Moonlight, Tiger, and Smoke
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by Connie Bailey
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Taken from their families and raised to be assassins, Moonlight and Tiger are the perfect weapons and secret lovers. Even when they are sent into service with different clans, their love remains pure and strong until a more insidious threat divides them. When Moonlight realizes his master is manipulating people for his own ends, the discovery threatens not only Tiger, but their entire society. Betrayed by a fellow assassin, the men are tortured and broken. If their love and their people are going to survive, one of them will have to defy everything he knows and stand up for the only thing he believes is real: Love.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: September 2011
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [390 KB]
Reading time: 248-348 min.
When the little boy woke for the second time, he could hear someone else breathing in the darkness. "Who's there?" he whispered. No one answered, and his anxiety grew.
On the night of his first day in first grade, he'd gone to sleep with his bluebird night-light on in his little bed in his little bedroom down the hall from his parents, just like always, but when he had awakened, it was completely dark and he was lying on a hard floor. When he'd tried to get up, he'd banged his head on a low ceiling. Feeling around, he'd decided he was in a box like the ones that refrigerators came in, but bigger and made of wood instead of cardboard. He'd become frightened when he'd abruptly imagined he was in a large coffin. He'd yelled and punched and kicked and done his best to find a way out until he was exhausted. With tears of frustration drying on his cheeks, he'd fallen asleep again.
He rubbed his eyes and stretched his arm up, felt unfinished wood at his fingertips. He was still in the same place, it was still dark, and he was very hungry. Cautiously, he rolled over and got to his hands and knees. Moving slowly in the pitch black, he crawled toward the sound of breathing. In three heartbeats, he touched someone's foot.
"Hello?" he said. "Who are you?"
There was no sound but shallow breathing as he slid his hand up a small, rubber-soled shoe to a bare shin. Halfway up, he ran into the other kid's hand. He could picture the stranger sitting with knees drawn up and arms wrapped around his legs.
"I'm Cheolsu. Are you all right?"
Cheolsu heard a sniffling noise and moved to sit next to the other kid. There was immense comfort in knowing he wasn't alone, so he figured it would make the crying child feel better too. Scooting closer, Cheolsu put his arm around the stranger's shoulders.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Jae--Jaehan." The other little boy hiccupped. "Where am I?"
"I don't know, Jae. I went to sleep, and when I woke up, I was here."
"Me too." Jaehan took a hitching breath. "I want my umma."
"I think we're all alone. I tried yelling, but no one answers."
"Where is this?"
"I think we're in a big box."
"I don't know."
Cheolsu almost said me too, but stopped himself. "Don't be scared," he said instead. "Why don't we try and figure out what's going on?"
Jaehan wiped his face with his sleeve. "I don't know what's going on."
"Well, my parents aren't rich, so I don't think someone took me for money."
"People do that? Steal kids for money?"
"Don't you watch TV? It's called kidnapping."
"We don't have a TV at my house."
"Weird," Cheolsu said.
"No it isn't! It's better for you not to watch that stuff! My umma said so."
"Let's not fight, okay?"
"I'm not fighting. Fighting isn't nice."
"Do you know how you got here?"
"No. Why is it so dark?"
"I told you. We're in a box."
"I don't want to be in a box."
"I tried to find a way out, but I couldn't." Cheolsu paused at the sound of a soft sob. "Are you okay?"
"I want my umma to come and get me."
"I bet she'll be here soon. How old are you?"
"I'm six. My birthday was in January."
"I'm six too, but my birthday was in February, so I guess you're older. Want to play a game?"
"How can we play a game in the dark?"
"We could play word games." Cheolsu wasn't particularly fond of word games. He preferred kicking a ball or climbing a tree, but neither of those were options at the moment, and he wanted to distract Jaehan. Jaehan's tears made Cheolsu feel bad.
"My umma plays word games with me all the time." Jaehan swallowed, and some of the roughness left his voice. "I know one! I'll say an animal and you tell me what he eats, okay?"
"Okay." Cheolsu would have agreed to anything to keep the sadness from the other boy's voice.
Jaehan said horse and Cheolsu said hay. Jaehan said monkey and Cheolsu said banana. Jaehan said dog and Cheolsu said cat. Jaehan laughed and Cheolsu's heart lifted.
The two little boys played several variations of the game. Each time they started a new round, Cheolsu let Jaehan choose what sort of questions would be asked and who would do the answering. Jaehan always chose to ask the questions and laughed whenever Cheolsu gave a silly answer. They forgot their situation until Cheolsu's stomach growled.
"I think there's a tiger in here with us," Cheolsu said.
"I'm hungry too."
"We're hungry!" Cheolsu shouted at the top of his lungs.
Jaehan flinched at the loud noise and pressed closer to Cheolsu. "Why doesn't somebody come?"
"This sucks!" Cheolsu punched upward, grazing his knuckles on the wood. "Jerks!" Settling back, he brought his fist to his mouth and sucked morosely at the small stinging wounds.
"Who are you yelling at?"
"The people who put us in this box. I hate them."
Jaehan gasped. "You shouldn't ever say that. That's a really bad word."
"They're bad people."
"But you're not." Jaehan took Cheolsu's hand. "Don't be bad, Cheolsu, please. It makes the people who love us very, very sad. My umma said so."
Cheolsu pulled his hand from Jaehan's so he could put his arm around him. "I'm sorry I yelled and scared you. I was mad."
Jaehan turned sideways and put his arms around Cheolsu's neck, seeking comfort the way he was used to--climbing onto his mother's lap when he was troubled. He put his cheek on Cheolsu's shoulder and tried to ignore the gnawing in his belly. For the first time in his life, his hunger wasn't instantly banished by the appearance of food as soon as he acquainted someone with his need. He was slowly realizing what it meant to be on your own, and he was very grateful for Cheolsu's presence. Cheolsu might be rough and a complete stranger, but he was here, sharing this nightmare.
Cheolsu put his other arm around the smaller boy, and Jaehan snuggled in like a puppy. Jaehan's warm presence was welcome as the temperature started to drop, and having someone to protect gave Cheolsu a reason to be brave. He didn't move until he was sure Jaehan had fallen asleep. Burying his face in Jaehan's thick hair, Cheolsu wept until he drifted into disturbing dreams.
* * * *
The small cargo ship made port at a privately-owned island west of Japan. At a pier far from any shipyard, three large boxes were transferred from the hold to a freight truck. After a long drive into the country, the truck pulled onto a dirt road and stopped. Two men got out and unloaded the boxes, leaving them on the grass where a trail led into the trees. Having made their delivery, they went on about their business.
Behind the departing truck, a man in monk's robes stepped from the forest. Using various tools he took from a pouch around his waist, he opened the crates and sprayed the contents with an aerosol. In a few minutes, the man heard noises from the boxes and pushed them over. Six small boys--now conscious--spilled out and scrambled to their feet, staring at the stranger.
"Saidzuki desu." The man began speaking in Japanese, and the children found they understood him. "I am Mallet, and I am your master. Each of you is here because his family owes a debt to the Kagehito. When the debt went unpaid, we took a firstborn child, as agreed in the contract. You belong to the Kagehito now... to the Shadow People."
One of the children started to cry. Mallet took two swift steps and gave the little boy a slap that knocked him to the ground. Whirling around, Mallet addressed his shocked audience.
"This is your first lesson, so learn it well. When a master is speaking, you listen. When a master tells you to do something, you obey. Inattention and disobedience will draw immediate punishment." Mallet paused and rephrased his last sentence. "If you don't do as you're told, you'll get a slap, or worse."
Cheolsu leaned over to help the fallen boy to his feet. Mallet didn't interfere, but waited silently until all six boys were facing him again.
"Forget your families," Mallet said. "They know who took you, and they know they'd be killed if they tried to get you back. They've already given you up for dead. You have no family now but the Shadow." He looked around the circle of wide-eyed children. "The sooner you get used to the idea that you're on your own, the less need there'll be to punish you. From now on, all you have will come from us. We feed you. We clothe you. We school you. You're far away from the places you called home, across a sea in another country. Think about that if you think about running away." He met each boy's eyes. "If you run away, you'll be killed. We have no use for stupid children. Do you understand?"
Jaehan's hand crept into Cheolsu's behind Cheolsu's back. He squeezed Jaehan's fingers, but his eyes never left Mallet. The big man's voice held none of the softness most adults used when addressing children. Mallet talked to them as though they were his age, as though he expected them to understand everything he said... and he had no patience at all. He reminded Cheolsu of his stern, heavy-handed father, and maybe he could be appeased the same way: with unequivocal respect.
"Seonbae." Cheolsu used a Korean term of respect as he bowed to Mallet.
Mallet focused on the six-year-old with the neatly-cut, reddish-brown hair. Over the last twenty-seven years, the trainer had seen a lot of boys delivered to Saigo Island and was familiar with all the reactions of a small child dealing with shock. Some cried, some threw tantrums, some shut down, and a rare few accepted the facts and started dealing with them. The latter made the best students... and the most dangerous. They were usually headstrong and harder to control, but if they made it through the program alive, they were peerless soldiers. Mallet saw potential as he looked into this little boy's calm, amber eyes.
"What's your name?" Mallet asked.
Mallet spun, his right leg sweeping Cheolsu off his feet. "Get up," the trainer told the little boy and waited for Cheolsu to stand. "Don't speak to me in Hangul again. Forget Korea, along with your families. I know all of you were taught Nihongo from the cradle," he said. "If you speak any other language in my hearing, I'll sew your mouth shut."
Cheolsu had never thought to wonder why he'd been taught Japanese along with his native tongue. It was just a fact of life, like visiting his grandparents in the summer or his mother's insistence on turning off the television at dinnertime, but it was useful now. "Hai, senpai," Cheolsu said. Yes, my superior.
Mallet gave the little boy a short nod of approval. "I excuse your ignorance this one time. You don't call me senpai; I'm your sensei."
"Yes, teacher," Cheolsu replied with another bow.
"What's your name?" Mallet asked again.
Cheolsu sucked in his bottom lip to keep from blurting out his name again. Desperately, he tried to think of an answer that would please Mallet. "I don't have a name," he said at last.
"Very good." Mallet looked at the other boys. "Forget the names your mothers gave you. You will not have a name until I give you one." He put a hand on Cheolsu's head. "You are Tora, known to your brethren as Tiger."
The newly christened Tiger bowed again and earned another nod of approval.
"We have a long walk to make," Mallet said. "Tiger will lead. Anyone who strays or lags will be punished." The trainer pointed to the trailhead marked by a cairn of stones. "Get moving."
Tiger glanced at Jaehan as he started off. Jaehan looked bewildered, and he hurried to follow when Tiger began walking. The other four boys fell in, too confused to do anything other than stick with the herd.
The pathway was steep and zigzagged back and forth up the face of the grassy hill. It followed the crest for a while and then led up a stony slope dotted with boulders. When Jaehan slipped on some pebbles, Tiger spun and caught Jaehan's hand before the smaller boy could tumble back down the trail. The boy behind Jaehan gave Jaehan a boost as Tiger pulled. When Jaehan was firmly on his feet again, he thanked Tiger and looked over his shoulder to thank the other boy.
"Keep moving unless you want a slap," Mallet barked.
Jaehan gave the boy behind him a quick smile and faced front again. He didn't want to be slapped, or even spoken to in a harsh way. In his home, bad behavior was met with a motherly explanation of why the behavior was wrong and ended with a hug when he promised to be good. Because he loved his mother and never wanted to cause trouble for her, he never repeated an act once he knew it was offensive. Keeping his eyes on the ground in front of him, he concentrated on not falling again.
"No talking among yourselves unless permission is given," Mallet said as they climbed higher. "If you need to speak to a teacher, you will bow and wait for the teacher to notice you. You will do without question any task a teacher asks of you. If you fail to complete the task, you'll be whipped with a strap of leather."
Mallet continued to list causes for punishment as the trail cut through a belt of pines to end at a bridge over a ravine. On the other side, a road followed a dry riverbed carved into the rock of the island's spine. In the shade of an evergreen stood a man in the same dark brown robes that Mallet wore.
"Go on," Mallet said when Tiger glanced back at him. When they reached the other side of the bridge, Mallet told the children the other man's name was Hei, which meant Wall.
Wall gave the little boys a long look before he spoke. "I'm glad this lot is yours," he said in a voice like thunder in the distance. "They look like a bunch of skinned rabbits."
"That's your trouble, Wall," Mallet said. "Your lack of vision holds you back."
Wall chuckled. "It wasn't my lack of vision that earned me this sentry duty."
"No, that was ordinary stupidity. Even if you don't care for the onmyoji's ways, you have to behave as though you respect him."
"I didn't know he would hear my words."
"You never know where the onmyoji has ears," Mallet said.
"True." Wall lowered his voice. "You'd think I'd have more self-control. I don't want a wizard to have a grudge against me."
"That's a wise attitude. I'd better get these rabbits back on the road now." Mallet turned to the half dozen boys. "Walk," he said.
"Cheer up, boys," Wall called out as the children filed past him. "You're almost halfway there."
One of the boys groaned, and Mallet smacked the back of his head, sending him reeling into another boy. Both children staggered as Tiger turned to see what was happening. Tiger lunged, blocking their fall with his body. Jaehan moved beside Tiger, ready to support him if he lost his balance. It was over in seconds, and they started walking again, but Mallet was satisfied by what he'd observed. Though they were from above average stock, it was never certain how they'd perform until tested. These boys showed an inclination to work as a team, to help one another rather than stay uninvolved. This trait would be an asset to them for the next few years, as they underwent basic training. It would be of no help at all once they'd been assigned for specialty training, but that was seven years away.
* * * *
The pine forest ended and the road continued through a rock-strewn field to a stone wall three meters high. Behind the wall rose the roofs of several buildings made of the same stone. A metal-banded gate of solid mahogany stood open, and the sentries called greetings as Mallet entered the training compound with his weary charges.
"That's a nice flock of plucked ducklings." A man with a sword on his hip chuckled as he walked past Mallet's group on his way out the gate.
"I'll pluck you someday, River," Mallet said under his breath. "Tiger! Go to the left."
Tiger turned left, walking out of the cobbled courtyard between two large buildings. As he emerged into the open again, the road was lined on one side with small huts. Behind the huts were cultivated fields and tree-shaded pastures, and beyond them, the high stone wall that encompassed the property.
"Stop," Mallet said as they reached a row of mud-brick huts. "You will live here. Two to a hut." He pointed at Jaehan. "You live in this one with Tiger."
Jaehan looked up to meet Mallet's eyes. "Are you my appa now?"
Tiger tensed as he waited for Mallet to slap Jaehan for using the Korean word for father, but the sensei didn't raise his hand.
"Are you touched?" Mallet said, gazing intently into Jaehan's sweet face. "You're not supposed to have defects, but it's so hard to tell with kids. You're all full of moonshine until life knocks it out of you." He cupped Jaehan's chin on his palm, studying the boy's pale features. "Your name is Tsukikage now," he said as he let Jaehan go. "It means moonlight, and you'll be Tiger's kohai."
Moonlight's smooth brow wrinkled in a miniature frown.
"You want to say something, Moonlight?" Mallet asked.
"Yes, teacher. Tiger should be kohai. I'm older than him."
"Someone has taught you well," Mallet said.
"My umma is a teacher," Moonlight said proudly. "She taught me my letters and numbers."
Once again, Mallet refrained from reprimanding the little boy for not speaking Japanese. "The senpai/kohai relationship is not always defined by age, and in this case, a few months don't matter. All of you are six years old." He turned to the other boys. "You and you," he said pointing to another pair.
"Teacher," one the boys said as he bowed.
"What is it?" Mallet asked.
"I'm not six. I'm seven."
Mallet stared at the little boy like a hawk spotting a mouse. "You sound very proud of that. It's very rare that a novice chooses his name, but from now on you are Shichi--Seven. Now get into your hut." He pointed to the remaining pair. "You go in that one. The sun will set in half an hour and you will go to sleep. Since you're exhausted, that shouldn't be a problem. I'll be back for you at sunrise."
"What is it, Tiger?"
"Are we going to eat, teacher?"
"That's up to you." Mallet turned and marched away, leaving the children alone.
Tiger immediately started toward his designated hut. Glancing over his shoulder, he held out his hand to Moonlight. Moonlight took Tiger's hand and went with him.
"Wait a minute," said the boy who'd steadied Moonlight on the trail. "Don't you want to talk about what's happening?"
Tiger turned, pulling Moonlight around with him. "You should go where the teacher told you. He said not to talk to each other."
"He can't hear us now." The little boy brushed a drift of heavy bangs out of his eyes. "Are you just going to do what they say? Don't you want to know what's going on?"
"Do you know?" Tiger challenged, looking at the other four boys. "I didn't think so. So why talk about it?"
"So you're going to go along with it?"
"We can't fight them. We're just kids," Moonlight spoke up.
"Then can we be friends? I'm Junho."
Moonlight bowed. "I'm Moonlight, I guess."
The boy dubbed Seven bowed also. "I'm Eunki, but I guess you can call me Seven."
The last pair bowed and introduced themselves as Hwangbo and Kyuhwan.
"You've already heard my name," Tiger said. "Now let's go inside, like the teacher told us." He went into the first hut, drawing Moonlight along with him.
The small building had one room with a dirt floor. In one corner was a stone fire pit with a vent hole. At the back wall was a pallet made of stacked squares of felt. Otherwise, the place was bare and windowless. As Tiger and Moonlight entered, Moonlight sniffed loudly.
"Noodles!" Moonlight exclaimed, letting go of Tiger's hand to dash across the short space to the hearth. His goal was an earthenware pot with steam escaping around the edges of the lid.
For no reason Tiger could name--other than the nature of everything that had happened since he woke in the box--he felt a stab of fear. He shouted a warning, but he was too late. As Moonlight neared the fire pit, his foot came down on a booby trap. A wooden rod sprang out of a groove in the floor and smacked Moonlight between the eyes. Moonlight stumbled back, blinking rapidly, both hands flying up to cover his face. In a moment, blood began to pour through his fingers.
Tiger pulled off his shirt and put a hand on Moonlight's shoulder. "Sit," he said. "And put your hands down so I can see."
Moonlight sat and looked dazedly at Tiger. "What happened?"
"There was a trap. They knew we'd go straight for the food."
"Ow!" Moonlight jerked away when Tiger pressed his jersey to Moonlight's nose.
"You hold it then," Tiger said. "But you have to press hard to make the bleeding stop."
"How do you know?"
"I broke my nose playing soccer a few months ago. Coach made me sit with my head back and hold a towel on it filled with ice." Tiger paused. "I don't have any ice though."
"Ow!" Moonlight said again. "I don't want to be a baby, but it really hurts."
"I know." Tiger squeezed Moonlight's shoulder. "It's going to hurt for a while."
"Why would they do that? Why do they want to hurt us?"
"I don't know." Tiger shook his head as he walked cautiously toward the hearth. "To make us tough, I guess."
"I know," Tiger said again as he carefully lifted the lid off the pot. Picking up a set of plain bamboo chopsticks from the hearth, he pushed them around in the soup. When the pot didn't explode, Tiger lifted out a skein of noodles and sniffed them. He couldn't smell anything funny, and he was so hungry that his mouth was filling with saliva. If the food was poisoned, there was nothing he could do about it, but he had to eat. After stuffing his mouth as full as possible, Tiger pushed the pot across the room to where Moonlight sat. "Open," he said, pulling out more noodles and offering them.
"Thank you," Moonlight said when he'd swallowed the mouthful of food. "I think my nose is getting bigger."
"It's going to swell a lot. You'll have to breathe through your mouth."
Moonlight nodded and opened up for more noodles. Tiger obliged, alternately feeding Moonlight and himself. When the noodles were gone, they took turns drinking the broth until the pot was empty. By that time, the sun was going down and shadows began to gather in the hut. A search of the room yielded nothing that could be used for light.
"Maybe if we went to those fields, we could find wood," Tiger said.
"But we can't make a fire. We'll get in trouble."
"I don't think that rule works here, but anyway, we don't have a lighter or anything."
"We should just try to go to sleep, like that man said. I don't want him to be mad."
"Me either." Tiger look across at Moonlight, at the way the smaller boy's skin glowed in the dimness. "Moonlight," he said. "It sounds funny, but it's a good name for you."
"My name is Jaehan."
"You should get used to being called Moonlight."
Moonlight sighed. "Okay." He tilted his head down to look at Tiger. "My umma's not coming, is she?"
"I don't think so."
Tears welled up in Moonlight's dark eyes and ran down his cheeks. "She'll be so sad when she can't find me."
Tiger pressed his lips together and set his jaw, determined not to give in to his tears. "Since our families are gone, we'll have to be each other's family."
"Okay." Moonlight took the shirt away from his face and smiled shyly at Tiger. In the midst of this nightmare, he was getting the thing he'd always wanted. "We can be brothers," he said.
Tiger held up his fist, and after a moment, Moonlight bumped his knuckles against Tiger's.
"We stick together, right?" Tiger said.
Moonlight nodded solemnly.
"Now neither of has to be afraid because we'll take care of each other," Tiger said as he took his blood-soaked shirt from Moonlight. "Looks like the bleeding stopped. Wait here. I'm going to see if there's water somewhere."
"I want to go with you."
"Okay, but walk slow and don't bump into anything. You could start bleeding again."
Some distance behind the hut, the boys found a brook by the sound of water flowing over stone. Tiger dipped his shirt and wrung it out several times while Moonlight lay on his belly and drank directly from the stream. The ice-cold water numbed his face and relieved a little of the pain of the broken nose. After a few moments, Moonlight sat up and took the shirt from Tiger.
"I can do it," Tiger said.
"I'm the one who got it dirty," Moonlight replied. "I should clean it."
"You have a lot of rules," Tiger said as Moonlight put the shirt back in the stream.
"There's nothing wrong with having rules."
"I didn't say that. I know we need rules, like how we should look for cars before going across a street."
"You go across the street by yourself?"
"Sure." Tiger shrugged. "What's the big deal?"
"It's dark now," Moonlight said as he wrung out the shirt and handed it to Tiger. "We should go in."
Each boy had another drink of water, and then they walked back. Tiger hung his wet shirt over a tree branch outside the hut and entered the dark room behind Moonlight. When he closed the door, he couldn't see the other boy just a few feet in front of him.
"Where are you?" Tiger asked. "I don't want to bump into you."
"Here's my hand," Moonlight said.
Tiger swept his arm around in the direction of Moonlight's voice and hit Moonlight's hand. He caught hold of Moonlight's fingers and shuffled forward. "We'll just walk slow until we run into the wall," he said. "Let me go first so you don't hit your nose again."
"What if there's another trap?" Moonlight stopped and tugged on Tiger's hand to stop him too.
"We have to go to sleep," Tiger said. "I'd rather sleep on those pads than the floor. I'll check them out before we lie down."
It was hard to tell in the dark, but after running his hands over the large squares of thick felt, Tiger was reasonably sure there were no spikes or scorpions or anything but lanolin lurking in the layers of pressed wool.
"Come on," Tiger said, patting the pallet. "I think it's safe."
Moonlight crept over on hands and knees and sat down. Methodically, he pulled off his shoes and socks, tucking the socks neatly into the sneakers. He unbuttoned his white, short-sleeved shirt and folded it. Slipping off his navy blue shorts, he placed them on the shoes, and then stacked the shirt on the top. Keeping his underwear on, he stretched out on the pallet. "Can I sleep next to the wall?" he asked.
"Sure." Tiger moved and Moonlight rolled to the other side of the sleeping pad. Settling back down, Tiger toed off his sneakers and let them drop to the floor.
Both boys were so exhausted that they fell asleep as soon as they were horizontal, only to wake with chattering teeth in the middle of the night. Tiger spooned up against Moonlight's back, and they huddled together for warmth until they dozed off in fitful sleep. They didn't rest well, and morning came very early, bringing their unforgiving new life with it.
* * * *
Tiger sat up, jerked from sleep by a loud, clanging noise. He froze when he heard Mallet's voice.
"Get up!" the sensei shouted. "Put on the clothes by the door and get out here."
Tiger shook Moonlight's shoulder, amazed that Moonlight could sleep through the racket. Moonlight flinched and squirmed as though burrowing into nonexistent blankets.
"We have to get up," Tiger said.
"Don't want to. Too early."
"We have to."
Moonlight opened his eyes, alarmed by the stress in Tiger's voice. "What's wrong?"
"The teacher is calling us. We need to get up and go outside."
"I want to sleep more." Moonlight pouted.
"Me too, but we can't. Come on. Get up." Tiger took Moonlight by the upper arm and pulled him up.
"Where are my clothes?" Moonlight said as soon as he was on his feet.
Tiger went over to the pile of clothes by the door. "The teacher said to put these on," he said, holding up a knee-length tunic of heavy cotton.
"That looks like a dress. A really ugly dress."
Tiger shrugged. Moonlight was right--the tunic was shapeless and the gray color of old gum that you found with the bottom of your shoe. It was also coarse and bulky and looked like it would itch. Tiger didn't like it either, but there was no other choice. They could put on the tunics or go out in their underwear. "Just put it on," he told Moonlight as he pulled one of the tunics over his head. "Come on. You can do it."
"Of course I can." Moonlight snatched the garment from Tiger's hand. "I just don't want to." He got into the tunic, his pout even more pronounced. "It smells funny."
Mallet shouted again and Tiger bolted out the door, dragging Moonlight by the wrist. The other four boys stood abreast in front of the sensei, watching him warily with sleep-crusty eyes. All of them were dressed in the loose tunics, and they looked like a line of small prisoners. Tiger pulled Moonlight into place at the end of the row and bowed his head to Mallet. Mallet put his palm on the back of Tiger's head and pushed it down farther.
"Be quicker tomorrow morning," the sensei said.
"We will, master," Tiger answered.
"It was my fault," Moonlight said.
"I know," Mallet said, his eyes on Moonlight's face, his fingers digging into the muscles of Tiger's neck. "Whenever a kohai does something wrong, his senpai will be punished for it."
"That's not fair. It...." Moonlight's voice trailed off as Mallet squeezed Tiger's neck harder. He bowed and stepped back into line.
Mallet released Tiger, meeting the boy's eyes in silent approval of Tiger's acceptance of the rebuke. "All of you follow me," he said. "Tiger first."
The sensei tucked the ends of his robe into his belt and began to run. After only a moment's hesitation, the boys followed their master up the dirt road. On their left was the wall and on their right the planted fields that stretched to the pine forest. Mallet stopped at a stone shed and opened the door.
"Take one hoe each," Mallet said. "You're going to weed and water crops this morning and every morning until they're harvested. If you don't know how to use a hoe, I'll show you. You're here to work, not to eat. Do you understand? If you're caught eating the crops, you'll be punished."
After a few minutes' practice, each boy could use the hoe as it had been intended. As the sun climbed toward its zenith, they weeded the rows of strawberries, mouths watering at the sight of the ripening fruit. Inevitably, one of them picked a strawberry and slipped it into his mouth. Seven grimaced at the tart taste, and then the red and white pulp flew out of his mouth as Mallet smacked the back of his head.
"Idiot!" Mallet spat, yanking Seven up by his hair until they were face to face. "Foolish child! Do you think the rules are just made up to torment you? The rules keep you safe. Eating green fruit on an empty stomach will make you sick. If you're sick, you can't work. If you can't work, you're of no use to us. And Kagehito don't keep what we don't use."
Seven clenched his teeth against the pain of his burning scalp, but he didn't cry out. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he endured it until Mallet let go of him. "I'm sorry, teacher," he said. "I won't do it again."
"I should make all of you eat a handful so you'll know how severely the pain of stomach cramps can affect you." Mallet shook his head. "Take your hoes to the shed. Do I need to tell you to stack them neatly?"
Tiger was the first to move, and the other boys followed him in single file. When they reached the shed, Tiger stood at the door, taking the implements from the others and leaning them in a corner. "Are you okay?" he whispered as Seven handed over his hoe.
"Then stop being stupid. You'll get us all in trouble."
Seven nodded again and moved aside to let Junho turn over his hoe.
Mallet stood back and watched. Half his job consisted of observation, and he was good at it--so good that when he'd completed his training, he'd been chosen to remain on the island as a teacher. Coupled with his keen senses was an empathy that allowed him to see into the thoughts and motivations of those around him. He had an intuitive gift for seeing the prime potential in others, and the best way to prepare them for the time when the onmyoji decided which clan they were best suited for... the way the onmyoji had chosen him as Tetsuzoku, a warrior of the Iron Tribe.
The last thing he'd expected while waiting for his first mission was an inner calling to the Denkouzoku, the Lightning Tribe. It was rare that the outer calling to Iron didn't match the inner avocation, but Mallet had to accept that he was a teacher, no matter how much he wanted the life of a soldier. He knew that training future Kagehito was even more important than going on missions, but secretly he still longed for adventures in foreign lands. For more than twenty-seven years--from six to thirty-four--he'd spent every minute on this island, and though it was the home of his heart, he dreamed of leaving it at least once before he died. However, it was not up to him where he went or stayed. He was Kagehito, and he did as he was ordered by his superiors.
As his students did as he ordered them.
Mallet watched Tiger put the last hoe in the shed, satisfied with the progress this group was making. He expected them to be precocious, otherwise they wouldn't have been harvested, but these six were especially quick. "Line up," he said, as Tiger latched the shed door without being asked. "We're going to run back and Wall will show you how to make porridge."
Spirits rising at the possibility of food in their future, the boys ran with a will. They passed the cottages and stopped at a one-story stone building with a porch as long as it was. Under the shelter were rows of wooden tables and benches.
"This is where the teachers eat," Mallet said. "Follow me into the kitchen."
The boys weren't given much time to gawk at the lack of refrigerators and electric stoves before the sensei called Wall started his lesson. Swiftly, using the bare minimum of words and ingredients, he showed the six boys how to make porridge in a pot over a fire. After each boy nodded that he understood the procedure, Mallet herded them back outside. On one of the tables sat six bowls of porridge topped with sliced strawberries.
"Eat," Mallet said, and the boys wasted no time following his order. "This is your last free meal, so enjoy it. When you return to your cottages, you'll find a pot, two bowls, two cups, two small spoons and one large, and two sets of chopsticks. These belong to the kohai. The kohai will use them to cook with and feed his senpai. If they're broken or lost, the kohai must replace them." He glanced around the table. "Since you're all finished eating, let's move on."
Mallet led his class to another stone building. This one had two metal-bound doors guarded by a pair of men with swords. The sentries nodded to Mallet and opened the doors.
"This is the armory," Mallet told the boys as they walked into the cool dimness.
The boys were allowed several minutes to look around the room full of weapons that gleamed softly in the scant light: racks of swords, maces, and axes, bows and quivers hanging from wooden pegs, spears leaning together like shocks of hay. Among all these implements of death, there was nothing more modern than a crossbow.
"There's another room with body armor," Mallet told his wide-eyed charges. "You'll see that in a few years. Now, come outside to the practice yard." He led the boys into a stone square sprinkled with sand and surrounded by a tall fence of thick, wooden planks. "This is where you'll learn to fight," he said. He nudged the small pile of wooden swords with his toe. "Each of you will take one and get back into line."
When the boys had done as Mallet ordered, he faced them. "I told you yesterday that you belong to the Shadow now. You're slaves, but if you train very hard, you can earn a place with us. There is no greater honor, as you will learn. The Kagehito exist in secret to keep balance in the world. We remove those who would tip the scales too far toward evil. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and only those with the talent and proper training can do it." Mallet drew his sword. "Shall we begin?"
On Mallet's last word, Wall burst through the gate of the practice yard with his sword in hand. Without a word, Wall attacked Mallet in flurry of strokes so fast they were blurred. Mallet mirrored each blow, blocking Wall's blade with seeming effortlessness. The duel took on the form of a courtly dance until Mallet switched from defense to offense. In a series of five moves, Mallet had forced Wall to give ground and driven him to the fence.
"Thank you," Mallet said, bringing his weapon to a neutral position.
Wall bowed. "Always a pleasure to spar with you." He focused his gaze on the spellbound faces of Mallet's novices. "If you listen to your teacher and do as he says, you might be this good someday." With a salute to Mallet, Wall sheathed his blade and walked away.
"Pair off, kohai with senpai, and let me see if you have any natural talent for this," Mallet said to the boys. "You've all pretended to have sword fights before, haven't you?"
The boys paired off: Junho and Seven, Kyuhwan and Hwangbo, Tiger and Moonlight. After a couple of nervous seconds, the clacking of wood on wood echoed in the enclosed area as four of the boys play-fought.
"Why are you just standing there?" Mallet asked Tiger and Moonlight. "I told you to fight."
"Come on, Moonlight," Tiger whispered harshly. "Try and hit me."
"I don't want to," Moonlight said.
Mallet smacked the middle of Tiger's back with his sheathed sword. "Attack him," he said.
"He's not fighting back, teacher."
"That will make it easy for you to win, won't it?"
Tiger blinked. Never in his life had an adult said such a thing to him. The notion of fighting with someone weaker was so alien to him that he was stunned for a moment. There was no honor or sense of satisfaction to be gained here. There was only obedience. Slowly, he lifted his head and met Moonlight's eyes. "Please," he said. "Just hold the sword up for me to hit."
"I might hurt you," Moonlight objected.
"You have to fight," Mallet told Moonlight.
"No! I'm not supposed to fight. My umma says it's not nice."
"If you don't learn to fight, you'll end up dead."
"I'd rather be dead than hurt somebody."
Mallet looked at the stubborn pout on the little boy's face and stopped arguing with him. Pulling his sword, he put the point against the bottom ridge of Tiger's left eye socket. Deliberately, he drew the razor sharp blade down Tiger's cheek in a shallow cut.
"Don't! Please!" Moonlight cried out.
Mallet lowered his sword. "Did you forget that it is your senpai who suffers when you disobey?"
Tears streamed down Moonlight's cheeks as his fingers clenched into fists. In all of his six years, he'd never been presented with such a dilemma. He didn't want to hurt anyone, but he didn't want Tiger to be hurt either. Seeking guidance, he met Tiger's eyes and saw the trickle of blood that dripped from Tiger's jaw.
"I'm sorry," Moonlight said.
Moonlight swallowed hard and brought his wooden sword up parallel with his swollen nose. "I'm sorry," he said again and swung the sword at Tiger.
Tiger blocked Moonlight's half-hearted blow and countered it. His blade hit Moonlight in the ribs and knocked the wind out of him. Moonlight stumbled backward and landed on his butt, looking up at Tiger in surprise.
"Follow up your advantage," Mallet barked, swatting Tiger across the backs of his thighs.
Tiger smothered his natural impulse to help Moonlight up and pounced on him. Knocking the sword from Moonlight's hand, Tiger pinned the other boy's shoulders to the ground. "Fight me," he said in Moonlight's ear. "If you don't, teacher will beat me."
Fresh tears welled up in Moonlight's eyes. Why didn't Umma come and make everything all right? Why was he being forced to do things he knew were bad? He needed to get away from here. With a cry of frustrated rage that emerged as a squeak, Moonlight pushed at Tiger with all his might. Tiger went sprawling, the gritty stone sanding skin from one of his elbows as his sword went flying.
"Good," Mallet said softly as Tiger recovered his sword and Moonlight scrambled after his. The teacher had his doubts about Moonlight, but was glad to see that the boy could be driven to violence. Without a fighting instinct, a novice was worthless and soon consigned to perpetual slavery or the depths of the sea. Mallet wouldn't like to see that happen; he had high hopes for Tiger, and he could already see that Moonlight would be the best means of keeping Tiger under control until Tiger learned to control himself.
Satisfied with Tiger and Moonlight's progress, Mallet turned to the other pairs. Of the four, Junho showed the most potential. He was scrawny, all flapping hair and sharp elbows, but he was quick and surprisingly agile for a six-year-old. Though he wielded the sword with no greater skill than his partner, he was easily able to avoid Seven's attack. After watching Junho bend backward at the waist to let a wild swing pass harmlessly overhead, Mallet put a hand on the little boy's shoulder, stopping the fight.
"You are now Kemuri, known to the Kagehito as Smoke," Mallet said. "Because you're as hard to get hold of as the mist."
Junho gave the sensei his wary, sidewise glance, but bowed respectfully, accepting the name.
"Enough practice for today." Mallet raised his voice. "Follow me." He took the boys to a room like a closet off the armory's main weapons room. One by one, the novices placed their practice swords in a notched rack. "You'll use these every day until I decide you're ready for a different weapon. Treat them well."
Mallet led the group out to a well in one of the few unpaved squares in the main compound. He showed the boys how to lower the bucket and draw up the cold, clear water. Each drank a dipperful and was told to sit under the branches of an ancient pine. When all six were sitting in the shade, Mallet leaned back against the well and spoke to them.
"You aren't the worst group of novices I've ever had," he said. "Some of you show real potential." Mallet took a long drink of the fresh water. "Your lessons with me are over for a few hours. It's time for you to go to a class where you learn from books. You'll have some time to eat again, and then you'll return to the practice yard. When you're too tired to stand up, you'll be allowed to sleep. This is how your days will go from now on, so I hope you were all paying attention today. I won't be there tomorrow to wake you like little babies. You're expected to be in the field at the same time as today. If you aren't at work before I get there, you'll be sorry."
As the days knotted themselves into weeks that lengthened into months, the boys got used to the routine of life in the Kagehito creche. They rose at daybreak, dressed, ate whatever the kohai prepared, and worked in the fields until ten. After another mouthful or two of porridge with fruit or vegetables, they exercised their minds and bodies with River or Wall, but always overseen by Mallet. They learned to read and write, to add and subtract, how to hunt and dress game, how to make vessels of clay and fire them, the many ways to use a knife as a tool or a weapon, and countless other things that they didn't see the sense of yet. Each minute of each day was accounted for until the boys lay down to sleep. They were constantly reminded that they were slaves who existed only to serve the Kagehito and that their continued existence depended upon their usefulness. Only in dreams were they free, and in time, even those dreams faded.
The boys ceased to speak of their families among themselves and soon ceased to think of them unless reminded. Only the one called Moonlight still missed his mother so much that he often cried himself to sleep. His senpai consoled him when he wept, but neither spoke of the reason for the tears, and by the time they turned nine, the tears had stopped. Life with the Kagehito had become the reality, and everything that came before was a vague collection of moving images like episodes of an old television show. Mallet was the constant adult presence in their lives, and they naturally wanted to please him. The only thing that pleased Mallet was when they worked hard and excelled at their lessons, so that's what they did.
Tiger, son of a traditional, competitive man who prized status, fell easily into the name and the role that Mallet had assigned him. He took the lead in everything, making sure no one was ever late or lazy, in addition to doing everything the instructors required of him. Fiercely protective of his group, he nevertheless showed little mercy when one of them broke the rules.
Seven fell into the routine almost as easily as Tiger and became a sort of second-in-command, following the leader the way he'd followed his older brother in his crowded family home. He was used to living barracks-style with a pack of boys and helping out with household chores without being asked. Perhaps he was a bit of a complainer, but that trait was soon discouraged and rarely made an appearance.
Moonlight came from a single-parent home, his unwed mother concealing the fact with a pawn-shop ring and a story about a soldier husband who died abroad. She was an elementary school teacher who'd taught him to read and write by the time he was four, and he found himself far ahead of the rest of his creche in the classroom. It was Moonlight the others came to when they needed help with bookwork or just a sympathetic presence when they were troubled about something. Moonlight always had something warming in a pot on the hearth, and he never made anyone feel like they were being a baby if they needed a hug.
Kyuhwan, son of two factory workers, was Ichi-Shonen, Boy One, until he was given the name Tako for being all over the place like a kite in a windy sky. He all but crackled with nervous energy, but he could take a chunk of wood or a lump of clay and turn it into a bowl, or a spoon, or any number of useful objects that actually worked.
Hwangbo, who claimed to not remember his parents, was known as Ni-Shonen, Boy Two, for almost two years, until he earned the name Kagi, Key, because he could unlock the answers to anything, whether it was how to move fire from one hearth to another or the way the vanes of a feather worked. Endlessly curious, he was always a hair's-breadth away from being punished for tardiness.
Junho, now called Smoke, grew up poor in a household where everyone worked several jobs just to keep food on the table. He was the most aloof of the group, but he was always there if his help was needed. He was less inclined to high spirits than the other boys, preferring to sit quietly and observe, but the rest of the group had learned to listen when he spoke. He'd prevented them from getting into much more trouble than they would have without him.
By design, the six boys had attributes that complemented each of the others. By chance, their personalities meshed perfectly into a seamless unit. They bonded so quickly that Mallet had already made a bet with Wall and River that all six would still be alive when their basic training ended. Privately, he suspected that this group would produce at least one champion, and when he had this thought, his eyes went to Tiger.
The boys had made it through the crucial period when most groups lost at least one member, and they'd suffered nothing worse than some bad scrapes, deep bruising, and one broken nose. Mallet didn't count colds, pulled muscles, exhaustion, or bouts of depression; those were to be expected and worked through. Kagehito learned to endure pain, were inured to discomfort of the body or mind; weakness was not acceptable and soon winnowed out. After three years on the island, the boys in Mallet's charge had been forged into something harder, and the preliminary work of shaping them for use began.