LATEST DRAFT WRITTEN: MAY 2016 - MARCH 2017
On the outskirts of the capital’s dirtiest slums lay the Sisterhood. It posed as a brothel, but its business was far less honourable. The girls who worked there lied and killed for profit. And I was one of them.
In the Sisterhood’s gardens, I sat on a delicate bench. Cherry blossoms danced in the breeze. One landed in my palm and I tightened my fist around the petal, capturing it. A moment later, I released the flower. In the wind, it soared high, out of the courtyard and towards the sun. But I wasn’t a blossom; I couldn’t fly to my freedom. I had shed one disguise just to take on another. My life was an endless cycle of pretending to be someone else, and at times, it could be hard to know who Yuna was.
The sound of a door sliding open caught my attention. A girl stepped out of the Mistress’s office, bowing her head as she passed me. I returned the gesture and left the bench. When I reached the door to the office, I knocked.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “Come in.”
Sweet fragrances filled my nose as I entered. Once, the perfumes had made me nauseous but now I was familiar with them, they were bearable. Or so I thought. When I knelt on the cushion opposite her, the smell was stronger than I remembered. A bottle of coloured liquid lay on the table with reeds sticking out of the top. I wrinkled my nose and wished she’d kept the bottle in its old location: the window sill.
Mistress Cheyo rolled several scrolls out across the table, the ink on them still fresh. She brushed a ringlet of dark hair behind her ear and the wrinkles on her forehead deepened as she read. After scanning over a scroll, she pointed to the text on it.
“This job is from a wealthy man. Look at the reward he’s offering! It isn’t like anything I’ve ever seen. He’s requesting our best, and that’s what shall be given.” She folded her hands on her lap and smiled. “How many missions have you failed, Yuna?”
"And how many do you plan to fail?”
“And that is why I selected you for this mission.” She rolled the scroll up and handed it to me. “The client offers little information and only specifies that if you wish to take the job, you must pose as a newly chosen concubine and meet a man in the Ten Storms Brewery, here in the lower city. The man you must meet is known as Lin, and you must wear your finest clothes.”
I opened the scroll and read over it. Only the information she’d already said was written there, nothing more. I tucked the scroll under my arm and bowed.
In response, the Mistress nodded her head. “Good luck.”
I turned and left. As I walked to my room, I prayed to Han, the golden dragon of life, luck wouldn’t be needed. This mission would be carried out with precision, and I wouldn’t rely on luck. If I did, this mission would be my first failure. And there was a first for everything.
Once I’d wrapped myself in silks fit for court, I left the Sisterhood and started along the streets of the lower slums. The Ten Storms Brewery was the most infamous tavern here. Brawls were the usual and pickpockets laced drunken crowds. But the rice wine was cheap, so hordes of people frequented it day and night. It wasn’t surprising my contact had chosen this place. The more people around you, the easier it was to hide. But if his attire stood out like mine, subtlety wouldn’t be easy. Already I received glances for my expensive clothing; noble women didn’t dare visit the slums. I adjusted the dagger in my sleeve, displaying its silver point. Though I was prepared, I’d prefer not to resort to violence. My client wouldn’t approve of blood stained silks as part of my disguise.
Maybe the luck she’d wished upon me was useful, since I reached the Ten Storms Brewery without ruining my kimono. When I pushed the door open, it creaked, and I stumbled over the broken step. A round man who stunk of alcohol reached across to help me, but I brushed him aside. This was a rare moment where I didn’t need to accept such chivalry. I pushed through the masses, searching for a suspicious looking man but I only had a name, not a description.
So, I opted to use what information I had. A bartender stood behind a counter, pouring wine into a mug, and I turned to him. “Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know a man named Lin?”
The bartender pointed to a shadowy figure in the corner of the room. A dark hood covered the man’s face, and he was almost invisible in the dim light. After thanking the bartender, I made my way over to the shadowed corner. Not a single mug lay on his table and he didn’t flinch as I slid into the chair opposite him. Was he asleep? I coughed and rolled the scroll open.
His sharp movement made me jump. He snapped the scroll shut and tucked it under his cloak. "Come,” he said and headed to the door. I followed him as best I could in the crowd and when we were outside, he spoke again. “I will take you to your employer. You are to pose as a newly chosen concubine. Understood?”
I nodded and followed him up the steep hill. At the top lay the crimson walls of the Emperor’s palace and the higher up we climbed, the finer dressed the people became. Once we were high enough that our surroundings looked drastically different, Lin pulled off his dark cloak. I froze when I saw what he wore beneath: golden robes, complete with the great dragon, Han, embroidered on the back. He was a Hanshi, a monk who wielded the light and swore an unbreakable oath of servitude to the Emperor. It felt wrong to walk beside such an honourable man, so I fell into step behind him. As we passed by, people bowed their heads and offered prayers to Lin. Being a Hanshi was almost as venerable as being Emperor, but a ninja was filth. I lowered my head and didn’t dare look up. People would think me a respectful woman but it was out of shame, not respect.
Lin being a Hanshi meant only one thing: my client was not just any Lord but the Emperor himself. I gripped my parasol. It was a great honour to serve the Emperor, but it wouldn’t be enough to clear a lifetime of dishonour. This mission would be patriotic, and never again would I have an opportunity like this. I could not afford failure.
When we reached the palace, crimson walls loomed over us. Hundreds of steps led up to large doors. Guards lined either side of the staircase and a group blocked the bottom. As Lin approached, they parted and allowed us both through. They didn’t question my identity, and I doubted a guard ever questioned a Hanshi.
Inside, the palace was decorated with countless ornaments and paintings of Han. It was said prior to the current Emperor, Raikun, the palace had been decorated by both Han and Mai, the silver dragon of death. The previous Emperor’s symbol had been two entwining dragons, and this had also been the symbol of his Yonshi, monks like Hanshi but wielders of both light and shadow. Emperor Raikun claimed Mai was evil and said the energy brought misfortune and death. This was why Hanshi dedicated themselves to wiping the world clean of Mai. Some people opposed the Hanshi’s pledge, after all, both Mai and Han had been worshipped for centuries. But most folk saw the Emperor and his Hanshi as gods. As for me, personal opinions were dangerous. All that mattered was following a client’s instructions - in this case, the Emperor’s. It didn’t matter what I was asked to do. Only success mattered.
It wasn’t the Emperor himself Lin took me to see. A lowly ninja didn’t deserve such an honour. Instead, I stood before Commander Hisao, the highest ranking Hanshi. Though his face was lined with wrinkles, his posture was as good as Lin’s, who was decades younger. His expression was stoic, and he stood with his hands clasped behind his back. When he spoke, he didn’t lower his head to look at me.
“You are here because you accept the job?” The Commander’s question seemed more a statement. Lin handed him the scroll, and he scanned over it. Then he folded it away.
I nodded. “Yes, I am.”
He studied me for several moments. “You fit the requirements and will pass for the disguise required.” He turned his head up, not looking at me while he spoke. “Your name?”
He didn’t bother to acknowledge my response. His finger trailed over a map strewn across the table and stopped by a forest in the east. “You are to ride to the Jade Forest, disguised as a bandit. You will be accompanied by some of our men and they will also be disguised. Do not tell them your true mission, for they know nothing more than their orders. You will wait there until an escort passes with a carriage decorated with Lord Sumo’s symbol.”
When he saw my expression didn’t show any recognition, he told Lin to fetch him a scroll, brush and ink. Once he had the items, he drew a family crest, and continued, “Kill every member of their party, leave none alive. The most important target is Lord Sumo’s daughter, Lady Ching. You are to don her clothes and the guards will disguise as your escort. From then on, you will be Ching. She is your age and a well-mannered, reserved girl. She is travelling to meet the lord she’s due to wed in the south.”
With his finger, he traced the southern road through the forest. “Their wedding will be held the week after Ching arrives and I trust you will succeed with your mission long before then. The lord she’s to marry is called Ren and is known to have links to several rebellions against the Emperor. His Majesty suspects a most troublesome revolt but requires confirmation. Another lord known to have connections to rebels, Kang, is due to meet Ren in a few days. We do not know what they wish to speak about, but they would not be meeting if it was something that could be exchanged via a messenger. We must discover what they are up to and any information linked to this new rebellion.”
I bowed. “Then I must overhear their conversation and after that, return with the information.”
"Yes,” he said, ”and that information is to be shared only with the Emperor. You will swear an unbreakable oath to not reveal this information to anyone but His Majesty. After you have listened to their conversation, you must return at once.”
He pointed to an area south of the map. “Lord Ren’s estate is here.” He trailed across to the east. “Here is the nearest village where two paid thugs will be waiting. Their names are Shojin and Zaicho. Aid them with breaking in and make it look as though Lady Ching was kidnapped. They are to take everything of value they find - they’ve been told they can keep those items and you can, too. After that, meet the Emperor’s men and return to the city. Make sure you are wearing clothing fit for court, as you are now. When you arrive back at the palace, you will meet with the Emperor. Do you understand?”
“Must I repeat any part?”
I shook my head.
“Very well, let us complete this oath so you can embark on your mission at once.” He wrote a few sentences on the scroll and handed it to me. “When I tell you to, recite the words written on this scroll.”
The Commander wasted no time in preparing the ritual. With his brush, he drew a circle on the floor with a symbol meaning “eternal” in the centre. Then he instructed me to stand in it.
“Swearing the oath will result in a marking. Where would you like it positioned? Ideally, it should be somewhere not visible.”
I lifted my baggy sleeve up and pointed to my arm. A woman like Ching would always be wearing heavy, fully sleeved kimonos, so it wouldn’t be spotted there. The only risk would be if Lady Ching had a maid, but I doubted one would recognise the marking. Until now, I had never seen the symbol or known what it meant.
The Commander dipped his brush into the pot of ink and drew the symbol onto my skin. Once it was done, he gestured to the scroll. “It is time. Recite the words written as they exactly are, nothing more and nothing less.”
I opened the scroll and studied what it said. “I, Yuna, swear by the great dragon Han that my word will not be broken. If I overhear important information regarding the rebellion, I will tell only the Emperor. When the Emperor is informed, this oath is fulfilled. I swear this by the great dragon Han.” On my final word, the scroll burst into a golden flame. I flinched, but the fire caused no pain. It burnt completely and left no ashes. Beneath me, the circle lit up, shining with a golden light so bright that I squeezed my eyes shut. After reaching peak intensity, the light faded and the ink beneath my feet vanished. A prickling sensation filled my arm and when I pulled the sleeve up, the ink was golden.
“It is done.” Commander Hisao gestured to the door. “The rest are waiting for you and are ready to leave. Lin will take you to them.”
After I’d swapped my colourful kimono for dull rags, Lin took me to the Emperor’s men who would be joining me on my mission. They were waiting on the outskirts of the city when we arrived, already disguised as bandits.
Upon seeing Lin, they bowed. Lin nodded in acknowledgement and then turned to me. "These are the men who will join you. If you need nothing else, I will take my leave.”
“Everything is in order,” I said. “Farewell.”
Lin pulled on his horse’s reins, turning it back to the palace. “May Han grant you luck.”
I bowed my head but once again, prayed I wouldn’t have to depend on luck. Especially not now I knew my employer was the Emperor. Lin’s silhouette faded into the sunset and the men turned their attention to me. I supposed it was I who would be leading this mission. “Let’s waste no time. We ride east to the Great Road.” I spurred my horse forward and once I was a fair bit away, I turned to check if they were following me. Thankfully, they were and had done so without asking any questions.
As we rode, grass grew longer and the trees taller. I didn’t need to check for landmarks to know we were in the Jade Forest, the greatest woodland in all the Empire. It covered most of the east, and for travellers venturing between north and south such as Lady Ching’s escort, there was no other way around it. Once we were deep in the forest, we found a cave a little way off the road to set camp in. Two men were to always watch the road, day and night, waiting for an escort to arrive.
It was a few days before their presence was announced. I was sitting by a camp fire, sharpening a dagger on a stone when one of the men on duty appeared at the cave’s entrance.
“The escort!” he gasped between haggard breaths. “They’re here!”
The men didn’t need to be told twice, nor did I. We all reached for weapons and followed the scout to the escort’s location. The other man who’d taken watch stood by the road. Horses led an elegant cabin, complete with Lord Sumo’s family crest, down the dirt track.
We crept closer, hidden by the foliage. Once everyone was in position, I raised my hand. Knives, arrows and throwing axes rained down on the bewildered escort. The cabin door swung open and a young woman stepped out, curious as to what the commotion outside was. She wore a thick, colourful kimono and her hair was tied up, decorated with jewels. There was no doubt this woman was Lady Ching, my target.
Two guards stood in front of her, ushering her to return to the cabin. I gripped a shuriken, steadied myself and threw. The edge hit one guard in the eye and he bowed over, clutching the wound. An arrow hit the other guard in the forehead. He fell to the ground. Lady Ching screamed, lifted her skirts and ran. I grabbed another shuriken, but then stopped.
What did she have to do with the rebels apart from being promised to a man who did? I doubted she was even aware of Lord Ren’s treacherous intentions. I lowered the small weapon. Lady Ching was just a convenient piece in a puzzle, nothing more. Wouldn’t killing her be dishonourable? I’d killed many before, so this shouldn’t have bothered me. Other victims had died because the client felt they deserved it, but Lady Ching was not dying because the Emperor believed she deserved it. Her death was only necessary for his plan.
I sighed and then gritted my teeth. Personal opinions were dangerous; I had to discard them and feel nothing. Closing my eyes, I steadied my breathing. I had to offer no resistance or failure would be certain. When I opened my eyes, Lady Ching hadn’t run far. I raised the shuriken and threw. It hit its mark, striking her knee. Now a stationary target, all she could do was wait for her death. And it came soon. An arrow flew into her chest, and she fell into the foliage like a doll.
Once they were all dead, and we were certain none had escaped in the chaos, we moved down to the road. It had been a massacre, not a skirmish. The Emperor’s men stripped the corpses down, taking their armour if it wasn’t damaged. I made my way to the cabin where Lady Ching had kept her belongings. Passing her corpse, I kept my gaze turned away.
Chests of kimonos and jewels filled the cabin. I shut the door and exchanged my dirty clothes for elegant silks. There was a small mirror and in front, a stool. I sat down and rummaged through the pots of paint, finally selecting white for my face and red to rouge my lips in the way noble women typically did. I dipped a brush into a pot of black ink and lined my eyes, flicking it out at the end. The drawer contained a comb, and I fixed my hair into a similar style I had seen Lady Ching wearing, complete with flowers and gems lacing my hair.
When I’d finished, I stepped back and gazed at my appearance. Apart from anyone who closely knew Lady Ching, everyone would believe me to be her. I reached for a parasol at the side of the cabin and, satisfied with my posture, pushed the door open.
The men had already finished preparing their disguises and were disposing of the bodies that littered the floor. I stepped over the puddles of blood, careful not to let my slippers or hem dip in it. When they saw me approach, they all stopped what they were doing.
“From now on, I will be known as Lady Ching and you as Lord Sumo’s men,” I said. “Once you’ve finished clearing up, we will leave. We shall take the cabin with us - fortunately it didn’t get damaged in the ambush.”
The men said nothing, they only bowed in acknowledgement and continued their work.