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Striking Black Silenceby Andrew Knighton
Striking Black Silence crouched in the dusty shadows, clothed from head to toe in the slate-grey folds of her shinobu. Only the twinkling pits of her eyes showed through the surrounding darkness. The Emerald Dragon Palace towered above her, a gleaming bastion amid the markets and slums, its green walls rising to curved roofs of yellow timber.
A civil servant paused in the street, tidying himself before approaching the high barred gate. His long crimson robes cast a tapered shadow in front of Striking Black Silence's hiding place. She pulled a pale, thin ninjaken from her belt, a blade as sharp as a jilted lover's hate and light as moonbeams. Leaning forwards she slashed through the base of the man's shadow. Snatching the patch of darkness away with long, thin fingers, she stepped nimbly into its place. The civil servant never even looked around as she willed herself to become insubstantial, a dark layer draped across the world, and when he walked past the guards and through the high obsidian gates he did so with a darker shadow, one that did not wear his robes.
# # #
Inside the Palace, the civil servant crossed a mosaic floor and ascended a wide staircase with a handrail of carved mahogany. His footsteps joined those of other red-robed figures shuffling wordlessly from room to room, their way lit by delicately scented candles that cast flickering patches of light across tiled walls. At the top of the stairs he entered a tall antechamber, lined with darkened niches and shelves full of scrolls. As he paused, reaching for one of the high shelves, he felt a moment of distraction, like a thread tugging at the corner of his mind. In a flash it passed and, lighter of heart, he plucked a wide leather-bound tome down from its place and passed on into the next room.
Striking Black Silence crouched in the darkness between the shelves, watching the shadowless man depart. A lowly clerk of tepid spirit, it had been easy to break away from him. She waited motionless as four more of his grade came and went, never even glancing into her dark niche. Then came a man in purple robes with silver trim. As he stood with his back to her, Striking Black Silence drew her blade and cut away his shadow, stepping lightly into its place, her toes brushing his heals as she joined to him and willed her body into shreds of gloom. Oblivious, the mandarin selected a scroll from the shelf and left the room, leading them both upwards into the refined halls of the Highest Tower.
Traversing the corridor to the Third Expectant Chamber they passed a guard. He bowed his head to the mandarin, the brass plates of his armor clicking together. His close features broke into a frown as he gazed at the floor beneath the mandarin's feet and the short, trouser-clad shadow behind the tall robed man.
Before the guard could part his lips to speak, Striking Black Silence was pulling free, trying to become solid. But the mandarin's spirit was stronger than that of her last carrier, unwilling to relinquish its dark partner. For a long moment she was caught in place, unable to break loose, her will straining against his. Then the bond of shadow to shadowed broke and she was free, a veil of darkness coalescing into the coiled body of a killer. She lunged forward, one arm wrapping around the mandarin's neck. It twisted with a snap that echoed through the silent room. Then she was past, her blade darting up beneath the guard's arm. It slipped between armored plates, piercing muscle and sliding past ribs into his heart. Hot blood spurted across the marble as he fell to the floor.
Eyes peeled for signs of movement, Striking Black Silence rushed down twisting corridors and up a stairwell. Seeing the backs of two guards ahead she sprang into the air, grabbing a roof beam and swinging herself into the rafters. She stepped carefully from beam to beam, arms outstretched, hunched in the low roof space. The guards turned and marched down the stairway beneath her, their helmets close enough to touch, shadows crumpled across the steps.
For the next hour she roamed the rafters, creeping from room to room above oblivious guards and servants. She knew when the bodies were found. Gangs of armored guards began roaming the corridors, staring fiercely through doorways, scouring every room. But few had the sense to look up, and the ceiling space was filled with concealing shadows.
At last she found herself emerging onto a balcony above the great gates, on which four figures stood with their backs to her. Most striking was a tall man in yellow robes. He held himself straight and still as he surveyed the sprawling shacks below. Beside him stood a scribe, stylus poised over a wax tablet, and flanking them were a pair of guards, their gaze fixed on the ground below, eyes prowling the sprawling streets for any sign of archers.
"Write this down," the tall man said without looking at his scribe. "To the Daimyo of the Ninth Province, from Fierce Dragon Wind, Shogun of the Rising Sun..."
Beneath her mask, Striking Black Silence gave a tiny smile at the mention of her daimyo. Without even the faintest his of steel on silk, she drew her ninjaken and reached out of the doorway's sheltering darkness, towards the shogun's shadow.
"...I am aware of your plans against me. Only today, I captured another of your ninjas trying to infiltrate my palace..."
Striking Black Silence stiffened, but no-one turned around. The guards continued their downward vigil, the scribe etched at his tablet and Fierce Dragon Wind stood contemplating his domain. She reached forward once more and, with the utmost care, severed the shogun’s shadow.
"...As you know, the duties of government keep me here. I therefore leave it to you to ensure your own punishment, safe in the knowledge that any I am forced to inflict shall be as the death of paper cuts, gentle, slow and endlessly painful..."
Striking Black Silence pulled the shadow to her and hid it in the deeper dark of the doorway. Then she stepped forward, holding her breath so as not to breathe on the shogun's neck.
"...To this end, you will build yourself a prison, with a bare cell no wider than you are tall. You shall set your own men to guard it, and to feed you water and rice. Make sure they know that, should you escape, their corpses will be left for the vultures, never to find rest with their ancestors..."
Listening to his words strengthened Striking Black Silence's resolve. She willed herself to become a shadow once more, thinner than air, lighter than fire.
"...Write it out in your finest hand and bring it to me to sign..."
The scribe nodded and turned, heading into the palace. He paused for a moment, glancing at the ground behind his lord, and Striking Black Silence readied herself to pounce. But he stooped, picked up a button form the floor, and moved on.
"...I shall be in my chambers," the Shogun said, passing in turn through the doorway, taking his shadow with him.
# # #
Fierce Dragon Wind strode into his private chamber. Outside, two guards pulled the ornately carved door closed, leaving their master alone. Paper lanterns cast a fierce orange glow, lighting the room like the heart of a bonfire. Everything in the room, from the ivory inlaid writing desk to the black-glazed sake cups, cast a multitude of fragmented shadows, faint patches of shade cast by the different lamps. Everything except the shogun himself. Behind him lay a deep pool of darkness.
Striking Black Silence's time had come. She took a moment to plan the blow, the dance of the blade through the air, the surrender of his flesh to that fine, gleaming edge, the exact angle at which his head would fall. Then, remembering the fate planned for her daimyo, she focussed her spirit to a sharp point, one moment of swift certainty, and willed herself solid.
She tried again, straining to pull a foot away from the shogun. But she could not move, her leg refusing to leave his body. She reached for her ninjaken, realised her arm was held in place, posed as the shogun’s own limb.
Fierce Dragon Wind turned and looked down at the shadow. The corner of his mouth twitched as he raised his sake cup in a wry salute.
"Well done, little ninja," he said. "You have come far. Your will is strong. But I rule a whole kingdom without leaving this tower. What sort of will must that take?"
He stared down at Striking Black Silence. She felt her thoughts flung down a dozen different paths, her body wrenched and shaken. The deep pool of darkness became a collection of faint, flickering shadows cast by the paper lanterns, scattered puddles of shade where once there had been a striking black silence.
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