Tadayoshi turned the sword around slowly, showing Ei both sides of the blade, so polished the girl could see her reflection. “Are you ready?”
Ei forced herself to take her eyes from the sword and held her breath when she saw his face. There was nothing of the usual Tadayoshi right now.
“Are you ready?” he asked again.
With a deep breath, she raised her right arm and closed her hand so hard her knuckles lost its color. Even so, she still trembled. This is the first step, Eiko, she said to herself, trying to calm her heart. But when Tadayoshi put the cold metal against her skin, her breathing became heavy. She needed all her willpower to not pull the arm back.
“Are you afraid? Ei held her impulse to say no. He’ll know… She managed to nod a bit. “Good,” he said and, without warning, pulled the sword.
Even though she knew what was coming, Ei screamed. She bit down her lips, but her voice still echoed through the trees. It only lasted an instant, but the pain didn’t fade, even after Tadayoshi cleaned the blood, put the yellowish past Ei prepared beforehand and wrapped with a cloth.
“Remember this pain, Ei,” he said, looking her in the eyes. “I’ll teach you how to use a sword, but you’ll decide when to use it. But no matter if you become a samurai or bandit, never forget the pain of a blade.”
Ei was still staring her arm by the time Tadayoshi cleaned the blood and sheathed the sword. She closed and opened her fist slowly, feeling the pain. “I’ll never forget.”
“Good.” He a smile and in an instant the seriousness was gone from his face, and the Tadayoshi from the last few weeks was back. He went to the tree where their belongings were and when he came back, he handed a sword to Ei by the handle.
I took a moment for Ei to accept the weapon. She looked with disbelief between the sword and the man. “Are you serious?”
“Of course.” Tadayoshi tilted his head. “When have I ever joked about your training?” he asked, his face full of innocence, while hers reddened.
“From the beginning!” She couldn’t hold her rage any longer and screamed all the frustration she felt over the past weeks. “Ever since we left my village, I’ve only been carrying everything and exercising! I kept my mouth shut and did what you said, but now, when you finally said I was gonna train with a sword, not only you cut me, you give me this?” Ei waved the weapon at the man’s face. Instead of Asahi, safely away on his waist, Tadayoshi had given her the smallest sword, the wakizashi. “I want the real katana!”
Tadayoshi kept a serious face, but after a moment, he placed a hand on the mouth, trying and failing to conceal his laugh. When he couldn’t hold it any longer, he laughed, and, in the silence around them, his voice stirring the nearest birds.
It only made her angrier. “What’s so funny?”
It took him some time to calm down enough and answer. “I was just thinking we’re alike. I did almost the same thing with my master.” He cleaned the tears in the corner of his eyes. “Fine. Unlike the old man, I will explain you the reason. But before that, could you try not to scream like that again? Those chasing me probably already know I passed by your village and should be close. They don’t need more help.”
His words didn’t help to calm the girl’s anger. She urged to say the people she loved and knew her entire life wouldn’t betray the person who saved them and if his whereabouts were known, it was the soldiers’ fault. But Ei swelled down her feelings; the glares Tadayoshi received on the day they left were engraved in her memory. Apart from Dai-jii and Sumire, none had any gratitude in them.
They stayed in silence for a long time. “Do you know why we didn’t take a horse back in your village?” he asked suddenly.
Despite her anger, Ei looked at him. She had complained about it once or twice when her body was exhausted from the exercises and Tadayoshi still made she carried everything. He alleged they couldn’t stop just because she was a bit tired, saying they couldn’t waste time and should get as far as they could from the village. Then a horse would’ve helped, she thought, her anger rising again. “Don’t know.”
“Aside from the trouble of taking care of an animal and even ignoring the fact that it makes us easier to track, you’re in bad shape and your stamina is awful. Everything so far was to improve them a bit. You’re still far from using a sword, but soon we’ll be out of the woods.” He looked ahead, seeing something between the trees Ei didn’t. “If you’re with me, you need to know how to use a sword. That’s why you’ll train with the wakizashi,” he finished in the smuggest face he had.
“Actually, you should be thankful to train with a real blade. When the old man found me, I was already used to swords but he still made me use a wooden sword.” Tadayoshi eyes unfocused for a bit.
Nostalgia? Ei wondered. He gets like this whenever he talks about Yasuhiro-sama… Whatever Tadayoshi felt, he dismissed with a shake of his head and waved his hand, as if shooing a dog.
“Now go train like I showed you.”
Even with the rage still bubbling, her desire to finally train with a sword was bigger. Despite complaining, the wakizashi was a real blade. A real weapon. Though she would never tell Tadayoshi, Ei had played samurai with her friends using sticks as swords and had imagined being one. Until now, it was only a kid’s dream, but ever since she watched Tadayoshi’s fight and chose to go with him, the desire was within her reach, and only grew.
Ei slowly unsheathed the sword a bit, just to hear the sound of metal and catch a glimpse of the blade. Though it was dull and she couldn’t see herself reflected on it, there was still some beauty to the girl. Barely containing her smile, she sheathed the weapon and placed it between the sash and clothes on her left, just like Tadayoshi.
“Are you a complete idiot?” Tadayoshi screamed out of nowhere.
Ei raised her head, her nostrils flaring, but the seriousness in his face took her aback. She looked for something she was doing wrong and found nothing. She turned back to him with her expression a mix of confusion and angry. Is he mocking me again? “What?”
“Don’t put the sword on your waist.” She had no reaction as she tried to understand another one of his stupid jokes. “I’m serious. You’ve never touched a weapon and I’ve seen people cut themselves and even lose a finger or two sheathing a sword. Until you’re ready, don’t put the sheath on your waist.”
Ei had no idea if he was serious or not, but without ever taking her eyes from Tadayoshi, she did as told, drawing the sword and resting the sheath against a tree.
“Good. But you don’t need to try killing me with your eyes. Nor point the weapon to me.”
Breathing deep, she focused her attention on the sword, holding it before her just like Tadayoshi had shown. The basic stance where you can either defend or attack, according to him.
But no matter how simple and basic the stance was, to Ei, it was special. My first step, she thought, pressing her lips to hide her smile. She closed her eyes and remembered every detail of the movement she could. How Tadayoshi swung the sword, how his back was, how his hands were on the handle, how he moved his body…
When she opened her eyes, she raised both arms above her head and brought the sword down with a quick swing. There was no sound of metal cutting the air like Tadayoshi, but even so, she did nothing to stop her lips from curving into a smile.
“Not entirely awful,” Tadayoshi said. “Keep your hands a little more apart and try not to move your hips too much.”
Ei nodded and moved her left hand down, clutching the end of the handle, and the other up, touching the sword guard. Breathing in and out slowly, she did the movement again.
“Less awful. Now turn around and keep doing until you can’t raise your arms anymore.
“Why do I have to turn around?” she snapped, her irritation creeping back to the surface before she realized.
Tadayoshi sighed and closed his eyes. “In this little time we know each other, you changed so much. You used to just do whatever I told you, but now you keep questioning everything.” He placed a hand on the forehead and shook his head in a fake disappointment. “You know you’ll get distracted if you watch me. Now turn,” he said slowly, as if talking to a child, and then he made a small circle with his finger.
Ei held her immediate answer. She knew she couldn’t retort his words. During her exercises, he trained too. The problem was when she stopped to rest a bit and ended up watching him for a long time without realizing. Though she would never tell him, the sight of Tadayoshi swinging the sword was amazing.
Gritting her teeth, she turned around and raised the sword again. The excitement beamed on her face as she swung the weapon down once more, this time with Tadayoshi’s latest instruction in mind. She did again and again, until her arms trembled just from holding the small sword. Panting and with no strength to raise the wakizashi again, she glanced at Tadayoshi.
He ran in a queer way, going from one side of the clearing to the other with large steps. It’s like he’s jumping forwards, she thought. In few instants Tadayoshi covered the distant, turned with a quick spin and redid the steps, each time getting a bit faster.
“What are you doing?” She couldn’t hold her curiosity anymore.
“Can’t you tell?” Tadayoshi stopped breathless and cleaned the sweat from his face. “You’ve seen it before.”
Ei closed her eyes and searched her memories, but there was no need to go much far. If she had seen it before, it could only be in the only sword fight she had seen in her life. She had observed every detail, burning everything into her heart. The memories were still fresh, but she didn’t remember anything close to what Tadayoshi did.
“I’ll admit my speed isn’t anywhere near his,” he added after a while.
With that in mind, Ei relived the fight once more. The memory finally came back, and she opened her eyes excited. “The samurai’s technique!”
“It took a while but you got it right. Now go back to your exercise,” Tadayoshi said before resuming his own training. He went from one side to the other twice and stopped again when he realized Ei still stared him. “Just say it.”
He soon had learned once she got like this, interested in something, she would stop whatever she was doing and only got back when her curiosity was satisfied. Tadayoshi had complained about this more than once.
“Is that okay? I mean, adding something to the style just like this?”
From what she had heard through stories, the sword style was important to a samurai. Even if Tadayoshi denied being one, his master was. According to tales her mother and Dai-jii used to tell the kids, Yasuhiro-sama challenged and was challenged many times, always for the title of the strongest style. Would he change his master style like this?
“This is gonna take some time…” Tadayoshi complained. “This sword style in particular is more flexible. The old man did not learn from anyone, not even from his father. He forged it when young and traveling the provinces. He met several masters, dueled against many warriors and faced powerful opponents, learning with each fight.”
Ei had noticed when he spoke about his master, most times Tadayoshi smiled, just like he did now, even if he himself didn’t realize. Even if he sometimes acts weird when Yasuhiro-sama’ name comes up, I can tell he loves him… The rumors about him killing his master must be lies… I’m sure, she thought, trying to push away the shadow of doubt in her mind.
“He realized what’s important isn’t the style, but the warrior himself. The way the old man fought focused on that and he ended up naming that Ittou Isshin. You can’t read yet, but learn this now. It’s written like this.” Tadayoshi moved his finger on the ground, writing ‘一剣一心’. “It means One Sword, One Heart. According to master, the style has techniques, but doesn’t depend only on them. What do you think?
Ei stared at the words on the ground, the fatigue forgotten as she stood still, concentrating on Tadayoshi’s words. He had been making this kind of questions ever since he started teaching her. Most of her answers left him with an annoying smile on his lips and she embarrassed afterward.
“If the style doesn’t depend only on techniques, it means it can learn from everything. So the limit is the swordsman himself…?” she answered with some hesitation after a while. He stared her with a blank expression. “Ah! Experience is more important than training!” She added before she could stop herself.
“When master asked me this, I thought and thought but no matter what, I couldn’t come up with an answer. I even attacked him out of anger. But you came up with a good answer. Congratulations.” Tadayoshi clapped, but when noticed Ei’ cheeks reddening, he stopped. “He liked to say ‘techniques are important to make your body remember the movements. But when you’re in a fight, with your life on the sword, you react before you can even think’.”
Though he smiled again, this time there was no happiness behind it. His eyes lost focus as he fell silence for a long time. Ei kept quiet and let him enjoy the memories, though she still had many questions.
“The style’s name doesn’t mean one sword for one person,” Tadayoshi spoke again. This time it was Ei who smiled. It was her next question. He stood up and drew his sword. “It means you pour your heart, your soul into your weapon and it becomes part of you. Everything you learn, everything you experienced, your entire being will reflect on the katana. That was how master created the Ittou Isshin style.”
Tadayoshi stared her, silently asking if she was satisfied. Ei always liked samurai stories, but never had given too much thought about the sword style besides what the stories told. With her curiosity satisfied, she stood up, ready to train again.
Ei dropped the sword and fell to her knees the moment she heard Tadayoshi saying the training was over. She reached out for her weapon, but her arms refused to obey. She gave in and lay down. Never thought the ground could feel so good and soft…
Still belly down, she turned her head, trying to see the sky from the corner of her eye. Through the treetops, Ei could still see the sun, but the moon and the stars shared the sky. It’s been this long…?
Ei felt exhausted. She had never felt like this in her life, not even after working all day in the rice fields. All in her mind was sleep right there. Even her hunger wasn’t a problem; she doubted she could eat anyway. She closed her eyes, letting her mind drift into sleep…
Until Tadayoshi cleared his throat, bringing her back. Grudgingly, Ei turned her head and stared at him still laying down. He panted and sweated almost as much as she did, and yet somehow he seemed full of energy. How can this idiot still be moving around? I can’t even eat!
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Since the first day, no matter how tired she was, Tadayoshi made her collect firewood. It was part of her exercises, according to him, and today was no exception. Ei forced herself to sit down and then stand up. Her legs barely endure her own weight, each step taking an immense effort.
She didn’t have to walk far from the clearing though. There was plenty of firewood around and in no time, she had enough for a decent fire. She considered getting more for the next morning, but her body didn’t allow.
It took more time to come back than it should, the extra weight slowing her down too much. When she finally dragged her body back to the clearing, the sun had set and Tadayoshi wasn’t around. Ei dropped the firewood near their belongings and picked up her sword. With great effort, she managed to sheath the wakizashi.
Despite her exhaustion, Ei had almost finished setting the firewood by the time Tadayoshi came back. It was also her everyday task.
“That was fast.” Tadayoshi had a smile when he dropped the fruits near her and started working on the fire. Soon he had a flaming piece of wood, holding sideways with the tip of his fingers with caution.
He’s always like this near fires, Ei thought while the flames engulfed the firewood, the fire crackling happily.
Before she realized, Ei got closer to the fire. Not because of the cold; the summer nights were warm and the trees blocked most winds. Despite the heat, she didn’t want to be far from the light. Even though it was almost full moon, it hid behind the clouds, and the few rays of light that came through died at the treetops. Right now, the fire was the only light keeping the darkness from embracing her completely.
She wasn’t afraid of the dark. In fact, Ei was proud of being one of the few kids who played until dark, even when most were too scared. Her mother used to complain a lot. But that was in her home, in her village. She had never been this far from everything she knew. I miss home…
The thought of running back had crossed her mind more than once. To see the faces of Dai-jii, Sumire, Kenta and all her friends. But she had made a promise to herself. Never she wanted to feel helpless again.
I’ll be strong, she reminded herself once again. That is why she decided to follow Tadayoshi. The man who denied being a samurai could fulfill her wish. But even with her determination, Ei sat a bit closer to the fire.
Lost in thought, it took her a while to notice what Tadayoshi offered. On one hand, he held two peaches without saying anything. The first time he joked asking if he would have to save a village for the peaches again. Though he had collected more, he saved some fruits for the next morning, just like always.
He said he didn’t like looking for food when he woke, but Ei knew there was something else. The swordsman had some kind of hurry, though he said he had nowhere to go whenever she asked.
On the other hand, Tadayoshi offered one of two the last rice balls. Sumire had made enough to last two weeks at the most, but since they rationed, it had last this long, though they were stale. So we’re gonna have only fruits from now on, she thought, accepting her share.
They tried hunting a few times. To her surprise, Tadayoshi knew how to cook a bit, but he hated the extra work. Ei had also complained about the taste and since her culinary capacities were near non-existing, neither of them suggested hunting again.
In her defense, Ei had said she almost never cooked at home. Her mother loved teaching her, or at least she tried. But after many disastrous attempts, she gave up and said they would only try again when Ei was older.
The memory felt like a sword in her heart and she hugged her knees. Ei avoided those thoughts, but whenever she was exhausted, the feelings rushed back. She would never forget her mother, nor her old life. But ever since Ei said goodbye to everything, she wouldn’t cry again. That is what she promised herself.
Dai-jii, Sumire and her cousin, Kenta, the last family she had left, wouldn’t let her go with Tadayoshi, even if he was the man they owed their lives. We’re safe now, they said. There won’t be any more problems and thanks to our Lord, we’re gonna live in peace. They tried everything to keep her from leaving.
But she knew that peace was a lie. Could be bandits or even their lord’s enemies again, but they could lose everything and everyone in mere instants. She didn’t want that. She wanted more. They knew there was no way to stop her, so they forced her to swear she would run away and come back home at the first sign of danger. Ei did promise, but deep in her heart she aware she would never keep that promise. But at times like this, when the memories were stronger, her will faltered.
Trying to push the sadness and homesickness away, Ei devoured her food in few bites. It was enough for her body, but it did not bring her any ease. She turned to Tadayoshi, looking for a few words of comfort.
In the few weeks they knew each other, Ei soon learned he liked to tease. She became the target of his jokes and sarcasm. But, in the right moments, he listened to her and made her feel better. Ei was starting to rely on him in that area more than she was willing to admit.
Tadayoshi had already finished his food and was now getting ready to sleep. He tossed around a few times on the ground until he found a comfortable position. Soon his chest moved up and down slowly.
“I’m impressed you’re still up. I thought you’d faint after today’s training.”
Ei was surprised and then chuckled. One of the things she envied about him was the fact that he could fall asleep fast anywhere. She, on the other hand, spent too much time tossing around until her conscience drifted away. But like he had done many times, he would listen to her.
“Just say it. I’m tired too,” he said, yawning.
There was so much Ei had no idea where to start. Even though she trusted him, she barely knew anything about him. Apart from their time together, what she knew were the rumors that had reached even her small and isolated village. Even though she refused to believe, the samurai’s words still echoed in her mind.
Ei wanted to ask, but was hard. Though most times Tadayoshi smiled when something related to Yasuhiro-sama came up, the few times he didn’t smile frightened her. His face became dark and terrifying and Ei could only see pain in his eyes. She tried to ignore all this time, but the shadow was always there, deep within her mind, growing whenever she least expected.
She opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to find the right words. “I never thought you would have trouble saying something,” he said.
Ei took a deep breath. She had to know the truth. “Did you…” She almost lost her voice, but she forced herself to say it. “…kill Yasuhiro-sama?”
For a moment Ei wasn’t sure he heard her. Not because of the sound of the fire, nor the sounds of the forest. It was because she barely whispered. But a heartbeat later, she knew he had. Though she couldn’t see his face, she felt he was wide-awake now.
Tadayoshi stood still for a long time before finally sitting down and turning to her. He picked up a twig and feed it to the fire, but his expression was empty as he stared the flames. “What do you know about my master?” He wasn’t accusing her, nor was he defensive. He wasn’t even angry. He was just asking.
Ei wasn’t sure if it was the fire playing tricks, but his face became darker. “Everyone in my village knows about Yasuhiro-sama. I think everyone in the country knows.”
She remembered occasional travelers and even soldiers who came to collect taxes talking about Yasuhiro-sama. Some claimed they even knew him personally. She never believed them though.
“We grew up listening to the tales about him. We only know him through the stories, but he’s… he was like a hero to us… When we heard he was dead, it was like we’d lost someone close.” Ei remembered that day. A few grown-ups had gone to the castle to buy tools and returned with the news. “They said Yasuhiro-sama was betrayed by his disciple, who killed him when he was wounded because…” Ei trailed off when she saw Tadayoshi’s face becoming even darker.
“Go on,” he whispered. “I’d like to know what you heard.”
Ei gulped and looked down, afraid to look his face. Somehow the air grew colder despite the fire and the girl shivered. “Some say yo… the disciple did that because he wanted Inori-sama. But Yasuhiro-sama didn’t allow. His daughter was promised to the son of the emperor himself. When yo…the disciple heard that, he took the opportunity and after he killed Yasuhiro-sama, he went to Inori-sama’ room and…”
She couldn’t bring herself to say the rest. How can I say he forced himself on her and got her pregnant? The look on Tadayoshi’s face was too much for her. She had seen a similar expression only once; after the samurai revealed his name during the fight and everyone looked at him full of hate. But even then, it wasn’t like this, she thought.
“I knew the rumors were bad, but this…”
They stayed in silence for a long time. She tried to think of something to change the mood.
“My favorite story is the one where Yasuhiro-sama invades the castle and saves Kouhime-sama. And the one where he defeats an entire ninja village alone. Dai-jii liked telling the one where he gave all his money and belongings apart from his sword to help a villa…” Ei lost the words again when she saw Tadayoshi’ face beaming with a smile.
“Those stories were… let’s say slightly changed.” His smile widened with his laugh. “The old man didn’t invade that castle, he was invited. And what he did to Hikari-sama was technically kidnapping, depending on the point of view. About the money thing… he hated talking about that, but his wife would tell anyone who’d listen. He actually gambled with a kid and lost for real.”
Ei couldn’t help but smile too. But slowly his laughed died and the smile vanished. His face became dark again and the air, heavy. For a long time, the sound of fire was the only thing breaking the silence in the clearing. Tadayoshi stopped staring at the flames and looked her straight in the eyes.
“It’s true I killed my master,” he whispered. “But it wasn’t because I wanted. And Inori…sama… there’s no way I’d hurt her…” Tadayoshi covered his face to hide the tears. After a long time, he lowered his hand. “They call me the man without loyalty, but that’s a lie. Everything I am is thanks to master! I’d rather die than betray him!” he finished, breathing hard.
There was a strange intensity in his eyes, but Ei could not find any lies in them. She was flooded with relief and breathed. Only now she realized she held her breath ever since Tadayoshi looked into her eyes.
“If I tell you what really happened, you’d never believe. I promise I’ll tell you someday.” The heavy mood was gone and the next moment he was back to his comfortable position. “Go to sleep. You need to recover your energy. There’s a long road before you start training for real.”
It took a while for her to understand his words. When she did, a spark of anger crossed her face. “Then what I did today? Wasn’t that a technique?”
“No.” He sneered. “That was just basic.” And he went to sleep.
Ei took a deep breath and let go of her angry. Then she noticed something unexpected. She felt calm. The bond between them hadn’t changed. No… it did change, she realized with a tiny smile. It’s stronger.
Along with another wave of relief, came the sleepiness, hitting her like a sword. Ei could barely keep her eyes open now. She tried moving, but her body didn’t respond right away. Sit in the same place for so long left her legs aching. With difficulty, she stood up and shook them a bit.
Now it was her turn to find a comfortable patch of ground. She found none. Giving up, she simply laid down near the fire. However, despite her tiredness, sleep didn’t come right away.
For some reason her mind was restless. Once again she envied Tadayoshi’s ability to sleep anywhere anytime. Thinking about him, Ei turned and stared his back. He wasn’t big nor muscular, nevertheless, he seemed huge to her. She finally slept.