Jun 01 2012

Sermon Hermit’s Review Forum

Published by at 5:26 am under Review Forums

When Souls Scream for the Deaf Girl

Officer Kazumi is at the center of a revelation: the plague is coming. Town after town is engulfed by a rolling force never seen or heard. Populations have become enthralled puppets, and they seem to share one mind with one goal: shoot the messenger. Or cut her, or shatter her bones. She isn’t certain why, but Kazumi is sure it has something to do with her ability to restore humanity to these husks. And maybe somewhere in this mess is an answer to a question she’s pondered since childhood: why can she syphon the skills of others?

 

Kazumi quests to deliver news of this plague to the Shogun before it spreads to every inch of Japan’s colonies. Sixteen years of life raised by a professional deicide and extensive travel have prepared her well for this task. But she can’t do it alone. Joining her are the police captain’s mistrustful son, a previously detained assassin who wants her life, a vagabond old woman possibly suffering from dementia, an uptight priestess, and Kazumi’s faithful pet skunk.

 

How thick is my skin?  

I’ve been writing fanfiction since my senior year of high school in 07. I think my skill is disproportionate to my effort, and I enjoy praise. I honestly have it in my head that I’m some sort of prodigy, so if I need to be knocked down a peg or two with a reality check, please do. I need to hear the faults if I am to correct them. Hold nothing back.

 

Target Audience

The story will resonate with girls 15 and up, and boys 16 and up.

 

Comparable Works

Demographic is similar to the Hunger Games, though I haven’t read that book yet. I did see the movie, and the level of violence does not exceed that.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Sermon Hermit’s Review Forum”

  1. B. McKenzieon 08 Jun 2012 at 5:52 am

    Some thoughts and suggestions:

    –Having read your synopsis, I don’t understand how the title ties into the plot. In particular, mentioning that there’s a deaf girl in the title suggests that deafness is a major plot element. What do you think about “Screaming Souls” instead?

    –Kazumi doesn’t sound like she has much of a personality/distinguishing traits so far. What are some things she would do or say that most other protagonists in her genre wouldn’t do in the same situation? What are 1-2 plot-altering decisions she makes that most other protagonists wouldn’t?

    –If you cite a comparable work when you’re submitting to publishers, I would recommend against using something you haven’t read. In this case, I think Hunger Games would not be a very close analogue because 1) the settings are totally different (shogun-era Japan vs. a post-apocalyptic United States), 2) your work doesn’t sound like it covers any political intrigue, and 3) there doesn’t appear to be any major romance, and 4) the only plot resemblance that I can identify between the two is that both star a teen lady. As a marketer, my main concern would be whether there are many prospective YA readers that would be receptive to a novel set in the medieval period of a non-Western country, so I’d recommend finding a comparable that covers that period (ideally in Japan).

    I’m looking forward to the first chapter.

  2. Sermon Hermiton 08 Jun 2012 at 7:39 am

    Thanks for the forum and feedback, B.Mac

    -I’m planning on a series of about 5-7 books and “When Souls Scream” is at the start of each title, such as the third or fourth is called “When Souls Scream a Psalm of Fire”.

    Kazumi is “deaf” to her true abilities for most of the book, sometimes willingly so as she discovers what she’s capable of. (I am using the second definition of deaf, refusing to listen, which is her initial reaction, mixed with a nervous breakdown). And she doesn’t learn where they come from or how to properly utilize them until the second book.

    (Please note that initially, before reading Superhero Nation, I WAS planning on a one word title, “Syphon”. This title is about four days old so it may be subject to change.)

    -Okay, I see my failure to have included traits about Kazumi’s personality, thanks for pointing that out. I’m now recalling other queries I’ve read that successfully did so.

    For one, she is pretty upbeat and has a rather cheerful disposition. She’s also socially awkward and kind of a flighty airhead.

    Another thing about Kazumi is that she is almost completely desensitized to violence. The first thing she ever smelled is blood, and it wasn’t her mother’s.
    I haven’t written it out yet, but at one point she defeats and bandit, who tries to convince Kazumi to kill him. She says that she won’t carry the weight of his life, blinds him in both eyes with her bare hands, and pushes him in the direction of a cliff, telling him to walk if he wants to die.
    Violence doesn’t bother her, unless she finds the motivation behind it to be selfish.

    I should try to find a way to incorporate that in the synopsis, yeah? Should I lengthen it by another paragraph, or would that be too long?

    -I really haven’t given this one thought, and you’re right about the publisher’s response. I wouldn’t send description like that, I was mostly poking in the dark. I’m just really unsure of what to compare it to, and one of my sisters, said Hunger games when I described the plot.

  3. ehrichon 08 Jun 2012 at 9:05 am

    @hermit the level of violence in the movie “the hunger games” is very light compared to what is actually written in the books. so exceeding the level of something that’s actually pretty high can leave a lot of room.

  4. Sermon Hermiton 08 Jun 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Chapter 1:

    “Seven samurai killed in cold blood,” Captain Tatsuya rumbled from his elevated platform, “and we have yet to apprehend the Midnight Assassin.” He somehow fixed his glare on each of us at once.

    Several heads of dark hair dipped toward the ground; mine wasn’t among them. My head remained near even with the tallest in the meeting hall, which made me stand out, since I’m female. Noticeably so, I like to think…

    Being reprimanded isn’t my idea of a good time, but the feel of Captain’s baritone rattled my bones; deep voices really did something for me.

    The Captain’s eyes swept the room as he continued, scarred hands folded in his lap. “Midnight has only targeted skilled swordsman. Unarmed civilians are safe. This is the only reprieve we have. Last month’s victim was a member of the Shogun’s Inner Circle.”

    Cold worry started brewing in my stomach.

    “Shortly after the killing, I received a personal letter from Our Lord.”

    I bit my lip. For only two reasons did the Shogun deign to pick up a pen. To compose a glowing testimonial of someone who had served him, or to convey a monsoon of displeasure. No great mystery which was addressed to the Captain.

    “My orders are simple,” Captain Tatsuya said with complete calm. “Apprehend the assassin, or face dire consequences.”

    My stomach clenched as agitated discontent flooded the meeting hall. I knew I wasn’t the only one to imagine the Captain being forced to cut his belly. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

    “He can’t do that!” one of the officers in front of me shouted, stepping out of formation, fists clenched. I easily recognized Jiro. He and I didn’t get along, but I wouldn’t wish the position he was in on anyone. “Even the Shogun’s handpicked samurai failed against the assassin.”

    Captain’s face was stern like worn rock. “Our Lord is well within his rights. I have failed to bring the culprit to justice. I accept responsibility for this, and I alone will be held accountable. Back in ranks, Jiro. Control yourself,” he ordered, tone unforgiving.

    I couldn’t see his face, but Jiro’s shoulder’s shook as he bottled whatever he wanted to say. The back of his neck purpled as he slid back into the fold of blue and white robes.

    I counted the heartbeats of silence. I prepared myself for words grim enough to match Captain’s expression. Something apocalyptic. He surprised me as a tiny smile crept onto his grizzled face. “I’m not concerned. I have faith in each of you. You won’t fail me, and you won’t fail the city of Osaka.

    “There will be no more failures. No more dead men. We will capture this criminal scum before he strikes once more. It is our duty to protect citizens, whether they are armed or not, whether they are the Shogun’s or not. By this time tomorrow, Midnight will be in chains!”

    “Yes, Captain!” I shouted, my voice joining a chorus of my samurai peers. I admit, I swooned, just a little bit. I couldn’t have been the only one.

    “The festival is still expecting a heavy turnout, despite the danger,” Captain Tatsuya said. “That means the people have faith in us to protect them, so we must not let him slip through our fingers. Midnight has always struck on the full moon, and tonight will be no different. He’s too arrogant to back away from the challenge. The more famous swordsman are being kept under surveillance. Each of them is a potential target, or could possibly even be Midnight themselves. We will keep a strong presence throughout the city to assure every citizen that they are safe.

    “However, we will not all patrol in plain sight; I’ve decided to deploy samurai to pose as couples throughout the city, one pair for each of the seven sectors. You will operate within the search grids, blending with crowds to observe any suspicious activity that might otherwise go unnoticed from our usual perspective.”

    Now this is my idea of an undercover op. I could relax, hang on to a cute guy’s arm and bum some food off him before my showdown with Midnight. An evening of flirting, food, and fighting. A holy trinity in my book.

    The Captain started listing duos. I imagined myself perched on a roof, full to satisfaction with food, basking in moonlight before leaping down to cut Midnight off as he fled. I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work out, but damned if I couldn’t try and make it happen.

    “In sector three…”

    That’s my sector. I willed the role to me mine. Mine!

    “…Kuwabara Kazumi…”

    I smirked upon hearing my name.

    “…with Tanaka Jiro.”

    My smile withered. I bit my tongue to smother a curse. The evening is officially shot to hell.

    Jiro is a real misogynistic bastard, very traditional, even has an arranged marriage. Which of course meant no flirting. He didn’t think women should be carrying swords, just umbrellas and babies. He lived in a world entirely different from mine.

    And he would be in charge of the operation. Super not good.

    “Stay vigilant and protect one another,” the Captain ordered. “These are Midnight’s final hours of freedom! Now go and prepare!”

    “Yes, Captain!”

    My colleagues of various age and gender began filing out of the hall. Everyone moved with the unified purpose of catching Midnight. It was always been our obligation to capture him and save lives. But now it hit home for us that the Captain was in danger.

    I’m usually the first to get pumped up, but thinking of my assigned partner but a damper on my mood. I could see partners selected for the mission meeting up, some quite enthusiastically. I’m probably staring at what will be couples in a month or two. People who worked together in high intensity situations like this usually end up together. I wonder if the Captain realizes what he’s set into motion…

    I sighed. Think positive. I suppose this could be an opportunity to change Jiro’s perspective. Enlighten his views with a fabulous display of my fabulous skills.

    I adjusted the sword on my back and sought out Jiro. He was in the center of the room. My feet felt heavy with dread as I walked over.

    He stared at me with his arms crossed. When he made no move to meet me halfway, I knew he was waiting for me to come to him, to present myself to him. Typical. I planted my feet on the wooden floor and mirrored his body language with a scowl.

    We engaged in a brief and futile stare down. I’m a master of Zen and patience, so I could outlast this bastard easily. Jiro sighed while I indulged herself in an irritated role of the eyes.

    Jiro snorted and walked over to me. Even then, even when he wasn’t getting
    what he wanted, Jiro carried himself in a way that made me want to trip him and feign innocence.

    Though it was kinda cute the way he stood ramrod straight whenever we talked. My height bothered him. The funny thing is, my high ponytail probably still eclipsed him.

    “Kuwabara, I have seniority,” Jiro said with no preamble

    My eyes rolled, completely of their own accord. “I have not forgotten, as you so enjoy reminding me.”

    “Then you should have no qualms following my lead during this operation.”

    I felt an intense dislike (I don’t believe in hate) for the way he looked at me. He truly lacked appreciation for what I was capable of. Actually, it was worse than that; most people didn’t know what I could do, what I have learned in my lifetime.

    Jiro thought ill of me because of my skills.

    Before I joined the police force, Jiro suspected little ol’ me of being involved with the assassin. I can’t blame him too severely for being suspicious, I guess. I did roll into Osaka about the time the killings started. And I did the usual, most natural thing that occurs to me when I reach a new population: seek a dojo and challenge its best students. After I found a place that made great dumplings, of course.

    I guess my besting the best pupils rubbed some people the wrong way and someone wanted revenge, so they reported me. I don’t know why, I didn’t even kill anyone. You couldn’t toss a rock into one of those schools without hitting a noble, so it must have been a pride thing.

    Whoever complained had enough political clout to get the police involved. Jiro was the one to check out my story. I humored him at first, but I got annoyed with being interrogated and giving alibis and maybe I got a little snippy.

    Things sorta went downhill from there and Jiro hauled me in. I went willingly. No matter how much fun it would have been to put up a fight, knocking him unconscious would have been more trouble than it was worth.

    Once we were at the station, I broke off from Jiro and loudly demanded to know
    who was in charge. Someone pointed out Captain Tatsuya to me. I marched over to him and demanded to be made a police officer.

    I opened a can of boasts the likes of which Osaka had never seen. I went on about my martial skill and keen mind. That capturing Midnight wouldn’t be in question after I joined, just when and how many broken bones he had.

    I’m certain that was the most surprised he’d been in a long while, because I haven’t seen his eyebrows jump like that since.

    In the hushed silence that ensued, he looked at me for a while, then, without removing his eyes from mine, demanded Jiro’s report of my whereabouts. Jiro delivered it.

    Captain Tatsuya nodded and ordered I be handed a uniform.

    Jiro still hasn’t let the whole thing go. Maybe it’s because I embarrassed him in front of the Captain and the others. Maybe he really thought I was involved. I’m not.

    Though I am related to an assassin… but not this one. And Jiro doesn’t know anything about that. No one in Osaka does.

    Jiro’s suspicions had only been silenced by Captain Tatsuya. He told Jiro to drop the matter, and Jiro never said a word of it again. But he made his disapproval of me quite clear with his narrowed eyes and condescending tone.

    I don’t know if we’ll both survive being partners. And I wasn’t worried about Midnight.

    I ran a hand through my hair. “I might. How do you know I shouldn’t take the lead?”

    Jiro looked at me disbelievingly. “You are no more suited to take the lead than you are to be uphold the law. Kuwabara, you are the single most awkward girl on the face of the planet.”

    “Ah, but that’s why you love me.”

    Jiro gave a long-suffering sigh. “This ruse would be more convincing if there were a real girl accompanying me.”

    “Well this,” I said, running my hands from my chest to my hips, “is what you got.”

    Jiro grimaced sourly. “You are utterly distasteful.”

    “I bet you say that to all the girls.” I looked around the emptying hall and sighed. “Fine, whatever makes you feel like a big, strong man.”

    His jaw tightened. “I do see a benefit to this arrangement. This way I will be able to keep an eye on you personally. You had better not give me any reason to think you would sabotage this operation.”

    He stared at me. I stared back. Aggressive eye contact isn’t something I’m afraid of, and looking away would be like admitting Jiro was right.

    After a moment, I nodded. “You want to keep me in arms reach. Got it.”

    His hands tightened. I wonder if his butt would clench next. “You don’t take anything seriously, do you?”

    “I take enough things seriously. Threats just don’t happen to be one of them.”

    My blase answer wasn’t what he wanted to hear. Jiro trembled. His anger blistered on my skin and seeped into my veins. It swept through my arms, crept up my neck, burrowed into my skull.

    “Don’t get in my way, Kuwabara,” Jiro said, his voice quiet but harsh. “Don’t slow me down. You may not care what’s at stake here, but it matters to my family.”

    The emotion I felt was not my own. It whispered in my ear with a slithering voice to reach for my sword and do something violent. I fought it off, strangled the anger with calmness until the heat of it faded and the voice was quiet. I brushed the dried husk of a feeling off. It left me with a pain between the eyes.

    Outwardly, I only closed my eyes for a peaceful moment. My face gave away no hint of the internal struggle. I hid it almost perfectly.

    I’d had practice.

    But I understood, in a way I didn’t before, what he was feeling, and how the situation was affecting him. The anger and worry swirling inside of him.

    Jiro didn’t want to see his father die. Who would?

    If he left with this level of animosity, he would have time to stew in it. Anger would make him sloppy, reckless, and if he did something stupid because of it, something that caused Midnight to escape, he’d never forgive himself. He might even think about joining his father.

    I put on a confident smirk and crossed my arms. “Relax. Being tense and biting my head off isn’t going to magically solve this problem.”

    “That’s easy for you to say,” Jiro said, glowering, but at least it was only partially directed at me. “You don’t have the stake in this that I do.”

    I nodded. “I can’t argue with that. But don’t doubt for a second that we both want the same thing. I’m on your side, Jiro. I mean, look at this cute, innocent face. Definitely incapable treachery.”

    The tightness around his eyes lessened. “I have to be the one to bring him in,” Jiro said. “Otherwise, even if we catch him, my father may still have to resign.”

    Now we can’t have that. I’m rather fond of Captain Tatsuya. “Then it’s a good thing you’re with me. I’m clearly an invaluable, irreplaceable asset. You’d be crazy not to utilize me.”

    The tension eased out of shoulders and his mouth twitched. Jiro snorted. “You’re a violent girl with a stick.”

    I cleared my throat, affronted. Tugging on the sword strapped to my back, I corrected him. “This is a wooden katana.”

    “Kuwabara… what’s wrong with you? How can you be so calm about this?”

    I shrugged. “I’ve dealt with this kind of thing before.”

    He gave me a dubious stare. “You have?”

    “Yep!” It was only a partial lie. I had at least been around while dangerous people had been brought in. Or, failing that, at least when their bodies were recovered.

    I threw one arm around his shoulders and gave him a thumbs up with the other. “We got this.”

    Jiro growled and shook me off. “Improper conduct, Kuwabara. Unbefitting of an officer.”

    A laugh bubbled from my throat. “You’re not going to be a very affectionate date.”

    Instead of responding, he inspected my clothing. Despite the jokes I want to make at his expense, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking what most guys would be.

    “You will have to wear feminine garbs in order to be remotely convincing. Do you at least have something suitable?”

    I shrugged. “I should be okay. As long as you don’t show up with something jewel encrusted, I’ll barely look like crap.”

    “I’ll try to restrain my glorious radiance to a dim flare,” he said dryly. “I’ll pick you up in three hours. That will give us time to show up casually like any couple would. Then we can drift through the streets to begin our search.”

    “Fine,” I said, mentally flipping through robes I could conceal weaponry in. I stopped and blinked when his words caught up with me. “Wait, pick me up, as in at my place?” I asked.

    Jiro nodded.

    “Screw that, we both live in sector three, right? We’ll just meet halfway.”

    He snorted, turning to leave. “Nonsense. What kind of man fails to escort his date? An irregularity like that would blow our cover. From the moment you step through the front door, you’re my responsibility.”

    “Don’t flatter yourself,” I said, crossing my arms.

    Jiro’s departing words were, “That’s an order, Kuwabara.”

    Bastard. I thumbed my nose up and gave his back the best pig-face I could manage.

    I felt eyes on me and noticed the few others remaining in the assembly hall staring at me like I had two heads. I cleared my throat and scurried out of the building.

    First thing I have to do is bathe. I need to smell as prim and pampered as possible. And I do so enjoy a good soak. The thought of doing so before a fight seems almost ritualistic to me.

    I’ll probably wear my hair differently. I keep it in a ponytail for the sake of practicality compromising with aesthetic appeal. I prefer my hair long, but well out reach of anyone I’m fighting. Maybe I’ll wear it in a bun. But it always ends up lopsided if I don’t have any help.

    “It’s about time you came out, bitch. How long were you planning to keep us waiting?”

    I recognized the self-entitlement laden in those words and I have no appreciation for it. I turned my head.

    Three boys with wooden swords fastened to their waists. Their stances were aggressive. They smelled clean but spoiled. Hands soft like dough.

    I recognized them. Students belonging to one of the posh sword schools I embarrassed. I don’t know their names. They don’t really matter.

    “You guys again?” I glance up at the position of the sun. It was setting. “Wow, is it time for your daily emasculation already?”

    The boy that had so graciously called me out of name sneered. “We’re going to pay you back. You made it so our senior couldn’t show his face at the dojo.”

    I tilted my head. “I broke his ribs, I didn’t scar his face. Unless…” I scratched my cheek. “Wait, which school are you guys from? I might be thinking of someone of else.”

    The one on the right took a step forward that I suppose was meant to be threatening. “You arrogant wench!”

    Rude.

    “Perhaps a trip to the dojo will refresh your memory.” He jerked his head in a direction opposite my destination. “We’re going to defeat and humble you before of our master.”

    I can’t help but think of a lioness being yipped at by three puppies. Poodles. With bows. I stifled a laugh and shook my head. “I don’t have a lot of time to waste, so we’ll fight here.”

    “If you wish to be beaten in the street, fine.”

    The exceptionally rude boy took another step. “I want first crack at her.”

    Like I was going to waste that kind of time. “Nah, all three of you, let’s go, right now.”

    “You really think you can take all of us at once?”

    “Yes,” I answered, straight-faced. “You’re not afraid of me, are you?”

    They looked at each other and nodded. “We accept.” Confident.

    But foolhardy.

    “Good.” I nodded at a spot on the ground.

    The leader, or at least the most obnoxious among them, scowled and tossed a small sack onto the ground. It clanked with the sound of metal brushing metal.

    There were three coins in it. There had better be, or I was gonna go fishing in their clothes after I won.

    I crouched, my right hand curling like a tiger’s claw. My left became a fist, knuckles skyward. “Well?” I asked.

    The boy in the middle went for his training sword.

    I sprang forward, on him in two strides. His draw was clumsy, slow. My hand clamped his, nails digging, keeping him from pulling the sword. I punched him in the stomach, under his crossed arm. Air wheezed through his gaping mouth.

    I replaced my fist with a swift knee. I could have crushed his testicles, but that would have been excessive. No point ending a noble bloodline in a spar.

    I hooked my ankle behind his right leg and pushed him back. He was weightless from pain, which made him easy to maneuver. I pivoted, my hand still on his sword arm. We spun in a circle, like dance partners. I used my grip on his own to aim the tip of his sword, and his body weight to drive it into rude boy’s sternum.

    I slid my grip to his wrist, my nails raking across his skin. His limp hand fell from the hilt, and my left hand claimed its place. I spun, drawing his sword away from him, and kicked his chest. He crashed into his equally breathless friend. They went down.

    I drew my own sword from my back as I faced the last.

    Ugh, wielding two full length swords. I feel so tacky.

    The third student of whatever school had finally drawn his sword. He shook like a leaf and kept glancing at his fallen brother disciples.

    I gave him a plaintive smile, flashing my teeth.

    He screamed and lunged with a high strike.

    I intercepted with the left sword, the centers of both wooden blades striking. I raised my arm and turned my wrist, sliding the sword along the other as my right sword struck on the opposite side near the handle, tearing it from his fumbling grip.

    I raised my arm and brought it down toward his face. I stopped an inch short of shattering his nose. His eyes crossed to stare at the smooth, charcoal colored pine. He squeaked and fell on his butt, staring up at me with naked fear. The boy was beaten.

    But he knew that before he attacked.

    Broken bones are the best teachers there are. If you can’t learn from them, you can’t learn from anything.

    I swung my sword down. It cracked against his arm and something caved.

    He opened his mouth to scream, but I shut it with a kick. He was unconscious before the spray of blood hit the ground.

    Nodding, I looked at the other two. They groaned, writhing on the ground, but not getting up.

    I dropped the sham of a wooden sword, letting it clatter on the ground. Then I refastened my own to my back.

    I picked up the coin sack waiting for me and peeked inside. Three golden coins. Perfect.

    Strolling over to the fallen boys, I began my lecture.

    “See, your first mistake was agreeing to fight me with this much open space,” I said, wagging my finger. “In a dojo, I wouldn’t be as free to maneuver. I’d be easier to cage.”

    I stopped at the heap of moaning wannabe samurai. I crouched down, resting my chin in one hand and dangling the sack with the other. “Your second mistake was agreeing to fight me three on one. You three aren’t trained to fight as a coordinated unit, so you end up getting in each others’ way. You would have been better off fighting me one at a time, saving your strongest fighter for last while he observed my technique for exploitable weaknesses.

    “And your third mistake was the biggest: seeking me out. You’re not better than the best in your dojo, and I beat the best. Only an idiot looks for an opponent they know is superior, unless they’re desperate. And there was nothing at stake here, nothing for you to gain.”

    My face screwed up in thought. “Wait. I guess your third was chronologically your first. Which makes your second third, and your third… first?” I gave my head a shake. “Uh, anyway, you know what I meant.”

    The blustering boy with the bloody wrist said something I didn’t catch.

    I knelt closer. “What?”

    He gasped and painstakingly said, “Pride, wench. Our pride is on the line.”

    “Huh. Okay. Don’t you guys look like proud, dignified, young noblemen? Well, I must be going,” I said, standing. “If you feel like losing some more money, you know where to find me.”

    I hummed and began tossing the sack in the air. It felt like breakfast lunch and dinner for a week. Stands were setting up in preparation for the festival and mouth-watering smells were already trying to entice me. I was tempted to get something now, but I didn’t want to spoil my appetite for what I could get Jiro to buy me.

    I wonder when they’ll recover and try to challenge me again; they probably wouldn’t learn their lesson this time. Maybe I should double my fee. I wouldn’t charge those three idiots if they were poor orphans trying to learn how to defend themselves from the gaggle of people who would take advantage of them. But they were each from wealthy families. They had comfortable beds to keep them warm.

    I like to think of my price as a tax for pride. Beating the best and charging for inevitable challenges was usually made my living in each new place I visited.

    And I relished feeling like baddest around town. It was new to me since I was traveling on my own now. Though I probably couldn’t take on everyone in the city at once. Probably.

    I took a small detour from my apartment, cutting away from sweet, promising smells to the outskirts of the city. Buildings started to become less fresh until they became worn, sour shades of brown and grey. Sector seven, where the poorest in Osaka gathered.

    Once, the buildings had been the start of a small town. But over time, as the town expanded into a city, the buildings were abandoned. The shacks were decrepit but standing. And poor shelter was usually better than no shelter, unless it was coming down on your head.

    The people of sector seven stared; men with worn working hands, women, a few with swollen bellies, and wide eyed toddlers. The sight of most other officers would have sent them ducking their heads. Sector seven was one of the first places to look for thieves and scoundrels attempting to blend in, and lives were usually turned upside down. But they know I don’t come by to cause trouble for any of them.

    My destination was the shack furthest from civilization and closest to wilderness.

    I walked up the three stairs, each step creaking louder than the last. I didn’t dare trust the guardrail. There wasn’t a door, just a red curtain with yellow weaving that looked like waves of water. I knocked on the frame, careful not to pummel the aged wood into splinters.

    “Old lady, you in there?” I shouted.

    No response. I brushed past the curtain. I didn’t see her anywhere, and the bed of straw and fabric was empty. She must be out foraging for berries.

    Part of the roof was missing, and rays of dying sun poked through what was left of it. I’ll have to come by and attempt to repair it before winter. I had to crouch under a collapsed support beam that stretched from the caved-in side of the house, and the debris that cluttered around it.

    Near the bed was a bowl with knitting needles and balls of yarn varying in colors that probably didn’t go together. I don’t know what you can make that’s pink and brown.

    I tossed two of the coins into the ceramic bowl. The sound they made flushed me with a warm feeling. I turned to leave.

    And came face to face with a ghost.

    I’m not proud of the sound that came out of my mouth. Probably sounded like, “Kya!”

    “Ah!” she screamed, throwing her hands up. The basket she held careened through the air in a perfect arc to land on my head.

    I snatched the basket off. I glanced inside. There were blueberries, wildflowers and…

    Dear God I hope that isn’t poison ivy.

    I let out a nervous giggle. “You scared me, Ume.”

    “Oh, so sorry, Kazuma.” She bowed her head of grey several times and smiled at me with teeth tinted yellow. She started picking up what had fallen from the basket. I, uh, I held the basket for her. Tentatively.

    I guess I’m Kazuma today. That’s a guy’s name, but alright. “I left some money for you in the usual place.”

    She looked back and forth, her eyes settled on the far wall. She blinked owlishly “The chimney?” she asked.

    “Uh, in the bowl, Ume. With the yarn.”

    Her smile stretched her wrinkles wide enough I worried she’d hurt herself. “Such a sweet girl!”

    She patted my head. I took it, folding my grimace into what I’m sure was a deformed smile. Small mercy that it was the hand she’d used for berries.

    “You’re so good to your elders, Kazuma.”

    Someone had to be. Ume didn’t have anyone to take care of her. I’ve heard rumors that she was the original owner of the house and lost her family in a tragic accident. She refused to leave even as the house crumbled around her.

    Once, some thugs caught wind of my charitable nature, and decided it would be an easy score. They conned the old lady into giving up her money. It was a week before she told me about it in a shambled narrative that took some time to piece together.

    I tracked them down. They payed back what they had stolen.

    With considerable interest.

    I can’t right every wrong. Hell, I didn’t even have enough for everyone in sector seven. But what difference I can make, I will.

    “I made you something, Kazuma,” Ume said, shuffling over to her bed.

    “Oh, you didn’t have to do that.”

    “Nonsense. A good girl like you deserves a present.” She pulled something away from a large whicker basket. It was a scarf, pink squares and brown squares. I stand corrected about the colors, because the scarf actually looked really nice.

    She shuffled over to me, offering it. “It’s going to get cold soon.”

    A smiled touched my lips as I accepted it. “Thanks, Ume. Be sure to make one for yourse-”

    Ume pulled out a matching scarf with a reverse color pattern. She wrapped in around her neck. “What were you saying?”

    I shook my head. “Never mind. I mean, forget it. I mean!” I shut my trap and breathed a sigh. “I have to go, Ume. Pretty busy night. Take care of yourself.”

    She waved. “You too, dear.”

    I headed to the room I was renting. I’m certain the itching on my head was just in my imagination, as was the itch that soon followed on my hands. But my legs were convinced otherwise and speed up into a brisk jog.

    Time to get ready for my date with the assassin.

    Boy was Jiro gonna feel like a third wheel.

  5. Cuddleson 08 Jun 2012 at 1:52 pm

    First of all, this sounds really boss. Second, I’m not sure if you plan on using it in a query, but the phrase “rolling force” sounds pretty empty in terms of description. It makes me think of the way storm clouds roll, but even then, the phrase is too vague to be useful to me as a reader.

    As for titles, what’s wrong with just “When Souls Scream”? I like the title at the top of the page, but if none of your characters are actually deaf, it comes across as confusing to me. I feel like the amount of hammering-in you’d have to do to establish the protagonist’s supposed deafness is not worth it, especially when you have such a strong-sounding premise. Also, “Screaming Souls” sounds like a crappy emo album to me, but “When Souls Scream” by itself sounds like it has a fifty-fifty chance of either sounding dark and intriguing, or just maudlin, depending on how you read it. Maybe if you found some way to imply the direction of the plot, like “When Souls Scream Hungry” or “When Souls Scream for Vengeance,” you could add a sense of urgency to the title.

    I’m skeptical of “When Souls Scream” as a sequel-friendly phrase (you could just use When as the first word of every title and get the same effect with more flexibility/memorability), but of course, you have to write those books first or the titles are useless anyway.

    Two questions: What is the time period/setting? I imagine this being an alternate present/future version of Japan like in AKIRA, but it could be Feudal Japan for all I know.

    And how much have you written on this so far?

  6. Sermon Hermiton 08 Jun 2012 at 2:15 pm

    How about “When Souls Scream Only She Hears” or “Only She Hears When Souls Scream”?

    The setting is complicated.

    The history behind the setting on the first book is that Japan conquered Korea. And as mainland Japan advanced, they feared losing the warrior spirit of their people. So they have technology deadzones that emulate feudal Japan at the height of the samurai class. The first book takes place in a colonies that Japan makes as a result. These colonies are on the east coast of the continent we know as the North America (which doesn’t exist in this setting).

    Advanced technology exits (jets, tanks,) as does magic. The people of the Japanese colonies know about magic, but not technology. The most advanced thing in the first book is a gatling gun owned by the Shogun, and his men have muskets, given to him to preserve order.

    Kazumi is not from the colonies. She’s traveled all over the world and to many different cultures and is aware of technology. But no one is suppose to know, or she could be put to death.

    One major premise of the series is what’s known the Olympic Tournament. This is where countries select a team of 5 youths (age 20 and below) to represent them, and bet land, money and resources on matches. Part of the reason deadzones exist is to breed top notch warriors to compete in this tournament.

    I’ve only written what’s posted.

  7. Cuddleson 13 Jun 2012 at 12:14 pm

    I like what you have and look forward to more stuff. I’m particularly impressed with you were able to incorporate aspects of Japanese culture (like that one reference to seppuku) without forcing too many foreign terms onto the reader. However, I think it might better if you specified that most of the characters are using bokken as opposed to actual bladed katanas to avoid confusion, because as we know, not every Japanese sword is a katana (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/EveryJapaneseSwordIsAKatana).

    The only question that actually hinders my reading experience is why are all these kids using wooden swords if they’re setting out to take on a serial killer with an actual bladed sword? Shouldn’t they graduate to training with real swords first?

    In any case, this a promising first chapter. I’d say that the narrative voice and the fight scene are probably the high points so far, but the imagery and setting-work (both in terms of Osaka and the wider world) could be a bit improved. Nevertheless, I’m sure you can find a way to sort these problems out after you finish the first draft.

    Also, “When Souls Scream Only She Hears” doesn’t sound quite as good to me as just “When Souls Scream,” but you’ll have plenty of time to tweak the title later if you’re not satisfied now, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  8. Sermon Hermiton 13 Jun 2012 at 7:23 pm

    Actually, most of the characters do use bladed weapons, katana. The students of the school use wooden swords (bokken) because that’s what students use. Kazumi using one is brought up by Jiro when he calls it a “stick”. Kazumi’s sword is special. You can tell because it’s black. 🙂

    Yes, I received that criticism about the setting and my lack of description. I think it’s because this is my first time writing in first-person. I thought about it, and it’s easy enough to fix.

    “When Souls Scream” does sound like the better title to me.

  9. Cuddleson 14 Jun 2012 at 2:00 pm

    That’s true. There will be plenty of time to fix it later. On to the next installment!

  10. B. Macon 17 Jun 2012 at 1:52 am

    “When Souls Scream for the Deaf Girl”–what would you think about a rhetorical question implying the main character (e.g. “When Souls Scream, Who Hears?”)

  11. Sermon Hermiton 25 Jan 2013 at 12:17 am

    I’ve finally gotten around to doing a revision. Will be posting later today.

    And I’ve settled on When Souls Scream as the title, thanks.

  12. Sermon Hermiton 25 Jan 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Here is my revision of chapter one.

    When Souls Scream

    I pulled the headband from over my eyes when the peaceful undulation of the cart stopped; even asleep I remain conscious of the world around me. The softness beneath tried to lull me back, but I sat up fitfully. My nap had bottled energy in me that called to be expunged.

    I craned my neck to the driver, who patiently waited for me to notice him. “This is as far as I take you.”

    I looked at the dirt road to see one path branching into two. I nodded to him, and straw fell into my eyes.

    I reached up and back to pick at my ponytail. I was lucky to come away with my fingers. I really need to find a comb one of these days… Or maybe just buy a hat. I’ve always liked those wide-brimmed hats that obscure your face when your head tilts down.

    I gathered my things. My sword remained clenched in my grasp from before I fell asleep, though I will deny having cuddled with it. I stood and slipped it over my shoulder through my blue sash, which had loosened in my slumber. I tightened the silk around my waist, making sure the proportions of the bow on my back were perfect and my sword held firm. With everything I owned, I jumped onto the road.

    I was patting and plucking my robes when the driver asked, “Are you certain you wish to stop here? Rumor has it the city is teeming with madness.”

    A wry smile touched my face. “Yeah, that’s why I’m going. You just want more fare from me, right?”

    Without shame he glanced back at his cart, now empty of passengers. “Most folks headed away from this area. Got sense that you don’t, girl.”

    I kept my smile up against his rebuke. “If that’s true, why not go there yourself? Should be more customers than you can handle.”

    He shook his head. “Not that desperate.” His round face pinched into a queer look, directed at me. “What you think you gonna do about all that craziness?”

    My teeth flashed. “The only thing appropriate for a lawful native of Yamato. Replace it with my own, of course.”

    The driver gave me a look one gives to a pig marked for slaughter. “You’re bound to offend some mighty tempers with an attitude like that. The nobles won’t much care for it, girl. Last chance.” He gave the reins a small tug. The horses neighed and trotted in place.

    I drew in breath and put my hands to my sides, then bowed to the elder. “Thank-you for safe passage.” More yellow fluttered from my hair, perhaps dampening my attempt at proprietary.

    He looked bewildered when I rose. Then he shook his head again and whipped the reins, speeding away. Probably very smart of him.

    I loosened my limbs, reaching up to the cloudless sky, then down to my stuffy socks and sandals, sighing with every wonderful pop.

    I set down the winding, serpentine road, almost bouncing on my feet toward civilization, bathing. And the food! The food they must have in the city. I like to try new cuisine wherever I go. Except meat. I can’t eat meat even if it smells so, so tempting.

    The empty air next to me was unsettling. I still hadn’t adjusted to traveling on my own. All sixteen years of life it had been Mother and me, trampling the world underfoot. But I’m on my own now; I’ve got to be the hero of my own story.

    I’m not without lessons learned and skills, however. Most acquired through my own sacrifices, some… acquired.

    I knew the city neared when the road wound through an expanse of rice fields, ripe stalks on either side of me monopolizing the land. In the muck were hundreds of heads of dark hair muffled by cooling hats and headwraps. Peasants. Men, women and children. Their pants hiked to the knees as they stood ankle or shin deep in the water, though many of the children were altogether pantless. In neat, uniformed rows they advanced through their fields, slicing scythes in hand.

    No, I suppose the field does not belong to those who attend and cultivate its riches day in and day out. Despite that they alone keep the land productive, and the people fed, peasants are afforded a sliver of their labor’s fruits.

    I tilted my head, eyeing the arcs of their swinging arms as their other hands snatched the cut stalks. Some of the movements were more polished than those of samurai I’ve encountered.

    This doesn’t surprise me. A warrior will often come to think their training and resulting skills suitable, and after tasting victory, think themselves insurmountable. They become content, which spawns complacency and laziness. No desire to reach their greatest height while they are warm and well fed and placed high enough on the mountain to look down upon others.

    Contrarily, the farmer must continue to plow, plant and reap in order to survive. None is more diligent in their repetitive tasks than the farmer, a repetition crucial to any martial art.

    I could see worn hands, the muck clinging to their bare feet as they stepped out and into the water. They were dirty, yes, working in the earth with the sun flogging them overhead. But my mind could not classify them “vulgar”, as was said of them more often than not.

    Mother and I had tried our hand at growing our own food. We had the land, tools, and seeds of vegetables and fruits. Cucumbers, peaches, apples, corn, radish. Even medicinal plants. We envisioned an edible rainbow sprouting from the ground. I remember the two of us rising early to work our patch of Yamato, then waiting. Sometimes we’d stay up by a fire, my mouth running with air as my arms throbbed from the tiling, mother reserved and soft speaking and unshaken by wielding a hoe larger than she was.

    Ah, but we were no farm hands. We grew only weeds that sent even rabbits scurrying. The thought of how we laughed made me smile.

    The work had been difficult, certainly not glamorous, and in our case without the intended rewards to bring in. But I could no more associate “vulgar” with my mother than I could with the sun.

    Though I cannot help but covet the farmers ability to create life, I would not wish to take a position among them. I simply recognize the vitality of their service, and respect their ability to persevere despite hardships. Something to be commended and emulated.

    It is thanks to peasants that no matter what dish I have the luxury of choosing, it will be complemented or completed by rice, and my stomach will be full. Nobles are oblivious, or willfully ignore this, using behemoth egos and self-entitlement to interpret their dependency as generosity and tolerance. I’ve seen vulgar things. Nurturing the earth doesn’t come to mind.

    A bit of distance from the sweating workers, with plush acres of grass to act as a buffer, stood the capital city, Edo. Far from the wall I could see the tops of the taller buildings, darkly colored square crowns of tile stacked upon one another.

    Armored samurai lined the top of the wall like stone guardians. Bow and quivers strapped, arrows itching to be loosed on invaders. Beside and between each archer stood a rifleman, positioned to fire in volley, the long fuses of their guns looped around wooden barrels. Their obsidian armor made them dark stars hanging in the sky, with glinting gold crescent moons on their helmets, chests and shoulders; the symbol of the shogunate.

    Uniquely decorated headbands of various designs and colors were tied around each helmet, all located directly under the crescent moon; a symbol of their subordination to the shogunate’s will.

    Each head trained solely on me as my steps carried me nearer. With the demonic scowls of their facemasks, the attention was heavy. I was not afraid, but acutely aware of their attention and lethality.

    The metal gate was closed with an aura of prideful impenetrability, each door forming half a gaping mouth with fangs that jutted from the flat surface, sharp enough and large enough to impale several men upon each tooth. Four sets of eyes and a number of horns bulged over the maw. I took a moment to admire. Likely, the shogunate commissioned its design to send a message to each visitor of his city without speaking a word, and deter any force that would consider rebelling against him. Trifle here and be devoured.

    Standing before the gate was a trio of samurai, armored as the gargoyles above them, but with no ranged weaponry. Two swords on their hips. The man in the center, a red band tied around his sword arm, stepped toward me, motioning for me to halt, the offhand resting on the scabbard of his primary weapon. The other ground level sentinels swaggered behind him, armor noising with every step. Only around their eyes skin remained visible

    I planted my feet, back straight, eyes forward. I’m tall, dwarfing other girls; the top of my ponytail reached even with their helmets. I am no simpering peasant afraid of being beaten, nor a craftsman dreading his wares would be smashed by a temperamental brute. I faced them in equal standing.

    “By order of the Shogunate,” the redband said, voice attaining metal resonance filtered through his mask, “none are permitted to enter the city at this time without just cause. State your business.”

    I licked at the scar on my lower lip, thinking. Rumors of turmoil had led me to this daunting gate, as they had to every target Mother and I pursued. Often our leads were wrong.

    Under my own initiative, failure was relentless. Three months of traveling and searching, I had yet to locate the target.

    I looked for the signs: climbing crime rates of theft, murder and rape, and scrutinizing the depraved individuals who committed themselves to these acts. Animals behaving far too aggressively, tamed horses throwing off their riders and trampling them, family dogs mauling children, flocks of crows descending on a healthy man and taking him to pieces as he screams. Mass exodus of a populated metropolis. Plague. And in the most extreme, a collapsing society where civil order deteriorates and primordial chaos ensues.

    I thought myself an honorable helper when I stopped by every town, city, or province, or inn. To locate missing children, to slay something foul, something truly vulgar. My altruism demanded I leave the inhabitants better off than before I arrived. And I had done so.

    But had I only been sniffing at the outreaching tendrils of the beast? Perhaps my compulsion to do good for those around me has been an obstruction?

    For Edo to be locked down as if under siege, I knew it was my true destination. Would snuffing out the source have expediently aided every person I met, and the many more I did not?

    Would Mother have stood, months beforehand, where I stood now?

    I needed some idea of what was causing this. Locating the nest was challenging enough, but finding the target would be like catching one drop of rain in the storm.

    I looked at the guard and asked, “Why has His Most Excellent Highness made this decree?”

    The guard drew himself up, eyes exuding outrage. “Your lack of knowledge is woeful, girl! Several high ranking officials, men whom the Shogunate held in personal regard, have been assassinated. Surely such news has reverberated through every noble house!”

    “Forgive me,” I responded, “I have not been home in quite some time.”

    I digested the pompous guard’s words. The assassin must not have been apprehended yet. Which meant the shogunate wanted to keep someone in more than he wanted to keep others out.

    Assuming the assassin my target, I had best locate them before they are captured. An execution would be imminent, and my search would begin anew.

    I won’t fail my mother.

    I dipped my head respectfully. “I humbly request entrance to the Shogunate’s city, so that I may test my martial value.”

    “Family name,” he demanded.

    I looked into his helmet and said, “None.”

    From the way his eyes crinkled, I’m guessing his lips curled to summon a cursed word. “Clanless.”

    I let silence ring.

    He scoffed at me. “That explains your disheveled appearance and ignorance. No head would allow such an unsightly reflection of himself. Return to where you hail from, masterless warrior. You are of no consequence.”

    I stared at the guard, keeping my face impassive. Then said, “I am not without a master.”

    Eyes over the silver mouthpiece remained dismissive as he asked, “Under whose name do you act?”

    I smiled and hooked a thumb at myself. “Kazumi.”

    His eyes widened at my brazen claim, then narrowed. “You tax my dwindling patience. An errant girl with a sword has no place here. I will not permit your bothersome presence.”

    “Shall I report to any and all, then, that the grand capital city which houses strength above all others, turned me away in ignorant fear?”

    “Hold your tongue, wench,” he snapped, crouching, hand grasping the hilt of his sword. The two behind him mirrored this. I heard the shuffling of feet scraping against the walls above.

    My heart sped, the weaknesses of the group before me glaring bright as I formed my words. I became aware the samurai most left of me had been slowest to his stance, and that I could take him out quickly if I prevented the leader from drawing his sword. The leader would be my shield against the final samurai. I would strike them both as they shuffled around one another in their protective gear.

    My mind told me these things without my order, but I would rather avoid a fight at the moment. It wouldn’t do any good to claim that I arrived to help. They don’t know what I know. I had to convince the guard I was worthy.

    I lifted my chin and reached back into my sash, a smile creeping on me as the tension thickened. I grasped the cloth I kept tied around my waist, where it was most useful to me. I pulled on it.

    From between my sash and robes came a long collection of cloth strips tied to another, coloring green, blue, white, red and more. Symbols of the sun, of trees, mountains and fish adorned them. Many times had this cloth been wrapped around me. I spun my arms in half circles as I unfurled it.

    Their eyes had gone wider and wider as I continued, and likewise had my smile. As any samurai, I do savor the chance to level a prideful boast at an audience. It’s an addictive rush of powerful feeling that rings in the soul.

    I spoke in a most daring voice. “I have entered more than a dozen schools that claimed their routes from this city, and left the prized student of each dojo crumpled before the weight of my prowess. Fellow disciples who attacked me for my victories were defeated as well. I have dueled praised samurai in honorable combat, and bested them.”

    I fished the last of the cloth, dozens of knots weaving headbands of the defeated. I held the collection in my hands, contained in a lumpy fold.

    I raised the colorful array overhead, and the three flinched back as one. “I fearlessly stand before this city of warriors in challenge! You cannot deny me!”

    I stared unbended, keeping my expression of fierce confidence as my body shook in excitement of the presentation, anticipation of combat, and hunger.

    Vindication may have caused it, but I’m certain a trickle of sweat rolled down the redband’s nose. The other two broke from staring at me to trade glances of concern.

    The guard relaxed his stance. He dipped his head. “You are correct, Kazumi. Questionable as your lineage may be, I cannot deny your prestige. Only a true samurai could have amassed such a testament of skill.”

    He drew a long, wooden whistle from his side and raised it to his lips, fitting it through a slot in his mask. It birthed a deep tone, joined seconds after by two separate, lighter notes.

    I heard the rustle of chains before the fanged gate moved. The demonic face split outward with a ghastly exhale of breath.

    The guards clasped their hands and bowed lightly. “Edo welcomes you, Sword Saint.”

    I returned the gesture of respect. “Thank-you.”

    They stood aside for me. As I passed, the redband said, “You need not want for opponents here. Many worthy challengers will surely seek you out.”

    I gave a polite smile and thought, Perhaps the assassin will come to me.

    I entered the city. Somewhere within these high walls, a malevolent spirit had taken root, tainting the air, sowing strife and spreading torment with its quiet presence of dread.

    And I had to save it.

  13. Sermon Hermiton 01 Feb 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Likely the final revision.

    When Souls Scream

    “Sure you wanna get off here, Miss?” The driver lowered his voice. “Word has it the city’s gone mad.”

    I jerked the headband from my eyes, then stood, peering at the branches of dirt road.

    “You just want more fare from me, right?” I asked, reaching behind me, slipping my sword through the sash.

    He glanced back at the cart inhabited only by me. “Most folks headed away from this area. Maybe got sense that you don’t, Miss.”

    I tightened the blue silk sash around my waist, making the bow wide as hawk wings.

    The driver’s word rang in my ears. Considering that in all of Yamato, I alone understood the precarious situation, and still ran headlong into it, I couldn’t refute his claim.

    With all my worldly possessions, I vaulted onto the road.

    Before my feet touched ground, the horse neighed, a loud and violent defiance. I heard the reins whipping before I spun; they’d been ripped from human hands.

    I darted alongside the hopping cart in two strides, my sleeping muscles screaming awake, bones popping in symphony.

    The mare was a thrashing gangle of hooves, jumping and kicking to shake off the harness. Straw flurried. The driver hollered in a higher pitch than I could manage, squeezing down into his seat to avoid getting his head knocked off. Leather reins lashed at him, catching his side and ankles.

    She reared, high, trampling air. The wood securing her to the cart snapped, freeing her.

    I had no choice. She had hurt her owner, could hurt others, would certainly hurt herself. She was free to gallop off, nothing impeding her. Except me.

    I sprang in front of her before she could take a step. She reared again, speckled belly like a slab of mountain. My legs stood still. She wanted to flee, not fight.

    When her hooves shook the earth, her teeth gnashed at me. I wrenched my sight from her mouth to catch her giant eye with mine, and held the gaze. Her fear and panic seeped into me. I felt it as my own, crawling over, into, under my skin. My soul lurched to stamp it down like a small but growing fire. I refrained, knowing that would hurt her and stoke her anger. With meditation fresh in my mind, I exuded calm over her like an umbrella, smoothing down anxiety to a thin, breaking layer until docility shone through its cracks.

    I shut my eyes, a headache blossoming, cutting under the bridge of my nose with sharp petals. It always hurt, every time worse than before. Once certain my eyes wouldn’t shoot from my skull, I peaked at the horse.

    She shuffled, ears twitching, then shook her head sideways. I approached, hand raised.

    Frantic hands waved at the edge of my vision. “Miss, stay back! She’s a biter!”

    “Sorry,” I said, rubbing her long face. “That was inconsiderate of me… protecting you from it without realizing. I would have been less cruel to leave you under its influence.”

    The driver rolled, like a dumpling, off the cart. He approached with respectful fear, rubbing his side where welts doubtlessly formed. “Miss,” he said, voice steady, “you could have been trampled. You should have let her go. What were you thinking?”

    I shrugged. “She was going to hurt herself. Besides, it was my fault.”

    “No, she’s been difficult for a while now. I thought she’d been unusually well behaved on this trip.” His round face pinched. “Come to think of it, every horse I’ve used has been this way. I thought a female would be more manageable, but,” he gestured at her.

    As I said, my fault, I thought, and asked, “Is that why your fee is so low?”

    The tiniest hint of guilt dwelled in his sheepish smile.

    I rolled my eyes. “You shouldn’t be working her so hard right now.”

    “What do you mean?”

    I scoured him with a frank look, which he returned blankly. It seemed he didn’t know. “You haven’t been watching her too closely, have you?”

    “What?”

    I sighed. “When you tie up a mare, you’ve got to keep her away from the stallions.” I patted her ears and smiled. “Well, let’s hope it was a stud, right, girl?”

    As he worked it out, I reached back into my sash and pulled out a vial of medicinal cream and a roll of bandages. “This will ease the pain and fade the scars.” I dumped them into his hand.

    He fumbled with them. “Miss, this is expensive! Isn’t this expensive?”

    I distracted him by asking, “Think you can fix this on your own?” nodding to the cart.

    He blinked, then frowned. “Of course!” He slapped his arm, which jiggled like a worm.

    Purely in deference of his male ego, not a laugh or snicker escaped me. I nodded. Straw fell from my head. I reached up and back to pick at my ponytail. Luckily, I came away from the tangles of hair with my fingers attached. Really need to find a comb one of these days… Or maybe just buy one of those wide-brimmed hats.

    As I patted and plucked my robes, the driver asked, “How did you do it?”

    “Hm?” I looked up, brushing my sleeve.

    He glanced at my headband, then away, as if afraid to look directly at me. “How did you calm her? How’d you know she was pregnant? Is it because you used…?”

    I smiled teasingly. “Since you aren’t going to the city, I might consider letting you in on a secret.”

    He looked at me.

    My smile stretched. “The horses won’t be difficult for much longer.”

    I spun on my heel, a giddy laugh bubbling from my throat. I’d been dying to talk to someone about my quest for months, warn them off instead of holding the truth in as it scraped at me from inside. I still couldn’t bring myself to say it. But even edging as close as I had left me deliriously lightheaded.

    My sandals bounced down the serpentine road, toward civilization. Warm water awaited. A week’s worth of cold streams was enough for a lifetime. And the food! The food they must have in the city. I like to try new cuisine wherever I go. Except meat. I’ll have to remember that meat will make me sick to my heels even though it always smells so, so tempting.

    I still hadn’t adjusted to traveling alone, but ignoring the unsettlingly empty air next to me had gotten easier. All sixteen years I had been with Mother, the world underfoot. But I’m on my own now; I’ve got to be the hero of my own story.

    I’m not without lessons learned and skills, however. Most acquired through my own sacrifices, some… acquired.

    I knew the city neared when the road wound through an expanse of rice fields, ripe stalks on either side of me monopolizing the land. In the muck were hundreds of heads of dark hair muffled by cooling hats and headwraps.

    Peasants. Men, women and children. Their pants hiked to the knees as they stood ankle or shin deep in the water; many children were altogether pantless, some square shouldered men wore nothing but undergarments. In neat, uniformed rows they advanced through the fields, slicing scythes in hand.

    I tilted my head, eyeing the arcs of their swinging arms as their other hands snatched the cut stalks. Some of the movements were more polished than those of samurai I’ve encountered. I suppose none are more practiced in their repetitive tasks than the farmer, a repetition crucial to any martial art.

    It determined me to make time for practice swings. To find a tree I could punch before my knuckles became too soft, incapable of breaking bodies.

    I examined the peasant physique. Worn hands, the muck clinging to their bare feet as they stepped out and into the water. Unclean, yes, working the field with the sun flogging them overhead. But my mind could not classify them “vulgar”, as was said of them more often than not.

    Mother and I had tried growing our own food. We had the land, tools, and seeds. Cucumbers, peaches, apples, corn, radish. Even medicinal plants. We envisioned an edible rainbow sprouting from the ground. The two of us rising early to work our patch of the world, then waiting. Sometimes we’d stay up by a fire, my mouth running with hot air as my arms throbbed, Mother reserved and soft spoken and unshaken by tilling the land with a hoe larger than she was.

    Ah, but we were no farm hands. We grew only weeds and mutations that sent even rabbits scurrying. The memory of plucking turtle-shaped, ghost colored carrots made me smile.

    The work had been difficult, certainly not glamorous, and lacking the prize of bountiful crops we anticipated. But even remembering how we were caked in dirt, I could no more associate “vulgar” with my mother than I could with the sun.

    Past the sight of sweating workers, after roving, plush acres of grass, stood the capital city, Edo. Far behind the wall I could see the highest of its tallest buildings, darkly colored square crowns of tile stacked upon one another.

    Armored samurai lined the top of the wall like stone guardians. Bows and quivers strapped, arrows itching to be loosed on invaders. Beside and between each archer stood a rifleman, positioned to fire in volley, the long fuses of their guns looped around wooden barrels. Their obsidian armor made them dark stars hanging in the sky, with glinting gold crescent moons on their helmets, chests and shoulders; the symbol of the shogunate.

    Uniquely decorated headbands of various designs and colors were tied around each helmet, all located directly under the crescent moon; a symbol of their subordination to the shogunate’s will.

    Each head trained solely on me as my steps neared. With the demonic scowls of their silver facemasks, the stares were heavy. I was not afraid, but acutely aware of their attention and lethality.

    The metal gate was closed with an aura of prideful impenetrability, each door forming half a gaping mouth of fangs that jutted from the flat surface, sharp enough and large enough to impale several men upon each tooth. Four sets of furious eyes and a number of horns bulged over the maw. I took a moment to admire. Likely, the shogunate commissioned its design to send a message to each visitor of his city without speaking a word, and deter any force that would consider rebelling against him: Trifle here and be devoured.

    A trio of samurai stood before the gate, armored as the gargoyles above them, but wielding traditional weapons; katana and wakizashi on their hips. The man in the center, a red band tied around his sword arm, wore a holstered dueling pistol, an ornately decorated and envied weapon of lords and their most loyal. He would be speaking.

    He stepped toward me, motioning for me to halt, the offhand resting on the scabbard of his primary weapon. The other ground level sentinels swaggered behind him, armor rustling with every step. Only around their eyes skin remained visible

    I planted my feet, back straight, eyes forward. I’m tall, dwarfing other girls; the top of my ponytail reached even with their helmets. I am no simpering peasant afraid of being beaten, nor a craftsman dreading his wares smashed by a temperamental brute. I faced them in equal standing.

    “By order of the Shogunate,” the redband said, metallic resonance in his voice, “none are permitted at this time to enter the city without just cause. State your business.”

    I licked at the scar on my lower lip, thinking. Rumors of turmoil had led me to this daunting gate, as they had to every target Mother and I pursued together. For Edo to be locked down as if under siege, it was my true destination.

    To narrow my search, I required a lead. Locating the nest had been challenging enough, but finding the target would be like catching a single drop of rain in the storm.

    I asked the redband, “Why has His Most Excellent Highness made this decree?”

    He drew himself up, eyes emitting outrage. “Your lack of knowledge is woeful, girl! Several high ranking officials, men whom the Shogunate held in personal regard, have been assassinated. Surely such news has reverberated through every noble house!”

    “Forgive me,” I responded, “I have not been home in quite some time.”

    I digested the pompous guard’s words. The assassin must not have been apprehended yet. Which meant the shogunate wanted to keep someone in more than he wanted to keep others out.

    Assuming the assassin my target, I had best extract them before they are captured. An execution would be imminent, and my search would begin anew.

    I chewed my lip. I’m not going to be an embarrassment to Mother anymore.

    I dipped my head in respect. “I humbly request entrance to the Shogunate’s city, so that I may test my martial value.”

    “Family name?”

    I peered into his helmet. “None.”

    His eyes crinkled to summon a cursed word. “Clanless.”

    I let silence ring.

    He scoffed at me. “That explains your disheveled appearance and ignorance. No lord would allow such an unsightly reflection of himself. Return to where you hail from, masterless warrior. You are of no consequence.”

    I stared at the guard, my face impassive. Modesty would not coax the gate open for me. The opposite then. Samurai respond one way or another to inflated pride. Please don’t be the other way. I gave my voice no inflection and said, “I am not without a master.”

    “Under whose name do you act?”

    I smiled and hooked a thumb at myself. “Kazumi.”

    His eyes widened at my brazen claim, then narrowed. “You tax my dwindling patience. Though you have a crown, do not think yourself above a beating for impertinence.”

    “Shall I report to any and all, then, that the grand capital city, which houses strength above all others, turned me away in ignorant fear?”

    “Hold your tongue, wench,” he snapped, crouching, hand grasping the hilt of his sword. The two behind him mirrored this. I heard the shuffling of feet scraping against the walls above.

    Damn. The other way. My heart sped, the weaknesses of the group before me glaring bright as I formed my words.

    I became aware the samurai most left of me had been slowest to his stance. I could end him quickly if I prevented redband from drawing; I would snatch the leader’s pistol and fire through his helmet. A half-second before dying, the leader would serve as my buffer against the third sentry, who looked to be the thinnest, a body I could haul to shield my retreat from arrows and bullets.

    My mind told me these things without effort, but I would rather avoid the fight. How? It wouldn’t do any good to claim I had arrived to help. They don’t know what I know. I had to convince the guard I was worthy. Push on.

    I didn’t want too much attention on me in the city, but there was no avoiding it.

    I lifted my chin and reached into my sash, complete stillness inside of me as the tension thickened. I grasped the cloth I kept tied around my waist, where it was most useful to me. I pulled on it.

    From between my sash and robes came a long collection of cloth strips tied together, coloring green, blue, white, red and more. Symbols of the sun, of trees, mountains and fish adorned them. Many times had this cloth been wrapped around me. I spun my arms in half circles as I unfurled it.

    Their eyes had gone wider and wider as I continued, and likewise had my smile. As any samurai, I do savor the chance to level a prideful boast at an audience. The addictive rush of powerful feeling echoes soul deep.

    I spoke daringly. “I have entered more than a dozen schools that claimed their roots from this city, and left the prized student of each dojo crumpled before the weight of my prowess. Fellow disciples who sought retribution found only humility. I have dueled the praised and decorated in honorable combat, conquering their valiant efforts.”

    I fished the last cloth, dozens of knots weaving headbands of the defeated, the collection a lumpy fold in my hands.

    I raised the colorful array overhead, and the three flinched back as one. “I invoke the trophies of my victories past to sing praise of my name. Kazumi fearlessly stands before this city of warriors in challenge!”

    Each crown flared to heed my command, reacting, as they were designed, only to the call of whosoever defeated the rightful previous wearer. The colors and marking of each headband projected in a dazzling, nauseating cacophony. The trees, the fish, mountains, rivers, whatever had been woven into the cloth now danced around me as apparitions of light.

    It lasted no more than five seconds before fading, but I hoped everyone in attendance was as vision impaired as I was for the next minute.

    I stared unbended, keeping my expression of fierce confidence as my body shook in excitement of the presentation, anticipation of combat, and hunger.

    Vindication or partial blindness may have caused it, but I’m certain sweat rolled down the redband’s nose. The other two finally broke from staring at me to trade glances of concern.

    The guard’s hand slipped from his sword. His head plunged low in apology. “You are correct, Kazumi. Questionable as your lineage may be, I cannot deny your prestige. Only the truest of samurai could have amassed such a testament of devastating ability.”

    He drew a long, wooden whistle from his side and raised it to his lips, fitting it through a slot in his mask. It birthed a long, deep tone, joined seconds after by two separate, lighter notes.

    I heard the rattling of chains before the fanged gate budged. The demonic face split outward with a ghastly exhale of breath.

    The guards clasped their hands and bowed deeply, almost in half. “Edo welcomes you, Sword Saint.”

    I answered the gesture with a much lighter bow. “Thank-you.”

    They stood aside for me. As I passed, the redband helpfully said, “You need not want for opponents here. Many worthy challengers will surely seek you out!”

    I smiled politely and tried not to think about how every self-important warrior in the city would set their blades on me. An attribute which likely applied to all of them.

    The silver lining is that perhaps now the assassin will come to me.

    But I’ve cleared the first obstacle. I entered the city, my hunting ground until I succeeded, or died. Somewhere within these high walls, a malevolent spirit had taken root, tainting the air, sowing strife and spreading torment with its quiet presence of dread.

    And I had to save it.

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