Blood Ninja II
THE NINJA MOUNTAIN, SOMEWHERE ON NORTHERN
HONSHU ISLAND, THE SAME DAY Watashi wa … hiragana o … yomu koto ga dekimas …
Taro traced his finger along the line of symbols, speaking the sounds out loud. “I … can read … hiragana.”
“You can,” said Hana, smiling.
Taro grinned. For now, it was only the hiragana that he had mastered—the simplified form of writing that was used mainly by women. But now that he had learned these forms, he would be able to progress to the kanji, and eventually be able to read and write the language of the nobles. Hana had already showed him the character for the word “field,” and he could see how it showed a field from above, subdivided into sections, and he marveled at how the Chinese had created tiny, perfect pictures of the things around them, to make them into words.
“Now,” said Hana, “you owe me some sword practice.” The previous autumn, Taro had fought against Hana’s father, Lord Oda, a sword saint whose skill with the blade was feared and admired throughout the land. Taro had held his own—and in the
end the cruel Lord Oda had died, falling down the stairs of his own castle. Since then, Taro’s mastery of the sword had only increased, to the point that even here, at the mountain stronghold of the ninjas, there was no one who could teach him anything new.
“Well, if you want to be beaten again …” From beside the writing table, Taro pulled out his katana
. It had been given to him on his return to the mountain, a gift to celebrate his victory over Lord Oda. As a ninja, he would use a short-sword called a wakizashi
for most missions, but there was nothing to compare to fighting with the full-length sword.
That was if he remained a ninja, of course. Taro was no longer sure what he should do, now that his mentor Shusaku was dead. It had been Shusaku who had always known what to do, Shusaku who had saved Taro’s life and then led him and his best friend Hiro through every subsequent trial. Taro knew that he couldn’t stay here on this mountain forever, pretending that the world outside no longer existed. But what could he do? He didn’t know if he could go to Lord Tokugawa and present himself as the daimyo’s long-lost son—Shusaku had said that the lord would be horrified to have a vampire for a child. Of course, Lord Tokugawa’s other sons were dead now, so perhaps he would welcome Taro, no matter what had happened to him—but it was an enormous risk to take.
Neither could he go and look for his mother, though he was desperate to do so. On the night when he and Shusaku left his home village of Shirahama, Shusaku had given her a pigeon, telling her to set it free with a message when she was safe. But the pigeon had still not arrived at the ninja mountain—it had been the first thing Taro asked when he returned here from Lord Oda’s castle. So he was trapped at the mountain. He couldn’t leave, because if he did he might miss her message when it came. At the same time he was conscious that all the time he waited here, she was somewhere out there, alone. He wanted so much to see her again and run into her arms—he was a ninja now and he had killed men, but he still needed his mother.
And then there was Hana. The girl was the daughter of a daimyo—she had spent her life being groomed for marriage to another lord. Taro wasn’t sure that, deep down, she could really want to settle for him, a peasant and a ninja. It was true that his real father was Lord Tokugawa, but blood wasn’t everything. There was also training, etiquette, an appreciation of the arts. He was only just learning to read. For most of his life he had done little but fish and hunt for rabbits. Even if Hana did
want him now, would she feel that way in ten years’ time, when she realized that he couldn’t offer her gardens, and tea ceremonies, and serving girls, and beauty?
Yet he knew, too, that he could not give her up. The selfless thing to do would be to release her, to send her away, to live the life she’d been meant to live. Only where would he send her? She could not return to her father now that Taro had killed him. And besides, Taro was not selfless. Every time he looked into her deep brown eyes he knew that he would keep her if he could.
He had not spoken to her of this—had not even told her his feelings—but his deep desire was to one day marry her. The problem was that he could not condemn the daughter of a lord to the life of a ninja’s wife, and so he would have to make more of himself, somehow. If he could not do it by claiming his birthright as a Tokugawa, then he would have to do it some other way. Learn to read. Learn to write. Learn the sword, and how to make music, whether with a koto or with steel. Then perhaps one day he could become a samurai in Lord Tokugawa’s guard, never revealing his true identity—perhaps, if enough time had passed, Lord Tokugawa would not recognize Hana.
One day. But right now, Hana turned as she walked down the stone corridor, and gave him a dazzling smile, and Taro shook the thoughts of the future away, like summer gnats. For just a little longer, he would stay here in the mountain, where everything was simple, and he could pretend that the bad things had never happened—his adopted father’s death, Shusaku’s sacrifice at Lord Oda’s castle. As long as he was here, he could imagine, even, that
Shusaku still lived, and that one day he would see the ninja step out from some hidden alcove and take up his training again.
Leaving the cave, Taro and Hana followed the long tunnel that led to the main hall, which was the crater of the volcanic mountain, cut off from daylight by an enormous sheet, painted with stars. When they stepped into the wide, twilit space, they saw Hiro, practicing alone. His sword in his hand, he went through the kata, a sequence of formalized movements the ninja student was expected to master completely, so that they could be called up in a fight without thinking.
Taro had learned them but didn’t use them for practice or for fighting—he didn’t need to, he was so fast that he could invent his own moves, reading the movement of his enemy’s sword by keeping his eyes locked on theirs.
“Hiro,” said Taro. “Would you like to spar with us?”
Hiro turned to him and smiled, though his eyes no longer contained his old joy. “No, that’s all right. I’ll continue with these moves.” He held his sword out straight, knees bent, and leaped into a feint-strike. His mind and muscles had been hardened by the events at Lord Oda’s castle. He wasn’t Taro’s fat, jolly friend anymore—he was something more serious, more considered, more angry. Their betrayal by Yukiko, a ninja girl who had taken Lord Oda’s side against them, had shocked him deeply, as had the death of Shusaku, the guide and mentor who had looked after them ever since the father who had raised Taro was killed by ninjas in Lord Oda’s employ, and his mother sent away into hiding who knew where.
Taro watched Hiro move, and wished that he could see him grin instead, and tell stupid jokes. But who could blame him? Taro felt the pain of Shusaku’s death too, every day—and it was worse here in the ninja redoubt, which Shusaku had shown them for the first time. He was hurt by Yukiko’s defection, too—though not as much as Hiro was. Taro had never been close to the girl. In fact, she had always seemed wary of him, jealous of how quickly he had been made a real ninja. It hadn’t surprised him all that much when
she turned on them, if he was honest. He had always detected a steel core in her, sharp edges, as if she were a sword made flesh. And he had always known that she was envious of him, for being turned into a vampire so young, so quickly.
When Taro’s father was killed, Shusaku had rescued him after Taro had been wounded by one of the many attackers. But the only way he could save Taro’s life was to bite him, to change him into a vampire, and at that moment Taro had become something Yukiko had craved for years—something that ordinarily was achieved only after many years of training at the ninja mountain. He had become a kyuuketsuki
—a blood-sucking spirit-man.
Strong. Fast. Powerful.
Then, when Yukiko’s beloved sister had been killed defending Taro, she had found all the excuse she needed to turn against him and his friends—it had been Yukiko who had alerted Lord Oda to their presence in his tower, nearly killing them all.
“Taro,” said Hana, interrupting his thoughts. “Would you like to leave it for another time?”
He shook his head and took up his sword, settling into the ku
stance of emptiness. As she tried for a strike, he parried and counterattacked, his mind half on the flashing movement of the swords and half on the future. What was he to do now? Last year Shusaku had revealed something even more shocking than the secret of the ninjas: He had also told Taro that the man killed in the beach hut in Shirahama had not been his real father. Taro’s true father was Lord Tokugawa, one of the most powerful daimyo in the country, and the man who many thought would one day be shogun. As if that wasn’t enough, a fortune-teller—Yukiko’s foster mother—had told Taro that he himself would be shogun one day.
But these were abstracts. There were two things that were concrete, two things that pulled Taro in opposite directions, like twin poles, and it was these two things that he pictured as he flicked Hana’s sword aside and touched her neck with his blade.
She cursed in a very unladylike manner and bit her lip as she steadied her sword into her opening stance.
One of the things—one of the poles of Taro’s existence—was the Buddha ball. Before he died, Lord Oda had spoken of it, as had the fortune-teller, when she spoke to Taro of his destiny. It was a ball, made for the last Buddha, that gave its bearer dominion over the world and everything in it, because it was
the world in miniature. Taro had thought it a tall tale, but he now had reason to believe that it was in Shirahama, hidden by his mother at the bottom of the bay.
The second thing was his mother. She was meant, as soon as she was safe, to send the pigeon Shusaku had given her; that pigeon was ever-present in Taro’s thoughts. Taro could no longer exactly remember what his father had looked like—the man he had always thought of as his father, anyway—but his mother’s face was fresh and clear in his mind, and was constantly appearing before him when he closed his eyes to sleep.
It was a moment before Taro realized that his sword was no longer moving. Hana stood before him, arms folded, her katana
leaning against her leg. “You’re thinking of the ball?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes.” Taro shrugged apologetically. Even frowning, like this, Hana was beautiful, and he felt a pang of guilt that instead of enjoying this time with her, safe from all enemies in the mountain, he was worrying about the ball and his mother, and how he could secure them both. Lord Oda was dead, but his second-in-command, Kenji Kira, was still abroad in the country, looking for Taro. He, or someone else, could find the ball and use it to cause untold damage. But what if Taro went looking for it, went to Shirahama, and his mother meanwhile was hurt, or killed? Or worse, what if she sent word of her location, and he wasn’t there to learn of it? What if the information fell into someone else’s hands, someone less than scrupulous? Someone like that weasel Kawabata, who had already betrayed Taro once …
Of course, his mother might already have been killed, and when Taro thought of that possibility a thick snake would squirm in his belly and he would find himself unable to sleep, the images of his mother and the ball rotating in his head, like the Sanskrit symbols on a prayer wheel.
“I’ll come with you,” said Hana, “if you want to go and look for it. You have only to say.”
Taro nodded. He knew she would. She would go anywhere with him—she had shown him that already. She’d seen him kill her father, and she’d still walked by his side out of the castle and come to the ninja mountain. Foolish of her, really. Couldn’t she see that he was nothing but a peasant, no matter what blood flowed in his veins? Couldn’t she see that everyone who was close to him died or disappeared—his foster father, Shusaku, his mother? But of course he couldn’t bring himself to send her away—she was so beautiful, so kind, so intelligent, and so skilled with a sword. She was like no girl he’d ever met.
There was something else, too. He thought Hana liked him—he was sure he could see it, in the cast of her eyes sometimes, and in the way she teased him. But he wasn’t sure. Her father was a monster—perhaps she would have left his castle with anyone who came along and saved her; perhaps Taro had only been in the right place at the right time. If he tried to send her away, he sensed, he would learn whether she felt for him as he did for her, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to learn that yet.
“I shouldn’t be fighting,” he said, looking down at the sword in his hand as if he wasn’t quite sure how it had gotten there. “I’m too distracted.”
“Don’t worry,” said Hana, smiling. “I wouldn’t take advantage and hurt you.”
“That wasn’t what I meant. If I don’t concentrate, I could kill you.” He lowered his sword, stepping back.
Her smile disappeared. “Oh.”
“Later, we’ll eat together. Well, you can eat—I’ll …” He would have some blood, from one of the pigs kept in the caves.
“Yes, that would be good.” She gave him a hurt look, then turned and walked away. Taro wondered if everyone he loved would do that eventually—either die or leave him, or become changed, like Hiro. Perhaps it was what he deserved.
As if to underline his own thoughts, Kawabata Senior chose
that moment to step out of a hidden panel in the rock, which was made of stone fixed to a wooden door. Even from close up, it looked identical to the rock wall, and Taro had still not gotten used to the way that people would sometimes emerge from this secret passageway, using it as a shortcut to the main hall.
Kawabata stopped when he saw Taro. Scowling, he turned on his heel and vanished again into the darkness. Taro sighed. Kawabata had tried to get Taro killed, along with his companions—sending a ninja to Lord Oda to warn him that they were coming to his castle. Luckily, his son, Little Kawabata, had managed to prevent the messenger from reaching his destination.
When Taro had returned to the mountain, unharmed, he had been welcomed as a hero by the people here. All except for Kawabata, who had trembled when he saw Taro entering the cave system, Little Kawabata by his side. The son had denounced the father, and Kawabata, on seeing the contempt in the faces of his fellow ninjas, had asked for permission to commit seppuku.
Taro had refused. He had seen enough death at that time, and he didn’t wish to watch Kawabata cutting open his own stomach in front of him. Besides, if there were people who gathered rice and people who gathered fish, then Taro was a person who gathered death. He had seen so many people around him die—he could not see another. But of course he had done the worst possible thing, as always. Kawabata might have forgiven him for living—especially as his great enemy Shusaku was dead as he had intended—but he could not forgive the slight on his honor that Taro had inadvertently given. Even one who had committed a great sin could cleanse himself through seppuku, yet it was in the power of the sinned-against to grant this redemption to the sinner, and Taro had not done so.
He had denied Kawabata his purity, and Kawabata would not forget it. Taro knew that he would have to kill the man one day, or change his mind about the seppuku—otherwise Kawabata would be sure to try once again to destroy him. But he kept putting it off. Since his father, too many people had died on his account.
He threw his sword aside, and Hiro looked up, startled, as it skidded across the sandy floor. Taro made a vague gesture to his friend, a wave of his hand that said something like, Forget it
He was entering the tunnel that led to the sleeping quarters when one of the younger women—Taro thought her name was something like Aoki—came running out of it and nearly barreled into him. Breathless, she held out an object toward him with both hands, nodding furiously at him to take it.
The object cocked its head and said, Coo
Taro stared at the pigeon. He was dimly aware of Hiro, coming up beside him and putting his hand on his shoulder. He was pleased his friend was with him.
He reached out and took the bird, gently holding its wings so that it could not fly away. Its eyes darted from side to side, and it made a stream of gurgling sounds that could have been complaint or pleasure.
Tied around the pigeon’s leg was a very small scroll. Taro gripped the bird with one hand while he loosened the string holding the message with the other. He unfurled the parchment.
His lips moved as he deciphered the hiragana, and he was filled with joy that his mother had found someone to write on her behalf, and that he could read it. My dear Taro
, said the note. I am at the Tendai monastery on Mount Hiei. I am safe, but I would give anything to see you again. With affection, your mother.