The view didn’t seem as impressive as in the night, but it was still beautiful. Beyond the river, Ei saw the plains stretching and turning into a forest as far as her eyes could see. It looks the same, but it feels different from the one back home, she thought for a moment but put the idea aside right away.
Though it was an odd feeling to her, as if she looked down on the entire world, Ei had no desire, nor time, to waste thinking about such things. Tadayoshi didn’t care, nor glanced around. He was already heading to the city and she had to struggle after him.
Their destination wasn’t so easy to spot in the morning. Without the flickering lights shining against the dark, the city looked so small it hardly seemed any different from a common village. But that didn’t bother Ei anymore. The city had long lost its initial wonder to the girl.
The real problem was the distance. Will we really get there today? Ei didn’t know how much truth the owner’s words had, but she wasn’t lying when she said the city was farther than it looked. According to her, they wouldn’t get there before midday. That time had come and gone, the scorching sun above their heads in the cloudless sky as they walked the plains, but the city barely seemed any closer.
It might not be so bad if he said anything, Ei thought, glancing at Tadayoshi’s back. He had not spoken a word ever since they left the inn. And since neither she had anything to say, the journey felt much longer. Her guilt didn’t help either. She knew their slow progress was her fault; he had to slow down to match her speed.
The sun was starting to touch the horizon when they could finally see the outer wall. Ei sweat, panted, her back ached and her legs throbbed. But at the sight of the city that went beyond her sight, she forgot how exhausted she felt. They joined the short line to enter and were through the gates.
Ei simply stared with her mouth hanging open. So many houses and shops she couldn’t count all. Most had two floors, but some had three and a few seemed so huge it made the inn look small. Between the buildings, the streets and alleys teemed with life. The girl had never seen so many people in one place, not even when the soldiers came to collect and escort the taxes. In her village, everyone dressed almost the same. Here, men and women wore colorful and loose clothes. They chatted, bought food from tables along the houses and fanned themselves with paper fans, uchiwa, as they walked around the city.
She wanted to check the foods on the tables, but just walking without bumping into anyone required her attention. As she did her best to not step on any foot, she noticed something weird. Despite the crowd and interesting things to see, some glanced at them more than once. A few whispered between them when they saw Tadayoshi and her. An old man even came towards them, his face red and eyes teary, until a muscled man stopped him and pulled him away.
Only when no one met her eyes, Ei realized. The people didn’t look at them; they looked at the weapon. She pulled her sword closer out of reflex.
“I should’ve remembered,” said Tadayoshi, more to himself than to Ei. He glanced around and entered the closest alley. Even there was full, but they could walk without attracting everyone’s attention.
“Why everyone’s looking at us?” She waited for him to say the rest, but when she realized he wouldn’t say, she asked.
A man bumped hard into Tadayoshi’s shoulder. The swordsman turned his head and the bald man stared back with the one eye he had left. For a few long moments, Ei held her breath, waiting for the fight to start. But when the man looked at the sword on Tadayoshi’s waist, the girl realized the swordsman’s hand wasn’t on the handle. Of course… there’s no way Tadayoshi would fight for something this stupid, she thought with a thin smile.
When the man finally walked away without saying anything, the girl breathed in relief. The swordsman sighed, rolled his eyes and ran a hand on his face. He muttered something that sounded a lot like idiot and turned back to her. “Swords aren’t… welcome at this time.”
“Why?” Ei frowned. I know the… dangers of a weapon in the wrong hands, but without it, the city, the people are defenseless, she thought, but didn’t voice it.
“This festival is to honor the ancestors and those who are no longer here,” he said and the girl understood.
Ei looked down at the weapon on her waist. A sword can protect, but it can also kill. People who lost close ones to the violence wouldn’t want the reminder, she thought, glancing around. They weren’t the only ones carrying blades, but unlike her and Tadayoshi, they covered with a cloth or anything to keep the scabbard and the handle out of sight. The soldiers patrolling the streets didn’t cover their weapons. The people trust them, she realized. Unlike us, strangers. “Don’t you have anything to cover the swords?”
Tadayoshi showed a wry smile as he glanced his bag and Ei understood. If he takes out the clothes from the inn… With a sigh, she realized the only thing they could do was ignore the stares.
As they walked around the town, different smells filled the girl’s nose and she finally saw what was on the wooden tables along the streets. So many food, she thought, trying to remember the names. Dango, a type of dumpling made of rice flour; manjuu, a sweet filled with red bean; udon, a noodle made from wheat flour and served in small wooden bowls; yakitori, skewered pieces of roasted birds, and much more.
Her stomach growled in response. She covered her belly, but still heard Tadayoshi’s laugh and didn’t look up. “We need money first.”
Tadayoshi asked something to a woman on one of the tables, but Ei didn’t hear; she was too busy paying attention to an old man. He talked and moved his hand. Before him there was a wooden box displaying a plaque with a drawing of a samurai and a small but terrifying demonic shadow.
Kamishibai! Ei remembered. One of the merchants that visited her village once a year liked telling stories to the kids after he finished his business. He carried a box just like this old man, but he had more drawings, changing the plaques to fit the scene. Though the merchant was more energetic, the old man was much better. Even adults stopped to watch him.
The old man was telling the tale about Yasuhiro-sama fighting the tiny devil. She knew the story; it was one of Dai-jii’ favorites. Even so, Ei came a bit closer without realizing her smile.
“When everyone had lost hope of defeating the tiny devil, Yasuhiro-sama appeared.” The old man grew quieter to make the tension grow.
Ei got closer, waiting for the climax, but then Tadayoshi called her. She walked to him, but kept her head on the old man. She watched for as long as she could, but then a hand pulled her by the collar. Tadayoshi had turned in the alley and she didn’t realize. “Don’t lower your guard.”
The girl bit her lips, sighed, fixed her clothes and followed the swordsman. Somehow walking both against and with the flow at the same time, they joined a line outside a store near the main street. People talked to a boy standing at the entrance and he would go inside and come back with nails, hammers and other small tools.
As the boy went in and out and the line walked, Ei heard the constant and rhythmic hammering coming from inside the blacksmith shop. The boy looked just bored as she was when it was their turn and didn’t even look them in the eye.
“Selling,” Tadayoshi said the boy could speak.
He showed a little surprise as he looked at the swords, but had the same bored expression when he entered the shop. A moment later, the boy came back and told them to go inside, already attending the next customer.
The hammering was even louder inside. Ei felt the sound vibrating through her, but just as she was growing accustomed, it stopped. A few moments later, the door on the back of the shop opened with a heavy thud and a man walked to them, cleaning his hands on the leather apron, the sweat coming down his brow.
“Selling what?” he asked in a low grunt.
Tadayoshi untied the swords from the backpack and held his hand before Ei. The girl looked between the hand and the swordsman. A moment later, she understood, and didn’t protest or say anything against. Feeling nothing but an emptiness, she pulled the weapon from her waist and handed to him without looking him in the eyes. “Selling this.”
The blacksmith pulled a bit one of the swords from its sheath. He hummed as he examined the blade with one eye. “The metal isn’t the best,” he said in the same low grunt.
“They’re all like this.” Tadayoshi half drew the wakizashi and showed to the blacksmith
Ei stopped listening to their conversation. The walls covered with the blacksmith’s work seemed more interesting to her. Shovels, hoes, sickles, hammers and other tools, the metal shining and the handle without any chips. To barge up the price, I bet. Even so, she got so close she could see her own blurred reflection. It’s the first time I see polished tools, she realized with some surprise. In her village, they only had old ones and when they needed new ones, they always bought used ones.
The boy kept coming in and out as Ei walked around the store. Even something so everyday has its beauty, she thought with a small smile. But when she saw the tool resting above the back door, the smile disappeared.
A sword. Naked and reflecting the light to display all its beauty and the blacksmith ability, so imposing its presence erased the others tools from the girl’s sight. So polished she could see herself. Not a blurred reflection; she could see her eyes, could see herself on the blade, terrified. The light cast by the fire danced and the sharp edge seemed drenched in blood.
The girl quivered as the image of the old woman smiling appear in her mind. A faceless shadow grabbed the owner’s arm, made her hold a knife and guided her hand to her own heart. The owner fell still smiling.
Scar appeared out of nowhere and walked through the shadow. He stepped over his grandma’s cadaver and offered Ei some tea. He smiled and moved his mouth, but no sound came from those lips. Then the shadow gained form again, took the blade from the woman’s hand and drove into Scar’s throat. Without ever stop smiling, his body fell forward on top of the girl.
Ei screamed, pushed the body away and managed to get out under the cadaver. When she raised her head, the faceless shadow was inches away from her, staring her in the eyes with empty sockets. The next instant, those sockets became dark eyes she recognized.
When she closed her fist, there was a sword in her hand. Without thinking, without freezing, she slashed at the shadow and tried to run, but her foot slipped on the blood soaked earth. She dragged herself through the mud and blood without looking.
But as she drew distance from the shadow, she felt many hands grabbing her legs, the fingers digging so deep she thought her bones would break. When she turned her head, she saw the owner and the twins holding her ankles, pulling her. She tried kicking them, but it made no difference. They pulled harder, and then Ei felt the bites in her legs.
She used all the air in her lungs, but she had no voice to scream. She ignored the pain, her hands trying to find anything to grab. But she found nothing except blood. The dead pulled her into the red ground. Ei was struggling for air as she drowned in blood.
The shadow stood before her, offering a hand. Ei raised her head and saw a face she knew; Tadayoshi. For a moment, she smiled in relief and raised her arm to take the hand, but when she looked into his eyes, they were the empty and cold ones. The deaths he caused doesn’t bother him… Her hand trembled. That not what I want. All I want is to be strong, to save the weak… to save my mom…
A loud voice brought her back to the blacksmith’s shop. She shook her head and cleaned the tears, but no matter how hard she shut her eyes, she could still see the images. The room spun and she felt sick. Ei saw Tadayoshi looking at her with a worried expression, but all she could see was the shadow.
Her breathing became rapid and shallow. Her heart thumped painfully. With her mind black, she could think of one thing; she had to get away from there, from that sword hanging on the wall… from the shadow…
The people waiting in line complained when she pushed her way out, but she barely heard them. All she could hear was Tadayoshi’s shouts, but she ignored him. All she did was run. She had no idea where, but she had to get away from everybody. But each alley she turned, she found people.
Her legs shook and throbbed, but she didn’t stop, bumping into people along the way. They pushed her, complained or cursed her, but Ei nor heard nor cared. So many people, she thought, the pain in her chest growing. Each breath she took was painful, but she didn’t stop. It made no difference. No matter where she went, where she ran, she was trapped by people and houses. She couldn’t breathe anymore. Her head became dizzy, her sight blurred and she vomited.
Someone talked to her from far away, but she couldn’t understand a word. Then, with a strange feeling, she vaguely realized the person was screaming at her. Ei cleaned her mouth with the back of her and raised her head with difficulty.
There a man complaining and showing his clothes to her. Ei looked at where he pointed, where she had vomited. Somewhere in her mind, she knew she had to apologize, but her mouth didn’t work at the same speed. She had forgotten how to speak.
The man raised his arm and closed his fist. He’s gonna hit me… She had to react. She knew she had to react, but her body refused to listen to her. Her mind was too hazed to think, and she simply closed her eyes.
But nothing happened. A heartbeat later, Ei opened her eyes. There was a shadow holding the man’s fist. She tried looking past the man to see who held his fist, but the person was against the light, the face hidden by shadows.
Her savior said something she didn’t understand, but she could feel the threatening tone. The man walked away grunting something and Ei finally saw who saved her. She lowered her head, too ashamed to look meet Tadayoshi’s eyes.
Tadayoshi placed a hand on her shoulder. Only when the warmth coursed from his fingers to her, she realized how cold she was. That gentle touch took her out from the stupor. Despite how sick she felt, a meager smile crossed her lips.
Every time I need him, he’s there. She would never say to him, but even with all the doubts in her mind, she thanked him from the bottom of her heart. Even now, she was grateful to him. But when she looked into his eyes… they’re not the same, she forced herself to think. They aren’t those cold and empty eyes.