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Jubei stared at Hikyaku, the Shogun's royal messenger in disbelief.
Kusaru swore again and smashed her balled fist into her open palm in fury.
"Bastard! If that lying snake Nozomi had kept his end of the deal…oh, how I wish he were still alive so I could see the look in his eyes as I kill him all over again!"
Zhang and Zhishu, brother and sister, and the only two Lin Kuei ninja remaining of the original six that had been under Kusaru's command, warily watched her march back and forth across the earthen floor of the small house they had taken up temporary residence in.
"I think we should just return to China, Kusaru." Zhishu murmured at last, "The whole country will be up in arms now, we'll never get the fee Nozomi was going to pay us. We'll be lucky enough to even get out of the country alive."
"Are you insane?" Kusaru spat, whirling to confront Zhishu, "The Masters will understand that we were betrayed and the deaths of Shin, Ghenz, Lo-batz, and Gen-fu were unavoidable, but they will not be very understanding at all if we don't exact retribution and acquire the money we are owed. Better to slit our throats now than return empty-handed."
"She's right, Zhishu!" Zhang nodded reluctantly, "Failure is unacceptable. We've got to find a way to get that money, and fast, or our lives won't be worth spit when, and if, we return to the Kuei."
Kusaru sighed, composing herself, "Fortunately, we still have some leverage to work with." She gestured to Lady Nozomi, still tied and gagged in the corner. Kusaru was very glad that she had decided that they would not eliminate the woman until they had been paid in full. As a direct robbery on the Nozomi house was unlikely to succeed now that the entire city was on the alert, Lady Nozomi's ransom was probably the last and only chance they had at getting the money they so desperately needed. Kusaru just hoped there was still somebody left, Kaori's children most likely, that considered her worth the amount they wanted…
"Aye." Zhang agreed, "Thank the gods for that; we may yet come out of this all right. Zhishu, take heart."
Kusaru crossed the room and crouched down opposite the bound woman. It pleased Kusaru to see the fear and tears in her eyes, but still, she pitied her. Nozomi Kaori had been a good wife and mother to her late husband, if what little Kusaru knew about her was true, and just look how the wretch had repaid her…
"So strange, neh? Your husband hires us to make you disappear, but instead, he ends up dead himself and his little "kidnapping" farce becomes a reality… Don't cry, Kaori-san, if all goes well, you can go back to the safe little illusion you call life." Kusaru paused, and continued, "I really did you a favor by killing him, didn't I? Maybe if we let you go, you'd just give us that money out of gratitude and the kindness of your heart, neh?"
Zhang and Zhishu laughed loudly at this, and even Kusaru, who rarely smiled, grinned a bit.
But Nozomi Kaori did not laugh; she only closed her eyes as another hot tear slid down her cheek.
"Four Lin Kuei…four Lin Kuei…" Sogetsu murmured to himself, rubbing his strong chin thoughtfully, "A pity some more of the devils didn't get slaughtered, eh Kazuki? And it was such a waste for us to come all this way and not even get to fight one of them, no? Hell, we didn't even get to see one up close… We should have marched right up to old Tokugawa himself in his palace and asked him if maybe we couldn't have the leftover pieces to bring home as souvenirs!"
"Huh? Oh. Actually, I really don't want to talk about it, Sogetsu." Kazuki replied irritably. Normally Sogetsu didn't talk much, but when it came to killing, his older brother talked plenty. Kazuki looked out over the cold, blue water of the lake, on the other side, he could see the lights of the forest lair of the Kazama clan beckoning them. If not for Sogetsu's unpleasant company, he might have actually been able to enjoy the sights, feelings, and smells of the boat ride…
"Hush, you two." Hazuki chided, attempting to defuse the argument before it began, "It's done and over with."
"Our battle with the Kuei won't be over with till everyone of them lies dead at our feet, dear sister, and don't forget it!" Sogetsu retorted, grinning, "If the Elders would let me, I'd set sail for China myself and attack the snakes where they nest! We ought to kill every last one of them, I say, men, women, children, elders, and invalids alike!"
"And your head would likely come back to us in a pretty box if you were actually stupid enough to try it, dear brother…" Kazuki muttered darkly, "Although I imagine they'd give it the haircut it sorely needs first."
Sogetsu laughed again, a dangerous ring to it this time. Many Kazama had remarked that if not for their sister, Hazuki, Sogetsu and Kazuki would have killed each other a long time ago - tonight, more than ever, Kazuki wondered if that might not be true.
"You're a coward, Kazuki. You always were; you always will be. You may have Kazama blood, but you'll never be a real Kazama. If you had to fight the Kuei, you'd probably die of fright…or worse, join their ranks! You'd fit right in with that big, yellow stripe running down your back…"
"Sogetsu!" Hazuki warned.
"A coward, am I?" Kazuki growled, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword as he stood, rocking the boat, "Perhaps you'd like to test that theory, brother."
"Stop! Both of you! This is madness!" Hazuki cried, putting herself in between Kazuki and Sogetsu, who had also risen to his feet and gripped the hilt of his sword menacingly. As the two brothers stood each other down, neither daring to blink, the boat rocked even more violently, and for a moment, Kazuki was sure it would topple all of them into the lake.
Hazuki turned her head back and forth between them, eyes pleading, "Stop, please! You're both Kazama, and you're brothers. Brothers, dammit! Sogetsu! Kazuki! Listen to me! I hate when you two fight like this! What would mother and father say?"
Insults and challenges burned to be released from both brothers' lips, but neither voiced them. Slowly, and reluctantly, they both sat down again, glaring at each other darkly from opposite ends of the boat.
Hazuki sat silently between them, fresh tears coursing down her smooth cheeks. She had stopped them from tearing each other to shreds this time, but there would be another confrontation, and another, and a day would come when she wouldn't be able to make them see reason, or worse, when she wouldn't be there to step in between them, and then what?
"Oh, Sogetsu…oh, Kazuki…"
"The funeral will be held the day after tomorrow, eh, Yoshio-san?"
Yoshio focused his blurry eyes on the boxlike head of his friend, Bado, who was pouring another round for the two of them.
"Ee. Although I'm wondering if maybe we shouldn't make it a double funeral, good friend." Yoshio replied sadly, "Minto and Hana are convinced that mother is dead, just like father - I don't want to give up hope, but I'm beginning to fear they may be right…"
"Bah! Don't give up yet, Yoshio!" Bado exclaimed, spilling half his drink on himself as he shook his cup at Yoshio, "You know as well as I that all those heartless wretches you call brother and sister really want is to help themselves to whatever their greedy fingers can latch onto! You're the eldest, and what you say goes, dammit! Don't cave in to them, Yoshio, I know you've got a lot on your shoulders, but you have to be strong, especially when it comes to those two."
Yoshio knew Bado was right, but he couldn't shake the feeling of despair that had overtaken him. If the kidnappers had wanted a ransom, they would surely have made their demands clear by now. He had to wonder if his mother's disappearance had only been a ploy by the ninja to pull attention away from their true target, his father.
"Bado, you know I…"
Yoshio's sentence was cut short as a throwing dagger slammed into the floor between the two men with a hollow thud. Both leapt to their feet in dismay, drinks spilling, as they looked about the room frantically in fear for the attacker.
"Who's there?" Bado growled, pulling loose a long knife from his belt.
Yoshio was unarmed and he stood close to Bado, every nerve in his body on fire and his heart pounding in his chest. Had the ninja come for him as well?
They stood like that for a long time, a few minutes or more, both of their bodies tense and waiting for another attack, but it never came. At length, Bado finally began to poke about the room, looking for the assailant in the shadows; satisfied that they were alone, he moved to go outside.
"Bado! Where are you going?" Yoshio hissed.
"To alert the night guards and have a look about to see if whoever it was is still skulking about, I won't be gone long."
"I'm coming with you!"
Five minutes later, Bado's house was crawling with samurai, poking and prodding everything and asking the same questions twenty times over.
"I already told you!" Bado scowled at their commander, Tanaka, "We didn't see anyone and…Hey! You're going to break that!" Bado rushed across the room to keep one of Tanaka's men from dropping and destroying his favorite art piece, a naked geisha figurine.
Tanaka scowled after the man, he and Bado had not gotten off on the right foot. "Nozomi-san, I believe it would be prudent if you were to stay in Tokugawa's palace until we are able to ferret out the last of these ninja killers. I will send for your younger brother and sister as well."
Yoshio shook his head in vigorous agreement, "Hai. That's a good idea, Tanaka-san!"
"I'm afraid I disagree."
Everyone is the room turned to view the speaker, Yaggyu Jubei. The old one-eyed demon was standing apart from everyone else, surveying the proceedings, and he had the ransom note that had been attached to the dagger clutched tightly in one hand. Yoshio had heard many wild stories about Jubei's bravery and crazy exploits ever since he was a child, and he was both awed and afraid to be in his actual presence.
"These ninja want their ransom, and they're going to get it…tonight." Jubei paused, a broad and almost sinister grin illuminating his face, "And you, Yoshio-san, are going to deliver it to the pre-described rendezvous point personally!"
"You." Jubei nodded with a slight bow of his head, "Tanaka! Take five men to House Nozomi and get the ransom the ninja demand, not a penny more, not a penny less, and be quick about it!"
"Hai, Yaggyu-san!" Tanaka and five samurai immediately marched out Bado's front door to do as Jubei commanded.
"Rest assured, Yoshio-san," Jubei continued, "By daybreak, your mother shall be safe and by your side again, the ransom money will be back where it belongs, and these ninja criminals will be no more…"