From the Floating City
[A Nabari no Ou Fanfiction]
During the end of the Tokugawa regime in the Edo period, a world hidden in the shadows shifts beneath the floating city. The remnants of the Iga ninja clan are preparing to congregate at the hidden village for the first time since Oda Nobunaga's takeover in 1581.
The world is moving rapidly, changing in ways they could never have conceived of just ten years prior. Although many will not live to see those changes alter their world, their actions shape history from the shadows of Edo castle.
The kira kinjutsusho that Yoite someday reads was recorded and bound at the cost of dozens of lives. Their names, long forgotten, are forever entombed in the words painstakingly handwritten on that scroll.
An insect enters quietly, and then leaves, out on little feet.
The night crowd was boisterous, but he supposed it had always been this way for as long as his family had owned the Shirayama. Travelers who frequented the restaurant often spoke of deep silences and depths of the night that no light or sound dared penetrate on the country roads, even on the busiest such as the Tokaido road. Within the city's walls, it seemed almost impossible for such a world to exist in such close proximity to the raucous entertainment districts and bustling streets filled with merchants and their wares.
The men who dined at the Shirayama came from all parts of the city, though their regular customers were always of the merchant class. These were working men who attempted to pass as cultured in the presence of their noble contemporaries, men who purchased sake and women with their wages to warm the nights. It was never his place to question the customers, only to look on with a pleasant, if amused, smile.
"Can I get you anything, my lords?" He approached a table and knelt on the wooden panels, head tilted in a small respectful bow. Of course, these particular customers expected the staff to prostrate themselves before them and defer to their noble status. In reality they were simple daimyo who held small tracts of land and spent most of their time in Edo's Yoshiwara pleasure district. Their power was minimal, but they still outranked all of the restaurant's customers this evening.
A man dismissed him, but he knew they expected another bottle of sake and made a quiet retreat to retrieve it. Theirs was a small business. His wife Toyoka was their main waitress, while they hired staff for the kitchen and additional waitresses on busier nights. He passed the books where they kept records of customers' tabs and their finances, jotting down a few quick figures before he slipped down the adjoining hallway.
Passing his wife along the way, they directed small nods at each other, barely pausing before continuing their paths. What tiresome work this was, he noted as he periodically did every night their customers were difficult. Now he had to devise some way to convince the daimyo to pay for their tab, as they often dodged the costs on account of his forgetfulness - as if he would forget how much they owed him.
While an annoyance, it didn't make for a harsh life. Those customers who had been outside the city recently described much worse conditions along the roads to wayside villages. It wasn't a secret that they all led rather comfortable lives, ensconced in the pleasurable shadow of Edo castle. Even if it led to discontentment, he couldn't complain. He was a good manager and he and his wife did well for themselves. That was all that mattered.
He returned to the main dining area with an unopened bottle of sake. Dodging bodies draped over the tables, floor, and each other, he reached the other side and ducked underneath the half curtains separating the main room from the short hallway. After a pause to readjust the bottle, he slid open the doors to the nobles' private room. For a little extra, large parties often rented these spaces out.
The daimyo accepted it without thanks. He then slipped away unnoticed and unaccounted for, just as he preferred. Turning around, he blinked in surprise to see his wife in the doorway. Although the restaurant was noisy, he normally heard people approach him, as well as the slamming of doors or the clink of stacked ceramic bowls. Sometimes his wife managed to sneak up behind him, though.
She tilted her head and discreetly pointed to the main dining area. "There's a customer who wants to speak with you. Should I prepare a room and tea?"
He shook his head as he brushed the dark blue curtain aside. They were busy enough tonight without extra distractions; he could handle their unexpected guest alone. It was no difficult task to spot the man in the landing, dressed in dark clothing with two swords distinctly strapped to his waist. Samurai were common customers of theirs, as well, but he had never seen this particular man before. Although many people came and went through these doors, he had a fairly good memory when it came to faces.
"How can I help you tonight, sir?" he bowed. The man nodded his head in acknowledgement and glanced about, discreetly checking the area for eavesdroppers or suspicious characters, no doubt. He directed a pleasant smile at the samurai, saying, "Tonight isn't very busy, sir, so you don't have to worry."
It was a strange sentence to those who were ignorant, as their restaurant was obviously crowded and bustling with patrons. He was sure that he and his wife were not wrong about this man, though, and so he would understand the comment perfectly well. The samurai nodded, following him without a word as he led the way to the private rooms. A waitress they hired three nights each week passed him a tray of tea as he went.
He descended to his knees, slid open the doors, and allowed the guest to enter first. He was mildly curious as to what his business was that he had to come to the Shirayama for. In all his years of living with his parents and inheriting this restaurant, these types of customers had only appeared a handful of times. Since his parents' deaths, the visits had all but stopped. Truthfully, he had forgotten all about it at times.
The ceramic teacups, simplistic yet practical, emitted soft curls of steam as he poured a brew of green tea for him and the guest. He had no intention of drinking more than a complementary sip, and apparently the samurai had the same idea. The other man laid his swords aside carefully and brought the cup to his lips. When he placed it on the table, his eyes easily rose to fixate on those of the Shirayama's owner. The steady gaze almost made him shiver, but he didn't - or couldn't - look away.
"You are Sagawa Yasahiro-san, am I correct?" This samurai was of a distinctly different breed than the others who walked the streets of Edo - that he could tell from every aspect of the man's person. He was well-bred and well-educated, physically fit and confident, nothing like the ghosts that claimed samurai status, who couldn't hold their swords to save their lives. He didn't look ruffled, so he must have
"That's correct. My family has owned the Shirayama for many years." He didn't ask the samurai how he came across his name. It wasn't a secret and many customers had been good acquaintances with his parents before they died. The man probably wouldn't respond if he did ask.
"I arrived in Edo recently. Some…acquaintances of mine told me where to find the Sagawa residence, but your parents have apparently passed on. My sincerest condolences. My own parents have known them for many years, apparently." The man inclined his head, not too steeply, but enough to show his respect. So this did have to do with that "other" business. This man was not just a simple samurai.
"I'm Kanashiro Goro, from the Ayama District in Mie Prefecture," the samurai enunciated. The words Mie Prefecture stirred in his head. There was no doubt about this man's allegiances anymore; Yasahiro immediately relaxed and allowed a small smile to grace his tense features. There wasn't a single Iga ninja who didn't know the name Mie Prefecture.
"I didn't know people still lived in our ancestral home of Iga," he mused quietly. Kanashiro Goro's serious face flickered between emotions as they spoke, formal one moment and amused the next. He was young, still, perhaps a year or two older than Yasahiro. No wrinkles marred his features and he had a nice enough smile for a samurai. He spoke formally, without that condescending tone most of the Shirayama's wealthy patrons wore.
"Oda Nobunaga didn't manage to eradicate Iga village. Out of those who were left behind, the village was rebuilt and some of us still live there today. Did you think we were a myth by now?" Kanashiro laughed lightly.
Yasahiro averted his eyes in embarrassment, because that was almost exactly what he and his friends in the city had come to believe. All Iga ninja knew that their true home was in Mie Prefecture, but as the generations grew more and more distant from the past, in turn Iga village fell into the depths of myths and memories. It had been over two hundred years since the remnants of the shattered ninja clan fled to escape Oda Nobunaga's wrath.
"Hey, don't feel bad," the samurai said as he leaned over the table, one hand flat on the surface. He retreated and absently fingered the swords laying on the ground beside him. "Most of us are just samurai now. Of course, the winds of time are changing, and as ninja we have been changing as well. There isn't much need for either ninja nor samurai in a peaceful era such as this."
"Have you ever seen a battle?" Yasahiro asked with a hint of remorse. Whatever training their parents passed down to their children was wasted nowadays, just as the other man had said. There had been little need to exercise their skills except for simple errands and espionage. For years his only concerns had been about the restaurant his parents left behind.
Kanashiro shrugged, "Only a few roadside scuffles and the occasional thief back home. There are no major conflicts we can fight in, so we're idle creatures, just like those daimyo you have in the other room. They are rather loud, aren't they?"
"My sincerest apologies," Yasahiro responded instinctively. He made no move towards the door, aware that he was in no position to demand their silence unless the shogun himself were sitting in this room commenting about the noise. The samurai from Iga knew this, too. He fixed Yasahiro with a gaze he could not and did not care to comprehend as he lifted his bowed head. Besides, he had grown accustomed to the noise. Absolute silence might have driven him crazy.
"You…didn't come all the way to Edo simply to sightsee and meet my parents on behalf of yours, did you?" he ventured to ask after a long drought of silence. The wisps of steam from the teacups had died, the ceramic lukewarm under his hands. "It has something to do with those politicians that are in an uproar, doesn't it? The foreigners' influence is growing."
"That has something to do with it, yes," Kanashiro nodded once. "As shinobi, we must adapt to the changing climate of the world. I'm not sure what is happening myself, only that it is far bigger than you or me can ever be. I was told to pass along the message that the Iga clan's hidden village has reopened. It is not necessary to travel to Mie, of course, but know that events are moving around us daily. Perhaps people like us will find a use in this world after generations of dormancy.
"There will be a place to receive missions and exchange information, managed by those close to Iga's chief Ito Sanjuro. I shall keep in contact with you and inform you of the location once it is decided. Perhaps I will stop by for a meal, as well. I've been told good things about your restaurant," Kanashiro ended with a smile of pressed lips and an amused voice. Yasahiro was just concerned about understanding all of the information, the life he had just recently considered lackadaisical and purposeless now suddenly filled with meaning and responsibility.
"I apologize; it seems as if this is a bit too much for me to comprehend at the moment…I never would have thought that…in my lifetime…" he trailed off.
Kanashiro gave him a sympathetic look. "That's understandable. None of us could have ever predicted this. We have lived in the shadows for so long that we have forgotten what it means to see the dawn rise. It won't happen immediately, either."
The two men sat in silence as the restaurant's clatter murmured in the background. He felt somewhat guilty about sitting here idly during such busy hours, but the ebb and flow of this room was peaceful and calming. He rarely had an opportunity to relax to this extent. This type of quiet was the closest the city ever came to true silence, except in the dead of night. Even then, since they didn't live in the housing districts, there was always activity stirring outside.
"I've taken up enough of your time," Kanashiro apologized, unlike any samurai he had ever had as a customer. Before he could control his words, they had already been spoken to the room's other inhabitant. Although Yasahiro ducked his head in embarrassment, the samurai across from him seemed mildly amused. "The country is a bit different from the city. Besides, right now we are talking as shinobi, not as a samurai and a middle class restaurant owner."
So that was the reason why, Yasahiro mused. He thought that it had been strange behavior, but that could have been because all of his friends and acquaintances who were ninja were also from the middle and lower classes. It would be a strange conversation to inform them of these changes, too.
He nodded and stood to accompany their guest to the door, leaving the lukewarm tea on the table for a waitress to collect later. They passed his wife along the way; she shared a discreet glance with him, curiosity tinging her dark eyes, but he jerked his head once. There would be time for that later. He knew that she had some inkling of what had transpired between the two men, so for now there was no need to panic.
"Are…are any other factions regrouping, as well?" he asked the samurai as they approached the door. The other man paused and slipped on the cloak he had shed earlier. The roads leading to Edo from Iga village must have been frigid, even though winter had not yet arrived. It might snow soon, so travelers were flooding the city at this time of the year.
"As you might already know, those from Koga have all but disappeared from Japan. No one knows where their hidden village is exactly. Some of their ninja are still employed by the shogun, but other than that they have been slowly fading from the world of Nabari. We know even less about the Togakushi. Banten is the only village we know the location of at the moment, since they are an offshoot of the Iga.
"As for those demons from Fuma…I have heard that we encounter them occasionally, but they must be sleeping the same as the rest of us. There probably won't be any major conflicts between the villages for quite some time yet." Kanashiro bowed stiffly, exiting the restaurant with a soft farewell as Yasahiro stood in the entryway, still baffled over the night's events. Perhaps he would hold a meeting the next day to pass the information along. Although Kanashiro did not state that as his intention for coming, Yasahiro knew he expected him to pick up the responsibility.
The clamor in his restaurant quickly returned him to reality, and for the rest of the night he thought little of the strange samurai who had visited him. As he humored his daimyo guests, however, his thoughts couldn't help but wander to the Nabari world where such social barriers were much thinner. Someone like him had been able to speak, and even laugh, face-to-face with a samurai as if they were friends.
His wife questioned him later that night, after the staff had all gone home and the customers had stumbled out drunk at closing time. A single candle flickered in its paper shaded lamp, illuminating the room with a cold golden glow. The winds outside beat against the doors, rattling them in their tracts. Below them the kitchen and dining room were dormant, slumbering beasts.
"The world is opening up," he told her, explaining all that Kanashiro Goro had spoken about during his short visit. Iga village was alive and real, missions and responsibility were returning, and the world was revolving once more. "I'm not sure what to think of it, to be honest. We live such simple lives here, worrying only about the restaurant, that when something drastic such as this happens we are suddenly caught unawares."
"We have trained all our lives for this. There isn't anything we could have done better to prepare," Toyoka reassured him. She was reasonable like that most of the time, especially when he was stressed over the financial books. He said that it was just due to the fact that she didn't have to read the facts and figures that she could react so calmly, but he appreciated the levelheadedness that came with her ignorance. "Sleep; there is no use in worrying yet. That samurai said it himself."
Yasahiro grumbled, turning on his side to extinguish the weak flame illuminating the room. He laid awake a while longer, peering into the formless ceiling. As a child, his parents had inevitably taught him all about this other world they inhabited, a world hidden beneath the placid surface of contemporary Japan. As a child, it had all seemed so mystical, beyond him even though he was a part of it, and as he grew it had indeed faded into memory.
If he tried to grasp at that world now, all he felt was the air. The games they had been playing before were nothing but small errands for minor lords who wished to learn of secrets through subterfuge. They were insignificant secrets. Most people in this city were too consumed by pleasure to notice such disturbances.
He spent the rest of the week pondering this. It had taken that entire week to contact his and his wife's friends and acquaintances, so they didn't bother gathering them all for a meeting. They accomplished it quietly, during errand runs or some such thing. Japan lived in peacetime and the shogun hired both the Koga and Iga ninja in Edo Castle, but they still had to be wary of the other factions. There was no way of distinguishing allies from enemies in the crowded streets.
The last person was a distant relative of his, more of a friend than anything, called Iijima. Since their boyhood days they had drifted away from each other geographically, and although they were still close, it was difficult to travel to the other end of Edo to visit each other. He could have asked another friend to deliver the message, but he wanted to see Iijima in person. It had been months since they last spoke.
He let Toyoka mind the restaurant, hired one more employee to fill the gap he would leave in the staff for a few days, and left the Shirayama behind. The fluttering dark blue half curtains disappeared against the street lined with restaurants of similar styles as he treaded down the dusty street. The weak morning sunlight meant there was no one around this area of the city except for the occasional person scattering water across the ground with wooden ladles.
He paused occasionally at the turns, the looming buildings obscuring any possible view of the other streets. There were hardly any signs, so all he had to navigate was his memory of the different types of streets he passed. There were those for artisans, restaurants, red-light districts, stone masons, and so on. The competition always ran high, but there were also plenty of patrons with extraneous money to spend and greed for the pleasures the city had to offer.
A light rain had showered the city the previous night. The compact ground yielded slightly underfoot; glistening rows of water gathered on the rooftops and pearls rested delicately on overhanging leaves. The air was a little damp and chilly, but not altogether unpleasant this early in the morning. He hoped to reach Iijima's place by nightfall, as the foot traffic was sure to stall him during the heights of the day. Just in case of unforeseen circumstances, he had taken a few coins of ryo that would pay for a night at an inn.
It was fortunate that citizens didn't require papers to travel within the city. There were gates and walls in all the proper places to keep people from wandering where they did not belong. Weary travelers fresh from the Tokaido often bemoaned the delays and identification checks at the post stations. Entering the city even with papers was difficult enough; he had heard that those leaving were also beset with problems. With the foreigners pressing the government for open ports to trade, the restrictions grew ever harsher.
He had only pilfered that information from his wealthy customers. Most would not have cared or been capable of overhearing such details in the Shirayama's busiest hours, but his parents' ninja training had some practical uses. The rising tension in politics and battles of opinions on the subject of foreigners in Japan didn't much concern him, though he dutifully collected whatever information he could gather.
As a ninja subject to the chief's orders, it was not wise to choose sides. They sided with whoever offered the best pay or whoever might benefit the clan. Regardless of his beliefs, he knew he would follow the Iga until his time to serve them came to an end. Their clan might have become fragmented over the centuries, but Iga ninja were Iga ninja no matter what. It was once a large clan, and according to Kanashiro, those separated factions still lived on.
He reached a section of the city that housed the artisans at last. The sun was already sinking below the horizon of pointed roofs, the sun dyed golden and red, the earth splashed a warm mix between the two. The trees swayed feebly in the wind, slowly shedding their leaves for the coming winter. He trailed along the walls until he managed to find familiar landmarks amongst the housing district.
The artisans sold their wares along specific streets designated for their craft, but often lived in separate housing. The night sky had arrived and with it the lanterns hung outside houses, the streets and alleys connecting these different entities of the city together, all of the darkest black. Yasahiro finally located Iijima's residence, tracing the wooden nameplate near the door before entering. He spotted his friend's relatives as he stepped inside.
"Pardon my intrusion. Is Masayoshi here?" he bowed. Golden lanterns sprang to live, highlighting the intense suspicion in his friend's relatives' faces. It was reasonable, given his lack of notice and the hour of his arrival. "I apologize; it must be hard to see my face in this darkness. It's Sagawa Yasahiro, his childhood friend. You remember me, don't you? I own and run the Shirayama my parents once managed now."
The formless people with brightly lit heads shifted for a few moments. He knew better than to step inside a ninja residence before he was directly invited. Soft footsteps from the back hallways came to their notice immediately. Another person in a yukata came forward.
"Hey, be polite, will you? You remember Hiro. He'll do us no harm, so let him inside. This is embarrassing - no longer even trusting our comrades - coming from family of mine." A resonant, teasing voice broke the silence and a familiar profile came into view as the figure came closer. A thin grin beamed at him from the entryway. "I do have to wonder what you're doing here, Hiro. I haven't seen you in a long time."
- This is my August NaNoWriMo project. It's a speculative/background story to the main Nabari series, so actual Nabari characters won't make an appearance (and won't be born for another hundred and fifty years). Perhaps, if I managed to work it in, the two immortals Aizawa and Shijima will appear, who were "created" in the Edo era. Since that vessel of the Shinrabansho was a doctor interested in these experiments, I placed the story right before the Black Ships entered Japan, as people of science were beginning to be very intrigued by Western medicine at the time.
- The Iga clan has a complex history, so my interpretation is that Oda Nobunaga's attack is what spilt the village into different factions. (technically, Banten originates from Iga...and the Kairoshu are the closest to the Iga in modern day.)
- In case it gets confusing, these are the characters' names in surname, first name order: Sagawa Yasahiro (main character), Sagawa Toyoka (his wife), Kanashiro Goro (a samurai, as many ninja in olden times were also samurai), and Iijima Masayoshi (a childhood friend).
- Haiku are the chapter titles. Translation might not be correct.
- I'll be editing these chapters later...by a lot.