From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House,
Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details.
Takashi's feet pumped as hard as they could, but he couldn't get his bike to move fast enough for his liking. His lungs burned, protesting his efforts -- but his mind told said lungs to put a cork in it, because if he didn't get there in time, the yellow tape would be up and the barricades in place and it'll all be over...
He skidded to a halt on the wet streets of Edo, letting his bike clatter against the pavement as he ran up to join his friends... who, sadly, were waiting for him outside the barriers which read "Police Line: Please Not To Be Crossing" in standard tongue.
"You missed EVERYTHING!" his friend declared, with a look of joy on his face. "Poor you, Takashi! You should've seen it, it was pure guro, man!"
"Dammit! What was it, what was it?" he asked, whipping out his notebook, flipping past the Crime Scene Fan Circle meeting minutes from last week. "I need details! Did you get any photos?"
"Nah, they locked the place off before I could get shots. But it was awesome! You know that guy, whatsisname, Miike?"
"The Yakuza thug who was peddling smut? That's the guy?"
"Great irony in this one!" his friend declared. "It was done totally with needles. Had a huge nine inch steel piercing needle right through his you-know! It was totally pinned down to the ground -- straight through the concrete! I heard some of the CSI guys talking about it, how that shouldn't even be possible..."
"So what was the cause of death?" Takashi asked, eager to get on the good stuff. "The needle? I mean, that doesn't sound fatal..."
"Nah, the wang piercing was actually postmortem. They're not sure exactly what did the freak in; it's like his heart just stopped. But there were three tiny needles in his left hand... I heard the CSI team say something about acupuncture before they hurried us off."
"Wait, wait. You're saying this guy was killed by some kind of evil-minded acupuncture therapist? That's stupid, and impossible. It's impossible AND stupid."
His friend grinned ear to ear. "Not if it was done by a--!"
"Ninjas don't exist," Takashi said, flipping his notebook closed in disappointment.
"It's an official finding by the Crime Scene Fan Circle that ninjas do not exist," he repeated from doctrine. "You studied the same police reports we all have -- and the unsolved oddball murders you keep saying are the work of ninjas all had perfectly reasonable theories behind them. Ninjas are in RealNet streams, not reality. ...who's that?"
"The woman in the overcoat and the umbrella," Takashi said, dropping his voice down. "Is she another guro fan? I don't recognize her from the last convention..."
"Oh, her? I don't know, she's just been standing there frowning for about ten minutes now. Hey, you wanna grab some takeout? I could just murder a curry tonight!"
As the boys wandered off to talk about horrible mutilations and murders over spicy foodstuffs, the frowning woman continued to frown. Eventually she turned and walked away, back into the shadows she had arrived from.
This reality was at peace. Its owner had paid considerable sums of money to keep things that way.
Peaceful, as the birds which he had imported sang in the trees he had planted around the compound. Peaceful, as water poured gently into a bamboo shaft, which would periodically clack against stone as it tilted over to empty, then right itself to fill again. There was even a soft breeze through the grasses, a weather condition he had programmed in today as it allowed for the sakura petals of spring to flutter through the air just so...
It was spring, a perfect spring in a perfect place. But it would not be spring forever; soon it would be summer, and then the more frigid times of winter. He didn't particularly need a seasonal cycle programmed into his reality, he wasn't harvesting crops... but leaves fall in autumn. This is natural and in keeping with how things must be.
From his place, seated just inside the dojo and overlooking the koi pond, he sipped freshly prepared tea while the wooden dolls moved about doing daily chores. Once they were his primary weapons in the world, but since his daughter's rise to honor, skill, and most importantly sentience, they were redundant. She could handle the few clients he opted to work with during his quasi-retirement...
A paper scroll on the dojo wall crackled, as if someone had rattled the paper. (Nobody had; it was simply a proper audio signal to get his attention, emitted by hidden speakers.) The hand-brushed ink letters speaking of truth and resilience slowly erased themselves, replaced with more orderly characters detailing who had just breached the borders of Tachibana, arriving in a properly registered friendly mobile. It seemed his daughter had arrived.
Setting his teacup down, he followed her as she entered the compound, ignoring the zig-zag stone path in favor of making a beeline for him. She knelt in front of him... and hung her head in shame.
"You see what has transpired today as a failure," Tachi, retired ninja assassin and owned of the reality Tachibana spoke to his daughter. "That his death, not resulting from your own bullet, is a disappointment to me. But you know me better than that, Kisei. There is no shame in this."
"She was responsible," Kisei said, keeping her eyes down, letting a tiny note of hate slip into her cooled humility. "Again, she took the kill before I could. I traced the target's routine movements, prepared my own sniping position, but he never arrived -- she was posing as a girl in a cabaret, and lured him in for drink, then killed him in an alley four blocks from my position. I have failed in supporting your client's contract. ...how can there be no shame in that, father?"
"It's true that the client's contract will have to be nulled," Tachi said, considering. "We can't take responsibility, even if the end results are what the client cared most about. I could claim that the killer was working for me, and collect in full... but it would be a lie and I'm not about to lie to a client. But if any shame is deserved here, you could say that it belongs to me. I let her go, after all -- a decision you disagreed with, yes?"
"Absolutely," Kisei said, looking up at last. "But I do not see you carrying shame, father... only a burden. Why you continue to bear this load, letting her interfere in our work -- this being the fifth contract she's ruined since that day -- remains a mystery to me, father.I've heard your reasons and they still make no logical sense to me..."
"Look to the courtyard, Kisei," Tachi suggested, with a gesture. "The sakura are in full bloom. It's a beautiful sight, yes? But the resulting mess of petals, all over the compound, requires extensive work by the dolls to clean up after each blooming. Does that mean I should program the reality engine to never allow for springtime blossoms? After all, the aftermath is inconvenient, even if the brief time of bloom is beautiful..."
"...I.. suppose it would make sense," Kisei said. "But then we would be denied that beauty. You have taught me to appreciate the aesthetics of nature, and of the creative arts, and I have done my best to follow that path even if it doesn't always seem practical--"
"Consider that point when considering what has become of Satsui, then," he recommended. "And I suggest a linked set of seven poems, to express your feelings. I'll read them when you finish. Go, now."
An assignment, then. Kisei took assignments very seriously, even ones she occasionally felt were trivial. She took her leave, to retire to her room and compose her poetry. But through those poems, she would certainly express her confusion, and her constant frustration at father's strange fixation on that girl who by all that is honorable and right should have died three years ago...
Father would always insist that there was no shame in her failure. But she would always feel shame.
That day, that fine spring day with the sakura in full bloom, she was painting a picture of a flower patch she saw across the pond from inside the dojo. Although this sharpened her ability to survey visuals from great distances, it wasn't an training exercise; she was doing it of her own free will, simply for the wonderful joy of expressing herself with the brush. This sort of activity pleased father greatly, and she intended to present him with the painting as a gift. Not a surprise gift, of course, since he was aware of everything she did -- and he had in fact walked in to the dojo at that moment, with a smile on his face, the same smile he always wore as she expressed herself--
And the dart would have embedded itself perfectly in his neck, if he hadn't caught it. Because Kisei hadn't been aware of the intruder hanging from the rafters for the last two hours. KISEI hadn't be aware, of all people, she should have been aware...
She pounced on the enemy the moment she realized what was going on, wrestling the assassin to the dojo floor. She pinched the killer's cheeks, hard, to prevent her from biting down on a poison capsule and denying Kisei the right of taking this failure's life. Tachi was there with her, prying the false tooth out quickly as Kisei held her mouth open...
The assassin was a woman. A girl, Kisei's age -- at the time, sixteen years. Not as tall as Kisei, but slender and deadly, judging from her build and the numerous darts and needles hidden about her person in her loose fitting, shortened kimono-like dressings. How could someone wearing such colors not be noticed just above her head? Kisei wondered...
Her father applied a simple pressure point, one designed to lock all body muscles rigid for five minutes, and interrogation began.
"Who sent you to kill me?" he asked, as calm and pleasant as someone who was greeting a house guest.
"Go screw yourself!" the killer spat. Literally, in a disgusting display of ungraceful action, which Tachi gracefully wiped away in turn.
"You're of the Red Fist, then," Tachi decided. "The wild clan, which values chaos more than order, initiative more than restraint. Those who kill the ones above them to achieve promotion, and earn the favor of Yao Jing, your high mistress... am I right so far, miss?"
The immobilized girl glared at him, a blatant display of emotion which betrayed her. Rather than going silent and calm in order to avoid the enemy from learning too much about her mission (as Kisei had learned to do) she was screaming out responses to Tachi's queries in silence.
Kisei grasped a handful of the girl's hair, and pulled her head up, studying that face. "If she is one of the honorless Red Fists, then she doesn't deserve to be called 'miss', father," Kisei said... her own face trying to hide the hate. (A killer, a killer who slipped past her, who tried to take her father...) "I will claim her life. She will no longer present a danger to our existence if she is--"
"Patience, Kisei. Patience. I want to know more," Tachi said. "Let her go."
"I shouldn't have to make that request twice, Kisei..."
The girl's head hit the floor, no longer held up by Kisei's grasp.
"Now then, I have a solution to this situation, and it doesn't involve your death," he told the girl. "You bore a poison tooth, but I can see it in your eyes -- I know you don't really want to die. It's not the true way of your clan, sacrificing yourself like that over the shame of a failed mission. Sacrificing others, certainly, but not yourself. Therefore, I will ensure that your mission does not fail by canceling it completely. I'm going to hire you to kill the one who hired you to kill me. And I'm not even going to demand to know who it was."
The assassin said nothing... except for the curious look which was dancing between assuming she was doomed and seeing a way out of this mess. She was listening intently...
"Father... why do you lie to her?" Kisei asked, confused. "We cannot let her leave. She knows where we live, and... she almost killed you... so. It stands to reason that clearly, we cannot allowed her to live--"
"I have a reason for every action I take, even if it seems frivolous at the time," Tachi noted. "Kisei, I've taught you not to live entirely by a coded rulebook of honor, yes? Honor may demand that all who lay eyes on a ninja must perish, but that is not our way. It's most certainly not my way."
"And what of our safety?" Kisei asked, perplexed -- and as close to being disgusted with Tachi's actions as she could get. (Which wasn't much, but was enough to be noticeable.) "If she told your enemies where we live..."
"Our safety is assured. I'll simply have Tachibana's reality address changed in RealWare's systems. Expensive, but a more acceptable option to me. ...now, then. Miss, I'm sure your people will appreciate the irony of the treason I suggest. It won't be the first time they've betrayed a client, and I mean that with the utmost respect for such experts in dishonesty," Tachi said, without a trace of cynicism. "I'll pay you exactly as much as you were paid for this job -- no more than that, since I don't exactly have to beg you to spare my life. I only ask one thing, and I believe you would be interested in telling me, so that I can be impressed by your resourcefulness. ...how did you find my haven of Tachibana..? Tell me, and I will decide that we have come to terms."
Opening her mouth to protest this absurdity... Kisei closed it, when the girl spoke up.
"I took on a menial night job at the Nipponese technology startup company, Noyori Labs," she said. "My sources indicated Ryo Noyori might know where you live. I used my position to plant cameras in his building, and waited until one of them caught your reality address on the screen of his pocket organizer. It took three weeks, plus the time to obtain a cloak so I could arrive without triggering your border guard software... but was worth it."
"My prediction is true, then; I AM impressed by your resourcefulness," he said, with a smile. "I'm going to have to have a chat with Ryo about his employee screening process. That methodology shows more patience and determination than I'd ordinarily expect from the Red Fist, young woman... Kisei, tell me. Upon hearing this, how could I kill one who is so promising?"
"Your pressure point will wear off in a minute," Tachi continued. "Make any motions other than walking out the door and back the way you came and I will allow Kisei to strike you down in an instant. But... take the mission I've suggested, and take no violent action against us for the rest of your life... and I will ensure her bullet never finds you. Kisei, I'm holding you to that oath. She's going to go in peace, provided she stays peaceful. Understood?"
Her hands were clenched in fists... but she nodded her assent. Honor was everything, and an oath directly from her father wasn't something to question, wasn't something to even entertain the slightest thought of breaking. ...even if she wished she could, deep inside...
As the pinched nerves came back to life... the girl rose to her feet. She hesitated, which gave Kisei an urge to strike her down, to end this charade... did he mean she was to leave immediately, however? Lack of motion didn't count as a motion other than walking away. Would she shame herself by misinterpreting his orders...?
"I won't promise to never darken your door again," she warned. "I'll doublecross my client because it's amusing, but I haven't forgotten being pushed into this by you. Satsui doesn't take oaths or hold any promises..."
"It doesn't matter if you take an oath or not. The consequences for betraying my trust are the same either way," he noted... with more seriousness than his jovial tone from before. "Now go."
And she was gone.
At least, gone from Tachibana, and from Kisei's eyes. But ninjas don't live in shadows, they simply work there -- they live in their own quiet pockets of reality, places where they are safe and secure to plan those works...
Not that much planning goes on at the reality known as Scarlet River. Here, the Red Fist loiters, lounges, and enjoys leisure between assignments. There is training, and there is teaching in the deadly arts... but it shares more in common with Antiparadisia than it does with Nippon. Every night is full of song and brawling and laughter, every day is full of fighting and arguing and silent scheming.
The visual style of the reality is a distinct blend of the modern and the ancient in Nipponese lore, despite the somewhat wild nature of its occupants. Temple-dojos line the Scarlet River itself, a long channel of crimson colored water that is not in fact blood, but has no source and no destination (beyond the fuzzy edges of the reality itself). It travels in a straight line, unyielding.. except to a single palace, which it parts around, like a moat.
Inside that palace lies the reason for the silent scheming of the Red Fist, their leader for life (or until someone kills her) (which none have accomplished yet) (and not from lack of trying), Yao Jing, high mistress of the Red Fist.
Yao Jing, the crafty. Yao Jing, the conniving. An elegant woman, in elegant red silk dresses and long silk gloves and long black silken locks in her hair. And on her face, an expression capable of only two states -- amusement and boredom. At that moment, after Satsui had explained her deal with the devil, Yao Jing was clearly radiating amusement.
"And so, you killed the client," Yao concluded.
"Yes, ma'am," Satsui said. "I explained to him my reasoning, much to his... disappointment. He offered to double our fee to spare him, but what fun would that be? I took his life, took the rest of our fee, and came home. That, on top of what Tachi paid me, should be a satisfactory amount. Right?"
And then there was the right hand woman of Yao Jing, so called because she had Yao's ear in all matters and spent nearly every waking (and non) hour tending to Yao's affairs. And her expression was neither amusement or boredom -- it was rage.
"You KILLED our client!" she admonished. "You failed in your mission, and in a pathetic attempt to make amends for that failure, you kill the client? Satsui, that's rookie nonsense. Do you enjoy shaming Miss Jing in this way!? For your punishment--"
"Punishment? I don't think I've said anything about punishment yet," Yao said, keeping her eyes on the young girl before her, despite addressing her right hand woman. "And I don't recall saying I was shamed. Are you presuming to speak for me, Li..?"
"Ah..? No no, Miss Jing, of course not, but--"
"You know, lately you've bored me tremendously, Li," she said, with a sigh. "Shame, honor, punishment, blah, blah, blah... it's not working for me. You're not pleasing me anymore... No, I'm afraid there's nothing for it but to take on a new apprentice. You're excused, Li. Go find something else to do with your days. Satsui? I admire the depths of your treachery, neophyte they may be. You have great potential -- although that suicide pill was really quite silly, I recommend skipping that in the future..."
"Miss Jing--!" Li protested--
And drew a sharp stare from the woman who was previously dismissing her gently.
"Get out of my sight," Yao demanded. "If you make me ask twice then I'll strip you bare and throw you out of my palace, declaring to all of the Fist that you're no longer under my wing. At least this way you get to leave with the others assuming you have SOME of my protection. ...I never said our little relationship was eternal, dear... and it's time for me to trade up. Away with you."
Satsui glowed briefly inside with triumph, as the other girl faded from the room, withdrawing in shame...
"You won't regret this, ma'am," Satsui pledged. "I know I'm new to the Red Fist, but I'm willing to learn! I'm honored you're taking me on as your apprentice!"
"Mm, honor, yes. What interests me more is your potential, dear. The way you patiently worked your way into this Ryo person's confidences, and then the interesting bargain you struck with Tachi... by the time I finish with you, you'll be able to strike your own bargains of that caliber. The strength of the Red Fist doesn't lie in weapons or fighting techniques, but words, the same words he used to turn you against your own people. No no, don't worry, I actually approve of that. Would you like to be that manipulative? That clever..?"
Satsui bowed her head, smiling all the while. "More than anything, miss! I've always enjoyed positioning myself to strike from a place of trust. I can start by plotting against the fool who set me free! All I have to do is find a way to locate his new address, perhaps by selling information about him to the White Lotus--"
"Mmm, no. Not like that," she said. "First of all, the White Lotus are bores. They already know he's at large and haven't acted yet, so bound by their meaningless codes of honor. Even without them, I'd say we don't need to invade Tachi's home again to attempt a kill... we simply make him regret his decision. There are craftier ways to induce regret than direct physical violence..."
For three years, Satsui trained under Yao Jing, while Kisei trained under Tachi.
For three years, Satsui would strike without warning, taking a kill out from under Kisei's nose. There were no lengths she wouldn't go to to get what she wanted, and as the days went by her talent for subterfuge and hiding in plain sight grew. The yakuza kill in an alley was only one in a series of incidents that Tachi jokingly called "Griefing," to use the Tribal Alpha term for it. Despite the dishonor Satsui heaped onto them at every turn, despite the guilt mounting inside Kisei with every failure, Tachi always saw the incidents as little more than inconveniences.
Perhaps that's why Satsui continued, growing bolder and more conniving with every action she took against them. If she was hoping for Tachi to express rage, to express regret, or just to collapse in sorrow at being constantly antagonized... it wasn't going to happen. Was Tachi deliberately encouraging the girl to take her meaningless revenge? What was he thinking? Even when he explained his reasons, they made no sense...
A passing ambulance on the streets below snapped Kisei back to sharp attention.
She had a mission to accomplish, and fading off into daydreams of confusion and revenge were not going to aid her efforts. If she wanted to put an end to Satsui's aggressive annoyances, she had to stay focused. She had to take this kill, DESPITE Satsui's interference.
Kisei had crafted this trap quite carefully...
Her target was a higher-order Yakuza leader, higher than the simpleton who had died in an alley two days ago. This one was far more cautious. He didn't give out his trust freely -- his henchmen were hand picked years ago and had stuck by his side ever since. Even his cleaning staff was thoroughly checked, with personal interviews and background checks to ensure they were in no way shape or form working for his enemies. The whores he called on to visit his penthouse apartment were ones his men had "checked out" quite extensively before, and he rarely strayed from the same three or four girls.
There was no way to get close to him. If Satsui attempted to sneak into his good graces to get within a needle's distance, she would fail. But a sniper... a sniper didn't need to get close to someone. A sniper was an efficient weapon of distance and power; a sniper struck from shadow, anonymous and flawless...
And slow. That was one problem with her missions, that she had to set up and find a perfect spot to work from, one which would offer an assured kill. The process could take weeks, scouting out locations, watching the target's patterns, trying to find the chink in his armor. If she wanted to succeed, despite how impossible it looked for Satsui to get to the kill first, Kisei had to be as swift as a bullet. It only took two days to decide on her strategy.
Although the windows to the gangster's apartment were bulletproof, they could be shattered with a sonic explosive. She had researched the manufacturer, purchased a similar window, and tested the device on it -- perfect results. If her timing was perfect (which it always was) she could shatter the window by remote, sneak one bullet in right as the glass was falling, and be gone within the span of four seconds.
The escape would likewise be perfect. She had separated the walls of her hotel room closet, and installed a small Reality Engine for Mobiles inside. It would take her first to an empty proxy reality, so that any attempts to trace her return path to Tachibana would fail -- from there she'd hop a second mobile to her true home, and collapse the proxy behind her. This was, of course, standard practice.
All that remained was to execute the plan, and by executing the plan, execute the Yakuza. He would be returning to his penthouse, likely with one of his call girls, in exactly three minutes.
Kisei loaded her rifle with a single, simple bullet. It was all she needed, despite carrying a belt of tranquilizers, explosive darts, and other utility slugs. Her finger hovered over the button that would activate the explosive, and shatter the window...
Through her scope, she watched the penthouse front door open, and close. Two figures entered; as expected, her target plus a whore. They immediately began to lock lips, starting to shed clothes, heading towards the bedroom... the optimum space for her to take her shot, as it was closest to the windows.
Her finger squeezed the trigger slightly, all the way to the point of no return, and waited--
--while her target fell limp in the woman's arms, the silver glint of a needle flickering near his neck.
Satsui removed her wig, turned to the window, and offered Kisei a little smirk and a shrug.
It wasn't possible. Kisei had only been given the contract two days ago; Satsui couldn't have maneuvered her way into the man's good graces in that time--
I was your real client, Satsui mouthed to her, knowing Kisei could read her lips through the sniper scope. Surprise.
The Red Fist ninja let her partner's body drop to the floor, as she slid the needle back into the bun in her hair, clearly whistling some tune which was no doubt merry despite being inaudible to Kisei. Because both of them knew that Kisei was honor-bound not to harm her...
Not to HARM her.
Kisei slotted out her bullet, the one which should have brought her honor, and slotted a tranquilizer dart.
The window shattered, the dart flew, and Satsui expressed surprise before falling asleep next to her dead mark.
The sound of police sirens echoed in the distance, as Kisei calmly entered her escape closet and left the scene of the crime.
There was a still wind that night in Tachibana. No sakura petals, no distant sounds of the birds. For a reality designed to be a calm center of the multiverse for Tachi's blissful semi-retirement, the tension was thick enough to cut with a curved kama blade.
Debriefing wasn't usually this stressful of an affair. Tachi would sip tea, as he reviewed Kisei's accounting of the mission -- he'd nod occasionally, offer a few suggestions for future improvements, and give her a rewarding smile. He wasn't smiling today...
"A tranquilizer dart," he repeated.
"Which is not technically a harmful act," Kisei pointed out quickly, trying to justify her action, through a spot of confusion. "I did not violate your edict, father. I adhered to the letter of your law, and kept my honor. Any windfall that will transpire will be Satsui's doing... her shameful acts led to this. If she was better prepared, then a simple dart shouldn't have been an issue, yes? Therefore, the onus falls on--"
"This isn't about Satsui. This is about you, and your honor," he said. "Which you have unfortunately stained tonight."
"But you said--"
"And are my words -- the transcribed content as parsed by your grammatical precision -- what I wanted from you?" he asked. "Are you simply a robot, following programmed instructions like one of the killing dolls that we now let wash our dishes and do our laundry? You know I want more from you than that, Kisei. You exist because I wanted more than that. You're human to the core, regardless of origin... surely you understood what I desired. Saying you didn't DIRECTLY harm her is a cheat, and you know it. You did this specifically to strike her down!"
Kisei stood up, from her kneeling position. Taking her stand. "Father, I've obeyed your edicts and meaning despite disagreeing with them," he said. "I've put up with Satsui's actions long enough. You've given me any number of... soft reasons... for why we let her go in the first place, why she still lives! Downplayed our difficulties with her, let slide numerous disgraces to our house... perhaps... I have acted improperly. Slightly. But the end result is that she will trouble us no more, and that surely outweighs the infraction..."
"You've killed her, as surely as if you put a bullet in her," he said, disappointed. "Kisei... I haven't felt the need to go into exacting detail why I wanted her left alive. Given the current circumstances... perhaps I should."
After a pause... Kisei knelt again. "I am listening," she said, with only a tiny amount of sarcasm. Because she desperately needed to know.
With a heavy sigh, Tachi began. "Kisei... you know your origin. You are human, but were grown to your young age, and given the same knowledge base the dolls had. I've encouraged you to grow into your humanity, to use the base as a launching pad into the true beauty that you will become one day. ...but I have not told you the full details of that origin, because what you will become is more important to me than how you began. I did not tell you that Ryo Noyori was responsible for helping me acquire the technology that created you."
"Noyori-san..?" Kisei asked, trying to remember. He had only visited Tachibana three or four times since her awakening. Other than being a friend of her father's, she knew little else... "So, he aided you? But how does that relate to Satsui?"
"Because like Satsui... I should have killed Ryo Noyori when I first met him. Honor and the code demanded it; he had witnessed a kill, and could potentially expose myself and my clan. Ninjas do not exist, but he had proof, and had to die immediately... but I declined to kill him."
"If... if your clan's honor demanded it, why did you not--?"
"Because MY honor demanded otherwise," he said. "Because the values I've been teaching you, values that respect life AND death, are ours and ours alone. The White Lotus, my former clan, lives so strictly by their codes and laws that they are practically programmed dolls. They can't make judgment calls, can't let emotion into their hearts, can't enjoy their lives and thus understand the beauty of life or death. If I killed him that night, I would be keeping their honor... not my own. Slay a child? A child with such potential, such spark, such life within him? And why, just because it would be... convenient, because it would keep my secrets effortlessly? It's a greater challenge to befriend him, so that he would keep my secrets voluntarily. To encourage him, to let him prosper... and in keeping my own honor, he was able to make you, wasn't he? If I lived by a code, if I did the 'right' thing, you wouldn't exist."
Tachi paused, to refill his teacup from the traditional set he prepared for every mission debriefing. Kisei knelt in silence, his words echoing in her mind...
"Satsui... is a nuisance," he offered in concession, after a sip. "She's a risk to us. She's a danger. But she has a spark as well -- she managed to get by all our defenses, and was even flexible enough to go against traditional honor and work with us momentarily. She lives by her own honor, which is different from ours. It's certainly not my ideal of honor, I'll grant that. But I respect her right to life, just as I respected Noyori-san's. You notice, Kisei, I only take certain missions offered to me, because I let my own honor decide what is right and wrong in the work I do. Death is of monumental importance, just as life is, and if I'm going to be true to my own sense of integrity I must choose between them wisely. For her, I chose life. And tonight... you chose her death. You took my decision from me, because you saw convenience in eliminating a pest from our lives. ...do you understand now, my daughter?"
Kisei wetted her lips, to bring some moisture as they had dried out, hanging open lightly.
"I... believe I do," she said, truthfully. "I always saw your decision as frivolous, and dangerous..."
"And it was," Tachi said, with a smile. "An old man's conceit. But it was still the right decision, if we are to be honorable. I've told you this all along, Kisei. You just didn't want to see it that way."
"There is one element I do not yet see, father -- her death. Why is this a matter of me taking her life? True, I did allow her to fall into the hands of those who would punish her for her arrogance, but surely the police would not execute her... capital punishment is not a factor of that jurisdiction--"
"She's not in the hands of the police, Kisei," he said, finishing his teacup. "She's in the hands of the White Lotus."
"Our target was aligned with my former clan, in addition to the simple structure of the yakuza. A fact which, regrettably, I didn't learn soon enough," he said, with disappointment -- in himself. "The police arrived to find the body, but no suspect. She was taken by the White Lotus to a mobile dojo, to be dealt with. They will put her to death at sunset in two days time... likely in their overly-elaborate ancient and traditional way, as dictated by the code. They haven't changed in centuries, and I know their methods. It will be quite horrible, befitting an enemy who dishonored them."
"But... but she is not without allies, father! Surely the Red Fist will rescue her. She's the right hand of Yao Jing, high mistress of the clan... just as I am to you, she is to her. Correct..?"
It wasn't that she expected a holding cell to be decorative, an aesthetic delight to the eyes. It was, understandably, spartan and bare. But from what she saw, as the White Lotus dragged her here, the entire dojo was just as spartan and bare.
It held the framework of Nipponese traditions, and little else. Wooden crossbeams, rice paper doors, but absolutely devoid of flavor and life. Just like the ones who took her here... their faces blank, without a trace of joy in capturing an enemy, without any anger at her actions. They were simply taking her from where she collapsed to where she would spend the rest of her short life -- nothing else to it. She felt completely insulted by this, of course; the least they could do was hate her. She had taken one of their allies! She'd planned it for weeks, as an insult to her arch-nemesis as well as this rival clan! Why couldn't they show her the indignity they felt? Surely they felt SOME...
Instead, she simply found herself bound helpless in a traditional rope harness (no knots, since ancient codes stated that tying with knots was greatly dishonorable) with a silken gag in her mouth, carried brazenly to this place and left for dead. She could wriggle a bit on the ground, but the rope was attached to a firm post, and they'd taken away every single needle she was carrying. Handcuffs, those she could escape. Tied knots, those could be untied. But this she wasn't prepared for...
She also wasn't prepared for her salvation to walk brazenly into the tiny room she was being kept in.
In an instant, Satsui's expression turned from sour anger to relieved joy. With not a single White Lotus in sight, there was her mistress, the high Yao Jing of the Red Fist herself. Composed and arrogant as ever.
"I was starting to worry," Satsui admitted. "I'm glad word of my capture got back to you, ma'am. So, how many do we have left to kill before we can get out of here? Or did you take care of all of them on the way in?"
"You could say I took care of them," Yao stated, stopping five feet away from Satsui, looking down at her. "Everything's been handled. The situation will no longer pose a situation -- and without a single dead body. Never was my style, dear, you know that. Why use a silver knife when a silver tongue works better?"
"Good! I should've known that Yao Jing could talk her way out of anything! What'd you tell them?"
"That they could have you, in exchange for forgetting this little incident ever occurred," Yao said simply.
Satsui's face fell. Admittedly, it didn't have far to fall, given her position. "What?!"
"It's really quite an embarrassment, Satsui-chan," Yao said, with a mock sigh. "Really now, being captured by a rival clan like that? Being captured long ago by Tachi, I could see that. He's that good. But a handful of lower echelon White Lotus--"
"Kisei was responsible for this! She's the one who shot me and left me for--"
"Yes, and you let it happen, didn't you? If you truly were skilled, you could have avoided this," she said. "And to tell the truth, you have grown rather... uninteresting to me, lately. It's nothing personal, dear, but every now and then I simply have to trade up... to someone younger, someone with more hunger for the work. More importantly, younger, of course... just like I did with your predecessor, yes? So, enjoy what remains of your life, and know that I'll always look back on our time fondly. But all good things must come to an end."
Satsui's mouth moved up and down wordlessly, as her mistress knelt down, to give her a light kiss.
"Don't worry, you'll come to accept it before they execute you," Yao Jing said. "And if you don't, well, I tried..."
As the woman got to her feet, and turned to go, Satsui offered one last mumbled protest.
"I'm... I'm at least part of your clan," she said. "And I served you with everything I had for so long... doesn't... doesn't that count for something? I brought honor to the clan..."
"Honor..? Really, now, I thought I had burned all that nonsense out of you," Yao Jing said, with the tiniest look of distaste. "What loyalty do I owe you or anyone under my command? I promised you nothing. You knew when you got involved that I was like this, dear, we all were. You've got nobody to blame but yourself for not seeing it coming and at least plotting against me in turn. IYou should have known better than to trust me, to have faith in me, or to have love for me. Sayonara."
With a whisk of her dress, she was gone, and the rice paper door slammed shut behind her. Muffled voices could be heard, the leader of the Red Fist exchanging some last words with the White Lotus guards. In time, the faint sounds of her mentor's footsteps finally echoed into nothing.
Minutes passed. Maybe an hour. There wasn't any point in keeping track of time now.
After this indeterminate amount of time, she began to hallucinate. It was the only explanation for the sign.
The sign was a tall, thin wooden tile -- a traditional Nipponese sign, characters inscribed from top to bottom. It was maybe half a foot tall, and positioned right where her eyes could see it, through a carefully and silently carved slot in the floor.
Three columns of characters, side by side. One column of lettering read "Remain silent." The middle read "Brace yourself." The final read "Escaping through the floor."
After reading the last symbol, her mind regained its focus. This wasn't a hallucination; someone was about to rescue her. Was it a ruse? Were Yao's words spoken strictly for the benefit of any White Lotus who might be listening? Even as she pondered the possibilities, she could hear the near-silent sound of a blade cutting through the thick wooden floor... this time, around the post she was bound to. A perfect circular cut, one which took care not to cut her in the process...
The post slid down through the floor, ropes creaking the tiniest bit before going slack. Without the central object to keep her in place and the harness tight, the rest was simple -- struggle here, pull there, and it was all gone in moments. A nearby floor panel tilted upward, and her rescuer peered into the room, to meet her eyes...
Her rescuer wasn't Yao Jing. It was Kisei.
Much to her surprise, rather than raising a rifle point to put an end to her life -- which would be understandable, her arch-nemesis returning to finish the job, right when she was at her nadir -- Kisei was waving for her to slip down the open panel and out of the room.
Knowing that the two of them were proficient in lipreading, she asked a simple question before daring to move from that spot.
Why? she asked silently.
Her opponent tried to use simple, easy to read words. Because my father was right, she explained. I was not being true to my own honor. Now let's go, we must hurry.
It could be a trick, Satsui thought. The moment her back was turned, Kisei would put a bullet in her head.
Except Kisei doesn't break promises, Satsui thought. And her undergoing this incredibly risky job just to save her was proof that she wanted to uphold the oath she took with her father. She knew the White Lotus had her and her father on their list of key enemies, and yet she came here just to save the person who had been ruining her life to date...
Against her instincts, she nodded in agreement, and slipped down into the basement with her enemy. The floor was sealed behind them, and the White Lotus would only find a pile of ropes and some unusual holes. Which would be enough to put them on their trail immediately.
Both of them knew this, and they worked with speed. They were underneath the dojo now, in the tiny crawlspace of the docking yard where the White Lotus building was resting -- amongst the standardized water hookups and power cables, the underbelly that kept mobile structures ticking no matter what dock they landed in. And like all standard docks, there was just enough room for a dock repair specialist to crawl down there and make changes... or for two ninjas to escape an enemy fortress.
The dojo was a large building, and the crawlspace was narrow. They wouldn't be able to move fast, but would hopefully move fast enough. Around tubing and pipes they went, looking for the tiny, dimly glowing beacon Kisei had dropped on her way in that would signify an access tunnel they could enter and escape through...
Footsteps pounded overhead, in the dojo. Her escape hadn't gone unnoticed. Almost there...
And before they could reach freedom, docking clamps whined into active status, lifting the entire dojo a few feet -- just enough to get emergency personnel down there in case of disaster. Or to get ninjas in white uniforms down there to kill two errant enemies. Heavily armed ninjas.
Kisei drew her rifle, and pressed a sewing kit into Satsui's hands -- apparently her enemy had planned ahead, bringing along a few of her favorite weapons.
"We will likely die here," Kisei noted to her, in a whisper. Enemies closing in slowly, knowing they had the number advantage, knowing there was no way out. "But know that I regret what I have done, and hope that I have restored some honor by dying alongside you."
"Are you serious..?" Satsui asked, one last confirmation.
"In that case..."
Kisei's trigger finger went limp. Her whole body went limp. The tiny, tiny pinprick in the back of her neck was the culprit, as was the one who held the needle kit.
"I surrender," Satsui announced, as Kisei started to black out. "And boy, do I have a prize for you in exchange for my freedom... let's make a deal."
In a fine role reversal, Kisei groggily came back to her senses... tied up, in the same harness style that previously held Satsui. Likely in the same ropes, given that Satsui was free to move about -- sitting at the head of a table, surrounded by White Lotus ninja, who were listening intently to her words.
"He's alive and well," Satsui continued. "Tachi. You knew that already, though -- I know you know it. I make... Yao Jing made it her business to know these things. But what you don't know is where to find him, so you can exact the punishment he's had coming for more quite some time, yes?"
Betrayer..! Kisei's mind screamed. But her lips wouldn't move; a needle in a different place on her neck had rendered her mute. She could only glare with absolute rage at the honorless dog sitting on the far side of the room... a dog who didn't bother returning the look, too focused on her backstabbing.
"The traitor's punishment will be carried out according to the ancient laws, yes," one of the ninja responded. "Finding him is only a matter of time. All things must be as they will be, according to law. This is the way of the White Lotus."
"Yes, but you could jumpstart destiny," Satsui suggested. "Get a leg up on fate. I can take you right to him, right now, and you can assault him. I know my way around his defenses, so your mobile's arrival would go unnoticed -- and with his star pupil all tied up, well, who's going to defend him? His puppets? They stopped being effective years ago, and you're certainly skilled enough to deal with them even if they were freshly programmed. It's a win-win situation, and all I ask in return is that you give me my freedom."
The others considered the offer in a single minute of silence, as law demanded.
"Decisions such as these must be made with the rising of the sun," the leader stated. "We will hold both of you captive until then, and decide how to proceed."
"What? No no, look, you don't understand," she protested. "If you're going to strike, you have to strike NOW. He'll know you plan to invade if you wait -- he's got sources, sources like you wouldn't believe! You need the element of surprise."
"But the rising sun--"
"The sun's rising right now in Tachibana," Satsui said. "He operates on a different timetable, so he can enjoy daylight during the typical 'working hours' of an assassin. Therefore, you'd still be making the decision by the light of sunrise, right..?"
How did she know that? Kisei thought. Had she truly learned their new location? It was too much to hope that Satsui was trying to con them, to get an easy escape at Kisei's detriment...
The White Lotus, at least for their part, weren't entirely convinced. "What makes you think we can trust you?" the leader asked. "We know of your clan's ways. They are antithesis to ours. There is nothing you could possibly say--"
With a brief flash of silver, Satsui dragged a needle tip across her palm. Blood droplets started to fall on the table.
"I swear by the blood in my veins," she began. "I swear by my family honor, who were slain wrongly, whom I swore to avenge if it meant my death. I swear by everything I believe in, everything that I am, everything that I will be. I pledge my life into your hands should I lie, I pledge my death in your name. By every drop of honor I have kept quietly secluded while living with the Red Fist, I swear to you. I. Am. Telling. The. Truth."
There was an uncomfortable pause, as the ninjas considered her expression of absolute seriousness, the way her whole demeanor shifted from playful to absolute... to absolute ABSOLUTE, with those words.
"We accept your pledge of honor," the leader said.
"Excellent. You'll want to go to this reality address..." she said, sketching out a series of numbers on the table, in her own blood. "There, you'll find your prey. I'll even help you capture him; I've had a blood oath against him for many years--"
"That won't be required. You will stay here, while we retrieve the traitor," the leader said. "Hiei, confirm the address, and take us to the hunt..."
Another ninja rose from the table, and walked to a nearby RealNet Workstation; one cleverly disguised as a wooden altar. He entered the address into the mobile dojo's engine.
"The reverse lookup states that this address does in fact lead to Tachibana," he said, with some satisfaction.
...but that can't be true, Kisei thought. Father changed the official name of the reality when he relocated it...
The entire building rattled lightly, as it shifted realities. Purple light flashed outside the many windows, replaced by the dull orange glow of what could possibly be sunlight.
Satsui remained seated at the table, watching as the ninjas mobilized, prepared to move out. Weapons were drawn. Masks raised. And finally, the great doors of the dojo thrown open--
--and a huge cloud of orange fog flowed into the room. Immediately the White Lotus members began to gag, grasping at their throats...
"Oh! I forgot one detail!" Satsui announced, snapping her fingers as she rose to her feet. "The address I gave you wasn't to THE Tachibana -- just to a small proxy reality I made that I named Tachibana. It's full of poison gas, I'm afraid. I think you have one minute of excruciating pain before it's all over. Sorry, must've slipped my mind..."
The ninja clawed at their eyes, moaned, groaned, and expired in the least pleasant way possible. Kisei was even starting to feel the effects, forced to silence as she was by the ropes and the needle in her neck... it was such a pathetic way to die...
"You.. your honorable... pledge..!" the leader of the White Lotus dojo wheezed.
"Oh, that? I lied," Satsui noted, crossing the room to join Kisei.
As the ninja faded away all around her, her own eyes watering and her heart racing, body shutting down slowly... Satsui pressed the wound on her palm to Kisei's lips. A few drops slipped into her mouth...
Immediately, the symptoms went away.
"I had the antidote engineered into my blood," Satsui explained... while she untied the ropes around her arch-enemy. "Poisons are kind of a hobby of mine. I know a few more tricks than just needles, even if they're not always applicable to the moment. Speaking of which..."
The needle binding her speech was removed.
"I would've told you earlier about the plan, but I needed your righteous outrage to help convince them," Satsui said, dusting off Kisei's shoulders as a symbolic gesture. "Feel free to inhale, you should be fine now. You saved my life, so I saved yours. Fair's fair."
"...I.. I would not figure you for believing in 'fair's fair,'" Kisei admitted, feeling life return to her vocal chords. The gas couldn't even be smelled now, despite fogging up the air slightly...
"There's a lot about me you don't understand. And a lot Yao Jing didn't understand. ...and a lot I didn't understand," she said. "I'll take us back to Nippon, to an unregistered dock I've got connections to. From there, you can head home. ...I won't bother you or your father any more. I'll have my own problems to worry about, I think, what with pissing off the White Lotus and possibly the Red Fist at the same time..."
Kisei interceded, stepping in her path before Satsui could access the mobile engine's Workstation.
"We will not be going to Nippon," she said.
Satsui frowned. "...are you intending to fight me, or something? Was this all a pretense? I thought you were serious about rescuing me..."
"I am," she said. "As per father's instructions, and my own agreement with them. And that means fully relocating you -- from this place, to another place. But if it is not too much to ask... please turn your back while I enter the address into the engine."
The trees of Tachibana swayed softly in the gentle wind, which is as it should be. The birdsong echoed lightly through the grove, and the walls of the open dojo...
Tachi considered the two girls in front of him, but focused in particular on the new one.
"I wouldn't make this offer if I didn't feel you had the skills required to support my clan," the added, to what was already said. "This is neither pity, nor bullying someone in a bad position; it was always my intention to expand this clan, once a suitable candidate arrived. I knew that you could prove suitable one day, but that needed room to grow first. I would have been foolish to cut that potential off at the root, even if it never came back under my wing and remained with the Red Fist. I'm happy to say that Yao Jing's loss is our gain -- and yours, as well... did I say something funny, Satsui?"
"I.. find it hard to believe that you let me go free so I could continue to agonize you just so I could grow up," she said, with a smirk. "Really now, you don't have to sugarcoat it--"
"He's telling the truth," Kisei stated, breaking her silence . "And you know that when he speaks, he does not lie. Unlike some."
"A bit more bluntly than I'd have put it, but she's right," Tachi confirmed. "Still, this is voluntary, Satsui. You're at a crossroads, an open point where you can decide your future. If you want to strike out on your own, you're welcome to do so -- no allies, just enemies, but I had to follow the same road once upon a time so I know it's quite possible. If you want to somehow make amends with your former clan, you're welcome to try... but I'd like you to consider my offer instead."
"And join Tachibana..?" she asked. "Other than protection, why would I want to do that? I don't follow your silly notions of honor... and I'm not going to re-train my abilities just so I can snipe people from a mile away like she does."
"Nor should you," he said. "It's not your way. Betraying an enemy isn't my style, nor is it Kisei's, but it's yours and I won't deny you your primary weapon. But on top of that, we'll teach you new styles and techniques, new philosophies... in the end it's up to you how you blend what we teach into your own self. We don't live by a codebook of honor like the Lotus or by pure anarchy like the Fist, but I think if you open your mind to our ways, you'll appreciate our perspective."
"And what perspective is that, then..?"
"Individualism within family."
The quiet pause rather than a snide little laugh indicated she was seriously considering it.
"How can you trust me not to knife you in your sleep?" Satsui asked. "Because I'm not taking any oaths or pledges of loyalty to your clan. You say you want me to keep my way, well, that's my way. I won't trust anyone and they shouldn't trust me."
"You don't need to take an oath, because I'm not going to give you cause to want to kill me," he said. "The reality of our situation will reinforce our bond without words you put no value in. I won't betray you... unlike Yao Jing, who you thought you could trust. And as long as you don't give me cause to want to kill you... well, we'll get along fine. Kisei, judging by her expression, may have some adjustment issues, but I don't anticipate problems beyond that..."
"...permission to speak freely, father?" Kisei spoke, finally.
"You always have permission to speak freely, daughter. And to disagree with me, which no doubt you're about to do..."
"I agreed with rescuing her from the fate I unfortunately condemned her to, but why invite her into our... family?" Kisei asked. "Her methods are disagreeable. Her treason is inevitable--"
"To her enemies, it is. Note how she never betrayed Yao Jing, even when it might've been in her best interests to do so. Her methods are not your methods, but how are they disagreeable? She kills up close, you kill from far away. She uses a needle and lies, you use a bullet and secrecy. I think each of you has much to learn from the other, personally -- and you're not that separate from one another when you peel back the antagonism you've felt for years. ...Kisei. Please, keep an open mind. It's the same thing I request of her. Will you do this for me..?"
Kisei considered the issue, glancing from the hopeful smile of her father, to the somewhat guarded look of her new companion.
"I will... do as you wish," she decided. "And not because you have ordered me to. ...but if she does betray us, I will be the one to end this relationship."
"Well, if it came to that, I suspect the 'ending' would be mutual and unpleasant," Tachi chuckled darkly. "But I think you'll find -- both of you -- that this is the beginning of a new era. Satsui, Kisei... come, sit by the grove. Let's meditate upon this."
Normally... Satsui would have mocked his sentimental foolishness, meditation, honor, family, all that nonsense.
Instead, she knelt down, and looked out across the trees.
Instead of plotting out how she could take advantage of his naivety, she allowed herself a tiny moment of hope that she'd only allowed once before -- when Yao Jing took her under a gentle wing. Inside, she was quietly, quietly hoping that Tachi would be the one that Yao Jing wasn't. The one her own father and mother couldn't be for her. The one she could trust not to hurt her...
...a little prickle down her back told her she was getting an icy look from Kisei.
But first of all, she'd have to get Kisei to loosen up a bit, or Satsui might be forced to needle her in her sleep.
That was something to meditate upon, indeed.
The Red Fist
The White Lotus
(Note: The reason for the no-kill, no-betray and no-disband clauses on the above are to give authors a consistent base to work from if they want to do stories about ninjas. The clans need to stay stable so they can be used.)
Takashi and the Crime Scene Fan Circle