The streets were crowded and dirty, rickshaws ran from one end to the other, hurriedly navigating the streams of people coming and going; some were successful, some not so much. Arguments broke out, heating up the already sweltering day. Angry voices rose above the droning hubbub of the masses, adding to the ever present noise. A block away, old cars growled, dressed in new paint, as they raced across an abandoned street. Imposing thugs in armless shirts, sporting intricate tattoos, cordoned off any would be observers to the illegal racing. Girls in short black dresses waved at idling drivers waiting for their chance at the track. Wreckage of the day’s less than lucky contenders lay in piles along the edges of the walkways, a natural barrier and obstacle course for those drivers daring to attempt this most dangerous of tracks. Another block over and drunken winners blew their winnings on boozes and prostitutes in a street of bars, brothels and clubs. More ladies in black dresses openly paraded up and down the streets, bored bouncers sat outside crummy dives, playing mah-jong or cards. The homeless and the discontented sat, quietly begging from those with more money than sense. A coin was rare, but still a treasure, and a victory to be savoured. Down the darkened alleys and roving gangs of children and dogs clash over scraps. Men in dark suits stand at corners, paying off pickpockets and thieves for information, or recruitment.
At one of these corners lent a man in a simple dark suit, a slash of crimson spoke for his shirt and a glimpse of emerald brought attention to his garish tie. A low sitting fedora hid his eyes, his mouth set in a firm line. Long black hair tied in a que identified him as Chinese, the jade bracelet on his left wrist, a blatant sign of wealth, identified him as a mark. Eyes watched his every move, like a pack of starving dogs surrounding a tiger, eager for it to make a mistake that would seal its fate. This tiger never did. His eyes were hidden and that made it hard. A thief’s greatest assets was seeing intention in their mark’s eyes, and his were veiled beneath his hat.
One pickpocket, hardly sixteen, however was desperate enough, dressed in rags that barely covered her body. Hair cut short and ragged, her nails were chipped and rimmed with black, her face dyed brown with dirt. Her eyes were glazed with hunger, and her hands shook slightly, but she was determined. This bracelet would buy her a meal for the next few weeks, and if she was lucky he was carrying a wallet stuffed with cash.
Silently she approached, keeping to the shadows, careful to watch his every move, watching for any indication that he had seen her, there was none. She slid, silently, closer and closer, her body tensed to flee. Her fingers twitched slightly eager to snatch and be gone. She moved even closer, she could hear him breathing, a steady even rhythm, completely at ease. She breathed in and out. Her hand snapped out, hooking around the bracelet, pulling down, her other hand dived into the marks pocket. She blinked and her one hand was caught in an iron grip, the other twisted up against the wall, she desperately tried to twist free, lashing out with her legs, she heard a satisfying grunt, but the grip did not relent. She slackened, defeated, the man’s weight shifted and she flinched, expecting the inevitable humiliation. It never came. She slowly opened her eyes and looked up, she met pale grey orbs that quietly assessed her. The man smiled, a smile that did not reach his eyes.
“Toyotama, was it?”
Toyo’s mouth tightened, and her heart began to beat a little faster, how did the man know who she was?
“You’re afraid of me. Don’t be. I’m here to help you. I can take you to your father.”
“I don’t have a father”
“That’s what I told him you would say. Children like you don’t have fathers do they? Nor mothers. You have no-one but yourself. You are the only one you trust or need. Am I right?”
It wasn’t really a question. He knew the answer.
Suddenly angry shouts rang out from across the alley, a scrawny group of scowling men approached, their tattoos identified them as Yakuza, and their attire marked them as lowly enforcers.
The man dropped Toyo, and turned to meet them, angry words were exchanged as the men pointed in her direction. She was too afraid to run, her legs wouldn’t support her and she slid to the ground, the wall preventing her from collapsing completely. These were her tormentors, the men who made her life hell, marked at an early age they had harassed her at every possible turn, used her for their enjoyment. They were the reason she would never wear a black dress, they were her jailers and her captors. The man with the grey eyes turned back to her, his eyes finding her face, he read all this and more in her expression. His gaze hardened.
The leader of the small gang strode up to the grey-eyed man.
“She’s ours, china man, fuck off back to your side of the wall and find your own doll.”
Ignoring them, the grey-eyed man knelt in front of her and gently picked her up, his arms encircled her protectively.
“I’m leaving and I’m taking her with me.”
This elicited raucous laughter from the band.
“You crazy if you think you’re walking away from here without a fight after touching our doll, china man.”
The grey-eyed man’s expression turned black.
“The name’s Saemon Lee, may you remember it in the next life.”
His fingers twisted, snarling, black, thick words dropped from his lips, catching in his throat. Dark tendrils of crimson burst from the ground. They twisted upwards, stabbing through the thugs legs, ripping through his torso, again and again the tendrils punched into his chest, his throat. They tore open his throat before his could scream, his face twisted in agony, his mouth opening and shutting. The grey-eyed man watched, dispassionately as the man finally died, the tendrils tore through his heart, spearing it on a vine of gore covered shadow, the tendrils hardened and crystallized, leaving the thug a twisted, bloody statue. He turned and walked away, the girl in his arms. The gang watched him leave, knowing that they were powerless to stop him.
Toyo was awoken by the rocking sway of a rickshaw, she partly opened her eyes, feeling drained and weak. Beside her was the grey-eyed man, he had said his name was Saemon? Across from her was a stranger with long red hair and green eyes, he seemed Japanese, and there was an air about him that suggested authority. He was clothed in a yukata and bamboo sandals, geta. He was speaking heatedly with Saemon.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
’Yes. I did.”
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about. My flames are hot enough to render a man to ashes in seconds.”
“Just another gang-banger, so what? The world’s better for it.”
“Don’t give me that shit! That was personal!”
Saemon looked away, clearly disliking where the conversation was going.
“Is this what I gave you my pearl for? So you could torture gangsters?”
Saemon turned on him.
“It was an equal fuckin’ exchange. Unless you forget you have something very important to me.”
The red-headed man threw his arms in the air and lent back.
“You’re impossible to talk to when you’re like this.”
Saemon turned his head away.
“Are you sure she’s the one?” Ryujin’s voice was soft and strained.
“After all this time…”
A distant, melancholy look entered the red-headed man’s eyes. He stared off into the distance for a while, clearly lost in old memories.
“Whatever you’re expecting, don’t.”
Ryujin was brought back to the present and turned to Saemon.
“She will not love you, she will not know you, and she will fear you.”
Ryujin growled, a dangerous deep-throated sound.
“Are you trying to piss me off?”
“No. I’m simply telling you the truth. She has been used, abused, broken, built up and broken down again. Where were you? Who are you? What right do you have over her life? You aren’t her father. You’re a stranger, a man she would rob if she got the chance. She knows nothing but the life she has suffered. A life like hers has no time for love, or for fathers.”
Ryujin visibly tensed and then relaxed, like a popped balloon all the air went out of him and he slumped forward, gripping his hands tightly in front of him, his knuckles white.
“What do I say to her? How can I make it right? How can I make up for my absence?”
“You can’t. There’s nothing you can say to her that will make it ok. Nothing you can do to heal her wounds. A life like hers’ scars for life. She is broken.”
“She is broken now. How do I fix her? How do I make her whole again?” Ryujin’s voice broke with strain, his crushing helplessness clearly showing on his face, his hands twisting around each other, each trying to crush the other.
Saemon lent back and pulled his hat over his eyes, “Who knows? My guess is that She would know best. I’m going to sleep. Shinji! Wake me up when we get back!”
The porter pulling the rickshaw lifted his hand and waved dismissively. The cart rocked dangerously and Shinji quickly grabbed it and slightly increased his pace.
Ryujin sighed and leant back, his arms hanging out the back of the rickshaw, his eyes cast skyward.
“Why Her? Why do I always have to ask Her for help?”
Saemon closed his eyes, crossed his legs and settled back. Sleep came to him easily, it always did. Neither the residual smell of charred flesh or the echoes of the man’s screams would jerk him from his slumber.
Slowly and quietly Toyo stood, letting the blanket wrapped around her shoulders fall to the ground. She softly stepped past Saemon and made to jump off the rickshaw. A voice startled her from the front of the rickshaw.
“I wouldn’t do that miss. I mean, what’s waiting for you out there? Rape? Starvation? Death at the hands of those thugs? All these boys want is to see you safe.”
“I don’t know that.” Toyo’s voice was soft and slightly musical, it rounded out her sentences in a beautiful sing-song way.
“I reckon you do.”
The porter called Shinji, slowed his pace.
“Yah know that orphanage? The real big one? Built on the Old Palace ruins? Got a real good rep, it’s nice, quiet, the matron is a real old softy, once you get past all the bark that is.”
Shinji chuckled and scratched his chin, “She would kill me if she caught me saying that, old vixen.”
He shook himself slightly, hiked up the cart and increased his pace again.
“Anyways, they take in any and all orphans that can find their way to its gates.”
“It sounds nice.” Toyo’s voice was tinged with bitterness, it was clearly not a place for her and she had no idea if this old man was telling the truth.
Shinji turned his head and gave her a gappy grin and thumbed at Ryujin and Saemon, now sound asleep, clearly used to his erratic driving, “These two built it.”
Another rickshaw rushed into a gap in front of Shinji causing him to slam his feet in the ground and stop his cart in its tracks. The rickshaw, jerked up and rocked around on its rickety wheels. Shinji spat out a string of curses and the other driver responded in kind, other drivers cursed at the both of them for slowing down the traffic, an argument broke out.
Toyo stared down at Saemon and Ryujin, they were both still fast asleep.
“They’re still sleeping. How can they sleep with this ruckus?”
Shinji turned to her and chuckled, “Yeah, those two are pretty carefree.”
Shinji picked up the rickshaw and continued on his way, throwing out a few more curses on his way past the jam.
“So, you want to leave? I won’t stop you. I reckon you’ve gotta make this decision on your own.”
“I’ve always done things on my own.” Toyo looked up at the sky and sighed, “It would be nice to hear human voices again.”
Shinji casts his eyes back, as he navigated the traffic effortlessly, a stark contrast to his current accident prone driving. He watched as she walked back to where she had been lying, wrapped herself in the blanket and curled up into a ball. A hard girl that, he thought, all iron and steel, I do hope she ain’t brittle. Shinji cast his eyes back to the road and continued on without incident.
It was dark by the time they arrived at the ruins of the old Tokyo Imperial Palace, nought but rubble remained of that once proud complex, though now there was a built a small but noteworthy building of little fame; The New Tokyo Orphanage. Built in a hollowed out square, sloped roofs lined the outer edges, a small thicket of sugi conifers jutted out from the centre, from within the trees rose a dark tower, lit only by the glow of the moon. The rooms, kitchens, classrooms, dojo and library were all contained within the outer wall, a slightly raised walkway ran the gauntlet of the whole complex, connecting all the rooms. The centre was crisscrossed with paths that ran through a loving attended garden; a little stream bubbled over mossy rocks and small, overgrown shrines sat at the base of the larger trees. A building jutted out of the back of the complex, simple wood and bamboo, it sat slightly raised off the ground and was connected to the orphanage by a small bridge, under which bubbled the stream that ran through the garden.
Toyo saw none of this, though she would come to know it well, as she had fallen asleep as deeply as Ryujin and Saemon. Shinji let the cart down gently and walked over to Saemon, he gently shook him awake. Saemon awoke quickly, and was in motion before Shinji had time to move to wake up Toyo, Ryujin was still sleeping but they let him be. Saemon walked softly round to the side of the cart that Toyo was sleeping in, Shinji moved to wake her up, but Saemon shook his head.
“This is the most restful sleep she will have had in weeks, if not longer. I’ll carry her in.”
Gently he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her from the cart, she stirred slightly but did not awaken.
Shinji shook his head, “She looks so light in your arms.”
“That’s because she is. She’s skin and bone.”
“Well, Rin will soon see to that. Will we take her to the dorms?”
“No, that many people will only frighten her. She can stay with Rin.”
“She won’t like that one bit.”
“She’ll deal with it”, his voice brooked no argument and Shinji made a mental note to be far away when that argument started.
They walked up to the great wooden door that barred the only entrance into the orphanage complex. They left Ryujin in the cart, now snoring quite loudly. There was a small wooden stand next to the door, lit by a small paper lantern. These same lanterns also flanked the door and each corner of the square, though they were much bigger. Within the wooden stand hung a small metal bell, wonderfully picked out in aged carvings, dragons and cockerel like fenghuang twisted around its surface, locked in battle, the bell’s tongue was the head of a snarling fox. Shinji walked up and rang the bell, and though its sound was soft, lights were instantly lit in the house at the back of the orphanage.
Shinji gave Saemon a bemused look, “She’s been waiting.”
Saemon grunted fully aware of what that meant, as the great wooden door creaked open he prepared himself for the oncoming tirade. The women who appeared from behind the door was both incredibly beautiful and clearly furious. Her black hair was in a lopsided bun, dark rings shadowed her strikingly bright, yellow eyes. Her fine, sharp features and full lips were pulled tight in obvious displeasure. Her white and red kimono was rumpled and dishevelled, exposing more skin than was probably decent. She was fearsome and heart stopping.
Shinji grinned, “Rin. How is it that you always look your best when you’re at angriest?”
Rin turned on him and a metal spoon came out of nowhere and narrowly missed Shinji’s head as he quickly sidestepped.
“I’ll just go fetch Ryujin then”, he said as he quickly scuttled off towards the idle rickshaw.
Rin turned her smouldering gaze on Saemon.
“Two weeks. Two miserable weeks. You don’t phone, you don’t visit. I’m left wondering whether you two have gone and gotten yourselves killed. No word. Nothing.”
Rin’s voice was very quiet, but it shook slightly as she finished.
He shrugged, “There was no time. We were busy.”
“You...you were busy?” Rin’s voice broke, “Too busy to let your wife know where you were, what you were doing or even if you were coming back? I sat in that fucking room, waiting for two bloody weeks, to learn that, what? You were busy?”
Rin’s voice got louder and louder as she got more and more agitated, “What the fuck was so important you couldn’t pick up a goddamn phone!”
The bundle in Saemon’s arms shifted as Toyo was disturbed by the tirade being levelled at him, his eyes hardened and he snapped, “Rin, shut up.”
The statement was short and clipped, almost cruel in its abrupt disregard. Rin’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth to respond, a withering comment on her lips. Saemon strode up to her and put a hand on her shoulder, “Rin, shut up.”, it was said gentler this time, more a quiet reprimand than the lashing he had previously delivered. He cast his eyes downward, Rin followed them and for the first time noticed the bundle in his arms. Saemon shifted his balance as he made up for only holding her with one arm.
Rin put her hand to her mouth and quickly shut it. She held out her arms, and Saemon gave her up. Rin gently cradled the sleeping child.
“How old?” all the venom and anger was gone from her voice.
“I’d reckon about sixteen.”
“She’s so small.”
“She hasn’t had a decent meal in her life.”
“We’ll fix that”, she smiled as she gently pulled the blanket from Toyo’s face. The smile instantly dropped from her face and her eyes went black.
“You can tell that quickly?”
“He’s dead, I burnt him alive.”
“Good”, the statement was hard and bitter, “men like him don’t deserve long lives.”
She walked back into the complex, gently cradling Toyo, a slightly protective hunch pulling at her shoulders. Saemon shook his head and smiled ruefully as he watched her disappear into the orphanage. Shinji walked up from behind, a sleepy Ryujin dragging after yawning.
“How did it go?”
“I’m sure you heard it.”
“I heard the shouting, then it all went quiet, I reckon that could be good or bad.”
“Good. There won’t be any problems with Toyo staying with Rin.”
“That’s great.” Shinji smiled in relief, then pointed his thumb over his shoulder at the approaching Ryujin, “I reckon you need to see this lazy bastard into hibernation.”
Ryujin stumbled up to Saemon and lent on his shoulder, yawning expansively, “I’m exhausted. I could sleep for weeks.”
“You probably will.”
“You’d be lost without me.”
“Quite the opposite.”
Ryujin chuckled and pushed off of him, stretching like a cat.
“I guess it time for me to go back.”
“It is, you’ve been out too long as is.”
Shinji and Saemon walked into the orphanage, seeming at ease with each other’s company, no conversation was needed between these two. As they passed the great wooden gates, they slowly closed behind them. In front of them was the entrance onto the garden and on each side the walkways that wound around the whole complex, Shinji said goodnight and took one of these, he was quickly out of sight. Saemon looked up at the tori, a simple wooden archway, curved upwards at the edges, painted red. New charms hung from the black lintel, and two stone foxes facing outwards were positioned at the bottom of the pillars, guarding the entrance. Saemon reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a small, snarling jade fox he had brought at the market, earlier that day. Tying it to a small piece of cord he had prepared he hung it next to the others. He stepped back and assessed his handiwork, reaching into his pocket again he withdrew a small piece of paper which he secured between the fox’s jaws. Satisfied he walked on, passing beneath the gateway and into the garden. The stone path was overgrown and hard to follow, but Saemon knew this route well, and kept to the short path, on either side the trees grew thick, though every once in a while, Saemon would catch glimpses of more statues, some foxes, others squat looking men and women with strange faces and bright, watchful eyes, he did not disturb them. The path curved upwards slightly, and wooden pillars, painted red like the torii at the entrance, began to crop up, some leaning dangerously to the side, some still standing straight, all were marked with moss, and thick ropes. Abruptly the trees ended, and a small clearing appeared on either side, the centre of which was dominated by a tall tower. The tower consisted of five tiers, each with a curved roof upon which the next tier was sat. Most of these were abandoned, though the very top had a lantern hanging from the window. Saemon pushed open the doors and made for the stairs. Scrolls hung from the walls of each level, some depicting artwork, others old sayings, some entire poems. Saemon made for the top level, paying no mind to the other levels. The upper level was spartan in look, with but two knee high drawers, a closet and a desk facing outwards towards the narrow balcony. A small iron stove sat in the far corner, away from the drawers and closet.
Saemon stretched and kicked off his shoes at the entrance, opening the shoji doors and closing them behind him. He went straight to the drawers and pulled out his futon, laying it out in front of the now cold stove, he went out onto the balcony and collected some wood that lay there in a pile. Pulling some matches from his trouser pocket he lit some kindling that sat at the bottom of the small black stove and lay the logs over it. Undressing as the flames crept upwards, he packed his clothes into the drawers. Moving clothes around he heard something click against the side of the drawer, he stared at the shelf for a long while, then very carefully withdrew a long wooden pipe, he stared at it for a while longer, seemingly wrestling with himself, then, very carefully, he replaced the pipe, and drew his clothes over it, hiding it from view. Quickly he hung up his jacket in the closet and retreated to his bed, drawing the covers close about him as stared into the flames, flickering in the little stove, casting long shadows over the small room. He stayed there until the first light of dawn started to creep across the sky, and then finally gave into sleep.