Chapter 32 The Lavish Lady

[A/N]: Modotte kitayo! First of all, I want to say how absolutely excited I am about writing and sharing this next character arc. It was an idea I had for five years now, and although it's evolved as I did more research, it is now the story line of two of my favorite original characters...maybe even more than Jin's student, Norio O.o

Second...I've been gone again. Apologies and excuses won't fix the fact that I took forever for another chapter. Writing and updating however, can! A promise is a promise. I'm not gonna stop writing this!

To guest reviewer Lexy, Actually, drunk Mugen is connected with the chapter you requested with the "dreaming of each other concept". And then...there's Fuu's drunk chapter that I'm so excited about... It's definitely gonna happen!

To guest reviewer March 16th, Oh no! It is not good to skip class just to read my fanfiction. Although...I'm extremely flattered that you did so O/./O. To be honest, I was a HUGE school skipper throughout my schooling years. I don't plan to repeat that with college lol. *crosses fingers*

To guest reviewer Jill, thank you thank you! Though fluid, clean and professional is...far from the truth hahah. There's a lot of errors, and so many things that make me cringe when going back. One day I'll go back and fix them all, and rewrite with many altered plot arcs that have more detail.

To guest reviewer Shadow Cat, I too have fun reading it over. Glad you dragged it out. Sometimes i wonder how people manage to read it all in one sitting! I can't even do that anymore haha.

To guest reviewer Helgist, thanks for another song recommendation! Quiet by Lights is a great comparison to Fuu's personality. And this song's lyrics will be a huge inspiration for the chapter where Fuu gets drunk. It won't be for a while yet. Just wanted to thank you for the idea. Also, happy it's your favorite but it's not even done!

To guest reviewer fuugenshipper, I still don't know how you can read it all in one sitting XD that's more impressive than me writing it considering how long it takes me.

To Closet Otaku, "finally" is right! How many more mushrooms you gonna grow before I get off my rump and finish this XD

To guest April 27th, Correction: you guys give me life.

To guest, It's nice to see returning readers! I'm one of the worst people when it comes to updates, but I'm glad you all continue coming back even if months and years pass. Looking back, I think the dialogue might be one of the my favorite things to reread. I love imagining the character's voices saying these things, or arguing. Makes me happy that other can see it being realistic enough :)

To guest May 24, I'm still not fully versed! I still always look up stuff about Japan and history and it's a lot of fun discovering new info I can use or share. I like to think, in life, everyone you will ever meet will know something you don't or can teach you something new.

To guest July 1rst, AH! Unarikami by Ikue Asazaki! She's the singer of the Ryukyuan song in episode 14 of the anime when Mugen is drowning! Her song Utabautayun is the theme song for one of the very last chapters I plan to write. Have a listen and thanks for sharing! :)

To happyisahabit, you disabled private messaging so I couldn't thank you for the review! I do like fleshing out every piece of the anime and of their relationship that i can explore, and I'm happy to see ya enjoying it. I too hate a lot tropes like misunderstandings, but I'm glad I didn't make them too, too cliche hehe. If you want to Pm, be sure to enable them!

To guest reviewer Annie, from Germany? Your English is very good! I hope that my story helps a bit with your studies but there's a lot of errors so take it with a grain of salt XD When I fell in love with samcham, I too went crazy searching for any info I could find. Happy to see this is your favorite fanfic and that the story is internationally seen. Someone's gotta keep the fuugen alive, right? lol.

To guest reviewer FireTurtle, Of course I'll finish it XD no matter how long of a break I take , I will! As for myself, everything is alright with me. Lot of things are changing in my life, so with more responsibility and less time, blah blah blah, I can't write as much as I'd like to. But here I am, back and more fuugeny than ever! Fuugeny? Reminder to myself: stop making up cheesy words.

To every guest giving me update messages and asking me to continue, *falls to knees and bows for forgiveness* It's here! No longer shall you be plagued with wondering if I live! Hopefully it is enough to sate your Samurai Champloo appetites until my next update!

Disclaimer: I do not own Samurai Champloo, Fuu, Mugen, Jin, Momo etc. If one could have the occupation of being a scholar of Samurai Champloo, I would sign up in a heartbeat!


Chapter 32 The Lavish Lady

The rickety merchant's carriage careened its way through the winding trail of the forest—laggard and consistent...and awfully dull. Hours had eluded Fuu's knowledge, for she knew not how long they'd all sat inside the cramped little coach without sharing a single word.

Few sounds interrupted this lengthy trek and all were just as methodical as silence. The decrepit little carriage driver walked outside, calling out to the pair of muscular oxen clopping gracelessly on the ground. Occasionally, if they stopped moving, he'd swat their behinds with a straw broom... The creaky wooden wheels ran over pebble after pebble. A filcher bird made the occasional cry, mournful and long.

The merchant and his four passengers were bound for Osaka.

There were no windows in the cramped coach. Only two doors: the tiny open one at the front, giving a view of the oxen and the road laid out ahead...and opposite door at the rear, tightly closed.

Years of exposure to the cruel elements on the roads had worn out the fine finish of the carriage. Contrastingly however, the inside never lost any bit of its luster. The glossy wallpaper and paint of the palanquin showed a level of fanciness. Apparently, the carriage driver was one of many merchants from the trade city of Osaka, heading home to his renowned shop. He'd come southwest to deliver gifts—furniture, chests of apparel, and all manners of trinkets—for a royal wedding happening in the port city of Wakayama this same day, under the paid contract of a lord. A lord of the Tokugawa clan, no less!

Being a man of such recent high esteem, the uppity merchant showed a great reluctance in allowing two commoners a free ride back to Osaka in the same carriage that once housed some of the finest merchandise in the country. But...after the ex-criminal shot a look that could kill and the sad girl in pink jutted her bottom lip with the saddest puppy dog eyes, the carriage driver spat at the ground, and told them to board quickly before he had a change of heart.

Fuu had gleefully boarded first after hugging the old man. Mugen lazily filed in afterwards.

Afore the back panel of the carriage had closed to begin their departure from Wakayama, two individuals ran towards them. Both wore large hats, shielding their faces. The man called for the carriage to wait. And the woman held up the hems of her white kimono so its edges did not drag upon the filthy ground.

Behind her heels, bounded a young and exuberant dog with the finest coat of white.

The cranky driver had given quite a fuss about that. Especially about bringing in the dog, saying something along the lines of "Forget peddling goods! One more animal in my carriage and I could open my own damn zoo!".

...This was after also seeing Mugen's new kabuto beetle, and a flying squirrel pop out of Fuu's collar.

But, since the woman wore a wedding kimono and the dog's color matched it, the merchant found it to be a sign of fate. After all, he'd been hired to come to Wakayama to deliver wedding gifts and was now asked to give another bride a ride back to Osaka. Declining her would surely bring misfortune…or so the old man said.

And so, the quiet pair boarded as well. Mugen had grinned lecherously to the maiden, thus receiving an elbow in the ribs from Fuu who easily read his mind, appalled he'd even think such perverted thoughts about a newly married woman. In front of what was probably her husband…

Seated beside Fuu, arms folded, one leg propped on a knee, the snoring vagrant dozed off in that hunched position some time after their departure. She didn't blame him; they'd been walking through the mountains for so long, and he'd kept watch most nights for any signs of the shogun's men. Dark penumbras had formed beneath his eyes now, revealing his late night guard duty despite never telling Fuu of it.

As soon as they'd reached flat land again, they barely had enough energy to walk. This carriage, no matter how slow (or boring) had been a blessing to their feet.

'Boy, is it boring.' Fuu grimaced to herself once again.

The man sat directly across from Mugen, both closest to the rear door. Fuu sat across from the woman and the dog towards the front. There were no benches they sat upon, but rather empty wooden chests that had stored the merchant's many goods.

Not much changed after that. It stayed particularly quiet between them.

This whole time, the man and woman hadn't bothered to say a single word to her.

Both Mugen and the pure white pup fell asleep.

The silence grew uncomfortable.

All of a sudden, the carriage wheel hit an abnormally large bump, jolting the construct up. This caused Fuu to almost let out a squeak as she unceremoniously bounced from the roughly sanded crate and landed back on it even harder. Unfazed and still very much asleep, Mugen's head squeezed into her from the sharp movement.

She blushed.

But then the beetle on his lap stirred.

'...Another sumo wrestling, kabuto beetle. Seems like none of his old habits have changed...'

Four days back, while they'd hiked through the forests, Mugen had spotted the giant scarab attached to the trunk of an oak. Since then, he'd taken the liberty in naming the large insect "Francisco".

Why the hell Francisco, Fuu had not the slightest clue. She'd never even heard of such a weird name before. The last time he'd found a beetle on their old journey, he named that one Rodrigues...even more outrageous name than this present one. Both bizarre names sounded like they had European roots. Since then, accompanied by his new little confidant, Mugen practically gushed over the damn bug with things like: "I'm gonna be makin' some sweet dough offa' you, buddy." or "Better train hard, Francisco! Or we both don't eat!"

It was all quite ridiculous to her.

Mugen called Francisco an investment. Fuu called Mugen an idiot.

They continued onward just the same.

Now, Fuu gave another of many exasperated sighs, slinking more into her "seat"-if such an uncomfortable bench could be called such.

It was just too quiet. For the whole painful ride, the pair in front of her had been all but talkative, making this long journey to the next city progressively more unbearable! Nothing had been exchanged between the couple either. She thought this to be odd. After all...the man and woman were supposedly newlyweds.

'Shouldn't they be giggling or sharing sweet nothings?' thought the girl with a pout.

Afraid of seeming rude, Fuu had only looked directly at the couple once when the quadruple first boarded. Since then, Fuu only stared down at her own lap, or occasionally glanced at the snoring ryukyuan and his stupid pet beetle.

Curiosity won. Fuu snuck another glance. They too stared downward.

The man's hands were tucked into his sleeves, while two matching swords of different lengths were laid across his legs. The bride's slender, pasty fingers smoothed out the fur of the sleeping canine in her lap.

Their kasa hats were much like the one Sara the blind assassin used on the roads when they'd once traveled together... Time that felt so long ago. Unlike the man's or Sara's however, a thin uchikatsugi veil was wrapped around the brim of the woman's hat. It obscured much of the details of her features. Fuu could only make out dark hair and porcelain skin.

It looked as if she'd never been touched by the rays of the sun in all her life.

Only slightly darker was the man's complexion. He had a mustache and freshly trimmed beard. Judging by the frown stuck on his face, he seemed even more solemn than the woman. And although, she could barely see the woman, Fuu guessed the man was older than all three of them, placing his age closer to late twenties but not more than late thirties.

Fuu's eyes continued to lower until they settled on their clothes.

When properly examined, the pure white wedding kimono radiated beauty. There were intricate designs sewn into the silk stitching of lanky storks proudly standing upon a receded shoreline. The design was so magnificent in detail that Fuu felt she could be pulled into the fabric only to find a whole new world. She looked down at her own kimono—plain pink, red and blue—plagued with a sudden self consciousness. All the blue petals did was form a pinwheel shape. Nothing at all like the picture so real that one could find themselves absorbed.

No surprise there that a woman's wedding dress should be beautiful.

Still, this particular kimono could likely be the most well crafted article of clothing Fuu's eyes had ever graced! This said a lot…considering she traveled across the entirety of Japan twice now.

Splotches of dirty water stained the frilled edges of the white silk, as well as the woman's tabi socks. Perhaps the lady had trekked through mud recently. Regardless, these small imperfections did little to spoil the woman's noble image.

As for the man, he had to be of samurai class, obvious from the pair of katana unstrapped from their gold wakizashi sash and placed atop his lap. While his forest green kimono and black hakama were by no means cheap looking, the cotton material held no special designs.

This too was rather odd... Why would a married couple have such outrageously different priced clothing? Was this man not her husband—her bodyguard perhaps?

Fuu turned to glance at her own bodyguard, feeling a quickening in her pulse. Making the assumption that they were married was foolish...

Other people must have made the same conclusion about the relationship between her and Mugen.

'Why would a newly married couple be boarding a merchant's carriage to Osaka, anyway?'

Fuu began to wonder if she was the daughter of someone rich... Traveling with a pair of commoners didn't add up though...

"Congratulations!" spoke up the ever friendly waitress for the first time, with the hopes of easing their fellow travelers into a conversation. "...On your marriage, I mean."

Very briefly, so brief that there was a chance it'd been imagined, the woman in white raised her veiled face and given a slight smile. The drape largely obscured it. Quickly, the bride lowered her head again, shielding dark, solemn eyes from view.

So Fuu made another effort for idle chatter, "I guess Spring is the best time to get married, huh."

Neither of the pair answered...leaving the fidgeting seventeen year old with a rather uncomfortable feeling.

"Uh...because, coincidentally, the carriage driver told me that an Imperial wedding is going on in Wakayama today too! I'm not sure who is getting married in the Shogun's family, but the driver was hired to deliver wedding gifts from Osaka to Wakayama in this very same carriage. That's why he's heading home, back to Osaka now. I guess we're lucky that he let us all hitch a ride in such a fancy carriage, huh."

The woman's hand stopped running through the dog's fur.

"It's pretty cool that you share the wedding anniversary of someone in the Shogun's family...huh."

They still didn't answer. In fact, the two appeared to have grown incredibly still.

She'd been saying "huh" too much, she realized.

These rich people felt awfully judgmental by the looks of it, looking down on her and Mugen. But she wouldn't give up so easily! She was bored, damn it, and by the end of this trip, one of them just had to speak!

"You guys aren't very talkative..." she half whispered.

What was with her luck with meeting silent people?!

"Forgive me." answered the woman, in the most formal and gentle tone. Fuu almost jumped hearing it. "I did not wish to seem rude... I...do not feel I am very good at conversing with strangers."

"N-no! It's alright! I'm sorry... I was just a little bored is all..." Quite embarrassed by her seemingly rude behavior, Fuu bowed her head again.

The carriage returned to silence as neither the woman or man said a thing. Fuu debated if she should ask if the man beside her was the lucky groom... That just seemed too direct of a question though. Her attention turned towards the canine instead.

"...Your dog is very beautiful."

"Thank you. He was a gift from my father, to celebrate my engagement." She began, "He only weighed a few pounds when I had first been given him." the woman looked up again, and Fuu could see a faint trace of a smile...bigger and more real than the last. "His name is Otachi." The dog's ears perked amidst his sleep at the sound of his own name.

"He still looks young. How old?"

"Seven months. Within a month or two, he will be a full grown adult."

"May I pet him?"

Fuu swore that the samurai at her side tensed even though the bride beside him nodded. She reached over with an outstretched arm to pet the white fur of the kishu dog.

Otachi awoke, sleepily looked up at Fuu and softly licked her open hand.

"Hi there, Otachi-san. You're so handsome!" she cooed.

Interested as well, a certain little flying squirrel peeped out of her collar. Instead of getting alert, barking and pouncing like Fuu feared, Otachi merely raised his ears, eyeing the much smaller rodent with particularly little interest. He then put his head back on his master's lap.

"He's so well behaved...unlike you, Momo-san!"

Momo squeaked. The lady raised a hand under the translucent veil to cover her mouth as she giggled.

"This is Momo, my flying squirrel." Fuu introduced him to the woman.

The lady smiled and made a nodding bow gesture to the little flying squirrel who then shyly buried himself back into Fuu's clothes. Her eyes then directed to the kabuto that had lazily crawled all the way to the edge of Mugen's bony knee. "And...is that his pet beetle?"

"Huh? Oh no." Fuu waved a hand in front of her face. "He's more interested in using that bug for gambling."

"Gambling?"

"Yeah. People have beetle fights and bet on which beetle will win. He's been training it for days now and even decided on naming him Francisco. How stupid!"

The woman merely smiled again.

Remembering her manners, the cheerful girl in pink slightly bowed her head. "Oh! Sorry... My name's Fuu. And he's Mugen." she said, finger directed at her napping bodyguard. He twitched in his sleep, much like Otachi had done when his master had said his name, causing Fuu to laugh; the wild man was probably closer to animal than human! She turned back to face the woman. "Anou...what's your name?"

The woman's head darted up and stayed there. "My...name?"

As she paused strangely, this allowed Fuu to finally get somewhat of a better look of the lady's face beneath the veil. From the looks of it, her dark black hair had been done up below her kasa hat. Some visible strays had come free. These strands were incredibly long, meaning her actual hair length must be much longer than Fuu's own. Below her left eye, rested a beauty spot: something Fuu had once heard being called a "crying mole". Just as the name implied, it added the most peculiar aspect of sorrow to the woman's shaded countenance.

The eyebrows on the woman's forehead perplexed Fuu most though.

They'd been entirely shaved off. Two black ovals were painted in their place.

...Only ladies of high birth wore their eyebrows in such an odd style.

This detail, accompanied by the expensive wedding vestments, the uchikatsugi veil...and her skin tone convinced the knowledgeable girl that this woman seated across from them most definitely wasn't any typical wealthy woman.

"My...my name is-"

The carriage slowed.

Strange... At the sluggish speed of which the oxen traveled, they shouldn't have arrived anywhere close to Osaka so soon.

That's when Fuu, the lady and the man beside her heard the approach of thunder beating the dirt path and the rising voices of men approaching. "Halt! I said HALT!" The authoritative command rose above all the pounding on the dirt, passing through the thin walls of the palanquin.

Already, the weary driver worked to ease his stubborn oxen to stop, mumbling harshly, "Dammit all to hell. I knew there'd be trouble…". Squeaking on its rickety wooden wheels, the carriage eventually lurched to an abrupt standstill with one final creak.

Their pursuers halted as well, just outside the back door. The closest of the horses repeatedly bashed its hooves on the ground, snorting defiantly, as its rider pulled much too roughly on the reins.

Fuu tensed. They'd been found again.

"Hey...Mugen. Wake up." she nudged the apparently sleeping man, feeling the faintest apprehension rising from her chest to her head. His snoring ceased, breaths so shallow that one could think he held them in purposefully. Had the ex-criminal actually been awake this whole time?

Inside the carriage, the voices outside were muffled, and yet, the party heard clearly the words.

"We are under orders to search for a man and a woman that just recently departed from the gates of Wakayama. I'll have to ask that anyone inside the carriage to step out, nice and easy. This is official business by the Kishu Tokugawa branch!"

Fuu glanced across from her...and found the woman in white staring right back.

No one moved.

"There are people inside, yes?" whispered the commander on horseback, apparently questioning their escort.

"Y-yes. F-forgive me sir! They had asked for a ride to Osaka! I-I had no idea." they heard the merchant whimper back pathetically.

"We appreciate your cooperation."

They could hear the thud of the man's feet as he dismounted from the aggressive steed. Twice on the outside door, the man rapped his knuckles far louder than necessary, likely to intimidate the passengers. Again, the commander's voice raised. "You do not want us to do this the hard way! Come out without any fuss now and no one else besides the accused will face our judgement! I can't say the same for the fool who tries to harbor them from us!"

"Well," Mugen's guttural voice surprised Fuu. His eyes hadn't opened, and he had yet to move out of the sitting position he'd slept in for the whole ride. "I think I might enjoy the hard way... Cause when ya put it like that...it makes me want to harbor 'em from ya even more."

"Why you insolent little..." muttered another of the officials of the Kishu province. "Step out of the carriage NOW!"

"When ya command me like that, it kinda makes me not wanna do shit you say. Maybe...I'll just lock the door and go back to sleep."

"Then we'll just drag out your corpse by force!" They heard two others get out of their saddles, approaching with heavy strides. Then, though they still had yet to move, the metal latch on the door clicked; everyone prepared for the worst.

The rear carriage door flew open.

An official peeked inside.

Consequently, two steel plates smashed into his face.

A sickening crunch, then a hideous wail later, the bearded samurai fell backwards clutching at his face unmistakably imprinted with the shape of steel lined clogs. Rivulets of red poured from between the space of clenched fingers covering his injured nose, almost like he held it so tightly to mend it back together.

Taking his sweet time, the unruly ex-criminal stretched, then yawned, not making any move to exit right away. "Man...and I was really enjoyin' that last dream. You fuckheads just had ta' spoil it, didn't ya."

Finally, he leaped out, resting the now drawn European blade on his shoulder with the utmost cockiness that had Fuu shaking her head with annoyance. "Mu-Mugen!" she called out...realizing afterwards that he wouldn't be listening.

The vagrant looked back at her only once, grinned that maniacal grin of his, and slammed the back door closed right in her shocked face.

"Only seven of you? I guess this'll do for my morning workout!"

'It's already midday though…' Fuu sighed silently.

"Well, come on then!"

Several more of the samurai quickly dismounted from their steeds, drawing their blades to join the fray.

The unfortunate man he'd kicked in the ugly mug lunged from the side with a bloodcurdling yell. Of course, Mugen effortlessly dodged and tripped the poor leader of the group who fell flat on his face, injuring it all the more. His once perfect topknot now was crooked.

Feeling he'd been preoccupied, the closest men sought to nip this annoying little problem in the bud. Their blades barely were raised above their heads by the time the demonic force that was Mugen cleaved clean through their bellies. Blood spurted from their lips and abdomen while their once raised arms dropped lifelessly to their sides. The two dead-weight corpses crashed into the outside wall simultaneously, violently rattling the whole palanquin and setting all the more unease into the people inside.

"Damn….he's tougher than I expected." gritted another of the still living Kishu samurai. Biding time, he cautiously maneuvered around the ex-pirate, but their gazes remained locked, every small movement noted on both ends. However, the young samurai—barely having seen his eighteenth year—grew progressively impatient. The moment Mugen's gaze averted to another on horseback knocking back an arrow, the swordsman lunged for his throat.

Only by the tiniest of inches did the edge missed. Just in time, he'd ducked under the sword as it pierced through the merchant's carriage.

That same blade went into the layers of wood, right at eye level with the distressed Fuu. A screech escaped her as she scrambled away, duly noting that the misdirected katana barely missed cutting into her skull. "Not good!" Fuu glanced over to the restless pair who had also moved away from the inner walls. There wasn't any space.

Mere seconds later, a steel arrow dug into the wood right beside the sword. Good thing she'd moved.

They needed to get out of here, and fast!

Dumbfounded, the samurai grabbed at the hilt of his katana, but with wide eyes of desperation, realized that it'd embedded too deeply into the carriage to be removed with ease. His weak heaves proved futile in freeing it. The young man barely got it to budge by the time he got viciously kicked directly in the side, knocking him to the ground, and far out of reach of his sword.

Meanwhile, Fuu roughly slid open the back door once more. All the fighting ceased at the sight of the petite girl's infuriated face.

"Geez! Be a little more careful! Just who are you trying to kill here?!" she screamed at them, pointing an accusing finger at the five samurai left, and then at her own careless bodyguard.

Mugen stabbed one that had been too busy looking at Fuu. That left four.

Ripping out the claymore from the chest of the unfortunate swordsman, Mugen momentarily took his attention away from the opponents to yell back at the bossy brat. "Does it look like I got TIME ta' be careful?!"

He'd turned away for just a second too long. Another steel edged arrow hurtled passed the tip of his nose, joining the other with a thunk.

The ex-pirate blocked another sword, rooting feet to the ground as one overzealous opponent sought to overpower him. "Shit!" He pushed him back, jostling the samurai's footwork, then quickly stabbed him in the gullet before he could catch his bearings and guard again.

From several feet away, the troublesome bowman aimed his yumi, drawing back the string with the criminal's heart dead in his sights. Immediately, Mugen ran towards the horseman rather than away, which startled both the mount and its rider. Sliding downwards, he vigorously scraped his geta against the ground, kicking up dust and dirt into the large snout of the agitated animal. Neighing in distress, the brown mare reared on its hind legs, easily knocking off its unprepared rider from the sandal to land hard on his back, wind knocked out of him and the bow clattering nearby. In seconds, the horse was long gone.

The archer didn't even get the opportunity to grab his tanto for close quarter combat by the time the menacing shadow loomed above his helpless, unguarded body.

"N-no!" was all that managed to escape the doomed samurai's throat by the time metal ripped straight into it.

Fuu had been so sickeningly entranced by the violence, that she didn't see the person approaching from her right. Before she knew what happened, clammy hands roughly seized her by the arm and waist, dragging her forcefully away from the back entrance of the carriage.

"Got you!" chimed the same leader of the samurai—bloody nose and all— that had been kicked at the very beginning. Hands gripping her waist and arm, the commander of the troop pulled them only a few feet away from the carriage.

"Let go of me! LET GO!" Fuu shrieked, failing to squirm out of the samurai's strong hold.

"I have her! She's here! She's here!"

...But his bellows of accomplishment were short lived: only two of them remained now.

There was him, and the young, inexperienced samurai that never got his damn sword out of the carriage. Even now he'd crawled towards it, bearing the pain in his side while outstretching every tendon towards the blade so close, yet just out of his reach. He gritted his teeth, straining his fingers...

He'd been caught however. Mugen dug his steel plated geta into the spine of the whimpering samurai. Cold, harsh steel grazed his skin, causing the tiny hairs on the boy's neck to stand on end. Already he'd begun shaking and sweating rivers, whimpering what sounded like a repeated "P-please, p-please, p-please."

"H-hey! Let the boy go!" yelled the commander holding Fuu captive.

"You first asshole. Let the girl go and he walks."

Fuu made one more effort to move but the grip hadn't loosened. Instead, the bloody nosed samurai outright ignored Mugen's declaration, and turned his attention to her instead. "Why are you struggling?! We are only trying to save you from your kidnapper!?

Mugen and Fuu looked at each other now, more than a little bit confused.

"Kidnapper?!" the confused pair yelled simultaneously.

Rolling thunder had come once more. The last remnant of the party turned their focus towards the Kii province road they'd once traversed, where a growing cloud of dust and dirt approached with furious speed. Within it, a single horse, fur a jet black that shimmered in the midday light, bolted towards the carriage and the group, its rider donning a black garb to match.

"Stop this madness! All of you!" bellowed the rider through a netted mask covering his mouth. Fiercely pulling back the reins, his dark stallion slammed its hooves directly between Mugen and the samurai and the other holding Fuu hostage. A unique contraption had been tied around the man in black's shoulder, though this new interloper made no move to draw it; Mugen had only seen such a device once before—a crossbow if he recalled.

While the majority of his face remained hidden, the masked man's dark eyes were piercing as they calculatedly scanned over the aftermath of what had ensued.

"I am in no mood to see another of my lord's men die. You." He stared at Mugen, but his gloved finger pointed towards the samurai holding Fuu. "Let that damn woman go already."

"And who the hell are you anyway?!" screamed back the bloody faced commander.

Instead of lowering the mesh cloth from his lips, the mysterious man in black chose not to reveal his face. "...I am known as Kiiichi, an Oniwaban agent of the Iga clan. I've been charged with leading this missing person's investigation."

"A glorified ninja? You're just a garden guard! This was a decree given to me by Lord Mitsusada and his son Lord Tsunanori!"

"This concerns the shogun himself just as much, I'm afraid." From a satchel tied at the horse's side, the solemn traveler retrieved a scroll. On it, two dabs of wax sealed it closed, both of which possessed the sigil of the Mito and Kishu clan. He nonchalantly tossed it at the feet of the samurai who loosened the grip on Fuu. "And as your senior officer, I command that you stand down and let her go."

Confused, the officer wearily took his hands off of Fuu to bend down and unravel the document. His eyes bored into the drawing of the female, and then at the girl in pink, then back at the drawing. He scratched his nose nervously...

"...You're right. Th-they look nothing alike!"

Only Fuu heard the samurai swear under his breath as he pushed her towards the direction of her companion. She had peeked...but only got a fleeting glance of the scroll's contents before the samurai had nudged her away.

The eyebrows were the same...

She quickly scurried behind Mugen.

The Iga agent's once calm tone drastically changed towards the foolish officer of Wakayama that had previously manhandled Fuu. "Did you even bother to check her description?! Or did you think this mission was to find any woman who remotely matched?! I think you know not the severity of the situation."

"You mean…" the samurai's eyes scanned lower and lower down the papyrus, until his face stayed paralyzed upon reading the information underneath the sketch. It took time for his lips to quiver. "The woman we're searching for is-?!"

"Indeed. They are keeping the information confidential. We had hoped she could be found and brought back before news spreads." Turning, Kiiichi bowed his head almost...apologetically towards Mugen and Fuu, who by then were befuddled at this most peculiar turn of events. "I'm afraid this had been a little misunderstanding of mistaken identities."

Little sure sounded like an understatement. Five people's lives were cut short by the edge of Mugen's blade due to a simple "misunderstanding".

"Now then, fulfill your end. Retract your sword from his neck."

Mugen scoffed, but removed his foot from the quivering samurai's back, then the blade.

"Th-thank you my lord." The young samurai scampered in front of the horseman, knelt down and bowed his head all the way back to the ground.

Kiichi scoffed. "I'm not a lord. And you're just as much a fool as he is, you pathetic excuse for a samurai. Stand up and pull together whatever shred of dignity you have left."

Petrified, the young samurai struggled to clamber to his shaken feet, shying beside his foolish commander.

"The others deserved to die for their idiocy… Retreat for now. And get someone to come back to clean up these bodies and cart them back to Wakayama for burial."

"But..this son of a bitch just killed five of my best men!"

"That is none of my concern. My only duty is to find her and slay the foolish bodyguard who kidnapped her. That is all. I will continue my search in Osaka. You two are to head back and report in my stead."

"But sir-!"protested the younger samurai.

"If you wish to arrest this man, do so yourself." the oniwaban amusingly smirked at the bodies scattered across the ground, as if he held not the slightest remorse for his comrades. "But I do not think it would be very wise to try..."

"Dammit... I'll let you off the hook today... But mark my words, we'll meet again!" The commander turned back to where him and his now dead soldiers had originally dismounted...realizing there were no horses left. All seven of the beasts had bolted off during the skirmish. Only one last horse stood far in the distance, from the road they came from. "Come back you cowardly animal!" Arms flailing, with the other living samurai close behind, the two lucky men ran homeward, only a cloak of shame to bring to their lords.

As their clumsy forms grew smaller and smaller from view, Mugen waved his sword at them. "Next time you assholes try ta' arrest someone, MAKE SURE IT'S THE RIGHT PERSON!"

"Well then," the oniwaban started. "the two of you best be on your way. My associates will not be so forgiving." His stallion had grown restless as he steadied it with a sharp heel in the rib.

"So who's this chick you're lookin' for anyway?"

"I have no obligation in sharing this information with a lowborn such as yourself. All I can say is that if I do not find her, my own life could be on the line. Tread carefully, criminal. It will not be long before officials come looking for the person who killed these men." With that, he cracked the reins, and shouting a "HYAH!" the horseman galloped ahead, down the road to Osaka; what was also to be their destination soon enough.

Finally, the surrounding land grew quiet again. Whoever traversed the road this afternoon would be greeted with an awful seen; the ground was still stained and strewn with the corpses of these careless men. Even now, a horde of crows began circling the sunny skies rather than the filcher bird earlier. Mugen slashed his sword through air, droplets of blood flying off before he resheathed his claymore and called to his companion. "Alright girlie. I think it's time we get the hell outta here!"

She'd begun kneeling beside some of the fresh corpses. By now, Fuu must have gotten used to these scenes of carnage...

When exactly it happened he didn't know. So many people had been slain by him and Jin before her eyes back then, and still were now that it was no wonder she didn't cower away. Yet it still chilled him, how she so easily approached and examined them.

Unknown to his knowledge, today it hadn't been the corpses themselves that drew her attention.

Rather, it was their clothes. All possessed identical kamon on their backs and the left side of their chests: the insignia of a circle with three hollyhock leaves inside, stitched with immaculate gold thread. So these were men of the shogunate: for they bore the unmistakable sigil of the Tokugawa clan...

"These samurai…" Fuu pondered aloud. "They belong to the shogunate after all... But it wasn't us they were after. That's a first..."

"Well, ya can't expect us ta' be the only wanted criminals in the country."

They heard a whimper, and turned back towards the carriage.

Underneath the structure, quivered the poor old merchant who chose to hide away from the onslaught. With the samurai now gone, and the ryukyuan's sword sheathed, his weary old bones crawled out...only to see with horror the arrows stuck in the walls of his prized palanquin, and the generously portioned fresh coat of paint...blood red paint to be exact. "M-my carriage! Y-you buffoon! Criminal! No good, lowly-"

"OI!" Mugen grabbed the thoroughly terrified merchant by the collar, lifting the frail old man until his little feet dangled a surprising distance from the earth below.

"Mugen stop it!" Fuu yelled.

"If ya don't get us the hell outta here, and we get caught, I'll be sure to let 'em know who gave us the ride! You're an accomplice now, old man! MOVE IT!" The merchant gulped as Mugen set him down brusquely, adding a small shove that pushed him back towards the front of his badly damaged cart. "You too girlie. The sooner we get outta' here, the better."

Fuu nodded, then remembered quickly the drawing and the woman bearing its likeness. She darted towards the carriage only to find…

It was empty.

"...They're gone." she indicated to her bodyguard.

"Geezer! You see where those two went?"

"N-no. They must have slipped through the front of the carriage during...during all this madness."

Many woods stood along the roads that they could've slipped into, and all of the samurai's horses had fled the scene. Likely story was they'd stolen one during their clever little escape.

Placing a hand to her temple, Fuu thought over this, "They must have been the man and woman they were looking for. I wonder why they're hunting them. They did say that woman was kidnapped. If she was kidnapped...maybe that samurai sitting next to her is holding her against her will… And if they were the shogun's men… Do you think-"

"Ain't any of our business who they were. Alls I know is...we got our own shit to deal with now, thanks to them."

While Mugen clambered back into the carriage, the curious girl continued to stare into the deep underbrush beside the road, yet failed to catch sight of any white in the gloomy forest shade.


The rest of Mugen and Fuu's break-less ride to Osaka proved uneventful. Since the start of the journey from Wakayama, all she did was mope about how boring the ride was. Now, after that last little altercation, Fuu wised up and had stayed absolutely content with it being boring. Yet again, Mugen had fallen asleep, but she stayed awake, thinking more and more about who that woman could've been exactly...and how she must have felt. Many a time had Fuu been kidnapped by criminals, sex traffickers, government agents and all other manners of people… and every time wound up lucky, with little more than bruises and scratches in the end. Who knew what horrid treatment that woman could be going through even at this very moment…

Despite those samurai having been cut down by Mugen, their cause seemed just enough. She hoped they would find and help her before something terrible happened.

But then...something came to mind again...something that just didn't add up. Fuu remembered the way the bride cradled her puppy in her lap, speaking fondly of him. It just seemed too odd that a kidnapper would allow his hostage to bring her pet dog along.

Unless that samurai wasn't a kidnapper. And she wasn't a hostage.

Fuu couldn't worry for very long over the matters of strangers though. The moment they'd arrived in Osaka, the now awake Mugen made plans that vastly differentiated from her own. While she bowed graciously to the infuriated old merchant driver as she spoke her farewells, Mugen waltzed off without any hint of gratitude.

Destination: the nearest gambling den.

"Mugen! Are you listening?! We don't have the money!"

Stopping in his tracks, turning around and looking down at her, caused Fuu to stop as well. For the tiniest smidgen of a second, the forever naive girl thought he may have reconsidered..

Instead his hand grabbed her roughly by the wrist, lifted up her kimono sleeve, and dug in, until he found her change purse nestled "safely" inside. "H-hey! That's for our room and food!"

Why did she even bother… While he marched along to the casino, Fuu only got dragged along since her fingers even then clung stubbornly to his tailcoat. "Mugeeeen!"

"Ah shut your trap, woman! It's barely any dough anyway!"

"Exactly my point! We need that money now more than ever!"

Though they had disembarked from the carriage in a more ritzy trade area, Fuu now found she and her bodyguard managed to wander into one of the more seedy districts of Osaka city.

Fuu's heart throbbed.

While she did stick near him for the whole walk, glancing from person to person whose faces appeared dirty and sickly...she didn't feel afraid even though she knew she should've.

Pulling out her tanto, Fuu looked at the five different charms until she touched the pair of dice. Long ago, the lucky little charms were bought for good luck. In gambling, to be precise. Surely it was uncommon for women to frequent gambling halls, yet at fourteen years old, a younger Fuu had once found it to be one of the only ways she could make good money for her mother's sickness. Despite being unlucky in many areas, betting had always been one odd strong point. Her complaining to stop Mugen in the past and now, had been since many a man had lost to her. Families could lose everything they had from the wrong bet. And now, she didn't want to lose the few things she did have.

For these reasons, this poor, decrepit casino they now entered brought back a fond sort of memory. The people didn't scare her, no matter how filthy, or unseemly. Anyone of any class could be scary. These gamblers were just like her once; down on their luck sods, who could wishfully dream they could afford another life with enough good graces of Lady Luck,

In the past, the only thing she ever feared was being pick pocketed. With Mugen around, even that fear disappeared.

...What she did not know, was as they passed the casino's fat bouncer, and entered the quaint establishment, they'd been watched keenly.

And followed.


"No dogs."

"But...Otachi-san accompanies me everywhere." the woman in white replied, patience growing thin.

"I don't care if your fucking dog will follow ya to Hell. No. Fucking. Mutts. If you can't follow a simple rule, get the fuck outta here, dollface."

Not once in her life had anyone dared to speak so harshly towards her. If anyone had the guts, her father would have most likely tortured them long before death.

This was one thing she'd have to get used to.

"...Otachi-san..." She couldn't bear to tether the loyal hound to a post with chains or rope. Since the day he'd been gifted to her, he'd been free to roam without constraints, and while feral towards everyone deemed dangerous, Otachi's loyalty could only be rivaled by one other: Giri.

She knelt down, lovingly scratching the short fur of his scalp. "Stay boy. I won't be gone long."

Otachi's ears flattened as he whimpered anxiously. Even so, he did as his master commanded, laying on the ground by the entrance, black snout buried between two muddy white paws.

"Now may I pass?"

"As long as you're here to gamble, head on in." The giant wall of a man finally shifted to one side.

The bride stuck her chin up, confidently brushing past her three hundred and fifty pound obstacle. "Thank you very much."

Inside, the gambling den's light waned so dimly that she had to squint. The rankest mixture of sweat, tobacco and other unknown odors hit her unsuspecting senses, almost making here heave right in the middle of the hall. Moments before, the poverty stricken area outside had appeared bad...but the interior of the buildings were a whole new level of low. Briefly, she thought to turn back. She kept her head down so the veil and hat would hide her face, but it was like these paupers peeled them away. Every eye in the entrance hall had landed on her and her fancy garments the moment she stepped in, and those sickening stares continued to follow until she made it to the wooden counter in the center of the foyer.

The twig of a man behind said counter had to be the polar opposite of the imposing guard just outside. His bony tendons counted coin after coin, clicking nails against each one as they were set down into the little drawers that organized their value.

"Hello sir. I would like to place a bet this evening."

The skeleton looked up, eyeing her from head to toe only once. He merely cackled hoarsely as he disregarded the woman in white. "Where's your husband, dolly? I only deal with those that actually have money. You know?"

"Hmm… Funny you should say that! I had wished to bet koban coins." She procured a fat, jingling bundle from her uchikake, and then flashed two large pieces before the receptionist. The greedy skeleton's once nonexistent eyes in the hollow crevices of his skull, bulged out at the gleam of solid gold. "But I see that this amount will not suffice. Pardon me." She bowed politely and rotated back from whence she came.

"W-wait wait wait!...Please come right this way." Immediately, he too bowed before directing the lady in white further into the den of iniquity.

Room after room held an assortment of games she had only heard about. Seeing the grubby handed, dirty faced scoundrels arguing, some slamming their fists against the card tables, she knew not what to think of any of this. It was unlike anything she'd ever seen. And while not one to judge others, the bride just could not shake away the fear of seeing these uncouth people, especially when they looked back at her.

"So which game are you interested in, missus? Perhaps, the new Cho-han would strike your fancy?"

"Actually...beetle wrestling." she replied.

"Beetle wrestling? Now that's a brute of man's game! I heard it began down in the Ryukyuan Islands and came all the way up here over the years. Now every man and his uncle comes in for the fights! But today, I think we got a native Ryukyuan who brought in a beetle for entry! Guess it's your lucky night for a show!" He spat out through his flapping mouth. Money really did make people loosen their lips... "Would you like to know the names of the beetles that will be participating?"

She only nodded to feign politeness, not particularly interested in any others besides the one she had in mind.

"We have plenty of matches going on tonight, But the best entrants are Mushi-mushi with five consecutive victories, and Akaryuu who's won a total of twenty times in his short career. Then there's our house champion Shiganosuke, a beetle so huge that he is said to crush any who oppose him. And then there's-"

"I have already decided on one, thank you. I believe his name was...Francisco."

"Oh yes! That beetle was just made a contender at the very last minute by the Ryukyuan man! But that beetle has had no recorded victories in this casino just yet… Is he making a name for himself elsewhere?"

"I do not believe so… But his owner is."

"I see… Putting faith in the trainer, eh? Smart woman,"

Finally, the skeleton directed her to the room that would be holding a rhinoceros beetle fight in a few short minutes. "Enjoy!"

One would assume casinos were always filled with chatter.

But in this particular room, in the brief moments before bets were placed, as the gamblers scrutinized their options with careful intuition, the whole building was as quiet as the grave. Occasionally, there were whispers, and chuckles, and then silence again. Everyone merely observed the two specimens crawling inside the two cages.

Shiganosuke, a full grown Hercules beetle utterly dwarfed the tiny Japanese Rhinocerous beetle.

Upon walking in, the woman easily spotted the two travelers from the carriage bickering between each other. And for the first time since entering the casino, she felt a comfort. The girl in pink, while looking out of place, didn't seem the least bit on edge. Some man tried chatting her up, and she just looked him in the eye with no fear at all and laughed at his joke. Then, she returned to arguing with her companion as she tapped her fingers against her temple.

"Ya got such little faith."

"I can't believe you have faith in a stupid beetle!" Fuu hissed.

"Stupid? I bet Francisco's got more brains than you do, ya airhead."

"Wha-you are not pitting me against Francisco!" Oh God, she actually referred to it by name! "Mugen! We have barely any money to get by! We shouldn't be gambling it away just because you have a hunch on a damn beetle!"

"He ain't no ordinary beetle. He's frickin' Francisco the Mighty. Trained by the very best!"

The dealer interrupted their arguing. "Last call for any bets!"

Mugen placed down all his black, wood counters.

"If we lose..." Fuu whispered menacingly.

"We ain't gonna lose." he finished.

"IF...we lose, you're gonna find a part time job in Osaka...you hear me?"

"And if we win? You gonna get off my ass for once?"

She ignored his comment, for the slightest thing caught her eye.

A woman.

The same lady in white from the carriage approached the circular table and the people surrounding it. She glanced briefly over the stage and the insects before turning to the dealer himself. Kneeling beside him, she neared his ear to speak a whisper, as the suddenly louder murmuring of the onlookers consumed the room. Fuu could only see that the man's eyed widened considerably the moment she handed him two gold coins, and then a little cloth sack big enough to fit in his palm-this one, he placed in his kimono as a tip most likely. Handing her a great number of rectangular chips, she placed down nearly five times as many as Fuu and Mugen.

With a nod from the dealer, the lady then bowed her head and got up to leave.

Confused, Fuu too began to stand, until Mugen's grip on her shoulder prevented it. "Relax girl and enjoy the show."

Almost immediately, the dealer at the head of the table raised an arm forward and with one motion, shouted.

"BEGIN!"

Instantaneously the whole room had altered, as most stood, a chatterous mixture of yelling, cheering and stomping filled the corridors. The two caged doors opposite each other were flung open by Mugen and the dealer, revealing the two shiny insects laying dormant until this built up moment.

They took meager steps, centimeter by centimeter onto the stage, as the cages were removed and the cheering got all the louder. Most of the crowd screamed one name. "SHIGANOSUKE! SHIGANOSUKE!"

But through the throngs of voices intermingling, Fuu still heard Mugen and a few others yelling for "FRANCISCO THE MIGHTY!"

Even after attending (being forced to accompany Mugen to) one of these sumo beetle fights, she still couldn't figure out what all the commotion was about.

They were just two beetles.

Two very slow beetles.

Two very slow beetles that didn't even notice each other yet… Oblivious, the two just wandered around the tiny platform without any care.

Little Francisco laundered about, reaching the very edge...and almost fell right off all on his own...

Fuu almost burst into laughter as Mugen inhaled sharply. ...Until she remembered that if Francisco lost before the fight even began, they'd both be humiliated—and more importantly, screwed out of the last remnants of their savings!

With sudden eagerness to participate in this little game, Fuu inched up to the stage, keeping the gross looking alien on the table at eye level with her. Over the rest of the crowds, her shrill yelling definitely could rival twenty grown men.

"Listen up Francisco! YOU BETTER WIN OR YOU'RE GONNA BE SCRAPED OFF THE BOTTOM OF MY SANDAL!"

Not that she would step on him. But if there was any shard of a chance that oversized bug could understand her, now wasn't the time to pass it up.

And indeed, it appeared the beetle had. Redirecting his long, cephalic horn toward the center of the stage, he meandered himself towards the hulking Shiganosuke. The Hercules beetle seemed to take notice of something invading his territory.

Their horns made contact.

Shiganosuke pushed against Francisco harshly, nearly knocking him back then and there.

While Shiganosuke kept all six of its legs on the platform, Francisco opted for only four, using the other two to push and smack at the bigger beetle's helmet-like head. The distraction only aggravated the larger specimen. With one heave, the large beetle pushed Francisco's thorax, toppling him onto his side.

"COME ON FRANCISCO! THAT AIN'T ALL YA GOT!"

Just barely, the insect wobbled back onto his belly. A second of recovery later, he charged into the fray once more. Again, Shiganosuke tried maneuvering the horn under his thorax, yet failed to do so. More stout than ever, Francisco's regained its balance, rooting all six of its legs on the platform, stabbing at the face of his opponent. For a time, the two were at a stalemate, pushing with all their might to lift the other. However, the larger one had pushed him over time, to the very edge of the circular platform. Shiganosuke's bottom horn kept moving up and then down just as quickly, leaving no opening for Francisco's Y shaped antler to touch its soft underbelly.

Mugen's entrant could not even fit his back two legs on the platform. They dangled off. All hope seemed lost.

"COME ON FRANCISCO!"

With one last effort, lowering himself to the platform, Francisco swiftly slipped his horn just under Shiganosuke's own, letting it get caught by the sharp rivets, catching the bug off guard. With the might of a furious bull, the kabuto wrestling beetle lifted the whole body of the now defenseless Shiganosuke overhead.

"GET HIM! KILL THE BASTARD!"

The brunette girl couldn't even tell who yelled what anymore. Profanities left her mouth just as much as any other lowly gambler.

Helpless, the larger insects's six legs dangled above its body.

None expected for the tiny dwarf beetle to throw it straight over his own carapace, causing the Hercules beetle to plummet to the ground below the platform with a thick, shell shattering crunch.

The crowd roared; a mixture of the sickened wailing of most and the jeering of the few who had actually put their once doubtful faith in the right beetle.

"No way! He actually won!" Fuu lept to her feet, tugging happily at Mugen who had picked up the winner, raising Francisco, the Mightiest of all Beetle-Kin high into the air.

"HELL YEAH! NEVER DOUBTED 'IM FOR A SECOND!"


After the excitement died down, and the patrons left the room for other games that would surely bring better fortune, Mugen and Fuu remained among the last few to collect their earnings. Most of the counting slabs were removed from the table...except for the organized pile by the dealer that had been left by the bride. Mugen cooed over the creature, and Fuu attempted to do math in her head over how much they should have to spend for the day. Not much, sadly.

"Here are your winnings, sir." The dealer from the head of the table, handed them a sizeable change purse, putting the tiny one they started with to utter shame.

She looked keenly at it, chocolate eyes bugging. "...Wait...we didn't bet this much." Opening the sack and seeing the two koban inside. Fuu swore her heart had stopped. Two koban coins were enough to feed two people rice for a whole year! Well, normal people. And they did have to rent inns. Even so, it would help greatly in their travels.

If it was their winnings. Which it wasn't.

"This...this is a mist-!" before she could finish, her bodyguard moved to cover her mouth before the dealer would happen to realize it'd been a miscalculation.

Instead, they were both more perplexed to discover it'd been no mistake on the seasoned dealer's part at all. "A woman in a wedding kimono had placed the bet. She said to add it to your earnings if Francisco won."

"A woman? It...can't be…" Quickly, Fuu brushed passed the two men and the beetle.

She clumsily maneuvered through the crowded den, pushing passed the infuriated losers and the lucky winners of the night who danced round the room merrily. These winners would not stay winners for long if they kept up their insistent boasting, especially since the loser's eyes glimmered with greed and want. Finally, she darted from the claustrophobic casino and its many smelly patrons, trying hard to catch her breath. By the time the girl reached the open air outside, glancing from one end of the once crowded avenue to the other, the lady in white could be found nowhere in sight. Peddlers for this poor district carted their cheap materials back to their shops, while the local rabble exiting the casino headed back home in droves.

"She's gone again…"

"Least we got money to burn, right?" Mugen's voice added in. He appeared from the entrance, and leaned over her, his arm propped just on top of her head, dangling the freshly filled purse before her brown eyes. Taunting her.

"Money to SAVE, you idiot!" She tried to swipe it but he merely kept far out of her reach. Hey, give it back!" she whined, hopping up to reach his long arm.

"Nuh uh, girlie. Too slow!"

"You JERK!" she tried to kick him in the shin, only to miss, lose balance and fall right on her butt. He didn't make any move to help her stand back up. Instead, Mugen continued to mock the girl while walking away with Francisco on his shoulder, simply swinging the change purse around a finger with the cockiest of laughs.

"C'mon. Let's at least get some decent chow for once. Fransisco the Mighty deserves a feast."


Unnoticed, the stealthy woman and her dog peered from behind the corner of a nearby building as the man in red and his girl counterpart in pink continued bickering far from the confines of the gambling den. Though at the prospect of food, the girl's nagging lessened somewhat. Together, the intriguing pair walked off into the night; out of mere curiosity, and against her better judgement, she almost thought to follow them.

The woman—Tsuru—was more than happy to repay the debt. ...Even if Fuu and Mugen would never know the name of the woman whom they'd unknowingly helped earlier that day.

After all, they were so...poor. Happy to have a meal? In Edo castle... Tsuru recalled the day her father almost beheaded the head chef when a guest complained the main course tasted too salty.

Opposite of their direction, the bride strolled on with only the Kishu hound as company...until in the midst of the shoddy, withered district, every other passerby retired for the evening.

Her and Otachi eventually came to an arching bridge overlooking a shallow waterway below. Ripples formed in the muddy canal as the mouths of otherwise unseen fish surfaced to eat the flying insects resting on the placid water. On the side she just came from, Tsuru could see in the lantern light and the moon shine above even more so that these structures as well as the footbridge were falling into disrepair. And yet, as she turned towards the other side of the rotted walkway, such a meager distance away, the new and clean neighborhood stood a starker contrast than she would have ever known if she hadn't left home.

Not once in her life had Tsuru ever seen the line between wealth and poverty so clearly up until this point. Yet, the lonesome woman knew not where to tread from here.

She felt lost.

Tsuru leaned her hands against the bridge's chipped banister. Once, the bridge must've been painted a brilliant scarlet.

Seconds soon turned to minutes, and her hands squeezed tighter and tighter on the wooden railing as if to help her hang on.

Where would she go from here? The path of wealth, or the path of poverty? For once in her life she'd given herself the chance to have that very choice. And yet...poverty didn't look like a good choice at all anymore.

But Tsuru remembered quickly.

If it were not for her servant...she'd be back at the post wedding feast by now...sitting beside her new husband. A life of dullness, unhappiness, and…

...with a man she had never even met until yesterday.

Home no longer existed. She'd have to forget. All that she had left were Otachi...and Giri.

Giri...where was he now...

"Hime-sama!"

Otachi's ears perked at the sound, tail wagging happily.

Relieved, Tsuru whirled around at the deep, stern voice, and the disparity around her lost all of its grimness. Just nearby, her ever loyal samurai stood at the edge of the footbridge from the direction of the wealthy neighborhood. In full arms, he carried overflowing bundles of fabric purchased from a high end textile shop.

"I've been looking all over for you! I told you to wait inside!" Giri's pace quickened until he stood beside her.

"I-I'm sorry."

"What brought you to this side of town in the first place?!"

"Well...Otachi-san...He ran off and I followed him here."

The dog's ears flattened. Otachi whined at the pair; an obvious complaint that she'd used him as an excuse with little depth for her own endeavors.

"This place is dangerous, and someone from the castle could spot you! Next time, stay within earshot. Come. I found a place where we may rest for the night." Giri headed back towards the richer side of town, and while she did follow unquestionably, just once she glanced back at the old rotted bridge and the peasant district beyond it.

An unfamiliar heaviness weighed down her heart.


When they made it back to the refuge that Giri had rented for them, the large pile of clothes were thrust into her open hands. Surprised, she had to hesitate with words. "I do not know how to put on these clothes." While raising an eyebrow, the dark haired man made no criticism about this, yet still she desired to provide an explanation. It embarrassed her greatly to admit such a thing."My handmaidens or my mother had always dressed me every day..."

"Hime-sama...I do not think it would be appropriate for me to dress you."

"You are my servant… And so I entrust you with this task."

"Then I shall tie them after you put them on."

He pivoted on his foot, and stared straight at the wall.

She too turned around, facing the opposite wall.

Blushing, Tsuru first relinquished her hair from the traditional bridal style the handmaidens had meticulously toiled to be absolutely perfect for the ceremony. The black strands fell like silk on her bare skin, the length reaching far passed her slender waist. Over six years had gone by since the tresses had last been cut. With some hesitancy, she undid the drum shaped knot on her back, then allowed the white fabric to slowly slip from her sloped shoulders. Tsuru tilted her head to the side in order to check to see if Giri watched. Just as she suspected—and even regretted—the stoic samurai did not budge an inch. Deemed a woman now, she stood there, completely naked, and the man wouldn't even turn slightly.

If it had been any other male to free her from the castle, she would've feared their intentions. With Giri, she knew, there'd never be anything to fear.

She quickly slipped into the sleeves of the new kimono, not wishing to make her beloved guardian wait a moment more than necessary.

While nothing like the expensive clothes she'd worn in the castle, Giri still had picked a very beautiful ensemble. It had been her mother who asked the country's finest weavers to create the wedding kimono decorated with white storks standing on a shore, for that was the meaning of her name. Tsuru.

On this new pastel yellow kimono, a design of soaring origami storks of a rainbow of colors were embroidered into the fabric instead. She smiled at his thoughtfulness, clutching the soft cotton against her breast. "I'm finished."

Only upon hearing those words did Giri turn to aid her. He maneuvered the black obi around her waist, carefully making sure his hands didn't touch her in the process. "Well, tying a woman's kimono is a bit different than doing so for a man... But...I suppose I can try my way until we can find another woman to properly teach you."

He paused.

"Hime-sama." She at first thought something about tying it had stumped him. "...Are you going to tell me the real reason I found you in that scum infested neighborhood?"

Her heart almost stopped. She should've realized he would know.

Lying to the man who had put himself at risk to protect her, the man who whisked her away without a second thought…lying to him was beyond shameful. But it was not shame she felt. It was guilt; a feeling she felt few times in her life.

Even the act of running away had not given her an ounce of guilt…

If Tsuru and Giri were truly going to continue this way—to continue this life—they needed to trust each other. Completely.

"The truth is...I...I followed those people from the carriage to the gambling hall. I placed a bet on the man's beetle and put the prize money in their name."

Finally, his fingers returned to diligently working on the cloth knot. "Did they see you?"

"I do not think so." Tsuru's tone dropped slightly. "But...there's still a chance the girl did."

"You know you can't risk being seen! Especially with the people that killed your father's soldiers! What were you thinking?!"

She shuddered the moment his voice raised. "I only felt we should repay them for aiding us!"

"They're probably wanted by the law as well. That's why! Didn't you see that crazed man's tattoos? It had nothing to do with us being their charity case!"

"I-"

He spun her around to face him, "Hime-sama...do you understand?"

"…Yes. Yes, I understand."

"Forgive me. I did not wish to sound so harsh." He brushed her hair away from the kimono collar, then righted the ribbon shaped obi until it centered on the small of her back. Lopsided it may be, it served its purpose."There. Does it fit well?"

Tsuru raised the sleeves, once more fondly examining the origami birds in the the outfit Giri had generously chosen for her. She nodded, "It's very comfortable compared to what I usually wear."

"To what you used to wear." he corrected her.

"Yes. To what I used to wear."

Giri nodded with the first smile he'd given her since they'd run from the castle.

Thirty five years of being alive, Giri the samurai had the misfortune of dealing with all kinds of ladies and lords of the highest echelon of Japanese society... Only one—his princess—had been the true gem among pampered, self-interested royals. Other lords would cut off their servant's fingers for the simple mistake of spilling tea.

From her child years, Tsuru-himegimi had never been anything like that. And he had seen every stage of her life from a red faced crying babe to this pale, blossoming maiden before him now.

Sixteen years old this very day, she truly grew to be a beautiful young woman: tall and slender and with a voice that could melt the heart of even the toughest men of the land. Many mistook her for a woman of her mid twenties since her looks and mannerisms were incredibly graceful. Even the nobles of the court didn't dare stare too long when she looked their way...but only he knew their eyes stayed glued when she wasn't.

So it was no wonder her father troubled himself picking which man would be her husband. The young Lord Tsunanori of the Kii Branch of the Tokugawa seemed the most ideal of matches politically. One day, she could give birth to the next shogun.

Only Tsuru disagreed.

And her wish had always been Giri's command.

Giri knelt down, placing a forearm upon his raised knee, bowing his head before what would be his one and only lord . "I will always serve you, Hime-sama. Your words are my command. I will kill under your command… But...I insist that we maintain a distance from others as we journey. I say this only for your own protection."

"Giri..." She knelt until her face leveled with his. A lady kneeling beside her humble servant... He kept his face to the floor. "You don't have to remind me of that. I trust your intuition. I will do whatever you deem necessary, as long as your plans keep us both out of harm's way. But...can you please look at me?"

Please.

Since the day she'd been born, the shogun's personal samurai had been assigned as nothing more than a sword under her command, and a shield to guard her against any peril. And still, she asked him. Never commanded.

He did so. And of course-being the sweet lady she always had been- smiled to him as their eyes finally met in the dark, unfamiliar room.

Giri—bodyguard of Tsuru-himegime of the Tokugawa Shogunate—would do what he always had. It would be his one and only duty.

"I promise you, Hime-sama. I will do all that is in my power to keep you safe."

~To Be Continued~


[A/N]: So who is this Tsuru-himegimi girl?

This character is very loosely based on history with me taking some liberties to tell a " WHAT IF" story. But there was actually a woman named Tsuru-himegimi, much like a lot of the Samurai Champloo episodes using real historical figures like Mariya Enshirou. That's all the info I'll give for now.

Hime-sama: a title used for a woman of nobility. It can be translated as "my lady".

Himegimi is very specific...but I'll save that as well as Giri and Otachi the kishu dog's information for later :P

They are going to be in MANY chapters ahead. It will take some time and character development but I hope they will become original characters you will grow to appreciate...and maybe even really like :)

Reference- Unlike in Europe, Edo Era Japan didn't commonly have horse drawn carriages. Especially in big cities. Instead, coaches, wagons and palanquins were pulled by oxen or people.

Oniwaban-shu- Much like Yatsuha and Hankichi from the anime and my fanfiction , Kiiichi is also an oniwaban agent. While called ninja, oniwaban-shu were specifically the secret service of the Shogun. The direct translation for oniwaban is "garden guards" or "team of gardeners". This is most likely because they were either stationed in the Edo gardens, or because none would suspect a gardener being a spy.

Kiiichi the Oniwaban- Kiiichi is a common male name that can mean "happy first son". However, I intend for the kanji to be written "Kii" as "Tree" and "Ichi" as "Yew". Yew trees are a poisonous plant commonly grown in Japanese gardens, befitting his occupation.

Gosanke (Three Branches of Tokugawa)- translates to "The Three Houses". They were three noble branches making up the Tokugawa clan represented by three hollyhock leaves in a circle. They included the Owari branch residing in Nagoya, the Kishu (also called Kii) branch residing in Wakayama, and finally, the Mito of Edo where the Shogun himself lived. In the chapter, a royal wedding is happening unifying Kishu and Mito.

Rodrigues and Francisco: the names of Mugen's Sumo Wrestling Beetles- You're probably wondering..."Uh...why is Mugen's new pet beetle named Francisco?" In Ep 11 of the original anime, Mugen's sumo wrestling beetle was in fact named Rodrigues, another name that is obviously NOT Japanese... (Some people thought this was a translation error. It isn't. His beetle was legit named Rodrigues.) I did some research on the cryptic Christians of Japan and stumbled upon a famous 1966 Japanese realistic fiction book called Silence or in Japanese, Chinmoku by Shusaku Endo. Most of the book is in the perspective of a priest who comes to Japan, witnessing Japanese martyrs fighting for the right to worship Jesus Christ. The priest's name in the book is Father Rodrigues. I am almost 100% that the anime creators named Mugen's beetle "Rodrigues" as a small reference to the hidden Christian plot of Samurai Champloo, rather than something random. Anyway, Mugen's new beetle is named Francisco, because in the same book, Father Rodrigues was accompanied by another priest named Francisco Garrpe. Also, the ending song for Samurai Champloo Episode 26 is "San Francisco".

Names of the other beetles-

Mushi-Mushi: "mushi" means insect, but can also mean "beetle". So his name is "Beetle beetle"

Akaryuu: "red dragon", since sumo beetles can have red tints in their shell.

Shiganosuke: Akashi Shiganosuke is purported to be a legendary sumo wrestler active from 1624-1643, and was said to be a giant that stood at 8"6 and weighing 406 pounds. However, it is unclear whether Akashi Shiganosuke actually existed at all, as there is very little information or proof other than retellings in sumo folklore. For the sake of an interesting little story, this chapter makes it so the legend of Shiganosuke wasn't derived from a man at all, but was rather an exaggerated tale about a sumo wrestling beetle!

This chapter didn't have much Fuugenism…sorry :{ Mostly it's some foreshadowing and subtle backstory to my favorite OCs that will be appearing in several chapters to come. Until next time (and hopefully that's not over a year).

End of Chapter 32