A/N ~ I initially delayed this one because I thought it was one of the "short" chapters. Turns out, it's not as short as I thought.
Kichiro, the First Tiger
Seven days later, aboard the cruise ship Shikibu, in the Mediterranean Sea
“Arigato, Mathangi,” Kichiro nodded, accepting his second cup of tea. He had never liked tea, but when he met Mathangi a week earlier, she introduced him to a rich black tea grown in her homeland of Sri Lanka. He didn’t know if it was the aroma, or the flavor, or the dark inviting beauty of the curvy woman serving it but…he just couldn’t get enough.
Kichiro was a tall warrior, slender but solidly built and unbearably handsome. He had classic Japanese good looks, and short, sleek black hair. His clan leader, Lord Fujin, favored him openly above all his other students. Kichiro was a flawless swordsman, having never lost a sparring match and never failed a mission. His skin was barely scarred, for in childhood Kichiro had never erred. It was as though he were born to be a ninja and nothing else.
Kichiro was allowed his own servants, his own home, and the privilege of taking a woman. However, no woman had ever caught his attention the way Mathangi did. For one, she was most assuredly not a ninja. She was not one of the many foreign-born orphans dragged into the clans. She was curvy instead of lithe, soft and smooth and unblemished. Even her tattoos were simply henna, curving and coiling about her arms, feet, lower back and stomach.
She wore her hair long, scented with sweet Moroccan oil and adorned with white flowers. As she knelt across from him in his dimly cabin, he let his nose fully inhale her scent—woman, oil, and flower.
“Should I brew some more?” she asked with that slow, sensuously sly smirk.
Kichiro shook his head. “This will be my last cup for the night. It relaxes me too much, and I intend to be fully alert when I kill that Ozunu riffraff tonight.”
Mathangi laughed. It was so sweet and pure, unlike any laughter he’d ever heard from a fellow ninja.
“Very well, then,” she nodded finally. “Shall I draw us a bath upon your triumph?”
Kichiro drilled his eyes onto her, saying very deliberately in rough, gravel tone, “There will be no bathing upon my return. I will be soaked in the sweat and blood of my victory, and when I return I will want only one thing: you naked and waiting for me on my bed.”
Mathangi smiled broadly, bowing low. “If it pleases you, it will be done.”
…and of all the Nine, the Clan of Black Sand is indeed the most foul.
How man times in the past seven days had Mika Coretti read that? Almost every historical scroll, book, and diary entry ended with someone denouncing the Ozunu. Normally, she wouldn’t care, since they were all dead. Except they weren’t. Their fiercest warrior was still alive, and up until seven days ago he’d been sharing her bed. Lady Kameyo had a put a stop to their coupling, and for now Mika was fine with that.
There was something Raizo carried within himself, something dark and twisted and it concerned her deeply. She knew the torture and abuse he’d endured as a student of ninjitsu. After seeing him battered and bloody at dinner every evening, she now knew what had been done to him.
What she needed to know more about now, however, was what Raizo himself had done to others.
She had lived the past seven days like a pampered prisoner. Lady Kameyo’s arrival—and her favor—had brought about several unexpected perks. For one, Mika was moved to a more comfortable room (with a raised bed, not a futon) and a personal bathroom. She still woke at dawn, but she now ate all her meals with Lady Kameyo, who allowed fresh pineapple to be purchased daily just for Mika and had meat dishes prepared for her at night. Raizo was back to eating with Noriko and the others; Kameyo was determined to keep them apart.
She spent her mornings braiding the Murasaki women’s hair like hers, rubbing into their scalps some sweet-smelling Moroccan oil Kameyo had brought with her from her last trip. She spent her afternoons reading Murasaki history, and it wasn’t by choice. Lady Kameyo loved to talk about Murasaki history and clan pride, and she apparently expected her listeners to know what the hell she was talking about. And though the old woman insisted she had no regrets of her mother letting the clan raise her, Mika couldn’t help but notice that not since she’d been a girl spending her summers with her Aunt Caroline had she seen a woman drink this much.
Night after night, after every dinner, various Murasaki girls were ordered to dance and show off their artistic training. They didn’t always dress like geisha, and some even did traditional Chinese and Indian dances, complete with the appropriate outfits.
Shiori in particular shone. Flexible, strong, beautiful, there was no dance she couldn’t master. Bellydancing, dancing with fans, dancing with ankle bells—it didn’t matter. She was as fluid as water, with a genuinely sweet smile, and eyes which showed incredible emotion. It shocked Mika to the point of utter speechlessness that a ninja could be capable of such pure joy…which didn’t involve killing.
In the meantime, Kameyo had a new trinket for Mika every day. She always had some necklace or bracelet or swathe of silk to give away; she taught Mika basic embroidery and some basic dance and martial uses for the fan. Mika was always given pretty dresses to wear to dinner, and much to her horror, she realized that Lady Kameyo was actually fond of her, and was treating her like a coddled daughter.
Tonight she wore a dress Kameyo had specially delivered. Made from pure Tatsumura silk, it draped over one shoulder and left the other completely bare. And it was scarlet, scarlet as the walls of Hotel Red Sand. Her sandals were simple, but golden and expensive.
Around her bare arm was a solid gold torque inlaid with jade, and she wore a pearl and jade headdress over her coppery cornrows. She’d been sprayed head to toe with jasmine perfume and it was made very clear—albeit subtly—that attending the fight was mandatory.
They were brought to the cruise ship Shikibu via fishing boat just before midnight. The broad and splendid deck was lit up with old-fashioned lanterns, and on opposite ends sat daises with single chairs. On the eastern end of the board, the gray silk banners of the Fujin Clan tossed on the warm night sea breeze as the boat drifted very slowly through moonlit waters. On the western end, the crimson banners of the Murasaki delicately flapped.
Mika raised an eyebrow at how each dais was surrounded by ninja guards. The two clans faced one another unflinchingly.
“Lord Fujin has set aside a cabin for us,” Lady Kameyo grinned broadly, cheerfully taking her seat upon her dais as though she weren’t about to witness a bloodbath. She’d dressed with opulence of an emperor’s daughter. Her ruby-colored kimono was worth over $20,000, and her jewels—which had been brought out from the Murasaki vault—once belonged to a Korean queen. Legend had it the Ozunu ninja assigned to kill the queen had stripped the jewels from her very corpse and presented them to her lord.
“We won’t be staying the night, of course,” she chuckled. “The cabin is strictly for the ritual of ‘Last Sip’, where the two ‘tigers’ take their last sip of whatever with a loved one, before they meet.” She smiled at Mika, and it chilled her. “Noriko-san, take Mika down to Raizo. Remind him what he’s truly fighting for.”
Mute, Mika and Noriko obeyed.
Raizo was alone in the dark cabin, tying the black sash of his red tunic in flickering candlelight. He was dressed plainly, simple black pants and no shoes. His long hair was tied back, away from his face, and he looked even more youthful and innocent than usual.
Mika felt her heart pound as Noriko closed the door behind her, leaving the couple alone.
He felt as though he hadn’t seen her in ages. It was the pineapple which first alerted him to her presence; the scent preceded her…it was the sweetest fragrance he ever smelled. When he looked up, the vision completed the experience.
“Mika….” He trailed off. She looked away, suddenly shy and unable to meet his gaze.
“I’m supposed to share water with you,” she mumbled like a nervous child. “Or something like that.”
“The ‘Last Sip’,” Raizo nodded slowly, unable to blink. He moved quickly, like cat, snatching up a wooden cup off water off a nearby table and drank a quick sip. “It’s for good luck. It reminds the combatant of why he’s fighting.”
Mika wordlessly accepted the cup from him, sipping without tasting and hastily putting it down.
“Seven days ago,” he cut her off suddenly, never taking his eyes off hers, as he moved dangerously close, “Kameyo-sama came to me and told me that according to the law of the Nine Clans, the winner of a round in the Ritual of Tigers can have whatever he wants.”
“You are mine, Mika,” he told her deliberately. “It’s been seven days since I last touched I you, and I’ve lain awake for seven nights wanting nothing else. When I return victorious tonight, Mika, Kameyo-sama will no longer keep us apart. From now on, every night that I lie down…you will lie down next to me.”
“B-But,” Mika blinked, stammering as she took a step back. “What about…conserving your energy?”
Raizo laughed as he hadn’t in days. It seemed she was the only person who made him laugh; now wonder he loved her so.
Except…there was something different now. She was turned on—he could tell—but it was like she was…it was as though he could smell….
“Mika,” he said gently as possible, “this will all be over soon. With the Murasaki are in power, we can leave and never look back. This will be behind us—it will be over, I promise.”
A dark look clouded her brown eyes, as she shook her head and murmured softly, “Raizo, it’s never over.”
Such barbarism…yet such beauty.
Indeed, the paradox confounded Mika Coretti. The warm Mediterranean wind tossed the colorful silken banners, and a gloriously full and haloed moon lit up the sea with an ethereal aura. Mika herself felt like a princess from the ancient days as she stood next to where Lady Kameyo sat on her throne-like, eyes bright and eager for combat to begin.
Raizo and his opponent—Kichiro, was it?—approached silently, unmasked. Each man was mind-numbingly handsome, even as they visibly shut down all display of emotion. They locked as and did not waver as they brandished their blades and bowed ever so slightly.
“The Fujin,” Lady Kameyo snorted. Mika didn’t have to be told the old woman was always talking to her; Kameyo was always talking to her. “Clan of Wind and Sail—they’re very old-fashioned, you know. See those swords? They’re daito, not katana…old as hell.” She snickered, shaking her gray head, adorned with three sticks of pure jade. “Lord Fujin never changes.”
Lord Fujin, a graying man draped in shadow, suddenly called an unfamiliar word and combat began with lightning speed. Startled, Mika’s breath caught as she saw Raizo fight for the first time in weeks. For a split second she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her…but then she realized she wasn’t hallucinating.
She didn’t know what the Murasaki had been teaching him this past week, but they had taught him well. He was faster than Kichiro, stronger, more alert, wielding his sword like a demon. Kichiro managed to cut Raizo a few times, but Raizo did far more damage.
Mika felt her body grow warm…this was for her. He was doing this for her, for love of her, for desire. Seven days…for seven days he’d gone without sexual pleasure and she new it had to be driving him mad. Raizo was impulsive; when desire took hold of him he acted without thinking and took without asking.
Her breath caught again as her body tightened. He was going to win. Already Kichiro was limping, breathless and seemingly unfocused. Raizo was going to win, and Lady Kameyo would award him his prize once he won.
She would loosen her controlling reigns and let him have what he clearly wanted more than anything else in the world: Mika.
Why was this turning her on? It was wrong, it was barbaric and old-fashioned. She was a person, not a prize. She was a living being, not an object of lust strong enough to drive one man to carve up another….
Silence ruled when Kichiro’s body hit the wooden deck of the Shikibu; around the ship the Mediterranean waves lapped at the boat, and blood dripped from Raizo’s blade.
The silence which followed Kichiro’s failure was deafening, and yet Mika understood it completely. There was nothing to say.
Raizo bowed to Lord Fujin and Lady Kameyo. Splattered in blood and dripping sweat, he walked past Mika. For a split second their eyes locked, and what she saw in his raised her temperature several degrees and threatened to make her knees buckle beneath her.