Tenmei 5 (1785), Shizuoka Prefecture

The devastating effects of the merciless famine showed no signs of abating. Now in the third year of the Great Tenmei Famine, thievery was at an all time high as the people degenerated into petty crime in their desperation to feed themselves. One fortunate soul who was not so destitute enjoyed a white rice ball as he walked. As he crossed the river, a spear suddenly punctured the wooden bridge in front of his feet, barely missing his toes. Laying in wait under the bridge were three men who now revealed themselves. Two flanked the man on the rails of the bridge. The third was behind him.

"We lost three hundred pieces of gold, thanks to your meddling," he began. "We won't go back empty handed.

Nonplussed, the traveler held out his rice ball and said pleasantly, "If your hands are so empty, will you hold this?"

The leader of the gang sneered and his henchmen jumped into the air, ready to attack. Throwing his food into the air, he easily dodged the first attackers spear, and catching it in one hand he used it to knock him off his feet. The second assailant lunged at him with a sword but his blow was blocked by his companion's spear and he received a hard head butt after failing to strike. The last man raised his hand, which had a hole in the palm and there was the sound of gunfire as his target leaned his head out of the path of the bullet. Drawing his sword with lightning quick speed, he slashed, giving the man barely enough time to leap out of the mechanical suit he had been wearing. Returning his sword to its scabbard, he held out his hand as the rice ball fell into it. After watching his suit splinter and his cronies fall unconscious into the water below, he continued to raise his gun until the barrel fell off, cleaved by the swordsman's blade. Still recovering from the shock, he sputtered, "Sir, is it true they hired you for only 20 pieces of gold?"

"Yep."

The now tiny man was dumbstruck. "The sword we stole from them was a priceless treasure, given to them by the shogun himself, and they're only willing to pay 20 pieces to get it back?" He laughed derisively. "Fools!"

"They're a poor, small clan," was his matter of fact reply as he resumed eating his rice ball. "Trying to swindle 300 pieces for a sword is asking to much."

"Fuck you!" he spat at his retreating figure. "Shut the hell up!"

"Oi," a voice called to him from the edge of the bridge.

Turning to look in the direction of the person, he saw a burly man watching him. "Yes?"

"You're pretty handy with a sword," the stranger said with genuine admiration.

The man pushed the remainder of his rice ball into his mouth with his thumb. "I suppose I do alright," he mumbled with his mouth full.

"My name's Haohmaru," he said by way of introduction.

"Jubei, Kibagami Jubei," the man returned.

Haohmaru grinned. "This may sound a bit strange, but would you fight me?"

Jubei raised his brows. "You're right – that does sound strange. Why?"

"I'm a swordsman, as well," he explained, "and I'm always looking for talented fighters to help me hone my skills. That's actually why I came to Shizuoka. You seem ideal for my purposes. So, what do you say?" He crossed his arms and waited for his response.

"I don't know about this," Jubei said warily.

Haohmaru's face fell with obvious disappointment. "Oh, come on, help a guy out huh?" He reached behind his back and produced a bottle. "How about we have a drink while you think it over?"

There was something very pleasing in his cheerful and easygoing manner and Jubei couldn't help smiling. "Very well. Shall we find a place to settle for the night first? It looks like a pretty serious storm is brewing." As if on cue, lighting flashed overhead.

"Sure thing!" he said jovially. There should be some good inns on the way to Shimoda Village, seeing how it's such a busy seaport town."