Tones of orange, yellow and green colored the trees growing on the hills surrounding the valley. The air was cool, calling for a warm wool scarf around the neck, a warm coat, perhaps thick socks, but the weather wasn’t there yet.
Kian stared at his bleeding right index finger. His hands were numb from the cold. His upper arms burned, his shoulders ached, and he wished he had on warmer clothes.
Kian winced at the command. Biting his bottom lip, Kian glanced at the man sitting on a boulder to his left. Dark eyes captured his, the promise of pain so clear in the older man’s gaze if he failed to heed the order. Kian swallowed hard and brought his attention back to the bow he held.
“We don’t have all day.”
Kian took an arrow from the quiver on his back and fitted it on the string on his bow. He lifted his arms, taking aim, drawing the arrow back with a wince, the string digging into his skin. Tears stung the back of his eyes. He bit his lip hard and focused on hitting the circle drawn in the pile of hay ahead.
He let the arrow go, his hundredth in the last two hours. He struck the middle of the circle with precision. He glanced at his master for approval.
“Again,” the old man said. “Do it faster, Kian.”
A hot flash of resentment swept deep inside him. Kian bit his lip harder, drawing blood. He reached for another arrow and fitted it on his bow. This time, he aimed at his master, aimed and let the arrow fly not caring that the string cut deeper into his fingers.
He stood still when his master caught the arrow with a deft sweep of his hand.
“Anger,” his master mused. “Good. Focus it. Use it to hone your skills. Again.”
Kian sighed in exasperation.
He was six years old. All he wanted was to sit on the river bank and catch fish like the other boys from the village across the river did. Perhaps jump in for a swim. When he was tired, he would lie on his back on the bank and watch the clouds. Instead, he was stuck with his grandfather, training over and over.
Kian reached for another arrow and let it, along with his resentment, fly at the pile of hay.
Kian hadn’t eaten in two days, one hour and thirty minutes. Kian’s stomach growled, hunger pangs making him weak. Kian took another step forward, biting the wool scarf wrapped around his face, every breath labored. He was freezing. The snow kept falling: unrelenting fat flakes, piling faster than he could descend the mountain. The terrain was steep. His progress slow as he navigated along a thin ledge to get to the lower ranks of the mountain. He took another step, his foot coming down on unsteady ground. He lost his delicate balance and fell hard. Fingers digging into the snow, he fought to stay on the precarious path as he rolled. A sharp rock dug into his left side and stopped his fall…right at the edge. Kian lay still, glad for the extra padding in his hiking jacket, the rock hadn’t damaged him, yet. One glance below and he froze. It wouldn’t be in his best interest to fall unless he wanted to look like minced meat. There was a bed of jagged rocks below. Closing his eyes, Kian pressed his face into the fresh snow, his heart pounding hard.
Adrenaline coursed through him, the feeling welcome…familiar.
At fourteen, the only son in his family, heir to his grandfather’s seat in their clan, he spent every minute of his days in danger. His grandfather thought training him, and pushing him to the limit would give him survival skills.
Staring at the jagged rocks below, Kian thought, after all his grandfather put him through, falling to his death now would be a disgrace.
Kian let out a soft breath, and rolled to his right fast, careful to keep rolling until he got to the wall of the mountain. He used gagged rocks jutting out to help him up. Once steady on his feet, he continued his descent. Patting his left breast, he nodded in relief at the feel of the white crystal rock he retrieved from a cave at the top of the mountain. His grandfather’s newest challenge.
Kian hoped the crystal was worth the trouble.
His stomach growled and Kian sighed.
If he hurried, he might find Alora cooking rabbit stew in the kitchen, but only if he hurried….
Kian spat out blood, gasping for air, his fingers digging into the thick arm locked around his neck. The hulk of a man behind him was determined to crush his throat, stop him breathing. Kian closed his eyes and wondered at the gift his grandfather had given for his seventeenth birthday.
Did others get such violent gifts?
Kian opened his eyes, his gaze taking in the mass of men shouting encouragement to his opponent. He was in a ring at an underground club. The club owner was taking bets on the sidelines. Kian’s grandfather sat untouched at the balcony area above the ring…watching…assessing…
Kian gave up on the thick arm around his neck. Instead, he jabbed his fingers into his opponent’s eyes, his attack fast, the strength and force enough to surprise. His opponent loosened his chokehold. Kian dropped down, escaping the man’s arms. He got to his feet, punched his fists into the man’s left side, twice. It wasn’t enough to bring the ugly bastard down. His attacker lurched toward him, strong arms grabbing Kian’s hips. Kian was lifted into the air. Kian knew if the big man dropped him, he would break a bone. He didn’t need that kind of pain. Using the momentum, moving with speed honed from years of climbing mountains in winter, Kian maneuvered until he was straddling the big guy’s shoulders.
Locking his arms around the man’s head, he slammed his palm over his opponent’s mouth and nose. Kian tightened his thighs around the big guy’s neck, contracting his muscles tight; he clung, refusing to move. Rough nails dug into his arms, his fingers, Kian closed his eyes and listened to his opponent scramble for air. He refused to move until the big guy stumbled and collapsed to his knees. Kian jumped off and watched the man fall on the floor, face down.
The change in tide silenced his audience.
Kian stood staring at the man on the floor. His opponent wasn’t dead; he hadn’t gone that far, but it was close enough. Shouts of surprise and outrage filled the tent and Kian looked up at his grandfather. He got a single nod from the old man. With that, Kian turned and left the ring.
Two hours later, Kian was back in the clan compound in the valley. He sat on the floor in his room, unable to hide his smile. His grandfather’s gift for winning the fight was an iPod with one song: Coldplay’s Yellow.
“Enjoy it while you can,” Alora said as she bandaged Kian’s right upper arm.
Alora had come to stay in the compound three years ago. She hated his grandfather. Kian still didn’t know why.
“Why are you always so angry?” Kian asked, focusing his gaze on Alora.
She was pretty. He didn’t know too many women but he imagined Alora’s smile was one of a kind. From the books he read, her figure would be considered stunning. She had perfect curves; her plain green dress clung to perfection. Her dark hair was her most fascinating feature. She kept it in a tight ponytail. Some days though, she let the thick mass fall down her back, and he got the strong urge to sink his fingers into it.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Alora was saying, finishing with his bandage.
She gathered her medicines, placing them back in the basket she brought with her.
Kian noticed her trembling fingers and took her left hand.
“What’s wrong Alora?”
She met his gaze. Her brown eyes filled with tears.
Kian frowned. His vision blurred and he blinked to clear it. Alora’s tears slid down her cheeks. His breath caught when he recognized guilt in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “You don’t deserve this because you suffer more than others realize. But…Raja must end with you. Without you, your grandfather has no future. You have to die.”
His vision was getting worse, he was dizzy and he couldn’t seem to hold on to Alora’s hand. She got up fast, taking her basket with her, she ran out of his room.
Darkness took over.
When Kian woke up, he lay on his bed, a damp cloth on his forehead.
His grandfather sat on a stool on the right side of his bed, his arms crossed against his chest, eyes closed. His long grey hair held back in a tight braid. Wrinkles defined the old man’s face; each year seemed to add more. Kian wondered at the strength that seemed to surround the man, while others got weaker, his grandfather remained a force to contend with.
“What do you read on my face, Kian?”
Kian averted his gaze to the familiar ceiling.
“You are upset.”
“Getting upset is useless,” Seiko Raja said. “You would have died today. Alora used a powerful poison. The fates chose not to take you. I wonder if you have learned your lesson.”
Kian closed his eyes at the mention of Alora.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone,” Seiko said.
Gone, meaning, Alora was dead.
Pain filled Kian’s heart. He liked Alora. Her eyes were kind when she talked to him. Everyone else in the compound stayed away, as though he were a demon. Alora…she talked to him, teased him. She showed him a soft side that didn’t exist around him.
“She poisoned you, meant to kill you, Kian. Compassion is the last thing you should feel for her,” Seiko said. “How many more must I remove from your side before you learn not to care?”
“She said she was sorry,” Kian whispered.
He wanted to think her smiles were genuine.
“They all say they are sorry,” Seiko said. “Never forget, everything comes with a price. Alora paid hers.”
Kian returned his gaze to his grandfather.
“Why did she hate you?” Kian asked.
Seiko held his gaze for a moment and then got up.
“As I’ve said, everything comes with a price. It is time you learned the price you have to pay for being my grandson,” Seiko said. “Get dressed.”
Kian followed behind his grandfather to the helicopter waiting in an open clearing outside the compound he had called home for seventeen years. He never left the compound unless it was at night, and in the company of his grandfather.
Most times, they blindfolded or drugged him, only for him to wake up at their destination, like in the fighting ring the night before. This was the first time his grandfather was allowing him to walk on his own power to the helicopter and during the day.
Kian couldn’t help the wide smile as the pilot took the helicopter up over the luscious green valley he loved. His gaze swept over the clear river that divided his home from villages nearby. He laughed when he saw boys running along the edge of the river, chasing after goats. He too loved that simple freedom.
The scenery was beautiful, the valley vast and gorgeous, the mountain an assuring shadow. Through the years, Kian came to love Mount Asani despite his dangerous adventures on its slopes. Those adventures made him stronger, gained him favor with his grandfather. He stole a glance at Seiko. His grandfather sat straight in his seat, his gaze thoughtful as he stared down at their compound. Kian read nostalgia in his grandfather’s features, perhaps a sadness.
Kian frowned, worried about what would make his grandfather sad. His frown disappeared as the scenery changed, giving way to winding roads, houses and farms, and then turning into vast tall buildings, and crisscrossed roads. Kian smiled. Cities, Kian had only read about them, seen them in photographs, but never been in one. Adrenaline surged through him fast…skipping…eager.
The helicopter stopped on top of one of those tall buildings. His grandfather urged him up, and he jumped out of the helicopter on light feet, straightening to his full height when he was clear of the chopper’s blades. Seiko came up behind him, touching Kian’s shoulder. Seiko led the way forward into the building, entering an elevator, which they rode down to the seventh sub-floor.
Kian followed his grandfather down a short corridor and stopped when double doors opened into an elegant room with only one occupant. The woman behind the desk in the middle of the room was blond. She stood up with a wide smile.
“Welcome to Raja Securities - Tokyo.”
“Are they ready?” Seiko asked.
“Yes, Sir,” the woman said.
Kian gave her a small nod, wanting to ask her name, but his grandfather was already heading to the door behind the woman.
Seiko opened the door and took a step back.
“You asked why Alora hated me,” Seiko said. “First, you have to understand what Raja Securities does from the ground up. Only then will you have the answer you want.”
Kian peered into the dark room. He took a tentative step in and paused.
“You have to go through a vetting process to enter Raja Securities.” Seiko reached for the door. “I hope to meet you on the ground floor. Make me proud.”
Seiko slammed the door closed, the lock hissing as it engaged.
Kian stood still in the ensuing darkness.
His enthusiasm disappeared. He took in a calming breath as lights came on and he was staring at three figures in black, their faces covered with dark hoods.
His grandfather’s grand schemes still at play, Kian thought.
This test…like so many others he lived through.
There was no time to be angry, or to sulk, not with a pair of star-shaped daggers flying straight at his head.
Twelve hours, Kian thought as he walked up the stairs to the ground floor.
It took him twelve hours to get through the seven sub-floors of hell, each floor hiding its own set of challenges. Dark men with swords and poisoned star-shaped knives trying to kill him, changing walls trying to squeeze the life out of him, wild beasts stalking him through an Amazon forest, he had particularly hated the sinking sand. His arms were wrapped in dark cloth ripped off one of his attackers to survive the sinking sands ordeal. His last challenge was out of control, three floors of fifty highly trained men doing their best to murder him.
His grandfather’s sense of humor was too dark.
Kian pulled open the door to the ground floor and stopped short when an army of thousands of men and women met him. They were all dressed in black, their hair held in severe ponytails, their eyes deadly. Kian froze, wondering if he had to fight them too.
His grandfather’s voice boomed into the wide hall. Kian glanced up to find his grandfather standing on a staircase landing above the ground floor. Kian returned his gaze to the men and women facing him, their gazes enough to make him wary.
“Congratulations on setting an unprecedented record. Our record before was forty-eight hours. You are the first to ever finish a Raja trial in twelve hours. Welcome to Raja Securities. You are now one of us,” Seiko Raja said. “Kian, you are now the heir to this powerful organization.”
Kian froze when the thousands of men and women with deadly gazes all bowed in his direction in a frightening practiced move.
He gaped as he realized he was waiting-leader to an army of assassins.
“Assassin for hire, have you heard of such idiocy, Ryuho? In this century?”
Ronald Michaels burst into a wild laugh and threw the note on his desk.
“Idiots! My security is now dreaming up enemies when I have enough as it is.”
Kian smiled, placing the tray of food he held on the desk. He arranged files, and closed the laptop Ronald was using. He moved it to the side, and arranged the tray before Ronald.
“This looks delicious,” Ronald said, taking the cup filled with macha tea. “You’re a wonderful chef, Ryuho, the only source of peace around me.”
Kian took a step back giving Ronald his space.
“You remain a man of few words,” Ronald noted with a small smile for Kian.
Ronald picked up his spoon and took a bite of the raisin-oatmeal Kian prepared. The recipe was old. Kian had learned how to make it from a woman he met two years ago. She loved oatmeal and thought it the best meal for breakfast no matter the situation. Her end saddened him. She taught him many things. Her ex-husband had placed a contract on her head not wanting to share the company they owned together. Kian had used oatmeal to end her. She was Kian’s tenth assignment.
Kian watched Ronald eat oatmeal now with a measure of weariness. This assignment was harder than most.
Ronald Michaels was a skilled physician and brilliant research scientist. He ran a private research facility in the middle of Tibet, working with a poor rural community in the surrounding caves, providing them with food and medicine supplies.
Kian had not seen anything that would warrant his death. Nothing at all in the three months he worked for the doctor.
Kian watched Ronald drink his macha tea, waiting…always waiting.
Ronald’s cell phone buzzed and he answered it without much thought for Kian’s presence.
“I’ve told you I won’t accept a negative answer.”
Ronald shook his head as though the person on the other end could see him.
“I need the funds, Kiyo. We’re close to a breakthrough. The human tests are underway, there’s no turning back.”
Kian closed his eyes in disappointment. He had hoped the order was wrong. It seemed his grandfather’s information source was on point. Any human tests Ronald was conducting meant a great deal of suffering to the rural community Ronald was ’helping’. The contract on Ronald was adamant about taking him out only when there was proof of abuse. Kian opened his eyes, taking in the empty room. There were no security cameras in Ronald’s office. A blessing for Kian.
“I’ll expect to see the funds by this afternoon,” Ronald was saying to his caller. “Don’t delay this, Kiyo.”
Ronald placed his cell phone on the table and sipped his macha with a small appreciative sigh.
Kian slid a sharp thin sliver of metal from his left sleeve into his hand. He closed the distance to Ronald’s chair with quiet steps and sunk the rod into the base of Ronald’s head. The kill was fast, painless, and undetectable until the autopsy.
Kian ensured Ronald stayed upright in his seat. He arranged the laptop before Ronald, making sure it was on. He took the tray when he left Ronald’s study. Kian went into the kitchen and washed the dishes as was expected of Ronald’s chef.
Kian left the house fifteen minutes later, taking the van he used for groceries. He stopped at the main gates, smiling at the handsome dark-haired guard he seduced a month before. The young man winked at him and opened the gates without questioning Kian’s unscheduled grocery run.
Kian drove out of the compound at a sedate speed, his twentieth assignment complete.
Twenty – eighth Summer
The silence changed.
Senses alert, Kian lay on his bed, eyes closed, listening. The silence shifted, movement: deliberate, quiet steps. His bedroom door was open, the man sleeping on the bed on his left side sound asleep. The steps approached without hesitation, not even pausing when they reached his bedroom door. His fingers gripped the knife under his pillow.
“Looks like you had a good time last night,” said Yui, Raja Securities' top executive assistant, her voice barely above a whisper.
Kian did not relax his hold on the knife under his pillow, but he did open his eyes to see Yui sitting in the armchair by the wall.
“You know how to choose the best hotel rooms. Barely any windows in this one,” Yui noted. “Tiny slots in the bathroom: can’t fit there. I guess your hasty retreat would be down the corridor, to the fire escape. Bad move though, do you need another training session—?”
“State your business,” Kian cut her off, her presence annoyed him.
He removed the knife from under his pillow and placed it on the bedside table. Yui sat still, her gaze on the knife. Kian watched her take in a calming breath. When she spoke again, her voice was steady.
“Your grandfather is looking for you.”
Kian sat up, leaning against the headboard. His gaze on his passed out companion. Blonde, sculpted body, athletic, he couldn’t remember the guy’s name. He had not wanted to know. He dosed the poor man after their long shower at around four o’clock this morning. The poor guy wouldn’t wake up until two in the afternoon.
“You have a new assignment,” Yui said.
Kian threw the sheets aside and slid out of bed, naked.
Yui scowled at him.
“You can’t hide forever.”
“I’m not hiding very well seeing as you keep finding me.”
Kian stretched his arms above his head.
“Tell grandfather to stop looking for me.”
“Your grandfather is not at his best.”
“He never was,” Kian said, heading to the bathroom.
He closed the door and went to turn on the shower. He was taking a piss, waiting for the shower to heat up, when the door opened. Flushing the toilet, he gave Yui a scalding glare and entered the shower stall.
“I’m not leaving today,” she stated. “Your assignment is simple. Find Dr. Daven Noland, terminate the target.”
Using plain soap, Kian concentrated on washing his hair, scrubbing it hard to get rid of any scents he might have picked up from his lover. He scrubbed his body with equal vigor, and then stood under the scalding hot water for a minute. Turning off the water, he pushed back his hair and sighed when the stall opened and Yui held out a towel.
Taking the large towel, Kian wiped his face, negligently running the towel over his body.
“Dr. Daven Noland has been working with the MSF.” Yui elaborated. “The Médecins Sans Frontières.”
Kian wrapped the towel around his hips and walked to the mirror. He hadn’t shaved in a week. Rubbing his beard, he decided it suited him, for now. He grabbed his toothbrush, put toothpaste and concentrated on brushing his teeth.
“Dr. Noland has worked a number of refugee camps. His last assignment was running the MSF center in the Dadaab camp for six months,” Yui continued. “Security deteriorated. Dr. Noland ordered his medical staff evacuated after a severe militia attack. As we understand, he witnessed an incident he shouldn’t have in the course of his work in Somali. He is now due to appear next month as a witness at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. This cannot happen.”
Kian rinsed his mouth letting the water run in the sink to wash the foam away. He reached for mouthwash, taking a healthy swig; he swished the stinging liquid in his mouth, and then spat it out. Once again, letting the water run to wash away the mixture of spit and mouthwash. Slapping the tap closed, he walked around Yui, entering the bedroom. He got fresh underwear from his duffel bag, wearing clean black boxer briefs with a fast practiced move. His lover was still asleep, sprawled on the bed, dead to the world.
Kian picked up the black t-shirt and the pair of jeans from the night before. He wore them as Yui continued.
“Dr. Noland crossed one of our clients, Kian. The contract on him is worth a small nation. The grid has him landing in New York weeks ago, but he has since disappeared. We can’t find him.”
Kian wore his boots and grabbed his duffel bag from the chair in the corner of the dim bedroom. He got his knife from the bedside table, and jacket from the armchair Yui had used. The knife he stuffed into a sheath in his boot. Stuffing his jacket into the bag, he checked his money clip. He had enough for a bus ticket out of the city, after that he would need more. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he left the bedroom. Kian wished he could have made coffee, but that wasn’t going to happen with Yui here. He retrieved a coffee can from the counter in the tiny kitchen the hotel provided and stuck it into his duffel bag. He would have to make do with a to-go cup from the shop down the street.
“Dr. Noland is the son of an Egyptian Math professor, and an American businessman. His father is Killian Noland, a major decision maker in the Wagon-Colt Consortium, and a major investor in Raja Securities, without his knowledge of course. Killian is a difficult man. Your Grandfather has gone to great lengths to hide their connections. The status of the contract may change, but as it is now, it remains a sensitive matter. If Killian discovers the contract on his son, he will work to discover who we are. If that happens, Raja Securities suffers a setback. Your Grandfather insists you handle this assignment fast.”
Kian glanced around the small living room, making sure he had forgotten nothing. Satisfied, Kian met Yui’s dark gaze.
“Don’t follow me.”
“Are you listening to me?”
“Next time you enter my room without an invite, I’ll use the knife.”
“I’ll find you, again.”
Kian left the hotel room he had called home for two days without another word. He ignored the exit Yui pointed out at the end of the corridor, taking the elevator down to the main lobby instead. Once downstairs, he turned into the service corridor and left the quaint hotel through the laundry room. Kian stepped into the middle of Kuala Lampur, quickly disappearing into the crowded Petaling Street.
Yui stepped out of the hotel minutes later, unhappy. She glared at the two men she had brought with her.
“Your man’s a ghost. We lost him the moment he came out of the hotel. He dumped the duffel bag you tagged in the laundry room, the jacket too.”
“Damn it.” Yui sighed, not ready to face Kian’s grandfather. Seiko was desperate to see his grandson. The deadliest type of desperation. To the point, Yui knew that Seiko would be happy to accept Kian’s dead body if they returned him so. She sighed again.
“Looks like we have to find another way to engage Kian’s interest. Call headquarters, assign operatives from tier 1 on the MSF target.”
“Effortless,” Kian scoffed, as though any assignment Yui gave him was easy.
Raja Securities was full of hidden agendas. Nothing was effortless, or simple. Every assignment had an impact on alliances, money routes and assets.
Kian sipped his coffee, his gaze on the television screen mounted on the wall in the small coffee shop. The owner of the shop was busy behind the counter chopping onions for lunchtime. Too busy to care about a stranger drinking coffee in his little shop among ten other customers. No CCTV in the little shop to capture his whereabouts.
Kian smiled, already plotting on how to make Yui’s next search for him harder. The television above him tuned to a news station.
’…Dr. Daven Noland has worked with the MSF, traveling across the globe with the organization. His stance on increasing funding to provide better facilities and stronger security measures in war-torn regions…”
Kian dropped enough money to cover his coffee next to his empty cup and got up. Adjusting the collar on the black jacket he had borrowed from a stall nearby, he pulled the cap he wore lower over his face, and left the little shop.
Time to move onto the next continent, he thought.