Vlana said goodbye to her sensei before the public viewing in the hydrangea garden, beside the Shrine of Kameido in the center of Kasai. Before he was viewed by the people of the city, most of which he never knew or interacted with, his body was wrapped in rich, colorful silks he never wore in life, surrounded by symbolic offerings of red rice, known as Sekihan and bunches of flowers known as Lo’elhi, both symbols of the Red Wolf, Okami, and laid in state within the Shrine. He was known by few and respected by many, as well as feared by many more that neither knew nor understood his ways, nor the ways of his dojo. But as a Shadow Master, and a well-respected teacher, a public fire ceremony to mark his passing was obligatory, even in a city where Those Who Dwell in the Shadows are not spoken of except with hushed tones.
She had been his final student, and had spent the last ten years of her life learning everything she could from the old man, even though he was always quick to point out that he was giving her nothing; rather, he merely ‘changed the flow of her energy’, as if altering a brook, allowing that which was in herself to emerge naturally. “Everything exists within”, he’d say, “There is nothing outside of yourself that can make you faster, stronger, smarter, or richer; seek nothing outside of yourself, but encourage the tree that grows within, and let the roots and branches reach where they will”. His wisdom had been particularly difficult for Vlana to grasp, herself just a vagabond Varisian child-thief from Magnimar, fleeing gang persecution in the Shadow Spire. In many ways, Vlana took to the physical demands and hardships of training far easier that her Master’s inscrutable, sometimes even obscure, doctrines. In time, however, she found clarity in his words and accepted the fact that whatever difficulty she encountered as a youth when she first came to Minkai originated from her own mind.
Making sure no one else was in the Shrine, or could see her from outside, Vlana stepped out of the darkness behind the Queen of Heaven statue, and then stood before the dais that held his body. She selected a cloying stick of lavender incense, lit it on fire from one of the ceremonial torches, bowed before his silk-wrapped form and said the traditional Five Blessings; then, she placed the smoldering incense stick into the dragon-shaped copper offering vessel beside his body: hers was the first stick of what should be many. After 24 hours, the body, all the offerings, the incense, prayer notes, flowers, and his final belongings, all would go up in smoke in his final pyre, and thereby allow the smoke of his soul to travel to heaven. Vlana herself did not necessarily believe that is what actually happened, but in this case she chose to honor the traditions of Minkai, even when her sensai rarely did.
Vlana had not only been Konji Hasamiku’s final student, she was also his secret. By choosing to align with the losing side in the previous Shadow Wars that flared up for control of the Jade Throne, Hasamiku had been allowed to gracefully ‘retire’, rather than be killed, on the conditions that he disband his dojo, accept no further students, and never left the city of Kasai. The first and last conditions he complied with willingly; circumstance forced his compliance for the second condition, as families no longer sent promising students to him for teaching the ways of the Okami Clan. But a gaijen, an outsider from Avistan: when the opportunity came for Hasamiku to break both tradition and rule he leaped at the chance.
“Traditions”, he’d said, “are the shackles of knowledge: the tree grows towards the sky, not because of tradition but because that is where it is meant to grow. The Wolf does not obey fences.”
Both of them, if discovered, could have been killed for teaching an outsider the art of ninjitsu, if not by the Governor or by order of the Jade Regent, then at the very least by representatives of the many other clans and dojos who keep their arts secreted away from foreign barbarians. But the Okami, he’d explained, went their own way. The lion, the tiger, and leopard: all strong and fearsome predators; yet, they were known to kill the weak and sickly, the old, the newborn, and the defenseless. It was the wolf, and the wolf alone, he reminded her, who followed the beast herds for miles as they migrated, observing its members, and selected the strongest of the herd to hunt and kill – for the strongest member provides the best meat.
Always full of obscure wisdom, Vlana had been surprised a week ago when he’d summoned her from her training and sat her down, both cross-legged on the floor of his illegal, impromptu dojo, to speak to her in rather plain terms.
“I have spoken with the Shinigami, those who serve the Goddess known in your lands as Pharasma. My end draws near. I am no longer a young man, and this is as it should be, even though it pains me that I have not been able to finish this final task I assigned myself.”
“Sensi, she’d started, concerned from his words – but he held up a hand to stop her.
“Everything is as it should be; all things which begin also have ends, and therein lies the balance of the universe. However, I do have one final task which I would ask of you, to repay all that I have taught you these past years.”
“Of course, Sensi, what shall I do for you?”
“The Fates had decided that before my final smoke reaches Heaven there will be a shipment of opium, the poppy’s cruel kiss, which will leave the harbor aboard a merchant vessel named the Sun Crane. It, and the merchant’s agent accompanying the shipment, is bound for Muliwan – and thence, via The Path of Aganhei, the poison is set to spread itself across Avistan, from whence you came. Be on that vessel, and somehow stop that shipment from reaching its destination. From there you may continue back to your home lands, if that is what you wish, but do not allow that shipment to survive”.
Vlana nodded her head; she had been thinking about returning to Magnimar for some time now but did not feel she was ready to do what she wanted to do – now, because of her teacher’s imminent death, she would be doing so ready or not. She had seen what became of men who chased the dragon in opium dens in the city, and she knew there were gang in Magnimar would pay good coin to sell the drug in the streets. She decided then that she would stop the shipment of opium, as asked, or die trying.
“And the agent accompanying the shipment?” she asked.
“A considerably harder task to deal with; that is all I know. If you can destroy the shipment without bearing the wrath of the agent, that way lies success. The other paths are shrouded in darkness and hold no certainty. You are not yet the instrument I wanted to return to the world, but…you are no toothless cub either. The Shinigami could not allow me the luxury of seeing the final outcome, but I place all of my faith and trust in you, my Darkest Flower and I know you will do your best – and that is all anyone may ask of another.”
He hadn’t called her his pet name more than a handful of times in the years she’d spent training with Konji Hasamiku; hearing it now she felt the finality of his words, and could sense the truth in what he said. She could not say that she loved the old man, for his ways were very demanding and difficult, and her life in Minkai had not been easy – but she respected her teacher very much, and was much saddened to hear that his passing would come so soon.
“I thank you, Master, for all that you have done for me; I will do as you ask or die trying. I promise.”
“Well”, he returned with a rare smile, “try not to die, if you can. But always remember this: keep to the shadows, in all things. Let yourself not be known, for what your friends know so too may your enemies. But if you must be seen, let them see the image that you would have them see, not what truly is. Knowledge is advantage; illusion is a weapon. Seem the beautiful flower, but be the venomous viper beneath it. I can tell you nothing more – go and practice some more, and soon enough the time for you to act will come. Fair Journey.”
She stood and bowed deeply before her Sensi: “Fair Return”. Then she had walked out and returned to her work. That had been the last she’d spoken to him. Now she was on her own, truly, for the first time, but far better prepared, thanks to him, than she had been as a youngster when she first crossed the Crown of the World.
Before half the offertory incense stick had burned, Vlana melted into the shadows, confident in her steps along the new path of her life.