Into the Sands
Three weeks later, the outskirts of Jizan, Saudi Arabia
She’d seen him fight hand-to-hand on a rooftop in Manhattan. She’d seen him wield escrimas in a flaming circle in one of the southern provinces of the Philippines. Each time, Raizo prevailed with ease. Now only two opponents remained, the sixth and seventh “Tigers” of the tournament, and Mika Coretti couldn’t ignore her growing dread.
Her research on the Izanagi Clan wasn’t turning up much. Compared to the others, the Izanagi were a very young clan. And though their name was not absent from the Murasaki diaries, little of import was recorded about them. They didn’t appear to have any unusual abilities; no epics were written about their champions and yet…something about their mediocrity made Mika think it was a clever façade for their mystery. She sensed the ultimate ninja tactic.
There was something this clan was hiding from their brethren, and it wasn’t sitting too well with Mika.
Nor Lady Kameyo, for that matter. She Noriko maintained their bravado admirably, but even Shiori was starting to lose her humor. Kameyo had sent the mysterious Tsuyoshi many different kinds of lovers, all to no avail. His health and form remained in tact.
Tonight, the four ladies sat in Lady Kameyo’s lavish tent several miles east of Jizan. Mika was no longer surprised that the Murasaki – no matter where they went – always managed to travel in style. The inner lining of Kameyo’s tent was pure silk, dark and red as blood. Her floor was covered with thick cotton cloth, and then layered with expensive rugs for comfort. And the tent was filled with cream-colored pillar candles perched on tall black cast iron stands. This evening, Noriko played will cupbearer to her mistress, filling and refilling the old woman’s sake glass.
A belly dancer from a local village was sent to entertain Lady Kameyo tonight. She had skin the color of the desert, thickly kohl-rimmed eyes, and a long, sheer veil of the palest pink. Within moments of her arrival, the tent filled with the perfume of the blossoms braided into her pitch black hair.
She was accompanied by a trio of young male musicians, the eldest no more than twenty or so. He played a flute, so husky and mournful it compelled Mika and the Murasaki into complete silence. The dancer’s performance mirrored the flute-player’s sadness. She was not precise in her movements; there was far too much emotion for that. She was like a force of nature, embodying the sorrow and loneliness of the desert wind.
This, Mika thought, this is real dancing. She could see Shiori watching the dancer carefully, trying to memorize her style. Mika smirked, pitying the young ninja, knowing the warrior’s efforts would forever be in vain.
You can nail the movements to a T, she snickered to herself, but if you have no soul, you can never bring the art itself to life.
The dancer finished gracefully, bowing to appreciative applause before exiting quickly. On her way out, she bumped into Raizo, who came in carrying an armful of swords.
“I went into the village,” he greeted the ladies with a slight bow. “The blacksmith had my order ready, as promised. Are they not beautiful, Kameyo-sama?”
Shiori rose fluidly from her perch at her mistress’s feet and came to him. She took sword and brandished for Lady Kameyo to see. Mika did not miss how the curving blade gleamed eerily in the candlelight.
The old woman waved dismissively, unimpressed by its beauty. “I never cared much for the scimitar,” she grumbled. “I just couldn’t ever seem to find the right outfit to go with it.”
Had this been a couple of months earlier, Mika’s jaw would’ve hit the floor. But she was now used to the old woman’s random bouts of shallow honesty. She saw Kameyo for the vain Murasaki princess she was. Every night, Kameyo took hours to dress, often enlisting Mika’s aid in choosing her evening gown. Tonight, Noriko and Mika had swathed Lady Kameyo in an Arabian dream of sheer lilac muslin over pale gray silks. Mika herself had braided back the long gray hair, smoothing it with camellia oil imported from Japan. As always, Kameyo had to be the belle of the ball. And she wasn’t an oddity in this. Mika had already gleaned from the Murasaki diaries that clan mistresses were always vain and materialistic.
Ironically, these were the old woman’s most tolerable flaws.
“Katashi favors the scimitar,” Raizo grinned, going over to a wide rug and kneeling to lay out his many blades. “It will be a great pleasure to best that pompous prick at his favorite weapon.”
“Tell me again…what’s he doing out here so far from civilization?” Kameyo inquired, holding out her glass for her third or fourth refill.
“The American government hired the Hanako Clan to take out the family of an oil mogul,” Raizo replied, testing the various swords for balance. “Rumor has it the mogul stashed his younger children out here. Katashi was sent to kill them all.”
“But…,” Mika began, carefully masking all emotion, “if you kill him tonight, he won’t get to complete his mission.”
Raizo merely shrugged, too preoccupied with his shiny new toys. He replied rather absently, “His clan will simply send another. Unfortunately, Katashi knows these deserts better than any in his clan. His replacement will no doubt fail.”
Mika repressed her sigh of relief. She was getting good that, hiding her emotions, keeping her voice neutral, and maintaining an almost stoic disposition at all times. She’d even learned to control the beating of her special heart, thanks to Raizo. Mika often amused herself by thinking any day now she was going to start seeing things strictly in terms of “logical” and “illogical”.
Raizo wasn’t only teaching Mika to be a Vulcan, of course. Three weeks or so ago, Lady Kameyo had given Mika yet another gift, this one wholly different from the others. It was an intricately carved crossbow, slim, lightweight, made from polished red wood and inlaid with jade and silver. Mika was excited about this gift; it gave her something to do rather than simply wear, as though she were a living doll.
Since that day she’d taken archery lessons from Raizo. Her aim was steadily improving, but she still had to learn to reload more quickly. Shiori have given her silver crossbow bolts as a gift, and though Mika remained “armed” at all times, she really didn’t want to use any of those precious bolts.
A Murasaki maiden entered the tent suddenly, her head hanging low. She looked worn and tired, as though she’d traveled a great distance, and by her facial expression, Mika knew they were all about to hear bad news.
The young girl came before her mistress and knelt in penitent greeting.
“Did he have you?” the old woman demanded strictly, cutting her off and sparing no time for excuses. “Did the two of you at least share a cup of tea?”
“No, mistress,” the young ninja replied. “I am the tenth lover he has rejected.”
Raizo’s eyebrow went up and Mika’s stomach clenched.
Tsuyoshi, she thought at once, as the alarm bells rang loudly throughout her skull. They’re talking about the Izanagi warrior. She tried to keep her heart beating steadily and failed.
Kameyo’s left hand flew out with sudden and feline speed. She flipped open a fan before anyone in the room could even blink or figure where the hell the fan itself came from, and slashed the poor girl’s face. Warm blood sprayed lightly across the tent.
The young girl fell backward in a slump as Kameyo told her tersely, “There…now you’ll be the lover every man rejects. Remember this moment the next time you even think to report failure to me.” The old woman’s head stiffly snapped towards Raizo. She spoke to him in a grim and leaden voice. “Get this thing out of my sight.”
Mika watched her lover rise to his feet and obey without question, even though his eyes subtly hinted alarm. He helped the fallen ninja gently to her feet and escorted her out of the tent.
Noriko wasted no time. “Izanagi is on to us, Mistress,” she rasped lowly. “Tsuyoshi is no fool. He is not weak like the others.”
“I can weaken him,” Shiori piped up confidently. “Send me to Kyoto, Mistress.”
“My dearest idiot child,” Kameyo replied crisply, “we have to keep our hands ‘clean’, remember? If the Izanagi champion is found dead one week before he is to fight Raizo, we will have seven clans calling foul play. It is amazing we’ve come as far as we have without detection.”
“All due respect, my lady,” Mika proffered softly – which she never did – “I don’t think the Izanagi are what they pretend to be.”
“Of course they’re not,” Kameyo snorted. “None of us are, Mika. To the other clans, we are the Sisters of Ozunu, the Clan of the Red Sand, the wise and neutral Followers of Takako. In their minds, we would never tamper with so sacred and honorable a tournament.”
“Apologies, Mistress,” Mika pressed politely, “but that’s not what I meant.” Normally, she kept her mouth shut, but something told her Raizo was in real danger this time. “I think they’re keeping something from the clans that no one ever figured out.”
Noriko raised an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”
“Well,” Mika swallowed, “my research indicates that they’ve done everything they can to stay under everyone’s radar, including that of the clans. I think…I think they are far more powerful than we give them credit for, my lady. You’ve tried everything to bend Tsuyoshi to your will and it’s just not working. No man should be able to resist the will of Murasaki for this long, Mistress. It’s just not natural.”
Kameyo nodded grimly. “I have sent him men, women, boys, girls…nothing appeals to his appetite. What else do we know of Tsuyoshi?”
“Nothing, Mistress,” Shiori shook her head. “I too have been reading about his clan. We know very little.”
Kameyo immediately looked alarmed. “How is it we’ve been ignorant of our own kin for so long? Are you telling me that in five centuries of records we have nothing to use to our advantage, and none of you people are noticing this until now?” Her voice had risen to a deadly pitch, and Mika noticed that even Noriko mildly cringed.
She opened her mouth to de-escalate the situation but a messenger suddenly entered, interrupting their conversation. She was another of these tall, lithe, stone-faced Murasaki. She announced that the Hanako had arrived.
Kameyo turned to Mika. “Go prepare Raizo,” she ordered. “Take his swords to him. And when he has butchered that desert rat, you return to me at once with your research.”
“My lady,” Mika bowed her head, picking up Raizo’s scimitars and exiting the tent gratefully. She didn’t miss the angry voices rasping behind her, and was suddenly very glad to be neither Noriko nor Shiori.
They should’ve had a plan B, she thought irritably. It shouldn’t have taken ten rejections to get their attention; after the first two or three they should’ve known something was up.
Raizo was already waiting for her in their tent. As he dressed like a desert warrior, wrapping himself in pitch black robes and lacing up his knee-high boots, Mika noticed the wooden goblet on the small table in the center. She smiled briefly at the ritual of the “Last Sip”. She took her sip first, and then handed the goblet to him. When he took his and set the goblet down, she helped him tie back and cover his long black hair.
“You almost look like a Bedouin,” she chuckled softly. “Always so handsome, no matter they make you wear.”
“And you—” he stole a kiss, right before she helped him cover his mouth, “—are ever so beautiful, no matter what that old crazy woman makes you wear.”
Mika laughed gaily, pulling Raizo into her arms and holding him close, enjoying his warmth for a moment.
“Are you ready?” she murmured finally. He nodded against her before pulling away.
“I think I will take two swords,” Raizo sighed. “Katashi likes to fight with two.”
“Are you any good with the scimitar?” Mika asked suddenly, recalling that she’d never actually seen him practice.
He merely shrugged. “It’s like riding bike.”
They headed out into the night. A torchlit circle awaited them, along with the Hanako Clan and their white flags, and the Murasaki with their red. Lady Hanako was a fearsome woman to behold; tall, solidly built, she had a vicious scar across her face. She wore her soft white hair braided down her back; it matched her long, wispy muslin gown. Her lips pursed as her eyes drilled onto her tall champion.
Whether he was good-looking or not, Mika couldn’t tell; like Raizo, Katashi’s head and face were covered. Only his silken white sash helped to tell the warriors apart; as Raizo predicted, Katashi was fighting with two swords.
Shiori stood in place for Kameyo, and Mika didn’t need to be told why. The old woman was most assuredly still her tent yelling at her commanders, demanding answers for perpetual failure. And considering the circumstances, Mika sided with her. The Murasaki were supposed to be experts at getting people off guard and finding appropriate “distractions”. What did it say when the entire clan couldn’t figure out how to bring one man to heel?
Mika’s mind wandered away from the fight; she pondered the desert instead, looking at the distance dunes and windswept plains under the moon. Such beauty... such vast and desolate beauty.
Like your life will be if you lose Raizo to Tsuyoshi, Mika suddenly thought. If Raizo died, Kameyo wouldn’t set her free. And if Mika didn’t leave Hotel Red Sand, Noriko would be upset.
That was not a desirable situation. She had to find away to help him triumph, and it had to be soon. Because after he won tonight, it would only be seven days before he faced Tsuyoshi, the final Tiger.
For a moment, her eyes drifted to the actual fight, where she noted Katashi really was better with the scimitar. He cut Raizo several with the first couple of minutes, and he maintained more fluid footing.
Not that it mattered, Mika yawned. Katashi’s fate was sealed the day he was chosen to represent his clan. He’d been marked by the Murasaki, and there was no undoing it. Once the Clan of Red Sand set its eyes on you, your life was over, no matter how smooth-sailing it seemed.
So how was it Tsuyoshi confounded them so? Because this latest hiccup in their plans went far beyond the gay-or-straight debate. He had to know what was going on, or at least know something was going on. Something – or someone – had clued him in…but no one else. But how? And why?
Mika yawned again, wondering why she felt so sleepy. It was actually becoming hard to keep her eyes open, which made no sense. She’d slept in late today, made love all afternoon, and then woken again in the early evening. Was she pregnant? And if so, why wasn’t she puking her guts out?
She swayed on her feet, first lightly, then more so. She blinked rapidly to fight the onslaught of weariness, only to find her vision blurring. And that’s when it suddenly hit her. What was happening had nothing to do with pregnancy or sleepiness.
Her mind flashed back to the wooden goblet of water sitting on the table in their tent.
Was it the Hanako? The Izanagi? Or had Noriko betrayed them?
Her mind swam as she called out Raizo’s name. She wasn’t the only one; she distantly heard Shiori shouting as a commotion ensued. But Mika was on her back now, fallen into the sands and listening to the frantic footfalls all around her. She heard shouts of “traitor” and “liar” as though voices came from miles away.
She was lay on warm sand, warm, soft sand. But then the earth beneath her hardened, stiffened against her back like planks of wood, while she was suddenly engulfed in cold…and too tired to even panic.
Raizo awoke, disoriented, not knowing where he was. He opened his eyes but could only see the dark. He felt something splash on him, something cold and liquid like rain, but he could also taste salt in his mouth.
What the hell…?
“Good,” an unfamiliar voice creepily called from the dark. It was male and silkily insidious, very much like Takeshi’s, and yet different somehow. Colder. Less bitter. “You’re waking up. Took you long enough.”
Raizo tried to speak, but he found his whole body was still sluggish and unmoving. The words seemed to thicken and still in his throat.
“Most people don’t transition well into the Shadow Lands,” the voice mocked, “but then again, it’s not a common skill to travel between worlds.”
Between worlds? Raizo blinked slowly. Am I dead?
“In fact,” the voice went on, “none but the Izanagi ever mastered the skill. Fuck, none of the other clans even know the skill exists.”
Izanagi, Raizo inwardly gasped.
He was too confused to panic. Even as his senses sharpened and his limbs slowly unlocked, Raizo still didn’t feel his heart thumping loudly in his chest.
He smell salt on the air now, and feel the regular spraying of water. Beneath him, hard wood planks seemed to subtly rock from side to side. He blinked, opening his eyes wider as his vision cleared, still seeing only pitch night…and masts…and black sails lit by pale and distant ghostly moonlight.
“I’m aboard a ship?” he murmured to himself, surprised he could even speak aloud. How the hell did he get from the desert to the sea aboard a rickety old wooden ship?
Raizo rose to his feet cautiously, looking at his surroundings. Indeed, he was on a ship, seemingly abandoned. There was nothing but black and open sea surrounding him. The black sails of the ship fluttered in ominous delicacy, and he still couldn’t place the moon’s exact location in the sky.
He was still in his desert warrior clothes; he pried off the soaked cloth about his head, breathing in rich salt sea air.
“Where the f—?”
“Don’t bother trying to figure out where you are, Raizo; you’ll hurt yourself in the process,” the voice snorted, seemingly bodiless and echoic at first, until a figured from across the bridge emerged from the shadowed cabin doorway. He was tall, very pale, very slender, and refined like a prince from the ancient days. His jet black hair was so long it reached his hips. His clothes were dark, plain, and he appeared unarmed.
“Hello, Raizo,” he greeted. “I am Izanagi Tsuyoshi, and you are on the Barge of the Damned.”
Raizo blinked. “I’m…dead?”
“No,” Tsuyoshi snickered, flashing an excruciatingly pretty grin. “Not yet anyway.”