Kuroi Bara (Black Rose) watched the shogun’s palace burn from the forest’s edge, the dancing flames pushing back the approaching darkness. Sadness shadowed her heart; Daimyo Yuuma Tanaka had been a good friend and an excellent business partner. He had accepted her overtures when no one else would, and he had introduced her to Edo society. But it was that same independence that led to his death. His honor would not allow him to flee, even when he knew the other daimyos plotted his demise. Luckily, he did not feel the same way about his family.
The horseman emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the field, riding hard. He pulled back the reins of his black stallion and the horse reared before Kuroi. When the horse settled the rider dismounted. There was someone else with him; a girl, no more than ten years old.
“Gou, where are the others?” Kuroi asked.
Gou, one of Yuuma’s most trusted samurai, bowed before answering.
“They refused to come,” he said. “They chose to die with Master Tanaka.”
“I want to die, too!” the girl shouted.
Gou closed his eyes, his head dropping. He took a deep breath then reached into his robe. He extracted a small leather bag then gave it to Kuroi Bara. Bara opened the bad; it was filled with gold nuggets.
“Your payment,” Gou said. “Take Princess Danuja to Lord Li Wei. The Lord will protect her until it is time for her to return. He will give you the rest of your payment when you deliver her.”
Bara put the bag in her pocket. Gou turned then knelt before the girl.
“Princess Danuja, now is not your time. Your father has given you a duty, one that only you can fulfill. Lord Li Wei will prepare you. There is no one better.”
The girl glared at Kuroi, an expression the umber skinned woman was familiar with.
“I will not let my father down,” the princess finally said. She walked by Gou then stood before Kuroi.
“Will you serve me well?” she asked.
Bara laughed despite the graveness of their situation.
“I serve no one, but I will see that you reach Li Wei.”
Danuja glanced back at Gou, worry in her young eyes.
“This is best,” Gou said. “Remember, do as Kuroi Bara says. Always. Do not dishonor your family.”
“I will,” she said.
Bara went to Gou.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“I will join my master. Will you be my kashkunin?”
“Of course,” Kuroi replied.
Bara turned to Danuja.
“Stay here,” she ordered.
She followed Gou to the field, where he knelt facing the castle. Kuroi took out her katana and waited. Gou was quick, jerking his short sword free then plunging it into his stomach. Bara waited until the disembowelment was complete before bringing her katana down and cutting off his head. As she turned to walk away, she saw Danuja staring with glistening eyes, her hands over her mouth. Bara grabbed the reins of the horse then climbed on its back.
“Danuja!” she called.
Her voice broke the girl’s trance. Kuroi extended her hand; Danuja took it as she lifted the girl onto the horse.
“Remember what you saw today,” Bara said. “Remember the sacrifices made for you. It will strengthen you for what is to come.”
Bara spurred the horse and it galloped through the trees. They had to reach the road before nightfall, for it would be better to confront anyone after them in the open rather than the forest. Her plan was to ride all night until they reached the harbor where her crew and her dhow waited. Yuuma had given her enough gold and other goods to make her journey more than worth it. She would take the girl to Li Wei then her part in this would be done. She and her crew would sail home to Pemba and bask in their newfound wealth.
A flickering light to her left warned he. She reigned the horse hard and the arrow whizzed by, nicking her hat. Wrapping her arm around Danuja’s waist she jumped from the horse then hid behind the nearest tree. Torchlight surrounded her like fireflies. There was no need hiding; whoever pursued them would eventually root them out. She found a nearby clearing then grabbed Danuja’s hand.
“Come,” she said.
“We can’t go out there!” Danuja cried. “The archers will kill us.”
Bara dragged Danuja with her.
“The arrow was meant for the horse, not us,” she said. “These are samurai. They will fight honorably. Stay by my side. They will not harm you because they want you alive.”
Their pursuers rode to the edge of the clearing then dismounted their horses. They mounted their torches into the grass before approaching. Kuroi took out her katana and her scimitar.
“We do not wish to harm you, Kuroi Bara,” the lead samurai said. “You can go free if you give us the princess.”
“You know I can’t do that, Haruki,” Danuja answered. “I gave Daimyo Tanaka my word.”
“You are gaijin,” Haruki said. “You have no bond to him.”
“A promise is a promise,” Kuroi replied.
Haruki nodded. “So be it.”
The samurai attacked in unison. Kuroi spun, knocking their blades away. One samurai staggered away with a slashed throat; another grasping the wound to his stomach. Kuroi ignored the slash to her back as she delivered a killing stab to the samurai that delivered the cut. In minutes only she and Haruki still stood. Both bled, but only Haruki struggled to stand.
“Walk away, my friend,” Bara advised. “You have given your best.”
Haruki steadied himself, raised his katana over his head then attacked. Bara met his downward slice with her katana then disemboweled him with her scimitar before slipping to the right. Haruki fell to his knees then collapsed onto his face.
Bara did not look at his body. This situation had her killing her friends, which made her sad and angry. Danuja emerged from behind the trees, her eyes wide.
“You are not samurai, nor are you a ninja. Yet you killed these men as if they were flies that annoyed you. How is this possible?”
Bara grabbed the reins of one of the samurais’ horses then led it to Danuja.
“You have your own horse now,” she said. “We’ll make better time.”
She went to Gou’s horse and mounted. Danuja rode up to her.
“Who are you, Kuroi Bara?” Danuja asked. “Are you a demon?”
Bara laughed. “I’m just a woman that’s been paid to keep you alive. Now let’s go. If we survive to see tomorrow, I’ll answer your questions. Well, at least some of them.”
They maneuvered the horses through the dark forest until they reached the road to the harbor. Kuroi could see the lights of the city. Her mood lightened. They were almost safe.
Kuroi Bara and Danuja rode through the town directly to the harbor, ignoring the shouts of the constables. Kuroi felt some relief when she saw her modest dhow bobbing against the dock. She pulled the reins of her mount, halting it before the wooden planks; Danuja did the same. Kuroi helped the girl off her horse, grabbed her hand the led her to the dhow.
“Hey!” she shouted. “Drop the gangplank!”
A bald brown head rose over the bulwark, revealing the face of a grey-bearded man rubbing his eyes.
“Kesi? Is that you?”
“Yes, baba, it’s me?” Kuroi replied. “Drop the gangplank and wake up the baharia. We need to set sail tonight.”
The gangplank slid over the side of the dhow then crashed on the dock. As they climbed aboard, a dog barked in the distance. They were coming.
Kesi/Kuroi hurried to the dhow’s warning bell then banged it hard. The baharia sleeping on deck struggled to their feet while those below hurried from the hold. Baba come to her side, his face scrunched with annoyance.
“What is going on, Kesi?” he said in Swahili. He pointed at Danuja. “And who is this?”
“I’ll explain everything as soon as we are under way,” Kuroi said.
Kesi turned her attentions to the others.
“Get the sail up! You two get down there and push us off. Now!”
The baharia scrambled about and the dhow was underway in minutes. Kesi went to the bow of the ship. Their timing could not have been better. The dock was filled with samurai, some loosing their arrows which fell harmlessly into the dark waters. Kesi let out a sigh.
“We’re safe for now,” she said.
Her baba joined her.
“Now tell me what’s going on?” he said.
Kesi gestured to Danuja.
“Yuuma Tanaka is dead,” Kesi said. “He was killed by the other shoguns. This is his daughter, Danuja. He asked me to deliver her to a colleague in Hangzhou.”
“This is terrible news!” her baba said. “This will ruin us!”
“Not quite,” Kesi said. She took the pouch Tanaka had sent to her then handed it to baba. He took the pouch then opened it. His eyes popped wide.
“There enough in there to pay for this entire safari,” Kesi said. “Tanaka was generous.”
“I’d say,” baba replied.
Baba squatted before Kuroi then patted her on the head.
“I am sorry for your tragedy,” he said in her language. “We will make sure we get you safely to your people in Hangzhou.”
“They are not my people,” Danuja said. “I’ve never met them before. I don’t know why my father sent me to them.”
“He must have had good reason,” baba said. He looked at Kesi.
“I’ll take her below,” Kesi said.
They went to Kesi’s cabin. Danuja sat on the chair by Kesi’s bed.
“Who was that man, Kuroi?” she asked. “And what is that language you two spoke?”
Kesi sat hard on her bed before answering.
“My name is Kesi,” she said to Danuja, “and that man is my father, Zahoor. We own this dhow. The language we spoke is Kiswahili.”
“I thought your name was Kuroi Bara,” Danuja said.
“That was the name your father chose for me,” she said. “He thought it appropriated for dealing with him and the other shoguns.
Danuja’s stoic façade finally caved in. She covered her face and sobbed.
“Why is this happening? What did I do?”
Kesi sat beside her, placing her arm on Danuja’s shoulders.
“Terrible things happen sometimes that we cannot control. All we can do is live through them. Your father gave you the chance to do so.”
“But I don’t want to go to Li Wei in Hangzhou!”
“I’m sure it will only be temporary,” Danuja said. “Once things settle you will be able to return to Nihon.
Kesi stood and Danuja laid down on her bed.
“Get some rest,” Kesi said. “I must help the others on deck.”
“Can you stay with me?” Danuja said. “At least until I fall asleep.”
Kesi lay down in the bed beside Danuja.
“Only until you fall asleep,” she said.
Kesi and Danuja closed their eyes. The stress of the night overcame them, and they slept.
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