Chapter 14 of Samurai NOT.
Hope you enjoy.
Samurai NOT 14
“We need to find a place for tonight first,” Tadayoshi said, looking around. As the sun disappeared and the fire lights illuminated the city, the streets were more crowded. “I don’t wanna sleep without four walls around me.”
The swordsman led the girl through the crowd as if he knew where he was going, but soon Ei realized he was just walking at random. But she was too weak to complain and just let herself be dragged as they searched for a place.
It didn’t matter where they went, they only heard full or no rooms, sometimes even before they could ask. As they walked around, Ei felt her hunger overcoming her nausea. When her stomach rumbled loudly, she could no longer ignore. Without making fun, laughing or even making a comment, Tadayoshi bought food. At first the girl nibbled on the food, but each bite became bigger and she filled her belly for the first time in weeks.
The moon and the stars were already shining against the cloudless sky when they found finally an inn with a room on the outskirts of the city. Is this really a room? It’s more like a deposit, Ei thought as she sat on the straw pile that was her bed. The room they had found was so small it was hard to believe more than three adults could sleep without hitting each other with the slight movement. Whatever. It’s enough for us.
Ei massaged her throbbing shoulders. As her energy and mood got better, Tadayoshi made her carried the bag halfway the search for a room. Though it was lighter without the swords, it was still heavy for the girl. With her exhaustion hitting her, she lied on the bed. Her mind drifted into sleep and the images that haunted her the entire day came back in full.
She opened her eyes and sat up. The girl sweated and grabbed her shirt, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. Her breathing was shallow and rapid and the more she tried to inhale, the more she was out of air. Her head became dizzy and fought an urge to vomit. Will I… always see them… those images… whenever I close my eyes?
Even with the warmth coming through the window, she trembled. Ei hugged herself and stared at Tadayoshi’s back. Despite everything, little by little, her breathing and heart went back to normal.
“She didn’t believe you…” When breathing wasn’t painful, Ei asked with difficulty. She didn’t care much, just wanted to take her mind off the images. He turned to her with a puzzled look. “The woman on the entrance. She didn’t believe our story. Better change it from now on.
“You could’ve helped. But no, you’d rather correct me like that,” he said, shaking his head with his usual mocking expression. Though Ei would never admit, seeing that side of him after everything brought more relief than she would have liked.
“We don’t look alike. Who’d be stupid enough to believe we’re father and daughter? And your name—”
“No. There’s no way I’ll hide my name,” he said abruptly. His expression became hard so fast it scarred the girl. Tadayoshi looked at her and sighed as the lines in his face softened. “It’s… it was the first thing my master gave to me. It means… loyalty.”
‘They call me a man without loyalty, but that’s a lie!’ Ei widened her eyes as she remembered his words. So that’s why he reacted like that. She had no idea what to say and kept quiet for a while. Even so, the girl couldn’t hide her tiny smile. I learned something new about him.
“About our story… I know it’s hard to believe someone so young such as myself would have a kid your age, but we could’ve fooled that woman. I mean, no one would believe you’re fourteen. Even now I still have my doubts. Actually I thought you were a boy when we met,” he said in a lighter tone to break the awkward silence.
Ei snorted, but when she was about to reply, a loud drum echoed. Only now she realized the noise from outside was growing louder. She stood up and looked through the window. The few people she could see were dressed fancier than earlier and were all heading in the same direction.
“Hey. We’ll check the festival after,” Tadayoshi said. When she turned, he threw her a cloth he took from the bag. Ei caught it and turned it around, trying to figure out the meaning of it. “You stink too much, so go take a bath. I’d like one too, but one look at this,” he had a sad smile as he touched the left side of his belly, where his scar was, “and we’ll be in trouble.”
Ei nodded, barely listening to him as she tried to look at the street again. When she breathed, she sensed an awful smell and realized it came from her. The mix of sweat, vomit, and dirt clung to her new clothes, making it look as bad as her old ones. What was worst was that now she had noticed, her smell was all she could sense now.
Using the cloth to block her nose, Ei stepped out of their room. Where’s the bath? She stood in the hallway, looking in both directions. When she thought of asking the lady in the entrance, two women came out of the room at the end of the hallway, carrying cloths just like the one Ei had.
The girl followed them, waiting to ask where the bath was. However, the women never gave her a chance. They talked about what clothes to wear or how to tie their hair without stopping. As Ei was about to give up, they turned into a short hallway with a tiny opening at the end. Hearing the noise of water, Ei entered with the women.
An old woman greeted them and gave a basin filled with water each. Ei accepted and thanked, but she had no idea what to do. Glancing the women by the corner of her eyes, she watched the women undress, wrap their clothes on the cloth, walk to a corner of the room and wash themselves.
Ei did the same. She sat with the basin and cloth on a stool on the opposite corner and finally, after weeks on the forest, she cleaned herself. I’ll never go this long without washing myself right, she thought as she scrubbed herself. The hardest was her hair. No matter how much she washed the dirt and sweat out of it, it was still hard and wild.
When she finished, she looked around. It wasn’t just her and the two women she followed. There were others, along with a few older ladies and girls younger than Ei. Most did like her, cleaning themselves with the basin, but others were on the wooden bathtubs above a stone platform with a fire under to keep the water hot.
In her village, everyone washed themselves on the deepest part of the creek. But Ei remembered when the grownups had brought a tub like that from the fortress. They were excited, saying it was much better than just washing on the water. It became popular, but soon everyone gave up. Not only there were many people for the bath, it was a hassle gathering all the extra wood for the fire.
Ei turned over the rest of the cold water in the basin over her head. Her scratches stung a little, but she ignored and went to the tub. When she was about to step in, she hesitated. If I let myself relax, will I see it? She gulped and shook her head. I’m going to be strong. I can’t be afraid of… that forever, she told herself and entered the same bathtub as the women she had followed.
The hot, almost scalding, water stung her wounds at once. She bit her lips but as she became used to it, she relaxed. It’s like the water’s entering me and burning away the pain. Almost like it’s washing my problems away, she thought dreamily, feeling lighter and lighter. She closed her eyes and lost track of time, but a loud bang brought her back. One of the kids had dropped the basin on the floor.
With some surprise, Ei realized the women were already gone. She got out, untied her clothes and dried herself with the cloth. But when she picked the clothes, she felt dejected to wear it again.
Tadayoshi was still in the room. He was almost in the same position, resting his head the wall, using the light from outside to read a book. Ei stared at Yasuhiro-sama’ diary, feeling the anger grow inside her. She never thought she would ever hate something related to the hero she looked up. Tadayoshi used that diary to teach her how to read and write. Though she was very interested in learning both, her progress was laughable and she put it off whenever she could.
The swordsman was so focused in the diary it took him longer than normal to realize she was back. Without looking at her, Tadayoshi closed the book, put it inside his clothes and stood up. He wrapped his sword and Asahi with a cloth, hung them on his waist and led the girl outside without a word.
The streets were more crowded and louder. Even without the tables, they still had trouble walking around without bumping into anyone. At least they’re not glaring at him anymore, she thought, following Tadayoshi closely.
It felt as if the entire world was there to enjoy the festival. Now the difference between them and the rest was screaming at them. People didn’t wear simple clothes anymore; instead they wore beautiful and elegant yukata. Ei never cared much for clothes or her appearance, but she looked around with envy
The men wore simpler colors; mostly black, dark blue and dark green, and only a few had any pattern or emblems. The women, on the other hand, dressed in a myriad of colors. There were bright green and blue, peach, shades of red, yellow. And most had patterns of a variety of flowers sewn on it. So beautiful, she thought, almost losing track of Tadayoshi when she stopped to admire.
The clothes weren’t the only difference from earlier. There were paper lanterns on the doors and across the streets, the winds swaying the lights so bright it shunned the moon and the stars. The yellow and red glow illuminated the ground and the people like tiny suns. A day within the night, she thought, smiling broadly.
From somewhere far the sound of a drum echoed through the city. It was only one at first, but soon others joined and then the night was vibrating with the hypnotic sound. Everyone squashed themselves to create a hallway in the middle of the streets.
Ei was almost pushed inside a house, but a hand grabbed hers and pulled. She meant to thank Tadayoshi, but when she realized people didn’t squash him because of his smell, she laughed. At least we go something good out of it, she thought, watching his annoyed expression. Thanks to his smell, they had a perfect view of the street.
A group of young women came dancing in two rows came from the opposite direction of the drums. Their clothes were even more elegant, with flowers patterns and real flowers matching on their hairs. Their movement and claps matched the rhythm of the drums as they walked down the street. They lowered their hands as if planting something, turned around and clapped.
The people watched smiling or talking happily with their friends or clapping. Some kids even tried imitating the dance, but most couldn’t do it right. Some kids even fell, getting some laughs out of the crowd. Even so, the women never stopped dancing.
When the last dancers passed by them, the crowd followed. They ended up in a large space with a huge bonfire at the center and the group of drummers around it. The flames were so high it looked as if orange fingers were reaching for the stars. Even from a distance, Ei could feel the intense heat emanating from the fire.
The dancers formed two circles around the drummers, dancing in opposite directions. The drums beats became faster and the dancers kept up. Suddenly the sound died and the girls stopped at the same time, their hands raised towards the sky. For a moment, the only sound was the fire, and then, as if waking from a dream, the spectators burst in claps. Ei and Tadayoshi joining them a heartbeat later.
The men on the drums stood up and, together with the dancers, bowed in every direction. After more applause, the crowd scattered slowly. The people either grouped with their friends and family or went to their homes or rooms, everyone talking about the festival.
They headed back to their room too, but Ei barely paid attention where she was going. She couldn’t stop seeing the dance, dancers, drums and the fire all over again. I’ve seen something like that, she thought. The dance, in a few parts, reminded the girl a bit of the dance they did during some rituals, though the difference in quality was obvious. I doubt anyone back home can dance like that.
Before she knew it, they were back in their room. Tadayoshi placed one sword against the wall and pushed his straw to the corner near the window. “I don’t like sleeping so exposed,” he answered before Ei could even ask.
Tadayoshi laid in his bed, Ei didn’t. Now that the excitement from the festival faded, she was once again tired. All she did was stared at her bed, afraid to close her eyes and relive everything all over again. But the exhaustion was too much and she laid down too. She turned and stared at Tadayoshi’s back. From the way he moved, she knew he was still awake.
“This festival is to tribute the dead, right?” she asked, both to keep her mind filled and to satisfy her curiosity. “Why is it so… lively? I mean, the music and dance and all the fun…” I could never do that… when I think of mom…
“I asked the same question to Hikari-sama,” he said in a tired voice. For some reason, Ei felt he was smiling as his memories came back. “One day, a disciple of Buddha used his powers to look at the soul of his dead mother. Instead of peace, he found out she was suffering a lot in the afterlife, so he begged for his master’s help. When the disciple finally saved his mother, he was so happy he started dancing. Because of that story, people believed dancing would help the souls of those who aren’t around anymore.”
That’s… interesting, Ei considered after a while. If it was me, I guess I’d be happy too. But that would be for ancestors or people who are gone for a long time. When the death is still close… She started closing her eyes, but she fought and forced them open.
“You’re afraid.” It wasn’t a question. Even with his back turned, Tadayoshi could tell exactly what she felt. Without complaining nor sighing, he sat up and turned to her.
She sat too, but out of instinct, Ei avoided looking into his eyes. What I’ll find? I don’t wanna see those cold and empty eyes… not in him. Not ever again, she thought, closing her fist to stop the trembling.
“You’re afraid of me,” he whispered. There was no joke in his tone. He was facing her fears with the same serious way when he spoke about his master. Still without looking at him, she nodded once. “You fear you’ll be weak forever just because you couldn’t do anything against that warrior yesterday. You’re scared of what happened at that inn, of what you saw this morning. But mostly you’re terrified of taking a life the same way I do.”
She tried saying yes, but she had no voice. She closed her eyes and barely nodded. She heard him sighed.
“I’ll bet you’re also scared of wasting the precious time of this great swordsman, aren’t you?”
His joke and smile caught her off guard. Before she realized it, Ei couldn’t help but chuckle. She shook her head and ran a hand over her face.
“The only thing great about is your ego,” Ei said. This idiot knows me so well he can make me better with just one stupid joke, she thought. “In a rare moment, you’re right. Yesterday I… was paralyzed by fear… I felt weak… useless… and today…” She quivered and hugged herself. Say it! Say it! Don’t be afraid now. She felt the tears coming down, but still forced herself to speak. “Today, that… I-I wanna… be strong… but not that. I don’t wanna be someone who… who can kill others so easily…”
Like you. She kept those words to herself. Ei trembled so much she lost her voice. He said nothing, letting her cry her to heart’s desire, but she could still feel his eyes on her.
“Not killing someone doesn’t make you weak,” he said in a low voice when her tears stopped. “The same way killing doesn’t make one strong. It’s easier to draw a sword than to sheath it. I killed yesterday and will kill again. Whenever I have to, as many times as it takes to survive. I won’t die regretting like my master.”
Before Ei could stop herself, she raised her head and met his eyes. Behind them, along with the sword he had, there was an intense flame burning. She had never seen him this serious. Not even when he spoke of Yasuhiro-sama.
“I’ll teach you how to use a sword, but I’ll never tell you when to use it. You’ll choose that by yourself. Lives will be at stake whenever you draw your sword. Remember what I said before? Some live and some die in the way of the sword. Never forget these words, Eiko.”
Only her mother called her that way. His words echoed through her, calming her fears and stopping the quivers. But what warmed her, what made her soul lighter, what shone a light at the dark shadow that lurked within her mind was his eyes. When the relief spread, she lied on the straw and almost drifted into sleep.
“I tried to let them live,” Tadayoshi said quickly, as if to get it out of him. “But when the twin with the scar ran towards you, I lost control of myself.”
She turned to him, but when she noticed his slow and rhythmic breathing, she knew he was already sleeping now. With a smile, she closed her eyes.
Ei found herself in an empty and dark room. She ran and ran, but her surroundings never changed. Her knees cave in and she fell hard on the floor. She screamed in pain, but no voice came out. Panting and sweating, she tried standing up, but her legs and arms had no strength. She heard something far away coming in her direction.
Footsteps, she realized, panicking. It was faint at first, but the sound got louder. She tried moving, dragging herself, anything. Then the steps were finally by her side. Two feet appeared into her sight. Ei raised her head and saw a shadow. When the shadow leaned closer, she saw Tadayoshi’s face
He offered her a hand. Ei hesitated, but then she heard more footsteps. Another Tadayoshi. This one was normal, the way she knew him, with no shadow covering part of his face. Both swordsmen stood side by side and then merged into one. The new Tadayoshi wasn’t different; he was the same man she trusted, with both dark and light inside him. He offered his hand again, half his face smiling, the other half a somber façade.
Ei didn’t hesitate this time, taking Tadayoshi’s hand, the hand of her master.
Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed the chapter.
If you don’t wanna miss any chapter, sign up to my newsletter
If you like Samurai NOT, you can support it on Patreon
See ya next chapter