Silence filled the village as everyone watched the dead samurai.
“That was an interesting fight,” a voice echoed, startling the villagers. Everyone turned towards the voice.
I didn’t feel their presence at all, Tadayoshi realized, picking up his scabbard and putting it on the same place as before, his eyes never leaving the five newcomers. Since they’re not threatening or killing anyone, it means they’re reinforcements. The swordsman swung his sword to clean the blood from the blade, but didn’t sheath it. If they know who I am, I’m in deep shit. I can barely keep standing, let alone run away. Just holding the sword strained his arm. I need to take control of the situation, he thought, hiding his scar with the free hand.
“Are you the reinforcements from the castle?” the swordsman asked the obvious question first, watching their reactions. There was none. Shit, Tadayoshi cursed in his mind, clicking his tongue. “Did you manage to capture the bandits?”
In response, two of the five mounted men opened path and a third soldier rode between them, pulling the reins of a horse. Even from this distance, Tadayoshi recognized the bandits that fled, tied back to back.
The group rode to the center of the village. Tadayoshi kept still, waiting until they were near enough for him to distinguish them. Four wore light armors, but despite their hard appearances, none attracted more attention than the man riding in the back. Thought he didn’t appear to be old man—probably around his thirty—his bald head and the burn-scar on the forehead gave him an important presence. His beard compensated the lack of hair. Though Tadayoshi had seen longer beards, he had never seen one so thick it hid the neck entirely.
He’s strong, Tadayoshi could feel. Stronger than the samurai. Before he realized it, his breathing was slow and his fingers white around the handle of his sword.
“Sadasada-sama!” someone among the villagers screamed, pushing his way to them. Messenger kneeled before the rider, bowing his head so low his forehead almost touched the ground. I think I heard that name before, Tadayoshi thought, trying to remember as he watched the man give orders to the soldiers.
“He’s… Matsudaira-sama’… advisor…” Tadayoshi turned when he heard the chief’s voice. Just breathing seemed to tire Daisuke-dono, but despite his appearance, with bandages around his head and holding his side, the old man’s eyes never seemed so strong to the swordsman. “He must… have come… to help…”
They should’ve come earlier and fight instead of me, Tadayoshi wanted to complain, but held his tongue. “I think they have all the evidence they need. There’s no reason for me to stay here any longer.” Despite his words, he was exhausted, and the thought of leaving right now pained his body. But I can’t stay here with them around.
“We can’t… let our… savior…leave like this,” the chief said, his face wincing from the pain. “I know you… only asked for… the swords… as payment… but we… I can’t…”
“Asahi is worth more than enough, believe me,” Tadayoshi said, staring the katana, still on the samurai’s hand. Even if it’s not a muramasa blade, I can make a lot of money with it.
“Are you this village chief?” Sadasada had finished giving his orders and approached them. Tadayoshi faced him, but turned his scar away from the advisor as discreetly as he could.
“Yes… I am…” Daisuke-dono tried bending his knees with the help from Messenger, but the advisor waved his hand.
“There’s no need for that,” the advisor said in his thunderous voice. The chief’s face softened with relief and the old man pulled himself up using Messenger’s arm as support. “I suspected something was wrong. The troops’ movement were too strange and after I heard the news of the attack on this village, I knew I was right. I asked Matsudaira-sama and he sent me.
“What… do you… think they… wanted… Sadasada…sama?”
“Either make a path to our castle or lure us and attack us at there.”
Daisuke-dono’ body trembled and his breathing became slower. His knees gave in, but before he fell, Messenger held him with both arms. No wonder. This entire village faced destruction just as a plan for the war, Tadayoshi thought.
“What is… going to… happen… now?”
“We have enough evidence now to arrest the traitor now. He might try to weasel his way out, but since Konkawa served him, he can hardly deny,” Sadasada said, looking the samurai. Then he turned to Tadayoshi.
The swordsman stared back, forgetting to breathe for a moment. He squeezed the handle of his sword, but using all his concentration, he managed to suppress his killing. “I’m glad to hear that,” Tadayoshi said with a forced smile on his face. “Now this village is finally at peace and I can go back to my journey.”
“Yes… we can… move… on…” Daisuke-dono covered his face, but it didn’t manage to hide his tears.
“Are you the Tadayoshi?” Sadasada asked in a low voice, his eyes on the hand covering the scar.
Tadayoshi squeezed his hand by reflex, but he lowered after an instant. His mind went red. I can kill him before he could reach for his sword, but there’s no way I can kill all the others. Not in this state, he thought, his eyes looking for the soldiers. Before he noticed, the soldiers were looking back at him, and the village became still. Then Tadayoshi realized it; his killing intent was so strong even the villagers could sense it to some point. He turned back to the advisor.
Sadasada was staring him, his deep eyes fixated on the swordsman, almost as if waiting to see what he would do.
Breathing hard, Tadayoshi sheathed his sword. I couldn’t kill him, he realized it. “I am,” he said, almost defiantly. No matter the situation, I won’t hide this name, he said to himself.
Sadasada held his breath. Tadayoshi kept the stare, not blinking once. Keeping his face without any emotion, the advisor breathed out through his nose and turned around, riding to his soldiers.
Tadayoshi watched as the adviser talked with the soldiers. The five looked at him. For a moment the swordsman grabbed the handle of his sword, but before he drew, the soldiers turned around and started their orders.
He’s letting me go, the swordsman realized, looking at the advisor’s back. With a sigh of relief, he let go of his sword and at the same time, a sudden pain overtook his body. Using the rest of his strength, he dragged himself to the samurai.
Konkawa’s body had lost the rest of its color. His lips were blue and his cheeks white, the veins showing up lightly. He laid motionless on the ground, his open eyes cold and empty, but he hadn’t let go off his katana yet.
With some effort, Tadayoshi managed to open the rigid fingers and take the sword from the hand. Even dead he won’t let go of Asahi. The swordsman stared the samurai before closing his eyes with the free hand and then standing up. Raising the katana against the setting sun, Tadayoshi turned the blade, staring the dry blood. My blood, he thought with a strange calm as he cleaned it with a piece of cloth ripped from Konkawa’s hakama.
As Tadayoshi picked up the scabbard and sheathed his new sword, a neighing of pain reached his ears. A few bandits, though unconscious, seemed still to be breathing under the animals. The more the two soldiers tried making the horses stand up, the more it protested, the screams neighing filling the village. The soldiers finally realized some of the paws were broken and exchanged glances. Even the animals knew what was coming when the soldiers drew their weapons, but couldn’t do anything as the blade sliced the throats. The bandits finally seemed to wake, but soon they too stop moving when the soldiers moved to them.
Turning his head around, Tadayoshi saw Bandages racing towards the advisor. He asked something the swordsman couldn’t hear, but then Sadasada glanced at him for a second. “We will be back tomorrow morning,” he said loud enough for everyone to hear him.
The message couldn’t be more clear to Tadayoshi; don’t be here.
At least I can rest, he thought, the relief over flooding him. Tadayoshi took a look at his state. Though his wounds were superficial, some still bleed, drenching the rest of his clothes red. Traveling like this is gonna attract some attention…
When he moved his arm to clean some of the blood, the kimono couldn’t take it anymore and ripped the rest and now only the bottom remained. His sandals were on the same state, falling apart with the first step. Sighing, he threw it away.
“Tadayoshi-sama.” Sumire-dono approached him with Ei by her side. I’m so tired I didn’t realize they were near. “Let’s… take care of your wounds first,” she said in a low voice, still not looking him in the eyes.
Is it because she can’t bear to look my wounds… or something else? Tadayoshi wondered, scratching his scar as he followed the woman.
I never thought walking could be this awful, he thought as he dragged himself to the chief’s house, his feet feeling the small and painful rocks on the ground. Tadayoshi had to force each step, making the short distance take longer than it should. When they finally arrived, the swordsman ignored the pain all over his body and sat on the ground, massaging his feet until the pain became more bearable.
The boy was alone in the main room, staring at nothing when Tadayoshi entered. Ei turned his head at the same time and now looked the swordsman. His eyes… Though there was something there, the boy’s eyes were dull and unfocused.
He lost his determination, and now has no idea what to do, Tadayoshi realized as he placed the sword where he slept and sat down. If not for me, maybe he’d live the rest of his life with it. Or perhaps he’d died if the soldiers didn’t arrive in time. The swordsman shook his head. It doesn’t matter. What matters now is that Ei will have to live in a world without someone important… Just like me…
The silence only broke when Sumire-dono came from the kitchen with a wooden bucket filled with water. It was so hot Tadayoshi could see the steam coming from it and almost imagined the heat only by watching.
The chief’s wife dipped the cloth she had in her hand on the water and cleaned the biggest wounds first. Though she hesitated to touch him, she still did her job. Each time she passed the cloth, he felt a sting of pain and his face frowned.
“A hot spring would be perfect right now,” he said, more to distract himself than to change the mood. If she’s scared of me, that’s her problem, he thought, closing his eyes.
“I’ll do it.” Ei spoke for the first time. Tadayoshi watched him with one eye as the chief’s wife stopped and then handed the cloth to the boy.
“After you finish cleaning, put this on the wounds.”
The swordsman winced when she showed a small wooden bowl filled with plants. In his first experience with it, his friend, whom had started his studies, used the wrong herbs. Tadayoshi had a skin rash for days.
“These plants grow around here and since it’s good for wounds and scratches, we always have a lot,” Sumire-dono said when she saw Tadayoshi looking at the bowl, misunderstanding his stare, and then returned to the kitchen.
The boy dipped the cloth and cleaned the wounds in silence. Tadayoshi felt Ei hesitating from time to time, though he knew it was different from the chief’s wife. He needs to talk… no, he wants to, but has no idea how to start, the swordsman realized it. With a tiny smile, he decided to give a little push.
“Luck the rest was weak. If there was another one like the samurai, I’d be dead now.” The boy didn’t react, the silence broken only by the sound of water. “But if there was another samurai, those peaches wouldn’t be enough.”
The boy kept quiet, concentrated on his task. He dipped the cloth and cleaned his wound, but when he cleaned the same place again and again, Tadayoshi realized his mind was somewhere else. This child needs to find the words on his own, he said to himself, and he too remained quiet, waiting the moment Ei would finally talk.
“Thanks… for saving us…” Even now he tried keeping his emotion out of his tone, but his voice was too heavy.
“There’s no reason to hold. There are times when we must cry,” Tadayoshi said to the boy, reminding his master’s words. “Or it will be harder for the pain to ease someday. Believe me.”
For a moment, Tadayoshi thought the boy would kept his emotions to himself, but then he felt the boy’s hands trembled on his back. Soon Ei couldn’t hold the tear any longer and rested his head on the swordsman’s shoulder.
He blinked, not knowing what to do. But when the words echoed in his mind, the swordsman patted the boy on the head. This is what I’m supposed to do to comfort someone, right, Inori? Tadayoshi remembered, the tears also falling from his eyes. Hope this is enough.
Sumire-dono opened the door, but when she saw the scene, she returned to the kitchen almost at the same time. The swordsman saw her teary eyes and sad smile on the woman’s lips. Guess this boy’s been holding in since his mom died.
It took some time for Ei to finish crying. Before Tadayoshi said anything, the boy cleaned his face with both hand. Trying to hide the embarrassment now, the swordsman thought, but said nothing. After sniffing for a couple times, Ei resumed cleaning the wounds in silence again, but now it was different.
Ei left the house to dump the water, now cold and red. The swordsman contemplated his body, observing his new scars. At least they won’t leave a mark like this, he thought with his hand on his old one, his eyes going empty.
The sound of door opening brought Tadayoshi’s mind back. Ei returned, but not alone. The chief was with him, along with the Messenger holding the three swords Tadayoshi had asked for payment. The young man placed them in a corner, gave the chief a hard look and then stared Tadayoshi for an instant before leaving.
He doesn’t care that I saved them. The moment they found out who I am, I stopped being the outsider who was fighting for them and became the assassin who betrayed and killed everyone’s hero, Tadayoshi thought. I didn’t fight for them, I didn’t fight for them, he said to himself, trying to suppress his anger. Breathing hard through his nose, he turned to Daisuke-dono.
With his head bandaged, the old man seemed more fragile than ever, as if some of his remaining years were taken. But his eyes were as clear as ever, as if the weight had been lifted from his soul. The sight managed to make the swordsman sighed and let go of his anger. That’s right… I didn’t fight for them.
Ei sat behind Tadayoshi, putting the empty bucket aside and grabbing the bowl with the herbs. Picking up a piece of wood with a rounded top, the boy crunched the plants until there was only a green paste. Even the smell is awful, he though, and his face showed his feelings. The boy looked into his eyes and ignored him, sticking two fingers in the bowl. Without skimping, he placed it almost all on each wound carefully, hesitating for a moment on the scar.
Trying to take his mind of the paste, Tadayoshi turned to Daisuke-dono. The chief watched the scene with the same unreadable expression as earlier, but Tadayoshi realized there was something else. When Ei finished, he went to the kitchen and didn’t return, conforming the swordsman suspicious.
“There’s no reason to hold back. Not after everything,” Tadayoshi said, opening his arms and showing his wounds covered by the paste.
The chief opened his mouth and then closed it, pressing his lips hard. “Sadasada-sama has returned to the castle. He doesn’t believe there will be any more attacks, but he left three soldiers to protect us…” Daisuke-dono reported the situation, but Tadayoshi noted he avoided looking him directly in the eyes.
“He said that if I was still here, he wouldn’t let me go, right? He made it quite clear when he said he’d be back here tomorrow morning like that.
The old man opened his mouth, but then closed it right away again, his eyes fixed on the floor.
“There’s no reason to worry yourself, Daisuke-dono. I’ll be gone before he’s back. I’m kinda used to leave places in a hurry,” Tadayoshi said and a hollow laugh escaped from his lips. Used to be a pariah again isn’t something to be proud, he thought. “Actually, it’s better this way, since I’ve got some time to prepare. Last time, I had to flee naked and with a mob after my head. At least I managed grab this kimono on the way out.”
He laughed again to break the uncomfortable mood. The chief did appear to relax a little, but he still avoided looking Tadayoshi in the eyes.
The rumors… the truth about me must’ve reached even a small village like this, he thought, his eyes glancing at his sword. With my master’s fame, and a reward like that on me, I’ll be surprised if the whole damn country doesn’t know already.
Daisuke-dono opened his mouth again, but when Tadayoshi turned back to him, he closed it. After taking a deep breath, the chief finally looked the swordsman in the eye. “Tadayoshi…sama… why… why did you help us?”
Tadayoshi ran a hand on his face. He didn’t have to think of a reason; he already knew. But to say it aloud… damn old man, you really are like my master. “It was because of you, Daisuke-dono. And that boy.” Part of him wanted to help, even though the other part would rather turn around and be safe. But since the chief was doing everything he could to avoid the fight, Tadayoshi would hear his will. It was the right choice. They had no chance of winning. “It’s stupid to fight when you’d lose everything. But you weren’t thinking of saving yourself. You were willing to sacrifice your life so others could live. I think… I think the worlds still needs people like you.”
The chief kept his mouth shut, staring the swordsman, the silence almost unbearable to Tadayoshi. He was the one avoiding meeting Daisuke-dono’ eyes now. Before any of them could break the silence, Sumire-dono came from the kitchen, sparing the two men.
Ei helped setting up the food—fish with millet again—on the table. The four of them sat down and just like yesterday, the only sound was the chewing, the clothes rustling, and the hashi touching the bowls.
No wonder no one’s in the mood to celebrate, Tadayoshi thought, bringing the hashi to his mouth. He glanced at Ei, Sumire-dono and Daisuke-dono; though they focused on the meal, their eyes were unfocused and empty. They might be alive and safe now, but the cost was too much.
After Sumire-dono and Ei cleared the table, sleep hit Tadayoshi with full force. He yawned and turned to the corner where his straw bed was until the morning. Before the swordsman could ask the chief, he, his wife and Ei left the house.
The trio walked alone at first, but soon others joined them. Tadayoshi immediately knew he shouldn’t be here, but he still followed them, always keeping a distance and walking under the shadows. The entire village gathered around a small area near the edge the fields.
The ground’s too soft there… It wasn’t random; Tadayoshi counted fifteen different patches of earth different from the rest. Graves… Since they don’t have to abandon their homes, they’re paying respect for the dead, he realized. Keeping to the shadows, the swordsman strained his eyes. There was a small pile of rocks on each grave, and on the center, a wooden board with nothing but a bird carved.
Ei was in front of a grave on the corner. Tadayoshi knew right away. His mother. The boy wasn’t alone. Two women, a young man and three children were by his side. They cried and try to comfort Ei, but even from this distance, the swordsman could see his mind wasn’t there.
On the other side, the chief and his wife were crying in front of their son’s grave. After a long time, Daisuke-dono tried to say something through the tears.
Tadayoshi didn’t hear what he said, nor saw beyond that. I’m a stranger, an outsider… hated, he said to himself, his hand on the scar. I don’t belong, my presence is an insult. No one realized he was there. And no one will. Even if nobody looked backwards, he backed away in silence.
He gathered the straw and placed in on the same corner. Making a big pile for a pillow, he rested his head. When he was about to close his eyes, the advisor’s words echoed in his mind. We will be back tomorrow morning… he’ll let me leave, but it doesn’t mean they won’t chase me. In the worst case, he’ll be here before dawn and I’ll have to fight.
Forcing himself up, he sat on the straw and searched his possessions. With the linen sack in his hand, he picked his swords, the old and the new. Looking between the katana, he chose his old one.
I fought, but since I was in the defensive for the most part, I doubt it’ll take much, he thought, unsheathing. He held the sword in his front with the left hand, the sharp edge turned away from him. Before he could stop it, he chuckled. I guess all that nagging was worth it, master. Maintaining the katana was one of the non-fighting lessons his master insisted.
With the free hand, he opened the bag and took a small sheet of nuguigami, a paper made from rice. Holding between his thumb and index finger, he slid it from the guard to tip, cleaning the blade of the fight’s remains and old oil from the scabbard. Repeating the process twice, the katana was clean. He held it upwards, turning around a couple times. It’s not enough.
From the sack, he took an even smaller one. Inside there was a white powder and an uchiko, a small silk ball tight around a wooden shaft. With the uchiko, he tapped both sides of the sword, covering the blade with a thin layer of powder. Using another sheet of nuguigami, he removed the layer. When he was done, he raised the sword again, looking under the moonlight passing through the window. Like new, he thought, a smile on his lips.
Sheathing his sword, Tadayoshi picked his new one. The moment he unsheathed, he couldn’t stop himself from staring the blade again. Thought it didn’t shine like before, it was still breathtaking to him. Even if you whipped the blood, it doesn’t mean it’s clean, his voice master woke him from the trance. I know, I know. If it’s not properly treated, a blade will die… and I won’t make any money, he said to himself, a meager smile on his lips. It’ll be a shame to sell this…
Shaking his head, Tadayoshi looked for the mekugi, the peg that held the tsuka, the handle. Once he found, he grabbed a thin piece of wood inside the sack and hit it a few times. Without the peg, the handle easily came out. Applying a little more strength, he took the fuchi, the collar, the tsuba, the hand guard, and the seppa, the washer.
The katana now was at its most naked form. But even like this, it’s a tool for killing. Checking the base, he saw the dirty and snorted. For someone who cared a lot for the katana, you sure didn’t clean it properly in a while, Konkawa.
Repeating the process he did before, Tadayoshi cleaned Asahi entirely and piece by piece, he reassembled the katana. When he finished, the swordsman in him couldn’t contain his smile; it’s more beautiful than ever!
I should clean the others too. But when he looked at the linen sack, he gave up the idea. I’m almost without paper and powder. Since I don’t know when I’ll get near a town and a blacksmith, better save it.
Tadayoshi placed everything back where it were. The sleep had left him now, but when he heard movements through the windows, he laid down and kept still. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but he would rather like to give the chief and his wife more privacy.