He had only just turned eighteen, and been promoted only a little while after that, when Mon gave him his most challenging assignment yet.
The Minister of Roads had been plotting a coup against the Emperor. He had invited the other major players to his house under the guise of a party for the summer solstice festival. All the men involved in the coup would be staying at the Minister's home on the same night, such that the whole treasonous lot could be eliminated in one fell swoop. Mon felt it would be a good opportunity for his new Jin to prove himself, so he sent the youngest of his hunters on the mission alone, with instructions to kill everyone in the building and to make it look as if a troublesome crime boss from Lower Ougi had done it. The crime boss could then be put to death without fear of inciting commoner anger. There must be no witnesses, and he must leave no evidence which could link the massacre to anyone but the crime boss and his gang.
In Jin's opinion, this was a simple task, and he expected it to be fairly easy. He walked to the Minister's home not long after dark and waited in the shadows, watching the guests arrive. He wished to be certain that everyone essential to the coup was present before he went in for the kill. He had memorized the faces of the plotters; they were all here. But he waited until it was well past midnight before he made any move. There could be no one on the street to overhear or the plan might fail. Besides, he wanted the plotters to have had plenty of time to drink and gorge themselves and maybe fall asleep. The less alert his prey were, the better.
As the night deepened, the sounds of carousing built and then began to die off. In the distance, the bonfires blazed high, then damped and began to sputter. The streets were deserted. Across the road from the Minister's manor, Jin carefully and silently assembled his blowgun, slipped a dart into the long bamboo tube, and took careful aim at one of the guards who lounged against the lintel of the manor's gate.
Both of the sentries were dead before either could voice a warning. He stepped over their bodies, plucking the darts from their necks, and dropped both darts into a bamboo vial that hooked to his belt.
Then he melted into the bushes and circled the house. Through the paper screens on the doors and windows, he could see the people within silhouetted against the lamplight like shadow puppets. Easy targets. Like every Hunter, he was adept with his particular weapons, and as he walked rapidly around the house, he fired dart after dart through the screens and the open windows into the bodies of the inhabitants.
Naturally he wouldn't get everyone this way, but it would thin them out and be much faster than a prolonged sword battle with every man present.
They took longer than he expected to come out of the house after him; they must have drunk even more than he'd hoped. That was a bit of a disappointment. He knew Mon was testing him, and was eager to show he could face a challenge alone and easily best it; a couple of staggering-drunk noblemen were hardly a worthy challenge. Then again, all that really mattered was the job got done, and at least this way it would be done faster. He killed three with shuriken before they even had their swords drawn. Tossing his hat into the face of another, he gutted two more on the draw, cut the throat of the first, then went into the house to finish off those still within.
The Minister of Roads had hired girls to entertain his guests; one of them threw a knife at the assassin, but she missed, and the rest ran screaming and were felled with throwing darts.
The Minister himself was already dead of a blowdart, another disappointment. The servants Jin felt a little bad for killing, since they hadn't a choice about being here; but then again, none of the household staff had reported the Minister's budding treason, so the servants were either cowardly, oblivious, or just as guilty as the plotters. A few more men drew swords, but Jin needed only one stroke to dispatch each. He was almost annoyed by how little contest they provided. Within ten minutes, every person in the house and yard had been slain.
He counted up the bodies and collected his darts and shuriken and hat, making sure that no one had escaped. No one had.
Here and there he planted evidence to implicate the Lower Ougi boss. The blowdart victims he slashed to make it look like they'd been killed with swords. Once every guest was accounted for and every dart retrieved, he did a final sweep through the house and garden to make sure that he hadn't missed anything. All that was left was to take the horses and most of the valuables, which would then be planted at the crime boss's base of operations. Jin threw open cabinets and closets, being intentionally careless about it, as a bandit might, and collected up the gold and ivory, ruisha and rugals that the Minister had squirreled away. He remembered that the Minister had a wife and found her bedroom, expecting her to have a good amount of jewelry to steal. He flung open her wardrobe and froze as abruptly as if petrified.
Four wide, terror-stricken eyes stared up at him. A pair of little girls were cowering inside the bureau, one probably six or seven, the other no more than five. He blinked. Had the Minister had children? But if so, wouldn't Jin have remembered as much? Suddenly his heart and his thoughts were racing. The smaller girl was sobbing as the older one clutched her close. They were too scared even to scream.
Mon's words echoed in his memory. Leave no survivors. Leave no evidence and no witnesses. The Minister's daughters fell under that umbrella: they had seen him, and, by his orders, they must be snuffed out here and now - they could not leave this house alive. But Jin was paralysed. He had killed so many men, even at eighteen, that he had actually lost count - but these two small, helpless children, absolutely guiltless, unable to do anything but stare at him like the frightened mewling offspring of an alleycat... they had stopped him dead. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword but he could not make himself draw it.
Without a word or any acknowledgement that he had seen the girls, he closed the door of the bureau and stepped back. I just forgot to open it, he thought frantically. I forgot the Minister had children so I didn't look for them among the dead. I just made a mistake, a little mistake, it won't happen again. Deliberately he turned to the drawer of the bureau and raided the jewels hidden there. Mechanically he went to the stables with his bags of loot, loosed the horses, mounted the lead stallion and rode off; the rest of the little herd followed. He rode to Lower Ougi, straight to the compound of the crime boss, hopped off the stallion and led the horses into the courtyard, then soundlessly closed the gate behind them. Placing the loot was a more delicate operation; he went into the storehouse from the roof and tossed the bags he'd filled onto the riches already gather there, near the door so it would look like they had been added recently. Then he returned to the palace as the first of Kousenkyo's people began to stir. He went to the barracks, to his bed, changed into pajamas and lay down, but he did not sleep. He prayed the girls had been clever and run away. He prayed that no one would ever see them again. He had just done a brash and stupid thing; he prayed his lapse in judgement would not be reimbursed with execution.
Only a few hours later, as the royal guard were roused, the news had already spread through the city: the Minister of Roads and his guests and family had all been murdered during the solstice festival; no one had heard the massacre because everyone was at the festivities. The story resolved itself over the course of the day. A well-known criminal had apparently masterminded the crime - one of his signature shuriken had been found at the scene. The Minister's valuables were subsequently discovered in his storerooms, the Minister's fine horses in his stables. The crime boss and his goons were in custody and would almost certainly be executed within the week.
The only survivors, the gossip reported, were the Minister's two daughters, who had hidden in a bureau and been overlooked.
As soon as Jin heard this last detail, his small hope that his indiscretion would not be revealed died. He continued his guard duties throughout the day without showing any outward sign, but a great weight had settled onto his shoulders, and it only grew worse as the day went on. By the time he returned to the barracks, he knew that Mon must have already met with Hibi Tonan, and the Holy Sage with the Mikado, and that his own fate was already sealed - had probably been for hours now.
Mon was waiting for him.
"You have been summoned before the Emperor," he said evenly. "I'm sure that you know why. You will be punished for your error, and I don't have to tell you that this will not happen again, do you understand?"
"I promoted you because I felt you were the best of my hunters. You have made me look a fool. You've made all of us look fools. Change into your uniform and be in the courtyard in five minutes."
He left, and Jin sighed heavily and did as he was told. The rest of the hunters were waiting in the courtyard when he arrived. He caught sympathetic glances from Sun and Zen, but Yun would not meet his eye, nor Hyoku. Mon motioned Jin to walk behind him, and the whole group went to the secret passage that took them to the chamber beneath the Emperor's throne room. The six hunters not involved in this debacle held back. Mon and Jin walked forward into the room and bowed low, their faces to the ground. Hibi Tonan stood before the screen that shielded the Emperor from lesser eyes, and the Emperor sat upon his throne behind it.
"Is this the man who failed to carry out our orders?" the Mikado asked.
"Yes, most esteemed majesty," said Mon.
"You recently promoted him to second, despite he is only eighteen and began training only four years ago, and you also chose to send him on this mission alone, while the other hunters remained idle, correct?" said the Master Star Reader.
"We are distressed at your lack of judgement in this matter," said the Mikado, "but we have already expressed our displeasure to you. We have decreased your yearly salary by one hundred rugals because of this. You have brought shame to your station and wounded our confidence in you and your men. Let the rest of the hunters hear and take note. You may step back, Mon."
The leader bowed and backed out, leaving Jin alone in the middle of the room.
The Holy Sage said, "You were ordered to kill everyone in the Minister of Roads' house and leave no survivors, yet you failed to notice the Minister's daughters were not among the dead and did not conduct a thorough search of the home. Because of this, two witnesses survived who could have been the undoing of the Emperor's plans. Fortunately, this has not been the case, or your punishment would be more severe. Sit up and take off your coat."
Jin did not show as much, but he was relieved at the Master Star Diviner's words. They seemed to think he had missed the girls by accident, and because of this he guessed he would get off with a beating, a demotion, maybe a pay cut. Since he would certainly have been killed if they knew he had spared the girls intentionally, he considered the actual outcome more or less favorable. He took off his coat and shirt and neatly folded them on the polished wood floor next to him, all very quickly, precisely, and professionally. Then once more he knelt low, his forehead touching the dusty floor.
"We are disappointed that you have proven so incompetent, after your leader spoke so highly of you. It makes us question his leadership abilities, and we do not enjoy not being able to trust our own shadow. Your performance last night was a disgrace to the hunters. Were there any to take your place, we would strip you of that title."
This reprimand stung worse than Jin had expected. He was anything but incompetent, but to hear that both he and Mon, whom he respected absolutely, were now disgraced in the Mikado's eyes, and to know that the other hunters heard it as well - that was the real punishment. If only they could know what had really happened! But then, they might see his compassion as weakness, and that would be even worse in their perception than ineptitude.
Yet, despite the Emperor's harsh words, there was no mention of demotion. The Mikado instead went on to announce that Jin would receive no salary whatsoever for the next year, and then Hibi Tonan snapped his fingers and a servant shuffled up and set a pile of bamboo rods on the ground next to him. Aware of the others watching from the shadows, simmering secretly with rage and shame, Jin remained outwardly as stoic and emotionless as a stone. The Mikado said coldly, "In failing your mission, you have failed your Emperor and your sacred inheritance as a Hunter. Because you are young and inexperienced, we have deigned to show mercy; to be unable to carry out the divine will of your Emperor is to merit death, but we have chosen to let you learn from this amateurish mistake instead. You will have much to prove before we will consider you redeemed. Do you accept your punishment and swear to let no such error escape you again?"
"Yes, most esteemed majesty," he said, his voice strong and unwavering despite he was speaking to the ground.
There was a pause; he imagined the Emperor give an imperious nod. "We have been made aware that you entered training quite late, and it is only for this reason that we show such benevolence today. Let this be a lesson and a demonstration to the other Hunters that our orders are to be carried out precisely, entirely, and flawlessly in all instances; the only alternative is death."
From the first night that his father had taken him into the forest to train, Jin had been taught to ignore pain - the burn in his muscles when he ran all night long with weights tied to his ankles and forearms, the ache of a hundred bruises that he could not reveal existed, the stab of injuries received during sparring matches that he dared not let slow him down, because, as Mon told him again and again, an enemy would not stop a fight because you were hurt. Only obedience had been more emphasized. So when the crack of the bamboo rod came across his shoulders, he reacted less than might a granite boulder. The bamboo splintered and rent the scarred flesh of his ribs and back, but he remained absolutely still and silent. This was just a minor inconvenience to be endured, a hassle and a humiliation but nothing more. But the moral was not lost on him, though it was not exactly the one that the Mikado and the Master Star Diviner intended: next time he must not be so careless. He considered himself deserving of this beating. He had been amateur, it was true - but not in the way the Emperor imagined.
When the emperor decided, after four canes had gone to pieces in succession, that the lesson had been driven in well enough, the servant delivering the blows bowed and stepped back, and Jin himself rose slightly, bowed again and backed out.
He had an old kimono waiting in the passage, black so as to hide the blood from anyone he might pass in the courtyard. He walked to the barracks and went to the spring behind the building to wash up. From what he could see in the moonlight, upon shedding the kimono and rinsing his back, the damage wasn't as bad as expected, considering the gravity with which the Mikado had spoken.
He made a face and dunked his head in the spring, coming up gasping and shaking out his hair like a dog. It was only then he noticed Mon standing at the edge of the yard and jumped up, startled. "Sir! I didn't see you!"
Mon's face was stony. "Come here and sit down. We need to have a talk, you and I."
Feeling suddenly uncertain, the younger man nodded, pulled the kimono back on and walked over to the garden wall, where he sat next to his superior and waited.
"I don't believe you understand just how much trouble you're in," said Mon, his brow furrowed and his tone grave. "When the Mikado gives you an order, you follow it, no matter what. The only excuse for failing in one's mission is if you are injured beyond the ability to act, and even then you are obligated to finish the job once you've healed. To disobey the Emperor is to disobey a god."
"I didn't disobey the Emperor's orders," Jin said, frowning. "It's like his majesty said. I got careless and made a stupid mistake."
"The Emperor might believe that, but I don't for a second, and the Master Star Diviner is smart enough to know better, too. The only reason you're alive right now is because I was able to convince him not to recommend death. He wanted to have you publicly beheaded for treason, and I talked him out of it. Do you not get that?"
"All I did was fail to look inside a bureau..."
"You're not capable of that sort of oversight."
"I was distracted."
Mon's eyes narrowed. "One of the girls claimed that you opened the bureau, stared right at them, and closed it again. Sounds like a pretty deliberate decision to me."
At last Jin was quiet. He refused to meet Mon's gaze. He had been caught in a lie and knew better than to dig in deeper.
"You're lucky that the other girl said the bureau had never been opened or I would not have been able to convince the Master Star Diviner that you missed them by accident. You have no idea how narrowly you escaped death today! For what? Why would you risk your life, your career, your family's honor, for something so stupid? What is wrong with you? Taiga!" he said suddenly, his voice harsh, "look at me when I'm talking to you!"
But Jin did not look at him, not at once. He was shaken by Mon's using his real name, something the other man had done so rarely that the younger hunter could count the occasions on one hand. And he knew that Mon was right: this could have ended up horribly. But he closed his eyes, composed himself, and then turned to his leader, his gaze intense and dangerously defiant. "What else could I have done?" he said softly.
"You could have followed your orders."
"I couldn't. They were little girls, sir. They weren't going to ruin our plan; they weren't going to grow up to seek revenge; they weren't going to stir up trouble. They were innocent. I couldn't kill them."
Mon sighed heavily. His expression saddened and he set a hand on Jin's arm. "I know that the past few years have been difficult for you," he said. "This isn't an easy adjustment, but you need to learn to shut off your internal judgements and just do what you're told. It is not your place to question orders. Your place is to obey the Emperor and carry out his will without hesitation. You've been a hunter for three years now. You have the potential to be one of the best to ever hold that title. But you need to accept that this is your fate. Next time they won't be so lenient."
"Then let's hope there isn't a next time."
Mon's face turned cold. "When the Mikado gives you an order, you follow it," he growled.
"I will not murder children."
"You'll do as you're told."
"Then don't tell me to kill children."
"I'll have you do what I see fit! I am your superior officer, Jin - you don't get to debate me. If your orders are to kill everyone in a house, I don't care if your own child is in there, or your aged grandma, you'll kill her same as the rest and there'll be no arguments and no objections. Is that clear?" Mon's voice was not loud, but it was taut with fury tenuously restrained, and he spoke with indisputable authority.
"I'd rather die disgraced than stained with the blood of innocents."
Mon stared at him, speechless with rage at this teenager's insubordination, with astonishment at his resolve and, too, fear for his future. This stupid, headstrong boy! "You will be your own undoing," he said.
Jin looked away and said nothing.
Mon stood. "I expect you to be at training in the morning with the others. You have been chastised and we will behave now as if your crime did not occur. But I'm warning you, Taiga, and you'd do well to listen: you will learn obedience or you will destroy yourself and your family with you. You owe it to your brother's memory to protect the honor of your name. You have a responsibility to your ancestors as well as the living now dependent on your household. You don't have the luxury of throwing your life away like a street orphan - sabotage yourself and every Amusuran falls with you. Don't forget that." He turned heel and swept out of the courtyard, and Jin closed his eyes and cursed heaven for ever letting him hear the word 'hunter'. He would have been better off born a street orphan, like Mon said. They might be penniless and starving, they might be filthy and cold and homeless, but the street kids had something that he, Emperor's shadow and head of one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the nation, could never dream of: freedom.