It was an hour after midnight in the ninja master's quarters, deep in the foundations of the castle Metallicana. All the expensive furnishings and tapestries did little to disguise the old dungeons, but Gara was too much a bachelor to care. Dark Schneider sat impatiently in the most thronelike and lavishly upholstered chair in the suite.

"The captain of the guard says he's been here for almost two weeks. Walked straight out of the country, apparently, but he's still shrewd enough that the captain wants to train him for undercover court duty," Gara recited, leaning on the back of Schneider's chair. He was interrupted by a group of ninjas entering the other end of the room with less-than-usual stealth. They were carrying something.

"Here he is, Master Gara," they offered. "He fought pretty well, straight out of sleep."

"Garaaa...." Schneider groaned, clutching her face in chagrin. He might have been a ninja master, but subterfuge had never been one of his strong points.

"Well, ah, isn't it easier to ask him yourself?" Gara tried feebly. The young guard held up by the ninjas began to regain consciousness, but without his glasses he was forced to squint hard.

"L..Lady Rushe? What are you doing here?" he asked in a tired voice, as if awakened from another dream.

"Guardsman Ren," Schneider began with a note of resignation, "What's your real reason for coming to the castle?"

"Hm? ..Security," the youth answered after a very brief pause. It was entirely possible that he still believed himself to be dreaming. "Aren't these the old dungeons?" He squinted harder.

"Security? ..Where are you from?"

"T-Tussire," he replied, stifling a yawn.

"Have you heard of it, Gara?" she asked aside, and he shook his head. "What's Tussire?" she continued to the boy.

"It's small... it's a very small.... It's a village," Ren supplied drowsily.

"Yes? And who sent you?"

The pause was longer this time.

"I ran away," the guard confessed.

"Seems pretty cut-and-dry to me," Gara murmured. "At least a quarter of the new guards have the same story, just different villages."

"All the more reason to suspect," Schneider pointed out. "Who goes to the trouble to confirm a farmboy's story?" She returned to the interrogation. "Are you really a man?"

"...Yeah...." he answered hesitantly. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Is he really a man?" she thought to ask the ninjas, and there was a yelp of pain from their prisoner as they confirmed it.

"Real enough," the ninjas told her.

"How old are you, guardsman Ren?"

"Suh-seventeen," he managed with watering eyes, still squirming with pain.

Schneider considered for a long moment, chin on fist. Then she made a sudden dismissive gesture. "Okay, put him back."

"What?" Gara said.

"You heard me. I'm out of questions for now, and I don't see how we could possibly damage my investigation any further, so you might as well put him back. Go on," she made another shoo-ing gesture, and the ninjas hastened back the way they'd entered.

"Gara, what's the grand unifying principle of all ninjitsu?" Schneider asked wearily.

"Secrecy," he answered.

"Wonderful, wonderful. So, do you know what the word 'subtle' means?"'

"You've gotten a lot bitchier since you changed sex," Gara observed, and Schneider whipped around in the chair to glare at him.

"You'd be bitchy too!" she snarled. "You really have no idea, Gara. Hell, you'd probably turn into another Kai Harn!"

The morning patrol was dismissed, and in the barracks the captain of the guard continued with his inspections. A note on his clipboard regarding one of the new kids caught his eye, and he turned back to have a word.

"Guardsman Ren, would you mind explaining where you were--sweet merciful crap, what happened to you?"

He saluted quickly. "Sir, ninjas beat me up, sir!"


"Sir, yessir!"

"...And when was this?"

"Just last night sir, before I was abducted. Sir," the boy added, still keeping a straight face.

"Abducted... by ninjas," the captain clarified. If it weren't for the obvious bruises all over the young guard, he'd have been on the floor laughing.

"Sir, yessir!"

"--And you escaped?" the captain presumed carefully.

"Nosir, they brought me back."

"So then, in the middle of the night, ninjas came in here, beat you up, abducted you, and then they brought you back?" he assessed.

"Yessir. It may have been a case of mistaken identity, sir."

"Nninjas," the captain repeated, trying not to grin. "That's a new one." He scribbled the word on his clipboard, and beside it added: Have now officially heard everything. "I'll have a word about it with Master Gara, but I want you to go on sick leave until that shiner's healed up, or you'll make the rest of us look bad."

"Sir, Yessir!"

"Oh, and one last thing. Guardsman Dir says he saw a woman asleep in your bed about two nights ago; d'you have any explanation for this?"

"I do not, sir! Apart from the common knowledge that he hasn't been laid in several months, sir." The youth's ability to keep from cracking up was impressive.

"Heh. Well, there is that." He wrote another reminder on the clipboard, to See M. Gara. "That'll be all, guardsman Ren. Just take that stick out of your ass before you break something. You're still a civilian, for the love of mercy."

The young guard's starchy posture relaxed somewhat. "Right away, sir...."

The captain of the guard sighed, and moved on.