Yuji watched Eldest Brother as he pawed through the tankards that hung from his belt. Each rang with a hollow clunk as they clattered together until he found one that had not been completely drained. The tankard disappeared in his massive hand, his eyes never leaving the treeline even as he took a long drink.
His unease was understandable. His only friend had been blindfolded and placed on a small raft before being led through the maze that was the Cove. Eldest Brother now sat a single man surrounded by a small handful of pirates he didn’t trust, in a location he didn’t know. From his perch on a boulder, Eldest Brother’s anxiousness was visibly growing.
I suppose patience and Oni do make for strange bedfellows, Yuji mused, watching Same leap from branch to branch, scouting the nearby forest.
Laughter echoed through the cliffs behind him. He absently turned his head to see Tora leaping across the boulders down in the water. A particularly large wave had just crashed against the rock, showering her with foam. Nearby, Jori sat on a rock as well, feet dangling in the water, eyes scanning the depths, harpoon at the ready for any curious fish that came by.
Beside Yuji on the grassy shore, Ran sat meditating. Her eyes were open, but her trance was so deep it almost appeared as if she were sleeping. Yuji knew her well enough to know that if it were needed, she would be on her feet, sai at the ready long before their other allies realized what was happening.
The last of their merry band, Asami, had waded into the water, the tide pulling her robes about her thighs. She too was in a trance state as her hands danced above the water, beads raising and falling in a hypnotic cascade.
In his youth, the yearly Conclave had made Yuji anxious. Leaving the ships without the usual leadership for so long made it ripe for treachery. With age came wisdom, and he learned to trust in the crews they had built. A few days with the Kancho and Yuhin absent would not upend that work.
This year was different and that old anxiety bubbled beneath the surface. Not worry for the crew and the ships, but for the Kancho that had disappeared on that raft hours ago. For all the reason Eldest Brother had to not trust them, they had every reason not to trust Hiroto.
When the meeting was initially called, Yuji was adamantly against it. He and Minato argued for what felt like hours as Yuji reminded him what Hiroto and the Shiho had cost the Jung. But the call was not his to make and all Kancho agreed to meet but on their terms. When Hiroto and Eldest Brother arrived, a bit of his trepidation dissipated. The haze in Hiroto’s eyes and sway in his gate made it clear he was not the threat he used to be.
And so the three kancho left through the maze of the Cove with the fallen Hiroto, leaving the landing party to wait with Eldest Brother. Typically, the Conclave took a full day, at least. Yuji didn’t anticipate a quick one this year by any means.
He approached Eldest Brother, who watched him from under the brim of his hat. “They should be reaching the heart of the Cove right about now,” he informed the Oni.
Eldest Brother grunted. “Then the day is young.”
Nodding, Yuji stood silent for a moment. The two watched the breeze bend the branches of the trees. “May I ask you a question?”
The Oni turned to look at Yuji, but said nothing. Yuji decided to go ahead anyway.
“Why us? Given the history between your friend and the Jung family, I would not think he would consider them even unlikely allies.”
“Not my choice, not my call,” Eldest Brother snarled. “Hiroto would not budge. Left to me, we would never have come here.”
There’s a certain relief in spoken distrust. Two men can find comfort in knowing that each is waiting for the other to make the betrayal.
After another long moment of silence, Eldest Brother said, “My turn. This place seems like the tsunami never touched it. I would imagine this whole shore would be flooded. What kind of place is this?”
Yuji smiled and gestured towards Asami. “She would know better than I. As for why this place was left untouched by the tsunami, all I can say is when you march to battle, you leave your own home. The Miyakomo claim this is Ryujin’s home.”
“He is responsible then?”
“I have no reason to believe that he is not,” replied Yuji with a shrug. “The Jung have made a home of the Cove long before I enlisted. There are mysteries that I don’t think Minato or Mari have even unraveled.
“All I know is the Miyakomo claim the tides have shifted after the tsunami. When they speak of Ryujin now, it is with anticipation and giddiness. If you and your friend seek any traversal across the waters, I strongly suggest making peace with the waters before doing so.”
Eldest Brother nodded, lost in his own thoughts. “The tides have shifted, and we will roll in upon the fogs.”
Before Yuji could turn that one over in his head, a cry came from the treeline. His pistol snapped into his hand, his other resting on the hilt of his sword. Eldest Brother stood, his massive club raised at the ready.
Same came sprinting to the shore, echoing a cry insistently. “Enemy approaching!” Yuji called in response. As expected, Ran appeared at his side, weapons ready as she bounced on the balls of her feet. The others were not far behind. Asami and Jori stood by the shoreline, while Tora circled wide. All eyes were on the treeline until the brush began to move. Weapons at the ready.
The first thing that appeared through the brush was a hand clutching a scabbard. Raised in a sign of peace, it remained in the air as the rest of the body followed. Yuji lowered the pistol but remained tense as he recognized the bald head that appeared before them.
“These are not friendly parts, Katsumoto,” he called. The others followed suit and lowered their weapons, but none sheathed them. Eldest Brother kept his club at the ready and shifted so everyone was within his sight.
“What betrayal is this?” he growled.
“None by our hand,” hissed Yuji. “Just let me handle this.” His words did not seem to appease the Oni as the air around him crackled with static electricity.
Katsumoto set his sword down by the treeline. “I do not come for a fight, I merely wish to speak with Minato.”
“He is not here,” Yuji called back. “I can pass along a message.”
The legendary tactician for the Prefecture of Ryu studied them all for a second, his gaze lingering the longest on Eldest Brother. “I have a job offer. We worked together once on the Docks of Ryu, I would make a similar offer again. Time and muscle, in exchange for gold and, should the job be done right, more power for the Jung family.”
“And what is this job?”
“Bring us Hiroto. Dead or alive,” Katsumoto’s eyes landed on Eldest Brother once more. “Makes no difference to us.”
“How did you find us?” asked Yuji, trying to diffuse the tension building within their tenuous ally.
Katsumoto scoffed. “Do you think a drunk and an Oni are hard to track through these lands? Everyone who sees them remembers them. It’s just a matter of following the breadcrumbs.”
“It is not my place to answer for Minato, but I will give him your message.”
Katsumoto smiled. “He knows how to reach me.”
“If your wisdom is as they say,” Asami spoke up from the shoreline as she approached. “You would be wise not to come here again. You entered his home, uninvited. An error not to be made again,”
Yuji cursed under his breath. He knew Katsumoto was not foolish enough to attack them at the Cove. The war that would start would disrupt their tradelines more than the war was worth. But if he didn’t get the Prefecture commander out of here soon, the Oni’s rage would start the war for them.
“I meant no disrespect,” Katsumoto said with a small bow of the head. “My deepest apologizes for my infraction. A message is all I carry.” With a second, larger bow he said, gaze locked with Eldest Brother, “I will see you very soon.” He turned around and walked back to the treeline, scoping up his sword as he passed. Yuji flashed Tora a glare, knowing she was itching to throw that dagger in her hand at the exposed target. She caught the stare and put the dagger away with a huff. Hibiki let that girl get away with too much. Discipline would do her some good.
When Katsumoto disappeared from sight, Eldest Brother let out a loud growl. He spun on his heels and stormed for the shoreline. By the time Yuji reached him, he was up to his waist in water. “Where are you going?” he called, careful to stay out of the reach of his club.
“I knew this would end in betrayal. You sold us out!”
“We did no such thing!” countered Yuji. “Minato traded a deal with Ryu years ago. His freedom for protecting the docks. As soon as he got his ship and a crew, he took his freedom and abandoned the docks.” He had to stop as the water reached his own waist. Eldest Brother was still going, the water up to his chest. “This was a threat, not a job offer! A warning of what will happen if we aid Hiroto.”
From the shore, Asami began chanting, arms swirling. Cursing before taking a deep breath, Yuji braced for what was about to happen. There was a brief sound of rushing water before a wave grew out of nowhere, just in front of Eldest Brother. It grew almost to the height of the cliffs before crashing over them both, pushing them underwater and pulling them towards the shore. Breaking through the surface, Yuji felt grass under his face and allowed himself to take a deep breath.
Eldest Brother had landed next to him and was sputtering and coughing. As his lungs cleared he let out a bellowing cry. Too close to get out of range of the club still in his hand, Yuji closed the distance between them and put his hand on the Oni’s shoulder. He almost recoiled from the shock as their skin made contact.
“You want proof that this is not a betrayal? Katsumoto did not come alone. No doubt he had a patrol with him. A patrol that is most likely traveling a bit behind him, so as to not raise suspicion. By nightfall, Katsumoto will be back on the road to the capital. But the patrol, they’ll be camped not far from here.
“We cannot let an enemy get this close to the Cove without consequences. Help us teach them that lesson. You’ll feel better.”
Eldest Brother looked down at him, chest heaving. “You would attack the Prefecture?”
“Katsumoto came here on his own. There is no way he comes this close to you and Hiroto without attacking if this was a sanctioned move. Attacking him would have started a war. They would not care where he was, or why he was there. He matters. A patrol though, not where they are supposed to be, they are not worth a war.”
Lips curled back in a snarl around his tusks, Eldest Brother looked back to the Cove. “If anything has happened to Hiroto-”
“He is safe, and he will be safe. You have my word.”
The Oni scoffed. “What value is the word of a pirate?”
“I often find truths in the lies of dishonest men,” Yuji replied. “Come, let us find that patrol. A few smashed heads will make you feel better.”
With a grunt, Eldest brother shrugged his club onto his shoulder. “Lead the way.”