Friday, March 21, 2014

The Marksman

             Part 1 


             The thunder rumbled in the distance, calling for the rain that was sure to follow. The air was already sticky with humidity around the small village, permeating well into the sake house where the two yojimbo knelt in the hall outside one of the bedrooms. Their master, the governor’s tax collector, was having his way with the proprietor’s daughter, her cries muted by the thunder outside.

             Soga Chikikage glanced at his fellow samurai, whose name he hadn’t even had time to learn, kneeling beside him. Chikikage was young; having only recently passing his coming of age tests, and was honored to have been selected to guard the tax collector in his travels, but now, hearing what was happening behind the rice paper walls, he wasn’t so sure. He knew the girl’s parents were in a nearby room and could hear everything; her screams and his grunts. What kind of pain and horror they must be going through was beyond him. He wondered if there was a way to resign his post with honor.

             His reverie was broken by a particularly loud peal of thunder followed shortly by a blood curdling scream from the girl. Leaping to his feet and drawing his katana from its scabbard, Chikikage quickly slid open the door and rushed into the room, his companion right behind him. They found their master, Hoshino Kagetomo, his robes open, slumped over the terrified, naked girl, who was trying to extricate herself from under his bloated corpse. Blood was pouring onto the sleeping mat on which they lay from a wound on his side.

        Chikikage ignored the screaming young lady, spotting, by chance, a small hole in the exterior paper wall. Moving quickly to the wall, he stuck his finger into the hole, about a half inch in diameter, and tore the wall away in one savage motion. Looking across the lane, he spied a small cloud of smoke hovering above the roof of a building opposite of the sake house. 

         “There!” The samurai screamed, pointing with his katana, and ran into the road. He was met in the road by his partner and two more yojimbo who were, in their words, “guarding the sake.”  

        “You two go around to the right and we’ll go to the left.” Chikikage hurriedly suggested, the others agreeing, and they set off to implement his plan.  Running around the building and finding no one, they pause, breathing hard and looking around excitedly for clues to the assassin’s whereabouts. The sound of a twig snapping in the forest before them sent the rushing into the tree line just as the rain began to fall.

        They quickly formed a skirmish line, a dozen paces apart, and began sweeping the woods for their quarry. The rain had become a deluge, obscuring their vision and creating the sound of thousands of feet pitter pattering through the undergrowth. A scream and a thud sounded off to Chikikage’s left, followed quickly by another.

        “Hello?” Chikikage called out to his party, with only the rain answering in return.

        He hesitated, uncertain whether to go investigate the sounds or continue forward. He was afraid, his katana shaking in his hand, when he heard another short cry of pain to his right. That was when primal fear took over, propelling him through the dark and back towards the village. Branches reached from the shadows and clawed at his face, but still he barreled forward, determined to make it to the sanctuary of lantern light he could make out ahead of him.

       Bursting from the brush, he stopped at the edge of the building; it’s eves sheltering him from the rain. He held himself up against the wall, panting from the exertion. He would go to the village headman’s home and have him rouse up the militia. Then they could scour the forest in force and avenge the murder of his fellows and his master.  It was then that he heard the splash of someone stepping in a puddle behind him.

        He turned on his heels to face his stalker, bringing his blade about, but he wasn’t fast enough. He felt a burning sensation across his stomach and a hot wetness spread across his already soaked trousers. Looking down, he wanted to vomit as he saw his guts spill from the hole in his belly and spread onto the ground. Falling to his knees, strangely careful not to kneel on his innards, he gazed up at his killer, rainwater running off the buildings gutter and onto his face.

       The assassin’s face was shrouded in the darkness of a wide straw hat and his dark blue- grey clothes were nondescript, but Chikikage’s gaze was drawn to the killer’s possessions. Across his back was slung a rifle of some kind and in his hands was a bloody katana. A katana that was brought up and down in a killing blow and Chikikage saw no more.


        Part 2


        Maki Yorikane sat on the floor of his room at the inn, carefully oiling and cleaning the snap lock firearm in his lap. The weapon, a Jaeger rifle from Germany, was illegal by order of the Shogun, and was the ronin’s prized possession. He was meticulous in his work and double checked every nook and cranny of the weapon for debris or moisture.

      Satisfied with his work, he slid the weapon into a long, waterproof tube comprised of laminated bamboo. Tying the top securely, he slung the tube across his back, held in place by a length of rope, and prepared to go to the noodle house for dinner. Adjusting the katana and wakizashi at his belt, he pulled his long hair back into a pony tail and journeyed from his room and out into the night, putting on his bamboo hat.

       The night air was still sticky from humidity and the rain from two days before had turned the dirt road into a muddy morass. He tried to avoid the deepest of the mud puddles, but his ratty, old sandals were quickly covered with grit and the legs of his grey trousers were soaked by the time he made it to his destination, a mere hundred meters from his starting point. Removing his footwear at the entrance, Yorikane was assaulted by the sounds and smells of the noodle house immediately upon his entrance. The low hum of patrons talking among themselves melted into the din of dishes being served while the aroma of cooking danced with the smells of the summer. The place was busy tonight.

                Yorikane knew the owner, Munemasa, and waved to catch the attention of the older man, who was talking to a customer. The ronin waited for the proprietor to disengage himself from that conversation, his stomach starting to get restless.

                 “Is the usual okay for you?” Munemasa asked, finally finding the means of escaping the previous conversation.

                “That’s fine.” Yorikane removed his katana, scabbard and all, from his belt and handed it to the elderly man for safe keeping. Munemasa was also the only other person who knew of the contents of the bamboo tube, but he didn’t ask for that. It was too valuable to leave the ronin’s possession. 

The merchant motioned to one of the serving girls before leading the warrior to one of the private rooms; kneeling and sliding the door open for him before entering himself. They each sat, legs crossed, on floor mats on either side of a small table with Yorikane placing the bamboo tube on the floor beside him.

“You did a good job on the tax collector.” Munemasa’s friendly façade gave way to a more conspiratorial one as he dug a small pouch from his vest. There was a clink of coin as it landed on the table. “The client was very pleased.”

Yorikane’s response was stifled by a knocking at the door, which slid back, revealing Umeki, a serving girl. She entered; head bowed, and began setting bowls of noodles, cups, and finally a tea pot on the table. She paused when she saw the coin purse on the table and glanced up at Yorikane, knowing whose bed she would warm that night. He gave her a slight nod in response and then turned back to Munemasa, who waited for the woman to leave before speaking.

“I have another job for you.” The old man spoke, twirling noodles around his chopsticks.

The ronin merely grunted, already wolfing down his food. He never knew when he may be interrupted, based on his line of work, and ate accordingly.

“Three days from now, on the old North Road, there will be a palanquin bearing the governor’s seal.” Munemasa continued. “It will be lightly guarded and you are to kill the occupant and any guards who get in your way.”

“Who’s in the palanquin?” Yorikane asked before taking a sip of the tea, accidentally scalding his tongue in the process.

“The client didn’t say and I didn’t ask. You should know that by now.” The answer was always the same.

“That’s fair enough. I need some more powder and bullets.” The warrior rose, picking up the coin purse and his weapon’s carrier. He opened the door and exited the room, followed closely behind by Munemasa.

“I’ll have that for you before you leave out.” The shopkeeper reached into the closet and retrieved the katana, handing it back to the warrior. “I’ll also send Umeki over to your room, once her shift is done.”

Yorikane merely waved as he walked out the front door, his thoughts already occupied with the new job.

Part 3

The ronin’s breathing was relaxed as he sat behind the tree, rifle sitting across his lap, waiting to spring the ambush. He had arrived the afternoon before, already near penniless due to drink and the ministrations of Umeki.  He proceeded with finding his killing spot and began his long wait, here about a hundred feet from the road and with plenty of concealment. Now, he wanted to complete this job and start the cycle over again.

His attention was drawn to motion on the road. Pulling a small spyglass from his grey vest, he quickly snapped onto a palanquin, borne by six struggling men. Six samurai on foot flanked the conveyance on either side, armed with bows and their traditional daisho.  Returning the glass to his vest, he sighted in his weapon and waited for his targets to get closer.

The first archer went down never knowing what killed him, a crimson flower spreading from his chest wound. The second guard had time to point in the sniper’s general direction before his throat erupted in geyser of gore. The final two, however, managed to pull their bows and attempt to return fire before being picked off one after the other; Yorikane’s reloading and firing the muzzle loader with a practiced precision.

Yorikane left his blind, cautiously picking his way down the hill, rifle in hand. The servants had scattered, leaving the palanquin in the middle of the road and he found this odd. A passenger under the governor’s seal, but with such a light guard and servants that scattered so easily had set his nerves on edge and he needed to know why.

Walking up next to the litter, rifle pointed at the silk screen wall, the ronin called to the passenger inside.

“Open up or I’ll fire” He snarled. “Go ahead and do it!”

“Please don’t.” The low reply came from within, accompanied by sobs of terror.

The warrior, suddenly confused, reached forward with his left hand, still pointing the weapon with his right, and slid the door of the transport open, exposing the weeping young lady. Yorikane was nearly as surprised as this beautiful woman, who clearly wore the robes and make up of a noble, though the latter was smeared with her tears. He began to ask who she was when shouts drew his attention to the direction from whence she came.

A squad of samurai, under the governor’s banner, had appeared from around the curve in the road, and begun to ride towards them, screaming and pulling weapons. Knowing that he held no advantage, he did the only thing he could think of, he grabbed the girl and threw her over his shoulder. He knew that they would have trouble bringing their mounts into the trees and was relieved that only a few arrows zipped by him in pursuit. He needed time and space to think this through.

Part 4

Hisakawa Touya, provincial governor, studied the cherry blossom as he balanced it on the tips of his fingers, the turmoil in his mind in direct opposition to his outer calm. He slowly walked around the ornate fountain that formed the center piece of his garden, casually flicking the small flower into the pool and approached the samurai who knelt on the walk way leading to the governor’s home. He hoped the soldier’s news was better than his nervous demeanor indicated.

“Report” The lord ordered as he picked another blossom from a nearby tree. He sniffed at it while he waited for the young warrior to speak.

“My lord,” The samurai bowed even lower as he spoke. “I have news most grave. Our patrol attempted to catch up with and protect your wife, as you ordered, but…”

“Well?” The governor’s eyebrows climbed in barely disguised anticipation. He always enjoyed when his retainers squirmed before him.

“Her guards were dead and the servants had fled.” The samurai was actively shaking at this point. “Your wife has been kidnapped by a man with what appeared to have been a musket. We’re searching the area now and we’ll find her.”

Touya’s hand instinctively went for his katana before pausing, cold reasoning quelling the murderous rage as quickly as it had risen. He breathed deeply, concentrating on the sounds of the running water and the aroma of his little slice of nature. It was several long seconds before he spoke again.

“See that you find her and quickly.” His composure had slid back into place again. “Kill the son of a bitch who has taken her and return her to me safely. Now go.”

The samurai had bowed and began quickly walking down the path before his lord called out once more.

“Oh, find and execute the servants for deserting her, as well.”

Touya waited a few moments, soaking in the last bit of calm from the garden before making the short trek to his keep. His thoughts were a chaotic mess of anger and questions; what had gone wrong? Where was his wife and why had she been taken? He didn’t even notice the servants as they ducked and bowed, hoping to avoid his ire as he made his way into his meditation chambers and slid the door shut behind him.

The room was small and lit only by a pair of candles that sat on an altar; the only furnishing in the room. Touya knelt down and lit some incense, carefully standing the burning taper in a cup on the small shrine. Adjusting his red kimono, he meditated while he waited for his guests to show. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Hello, Governor.” The voice rasped from the shadows. “We’ve heard that there has been a wrinkle in your plans.”

The nobleman half turned to look at the new arrivals. Strangely, it was not the tall, lean figure, clothed in black from head to toe, a bronze crow mask his only defining feature, which frightened Touya the most. No, it was the speaker, a wizened old woman in a simple blue kimono that scared the warrior. She exuded power and malevolence in equal measure, her kind, grandmotherly appearance making her seem all the more sinister.  The Governor didn’t even know her name, but he knew who she represented.

“A minor setback, I assure you.” He turned back to the altar, inhaling the sweet smoke wafting up from it. “My men will have their heads by tomorrow evening and then I can move on.”

“Your men, though brave and loyal, will not find this ronin. He is subtle and elusive. “Her silky words belied her predatory grin. “ As long as your wife lives, you cannot marry up and improve your lot in the Shogunate. You should have contacted us to start with.”

“I thought the ronin would be a win-win situation.” Touya took a deep breath before continuing. “If he killed her and escaped, he would be seen as a wandering killer. If we captured him after he killed her, then we just execute him and be done with it. I just don’t know why he didn’t fulfill his obligation.”

“The spirits of men are strange indeed.” She purred. “The question now is not why he did it, but, rather, what do you wish to do about it?”

“I wish for you and your clan to finish this job for me.” He offered with little hesitation. “Kill them both and deal with any witnesses. I’ll worry about any political fallout.”

“It shall be as you wish, my lord.” She smirked as she and her companion stepped back into the shadows, vanishing from the room and leaving a palpable chill behind.

Touya closed his eyes tightly, knowing that no amount of meditation could erase his sins from his soul.

Part 5

Hisakawa Tsukina collapsed to the floor of the abandoned mill, exhaustion both physical and emotional threatening to overwhelm her. She looked at her hands, the dust from the floor contrasting with her pale skin and tears began to well up into her eyes again.

“Please don’t hurt me!” She again cried to the dirty, brutish man who had taken her from her entourage a few hours earlier. “Please, I beg you!”

She knew why the man had ambushed her party in the woods. She had heard her husband, the governor, talking to shadowy figures in the night. She had even guessed why she was not sent a full complement of guards this morning when she had left out, ostensibly to deliver a message to one of the local magistrates. She had consigned herself to death, but she had hoped it would be quick and painless. Now, with this man, this ronin with the ornate musket, she now feared he would rape her and kill her slowly, her heart sinking by the moment.

For his part, the man had not said much to her on the way to their present location, mostly admonishments of “Move!” and “Go faster!”, difficult commands for one used to being born everywhere she went. She had fallen several times, only to be picked up and pushed along by him through the woods until they had come upon this place, which he seemed to know. Now, he crouched in the open doorway and watched the descending twilight, looking for any who might be pursuing them.

Tsukina raised herself to a kneeling position, patting some of the dust from her dirty, white robes, frowning at the small tears it had incurred from their flight through the forest. She settled into a prayer position and waited for her fate, which must be soon, judging by the sound of the ronin walking towards her. She waited for the sword stroke that would end her life, but was puzzled by the sounds of her captor rummaging through some junk behind her. Curious, she opened her eyes and turned to look at him.

He was not an overly large man and his dark clothing concealed much of his physique, but she knew his strength from his pulling and shoving her through the forest. His long, scraggly hair was tied back, but it was his eyes, predatory, but with just a hint of sadness, that drew her attention. They gleamed as opals from between his bamboo hat and his short beard.

He had retrieved a small, wooden box that had been hidden under some debris. He brought it with him as he sat down next to her, opening it to reveal a metal flask and some rice balls wrapped in leaves.

“Here, eat this.” He offered her one of the rice balls. “I left this stash here yesterday. You need to eat.”

She took it with a grace that defied her bedraggled looks and gently opened the leaves. She needed the nourishment and she suddenly realized how hungry she was as she devoured the treat. She practically snatched the second one he offered from his hand and she ate it with abandon, as well.

“So, who are you and why was I contracted to kill you?” The warrior’s blunt question was both shocking and surprisingly refreshing to her. She took the flask he held out to her and took a swallow of the vinegary plum wine before answering.

“My name is Hisakawa Tsukina and I am the wife of the Imperial governor, Hisakawa Touya.” She took another swig of wine, its bitter taste helping her mind. “As to why you were sent to kill me? I don’t know. Maybe he loves another? Maybe I have not bore him a child yet? Maybe I just wasn’t good enough?”

The last opened another floodgate of sobs and she leaned forward, into the arms of her would be assassin; a man who could easily finish her now and save them both pain and trouble; a man who instead chose to wrap his arms around her and tried to comfort her, instead. Her final waking memories were of his warm strength and musky, sweaty smell.

Part 6

The silence of the small village was broken only by the barking of a dog as the pair made their way out of the brush. They had slept in the ronin’s hideout overnight and well into the morning, both exhausted from the previous day’s ordeal. After a quick meal and trekking through the woods to avoid the roads, they had made it to what Yorikane had hoped would be refuge for them. Instead, the dead quiet and lack of lights to dispel the lengthening shadows set the Ronin’s nerves on edge. Cautiously, they began making their way to the sake house, the warrior eager to find Munemasa or Umeki; anybody to return his life to a sense of normalcy.

The smell of death assaulted his senses even as he opened the door to the drinking establishment and he signaled for Tsukina to stay back as he entered the building. Striking a match against a wooden post, he lit a lantern and beheld a charnel house. There were a dozen corpses, former patrons, sprawled about on the floor and across tables, their terror contorted faces and bloodied bodies betraying the violence of their deaths.

Yorikane lit several more lanterns in the common room in an attempt to better identify the bodies, but, while all were locals, none were the two people he sought, which perplexed him. Still holding his first lantern, he went back to retrieve the young Tsukina.

“Try not to look at them.” He whispered to her, reaching out and guiding her with a hand on her shoulder. “We’re going to go to the back and find my friend Umeki’s room. She may have clothes that will fit you that are better for travelling.”

Together, they navigated through the maze of the dead, making their way to the hall where the owner and staff would live. Yorikane found Umeki’s door and slid it open, surveying the room where he had spent many an evening in pleasure paid for in hard coin. Everything seemed to be in order; her sleeping mat was rolled out on the floor and her small desk had her make-up laid out with a small mirror sitting on top. It was when the ronin turned to open the small wardrobe closet that movement from the shadows caught his eye, but the figure tackled and bore the man to his knees before he could pull his katana. It was Umeki.

The serving girl frantically grasped at Yorikane’s shirt, her bulging eyes stared helplessly as she tried to breathe through her slashed throat. The ronin held her close, tears welling up as he fought the losing battle to save her, trying to staunch the blood flow with his own shirt sleeve.

“No, Umeki! No!” He cried as she gave one final shudder and went limp. He openly wept for one of the few people to ever show him kindness, even if it was for a price, as Tsukina sat in awkward silence in the corner.  He no longer cared. All he wanted was to vent his rage upon someone who he’d make scream and bleed.

“Whoever did this could not be far.” He finally said, gently allowing Umeki’s body to slide to the floor, hand trembling in righteous fury. “She wouldn’t have lived long with that wound. I will find the bastards and I will kill them.”

“It may be an ambush.” Tsukina cautioned meekly as she respectfully slipped a blanket over Umeki. “Whoever did this knew where to strike at you and who to harm.”

The ronin wiped away the tears and tried to consider her words, but the emotions that flowed through him kept pushing him to thoughts of bloody vengeance. Truth be told, the sound of creaking floors in the main dining hall were a welcome relief for him and he quickly slipped his rifle from its carrying case and stealthily loaded it. Motioning for the young lady to stay put, he rose and quietly entered the hallway, senses on fire.

Tsukina waited a few moments, her nerves raw, until her mind began to wander into dark places. The shadows seemed to hold sinister life and were more menacing, threatening to swallow her whole. She even thought she saw movement in the abyssal blackness behind the late occupant’s wardrobe and tried to explain it away to being alone and with a corpse, but fear took over and she hurried from the room to find her savior.

Yorikane was surveying the common room, rifle up and ready, when Tsukina burst into his peripheral vision, startling him. He half turned and was about to berate her when he noticed a figure standing at the far end of the room; a figure he hadn’t notice a moment ago. He raised his weapon in challenge.

“You there, what are you doing here?” He called out to the figure, which was clad from head to toe in midnight blue. The ronin had heard stories of folk like this masked man; they were called ninja and were reported to be assassins and sorcerers. The stories of their skills in the art of death did not concern the warrior right now. He wanted answers and blood and did not care in which order they were received.

The figure made a quick movement to its right and Yorikane pulled the trigger, thunder and fire filling the room as the bullet flew true. At least, it would have, had the figure not stepped into a shadow, merging with it as the shot splintered a wooden support where the target had just stood. The marksman’s shock lasted only a moment before a weighted chain swung out from a shadow to his left and snared the barrel of his weapon and plucked it from his grasp, sending it flipping through the air behind him. That is when the shadows leapt to life and the wanderer realized he was surrounded by nearly a dozen masked men.

Tsukina collapsed to her knees and crawled backwards until her back was against the wall, the rifle landing a few feet from her. Her fears for her life had been rekindled, even more so than before. She could understand the power of the musket, or the razor edge of the katana, but these killers were unlike anything she had seen as they stepped in and out of the shadows, at times even dropping through the floor and from the ceiling. She could see that Yorikane was holding them off, his blade versus their myriad weapons, but they had numbers and sorcery on their side. How much longer, she wondered, could his courage and skill hold out? Lost in her grim thoughts, she did not notice the older man who reached out from behind his hiding place behind a table to retrieve the fallen firearm and quietly begin to load it.

Yorikane was beginning to tire. The dodging and parrying of the relentless attacks, combined with the swinging at the open air where a foe should have been was pushing him to exhaustion.  He was slowly backing into a corner, sword in a defensive posture against unseen enemies, when a frantic idea for a strategy crossed his mind. Running to one wall, narrowly avoiding a sword blade from a patch of darkness, he blew out the lantern. He did this again and again, zig- zagging and blindly parrying the various blades and chains that struck out at him, six times with the final lantern plunging the room into blackness.

The sudden darkness startled the noblewoman, but she soon understood the tactic as her eyes adjusted to the new conditions. There was enough moon light coming through the paper walls for everyone to be silhouetted but not enough for the shadowy patches the ninjas favored. She could barely make out Yorikane’s shape amongst the others, but she could hear his battle cry before it was drowned out by the screams of wounded and dying men. She almost felt pity for them.

The warrior could help but to smile as his sword lashed out, hewing limbs and cutting flesh. His last foe dying upon his out thrust blade, Yorikane flicked the blood from his blade with a flick of his wrist, scanning the room with all his senses; there was still something amiss, but he couldn’t quite place what it was. He didn’t have to wait long as the lanterns sprung into flaming life, lit by unseen hands and the swordsman spied the tall, crow masked figure standing a few feet from him.

There was something unnerving about this new arrival. The other ninja, now dead on the floor, at least showed some human features, such as exposed eyes and fingers. This one, however, was entirely in black cloth, save for the bronze mask he wore, its recessed eyeholes dark and vacant. This dread was even more apparent to Yorikane as the figure’s arms began to elongate and slither into the shadows, before stopping and slowly retracting, returning with a straight bladed, black sword in each hand.  

Yorikane raised his blade to combat this devilish new foe and was amazed at its speed. The dark figure moved in quick, jerky movements that were difficult to anticipate, as though it flickered through time and space itself. In no time, it had landed several painful, though superficial, cuts on the ronin, the demonic blades as numbingly cold as they were razor sharp. The swordsman thrust forward with his own blade only to meet empty space as the figure dropped into a shadow on the floor and rematerialized behind the man, delivering another shallow wound across his back. Yorikane spun around and lashed out, severing his opponents left hand; a hand that burst into black feathers as it hit the ground and the sword it held melting into inky blackness that oozed back to the shadows.

The warrior’s shock gave the dark figure the opening it needed to use its newly regenerated hand to deliver a palm strike to Yorikane, a cold, eldritch blast that blew the ronin off of his feet and onto his back, landing near Tsukina, his katana clattering to the floor well out of his reach. The humanoid thing strode forward, still flickering in and out of this world and stood over the man, sword raised for a killing blow. The ronin could hear Tsukina praying, finding her sudden acceptance of death strangely comforting to himself. Yorikane closed his eyes and awaited his death.

“Yorikane!” Munemasa screamed from his hiding spot as he threw the Jaeger to his protégé.

The sudden yell startled Tsukina and gave the shadowy killer pause, a pause Yorikane exploited by catching the weapon and placing the barrel where its chin should be. Once again, the weapon’s deafening roar echoed through the hall, blowing a hole through the assassin’s mask and out of its hood.

The mask fell with a metallic clatter and, to everyone’s horror; there was nothing but a gaping hole where a man’s face should be. The faceless thing groped around its head, as though seeking for the missing mask, before finally falling over backwards, exploding into dozens of squawking crows, which took flight past the screaming woman and proprietor and out the door. Yorikane himself was too stunned to make any sounds, he just sat back, exhausted, as he realized the immediate danger had passed. He smiled to Tsukina, who crawled over to him quickly, still shaking in fright, and he put his arms around her, holding her tight. They would survive another day.


Hisakawa Touya slowly walked through his garden, still searching for the inner peace he knew he needed; no, deserved. It had been two weeks since Tsukina’s disappearance and, though he hadn’t received confirmation, he assumed the old lady and her ninja had done their jobs. Certainly, the rest of the province assumed the ronin had killed her and even now no protests were made as he arranged for his new marriage, a cousin of the Shogun, a move that would increase his standing greatly.

Yes, things were good and yet something still nagged at him. A looming sense of dread that things were going too well for him and that he would have to make recompense for his sins. The recompense would come with the sound of thunder on this clear day and a sharp pain in his chest. Looking down, blood poured from his body, dyeing his white robes crimson. His last vision of this world would be to a tree near the edge of his garden, where drifting smoke couldn’t obscure a figure dropping to the ground and escaping into the undergrowth. The governor smiled as he passed from this world and into the next, finally finding the peace he long sought.

The governor’s guards would look in vain for his assassin; never suspecting the three peasants they passed on the road to the Iga province, were the killer and his accomplices, an old man and a lovely, young woman. They never suspected that the loads the commoners carried on their backs hid weapons, including a contraband gaijin gun. No, they did not suspect the travelers any more than the travelers suspected they were being watched from the shadows by an old woman and her companion, a tall figure wearing a silver crow mask.

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