Sakura clenched her teeth. The pain radiated across her bare back while she buried her face in the throw pillow. The irezumi artist moved fast. His movements like a dance as she watched him in the mirror, carefully chiseling away at her back. What felt like a million tiny needles moved slowly along with the pace of his hand, pricking her skin altogether. He only stopped to wipe the mixture of blood and narra ink oozing from the fresh tattoo. It took everything in her to keep from screaming. She allowed the horrifying images of her murdered parents to appear in her head: Their bodies strewn across the living room...her hands covered with their blood... The memory was enough to pacify the pain.
"It's done, Oujo-sama," the artist said.
Oujo-sama...such an honorific was superfluous.
How does someone born and raised in Palo Alto, California get used to such an address?
But this was her reality now. She heard the shuffling of the man's feet as he made a deep bow before leaving the room. Her back felt raw. Like a layer of skin had just been peeled off.
She took a moment before pushing herself up from the chaise lounge surrounded by mirrors. Her reflection showed a stranger, branded with the Shintani mark: a dragon resplendent, coiled like an S. It sat between her shoulder blades, the size of an open fist, the blood still trailing down. It was done. And there was no turning back. This wasn't just any ordinary tattoo. It was the mark of an heir to the Shintani, Japan's most powerful crime family.
Sakura reached for a white kimono robe resting on the nearby chair. The flowing fabric clung to the tattoo on her back, making a bloody print. Adrenalin slowly took over. She slid open the shoji doors leading to the dim audience chamber.
Members of the Shintani clan sat bent at the waist in a low bow, each hosting a lit candle. There were dozens of them, a sea of tattoo-covered bodies dressed in nothing but white cotton pants. They kept their eyes to the ground while a taiko drum started beating.
Sakura bowed back, ignoring the sharp spikes of pain coming from the tattoo. Her eyes wandered to the center of the room where an older man with a prominent widow's peak sat tall on an elevated platform. He wore a robe that parted in the center, showing a torso covered in tattoos. In the center of his chest was the Shintani mark, the same one throbbing on her back. He was the Oyabun, the highest-ranking Yakuza head--also her grandfather.
He lifted his chin at her approach, his brown eyes shining. The drumming stopped, and everything went quiet.
"I present to you, our future leader." He announced, lifting his hands, "My granddaughter, Shintani Sakura!"
The room erupted with cheer while her grandfather took her hands. His sixty-year-old face wrinkled with a smile. "With these hands, you will do great things," he told her. "Use your power for the good of our family."
Sakura returned his gaze, but the room started to spin. Heat brewed in her chest as images of her dead parents played in her head again. Her knees buckled, sending her to the ground. Blood dotted her sleeve. It was trickling down from her nose. She wiped it with the back of her hand, smearing it on her cheek. Its smell stirred an eerie excitement inside her.
What's happening? She wondered, her mouth getting dry. Images flashed in her mind again: the lifeless bodies of her parents, a severed head, a bloody sword plunging into someone. The room started to spin faster and faster. She could hear her grandfather's panicked voice in the distance. Then everything turned black.
Sakura jumped up in her bed, drenched in cold sweat. Light from the early morning sun broke through the cracks of her window shade, casting annoying flecks of light on her face. She shook her head, looking around the room disoriented. No, it wasn't a dream. She could still feel the pricking sensation on her back. She wanted to scratch it! Why did the healing have to be so itchy?
She remembered now...the succession ceremony happened two weeks ago. She had fainted and woke up the next day in her room. This was the first time she had ever dreamt about it though.
She couldn't understand why she fainted, and it had already happened twice. The first time was eight years ago...when her parents died. She woke up in the custody of child services. She was only ten back then. Sakura rubbed her eyes, attempting to dismiss the memory. She needed to lock it in a box and shove it to the back of her brain where it belonged. Seeing her parents in such a state--she didn't want to remember them that way.
A hard knock on her door made her jump.
"Oujo-sama, is everything okay?" Hearing the familiar deep voice from the hallway put her at ease.
"Everything's okay, Nobu-san," she responded. She got to her feet, pulling a silk robe over her sleeping gown. She slid open the doors to find Nobu-san standing guard in a black suit. His hulking frame took up most of the hallway as he bowed.
"I'm fine!" Sakura insisted, stepping into the hallway. Her five-foot-eight frame only came up to his chest.
He gave her a closed-lip smile, causing the deep scar running from the side of his eyebrow down to his cheek to warp.
"Another nightmare, oujo-sama?" he asked, following her down the narrow hallway.
"Yes." She breathed. She didn't really know what to call it though. She remained quiet until reaching the end of the hallway where another tall man in a black suit stood guard.
"Good morning, oujo-sama," he said, bowing. He stepped aside to hold the door open for her, not rising until she passed.
Sakura entered the dimly lit breakfast den. Her grandfather was already there, leaning over a newspaper.
"Good morning!" Her grandfather greeted, taking a drag from his cigar. He looked at her with a bright smile, favoring a cup of coffee over the mouthwatering spread on the table. "Did you sleep well, hime?"
Hime...Oujo...Sakura smiled. The entire Shintani clan only ever addressed her that way. Not that it bothered her; it was the Japanese term for "princess" after all. But she was far from being a princess. Perhaps they thought she would finally act like one if they kept calling her that.
Sakura nodded, bending over to kiss him on the cheek before dropping into the chair across from him. She noticed an odd expression clouding his face.
"What's wrong?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Her grandfather bit his lip as large rough hands grabbed her from behind, covering her eyes. Sakura grabbed the thumbs and twisted them outward.
A male voice shrieked, "STOP! STOP! STOP!"
Sakura whirled around. Ryuu? She was surprised to see him, her favorite uncle.
He looked at her stunned, rubbing his hands together.
"Goodness! You almost broke my fingers!" he exclaimed.
Her grandfather clapped his hands, laughing, while the cigar stayed clenched between his teeth.
"Sorry!" Sakura said, muffling a laugh. She stood up and hugged him. "You should know better than to sneak up on me."
He threw her a funny face as he pulled up a chair.
"When did you get in?" Sakura asked.
"Last night," he said, reaching for a muffin in the breadbasket. He winked as he placed his black fedora hat on the table, scratching a trimmed goatee that connected to his sideburns.
Sakura eyed his white pinstripe suit. She always admired his flamboyant style, along with his signature slicked-back hair. It was hard to imagine him nicknamed "The Butcher," which had nothing to do with owning or working in a butcher shop.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Ryuu said, getting up from his seat. "I got you something from Kyushu."
Sakura held her breath, watching him reach for a long box leaning against the wall.
"No you didn't!" she exclaimed, eyeing it. She had a feeling she knew what it was.
Ryuu beamed, settling the box beside her and she quickly opened it before he could walk away. A beautifully crafted katana gleamed on a bed of silk.
"Oh my gosh! A Kiyutsugu!" she cried out, taking the sword in her hands.
"Forged by Master Matsunaga himself!" Ryuu said proudly.
Her eyes widened, running her fingers over the dark wooden saya. She noted the genuine ray skin handle peeking behind a braided dark-green cord, along with the Shintani symbol formed into a metal hand guard. "It's beautiful," she said under her breath. The sword held her transfixed. She didn't want to put it down. She held the saya in her left hand, hesitating to pull it open.
"Go ahead," Ryuu offered, nodding towards it. "Give it a try."
Sakura looked over to her grandfather, who nodded approval.
She held her breath, pulling the blade out of the saya. The shiny metal was hypnotic, making a sheering sound as it came out. "It's a shinken!" she exclaimed. Her eyes darted back to her uncle, who sported a satisfied smile.
"Of course!" he said, shrugging. "You didn't think I would give you a blunt sword, did you? You'd probably get it sharpened behind my back anyway, so I saved you the trouble."
Sakura chuckled, shaking her head. Her uncle knew her well. She reached for the saya and slid the blade back in. "Thank you so much," she said with glowing eyes.
"Consider it my apology," he said, popping a grape into his mouth, "for not making it to your succession ceremony. But I promise I'll be there for your big society debut."
Sakura's face tightened. "Thanks for reminding me." She tried to hide her sarcasm. She wasn't looking forward to this so-called high society debut. Those events were usually filled with pretentious people, and she didn't see the point of attending them. It was just another way for Japan's rich to show off their wealth. Unfortunately for her, the Shintani clan became a member of the Zenith Grand Society, an organization that brings the most powerful families of Japan together. But it wasn't the family notoriety that garnered the inclusion. It was thanks to her grandfather, who managed to legitimatize many of their underground businesses, which amassed the family's preposterous wealth.
Her grandfather was just as surprised as she was when the invitation from the Zenith Grand came. But she didn't think he would actually accept it. But here they were now...partaking in the club's stupid tradition of revealing the clan's heir when the time came.
"Come now, hime, you must eat," her grandfather interrupted. "Today's your first day of school!"
Sakura's mouth fell open. "School?" she repeated. "What are you talking about? My first day as a college freshman doesn't start till next year."
Her grandfather shifted in his chair. "Uh yes, about that." He looked to Ryuu for help, but Ryuu refused to make eye contact with him. "I forgot to tell you about the Zenith Heirs Program. As the next family head, you're required to attend a two-year developmental course."
Sakura looked at him with disbelief. "You're kidding right? You've always insisted on me being homeschooled. And it took a lot of convincing before you finally agreed for me to attend an actual college rather than do it online. So why are you agreeing to this?"
"Don't be mad at him, it's my fault," Ryuu interrupted. He leaned back against the chair, crossing his arms over his chest as if to challenge her. "I asked your grandfather to let you do this."
"But why?" Sakura asked. It sounded almost like a whine. "This is a big waste of time!"
Ryuu's gaze remained. She could tell he was trying his best to be very patient. He was way beyond his comfort zone since Ryuu never normally explained anything to anyone. But she wasn't just anyone. "This program was designed to prepare family heirs to take on their future responsibilities. You will learn a great deal, and at the same time establish good business connections with other heirs in Oniyuri Academy."
"Oniyuri Academy?" Sakura gasped, trying her best not to raise her voice. "The world's richest send their spoiled brats there!"
Her grandfather rolled his eyes. "Yes, and you'll fit right in," he said. "You are acting exactly like one right now!" He chuckled, oblivious to her frustration.
"What makes you think that a mafia princess will be welcomed by those people?" she pointed out.
"Oh, we already took care of that," Ryuu said, smirking. Sakura narrowed her eyes, uncertain if she wanted to know what he meant. "The school director is under our payroll. He ensured the secrecy of your identity while you go there. We've enrolled you under your father's last name, and might have lied a little about your heritage in case someone snoops around. Otherwise, you have nothing to worry about. No one will ever know you're a Shintani, unless you tell them."
Sakura was speechless. She gave them both an incredulous stare while her grandfather lazily blew smoke from his cigar.
"Just like you said hime, the world's richest send their kids there. It's an actual school, and a training ground for heirs of multi-national corporations," he started, leaning on his knee. "As the next head of the Shintani Clan, it would be best for you to go and make connections. It will benefit us greatly."
Sakura looked away, her shoulders slumping. It was useless arguing. They obviously had already made up their minds. She had no say in this. But she wished they could have told her earlier. "This could go wrong in so many ways," she warned.
Mr. Shintani suddenly erupted with laughter. "Sorry!" He said, struggling to contain himself, "I was just imagining those people finding out what you are--it would be so funny!"
He snorted again, and Ryuu joined him.
Sakura shook her head. There was nothing funny about being shunned the moment these normal people knew who she was. But the real threat was the vulnerability of having a routine. It would be easy for rival gangs to set up an ambush and murder her on the way to school. Sakura blinked, clasping her hands together. What's with this so-called program anyway? What could they possibly teach that she didn't already know?
"Don't worry, hime-chan, you'll be all right. You've dealt with much worse," Ryuu quipped.
Sakura raised an eyebrow, her stomach tensing up. "Thanks for reminding me," she said in a sharp tone. Some of her suppressed memories started to resurface.
Ryuu looked over, giving a pained expression. "I didn't mean it th--"
"No," she said, cutting him off before he could finish. "It's fine."
She pushed herself up from the chair, staring blankly into space. Her grandfather wrinkled his brow, getting ready to say something, but she spoke first.
"I'll agree to this Oniyuri madness," she said. "But I will do this my way." She walked over to the shoji doors and turned to face them before sliding it open. "All escorts stop at the Ginza headquarters, then I will go to Chiba by train...on my own." She planted her feet in a wide stance, pressing her lips together.
"No, Sakura! That is dangerous!" Her grandfather protested, slamming his fist on the table as he stood up.
Sakura maintained her posture. She had never gone against her grandfather before. "I'll be all right," she insisted, raising her chin. "The moment those people see my entourage, all attempts at keeping my identity a secret will be non-existent." The way her grandfather glared reminded her of her mother. The memory was painful. She turned away, biting her lip.
If I can live through seeing my parents murdered, she thought, I'm sure I can survive this madness.