The two teen girls raced past the rice fields, having escaped the town of Kun and leaving it in the dust behind them. There was nothing and no one around them; even while running in the breeze the night felt still and open. Kun was a sleepy town of old farmers and family artisans, a town of people who slept early and woke earlier. Now the two girls ran freely, existing as if they alone were the only souls awake within a half-day's walking distance.
Tara, bounding at nearly six feet at seventeen years of age, maintained a good distance ahead of the other girl. Yohari trailed her down the dusty road that ran parallel to the terraced fields. She was six inches shorter but fast as a scurrying rabbit. How could they not have snuck out here for the night to escape the redundancy of their lives? The night was still young in their eyes.
Her braided red hair bobbing, Tara rounded a bend where the road steepened and the town of Kun receded from her view as the Hebi estate came into it. In the rice fields, pale moonlight glinted off the waterlogged bays. The petrichor was still strong in the air, the ground still soggy. Not much was visible in these windswept black plains. Tara liked it that way. Just her and Yohari.
It was in these fields they spent their entire lives working. Their hometown was supported by the rice trade, and owned by the Hebi clan. Her father loved and feared the clan, never short of praise for how ‘considerate’ Lord Owa could be. It wasn’t the work, but the boredom that numbed Tara’s mind. Sow and harvest all year, reap their portion, and repeat.
Yohari was from a family of equal devotion. They worked on opposite fields, and planting had been particularly rough the past few months. The two seldom had any time for each other throughout their days, leaving them only the nights. Tara soaked in the musky air on her cheeks, feeling more alive than she’d been in days. She’d been scheming to get Yohari out here for the longest, for time spent with just the two of them. Time where she could smell Yohari’s short black hair that cupped her ears, grip her waist closely and brush her mouth against her lips, appreciating everything about her with nothing in the way. This was her chance.
Tara’s lover slammed into her from behind and they both tumbled to the ground, chuckling.
“Your long legs don’t mean you can outrun me,” Yohari said. She always spoke in a bubbling tone, excited and full of young energy.
“Haven’t I been outrunning you my whole life?” Tara said in reply, brushing Yohari’s hair aside from her face. She could smell her from this distance, and appreciate the silhouette of her face. “Because of my father I’ve kept a distance between us. I really haven’t allowed us to bond.”
“Don’t be coy, you’ve come onto me more times than I have you.” Yohari’s smile gleamed brighter than the moon. She adjusted a bit of Tara’s robe to the side and Tara beamed like hot embers.
“Is that so?”
Yohari leaned in closer. “Yes. You know what else?”
Tara’s heart sprung. She and Yohari were finally alone, with no one to interrupt. All day long, she’d anticipated this moment. The two of them stared into the other’s eyes, knowing nothing would interfere. Yohari leaned in so that their noses were almost touching.
There was a rustle, then splashing sounds. Someone behind them.
“Who’s that?” Yohari asked, alarmed.
Tara propped her elbows on the dirt path and flipped around to see two black figures sprinting through the waterlogged fields. Her heart sank in sudden terror as the figures made their way past them.
The black shapes burst forth, moving towards the Hebi estate at inhuman speeds. By the spirits….
Wind like a hurricane blasted against their faces. They squeezed their eyes shut and screamed.
“What was that?” Tara said, keeping her crazed voice hushed as her hand flew over her mouth.
“Spirits?” asked Yohari.
Whatever they were, they were heading straight for the Hebi estate.
Aiya and Koji approached Lord Owa’s home. At this speed, the rice fields around and under them were a blur. Two stagnant bodies, likely commoners, flew by. Little did they know.
Their tight black clothing covered them from head to toes while rendering them agile and mostly invisible. Only a cut-out across their face left their eyes uncovered. The breeze aided in masking the sound of their movement, rustling the grass. Hiding from the commoners was not a concern, however, and so Aiya focused her gaze on the Hebi estate ahead. In there slept the man who owned these fields and the town of Kun across from it. It was much smaller than the River capital of Kawanura, where the Takasa estate resided, and about half an hour out by horse. They were faster than horses.
They were nobility, all who swore under the same empire, yet all enemies the same. They’d seen nights like this on the horizon, awaiting them, since their years training to be Ginju. It was to be their sole purpose, their destiny. Aiya quietly wished Ira was here with them, as perhaps the greatest of the three Ginju. They were the children blessed by the Empress, chosen as weapons. As a result, their clan despised them, envious of their abilities. Like their mother and father, their unblessed siblings were destined for politics, and to perhaps murder each other when the time came for a new clan heir.
The thought of them slaughtering themselves in a contest to be named next High Lord was amusing.
The ranks of the nobility were like a large web entangled in the wilderness. It was bewildering in its complexity, and brutal in its competitiveness. That was why Aiya wasn’t bothered in the least by having their blood on her hands.
* * *
Her first Silencing was four years ago. Lord Arusuke, her father, was entertaining a rival lord over dinner, a veil to discuss private matters. His rival was the head of the Hyuki clan, a man who sat on the council of judges which was composed of high ranking noble families directly under the Takasa family. Arusuke had discovered him conspiring against the Takasa household with a few other mid-ranking lords, which meant military land governors. One of them had been a rat, and he was rewarded handsomely for it.
Aiya and Koji crept behind the private dining room door. Ira was well into his sickness by then, absent and being cared for in bed by Kisane. There was a slapping of feet behind them accompanied by short titters. The two of them spun in alarm to the sight of Asaya waddling towards them.
Aiya’s entire frame froze.
“Hey!” she exclaimed in hushed tones, bringing a stiff finger to her lips. Koji moved, grabbing her quickly and placing his hand over her mouth to silence her.
"It’s okay, shenshen,” he said, turning her around. “We’ll play later. Go all the way upstairs, back to Kisane.” It didn’t take more to convince her, and she tottered back the way she came. Lucky for them she was smart for a three year-old.
Aiya watched her go, eyes wide, then faced the door again. She could no longer concentrate on the conversation inside, the voices from behind the door sounding muddy. The fact that a child had nearly walked in on a murder had given Aiya a disturbing amount of clarity of their situation. Her heart felt like it had blown up three times its size and was now pounding against her chest, ready to burst. She looked down and noticed the dagger shaking in her palm. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure if she could do this. She’d trained her entire life, seemingly for this moment. Now her first test stood before her. Would she stand and uphold the Takasa clan name as household of the River? Or fold under pressure and cowardice?
There was the signal: Two loud claps, followed by a hacking cough. Her legs felt like lead, but one look at Koji was all she needed. He’d already leaped forward through the door without a moment’s delay. Despite herself, she followed. The noble lord stumbled out of his seat, uttering unintelligible phrases of surprise as he spat out his half chewed meal onto the floor. He had quick wits, making way for his escape, but Koji was already advancing to block his path towards the opposite wall doors. The man had known seconds before their interruption that this was a trap. Their father had let it out, knowing his doom here was inevitable.
Aiya lunged at him, Silencing Dagger held forward like the tongue of a viper, and she could see in his eyes preparation for its fatal bite.
It was over before it had really gotten started. The lord doubled over, letting out gargled cries of pain as his blood streamed down his stomach, legs, and onto the floor. The room was suddenly filled with a stench of blood and shit, and Aiya didn’t see herself eating here again for quite some time, if ever.
The lord looked up at her in confusion, fury, and behind them both despair. As if this were treason beyond sanity. It was not believable on a face like his.
“Your conspirators ratted you out, Ren-shen. It’s what happens when you go messing with the natural order of things. Now calmly join the storm.” Arusuke walked over to them. He stood a few feet away with his arms crossed, his expression stern, looking down on the man dying at Aiya’s feet, whose blood had begun losing its warmth, like a starving orphan caught in a Wailstorm. It was the same expression he always gave his Ginju children. Arusuke was forever stuck in a state of disappointment and agitation, almost ashamed of them. He was bitter they wielded power he could never behold, a crime unforgivable in his egotistical vision of the world. “Join the storm.”
“But, I…” The lord trembled as he spoke, with barely the strength to muster a sentence. Aiya looked down on him and felt a sort of kinship, particularly, because they shared the same fate; to exist under the heel of this prideful man, and to die if he deemed necessary.
There was a slight pity in her stomach. He was no different than the other nobility, just in a worse predicament. He’d have done the same in their father’s position. It was a dog eat dog world, and clearly the strongest deserved life.
Still, she’d never been disrespected by him or other clans. None would openly disrespect a Takasa, even without knowing her true place in the clan. But he’d stepped out of line and would have her dead if the opportunity came. Her heart still pounded with fury while her senses remained heightened like she’d never experienced. Indeed, it was as if years of frustration were finally being let out of her, tears welling in her eyes.…
She raised her dagger to put out his misery.
“Let him die.” Arusuke gripped her hand closed in the air. It was a weak grip, though he was surely using all his strength. How easy it would be to break free, for him to be next.
But there was Ira. Bedridden, she couldn’t imagine the horror on his face finding their dead father once he got better. Koji and Kisane would hardly approve either. She got hold of herself. Despite his actions, Lord Arusuke was family. Even if her family didn’t treat her as such, they were bound together in a way that could not be so easily broken. She wouldn’t give herself over to impulse.
Arusuke lowered her hand and released her, Koji coming over on one knee and bowing. Aiya assumed the same position.
“That was good work. Quick work,” said their father, “so remember this day, because there will be more like it to come. Clean this swine from my floor, the Hyuki clan will want him to recognize him whole.”
* * *
The entire province would recognize Owa’s murder as that which only the swift justice a Ginju could bring about. Reaching the bottom of the terrace directly under the estate, they climbed. Whatever burn Aiya should have felt in her legs was instead a nervous excitement. At the top, Hebi castle came into view.
It was a slim white walled keep on elevated terrain, accompanied by a few dozen trees. It lacked the fortification of a proper keep, and a guard on duty was busy taking a piss off to the side of a tree. His back was turned. The only other guard rested still as a rock at the base of the stair entrance, an angry red torch flickering beside him. She saw Koji’s eyes scanning the darkness for extra guards, in case anyone had heard or spotted them. Her eyes moved with his. There was only the whisper of wind, and her own stale breath trapped by black cloth.
Aiya breathed in, let go of her thoughts and let them flow down the desired path. A rush like adrenaline shot through her. She jumped onto a low tree branch, landing more loudly than she wanted. Fleeting uses of her power like this were easy but often less graceful.
“Hu…what’s that?” the pissing guard exclaimed, as if coming out of a trance.
Aiya was still, hand around the chiseled blue hilt of her sword, a Riverblade. She gripped the four feet of folded steel lying dormant in its sheath. Koji would take them out swiftly as she scaled the top floors of the castle looking for a way in, while he went through the main entrance.
“Hey! You heard that, Bafi?” the same guard shouted.
“I thought I did,” the other replied, apparently wide awake. “But then I remembered it’s always around this time your good for shit-all cousin stumbles across these parts in his nightly drinking habits.”
“Come now, Bafi, there’s something in the trees! Or someone.”
The other guard just made a noise like grumbling and silence followed. There was the sound of impact, feet scuffing against dirt. Her head swiveled, but even she couldn’t spot Koji.
“There, surely I’m not hallucinating, Bafi!” the guard shouted, this time half-hysterical. “Footsteps. I know you heard it too!”
“Who’s there?” the guard named Bafi called out. He held out his torch. “A servant? Kishi? Goten? Shout if you’re there! Let us know it’s just you!”
Instead, Aiya disappeared up the tree as Koji took care of the now alert men. She heard their shouts as she flew through the branches and came to the treetop. The world looked shrunken below, and the castle rooftop was still high above. The castle stood three stories, each floor separated by an extended roof on the outside. The curved, overhanging roofs were guarded by small statues of divine spirits, or Kiru, posted at each of their four corners. Such beautiful structures owed their existence to the early years of empirical rule, said to have been knowledge imparted by the Empress herself. The first construction of a castle was seen nearly two hundred years ago during the Haijin era, and upheld by Kozuku, the first Jodai warlord of the empire. The first castle, situated between three highways, later evolved into the city of Sanaba that was now the capital of Egaisha and home to the Empress. Not long after, more castles built into a variety of landscapes were popping up across the continent, surrounded by storehouses, towers, enclosures and living quarters for lords, retainers and their garrison.
Aiya let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. The distance from where she held firm to the thinning trunk and the castle rooftop had to be at least forty feet, and the fall surely longer. She couldn’t imagine making impact with anything other than a thud loud enough to be heard by at least half the patrolling bodies below. At least she’d make a proper entrance.
Heavens damn it, she thought. She breathed in, out, and jumped. Her body flew up through moist air in an arc, giving her an expansive view of the grounds below. Even for her, seeing it from this height was dizzying. She saw torches beginning to flood the premises, Koji having garnered the entire household’s attention. Aiya reached the top roof of the keep and smacked against it, rolling then skidding to a halt. She lied motionless, listening. Shouts from below. Cries of agony and anger. She peeked over the ledge.
Empress’ soul, that’s a lot of manpower, Aiya thought. What looked like twenty to thirty Jodai had come running out of the keep, swords ready and bows bared. Koji spared none.
She took off to the other side of the building, stopping as soon as she felt her alignment falter, settling her mind back in place. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she tore her eyes away from the moon above and focused on meditating.
She imagined they heard in the night what they thought to be some vengeful spirit come to terrorize them. It was common for Erru to blame spirits for things, even for Ginju. Especially after dark. They’d terrified her as a child, like so many children. She and her Ginju siblings in particular had never grown out of that fear. Spirits, or at least the idea of spirits, as she’d never actually seen one, had an insidious quality about them that seemed too familiar.
Creeping down the wall opposite from where they came, she dropped to the third floor roof and made her way to a window. Aiya found herself wishing she could simply slip through the walls and be invisible like the local spirits of legend, but there was no need.
There were three glassless windows on each floor, cut into each of the four castle walls, half as wide as doorways and covered by blinds made of thin, overlapping strips of wood. A surveying of one of the rooms revealed a mostly empty space other than a couple of floor mattresses. Her eyes darted around her before she moved on to the next window.
Two figures sat in this one, illuminated by a dimly lit oil lamp. One of them spoke every once in a while, muttering something about the commotion outside. Scrolls piled up on a desk in the middle, some fallen onto the floor. Local administrators no doubt. They sat unmoving, still. Too still. She sensed and smelled the fear that enwreathed them, even out in the night. Aiya burst through one of the windows, wood clattering everywhere.
The two men inside cursed and drew their swords. Aiya didn’t give them time to use them. She lunged and, with quick jabs to their necks, took both their lives. The men fell, leaving their seat-cushions lifeless. Her hands were suddenly wet, but she didn’t slow. She bolted out the doors and down the narrow hallway which led to a staircase. She guessed the two men before were told to stay put and keep calm, while Hebi Owa himself fled downstairs towards the backdoor. Or perhaps…
She came face to face with two Jodai guards running up the stairs. They boasted deep blue lamellar armor, their blades thin and deadly steel. Jodai warriors, these were the men who made up the military forces of each province. They had a reputation of fearlessness and brutality. Each came from a place of noble birth, mostly second-class clans. Common Erru were, in most cases, forbidden from carrying weapons, being relegated to the position of farmers, fishermen, merchants or artisans; These were noble men who’d trained their entire lives for combat.
She raised her own sword.
The guard in front received first honors, his sword swinging in a wide arc, flying straight for her neck. She sidestepped, opening up his sides. He shrieked as she grabbed his own neck and sent him hurling into the other. They crashed down the stairs, armor not doing them much good. She was on the second floor now, another hallway, this time wider, with sliding doors barring each room.
Three more guards stood, weapons bared, while four smaller bodies, Lord Owa’s children she assumed, made for their escape down the final staircase behind them. Watching the children’s backs as they disappeared, she caught a sudden whiff of burning wood and smoke. Suddenly her posture wasn’t so sure, her stance in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
She steeled herself, drawing more from the river. There was that creeping fear again. Darkness evaded her vision and her alignment almost slipped.
Noticing her faltering, the guards engaged.
The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. There was a presence approaching from behind her, and she jerked sideways, barely managing to dodge a stab for her heart. The Jodai man who would have had her life stumbled forth and nearly fell, clumsily rounding on her again with surprising speed for his age. There was fire in his eyes.
He managed to drag his blade across her bicep. Splitting pain. Cursing, she resisted the urge to protect the wound. Instead, she stepped back and altered her mind. He came for the kill.
Her foot connected with his jaw, sending him back into a wall. She spun on the other guards who were on her, slicing limbs, torsos, faces. It was a fight as unfair as could be, like a warrior striking down a frail mob of elderly cripples. Cutting them down, she dashed to the bottom floor.
The sight before her was grisly. The rest of the guards were dead, corpses littering the red-stained floor like ragdolls. Koji had trapped the Hebi clan lord, along with his four children. His wife, Hutani, was nowhere to be found. Strange. The flames had already begun their work, licking at the walls and creating a thick haze of smoke throughout the large floor. The heat rapidly became sweltering.
Lord Owa was left helpless with his children. He gripped the shoulders of the oldest, Shinhou, from behind. At fifteen, he’d spent a number of parties and public events in Aiya’s vicinity. She’d conversed with him, spoken as equals with his mother and father. This was the part that she never got used to. Aiya was in a perpetual state of inner conflict. She valued her relationships with those nobility that she considered amicable. They were human like her, which meant there was a loving side and a dark side to them too. She wasn’t ruthless like her father, yet she had to be.
They dared not move, no sound except for the heavy breathing and whimpering of the three younger children. The oldest son trembled, eyes hard, welcoming whatever came next. Lord Owa simply smiled, a crazed smile that spread a little too wide.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Owa asked, hand hovering at his hip.
Koji spoke firmly, though his voice wavered slightly. “You threatened the Takasa clan.”
“Surely you were aware it would come to this eventually,” Aiya said, swallowing any last bit of hesitation. “A friend turned foe always gets his just desserts.”
Owa pulled out a glinting dagger. His grin wasn’t one of mirth, but of deep anger, a rabid dog forced on its last leg. His eyebrows furled as he held it in front of his son’s face, pointing it back and forth between Koji and her. “Bastards, who do you think you are?”
“The Takasa clan,” Koji answered. “Servants of the Empress come to take your life and destroy your legacy. None stand in the way of the Takasa.”
Owa watched him for a long moment, his dagger stuck pointed at her brother. Finally, he said, “I see that bastard Arusuke truly is unable to give up his place, to the point of having his own children as his dogs.”
Koji started, rushing to stop the lord. Aiya instinctively jumped back, eyes flying wide. An alarmed cry lodged itself in her windpipe as Hebi Owa cut his own throat.