“Look, Ei. That’s our destination. The city of Mino.” Tadayoshi’s voice came from somewhere far.
The girl wiped her tears before raising her head. To her surprise, it was already night. The starry sky shone intently alongside the moon, without any clouds to block its beauty. But what left her without words was the sight before her eyes. I’ve never seen anything like this, she thought in amazement.
From the top of the hill they stood, Ei could see everything. Here, the trees were few and scarce, giving room to a large and empty plains stretching in every direction. It was the first time she saw an empty space so wide. Even the fields back home seem small…
Squinting her eyes, she could see the glimpse of a slim river cutting the land. To her, it seemed no wider than the creek near her village, but even she knew if she could see from this distance, it was no creek. Dai-jii used to tell stories about rivers so wide you couldn’t see the other side, with waters so deep you couldn’t touch the ground and underneath the surface lies spirits, demons and gods that would pull you to the bottom if you showed any disrespect or got distracted. She wasn’t sure if that was one of those, but even if it wasn’t, Ei doubted she could swim across.
“What’s that?” In the middle of the darkness on the plains, many tiny lights shone like fallen stars burning on the earth.
“Our unfortunate destination, the city of Mino.”
A city… Even with Tadayoshi’s bitterness, the word swept the worries from her mind, giving room to her curiosity. She grew up hearing about cities, temples and castles and dreamt of visiting those amazing places full of people and life. Ei always begged to go with the grownups when they went to the castle, but her mother never let her go. How can anyone live in a place where you don’t know everyone’s name? she wondered, squinting her eyes trying to see more. Even if she didn’t like everyone in her village, Ei knew everyone’s names. But a city is different.
Until now, Ei could only dream of visiting those places. Now it was so close she could barely control her enthusiasm. She was about to ask if they could go to Mino immediately, but gave up when she saw Tadayoshi’s expression. He refused to travel at night, saying that with people after him, he needed to rest whenever he could.
In a heartbeat, her excitement gave place to fatigue. Ei observed the surroundings again, this time looking for a place that could offer some protection to them. Even a few trees together will be enough, she thought, hugging herself when a cold wind swept by her. Downhill, there was a light she didn’t notice before. Actually, there were many lonely lights here and there on the plains. Houses, she realized.
“How about that place?” she pointed to the closest light.
“Maybe…” I can’t blame him for hesitating, she thought. In fact, she understood. They had barely left the forest and were attacked. It’s not hard to imagine more enemies nearby waiting. “Pay attention and be ready to hide,” he said at the end.
Though it was the closest light, it was still far. By the time the house was close enough for her to see it in full, Ei panted so hard and her legs throbbed so much she had to grab Tadayoshi’s arm to keep standing. The building was twice the size of her village’s shed, the biggest building she had ever known. Judging by the height, she thought it had at least three floors. “Is this a fortress?” she asked in wonder.
“It’s so tiny it’d be the world’s smallest fortress.” Tadayoshi snorted. “At my side, chances are you won’t see any fortress or castles up close if we’re lucky enough, but hear me. There are some so tall you have to raise your head to see the top. And there are temples so huge it seems endless and if you get lost, they may never found you ever again,” he said, serious. Then he laughed at her astonishment.
“I-I don’t believe it,” she said when she recovered. Even using all her imagination, it was hard to believe such places existed. I bet it’s just another one of his jokes, she thought bitterly. Is it that fun mocking me ‘cause I know nothing?
“Fine. Don’t believe me. Someday you might see it for yourself,” he said with an air of superiority. “But to be fair, it’s a very well made building. Whoever built it was skillful.”
“You’ve got good eyes, lad,” a voice spoke from inside the house. A moment later, two young men came out, carrying two wooden boxes each. Ei tensed and held her breath, but almost at the same time, she felt Tadayoshi’s hand on her shoulder.
The two men looked at each other and then turned to Ei and Tadayoshi at the same time with identical smiles. “Going to Mino?” one asked.
“Actually we’re—” Tadayoshi started, but was interrupted.
“What’s the matter, lad? Don’t be shy.”
“Yeah, no need for that. If you need a place to rest, then look no further.”
“It’s not safe to travel at night.”
“With so many people going to Mino right now, the area can be quite dangerous.”
“We don’t have any money,” Tadayoshi almost shouted, spitting the words out before he was interrupted again.
“What? You’re worried about that?” The most talkative one handed the boxes to the other, walked towards Tadayoshi and slapped him energetically on the back. Ei noticed the swordsman’s knees bend with the force. “We don’t charge much, and granny accept pretty much everything, so you can use those pretty swords as payment,” he said with a wider smile and another round of slaps. Then he turned to Ei. “Besides, there’s no way we’d leave such cute girl travel at night.”
Still wary, she let go of the handle of the sword. Up close, Ei realized that not only the men were equally large, tall, and strong; they were identical, except for a huge and deep scar from above the right eye to the left cheek. That must’ve hurt, she thought. They looked at best five years older than Tadayoshi, and yet they treated him like a kid. It was satisfying to Ei seeing this. How do you like it when you’re treated like a child?
Tadayoshi answered with a stiff nod without looking the man in the eye. He looked so uncomfortable Ei had trouble holding her urge to sneer at him. So that’s one of his weakness, she realized, biting her lips to hide her smile. He can’t deal with kindness. Suddenly she stopped smiling. It’s because he’s surrounded by violence…
The slapping and smiling man led them inside while the other placed the boxes somewhere around the back. The house was simple and organized. The main room was big and above a wooden deck that took one side of the room, there were a few long tables, enough for four people to sit on each side. Each seat had a cushion so the visitors wouldn’t sit on the wood. On the other half directly on the earth, rows of small benches fill the room from the front to the back. The back wall had two openings and judging by the strong smell coming from the one on the left, it seemed to be a kitchen.
Ei realized the house was a lodging. She had heard about those too. Though most visitors that came to her village were traders or soldiers collecting taxes and didn’t stay long, most kids liked hearing their stories. The idea of living in a place where many people visited and hear stories from all over the country seemed fascinating to the girl.
An old woman came from the kitchen, cleaning her hand with a cloth. When she saw the newcomers, her eyes went to their swords and narrowed, but she recovered quickly enough. “Welcome to our humble inn. Please, have a seat,” she said with a deep bow and a gentle smile. She returned to the kitchen and came back a few moments later holding a wooden tray with two steaming cups of tea. “Please, accept some tea.”
Ei reached her hand for it, but Tadayoshi touched her shoulder before she could get near the cup. “I don’t know if we can accept it,” he said, scratching his cheek with an awkward smile. He untied two of the swords he had and showed to the woman. “All I can pay is this…”
Only now Ei realized how many swords Tadayoshi carried. Two from my village and more six from today… not counting the two on his waist. You look more like a weapons dealer than a swordsman, she thought with a weak smile. Before she would have eyed the blades full of desire; now she felt undeserving of them. The girl from this morning would have begged for one of the katana, but now she couldn’t even look at them. Even her small sword seemed too much for her.
The woman observed the weapons in silence, fear crossing her eyes for an instant. She only raised her head when a noise came from the entrance. The other twin came in and gave his grandma a curt nod, but Ei noticed he wasn’t smiling anymore. The twins disappeared into the kitchen and the old woman turned back to Tadayoshi, the lines on her face stiffen.
“It’s more than enough,” she said with a strained smile. “I think it’s more than we can offer at the moment.”
Ei sighed in relief and smiled. Thank the heavens she accepted us. For a moment I thought she’d tell us to get out. Well, I couldn’t blame them if they did. Even if we don’t look like, we could be bandits. Especially with him carrying so many swords.
“This week was too busy. Living near the city is like this. So many travelers coming from all over the region to celebrate the festival,” the old woman went on, resting the cups of tea on the table before them. “There was a day it was so crowded we had to refuse clients, can you believe that? But some insisted, saying they’d come from so far they didn’t mind sleeping on the floor right here. Today was the busiest. The travelers simply wouldn’t stop coming. We even ran out of food.” She rested a hand on her cheek and sighed. “Too bad they’ll have a tough time getting a room today. The first night of the festival is the most crowded. I tried telling them that, but everyone wanted to be inside the walls today…”
The way she talked reminded Ei of Sumire. It was comforting to know there were people like her outside her village. As the girl accepted the tea, she sniggered because of Tadayoshi. He listened to the old woman with an awkward smiled, drinking when he didn’t know how to respond.
“Granny, we’ve got some food left for them,” Scar peered his head out of the kitchen and interrupted.
Ei’s face beamed with a smile. It was hard to believe they actually had some luck. Ever since I decided to go with him, I’ve had nothing but bad luck, she thought. The word festival had peeked her interest, but it had become harder and harder to pay attention when she fought against exhaustion and hunger at the same time.
With a surprised expression as if she had forgotten, the owner apologized for making them stand for so long and led them to the cushions seats. They took off their sandals. While Tadayoshi placed almost all the swords on the floor; his own and Asahi he rested standing against the wall. Ei placed her the same way he did and then sat on the cushion.
She almost dozed off when she leaned her back on the wall. It’s so comfortable… Just a little bit won’t matter, she thought, closing her eyes for a moment. Suddenly she shook her head, fighting against sleep. She couldn’t sleep, not now, so she focused on the tea to drive away the drowsiness.
Even though it was still summer, the night was cold, and the steaming tea didn’t seem a bad choice, though it did burn her tongue a little. Ei blew the drink and in few sips, the cup was empty. Tadayoshi chuckled and offered his half-drank tea. She eyed it for a moment, but since she was more thirsty than suspicious, she accepted, blowing it the same way she did with hers.
“So you two heading to Mino too?” the woman asked when Ei had finished the tea. The twin without scar came to take the cups back to the kitchen.
“Yes. We’ve been traveling for a while and we need to rest,” Tadayoshi sounded sincere for once. But Ei noticed that, despite his smile, he seemed just as tired as she. “I had no idea it was the time of the festival.”
The truth in disguise, Ei realized at once, paying close attention to him. Even nice people can get you in trouble due to a poorly told lie. Believe me, he had told her. She thought he was joking, or tricking her or just exaggerating, the same way he talked about having people out for his head. But that was before. Now, after this morning, Ei was more troubled than surprised to realize what he said was true.
“Here.” Scar came from the kitchen after some time, holding a tray with two small bowls of millet and two plates with one fish each. “Enjoy the meal,” he said, flashing a wide grin.
“I’m sorry for being so little, samurai-sama.” The owner bowed her head to Tadayoshi. “It’s all that’s left after today’s rush.”
“No, this is more than enough,” Tadayoshi said quickly. “And I’m not a samu—”
“Thank you very much,” Ei interrupted him, smiling to the old woman, trying to make her less uncomfortable. “It’s more than we have in weeks.”
“It’s not my fault if I can’t meet your high standards,” Tadayoshi replied her jest with a smile. He picked up the chopsticks and brought his hands together as if praying. “Thank you for the food.”
Before Ei could do the same, the smell of the cooked fish filled her nose and her stomach protested. Only now she realized how hungry she was. She had been walking since midday and those fruits seemed so long ago now it felt as if she hadn’t eaten at all today.
She was paying too much attention to her food to fully listen to Tadayoshi’s conversation, hearing only bits here and there, “…traveling for long,” he was saying. “Our village was attacked and we’re seeking refuge in Mino. We were not alone, but it’s too dangerous. This morning five people died…”
The woman clasped a cheek with a hand and shook her head. “It’s more dangerous than we thought. Lots like you came around these days. Fleeing to the city to try a better life. Too bad most can’t.” She sighed. “Last time we were there, it was a mess. That’s why we’ll celebrate the festival here this year.”
Ei raised her eyes and pricked her ears when she heard the word festival. With her hungry partially satisfied, she was once again interested in the topic. What festival are they talking about? It’s not the harvest. It’s too soon for that.
The woman must have thought the girl was worried and quickly added. “Don’t worry. There shouldn’t have any problem during the festival. You have no idea how many soldiers the lord hired,” she said with a reassuring smiled.
It’s more likely Tadayoshi who’ll cause trouble than the other way around, Ei thought, laughing with her own thought and then choking. The woman came to her side and rubbed her back until she was better. The girl lowered her head to hide her red face and her smile.
She thought the owner reminded Sumire, but that smile and kindness were just like her mother’s. But thinking about her mother didn’t sadden her for the first time. A meal this talkative felt like back in her village. Tadayoshi could hold a conversation if there was a topic, but sometimes the meals were too silent. Maybe he spent too much time eating alone, she realized.
When they finished eating, Tadayoshi kept talking with the woman while Ei heard the twins’ talking about their dream. “I’ll be like out dad. He was a constructor, you see, and he built this house and many others in the area,” the one without scar boasted. His pride for the father was matched by the smile he had. “He was so good even Oda-sama recognized his abilities and hired him to help repairing the city.”
“You lack a man’s dream, little brother,” Scar said, shaking his head in an all-knowing way. “I wanna be a samurai.” He moved his hands around as if holding a sword. Ei laughed, remembering her cousin who used to say the same thing, and even played the way with a stick. “Me, my sword and a hundred enemies in a fight to the death. People fear the war. But one day it’ll come, so instead of living in fear, I say let fight!” He jumped, slashed at invisible foes and then sheathed the invisible sword on his waist with an exaggerated move.
Now that Ei had begun training, even if barely, she could tell how awkward those moves seemed. She smiled and laughed, but hoped Tadayoshi hadn’t noticed her red cheeks. Did I look like that too?
But as the twins kept bickering, her smile vanished and laugh died. I thought like that… Glimpses from earlier crossed her mind; she holding her sword, trembling so much she couldn’t move at all. Though it was only for a heartbeat, it was enough to make her feel smaller and weaker than she already was.
When she chose to follow Tadayoshi, she knew it wouldn’t be easy. She hadn’t wished otherwise. But even in those first nights when only carried their baggage, she imagined herself defeating many enemies just like him. But she never saw herself killing anyone. It was childish, she knew and this morning proved she was nothing but a child dreaming.
Ei thought her determination would be enough to get her through anything, but now the picture she imagined had changed. Now she only saw herself standing before the fallen enemy, her hands trembling too much to do anything. The warrior became a shadow and then stood up, charging at her with a sword, but her mother jumped out of nowhere, the weapon slicing her in half…
“Stop that, you two! “You’re scaring her,” the woman said, bringing Ei back to the inn. She gave Scar a long and hard look and the twins went back to the kitchen. Ei turned to her and nodded her head. “It’s best if you two go sleep now. Mino is farther than it looks. Even if you leave at dawn, you won’t get there before midday.”
“Agree,” Tadayoshi said, yawning.
Ei glanced at him. It was the first time she saw him comfortable around other people.
“Here.” Scar came back holding a tray.
The cups weren’t steaming this time, and Ei only realized it wasn’t tea when he got closer. From the strong smell she could tell the transparent liquid was sake. Though she never drank it, she didn’t care much for it. Every time someone brought back some from the castle, the grownups acted weird. Even her mother.
“As a sorry for earlier,” Scar said, placing the drinks on the table.
“I really don’t know how to thank you for all this kindness,” Tadayoshi accepted the drink, bowing his head again. “I don’t think you can handle,” he added with a smile when Ei made for the cup.
“Hm…” the owner turned from the drink to Ei. “I think there’s some amazake left.” Scar was about to take the cup, but Ei got to it first.
“I’ve drunk before, I can handle,” she lied on impulse. It was true the grownups acted weird, but many times they had more courage and said things they wouldn’t dare if not drunk, like her cousin who confessed to the girl he liked and now was married to her. Maybe I need some of this courage too.
“Are you sure? It may be too strong for you. Best stick with amazake,” Tadayoshi eyed her with his eyebrow raised too much, his smile too sly. “It has a bit of alcohol in it, but even little kids like you can drink it during special occasions,” Tadayoshi answered Ei’s unspoken question, talking down to her.
I already know, she thought cheekily. After the harvest, Dai-jii would make some with part of the left over rice. It had a funny taste that left her lightheaded and with her tongue a bit numb, but since it was the only grownup thing the kids were allowed to do, she and her friends drank it happily. “I can handle,” she said, staring him back without blinking.
Tadayoshi smile. “Then…” he raised his cup and left it hanging in the air, waiting for her.
Ei mimicked him and they clinked their cups lightly. Before she brought to her mouth, she sniffed it. It was just like the same smell the adults had and that alone made her dizzy. Even without drinking, she knew it was indeed too strong for her. But I can’t back down now. Not after what I said…
With everyone watching her, she took a sip. She kept the drink in her mouth for a heartbeat, and then she swallowed it. Her throat burned and she coughed. It had a funny taste. Her mind became hazed, but still she took another sip, coughing less this time. And then another sip, and one more, until the cup was empty. Almost immediately a warmth spread throughout her body and she smiled.
For a moment, everything seemed still and then the room blurred and sleep overwhelmed her. The cup became heavy as her sword. Even raising her eyes to see Tadayoshi was hard.
He looked back at her. He had an empty expression. I thought he’d be making fun of me… When he placed down his cup, Ei realized he hadn’t touched his drink at all. Why, she wondered, looking at his face again.
The last thing Ei saw before her eyes shut against her will was Tadayoshi hard and tense expression. Why you’re making that face, she wanted to ask, but she knew there was no way she could fight against sleep this time
With her heart tightening, Ei laid down right there on the table and everything went black.