Hiroshi reached his room within Yamagata castle chilled to the bone, but he was relieved to be back – a square shaped, simple designed room with only a handful of furnishings; a few lacquered boxes dotted around the room and a painting of Zenko temple hanging delicately on one of the walls.
Having been use to travelling for much of his life, the thought of packing seemed easy; yet Hiroshi could not bring himself to start it. Does father really think he will die soon? Does he really think that Uro will continue on his legacy without me there? Hiroshi thought, doubt seeping into his mind from every corner.
Pushing the thoughts aside and pulling out a dark green leather bag from one of the side wardrobes, clothes and footwear began to fill it as Hiroshi fritted from one side of his room to the other. Items that would have been packed, were only then taken out again as he changed his mind; eventually, the bag slowly filled up as the day drew on.
Long shadows began to appear in the room – drawn out shapes of objects marred the walls and the floor. In the distance, the sounds of swallows and martins called to each other as they flew by, and Hiroshi sat at the middle of his room, staring at the packed bag in front of him with his head titled slightly to one side. Everything that I own, everything that defines me is inside that bag, echoed a voice within his head, but there is still one thing missing. Searching around the room, Hiroshi’s eyes hunted down the one thing that defined him as a Yamagata, a kabuki mask.
Getting up from where he sat, his joints clicking one by one, Hiroshi strolled over to the shelf and picked up the mask, its coldness piercing his skin to his touch; blue ribbons hung from the sides, narrow slits for eyes and a mouth adorned it and the pitch black colour washed over it. Continuing to stare at the mask, Hiroshi could feel himself being drawn towards it, feeling the gentle tug at his soul to beckon him closer, the icy cold stare of the mask looking back at him; silence standing right behind him.
A knock on the shoji burst the bubble of silence as Hiroshi retuned back to reality. “Yes?” He asked.
“It’s Juno, from the treasury – I was given orders to give you coins for your travel.” Juno’s voiced muffled by the shoji screen as he replied to Hiroshi.
“Leave them by the shoji outside – I will collect them later, I’m busy at the moment.”
“Sorry Yamagata-sama, but I have been given orders to hand them to you directly.” Hiroshi heard the muffled response, Juro is persistent to hand over the money right now.
“My lord?” Juro asked with a tone of doubt in his words.
Irritation screened Hiroshi’s face as he laid down the kabuki mask on the shelf and noticed the tanto next to it - some feeling irked him in the corner of his mind that he could not shake away; cautiously he picked it up and slid it between his obi and his kimono, I don’t know what Juro’s problem is if he wants to get rid of the coins. Walking to the shoji, Hiroshi could see the outline of Juro’s body and slowly slid it open.
Kneeling in front of Hiroshi was a man wearing a simple blue haori and grey hakama. Looking up as the shoji opened, Hiroshi saw a face of middle age with dark brown eyes surrounded by pale skin and dark brown hair tied into a top-knot. Glancing down at Juro’s lap was a leather pouch, tied with gold lace, which Hiroshi assumed were the coins from the treasury.
Bowing his head to the floor, Juro spoke, “I apologise for being persistent Yamagata-sama, but the treasury ordered me to hand these coins over immediately before your departure.”
“I don’t know what the rush is – it is evening and I will be departing tomorrow around noon. You would have had plenty of time to hand me over the coins then.” Retorted Hiroshi, anger welling up inside him as he reminded himself that his departure was so imminent.
Brushing the statement aside, Juro sat back up and held the pouch out for Hiroshi to take, with his other hand tucked in his kimono, “Your coins for your travels… Yamagata-sama.” The slight hesitation as Juro pronounced Hiroshi’s title made his ears prick up and an icy cold chill ran down his back as he shivered from its touch.
Slowly, with one hand, Hiroshi reached out for the leather pouch dangling in the air by its gold laces, held by Juro. Just as his fingers began to wrap around the pouch, Juro quickly dropped the leather pouch and grabbed Hiroshi’s hand, pulling Hiroshi down towards him. Surprise, anger, fear and shock melted together in Hiroshi’s mind as Juro produced a tanto from inside his haori, bringing it up towards Hiroshi’s neck.
Damn! He is an assassin, and a bold one at that! No wonder he was eager to hand over the coins. But just as that thought flashed through his mind, Hiroshi grabbed the incoming tanto with his free hand and pushed it back towards Juro. Anguish and determination littered Juro’s face; determination and anger littered Hiroshi’s as they fought.
I will not let an assassin kill me before I have even left for Zenko temple! Shouted Hiroshi in his mind, barring and gritting his teeth as he pushed harder and harder against Juro’s knife hand, inching the tanto closer and closer to his chest – pointing directly at his heart - to force Juro onto the floor and Hiroshi pinning him down.
Releasing Hiroshi’s hand, Juro shot his hand at Hiroshi’s throat and began to squeeze his fingers around;turning his knuckles white. No point Juro! Shouted the voice in Hiroshi’s mind, I’ve won! With both hands and sheer will power, Hiroshi plunged the tanto into Juro’s heart, all the way up to the handle and making no sound.
Juro’s eyes widened, staring up at Hiroshi, as the tanto pierced his skin and his heart; deep red blood oozing out around the tanto stained the blue haori. Juro's hand around Hiroshi’s throat weakened and slid down his chest, his fingers frantically trying to grasp at the fabric, trying to grasp at life as it drained away from his body.
Breathing heavily, Hiroshi released the handle of the tanto, leaving it where it was. Shaking with fear, Juro looked at the handle protruding from his chest and cautiously touched it. Beads of sweat began to sluggishly travel down the pale white skin on Juro’s face and a smile slowly formed.
What should have been the sounds of cicadas in the background were replaced by the daunting sound of silence; the sound of nothing, only the harsh, scrapping breathing of Hiroshi and Juro could be heard.
“There... Will... Be more!” Rasped Juro, his voice straining to be heard as his body gave up on its existance.
Time gradually halted as Hiroshi stared at the blank, expressionless face trying to comprehend the meaning behind Juro’s words. More? More assassins?
Sweeping all rationality aside, Hiroshi grabbed Juro’s haori and shook him, trying desperately to wake Juro from his deep, eternal slumber.
“Who sent you?” Shouted Hiroshi. “Who? More assassins?!” Screamed Hiroshi, a crazed mood overtook his mind as he continued to shout at the lifeless body; still shaking the body.
“He’s dead Hiroshi.” The gravelled voice shot out of the silence and stung Hiroshi’s ears, scattering silence in all directions like shattered glass. Turning quickly to where it came from, he saw the outline of a man he recognised well, Take’s brother; Uro.