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Gogo recognizes the blonde immediately, although of course she has never seen her. Still, she has heard the stories often enough to know who the white stranger in the yellow suit must be.

She's not impressed. This poorly dressed barbarian--this is Black Mamba? This is the woman who faced five Deadly Vipers, including her own mistress, and somehow failed to die?

Gogo smiles and tightens her grip on the chain of her sheng bao. She thinks she will enjoy watching Black Mamba bleed.

Her last clear memory of her parents is of them driving away from the boarding school, her mother blowing a kiss from red lips and red-nailed fingers as the chauffeured car weaves slowly into the distance. It's not the last time she will see them, but it is the last time that matters.

Yukiko Yubari watches, sullen, and does not return her mother's gesture.

Her new uniform skirt feels itchy against her legs, and the collar is too tight around her neck. She misses her old clothes. It will be years before she learns to embrace this costume and all its perverse sexual implications. She is not yet who she will become.

The headmistress takes her by the hand and leads her none-too-gently into the forbidding building where she will spend her formative years. They pass under an arch displaying a European crest with Latin words she doesn't understand. Yukiko nearly has to scamper to keep up with the headmistress's brisk steps, and she stares darkly at the woman's narrow back as they enter the dormitory.

She's to share a bedroom with three other girls her age. Yukiko understands little of "sharing," let alone of other girls. The three are already there when she arrives. The headmistress introduces them quickly, bending at the hips and knees until she's nearly at Yukiko's height, a simpering smile on her face.

Yukiko keeps her own expression carefully blank as she imagines the woman's blood gushing from her throat, the plastic smile melting off of her as her life drips onto the concrete floor.

She nods when appropriate, looks at each of the other girls in turn, and then sits primly on her white-sheeted bed as the headmistress leaves.

Tomorrow will be her first day of elementary school.

When Yukiko is eight, Kaori Watanabe borrows her pink pen and then refuses to give it back.

Yukiko still has the cap, which she had removed before letting Kaori use her pen. She shows it to the teacher, explains what happened. Kaori, with dull cow eyes, tells the teacher the pen is hers. The teacher tells them both to settle down and finish their assignments.

Yukiko spends the rest of the day staring at Kaori, making no secret of it. Under her watchful gaze, Kaori squirms. Her discomfort makes the rock in Yukiko's stomach loosen.

That night, when no one is looking, Yukiko steals away to Kaori's room, takes Kaori's favorite kimono, and tears it to shreds, which she leaves in a pile on Kaori's bed.

Except for one piece, which she stuffs into the empty pen cap and then hides in the lining of her mattress.

The next day, Kaori's eyes are red when she comes to class, and her face is furious. She walks through the door and heads directly to the teacher's desk at the front of the room.

Yukiko stands nearby, not in her path, but near enough that Kaori can't help but notice her.

Kaori looks at her, and the rage fades from her face faster than snow melting under fire. Her color drains, leaving her pale and wary. She turns back to her desk without another word.

Yukiko smiles without showing her teeth and takes her own seat, ready for the new day.

By age ten, she has started skipping Mass, choosing instead to spend the time smoking and drinking in a janitor's closet with a broken lock.

Mami Nakamura and Tomoko Sasaki give her the cigarettes and booze. They're both students at the upper school, thirteen years old. They wouldn't give the time of day to anyone her age, except that last year she whittled down the slats of the headmistress's dinner chair just enough that the introduction of its owner's weight caused it to snap and collapse on the day of Hina Matsuri. Mami and Tomoko thought that was just cool enough to let Yukiko, three years younger, drink their Sapporo. Yukiko accepts their generosity as that due a superior. Someday, someday soon, she will have no need for these girls. Until that day, though, she will allow them to entertain her.

She has also taken an interest in budo. Kendo is the only class she never misses. She loves the feel of the shinai in her hands, the strike, the thrust. When she spars with an opponent--and by now, her opponent is more likely to be an older girl or even the tutor, as none of the girls in her own year will play with her--she feels heat inside her body and excitement unlike anything she's ever experienced. Her entire body practically shakes with it.

She remembers, vaguely, the katana on the wall of her father's home office--purely ornamental, he had said. She had stared at it so many times, her palms itching to hold its solid weight, her eyes burning to see it unsheathed, the blade shining, reflecting her own face from its flat surface.

For now, the kendo shinai is as close as she can get.

At twelve, in Tokyo with Mami and Tomoko, two men corner her in the bathroom of a club. One pins her against the wall while the other tears at her blouse, ripping a button clean off. They grin lecherously, like fools, as they reach for the hem of her plaid skirt.

In half a second, she has blinded the first with her bare hands and slit the second's throat with the knife she carries at her waist.

While the second bleeds out on the bathroom floor, she kneels over the first, relishing his cries of anguish and fear. They will not be heard over the sounds of the club, and he has already locked the door. He jerks wildly and claws at his damaged eyes while she leans over him, spread-eagled, blade raised above her head.

Her arms tremble, almost imperceptibly, as she brings the knife down and into his sternum.

She needs a few minutes to collect herself after before she can unlock the door and slip back into the noisy crowd.

Shortly thereafter, back at the school, she decides she's finished with this kind of education.

She puts sufficient amounts of ketamine in the night guards' drinks to slip past their gates unnoticed, or at least unstopped.

She hitches a ride into the center of Tokyo, sticking a stolen kitchen knife into the side of her driver when he reaches for her breast.

She makes her way to the Ginza district on foot, her strides purposeful, paying no mind to the people staring as she walks past. She slips past the guards at the entrance to the club. She does not want to cause a scene before she gets through the doors.

Past hundreds of rattling, ringing pachinko machines, she walks to the dimly lit back of the club, where a group of shiny-suited men gather, dressed like American gangsters from the movies.

In her school uniform, she approaches the obvious leader of the group, a well-dressed, aged man, and stands at a respectful distance, from which she bows deeply.

"What is this?" one of the lackeys at his side asks with a bark of laughter. "A gift from Nishiguchi?"

Yukiko pays him no attention and says to the leader, "I am here to work for you."

"If the oyabun doesn't want you, you can come work for me," says the lackey.

Then he grabs her rear, squeezing her through her skirt.

She pulls the small wakizashi from her belt and slices off his hand.

One of the women in their midst screams softly, covering her gaping mouth with her clenched fist. Several of the dead man's fellow kobun draw their weapons, but they are stilled by their boss's raised hand.

In the silence that follows, Yukiko says again, "I am here to work for you."

"What are you called, imouto-san?" the old man asks in a voice gentler than she had expected.

Yukiko stands up straighter and says, with only a moment's hesitation, "I am Gogo Yubari."

That is how she becomes one of the Yakuza.

In the following year, Gogo learns much about her new world. At the side of Kumicho Yoshinori, who has allowed her to serve as one of his personal guards, she travels to Kobe, Kyoto, and Okinawa. Under his watchful, approving eye, she studies the arts of war and trains with the greatest warriors in the land. Yoshinori also insists that she learn the lessons of Master Egami, the founder of modern karate-do, concerning courtesy, decorum, and honor. Yoshinori-san urges Gogo to be humble and gentle in all she does, without sacrificing confidence. When the teachers at school had told her to be humble, Yukiko had never listened; now, with a deadly knife in one hand, Gogo finds it easy to clasp them both at her waist at she bows, lowering her eyes respectfully.

She still wears the uniform she wore at school, or rather a larger one, as the last year has seen her grow in more ways than one. Yoshinori gives her beautiful kimonos, yukatas, and even American bluejeans, but she still prefers the white blouse and plaid, and like an indulgent father, he permits her to clothe herself how she likes.

Her education continues, in its way. Now her tutors are the other kobun, her brothers, who call her imouto-san and keep their eyes focused well away from any parts of her that might cause her to reach for her knife. Through them, she learns about all the best clubs in the city, the best places to dance, the best places to drink. She learns about the global network she has become a part of. She hears stories about America, Italy, Russia; about murders and massacres around the world.

On her fourteenth birthday, Yoshinori gives Gogo her first katana: slender, beautifully crafted from jewel steel. He also gives her her first chain whip, which she finds herself cherishing even more than the samurai sword.

She is fourteen when O-Ren Ishii, the walking legend, returns to Japan permanently.

Gogo has heard hundreds of stories about her, about how she had witnessed the death of her parents at the hands of Boss Matsumoto; how, at age eleven, she had plunged a knife into Matsumoto's middle to avenge their murders; how, by age twenty, she was one of the greatest female assassins in the world. Gogo has heard of all the great contract death organizations--the Five Venoms, Torpedo, the Commission, Mão Branca--but none are so notorious, so enviable, as the Deadly Vipers.

Yoshinori is eighty-nine that year and in ailing health. He has ruled the Tokyo Yakuza for forty years. A widower, with three of his four children dead, he announces his retirement.

That same day, he asks to see Gogo alone in his private office, but when she arrives, they are not alone. Across the grandiose mahogany desk sits a slender woman in a dark kimono, her hair pinned back, her face expressionless. Gogo's fingers twitch, prepared to reach for her weapon in a split-second, if necessary.

But it is immediately apparent from the woman's demeanor that, although she is completely capable of attacking Kumicho Yoshinori, perhaps even of killing him, she is here simply to pay her respects. Gogo stares at her and thinks that this is what Master Egami meant when he wrote of courtesy and honor.

Yoshinori formally introduces them. Gogo bows at the waist.

This woman--O-Ren Ishii--is to be her new mistress.

Later, at a private gathering of Yakuza members sympathetic to O-Ren's position—or, perhaps, merely giving in to the inevitability of her ascension—O-Ren and Gogo share sake, ceremonially, from a single cup.

Over the polished porcelain rim, O-Ren's eyes are bright. Gogo meets her gaze shyly. She has known this woman for less than a day, and already she knows she will lay her life down for her.

Still later, Gogo is finishing her own bottle of nihonshu and wiping a man's freshly spilled blood from the blade of her wakizashi. Wasted youth? She has no regrets. Nothing and nobody has made her who she is--nobody but herself. Whatever she is is her creation.

She is fifteen years old and personal bodyguard to the most powerful woman in the Japanese underground. Life has only just begun.

One night, O-Ren tells her about El Paso. Gogo knows of it, but she has never heard the story straight from the lips of one who was there. Gogo's blood thrums in her veins as she listens; her heart beats faster as she hears the gunshots, sees the blood, hears the death moans in her head as clear as if she'd been there herself. She envisions the face of Black Mamba, blackened with bruises and spattered with blood, teeth broken, her white wedding gown torn: the price of betrayal.

Gogo shivers with pleasure. She commits the tale to memory. It is almost better than watching O-Ren-sama take Tanaka's head.

She comes into the world in violence, blood, tears, and pain. Seventeen years later, she will leave the same way.

Most of what happens in between will be lost from history.