Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Assassin's Homecoming #shortstory #romance

This fantasy romance short story was inspired by this photo prompt:

Shizuoka Sengen Shrine (3428x2301)[OC] from r/japanpics


The Assassin’s Homecoming

The assassin had not been back to his hometown in many years, and everything seemed both strange and familiar to him. The leaves were bright green with the warmer weather, which was in contrast to the cold fortress he had left in the north. Here, life was vibrant and everything was shouting, "I am awake!" Even the practical vegetable gardens of the villagers were steeped in cheerful color.

It was still daytime, but he made his way to the manor house, disguised as a traveling merchant. He would scout out the house and plan his assassination, which he would execute tonight.

The manor house was on an extensive tract of land, so he had to enter the estate from the woods at the backside so as not to be seen. Security patrols were sparse, almost nonexistent here—if it had been the secret base and training facility where he had spent half his life, men would be killed for such negligence. But then again, the base was hidden underground rather than out in the open, for protection and to force its residents to mentally and emotionally focus. He had not looked out the window of a house onto yards and gardens in full sunlight for many years.

The lake in front of the house shimmered from the waterfall at the far end, a stream diverted from its normal course of watering fields and instead used for ornamental purposes. It was typical of the lord of the manor, Bob, a man devoted only to show and ostentatiousness, with the willing sacrifice of sympathy for others. The assassin had known Bob as a child, and they had indulged in a scuffle every week, or thereabouts. Bob could subsist solely upon his conceit, and the assassin hadn’t been able to stop himself from punching Bob’s perfect teeth every time he smiled that malicious smile.

Bob had been one of the reasons the assassin had left his home to join the clan that he now belonged to. He had wanted to escape from a world where he was helpless from injustice. Instead, he wanted to be a spear that pierced the darkness to allow rays of light to shine, even if they were only small pinpricks. He had not been able to accept his father’s way fo life, choosing to never become involved in anything that would jeopardize his life, his career, his family, allowing everything to pass him by without comment, complaint, or lifting a finger to help someone else.

As a member of his nameless clan, he had no family, no ties. He could act without hesitation. This was the kind of power he had wanted.

He avoided the occasional patrolling guard and crept up to the house. It was difficult with the wide swaths of green lawn, so when he drew as close as he could under cover of the trees, he circled around toward the kitchen gardens and found a lone gardener near the treeline. A quick blow to the head knocked him unconscious, and he donned the gardener’s gray short coat, protection against the weather and sun, and the wide hat that extended out from his head like an umbrella. His own pants and boots would pass for a gardener’s from a distance, so he dragged the unconscious man into the brush of the forest, tied him up, and then commandeered his wheelbarrow, which was left in the middle of the vegetable field.

But as he approached the manor house, he immediately noticed something was wrong. The servants bustled into and out of the back entrance, and there was more movement than he had expected of a rural country home. Lower housemaids carried carpets out to the side garden to be beaten to an inch of their lives, while upper housemaids—distinctive in their cleaner and finer clothing—were bringing in spotless napkins and blindingly white tablecloths that had been hanging to dry out in the sun. The cook’s assistants were harvesting baskets of vegetables and herbs from the kitchen garden near the house, and other maids were vigorously cleaning the ground floor windows until they sparkled.

He had known he couldn’t infiltrate the house as a gardener, but with the added busyness of the household today, his plan of sneaking inside a sleepy household had to be scrapped.

He rolled the wheelbarrow into the kitchen gardens, near enough to overhear the servants as they worked their way down the row, picking lettuces and cucumbers, but not close enough to bring himself to their attention. He hunched down over some summer squash and pretended to be working.

“You’d think we were feeding the entire county.” A maid stopped to wipe at her forehead.

“Ria, you just smeared mud on yourself.”

“What?!”

“Don’t do that, you’ll only make it worse.”

“Does it matter?” A third girl plopped her basket down beside the two maids. “We won’t be seen by any of the mourners today.”

Who had died? Surely not Ema—? He surprised himself when his heart felt as if it were crushed by an avalanche. He breathed slow and long through his nose to calm himself. This might completely change his orders.

“I think half the people coming only want the free food.”

“More than half!” The maid lowered her voice. “I don’t know anyone who would actually feel sad that the master is gone.”

Bob was dead. He had made the trek to kill him for nothing. But his next thought came before he could control his emotions.

Ema was free.

He had not felt true happiness in many years—since he had last seen Ema—so he wasn’t certain what it was he was feeling. His chest was tight, and his hands shook. Did she look the same? How had the years and her marriage changed her? He had heard that she had not had children. Did she consider that a blessing to not continue her husband’s family line, or a curse to not have a child to lavish her affection upon?

With a start, he realized his mind had wandered, something he hadn’t done since he began his training. He had worked hard to develop sharp mental focus, and yet the thought of Ema had blasted all his effort and discipline away like sand before storm winds.

He still had to make his way off the estate, and then travel back to his clan in the north to report what had happened. The news of Bob’s death had probably passed him on his way here.

Yes, he should leave quickly.

But he knew he was powerless against his desire to see her again. And he knew exactly where she would be.

Not in the house, with the servants busy cleaning and preparing for the funeral guests. He had only been vaguely familiar with Bob’s estate, since the two of them had not been friends, but he knew of one place on the estate where she would be, near the stream. They had played there along with the other children in the neighborhood, and Bob had thought too well of himself to try to prevent his neighbors from coming to join them, even though it was technically on his family’s property.

Hitching up his pants, the assassin rose slowly to his feet, his body hunched and moving stiffly like the gardener he had knocked out, and he rolled the wheelbarrow out of the kitchen garden. But just as he was about to leave through the side gate, he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye.

An older maid, round and cheerful looking, came up to him from the far corner of the garden. “Goro, I need help …” Her face turned white at seeing his face. “You’re not Goro.”

“Uncle wasn’t feeling well, so he asked me to help him out. He’s in the far garden.” He didn’t know if the gardener, Goro, had actual nephews, but in this village, children had always called their elders “Uncle” or “Aunty” whether they were related or not. He delivered his line with utmost confidence, and yet with appropriate deference for the older woman, and allowed his childhood accent to smooth out his voice.

She relaxed. “Oh, that’s all right, then. I’ll get one of the other gardeners to help me.”

He dipped his body in a bow and continued out the gate.

Lying had always come easily to him, and it had served him well no matter where his missions had been—mostly in the capital, surrounded by a sea of people who walked past each other, each busy with their own purpose. Life there was hard, but each person knew what he had to do, and most would do anything possible to achieve their desires.

But here, in his former hometown and in one of the most rural areas of the country, somehow lying to the maid had been harder than lying to a courtesan or a merchant in the capital. Was it the fresh air that made the sun shine brighter and made people walk a little slower? Was it the old-fashioned values that parents still taught their children, even though they would revert to the jaded morals of the capital once they left home?

He was being ridiculous. This place was no different than any other he had been.

He ditched the wheelbarrow near the unconscious gardener at the edge of the woods, and returned the man’s coat and hat to him. Then on silent feet, he ran toward the northwest end of the heart-shaped forest. As a child, he had insisted the forest was shaped like a giant butt, while Ema had shrieked and argued that it was shaped like a heart. She had always been romantic that way. It surprised him that her romanticism clung to him as he ran through her forest, toward the hidden villa.

It wasn’t really a villa, but a small two-room hut built on the edge of a man-made pond that was rimmed by gray boulders. Water from the village stream had been redirected here, trickling in from the northeast end and trickling out on the southwest end of the pond before winding its way back toward the village and away from the estate.

Even calling the building a “hut” was misleading, because it had an elegantly slanted roof and red painted panels, but once inside the elaborately carved front door, there was only two perfectly square rooms with hardwood floors. Because the windows were small and the rooms were always dim, the children would fling the front double doors wide open to the view of the small garden and let the sunlight into the front room. There they would eat strawberries and watermelon in the summer and mandarin oranges in the winter, bundled up to their noses against the cold, although the winters here were relatively mild, nowhere near as freezing as his clan’s base up north.

He approached the pond from the north side, where there were large bougainvillea bushes at the edge of the water. The flowers were lavender and purple at this time of year, and the bushes parted at one point, giving a clear view of the outside porch of the hut.

She sat on a low lounging chair on the porch, staring out at the water, but she could not see him if he remained in the shadow of the bushes. The sight of her made him lose his breath for a moment, and his entire body strained as he crouched low to the ground.

She wore a black dress that made her look pale and thin, and her hair, which been scraped back tight against her head, was coming loose in wisps around her oval face. She had short, thick eyelashes, and coupled with her dark eyes, it always made her expression seem a little melancholy, but he was surprised at how sad she appeared. He knew she had not loved Bob when they married, had not even liked him when they were children, although Bob had always wanted her for her family’s name and the respect it accorded from the villagers—respect he could never earn on his own merit.

Had she come to care for him? Had Bob become more kind as he matured? From what the maid said, it seemed unlikely. So why was she so sad?

She suddenly twisted in her chair and turned slowly to gaze northward. Her body strained as if she would rise from her seat and run in that direction at any moment. She rubbed her hand against her opposite wrist in a slow, soothing motion.

Then, long minutes later, she turned back to the pond. She seemed to have given up on her desire for flight, and instead looked small and frail in her chair.

He then noticed that on her wrist, which she had been rubbing, was a white handkerchief.

It was innocuous, and would have gone unnoticed, except that he recognized the embroidery that edged one corner, where it floated down from the knot. The embroidery was three circular designs in red, purple, and lavender. He was too far away to see the design, but he recognized the vague shapes in that color combination, because he had sewn it for her.

It had been a summer day like this, and he had escaped his father’s shop to wander along the stream, only a quarter mile from this pond. He had fashioned a paper boat and was following it as it bobbed along the stream when he saw her.

Ema had been sitting on a boulder, but she had brought her sewing basket with her into the woods, and she had been working on a decorative pillow.

“That’s pretty,” he said by way of greeting.

“It’s boring.”

“But you seem really good at it.”

“I’m supposed to be good at it, I’ve spent years under my mother learning all this stuff. But really, what use is embroidery?”

He hadn’t many pretty things in his home, since his mother had died when he was young and his aunt had despised decorations that were not family heirlooms or were impractical. He reached out to touch the pillow, but she pulled away.

At first, he felt a pang of hurt that she would draw back from him, as if he were a dirty urchin and not her friend, but then she said to him, “Wash your hands, first. Mother will make me do this all over again if it gets dirty.”

He washed in the stream and sat next to her on the boulder. “Dad makes me sew his fishing nets.”

She eyed him. “I didn’t know your dad fished.”

“When he can get away from the shop.” He wasn’t looking at her, and instead eyed the rainbow of colors swirling around a gold and orange carp on the pillow.

She sewed in silence for a while, then sighed gustily and dropped the pillow into her lap. “I don’t like you staring at me. Here.” She reached into her basket and drew out a length of linen, shoving it into his lap. She threaded another needle with purple silk, knotted the end, and gave it to him.

“Wait, what?”

“Does it offend your manly sensibilities?” There was a clear challenge in her voice.

“I’m manly.”

“Prove it.”

And so she had shown him how to sew a circular flower pattern that looked like a chrysanthemum. He had chosen the red and lavender colors of the other two flowers himself, because the colors were in the print of the dress she was wearing that day.

He had given the handkerchief to her as a gift.

“But you made it.”

“Dad’ll take it away if he sees it.” He couldn’t look at her face as he added, “It matches your dress.”

He wished he had looked up. Had she smiled? Had she been indifferent? But he thought he heard a smile in her voice when she said, “Well, then, thank you.”

That length of linen on her wrist was the one he had given to her, he was certain of it. Suddenly he thought he understood why she had been looking away, northward.

He had to leave soon, and he could not speak to her—he could not be seen. And yet he couldn’t leave her now that he knew she had kept it all these years, and wore it today, the day of her husband’s funeral.

He had paper in his slim back pack.

He made the paper boat like the one he’d made all those years ago, and with his belly to the dirt, he reached out between two gray boulders to set the boat on the surface of the pond. With the water from the stream coming in from this corner, it would float past her on its way to the water outlet.

At first he thought it would pass her and she would not see it. But she straightened in her chair as if her spine had turned into a spear, her eyes fixed on the paper boat on the pond. Her face, her body was unmoving and he couldn’t tell if she was breathing as she stared for one minute, two minutes.

Then she did something he had not expected—bolting to her feet, she jumped down from the edge of the porch, climbed over the rocks edging the pond, and splashed into the water. She used her arms to pull herself as she waded out to the paper boat, desperate to get to it before the lazy current drew it toward the pond outlet. Her fingers stretched out, her legs straining against the resistance of the water, until at last she plucked the paper boat from the surface.

She cradled it gingerly in her wet hands, holding it close to her face, breathing heavily from the exertion, or perhaps from emotion. Suddenly aware that it had to come from someone, she turned her head in his direction, scanning the bushes at the shore.

He ducked behind a bush, his heart racing.

Then her voice floated to him from across the water. “Kou …”

The sound reminded hm of days eating watermelon, of her laughter by the stream, of her tears when he left the village.

“Kou … go and then come back to me.”

She turned and waded back toward the hut, not looking back in his direction again. She dripped her way along the porch, and then disappeared around the corner of the building, probably heading in through the double doors.

He let out a breath, realizing that he hadn’t breathed since she last spoke to him. He thought that the thinnest thread of scent from her perfume reached him behind the bush, a light fragrance of lilacs and water rushes.

Then he nimbly crab-walked through the bougainvillea bushes toward the forest. Once in the shelter of the shadows, he leaped to his feet and melted through the trees. He ran, with the air flowing through his lungs and blood pumping through his legs and in his ears.

He ran, not to escape from something, but he somehow felt as if he were starting off on a journey. It would take him far from her, but now, he also felt he had a place to come back to. Not his clan in the north, not the place he had lived for the past fifteen years, but a place that felt like … home.

For the first time in his life, he felt like he had a home.

***

You can check out my other short stories here.

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