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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
She didn’t look convinced. “What will you do?”
“What I must.”
For more fiction by yours truly, do check out the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon.