By Nate Ledbetter

First Place / Best Ending

Historical Fiction


            He smiled underneath the blue cloth covering his face. He was so close--just a few more passageways and he'd be to his goal. For a second he thought 'why rush?', but only for a second. The quicker he got to his target, the longer he would have to enjoy his success. Besides, he didn't want to be caught, did he? No, couldn't risk that.

            He'd prepared for this night, these moments, for quite some time. During the day he'd noted the layout of the buildings; this wing of the palace was particularly confusing, with several rooms all appearing identical. Some had no connecting passageways. The only way to navigate them all was to pass room to room, instead of down a hallway. As discreetly as possible, he had reconnoitered this wing and several others through which he might enter or make good his escape. It had taken a long time, but by volunteering to take messages to or run errands for the exalted personages that inhabited this part of the palace, he had managed to become intimately familiar with the entire layout. Additionally, it soon was a natural thing for the denizens of these rooms to see his presence on some sort of mission during the daytime, and raised no alarm. He could only hope the same could be said of his predations this night.

             Of course a significant amount of his efforts went into observing his target as well. The highborn personage who had this particular bullseye painted on them was certainly worthy of all this preparation. Someone such as this could not simply be accosted in the street or confronted directly in court--that would be disastrous! A public attempt would bring shame and scorn on his family, and would result in their dismissal and inevitable downfall. Aiming straight up only meant that if you missed, the arrow came right back down at you, after all. No, this matter must be settled behind closed doors, out of the sight of all, and no one should be the wiser as to how.

            'Careful now', he stopped his thoughts. 'You don't have energy to waste with too much thinking. Get down the hallway before being discovered.'

            This also was true. If a public assault would be disastrous, discovery of this night attack would be that much more inexplicable and shameful. The court certainly could not countenance such behavior from someone of his station; though not exactly exalted, he still carried responsibilities and a fair amount of public awareness. Should he be caught involved in a plot like this, much less outed as the primary perpetrator, the public outcry would be enormous. Heads would literally roll--the only question would be off of whose necks?

           Quietly he crept forward. It really was only a matter of yards now. Looking over his shoulder to ensure he was alone, he stepped quietly to the last doorway in between him and his prey.

            Things had all started innocently enough. Making mischief with friends, he's found out that he had some talent for this sort of thing. Some of the more reckless fellows had felt the need to push themselves further and further each time, taking bigger risks, and he had been the riskiest of the whole group. Somehow or another, word had leaked out of his prowess, and after a time, certain "requests" for his "services" had been discreetly made. Cryptic messages would come to his residence, with the time and place and target hidden in layers of poetry. Part of the excitement was figuring out the puzzle of these letters, discovering who his next target would be. He was handsomely rewarded each time, but enjoyed doing this, more for the challenge and thrill than for anything else. There was certainly something to be said for hitting that climactic rush that came whenever the deed was done. Adding the element of surprise and danger certainly heightened the experience. It was otherworldy, really. Identifying a target and engaging them in normal circumstances simply did not excite him anymore. If there was no danger, no chance to be caught, no risk, then he was not really interested.

            Never had any target been THIS big though, nor had any been more dangerous. All before was mere child's play in comparison. And so this time, his anticipation was at its peak. This was no simple challenge laid down by his friends, that they would recap while drinking sake and moon-viewing. This was the ultimate, and he was really looking forward to this.

            His hand touched the door. Slowly, gently, and quietly he reached for the hold, to slide it back just enough to slip through. He strived to make less than no sound. A soundless night heightens senses and raises awareness in guards, attendants, and the like on watch for their wards; normal nights have sound, and he strived for his movements to sound as natural and normal as the night wind rustling the leaves.

           Earlier that day, he had made one last reconnaissance under the guise of delivering a gift from the Minister of the Left. The spray of wisteria in full bloom was accepted with cheerfulness and laughter by the maids, but he wasn't looking for the gratitude of the wait staff. In the alcove of the reception room, the place he'd been told to expect it, there was a vase with a single peony. That confirmed it. Tonight was the planned night, and the signal to proceed was in place.

            A small cough stopped him in his tracks; the door was slightly open, but not enough to slip in if the noise came from behind him. Ears attuned to the silence around him, he waited. Was the noise from inside? Perhaps from his mark? He shifted slightly to better mold his body to the wall. No guards appeared, no maids to wail in terror at the sight of a man in dark clothing hiding in the shadows. Slowly he began to relax. After a few more moments, he began to slide the door again. Gently, almost…

            When he returned home from the palace, he made his final preparations. After shedding his daily wear robes, he took a bath. Cleanliness felt necessary to him for these moments; he did not want his actions sullied by impurity. After bathing, he ate to provide the strength he would need on his mission: rice, fish, soup, and his customary chestnuts. Chestnuts were eaten for good luck by generals leaving for battle, and he made sure he had some before departing on any mission. As tonight’s foray was especially dangerous and important, he ate twice as many as usual. With that ritual completed, he donned his garb; a close fitting blue outfit, soft soled footwear, and a head scarf, also blue, he could wrap around his face. For equipment, he took a hook with rope to climb the palace walls. He also always packed a small knife, but had never to this point needed to use it. Others who engaged in similar activities armed themselves with all sorts of tools and devices, but he felt these unnecessary. If he could not do what needed to be done with his own skill, then he did not want to be aided. Using such things was almost unfair, as if the tool got the credit, and not him. He didn’t need them.

            ‘There,’ he thought. Just enough room to squeeze through, if I breathe in. He did so, slowly moving through the sliding door. First, his right foot, entering slowly, finding space to plant. His body followed effortlessly, sliding in quietly behind. He had worked hard for his athleticism, because to be good at what he did, it was demanded of him. Not only the task of entering and exiting, but the actual act of engaging the target could be quite rigorous at times. Being unfit meant failure.

            Gaining entry to the palace was not difficult at all. From his reconnaissance, and previous experience, he knew which sections of wall were well patrolled, and which were not. The palace was not a complicated series of defenses like a castle. Up, over the wall, and he was inside; this was where the real test began. Despite the importance of the individuals who, like his target, inhabited this section of the palace, it was relatively lightly guarded. However anyone could raise enough alarm to end his mission. A random maid here, an attendant who went to pee at the wrong time there, a sleepless individual gazing out onto the rooftops in the wrong direction, and with a shout, the intruder would be in great peril. Luckily he did not encounter anyone on his way to the room. In fact, he was kind of surprised. Only a few times had he even felt he needed to duck into a shadow or freeze in a recess, and each time no danger showed itself.

            He was in the room now. An open window let in a tiny ray of moonlight, enough for him to see the screen in front of him. Behind this screen, aptly depicting a palace scene of winter, lay his target. Slowly, carefully, he made his way towards the screen.

            He froze; there was the cough again, closer, more audible. It was more as if someone were clearing their throat. Someone behind the screen.

            “So long ago,

Did those folk too,

As I,

Longing for their darlings

Find sleep was beyond them?”

            The voice was barely audible, a mere whisper. The poem was by Hitomaro, from the Manyōshū. A challenge? Success or failure would depend on his response. Attack, or retreat? With the quick reactions that had made his reputation, he attacked.

            “Jewelled robes

Rustling deep within,

And in the house, my darling:

Without a word, I come to her

Unable to bear this longing.”

            He decided to fight Hitomaro with more—it was only by his boldness that he had come this far, after all. His mission tonight—love—was dependent on how his target received this answer, and answered on her own. Such a high-born lady would naturally know he had answered in kind. Would she respect his bold assault? Or repel his advance as impudent?

            “My love,

Had I but known his coming,

Among the wild weeds

Of my garden

I would have scattered jewels.”

Success! The lady countered with an anonymous poem in the Manyōshū, one that signaled acceptance. He now only had to land the final blow.

“A gem-strewn

House-what's that to me?

With wild weeds

Overgrown, a hut is where I'll go

If my darling's there.”

            As he matched with the answering anonymous poem, he moved around the screen, and into her presence. His mission was accomplished, and now it was time to enjoy his reward. Sure, he’d have to stealthily steal away before dawn to avoid discovery, but he would worry about that afterwards. ‘For now’, Genji thought to himself, ‘you’ve done it again.’

All poems from the Manyōshū found here: