TWO LIVES: Part 3 of 5

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I escorted the merchant home, glaring at everyone who dared to stand in my way. The commoners took one glance at my daisho and the blood on my clothes, and hurried to make way. No one wanted to be the next to die.

The moment the client opened the door, I practically shoved him through.

“I’m going to get help,” I said. “Stay here. Do not open the door for anyone except the police.”

He shut the door. I staggered out into the street. Blood stained my kimono and dripped on the ground. This was the only good set of clothes I had. I sighed, and shook my head. I could worry about that later. For now, I needed help. I needed to get to the temple. The priests there would know whom to…

A woman stared at me, dumbfounded. It was Hana.

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re wounded,” she said.

“It’s not serious. But I require a physician.”

She pursed her lips. “Come with me.”

She reached for her hair and yanked a length of red ribbon loose. Her hair cascaded down in a messy bundle. Taking my injured arm, she wrapped the ribbon around the wounds. Dark spots soaked through the fabric.

“That ribbon is expensive,” I said.

“I have plenty more.”

She led me to a nearby house. Walled off from the rest of the street, it was easily the largest dwelling here. Well-worn stones traced a path from the entrance to the front door. To my left was a garden overflowing with shrubs and flowers. A solitary tree wept dried leaves on the stone path. To my right was a tranquil pond. Koi swum lazily in the water, occasionally stopping to stare at me.

This was the first time I’d been to her home. She definitely came from a family of wealth and taste.

An older man sat by the door, observing the pond. He looked up as she approached.

“Hana! Who is this?” he demanded.

“Father, he’s a friend,” she replied. “He’s injured and needs help.”

He stared suspiciously at me. Meeting his gaze, I delivered a formal bow. My torn flesh complained.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said.

He squinted at me. “Come in.”

I left my katana at the door, with the tsuba pointed to the left, while my wakizashi stayed at my side. Hana’s father nodded ever so slightly, and opened the door for me.

Inside the main room, Hana’s father bade me sit on the tatami floor and barked orders. A servant hauled a medicine chest into the room. Hana and the servant removed my kimono and examined my wounds, fussing over the injuries. The cat stayed out of the way, but observed the proceedings.

“You are most fortunate,” the servant remarked. “These are shallow wounds. They would heal nicely. But first, we must disinfect them.”

“Let me do it,” Hana said.

She undid the ribbon bandage, grabbed a piece of gauze and wiped away the blood on me. It stung on contact. I endured the pain as best as I could, but Hana lightened her touch.

“What happened?” her father demanded.

I spoke about the encounter at length, sketching over the gory details. A woman didn’t need to know what the insides of a man looked like as they spilled across the ground. Hana set the bloodied gauze aside, poured ointment on a fresh cotton patch, and applied it to the wounds. Fire scorched my flesh. I sucked in a deep breath and carried on. Pain always passes. To acknowledge it was to make it worse. I simply let it pass through me and continued speaking.

Hana finished shortly after me. Reaching into the medicine chest, she grabbed several rolls of white cloth. As she bandaged my wounds, I said, “You know medicine?”

“Everyone in my household must know the arts of war,” her father said. “That includes tending to minor wounds.”

“A wise precaution,” I said. Turning to her, I nodded. “Thank you.”

Her hand rested on my shoulder a little longer than necessary. “It’s nothing.”

The servant carried away the chest, the remains of my kimono and the expended cloth patches, leaving the three of us alone. Hana placed the cat on her lap and stroked its neck.

“You saved my friend’s life,” her father said. “Domo arigatou gozaimasu.”

Iie,” I said. “I was merely doing my job.”

“Nevertheless, you did well. I shall speak to the police. Such a brazen attack cannot go unpunished.”

“May the bandits get what they deserve,” I said.

With Hana out of the way, and the pain subsiding into a low boil, I could study the room properly. Like me, Hana’s father wore a short sword in his obi. Behind him, mounted on the wall within arm’s reach, was a full-length katana.

“I see you are a samurai,” I said, “no doubt of a long and illustrious lineage.”

He smiled tightly. “Yes.”

Which made Hana the daughter of a samurai.

“You carry a daisho,” he said. “I trust you are one too?”

“I come from a humble bloodline. Our domain was abolished long ago.”

“A ronin, then.”


His eyes hardened. “How did you meet my daughter?”

“Quite by chance. I was sitting by the river when her cat came up to me. It led me to her. I saw that she had fallen and sprained her ankle, and helped her up. We started talking.”

As if on cue, Hiro the cat padded into the room. It studied us imperiously, then rubbed itself against my leg.

Hana giggled. “Hiro remembers you.”

I patted its head gently. It purred softly, then bounded away and leapt on Hana’s lap. It kneaded her thighs and nuzzled against her belly. Smiling, she caressed its neck and back.

“Is that your family cat?” I asked.

“Hiro comes and goes as it pleases, but it seems attached to Hana,” he said. “I’ve never seen it approach a stranger.”

“Hiro’s a good judge of character, ne?” Hana said.

He grunted. “I trust my daughter more than a cat.”

“Father!” she exclaimed, still stroking the animal.

He turned to me. “She told me she knew a ronin who could serve as a fine yojimbo. I see her judgment is accurate.”

She beamed. “Of course! And Hiro’s too.”

“Do you wish to continue seeing Hana?”

She stiffened, and sighed. “Father, he’s just a friend.”

“Yes,” I replied.

He grunted. “My daughter is a strange woman.”

“Father!” she protested. “I’m not ‘strange’!”

“I agree,” I said.

She made a face and looked bashfully away. Her father laughed.

“Please continue looking after her,” he said.

“I will.”

The present and the past twisted into each other. A torrent of snapshots filled my head: a moonlight stroll along the river where we had met; a black-toothed smile, almost invisible in the night; warm conversation over hot meals; a soft small hand in a large rough one; fingers gliding over soft fur; unending repetitions of sword strokes in an empty temple courtyard; the jangling of coins in an increasingly-heavy pouch.

Nothing I did could shut them out.

Like a sleepwalker, I stumbled through a haunted house, filled with depictions of youkai. None of the monsters matched the intensity of the flashbacks. None of them were real, not the way what Akira—what I—had experienced was real. Only once did the flashbacks stop, when I had to navigate a series of treacherously shifting floors.

When I emerged into the sun, more sense-impressions flooded my mind. Sharpened steel biting through flesh and bone; the warmth of skin on skin; husky feminine whispers at night; laughter in the rain; blades flashing through the air in smooth, practiced arcs.

Abruptly, another flashback kicked in.

Hana and I strolled towards the market. The lunchtime crowd was flooding the street, and with them came a cacophonous riot of noise and colour. I had to raise my voice just to be heard.

“I will be going away for a while,” I said.


“My client wishes to do business outside the city. It could take a while. Ten days, perhaps.”

“Where are you going?”

“To the surrounding villages. He wishes to expand his business and sell his wares to a wider audience. I will be leading a group of yojimbo to guard his convoy.”

“I see.”

Reaching into her obi, she removed a cloth bag.

“Here,” Hana said. “I want you to have this.”

“What is it?”

“An omamori. It’s kept me safe over the years. I want you to have it. You can give it back when you come home.”
I’d seen the monks at the temple craft omamori in their spare time. These were small amulets made of wood or paper, dedicated to Buddha and the gods. Hana’s was small enough to fit inside the bag.

“Thank you.”

I tucked the amulet away. She held her arms wide in invitation. I encircled her slim body with my arms and held her tight. I drank in the scent of her hair and the warmth of her body, burning them into my mind.

“Be careful,” she said.

“I will.”

The flashback had come so powerfully I had no time to brace myself, and by the time I realised I was in another Japan I had returned to this one.

Maybe I was doing this wrong. This stream of consciousness should not be resisted; it should be embraced, experienced, ridden out all the way to the end. I perched myself on a bench, took a sip of water and a deep breath, found the nearest image and plunged in.

The days crawled by at an agonising pace. Previously, I would have been indifferent to the time spent on the job. Ever since I walked the road of a ronin, I had never visited the same place twice. I was always on the go, drifting from one place to another, with no bedding but my haori and no roof but the sky. To a man with no master, no home and no place, sentimentality was an alien emotion.

But today, I had a reason to return.


The moment the merchant and I passed through the city gates, I felt something wrong. The mood of the city was subdued. Hawkers were still peddling their wares, people were still doing their business, but not with the same restless energy I had come to associate with the city. Police samurai patrolled the streets, openly wearing weapons and armour.

Something had happened here. But what?

First, the client. I could speak with Hana about that later.

I led the way back to the merchant’s home. Behind us, the other yojimbo—ronin one and all—protected my flanks and back. Commoners bowed just a little lower, stepped away just a little faster. Now, it didn’t matter that I was still a ronin: I wore a daisho, I was a known face around these parts, and I worked for a wealthy man. I was still unused to such deference, and I was more concerned with potential threats than social niceties.

No bandits jumped out from the crowd to ambush us. After seeing him home, the merchant dismissed us for the day. I sauntered down the street, heading to Hana’s residence.

But it was gone.

My breath caught in my chest. I forced myself to breathe, and studied the sight before me.

Her home had been torched, burned down to its foundations. The garden, so carefully tended, was reduced to ashes. Dead fish choked the pond. There was nothing left but scorched timbers and blackened earth.

I glanced left and right, checking the address. I was at the right place. But her home was a ruin. How?

My head spun. My breath died in my lungs. My legs wobbled.

“Impossible…” I whispered.

But the truth was before me. To deny it would be to deny the world itself. I had to find out more.

I marched to the house across the street. An elderly woman, her back bent with age, carefully swept the area around the front door. She looked up as I approached, and bowed as low as her spine allowed her to go.

My heart demanded me to question her. My brain could not craft the right words. An eternity later, I found a compromise.

“What happened?” I demanded, gesturing at the ruin.

She peered at me. “I recognise you. You visited Hana-chan frequently, ne?”

I nodded. My throat locked up. I forced out what words I could fine. “Yes. What… Is she…?”


My fists tightened. My heart pounded. Blood sang in my veins.

“Tell me what happened.”

The grandmother took a moment to compose herself.

“I can only tell you what I heard. Bandits broke into the home last night. I heard sounds of fighting. Men shouting, screaming, dying. I heard Hana-chan crying, too. I was too frightened to look. I hid for a long time. But suddenly, I smelled smoke.

“I slid the door open a crack and peeked out. The house was ablaze. A gang of armed men—four, five of them—slipped out the gate, carrying heavy sacks over their shoulders. The neighbours cried for the samurai and the fire brigade. I ran away in case the fire spread.

“After the fire brigade put out the flames, we helped to sift through the wreckage. We… We found Hana-chan and her father.”


She nodded. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“She was such a charming girl. So smart, so lively. And now…” She looked up at me. “You were close, yes?”

I nodded numbly.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Ronin I might be, but I was still the son of a noble line. I was a man of the sword. I had to comport myself accordingly.

I walled off my emotions and bowed deeply. “Thank you for telling me.”

She held her hands up, waving away the gesture. “Please, it is nothing. I have done nothing important.”

“It is important enough to me.”

I looked again at the house. I remembered the times I paid a visit to her home when I was off-duty. The evenings of tea and art and poetry with her and her father. The times when I walked her home from an errand. Her father had contemplated marrying her off to another samurai family, but none of her potential suitors visited her as often as I did.

My fingers remembered the gentleness of her touch, the warmth of her skin, the silky smoothness of her hair. My ears recalled her soothing voice, her laughter, her cries, her whispers.

She was gone. Ashes in the wind. All that was left of her was the omamori I’d never have a chance to return. With her passing I was unmoored, a dead cherry blossom floating in a turbulent river.


Hiro. The cat entwined itself around my legs and looked up expectantly at me. Kneeling, I picked it up and cradled it to my chest. It cried plaintively, nuzzling my neck.
I almost broke. I stood my ground and sucked in a breath. Moisture stained my eyes. I touched my fingers to them and cleared it away. The woman did not comment.

“That’s Hiro-kun, ne?” she asked.

I rubbed its head. “Yes.”

“Poor baby. I wonder who will take care of it now.”

“I will,” I replied, keeping my voice steady.

“That’s good to hear.” She pursed her lips. “This must be such a shock. Will you be well?”

“In time.”

She didn’t look convinced. “What will you do?”

“What I must.”

Earlier chapters: Part 1 and 2.


For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.

TWO LIVES: Part 2 of 5


I sat by the river and stared at the water. It seemed still, but the leaves drifting across the surface betrayed a hidden current, illuminated in the amber hue of the setting sun.

No luck finding work. My funds were running low, and I couldn’t remember the last time I ate anything more substantial than a bowl of rice. The daimyo wasn’t hiring, and in this age of peace what place was there for a man of the sword?

Perhaps it was time to move on. Surely there had to be somewhere I could—


A cat. A white bobtail with black and brown patches adorning its coat. It slinked up to me and peered curiously at me. I rubbed its forehead. It bumped its head against my leg and snaked around my ankle.

The creature looked back at me, called again, and trotted off. A few moments later, it stopped, sat on its haunches, and looked back at me.

“Do you want something?” I asked.


It was longer, more insistent. Maybe the cat wanted me to follow it.

I got up and dusted myself off. The cat turned around and padded down the riverbank. I followed.

A woman sat by the riverbank, massaging her right ankle. The cat pounced on her lap and purred. She smiled, rubbing the back of its ear.

The woman’s face, neck and shoulders were plastered in white makeup. An elaborate hair bun towered over her head, held in place with a comb and a ribbon. A pair of red fabric flowers, hana kazashi, rested on either side of her forehead. She had simple sandals on her feet, but her kimono was made of silk. A deep blue silk kimono, embroided with pink flowers.

A woman of means.

Konnichiwa,” I said.

She faced me. Her gaze transfixed me. For a moment, it felt like she was peering into my soul—and I was looking at hers. Her eyes were as calm as a placid lake, and as dark as the night. She had a pleasant demeanour, and her profile not unattractive. More than that, she was… familiar.

But she was a stranger.

Konnichiwa,” she said, setting the cat aside. “I’d stand, but I fear I sprained my ankle.”

“Do you need help?”

She held out her hand. “Onegaishimasu.”

I took her hand and helped her up. She stood awkwardly, placing her weight on her left ankle, but she seemed none the worse for wear. She swept off the dirt from her clothes and bowed. Low enough to show respect, but not the deep bow commoners granted to samurai. I returned the gesture.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said. Thank you very much.

“It’s nothing,” I said.

Her cat coiled itself around her wounded leg. She smiled down at it. “Hiro seems to like you.”

“How so?”

“Hiro rarely approaches people. You seem to be a nice person.”

“I do my best.”

“I’m sure you do.” Sparks danced in her eyes. “I saw you while I was walking down the river. You looked pretty sad, sitting by the river like yourself. Are you well?”

Women do not speak so forthrightly like this. Who was she?


“Is that so? Are you a ronin?”


She made a low, soft sound. “Times are difficult for ronin.”

“Always have been.”

“You seem troubled. Is there anything I could do to help?”

I shook my head. “I was just…thinking. I’m not in a mood for talking.”


Her lips curved upwards. Reaching up, she pulled her ribbon out of her hair.

“Here. You can give it back when you want to talk.”

I blinked. She was an odd one. But I wasn’t above accepting charity.

“Thanks,” I said.

I tucked the ribbon into my obi. It felt ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But with her, it felt… right.

Bowing, she said, “I shall take my leave.”



“What’s your name?”

The scene faded out. Reality crashed into my brain. I bit back a curse. What was her name?

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the scene, willing it to return. I saw an outline of her face against the dark. Her lips moved, but no sound emerged. I slowed down the scene, replaying it again and again.


That was her name. And mine?

I loosened my jaw, relaxed my tongue, willing for sound to flow out.


No family names. No clan names. That wasn’t right. Had they been lost to the mists of time? Or was I simply lost in some elaborate daydream?

No answers arrived.

Hana. Japanese for flower. And my fiancé was named after one. Either it was a remarkable coincidence or the byproduct of an overactive imagination. Given my profession, it was even odds on both.

The tour group dispersed into family units. Mine headed for a corner of the park, purportedly a life-sized reproduction of an Edo street. Every house was an exhibition, offering a snapshot into daily life. One house held a fisherman gathering his catch. Another showed a merchant displaying his wares.

Down the street, I caught sight of a man in a topknot sitting on the floor, cradling an umbrella. A nearby display explained that less well-off samurai often supplemented their income by making and selling umbrellas and other items.

But Akira—I—wasn’t a craftsman. I was—

I wasn’t clever with my hands the way artisans were, and it was too late to start now. I could, however, read and write. And there was always work for a literate man.

“That is all for today,” I said.

The students bowed. I bowed back. The formalities of ritual observed, they reverted to being children. Climbing to their feet, they rushed out the door, giggling and chatting. Some were already organising teams for games. Dusting off my hakama, I rose and stepped out of the hall.

Everywhere I went, I could always count on the generosity of monks. The monks of this city were no different. Perhaps they saw in me a fellow inhabitant of the dewdrop world, an existence as fragile as a puff of smoke, yet anchored by an unbreakable code. Ronin I might be, but unlike the bureaucrats who played at being samurai, I would never sell the steel of my weapons. I was still a man of the sword—but sometimes it meant being a man of the pen at times.

The monks here allowed me to sleep under their roof, and I earned my keep by teaching children how to read and write. It wasn’t a glamorous job by any means, but it was infinitely better than starving to death.

As I entered the temple courtyard, I saw a familiar face. Hana.

Ohisashiburi desu,” she called, bowing. It’s been a while.

Ohisashiburi,” I agreed.

Today, Hana wore a pink kimono with yellow floral decorations. Yellow hana kazashi hung in her hair. She had painted her face and neck in dazzling white, and her eyebrows were shaped into gentle crescents.

“I see you’ve found a place,” she said.

“For now.” Reaching into my obi, I removed a carefully folded length of red silk. “I believe this is yours.”

Smiling, she revealed a mouthful of black-dyed teeth.

“Thank you,” she said, tucking her ribbon into her obi. “You remembered.”

“A man never takes what belongs to another.”

Her ribbon had tied me here as surely as a promise. I couldn’t leave the city without giving it back. I had redoubled my efforts, and found my current profession. And if I had absconded, she would only have lost a ribbon

“How did you find me?” I asked.

Her eyes twinkled. “I have many friends.”

“That’s it?”

She giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “I saw you teaching here once. But I was too busy to speak to you then. I’m making up for it now.”


“I didn’t expect you to be a teacher, though. I heard you need to be a talker to be a teacher. But you… you’re not a talker.”

I shrugged.

Another giggle. “Hora! You’re too quiet. I think you prefer to let your actions do your talking, and do your thinking before you act.”

“Just how do you know so much about me?”

“I just know things about people.”

She was a weird one. I could not underestimate her. And I still didn’t know what, exactly, she did. if indeed she had a job at all.

“Do you like teaching?”

“It’s a job.”

“You are a man of the sword. Perhaps I have a better opportunity for you.”

“Do tell.”

“My father’s friend is a merchant. Lately he has come into money, and he fears bandits are targeting him. He wishes to hire a bodyguard.”

“A yojimbo?” I echoed. “I suppose in this age there is still a need for warriors.”

“Unfortunate, but true. Will you take the job?”

“How could I not?”

The world melted. The scene didn’t fade so much as blur, temporarily ceding to reality. Every time I took a step, I felt like I was lifting two feet at once: one shoe-clad foot in this world; a rough, exposed foot in a cheap clog in another.

The street was empty. It wasn’t right. Cities weren’t so quiet, not in the day. The ghosts of men and women brushed past me, commoners in cheap attire, geisha with their painted faces and elaborate clothing, a group of armed and armoured samurai on patrol. It was quiet here, but if I pricked my ears, I could just about make out the hollering of merchants, the laughter of children, the haggling of women, the distant echoes of a long-forgotten past.

For all that, I was not losing my mind. Long experience with flashbacks and sensory overloads and meltdowns had acquainted me with the ragged edge of sanity. This was not it. I was far from the threshold. This past life experience, whatever it was, felt wrong…but at a deeper level, it was right. Like a long-forgotten memory of a distant time and place, suddenly unfolding from depths of my mind and demanding to be remembered.

Was I supposed to learn something? Was there a connection with this life?

Drawing a deep breath, I focused on the present, looking past the ghosts to see where I was going. Presently a tall man loomed before me, his head turned elsewhere. As I prepared to step aside, he looked at me and—

I hated crowds. It wasn’t just the noise of people competing to be heard, the heat and odour of so many people packed together, the constant jostling and bumping. It was the fact that someone could slide in next to you and thrust a blade into your belly before you had time to react.

Keeping one hand on my daisho, I navigated through the crowd. The commoners — those who saw me — scurried out of the way. I didn’t mind. Every extra shaku was an extra moment to react, to draw, to cut.

My client didn’t mind, too. Having a yojimbo was as much a status symbol as it was a necessity for the rich. Without one, he was just another man on the street; with me around, lesser beings had to give way to him.

The client had spoken of his admiration for samurai, of how he had mingled with them at clubs and business meetings. He wore the distinctive topknot of a samurai too, and his expensive silk kimono was embroided in silvery metallic thread, but he lacked a daisho. But why should he wear one, when he could rent mine?

The sun climbed high in the sky. Peddlers redoubled their cries, shouting out their wares: sweet potatoes, dried fish, soba, bean paste soup. The crowd grew thicker with every step. I kept one hand on my katana and the other on my purse. I stole a glance behind me. The merchant was sticking close to me, also discreetly guarding his money. He had just concluded a business deal, and it would not do to lose his profits to a thief.

I returned my attention to the crowd. There was a ripple ahead of me to my right. Someone was going against the flow of traffic, coming my way. I shifted my left hand to the sheath of my katana, my right to my handle.

A man stepped through the crowd. He looked at me, at my daisho, and nodded perfunctorily. His gaze shifted above and behind my shoulder, and his eyes narrowed. He held his right hand close to his leg, cocked at an unnatural angle.


Yelling, he flipped the tanto around, braced it at his hip, and charged.

I stood my ground. Let him come. At the last moment I stepped aside, putting myself between me and the merchant. Bellowing a kiai, I drew my katana and arced it into a slash.

At the last moment, he swerved, rushing me. My sword cut clean through him. But his dead weight slammed into me. Something sharp pricked my right forearm. I crashed my shoulder into him. He fell to the ground, and from the mess I knew he was done.

“Help!” the merchant yelled.

A second attacker rushed through the crowd, sword held high. He slashed. I leapt away, bumping into the merchant. Metal scraped against my sternum. He raised his sword and slashed again.

I stepped into the attack with a rising cut. Hot blood showered over my face. Spinning the sword around, I slammed the pommel into his temple, driving him to the ground. He tried to pick himself up, but his hands were gone. He stared at the stumps in wide-eyed horror as blood gushed from the wounds. I stomped him in the face and he went still.

I scanned again. The street was rapidly emptying. Passers-by fled, screaming and calling for help. The merchant was rooted to the spot, his mouth agape. Blood flowed down my blade and ran over my hands. My kimono flapped loosely.

“You’re injured,” the merchant said.

I wiped the blood away, revealing a thin red line scoring my chest. More blood welled from two spots on my forearm.

“I’ll be fine,” I grunted. “Let’s go.”

I stepped around the passer-by and reminded myself to breathe. The battle had been so real—yet so distant, as though it were happening to someone else, and I was merely borrowing his eyes.

A faint ache emanated from my chest. Once again I felt the blades scraping across my bones. I glanced down, reminding myself that I was well. But there was a pair of moles on my forearm. The same places I’d been wounded back then.

A coincidence? Or something else?

Our next stop was a collection of ninja weapons and equipment. Unlike the earlier skit these were authentic replicas of tools described in ninjutsu texts. There was a short, straight sword, distinct from the long, curved katana; multiple types of shuriken, including stars and darts; a foldable rope ladder for infiltration. My heart quickened. Here was the kit used by spies, murderers and cowardly…


I was a civilian. Neither samurai nor ronin. Why would I care about such things?

The world spun. It felt like I was merging with Akira, his thoughts and emotions leaking into mine. I slipped out of the house of weapons and braced myself.

Ghostly babble filled my ears, strange scents invaded my nostrils, and a wet sticky sensation spread across my chest. I touched my hands to my hips.

And I fell.

You can read Part 1 here.


If you would like more fiction from me, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS here.