Sword and Shadow

Crickets chirped off in the distance, the light of the moon peaking out from between the clouds. The tall swordswoman wrapped up her hands in the long strips of cloth with calm efficiency, her blue eyes heavy lidded from her many thoughts. Her robes were simple, white cloth hugging her tall, lean body, pants, shirt and a matching belt. The boots were supple cloth, molded to the shape of her toes, the soles of her feet hardened to such use.

The peasant's hut that she knelt in was nearly dark, falling down into wreckage around her. The paper screens were tattered, the door falling off it's hinges and the thatch roof was collapsing on one side. Moonlight lit the rubble in splashes of bone white, giving it a serene beauty amid all of the destruction. The floor mats had begun to rot away, exposed to the elements, the sweet scent of decay filling the confined space.

The bloody cuts that covered her graceful hands were soon covered, an awkwardly tied knot tightened by grabbing the strip with her teeth and pulling so hard that her eyes teared up. The battle had been desperate, the older yojimbo had been very good. In the end she had ripped the bodyguard's sword from his hands, the blade slick as it cut her palms, then she had cut him down. With a final piece of cloth she tied her black hair back from her blue eyes, the twin strands of cloth falling gently to caress her bare cheek.

Something off in the distance stilled her movements for a second, possibly a twig breaking off or maybe the sound of a branch gently being shifted aside. Smoothly she reached for the sword that was beside her, gracefully sliding it through the belt and then rising to her feet, taking a deep breath to steady her nerves. With an almost unearthly silence she slipped from the hut out into the burned out wreck of a village, the rubble of countless peoples lives scattered all around her. She walked forward until she found a mostly clear place, the faint breeze stirring her hair as she tilted her head back, patiently waiting.

It didn't take long.

The knives hissed like snakes as they cut through the air but the swordswoman heard them coming, leaping aside at the last moment. Her attention was already focused on the next attack, the black shadow that raced out from the night towards her. The slim body was sheathed in darkness, face, hair, all but the green eyes concealed by the black cloth. Knives swung, flashing in moonlight as the figure went for the swordwoman's eyes but she dodged, hand ready on the hilt of her sword as she watched her foe warily.

The two circled each other for a few graceful paces, then the green eyes figure nodded to her respectfully. "You don't need to do this Shion," the voice was definitely female sounding as she continued, "just swear the same oath we all did."

"No," Shion answered, the swordswoman never taking her eyes away from her opponent, also aware that others were watching, off in the distance as she continued, "we both know who I swore my oaths to, Jasmine."

Jasmine shook her head, the ninja looking oddly mournful. "You're going to die for your honor," she said regretfully.

"Then I cannot think of a better way to go," Shion answered her firmly, something in her stance saying she was at peace with that decision.

Jasmine didn't say another word, instead she simply seemed to disappear, in a instant of movement racing off back into the safety of the deep shadows. From the darkness her words echoed, "Another time, then, and I will kill you."

"I'll be waiting," Shion answered, hoping that she was still near enough to hear.

She waited for a few moments, Shion's every sense seeking to pierce the night as she sought her foe before finally accepting that she was gone. Turning away Shion returned to the wreckage of the hut, picking up her pack from the battered mat then heading off on her own errands. Ignoring any of her tiredness and bone aching fatigue, casting aside all her human weakness she ran, knowing that there wasn't long left to act.

Over the past few years the kingdom had been gradually torn apart by war, many powerful factions battling ruthlessly for power and influence. In this era oaths were fickle things, the overthrow or death of a lord leaving his warriors masterless and alone. You swore to whomever looked like they were going to be victorious, and tried to ignore the rumblings of guilt and regret over the deaths of those you had once served.

'The princess isn't dead yet,' Shion reminded herself as she raced along the road, the dirt and stone sliding away beneath her feet, 'nor will I allow it to happen.' She was barely hours away from the summer home of the noble family, the logical place for the usurper to have put her.

Of course, her trip was made more difficult by the patrols by various factions on all the main roads. Most of them she could avoid, the loud men dressed in armor riding along on mighty steeds as they searched for the enemy were easy to spot as she traveled under the weak late afternoon sun. But sometimes, fickle chance wasn't with her.

The crossroads were guarded as she neared the blind corner keeping Shion from avoiding the guard station. "Woman," the samurai called out angrily, his sword being drawn with a steely hiss, "how dare you carry a sword!" His armor was shabby, much like his companions, clearly they were hire-swords, fighting for the highest bidder.

Easy prey for one such as her.

Not answering Shion charged them, her sword swinging free with a steely hiss. It was the last thing these arrogant men on horseback had been expecting her to do and she struck before the first could possibly react. His sword, along with most of his arm hit the ground, then his wait of pain was cut off brutally. Blood splattered the panicked steed as it bolted away in terror, leaving Shion facing the other stunned riders.

"You killed...." one finally managed.

"Yes," with a single swing Shion coldly flicked the blood away from her sword as she continued, "let me pass, before I have to do it again."

The sound of a bowstring answered her, some one wisely striking at her from a distance but Shion was ready, ducking and then swinging to cut the arrows out of the air. With that same impossible speed she raced forward, her blade clanging against the sword of a dismounted fighter. He met her eyes under his helm, his expression wry with a kid of painful regret.

"You were in the palace guard," the older man murmured as they strained against each other, muscles fighting fatigue.

"Yes, once," Shion answered, then with a twist of her wrist broke free, her sword smoothly slicing across his body, dropping him with a groan of pain.

"Damn you, demon," the bowman cried as he fired hurriedly, fear sending the arrows astray but Shion was gone before the arrows crossed her path, swiftly closing with the last fighter as the boy bolted for his life.

"I yield," the fighter wailed and Shion struck, hammering the hilt of her sword right across his head, him falling limply to the ground out cold.

Part of Shion wanted to chase down the fleeing bowman too, battle lust pounding through her veins, then she shook herself. 'There's no time for it,' she thought to herself, gazing up at the rising sun, 'I have to go!'

The night was falling once again when Shion reached her destination, the great castle rising up over the little town. In perfect silence she crouched in the shadows of the forest, watching the guards and a few residents of the town fearfully come and go. She timed the patrols to the steady beat of her heart, the guards that circled the walls and the men who stood outside, clearly bored.

Shion had to make a choice, between one kind of stealth and another. She could easily steal the clothes of a guard, bluff her way in and with a bit of luck reach the princess before being discovered. Or, if she was daring enough, she could sneak in as she was, relying on her skill to stay away from guards until she could accomplish her goal.

It wasn't much of a choice.

The guard slipped away from the others, moving into the woods a bit to relieve himself. Politely Shion waited till he was done before dropping down silently behind him, a single well struck blow putting him out. Roughly she dragged him away then stripped him of all his armor, gagging the guard before tying him up against a lonely tree.

"They should find you by morning," Shion reassured the dazed young man softly, "once the search starts up."

Shion actually felt a flash of honest irritation as she passed the outer guards, no one even challenging her presence. Once upon a time such challenges would have been automatic, but clearly times had changed. She strode through the town, keeping her helm down to hide her face, soon reaching the castle itself. The townspeople she passed looked at Shion with more than a little fear, having experience with what these guards could do to them. Around her the streets swam with filth, buildings falling in disrepair much like the rest of the kingdom.

'We have to change things soon,' Shion thought grimly, 'the land can't go on like this for very much longer.'

At least at the castle, the guards were a bit more diligent than those at the gates. Not by much, but a little. "Friend or Foe?" a young man demanded.

"A friend," Shion deliberately dropped her voice, making it sound as masculine as possible even as the helm hid much of her face. They should have demanded to see her face, to remove her helm, but the fools did neither.

"Enter then," he paused and added wryly, "the Princess is still on the warpath, so I pray that you're not one of her warders."

"Guilty as charged," Shion answered wryly as she strode past them through the doors, fighting the urge to say anything more. 'I'm not that realistic pretending to be as man,' she thought as she passed through the inner courtyard to the main building.

Moving through the halls Shion was keeping herself as inconspicuous as possible, doing nothing to draw any attention to herself while she neared her goal. The castle itself was largely deserted, thankfully, with only a few guards occasionally wandering the echoing halls. The apartments of the nobility were near the top of the palace, a few guard towers stationed nearby to watch over those within and to protect from attack from without. Nearing the rooms she heard a familiar voice speaking softly, her eyes widening just slightly.

Jasmine was quiet, "Princess, your champion is on her way."

"Shion is still alive?" she sounded so happy, the warrior could easily imagine the other girl's sweetly smiling face. Moving nearer Shion was glad to see the hall was deserted, no one else within range to hear or see.

"Alive and well," Jasmine agreed, "and not long behind me, either." A short pause, "Of course, we're fully ready for her arrival."

"I hope that she has evaded all the guards on the roads," the Princess softly fretted, and Shion could easily imagine her worried look.

"Oh, I think she'll manage," Jasmine said confidently.

Shion smiled to herself wryly as she moved forward, gently tapping on the sliding door before entering the chamber. Despite being what amounted to a cell the apartment was beautifully decorated and comfortable, fitting a princess of the blood. Both women looked up on Shion's entrance, one going for her weapon, then they smiled in relief as they saw who it was.

"In truth the road patrols were rather thin," Shion commented as she entered, smiling at the two familiar figures who were sitting there. She moved to kneel before the princess as she murmured, "Princess Chiziru."

"Shion, that isn't necessary." the Princess looked down at Shion, the delicate blonde smiling at her with honest warmth. Fine robes colored in a shimmering rose covered a graceful body, Princess Chiziru's lovely face open and caring to the world. She was the last of her line, meant to inherit the throne and Shion had sworn that she would do so.

Jasmine chuckled, her dark purple hair flowing over her shoulders as she helped Shion up to her feet. "It's about time you got here," she said impishly, "I'm sure the Emperor's spies have already reported our mock fight."

"I cam barely believe that the two of you have maintained the deception that you are enemies for so long," Chiziru murmured, watching as Jasmine took Shion's hands in hers in a gesture both tender and deeply intimate.

"It hasn't been easy," Shion said, for a moment lost in Jasmine's eyes.

"No have no idea," Jasmine said feelingly.

Chiziru chuckled softly at that, her eyes twinkling with amusement. "In truth I am glad to have two allies as worthy as you," Chizuru said simply.

Shion shook herself, fighting free of the almost irresistible pull Jasmine had on her, smiling at the others wryly. "We'd better get you out of here," she addressed the princess respectfully, "we have a long road ahead, to get you to safety."

"And not that long to do it in," Jasmine added, her eyes narrowed, "the Emperor has said he intends to wed our princess within the week."

"That won't happen," Shion said firmly.

"Indeed," Chiziru rose, her robes flowing gently. "With companions such as these," she smiled at Jasmine and Shion, "I know we'll make it."

The End....?

Notes: I've wanted to write a samurai/ninja love story for awhile now, and I'm still not quite sure if I've succeeded. I had originally plotted out a much darker ending of death and betrayal, but the idea that Jasmine and Shion were working together just wouldn't go away. Oh well... ;