Akane Riami never let her sword leave her sight.
It had been awarded to her upon completing her apprenticeship. Many children in Tsiro took on apprenticeships from a young age; it was a poor country and parents had many mouths to feed, and getting one out of the house sooner rather than later was always a good thing. However, most children did not take apprenticeships on how to kill people.
In this, Akane excelled.
Her sword , a katana, was strapped to her back. It was long, curved and sing-edged - deadly.
Akane dropped from a roof onto a balcony, the soles of her feet whispering against the wooden floor. The assassin unlatched the doors and they swung open in silence. There was a man in the room. He had his back to her, his hands clasped behind him. He bobbed on the balls of his feet as if impatient. She withdrew a small knife from her sleeve, rushed forward and covered the man's mouth as she slit his throat.
The girl of twenty lowered the body carefully, not allowing it to drop nosily and alert the rest of the household. She moved quickly from one room to the neck, cutting throats and creating corpses as she went. The house was excessively large, especially when there just down the street was where the starved dead where disposed of.
Akane moved forward, silent and bloody, working her way to the centre of the opulent house. She didn't know the target - she didn't care - but she knew that he was rich whilst children died of exhaustion and hunger whilst working in his silk factories. She had been hired by a fellow mercantile producer to eliminate the competition, but she killed to avenge the ill-used. At least, this is what she tried to tell herself.
What she couldn't acknowledge, what she wouldn't acknowledge to herself is that in truth - she enjoyed what she did.
Akane stopped outside the master bedroom. Everyone else in the house was already dead. The only life left was enclosed behind that door.
Akane swung it open and was met by wall of swords. Six to be precise, all belonging to a guard. Of course - this man was expecting assassination; he would have hired men to protect him.
No matter. Akane would just end them too.
Akane unsheathed her sword. The first man came forward; it was a mistake to attack her one at a time and this man fell to Akane's katana before he had a chance to swing his own weapon. The others soon wised up and struck together. It was no bother to Akane; it meant swatting five flies at once rather than one at a time.
She cut through their flesh like a hot knife through butter. Nearby shrieks told Akane that the commotion had awoken the target - and his wife. It didn't make any difference, men died just the same awake as they did asleep.
The assassin dispatched the last guard and stepped into the light surrounding the beds.
"Please," the man hid his face in his pudgy hands. Akane sighed before beheading the man in one fell swoop, his hands falling to the ground too as his wrists were cut in the same motion.
Akane looked at the hysterical woman beside her now dead husband with indifference before leaping from the window to return home. She did not kill woman. That was her one rule, and the rule of the sect of assassin's she belonged to.
She hurried forward on silent, bare feet, aiming for the ordinary townhouse that everyone knew, but chose to ignore, belonged to an Assassin Mistress. She heard the hush of the ocean that was only a few streets away and salt in the air felt almost tangible on her tongue. Akane wondered about her next job - when you are the deadliest assassin in the vast country of Tsiro, and perhaps the world, it would not be long before she would have found employment again. Her particular set of skills made her very desirable, especially in this part of the country.
The blood coated woman nodded to the two young girls standing at the door of the Emiko Assassin's Hall; named so for the great goddess of lady assassins. The two young girls - one thirteen, the other eight were her successors as apprentice to Mistress Daichi Haruna. They clapped their hands together - not yet learning how to execute every move with deadly silence - and bowed to Akane.
The newly qualified assassin entered through a sliding door, keeping her eyes low. She dropped to her knees, proffering her sword forward. A bent figure appeared in her line of sight and tapped the sword twice. Akane swung the sword round and onto her back again and raised her head, still on her knees.
Haruna raised an eyebrow; a question.
"I was successful." Akane's voice was clipped.
"Good." Haruna said it as she said everything; void of any emotion. The Assassin Mistress was not a warm person, a profession in ending lives did that to someone, but there was small softness in her eyes when she spoke to Akane. Perhaps she saw something of herself in her, or perhaps she just liked the way the girl had a knack for killing things. "Your next assignment is already here." Haruna plucked a scroll from her desk, the sleeves of her silk robe billowing around her wrinkled hands. She dropped it into Akane's outreached hand, the wax seal already broken.
"This is a bounty." There was a question in her words.
"Yes. Four million gold pieces." Haruna was walking slowly round the room. The hush-hush of her robe against the wooden floor grated on Akane's eardrums.
"For a renegade of the Baxsadaan Army"? Akane's brow furrowed. "I'm an assassin, not a bounty hunter."
This earned a crack across the back of her head. She fell forward, catching herself with outstretched hands against the cool floor. The woman was be old, and Akane was deadly, the fall was a sign of submission rather than a result of the impact.
"He doesn't need to be alive to collect the bounty." Her mistress said, the disapproval thick in her tone. She didn't need to verbally reprimand her, the backhand was enough.
"So you're my client? I'm assassinating him for you to collect the reward."
"If that's what you want to tell yourself," Haruna had walked round to her desk again, a rare twinkle in her dark eyes. "You will have an ample reward yourself, Akane."
"I don't kill for a reward, I kill for payment."
"Don't be pedantic," Haruna ordered. "you will need to disguise your gender when you enter the race."
"Yes," Haruna sat at her willow chair, her bones creaking in time with her seat, "It is rumoured he has entered the Baxsadaan Trials. You will need to steal a horse and travel to Hoshkav."
"The City of Smoke?" Akane could not disguise the disgust in her voice, "We have horses - why would I need to steal one?"
"The race requires it. Some stupid rule devised by men," the Assassin Mistress spat the last word, "Pathetic but traditional. Therefore you must enter. Hide your gender so you don't arouse suspicion. Your ethnicity will signal you out as a stranger to the continent, you don't want to arouse further suspicion of your motives by revealing you are female. My house is famous across the world, after all." Haruna waved a hand.
Akane rose, dismissed, and went to the temple. As she always did after a job, she knelt before the statue of her goddess and prayed to her ancestors. And as always she felt hollow. But she left the house again, into the frigid air of an early dawn - she had a horse to steal.