“The eyes of the other are not a mirror. Understand that perception is never reflected equally.”
— The Secret Teachings of the Shadow Claw
Eri did not look up as the door to her chamber opened.
The footsteps told her who it was, anyway. Matsuyama. Of course.
“Eri-chan. You have to leave. The Master has arranged for you to travel to Ninja Island. There is an academy there where you will undergo exercises and training. The Master says once you have satisfied the instructors there, he will consider allowing you to return.”
She remained staring at the weapons laid before her.
“Am I allowed to take my mother’s swords?”
“Of course. The Master says you should take all of your belongings with you.”
“I don’t care about my belongings. Everything I have belongs to the clan, anyway. I just care about these swords.”
“You’ll be gone a long time, Eri-chan. Take your clothes, everything.”
She’d expected this, and her few possessions were neatly tied up on the bedroll. She gathered them up, the swords over her shoulder, and rose. She stood for a second, noticing the rush of blood to her lower legs. For a moment she couldn’t walk. Matsuyama stood filling the doorway with his massive bulk, and for a second, it was as though everything in Eri’s life hung in a delicate balance.
“What happened to her, Matsu-kun? Who killed my mother?”
“I don’t know, Eri. I’m sorry.”
The miserable girl could only nod. She followed her senior out of the featureless stone cell she had lived in for years.
The merchants of the Flying Market congregated in a sort of organized pandemonium. Eri passed tables heaped with brass pins, a row of shoemakers, shouting barbers looking for custom, pushing her way through the crowd, trying not to notice the looks of fear and suspicion she received.
Her relief upon thinking that this had been an isolated incident evaporated as shoppers and merchants pulled away from her. Ordinarily she’d receive respectful bows and grateful comments. Something had happened. Something had changed, and it wasn’t three punks in an alley.
Up three flights of rickety stairs, creaking and swaying with the passage of hundreds of shoppers, to a long gallery carved from the side of the crevasse. Water cascaded down in long tinkling rivulets, guided out over the gallery to splash down into the depths below. The steady burbling lent a calm to the pickle merchant row that had always pleased Eri.
Not today. The ever-sullen girl scowled more ferociously than ever as she headed for the stall of Master Shingjian, her Master’s second-favourite pickle maker.
The tangy scent of vinegar, enriched with spices and bright herbs, drove off the stink of the Market’s lowest levels. Eri walked along the rows of tables and their neon wares. Pickled beets, ginger, lotus root, onions, vegetables of every description lay glistening with the brine and secret recipes that permeated them.
Master Shingjian kept his stall carefully near the middle of the row. Eri had once heard him tell the Master that he didn’t want to deal with people who didn’t really love pickles, so he made sure shoppers had to walk a long way to get to him.
Each stall was labelled with a banner that hung over the table, decorated however the merchant saw fit. Eri was tall enough that the stall banners hung between her face and the faces of the shopkeepers.
Children born to Shadow Claw members were raised by the clan, and Eri had done her share of looking after toddlers. She remembered playing the “where am I” game, covering and then uncovering the child’s eyes, to shrieking delight. Master Hisakino had come across her and watched, smiling.
“Master, when I hide his eyes, he thinks I can’t see him!”
“You’d think people would grow out of that, Eri-chan, but it’s a very useful trick. When people can’t see your eyes, they often forget you can still see them.”
The stall banners cut off Eri’s view of the shopkeepers’ heads, and likewise kept them from seeing her head. But she could see their bodies, and they could see her uniform as she approached.
One after another, the merchants tensed as she drew near. Eri watched carefully to be sure she wasn’t imagining things. Not every single one reacted, but most of them.
The water continued to cascade overhead, ringing like tiny silver bells.
As she neared his stall, Master Shingjian actually put his hand on the hilt of a knife. Eri did not stop. She continued on, striding past stalls until one man did not show some sign of fear.
Master Ghentish. Eri knew Master Hisakino would prefer Shingjian, but she couldn’t bring herself to go back there.
She pointed at the sealed jars and held up three fingers. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
Master Hisakino was in the kitchen when she returned, chatting with Izobu who was on cooking duty that morning. They were laughing at some joke, which only further darkened Eri’s mood.
She dumped the sack on the counter and took out the three paper-sealed jugs she’d brought back from the Market. The heavy thump they made as she set them down told of their weight, but Eri handled them without any apparent effort.
“Oh, excellent. Now where did these come from? Oh dear, Master Ghentish. Next time, Eri-chan, see if you can find Master Shingjian. He’s nearly as good as Tokaru.”
Eri stared for a second. Then she bowed.
“I will remember, Master.”
She left the kitchen, heading to the practice hall for her morning exercise.
Matsuyama was conducting the morning session, and for whatever reason he would not leave Eri alone. All she wanted was to be left alone to practice her strikes and postures, but every few minutes the senior instructor would call her over to demonstrate some point or other for the most junior clan members. Eri allowed no trace of her frustration to show on her face. Only once, when she followed through on a demonstration cut with enough power to drive the junior student back a few steps, did Matsuyama give any indication that something might be amiss, and even then all he did was study Eri for a few seconds, then turn back to the class.
At the end of practice, the Master came into the hall, smiling at all bows and greetings.
“Excellent, excellent. Everyone looks very eager, very energetic, excellent. Let’s have lunch — Eri, can you set up the tables, please?”
Savagely the young girl yanked out the low tables from the storage cabinet and flung them across the mats for the junior students to arrange.
“There, that’s excellent. Excellent. Let’s enjoy our lunch, shall we?”
Eri took her seat, shaking with the effort of containing her growing fury. Master Hisakino took a pickle and crunched it noisily.
“Eri-kun brought these pickles for us. They’re not as good as Tokaru’s, of course, or even Shingjian’s, but they are essential for good health.”
Eri bowed. Without knowing what she was doing she spoke, her voice thick and rushed.
“I’m sorry I didn’t find better pickles, but the people in the market were hostile and disrespectful.”
“Really? That seems very unusual, Eri-chan. You didn’t get into another fight, did you? I shall be very disa–”
“They think we are a clan of murderers and thieves! I told you, somebody is using–”
“I am not interested in your fantasies, Eri-chan.”
“You are afraid to act! You dishonour my mother’s death!”
The gasp that followed Eri’s angry outburst came from many throats. Eri herself sat in rigid horror.
Master Hisakino took another pickle.
“It’s unfortunate these are not any better.”
Matsuyama was kind enough to lead Eri through dark, unused corridors, so that no one would witness her wretched departure from all she had ever known. They left the dojo and travelled along narrow alleys and through dark neighborhoods down to the dockside streets.
The Shadow Claw Clan kept their own set of piers in the Vargas harbour, three slender stone fingers thrust out into the dark water. The city, carved into the vast curving cliff-face of the circular bay, rose up behind the two ninja as they walked out the middle pier.
At the very tip of the pier a small rowboat had been tied up. It bobbed there, the pilot huddled and hooded in the sternsheets. The dark bay thronged with ships at anchor, their steady swaying motion filling the night air with creaks and groans of wood and rope.
The two reached where the rowboat lay. Matsuyama did not bow. His impassive face regarded Eri without a hint of sympathy.
Eri bowed deeply. As she straightened, her steady resolve cracked.
“Something’s going on, Matsu-kun.”
“He knows what he’s doing, Eri-chan.”
“Did he know what he was doing when he sent me to get those pickles?”
Matsuyama studied the heartbroken girl in front of as she fought to keep herself under control.
“What do you think?”
“I think– He always– Matsu-kun, why did he speak like that? He knew I’d get angry, he knew–”
Her eyes widened and she drew in a quick gasp of a breath.
“It’s my mother, isn’t it? Whoever they are, they’re the ones who killed my mother. Matsu! I have to know!”
Matsuyama stood very still. The rowboat and its pilot floated behind Eri, the boatman taking great care to not listen to the conversation of the two ninjas.
“You have embarrassed yourself, Eri-chan, but you have not disobeyed him. If you do not get into that boat, you will never rejoin the clan.”
The huge man leaned in towards her, fixing her gaze with his.
“I told you, he’s trying to protect you.”
“I don’t want to be protected. I want revenge!”
“You have a debt to the Master you must repay. You have shamed yourself, Eri-chan, and you have embarrassed him in front of the clan. Pay for that mistake, and perhaps you will find the answers you seek.”
Uneasy waves lapped at the stone pier as Eri turned her face once again up to the cliffside lights of Vargas. She looked up further, to see the stars spread out high above. Her shoulders slumped and she turned, climbing down into the rowboat.
“Eri-chan. The Master asked me to say this to you if you agreed to go: ‘The eyes of the other are not a mirror. Understand that perception is never reflected equally.'”
Eri looked up then, stunned. Those were the words of their clan’s founder, secret wisdom only passed on to the most trusted of senior students. She’d heard that statement only once before, accidentally overhearing one of Matsuyama’s sessions with the Master.
Matsuyama stood, as impassive and expressionless as ever. Eri settled herself on the center thwart of the boat, turning to look across the moonlit water at the larger ship that would take her away from Vargas, away from her clan and all she had ever known. She turned away from her home, a new coldness to her expression and her voice.
“He’s known all along who killed my mother, hasn’t he?”
At a sign from Matsuyama, the pilot heaved on the oar and the little boat leapt away from the pier. Matsuyama remained at the end of the pier, watching the slender but steely figure sitting so rigidly upright as the boat danced through the swells across the bay. She did not look back, and so he did not see the faint smile that now touched her lips.