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"So…the Lin Kuei were destroyed, yes?" The Elder, Kazama Bakura, Kazuki, Sogetsu, and Hazuki's grandfather, glowered at all eighteen of them from underneath his wrinkled brow with his dark, sunken eyes. There was a sense of great tension in the small, earthen, candlelit room, they had failed the Elder somehow, but they weren't sure how or why. Although the night air was cool, perspiration dotted Kazuki's forehead and neck.
"Bado!" Yoshio leaned over and hissed to his companion who rode beside him.
"Hai! What?" his friend whispered back. Bado's horse whinnied angrily and he swore at it, "Shut up, you!"
"What do think Yaggyu is up to, Bado-san? Surely, he doesn't mean to let the ninja actually lay hands on that ransom? But then, how will he stop them from doing just that once it's sailing down the River Bani in the dark? Mind you, I don't care about the money so long as we get my mother back, but I want to see those ninja suffer for what they've done! My father's death must be avenged!"
Bado frowned, casting his eyes forward to where Jubei was riding in the front of the procession, deep in conversation with Tanaka.
"He's got something up his sleeve for sure, Yoshio-san, but I'll be damned if I know what…"
They rode a bit farther, the full moon lighting their way, till they came to the crossroads. The River Bani lay to the East. To Yoshio's surprise, Jubei ordered Tanaka and his samurai to continue north, towards the forest, but then, they broke ranks and scattered off at a gallop in all directions, soon they were lost to his sight.
"Now what the hell are they doing?" Bado grumbled.
Jubei and the samurai who had the cart with the chest that contained the ransom were the only two that had stayed behind. Curious to hear Jubei's plan, Yoshio and Bado spurred their mounts forward at a fast trot to catch up.
"Yaggyu-san! What are you doing? Where did you send Tanaka and his men?"
"Never mind that, Yoshio!" Jubei countered, "Get off your horse and get on Matsuka's; I said you were going to deliver the ransom and I meant it."
Yoshio did as Jubei instructed, he and Matsuka dismounted and exchanged places. Bado moved to follow Yoshio, but Jubei shook his head.
"No, Bado. You're coming with Matsuka and I, and don't give me any arguments. Yoshio must go alone."
"What if something happens to him?" Bado growled, torn between obeying Jubei and protecting Yoshio.
"Nothing will happen, Bado. If the ninja had wanted to kill him, they would have done so earlier when they delivered the ransom note. All they want is the money. Yoshio is in no danger; do as I say."
"Zhishu, are they coming yet? Is the money in the river?" Kusaru asked of Zhang's sister, who had just returned from scouting, and from her trembling, it was obvious the news she bore was bad.
"Kusaru! We've got to forget the money!" Zhishu whispered frantically, as she crouched down in the thicket, "The samurai, they broke ranks at the crossing and disappeared into the forest, even as we speak, they're riding up and down the riverside! I'm telling you, it's a trap, and we're going to lose our heads if we don't get out of here, now! We've got to get Zhang and run, Kusaru, please! We'll get the money some other way; I know we can!"
"Calm yourself, Zhishu!" Kusaru moved to put her gloved hand on Zhishu's arm to reassure her, but the young woman instinctively jumped away from her touch. Kusaru's open hand closed in a fist, anger and resentment welling up in her throat as she squeezed her eyes tightly shut to fight back the tears that welled there. Even after all the time we've known each other, that's how it is, eh Zhishu? You never let me forget, none of you do…
Embarrassed at what she had done, Zhishu hung her head, "Kusaru…I'm sorry, I didn't…"
"Shut up. I don't want to hear it." Kusaru spat, "We're not leaving without that money, Zhishu, so just forget it. Tokugawa's clowns aren't going to catch us. Get back in position. Now!"
Zhishu did as she was ordered, reluctantly melting back into the rustling shadows cast by the willow trees, but not before whispering, "You're going to get us all killed, Kusaru, you're going to get us all killed…"
Kusaru exhaled, and shook her head. Zhishu was weak. They could pull this off; she knew they could. Hell, there wasn't much choice; they had to pull it off.
Across the water, on the opposite riverbank, Kusaru saw the silhouette of a man on a horse flitting in and out of view between the trunks of the trees - it was one of the samurai. He was soon followed by another, and another. The river was shallow enough that they could cross the water on horseback easily, when and if they discovered her or her companions.
In preparation for the killing she might shortly have to do, Kusaru slowly unfastened the black, elbow length gloves she always wore and carefully removed them. The moonlight made here pale skin and fingernails look blue, and she stared in wonder at her open hands and slender fingers as she always did, asking the same question she had asked herself everyday of her life, "Why?"
Zhang blinked and rubbed his eyes to make sure the shadows weren't playing tricks on him. Lo and behold, it had finally come, the raft and the money! Carefully, oh so carefully, he extended the long, hooked pole he had constructed to snare the raft. His first attempt went a little wide, and he cringed at the splash the end of the hook made as it plunged into the water instead of catching on his intended target.
"Damn!" He hissed, certain the noise would alert someone, but it did not.
Cursing again, he gingerly lifted the pole out of the water and swung it in a short arc; this time it caught, the hook embedding itself in the wood. Smiling, Zhang slowly reeled the prize in until it was lodged solidly in the mud and reeds where he could easily reach it.
Zhang whirled, but it was already too late, he collapsed to the ground, gasping, his hands clutching at the gaping wound in his chest that poured forth crimson.
Razu chuckled, placing the heel of his foot on the back of Zhang's neck, pressing the Kuei's face into the mud.
"Sayoonara, Lin Kuei scum!"
Razu twisted his ankle and stepped down savagely. There was a short, snapping sound, and Zhang moved no more.
Razu's smile widened as he kicked Zhang's body aside to inspect the chest fastened to the raft. With a flick of his knife, he cut the box free.
"Now, let us see just how much you second rate ninjas demanded for Lady Nozomi's life, shall we?" He whispered to himself, throwing back the lid.
Razu's world suddenly exploded in light and color as he fell backwards in shock, blinded by the glare, his hair and clothing on fire. There was no money in the box whatsoever, it had been booby trapped with a large assortment of flares and fireworks. The darkness suddenly became a rainbow kaleidoscope of screaming daylight.
Panic set in as Razu stumbled blindly to his feet, the shouts of "There they are!" and "Get him!" from Tokugawa's samurai coming to his ears along with the sounds of horses crashing into the river with great splashes.
Two arrows whizzed past his ears before one finally found its mark. Razu cried out, anguish in his voice gurgling away to nothing as his body collapsed on top of Zhang's, their blood mixing and becoming one in the wet soil.
Some distance away, Jubei chuckled from atop his vantage point as he watched the mounted samurai ferret out and slay one ninja after another. One of Lord Tokugawa's warriors lost his life here and there as the ninja fought back, but by and far, it was a massacre. There was nowhere for the ninja to hide in the fireworks' glare.
"Heh, heh! I knew Hikyaku's expertise in explosives would come in handy someday! He's not just known for his amazing running endurance you know!"
Tanaka nodded, joining in his laughter.
"The peasants are getting their summer festival fireworks display early this year, Yaggyu-san! Although I'd wager those ninja aren't very fond of being the special guests of honor!"
Bado, sitting astride his horse to the rear of the two men, was amazed.
"But, but, why didn't you tell us the box contained no ransom money?"
"The city is full of spies and cutthroats, Bado." Jubei answered, not taking his eyes off the battle below, "Never reveal your true plans to anyone, and spread misinformation and red herrings every step of the way for the enemy's spies to lap up like the dogs they are!"
Tanaka nodded, "Only myself, Hikyaku, and Jubei knew what was really in that box. To everyone else, it was gold."
"I should go see if Yoshio is all right…" Bado murmured.
Jubei turned his head, fixing his one eye on Bado's hopeful face.
"Eh? Oh! Yes, I had almost forgotten about poor Yoshio-san! He's probably quite confused right now, eh? Of course you can go and collect him, but be careful, the fighting isn't near where the drop-off point for the money was, but it may move that way without notice. Get Yoshio quickly and return here where it's safe. The last thing I need is for him to be accidentally killed by an overzealous soldier or a desperate ninja."
"Hai, Yaggyu-san!" Bado yelled and was off at a gallop almost immediately.
"Overzealous soldier indeed!" Tanaka snorted, "My men wouldn't do anything like that!"
"Oh no? What about that artillery exercise in Bandji two summers ago, eh? That farmer wasn't very happy when you blew up his house!"
"Oh that?" Tanaka coughed, "Well…he should have built his house a few yards to the left I say…"
"You're lucky no one was killed." Jubei remarked, all humor gone from his voice.