Masayo slipped along the shadows behind Chen’s. She worked her right arm steadily, raising and lowering the hand as she pulled the fingers together, then spread them wide.
Overhead, the glow from the massive lanterns grew steadily brighter. They turned in lazy circles, revolving on the massive chains that hung from the cavern ceiling high above. The artificial day of the great underground city of Vargas began to come to life, and the street running in front of Chen’s thronged with early-morning activity.
Stopping alongside a bakery, Masayo reached with her right hand and pulled a long-bladed knife from her belt. She studied her grip and made a few practice slashes with the weapon, then inhaled with a grin the savoury aroma of fresh-baked bread. She crouched in the shadows for another moment, eyes alert, and then stepped forward, crossing the alley and making a quick turn in the traffic of the main street.
She fiddled with the lock at Chen’s for just a moment and slipped inside.
“I told you she’d come here. That old coot told her to, and Masayo does whatever she’s told, don’t you, Masayo?”
Masayo stood stunned in the gory ruin of Chen’s drugstore, with dead bodies still lying on all sides. She pulled the door closed behind her, staring all the while at the two ninja across the room, their black uniforms and gold headbands exactly like her own.
Hirosue. And his girlfriend, Hanako. Hirosue held the wrapped-up swords he’d gotten from Ikegami.
“Where’s the kid, Masayo? That kid saw what happened, didn’t he? I don’t know what sort of game you and Ikegami-sensei are playing, but tell us how to find the kid and we won’t have to kill you.”
“Game? Kill me? What are you talking about, Hirosue?”
Hanako stepped to her right, circling away from Hirosue. Masayo looked back and forth between the two. She slid her rear foot a few inches back. Just to her left stood a counter littered with tiny bottles. She held the big knife low by her right side.
“What’s his name? I can find him if you tell me who it was.”
“He doesn’t know anything.”
Hanako scoffed. Hirosue’s scowl deepened.
“You’re going to have to do a lot better than that, girl.”
Masayo sank a little, flexing her knees. As she moved, Hanako’s hand blurred and a finger of sharpened steel stabbed hard into the plank next to her front foot.
The boy grinned.
“Hanako doesn’t like you anyway, Masa-chan. You’d better tell me.”
Ikegami raised his fan as he came up alongside the front window of Chen’s. Grand Master Shiro stopped, serene in his bulk, indifferent to the stares of the pedestrians passing by.
The old man listened for a second, then motioned to the Grand Master. Shiro shifted an inch closer to the window.
“That’s enough. Let’s just kill her. We can find the kid ourselves.”
“Fine. Take her.”
“You take her.”
“Stick her with that shuriken, and we’ll both rush her.”
Masayo lifted her knife at the same moment as her left hand swept out, launching a hail of glass bottles at Hanako. The other girl’s shuriken went wild, and she flailed backwards as Masayo feinted at her.
Hirosue, too late, stepped forward, stopping short as the tip of Masayo’s knife flicked straight at him.
The knife did not move as the door behind Masayo flew open.
“Sorry to interrupt.”
Hanako and Hirosue stared at the enormous bulk of Grand Master Shiro filling the doorway.
His voice rumbled and filled the shop.
“You two afraid to take on one teenage girl? I don’t need cowards in this clan.”
Hirosue’s face twisted, bright red, his eyes wide.
“What are you saying? She’s ruined–”
“Take her down, then. Now.”
Masayo had not turned to look at Shiro standing just behind her. Her eyes flicked back and forth between Hirosue and Hanako.
Shiro broke off as Masayo moved.
She was a long-limbed girl, without the compact grace most members of the clan had. But Masayo practiced hard, and she knew better than to wait when she was out-numbered. Grand Master Shiro had attended many of her training sessions himself, and there was a trace of satisfaction on his heavy-browed face as the girl flew across the room.
Hirosue got a hand on his swordhilt, but Masayo closed with him in a flash and put a knee into his right side. He cursed and fell. As he crashed down, struggling to roll over the bodies on the floor, his half-drawn sword clanking, she planted one foot on a stool and leapt high in the air, twisting away from Hanako’s first slash.
The older girl had her two knives out, and brandished them in front of her as Masayo landed. Masayo feinted, holding her big knife like a sword, and just as Hirosue staggered to his feet she leaned forward, lashing backward with one long leg. Her heel caught him again on his right side, at the base of his ribs, and he collapsed, crying out in pain. He clutched at his side and blood welled out between his fingers.
Hanako moved in then, and Masayo had to spin, her knife whirling around, blades clashing too fast to follow, move and countermove simultaneous. Masayo’s blade flew, flipping and dancing, but every time she found an opening Hanako’s second blade threatened and she had to pull back. The two girls circled each other, both panting.
Hirosue coughed and cursed from the floor. Shiro grinned, his face cruel.
Ikegami nearly cried out when Masayo drew her knife well back, leaving her side exposed, and Hanako took the opportunity, sinking one blade into the tall girl’s shoulder.
Masayo turned away, the simple motion of her body yanking the knife from Hanako’s hand. Her own knife batted aside Hanako’s other weapon and then slid, gently, silently, up into Hanako’s body, just under her breast.
She stepped back, leaving the knife embedded in Hanako’s chest, and the stricken girl sank slowly to her knees, coughed once, and fell on her face.
Hirosue shrieked and struggled to his feet. Grand Master Shiro raised a hand.
“That’s enough, Hirosue. I’ve seen all I need to see.”
“But she killed–”
“You and Hanako were never a match for Masayo. Shut up.”
Masayo had not moved during this, just stood staring at Hanako’s body. She looked up as the Grand Master addressed her.
“Masayo-chan. Well done. Go back to the Casino and wait for me.”
The girl cut herself off and bowed.
“Yes, Grand Master.”
She exchanged one glance with Ikegami as she picked her way out of the shop. The old man, face half-hidden behind his fan, shook his head minutely and she left without a word.
Shiro stared at Hirosue, his flat cold eyes half-open, his breath rumbling slow and deep.
“Well, sensei, I guess we just decided who we’re going to put this on.”
Ikegami swallowed. Hirosue pushed forward, clutching his injured side with one hand, reaching out to Shiro with the other.
“Grand Master, I–”
“I don’t want to hear it, kid. I don’t want one word from you.”
Ikegami stepped forward, fanning himself lazily, lips pursed, studying Hirosue.
“They recognized you, didn’t they, Hiro-kun? You thought you could rip off Chen’s, disguised in your stolen Shadow Claw gear, but one of them recognized you, and one of them stuck you, then you had to kill them all. You stupid punk.”
He turned to the enormous Grand Master.
“Grand Master, I don’t like this plan of yours. Provoking the Shadow Claw is only going to backfire on us. But please, don’t put this sort of thing in the hands of a dumb kid like him.”
Hirosue burst out, “What about Masayo? She knows too much.”
Shiro raised a hand towards Hirosue.
“I told you to shut up, kid.”
He rotated slowly to face Ikegami. The old man shook his head.
“He may have a point, Grand Master. Masayo is too smart to not put this together. And she will be outraged. She may be skilled, but she’s not as… pragmatic as I am.”
“No. I will deal with the girl. She won’t be a problem, don’t worry. Hirosue, we put this on Hanako, understand?”
“Tell Red-Eyes she was crazy. Tell him she was a junkie. I don’t care. But it was her that did it, we don’t know why, and you’ll make good his losses.”
Hirosue stared at the girl’s body, his furious scowl frozen on his face. He started as Ikegami approached. The old man picked up the bundle of swords.
“I’ll take these back. Grand Master, you really ought to kill Masayo.”
Shiro growled, rattling the windows. Ikegami bowed, tucked his fan into his belt, and slipped out.
“What a delight, Matsuyama-san. Two random encounters in a single morning.”
Ikegami chuckled briefly, then stepped directly in front of the Shadow Claw warrior’s bulky form. Matsuyama glowered.
The old man bowed, then held up the bundle containing the two swords.
“I regret to tell you I have no information as to what may have happened to young Rie, but I found these and thought they should be returned to her people.”
Matsuyama snatched the weapons from Ikegami and inspected them briefly. His glower darkened even further, but the elderly Glorious Dragon before him seemed unconcerned.
“You’re not going to tell me what happened to her, are you?”
“I’m uninterested in the truth, Matsuyama-san. I serve my clan as I must. As you must.”
The two men stared at each other. Matsuyama bowed, a minute inclination of his upper body.
“You will be an honourable enemy, Ikegami-sensei. I look forward to it.”
Ikegami chuckled, and reached out to toy with a yellow silk tassel.
“They are very nice swords.”
He snapped his fan open and wandered into the crowd.