Authors: Simon Higgins
'Oh?' Badger blinked, stretching his neck. 'Is
that so?' He glanced around, then raised his chin
with renewed self-importance. 'Very well then.'
Snowhawk hid her amusement. Heron was a
skilled manipulator; those wiles of womancraft
were useful for gaining trust and cooperation at
home as well as in the field.
'I'm uneasy about this urgent message,' Badger
admitted. 'Its code is current, the wording familiar,
about it doesn't feel right. I can't say
'Could it be real yet incomplete?' Mantis
speculated. 'Was something removed?'
Eagle rubbed his short, greying beard. 'Such
things have been done. Or perhaps, though a
genuine despatch, its text has been minutely
altered in some way.'
'I told you, I don't know.' Badger yawned. 'But
if you wish, I'll go on examining it. I warn you
be wrong. There! Are we done?
Can I go now?'
'Please stay,' Heron said warmly. 'We may need
more of your vast knowledge.'
Badger stretched, working his shoulders loose.
'Oh, all right, if you put it like that.'
'Here's the problem,' said Eagle, frowning.
'We must act quickly. Even if your fears are later
confirmed, we cannot delay sending our juniors.
The White Nun is this order's oldest and greatest
advisor, trainer and . . . secret
. No risks can
be taken with her life.'
Mantis looked from Moonshadow to Snowhawk
and back. 'Expect the unexpected. And
opposition. Whoever dares to go after
the White Nun must also expect to face her
bodyguards before taking her. So there will be no
'Does she even have bodyguards?' Groundspider
put in. 'If not, I could –'
Heron's glance shut him up properly. She sat
down opposite Snowhawk. 'I once heard, years
ago, that apart from her many Old Country
powers, a giant bear protects her. The ancient
shrine in which she lives is
, on this mountain.'
She leaned forward, slender fingers brushing
Eagle's face tightened. 'Forget the bear. The
forest below that mountain has quite a reputation.
I think that in itself would keep most people away.'
Moonshadow tensed. 'Why? Is it haunted?
What happened there?'
'Shh! Bad luck to speak of it,' Badger snapped.
'I may be a scholar, but even I heed the old taboos.
As everyone civilised should!' He yawned again
and sat down.
'Forget about luck,' Mantis sighed. 'Discussing
the place could bring bad karma.'
speak of it,' Eagle said sombrely,
'simply out of respect for the dead.'
Snowhawk said nothing, but flashed Moon her
reliable tell-you-later look. He replied with a hint
of a nod.
'A final question, before they leave.' Mantis
cleared his throat. 'Few even know of the White
Nun's existence, less of her service to the GLO.
Those who do, the other shadow clans, also know
the extent of her unearthly powers. Surely none of
them would presume to move against her?'
'Mighty or not, she's no warrior,' Heron said. 'A
healer and teacher, not a fighter. She has reminded
me of that during our lessons together. No, despite
her great powers, the White Nun has no taste for
blood. And I think our enemies know that too.'
'Please excuse me,' Snowhawk said, bowing.
'Why is she called the White Nun?'
Heads turned her way, a circle of knowing
looks – except for Moonshadow. He had met the
sage once, as a young boy, but had no memory of
her. Eagle broke into his secretive smile.
'You'll soon find out for yourself,' Badger
muttered. 'Just . . . be patient!'
'Has Heron not raised the real issue?' Eagle
addressed them all grimly. 'Who is the enemy?
Who would dare try to kill or capture such a
'Who indeed,' Mantis sniffed, 'could be this
Everyone fell silent. Snowhawk knew why.
Nobody wanted to say his name. Mentioning a
traitor was also bad luck.
Silver Wolf heard the birdsong stop, the trees
behind the roadside inn grow silent.
Good, he nodded, they were here, and on time.
Silver Wolf drew in the cool air. The overnight
rain had eased, the sun had now risen on a fresh,
dripping green land and once this final meeting
was over, he could go home. Sitting alone at one
end of the inn's largest room, he drummed his
fingers on the tatami mat beside his generous
As always these days, his sword lay within easy
reach. His hand brushed it and he sighed, impatient
to get back on the road. There was much to do on
his return to Momoyama Castle in his fiefdom's
capital, Fushimi. As long as the weapon-makers
did their part, he could look forward to a busy few
days. He eyed his lacquered scabbard.
They wouldn't fail him. He'd made it clear: if
anyone did, he'd execute them.
Silver Wolf stared down at his family's crest on
the sleeve of his opulent silk jacket. One day soon,
it would adorn public buildings everywhere.
He traced the long scar on his left cheek. It
reminded him to keep his resolve. His face has been
slashed by an enemy's spear-tip during the cavalry
charge he had led in the Battle of Sekigahara.
A daring charge into a narrow, misty valley that
had turned the tide and handed the Shogun his
A throne the Shogun had proved he no longer
The warlord scowled. Three things were
required to free a nation. Noble blood. Sharp steel.
And a heart of ice that knew no flinching.
Silver Wolf filled his chest proudly. He had all
of that; he was the man for the job. The one who
would rescue his country from the Shogun's folly.
'Peace,' he said scathingly. 'Making art, going
to the theatre.' His hands balled into fists. 'That
life will burn away in the purging to come and, in
will remember it.'
He heard the horses outside shift and whinny.
Horses often reacted to shinobi, sensing their
hidden power more acutely than humans did.
Silver Wolf dragged his sword closer. His visitors
had better be the
This inn, on the great road called the Tokaido,
lay between Edo and Kyoto, near the turn-off to
Fushimi. He had just completed a huge circuit,
travelling under full escort in an armoured palanquin
to the Hakone Barrier, the north-eastern
edge of his domain, and back again. Officially,
the journey was a routine inspection of his lands,
including the remote fringes, a duty every lord had
to fulfil from time to time.
In reality, the trip was to a series of secret
meetings. This morning's was the last.
He listened for voices outside. His entire
retinue had fallen silent: spearmen, archers and
his elite, proven cavalry unit. Fine warriors all,
they had guarded him on his long journey.
Today, in another fine formation around his
litter, they would march him home. Along the
way, every soul the procession passed would kneel,
bowing in humble salute.
A sound made his eyes flick to the door.
Manpower was no guarantee of safety. The ten best
shinobi in Japan could engage a hundred average
samurai, maybe even defeat them. But if all had
gone well, one such shadow warrior was now just
outside that door, about to confirm temporary fealty
to him, the master of Peach Mountain Castle.
The wooden sliding door was decorated with
a landscape of mountains rising from mist. As he
studied it, the door slid open. Out in the corridor
stood the stooped, lined innkeeper, looking as
frightened as he had the night before. Two of
Silver Wolf's twitchy samurai bodyguards hovered
either side of him, watching his every move.
'Great lord,' the little man dropped to his knees
and touched his forehead to the cherry planks
in the corridor. They shone, smooth from years
of daily buffing with damp rags. The innkeeper
nervously looked up. 'I trust your breakfast was
'Nnng.' Silver Wolf gestured vaguely for him
to rise. 'Adequate. The rice porridge could have
been warmer. The sliced and pickled vegetables,
fine. Good variety.'
'I treasure my lord's kind words. Our poor
establishment is so far beneath you.'
'Yes,' Silver Wolf yawned, 'but you did your
best. Now, are they here?'
The innkeeper cringed as he answered. 'Yes,
great lord. And as you instructed, from dawn
onwards, I confined my family and staff to the
kitchens.' He winced fearfully. 'Other than your
have seen your visitors. As you ordered,
all other guests were made to leave last night, for
my lord's privacy.'
Silver Wolf fixed him with a cool stare. 'Then
send them in, and remember: if you ever speak of
this, or record it in any way, I will not fail to return
for your head.'
With terrified glances at the swords flanking
him, the innkeeper bowed and fled.
The warlord's new personal bodyguards entered
the room first, taking up positions either side of
the door. Their hands never left the grips of their
His chief samurai was middle-aged, scarred
through the lips, with darting, shrewd eyes. He
had fought beside Silver Wolf at Sekigahara. His
loyalty, horsemanship and speed with a blade were
all beyond question.
The junior guard serving with him was his son,
a strapping, bull-shouldered young fellow – smart,
eager to please and full of potential. Silver Wolf
had appointed the pair for two reasons. Talent ran
in their family and he was confident they'd both
die to protect him without hesitation. His face
darkened as he remembered the injuries his last
two personal guards had suffered – in a skirmish
with a young Grey Light Order spy.
A big-boned man in town robes appeared in
the corridor, bowing low to Silver Wolf before
entering the room. He carefully laid his long
hardwood staff on the matting just inside the door,
eyes steadily moving between the ever-watchful
'My master.' He gave the warlord a second bow.
'I trust we're on time.'
'Of course you are,' Silver Wolf chuckled.
'Why would you be late, Katsu? You have no desire
to annoy me and die for it, do you?' He slapped
his thigh, enjoying Katsu's startled expression.
'Relax, my loyal hound, I jest! Again you have
Katsu's face lit up. He dared a half-grin, relief
swamping his eyes. 'My lord.'
A useful fellow, this Katsu, Silver Wolf thought
to himself. Versatile. Once a sumo wrestler
a private investigator, the
diplomatic Katsu had proven himself a reliable all-purpose
hireling. He dug up information, delivered
sensitive messages, even secretly escorted people
Such as shadow assassins of the ancient House
'Great Lord Silver Wolf.' Katsu gestured
formally to the door. 'It is my honour to introduce
Chikuma of Fuma.' A tiny
hint of fear crossed his face.
The youngest bodyguard stifled a grin. Silver
Wolf knew what amused the lad.
Chikuma of Fuma
it sounded so harmless. A bit cute, in fact, almost
funny. But the man behind the name, himself
not much older than the guard reacting to it, was
Only last year he had served a certain minor
lord, Lord Akechi, in Edo. The Shogun had
planted infiltrators in a Tsukiji trading house that
Akechi dealt with. Gradually, they all vanished.
Not long afterwards, Lord Akechi had paid a
visit to Silver Wolf's castle. A secret alliance had
been forged between them, and while celebrating
it with fine quality sake, Akechi had summed up
Chikuma's work: 'He's a one-man slaughterhouse
who generally leaves no mark on his victims.'
Silver Wolf had been instantly fascinated.
Now he felt his breakfast of green tea, lukewarm
porridge and interesting vegetables gurgling in his
stomach. Yes, he was already getting excited about
putting this young man to the big task.
Chikuma entered, bowing in the doorway with
a slow, unruffled elegance. He straightened up
and stepped softly into the room. He eyed Silver
Wolf, almost too boldly, then his face broke into
a charming, meek smile. Chikuma bowed again,
this time lower.
'Great lord,' he said quietly. His deep voice was
as soft as his step.
The warlord looked him up and down, openly
intrigued. What kind of warrior was this? A
true samurai, on meeting anyone, noted their
weaponry first, a survival habit drummed in
through out child hood. This Chikuma wore only
a small dagger. One-man slaughterhouse? Had
Akechi been drunker than he looked when saying
Chikuma of Fuma wore his hair long in one
of those untied, girlish styles growing fashionable
in the cities. He was a handsome youth, with an
intelligent face, high cheekbones and a smooth,
strong jawline. Silver Wolf noticed Chikuma's
eyes: he wore dark make-up to emphasise them. Like
his brightly coloured kimono, make-up on men was
all the rage these days in Osaka. Silver Wolf had
already banned his samurai from wearing it.
Outlandish fashions were another sad byproduct
of this ridiculous
age of peace
. When given
too many choices, people became fools. Ironic,
Silver Wolf decided. Here stood a man, himself
drenched in the silly trends of this age, who
would help Japan return to its warrior heritage.
Make-up! When Silver Wolf finally reigned, only
geishas and courtesans would wear it. The warlord
paused. What about actors? He sighed. Keep
things simple. Those strutting peacocks irritated
him . . . so they could all die too, when he took
And take power he would, but he would take
way, hard and costly as that was. The
traditional way – it was always best!
First, however, this interesting fellow and his
kind would help clear Silver Wolf's path of its
greatest hidden obstacle.
Silver Wolf motioned for his special guest to
sit. Chikuma fastidiously stretched his kimono
under his legs with quick little twitches as he
sank to the reed mat. Straightening his back,
he tossed his hair and gave an excited nasal
'I stand ready to head north at my lord's order.'
Chikuma flashed an eccentric, remote smile. Silver
Wolf studied his manner. Despite the fashionable
hair and clothing,
the words that came to mind. He'd seen quite a few
of these people of the shadows before and trusted
none of them. So far, this pretty youngster was the
most disconcerting hired killer he had met. Why?
He just didn't
. But there was more to it
than that. The warlord smiled. A simple test might
'A mutual friend,' Silver Wolf gently baited
him, 'says you are quite deadly.'
A lick of wild excitement tainted Chikuma's
eyes. Then he appeared to swiftly take control of
himself. Interesting. Silver Wolf frowned. The man
was a mix of outlandishness and tight discipline.
he kill? Perhaps he was the kind that
put you to sleep with a gaze, then cut your throat. It
was said that shinobi women in particular excelled
at that dark art, and this young fellow certainly
had a feminine style.
'Would my lord enjoy a simple demonstration?'
Chikuma asked amiably. 'As you know, we shinobi
are quite accustomed to showing an employer
what we can do.'
Seasoned instincts told Silver Wolf to be
careful. 'Perhaps just before we go our ways.' The
warlord grinned, creasing his scar. 'Using the little
A tiny hint of that crazed anticipation lit
Chikuma's eyes again. He nodded.
It was a necessary evil, hiring these weird
agents, Silver Wolf reminded himself. But as long
as the Shogun had his own wolf pack of warrior-wizards
in the form of the Grey Light Order, he
too needed killers with special powers. Harmless-looking