Edo was in flames.
Strangely, the thought itself was more troublesome than the reality. As Sumiko stood, the flames licking at the edges of the building she was hiding within, her thoughts probed to reasons why. In a daze, she walked to her doorway, her eyes on the devastation through the streets of Edo, and wondered if the end of the world had come. Outside, the red glow of the flames banked the skies, whilst black smoke made the height of day seem like the depths of night. In a haze, she could see the wooden houses of her prefecture ablaze, the people scurrying between alleyways and through debris strewn streets to carry water laden buckets as they fought the destruction. Through eyes filled with the tears of loss, Sumiko waited in the doorway in her best Kimono and watched her prefecture burn. The ancestral home in which her family had lived for almost a century had escaped the blaze for some time thanks to the crafted lakes surrounding it, but as the flames had crept higher and drifted on the winds of this summers afternoon, the roof had caught and the gardens had begin to smoulder.
Now, in the heat of the inferno, Sumiko began to realise her own demise. Around her, the city of her fathers and forefathers was being destroyed by the cleansing flames of rebirth, whilst the purge of corruption was being driven from the streets and homes to die alongside the innocents who merely wished to live. There was no panic within her, no fear; only realisation that her life was about to end. Carefully, she dropped to her knees and folded her Kimono delicately beneath her, then drew a corded line from one of the pockets in her sleeves. With practised elegance, she tied her ankles together behind her back and drew a slim bladed tanto knife, laying it reverently on the ground before her. Should she be found amidst the ruin tomorrow, they would find her body presented as befitted a princess, her throat open and her legs together.
Though there was still plenty of time to watch her people burn. In a sense, Sumiko owed them that at least. In a moment of true realisation, the young woman faced her regret and the truth behind it. Though constantly reminded to attend, she had never made her presence felt at court. Instead, she had wasted her time donning elegant clothing, amassing a wealth of beautiful jewellery and courting the most handsome members of her fathers retainers. As the stores grew fat with her silken Kimonos and boxed hair ornaments, the people had grown hungry and discontent. Though it was the place of the commoners to work for the Bushi and their families, it was the responsibility of the Bushi to protect and value their people. Perhaps this blaze was her fault; the Moonbeam prince, the Monk who taught the ways of the foreign devils across the narrow sea, was forever preaching the debauchery of the selfish heart as the cause for all sorrow. Maybe her lack of compassion and ignorance of her people had caused this atrocity.
One of the narrow houses belonging to a minor house shifted on its foundations. Sumiko watched in horror, remembering summer days long lost when she would play with her lesser cousins in the yards surrounding that home. As the building lurched downward, the beams and rafters supporting it crying out as they were destroyed, she was momentarily taken back to warm afternoons spent chasing grasshoppers and fireflies in the evening. Tears once more stung her eyes as she realised that she no longer remembered the names of the two girls she used to play with who had lived at that house. As the building caved in on itself, the fire flaring into the sky and the cries of those witnessing it reaching a crescendo, tears stung her eyes at the realisation of what she had become and what she had neglected.
In the days of her youth, Edo had been a thriving place, full of the joys of growth and renewal. In the years after the Mongol invasions, her father had led the people in the rebuilding of a lost empire. His word and name had been enough to inspire the best from all men and women in those days long past. Now, as the other clans were growing in power and prestige, her fathers ideals were being lost. What had once gathered support from the other clans and vehement agreement from other noble houses was often squashed by the practicality of rule. In a way, the invasions had empowered her father, whilst peace had weakened him. Though she spent such little time at court, she knew her father was not the man of respect he had once been.
Now it seemed the very Gods were angry. Her fathers divine rule had been blighted by this fire. First the crops of the Yoshino plains had withered in the dry spells, then the disease had torn through the peasantry of Edo. This cleansing fire had come to devour the old ideals and people and replace them with the new growth of spring. For a moment, Sumiko felt the joy of hope; would a cherry tree grace this place where her lifeblood would spill? In the season, would she be buried by the white and pink blossoms? She certainly hoped so.
Her thoughts turned to her father. Was he safe in the palace? Was he trying to get to his family home to save his daughters? Were his sons searching for her as contemplated her own death? None of it mattered. Already she knew that the Autumn bridge, the only way of reaching this small island on which only the wealthiest of homes were built, had been destroyed. At this period, when the monsoons had made the waters run thick, deep and treacherous, only the bravest would cross them. Even if her father and brothers had made their way from the Palace, she would be dead before they crossed the shores. Her own hand maidens had already suffocated; in their attempts to rescue her mother who lived in the highest room of the summer home, they had both died losing their breath to the smoke and fumes. When she had wrapped a towel about her face and ventured up there herself, she had found them both blue lipped and wide eyed, whilst her mothers body was no where to be seen.
Crackling wood brought her back to herself. Around her, the flames had begun to eat at the boardwalk surrounding the ground floor of the house. The shocking scent of burning laquer made her recoil, but her newfound devotion to her household kept her firmly planted in the doorway. Taking a second cord, she bound her knees and composed herself, laying her left hand flat across her lap with her hand palm upward at her knees. With her right, she took up the knife and held it aloft, sending a silent prayer to her ancestors with a respectful bow of her head. “Father,” she began, her sobs rending her voice, “May you be proud of your daughter in her final moments.”
Lifting her free hand, she slid the knife from its sheath and watched the fires dancing on the spotless blade. For a moment, she admired the knife. A gift from her mother, she had never once really looked at it. When it had been given to her, she had thought it too practical and boyish to warrant her real attention. Instead, she had worn it as required and paid it little heed. Now, as she contemplated the end of her days, she suddenly realised the gift her mother had given her. A priceless present, her mother had given her the chance to restore her lost dignity and honour in the final moments. An opportunity to atone for her indolent sins. With tears once more stinging her eyes, Sumiko sent another prayer, this time of thanks, to her mother for the thoughtfulness and compassion she had been given.
The flames crept closer, rising along the walls of the house and dashing across the rafters above her head. Smoke clogged her throat and the blazing city of Edo scarred her vision. In the eyes of the young Princess, the world had ended. In that brief moment, as she brought the knife to her throat and bravely faced death, Sumiko Kamakura of the Emperor was reborn.
A rough, muffled voice from behind stopped her momentarily; “Seems a waste to open such a lovely throat.” Instinctively, she whirled, brandishing the knife, but the stranger took no heed. He sat on his haunches just out of reach, garbed in the dark and practical clothing of a Ninja, his Gi burnt and scorched. Steadily built, holding himself with the thoughtful laziness of a cat waiting to pounce, the newcomer gazed at her with steel coloured eyes from behind the famous mask of his kind. Strapped tightly to his back was the slender sword of the Ninja, whilst his feet where covered in a white dust. It was then that a fear settled on her, the desolate feeling of helplessness and anxiety that foretold a loss of control of the moment. Reversing the dagger, she prepared to impale herself as her fathers retainers had done in the past.
“What care is it of yours?” she tried, keeping her voice as firm as it could be.
“You are the daughter of Shogun Godaijo Kamakura, correct?”
Her fear hardened to ice-cold terror as she realised her legs were bound and escape was impossible. Often she had been warned of the actions of Ninja. Reknowned assassins, kidnappers and soldiers, they appeared as the agents of those who wished to remain anonymous. Any relative of the Emperor lived in absolute fear of the presence of the Ninja; her own father cultivated a clan of these loyal warriors who acted as a special police against others. Yet this man did not hold the Koja symbol that would make him a man of her fathers. Panic set her hands trembling and she pressed the point of her knife into the folds of the gown at her stomach to stop it from shaking.
“I can tell by the pause that I am correct. You seem older than I expected.” His eyes wandered lazily across her body, soaking her up. Briefly, her fears of his intentions sifted as she realised how vulnerable she was. Sudden thoughts of killing herself edged her closer and closer to driving the blade home before this monster could have his way with her, but there was a sudden fear of what he might do to her body afterward.
“It matters not who I was. Right now I am a shade. I do not exist in this world. You are talking to a ghost right now.”
“I noticed you were having thoughts befitting a Bushi’s daughter. For that you have my respect. However,” he began, “my lord has other plans for you, Sumiko.”
His movements were deft and sure. In an instant, he had stood, pressing his foot against her chest to knock her backward, whilst his hand closed around hers and the knife she held. Gently twisting, he tugged the weapon from her grip and sheathed the weapon in his belt behind his back. As she lost control of the situation, Sumiko squaled in frustration.. The fear over took her and she pounded at the assailant, but he merely caught her hands and wrenched them behind her back, lashing her wrists and elbows together before tying her wrists to the cord at her ankles. In mere moments, she was tightly bound. “Thank you for doing most of the work for me, Princess.” He smirked, before leaning down to effortlessly lift her across his shoulders. Unable to move, she bucked against her bonds, though his grip was iron. With tears of frustration coursing down her face, Sumiko squealed for help, but succeeded only in gulping down lungfuls of thick dark smoke. As she coughed and gagged, the Ninja made his way toward the ruins of the Autumn bridge, his steps light as air, despite his new load. Spluttering, she silently cursed her gender and prayed for strength enough to die with dignity as the ground beneath her rushed past, bouncing with the sure footed grace of her captor.
As they made their way across the plaza, Sumiko noticed that the blaze itself was not as ferocious as she had originally believed. It had torn through the homes around her own, eating at the thatch and wattle of the laquered buildings, yet it had not spread beyond the Imperial District. Even now, as the bushi and their charges attempted to battle the blaze, she could see beyond the Cherry River that there was no fire, instead, in the streets and plazas she noticed a curious series of flashing lights, like a hundred small mirrors being used to reflect the sun. She did not have long to ponder this, however, as it was not long before the Ninja had brought her to one of the burning homes overlooking the river. As he ducked within, she noticed that the ground was covered in a fine layer of white dust. Wherever the dust was scattered, the fire had failed to catch, leaving a pathway to the stairs and onto a wide roof that hung just above the river itself.
They picked their way across this white pathway, avoiding the overhanging beams that were still in some places burning. At one point, the entire building lurched, pitching them both toward the searing flames that ate the wooden walls around them, but the ninja merely shifted his balance expertly and carried them through until they we stood on the rooftop overlooking the river, with thick dark smoke billowing out around them.
It was then that Sumiko noticed how the Ninja had crossed over to the Imperial Summer district. From a large, powder smothered sack, he pulled forth a rope and grapple, intricately tied like netting. Setting her down against the powder, which stung her nose with its acrid scent, he drew forth the ropework and took the paired grapples in his hands. Standing for a moment, the fire and smoke illuminating him and making his ninja’s apparel dance softly on the infernos breeze, he measured the distance, then swung and launched one of the grapples. For a moment, SUmiko gazed at it as it sailed through the air and found herself hoping for it to land well. With sudden shame, she realised that she was hoping to survive.
Smirking beneath his mask, the Ninja took to the rope, hauling himself underhand to the other side of the river, to a large belltower upon which the first grapple had settled. Slung across his waist were the other grapples and the coiled rope lattice, which spread out behind him as he quickly scaled to the other side of the river. In her bound state, Sumiko could not see what he was doing, but she did notice the rope lines beginning to tauten, creating a crude, but effective rope bridge.
As the fires burnt around her, Sumiko began to lose touch with herself. The washing emotions almost engulfed her and she fought back waves of sobbing. Her thoughts turned to her father, whose face was ever present in the shifting smoke that blossomed overhead against the rich blue summer sky, like cooking fat spilling into water. With burning, stretched limbs, she struggled briefly, knowing her escape was impossible, then offered a prayer to her ancestors for whatever help she could get to ensure that she was not shamed in this situation.
The Ninja swiftly returned, hefting her once more as if she weighed nothing, then took to the bridge. Gingerly, testing the weight, he placed his first foot on the base of the bridge; a thin rope that now spanned the river. As it took his weight, he stepped out and immediately steeled himself against the winds whipping up around the lakes as the fires raged. For a sickening moment, they swayed heavily on the bridge, the ground beneath them rushing backward and forth, the waters below a raging torrent. Fearfully, Sumiko wondered if her ancestors would have her killed in the drowning waters beneath to save her from her shame and for a long moment she truly judged the value of her life. However, her fate was not to drown, as before long they had reached the opposite shore.
With speed and certainty, the Ninja cut loose the bridge to send it tumbling into the waters. Sumiko gazed out across toward the burning parts of the city, watching the flames lick at the smoke-blackened sky, and suddenly felt great relief at no longer being a part of it. Here, on the other side of the Imperial Summer island, the fire seemed distant, as if it were happening to somewhere else.
“Take a good look. The fire should clear out most of the families and the dwellings.” The Ninja readied himself, loosening his sword and pulling Sumiko close. Sliding her knife free from behind his back, he brandished it briefly before her face and tugged the mask away from his own. With a disgusted sigh, she noticed a puckered scar running across his cheekbones and a soft, malicious smile settled on his face. His steel eyes bored into hers and she realised that she would not escape him unharmed. “By tomorrow morning, the fire would have wiped out the commons district, eliminating the plague. Unfortunately, in order to get there, it will have to burn through the homes of most of Godaigos supporters… and to think; the fire was his idea after all.”
In an instant, she knew he was right. Her father had been talking of setting torch to the commons district, though only after he had evacuated the peoples. In that way, he would burn out the infection. Those supporters who would surive this fire would remember his recommendation and most probably blame him for it. There was a stunned silence as she worked out what was happening. With the insight her family was credited for, she was not surprised when she heard the sounds of swords clashing in the streets beyond the belltower. Those lights had not been mirrors, they had been blades. The insurrection was already underway. Perhaps her own father had already been killed.
Which mean that she was now a hostage. This Ninja would take her back to whatever clan was making a bid to the throne where she would be treated as a guest and kept as a prisoner to ensure Godaigos loyalty. Sumiko began weeping then. Not the tears of frustration or shock as before, but tears of sorrow, great sobs that tore from her as her home burnt to the ground. As her family was being slaughtered in the streets, as her world was irrevocably destroyed, she prayed for death.
“So you finally understand? Good. I shall make this short, then.” The ninja reached forward and gripped her head in one hand, whilst flashing the knife forward in the other.
The screams from the belltower were masked by the cries of loyal men dying in the streets as the Ninja made cut after cut after cut…