The doctor’s eyes bulged from shock and asphyxiation as Mariko pulled the power cord taut. Her arms shook amid spittle and gasps, and she watched the frail man’s squirming tongue turn blue in his mouth. Then he went limp.
Mariko loosed the cord and Dr. Kuo’s bald head hit the floor. She turned to the sonogram machine, silent and dark, next to the examining table. He had seen it. And so had she. It was impossible. But there it had been all the same, shining in digital clarity. Dr. Kuo had removed the sonogram sensor from her abdomen immediately and said nothing, but it was clear from the look on his face that he had been just as surprised as she. It was also clear it wouldn’t be discussed—at least not with her. He turned away. He didn’t even acknowledge his surprise. Instead, Mariko knew, he would report immediately to Sato-san, her father’s waka-gashira, his trusted second in command, and the two men would decide. Mariko would be told later, after her father was briefed. When it was convenient for them.
She stood barefoot in the wood-paneled examination room and felt her shoulder twitch as if struck by the bokken of her old master. Even a dull wooden practice blade could deliver a painful blow to the nerve plexus at the base of the neck. That was the punishment for the slightest hesitation: a white hot shard of pain through her body. A warrior didn’t stop to think, her master would chastise her. When a sword was drawn or insult thrown, a warrior acted. Whether those actions were good or bad, honorable or not, would come from his heart rather than his head. If he was an honorable man, his actions would be honorable. And if he was a dishonorable man, he would be dead.
Dr. Kuo’s had barely had a chance to register movement before his patient yanked the power cord from the wall and wrapped it around his wrinkled neck. Cords and wires did a better job of muffling sounds, Mariko’s old master had taught her. Hands were bumpy. They grew slick with sweat. They slipped. It takes time to strangle a man, to use all the air in his lungs, and fingers tired. They let through little gurgles and tiny pleas. An assassin could never afford to be discovered. Weapons, like intentions, had to be hidden. A strong cord could be made to look like part of her clothing. It could be tied in a trick knot into her hair and pulled free in an instant. But Mariko didn’t have a cord. Inside her clan’s infirmary, where patients wore nothing but a simple robe printed with a heraldic crest, she could hide nothing. She was barefoot—nearly naked—and without thinking, she had grabbed the closest tool, and the frail Dr. Kuo fell dead.
Mariko stepped across the body and pressed her ear to the door. There was a nurse waiting outside for the procedure to be completed. Normally, she would attend, but no one was allowed to see the contents of Mariko’s womb. Often, not even her. Three doors down, an angry man was making a racket. He hadn’t stopped shouting since he’d arrived twenty minutes earlier. He’d been stabbed. He was bleeding and not happy about it. There were three others with him. If protocol had been followed, all of them would have checked their weapons at the door. But exceptions were often made when a man’s life was in danger. Mariko couldn’t be sure that the men hadn’t been allowed into the clinic still in their street clothes, weapons and all.
She looked down at her slender toes, then at her naked, tattoo-covered legs, and finally at the three small bumps under the skin of her inner thigh that revealed she was something more than human. She was scheduled for a full work-up that day, a complete rundown of her parts: mental, physical, biomechanical. Her clan was taking no risks with the 5.3 billion yen gestating in her womb. Her clothes, her phone, her weapons—everything—rested in a locker at the end of the hall, right next to the rack of cubbies that held the shoes of everyone inside.
Storming to the wall, she pulled open the drawers one by one. Gauze, bandages, cotton balls, antiseptic, syringes, intubation tubes, catheters—she stopped. She ripped the plastic off two small scalpels. They were tiny, barely four centimeters long, and looked ridiculous in her thin hands. But they would have to do.
She turned to the door.
I could scream, she thought. I could say Dr. Kuo dropped dead of a heart attack. I could shake and cry. Like the actresses on TV.
There were three waka-ishu, foot soldiers, attending the noisy man, plus at least another four up front. There were doctors and nurses and any number of other patients. After this morning’s unexpected attack by the Yamaguchi-gumi, the clinic was sure to be busy. There might even be a big boss here, locked away in one of the secret rooms. That would mean trouble. Such a man would have at least one bodyguard. Not street a thug like the men down the hall, but a trained killer. A ninja.
I could scream, she thought.
The nurses would come first. So dutiful. So attentive. Like good Japanese wives. Then the men would burst in and push the frightened women out of the way. Mariko would have to act hysterical. She’d never done that before. But then, how hard could it be? The big strong men would console her. They would lead her from the room while the other doctors bent over their dead colleague. It wouldn’t take long for them to realize he’d been strangled, not with his eyes bulging like that. Even Mariko could see the deep red ligature mark on his neck. She’d have half a minute, at most, while they conferred with each other. She was not a woman who could be accused lightly. Then they would call her back. They would answers. They wouldn’t hurt her. She was the daughter of the oyabun, the “father” of them all. But they would detain her. They might even drug her, if necessary. If she fought. And then they’d take her to Sato-san, who would look at her in silence with those bleak steel eyes.
I could scream, she thought. I could act hysterical. I could shake and cry.
Mariko’s shoulder twitched again under the phantom rebuke of her long dead master, and she clenched both her jaw and the tiny scalpels in her hands.
She let the sleeves of her robe fall over her wrists to hide her tiny weapons. Then she slid the door open, slipped into the hall, and shut it behind her. The nurse outside was sitting upright with her legs tucked under her. She had perfect posture, and she gave a curt but deferential bow. Mariko returned the courtesy and told the woman that the doctor had asked for a moment. To say more might arouse suspicion, so she left it at that and walked casually down the hall in her bare feet. The doors to the other rooms were not made of rice paper, but they were made to look it, and she could see faint shadows move on the other side of the opaque plastic.
Her toes clenched the soft wood under her feet. She made it to the first corner before she heard the nurse scream. She stepped quickly, turned a second corner and was within sight of the lockers—and from there the steps to the front door—when the male clinic staff started shouting monosyllabic exclamations of shock in an attempt to rouse their coworkers. It didn’t take much. After that morning’s attack, everyone was on edge. The three waka-ishu, the street soldiers who had brought their wounded colleague, burst into the hallway before her. They wore sport jackets and matching pants with open collared shirts and no ties. They had guns drawn.
For a moment, they scanned the hallway, looking for the source of the disturbance. For a moment, they glanced right over Mariko, and she again thought she could act hysterical. She could start sobbing and run past them, as if fleeing in fear. That was her only hope of avoiding conflict. That she was the oyabun’s daughter counted for very little. Although the men were all superficially deferential, she was a woman and had no official status in the clan. She was neither waka-gashira nor waka-ishu nor even shatei, “younger brother.” She was imouto, “little sister,” a sort of servant-mistress, spared the latter duty out of respect for her high parentage—not that any of them would touch a woman with such a prominent facial scar. It was a novelty even that she’d been trained in ninjitsu. If it hadn’t been for the fire that killed her mother and drove her family to exile in Hawaii, leaving her the oyabun’s only blood heir, he wouldn’t have taken such careful precautions to ensure her survival. Not that she could take over. No, she was expected to give him a grandson. That was her purpose. Her duty. It was never spoken aloud. But it was clear to everyone all the same. And that meant her training—given over objections of her clan, for even an oyabun must honor the traditions—was primarily as a means of defending her womb, her purity, and her father’s honor.
And that gave her the advantage.
The foot soldiers of her clan, even though they were aware, in some sense, that she’d been trained by Hard Lotus Master, wouldn’t expect her to have taken it seriously, let alone excelled. They would be worried about hurting their “father’s” only daughter. They would go easy on her. Because in the end, she was only Kintsugi. The broken girl. That’s what they called her. All of them. Behind her back. She was never Mariko. That was too familiar. Nor was she Nishida-san. That implied respect. She was “kintsugi,” after the old practice, hardly seen anymore, of repairing broken ceramics with gold-dust lacquer such that they became beautiful in their imperfection. It was a great art, to be sure. But as an epithet, it referred less to her beauty than that it was marred by the long, diagonal scar across her face. The scar she’d gotten as a girl. The night her family estate was attacked. The night her clan was driven from their ancestral home. The night their long exile began, the exile that only ended when she was a woman of twenty. It meant she’d been broken and repaired. It meant she was damaged goods.
Mariko let the scalpels fall into her palms as she charged the three men, barefoot. If she could get close enough, quickly enough, their guns would be useless in the narrow hall. That she was a woman, Hard Lotus Master had taught her, was no excuse. Even men had to face opponents who were much stronger. She would simply have to apply the same tactics, attack not with strength but with dexterity and skill, using weapons rather than fists and striking where they were vulnerable, where their greater muscles were of no benefit—joints and pressure points, the eyes, the throat, the scrotum. But blocking a strong man’s punch would require too much of her effort. If he were very skilled, she would have to widen her stance and use two hands, which would steal her momentum and shift the battle in his favor. The point at which she began blocking was the point she had already lost and should retreat. Instead, Hard Lotus Master had taught her, she she needed to avoid their thrusts altogether. As a woman, she could be nimbler and lighter on her feet, and as his student, he would teach her to use stealth and dexterity to overcome any foe, to twist their limbs and use their own power against them.
She threw one of the scalpels. It flew past the closest two men and struck the third in the neck. It wasn’t enough to kill him, but it would hurt and draw blood, and he would step back, if only out of instinct, to make sure he wasn’t going to bleed to death. By the time the other two realized what was happening, she was upon them. Their guns were already drawn, but in those two moments of shock, she had closed the distance. She deflected the first man’s arm as his gun discharged. The bullet went wide and struck a nurse down the hall, who shrieked and fell as Mariko rammed the second scalpel into her attacker’s groin—right into his testicles. Shock and horror hit the man’s face and she pushed him back into the second, who yelled in frustration as his weapon turned to the ceiling.
Mariko kicked the second man’s knee, and it bent. But he was strong, and the blow didn’t send him down. She swiped the scalpel back and forth his arms, if only to cause pain, while the man with shredded testicles, crawled across the floor and screamed.
The third man, the one who’d taken the scalpel to his throat, came at her angrily. She spun and tripped him and sent him crashing into his companion, and both fell to the floor, which was just the opening the gathering crowd had waited for. Everyone came at her, and Mariko retreated from the hallway to the foyer, where she used a heavy brass display vase to deflect a bullet—the shock from which sent stabbing pain into her wrist and down her arms. If not for her enhancements, she would’ve dropped in pain.
Gripping the heavy handle near the vase’s neck, she used it like a club on one man, then another, following through with each blow, letting the momentum from each swing carry her into position for her next maneuver. The swaying forced her robe open, which she realized when the men attacking her flinched. She was the oyabun’s daughter. Not a common hostess girl. It was shameful to see her like that.
In their hesitation, Mariko struck again. She delivered the heavy metal vase across the temple of the largest man, who would be the biggest threat. Another grabbed her loose robe and she kicked off the wall, turned a swift cartwheel in the air, twisting his hand until he released his grip, which put him off balance, and she kicked hard in the gut. He went to his knees, and she round-housed him across the ear, slamming his head into the wall, where it left a round crater. She deflected another shot and the bullet struck a shatei, a “little brother,” just as he slid open a door to join the battle. He fell to the floor, motionless.
The men stopped.
Up until then, it had always been possible that old Dr. Kuo had been a pervert and had touched Mariko inappropriately. It wouldn’t have been the first time something like that had happened. But now it didn’t matter. Now the reasons for her betrayal were irrelevant. A member of the clan had been mortally wounded, and by one of their own—a woman at that. A woman who hadn’t immediately dropped to her knees and begged forgiveness. In such a circumstance, the clan’s duty was clear. Oyabun’s daughter or no, Mariko had to be stopped. By any means.
They came at her as a crowd.
Everyone froze in mid strike. Everyone knew that voice. In seconds, the men dispersed, following the crowd of scared nurses at the back. There was no reason for them to stay now and risk dishonor. Or death.
Mariko repeated the name to herself. Kintsugi. The broken girl.
She knew the voice, same as the rest. At least, she thought, he hadn’t added the diminutive and called her “Kintsugi-chan.”
Mariko turned to face “Ichi”—The One. He wasn’t particularly tall, but he was athletically built with a full head fashionably-cut hair and a firm jaw. He removed his tailored suit coat, revealing the bright, starched dress shirt underneath. He folded the jacket and set it on the floor. He lifted his sheathed katana, a beautiful but simple weapon made according to the traditional art. He stood before her and said nothing. He didn’t have to. His meaning was clear. She was to submit that very second. Using words would have implied the matter was open to discussion.
It was not.
The pair were alone now, the foot soldiers and clinic staff having all retreated. No one would interfere. Not with this. “Ichi” was a renowned killer whose exploits had earned him his nickname several times over. There were few who could stand against him. It was even said he had faced the famed Black Ghost, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s legendary enforcer. But if so, “Ichi” never spoke of it. Not even when he and Mariko were laying bed together. She knew her opponent. She knew his skill. She even knew his real name. Kintaro Kenichi was not only handsome, he was a man of great inner beauty. It was that passion which led him to devote himself so wholly to his art, and to his clan. It was that passion which so attracted her, as both a teenager and a young woman. But he had never called her Mariko. To him, she was always Kintsugi. The broken girl. It was an apt name, he explained to her, not so much because of the scar on her face, which he had found perversely attractive, but for her time in exile. She was too rebellious, he said. Insufficiently respectful of tradition. Her time in America, he argued, had left a mark on her deeper than the strike across her face.
Mariko had no choice but to face him. If she tried to run, he would puncture her back, leaving her paralyzed and helpless—but with her womb intact. The katana, she knew, wouldn’t be the only weapon he carried. He would have darts and shuriken, at least, hidden under his shirt or tucked behind his belt. Mariko had nothing but an open, short-sleeved hospital robe that hung wide and revealed everything. Her breasts. Her thighs. Even the slight bulge of her abdomen.
Kintaro stepped in black socks to the fallen soldier and removed the man’s wakizashi—short sword—from his belt. It wasn’t as long as a katana, but it was certainly better than a four-centimeter scalpel. He tossed it to her and she caught it. He was letting her face him honorably. She doubted any other man in her clan would have shown her such respect. He waited a moment for her to change her mind. To submit. He didn’t expect it. But he gave her the choice. When she lowered into a defensive stance, he drew his katana from its scabbard. After half-a-breath’s pause, he gave a stout yell.
Their blades met, weakly at first, back and forth, as each warrior tested the other. “Ichi” probed Mariko’s body with his movements. Had she been hurt during the melee? Was she favoring one side or another? Was there a weakness? Could he disable her quickly? Finding none, his attacks gradually increased in strength and ferocity, where each of his swift and powerful blows—one after the next—were marked by a strong exhale, bordering on war cry.
At first, Mariko tried to match his strength, which brought the familiar, habitual twitch of her shoulder—a chip, Kintaro would say after sex. A weakness. She had been thinking again. Not acting. Her opponent saw it and she nearly lost her short blade. She recovered, but “Ichi” was driving her back with rapid, solid strikes. The point at which she began blocking thus, Hard Lotus Master had warned her, was the point she had already lost and should retreat. But there was no retreat. Not now. “Ichi” had been cleverer than her. He had gotten between her and the door and was pushing her deeper into the clinic, where there was no escape.
“Ichi” lifted her leg from under her with a sweep of his foot and she tumbled artfully, turning just in time to see him flick his wrist.
She dodged two by putting herself squarely in the path of the last, which she deflected with her sword as the other two hit the wall behind her. He was already coming at her. She saw the brass vase at her feet and stuck her wakizashi into the opening, did a cartwheel flip out of the path of his attack, and—when her feet landed—launched the vase directly at the man’s head. She followed it immediately with the sword, and then herself.
“Ichi” deflected the vase with ease and was barely surprised to see the short sword right behind it. He moved deftly just as it impaled itself in the wall behind him. Mariko’s weapon was momentarily useless. Anyone else would have been dead immediately. But Mariko knew Kintaro. She knew his inner beauty. She knew his passion. His duty. She couldn’t stop his sword. But she could deflect it down.
Kenichi Kintaro’s eyes went wide as he saw his strike move toward his lover’s pregnant womb, the womb that held his “father’s” grandchild. He had no choice but to turn his blade, leaving his arm open and exposed. Mariko struck with two hands, one above and one below, momentarily shocking “Ichi’s” forearm and allowing her to knock the katana loose. She grabbed it one-handed in midair and swiped while dropping to one knee. A woman with lesser training would have hesitated. But Mariko was no longer thinking. She was acting. As she had been trained. And before her conscious mind was aware, she had opened Kintaro’s belly.
His eyes went wide. He looked at her, his face red with pain and a deeply held breath. He let it out in one gasp. As shock subsided, resignation took over. And acceptance. Mariko saw no blame in her lover’s eyes. She had acted with fortitude. Whatever her reasons, he knew she believed what she was doing was right, that she was acting with honor, as was he. The pair had fought. And she had won. There was no shame.
The man called “Ichi” reached up and gently followed Mariko’s scar with his fingers.
“Mariko . . .” he said.
And then he died.
Kintaro Kenichi slid back and hit the floor. Mariko stared at the still body of her lover. She laid his weapon next to him. Then she bowed.
But there wasn’t time to mourn. When the sounds of battle ceased, the others would come. Mariko pulled the wakazashi from the wall and ran out the door.
The owner of the little produce shop across the alley-like street was a member of her clan, she knew, and she was sure he had a gun—illegal in Japan—hidden under the mounds of carrots and cabbages. A shotgun, probably, or a semi-automatic rifle, something that could mow down several attackers at once and give any clansmen inside the clinic time to defend themselves. Or flee. But if so, the man didn’t draw it when he saw her. Not because she was the oyabun’s daughter. That wouldn’t matter anymore. In fact, it only compounded her crime, for she brought shame and dishonor to the father of them all. They would only hate her that much more. She wasn’t shot on sight for one simple reason: she was pregnant. It had never been said out loud, but everyone knew. That was her purpose. Her duty. It was the reason she was kept close. It was the reason her body was off limits to the men. It was the reason she had to sneak away to see Kintaro. It was why the two of them never saw each other, nor even spoke, outside of the love hotels north of Ueno where they met twice a month.
Mariko had killed three men and wounded several others, some seriously. Her life was now forfeit. But what she carried in her womb was more valuable to her father than his very soul. There was no place she could flee where they would not come for her. No place in the world.
With no money, no plan, no family, and no shoes, Mariko ran down the street and slipped into the city. Her robe barely covered her breasts and left her tattoos exposed. Everyone would know she was yakuza. No one would help her. She was on her own. And they would hunt her now. Not just her clan, but their rivals, the police, anyone with a grudge. She knew her life was forfeit. But then, she didn’t have to escape. She just had to make sure the miracle was safe.
That was her vow.
cover image by Thomas Dubois