Chapter One - Happenstance
The slums are painted in greyscale, even the people. I feel conspicuous and shameless. I am a smear of paint, accidental, stark and ghastly against the artist’s intended canvas. My colour does not belong here. They stare as we pass, dull malice in their eyes. But they would not exact revenge on us; the heavy and united fall of our escort’s footsteps deter them. The carriage continues onwards.
Lucia is asleep opposite me. She is unperturbed by the feeling of this place, the atmosphere. Muted oppression. I too could ignore it, transcend them as I am meant to … but I wish to watch them. A small act of penitence- to suffer guilt as I watch suffering.
Because I am a lucky one. I am an Inner City denizen. The City opens its arms for me, provides for me. I have no need to desire: food, water, money, power- these things are eternal for me. I am thus bribed to love the City.
Yet I have no love for it.
We are approaching the ‘wall’, separating the Outer City from the slums. I look outwards at the expanse of barbed wire. Its curls are seductive. But everyone knows better. This is how the Outer City scares away the slum dwellers, dares them to enter at their own peril. The Outer City is a better place, for those who can survive it.
I might find some vitality there. There is none to be found here, there is none that can be spared. Hardship has stripped them all of unnesseceries: pride, humour, personality. They’re nicknamed ‘Naughts’. I've heard it used often.
We can cross the border without fear. Our escort deters all.
The Outer City thus offers respite. Here there is life and colour. Both are vulgar. The citizens here cannot afford subtleties. Quaint and beautiful decadence is reserved for the Inner City only. We are above judgement. The buildings are close together, of tougher stock than the wooden shacks of the slums, and are an ugly medley of lowly architecture from all cultures. One colour is notably absent. Green.
Crime is very open here. But I use the term 'crime' loosely. Crime is simply that which undermines us. Us is defined as money. Crime is, therefore, the black market, human trafficking, mercenaries and espionage, fraud. Men switch knives with each other. Weakness, where it can be found, is exploited. I feel a vague shame. I am interested. I am grimly amused. I remember my books, the precious few dusty pages saved before the Great Isolation. I am reminded of Darwin.
A wry smile. I cannot escape this madness. I must satirise it to endure it. That is the only way I might create some distance- become an outsider looking in. An illusion of escape.
The next wall looms, casts the Outer City into shadow. Its height hides the wonders of the inner city. The gates are heavily guarded by the House Garrisons. It is one of the few duties that the families collaborate on. It is the beginning of my domain. We wait for the guards to open the gate.
I gently wake Lucy. She stirs, blinks groggily and stretches. I watch her body unfold, her zoot suit following her. I remember designing it for her, after she found it in my library, an old book.
“How long Noriko?”
“Not long,” I respond. My hands close the book that has laid open and neglected nearly the entire trip. ‘The Republic’ sighs shut, ignored.
She yawns. “What’s the time?”
I glance at my watch. “Nearly five.”
She nods and watches the setting winter sun gleam off the gates. “I heard something peculiar at the resort today. From a lieutenant from Second Regiment.”
“It might be false.”
“Which shouldn’t factor in gossip.”
“True. Well,” she pauses. Leans forward. Dramatises the affair. “It seems our Lizzie is engaged.”
Oh. “To who?”
I wrinkle my nose. Lucy concurs.
“I know,” she nods, sagely.
“She can do better.”
“But it’s a convenient match. Heir of the banks and heiress of the gold mines.”
“Convenience shouldn’t have a part in it,” I say. My fingers clench at the silk of my kimono.
Lucy smiles at my frown- lopsided, cheeky. Sincere. “That’s how it works in the Circle.”
The carriage starts again. We pass through the gates. I sigh. “As you remind me frequently.”
The Circle. It’s where the Grand Four reside. They are the richest families in the City and the sole governors. Lucy is a Contarini, one of the four. They own the ports. The City sectors are worlds apart, each one’s concerns are beyond everyone else’s. Lucy has her own concerns. As do I.
Her status is why this opulent carriage is immune. She has an army at her disposal.
“Could be worse,” Lucy ponders. “She could be engaged to a Xi.”
The bane of our family’s existence. “Yes. Quite.”
Xi. One of the Grand Four. Money in energy and technology. The richest and most ruthless of the four.
And they hate us.
Rather, they hate my brother and his ties with Contarini. At his suggestion, the Contarini’s blocked the import of dangerous goods. Rather, goods that would give the Xi family extortionate power. It covered technology and weapons. It was Kiyoshi’s idea. Such were the trivial politics of the City.
The conversation descends into a familiar, easy silence. Lucy hums unobtrusively.
I glance out of the window. Large houses with acres of green between them. They are monuments to our cultures, cut from us due to the Great Isolation. I can only invent my culture from what I have read. The living memory of it died with the older generation. We play with remnants.
Our carriage passes by the Plaza, outside the gates to the Circle. It hides the neoclassical buildings from our view. The Inner City denizens meet and greet here, accompanied by their personal guards from their House Garrison. The colour is brightest here. Dresses, hair, smiles and pleasantries. But the colours are shallow- bright but translucent. No depth nor meaning. Empty statements.
Lucy is always oblivious to these thoughts. I cannot confide in her. It would be pointless. She is content within the City. My own disillusionment was painful enough. I would not allow her to experience the same pain. Sometimes, I have to hide in her ignorance. I find sanctuary in her conversation. She distracts me.
We pass through the gates of my estate’s walls.
“Your brother’s waiting for you. Isn’t that sweet?”
I nod in acknowledgement. Kiyoshi is standing, a speck, outside the front door. The House Garrison is having a drill outside the barracks to my right. Naturally, Lucy’s eyes are drawn that way. My other brother, Akira, is conducting the exercises. We pass right by them. He waves at me, momentarily dropping his stern scowl. I return the gesture.
The carriage stops when it reaches Kiyoshi. He steps forward and opens the door. He offers his hand to me to help me down before offering it to Lucy.
She declined. “I won’t impose on your hospitality. I have already stolen Noriko for a week.”
“Thank you very much Miss Contarini for taking her with you.”
“My pleasure,” Lucy replied. “I shall see you tomorrow evening Mr Komatsu.”
“Yes. Good night Miss Contarini.”
“Good night Mr Komatsu. Night Noriko.”
I watch her and her escort of fifty disappear out the gate and I continue to watch long after she leaves my sight. Kiyoshi stands wordlessly next to me for a while.
“We missed you Nemui-chan.”
He uses my nickname. Sleepy. Not because I am, because I seem. My thoughts spirit me away.
I smile vaguely. Sleepily. “Yes. I suppose.”
I go straight to my room. I’m too tired for dinner, even with Etsuko’s urgings. The stairs stretch out and I ascend slowly. It’s hard to remind myself of what I saw today when these walls are so familiar, beautiful. It’s hard to remember the ugliness that lies outside. I am too tired to feel guilty though.
I am also tired of feeling guilty.
I open my door. A figure already in the room jumps onto his feet from the armchair and salutes me. I quirk an eyebrow, unimpressed. I was rather hoping he would not be here when I arrived. It complicates things.
“Stand down Captain,” I order, using his title mockingly. “It’s just me.”
“Ah. Miss Noriko-”
“My brother can’t hear you.”
His shoulders immediately relax. “Just Noriko.”
“You want me too look the other way while you sneak out again,” he tells me. Not really a question. He states it as a fact. I chuckle, entering and closing the door behind me. I dim the lights down. They’re too bright, I feel too conspicuous.
“Go get your sword,” I say, dismissing him with a wave of my hand. “Hang on, before you do can you undo my obi?”
“I’m your lady in waiting now?”
“Ai-chan’s been sick all day, I haven’t the heart to wake her up for this,” I scoff.
Jin Su rolls his eyes and moves forward. He makes a start then stops. “How do you-?”
“I don’t know why I asked you. Evidently you have no experience in undressing women-” I can feel his glare on the back of my head. “It’s a drum knot if that helps.”
Eventually his fingers prise it apart and the material falls away. “Now, can you undress by yourself like a grown up girl?”
“Yes,” I respond, ignoring his sarcasm. I know it only makes him angry. “Now go get your sword.”
I throw my makura at him. He hurries away, out of the room to and through a door. His quarters are next to mine and the walls are paper thin. He can hear disturbances through the night. He stays awake during the dark and sleeps during the day. I can hear him now, rummaging about for his weapons. He really should wear his sword all the time but with no one to protect this past week, I suppose he had no need for it.
Meanwhile, I disappear behind my screen after recovering my typical outfit. Dark red shinobi shozoku. I am attached to tradition Japanese clothes. I like pretending I’m still part of that heritage, rather than borrowing it. What it was actually like to call oneself Japanese passed out of living memory one hundred years ago. From what my books tell me, this was what ninjas wore. I wear it for practicality as well- it’s easy to fight in, easy to run in, and easy to get mistaken for a gangster in. The last point assures very little trouble.
Jin Su re-enters the room. I am still undressing. I can hear him tapping his sword against the door. After some struggle, I re-emerge. Renewed. Undressing and dressing is a ceremony. I wear a different visage. I pretend to be a different person. I strip away at the layers of myself before building them up again.
Jin Su carries a katana. They’re standard issue for our House Garrison. Akira dictates it so. I don’t wear one. I find them too long and heavy. I stoop under my bed when I finish dressing to get my weapons. Kaiken. Daggers. What I lose in length does not concern me. I’m not strong. But I am quick. My daggers are more extensions of my hands. They feel natural.
Besides, I’m better at running than fighting. Katanas always get in my way.
My room is big enough to accommodate his katana swings. He looks unimpressed as I settle into a fighting stance.
“Noriko …” he tries to persuade me to stay one last time. He refuses to unsheathe his sword.
“Jin Su, you know-”
“I don’t, that’s the trouble. I don’t know what you’re doing out there. I don’t like it.”
“I just … walk,” I tell him.
And it’s the truth.
“You can walk around the grounds.”
“But there is still a wall.”
“I’m worried about the Hexton Gang. You know they’ve been kidnapping Inner City denizens lately,” he continues with his offensive.
“Let me come with you.”
I only let him once before. It didn’t feel the same as my walks usually did. But it’s hard to describe how my walks make me feel in the first place. Empty? A good kind of empty. A cleansed feeling. I do feel good in his company. I feel safe too, and he has the decency not to ask questions when I am walking. I suppose that’s because he’s too concerned about what might ambush us from round the corner.
“You may. But you have to take off your badge of office once we get across the wall.”
“I was rather hoping you weren’t going into the Outer City.”
“For a Captain, you’re awfully cautious.”
“That was uncalled for.”
“Besides, it’s my trip. My route. I am not stupid enough to go very far beyond the wall.”
I am, in actuality, stupid enough to do so. Jin Su was in charge of me and if anything happened he’d face demotion, disgrace or execution so his caution was understandable. His caution also made him agonisingly anxious. So I lied. It left my tongue slickly, words seeking to give him comfort.
I deceive him. His shoulders relax and he sighs. “Good.”
“Shall we then? Forget the warm up.” He nods. “Right. Scout ahead of me and we’ll sneak out the south east entrance, then through the east gate.”
Eventually, we slip into the Outer City without a fuss. Jin Su gets passed the wall checkpoint without question due to the Komatsu crest on his badge and as his companion, I too go unquestioned. He obeys the orders I gave him and removes the badge. He places it in his pocket. Now we both look like Haihito gangsters. Such an appearance usually gives me little trouble, unless, of course, I run into another gang. And if I run in, I can run out. Jin Su looks nervous, although he is beyond complaining. He wished to come and now he must stay with me.
I originally wanted to go towards the centre of the Outer City. It is full of light and diversity. Humans. Us Inner City denizens must always appear cold and untouchable. Infallible. There is always a feeling of hostility about us. Mostly. The few exceptions I can find are my friends. Jin Su, Lucy, Elizabeth …
I don’t turn around. He just wants a bit of certainty. He wants to know what I’m thinking. “We’re going right.”
It’s quieter and darker, but it lends the air a feeling of contemplation. There is somewhere down this way that I like to sit and stare and forget. And I can let Jin Su stand guard, allowing him to fulfil his duties as well as removing him. I can still achieve privacy even now.
We hardly meet anyone as we walk. It’s too close to the wall and, therefore, guards for most people’s comfort. There are no lights. Candles are kept inside and electricity is far too expensive to be wasted outside. The Xi family keep their prices high- energy is usually a luxury reserved for us Inner City members. There is only the faint ambiance of my domain. The moon is not out tonight.
Jin Su can see better than I can. A few times he stops to tell me to watch me head or my step. Even so, I know where I’m going. Dark shapes become suddenly familiar as I pass them. I start to look for the next shape, the next sign.
“Watch the drain.”
I step around it.
“Why do you do this?”
It’s the first time he’s ever dared to ask me. I am tempted to pull rank and inform him that he has no right to know. But he has become more than my guard for the years he’s served me. He’s my confidant. And I’d hate for him to threaten discovery upon me. If Kiyoshi ever found out about my nocturnal wanderings then I would be-
“Noriko, please answer me.”
“Oh I don’t know. Atonement. Reflection. Excitement. A spiritual path.”
He looks at me oddly. “Spiritual? What?”
Ah yes. I forgot. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that. It’s an archaic phrase. ‘Relating to the soul.’”
Sometimes I wish I didn’t read at all. I refrain from sighing, forcing my muscles to painfully perform a smile. “It’s hard to define. Something about humans that cannot be explained. Something more than our bodies and the material.”
Jin Su blinks. “What can be more than the material?”
That’s what I want to know. Or maybe it is just wishful thinking. Hoping for more than this wretched existence. This is why I walk. I am distracting myself from the truth. If I read too deeply, I forget what is on the surface. I am the only one who thinks like this, surely that means I am not on the right path.
How do you verify something like that?
I have fallen silent. Jin Su must have felt something change in me because he does not pursue me. I am grateful he is so perceptive.
I spot the dark shape of a gargoyle.
It is an English Victorian style manor. The dark opulence is always intriguing. What is more, this house is always empty. It is my secret sanctuary. I will not permit him to step inside.
Jin Su has been by me enough to get over most of my eccentricities but this is quite beyond him. I know. I can see his astonished face in the glass remaining in the broken window set in the door as I reach for the handle.
“Stand guard outside. I will be finished within the hour.” He opens his mouth to say something else. I stop him. “I promise.”
I open the door, slip through, then close it.
I am standing in what used to be a grand foyer. The chandelier lays in ruins in front of my feet. I can wriggle my toes and hear the crunch of crystal. White sheets hang from the banister, torn but otherwise strangely unblemished. There’s a sense of history about this place. It soothes me. I love history- the fantasy of better times. Golden Ages. I can imagine it now, a grand reception for a ball, back when the entirety of the city was safe, not just the inner sectors. I enjoy the feel of dust, like tracing time with my fingers. Dry and crisp. I can write my name in it and pretend it’ll be there for someone else to find. Someone like me? I draw my kanji characters on a table and I stare at them before moving across the shards and into the parlour.
The furniture is covered in white sheets. Protected. I have never dared lift them. I like the room how it is. Distant. Not cold. Just removed. There is door with window pane in it. There must have once been a garden here, where the room would open out onto the grass on a lovely day. Now, there is only the street and the crowded houses opposite. Grey.
I wonder if I would care so much about the past if I didn’t read. Reading is a rare thing nowadays. Not many people bother. There is not much to learn from books that can help here … and why read for leisure when one can pursue more earthly pleasures? I am an oddity even in that respect. I wonder if I actually like being an oddity. Maybe that’s why it seems I insist in being one. Or was I made one? At least then I can pretend I didn’t have a choice in the matter.
Truth, it seems so abstract. I think it is one of the attractions of this house. It makes everything slip away to insignificance. Am I really standing here? Can I really touch, see, hear, smell, taste? Are my senses absolute? Can I trust them utterly, no matter the circumstances? This building makes everything ethereal. I don’t know why- maybe it’s the white sheets or the way that dust distorts the little light found.
I stretch my hand out in front of me, fingers splayed. It seems so strange to me, I find it hard to believe its delicate shape is a part of me. Curious … observing how it responds to me, how I cam make it move.
My reverie ends abruptly. I have to laugh at myself. I am absurd.
I can hear running footsteps and shouting outside. Not where Jin Su is, thankfully. It is round the back end of the house. I edge towards the white curtained window to my left. I pull the silk apart and place one eye to the gap. The shouting carries through the glass. Angry- full of blood lust.
“I want him dead!”
A woman’s shriek. In Japanese. The Haihito? The grunts of her henchies concur. She is not far away, though there is some distance between her and her prey. Enough.
A man runs past the window.
He seeks shelter in the doorway. If I shift round, I can watch him. I check the distance between him and his hunter. Three hundred metres … maybe. I shift round, careful not to give away my position. I study him.
His face is bloodied. There is pure terror written across it. His hand holds onto his sword arm, supporting it. There is a trench cut into his flesh. I clench at the curtains, knuckles clicking. It is hard to watch a human being give up. He seems ready to die- the way his shoulders are sagging, the way he is forcing himself to breath, the way his sword lies sleeping. I say ‘ready’ wrongly; his is not. He is scared of dying, he is rallying himself to die because it is inescapable.
He is young, older than me but still-
I don’t want him to die.
I can save him. If I can get him inside then he is safe. The door handle glints. It is probably locked but-
I run to it. Push down on the handle, keep it in position with my elbow. Slide my dagger down the slit, feel the resistance of the lock. But it is old metal. I push hard and feel it give way. The door swings open and I grab his shoulder. He yelps. I feel blood on my hands. Pull him in, then I close the door quietly.
He falls against me and I am caught under him. I lose my balance and his weight pins me to the ground. His breath is grating his lungs, anxious. But there is no need for that- the woman runs past and so does the rest of her gang. Relief floods through him and the tension keeping his body working disappears. He can barely prop himself up on his forearms to keep himself from crushing me. He stares at me.
“You’re … Haihito?”
His hand clutches at his weapon. A sabre. I prepare to get up, run away from the threat, but he puts his elbow on my sternum. Presses down. I gasp, heart racing. “No, I’m-”
“Don’t lie, you’re dressed as one.”
I had rather hoped for some gratitude. Angrily, I shove him off. He is too weak to resist. I can see better now. He has been stabbed in the shoulder, cut on the arm and struck bluntly on the head. He falls backwards.
“If I was … wouldn’t I have stabbed you in the back rather than let you in?”
“I-” He looks at me, frowning. Then he makes a disgruntled sound and sheathes his sword. He goes to lie down. I stand, insulted.
“Do I not get an apology?”
“Of course not.”
I am tempted to do something. Maybe cut him again, hurt him. Force him to acknowledge me. He wipes the blood off his face. “I’ll say thank you instead,” he drawls. He collapses on top of a sheet covered chaise longue. His blood stains the white, sullies my sanctuary. I want to tell him to get up but … that would be wrong of me. And I would have to justify why. There is no way of doing that.
“Aren’t you a bit delicate for wandering about in the dark alone?” he asks me abruptly.
I don’t feel like answering. I cannot confirm I am an outsider. Inner City denizens can quickly become someone’s prey around here. He has a point though. Clever women learn how to defend themselves, lucky women have brothers and husbands to defend them. The luckiest women have armies. I suppose that makes me lucky and clever … I’d like to think that.
“It’s sweet of you to care but-” I let the sentence hang, unfinished. I turn towards him, face him fully. Study him. He holds himself well when he’s relaxed despite his pain. I try to trace his features in the dark. Light hair, sharply cut face. In the ambiance, I think I can make out freckles. How quaint.
“You talk awful posh, you from around here?” he asks. He’s trying to catch me out.
I shake my head. “I’ve ‘descended’.”
“Ah, ex-inner … tough isn’t it?”
“How did you lose it?”
The lies form easily. Naturally. I rather enjoy it, feeling the false words fall away without resistance. Smooth, they contrast with my pulsing heart. Adrenaline. I haven’t had this rush for a long time. Lying to Kiyoshi, Miyoko, Akira, Etsuko … doesn’t compare with this. There’s no danger in that.
“And you lived because …”
“I was smart.” I indicate my two scabbards. “Can’t leave everything to the guard ... Especially when he’s the agent.”
“Very good. Say, thought about actually being a gangster rather than parading as one?” I laugh at him. He gives me a cheeky smile. I was angry at him a few moments ago. Now he’s making me laugh. He forces me to let go of any ill feeling. “What? It was worth asking. You seem cut out for it. You know, for a high strung bird.”
I shake my head. “I like working on my own. I only have to worry about myself that way.”
“Ooooh, cold as ice … I feel honoured you deigned it upon yourself to save me.”
“You talk pretty posh yourself when you want to.”
“Well, I’m not from round here.” I can’t tell. Don’t care whether he is lying or not. I am too fond of lying myself. I feel like I am not me. The guilt melts away then. “What? No return interrogation?”
“It’s just I’m asking a lot of questions and getting none back.”
“I don’t mind answering. I’m never going to see you again, after all. And you won’t see me.”
“Aww, won’t I?”
“Surely that’s the only way you can talk to me like this.”
His gaze changes very slightly. I am puzzled. I think I might be a source of intrigue to him. “You’re an odd one,” he tells me. I half smile. Half confirm it. “Still, there’s truth to that.”
I nod, contemplate sitting down. Maybe check on him, although I can see now that he is fine. Wounded, yes, but far from death. I just need to steer him away from shock. He is dealing with the idea of nearly dying admirably well. Too well.
I want to ask him why he was being chased, but I’m not sure if I would like to know. I have painted an identity for him already. I have saved an innocent.
“Hey Ice Queen.”
“You say not knowing makes things easier between people.”
I nod, frowning. ‘Ice Queen’ really-
“You heard me perfectly well.”
He must be high on relief and what adrenaline was still in his body. “No.”
“Ah, can’t condemn a man for trying.” He is beyond me. That fact draws me to him. He’s so alien to me. This confidence is ridiculous. “So you didn’t save me because you were so taken by my charms?”
I smile. “You look too young to die.”
“Not because I was handsome?”
I shake my head and continue to smile.
“You look pretty when you smile.”
Now what do I say to that? “I-” No. “Thank you.”
I am never going to see this man again. Maybe I should have kissed him. Just because we can, because we have the freedom to do it. I do not have to worry about alliances like in the Inner City. I do not have to worry about making suitable acquaintances. I can do as I wish. He will never see me again.
I check my watch. I must leave in twenty minutes. Earlier would be better.
“Need to go somewhere?”
“Yes, I’m afraid.”
He looks disappointed. “No worries. I’ll be fine.” He falls silent. I watch him struggle upright. He sits, then stands. Wobbles a little. I am poised, ready to catch him should her fall. “Say, can I have a name?”
I shake my head, smiling.
“I’d be honoured,” he implores once again.
“But it would ruin the moment.”
“Would you like my name?”
“No. Don’t you dare tell me either.”
“Like playing the mystery- whoa-” I run, catch his arm before his balance falters. He steadies himself on me, looks down at me. His eyes smile. “You got good reflexes.”
“Can I try for that kiss one more time, before we never meet again?”
I am at liberty to. And I want to. Why not?
He is able to read me already. My silence dares him to lean forward. I neither retreat nor advance. His lips are cold. His touch is evanescent. He is very gentle. He doesn’t feel real. I like him all the more for it. I wonder if I’ll question the occurrence tomorrow. He will disappear then.
I kiss him until time is up.
“I have to go.”
He nods, lets me go. “Bye Ice Queen.”