you be paying for those, miss?" Ayamine asked her. "I assure you, it is quite expensive to hire a wagon, protection and help these days. Not to talk about the days of transportation. It is a fair price for two peaches, but now you want to rob me? Or do you mean to pay for that out of your own pockets?"

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Shirogane saw Meiya leave. He didn't need any time to think. He threw the eaten pear away over the roof of a house, then jumped down from the wagon and made his way over to the crowd in front of Ayamine's stall. He met Ayamine's eyes, and followed her gaze to find who was becoming a nuisance. A woman, but one that looked rather hostile compared to regular women.

He moved his hand under his cape and layers of clothes. He'd standby for now, but if she tried something it would be easy to stab her. With his poisons, once was all you needed for someone to go limp, paralyzed or even drop dead. He would have to make sure he didn't accidentaly pull the wrong knife.

He blended in with the crowd, and acted impatient for fruit.

"I'll go see to our business."

Amaya's gaze shifted slightly as the second woman scurried away. Really? For peaches? Fine.

"Will you be paying for those, miss? I assure you, it is quite expensive to hire a wagon, protection and help these days. Not to talk about the days of transportation. It is a fair price for two peaches, but now you want to rob me? Or do you mean to pay for that out of your own pockets?"

Her eye returned to the woman addressing her. "Yes, I'm sure the loss of two further peaches would bankrupt your little... enterprise." Amaya's arm still rested on the pommel of her katana, her hand relaxed, she had not given any indication that she planned on using it. Aren't we greedy...

The little girl still hadn't caught on to what was happening around her, hand still held in the air. "Miss? Miss? I'm ready for the next few peaches!"

Amaya noted as a cloaked man joined the crowd of customers.

"The girl has already supplied you with enough coin, but if you insist that it isn't enough..." She raised her hand slightly, pointing to the newest cloaked member of the crowd. "I'm sure this gentleman will pay the difference." Amaya's gaze did not shift from the woman's.

"which means you must be here to join me, Shogun Sato?"

"Perhaps." Akira's master replied, not impolitely. "I am surprised you recognize me. Though I never knew your name before, that coat is not so easy to forget. The last time you saw me, however, my hair would have been dark, my features rather less lined, and I may have even been two inches taller in the bargain. Tell me, how is it that you are here, in search of an army? If memory serves, your departure from the Emperor's court was not amiable."

As Sato made their inquiries, Akira looked over his shoulder, back towards the stall outside. Another man stood their now. A man hard and lean, with two blades across his back and another at his boot.

'He makes no effort to hide his arms. Perhaps he is just another prospective recruit... I mislike his look though. I will watch him.'

Another man swaggered into view behind him. Another Westerner, but this one different to the others he had seen, with olive skin, hooked nose and black, matted hair. His face bore the scars of fears battle, and only a small ruin of mangled scar tissue remained where one of his ears should have been. Beneath his oddments of armour, his clothes were expensive, silks and satin. The man clearly did not care much for them though, as they were stained with sweat, drink, and blood, some stains looking far newer than others. The condition of the garb, and the way he wore it, spoke plainly that he had not brought it with his own coin, nor much cared who knew it. Akira's hand crept upwards towards his Naginata as the man burst into the Inn.

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Bashir had wandered the streets in a giddy daze until morning, drinking and whoring at every inn he stumbled across. Only now that the Sun dominated the sky did it occur to him that he would do well to leave the city. He did not fear the Yakuza, who were largely pulling out of the region as their strength was needed to march on Namako. However, the local authorities were not likely to take kindly to the four bodies he'd just left in the street. It was time to move on... after a couple of more drinks.

"Morning fellas!" he said jovially to the two, surly-looking Samurai who stood by the door as he burst into the Inn, his weapons clanking on his belt with every step. A third stood by a table, guarding his old greybeard of a master. The look of distaste he gave Bashir only served to make his grin wider, a leer that brought the scar parting his lips into sharper focus, as hideous as it was menacing. At the same table sat a monk, and white man with a huge mustache and a faded coat which once must have been dazzling in all its colours. A strange gathering.

"Are there any girls here?" Bashir asked aloud to nobody in particular, hoping that somebody would attend to his needs. He reached into his purse and drew out on of the coins he'd taken off the dead men. "If you can get me one that has teats bigger than grapes, that'd be fucking unprecedented for this country. I pay double for a pretty face too, but if that's me pushing my luck then I guess I can just turn them over."

Bashir laughed his harsh bark of a laugh, drinking in the dirty looks he received like Ambrosia.

When Shirogane was pulled into the situation against his will, he was taken by surprise. When he understood what the problem was in the first place, he glared at Ayamine. They exchanged stares that could have been a whole conversation.

A little girl? Do you really have no scruples, woman? His first stare said.

Coin is coin. Was the answer he thought he got. It was the one he would have expected anyway.

Just give her what she wants. He tried to convey through a stare.

The stare he got back was a cold no. Damn iron will of the ancients. Well, she hadn't called for him to take out a child. They hadn't turned to that yet. The woman was a nuisance now. He understood that too. He'd need to get rid off her fast, or expect a loss in business because she was being too loud. He didn't want that. It would mean they might never be able to return to this city, or worse, that other customers would be showing up for her to pay them back for the coin she had overcharged them.

He'd deal with it. He even had an idea. Shirogane shook his head. "Miss, it is fine. The war takes a toll on everyone. It can't be easy to protect a caravan these days. I shouldn't have told my granddaughter that she could have gotten as many peaches as she wanted."

The woman had said the girl, so he could only hope that she had no relationship with her. Shirogane went over to the girl, and bent down. "Come on, we'll get more peaches. I know a friend." He ruffled her hair, then took her hand and dragged her away.

Meiya pocketed fruit all the time.

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Ayamine was getting irritated with Shirogane and how he stared at her, as if she could understand anything he thought. She just glared back, thinking no, as an answer to whatever his thoughts were. It was a matter of principle. She couldn't show herself weak in front of this many customers. She wouldn't.

The woman didn't seem to want to budge either, and Shirogane was wasting time. He spoke up, addressing her with an answer Ayamine thought was clever. He got the girl to leave, with the promise of more peaches. The woman shouldn't have any more complaints.

"See, miss, problem solved. Her grandfather is probably getting senile at his old age. Now, do you want to purchase something? Otherwise, I would appreciate it if you could please leave."

Reiko squeaked slightly as a cloaked man surprised her.

"Come on, we'll get more peaches. I know a friend."

He was old, but not like Emmett. His breath smelled liked pears. Reiko hated pears. The strange man grabbed her upraised arm. "What? No, I don't know you. Emmett told me to never go with stra-" she said quietly before a thought crossed her mind. Of course, they must keep all the peaches in the back. The nice lady couldn't very well just hand them all over the counter, there were other people who wanted fruit too, like that nice lady in blue. "I understand now!"

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"Miss, it is fine. The war takes a toll on everyone. It can't be easy to protect a caravan these days. I shouldn't have told my granddaughter that she could have gotten as many peaches as she wanted."

Amaya raised an eyebrow, a rare display of surprise on her part. Clever...

If it weren't for the fact she saw the girl leave the inn across the way, it just might have worked.

"What? No, I don't know you. Emmett told me to never go with stra- I understand now!

Now she was definitely unconvinced the man was who he claimed to be. Her hand tightened around the pommel of her sword as she slowly moved, keeping the girl in view as the man took her around the side of the stall.

"See, miss, problem solved. Her grandfather is probably getting senile at his old age. Now, do you want to purchase something? Otherwise, I would appreciate it if you could please leave."

Amaya gave the woman one last fleeting look of contempt before she continued to keep an eye on the moving pair.

"Bloody merchants." She said quietly to herself.

"Tell me, how is it that you are here, in search of an army? If memory serves, your departure from the Emperor's court was not amiable."

Smoke blew from Emmett's nostrils as he chuckled. "Oh, you remember that, do you?" How much did the man know? He wondered if this Shogun knew why he'd fallen out with Pao in the first place.

"Well, the size of the group I'm likely to gather won't be anywhere near an army, certainly. But a few skilled warriors, perhaps in unconventional in their methods can have great effect, no? As for why I am doing it, well... it's complicated and unimportant."

As he spoke, he ran his eyes over the new arrivals. One was patchily dressed, and screamed uncouth and untrustworthy a mile off, but his array of weapons and... stains was very convincing that in other ways, he was very much the sort of man Emmett was looking for.

The other... the other caught Emmett's eye. Even while walking, the young man moved with an unnatural fluidity, as though every position was poised for attack, like a wolf or snake. Two swords were slung over his back. No guards, and the hilts blended into the sheaths. Shirasaya, unless he missed his mark. The man's expression was almost blank, with a faint trace of polite curiosity. Despite the stiffness of his right leg, Emmett whirled his legs from the table and levered to his feet in a swift motion. "Ah, more for the cause. You two are here to put your weapons to work?" Truthfully, he supposed these two had likely wandered in by chance, but presumption was a great opener in these situations. There was only the faintest of pauses before the young man with the two Shirasaya nodded, and said softly, "yes, that's why I'm here."

"Well, by all means, take a seat," Emmett replied, snatching up his mahogany walking cane and taking hold of its silver handle. "Get to know these others," he gestured to Sato and Akira, "I will be just a moment. There's a small matter I must attend to."

With cane in hand, he moved swiftly between the two men, and through the door, flicking ashes from his pipe before pocketing it. Where the devil was Reiko? He glanced around, and just saw one of her deep swinging braids disappear around the corner of the stall. Knuckling his moustaches in apprehension, he moved after her, swiftly.

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When the old man disappeared out the door, Mujo moved to the bar. Odd, he thought. When he got the barkeep's attention, he politely asked for a cup of goat milk, gently placing a copper rinyu on the table.

Shirogane moved around another house, to where he had told Meiya to retreat in case of a robbery. If the worst come to pass, he would have distracted any robbers to the other side of town, while the girls made their getaway with the gold. He found her leaned against the corner. Her chest was heaving, a sign that she was nervous. She calmed down when he showed up. The stall was nearby, but they couldn't see it from where they stood.

"Meiya, give me all the peaches you have."

"I don't have that many, sir. And those I do have, they're not in the best shape." She said, while looking at the girl he was dragging with him.

"Come on, I helped you sew rather large pockets into that dress." He said, gesturing for her to give him whatever she would have on her.

"Fine then, sir, but I was going to make dinner." She said, then reached into her pockets.

"With peaches?" He wasn't even sure if that would taste good or not. "I'm sure we'll be fine." Especially if she keep insisting on taking as much gold as she can from everyone. He thought to himself.

Meiya took out one peach, two, three. Shirogane removed one of his many pieces of cloth, and made her put them in it. He didn't think the girl could carry much more than she was holding at the moment. In the end, he had a makeshift sack with seven peaches in it. The maid had been picking up apples and pears too, mistaking them for peaches, but putting them back in her pockets.

"That dress must be heavy." He said, staring at the content of his sack.

"Very, sometimes."

He nodded in an understanding manner. "Thank you, Meiya, and I apologize for questioning your ability to carry crates before." He joked.

Shirogane had let go off the girl a while ago, now he bent down in front of her and smiled. "Little miss, this is all the peaches you'll get. I hope you will find them tasty, even if they're a bit old."

"Little miss, this is all the peaches you'll get. I hope you will find them tasty, even if they're a bit old."

Emmett sidled around the corner, to see Reiko holding a bulging piece of cloth. "Oh, there you are. I was starting to get worried, child." He moved up beside her, and cautiously eyes the man in front of him.

"And... who might you be?"

"Huh?" It was on the tip of Bashir's tongue to tell the strange whitey to go fuck himself with a fish-hook. He wasn't holding a drink and he didn't have a hole between his legs, so he was of no interest to Bashir; until the part of his brain that was still sober pointed out that this could be just the ticket he was looking for, he tucked his thumbs into his belt and reassured his grin.

"Might be I am, if the coin is worth my wh-"

But the man had already left. Who the fuck does that? Offering a job and then fucking off before anyone has a chance to accept? Shaking his head, Bashir made a beeline straight for the bar. When the other man who had entered after him had gone.

"Oi." he addressed the barkeep rudely, slamming some coins down on the table as he did so. "Sake. Now."

Beyond that, he said nothing apart from derisively snort when the quiet man with the two swords next to him recieved a cup of goat's milk. A grown man, armed, ordering goat's milk?! What was the world coming to?

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Nathan watched, and listened. As the altercation at the stall unfolded. He had thought for a second that he was about to witness a showdown, a prospect that he found equal parts horrifying and terribly exciting. What had actually happened though, was the strange man who had shot more than one knowing glance at the vendor, half walked and half dragged the little girl round the back of the Inn, promising more peaches. Now that was sinister.

'Don't get involved.' a voice of reason inside his head whispered. 'You're a stranger here. You'll only make it worse. Writing about hero's doesn't make you one!"

It was a voice that sounded, cruelly, like his father's. Hearing those tones again sometimes made Nathan feel so bitter, that he would actively go against his sense of reason and do something willingly stupid just to spite the voice. This was serious however. He could get himself killed. He could get someone else killed! Besides, the Inn was filling up now, as Nathan had wanted (even if that one Middle Eastern fellow had looked particularly unsavory, and then man who had followed him, the one with the blades on his back, had made Nathan uneasy in a way he couldn't quite put his finger on. At that moment, another European, like himself, dressed in a tattered, multi-coloured coat, exited the Inn and began to pursue the man who had walked off with the little girl. Nathan looked down at his scribbles, at the first Haiku he had written about the little girl...

He followed.

Reiko started to worry as the man guided her down the alley, but then she recognised the other lady she saw at the stall. She watched curiously as the old man talked to the woman. They were talking about her peaches.

"Little miss, this is all the peaches you'll get. I hope you will find them tasty, even if they're a bit old."

Reiko smiled, "It's okay, even old things can be sweet, just like..."

"Oh, there you are. I was starting to get worried, child."

"Emmett!" She cried out. She turned towards him and held up her new bag, full of fruit. "I got so many peaches, look, some of them are a little wrinkly, like you!" She turned back towards the two people from the stall, the bag held tightly against her chest, and bowed deeply, he braids touching the ground. "Thank you!"

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Amaya, was quite a distance from the alley, she couldn't hear anything that was being said, but the situation seemed to be resolving itself.

The white man in brightly coloured clothes seemed to be related to this child in some way, at least, judging by the expression on the child's face as he approached. The other white man though, a man taking notes...

Hmmm.

A man, in his own age, appeared from behind the corner. He apparently knew the girl, and she knew him. It may be her real grandfather then. He looked at Shirogane with caution.

"And... who might you be?"

"I am Shirogane Takeru." He said, and bowed politely. "This is Mitsu.. My boss's maid, Meiya." He said, nodding in Meiya's direction. She curtsied, but stayed quiet. "We were just trying to avoid causing any major headaches for my boss. It wasn't your girl's fault, but someone else that kept provoking us. I didn't mean to harm your granddaughter or anything."

Shirogane felt like he owed the man an explanation. He couldn't go grabbing children off the street, without consequences, but he'd rather it didn't turn worse than it was.

Nathan kept his distance, unsure how to proceed. The girl had run to the European man in a colourful coat, and the other man appeared to be talking amicably with him. However, Nathan had seen the looks that same man wore when his 'business partner' and been harassed before, and they were not looks that he had liked. If things went sour here, then it was one grown man and one grown woman, against an old man and a little girl. Nathan wasn't sure if things were looking so good here; and while he knew he was no fighter, nobody else need know that for the moment. Just maybe, the sight of another grown man, in his physical prime, would be enough to make these two thieves slink away.

He hoped.

Nathan strode down the alleyway, with shoulders back to make the most of his height, and hopefully to make in look a bit more solidly built. He came to a halt just off the European mans shoulder.

"Is there a problem here?" he asked firmly, hoping to sound a lot braver than he felt.

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Akira disliked the company this Inn was drawing, he disliked the vague manner in which the Westerner had answered the Shogun's question, and he disliked how said Westerner had dismissed himself most of all.

"Master Sato." He whispered in the old man'd ear, I do not think we should linger here. How do we know that Mister Smythe is not trying to round up all who would fight for the Emperor, so the Yakuza can fall on us all and kill us in one fell swoop?"

Kazuki Sato smiled, and whispered back. "I have spent half my life at the Imperial Court, among schemers and liars. Emmett Smythe is a dangerous man, in his own way. I would not turn my back on him, but in this, I do not see betrayal. Besides, I grow tired of the Exile's life, don't you?"

Akira wasn't sure how to answer that question. As long as Sato lived, Akira would serve faithfully, fiercely, and without regret, as would all of the men that followed him. Akira did not intend to outlive his master. What did it matter that they were forced to wander? What did it matter that sometimes their palace had been under a tree, or in a ditch at the roadside? Akira did not want for material comforts, the hardship had only toughened his resolve. However, he could not say that Sato was wrong either. For years it had seemed that, no matter what their ragged band of veterans did, no matter how hard they fought, that they bled honour every day that they had no place to call home. Men still treated the Sato name with respect, to his face, but Akira had heard the whispered sniggers of the 'Beggar Shogun', and they enraged him. Would winning back their home remove that taint, after all these years?

"I defer to your wisdom, my lord." He said. It seemed the most diplomatic response he could think of.

"I got so many peaches, look, some of them are a little wrinkly, like you!"

Emmett opened his mouth, and then closed it for lack of speech, blowing at his moustaches in a put upon fashion as he hoisted the girl onto his shoulder. He was still strong enough to do that.

"Is there a problem here?"

"Oh, I'd say things are resolving themselves quite nicely," Emmett replied. Turning back to the man who had given Reiko the fruit, he said, "well, I don't suppose I can let your generosity go unpaid," he said, taking a bronze rinyu from inside his coat and flicking it to the man, who caught it deftly. "Now, I hate to be so rude, but I'm afraid I have some rather impatient associates I ought to be getting back to."

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Mujo heard the other man snort at him, sipping the milk, but ignored it. He wondered idly what had made this old European who would supposedly employ him suddenly dash off like that. He supposed it was none of his business. But he ought to make conversation. Glancing at the man who had snorted at him, he said, "I wonder where the old man ran off to. It'll be annoying to have to find another job."

He caught the coin. Ayamine would enjoy that he managed to sell some of the older peaches too, which she'd have prefered to keep out of her business, to maintain a good reputation.

"Now, I hate to be so rude, but I'm afraid I have some rather impatient associates I ought to be getting back to."

"Oh, I understand. In fact, I should probably do the same." He snapped his fingers at Meiya, when he realized that Ayamine had been left alone for too long. The maid curtsied, then hurried back to her mistress. "We're not on the road yet, but you never know what kind of scum exists in the city either."

Shirogane looked at the newcomer when he said the last sentence. Who was that man anyway? Attempting to buff himself up and appear frightening, as if Shirogane hadn't seen enough battle in a lifetime, to be able to tell who was a mean fighter and who couldn't fight worth shit.

"It was nice meeting you two. Maybe our roads will cross again." He nodded, then figured he'd lingered too long. He turned around in the direction of the inn, and their wagon next to it.

"I dunno. Probably taking a piss or something." Bashir grunted in reply, before taking a hearty swig of Sake. He probably wasn't, but Bashir didn't much care, so long as the man came back and made good on his offer before Bashir got bored and left.

===============================================================================================================================

"Well then..." Nathan replied, now slightly lost. "That's, good. Yes, very good. You... have a nice day now."

'Smooth.' quipped his voice of reason. 'Start as you mean to go on now why don't you.'

So Nathan had to wait, in the alley, alone, half-wishing that the ground would just swallow him up, until enough time had passed that it would no longer seem like he was following these complete stangers, before he turned and made for the in, slump-shouldered.

Shiori walked through the city, keeping her eyes open for anyone that might be able to help her. When she reached the market square, she noticed a scene at a stall over some peaches. It wasn't her place to question what had led to it, but what did catch her attention was the kind of people that were there. Several of them were wearing weapons. Samurai? Or maybe ronin?

One particularly older gentleman in colorful garb made his way to the stand, and a little girl ran to his side.

"Now, I hate to be so rude, but I'm afraid I have some rather impatient associates I ought to be getting back to."

It's him! The one who is planning to go to Namako! And it seemed as if the group was starting to take shape. She had to hurry to them before she lost her chance.

============================================================================

Emilio stepped back as the little girl asked for peaches, which looked like it was somehow going to lead to a scuffle. But when another fellow European arrived and helped calm things down, he was transfixed by his coat. It was full of the brightest colors that stood out even among the numerous kimonos and robes the people around him were wearing. That attire would have looked horrendous on anyone else, but this man looked dignified. Something so grand out of something so simple.

"Signore in cielo... He would make a beautiful subject!" He quickly reached into his bag and pulled out a sketchbook. With a small piece of charcoal in hand, he began drawing the scene the before him. Others around him might have thought he was out of his mind, but he wouldn't let this artistic vision slip by!

But as soon as the man arrived, he left, lost among the crowd. Emilio sighed, "I wish he could have stayed a little longer." He was able to sketch a very rough figure of the man, pouring most of his focus into the folds and contours of the coat he wore. It should be enough to serve as a basic reference for his painting.

Tao watched as several scenes unfolded before him, his eyes wide and puzzled. He had never seen such a congregation of strangers. Yet there was one who caught his eye; a small westerner, who clearly had the skill of literacy. Standing up, he passed the loud, olive one, whispering to him as he went.

Moderation, my friend.

He had seen most of the group walk outside, and he had just opened the door when he spied Nathan, walking slumped back towards the inn. Smiling he greeted him, keeping the door open.

"Why so glum? Has there been some unhappy-happening outside? What did I miss?"

Having spied several warriors and folks of perhaps ill-will, Tao hoped to come across as both friendly, and non-threatening.

Emmett came back through the tavern door with Reiko on his shoulders. "Alright, gentlemen. Apologies for the delay. If you could all gather round the table, we may discuss the matter at hand." Coming to a stop, he set Reiko down in the chair next to Sato, and stood behind it, with his hands on the chair back.

This was turning out easier than he had expected. Assuming these men had the skill they seemed to claim, he had the makings of the group he had been dispatched to form. As well as Sato's men, he now had some more unconventional warriors, including that strange ronin with the unguarded swords.

Ronin. He wondered idly if that mutilated woman in the street had been one. With a katana and tanto, she certainly had the equipment of one. How strange...

"Why so glum? Has there been some unhappy-happening outside? What did I miss?"

'Only my attempts at being a good Samaritan.' Nathan thought bitterly. 'A tragedy in its own way, though less climactic.'

Moping in from of strangers was unseemly however; so Nathan stood up straight again, and fixed on a polite, if somewhat half-hearted, smile.

"Oh no, nothing worth noting." he replied, stepping through the threshold. "Just a misunderstanding is all. Please to meet you by the way. My name is Nathan Winters."

===============================================================================================================================

"Alright, gentlemen. Apologies for the delay. If you could all gather round the table, we may discuss the matter at hand."

Akira merely nodded discreetly, saying nothing. He took a moment to steal a glance at the little girl as she was sat next to Kazuki, and frowned disapprovingly. Was this a war council, or a creche? Had they come here to march against usurpers, traitors and thugs, or to play nurse to little girls and mad old men in silly cloaks?

============================================================================================================================

Bashir, on the other hand, once he had half-swaggered, half-stumbled over to the table, too one look at Reiko and burst out laughing.

"When I said I wanted a girl, she wasn't quite what I had in mind." he sniggered, grinning insolently at Reiko and Emmett both.

Reiko looked over her shoulder just before Emmett entered the the inn, she saw the lady in blue. She wanted fruit too, but it doesn't look like she has any.

Reiko quickly grabbed a peach from her bag and gently tossed it to the lady, waving as she entered the inn.

=========================================================================

Amaya watched as the girl exited from site, her expression unchanged. She looked down at the peach in her hand, it looked like it had seen better days.

She brought it up to her mouth, smelling it slightly before she took a small bite. Still good. Amaya turned to leave, stopping slightly to look up at the sign of the inn. It was the name of the place she had heard yesterday, in the inn she stayed at that night. A European was mentioned, was that man in the coloured robes the patron mentioned? Perhaps.

Oh well.

She took a few steps before she took another bite of the peach, pausing. She smiled ever so slightly before turning around and making her way into the inn.

"When I said I wanted a girl, she wasn't quite what I had in mind."

"Well, I wouldn't put it past you," replied Emmett mildly, before continuing. "The job in question takes place quite some distance away. During the travel, there won't be pay, as such, but I have sufficient money to cover living expenses for the time on the road. When we reach our destination, however, the job will be long and bloody. But with as much rinyu as any of you are likely to possess in your lifetime as payment. On top of that, I'd say in a time like this, having someone pay for your meals for two weeks or so is rather advantageous, wouldn't you say?"

He was aware of a pair of eyes on his back, and he suspected who they belonged to. He continued, "however, I'm afraid you must agree to the job in question before you learn the details. If that is too much of a gamble, then leave now."

Tao bowed slightly, yet sharply at his introduction.

"Pleased to meet you, Nathan. My name is Tao; are you here to meet the strange gentleman, like the others?" He motioned to the small gathering beginning to appear surrounding Emmett; clearly he was a man of great importance, or had something of equal significance to offer.

Listening in, Tao caught snippets of the conversation. At the word bloody, he raised his eyebrows. Perhaps they were mercenaries.

Eyes fixed on Emmett, Tao spoke again to Nathan, without shifting his gaze.

"I hope you are not here to stir trouble, Mr. Winters. Do you know what is going on?"

As Emmett sat her down, Reiko looked up at the elderly man next to her. He looked scary, with a stern look on his face. She hugged the bag of peaches close to her chest as she looked around the room. When did it get so busy in there? How many of these people were here to see Emmett?

"When I said I wanted a girl, she wasn't quite what I had in mind."

"Huh?" Reiko tilted her head curiously, the man wasn't the same colour as Emmett and he was really ugly, but he wasn't Japanese either. She'd ask Emmett later, since she started travelling with him, she'd learned a lot about other lands, he'd surely know where the ugly man came from.

"however, I'm afraid you must agree to the job in question before you learn the details. If that is too much of a gamble, then leave now."

Reiko looked up as Emmett finish, but her eyes were drawn to the figure behind him.

"It's you!" She proclaimed, smiling.

============================================================================================

Amaya listened to the man's proposal. So he was the one. Good. She followed the stare of the little girl from earlier. Some foul looking man from the Middle East no doubt, she was sure she could smell his putrescence from where she stood.

"It's you!"

Amaya bowed her head slightly, "I came across information that the possibility of employment was being offered here. It appears that information was correct."

Tao seemed friendly enough, and Nathan could feel himself gradually loosening up, getting over his previous embarrassment.

"I hope you are not here to stir trouble, Mr. Winters. Do you know what is going on?"

"Trouble? Oh, no." Nathan replied "I'm just a traveler, passing though. My next port of call was going to be in Namako, but with the recent troubles the roads between here and there have not been safe for a lone and humble soul like myself to travel alone. That's when word started to get round of a Westerner, like myself, looking for loyal men to make the trek that way. Now I'm no fighter, but I hope that if I can prove myself of some use in what fields of expertise I do possess, I may benefit from the protection of those that are."

===============================================================================================================================

"Well, I wouldn't put it past you,"

Bashir couldn't help but be a little offended, and his eyes narrowed at the white man. He wasn't usually one to be prickly where women were concerned. Bashir's appetites were large, and he sated them when and how he pleased. Most of the women he'd had were bought, a scant few came to him willingly, and others he had taken by force. It didn't matter much to him. Children though? That was different. He'd fought beside men who liked that sort of thing before. Sometimes, after Bashir had seen them at it, he would find a reason to get into a drunken row with them, giving him an excuse do cut them to pieces with Red Elinor.

It wasn't quite enough to claim that he was soft where children were concerned. He would have killed this girl who sat at the table with them without a second thought, if it was part of a job, or just if she got in the way. If he was paid to, he might well have carried her off to some man who could mean to do all manner of things to her, and his conscience would rest easy after a few stiff drinks, and maybe a good fight. Bashir was hardly one for drawing lines in the sand, but he supposed that their was always a exception.

"however, I'm afraid you must agree to the job in question before you learn the details. If that is too much of a gamble, then leave now."

"You drive a hard bargain, whitey." Bashir said, after taking a second to incline his head to the scarred woman who had materialized behind him, with a mischievous little smile on his face that suggested he wouldn't mind giving her a few more. "If I wasn't in no hurry to up sticks, I'd tell ya to take your offer, sharpen the tip, and then bugger yourself with it!" he barked with laughter again. "But I suppose I been with uglier whores before, I got no trouble closing my eyes and getting this one over with. If I don't come away from this with enough coin to drink myself from here to Okinawa though, I'll come back for ya and paint that pretty coat of yours all in red, you hear?"

============================================================================================================================

Akira did not like the sound of this deal one bit, and Kazuki Sato appeared to share his concerns. His Master's voice was calm and courteous as ever, but it had a cold edge to it that Akira had learned to recognize, subtle as it was. It was a tone he ha heard a lot, during the early years of his training, where Sato would command that Akira repeat an action, hundreds of times if necessary, until he could do it perfectly twenty times in a row.

"I find myself in agreement with this... fellow soldier." Sato said, giving the sell-sword a look that plainly conveyed that that was all that Sato 'agreed' with about him. "I have pledged myself to many causes, but never have I been called upon to place all that I possess in the hands of a Westerner of whom I know nothing, on the promise of a reward dependent entirely on his sincerity. Men usually know better than to presume so much."

"Master," Akira bent low to whisper in Sato's ear. "Perhaps we should leave. I mislike the look of much of this company, and this Westerner demands too much. Besides, no Emperor came to our aid when we were driven from our homes, why should we answer their call now?"

Sato nodded, to confirm that he understood, before turning back to Mr. Smythe.

"My loyal friend speaks much sense. Only fools and desperate men would balance their lives on such a narrow string, and we are not fools... so you should count yourself fortunate, that we are the latter." he finished, allowing himself a small smile.

Akira held his silence. Dispite his misgivings, he also felt relief. One way or another, there would be no more running.

When Shiori reached the inn that the westerner was staying at, she could overhear some of the discussions between him and the potential swordsmen seeking employment. Some spoke in a manner similar to her husband but none were explicitly samurai, ronin perhaps. But there were voices that were rough and quite ill-mannered. She instinctively felt for her dagger in her sleeves and her tessen tucked into her obi, just for some reassurance. I hope they will be willing to hear my plea.

Knowing it would be impolite to simply barge in while everyone was discussing their terms, she remained in the hallway. The last thing she wanted was to ruin her chances for discussion. Once it sounded like everything was settled, then she would make her approach.

'Well this is a fine mess.'

Jules didn't quite know how this had happened. He took another swig of his flask as he tried to figure this out; fit the pieces of the puzzle together in his head. His horse had managed to wedge itself inbetween two very close walls, it's haunches wedged firmly inbetween them, as well as some of the merc's gear. It was a very, very obedient horse. And more than a tad dumb.

"Ah, sod it. Sorry, Arrow!" Jules kicked the mare's rear with force, inching it ever outwards. If it kept moving forward, the streets were crammed with people but wider in general. With a grunt, he kicked again, and again, finally getting the blasted thing out. Unfortunately, the ungrateful li'l shit ran off a bit. Jules, with a sigh, started after it, cursing his heavy armor of choice.

===================================================================================

Akio was enjoying his walk, for he didn't pack much and the sun was enjoyable. He supposed he should've been in some great hurry, everyone around him seemed to be. The smells of the city certainly weren't the most pleasant to someone who spent his time out on the country, but he would live. Probably. Human feces was certainly mixed pretty well in there, and it made the young man more hesitant about his step.

Seemed an important man was entering the city, or so the guards suggested. Could've just been a paranoid guy, but most were more worried about spirits than men. In the end it was always the latter who brought them their end. He tried to ignore, but he found himself curious over who it could be. He was well armored and noble looking, but he couldn't assign a name to the face.

They disbanded within the city, or at least rode into it. They seemed to be heading where he himself was. Probably an assumption on his part, it wasn't like they were mercenary. He didn't think, at least, he hadn't been keeping up with politics. A small failing on his part, he supposed.

The shinobi chose a more scenic route around the city, enjoying himself... but he could admit he was itching for a fight. Not a straight fight, he wanted a big, slow guy who would underestimate his opponents. That would be best. In the end, he almost got trampled by a horse, and it's owner, some drunk in armor.

He sighed, finding the tavern and headed inside. A bunch of men were seated around, and they seemed to be discussing... well, girls, really. Around a child. Almost sickening, to the kid, but he held his tongue as he approached, holding his satchel close.

"Excuse me, are any of you a Mr. Emmett Smythe? I've journeyed far to get here..."

A loud crash came from behind, as another man, a pink faced and out of breath white man with a mustache came barging in, having tied Arrow outside so he wouldn't run off. He approached the table, looking at them all up and down.

"... Why is there a child in a tavern?"

"Only fools and desperate men would balance their lives on such a narrow string, and we are not fools... so you should count yourself fortunate, that we are the latter."

"Excellent," Emmett replied, "although that was more for their benefit, Sato. I suspect this is a goal that you will very much want to apply yourself to. But allow me to--" but he was cut off by the appearance of yet another warrior. A Shinobi, he thought, followed by an out of breath white man.

"Excuse me, are any of you a Mr. Emmett Smythe? I've journeyed far to get here..."

"That I am," he replied impatiently, ignoring the remark about Reiko. Almost by rote, he began reiterating for these newcomers the conditions of payment, and prior agreement that he had explained to the others. He supposed this was one of his flaws. Emmett could wait for days for even the slightest scrap of information, or anything else he needed, no matter hoe meager. But when he was in the final stretch of setting up something important, as he was now, he felt an itch to move things to their conclusion quickly.

Sensing that the time was right, Nathan strode forward, thinking it best to act like the little incident in the alley earlier hadn't happened.

"Exuse me! Mr Smythe..." he piped up, easing his way the the front of the gathering crowd. "I would also like to pledge my name to this expedition. I am no soldier, that much is plain, but I feel I might have talents that would be useful to you in other ways."

"I would also like to pledge my name to this expedition. I am no soldier, that much is plain, but I feel I might have talents that would be useful to you in other ways."

Emmett gave Nathan a deadpan look. "I'm here for the sole purpose of recruiting warriors to shed enough blood to drown a herd of horses. What, pray tell, could you possibly be useful for?"

"That I am."

Akio nodded, with a neutral expression on his face that didn't waver. Jules just growled something about being ignored, as both listened to they payment thing. Jules didn't care, so long as bad people got his spear yadda yadda, and Akio was just excited about getting ANY work. The fact it was official only added to it.

"Exuse me! Mr Smythe... I would also like to pledge my name to this expedition. I am no soldier, that much is plain, but I feel I might have talents that would be useful to you in other ways."

Akio turned to face the new guy, another European. Not even a warrior. What use COULD he be?

"I'm here for the sole purpose of recruiting warriors to shed enough blood to drown a herd of horses. What, pray tell, could you possibly be useful for?"

Jules slapped his own forehead, moving next to the little girl and doing a small flourish. "I doubt you intensely." He informed the old man. Akio gave a small "Shush" despite holding the same doubts.

Watching Nathan step forward to pledge himself, Tao pondered over this strange meeting. Emmett stated he was looking for warriors, but for what purpose? A vie for power? Money? Women? His brow furrowed at the thought of unnecessary violence. Stepping forward, parallel to Nathan, he spoke in a stern yet neutral tone, addressing Emmett directly.

"Apologies for interrupting, but what is the cause for such violence? Is it so blind and indirect that you have no need for people of tact and wisdom, like Mr. Winters?"

He gave a small nod to Nathan; being the only one Tao had spoken to, he hoped to form a friendship, at least before these would-be vagabonds left. Most of these people were fighters; he thought he even spied a Ronin earlier. Weapons made him uneasy, but he kept his composure unshakeable. His eyes focused solely on Emmett, trying to discern the quality of his character.

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