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

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Amaya noted the growing unease in the air. There were quite a few people who wanted to be a part of this expedition, it seemed.

Everyone was in such a hurry to make themselves known, she didn't doubt that she would be drowned out by the sea of proposals.

Amaya glanced around the tavern, locating the least occupied corner. She stepped forward "Sir, my name is Kaneko, I will be present at this inn for the day, and will most likely be staying overnight, should you require my services." She bowed slightly and headed to a corner, removing her katana from her obi and propping it against the table as she sat. She opened her small pouch and removed her kiseru and some shredded tobacco. Like the previous inn she stayed at, this one also supplied a small charcoal fire pot on each table for which to light the tobacco. Amaya cradled the pipe in her hand, quietly blowing out smoke while she listened out for anything of interest.

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Reiko was unsure of what was happening around her. There were a lot of men with weapons, even the lady in blue had some blades.

"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."

This man had the same skin colour and accent as Emmett. Were they from the same country?

"I doubt you intensely."

Another white man, but this one's accent was different, no way he was from the same place as Emmett. She gently tugged Emmett's robe. "Emmett, what's going on?"

"Sir, my name is Kaneko, I will be present at this inn for the day, and will most likely be staying overnight, should you require my services."

Kaneko, the lady in blue's name was Kaneko. It sounded like a last name though.

"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?"

Nathan gave a small nod in Tao's direction, in acknowledgement of his support. A rather smaller nod than he might otherwise have done. It was that Nathan did not appreciate someone whom he had had such a brief introduction with standing up for him. In fact, he was rather touched. The problem was that the way in which Tao had chosen to stand up was not particularly helpful to Nathan. He wasn't sure how much Tao knew, nor how much of the whole story he himself was aware of, but what Nathan did know was that he was in as much need of all this 'blind and indirect violence' as Mr. Smythe was, should Nathan ever have a hope of reaching Namako alive.

"Well, Mr. Smythe..." Nathan began, hoping against hope that his nerves would not betray him at such a crucial moment. "I may not be a native to this land, but I do possess some considerable skill in Geography, Geology and Navigation. Those skills could have certain tactical implementations. Should we, for example, ever need to divert from our preferred path, away from dangers, I may be able to puzzle out safe detours over terrain that might otherwise seem impassable." Now might have seemed like a good time to share a few anecdotes out one expedition to the Andes mountains 3 years ago, but Nathan felt the need to score as many potential points as possible before someone shot him down. "Should we ever need to communicate with others who either cannot, or do not care to, speak the local tongue, I am fluent in 10 different languages, and passable in several more. I could act as a translator. Also, now, I won't claim to be a doctor, but I have in my travels had to learn how to deal with fatigue and injury, both in myself and in others, and sometimes in very harsh conditions with limited resources."

While other people were still talking around him, Nathan had so far managed to make himself heard above all of them, and still no-one had interrupted him or thrown him bodily from the establishment. Growing more confident that he might be on to a winner, Nathan smiled and continued on."

"Practical skills are not all I offer though." he told Mr. Smythe, a glint of his excitable passion appearing in his eyes, that always transpired when he began to talk about his greatest passion. "You see, I am also something of a travelling bard, or poet, or novelist. It varies really, but the point is that I can provide something that may be more valuable than all the swords you could wish for. In every town and village along our way I can tell tales of your heroism, your courage and your righteousness, and thereby win more blades to your cause. I can make people great and small follow you with pride and fervor in their hearts. When we reach more populous areas, perhaps somewhere with a port, I can spread my tales of this daring quest, and the noble fellowship who guide its course far and wide. I can make an entire nation look to you in hope, if you would have it of me; and when this story is done, I can make it so that, hundreds of generations and thousands of years from now, your character remains true and your cause remains just."

Nathan spread his hand for dramatic emphasis, now positively beaming.

"That is what I offer most of all! Immortality, Mr. Smythe. Immortality, for you, and for every man and woman who follows you!"

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"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?"

"Ah, shut yer piss-hole!" Bashir growled roughly "Any more talk like that's gonna make me sober, and you don't wanna be around me when I'm hungover."

"Sir, my name is Kaneko, I will be present at this inn for the day, and will most likely be staying overnight, should you require my services."

"Does that go for the troops as well?" he sniggered. "I got plenty of 'services' in mind for you! You can start right now if you like."

Bashir had never bedded anyone with only one arm before. The prospect intrigued him. He wondered if perhaps learning to get by with just one might make a woman more... dexterous, with her fingers. He's be anxious to try it out. It wasn't as if scars bothered him either, or else he wouldn't have so many himself. He might even let her give him a few more, he thought, just for the price of letting him try her out for the night.

"That is what I offer most of all! Immortality, Mr. Smythe. Immortality, for you, and for every man and woman who follows you!"

There was a pause after the bookish one finished his long-winded justification for his existence. Silence fell, and then was quickly broken again when Bashir gave a most almighty howl of mirth

"pfffffffffffffffffffttHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA!!!!!!" he exclaimed, tears welling up in his eyes as he slapped the table once, twice, and then thrice. "Oh... oh Godpffthahahahahaha! I like this one! Fuck me, that was good! I'd let you tag along that's for sure. I might even lift Red Elinor in your defense if you stay that funny. If you didn't though, I'd be inclined to cut your tongue out with her!"

He threw back his head again and laughed at his own joke.

"I doubt you intensely."

Emmett paused, and gave the man a steely look, ignoring Reiko's questions.

"Then leave," he replied curtly.

Then the female Ronin came forward. Emmett turned to her. "Well, never let it be said that I discriminated on gender. You have the bearing of a warrior, one arm or not. Of course you may join us."

Then this man Nathan came out with a speech in his own defense. Emmett smiled at him. "Boy, I was living off Bard's skills when you were in swaddling. But yes, the rest of it may well be useful. And we'll be less conspicuous if it looks more like those of us armed are protecting some who aren't. But I had to know how you'd pull your own weight. I suppose we should get some others to complete the illusion of a travelling band. Although if they have no useful skills, I intend to make them help cover the costs of our merry band."

"Then leave."

"Eh, I just hear you talk about the pay. Might as well stay." Jules shrugged, putting on a tight, wry smile. "'Sides, someone has to think of the children."

Akio sighed at that, burying his face in his palm. He just wanted to start freaking working. The bard was apparently allowed to stay as well as the girl. Cover was good, a bunch of useless people sitting around in combat was worse. Critiquing his style was out of the question though, he'd grin and bear it.

"Please tell me we set out soon." Akio muttered, still noot sitting down.

"And we'll be less conspicuous if it looks more like those of us armed are protecting some who aren't. But I had to know how you'd pull your own weight. I suppose we should get some others to complete the illusion of a travelling band. Although if they have no useful skills, I intend to make them help cover the costs of our merry band."

"That is folly." Akira blurted out.

Both Smythe and Sato looked at him, the second knowingly, the first in stern curiosity. Akira wasn't normally used to speaking so frankly. He had always prided himself on giving honest and pointed counsel, when it was asked of him, but speaking out of turn was not in his nature. However, Akira heard just about enough, and he was angry. Had they really sunk so low, that rather than face battle they would slink by it to the tune of fiddles and drums? When they finally clashed with the enemy, would Akira be expected to lay waste to those around him with one hand, whilst juggling with the other, perhaps with the little girl to his right standing on his head? Was that the tune that would carry them home? Had his brothers in arms died for this humiliation? Akira and his men might be homeless, serving a lord others mocked for a beggar, but they could even take a certain pride in that, in their unfailing loyalty and tenacity. This though, this was too much.

"Apologies, Mr. Smythe." Akira said, with a stiff bow. He had started now, and as uncomfortable as he was he must finish. "But we found you easily enough, and as stupid as the thugs who name themselves rebels may be, they are not so stupid as to not be on the lookout for strays, for former friends of the Emperor who might band together and harry them. They will know we are coming, make no mistake, no matter how many children and poets we cower behind; and when they come across us, do you think men such as these will hesitate to butcher innocents, even on the slightest suspicion that true warriors may be among them? We must cut a bloody swathe through to Namako, giving no quarter, or perish in the attempt. How do you imagine we do either with short legs, open mouths and sword-less hands in tow? You, Gaijin!" he turned to address the bookish Westerner "Survive this if you can, and when it fill whoever's ear with whatever tales you like, but my stories are my own. I mean to take back our home, and our honour, or else to drown in the blood of the unworthy, and I need no gallant rhymes to strengthen my steel."

Now that Emilio had his charcoal sketch in hand, he was anxious to begin the painting. Now it was about finding a suitable place to begin. When he returned to his studio, he found it far too dark for his liking. Lighting candles wouldn't help things either, not for this masterpiece. He had to find someplace well lit and plenty spacious. Once he grabbed some brushes, a small canvas, and a variety of his paints--some yellows, reds, blues, black and white--he took to the streets. Any spot he could think of was taken up either by merchants or the crowds. He spotted what looked like an inn in the distance. "That can work. I hope they won't mind."

The building was certainly big, and there was a large number of people that were concentrated in one end of the lobby. They were a rowdy lot, and he couldn't quite make out what they were discussing or even arguing over. From the looks of it, some looked like travelers, while others looked like robed swordsmen--samurai as the locals called them. Finding a corner of the room that wasn't occupied, he stretched out his canvas and pulled out his paints. Laying out his sketch nearby, he slowly began painting a subtle color background, something to make the figure really pop.

"We must cut a bloody swathe through to Namako, giving no quarter, or perish in the attempt. How do you imagine we do either with short legs, open mouths and sword-less hands in tow?"

Was this man really so foolish? Emmett resisted the temptation to pinch the bridge of his nose and sigh He had thought the man might be at least some ways sensible until he had suggested such a bloody path. "Did it not occur to you, sir, that the reason all the men here have found me is because I needed to be found by such? This is a matter of being inconspicuous in the general sense, and having simple travelers along aids that fact. If we 'cut a bloody swathe through to Namako', we will alert the Yakuza through the area that an armed force is trying to break through and shall be harassed as far as we have to go. I intend to see that every man I recruit makes it to that city. And vain, idiotic glory seeking serves us not at all in that regard. Cowardice does not come into it, but rather simple, logical sense. Something I'd expect the guard captain of such a pragmatic Shogun would possess."

Akira bit his tongue rather than retort. Perhaps he had got carried away and hadn't been clear, but 'vain, idiotic glory seeking' was not what he had been suggesting, simply that the likes of the Yakuza and their cronies would sooner kill every last man, woman and child they came across than let a troupe of soldiers pass by unmolested due to a few non-combatants in their ranks. Neither had he been suggesting that Mr. Smythe was a coward, but rather that he had seriously underestimated his foe. As thuggish as they were, they were not completely stupid. This Inn was hardly private. Even excluding those who could be eavesdropping from afar, half of those getting ready to swear their swords to this cause looked of questionable loyalty to Akira. There were a hundred different ways that the enemy might be forewarned of their approach, in which case it would be prudent to strike first, to be the harriers rather than the harried. Bloody the foe in hard, fast raids, preferably at night. Make the Yakuza and the other rebels think that they were a larger, more formidable force than they would look by daylight, distracting and dividing them at the same time. It would not be open battle, but they would evade the main thrust of their foe, by making that foe believe they were in a hundred places at once, rather than this slow, transparent farce that Mr. Smythe was suggesting.

Still, the man seemed to be in no mood to argue, and like it or not he was Akira's only chance of seeing home again, so he resolved himself with a cold stare. Sato, however, was the one who spoke.

"You will forgive my loyal Captain for speaking out of turn." he said, with the commanding strength in his voice of a man half his years. The mild tone was still there, but Akira noted well how the statement was not made as a request. It was all in the subtleties with Sato. "He is weary, as are al of my men, and we have tasted the bitterness of betrayal too well. Half the men Akira has cut down in my name were once his brothers-in-arms. His doubts are understandable. Still, this is not the place to argue over tactics."

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"...Still, this is not the place to argue over tactics."

Bashir put it more succinctly.

"Fight? Hide? Either way, let's just get this bitch over with."

Reiko soon grew bored of all the talk, she didn't really understand any of what was being said. She instead turned her attention to the painter in the corner, she glanced at Emmett before she hopped off the chair and made her way over to the painter, bag of peaches held to her chest.

"C... can I see?" She asked the artist shyly.

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Amaya smiled to herself as she overheard the two men argue over tactics. Both had valid points, Smythe was a very cautious man, and undoubtedly had a foreign way of viewing things, which could be potentially very advantageous, the left handed swordsman almost always had an advantage from the outset. However, she could also understand the captain's perspective, she had heard of this 'beggar' Shogun, and she respected them. One can not progress with nothing unless one has the most steadfast of determination. She glanced down at the place her left arm should be occupying. Amaya knew that truth all too well.

Moderation, in all things. Excessive force would do them no good, while doing nothing at all was equally as unfavourable, albeit, with a lesser outcome of a messy demise, so she supposed that was a point in Smythe's favour.

The ronin glanced at the Italian as he sat in the corner opposite her. He didn't appear to be interested in Smythe's enterprise, but rather in the canvas he had in front of him. She narrowed her eye slightly, slowly puffing smoke from her pipe.

Quite the ethnically diverse crowd.

The girl also seemed drawn to this man, although for very different reasons, she was sure.

She glanced over at Smythe. How an Englishman managed to procure such a child, now that was what really escaped her.

"C... can I see?"

Emilio smiled at the little bundle of adorable. "Of course, little bambina." He turned the canvas towards her as he made more broad strokes for the background. "It doesn't look like much, but soon it will be beautiful!"

The little girl simply cocked her head and stared at the canvas. Noticing this, he reached for the sketch next to him. "Here's a little sneak peak of who I'm painting. Just be careful, please," he said as he handed her the sketch of the eccentric man from the market.

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Shiori watched as the group slowly came together. It looked like most, if not all, had arrived and made their arrangements. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the room. Keeping her hands folded in front of her, she made her way to the group, specifically towards the Englishman whom she recognized from the marketplace.

She bowed before him. "Hello. My name is Shiori Higa. May I ask when you will be leaving for Namako?"

Emmett waited until the back chatter died down. "Well, it's time, I suppose, to discuss the precise nature of our business. Fortunately, I've rented a back room, where we will not be overheard." He glanced at Sato. "I trust you can put a man on the door to discourage eavesdroppers?"

He was about to go on when a woman approached him. Turning to her, he replied, "soon. As soon as everything here is complete. We are looking to expand our group a little, but know that while it may be relatively safe travelling with us, getting caught up in... our business would not be wise. Besides that, if you have any valuable skills, I'd like to know them."

Shiori counted her blessings that this man was open to hearing her request. "Yes. My husband, Daichi, is a samurai who was sent to Namako, but it has been weeks now since I've had any correspondence. Any letter I have sent has never been answered. I fear something terrible may have happened to him. As his wife and guardian of his house, I must know of his whereabouts."

She reached into her robe and pulled out the dagger from her sleeves and the iron fan from her obi. Kneeling on the ground before him, she laid out the two weapons. "These are what he has trained me in. I have yet to use them, and it looks like you have plenty of warriors already. Perhaps you need someone to manage everyone's belongings or your budget?"

Managing their things for them? Managing their budget? Emmett could handle his own money, and he doubted a pack of total strangers were liable to let someone else handle their things, but still. He'd wanted inconspicuous, and this was the first step.

"I suppose we'll find a use for you," he said finally, giving Bashir a look that said he knew exactly the comment that had just occurred to the mercenary. "Now, as I was saying, the backroom. Let us discuss the nature of our journey."

Reiko looked at the drawing in her hands, her eyes widened as she instantly recognised the subject.

"Woooooooooooow, it's Emmett!" She smiled, remembering the man's words, she held it very gently. She turned to show Emmett, but he appeared to be busy. She handed the sketch back, "Can I show him later? You're coming with us aren't you?" She asked.

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"Now, as I was saying, the backroom. Let us discuss the nature of our journey."

Amaya tapped her pipe on the side of the tray provided, emptying the used tobacco. She quickly made sure the pipe was extinguished, before placing it back in her bag. She slowly stood and secured her katana back into her obi, resting her hand on the pommel, she waited for the others to follow Emmett into the back room.

"I trust you can put a man on the door to discourage eavesdroppers?"

"Certainly." Sato replied with a smile, and Akira nodded over his shoulder to one of the two guarding the front, who followed as the assembly made its way upstairs.

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"I suppose we'll find a use for you,"

"Only one? I can think of at least four." offered Bashir, grinning. Well, the whitey had just set that one up.

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"Let us discuss the nature of our journey."

"Splendid!" Nathan exclaimed, frankly relieved that the previous tension appeared to have abated without incident. He had been worried for a moment there that the pale, bald native had taken great offence to Nathan for some reason. Not for the first time, Nathan lamented whatever it was about him that seemed to make these warrior types so hostile; and as usual, such lamentations brought fourth memories of home, and his father, leaving a bitter taste in Nathan's mouth. What's more, the scarred, swarthy Arabic fellow seemed to Nathan like the sort of person who's laughs were just as dangerous than his rages, if not more so. Nathan had encountered such breeds of sell-sword once or twice on his travels, when they had taken him to some of the less savoury corners of the world, and they put the fear of God into him! He had learned, however, that showing said fear was the absolute worst thing you could do. Whatever kindness or pity existed in those men when they had started down their path, had long since been bled out of them over a hundred battles, and a thousand sackings, pillages and butcheries not worthy of the name. Fear only angered them, or excited them.

Luckily, this Smythe chap seemed a deal more tractable, although he had a coldness to him too, suggesting that it would take a lot more than words to prove Nathan's worth to him; which was unfortunate, as words were undoubtedly Nathan's strong point.

As the company made its way up the stairs, Nathan couldn't help but share the pale samurai's concerns about this plan. While Nathan knew he would have no place in whatever Shogun Sato's lot would rather be doing, Nathan had never seen such a ragged band of misfits in his life! He put their chances of reaching Namako without losing their heads, either because their purpose was discovered or just because a band of Yakuza fancied a bit of sport, at somewhere in the region of not very much. His course was set however. Namako was where he needed to be before the last of his coin ran out, and he dare not go alone. So, with that in mind, Nathan fell in step beside the flamboyant Italian who had been entertaining Mr. Smythes little girl (although she was certainly not his by birth, Nathan thought it best not to inquire, he'd already made enough of a fool of himself where that girl was concerned).

"Another noble scion of the Arts, I see. Pleased to meet you!" Nathan said, making conversation. As a polite gesture, Nathan spoke in flawless Italian. "My name is Nathan Winters, and yours?"

Emmett led the others into a cramped backroom, with a small table. Turning to face them, he waited until everyone was in the room and the door was closed. "As you know, we are heading to the city of Namako. I don't doubt that you have heard of the strife there. The city is under siege by several united Yakuza clans, who are recruiting mercenaries to bolster their numbers and assure victory when they assault the city. We, however, are to enter the city and receive orders directly from Shogun Pao. He will require our aid to bring an end to the siege and assure the safety of his people. Once the battle is concluded, he will reward you all handsomely. It will take roughly two weeks to reach the city, and until then we must work together to get by. Barring complications, paying for our expenses will not be an issue. However, I will tolerate no infighting," he glanced pointedly at Bashir when he said this. "No stealing from each other, either. It may be that we take on more travelers on our journey to complete our illusion of mundane purpose, and these same rules will apply to those others as well. Does anybody have any questions?"

Tao was herded into the backroom with the others. His face was plain and confused; with no idea of what was going on, or even if he had been invited into this meeting, he held his tongue while Emmett spoke. He had heard of trouble in Namako, but had never approached it politically; having never fought in his life, Tao didn't wish to become caught up in matters he was not equipped to deal with.

As Emmett finished speaking, Tao was bursting with questions. Why side with one over the other? What was his role in relation to the Shogun? Why was he recruiting here?

Instead of voicing them, he simply stayed quiet, hoping people either assumed he was meant to be here, or didn't even notice him. His hand clutched his staff tightly, showing the knuckles through the skin. Though nervous, Tao remained calm and still; watching the others for any questions.

The two stayed in blessed silence. Another woman playing Samurai, it made Akio feel a tinge uncomfortable. He didn't know how useful they'd be in combat. Jules simply made a fun silly faces at the little girl, kids were always better for conversation. They went along with the rest of the group to the backrooms without fuss, and listened to the old man talk about the job. Attacking the Yakuza camps sounded like work right up Akio's alley.

"No stealing from each other, either. It may be that we take on more travelers on our journey to complete our illusion of mundane purpose, and these same rules will apply to those others as well. Does anybody have any questions?"

Jules gave a half-hearted wave of his hand, clearing his throat.

"We ARE getting paid more when you bring in more, er, Bards, right? I can do a bit with my spear, but protecting a circus from a bunch of Yakuza isn't going to be easy." Akio nodded in agreement, he could play a minstrel pretty well but he couldn't truly defend them in that way. Or most any other way, he specialized in offense.

"Perhaps we should think about simply disguising our own troops? It's better than having actual, defenseless men in our ranks." the ninja suggested.

Bashir leered at Emmett when he glanced in his direction. Oh, he'd play nice for as long as was required, but in all honesty Bashir preferred a more straight-forward approach to keeping order. If somebody tries to take something that's yours, you but their hands off. If you can't do that, then you didn't deserve to keep whatever they wanted anyway.

"We ARE getting paid more when you bring in more, er, Bards, right? I can do a bit with my spear, but protecting a circus from a bunch of Yakuza isn't going to be easy."

Bashir raised his cup of Sake in agreement. before asking his own question.

"Do you have any names of mercs who've thrown in with the Yakuza?" he rasped. "I've ran with a fair few companies in my time, might be some of them owe me favours."

The inverse was also equally plausible, and even then it would be no easy task getting some of his old 'friends' to turn their cloaks when the odds currently seemed so weighted in their favour. Still, any opportunity was better than none.

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"Have you any further reports from Namako?" Sato asked quietly, after the sell-sword was done speaking. "It what numbers do our enemy encircle the city? How well organised are they? Who has supreme command of their forces?"

All were prudent questions, Akira thought. Many soldiers and commanders alike would be adamant that to starve your enemy into submission through a siege is far better than attempting to assault a fortified city like Namako. However, siege warfare held its own dangers. Bored troops become lazy, particularly the sort of dogs that they faced now; and arrogant commanders fail to maintain discipline. Furthermore, any large force encamped in one place for too long almost always fell victim to disease. If such malignancies were to fall upon the army outside Namako, then even a force of thousands could become vulnerable.

Emilio couldn't contain a wide smile when the little girl got excited over the sketch. Ah, such a fine eye for art at such a young age...

"Woooooooooooow, it's Emmett!" He paused for a moment when she turned to show off the sketch. There he was, sitting among a crowd of warriors. And this little girl knows this man? This had to be divine intervention! "Can I show him later? You're coming with us aren't you?"

"Show...him? Where are you going, little bambina?"

Just then, another gentleman approached. And he spoke Italian. "Another noble scion of the Arts, I see. Pleased to meet you! My name is Nathan Winters, and yours?"

"Meraviglioso! I am Emilio De Luca. Tell me, what is your craft?"

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"I suppose we'll find a use for you," the man said.

Shiori bowed to him. "Thank you very much, sir." She joined the group as they headed towards the back room, then listened intently to his mission. The strife in Namako was worse than she thought, if the Shogun was enlisting his own band of mercenaries to assist the samurai who have already been sent there. But something didn't quite add up. Samurai were always prepared to be sent out wherever they were needed, but not everyone here was trained for combat. Why risk bringing assistance from so far away, especially with bandits prowling the roads?

"Does anybody have any questions?"

Shiori raised her hand. "If I may, why is the Shogun requesting help all the way out here? Is there no assistance he could seek that's closer?"

"We ARE getting paid more when you bring in more, er, Bards, right? I can do a bit with my spear, but protecting a circus from a bunch of Yakuza isn't going to be easy."

"As I said before, I will cover your food, and perhaps the occasional inn for our journey. Your payment will come directly from the Shogun himself, and so that's for him to work out. Realize I'm merely the middleman in this exchange, but trust me when I say his coffers are doing fairly well. Shogun Pao is nothing if not a diligent spender, but he knows how to reward valor."

"Perhaps we should think about simply disguising our own troops? It's better than having actual, defenseless men in our ranks."

"Disguising ourselves would make us appear defenseless and invite trouble. Not to mention travelling parties at times like this aim to be as large as possible. Strength in numbers. These genuine merchants, artists and the like aid in that. You warriors will not be seen as out of place for protecting a caravan."

"I've ran with a fair few companies in my time, might be some of them owe me favours."

"A few. I'll run through the names with you later." Emmett nodded approvingly. That was why he'd decided to bear with the man, despite his unsavory appearance. "If any sufficiently skilled men do see fit to join us, provided we can ascertain their trust worthiness, that may be easier than you think. Recruiting mercenaries in droves, the Yakuza will be paying an affordable fixed rate. Recruiting smaller numbers and being quite wealthy, the Shogun can afford to be generous." That was as much for any potential dissenters as well as the idea of persuading warriors to turn cloaks.

"It what numbers do our enemy encircle the city? How well organised are they? Who has supreme command of their forces?"

Emmett sipped the beer he'd brought through before answering. "Very good questions. The reason Shogun Pao does not sweep these criminals away where they stand is because the combined Yakuza clans are nearly as large as Pao's standing army, which itself is the largest military force in the Empire. As I suspect you know, Sato, the Nobility, even those of a military persuasion, are not squeaky clean. Aiding forces would not seem to have arrived, and we suspect the Yakuza bribed key officials, perhaps even other Shoguns. And quite frankly, the emperor is... eccentric." He avoided saying completely insane. Who knew how patriotic some of these men might be?

"The Emperor grows wary of Pao's skill at dominating the field, and minds little if he is cut down to size some. More than that, he sees it as a test to see if his finest general is still worthy. As contrary as those two goals seem..."

Mujo spoke up for the first time in a while, but seemed to be speaking to himself. "The Emperor is mad..."

"Opinions, opinions," overrode Emmett. "In any case, the Yakuza's forces are being headed by Tjin Zao, also known as the Red Mist. A street name, for his practice of having those who cross him utterly eviscerated, but it's giving him some intimidation factor in the field."

And that also answered Shiori's question. Producing a tightly folded map from inside one of his endless pockets, Emmett spread it over the table.

"Now, as for our travel. From here, we head north east, to the town of Mimasa. From there, we follow the Jinsei river, and head through the Emerarudo Plains. From there, we reach the coast, where we will take ship, then when we dock, we head south, through various villages, and eventually to Namako itself. It's the route Reiko and I used to get here, and avoids the most war torn and crime infested areas. However, all that will inevitably spread, so I cannot guarantee our safety on the return journey. If that is everything, everyone should see to their belongings, as well as horses if you have them. I must see to my cart. We gather at the North Gate in twenty minutes."

"the Yakuza's forces are being headed by Tjin Zao, also known as the Red Mist. A street name, for his practice of having those who cross him utterly eviscerated, but it's giving him some intimidation factor in the field."

'A brutal man,' thought Akira 'but brutality alone does not make a battle commander.'

If they were lucky, the strength of the Yakuza clans would be combined in all but name, with the various bosses almost as busy squabbling with each-other over shares of plunder than they were with keeping Shogun Pao and his men penned up inside Namako. Obviously, this Tjin Zao couldn't be too confident in the capabilities of his allies, or else he would have attempted to storm the city by now. Even if one commander might keep his men alert and disciplined, another one down the line might not, and that could be all it took to shatter the entire host, such was what came of 'armies' that only banded together out of greed. Perhaps, however, that was too much to hope for, or else why would Pao need help? Even outnumbered, a surprise attack on a disorganised and divided foe would often deliver a swift and decisive victory.

Regardless, if the situation was so dire that Pao must call for aid, then Akira wasn't sure how much difference their ragged band could make. So little seemed certain. How many would join them on their journey? How many of them could be trusted? A thousand things might conspire that they might never reach Namako in the first place. Every cautious instinct Akira had developed protecting his lord told him that this was a terrible plan, all in the name of a Shogun and Emperor who had never answered their call of aid. Even so, after so many years, it felt good to be standing for something.

While it was true that the sound of shōgi pieces being moved was a pleasant one, the sight of yet another piece being taken from the komadai and placed on the shōgi-ban was not. Black was intent on dropping every piece White had captured, and that irritated Naisho to no end. First the drunk had insisted on being Black, which had forced Naisho to handicap himself in order to have the first turn so he could take the offensive. At least the game was nearing its end - his opponent's defenses had been shattered; it didn't matter how many pieces were brought back. Nevertheless, Naisho was quickly growing tired of the game, even though it was just something to occupy himself with while he watched the comings and goings. A bore was still a bore though, and the official had just spotted something definitely more interesting...

"Impasse: we draw." Naisho stated the drunk, who nodded and watched Naisho leave.

Naisho took his chance. After all, simply going up to Smythe in that environment, while the mercenaries and the like were crowding around him would not do. Official matters should be settled with a one-on-one conversation, preferably in a nice room with some tea. But, a little chat in the open air would do for the time being. He checked the little bag up his sleeve, everything was there. Regardless, the prospect of shadowing somebody it felt a little shady. The paranoid would probably suspect him of something or order, but Naisho would be happy to show them that he carried only bits of paper and brushes. Then again, would it be wise reveal the fact that you are unarmed to a stranger? With a faint smile, he started to stroll at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights of Lizou.

'Ah. But a strange assignment requires strange actions. Bold ones, even.' Naisho thought, answering his own question.

When it became apparent everyone had asked all they intended to, Emmett made his goodbyes, and, taking Reiko by the hand, left the backroom and headed towards the stables. As he passed through the common room, he thought a man with a chomage haircut gazed at him a little too long, but kept going. If the man did follow him, he'd find out soon enough. He let go of Reiko's hand and brought a knife down from inside a sleeve so that it was still hidden, the tip balanced on the heel of his hand and disguised the movement by timing it with his opening of the door to the streets outside.

With Reiko on his heels, he turned towards the stables by the inn, whistling one of the many flute songs he knew. Even by whistling, it had good sound with fluttering, complex rhythms. A couple of people even smiled appreciatively as he passed them by; the street outside the inn was quiet enough for the sound to carry.

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

Mujo watched the others leave, then turned towards those it appeared he would travel with. Giving them a slight bow, he said, "I believe I shall walk straight to the North Gate, as I have everything I own right here. Will anyone accompany me?"

"I believe I shall walk straight to the North Gate, as I have everything I own right here. Will anyone accompany me?"

"Our possessions are at the East Gate." Akira told the man, a little stiffly. "No doubt we will find you again on the road."

Even if they had been going the same way naturally, Akira still wouldn't have been comfortable allowing a stranger (and such a well-armed one at that) near Sato. The the others in this party had proven their mettle, he might permit them to come within arm's reach of his lord, if he deemed it wise, not before.

As he and Sato made their way downstairs, the rest of the men Akira had taken with him to the Inn melted in around them. They had served together for so long now, that often not even the most subtle of hand gestures were necessary to convey orders. Protecting Sato came to them all as naturally as breathing.

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

"I believe I shall walk straight to the North Gate, as I have everything I own right here. Will anyone accompany me?"

"Ah, what the hell." Bashir responded, clapping the guy on the back after the Shogun and his guard dog had left. "It's as good a direction as any." Perhaps Bashir would be able to steal a decent horse their, as he currently had none of his own, having lost his last one in an ill-placed bet on a night 3 weeks ago... or had it been the one 4 weeks ago?

The Jap looked like he could handle himself at least. The quiet, reserved type. Could mean he was dangerous, or it could just mean their wasn't much going on with him. Bashir guessed that he'd have to find out. In any case, the man might come in handy if any more Yakuza showed up, chasing their poxxy coin.

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

Nathan had listened intently through the meeting, in silence. He'd said his piece downstairs, and any questions he had were certainly not of a tactical nature. He might have his own areas of expertise, but Nathan was no strategist. When the rest started to depart, Nathan gathered his things and approached the Italian painter again, havilng felt slightly guilty at their beginnings of a conversation having been cut short earlier, the man had also been the least threatening person Nathan had met all day, which was also a plus.

"Shall we depart?" he asked politely. "I have no belongings other than what's in here," he patted his briefcase "so if you need to alight anywhere else to collect your possessions then I will gladly accompany you."

Amaya disregarded the offers of companionship and made her way out of the inn. She proceeded to the North gate, walking at a leisurely pace. She presumed it would be an hour or two until they were ready to leave.

Amaya reached the square that was home to the Northern exit, a number of stalls were dotted around the area, selling various wares. The smell of cooking food filled her nostrils. She sighed and conceded that her stomach was less disciplined than herself. She sat on a stool of a ramen stand.

"What can I get you, young miss?", the elderly looking stall vendor asked. Amaya smiled "Save your honeyed words old man. I'll have a beef ramen please, light on the peppers." Amaya wasn't a huge fan of spicy food, but just enough heat was something she found agreeable. "Young by my standards, miss." The vendor smiled, as he began to prepare the dish.

No words were said as Amaya glanced around the market. Nobody from the inn had arrived yet, but she'd keep an eye out. She was curious as to who would take Smythe up on his offer.

"It's as good a direction as any."

Mujo had to keep himself from tensing as the man's hands brushed the shirasaya on his back. When he got outside, he paused a moment to get his bearings and then turned down the northwards street. Twenty minutes, Emmett had said. He hoped the others in the group had taken that in. He was eager to be off. Glancing at Bashir, he said, "I wonder how many of them actually have horses. I don't, and I doubt I'm the only one. Still, I've no idea if a lot of horses would make us a more intimidating target for bandits, or a more tempting one."

The shrill notes hung in the air, all the official had to do was follow the trail. Naisho silently thanked the gentleman for both making his job a lot easier and for the music. Though, the melody didn't sound like anything he knew. Naisho simply assumed that it was a European piece. He would have preferred something Japanese, of course. But, at least it wasn't another song about cherry blossoms; the official had his fill of those. Little Yua made sure of that. Regardless, Naisho followed the trail of song, and in turn, Mr. Smythe and his little companion. That was the easy part, nothing as simple as walking. Just one step in front of the other: left, right, left, right, hidari, migi, hidari, migi... Then again, Naisho had spent most of his life dealing with people. Even the difficult kind.

He changed his lax pace to a steady stroll. Though, the man wasn't particularly in a hurry. It was just enough to catch up to Mr.Emmett Smythe and the little girl who was whistling. And there Naisho was, standing next the man himself. The official gave a polite bow - both to the gentlemen and to the girl - and stated his business, "Excuse me and good day to you both; I am an official in need of an escort to Namako, with it being besieged and all and with how dangerous the roads are these days. I have have you have recruited some individuals of a martial nature and are travelling to Namako." Naisho then bowed again and clasped his hands together, "I sincerely request permission to travel with you and in return, I can provide you with my services."

Tao watched as the quiet warrior and the loud Arab left, shrugging and deciding to follow. Never one to shy from adventure, he stomached the unease he felt. Still, the leader has spoken of requiring non-combatants to complete the disguise, and Tao certainly did not look like a fighter. Does that make me an easy target? Would I even be protected? Again, pushing the thoughts aside, he caught up with the two as they headed north, overhearing talk of stables. His staff clacked as he tried their attention from behind.

"I certainly don't own a horse, but am happy to walk. I have walked many miles. Where do you two travel from?"

The others had begun to talk freely in the backroom, and Tao hoped to make at least acquaintances, lest he be a non-entity. The Arab particularly interested him; never had he met someone with such reckless abandon.

Reiko skipped on Emmett's heel, trying to whistle herself, but failing miserably. She had been practising, but she couldn't so much as make a sound. She pouted.

"Excuse me and good day to you both; I am an official in need of an escort to Namako, with it being besieged and all and with how dangerous the roads are these days. I have have you have recruited some individuals of a martial nature and are travelling to Namako. I sincerely request permission to travel with you and in return, I can provide you with my services."

Reiko looked at the stranger. He had a friendly face. As he bowed, Reiko stood behind Emmett's leg, grasping it slightly. She bowed her head slightly in response, looking up at Emmett.

After a while, Emmett stopped whistling, and smiled to himself as Reiko attempted to imitate it. She was interrupted however, by a voice. Someone vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place him.

"Excuse me and good day to you both; I am an official in need of an escort to Namako, with it being besieged and all and with how dangerous the roads are these days. I have have you have recruited some individuals of a martial nature and are travelling to Namako. I sincerely request permission to travel with you and in return, I can provide you with my services."

Emmett stroked his moustache thoughtfully. "And what services would those be?" While he waited for the man's answer, he carried on walking, heading into the stables, where a horse drawn cart painted in a flaking red was contained. Moving to a couple of the stalls, he led out his two horses, and began attaching them to the cart. Then he walked around to the cart's back and moved some of the thickly piled hay to reveal his bags. All of them were still there, and were undisturbed, so he piled the hay back on top, concealing them once more.

"Where do you two travel from?"

"A long way away, friend." Bashir replied, plainly not interested in delving into his cultural heritage. Unless Emmett Smythe still knew something the rest of them didn't, then about half their party would most likely be dead by the time they got to Namako. Bashir didn't intend to be one of them, and neither was he going to waste time making friends with people on the fist day who could be in the ground on the second. Still, he took the opportunity to glance back at their tail, sizing the man up. Guy looked to be some kind of monk or something (Bashir hadn't exactly been paying much attention to the local customs, except where drinking and cunts were involved). Although, he'd heard that some of the Holy Men in this part of the world could be pretty deadly in their own right. They never attacked first though, apparently, which seemed stupid to Bashir. You know a man wants to stick you, you stick him first. You don't wait for the knife to come out. In the end, nobody remembers who started the fight, only who was still standing at the end of it.

He decided that he's let the man tag along for now. Time would tell if he would be of some use, or would only be a dead weight.

As they headed in the direction of the stables nearest to the North Gate, Bashir addressed his other companion.

"I could give a Sow's left tit what the bandits think! I'm not fucking walking all the way to Namako."

"And what services would those be?"

So, he would have to sell himself? Naisho was pretty amused by that, but explaining things to foreigners was tiresome. The man could just assume, after all. Then again, did the European want a concise list of what the official could do? Well, it was just a simple request... Naisho cursed himself, he was getting impatient and impatience usually led to sloppiness. More of a smile flicked on his face and was covered by a neutral mask; as long as Smythe was being cooperative, there was no reason to frown. If the man wanted to know what he could do, the official would gladly tell him. Hence, Naisho did.

"Unfortunately, my post only grants me power over cereal storehouses. Nevertheless, my services include accounting, letter-writing book-keeping and all manner of paperwork. I can lend my assistance in bureaucratic matters and am willing to perform unskilled manual labour. Make no mistake, I will earn my keep; if you allow me to join you on your travels."

"Unfortunately, my post only grants me power over cereal storehouses. Nevertheless, my services include accounting, letter-writing book-keeping and all manner of paperwork. I can lend my assistance in bureaucratic matters and am willing to perform unskilled manual labour. Make no mistake, I will earn my keep; if you allow me to join you on your travels."

Well, Emmett had asked for more people to make the group less conspicuous. "You make a decent enough case, I suppose. We'll be leaving by the North Gate in around twenty minutes. Make your own way there, or ride in my cart. Either way." Climbing up and taking the reigns, he pulled Reiko up next to him by the hand, and waited for the man's decision.

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

"I could give a Sow's left tit what the bandits think! I'm not fucking walking all the way to Namako."

"And yet you don't have a horse," replied Mujo mildly. "I suppose one will turn up. Personally, I've walked nearly everywhere I've been. I quite like it."

"I have no belongings other than what's in here, so if you need to alight anywhere else to collect your possessions then I will gladly accompany you."

Emilio thought back to his studio. He could get by with the paper he was already carrying, and maybe he could scrounge up some wood while on the road. But he would need his paints and tools.

"I appreciate it, signore. I will need to gather my paints. My studio's not far from here," he said, pointing the way.

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