This story was one of two 'Sais of Love' I wrote for my writer's group. The term 'Sai of Love' refers to a story no longer than 1667 words that contains a particular batch of arbitrary elements, one of which was chosen by each member of the group. Those elements are as follows:
What would you come up with, given these conditions?
Asembro's feet hurt and his wrists hurt and his back hurt, which meant all was well. The good life, Asembro reflected, is about extremes.
So is the bad life, of course. That's worth considering, if you're given the chance. Asembro, under other circumstances, in his youth, might very well have reflected that if the bad life and the good life were equally likely (and who could say they weren't?) and that if the rewards of the good life were comparable to the despair of the bad, then there was no reason to tend toward extremes, and therefore that he ought to heed the nature of his own budding character. Asembro, however, was not given any such choice. His life started in tragedy before he was old enough to comprehend it; taken from his drug-addicted parents, his surrogate mother was a miserable young thing whose own life had been ruined by Yakuza, and, truth be told, she herself was probably the product of miserable parenting by miserable parents, compounded back at least five generations. His youth was often marred by violence—in fact, it was marred more by the absence of violence for as much as weeks at a time, stretches which the young Asembro grew to fear because of the disappointment they bred and the way they ended. He was beaten often, scolded regularly, given few luxuries and stripped of those without foresight. His life began in the domain of extremes.
As a child of nine, he had broken through one of many internal barriers (erected for his own protection) with the idea that it was acceptable, even desirable, to emulate other people. He chose a traveling man who often showed up in the village where Asembro and his mother were living at the time, a man who succeeded admirably in tying up his own fate with that of the locals and whose fashion sense he found equally admirable. Over the course of two years, he struck up a relationship with this man, Oshiru Takota. Oshiru Takota turned out to be a ninja.
Asembro was a child in which doubt was a flower that bloomed for lengthy seasons, unlike those of pride, joy, and affection. (Not so hope, for hope blooms eternal even in children of wretched parents six times removed.) He therefore doubted the ineffability of his destiny with Takota, until at the age of thirteen he was graced with a dream. In this dream he lived his life as it was normally lived, except that at times he was invisible, while at other times he was beyond visible, a man of uncommon stature, alive with vibrant colors and respected beyond his due. This dream repeated seven times through the course of the night. Asembro found that he was able, with effort, to control at what moments he was invisible and at what moments super-visible, and in this way he shaped the course of the dream toward its ideal ends. Moments after he woke, he realized that the life he had lived in the dream was not his own after all—it was Takota's. When he had understood this, he knew that it was his future to become a ninja, and to live as Asembro imagined that Oshiru Takota ought to live.
Now he embraced extremes. They had been appointed as his field, so he chose to master them. Extremes of fatigue, of solitude, of patience, of heat, even of indulgence, these he sought and mastered. Extremes were the foundation of his savior-vivre; his training had been rife with them. A meal, a girl, an evening devoid of extremes slipped from Asembro's memory like a beansack from the back of a stray dog who had slept near a juggler. He now loved his childhood, and had often reflected that he had chosen the only path in which it was possible to do so.
The extreme in which he now found himself was the pointed cupola of an onion dome, in which he braced himself from lattice to lattice, just out of line with the sunbeam made by the nearer window, various points of his body aching just as they should. If his timing had been perfect, he would end up dropping to strike or intimidate his target just as the tension in his extremities forced itself to manifest in motion, which would lead to perfect combat. He was certain this had happened at least once—after that, it might have been his imagination.
This extreme was further accentuated by its location at the top of a mountain. This Andean mountain was far from home, yet surprisingly close to the kind of business that put Asembro at ease. It was used currently as a restaurant, bar and lodge for people with roles between the cracks—those who worked both for governments and for secret enterprise, or for either and themselves in alternation. His mark was speaking with someone at a painted wooden table near one edge of the round chamber below. Asembro knew that he would leave that sheltered position soon, as it was simply how the man behaved.
In the next moment, Asembro was exiting his extreme position at the apex, as the wax-mustachioed man at the nexus of his exacting maneuver was coaxed into view. He had two companions; one, the xenodermic old crucifix-bearer, or senex, of the lodge, who at sixty-six would not prove too taxing; and the other, a foxy young thing, an onyx-haired minx in exile, a vexing, sexy sight upon which Asembro was instantly transfixed. He planted his xiphoid staff in the solar plexus of his mark almost laxly; affixing his axle to the man to expel his consciousness, he was taxed not to similarly affix the vixen with a xerox of her own fascinated look, an admixture of perplexity and luxury.
“The hell--!” blustered the old man. Others present didn't even hesitate that long to act; attacks in this place were rare and swiftly punished. Asembro, though, had lost the thrust of his mission. While he had rendered the man unconscious capably enough, and while he was now smacking down others left and right with reasonable skill, he had completely forgotten the speech he'd come there to deliver. How did it begin?! What was it about? The key points were scrambled up in his brain, and the more he tried to retrieve them, the more unthinkably inaccessible they became. The woman, damn her, was just watching, not commiting herself as admirer or enemy, and that uncertainty was torture to Asembro.
“What are you doing??” she said at last, once half the men in the lodge had been dispatched, and most of the rest had run. Those who remained with keeping their distance and trying to surround Asembro, and so he kept circling even as he told her:
“It's...it's this man...Henez...you were with him a moment ago...he's done terrible things... damn, I was going to scare him. Now, with him and his friends knocked out, I might as well have killed him. Screw it all, what's your name, and will you come with me when I'm leaving?”
He saw her catching the eyes of the people still standing, and he could only guess what they were communicating. Still, whatever her purpose, it was a beautiful thing to hear her say, “I'll go with you, of course I will. You beat men like you were born to it.”
There was another attacker, this time wielding a sword and roaring. Asembro put him down with a few quick jumps and a table leg. He caught the woman's expression peripherally and wondered whether her look of fear was for the attacker's benefit or for his own. Better, though, not to ask.
What now? No one further challenged him; it was time to go before reinforcement came. “What do you think?” he asked nervously, eying the prone man Henez. “Should—should I kill him, just to make a day's work of it, or...”
“Cut your losses,” said the woman sharply. “Today, you have failed. As badly as these men lying here.” The way she spread her hands was mesmerizing. “Leave them alive, come back another day to deliver your speech the right way. Let's go.”
The circular lodge was behind them before Asembro realized it. The air was cold. There was noplace to go—not with a woman.
“I have a mountain goat,” said the woman. “Only one, though—and he is too small for you to ride.”
“You ride him, then,” said Asembro in relief. “I will run.”
She rode and he ran until they came to a village. It was high in the foothills and struck him as poor and healthy, not at all the village Asembro had known as a child. The woman led him in and cautioned him: “Here, you are not a monster. Here, you are a man.” What did she mean by that? He hadn't told her he was either.
She introduced a wrinked old woman as her aunt, and there was another, slightly rosier aunt, and a set of cousins, some of whom were married with babies, and by the time it was all done, Asembro and the black-haired woman were alone in a little round-cornered chamber, with the door closed and windows open onto the mountain and family in the next room.
“What did Roderigo do?” asked the woman, speaking of Henez.
“He was a brainwasher,” said Asembro blankly, staring at the wall behind the woman yet seeing only her face. “He was at Jonestown, helping the Americans to brainwash hundreds into drinking cyanide. He was the man who sent the pawn Chapman to murder the singer, Lennon, two years after.”
“Are you telling me a person can tell another person what to do, no matter how reprehensible,” demanded the woman with arms akimbo, “and he will do it?”
“Even after the fact,” agreed Asembro. “It can be done.”
“I hope you'll pardon my skepticism,” she rejoined. “I do not think it can be done. I require proof.”
Asembro didn't answer. Her forehead...where was the shape in the foreheads of others? Had he missed it all these years...or was it...only her? The space above her lips, where a man would wear a mustache...why was there no word for what a woman did not have in that place? In this woman, it was a feature so beautiful that the lack of a word was...an absurdity.
“Never mind,” said the woman in a very different tone. “There is a bed here. Go ahead and lie down. I have my proof.”
Asembro realized what she meant when she had been gone twenty minutes. He found that it was dark and he was snug under a thick quilt. He could have gone to her and asked her how she did what she did, or he could have killed her family and all others in the village who contested him, or he could have simply left to do his job right. Instead, he turned over in bed. He thought about the owl that hooted and the stars that gleamed. In the morning, she fed him goat cheese.