Japan, 1500 AD
The walls of the castle glowed pale yellow before the face of the setting sun, with blue shingles sparkling on its stacks of curved roofs. This radiance conferred onto the structure the semblance of a tall gold crown encrusted with lapis-lazuli gems. Atop a wooded hill it sat, overlooking the fields, forests, and scattered peasants’ villages like an emperor surveying his rural domain.
A young woman hiked up the series of stone steps which zigzagged up the hill’s northern slope, cradling in her arms a yew chest. Her hooded waist-length kimono and trousers, both dull green like the trees sheltering the path, protected her both from the evening’s damp chill and from any eyes which might be spying on her. Not that the woman had noticed anyone giving her a second glance so far, but nobody in her line of work could afford to let their guard down.
She reached the summit of the hill, strolled across the short bridge over the castle’s moat, and then paused to gaze over the countryside sprawling behind. The verdant beauty of the Japanese landscape would never leave her eyes in entirety, yet years of experience had scraped away much of its original allure. For underneath its lush and tranquil veneer lay a cutthroat and lawless world of cruelty and treachery. This would be the last evening she would spend in this land. The next day, she would set sail for civilization.
Among the irregular mass of rocks which built up the castle’s base, there stood a more rectangular slab as tall and wide as a man. The woman inserted her fingers along its edge and pushed it aside as if it were a regular Japanese sliding door. Ahead ran a narrow corridor lit with paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a small courtesy she had not expected.
Underneath the more pleasing scent of the cherry blossoms, there leaked the stink of dead flesh through the chest’s lid. The woman hugged it against her breast, with queasy nausea swelling in her stomach. Grisly as the odor was, it was only part of the price she had to pay for her upcoming escape.
She followed the passageway through the base until it led her into a series of rooms with walls built of white paper with wooden frames, a choice of building material she had always thought strange. Back in her native Alodia, along the Nile to the south of Egypt, people built almost everything from sturdier materials such as mudbrick or stone. For a race that constantly warred with their own, the Japanese sure could have stood to fortify the interiors of their homes better.
After sliding open a succession of paper doors, the woman found the Daimyo Takeshi awaiting her in his study. She greeted him with a bow of her head while laying the chest before the tatami mat he sat on.
“I see you already had the way in lighted for me, my lord,” the woman said. She pulled down her hood to reveal her dark brown face and braided black hair. “Very kind of you.”
“I have good timing.” The old Daimyo croaked a chuckle as he laid his hands on the chest. “I trust this is Hiroshi himself?”
The woman unslung her bow and quiver with a nod. “I took him out in the dead of night. Nobody suspected a single thing. Suffice to say he won’t trouble you anymore.”
Takeshi pried the chest open, releasing the stench of its contents in a full wave. Inside lay the half-rotten head of Hiroshi, the man who had once served as his vassal. The Daimyo’s cackling made the woman feel even more sick than the morbid object she had presented to him.
“Excellent work, Maia of Alodia,” he said. “I see you more than deserve your reputation.”
“I’ve had a lot of practice, my lord.”
Maia glanced around the study for a bag of coins, yet she could find none. The only gold she could detect in the room was the paint on some of the illustrations of serpentine dragons on the walls. “Now, where is my payment?”
The Daimyo’s smile vanished. He pulled up from his belt a curved scabbard and slid out the katana sword within. “You didn’t really think I would let you go with my vassal’s blood on your hands, did you?”
With her pulse kicked into a thumping panic, Maia held her bow close to her. “Why not? None of the other daimyo I’ve served had a problem with that.”
“Then they were fools. Think, Alodian, of what would happen were you around to blurt out the truth, in whatever circumstance. The world would know I was behind this all, and I’d have even more insolent subjects to contend with than before!”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t pay anyone to take out your critics, O Daimyo.”
Takeshi rose to standing and drew back his sword, his once pale yellow-brown face now flaming red. “Unless I can take you out in turn!”
Maia ducked beneath the slicing sweep of his katana, dodging it by less than an inch. She hopped across the room and swung her bow at him as if it were a sword of her own. Its bottom tip slashed across the back of the Daimyo’s blue silken vest. Although it had drawn no blood, he fell over with a yelp and a groan, his sword flying out of his grip and rolling over the floor until Maia picked it up.
“I could easily kill you as I killed your vassal, Daimyo Takeshi.” Maia strutted over to where he lay and pressed the tip of his katana into the nape of his neck. “But I’ll give you one more chance than you gave him. Pay me the gold you promised, and I’ll leave your hide unscratched.”
“Never!” Takeshi swept his arm aside and banged its side into Maia’s ankle, tripping her. He snatched his sword back in a springing leap. “I still have tracks to cover up.”
Wheeling herself away from his next few attacks, the Alodian then shot her foot out into his shin. He growled a hideous curse and repaid the blow by slashing across her hip.
The cuts burned hot through the flesh of her leg. Her rage blazed so much hotter that it drowned out all pain.
Again the Daimyo charged, brandishing his blade with a bloodthirsty roar. Maia sidestepped and swatted him in the skull from behind. It threw him across the room until he crashed through the wall, tearing through the paper and splintering the framing. From a leather sheath under her belt, she ripped out a curved dagger and flung it into his spine.
After one last guttural croak, the Daimyo Takeshi lay there without any movement other than the blood flowing out of his wounds. Signing a cross into the air, Maia whispered a prayer that her God show mercy on the poor sinner’s soul.
“How could you?”
A young woman in a scarlet kimono burst into the study, her hair tousled and her face swamped wet with tears. She knelt sobbing by the Daimyo’s body.
“I’m sorry, was he your father?” Maia asked. She lowered her hand to touch the other woman’s shoulder in consolation.
“No! I was his beloved wife, Ichiko.” The Japanese girl slapped the Alodian away and tore the katana out of her fallen husband’s grip. “Now you will pay for your crime, barbarian bitch!”
Yanking the dagger out of Takeshi, Maia thrust it to parry Ichiko. Sparks erupted from the clashing of their blades until the Alodian’s smaller weapon broke in half. She lunged to stab what remained of it into her opponent’s thigh, but Ichiko kicked her all the way into the room’s opposite wall.
Maia had only half her dagger, and the Daimyo’s widow had shown no less agility than her. There was only one weapon left that would give Maia any advantage in the fight. It was the one she had used on the vassal Hiroshi.
What she needed was more space between her and her target.
Chucking a stick of shattered wood into Ichiko’s face, Maia scrambled over to retrieve her bow and quiver and then hurled herself through the hole over the Daimyo Takeshi’s body. She had an arrow drawn the instant Ichiko launched herself into the air, katana raised overhead for a downward cleave.
Maia let go. Ichiko fell in mid-arc right onto Takeshi. The arrow through her heart almost looked as if it pinned her straight onto her husband’s corpse, uniting them in death as in life. Maia had to admit, it was a bittersweet way for them to go.
Other than her own labored breathing, all she could hear was the shrill wailing of an infant.
Hurrying out of the study, the Alodian stumbled into a room where three flat cushions rested like low beds onto the floor. The first two were adult-sized, presumably intended for the Daimyo himself and his wife. The third was only big enough to support the naked baby who lay curled into a ball on it, bawling with frightened distress.
Throughout her career, Maia of Alodia had taken many lives. Some were daimyo rival to the ones who paid her, whereas others were insubordinate vassals like the one she had taken at Takeshi’s behest. Still others had been guards and soldiers whom she had to fend off when her missions went sour. It was all her way of earning what she needed to survive in this ruthless country. Never had she imagined she would feel guilt or remorse, until she saw the tears glistening on this child’s face.
He had no mother or father anymore. No one left to comfort or protect him. Instead, he had lost them to the cold bite of steel, much as Maia had lost her own mother and father when she was a girl.
In this case, however, it was Maia’s own steel that had robbed him of his family.
Regardless, she could not leave him there. Either he would die young in this merciless land, or he would grow up forever ablaze with hatred for her and perhaps all the people of Alodia. And if the latter, Maia could not blame him one bit for that.
No, she had to make it up to him. She had to give him that she had deprived from him.
Maia picked the baby up in a firm embrace, murmuring soft words to soothe him. “I shall name you Isaac, sweet one. Don’t cry, you shall be safe with me.”
The castle of the late Daimyo Takeshi, once a brilliant pale yellow, had turned a luminous white before the moon and stars. Down the hillside steps Maia descended, holding the sleeping Isaac under one arm while hauling the yew chest in the other. This time, the chest did not have a human head rolling within it. Instead, it was plundered gold coins that jingled inside, more than enough to buy Maia a sailing trip away from this beautiful yet deadly land.
She knew not quite where she would go next. Her family had fled Alodia when it fell under attack by the Muslim Funj, and doubtless they would have taken the kingdom over and replaced its Christian religion with their own. Perhaps Ethiopia, another African kingdom still faithful to the same God as Alodia, would offer sanctuary. Or maybe Maia could sate her appetite for adventure elsewhere in the East, such as the jungle kingdoms to the south or the steppes to the north. Even the empire of China might hold promise, as they enjoyed more unity than the Japanese.
Wherever Maia went, she would carry Isaac with him. She would nurse him, raise him as her own, and teach him how to shoot arrows like a true Alodian.