Shinobi – A Dystopian Wars Short Story

I hear the wind in the reeds.
I feel the gentle rain on my skin.
I taste the tang of blood from my cheek.
I smell the sweat of the men stumbling from the factory gate.

I have watched and waited for five days and nights. I have only drank the bitter water from the stream to the south. I have remained hidden, lost amongst the shadows in the cleft of this wooded ditch. I have bitten my cheek to remind myself of the taste of blood, of the feel of pain, of the fear of failure.

I came here by a hard road. My Lord found me in his bedchamber, my fingers brushing the top of a chest in which I was sure would be gold. He woke silently and drew his sword but did not strike. He asked me how I came to be there. I replied that I had climbed up and slipped past the guards and into the chamber through a window. He took up his sword and I saw it sparkle in the moonlight. His eyes were dark and there was no humour or admiration, nor fear or anger at my invasion. He told me that he would teach me to use my gifts and that I would not need to steal again. He told me that he would feed and clothe me. I asked what he wanted in return. He told me that I would serve him for as long as he deemed me useful. Also, that I would choose a finger from the hand that had presumed to steal from his chest and that that finger would be struck from my hand.

I chose, he struck.

I look at the missing digit, at the smoothness and roundness of the base which remains, just below the first knuckle of the third finger of my right hand and remember my promise; to serve and to succeed, or to die in dishonour.

My gloves have been made especially, as have my tunic and leggings. Not black, but deep green, loose fitting to disguise my shape, no metal on metal, no wood on wood, but silk and cloth between that I may make no sound as I go about my secret business.
The sword I carry – shorter than those weapons in the battlefield, with no tsuba to guard my hand – has been coated with oil and dusted with fine, dark ash that no reflection of light might betray my position. I carry three poison vials inside the folds of my clothing, a slender stiletto; sharp as a blade of razor grass – the base no thicker than my smallest finger, tapering to a needle point – and a short pipe with a bundle of poison-dipped, viciously barbed darts; each wrapped carefully in a strip of canvas to protect me from their bite.

I watch the last eta stagger away from the gates and sink my teeth into my cheek again as the two guards swing the gate shut and slide the locking bars into place. They will stay behind the gate and chatter until they are relieved when the moon is highest. They are less alert now; their lack of discipline means that they think that more awake means more watchful. They think they will hear intruders. They imagine themselves trapping a thief as they steal into the factory, of the reward their master will bestow upon them. But as they talk and dream I move from my hiding place and slowly circle the base of the towering building. There is a place on the western side where the stone base has been badly repaired, I know that I will not be seen as I climb the stone up to the first level. From there I can cling to the ornamental protrusions and edge around to the north side, hanging from my fingertips whilst I wait for a gust of wind to die down, then pulling myself up so that my toes find purchase on a slim ledge, then back onto the western face where a ragged banner hangs from a stout iron post.

I learned to climb out of necessity. The older boys would chase me and whip my legs and buttocks with reeds and there were too many of them to fight. So I would climb. I would leap into the low boughs of a tree or bound onto the low roof of an outhouse and then up onto the top of a higher building or a taller tree, slip and slide across the top and down the other side then run away whilst my pursuers searched for a way around. When I began stealing this skill aided me in invading houses and I honed it overtime until I could scale a seemingly sheer wall, negotiate a treacherous overhang or bound across the rooftops with no fear of falling. My Lord helped me develop those skills still further. He and his chunin taught me to brew poison, to throw knives or shuriken, to jump farther and land safely, they taught me how to fight with fists, fingers, swords, daggers and staves. They taught me to be invisible. To hide in shadows and in light. They taught me patience and humility. They taught me to kill.

A guard stands on the balcony of the fourth tier. He walks back and forth, the cool air is keeping him alert and awake, he is more disciplined than the others but his footfalls are regular and I can use them to mask my movements. I watch him walk twice around the balcony. He stops five times, never twice in exactly the same place. He looks out and up, but not down. He has not seen me. He walks away from the wall I am clinging to and I quickly leap over, land silently and sprint into the shadows of the building. I follow him around the side. He does not look back. He continues walking forwards. When he stops, I stop. When he goes on, I follow. I slowly draw the slim line of wire from around my waist and curl the end around my hand once, twice. I pull the wire taught and wait. He stops and stares out at the small town sprawling in the low hills south of the tower. He raises his gaze to stare at the moon and I dart forwards, carefully but quickly lowering the wire around his neck I pull sharply backwards, crossing my hands and pushing them into the nape of his neck. Before he can react I snap my foot into the back of his knee and he drops quickly, helping me to strangle him. I hold him there until he shudders violently, until he sags to the floor. I pull tighter. He struggles briefly again. Then his bowels vent and the wind blows the smell of faeces into my face before whipping it away over my shoulder. I lower him to the ground and pull my knife from its sheath under my arm. I slit his throat and watch the blood pool under his head. I turn away, run up the wall, catch the lip of the next tier above me and continue to climb.

I have never met the man I will kill tonight. I have only seen him four times in the days spent watching his factory. But already I know he is a fool.
He lives at the top of this tower, this tower built over the huge factory which is constantly making noise; even in the deepest portions of the night. He has built his factory and house on the hill outside the main village, a village which he owns, thinking that this will better protect all his interests when the better option would be to build his house on the hill on the other side of the village where there is no sound of industry, where he could be awakened by the snapping of a blade of grass or the whispered descent of a single cherry blossom.
But he built here and the noises from below; the belches and bellows of the steel and rubber oni – which will, one day, make all men obsolete – mask those sounds that are often necessary to make.
Ironic, ne? That the machines that helped him live like a lord will help him die like any other man.

I reach the top tier of the tower and vault onto the slim balcony which I have seen my target stand upon to gaze down on his little Empire.
The door slides open silently but catches in the middle. I apply more pressure but still the door holds. Fearing noise I gently squeeze through the opening and into the main chamber. I look around me but see no one. There are no futons here, no sleeping bodies. Just the trappings of a rich and powerful man’s home. I notice an alcove set into one wall. In it is a suit of fine armour and the twin swords, the daisho, of a samurai.

I feel my heart pound in my chest, who is this man I have been sent to free from life? I should not question my master but I understand that our order aids the Empress in things she is unable to do for herself; we do deeds in the darkness that cannot be brought into the light. I think that this man must be a traitor somehow, or opposed to the will of our Lady. But to be samurai is to live and breathe honour, to serve and live and die by the command of your master. If she wanted this man, this samurai dead, she could command him and he would fall instantly upon his sword. But I must not question my master. I, too, must be as samurai.

There is a rustle of movement from another room, I swiftly move towards it and slide the door open a fingers width. I peer through into the deeper gloom and allow my eyes time to adjust. I see several shapes, tangled together in the centre of the mat, only one head rests on a pillow, that of my target. As I see clearer the shapes transform into a woman, a young girl and a little boy. The quilted sheet has been kicked away revealing their nakedness. Dark splotches on the skin of the girls’ and the boy’s legs and arms are old bruises, a long, high weal across the top of the boy’s buttocks can only have been made by a riding crop or rawhide whip. There are more, older, almost healed, further down. An emotion begins to seethe, I feel it in the pit of my stomach, fear and anger like I haven’t felt in years; I’m being chased by those boys, a man has caught me stealing from his house, his wife screams and his son holds me while the man beats me. I grit my teeth.
A quiet intake of breath behind me sends a tiny shiver up the back of my neck and I whirl around, straightening my arm, bringing my stiffened fingers up and around. They connect with a throat and I feel the windpipe collapse, the mucus inside sticking the sides of the tube together. He is a big man, made fat on meat and rice, his arms are as thick as my waist, his hands are bigger than my head and he pushes into me in panic, trying to suck air through the collapsed tube. I stagger, trying still for silence. His bulk weighs down on me and pushes me towards the futon and its occupants. I bite my cheek to focus myself, my feet are sliding backwards, his arms flail as he fights to free his throat and breathe, my foot scrapes across the tatami and I glance at the tangle of bodies as the young girl stirs briefly. I bite harder.
My shoulder drives up into his chest as his hand slaps my back sending pain like fire searing up into the back of my head. I grasp my shoto and feel the slight tug as the neck of the scabbard tightens briefly around the base of the blade. The short sword slithers free and the ash-covered blade is a fine curve of deeper black in the darkness. I shove, hard, with my free hand and the guard reels back just far enough for me to move the sword into position. He falls towards me again, fingers clawing at his ruined throat, and a short-lived moment of pressure on the blade signals contact with the tip of the sword and his groin. The blade, razor sharp, slips easily through the soft skin of his crotch and a wash of blood spills down his leg. I saw gently, quietly, with the blade, pushing outwards then downwards, widening the wound. I let the body sag back onto my chest and I slowly kneel, taking the guards weight and lowering it silently to the floor. I slide out from beneath him and take a second to watch the blossom of deep crimson bloom around the man and into the tightly woven tatami. I sheathe my blade and return my attention to the bodies.

Not one has awoken. The girl has moved slightly, some of the quilt tightening around the bottom of her legs, pulling it further away from my target. I watch his protuberant belly pound up and down, his breathing is loud and shallow, he is old and far closer to the end of his life than the beginning. I wonder again what he could have done as I move as close as I can. I find a fine, brown kimono sash on the floor and pick it up. The silk is soft, expensive. I run it through my fingers as I ponder the best method to employ in fulfilling my contract.
Poison is quiet, there is little danger in its application but there is a chance that it is discovered before the victim is dispatched or that, for some inexplicable reason, the poison fails and the target lives.
Smothering or strangulation takes time, the victim will struggle and his companions may wake and prevent the attempt.
Blood letting is also slow, stabbing is fast but they both have their disadvantage; blood spills and the companions may wake in time to stop me or save him or his fat may subvert the blade or has already caused his organs to shift inside his body.

I could kill them all…

But there is another method. That favoured by my kind for many years, swift and sure to work. Noiseless and almost bloodless. The only issue is that I must be in the right position, that could prove difficult.
I gently move the boys arm, push against the girls leg until she mumbles and moves herself at my quiet suggestion. The older girl has her arm around the target. I lift it slowly, apply pressure to her shoulder and she rolls, taking her arm and slapping it down on the mat. The target smacks his lips and I freeze. I watch his eyeballs roll behind his lids, flicking back and forth and hold my breath. He settles and I lift my leg and place it on the other side of him, straddling his chest. I draw the slender stiletto from the tiny sheath bound to my arm and draw a long breath. I let it out slowly, feeling the tension bleed from my body. I watch him and synchronise my breathing with his. As I relax my mind detaches from my body and I am watching from overhead. I lean closer to watch as my body lines the stiletto up beneath the targets chin. One breath, in and out, two breaths, in, out, three, in, out and as I breath out I shove forwards as hard as I can, driving the stiletto into his head, through the mouth, to the back and into the skull at a slight angle, hitting the pulpy brain mass and piercing it in less than a second. I lean into the stiletto and grit my teeth.
His body breathes by itself for a minute before it realises that it is dead. He makes no sound. A thin trickle of blood runs from the hole in his chin. I bite my cheek and return to my body.

It is tired, I am tired. The exertion of this night and the exhaustion of my extended vigil wash over me and I rock gently. I allow myself a moment to breathe before I continue.
I remove the stiletto and secure it again at my wrist. I take the silken sash, fold it and lay it over the targets neck to soak up the blood that slowly flows from the wound. I stand slowly and move away.
A quick motion makes me freeze. I look down. The boys eyes are open. He stares at me. I know that my face is covered but I feel that he knows me by my eyes alone. I should kill him. Instead I raise my finger to my lips and press it to them. He nods once, briefly, without emotion and closes his eyes.
I go to the balcony and step onto the lip, spread my arms and jump.

The wind whips past me and I watch the ground come up. At the last moment I pull a short cord under my tunic and the wings folded in a pack on my back spring out. There is a loud snap as the canvas catches the wind and I pull my head and body back, forcing air under the wings. I feel the fall slow then stop and a wash of elation overcomes me as I climb and soar over the village and away, north to my master.

*

The chamber is much as I remember it from my youth. A low table, the mural on the wall, the short step, the little cupboard in which the futon and pillow is kept. The bright green and gold armour on its stand, the terrifying mask above it; the face of a hideous demon that my master wore in a darker time. Below it the stand with the daisho; the katana and wakizashi, the long and short swords of the samurai. A gold cord is wound around the sheath of each.

My master sits upon the dais at the top of the step, I sit below him. Before him is another sword, the masamune. It is black on black. There is a hair-thick intaglio wrought in silver through the saya and tsuba, it is beautiful.
The alcove with the armour is to his right, to his left is another alcove containing the chest that I had coveted as a child. I struggle to keep my eyes off the chest and on my master.
“I have received word.” he tells me. His voice is quiet, slow. His words pronounced precisely, his mouth and tongue moving not one bit more than they need to to form the words. His eyes are cold and unreadable. “Haru-San has confirmed your success.”
“Karma’s price is paid.” I tell him.
He takes from the table a piece of paper and a set of brushes. As he rubs the ink he says “You will write your name.”
He hands me the paper and brushes and I dip the tip of a brush into the ink. I apply it to the paper gently and trace the four characters of my name. He nods and takes the paper from me.
He waits as the ink dries then folds the paper tightly four times. He ties a cord of golden thread around it and hands it back to me. “You have not been in here since I found you eight years ago with your hand on that chest. You have always wondered what it contained, ne?” he asks, the smallest hint of a smile briefly tugging at his cheek. I nod. “Now is time to find out.”
He gestures to the chest and I stand, bow and approach it, the paper parcel grasped tightly in my hand.
I kneel before the chest and brush the top with my fingers. I feel him standing behind me. “This chest contains all of my most prized possessions. Open it.”

I gently raise the lid of the chest and peer inside. Gold twinkles at me, hundreds of sparkles run through the chest as the light from the setting sun enters it. I look again and see hundreds of little parcels, just like mine.

“This chest contains the name of every man or woman in our organisation.” he says, “I am the only one who possesses this information. May I add yours to them?”
I turn and hand him my parcel, my name. He holds it in his hand, closes his fingers around it.

“Now you have no name.” he tells me, “Now you are… Shinobi.”

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~ by ninjabreadmen on February 5, 2011.

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