It was almost midnight. Definitely the coldest evening they'd had this year so far. His face went numb every time the freezing wind blew. It was harsh against his skin, but he liked it. He decided to stay up longer outside his cottage just to feel it.
He looked up. The moon was monstrous, with its rim glowing red. A coward would want to cower and hide from it, but he was a man so he stared at it, unfazed, even though he felt slightly unnerved by it; it felt as if the moon had a life of its own. It looked unreal - it was huge, unusually bright, and somewhat bloody, as if it just jumped straight out of a child's nightmare. But the darkness looming in the land was far more threatening, so for all the light it lent them, he was grateful to the moon.
He was sitting on the front steps of their cottage, a deafening silence surrounding him. Perpendicularly beside their house stood two other cottages facing each other, both being occupied by the close relatives of his mother. Together, these enclosed the humble space of their family compound, with just few small wooden fences marking the boundary around it.
Almost everything around him was tranquil, the leaves and the grass being the only things that moved. At this hour, everyone was already in bed; he must be the only one awake now. He brought the tobacco to his lips and puffed a trail of smoke, before shifting himself and stretching out.
He was about to discard the worn out shaft to the damp soil beneath him and reach for another one in his back pocket when he heard the cry of a tired hawk. He looked up.
"What - " he muttered, when he saw a big black bird swooping down and straight toward him. Lazily, he raised his arm toward its direction.
It landed comfortably on his forearm and bowed its head slightly, as if reaching for his hand. He brought his fingers near its beak and it pecked him - it was telling him to reach for its belt.
He hesitated for a moment - he could not be receiving another assignment from the daimyo, could he? He'd only arrived from a long and tedious escort trip a few hours ago, and was not scheduled to receive another assignment until the next morning. That was how it always worked. Unless... unless something about his earlier task went wrong - maybe he brought in the wrong child, or the child had escaped.
He rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation, his hand now reaching for the flap under the hawk's belt. As expected, the bird was here to deliver a message. He pulled out a slip of a carefully folded note.
Before letting it go, he gave the bird a soft pat on the head. "You're tired, I'm tired, but we both have no choice other than to follow the lords, don't we? Poor thing, that's your fate too. You can go now," he whispered, as he raised his arm higher.
The hawk looked at him for a split-second before leaping into the air, soon gliding smoothly and vanishing above and beyond the tree tops.
He was alone again. He unfolded the note and quickly scanned it.
East Tower. One assignment requires discussion.
Report to us as soon as this note is received.
He took a deep breath, cold air painfully passing through his lungs. Itaru had no choice but to do exactly as he was told.
Classified information was always disseminated in the two towering wings of the daimyo's palace. Military matters were managed by the West Tower, whereas everything else was attended to by the East Tower.
Given the seeming urgency of the hour, he expected the message would have some sort of military bearing, which was why the appearance of the hawk somehow initially lifted his spirits. After reading that he was being summoned by the East Tower, however, his heart sank. Anything from that tower was trivial; none of the assignments he would be receiving from the eastern wing would help him go up the ranks. Only missions from the Western Tower would showcase how worthy he was as a warrior. He grunted. What an utter waste of time -
"Itaru!" a familiar voice called as he entered the gates toward the palace.
He groaned. Even without looking, he knew whose voice it was. He looked up. Leaving the East Tower was Kosei, his cousin who was of the same age as he - they were both twenty-five.
If there was anyone more desperate to climb up the ranks than him, it was Kosei. The guy was insufferable. Kosei and his older brother, Sota, a way more respectable man than his younger sibling, occupied one of the cottages beside their house. But since all of them were always busy, they barely had time to talk to each other.
Itaru did not mind talking to Sota, the older being a very reasonable and reserved man, but interacting with Kosei was a different story. His presence alone annoyed Itaru to insanity; hearing him talk made him want to rip his own ears off.
Maybe it was because he was dumb, or maybe it was the competition... No, it was definitely because Kosei was incredibly dumb, who also managed to talk so highly of himself. How his cousin achieved the same military rank as he, and have more friends than Itaru would ever have, eluded him.
The bastard was waving at him. He cringed. Left without a choice, he continued to make his way toward the direction of the tower, where Kosei was.
"Heading up?" Kosei asked, a stupid smirk plastered across his face.
'No, heading down, idiot,' Itaru thought sarcastically, though he did not dare say it out loud. The tower did not have a basement and the ground floor was basically empty - of course he was heading up.
He was not scared of Kosei, but they were surrounded by three of Kosei's friends. Acting cocky around other people was just not his thing.
"Yeah," he answered blatantly.
"So you're late then," Kosei mockingly pointed out. "What took you so long to finish your assignment?"
The urge to shove his fist through that stupid face was overwhelming Itaru. It was not because he felt offended, but Kosei's voice was just too annoying. Oh how he wanted to just place his fingers around that throat and tear those vocal cords off, he would be doing the world a great favor.
"No, I finished mine several hours ago, way before you did," Itaru answered between gritted teeth, with only a slightly noticeable tinge of insult in his tone. He forced a smile, trying to make it seem like a brotherly joke.
Kosei's eyes narrowed before chuckling. "Did something go wrong, then?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Or are you being summoned a second time because you did something wrong, again?"
He saw Kosei's friends laugh and snort at the corner of his vision, though he did not hear anything. Kosei seemed to breathe deeply out of satisfaction. Itaru swore this idiot would get what his foolish, arrogant ass deserved someday. For now though, he would be the more mature person, because he really was the mature one, wasn't he?
"I hope not," was all he could manage to say, before leaping off toward the entrance of the tower without sparing his cousin a second glance.
"I will wait for you here!" he heard Kosei yell behind him. "So we can head home together."
'Yeah, right,' Itaru thought. He knew he just wanted to wait for him to personally hear whatever the bad news was. What a nosey pig.
There were several people, most of them royal guards, loitering the outer ground of the palace. Inside, however, the tower was deserted. He merely stepped in, since the entrance was just an opening on the wall without a door, and noted that the narrow corridor opposite the entrance was also dark and empty. Nothing else could be found inside except a concrete spiral staircase which stood alone in one corner. If one looked up, the steps seemed to ascend into nothingness, due to how void the tower was.
Itaru continued toward the stairs. The way up was exhausting. Even for a warrior like him, there were just too many steps and no railings. There were no landings either. There were, in fact, only two storeys in each of the two towers - the empty ground floor, and the upper storey, which Itaru estimated to be suspended almost fifty meters above the ground. Once, out of boredom and annoyance, he counted the steps and swore it went beyond two hundred. He heard it was constructed this way so that should an enemy decide to sneak to the palace towers, he would have to deal with the tiring way up. No matter how lame this excuse was, Itaru simply accepted it.
The entire staircase was illuminated by few torches, which dotted the walls at regular intervals. There were also big rectangular holes on the wall, supposedly windows, where two people could fit standing and from which you could see the outside of the palace completely. These windows also dotted the tower at regular intervals.
Sometimes the wind was so harsh that it would blow the torches off and leave an entire tower in darkness. If one was unlucky, he would have to crawl the rest of his way - one misstep could send him falling to his death since nothing would stop him from stepping off the stairs. Itaru could not understand why no one bothered to build railings, given how busy the towers always were especially during the day. He just assumed that the danger it posed was part of the strategy to make the upper story a less appealing target for enemies.
The echoes of his footsteps were overwhelmingly loud and even reverberated multiple times so that it seemed as if someone was following him. He shrugged it off; he could not remember the last time he'd been called to the tower at this hour. Usually, he was here while the tower was still filled with people, never at the last hour of the night.
He only stopped twice in between, for a split-second each to catch his breath, but he was exhausted. His muscles were sore from the previous journey, which involved almost endless hiking and carrying a child on his back every now and then with very little stops in between. Normally he would not have to carry someone else's child, especially if he had a father or an older brother to go with him. But today he had to accompany a fatherless boy with just his mother.
Upon reaching the landing, Itaru took a deep breath before eyeing the wooden door right in front of him. It led to the only room in the entire tower. He knocked just twice.
After only a few seconds of waiting, the door opened and he came face to face with a familiar lady, whose young face bore lines and a certain dullness that told him she was more exhausted than he was right now. She was only a few years older than him. Her hair was gathered up messily in loose ponytail. She was wearing plain dark kimono and was bare of any jewelry. Her shoulders were hunched tiredly and she looked ashen. This was not the first time he'd seen her like this though, in fact, she looked like this very often.
Itaru bowed slightly before her and she just nodded, knowing that the young man's gesture came more out of habit than from formality.
"Sachiko, I just received the message," he said. They called each other by their given names now, since they had already been well-acquainted the past few years.
"Yes, thank you for coming. Sorry for reaching out at a very inconvenient hour," she said, as she walked to the far end of the room to gather the scattered folders on top of a wooden desk; her tone was sincerely apologetic.
Sachiko was the primary assistant of the daimyo for welfare matters. These covered basically just education and health. She usually shared the office with another assistant - Mikoto, the one who took care of civil matters. Tonight, however, Sachiko appeared to be unaccompanied.
"Sorry for the mess. An incident happened here earlier. Two men got into a fight over the details of a report, which quickly led to some injuries then a petty lawsuit which is why Mikoto could not be here tonight," she explained, sighing deeply out of fatigue.
"Don't worry about it. I understand," Itaru answered, although he did not really know why Sachiko had to apologize for the state of the room. It was not like it bothered him.
Sachiko cleared the seat in front of the desk, motioned for Itaru to sit down, and sat on her own chair behind it. She pulled a sheet of paper from one of the shelves behind her and placed it on the desk.
"This is another escort assignment," she presented.
It looked like she had more to add before handing him over the paper which contained all the details of the task, so he remained silent. Sachiko continued.
"It's a longer journey than the usual, that's why one would need a few hours of head start before dawn, for a trip that would last at least four days," she explained, emphasizing the last few words of her statement.
"Four days," Itaru simply uttered, trying to stop himself from reacting further.
"Yes. Don't worry, you can rest fully in between," she added, but Itaru was not really listening because he was already too intrigued by the length of the trip.
"From where will this child be, exactly?" he asked, curiosity gnawing at the back of his head.
The longest journey they were usually given was two days, since most families outside the kingdom resided in small towns just at the outskirts. Barely were there families that thrived beyond that area due to the overwhelming darkness in the land. People had to stay together, near the kingdom, to ward of the dark, the cold, and the vile creatures that roamed the night.
"Another thing, this one is no longer child, in the essence of that word," Sachiko pointed out. Noting the growing look of surprise on his face, she continued. "The girl is almost sixteen, and from the wilderness where the old Yamatsunai camp once stood."
Itaru froze at the mention of the place. It all made sense now. It dawned on him that he should have realized it sooner that this was not an ordinary assignment. He snickered to himself.
Sachiko cleared her throat again, in an attempt to get Itaru's attention which seemed to have wandered off already, possibly caused by the realization that such a mission was being assigned to him.
"The most notorious serial murderer ever executed, do you remember him? Or if not, surely you have heard about his daughter?" she did not even have to ask him, she was sure that he knew it so well, who wouldn't?
The most devastating man-made catastrophe in the history of their land, which happened only thirteen years ago, involved several wars and brutal executions, along with a chain of upheavals and betrayals that were too widespread. It resulted in almost a total collapse of the kingdom, from which the country had not yet recovered. Amidst all of it were names of people and places that stood out, which none could ever forget about.
"You know, I'm sorry I haven't told you - " Sachiko broke the silence, because Itaru failed to respond. " - if you do not think you are up for this task, we are more than willing to find another one who could undertake this - "
"No!" Itaru finally objected. He realized his silence might have given her the wrong impression; he just needed time to process it all through. "I will go, " he reiterated, breathing deeply to clear his head. "It is a privilege to do this," he said with more conviction, his eyes firmly meeting Sachiko's.
She smiled softly at him, slightly relieved at his response. "Well then, I almost thought you were just going to let this opportunity pass. But now it looks like I won't be disappointed."
Of course Itaru would not let this go. It might not be the military assignment he'd been hoping for, but he knew that this mission would make its way to history. It was only up to him to make it a successful part of history. This was his chance for recognition, although he understood that failing it could also bring equal harm to his name. Itaru shrugged it off; he did not have enough time to feel intimidated. Failure was not an option.
Sachiko slid the sheet of paper across the desk toward Itaru. "The necessary details are there, but I'm sure you have questions this sheet will not be able to answer," she said, raising an eyebrow as Itaru scanned the paper.
Similar to the usual escort assignments, the information sheet contained only basic data: the name, her age, birth month and birth year, her eye and hair color, an overview of her abilities, and the exact coordinates of her location on the map, as well as the date the journey was expected to commence and the time frame for completion. Nothing else besides these was provided.
Itaru looked at Sachiko and, without thinking too much about it, asked the only question that bothered him. "Why now?" he asked, which elicited only a confused stare from Sachiko. He cleared his throat and asked again, "I mean - why just now?"
Children were usually brought to camp – at the very heart of Shiranokawa - at a younger age, around twelve or thirteen, from their own respective towns. These children were to be raised for duty - the duty to serve and to protect, to repair and to build, to kill and to destroy - in service to the land that took care of them. At this age, they were no longer their families' children, and their lives were no longer their own. Although they were still very young, they would become the property of the kingdom. It had always been like that.
There had only been few cases where some children were taken in much later, as in the case of illness or disability.
Itaru had not heard anything else about the child being assigned to him, not even her name, except the big role her existence apparently played in history. Now, however, he felt entitled to know more.
Sachiko took a deep breath before straightening up. "Well, we had to wait... Not for her, but for our own children... to be ready for her," she answered, but Itaru only became more puzzled. Fortunately, Sachiko was determined to help him understand it better.
"We've been observing the girl for years, with and without the family knowing. She's been ready for duty for quite a long time already actually. We could have taken her at twelve or even eleven, I bet she would have been fine and would have coped. So why just now, you ask..." she paused, her eyes drifting to the window at their left.
"Do you realize which group she will be in?" she asked, while still gazing dreamily out of the window, from which the cold wind blew.
Itaru began to think. He had never really spent enough time in camp, where the children were trained, to be familiar with each one, but he'd heard a lot of stories, particularly from her mother, who insisted on making a living out of cleaning camp bathrooms.
Sota, being a weaponry instructor and expert, also spent most of his time at camp to providing military training for the upperclassmen. Itaru occasionally overheard him talking about the children as well.
"Ikeda, Ueno, Hara, Matsuo..." Sachiko began enumerating family names, and one by one Itaru started visualizing faces of the children associated with each name. He didn't realize he had started sneering.
"Oh, that group, then," he unintentionally murmured without realizing he had said it too loud.
"There is no doubt several of them are severely disturbed children, quite a troublesome bunch to look after, really," Sachiko confirmed, shaking her head in disbelief. "Most of them did not seem ready for anything when they came in, each had internal battles they were already fighting on their own. It was quite scary; it still is. But we all know what they went through so you could not really blame them. This girl would have been just another ripple on the water, but still... know how a tiny spark could trigger an explosion?"
Itaru sighed. Somehow he knew what she was talking about. He was thankful he did not commit to serving at camp. Although it was meant for children, it was a cruel place. He always viewed it as a horrible place where young minds were brainwashed, small bodies were forced to grow and mature, and carefree personalities were forced to abandon the ideas of friendship and family. Itaru's kinship was spared from sending their children to camp, since his great grandfather was a daimyo. He and his cousins never experienced camp. He always knew how lucky they were for it.
Much to his surprise, however, Sota actually volunteered to go to camp when he was sixteen. Neither Itaru nor Kosei followed his footsteps; they both spared themselves from experiencing hell on earth.
"Are they ready, now?" he asked, more out of concern than out of curiosity. Sachiko nodded.
"We would hope so, yes," she responded honestly, without a hint of doubt in her voice. "It's not like we have the luxury to wait for all of their personal problems to get sorted out."
She was just telling the truth. Itaru readied himself to leave. He did not have anything else to ask; he also did not want to waste more time. He could not remember ever feeling tired prior to this; something in the nature of the assignment renewed his strength - it could be the determination to make the most out of this and prove himself worthy of tasks that were out of the ordinary, like this one. He stood up.
"It looks like you're ready to leave," Sachiko said, standing up as well. "Take your time to get everything you need. I suggest you take your first rest at dawn, once the valley is clear of its nocturnal beasts. Present the data sheet to the guards at the main gate, they have something for you which you should find useful. Also - " she paused. "If you want, you can take someone else with you, to help you, it doesn't matter. Maybe your cousin, Kosei?"
Itaru's eyes narrowed, feeling utterly disgusted to his stomach at the suggestion. "He will be helpful, yes," he lied, as his mind raced to find the perfect excuse so he would not have to share this opportunity with anyone else. "But I believe he just got home from a long trip - "
"Yes, he just did, yes," Sachiko confirmed, entirely convinced of the validity of Itaru's alibi. Itaru sighed in relief. "It's all up to you then, if you choose to go alone. Take care and see in you in four days?" she bid him.
Itaru just nodded. Quickly, he shoved the paper into his pocket before turning his back on her to leave.
'This is going to be a long night', he thought. But Itaru was already more than ready for it.