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The Student of the Night
The student crouched on the tiled roof like a spider, his eyes averted from the full moon that cast its pale light over the palace below him. In one hand he grasped the rope that he had used to scale the wall of the tower. The end of the rope was tied to the grappling hook, lodged in a ledge near the roof’s apex, that had held his weight as he climbed swiftly up onto the roof. His other hand rested on the hilt of the knife that rested in a leather sheath at his waist. His eyes shifted to observe the gray cloud in the distance that drifted slowly across the night sky toward the moon. He heard the rustling of the leaves in the bamboo grove whose tall, green shoots ringed the hill on which the castle had been built. He heard the chirping of the crickets in the fields on the hill and the chirping of frogs in the marsh through which he had rowed two nights before on his way to the palace.
He heard a floorboard creak below him as one of the soldiers guarding the Prize paced back and forth. Rumored to be a gem of immeasurable beauty, it had been locked away by the local dynasty for five generations. According to legend, it had been discovered centuries ago by the shogun who had united the local villages into the powerful dominion it was today. Since then it had changed hands many times, and each of its successive controllers had received the respect of the peasantry and the aid of the gods in rulership. The Prize had, long ago, resided on a pedestal next to the throne of the shogun, admired by the court and the people. But for two hundred years the Prize had not been seen, and the people only knew of its appearance what their great-great-grandfathers had told them. The current dynasty had been founded by a heartless man who had murdered his way onto the throne; his reign and those of his successors had brought terror and oppression upon the people. But while the dynasty held the Prize, the people did not dare to rebel. The Defenders of the Mountain, a ninja academy located a few days away, had tried many times to steal the Prize for the people, but each time their agents had failed. Their attempts had convinced the shoguns to keep it in a safe room at the top of the palace.
Now the student was closer to the Prize than any member of his organization had been for twelve years. He knew exactly how long it had been because of the inscriptions, carved into the green roof tiles by other ninjas who had taken the same route as the student. There were seven, the older ones worn by rain and snow; the most recent bore the name Iwasaki. The student remembered Iwasaki as a quiet, forceful man, though he did not know him personally- Iwasaki had been absorbed in preparation for the Prize mission, his last mission, when the student was still a young boy. The student had heard stories of Iwasaki’s head displayed above the castle gate after the shogun’s men trapped and killed him within the palace walls. Below Iwasaki’s name was a message: It is what we believe it to be. It was written hastily; Iwasaki, according to observers, had emerged on the roof after the guards discovered him, crouching there until a volley of arrows fired from the curtain wall parapet pierced him. Though the student did not understand to what the words alluded, he committed them to memory as he perched on the cool tiles of the roof. Any man’s last words were worth remembering.
The student waited there still and silent as time slipped away into the chasm of the past. He was counting the guards’ voices, discerning by their occasional utterances how many he would encounter when he made his move. For the last three hours only two men had spoken; others would be present but silent, asleep until their watch began at dawn.
The moonlight disappeared; the air felt colder against the student’s masked face, and he waited a minute for his eyes to adjust. Then he moved silently to the grappling hook and extracted it from the wood. Grasping his knife, he returned silently to the edge of the roof and stood there for a moment, his back to the ledge, listening, feeling, every sense preparing. Then he threw the hook over the far end of the roof and jumped backward into the night.
He flew in utter silence away from the roof. Then the grappling hook caught with a clang on the far edge of the wall, and the rope jerked him, the wind whistling in his ears, toward the shuttered window of the safe room. He extended his feet, battering the wooden shutters apart and sailing into the room. Two guards were standing on either side of a jade pedestal in the center of the chamber, their heads turning from the sound of the hook to the sound of the shattering shutters. Two more were asleep on the floor; one was still, the other turning over without waking. The student landed nimbly on the floor and in a single motion leapt up, drew his knife and hit the nearest guard with his elbow and the knife, killing him instantly. The second guard reached for his sword, which rested against the wall behind him, and brought it up in time to parry the student’s knife slash. He yelled, and the two sleeping guards stirred as the student kicked the guard into the wall, knocked the sword aside and bashed his foe into unconsciousness with the hilt of the dagger.
The student turned to find the two remaining guards drawing their own swords and moving around the pedestal to flank him. Grabbing his fallen opponent’s blade, he rolled forward, springing up on the pedestal to avoid their flashing swords, and slashed them with the knife and dagger. The two crumpled to the floor, and the student dropped from the pedestal to cut off their death throes. Then he dropped the sword and bound the unconscious guard, wiping blood from the knife blade on the guard’s tunic. Sheathing the knife, he approached the green plinth and proceeded to pick the golden lock set into a golden panel on its top face. The moon had appeared once more, giving the impression that hours had passed rather than just a few moments. The student heard the lock click and lifted the plate, to reveal a golden depression in which rested… nothing. The Prize was not there. The only contents of the box was a yellowed, worn piece of parchment. The student lifted the parchment from its resting place to examine it. On it was painted a warlord, surrounded by rivals with demonlike visages, throwing a radiant gem into the sea. In the corner of the parchment was a date from over three hundred years ago.
The student stared at the parchment, speechless, his mind working over the problem. He had been sent to steal a Prize which his foes had never possessed. His brow creased beneath the black hood as he stared out into the night, considering every factor, trying to find a way out. Then, finally, inspiration struck him. He lifted the parchment to one of the lamps in the corner of the room, destroying it completely. Then he returned to the pedestal, leaning against it while he waited for the unconscious guard to awake.
After what seemed like an age, the student saw the guard’s eyes open. Keeping his back between the guard and the pedestal, he reached into the box and pretended to stow something within his robes. He ran to the window and slid down the rope, into the free night air once more. Above him he heard the guard begin to yell: “Help! Thief!”
The student allowed a grim smile to cross his face. Whether or not he escaped, the shogun’s men would never find the Prize. The guard would not know that there was, in reality, no crystal; the knowledge of the theft would spread, and the people would rise against the shogun.
Iwasaki was right. It is as we believe it to be.