“What do you want, old man?”
Hirosue paused in his descent. At the base of the staircase Ikegami stood waiting, a sad sort of smile on his lined face.
The staircase curved down against one wall of the huge main hall of the Golden Lotus Casino, four stories above the main gambling pit where dice rattled, winners cheered and losers cursed. Courtesans and waiters pushed past one another, all eager to get their share of the winners’ take. Balconies ringed the huge chamber at each level, where people leaned over to watch the fun below, or partook of quieter, more expensive pleasures.
The Glorious Dragon Clan ran this place, the biggest casino in Vargas, where pirate crews came to spend their loot, where deals got made and if a few unfortunates got put down of an evening and were never heard from again, well, Vargas was a tough town and nobody cried for them.
“Hiro-kun. I don’t mean to detain you. You look busy.”
Hirosue sighed and looked off across the hall, as if hoping to see someone more interesting.
“I no longer report to you, sensei. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“Sure. Funny stuff been happening about the Shadow Claw Clan lately, huh? Funny stuff.”
He seemed to find the old man more interesting all of a sudden. Hirosue glared.
“What you got to say about that?”
“Well, I don’t know. But does seem strange, after all these years, they suddenly start getting involved in ugly stuff. Pushing shopkeepers around, some kind of racket, huh? Seems strange. Funny stuff.”
Both men stood very still. Hirosue’s hands balled into tight fists. His legs flexed slightly. Ikegami shook one arm, his fan half open in that hand. The boy looked at the fan and stepped back, cautious.
“You hurt yourself, Hirosue? Your side pulling a little? What happened there?”
“I’m fine, sensei. What do you want?”
Ikegami shrugged the bundle off his shoulder and set about unwrapping the swords.
“I just wondered if you had any idea where these swords might have come from.”
Hirosue stared as the yellow tassels and the hilts of the two swords appeared.
“What are you doing with those?”
Ikegami stared for a moment, flat and steady at Hirosue, then nodded.
“Thank you, that’s all I needed.”
Ikegami waited. Hirosue grimaced, fists still tight.
“I’m just doing what the Grand Master asked. This is all his idea, so stop getting in the way.”
“The Grand Master told you to do this?”
Hirosue tossed his chin up, hands on his hips.
“That’s right. You don’t want the Grand Master angry at you, sensei.”
“Certainly not. Did you want these swords back?”
The young man started at that, then snatched the bundle up from Ikegami’s hands and stormed off, disappearing into the thunderous crowd of the casino.
Ikegami sighed, and made his way up the stairs Hirosue had just come down.
“You’re not Shadow Claw. Who are you?”
Masayo kept her right arm tucked in close to her body. A little blood trickled down from her shoulder where the shuriken had struck her. The tiny blade had held only a trace of poison, but it was enough to render her arm useless. She’d left the big polearm long behind and held only a small knife in her left hand.
The woman she faced, who’d been pursuing her since that scene with Erik, wore the infamous black outfit of the Shadow Claw Clan, feared rivals to Masayo’s own Glorious Dragon Clan. Masayo had never fought a Shadow Claw ninja, but they were reputed to all be masters of deadly arts. Even their youngest disciples were supposed to be a match for a dozen ninja from any other clan.
She’d been run to ground in a narrow alleyway, branching off from the Street of Blossoms, where craftsmen made the huge flower-bedecked displays that were used throughout Vargas for festive occasions. The air spun with thick perfume, and flower petals, pink and burning yellow, drifted down around them all.
The alley dead-ended, and with only one arm Masayo would never be able to climb fast enough to elude her pursuer. She whirled, knife close to her body, her long legs flexed low.
The narrowness of the alley forced her pursuer to come at her directly, and Masayo was able to keep her useless right arm behind herself as the dark-clad woman came forward. Her swordblade glittered, one petal spinning aside as she thrust. Masayo heard workmen calling out to each other, yelling about holding a gigantic disk of crysanthemums steady, unaware of the deadly battle taking place behind their workshop.
She brought up her knife’s short blade, parrying the attack, steel shrieking on steel, and Masayo twisted, letting the sword shoot past her. She dropped low and slammed her elbow into the other woman’s gut.
Curses and a tangle of limbs as the two women fought, blade and muscle and grabbing hands, sharp edges only a hairsbreadth from slicing skin open.
“Poison? Who are you?”
The sword clattered on the stones underfoot. Masayo grunted as a fist took her just under the ribs. With only one hand she couldn’t perform the wrist lock and as she tried to pull away, the other fist caught her on the jaw.
She spun, half-dazed, and kicked out low, driving her heel into the side of a knee. The other women shrieked and Masayo stepped in, slamming her forehead into an angry face. The mask dropped away and the girl in black reeled, spraying blood from her nose and lips.
Masayo stared in shock for a second. Pink and yellow flower petals spun down between the two girls, and then a knife appeared in either of Hanako’s hands.
“Hey, who are you girls?”
A worker opened the back door of his workshop. The only answer he got to his question was a sudden streak of black and gold as Masayo shot through the door. He looked from her disappearing form to Hanako, just in time to receive one of her knife blades in the throat.
Hanako stared after Masayo for a second as the man died at her feet, then sneered, cleaned her blade and set off at an easy pace back up the alley.
“A surprise, meeting you, Matsuyama-san.”
The enormous ninja shrugged, his broad shoulders rising and falling with titanic indifference. He stood studying the window of a tailor’s shop, facing away from Ikegami who slouched against a nearby post.
Market traffic filed past them, merchants and customers alike keeping an awed distance from Matsuyama. He stood at least half a head taller than any one else in the square, and his black outfit identified him as a member of the feared Shadow Claw Clan. Even those who didn’t know his name or reputation kept their distance. Though not with the same care as those who did.
“I greet you willingly, old man. You have ever been honourable in your dealings, no matter how wretched your clan has become.”
Ikegami bowed, his smile unwavering.
“I but serve Grand Master Shiro’s wishes in all things.”
“Grand Master? Your Shiro is a gangster, sensei, and he has led your clan into dishonour. He shames all the clans.”
“I’m always gratified to have your wisdom, Matsuyama-san. Do you ever worry that the Shadow Claw Clan will someday fall into a similarly degraded state?”
Ikegami grinned, watching Matsuyama fight to keep from turning around.
“What do you mean? We maintain the traditions. We keep–”
“Indeed. Do your younger members feel the same? Seems like I don’t see them around as much these days.”
“Master Hisakino sent Nakayama away for training just recently.”
Turned away as he was, Matsuyama did not see the dark frown descend on Ikegami’s face.
“Nakayama? Is she the one with the fancy swords? I can’t keep all these kids straight.”
“You must be thinking of Tanaka. Rie.”
“Right. Rie-chan. Nice girl.”
At that Matsuyama did turn around. His dark eyes blazed at Ikegami.
“You’ve seen her? Where? How long ago?”
“How long has she been missing?”
The Shadow Claw ninja crossed his arms, scowling.
“How did you know she was missing?”
“Sorry, I haven’t seen her. Anyway, glad to know you aren’t worried.”
Matsuyama watched, broodingly furious, as Ikegami sauntered into the crowd, fanning himself.
“The story won’t hold.”
Grand Master Shiro sat motionless, a monument to steady caution. His eyes half-lidded, his lips turned up in a thin scowl, he made no response to Ikegami’s claim.
The two men were alone in Shiro’s office. The lanterns outside swung slowly, the shadows in the room drifting across the walls in even arcs.
At last the Grand Master widened his eyes slightly. He drew in a long sonorous breath through his wide nose. He sighed.
“The kid says it will.”
Ikegami crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorframe.
“He hasn’t told you everything. We don’t want this investigated, Grand Master. Red-Eyes isn’t going to take our word for it. Not unless we’re clearly embarrassed.”
“Embarrassed? The Glorious Dragon Clan?”
Shiro’s chair creaked and popped as the enormous ninja chieftan leaned forward.
“The only way Red-Eyes is going to accept our story is if our story is it was our fault, and those responsible have been punished. Anything else, and he’ll start digging.”
“Who’s responsible, sensei? In your ever-so-wise opinion?”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is who are we going to punish.”
Shiro grinned, the sudden animation of his face grotesque in the half-light. He leaned back, chuckling.
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“I serve the clan, Grand Master.”
A big hand came up and stroked a big chin.
“Okay. Who do we throw and how do we sell it?”