You are absolutely right, this should have been here way sooner. But hey, the happy side of the coin says that everything will move faster now. That means more fragments, delivered asap. Scout’s honor (we can throw that around right? it’s not sacred is it…).
Catch up on the 3rd fragment here.
‘Run, otuoto! I got this!’ She pushed him through the metal door into a pitch-black corridor, tossing two silver kunai after him ‘Take these, RUN!’. Metal clanged on metal, and the door sealed shut. Muted sounds of a struggle beyond the door. Muted footsteps behind him. He spun. A flash of light. A rush of wind. Silver. Steel. Blood. He drew a razor-sharp sickle from his forearm, feeling the blood run down his wrist, pooling on a wooden floor. His attacker clutched a ripped throat, trying to staunch the bleeding, ‘Please, I was just…
…following orders’, the ashigaru whimpered. His eyes were wild with fear as he stumbled backwards on the dusty road, away from the bodies of his dead comrades. He was shaken to the very core, yet the demon before him seemed unfazed by the death surrounding him. Shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare, he saw the demon pause, as if caught offguard, and the next moment, his bow landed beside him, kicking up a cloud of dust.
‘Look after the dead until your master gets here. And tell Rijiko to stop following me’.
The stricken ashigaru nodded fervently as the demon spoke, then watched him ride away without another word, thanking the kami for the luck they bestowed upon him today.
–Yamashiro province, near the north-eastern border–
Covered in a layer of dust and grime, the horse was wheezing heavily. The poor thing had been on a hard gallop for miles without a single stop. Kiyoshi looked down at himself, he wasn’t much better off. The borrowed robes had begun to fray, and dust had made it impossible to tell what the gray hakama originally looked like. He winced as he felt the stiffness in his side. Rijiko hadn’t been just hot air after all, and had managed to leave a shallow cut just below his ribs. The pain was of no significance, but the white of his upper garment was a rosy red now. Inconvenient. He sighed.
The winding dirt road disappeared into green hills in the distance, and the swaying corn-fields on either side gave way to a lush grassland. Kiyoshi roved his eyes farther and spotted a low building squatting among the grass, beside a large boulder shaped like an anvil. A traveller’s inn.
As he pulled up by the side of the road, he noticed the makeshift stable snuggling the huge boulder. How and why the rock got here, he had no idea, but what caught his attention were the four samurai that had just dismounted.
Kiyoshi assessed the situation quickly. It was too late to turn back. They would notice the retreating figure, and in a war-torn land, caution and suspicion went hand in hand. He leapt off his horse.
The samurai farthest from him turned and saw the approaching figure. Realizing he had been mistaken, Kiyoshi saw that it was female, an onna-bugeisha. Since the stalls were full, he strolled nonchalantly to the side of the stable and tethered his horse to a haft jutting from the grass.
He could feel their eyes following him. Turning around, he looked in wonder at the samurai, and bellowed, ‘Greetings, noble warriors. May Raijin infuse your blades with his thunder. What brings you here?’
Caught off-guard, one of them spoke up, ‘Oh…well, the war, traveller. General Hiruda wants even greater numbers from Yamashiro…not like we haven’t done enough already’, His comrades shook their heads, grumbling, ‘And a bite to eat is always welcome.’
Kiyoshi nodded, face full of mirth, ‘Truer words have never been spoken.’ The female samurai was frowning, and making no show to hide it, ‘Say, traveller, seen some battle yourself recently? Your kataginu looks it was thrown in a vat of red dye.’
Kiyoshi glanced at the blood, abashed, ‘Ah I’d been hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone before I got a chance to change out of these. My horse-riding skills are deplorable, and let me tell you, never fall off your horse on a riverbed, hurts worse than your stones being crushed.’
The men winced, then laughed out loud, accompanying Kiyoshi inside the inn, with the onna-bugeisha still eyeing him distrustfully. Once inside, Kiyoshi was immediately enveloped by the rich smell of cooking food and the warmth of the occupants.
Making a bunch of quick excuses, he separated from the group. Out of nowhere, a young girl appeared before him, smiled, bowed, and stretched out both palms. Kiyoshi dropped a small gold ingot into her hands. Eyes wide, she motioned wordlessly to a small space walled off by thin, translucent doors, in the middle of which waited a steaming bowl of broth.
It was undercooked, but it was food. Kiyoshi quickly scraped the bowl clean, washing it down with an entire pitcher of cold water. The young girl appeared again with a small flask, setting it down. ‘Don’t talk much, do you?’ Kiyoshi smiled at her. The child shook her head violently, short hair bouncing off her face, and scampered away.
He was about to call her back but the scent distracted him. He knew what was in the flask. Sake. Kiyoshi said, just loud enough, ‘Stop lurking, Yashima. It’s rude’. The door slid aside and a large hand emerged, followed by a veritable giant of a man, beaming as he struggled to bring his frame inside, ‘Kiyoshi! Fancy seeing you here. Thought you’d appreciate the alcohol.’
Yashima. An old brother-in-arms with whom Kiyoshi had shared almost half his callings. His size and joviality distracted from the fact that the man was a ruthless and accomplished killer, and Kiyoshi was glad he’d always had reason to call him friend. But now, who knew?
‘You know I don’t drink, Yashima.’
‘Eh, a man can hope’, Yashima huffed heartily as he settled down across from him, grabbing the flask himself and taking a long swig. The merchant’s garb he was in, barely managed to wrap around his frame.
Kiyoshi looked at him for a moment, unsure. ‘Why are you here, Yashima-san?’
Yashima laughed, a little too loud, ’What’s with you? Can’t a man simply miss his friends?’
Kiyoshi stared back placidly.
Taking another swig from the flask, Yashima sat in silence for a while, twiddling a piece of twine wrapped around his wrist. He sighed, ‘It all went to hell didn’t it. Barely took one night.’
Kiyoshi leaned back against the wall, staring up at the wooden beams. Even after a year he felt her loss like a red-hot poker in his gut. She had been everything to him, and the only person he’d ever truly loved. Haia’s death brought him sorrow, but never for long. The grief stoked his rage, tempering it in cold flames, hardening it, shaping it. The entire clan will answer for her death. Each and every one of them, starting with his father. He’ll make sure of it. Still staring at the ceiling, he spoke, ‘Did my father send you, Yashima? It won’t work. And trust me, this isn’t the first time.’
Yashima looked perplexed, ‘Your fathe…? What?…Oh merciful Kami, you don’t know.’ Yashima paused, tracing his fingers along the rim of the flask in front of him, ‘The traitors mudered him. That same night. I’m sorry, kyuodai…if it’s any consolation, he brought down seven of the bastards before they overpowered him.’
Sensei…father…dead? Kiyoshi’s head began pounding, the realization akin to an oxen’s hooves, hammering away relentlessly. He’d never really know him, at least not as a father, and the pain surprised him. He’d run and never looked back, always assuming that it was the old man that gave the order, deeming Haia an inconvenience that had grown too bold, and Kiyoshi had just happened to be in the way.
‘I’ll…wait outside for you, kyuodai’, Yashima mumbled. ‘Stay, stay,’ Kiyoshi gave a wry smile, ‘We would be running the ice crags right now if he could see us mourning him. You remember what he used to say? Half the battle is your opponent, and the…’
‘other half your emotions.’ Yashima chuckled, trailing off, ‘What do you plan on doing now ?’
‘First things first, old friend, how did you find me?’
Yashima pulled out a silver kunai, polishing it lightly on his robe, ‘I’ve been on your trail for a couple of months now, picked it up in Tanba. Almost lost it soon after, but I had an idea which way you were pointed. The war has made it easy to move about unnoticed, no one looks twice at a grain merchant, especially now that the tenno heika has recalled all his loyalists in Inaba, along with their grain supplies, away from Ginjiro’s grasp.’
‘And what of the clan?’
Our ninjas are spread far and wide, mostly beyond the front lines, sabotaging, assassinating, doing what we do best. That night shook up all of Yoru, badly. We’re little more than Ginjiro’s dogs now. After the raid on Daimyo Izagawa’s castle, we brought the priest to our stronghold, locked him up…’
‘…Ginjiro sent orders for the yamabushi to be tortured, Haia’s objections to that, the way she screamed at Hanbei, I remember it all’, Kiyoshi said softly.
Yashima let go of the twine, ‘It’s good that you ran, you know. Eiji was the one who led those traitorous sons of bitches, grown fat on Ginjiro’s coin. And once the clan was his, he would have had every single shinobi in the land who bore the silver kunai, baying at your heels.’
It was true, he’d ran. Away from it all. There was a ringing in his ears, and Yashima’s words seemed muted and distant. He’d ran that night because…his sister had told him to? Disoriented and in shock at what had just happened, Haia’s two words had pounded in his skull until he knew naught else. Run, Otuoto. He’d turned once again into the small, terrified boy, whose sister was shouting at him to run from the lynx, throwing herself between the predator and Kiyoshi all those years ago.
Kiyoshi looked up, ‘The clan still follows him?’
‘Yes, but some of them do it because they don’t have any other choice’, After a pause, Yashima continued, ‘They can’t break the code they live by. I, on the other hand, do not give two shits about the code. My father was a peasant and the only thing that had his loyalty was the millet beneath his feet and the woman that he called wife. I’m with you, kyoudai, whatever you decide to do.’
The dark clouds of despair and rage hovering above Kiyoshi parted for a moment as he looked at Yashima. He smiled sadly. This wasn’t his fight. Whatever words he had chosen to refuse Yashima’s help were cut off as the door slid aside and the child reappeared. The floor turned scarlet from the blood leaking out of her mouth. Once again, she motioned wordlessly, this time behind her, other hand clutching a ripped belly. Expressionless, she collapsed on the floor.
The two men looked past her, first at the bedlam in the rest of the inn, then at the man in a golden cape that had just stepped inside.