A samurai woman seeking revenge, a ninja's last job, a soul collecting dragon...
Deep in a forest a stream from the snow of the blue mountains cascaded into a lake. The fall was short. The notes of the rushing water, loud at first, softened to a murmur as the luxuriant growth within the forest absorbed its melody. Aya silently stood on the shore of black pebbles and added her tears to the lake.
Deep within the lake lounged a dragon. Its power, linked to the fabric of space, was dissipating with the expansion of the universe. The world of its youth had long vanished within the distending bubble of time.
The dragon sensed an intrusion, a chemical alteration in the familiar mixture of the lake. Curious, it rose. Its horns and then its eyes broke the surface. Seeing the young woman standing in the shallows of the lake, it realized her grief was disturbing the serenity of the forest.
Aya sobbed as an image of her slain father and brother, wet hair clinging to faces tinged cold blue, filled her mind. Wading into the lake, the water soon came up to her breast. She gasped as the water chilled her nipples. Reaching a level area, she continued toward the center of the lake. The bottom plunged. She dropped, then thrashed, instinctively, to the light. Surfacing, she looked for shore and swam to safety. Frustrated in her failed attempt to end her life, she wailed.
The dragon chuckled. The surface rippled in spreading concentric circles thus alerting Aya to the unwelcome witness to her shame. Crossing her arms in front of her breasts, she stared wide at the dragon.
The lake erupted. Into the air the dragon rose, corkscrewing straight up above the canopy; its scales and surrounding trees lending an emerald tint to the shower that rained in sheets upon the lake. With a swoosh it slid behind and around, and again, encircling her twice.
The dragon waved the pair of feelers at the end of its snout. "Foolish woman. Did you think I would let you so vainly desecrate this lake with your death? Even your tears violate the purity of my home."
Aya stood within the double circle of shimmering green scales, welcoming the warmth generated from the dragon's exertions. Having decided on death, she was unafraid. She whispered, "Go ahead, dine. Consume me."
"Humans! Of all creatures only your kind has the gift of a soul. Of all creatures only my kind has the curse of seeing it. We yearn for beauty. You strive to destroy it."
Aya sniffed and wiped her nose. "Dragon, tell me, what does my soul reveal of my grief?"
"Souls are gems of fire. Emotions are of pure oxygen to the flame within. How brightly misery burns in yours!"
"If the flame of my soul burns so brightly, then, much more do I desire one of dull corrosion; that I may wander through eternity without a spark than endure this grief for another day!"
The dragon puffed out smoke. "I am weary of my endless existence in the deep of the lake. I dearly desire to wander and taste life among you. I offer you vengeance if only you enable me to escape from the bonds of the lake."
"Vengeance! I sought it and it eluded me. The man I wish dead enjoys life."
Its lips curled upward, its eyes glinted. "I will be your avenger and champion through all the days of your life. We will journey together; I etched upon your back to awake at your summons."
"Then, let it be so."
"You must be completely dry. Cast off your garments and stand on the rock behind. I will blow a hot summer breeze upon you. Spread out your hair within my breath that I may dry it."
She stepped back onto the rock, cast off her garments, and bending her head forward and down, spread out her hair. The dragon, adding heat, blew gently through its mouth. Soon, Aya was dry and ready to accept the dragon.
The dragon spoke, "Stand with your legs spread. Place your hair in front. Clasp your hands under your chin.... Good, now, you must remain still."
The dragon steamed. Purple smoke rose. The dragon, its open jaws glistening, flexed with all available strength. Space warped. Vision twisted. The dragon, its colors darkening, shrunk equally in every dimension. It vanished. Pain exploded. The dragon reappeared within the woman; they merged. Memories entwined and intermeshed.
The dragon dropped into the well of time.
Yoshimoto noisily sipped his tea and exhaled his satisfaction. Things were going well. He had correctly chosen to support the winning side in the war. Lord Tachibana had been grateful for his support and had suggested one of his daughters was looking for a husband. He intended to forefill that role. There was a minor problem; he had promised to marry a daughter of a local samurai who had provided allies in a key skirmish. His daughter was beautiful, but her family would not be as great an asset and beauty fades. Knowing they would insist on honor, he made a simple decision with ample resources to carry out. He took the first step; he told his servant to reject a visit.
Aya was weeping. She raised her face to her father and took a deep breath. "Yoshimoto's servant wouldn't allow me inside. He told me his master no longer wished to see me. I asked for explanation, yet I received only silence. When I begged to speak to him, the door was slammed in my face."
The Morita family was sitting in front of their ancestral altar. Her father, looking at the small cedar board inscribed with her mother's name, held back his anger. Her brother, his hands on his knees, gripped the cloth of his kimono. She hung her head in shame, words echoed in her heart: seduced, betrayed, and dishonored.
Her brother, Masaru, slammed his hands flat on the tatami, "Father, we must act. Honor and Aya's future are at stake."
"Do not be rash. Prepare for a meeting with Yoshimoto. Aya, wait here."
The men stood, her father spoke, "We will request an explanation and remind him to honor our consent to wed our families."
Aya bowed deeply. "Forgive me for my behavior."
Her father paused; the tone was soft, the firmness gone, "Clean the tears from your face. Things may not be as you fear."
Her father slid the door open and the men left to prepare. Despite her father's attempt to suppress her fears, she couldn't dispel a premonition of disaster. She knelt in front of the altar and prayed for their safe return.
The two Morita men set out for the Yoshimoto residence. Arriving without an appointment, they were asked to wait. A servant escorted them to a room with sliding doors on all sides. They sat with their feet under their buttocks, backs straight, with swords placed to their left on the tatami. Soon, another servant entered with cups and prepared their tea. Placing the tea in front of them, she bowed and left the room.
They waited, neither exchanging words nor looks, the tea untouched. The door opened. They bowed as Yoshimoto entered apologizing, "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting." He sat down. "I hope all is well with you and Aya."
The elder Morita spoke, "Forgive me for being blunt. Aya is upset. Could you explain the treatment she received from your servant this morning?"
Yoshimoto's eyes opened wide. "Aya was here this morning? I didn't know. Excuse me, I will summon the head of my staff." He stood, went to the door, slid it open, and clapped his hands twice.
Doors slid open on three sides, revealing six men armed with spears. Rising and pulling out their swords, father and son rose, back to back.
The spear men attacked. A spear stabbed Masaru's left side. He grabbed the shaft with his left hand and swept it forward with a twist of his body. He swung his sword; the blade just barely slicing the neck of his opponent. Blood in a fine spray filled the air. It was the last action of the pair. Surrounded and outnumbered, they had no chance. They were slaughtered.
That evening Aya prepared their supper. When they didn't return, she feared the worst had happened. Unable to wait, she went out. Walking back and forth on the road to the Yoshimoto mansion, she ran into the deputy investigator of the precinct. She told him of her father's and brother's intentions and her fear for their lives. Although the deputy regretted that he couldn't search the Yoshimoto residence without the magistrate's permission, he promised to look into the matter. Finally, she returned home to spend a sleepless night of worry.
The next afternoon, their bodies were discovered on the banks of a river. The deputy arrived to take her to identify and claim the bodies of her father and brother. He filed for and received permission to question Yoshimoto's staff, but learnt nothing to link him to the killings.
He visited the Morita home to offer his condolences and to assuage the souls of the departed. He lit an incense stick and prayed at the altar. Turning to the grieving Aya, he said, "The case against Yoshimoto is closed. We have shifted suspicion to outlaws and brigands."
"You're wrong! It was Yoshimoto. Please, don't let him get away with murder. I beg you!"
"There's nothing more I can do. I must abide by the law. I'm an official, after all." He rose. At the door he paused, "I will come again if there are any new developments. May the souls of your father and brother rest in peace."
As the sound of the door sliding on its sill filled the emptiness of her home, Aya vowed revenge.
Early next morning, she heard footsteps stop at her door then recede. Going to the door, she saw a folded paper wedged between the door and frame. She took the paper, opened the door, and looked out, but saw no one. Going back inside, Aya unfolded the paper. It contained an address with instructions to ask for an umbrella and to say that a badger had sent her there. It ended with the suggestion that perhaps the umbrella maker could help on a rainy day.
Aya arrived at the address two hours later. The house was plain and faced a narrow side street. The door was unlocked. She tried to slide it open, but it was warped. She pressed her face to the narrow space she had been able to open. "I would like to purchase an umbrella. A badger told me you were the best."
A muted voice from within spoke, "Push the door near the bottom." The door rasped open. "Enter and close the door. State your business from the foyer."
Aya stood in front of the latticed door covered with paper. Bowing to the hazy shape of a sitting man, she related the events leading to her presence there.
"You ask for the death of Yoshimoto, a difficult task."
"I will do anything to avenge the deaths of my father and brother."
"It will cost thirty gold pieces. Half before and half after success."
"I can only pay five."
"Go away. You're wasting my time."
"I promise to pay the rest as soon as I can."
"You'll have to whore."
There was a pause. "I apologize for my rudeness. I needed to know that you were totally committed. You've satisfied me in that regard. I'll do it for five, but I'll make only one attempt. It may take a few days so be patient and don't come back. I'll contact you if necessary. When it's done, you'd better leave this town for good."
Aya placed the coins in front of the shadow and left.
That night the assassin enclosed his black clothes, tools, and weapons in a large cloth. He slung the bag over his shoulders, and entered the woods just outside of town. Changing into his assassin's garb, he was, except for eyes and mouth, covered in black. Silently, he arranged his tools and weapons on himself. Putting his ordinary clothes into the carrying cloth, he wrapped it, and tied it to his back.
An hour later he arrived at the edge of the estate. Unseen, he sprinted to the thick walls surrounding the mansion. The wall had a slanting roof peaked in the center and layered with tiles. Taking a hooked rope from his shoulder, he twirled it and flung it over the wall.
On the other side a guard had just finished urinating against the wall. As he turned the hook dropped at his feet. He pulled out his sword and leaned against the wall as the hook rose and caught against the roof's overhang. Hearing someone climbing onto the roof, he held his breath and prepared to attack.
The assassin surveyed the grounds. The distance to the mansion was dangerously long and open. To his far right was bamboo framing a pond full of ornate carp. Reeling in the rope, he moved crab like on the roof towards it.
The guard, hearing footsteps fading towards the pond, decided the danger was too great for him alone. He tiptoed to the mansion to get help.
The assassin reached his position and peered over the roof. He planned to run to the mansion and get onto the roof to search for Yoshimoto's bedroom. Tonight, he wanted to learn the behavior of his quarry. Then, he would decide to carry out the assassination or leave to plan it.
He studied the routine of the guards for an hour. A guard marched by and rounded the corner. The assassin went into action. He dropped to the ground and paused to listen. Hearing nothing, he crept among the bamboo. At the edge of the grove, he paused once again. He rose and sprinted towards the mansion. Doors slid open; guards spilled out and jumped onto the grounds.
The assassin swore. From a fold of cloth at his waist he extracted a small package wrapped with thin rice paper. He threw it into the pond. The paper melted. White fire and dense smoke rose from the water, ruining the night vision of the guards facing it. With his right hand he pulled out a ball from within his garments. He tossed it. A cloud of red pepper dust burst on the shoulder of the guard leading the right flank. Picked up by the wind, the dust swept among the men. Entering their eyes, the pepper burned and blinded them with pain.
With his left hand, the assassin took two shuriken stars from his upper right arm. He flung them at the men closing in on his left. The sharp steel spikes found their marks, stopping two men and cautioning the others.
The phosphorescent flame on the pond went out and the blackness of night returned. Pulling out the short sword slung over his shoulder, he turned and sprinted for the outer wall. He sliced through a bamboo, grabbed it, and pole faulted onto the roof of the wall.
Amid welcome shouts of anger and dismay, he dropped down onto the other side and disappeared into the trees. Thinking he was getting too old for this much excitement, he decided he would seek his teacher and beg for a role in his school. But, he had one more thing to do.
Just before dawn a heavy thud on the wooden door woke Aya. She went to the door and opening it, found a rock wrapped with paper. Written on the paper was a message: attempt failed, flee. She looked for the messenger, but the street was empty.
The dragon rose up the well of time.
Its voice resonated within her body. "I have only a few moments left. Listen carefully. I have seen the face of your devil. In time of dire need, call me with the words, 'Awake, King of Dragons.'" The dragon folded into another dimension, its outline rose, and formed onto Aya's back.
Aya sniffed back the last of her tears. She believed her ancestors had led her to the lake to meet the dragon. Somehow, it would help her kill Yoshimoto. She took one last look at the lake and began the long trip back home.
After descending the mountain, Aya traveled by night, until she reached a road used by merchants. Splotched with dried mud, she aroused sympathy among the merchants traveling on the road. They shared their food and water, thus she arrived home tired but not exhausted.
Aya slid open the door and entered the house. Going to the family altar, she lit an incense stick, and gave thanks for her safe return. She cooked and offered a small bowl of rice. Rehearsing in her mind what she would do, she silently recited the words she would say to summon the dragon. Then Aya slept; just before she lost consciousness she felt a comforting warmth on her back.
She spoke a strange tongue and had alien thoughts. The roaring of beasts exploded in her ears, fumes of sulfur entered her lungs, and flames filled her sight. She floated above the earth and looked down upon the houses of her neighbors. In the distance, she saw the estate of her enemy and tasted bile. She dived to within inches above the earth and weaved among trees.
A stout gate blocked her way. She sundered it with one thought. Small men came out from the house and sliced their swords through her, yet she felt nothing. Their sharpest steel was useless against the illusion she had created.
Outside the entrance of the house stood Yoshimoto with a firearm in his hands, the fuse aglow. He fired. The bullet found its target and continued on, vanishing. He turned and fell. Trembling, he crawled towards the house. He looked over his shoulder and Aya saw a grimace of fear transform his face.
She gloated, and felt bolts of sheer power course through her veins. An orange globe, translucent, yet glowing, emerged from her hands and encased her hated foe. He warped into another dimension.
She turned to the dragon curled in the corner. "So, it's done."
The dragon smiled, its teeth gleaming in the shadows. "Here is his soul."
A ball, swirling plumes of fire within, filled its hand and lit the room. Jolts of emerald and gold streaked through the ruby orb causing the dragon's feelers to undulate in pleasure.
"This is truly a gem. Such unfettered ambition is glorious to behold."
"Get it out of my sight. I'd rather see him howling in pain."
"Easy to arrange and a joy to execute." The dragon dissipated.
Aya's back warmed then tingled. She strode to the mirror, pulled back its silk cover, and let her kimono drop to the tatami. She stared into the mirror at the tattoo on her naked back. Within swirling flames of orange, a dragon of emerald scales was crushing the legs of a samurai under a massive hand.
Aya's lips curled and her eyes glinted as she gazed at the agony in Yoshimoto's face.
Published in Abaculus II 2008