She shouldn’t retreat into the shadows but that didn’t mean she had to stay amidst the crowds. She soon left the Street Trash and moved to the roof, she was alone enough there, amidst the silence created by the wind of movement battling her stationary sitting position. She had her knees up, and was hugging them with her head rested on her arms.
She sat there for the six hours it took the train to reach her station, which was the fourth. It took a stressful amount of time at its stops, it had her stress about whether it would continue moving or not each one.
On the second station, she was watching the people leaving and going in a much more regular fashion. It almost made her forget what they had left behind in Sputzna, up until he came into view.
The Street Trash, in the middle of the crowd, smiled up at her and waved. She didn’t react and simply kept watching. He shrugged and looked away and ahead, stepping in front of an adult, after which she lost sight of him in the middle of everyone.
He was really good, she had to admit.
But it wouldn’t help against the beasts. Nothing did and nothing would, they were impossible to damage. But then again, the Mad Genius had killed their leader.
In an instant.
She sighed and took the cloth from her mouth and nose, setting them free. She took a deep breath and laid her head in rest over her arms again, watching the landscape speeding by, lost in thoughts.
When she finally arrived at Kazajsh, she stood up. In reality, she stood up beforehand, to give her muscles a chance to warm up. She also pulled her mask back into position. It was afternoon, not sunset yet but there were enough shadows for her to be able to avoid further contact with people.
She stole another horse and rode to the city of Yanszou. There, she caught a train to Japien, and once there, she grabbed yet another horse so she could reach the fortress all the faster.
Setting eyes on it warmed her heart in a way she did not expect. It was a foreign concept, or maybe one she had already long forgotten, that of the yearning for home.
Many thought that the fortress wasn’t in the mainland but on an island to the east. That was part of the deceit. In fact, there, by the coast in the middle of nowhere, stood her home.
Kagekawa was situated across a face of a hillside, so much so part of it was actually hanging in mid air, held into place by the rest. The hillside would cover the whole fortress in shade throughout the entire day, the sun rising and setting on its other side. And it was a fortress, as it had ever been, and was maintained as such. Painted with dark colors, constantly keeping men and women as guards, active and on point. Structurally, it sported all the notorious eastern signs of construction: hard wood, straight triangular roofs, ceramic concave shingles, no chimneys or vent pipes or anything, for the exception of some bamboo gutters to help with when it rained.
It contained the palace, some towers, a couple of parks, a garden which was technically part of the palace, and a snake-like two-floor building where people were housed, servants and otherwise. Of course, even with its location, it was completely walled off.
As the Shadow, she had permission to infiltrate it at will, as well as to contact one of the masters at any time. This is what she did. She traveled the shadows, there was a veritable ocean of them there, in her home.
She found him drinking tea in his living quarters, which were fancy, filled with pillows and silk and such things she knew little about. She emerged from the ground only half-way, following contact protocol.
The broad shoulders did not turn, nor did the chonmage-styled head, which always looked funny when seen from behind, like the hair was giving a standing ovation. Not that she would laugh out loud.
“I am pleased by your swift return, Shadow.” The voice betrayed no judgment or emotion, something she was used to. “There is much you need to report.”
“Yes,” she simply said.
He would ask the questions, she would answer.
“The Shadow Conclave had three rounds?”
“You did not suffer defeat.”
Was that a trick question? She had to keep her answers obvious, however, and true. She assumed he already knew about the beasts.
“I did not.”
He grunted with a nod.
“Shadow Conclave has contacted us and made us aware of the situation. They say you were the last to escape the city.”
“As my predecessor, I allied with two others with the intent of pushing the beasts back into the void. We failed.”
He remained in silence, and in response, so did she.
“Are you holding what I think you are holding?”
She bowed lower and reached inside her uniform, retrieving the shadow lenses. She pushed them forward and then scuffled back, always crouched and bowed.
“I alone noticed their leader was holding on to them. When the Sorcerer made her escape, I remained behind and went to retrieve them.”
He finally turned around, his clean-shaven chin under hard and skinny cheeks, his forehead accentuating his curious eyes. He looked at them for the briefest seconds, and again, he betrayed no consideration.
He did, eventually, look up.
“Tell me everything, Shadow. Every single detail.”
After she finished retelling all of the events, she felt at a little more liberty for honest.
“I am embarrassed, master,” she admitted, now that the formalities were sort of over. “Without Sorcerer and Hunter, I would never have found the lenses. Without the Circus Freak, I would never have escaped with them. And without Street Trash, I would not have gotten here so fast.”
She brushed her forehead against the ground, thereby losing sight of him.
“My accomplishments are not my own.”
She heard the lenses scraping against the ground, being lifted and handled. There would be nothing to hear, ordinarily, but within the silence of that room, anything could be heard. Even their breathing.
Minutes went on without him saying anything. She felt he might be trying to find mercy on her, reasons to keep away the necessity to replace her, but this was against even her wishes, and she wanted to let him know that…someway.
She wanted him to know it was okay, and probably even better, for him to replace her.
“I do not grovel as I say this, master. I understand if you wish to bestow them upon someone else.”
He breathed out a sigh and she could feel his gaze upon her.
“You do not wish to be the Shadow?”
She opened her eyes in reaction, what she wanted battling what she knew she must say. She resigned herself, closing them shut again.
“My will matters naught. I live for the glory of the clan.”
He sighed again, and soon after, she felt him reaching out to her. There was no physical contact as his voice asked her, “look up, Shadow.”
She did. She found him extending both his hands to her, holding the lenses.
“You became the Shadow. None at Kagekawa will ever treat you by your past name because it is in the past. You are the Shadow.” He bowed his head to allow her to take the lenses.
But she hesitated.
“I…may not be the right Shadow,” she tried to word it correctly, respectfully, “to face this invasion.”
He simply nudged his hands towards her.
“You are the Shadow. Now take your lenses, go to your quarters and await my command.”
It was always ironic to her how waiting for a command was, in fact, a command. He had given her orders, she would still remain the Shadow, and as she reached and took the lenses, one in each hand, she did not know how to feel.
She had been certain she would be replaced with someone more capable. More experienced.
But she wouldn’t argue with her master. He knew what he was doing; she just hoped there was something more than the adherence to customs and traditions behind his decision.
She had the ground swallow her up, vanishing from his sight so she could, very gladly, see herself to her room.
Whatever relief she felt when she saw the fortress had nothing on what she felt once she entered her chambers. They were quite notable, one of the very few perks of being the Shadow. She had a room filled with tatamis which were looked after daily so that it was always clean and fresh, she had to fight the hardest to not just dive into it. Instead, she headed to the bathroom, which actually had a small pool made out of a large wooden container into which hot water was poured from a bamboo drainer, directly from a hot-spring from inside the mountains. It was almost supernatural, some of the things they had engineered, and how naturally it was engineered. None of it felt like technology even though, in the true sense of the word, it was.
She stripped down her uniform, caring only enough about the lens to place them on top of a small counter where health and beauty products were located, most of which she didn’t, in fact, use. The rest of the clothes just stayed on the ground, she stepped into the shower in delight.
Time went by unnoticed. She wasn’t at the ready to respond a summons but, technically, she was waiting for a command.
She was still in the bath when a visitor came knocking, almost an hour later. The door to the bathroom was not even closed so she flinched and dived inside the steam in reaction. She saw the door being pushed close, enough that she would feel comfortable about not being bothered by eyes on her, and then the recognizable voice of one of her teachers arose.
“You should have taken this opportunity to sleep, Shadow.”
“Do not call me that, teacher Mitsue. Use my name,” she complained, “you saw to my growth, you have seen my privates. Tended to them even.”
“By the ancestors,” the gruff old voice protested, all flustered, “the things you say! You were just an infant!”
She giggled to herself, she so enjoyed her teacher, he was like a father, though no longer a master, so that made him…just a really close friend. An old one too.
“That girl has vanished, you know this. Only her Shadow remains,” he told her.
“The shadow always lives on,” she commented in thought, “I know I should have slept, but I had not washed in days, I was filthy.”
“Well, you are summoned to appear before the grand master.”
“What?” She opened her eyes. “Already?”
“Sputzna has fell,” he said sadly…and gravely, “and Prussha. The Mists report that, well, the mist continues to expand without stop.” The Mists was the name for their spies, Shadow their thief, Darkness their assassin. “Estimations are they will reach Japien before the week is over.”
She felt the pressure in his voice.
“They are coming straight for Kagekawa.”
“While taking everything in its path,” she added, noticing his murmuring nods, even though she couldn’t hear or see them. She knew him so well she was sure he was doing it.
Still, the news was terrible and she could no longer keep her good mood, no matter how great the water felt.
“It is my fault, is it not? That they are heading here first.”
“You did what you should have done. They respond in such a way because they fear the Shadow.”
She brought a hand to her face with a heavy sigh. Succeeding in her gamble had only made things worse, and she still felt far from capable to live up to her responsibility.
“I will be honest,” she said frankly, words she shouldn’t say, in a tone she shouldn’t use, “I fear them twice as much.”
The silence dragged on as her once-father thought of what to say. She observed the steam dissipating against the ceiling, silently and slowly resigning herself to what fate had delivered her to live through. Accepting her duty.
“That is beneath you,” his voice came out, calmly but still clearly insulted, “now get dressed and meet me outside.”
She gave one silent laugh and shook her head.
She bent back and breathed out in a calm.
That was true, it was beneath her. Such were the expectations she had vowed to meet, given her life for, even.
Being a human being was beneath the Shadow.