"An order of arrest?" XamTam cried incredulously. "We haven't even set foot in town!"
Shikiri sighed as she looked at the bulletin posted on the wall to the city, near the gate. The sign had descriptions, names, arrest records, and even a reward. There was no doubt about it. XamTam: Wanted.
"Xam, you didn't happen to have been here before, have you?"
The woman gave her companion an incredulous look. "Are you implying that I caused some sort of ruckus that made them put up this?" She jabbed the notice sharply with a slender finger.
Shikiri merely gave her a look that said: "What else would I be implying?"
XamTam sighed. "Well, maybe I was. But it was a long time ago."
Shikiri looked back at the notice. At closer inspection, she could see where rain had stained it, and that the edges of the parchment were yellowing, and the corners were curling.
Shikiri was just about to turn back to XamTam and ask her if she had any ideas on how to get into the city --without being jumped, cuffed, and thrown into jail. Again. -- When another notice caught her eye.
Another wanted notice. This one distinguished itself from the other; it had a sketch of a young man on it. The man had a dull expression pulling on the corners of his mouth. The seriousness of the sketch was totally thrown off by the laughing eyes that seemed to say: "Ha ha! Look at me! I'm a wanted criminal!" Curly locks of hair lay in disarray, falling I in a messy mop, partially covering his eyes. All in all, the man was quite handsome. Shikiri looked to the caption under the sketch.
"Saio Miguel Jido III . . ."
Following her gaze, XamTam looked at the notice. "Well, it looks like Mister Saio Miguel Jido the third has quite a fancy price on his head," XamTam snorted. "A pretty fancy name to go with it."
"Saio Miguel Jido III . . ." Shikiri mused aloud. "Why does that ring a bell?"
XamTam whistled, impressed. "Young master Saio Miguel has quite the record. Theft, vandalism, and generally being a nuisance," that made XamTam laugh. "The things they come up with . . . Nuisance?" With further scrutiny of the message, XamTam's eyes widened. "Whoa, not to mention several accounts of 'sexual harassment'." This sent XamTam into fresh peals of laughter.
Shikiri looked around nervously, worrying that XamTam's hysterics may bring curious bystanders.
"Um, Xam?" Shikiri asked, still looking around nervously.
"Yea, kid?"
"Got any ideas on how to get into the city without being jumped, cuffed, and thrown into jail. Again?"
"Like I wouldn't have an idea!" XamTam waved a hand as if dismissing the subject as ridiculous. "C'mere, you. Nobody'll recognize us after I'm through with you." XamTam grabbed Shikiri's arm and began to drag her into a bush, laughing softly.
Shikiri didn't fight, though she swallowed nervously at the sinister note to her friend's soft chuckle.

* * *

Shikiri shifted uncomfortably. XamTam had definitely kept her promise. "I doubt even my own mother would recognize me!" XamTam had pulled out several times - she called them "tools" - from a canvas bag. She had put a brown hat on Shikiri; the hat was a bit too small, making her ears stick out a little. She had taken a dark brown powdery substance and rubbed it onto Shikiri's face and hands, giving her a rough, "farm boy" look. She had finished the look by taking the sword off of Shikiri's back, and putting it in the bag. Shikiri was the spitting image of a young farm hand.
XamTam had draped coarse, grubby, brown shawls over her shoulders and head. The woman had mixed some of the brown powder with some gray powder, and applied it to her face, giving her an old withered look. "Okay," XamTam began. "Here's the plan. You're the farm boy come to town to sell your crops."
"And you?" Shikiri asked, slinging the bag over her shoulder.
"I'm your grizzled, hard-of-hearing mother that you couldn't leave at home."
Shikiri wrinkled her nose with disgust. "Where have I heard that story before?" she muttered.
XamTam chose to ignore her. "Okay, lets go."
The two approached the bridge that spanned a wide ditch outside the city wall, with XamTam leaning heavily on Shikiri, hunched over like an old lady. Two guards with long pikes stood at the end of the bridge closest to the city.
As they approached, the guards crossed their pikes, barring the entrance to the city.
"What is your business here?" one asked stiffly.
"Have no fear, friends," Shikiri announced as she stopped in front of the guards. "I am here to sell my harvest in the city."
The two soldiers glanced at each other. "Who're you?" the other one asked XamTam none-too politely.
XamTam cocked her head and held a hand behind her left ear. "Eh? Wassat? Speak up, sonny."
The guards exchanged another glance.
"This is my poor old mother," Shikiri answered for her friend. "A bit hard of hearing, and a bit wrong in the head."
The hand that XamTam had resting on Shikiri's shoulder tightened its grip.
The guards exchanged one last glance, and turned back to look at Shikiri, who looked earnestly back at them. They sighed.
"Fine, go on in," the lowered their pikes to let them pass.
Shikiri tipped her hat in thanks and walked slowly through, XamTam putting on a slight limp.
The young girl looked about in awe. Expecting to find great splendor, and busy city life within the great walls, Shikiri was sorely surprised. The city was nothing short of slummy. Buildings that looked like several houses stacked on top of one another loomed tall and gray above the streets. The dark cobblestone street wasn't much to look at either. Narrow and dark, the sides of the road were flooded with garbage and refuse. Deathly skinny, and hollow eyed children peeked out of glassless windows. Other stood in the doorways, partially hidden by the threadbare cloth used as doors. Sunken checked and tired looking women watched the two with wary eyes while washing clothes in murky water.
"Pretty bad, isn't it?" XamTam muttered out of the corner of her mouth. "What were you expecting?"
"Anything but this," Shikiri whispered back, eyes wide.
A group of boys playing a game that included three balls, long sticks, with nets tied to them, and a large rock suddenly halted their play as the two approached them. The boys parted to let them through, their dull eyes burning holes in the traveler's backs.
"Come on," XamTam gripped Shikiri's arm. "We'll be out of this soon."
Shikiri nodded and swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry.
XamTam was indeed true to her word. The two of them left the slums behind and entered a middle-class development.
Here the buildings were whitewashed and clean. The houses were still stacked on top of each other, and clotheslines were strung between the upper levels. The streets were still narrow, but the sides were free of litter and waste. Children ran amuck, giggling and chasing each other. Women gossiped loudly while watering window boxes of flowers, or shopping at the various stores and stands. Roadside vendors shouted at passersby, trying to sell their goods. Shikiri jumped as a young girl rode by in a small carriage that she had harnessed up to her dog; another young girl chased after her, shouting for her friend to wait for her.
Compared to the outskirts of town, these middle class regions were teeming with life, vendors, women, children, shop owners, dogs, cats, horses, craftsmen and their apprentices. Everyone and everything had something to do, or somewhere to go.
Shikiri and XamTam ducked into a shadowed alley and shed their disguises. XamTam repacked her bag as Shikiri strapped her sword to her back once again.
"All right," XamTam said decisively as they stepped back out into the bright light of the main streets. "We'll be here for a while. Better wind a place to stay."
"Oh?" Shikiri gave her friend a skeptical eye. "Someplace other than jail, you mean?"
Shikiri's sarcasm fell deaf on XamTam's ears. "Precisely."
Shikiri rolled her eyes. "You know a place?" She asked, looking down the street to her right.
"Yep. Right there," XamTam pointed to a small 3-story building crammed between 2 tall housing developments. A sign hanging in a small rectangular window read: A Rose, a Pint, and an Armadillo.
"Nice name," Shikiri sniggered.
XamTam chose not to answer. Instead, she crossed the busy street to reach the small building, Shikiri trailing after her.
The woman placed a hand on the door handle. But, before she opened it, she turned to Shikiri. "Stand out here. I'll get you when I need you."
"Okay," Shikiri wanted to question her friend, but XamTam's tone was final.
"Good!" XamTam smiled, "don't wander off, either." With that, she walked into "A Rose, a Pint, and an Armadillo". The bells on the door jingled as she pulled it shut.

The room was dark and smoky. Several round wooden tables littered the room. Some people looked up at XamTam as she entered, though most of them kept their eyes on their card games, drinks, or their companions. It wasn't noisy, nor was it quiet. The soft rumble of voices, and the clinking of glasses created a soothing atmosphere.
XamTam headed towards a bartender standing behind a counter near the back of the room. The woman noticed that each wooden table had a tin vase holding a solitary yellow rose in full bloom. She made it to the back of the room with ease. The bartender didn't look up from cleaning a glass, even when XamTam sat on a stool in front of the bar.
"Hey, MalMal, didn't know you still ran this old joint!" XamTam crowed, resting her elbow on the bar table.
The bartender looked up, startled. His look of surprise melted into one of pleasure as he saw her. "TamTam! Nobody's called me 'MalMal' since I . . . Well, since I last saw you!" He hugged her over the bar. "I always figured you were in jail, or something."
"Been there, done that," XamTam excused the subject. "So, Malmoree, how are you? It looks like you might've shrunk or something!" XamTam looked her friend over. It was always a joke with them about his height.
Malmoree was enormous. He topped off 6 feet and five inches of height. Despite his height, Malmoree probably didn't weigh much more than 160 pounds. He was literally skin and bones. His brown hair was long, falling half way down his back, and was pulled into a low ponytail at the base of his neck. He wore simple baggy brown pants, and a light blue apron over his white short-sleeved shirt. His eyes were a soft brown, giving him a warm, gentle look.
"Perhaps," Malmoree smiled. "Maybe you grew taller!"
"Unlikely." XamTam answered dryly.
Malmoree laughed. "Anyways," he changed the subject. "What brings you back here? I heard rumors about you being a wanted criminal!"
"That's exactly my reason for coming here," XamTam replied, lowering her voice. "I knew you were the only the person we could rent from, without being turned in."
"We?" the bartender asked, looking around.
"Yes. My companion and I," XamTam pointed out the window at Shikiri, who was looking around self-consciously.
Malmoree suddenly looked sad as he gazed at Shikiri. "Time's sure have changed, TamTam. Even the young carry weapons now."
"Yes," XamTam answered before turning back to the bartender. "But, trust me, never underestimate Shikiri. She's a lot older than you may think. And a hard fighter to boot."
Malmoree's face broke into a prin. "Perhaps she's enjoy our training ring out back/"
"Hit it right on the head there, MalMal," XamTam said in response, smiling as well.
"Great," Malmoree picked up the glass and resumed cleaning it. "I'll room you two for free, if she can bring the boys down a peg or two."
"Deal," XamTam agreed, getting up from the stool.
"Hey!" he called after her ash she walked across the room. "How about telling me your full name? I don't believe I've ever caught it before!"
XamTam raised a hand in farewell as she reached the door. "Forget about it, Mal!" She called back, her back still facing him. "There ain't nobody who knows my full name."
With that, she opened the door and stepped into the blinding sunlight.

Shikiri looked up as she heard the bells on the door jingle. "Hey," she said, eyeing some boys who had been watching her from across the street. All three of the boys had a smug look plastered on their faces. Their eyes watched the girl's every move.
XamTam picked up the canvas bag that she had left outside with Shikiri. "I got us a room in this old inn, here," she said, not noticing the boys on the other side of the street.
"How?" Shikiri asked, surprised. "You know we haven't much money."
"Oh, the owner and I are old friends," XamTam answered vaguely. "C'mon. Lets deposit our stuff. I want to show you something."
Shikiri glanced back at the boys one last time. They were still standing there with those stupid looks of superiority. The girl wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at them before stepping into the inn, and out of sight.

* * *

"So this is why those boys were watching me," Shikiri thought as she twisted nimbly out of a downward chop. "They were trying to size me up. See what kind of opponent I would be."
After finding their room on the third floor, XamTam had taken Shikiri back downstairs and out back. Shikiri could hardly contain her surprise at what she had seen. It was a very nice sparring arena. Equipped with practice swords and armor. Several guests were sitting on chairs, watching the practice matches.
Only seconds after Shikiri had entered the arena, she was jumped by the three boys and challenged to three one-on-one matches. Shikiri had beaten the first two boys with ease. This third one was giving her some trouble though.
"But, I must say, they didn't do a very good job of it, if you ask me," Shikiri couldn't help but think as she dodged yet another predictable thrust.
"You're such a girl!" the boy growled, obviously annoyed with her defensive strategy. In the course of 15 minutes, Shikiri had only crossed swords three times. Two of the three were defensively.
"At least I don't fight like one," Shikiri answered coolly.
Her opponent blushed as the crowd cheered for Shikiri.
"I'm gonna beat you so bad, you won't be able to move for a week!" he shot back.
"Easier said than done," Shikiri switched her wooden practice sword to her left hand. Leaping over an underhanded sweep, she lashed out with her weapon. The flat of the sword connected with his back, sending him sprawling head over heels. Shikiri had to admit the display was pretty comical.
A man, obviously the boys' coach, whistled loud and hard with his thumb and forefinger in his mouth. The man called for a five-minute break. Shikiri trotted over to XamTam, her stand in 'coach'.
"Nice," XamTam grinned at her. "Make sure you beat him nice and good."
"I was planning on it in the first place, anyway," Shikiri retorted, sitting in a chair next to her 'coach'.
"Oh good," XamTam squealed. "Because, Malmoree, the owner, said we could only stay for free if you beat them."
"WHAT?!?!" Shikiri shouted, jumping up. "You're betting on me!"
"Calm down, woman!" XamTam cooed. "That only means I trust your abilities enough to rely on them."
"I suppose," Shikiri grumbled, sinking back into her chair.
The girl looked across the ring at the boys' coach. They seemed to be faring much worse. The coach was furious; his face was turning red with anger, and Shikiri could faintly hear him yelling at the boy.
The five minutes passed and the match was to resume.
"Go gettem, tiger," XamTam slapped Shikiri's back playfully.
"I sure will," Shikiri answered, her smile deviant.
Shikiri shouldered the wooden sword and headed out into the ring.

XamTam smiled as she watched her retreating friend. The woman knew she needn't worry; Shikiri was a more than competent fighter. The boys were just minor annoyances. "Shikiri will have no problem kicking their sorry butts," XamTam said aloud.
"That's obvious," a voice from above her said. "It's apparent she's just toying with them."
It was a young man who had spoken. XamTam raised her eyebrows at the man as he sat in Shikiri's vacated chair. "Well, well, well," XamTam said while looking the man up and down. "Who do we have here . . . ."
The man was handsome, extremely so. He was well built, but not stocky. He was tall, but not gangling. His skin was a honey cream color, contrasting with his bright, stellar green eyes. His hair was reddish brown, and curly. It fell into his face, accenting his high cheekbones. He wore a long sleeved v-neck light blue shirt, baring a small part of his muscular chest. His pants were loose, and dark gray.
"Oh, nobody . . ." the man answered, his leering eyes looking XamTam over from head to toe. "I'm pretty well known as Raeominzvlaskaya."
"Hmm," XamTam pondered. She crossed her legs and turned slightly so she could rest her elbow on the arm of the chair. "That's an awfully long name. Why don't I call you 'Raeo' . . ."
The man leered at XamTam some more. "I don't like Raeo."
"Then I'll call you George."
"So, Raeo," XamTam began, privately laughing at her own joke. "To what do I owe the great honor of your company?"
"Ah, but what man could not enjoy the company of one so lovely?" Raeo replied, slipping his arm around XamTam's shoulders.
A small dagger suddenly appeared in XamTam's hand. She rested the sharp point on Raeominzvlaskaya's pinky. She began to say in a singsong voice, "Inee, minn-ee, mine-ee, ming-ger," she accented each word by moving the point of the knife to the next finger of the hand that was on her shoulder. "Catch a lecher by the finger. If he hollers," she looked him in the eye and said pointedly, "cut it off." The blade rested on Raeo's middle finger.
Before XamTam could apply pressure to the blade, and sever Raeo's finger, the young man pulled his hand away. "Ahem," he rubbed his hand nervously. "Excuse me, miss . . ."
"XamTam," she answered, twirling the small knife between her fingers.
"Ah," Raeominzvlaskaya rested his hand on the armrest of his own chair. "Do you have a last name?" he grinned at her.
"Don't push it," XamTam replied bluntly, letting the sun reflect the metal of the dagger.
XamTam smiled, and the dagger disappeared up her sleeve. She looked back at her company. It seemed he was watching Shikiri intently. XamTam turned her gaze to her friend. She chuckled as Shikiri feigned to the left, and as her opponent darted to block her, she twisted to the right and did a lift handed sweep; the result, the boy fell to his knees, his feet knocked out from beneath him.
"She'll be a fine woman someday," XamTam heard the man say.
XamTam laughed. "What? Are you trying to hit on her, too?"
Raeo looked XamTam right in the eye and said with the utmost seriousness, "No. I want to challenge her to a match."

Shikiri brought her sword up, just as the boy brought his down, aiming for her shoulder. The practice sword was in her right hand now, and she held it horizontally. The two weapons met. The boy uttered a cry of astonishment as his sword suddenly stopped, inches away from Shikiri's shoulder. The blade of Shikiri's sword had caught his in the cross-section where the hilt and the blade met, trapping his sword there.
Shikiri smirked. With one flick of her wrist, the boy's sword went playing out of his hand, lading 20 some feet from them. The girl lowered her sword and rested the flat of the blade on his shoulder, the sharper edge facing his neck. This signified the fatal blow.
The boy held her gaze as he sunk to his knees in defeat. "You bitch," he growled so no one but her could hear.
"Now, now," Shikiri said, shaking her head. "Is that any way to speak to a lady?"
"What kind of lady dresses like a boy, and masquerades as a swordsman?" the defeated boy sneered.
Shikiri bent down so her face was only half a foot away from his face. "Swords-woman," she corrected. She tapped his nose lightly, and straightened up. With those as her final words, she turned and walked to her side of the arena. The boy was left to digest her words in silence.
Shikiri smiled as several of the guests came over to shake her hand and congratulate her, including the owner of the inn.
"Excellent! Really excellent!" Malmoree crowed, patting Shikiri on the back. "Those boys had won so many matches, it began to go to their heads. I'm so glad you showed them who's boss!"
Shikiri was flattered. "No, really, I'm not that great."
"What d'ya mean 'not that great'?" Malmoree cried indignantly. "Those boys have dominated my sparring ring for ages! You made them look like amateurs!"
Shikiri eventually made it over to XamTam. She was standing up, beaming at Shikiri.
"There's something about that smile . . ." Shikiri thought warily as she approached her friend. "All right, what is it? I don't like that look on your face," Shikiri stopped in front of XamTam, looking accusingly up into her face.
"Shikiri," XamTam began, causing the younger woman to groan with misgiving.
XamTam continued despite Shikiri's obvious opinion on the matter. "I'd like to introduce you to your next opponent!"
Right on queue, a man stepped into Shikiri's line of vision. "Hello!" he waved at Shikiri and smiled innocently.
Shikiri started as she saw who it was. She found herself taking an involuntary step backwards. "That face . . . Those eyes . . ." she thought, staring with disbelief.
XamTam didn't seem to notice Shikiri's response to the man. "This is Raeominzvlaskaya," she continued. "He would like to challenge you to a match."
Shikiri looked away from the man. "XamTam . . . Not today." The girl moved to walk away, but the man held out an arm, blocking her path. Shikiri looked at the arm. Her gaze moved upwards, locking her eyes with his.
"Please." Was all he said.
Shikiri sighed. "Fine," as she said the word, the girl felt a rush of excitement and misgiving.

* * *

The match had begun slowly, each person sizing up the other. Before it had begun, the man had picked out a wooden practice sword. While doing so, he had introduced himself.

"I know your friend introduced me already," he had said. "But, you may call me Raeo."
"I figured you'd have a nickname," Shikiri had answered, watching him pick a sword. "You're amazingly selective," Shikiri commented.
Raeo laughed. "I'm sorry. I just can't find one like my own."
Eventually, he had chosen, and the match had begun.

Raeo seemed to talk incessantly during the battle. Shikiri had to admit, he was quite proficient at making small talk. The way he spoke and moved, it made it feel like the duel was nothing more than a dance.
"And so one day, she just up and left. Just like that!" Raeo concluded, parrying some of Shikiri's blows. He had recently begun talking about some ex-girlfriend, or something of the sort.
"Maybe," Shikiri began, switching her sword to her left hand and delivering another blow. "She thought you talked too much!"
The battle then escalated to a point where even Shikiri couldn't talk. Not only did the match intensify, but also Raeo seemed to fight seriously. The tables turned as the offensive position switched to Raeo, leaving Shikiri to concentrate on blocking Raeo's moves. Shikiri had the sword in her right hand again. She gripped the weapon and swung it at her opponent's shoulder. Raeo danced out of way in the nick of time, the wooden edge grazing his arm.
The two crossed blades, each putting their full weight behind their swords attempting to push the other one down.
"You're lying to yourself if you think you can beat me," Raeo growled, his face less than a foot away from Shikiri's.
"I'm not the only one who's lying," Shikiri shot back, pushing his sword away; although she was forced to block his sword as it came back to again. "You are lying about your name, Mr. Jido the third."
"Fine." He retorted. "You want to know my real name?"
Shikiri felt a bead of sweat roll down her cheek. Slowly, but surely, 'Raeo' was applying more pressure to his weapon. The girl grit her teeth as she was forced back an inch.
"My," he began, annunciating each word by pushing Shikiri back just a little more. "Name."
Shikiri took a step back.
Shikiri's arms were burning with fatigue.
Shikiri gasped. Memories flashed through her brain. Something clicked in her brain. Recollections of her past played as if in fast-forward.
He grinned. "Long time, no see."
With a great surge of strength, Jogano pushed Shikiri back a few feet. He swung the practice sword in a wide arc to the right, and slammed the sword into Shikiri's side.
All of the air was pushed out of her lungs, forcing her to her knees. Before she sunk into total darkness, the girl was able to force out three last words. "Yea. Long time."
And her vision blanked out.

* * *

Shikiri slowly opened her eyes to a white ceiling. She rolled over and muffled a cry of surprise as she saw someone sitting by her bed and staring blankly out the window.
It was Jogano, or Saio Miguel, or Raeowhatever.
She made a small noise of disgust and pulled the covers off. She discovered that she was wearing an extra pair of XamTam's clothes. Needless to say, they were practically falling off.
"So, You're awake then!" the voice of the man sitting beside her bed came.
"Yes, I am," Shikiri replied, getting out of the bed. "I suggest you leave. I need to change."
The young man had a playful look in his eyes. "Naw, I think I'll stay."
Shikiri snorted. "Quit while you're ahead, Jo."
He smiled. "Ah, but I have to be ahead to do so in the first place, don't you agree?"
Shikiri turned to face him. "Don't push it, Mr. Alias."
Jogano stood up and raised his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay . . . I'm going."
Shikiri waited until he door closet and she heard it latch. Then she set about getting back into her own clothes. Someone had obviously washed them.
Soon after Shikiri had changed and washed up a bit, XamTam burst in.
"Knock much?" Shikiri muttered as she buttoned the strap on her overalls.
"Oh, who CARES about that," XamTam scoffed, flopping down on the bed. "Why didn't you tell me that you knew him?"
"Who?" Shikiri asked, putting on her most innocent face as she turned to her friend.
XamTam merely gave her a look.
"Oh, him," Shikiri sighed, defeated,
"Yes, him," XamTam prompted.
Shikiri sat down on the bed next to her friend. "Well, when I was very young - this is my earliest memory, mind you - I ran into a very nice boy. He looked out for me for several years . . .
The girl proceeded to tell her long forgotten story.

* * *

Early the next morning, Shikiri and XamTam slipped past some sleeping guards and out onto the dirt road leading away from the city. Shikiri had her sword strapped to her back, and XamTam had her bag.
"I hope you weren't thinking of leaving without me," a voice came from the side of the road.
"We seriously considered it, I'm sure," Shikiri replied dryly as she and XamTam walked past Jogano.
Jogano came into stride next to them. "But you decided against it, of course," he grinned at them. Today, he was wearing baggy brown pants, and a white long sleeved t-shirt underneath a reddish brown vest that fell half way to his knees. A saber like sword was strapped to his waist.
XamTam didn't say anything. She smiled as Shikiri spoke to Jogano. "Of course we did. Every girl needs lecherous men following her about," She said sarcastically.
"Oh, that hurts," Jogano grinned, putting a hand over his heart. "Like a knife, right there."
"You could ask XamTam if she would kindly replace that imaginary knife with real one," Shikiri said coolly.
The three couldn't help but laugh as they set off with no specific destination.

* * *

A/N: ::jams to Jack Johnson:: Hmm . . . I was thinking . . . If Shikiri is 17, and "Mr. Alias" is 20 . . . that's only 3 years apart . . . You don't think that's too much, do you? I don't. XD XamTam is like . . . 25 . . . Ah well . . . If we could, I'm sure we'd love to stop the years from passing . . . Sorry this took so long . . . I'm behind in typing . . . and without a deadline . . . I seem to work slower. =__=;;