The Gozoku
Chapter Thirty-One: Azure Skies

"Responsive attack is the key."
- Kakita's "Ken"


The wind was warm in the foothills of the mountains, passing calmly alongside the stones and the trees. Above Katai, the bamboo sighed softly in the morning's diffused sunlight, their great forms swaying as the ronin rested and watched the nearby road.

Ten years had passed by so quickly, with Katai's gaze fixed on the road.

When the small samurai-ko thought about things like that it bothered her; she thought of Mochiko, sitting in her hidden home in the forest, still pained by her life as the assassin, still haunted by all the deaths that she believed should have been her own. Katai did not really understand everything that had passed between her boss and those that had died for her…

For Katai, it seemed enough that Mochiko had survived at all.

Nowadays the band did little; a raid here and there against caravans or border-holds, but no one doubted that they had not been effective for some time. As things stood, Katai knew it was a testament to the group's loyalty that they still lingered, serving in the hills that divided the Crane and Lion lands. She knew that she was not a leader, and that they did not stay for her at all.

How can you not fight, Mochiko? she asked the silence of the forest, listening to the stillness until it revealed something new.

Katai's hand went to her yumi with one motion, a signal glimpse of color bringing introspection to an end.

* * *

It was unusual to see a Crane walking alone through these lonely lands even in the sunlight, and yet Katai saw no hesitation as she paralleled the slender form. Striding calmly along the mountain path the figure's face was hidden behind long brown bangs, an intricate braid swishing past a pair of narrow swords.

No other weapons, and no armor, Katai analyzed as she slipped to the next hiding place. She watched the Crane's oblivious gait, then risked a whisper. "This is less a threat and more a fool."

After a few moments the traveler had tread deep enough that Katai was no longer a solitary figure; the ronin's eyes recognized familiar shadows, sliding towards the blue form from all sides. As she crouched and watched the stranger fill a flask with spring water one of them slipped up to her, his eyes still wary as the two of them lay hidden behind a copse of trees.

"What are you thinking?" the bigger man asked softly, his own hands sliding over a worn and tattered sword. She recognized Utemaro immediately, glancing over at the former Crab as he continued with a sour grin. "She doesn't look very dangerous…"

"Mind yourself," Katai replied coldly. "She carries the two swords."

Utemaro nodded, serious for a moment as the two of them watched the Crane start up the path again. "If she keeps walking like that," the man whispered, "she may walk herself right out of the forest…"

"It is close to the hut, Utemaro…too close for us to hope that this is chance. We cannot risk it. Drive her off, back the way she came."

"That's just as well," he answered lewdly. "It's been a while since I've known a Crane girl."

Katai's glance was venom, but the bigger ronin just chuckled in the face of the former Akodo. "Don't worry, I'll be gentle; she doesn't look like much to me." With that, Utemaro sprang up and vanished quickly, leaving Katai to fume among the trees.

* * *

The important part of an ambush was the first few moments; it was there that the attackers proved their supremacy to their victims and hopefully quieted any brazen dreams of resistance or flight. Hiruma Utemaro knew enough of such methods to make his first move the strongest; the quiet forest erupted in a roar of movement and might.

Three arrows drove into the ground just ahead of the Crane bushi, freezing the auburn-haired figure in mid-step even as a dozen ronin appeared to flank her on either side. Utemaro himself strode forward with his coldest expression, making certain to rest his left hand on his plain, tough battle sword.

"Hey!" he barked at the Crane loudly, watching his men with a grin. "You are a long way from home, Doji-chan! What are you doing here?"

She said nothing, but he noticed that her hands were lowered to either side of her body, and that she had done nothing to reach for her sword, or even raise her face. "I can see that you understand the situation," Utemaro said gruffly. "Don't worry; we just want to have a little fun…"

He started towards the small, frail-looking Crane with a smirk. "Consider this a 'tax' for traveling the road. If you like it, you can always come back…"

From the left a yumi's string snapped in dissention, an arrow freezing the big ronin in his tracks as it cut the previous three shots into broken shards. Utemaro glanced to his left to glare at a slender samurai-ko dressed in brown, her long hair tossed over one shoulder for the shot. "Katai, damn it…"

"Shut up, Utemaro," she interrupted coolly. "You haven't been stuck in the forest long enough to act like such a fool."

The Crane laughed at his insulted expression, and the former Crab whirled on the small blue figure with a sneer that drew upon all his considerable might. "You find something funny, girl?"

"Many things," the bushi said softly, the voice deeper than Utemaro would have expected it, if only by a single tone. The face rose, revealing a pretty, slender face complete with a pair of large, brilliant green eyes. "But I suppose we should start with the first."

"A boy?" Utemaro asked in disbelief, giving the slender Crane the only opening he would need.

A single stroke through the forest into chaos, as blood scattered across the floor…

* * *

"Strike again and you die, Crane!" Katai screamed as loudly as she could over the rush of combat, her bow groaning as she leveled it, freezing the swordsman in his tracks, but not before he had slashed through Utemaro and taken down the man to his right. The samurai-ko's eyes narrowed…but in those large eyes there was only a deep and quiet calm.

"He deserved nothing better," the slender boy said simply, as if paying her threat little mind. "It was a disgusting suggestion, even if I were a girl…"

Katai hissed at the arrogant calm of her opponent, making certain to maintain her aim on the center of his slight body. Draped in a loose blue kimono it was difficult to judge the young man's body accurately; he smiled and whirled his long braid around his neck loosely, clearing it, obviously, in anticipation of a continued fight.

"Utemaro was one of my men, nonetheless," she snapped at the warrior. "I have seen many swordsmen, Crane. You did not need to kill him. You could have defended yourself, could have driven them away."

"My way was quicker and easier than all that," he replied casually, glancing past the dead to where the remaining men watched with nervous eyes. "They will mind their manners now, when a real Crane girl walks 'their' roads."

"Damn Crane…" she hissed, her fingers ready to loose.

"Aim for the heart," he interrupted, fixing upon her with those beautiful, shining eyes. Katai froze, but the young man just smiled politely, almost unnoticeably turning the edge of his long sword.


"Aim for the heart," he repeated slowly and forcefully, still maintaining the innocent eyes of a youngster at play. "I will kill you before you shoot another arrow, ronin. So aim for the heart, if you want to survive to the end of the day."

Beneath the blue sky Katai nodded curtly, her tanned face wrinkling as she took aim. "Give me your name," she demanded.

His face became that serious calm it had been a moment ago. "Doji Usan, son of Doji Tashimi, student of the Kakita Academy and the Dojo of Falling Rain. You?"


"I will remember your name, Katai. Now begin," he demanded with a nod.

The two of them did not trust to luck or speed and lunge forward, but instead they hung back, locked in silence, both weighing the distance and the path. As she watched him, Katai found her mind settling on the calm and strangely uncaring samurai just before her bow. Despite his thin, feminine form the boy was a swordsman, skilled enough to kill two experienced samurai in the blink of an eye. And yet, the way he held his blade and looked at her…

A child, Katai realized as she stared at the emerald gaze that reflected her. Both innocent and cruel…

Those eyes shifted, sliding to the right. Katai followed them with a gasp.


* * *

Ten years had done many things to Mochiko; her body ached in constant reminders of old battles, and beneath the red dye there were streaks of grey threading through her coarse hair. But as the samurai-ko strode forward there was no denying one thing; that age had done nothing to diminish her savage, unyielding gaze. A battered old pipe hung loosely between her lips as she came forward, one hand tucked into her brown kimono and the other resting calmly on her sword.

She had been beaten once, but she showed no sign of it today.

No words passed between the two of them; Mochiko did not even give Katai a single glance nor did she let her eyes drift to the dead. She simply strode forward, placing herself before the slender Doji, and took a stance.

Usan seemed uncertain, even when Katai lowered her bow. He regarded the newcomer with quiet interest, not seeming to understand the hatred burning beneath those long bangs of dark hair.

"Fight," Mochiko demanded curtly, surprising both her supporters and the Crane with the fury in her voice. Usan simply nodded to the ronin's request and cleaned the edge of his katana, sheathing it quickly and extending an upturned hand in the Kakita form.

"Doji Usan," he repeated to this new enemy, the boy's calm buffeted by the edges of the older bushi's rage.

Her answer was a flashing sword.

A New Enemy…