“Those swords weren’t there before, Ikegami-sensei. I swear it.”
The lean old man turned a yellow silk tassel around in one hand, studied the swordhilt it depended from. The sword had been stabbed vertically down into a young girl’s face. She lay dead on the shop floor, surrounded by a half-dozen other corpses, all in the little uniforms that everyone who worked at Chen’s wore. A similar sword, with an identical silk tassel hanging from the hilt, had been plunged into another body across the room.
“Hm. So whoever killed these poor folks, they brought the swords afterwards. Funny. They’re nice swords, though.”
The girl he spoke to stood holding the shop door shut against the few late-night passers-by. On the edge of gangly, she was tall and uncertain. Her black and gold uniform proclaimed her as a member of the Glorious Dragon ninja clan, as did the long polearm in her free hand. Her jaw worked as she held her mouth clamped shut, watching the old man study the shop full of corpses.
Ikegami straightened up, smoothing the lines of his black kimono, set off by a gold belt. The colours were of the same ninja clan as the girl, but the classic lines of his formal outfit suffered from the many mendings it had undergone. Seams hooked up with odd threads, and cuts all over stitched back up inexpertly. Tucked into the belt he carried a fan. He showed no sign of carrying any sort of weapon.
“This place is under Hirosue-kun’s protection, isn’t that right? He collects for us, hm?”
The girl nodded.
“That’s right, sensei. But we split with Captain Red-Eyes, I believe. He supplies Chen, so he gets a cut.”
The old man stepped across the body he’d been inspecting and knelt down again near the counter. A knife lay there, the blade dark with blood.
“It must have been a fight, but not much of one by the looks of it. This knife fits that fellow’s belt sheath, over there. I’d wager the blood on it doesn’t belong to any of these poor bastards.”
He reached out to the tassel in the nearby swordhilt, looking up as Masayo coughed uncertainly.
“What is it, girl?”
“Those swords. I think I’ve seen them before. They belong to a Shadow Claw girl. Her name’s Rie, I think.”
“Shadow Claw? Rather difficult to imagine Master Hisakino approving of anything like this, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. But I’ve heard that lately Shadow Claw ninja have been, well, doing stuff kind of like this.”
“Well,” the old man sighed, and toyed with the tassel in the swordhilt once more, “Red-Eye’s definitely not going to like this one bit. Where can I find Hirosue, do you think?”
“He sleeps in Dormitory C.”
Ikegami stepped over the bodies and put an arm on Masayo’s shoulder.
“Thank you for coming to get me, Masayo-chan. But don’t tell another soul. I’ll see if I can find Hirosue. He needs to know about what’s happened here.”
Masayo leaned past the old man to look once more at the piled bodies.
“Erik. Erik’s missing. A kid. He works here sometimes but…”
Ikegami’s smile lost its warmth.
“Are you sure, Masayo-chan? Well, that needs to be looked into. Can you find him?”
Masayo nodded, mouth tight.
“You look after that. Find him, see if he can help us. I’ll meet you back here.”
“But, but, who did this, sensei?”
A gnarled old finger lifted the girl’s chin.
“Don’t worry about that, Masayo-chan.”
“What we must have is an appropriate response for when Captain Red-Eyes learns of this. We must defend the clan, Masayo. Do you understand?”
Ikegami sighed and reviewed the scene. He reached over and wrenched one of the swords out of the corpse it had been stabbed into.
“We don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea here, do we?”
Masayo watched in confusion as the old man took the other sword as well, and wrapped them in a cloak.
They closed the shop door as they left, making sure the “Closed” sign was still up and the door locked. The shop lay dead and silent for unheard heartbeats.
A stand of shelves shivered, then pivoted open, revealing a scowling girl a little older than Masayo, though not so tall. Dressed all in black, she pulled a mask down over her angry face before slipping out the door.
As the lamplighters refuelled the enormous lantern outside, shadows whirled and danced across Grand Master Shiro’s unlit office. A pen scratched, tiny in his mammoth hands, as he made notes in a ledger. The Grand Master’s golden kimono flickered in the shadows, his face overhanging with craggy weight. He leaned forward on the desk and the mahogany creaked beneath him.
The pen stopped as a door opened and a young man in black and gold entered.
The young man bowed to the Grand Master, who acknowledged the obseiance with a minute nod, eyes half-lidded, but showed no other sign of interest.
“Grand Master. There’s been an… incident. At Chen’s. I can deal with it, but it’ll-”
The Grand Master’s voice rolled deep and gravelly across the room.
“We got no issue with Chen, Hirosue.”
“I know that, Grand Master. But I think we can use this to our advantage. We can accelerate this effort with the Shadow Claw Clan.”
Wood creaked and squealed as the Grand Master leaned back, bringing his face into the sharp beams of light from the lanterns outside. The stark angle made his face crueller, heavier.
“This was supposed to go longer, kid. A few weeks hardly counts. Maybe you lost your nerve.”
“No, Grand Master, I assure you. But this situation at Chen’s needs to be dealt with. It’s perfect, I promise you.”
Hirosue fell silent as the Grand Master lifted a finger. A finger big enough to plug a pint glass.
“Do what you have to. I don’t want to hear another word about this. Now get out.”
Hirosue got out. The door closed behind him and the Grand Master sat in perfect stillness for heartbeats. The room lay silent.
The pen began scratching again.
Ikegami strolled along a busy lamp-lit corridor, passing other Glorious Dragon ninja, returning their respectful bows with his lopsided smile. He carried the bundled swords over his shoulder.
He turned in at a door and stopped, studying an arched hall lined with simple cots. Here and there young men sat quietly, tending to weapons or patching garments or just chatting in hushed whispers. They all stood at Ikegami’s entrance.
“Boys. I need this room for a few moments. I wonder if you could step outside?”
Although obviously curious, none of the young ninja asked the old man what he was about as they filed out of the room. Ikegami closed the door, then made his way along the rows of cots, studying nameplates.
Kneeling, Ikegami studied the locked trunk set at the foot of the bed. It was a heavy chest carved of teak, traced with delicate bas-reliefs of tigers and bamboo. The iron lock set into the lid yielded with the faintest motion of the old man’s hand, and he levered the chest open.
Ikegami reached in and turned aside layers of dark clothing. Beneath glittered steel, weapons arranged in careful rows. Knives, throwing spikes, sickles. Old fingers lifted one, then another, as he inspected them. He set the last one back down and turned back the clothing on top, pausing to rub the last layer of cloth between his fingers.
Pulling his hand away, he studied the dark stain on his fingertips. He sighed.
The boys were all waiting for him as he came out of the room and apologized for taking up their time. None of them asked what he’d been doing and he headed back the way he’d come.
Masayo idled on a bustling corner. Down one hand the street opened out to the waterfront, moonlight wavering on oil-slick ripples. On the other rows of workshops lined the street, hammerblows ringing out.
She paid little attention to the crowds scurrying by, but one kid caught her eye for just a second. A wary ten-year-old with the eyes of an sour old man.
Masayo held up a coin, tossed it from one hand to the other, and then very deliberately dropped to ground beside her.
“I’m not dumb enough to touch that, lady. What do you want?”
The kid had materialized on the opposite side of Masayo from the coin she dropped. She turned her head away from him, keeping her gaze on the coin, and reached out to casually grab the second kid as he leapt in to take advantage of what he assumed was a successful distraction.
“Hey, hey, hey! We’re friends here, lady, we’re friendly. You looked like a generous type is all. What’s the fee, now, lady? What do the Black and Gold need from the Wharf Rats?”
Masayo grinned, planting one foot over top of the coin.
“I’m looking for one of you. Erik, helps out at Chen’s sometimes. He knows me, I need to tell him something.”
Just like that, a third kid came up in front of her, sauntering out of the crowd with a smirk.
“Hey, Masa-chan. I haven’t been at Chen’s for a couple days. What’s up?”
“Crap, Erik, listen–”
She’d been followed. A dark shape moved, up on the opposite rooftop and Masayo grabbed the kid, interposing herself. Black clothing. Face masked. Flash of silver.
Fire stabbed her shoulder. She pushed at Erik.
“Get out of here, Erik. Don’t go back to Chen’s. Just get out.”
The kid was long gone. All the kids were gone. Masayo rolled into an alley, just dodging another shuriken, and then she ran. The silver badge on her attacker’s chest glittered in her mind.