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"That's mine, b.a.s.t.a.r.d," she hissed.
Piotr offered what she a.s.sumed was an abridged translation. Danyk drew the katana, soft music of folded steel ringing against the backdrop of the storm. He tilted the blade, watched the light rippling across the polished face. With a grunt of admiration, he looked down at Yukiko.
"Spy," he said.
"No." Yukiko grit her teeth. "I am not a spy."
Danyk lowered the blade by inches, until it was level with Yukiko's throat. She swallowed her rising fear, forced away the pain at the base of her skull, the pounding of the world just outside her head. She met the gaijin's stare. Unblinking. Unafraid.
Danyk spoke to Piotr, a sharp mouthful tinged with command.
"What soul you pledge to?" Piotr said.
"Soul?" Yukiko shook her throbbing head, eyes still on Danyk. "What the h.e.l.ls are you talking about?"
"Name." The man slapped his right shoulder. "Name!"
"I told you, my name is Yukiko!"
Danyk growled deep in his chest, muttered a word. Piotr reached out and took hold of Yukiko's collar, still damp with seawater.
"Sorry," he said, meeting her eyes. "Sorry you."
The gaijin jerked her uwagi back and down, exposing her shoulders and b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Yukiko's words became a shriek of outrage, bucking on the bed, blood flooding her cheeks as she swore and spit and thrashed in impotent fury, that beautiful, wonderful rage returning with a vengeance. Veins standing out like cable in her neck, restraints cutting into her flesh as she cursed them for cowards, screaming, snarling, vowing if they came near her, she'd kick in their heads, gouge out their eyes, tear their throats apart with her teeth.
Katya caught her breath, mismatched eyes turning deathly cold as she stared at Yukiko's tattoo. Without a sound, she turned and stalked from the room. The boy, Ilyitch, lowered his gaze to the floor, cheeks flushing at her nakedness. Piotr looked to his leader, but his eyes kept drifting back to Yukiko's body.
Danyk lowered the katana until it touched Yukiko's skin. She ceased her struggles, breath hissing through spit-slick teeth, eyes narrowed in defiance. Bringing the razored edge to rest against her throat, he ran it down her naked shoulder, over the beautiful clan tattoo curling around her right arm. The Nine-Tailed Fox she'd not had the heart to ask Daichi to burn away. All she had left of the family she'd lost. The person she'd been. Danyk spoke to Piotr and the man stood, limped from the room. With an apologetic glance, the blond boy followed.
The big gaijin spoke then, ice-blue glare fixed on her ink. Words mangled by his thick accent, cold and hard; an accusation so full of hatred that it fairly dripped upon the floor.
"Keetsoonay," he growled. "Sahmoorayee."
Yukiko found herself terrified, acutely aware of her naked skin, burning under the gaijin's stare. They were the only two in the room now, her wrists and feet still bound, a thousand miles from home, no Buruu, no Kin, no one to help her at all ...
She narrowed her stare, feeling the Kenning build up inside her, pain crackling across her skull. Remembering Yoritomo collapsing in the Market Square, blood spilling from his eyes. But would she be strong enough without her father helping her? Could she hurt this man before he- Danyk scowled, muttered something indecipherable, sheathed her katana at his waist. And stalking to the door, he slammed it shut behind him, leaving her utterly alone.
Breathing deep, heart pounding, mouth dry as dust.
Yukiko closed her eyes, face upturned to the ceiling.
Thank the G.o.ds ...
The forest-sweet scent of peppermint and cedar, warmth filling him, skin tingling. A wisp-faint breeze slipping through the hole in the floorboards, the cedar bough twisting through the ceiling, as much a part of the furniture as the fire pit. The low rumble of autumn storms outside wooden shutters, fire curling over blackened logs, smoke upon tongue's tip. Kin breathed deep, savored the taste, understanding why Daichi was spending so much time indoors lately.
It is quiet here. Inside and out.
He pressed his forehead to the matting, waited for the old man to speak.
"Kin-san." Daichi's voice was dry as the bottom of an alcoholic's bottle. "Welcome."
Kin lifted his head, sat on his heels. "Do you know you're one of the only people in this village who calls me that?"
"Surely no surprise dwells in that house for either of us."
"No surprise. Disappointment perhaps."
A sip of tea.
"Kin-san, you do not honestly believe children's toys and a few semi-functional shuriken-throwers will win their favor?"
"Semi-functional?" Kin tried to keep the hurt feelings from his voice. "The line is fully operational, Daichi-sama. Pressure issues are all resolved, stress testing is complete. I've arranged for a demonstration tomorrow. In front of the entire village."
"Even if these trinkets work, will it make people forget who you were? What you were?"
"Everyone here was someone else once. Why not me?"
"Why not indeed."
Kin sighed, chewed his lip. The old man took another slow sip of tea, eyes never leaving the boy's.
"Do you play?" Daichi asked.
Daichi nodded to the chessboard on the table. It was a marvelous set, obsidian and jade, each figure carved in intricate detail. The dark pieces were Yomi horrors; hungry dead and bone dragons and oni, led by Enma- and Lady Izanami upon thrones of skulls. The light pieces were the likenesses of heavenly celestials; Raijin and his drums, Susano- and his Gra.s.scutter Sword, Amaterasu the Sun G.o.ddess and Tsukiyomi the Moon Father. The Emperor, of course, was Lord Izanagi, the Maker G.o.d. The board was stained oak and pine, tiles inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The seal of a Phoenix artisan was embossed in one corner.
"It's beautiful," Kin said.
"One of the few pieces of my old life I carried with me." Daichi's voice was somber. "That, my swords, my daughter, and my regrets."
"You were Iron Samurai once."
"To my everlasting shame," Daichi sighed. "Though we may shed our skins, the stains of our pasts dwell as deep as our bones."
Kin stared at the board, saying nothing.
"So," Daichi said. "Do you play?"
"I play. Although I'm not very good."
"Much can be learned by defeat." Daichi knelt by the board, tea in hand, gestured to the other side. "Sometimes there is no finer sensei under heaven than a boot to the throat."
Kin stood and took his place opposite the old man. He noticed Daichi had opted to play the dark side, which surprised him more than a little. Jade moved first, and Kin made a standard foray with his p.a.w.n. Daichi followed immediately, calloused fingers on black gla.s.s. He moved without hesitation or flourish, stone-steady; the hand of a sword-saint. No trace of age or frailty in his motion, even if the same could not be said of his flesh.
They played without speaking, soundless save for the crackling spit of cedar logs, the hymn of fading autumn. Whenever Kin glanced up, Daichi was watching the board, intent solely on the game. Kin considered each step, shifting into gradual attack. Daichi would clear his throat and sip his tea, then move with seemingly little thought, but Kin soon realized the old man was a masterful player. His first attack was repelled, the second ended with a crushing loss, and Daichi's riposte finished with Lord Izanagi threatened on three facings.
Kin laid the Maker G.o.d on his side.
"You do not commit." Daichi poured himself more tea from a charred pot by the fire. "You defend and attack, at odds even with yourself."
Kin shrugged. "My style, I suppose."
The old man picked up Kin's empress, sitting untouched on the rear line. "You hold on to her like she will save you."
"She's the strongest piece on the board."
"She is worthless unless you use her, Kin-san."
"Losing her means losing the game."
"Folly. One piece matters, and one only." He tapped his Emperor upon the head. "All else is fodder."
"You can't win the game with only an Emperor."
"He and a single p.a.w.n are enough, if you strip your opponent of all he possesses. It is worth losing almost everything if you leave the enemy with nothing at all."
"Victory at any cost?"
"The stakes demand conviction. There is no prize for second in this game."
"You just said defeat could be a great teacher."
"I did." Daichi winced as he cleared his throat. "But there comes a time when the cost of losing is too high. When all must be risked for victory."
The old man was seized by a coughing fit, a long wracking spasm, stifled with another mouthful of tea. He regained his breath, hawked a mouthful of spit to sizzle in the fire. When he wiped his hand across his lips, Kin's heart lurched about his insides, cold dread stilling his belly.
A black stain glistened on Daichi's knuckles.
"Oh, no..." Kin said.
Daichi stared at the smear for a long moment, steady hands, measured breath.
"And there comes a time when there is no time left at all," he murmured.
"... You have blacklung."
"A fitting end," Daichi shrugged. "There are few more deserving."
"How long have you known?"
"Not long." The old man sniffed. "Long enough."
"I'm so sorry, Daichi..."
"Do not be." He rubbed the burn scars on his arms. "It is a fate well earned."
"Does Kaori know?"
"She does not." The old man glared. "And she will not learn it from you either."
"You don't think she's going to find out eventually?"
"In time." A shrug. "All things become clear as Iishi rain in time."
Kin ran his palm through the short hair on his scalp, across the back of his neck. He felt sick, stomach in oily knots, thinking about the fate awaiting Daichi down the road. Not a warrior's end. Not a hero's. He pictured the blacklung beggars in Kigen's gutters; wretches coughing their insides out, trembling hands filled with dark, b.l.o.o.d.y mouthfuls.
He knew the things Daichi had done, the murder that stained his hands-the Daiyakawa peasants, Yukiko's own pregnant mother. But n.o.body deserved to die like that.
Daichi took another sip of tea.
"You did not come here to play chess."
Kin blinked. "No, I didn't. I want you to release Ayane from her cage."
"The lotusgirl has done nothing to inspire our faith. Freeing her would be unwise."
"If you're worried about her, why not release into my care? I guarantee-"
"There are few amongst us who hold faith in you either, Kin-san."
"But do you?"
The old man wiped blackened knuckles on his hakama. "A little more each day."
"Then wouldn't you feel better knowing I was watching her full time?"
"Why, would you?"
They looked at each other across the ruins of Kin's forces. Brick-heavy silence, firelight flickering in double crescents across Daichi's eyes.
Kin heard soft footsteps on the landing, creaking floorboards. A quiet knock, the door peeling open to admit muted daylight, still painfully bright after so long in the gloom. Kaori stepped into the room with whisper-light feet, fringe swept back under the goggles perched upon her head. Her scar gleamed angry red on teak-stain skin.
"Father, Ryusaki sends word. They are near Jukai prov-"