By Shawn Carman
Editing & Assistance by Fred Wan
Ryoko Owari Toshi, many years ago
In a city defined by vice and lies, it was a simple matter to find a house of iniquity. One merely had to throw a stone in any given direction, and then go see what it had struck. As often as not, some form of weakness was peddled there, whether sake, flesh, or any of a dozen others. Only the so-called Noble Quarter, the home of the samurai that called the city home, was exempt. So it was with some considerable discomfort that Doji Tanitsu found himself in an uncomfortable corner of a rather distasteful sake house nestled somewhere in the Merchant’s Quarter. He had considered leaving an hour ago, but had grimly realized he wasn’t sure how to get back to the Noble Quarter alone, so now he waited for his companion to finally reach his fill.
Kaneka wordlessly quaffed another cup of sake, then slammed it down on the table with a fierce grin. The young man had been drinking for quite some time, but showed no signs of intoxication other than a somewhat wild look in his eye. “Have another drink, Crane!” he said with an exuberant expression. “We are celebrating, after all!”
Tanitsu smiled and gestured to the trio of empty cups before him. “I know the limits of my constitution, Kaneka-san,” he said. “I prefer not to indulge to excess in a public location.”
“Bah,” Kaneka scoffed. “Tomorrow I will travel to my father’s place of birth and take my place among his former family! I have much to celebrate!”
“And it seems you shall meet the legendary Akodo Ginawa with blurry vision and an aching head,” Tanitsu said wryly.
Kaneka laughed a bit too loudly, drawing looks from other patrons. “That is what I like about you, Tanitsu,” he said. “Your wit can be quite lethal. Perhaps if more Crane chose to put aside their perfumed blather and get to the point, they would be better liked by the other clans.”
Tanitsu’s smile waned slightly, but he did not let the young warrior’s poorly phrased praise discourage him. “I have enjoyed my time in the city, Kaneka-san. Present conditions excluded, of course. Still, I must thank you for the opportunity. Your tale shall be one the entire Empire will want to read.”
Kaneka grunted inarticulately. “And this epic work of yours& what shall it be called?”
“I think the Forgotten Son,’” Tanitsu answered. “It has a certain poetry about it.”
Kaneka thought for a moment, then nodded. “I do like the sound of it. It reminds me of my time with the Storm, Emma-O guard their souls.”
Tanitsu nodded. “Have you spoken to any of the others since& the incident?”
“Rarely,” Kaneka said, his features dark. “There are precious few of us remaining.” He looked at the Crane quizzically. “Why did you come here?”
Tanitsu looked down at the sake bottles with distaste. “You did not exactly give me a great deal of choice, Kaneka-san. I would have preferred to have the chefs prepare something.”
“No,” Kaneka said. “Why did you come here?”
Tanitsu considered the question for a moment. “I am not certain,” he admitted. “I suppose& I suppose that because I knew your family so well, I needed to know if it was true. I needed to know if you could really be the Emperor’s son.”
Tanitsu smiled. “And I believe the story you’ve told me is true.”
“The question,” Kaneka continued, “is whether anyone will wish to read it.”
“One can never say,” Tanitsu mused. “I think it will be quite popular in certain circles, at least.”
Kaneka poured another cup. “And my father’s other children?”
Tanitsu raised an eyebrow. “You mean your sister and your brothers?”
The warrior shrugged. “If you wish to call them that.”
Again, Tanitsu paused to consider his answer. “I do not know,” he finally answered. “Does it matter to you what they think?”
“I don’t know, either,” Kaneka muttered. “It is difficult not to resent them. I have been alone my entire life, it seems. The thought of having had siblings the entire time& it is difficult to grasp.”
Tanitsu leaned forward. “If your sister had known of your existence, she would have found you. I know that she would have.”
Kaneka smiled. “The Scorpion revealed my lineage six months ago. Since that time, the only ones that have come to see me have been you, and representatives from the Lion Clan. No one from the Emperor’s household has so much as written a letter.”
“It is a busy time at the capital,” Tanitsu offered.
“Too busy for family,” Kaneka said. He stared across the room at the door, listening to the rain pound on the aged wood. “I always thought, if I had a family, that it would be different.”
“Kaneka,” Tanitsu began.
The warrior rose suddenly, his legs banging slightly against the table. He scattered a handful of coins across the table. “Tell your story,” he said to the Crane. “Tell them who I am.”
Kaneka stared at his friend, his eyes showing no signs of the intoxication that had dulled them only moments before. “When the entire Empire knows my name, I want them to understand the magnitude of my achievements.”
Nanashi Mura, the year 1148
The village of Nanashi Mura really was quite lovely in the winter. Kaneka had spent most of his winters in the forest, with precious little in the way of scenery to enjoy. The sight of the brilliant snow-covered plains to the south, and the distant white peaks to the northwest seemed breathtaking by comparison. Of course, it could be a matter of perception. Kaneka grinned as he hurried down the street. It seemed as though he could see the beauty in almost anything recently. Only the day before, for a fleeting moment, he had thought he had seen one of Benten’s symbols in a bowl of noodles. He had spent nearly an hour in the dojo, cursing himself for a fool the entire time.
Kaenka stepped into the village’s most prominent geisha house, clutching a small parcel tightly in his hand. He smiled at the young women waiting in the open chamber, several of who laughed brightly and waved in return. The mistress of the house was not quite so gracious, and her expression was one of sour familiarity. “Hello, Kaneka-san,” she said without a trace of warmth. “How wonderful to see you. What may I do for you today?”
Kaneka could not help but smile despite her mood. “I would like to see Sachina, please.”
The woman’s expression did not change. “And I suppose you have the money for such a visit?”
“No,” Kaneka admitted, “but I brought a gift.” He knew that sometimes the patrons were allowed to pay for a geisha’s company with gifts instead of money. “I am certain she will like it.”
The woman smirked slightly, but waved him in. “She is without guests at the moment, and for reasons I do not fully understand, she seems to enjoy your company. Go, give her your gift, but be quick. She has an appointment soon.”
Kaneka smiled and bowed quickly, then hurried down the corridor to the lavish suite where Sachina lived. She was unquestionably the most celebrated geisha in the entire village, and Kaneka had even heard of her in surrounding villages long before he had met her. Men spoke of her as if she was Benten herself, but he had not understood why until he met her. Now, finally, he knew why, although he could not fathom why she seemed to enjoy his company. Perhaps that was the one thing he and the house’s mistress had in common.
He rapped lightly on the wooden frame of the shoji screen that separated Sachina’s rooms form the rest of the house. “Sachina-chan?” he asked softly. “Are you awake?”
“Come in,” she answered. Her voice was like the sound of musical chimes on a warm spring morning, and Kaneka felt his stomach churn at the sound. He slid the screen open, and there she was, kneeling on a cushion, studying a selection of her preferred musical instruments. She smiled when she saw him. “Kaneka-kun.”
The affectionate honorific made Kaneka feel as though he could do anything. “Hello,” he said with a ridiculous smile. “You look lovely this morning, as always.”
“Thank you,” Sachina said with a slight blush. Kaneka had never met anyone who blushed at even the slighted compliment. It was one of her more endearing qualities, in his opinion. “I was not expecting you this morning.”
“I wanted to come by and offer you a gift,” he said eagerly. He had wanted to be more playful in his presentation of the gift, but the sight of her caused him to devolve into boyish antics, as always. “I finally found something I think is worthy of so beautiful a woman.”
Sachina’s eyes lit up at the word gift. “Oh, Kaneka! You are too generous. I couldn’t accept it.”
Kaneka’s face fell, and he lowered his hands somewhat. Sachina burst into her lovely laugh at the sight of his face. “Remember?” she asked. “You have to refuse a gift twice to show that you believe in the presenter’s sincerity. Don’t forget my lessons so easily!”
“Oh,” He said. “Right! Well then, I insist. No one else deserves to have something so lovely.”
“The only gift I require is your company,” she countered.
He thought for a moment, struggling to answer her claim with something clever, but the game just was not in his nature. “Please, take it,” he finally said.
She smiled. “I just know I will love it!”
Completely unable to remove the smile from his face, Kaneka offered the carefully wrapped paper package to her. She took it in her delicate fingers and unwrapped it slowly, revealing the beautiful netsuke within. He had spent virtually everything he owned on it, but her expression was worth all that and more. “I hope you like it,” he said. “It is the only thing in this village I have seen that can even compare to you.”
“Oh, Kaneka,” she said breathlessly, “it’s wonderful! Thank you!” She ran a finger down the length of his jaw. The touch was like lightning. “You are so thoughtful.”
Kaneka’s stomach rolled. This was the time. “I though& I wondered.” he stopped and cleared his throat, cursing inwardly at his own awkwardness. “I thought that perhaps you might accept it& as a wedding gift.”
Sachina looked at him with a smile, confusion in her eyes. “But Kaneka-kun, I am not getting married. Whoever told you that?”
He winced and bit his lip slightly. “I meant that perhaps& it could be my gift to you, for our wedding.”
Sachina laughed lightly, placing her hand over her chest just below her throat. “Oh, Kaneka-kun, don’t be silly. We can’t be married.”
Something inside Kaneka withered and died. “Why not?”
The young geisha laughed even harder. “Don’t be silly! If I were to marry you, I would no longer be able to work. Where would we get our money? You can barely feed yourself, and to be quite honest, I haven’t been charging you the normal amount I am paid for my company.” She smiled. “But I like you, so that doesn’t matter, I suppose.”
“Money?” Kaneka asked dumbly. “What does money matter? We love one another.”
Sachina’s expression finally changed, her smile fading to a look of pity and sadness. “Kaneka,” she said softly, “do not fool yourself. It is my job to make certain that every man believes I love him. I thought perhaps you understood. I do enjoy your company, make no mistake, but love you? Don’t be ridiculous.
Kaneka dropped onto one of the cushions roughly. “I thought& I don’t understand.”
“You are the only patron I have even close to my age,” she explained. “I enjoy talking to you because you know nothing about poetry, or literature, or court. I don’t have to feign interest in things that do not interest me. And you& you are like a child, so eager to learn. Every little thing I say about the arts, you lap up like a hungry child. It makes me feel important.”
“You like me because I make you feel important,” he repeated. “You are not interested in marrying me.”
“I like you,” Sachina said. “Perhaps under the right circumstances, we could be happy. But I could never be happy poor, Kaneka. And who are you? You are just a ronin, some boy who doesn’t know his father. I have magistrates that visit me. Men of importance and status. Some day, perhaps even an Imperial will visit me. Then, perhaps, I will marry. But not before. Love is a terrible reason for marriage.”
“A terrible reason for marriage.”
“Yes. Status, wealth, power& those are the only reasons for someone like me to set aside a life of luxury for the drudgery of marriage.” She stopped, coming back to her senses for a moment. “Are you alright, Kaneka?”
“Yes,” he said automatically.
“Don’t be upset,” she said. “There’s no reason we cannot still see one another. As I said, I do enjoy your company. And perhaps I can help you. Just last month I began seeing a Dragon magistrate. I’m certain I can entice him to offer you a position as a yoriki, if you like. You may have to start as a doshin, of course, but with your quick mind.”
“No, thank you,” Kaneka said, standing up. “I am sorry to have wasted your time, but I certainly won’t waste any more of mine.”
Sachina’s features grew solemn. “Don’t be a nave fool,” she admonished. “Just because you do not understand how power works in the Empire, do not throw away what opportunities you have. You must seize what you want, Kaneka. No one will offer you something for nothing. No one.”
“Goodbye,” he said flatly, and left the chamber.
Friendly Traveler Village, year 1149
Kaneka held his blade in front of him, its flat edge resting against the web of flesh between his left thumb and index finger. He stared at the reflection in the steel, a distorted view of his eyes the only thing visible above the line of file markings that flowed along its length. He stared at himself for several long moments before shifting the blade into a traditional kenjutsu stance, one of the first he had learned. He breathed deeply, seeking his center and trying to calm his troubled spirit.
The young man standing at the doorway to their meager room shifted uncomfortably. “This is a mistake,” he observed.
“No,” Kaneka insisted. “This is something I have to do.”
“You cannot win.”
Kaneka turned to his friend, an annoyed expression on his face. “Is your support so much to ask for? Is your opinion of me so low, Okahito?”
The other young ronin held his hands up in an expression of exasperation. “Are you completely mad? He has more experience than you. He is larger, stronger, and has better knowledge of his terrain. What advantage can you possibly claim in this?”
Kaneka tucked his blades into his obi. “My cause is just.”
Okahito’s eyes widened. “In the six months that we have been traveling together, what have you seen to indicate to you that the just are rewarded for their efforts? Was it when Tomaru was executed for stealing food for his daughter? Or possibly when my brother died of the plague from working outside in the winter so that we would not starve?”
Kaneka shook his head. “I cannot walk away. The people in this village need help.”
“Do you think they would help you?” Okahito demanded. He was nearly shouting.
“I don’t know,” Kaneka answered. “I only know that I cannot turn away. War is tearing the Empire apart, and I can do nothing. But here, I can stop one man’s brutal tyranny. Am I supposed to walk away? I won’t. I won’t embrace weakness and mediocrity. Never.”
Okahito closed his eyes. “You will die.”
“I am willing to risk death if it is the only way to truly live,” Kaneka said. “Are you coming with me?”
The other ronin shook his head, then sighed. “I don’t see that I have a choice.”
The two young ronin stepped out of the inn into the cool spring night. Neither spoke as they walked down the street toward the village’s center. There were precious few out on the streets despite the relatively early hour. Kaneka had traveled across much of the Empire, and although his travels had been curtailed since the War of Spirits had begun, he knew enough to know that this village was strange. People needed to forget their fears during war. The streets should be full of people laughing, drinking, and generally trying to escape, particularly in so wealthy a village as this one. And yet they were not. They stayed inside, hidden away, fearful for their safety and the well being of their families. It was an oddity, but one that Kaneka had come to understand during his short time in Friendly Traveler Village.
The House of Black Leaves was one of a handful of sake houses found throughout the village. It was not the finest in the village, but as the source of the Empire’s finest sake, every house in Friendly Traveler Village was exceptional. Kaneka steeled himself and entered.
The house’s interior was well lit and smelled faintly of freshly prepared seafood. There were only a handful of patrons, each hunched over their table and keeping to themselves, although Kaneka imagined that they tensed as he entered, then relaxed when they saw who had come among them.
“He isn’t here,” Okahito said. “Let’s go.”
“He’ll be here,” Kaneka said. “He always comes here.”
Kaneka’s words were prophetic. Less than half an hour after the two ronin sat and ordered a simple meal of rice and tea, the doorway to the sake house flew open, and another patron entered. This was no ordinary man, however. He stood nearly half again as tall as the next tallest man in the building, and actually had to duck down to enter the room. His chest was bare despite the cool night air, and not for the first time, Kaneka wondered the man wished to show off his physique, or if it was merely impossible to find clothing that could fit him for a reasonable rate.
“Kyubei!” the man bellowed. “I’ve been out watching for the Steel Chrysanthemum’s scouts all day! Where is my hard-earned dinner?”
A little man emerged from the kitchen, red-faced and carrying a tray heaped high with all manner of fine food. He hustled over to a large table and sat it down gently. “Forgive my tardiness, Masakazu-sama,” he said. “Would you like your sake warm or chilled this evening?”
“Idiot!” roared Masakazu. “Real men drink their sake chilled! How many times must I tell you that?”
The innkeeper grew redder still. “I& I am sorry, sama. It’s just that you ordered it warmed last night, and I wasn’t sure.”
“Do not argue with me!” the massive man roared, hurling a randomly selected plate at the innkeeper. “Chilled! And you had better bring a good bottle this time! I won’t drink the same dishwater the rest of these fools drink.” He glanced around the room with a smug expression, and then his gaze fell on Kaneka. His smile broadened considerably. “Well hello there, little wolf pup. Come out for a drink with the adults tonight?”
“Something like that,” Kaneka said coolly.
The tone in Kaneka’s voice was not lost on the gigantic ronin. Masakazu’s smile faded slightly, and his eyes took on a hard, scrutinizing edge. He looked at Kaneka in silence for several minutes, perhaps evaluating him as a potential threat. Finally, he waved dismissively at the younger man and turned back to his table, where the innkeeper had just set down a cool bottle of sake. “That took you long enough,” he grumbled. His smile returned almost immediately. “Is your eldest daughter working this evening? I think I’d like some conversation with my dinner.”
“She is home, resting,” the innkeeper said quietly.
“Go get her,” Masakazu said as he shoved a mass of noodles in his mouth. “Now.”
“She has been ill,” the innkeeper protested. “She needs rest.”
“Now,” Masakazu repeated. His tone did not brook dissent.
“Need a serving girl to order around?” Kaneka asked quietly. “To make you feel like a man?”
The room came to a complete halt. No one moved or spoke, or even dared to breathe. Masakazu sat his chopsticks down. “Do you have something you want to get off your chest, pup?” he asked. “I know you think of yourself as a brave ronin warrior. Have you decided to see if you’re right?”
“What I have decided is that you have cowed the people of this village long enough,” Kaneka answered. “I am tired of seeing you do whatever you like. Someone needs to teach you a lesson.”
Masakazu’s face split into a delighted grin. “Are you going to be the teacher?”
Kaneka rose from his seat. “If I must.”
Masakazu broke into a bellowing laugh that echoed throughout the house like thunder. Kaneka felt the blood rising to his face, and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. His hands twitched uncontrollably, and before he knew it, his blade was in his hand and he was lunging across the room, an inarticulate, feral noise rising from his throat.
His opponent moved with a speed that Kaneka would have thought impossible for a man of his size. He sidestepped the attack and lashed out with a punch that might have shattered stone. The blow clipped Kaneka’s arm, and pain raced up Kaneka’s arm. He felt his sword fall from his useless fingers. He managed to throw himself to the left to avoid Masakazu’s follow up strike, but the big man laughed heartily regardless. “I am going to break you, pup. If you survive, you’ll be wiser for it.”
Kaneka barely had time to realize that perhaps Okahito had been correct as he scrambled to avoid the flurry of blows his enemy levied at him. He leapt, ducked and dodged, feeling the air stirring around him as he barely avoided a series of vicious strikes, any one of which could have broken bones easily. The sound of wood shattering as Masakazu destroyed everything in his path trying to get to Kaneka was deafening. For a moment, he thought he heard the door opening and wondered idly if someone would come to his aid, but of course that was foolish. No one in this village would stand up to Masakazu. In desperation, Kaneka seized a half-empty bottle of sake and threw it blindly. He was rewarded with the sound of a meaty thud and a grunt of pain, followed by a brief interruption in the assault he was enduring.
“That will cost you,” Masakazu said, wiping away a thin line of blood trickling from the cut above his eye. There was no anger in his voice.
“Kaneka,” a voice said weakly. Kaneka looked up in surprise, as did Masakazu. Four men had entered the house during their brief melee. They were both armed and armored, and the symbol of the Steel Chrysanthemum was emblazoned on their shoulders. Three had their blades drawn. The fourth was clutching a pale Okahito by the shoulder. The young ronin’s abdomen was stained with a growing bloodstain. “Kaneka,” he repeated, his voice weaker.
“Okahito!” Kaneka said, a second surge of energy filling his limbs. “Who are you?” he demanded of the men. “What have you done?”
“You are the one called Kaneka,” the leader said, dropping the dying ronin to the floor. “You will come with us, or you will die here. The choice is yours. This village’s magistrate chose poorly. I hope you will prove more intelligent.”
“Yoshi?” Masakazu said, his voice strangely surprised. “You killed Yoshi?”
“Be silent, brute,” the man barked. “What is your decision, Kaneka? Choose quickly, or I shall choose for you.”
“I have known Yoshi since we were children,” Masakazu said in a quiet voice. “You dare come into my home and kill my friends? You dare raise your blades against the people of Friendly Traveler Village?”
Despite the circumstances, Kaneka stared at Masakazu in disbelief. He had seen the ronin belittle, berate, and beat the village’s weak-willed magistrate on more than one occasion, and yet now he was on the brink of rage because he had been killed? It made no sense at all.
“I tire of this,” the officer said. “Kill everyone in the building and burn it to the ground,” he ordered.
“You dare?” Masakazu shrieked. The huge man launched himself across the room with the same speed Kaneka had seen only moments before. He was on top of the enemy before they could react. His hands were on the first man’s neck in the span of a heartbeat, and he wrenched it so hard that the sound of it snapping rang out like a shout. “Die!” he snarled.
Kaneka grabbed his blade from the floor and hurled himself into the fight. He blocked the first attack from his opponent and attempted a counterstrike, but it was knocked away almost casually. He and the soldier exchanged strikes for a moment, each trying to find an opening in the other’s defenses. A second’s hesitation cost Kaneka dearly as the soldier’s blade bit deeply into his shoulder, but it did not reach bone and did not appear to cut through anything vital. Kaneka ground his teeth against the pain and struggled to clear his vision, ignoring the tears of pain that welled up in his eyes. He brought his blade down in an overhead strike that his opponent blocked easily, then kicked the man in the groin with all of his might. The gasp of pain was sickly satisfying, and Kaneka exploited the man’s distraction with a killing strike.
Turning to find another opponent, Kaneka barely avoided the airborne form of a second soldier. Masakazu had apparently crushed the man in a fierce embrace, then discarded him like an empty bottle. He shattered a table as he landed, and did not move from the broken position in which he had landed. Only the officer, the man that had killed Okahito so casually, remained, and he and Masakazu were facing one another with murderous intent. Despite his superior strength, the huge ronin was at a disadvantage. He was weaponless, and Kaneka could tell from the other man’s stance that he was no stranger to killing.
The soldier lunged, and Masakazu avoided it, but only barely. He avoided strike after strike in an ironic repetition of the dance he and Kaneka had just had only moments before. The massive man grabbed a table and held it aloft as a shield. The officer struck, but at the last minute the ronin altered the table’s position so that the blade would have to cut through its entire length. The blade became lodged, if only for a moment.
Kaneka did not hesitate. He leapt across the short distance dividing the two and struck. His blade caught the man at the jaw line and ended his life in a wet display of blood and teeth. The two ronin stood, panting, regarding one another uncertainly.
Masakazu rose and looked around, paying Kaneka almost no attention. “Kyubei!” he called out. “Kyubei, are you alright?”
After a moment, the little innkeeper appeared from the kitchen, his face ashen from the destruction in his place of business. “I am here,” he said weakly.
Masakazu glanced around. “No one can know what happened here. If the Steel Chrysanthemum’s men discover that you were here and that you did not attempt to help them, they will kill you and your entire family.”
The man’s face became even paler. “What& what should I do?”
Masakazu withdrew a pouch from his belt and tossed it. From the way the little man caught it and the noise it made, it was heavy with coins. “Burn everything, just as he said,” he explained. “Say that you heard fighting while you were asleep upstairs, and you came down to see what happened. The fire had already started, and you fled with your family. No one will be able to say otherwise, and you will be safe.”
The man nodded. “I will.”
Masakazu turned to Kaneka, who bristled slightly, unsure of the larger man’s intentions. “I am sorry about your friend,” he said. He paused for a moment. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Kaneka,” he answered instinctively.
“I don’t know why they want you, Kaneka,” Masakazu said, “but if the Steel Chrysanthemum wants you dead, then you are no enemy of mine. You need to leave, and quickly. Tonight. More will come soon.”
“Why?” Kaneka aid. “I have never faced his forces before.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Masakazu said. “They want you for some reason, and they will not stop until something else gets their attention.”
“Such as?” Kaneka asked.
“Such as me, killing another of their patrols,” Masakazu said. “They will suffer for coming to my village.”
Kaneka looked up at the man in confusion. “Why are you doing this?”
“No one takes what is mine,” Masakazu said. “No one hurts those close to me. I am not a good man, but I protect that which is mine. I have lived among these people for years, claiming to be their protector. Now, I will live up to the title.”
Kaneka shook his head. “You are not what I thought.”
“I am what I am, and I make no excuses,” the man said. “Hero or villain, it does not matter. Only that I am true to my nature. Never forget that, pup. You can only be what you are, not what others wish you were.”
Kaneka nodded and flicked the blood from his blade, then sheathing it in one smooth motion. He needed to gather his things back at the inn, but he would not leave before he offered a prayer for his dead friend. And then, perhaps he might flee, as Masakazu said. Or, he might hunt the Steel Chrysanthemum’s men alongside the massive ronin.
He had to be true to his nature, after all.
The Horiuchi provinces, year 1150
By the time he arrived at the gates of Shinden Horiuchi, Kaneka could barely keep his eyes open. He was exhausted and weak from the trip, and there had been precious little food along the way. Both he and his horse were on their last legs, and the temple was the closest place he knew he would be welcome. He slipped from the saddle uncertainly, and nearly lost his footing when he landed on the slick, rain-soaked grass.
The gates to the temple opened and a woman emerged, watched closely by two armored men standing at either side of the gate. The woman came to Kaneka’s side and reached out with a steadying arm. “Are you well, traveler?” she asked. Her voice was as soothing as a fire and a soft mat. “Do you need help?”
“I have been better,” he admitted, “but it is always nice to see you, Shoan-sama.”
“Kaneka!” the priestess said, a warm smile blossoming on her face. “We have not seen you in over a year!” The smile faded almost as quickly. “By the Fortunes, you look awful!”
“As I said, I have been better,” Kaneka repeated with a weak smile. He swooned on his feet, and for the first time he noticed how hot it seemed despite the reain.
“Guards!” Shoan shouted. “Help me get him inside! And see to his horse!”
“I can see to the horse myself,” Kaneka muttered. Even as he finished the sentence, he pitched forward. He was unconscious before he even struck the ground.
Kaneka came awake suddenly. He tried to sit up, but found he lacked the strength. He reclined, regretting the attempt even as it caused a wave of discomfort through his abdomen. He groaned very slightly and licked his lips. Rolling carefully onto his side, he was suddenly aware that a young girl, less than ten years old by the look of her, was sitting in the room staring at him intently. “Water,” he croaked. “Can I have some water, please?”
The little girl did nothing for a moment, then picked up a cup and handed it to him. He brought it to his lips and let the cool, fresh water slide down his throat. He drained the cup, then set it back on the floor and smiled weakly. “Thank you,” he said.
“What happened to you?” the girl asked.
“I don’t really know,” Kaneka answered. “I traveled a long way. It seemed to rain almost the entire trip, and I suppose I was sick and I did not even know it. I was too hungry to be sick.”
“Are you still hungry?” she asked. “I think there’s more soup.”
“No,” he said. “No, I am fine for now. Thank you.”
“You are welcome!” she said brightly. She inched closer to him, curiosity evident on her face. “What happened there?” she asked, pointing to a bright pink scar on his left forearm.
Kaneka lifted his arm and stared at the scar. “I& I was in a fight. One of the men I was fighting cut me with a broken clay bottle.” He frowned. “This is not old enough to have created a scar like this.”
“Rikako,” a gentle voice said. “What did I say about our guest?”
The little girl’s face fell. “That he needed rest, and to leave him alone.”
“That is correct,” Shoan said. “Please, go back to your reading. I need to speak with Kaneka now that he is awake.”
“Okay,” the girl said. “Goodbye!”
Kaneka waved as the little girl left the room. “An odd girl,” he said. “Seems the curious sort.”
“More curious than you can imagine,” Shoan said with a hint of exasperation. She brushed her black hair, more shot through with gray than the last time Kaneka had visited, behind her ears. “I heard what you told her. What manner of fight were you in this time?”
“It was just a& disagreement,” Kaneka said.
“Is that all?” Shoan asked.
“Yes,” Kaneka insisted. “I thought they were honorless dogs. They disagreed.”
Shoan smiled weakly. “Kaneka-san, you cannot continue living your life this way. Every time you come to see us, you have new scars, new wounds. Every time you leave, I feel certain you will die before I see you again.”
“I have survived so far,” he said.
“So far, yes,” she said. “You are not even twenty years old, and already your body has been punished more than most men I know. This lifestyle will kill you. Will you not reconsider my offer and stay here with us? I can always use men of your intelligence.”
Kaneka shook his head. “I cannot. I do not yet know what my life will be, but I know it will not be that of a guard, and certainly not of a teacher.” He held his arm up and stared at the light scarring. “How did you do this?”
Shoan looked as his arm curiously, then glanced back over her shoulder in the direction the girl had disappeared. “Rikako,” she said, shaking her head. “She is a rather gifted girl.”
“Gifted?” Kaneka asked. “Is she a healer?”
“She may yet be,” Shoan said. “Who can say? The kami adore her, more than any child her age that I have ever seen, save perhaps for one. Her potential is considerable. We shall see what becomes of her as she grows older.”
“Why is she here?” Kaneka asked. “What became of her parents?”
“They were killed in the war,” Shoan said. “Most of the children here share the same fate. She is alone.” She smiled. “But then I suppose we are all alone together.”
Kaneka pointed to the traveling bag lying across the room. “There is a small pouch of coins in my bag. Please take it. Use it for the children here.”
Shoan looked surprised. “Kaneka, we do not have much, but we want for little. You need those coins far more than the children.”
“I know what it means to never know your parents,” Kaneka said. “I can fend for myself. They have no one but you.”
“I can provide for them,” she said. “Keep what you have earned.”
Kaneka struggled to a sitting position, wincing at the discomfort. “They need to grow up knowing that there are others,” he insisted. “They need to know that they are not forgotten by the world. That little girl& she should not have to endure what I have.”
Shoan urged him to recline back on the mat, wiping his brow with a damp cloth. “If that is what you want, I will take it,” she said softly. “I think, however, that the children might learn your lessons better if you were here to teach them yourself.”
“I will visit whenever I can,” he muttered.
“Then you are certain that you will not accept my offer?”
“Thank you, Shoan-sama,” he said, “but I cannot.”
“I feared you would say that,” she said. She withdrew a scroll from her obi and sat it beside the mat. “When you are well, in a few days, look over this scroll. It is a letter of recommendation to an acquaintance of mine. He is a sensei who takes on promising students from time to time. Perhaps, if you are lucky, he will see you.”
“What Unicorn sensei would accept a ronin pupil?” Kaneka wondered aloud.
“He is not Unicorn,” Shoan answered. “He is ronin, as you are. Few know of his dojo, and fewer still are accepted as students. I encountered him three times during the war. Twice as allies, although he served a different lord each time, and once as enemies. He is brilliant. You two would enjoy one another’s company, I think.”
Kaneka looked at the priestess strangely. “Why would you do this?”
“Because if you must wander the Empire, I would prefer that you were better equipped for survival,” she answered, rising to leave. “Otherwise, one day you will arrive on my doorstep in a condition that no one can treat.” She smiled. “Get your rest, Kaneka-san. It will be some days before you can travel again.”
Kaneka smiled as she left. He held the scroll tightly in one fist, considering all that it implied as he gradually drifted off to sleep once more.