It's all I can do when I see my uncles to keep on my feet. They are not supposed to meet me here, my father is. More importantly, they're not supposed to both be wearing mourning robes. I feel sick with worry, yet I don't dare make another step towards them. I'm too afraid that they'll confirm what I have already guessed, what I've first sensed months ago.
I've spent these months telling myself I was being silly and trying to believe there was nothing to my suspicions. It didn't work, to be honest: what I'm seeing now is exactly what I expected to, but I was so hoping to be wrong that the shock is just as great as if I were caught by surprise. And I still can't accept it: I know I'm being stupid, but I can't make myself join my uncles and let them officially inform me that my father died months earlier.
One of my uncles, the one known to the clan as the Soft Master, spots me and walks to me. He is not smiling today, and it makes him look like another person. My other uncle, the Hard Master, is scowling even worse than usual.
I feel like running away before my uncle can reach me. I don't want to hear what he has to say. I stay where I am, of course, and he puts his hand on my arm. He doesn't say anything, nor does he need to.
"Who?" I ask, almost snarling.
My other uncle has joined us and he answers.
"You need not concern yourself with that," he says. "I already took care of this matter."
I almost yell at him that he had no right to do that and that I want to know anyway, but it would be ridiculous: as my father's eldest brother, he had every right to seek vengeance, even though the polite thing to do would have been to share it with me, the victim's son.
He hands me a package and instructs me to go change. I nod again and head for the nearest restrooms. I come out in mourning robes identical to theirs.
The home of the Arashikage clan is hours away from the airport. The Hard Master puts the time to good use by informing me of the situation.
He skims over my father's death, only telling me his brother died in his presence and that all necessary vengeance had taken place immediately.
"Your father's duties need to be filled," he says, getting into the heart of what really concerns him.
I feel as though metal grips have just closed around me. My father was the clan's main wage earner. Wage earners don't teach: instead, their services are sold to clients in order to raise the money necessary to keep the clan going. It's a much more thrilling and active life than the one led by the teachers, and truth be told, my father loved it.
In exchange for the excitement, however, a ninja who chooses this path spends most of his time on missions and consequently, has to neglect both his training and his relationship with the rest of the clan. My father and I were still close, but he didn't even know the name of most of the clan members who were not directly related to him.
Finally, a ninja who becomes a wage earner sells not only his services but his loyalties, constantly putting himself in the service of whoever pays for the privilege. I was able to place myself under the orders of my commanding officers in the army, but I was the one who chose to serve them, not the other way around.
As much as I loved my father and as much as he loved this life, it has always repulsed me. Ever since I was old enough to know the difference, I have trained to be a teacher and there is nobody in the clan who doesn't know that I never intended to follow in my father's footsteps.
I fight back the panic I feel. I'm sure my uncle only means for me to help him find a replacement for my father, being too busy himself to search for one. He wouldn't throw my freedom away on the same day I found out my father has died.
"We cannot possibly put the clan's financial safety at the mercy of a non-family member's fancy," my uncle continues. The metal grips I feel around me tighten and my breathing becomes short.
The Soft Master, next to me, is not looking at us. He is staring out the window closest to him, as if to make sure the driver is going the right way. Obviously, this is to be between the Hard Master and myself.
"Uncle," I start.
The Hard Master cuts me off.
"You will refer to me by my proper name."
The grip tightens a bit more still. By making me use his proper name, my uncle is warning me that the fact we are related will not help me, and that right now, I am just another member of the clan, under his authority. I swallow with difficulty.
"Hard Master," I start again.
But I don't know what else to say. I could have begged my uncle not to make me do this, but I can't ask the Hard Master for such a favour.
The Hard Master waits a moment to see if I'll say anything else. His face relaxes a little bit when I don't.
"YOU will replace your father," he says. It sounds more like a sentence than an order, which is appropriate.
I close my eyes and hang my head low. I feel like I'm about to burst into tears, and the fact that I don't know what I'm more upset about - my father's death or the consequences for me - only makes me feel even worse by adding guilt to my misery.
The Hard Master continues, ignoring my reaction.
"By replacing your father, you gain position in the clan and become second only to myself and the Soft Master. Your name, from now on, will be 'Young Master'. Now about that friend of yours you invited."
"I thought I would be teaching him when I made that invitation." My voice is cracking and I'm getting very worried that I'm going to fall apart before I can go hide in my private rooms.
The Soft Master says something for the first time since I arrived.
"Your father died, Young Master. There would be no shame in crying."
I disagree with that assessment. I shake my head.
"Your friend will be welcomed into the clan should he act on your invitation. With your new position, you are perfectly entitled to grant admissions to new students. I will teach him myself," the Hard Master says.
"Thank you," I say.
The Hard Master nods and says nothing more. The conversation is over and he managed to make it end with me in his debt. I'm not sure anymore that I did Chatterbox a favour by inviting him here.
I spend the rest of the trip concentrating on keeping hold of my emotions. Between the pain of my father's death, the news that I will never get to teach and the anger and resentment I feel towards the Hard Master, it's no easy task.
I don't sleep that night. Instead, I take out my emotions on training dummies.
I go find the Soft Master at dawn, trying to avoid the Hard Master because I don't want my anger to rise back up.
He's in the rock garden, doing simple balancing exercises. I don't feel like raking the sand so I skip from one rock to the next until I'm facing him. I wait until he acknowledges me. The Hard Master would probably have gone through his whole routine before irritably asking me what I wanted, but the Soft Master cuts his routine short and smiles at me.
"Your eyes are red. Did you finally cry?" he asks.
I sigh and give a quick, small nod – I don't want to lie to him, but I'd rather nobody else happen to see my answer.
"Good. Your father deserves better than dry eyes from his only son upon his death."
I cough and quickly change the subject.
"Do you agree with the Hard Master making me a wage earner against my will?" I ask. I know the answer doesn't matter: the Hard Master can say his brother has the same rank he does until his throat is sore, the fact of the matter is that the Soft Master never goes against his brother's wishes, making the Hard Master the one true head of the clan.
The Soft Master sighs and sits on his rock. He motions me to do the same.
"I do," he says once I'm sitting down. "I sympathize with your wishes to be a teacher but you are our only choice. My brother says he doesn't want to rely on non-family members because he is too embarrassed to admit that's not even an option: our agents would leave if we asked for more than 10% of their wages, and there are only a few left. As for students, only one of our five is advanced enough to make any kind of salaries. We have been accumulating debt since your father died, and we need to start paying it off."
"I don't understand. There were almost 100 people here when I left. That was only two years ago."
"The government has been cracking down on ninja clans, closing down schools, throwing people in jail... most ninja students, all over the country, have given up their studies or been pulled out by their parents for fear that their school would be next and that they would all be arrested, parents included. Times are difficult."
"I can accept not teaching until our finances are back on track," I say.
It's a lie. I can't accept it. I can't accept having to sell my services to earn money for the clan. I only say it to sound reasonable and increase my chances that my incoming request will be accepted.
The Soft Master frowns briefly.
"There is no need to lie to me. Nobody will blame you for being bitter about it as long as you still perform your duties," he says.
I cast my eyes down. My hope that my request will be granted now seems very foolish, but I cannot give up on it.
"I will do my best," I promise, "but..."
The Soft Master cocks his head, waiting for me to continue. I'm not sure how to put what I want to say into words. I finally opt for the direct approach.
"I want to have some time to train," I say.
The Soft Master thinks about it for a while.
"We cannot afford to limit your workload, but whenever you have holes in your schedule, either the Hard Master or I will make ourselves available to help you catch up on your training. I wouldn't expect that to happen too often, however. Ninjas for hire are just as difficult to find for our clients as for us to keep around."
I nod my understanding, although I feel more like screaming. My uncle just basically told me that I can only train in my free time and that I'm not likely to ever have any free time. I can imagine that every one of our students will slowly be getting better than me, and I already resent them for it.
I'm given three full days to mourn my father. On the night of the third day, I start my new life by playing bodyguard to a lower house member who is about to cast an unpopular vote. Even though I would have gladly accepted to protect anybody from the slime that tries to kill him in the following six days, I still hate having been hired to do it. I must do a good job of hiding it, however, because once the contract is over, the lower house member offers me a permanent position.
I somehow manage to look honoured and politely refuse the offer.
It's early morning when I get back to the clan, and I report straight to the Hard Master's office. He invites me to sit and for one second, it looks like he might smile. He catches himself, however, and asks me whether I slept while guarding my client.
The question is insulting. It doesn't matter how lightly you sleep, you can't expect to be able to react quickly enough upon waking up to stop a bullet even if you hear the gun going off.
"Of course not," I reply.
"I didn't think you had," he says, uncharacteristically softly. "You can rest for the rest of the day, but I'm afraid you have a client tonight."
I bow and hold back a sigh. I'm not actually feeling that tired right at the moment - I've been feeling alternatively fine and exhausted for the past 4 days and nights - and I was considering taking the Soft Master up on his offer of training time before turning in for a nap, but if I have to start a new contract tonight, I definitely need to get as much sleep as I can.
"Before you go rest, however, I would like you to join the Soft Master and me in welcoming a new student," he says. This time, I definitely see a smile trying to shine through. I assume he's just happy to have a sixth student.
"Your friend arrived a mere few minutes ago. I knew you were on your way, so I kept him waiting," my uncle finishes.
My eyes widen and my uncle definitely smiles. As angry as I've been with him since my return, I can't help but to return the smile. He gestures me to follow him and we make our way to the parlour.