It's Quiet . . .
Sumiko entered the rather lavish looking room and looked around at the beautiful furnishings.
They'd had nothing like any of this back home on the island. Was this the sort of life her parents had left behind when they left Konohagakure?
No wonder they wanted to come back so badly.
Syako was forced to wait outside and the door was slammed shut behind Sumiko.
She felt nervous, but curious as well. She explored her surroundings a bit, not moving from the spot she stood but letting her eyes take in the details of the room.
The room was not very well lit, but Sumiko could see it was filled with gold ornaments and violet curtains hung from the walls and over doorways. There was a grand seat, perhaps a throne though Sumiko didn't now why one would keep a throne in their living quarters and assumed it must simply appear to be one because of its beauty which, like most of the things in the room, was extraordinary.
And yet cold. She thought.
The room seemed empty and when she heard a voice she jumped in surprise while simultaneously feeling relived not to be alone.
It was a feminine voice, though Sumiko wasn't willing to commit to any gender assumptions until she saw the person.
"Come here, little one. We're on the balcony." The voice said.
Sumiko entered onto the balcony and felt relief flood through her as she saw a pair of Konoha ninja.
One of them was aunty Ino.
She rushed over and hugged Ino, who hugged her back and said, "I didn't think I'd see you here, Sumi-chan. Don't worry, your ordeal is as good as over."
Sumiko looked at the other woman, she had eyes that seemed familiar and her chest was impressive leaving Sumiko absolutely ninety percent certain that she was a woman, but she was someone Sumiko didn't know.
"Who?" Sumiko asked her with a raised eyebrow.
The woman smiled, "I'm Mitarashi Anko, I'm Kotaro-kun's mother . . . I'm sorry he brought you here, but he did it to keep them from hurting me. He's really a very nice boy."
Sumiko nodded, if aunty Ino was friends with her than Mitarashi Anko must be a friendly person and Sumiko would accept that. Now came the part where she had to wonder if this were a rescue operation-no, because Anko had been in danger so Kotaro had had to kidnap her and the others to keep her safe.
That meant Ino must have been captured, but she said the ordeal was as good as over, did she know something?
Ino wasn't stingy with her information, she said, "Your father and the others are nearby, Sumiko. They're going to attack soon and rescue us all. You don't have to worry anymore."
Sumiko nodded but said nothing.
The three of them left the balcony and went into the living space of the lavish apartment.
"Lovely, isn't it?" Ino sighed, "so much nicer than anything we had on the island."
Sumiko nodded yet again, but wondered why aunty Ino was stating the obvious. Maybe she was telling Anko? Seemed funny not to tell Anko sooner if it was worth saying at all.
"Imagine living every day in this kind of place." Anko said, nodding in agreement with Ino. "Would you like that, Sumiko-chan?"
Sumiko nodded again, but didn't see what relevance this had with anything.
"They'll rescue us soon." Ino said assured her.
"Yes . . . in the meantime," Anko said, "Sumiko-chan, why don't you relax here with us? Obviously they want to keep all the important prisoners together. Maybe they plan to use you as a hostage the same way they use me."
Sumiko shrugged. That made sense, but her father would rescue her, just like aunty Ino said.
Though . . . there was something strange about Ino . . . something unfamiliar.
Sumiko cocked her head to the side and examined her honorary aunt . . .
It was really her, Sumiko was sure of that . . . it felt like aunty Ino . . . but it didn't.
It was strange.
And the other woman, Anko . . . she felt familiar too . . .
Sumiko had been relieved to see Ino, but . . . now that her mind was working again she began to question the situation.
Balcony. Sumiko realized.
There was an open balcony . . .
But there had to be guards, or aunty Ino would have already tried to get out that way.
Or the balcony was as Genjutsu . . .
Perhaps their surroundings were nothing but Genjutsu . . . after all, why give prisoners such a lavish room?
Even if every room in this palace were so luxurious-and they weren't, the room Sumiko had arrived in hadn't been-why keep prisoners in such a beautiful place?
Is it so we won't try to escape? No, that's stupid, Sumiko thought; even in a paradise a prisoner is a prisoner and has to try to escape.
Her mother had told her that once when Sumiko asked her why they didn't just stay on the island.
She felt a little sad thinking of her mother, and hoped she was nearby . . . she knew her father must be close if Ino was here.
"You know . . ." Ino whispered, "if we could make it to the Control Chamber . . . I'll bet I could take control of those monsters out there."
"Monsters?" Sumiko asked, surprised. There were monsters outside? Why hadn't anyone told her?
Wait . . . monsters were real? Why had her parents lied to her? She knew there was something in her closet.
"The city is swarming with monsters, the sad victims of experiments that these people have been performing for the last four years." Anko said in a sad voice. "All the time your father spent in hiding gave these terrible people more and more time to turn more and more people into monsters, little one. There are thousands, and those are just the ones that survived. Only one in ten people survives the process, tens maybe even hundreds of thousands of people were worked on while your father hid away."
Sumiko tensed. Aunty Ino wasn't arguing, why wasn't she arguing?
Instead Ino said, "They used members of the Yamanaka clan to control them, Mitarashi-senpai . . . if you can get me to that control room we can take control of the horde, make them help the Konoha-shinobi."
"Impossible." Anko said with a gasp, "Are you sure you could do it?"
"I can try." Ino said then she hesitated, "but . . . I don't know if I could direct so many monsters . . . I'm not a strategist like Shikamaru . . . and the city is full of almost two hundred enemy Shinobi . . . maybe if another person were with me . . . someone with a sharp mind . . ."
Sumiko's eyes lit up.
I can do that, she thought, I can help Aunty Ino use the monsters to destroy all the ninja in the city and help daddy to rescue me!
All she said was, "Me!"
Anko seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded, "I like the idea . . . the daughter of Shikamaru must be almost as smart as he is, but "almost" isn't good enough. Orochimaru is just as smart as Shikamaru, so you'd have to be even smarter than your father. Can you do that? Can you outsmart someone who is just as smart as your father?"
She had won games against her father . . . and if what Aunty Ino said was true then she'd have about ten times as many pieces as this Orochimaru did . . .
Sumiko nodded and said, "I'll win."
Anko smiled at Ino and said, "Then let's get you two to that control room."
Orochimaru had to admit that he wasn't sure just how useful Sumiko would be in actually outfoxing her own father.
But the idea of letting Shikamaru's own daughter take co-control of a monster horde and try her very best to slaughter the Konoha attack force thinking she was in some way helping her own father to rescue her . . . well that was just too delicious to refuse.
He watched Okatsu carefully as they went about pretending to escape from his quarters.
He did pity the unfortunate guards posted outside, but they were a necessary sacrifice.
Sumiko-chan had to believe this was genuine.
Okatsu was a surprisingly devious mind. Perhaps being shuffled loose from her own body had removed some of her unfortunate tendencies . . . in any event she'd been right that appearing as Kotaro's mother would help in making Sumiko cooperate, and ultimately though Orochimaru had planned to use her as a hostage against Shikamaru if the girl actually proved to be an asset . . .
Okatsu had said that Ino believed the girl's mind worked a mile a minute, so fast that regular speech wasn't just something she didn't do, but something she almost couldn't do.
A mind like that guided by a Yamanaka's abilities could make an incredibly powerful Controller.
Despite the darkness Shikamaru could see the high walls surrounding the palace in greater detail as they came nearer.
There were barely any guards, which would make things easier.
"It looks like soldiers on the palace walls," Shikamaru shouted to his squads, "take them all out quietly, with any luck we won't get noticed by any that might be in the courtyards. Sensors be on the lookout for any of the Five and make sure nothing else gets out of these walls."
The shinobi forces came nearer and Shikamaru began surveying the building.
"Inoichi," he whispered, "can you navigate inside that castle?"
"I lived there as a glorified prisoner, but I saw it all through the eyes of the Five. I can get you anywhere they were allowed." Ino's father said.
"What about the monsters from the labyrinth?" Shikamaru asked.
"They weren't really my concern, but I did occasionally oversee them. Mostly Kabuto used chemicals to control them, along with sever conditioning. For some of them he would layer subliminal commands, but for the most part-"
Shikamaru interrupted the older shinobi, saying, "All I need to know is if you can take control of the horde."
Inoichi hesitated, and then said, "It'd be hard . . . but I think I could do it. I wouldn't be able to outright control them though, only suggest really strongly that they do what we want, and with the slaughter they're already inflicting they might be too deep into bloodlust to be stopped."
Confusion so our shinobi can better handle them would be fine," Shikamaru admitted, glad he'd asked Inoichi instead of just assuming he could use Orochimaru's own forces against him.
His determination to rescue Sumiko couldn't get the better of him, he had to remain calm.
But this wasn't just about rescuing a city anymore. This was his daughter, his first born child, and damn it all but that mattered more to him than Otogakure and everyone else in it.
They reached the houses nearest the walls and found a spot where they could make a clean jump from the eerily empty houses to the palace walls.
Shikamaru went first, quickly using shadow tendrils to grasp the two nearest guards and force them to quietly thrust their swords into each other's necks.
He signaled for others to come, and silently the shinobi teams made their way down the walls, murdering the armored soldiers of the Sound Shogunate.
It would have been impossible if the wall were fully manned, but it wasn't and Shikamaru didn't for a moment suppose that it was a blessing that his enemy was simply that incompetent.
He smelled a trap, but the sensors had yet to signal the approach or even presence of an enemy shinobi, let alone one of the Five.
A careful glance over the wall into the courtyard bellow showed him that the enemy had a number of guards patrolling but that they were actually moving inside the castle in squads.
Shikamaru let his mind work on that for a moment before Naomasa came to him and said, "This section of the wall is clear, Sensei. Do we clear the rest of the wall?"
"The rest of the squads will, but we won't. Hibari," Shikamaru told a shinobi from Konohamaru's generation, "watch these walls and make sure no other monsters get out, intercept any Shinobi that try to cause trouble for our friends in the city. When our allies arrive tell Naruto-sensei to hit the place as hard as he can with everything he has left."
The young woman nodded and rushed off, Shikamaru turned to his immediate squad and said, "Daisuke, Inoichi, get yourselves into a pair of uniforms and watch for the changing of the guard. When the next watch comes let me know. Naomasa, you stay with me and be ready."
The Shinobi went about following Shikamaru's orders and he stared at the courtyard quietly as he quickly threw the robe and armor of one of the fallen soldiers over his own clothes.
Once Nao had done the same he glanced over the wall and whispered, "What do we do when the next watch comes?"
"It depends on how soon they arrive," Shikamaru said. "I'm hoping we can just walk right into the palace in these disguises, but if they take too long we'll have to find another way inside. For now just sit tight. Once we're inside the other squads will guard the north, east, west and south and Hibari's unit will guard the gates. With any luck we'll get to the control room and give Naruto the last form of support he'd ever expect and shove the Emperor's own twisted scheme down his own throat. "
Nao hesitated for a moment, then said, "Even if we win . . . this whole part of the city is dead. If we hadn't come-"
"Now's not the time to think about that." Shikamaru said, and then added for the boy's peace of mind, "most of them probably ran."
"But with the shinobi fighting from earlier . . ." Nao whispered, "a lot of them would have just dug in and waited for the Emperor's soldiers to protect them. How could he do this to his own subjects?"
"To force us to act too soon." Shikamaru said calmly. "Unfortunately he did the one thing we couldn't ignore, we've been playing the game his way since we arrived, which is why it's about time we stole the initiative."
"Guess we shouldn't have gotten here early." Nao said. "Strange as it might sound, if we'd arrived tomorrow instead there might not have been-"
"But we didn't." Shikamaru interrupted. "You're a Jounin, now, Naomasa. You know better than to harp on 'what if' scenarios. Just focus on getting Inoichi to the control room, and no matter who gets in your way I expect you to perform the duty of a Jounin, Ishida Naomasa."
"I understand." Naomasa said, but Shikamaru wasn't about to take the chance that Naomasa was just saying the words.
"I need to be sure that you do, Ishida." Shikamaru said firmly, "Any other time your compassion might be admirable but tonight it's a part of you that you'll need to leave behind. Right now my daughter is in that place and as much as I want to rescue her I know we need to win this battle or we'll lose this war. That means a lot of people are going to have to die, Naomasa, or even more will in the long run."
"I understand." Naomasa repeated, and there was a definite edge entering his voice now.
Shikamaru decided to press home the point, adding, "Hijiri's daughter is in there too, don't forget. Or does that not matter to you?"
"It matters." Naomasa said, a harsh, angry light entering his eyes as he glared at Shikamaru.
"Then remember it." Shikamaru said, meeting his glare with one of his own, "And remember this too, Nao; when the civilians outside these walls were beset by monsters, when their screams carried over these walls every last soldier in that courtyard stood there and did nothing."
Nao's expression was dangerous, and Shikamaru hoped he hadn't pushed the boy to the point of recklessness.
Naomasa turned his gaze back to the courtyard and said, "I know you're concerned for your daughter. But I also know what has to be done, and I told you I'd do it. Don't question me again."
"I needed to be sure, don't look for criticism where there's only concern." Shikamaru warned him.
Naomasa didn't answer at first; he just took a fallen katana from one of the dead guards.
At length he whispered, "I shouldn't have to show you or anyone else my worth. I've bled for Konoha and for you long enough. I know the value of life, that doesn't make me a pacifist or a coward, Nara. So when I say 'don't question me again' I'm not asking as your subordinate, or your student, I'm telling you, as a soldier who has fought the same battles as you and bled just as you have, as a man whose entire family was held in there, whose sister was cut into and experimented on, I am telling you that I know what has to be done, and I will do it. If you don't know me well enough to know that-"
Shikamaru put a firm hand on Naomasa's shoulder and hissed, "I'm not going to salve your ego, Ishida. I told you not to look for criticism where there's only concern. Not all of those of us who go into that palace are coming out again, and if you hesitate at all you're going to be a name on a monument of heroes. You've fought, you've bled, so has everyone else on this wall, and a lot of them still aren't going to see the dawn. I'm not telling you to become a berserker, just don't hesitate."
Naomasa's expression didn't change, but Shikamaru hadn't expected it to. He didn't care if Naomasa was angry, in fact he rather preferred it, but he also didn't want his student getting himself killed trying to prove something.
Daisuke crept over to them, cutting short any delayed retort Naomasa might have made by telling them, "The guard's changing."
"Then it's time we got moving." Shikamaru said, pulling the helmet low over his face and following Daisuke and Naomasa down one of the towers to the ground level where Inoichi waited, looking like a surprisingly convincing officer.
A team of disguised Jounin waited too, to make sure the relief squad didn't live long enough to notice their dead comrades on the wall.
And with that accomplished Nara Shikamaru and his team set foot in the courtyard of the Emperor's palace. Unopposed they walked calmly through the front doors looking for all the world as if they belonged there.
To Be Continued . . .