Are we safe? Even after the ninja and the boy samurai were gone, Ei still clutched her sword hard. Her breathing hadn’t returned to normal. Are they really gone? She felt the cold biting against her uncovered skin but ignored that pain
Only when Tadayoshi touched her hand she lowered the blade slowly.
“They… Kenshin won’t be back. No matter how much he orders, Masa won’t let him. Not with a wound like that,” the swordsman said, staring at the place where their enemies had disappeared.
Ei saw that her master’s eyes were unfocused for a moment. So that was Yasuhiro-sama’ son, she thought, looking at the same place as the swordsman. Then she noticed his hand, still on top hers, were red and sticky.
“Let me treat that wound,” she said in a low voice, finally sheathing her sword.
Tadayoshi barely mumbled a yes. Still staring at the place where Kenshin had disappeared, he let her drag him to the house they had spent the night.
She soaked a cloth on the water from the bamboo bottle and handed to him to clean the blood on his arm. Then she used the rest of the water to fill the extra pot they had. Even if it meant carrying more weight, she made sure to have two.
If it were up to master, we’d use the same pot for cooking and for mixing the medicines, she thought distractedly as Tadayoshi lit a fire. While waiting for the water to heat up, Ei crumpled the herbs. Master and Kenshin… grew up as brothers… and yet, that boy samurai was looking at him with such hatred…
She felt a strange tightness in her stomach. Master has never denied he killed Yasuhiro-sama, but he always says he didn’t do it because he wanted… no one apart from master knows what happened that night, but everyone blames him… No matter what he does, he’ll forever be known as the man without loyalty, the man who killed the hero, Yasuhiro-sama.
Ei believed in her master. They were together for over a year now and she had learned a lot about him. She knew that the swordsman, while never hesitated to kill, didn’t feel any pleasure in doing it. And despite bad-mouthing him for something here and there, she knew how much Tadayoshi loved his master.
Even so, his most of past remained a mystery. Her master promised to tell her the truth someday, when she was ready for it. Guess I’m still not ready yet, she thought, hugging her knees for warmth. After a while, she stopped asking. Not that her curiosity had diminished, just that her trust in her master grew even more.
As she lost herself in thoughts, Tadayoshi pulled one of the shurikens from his clothes and turned it around to distract himself. When did he pick that up? Ei wondered, staring at the weapon. It didn’t just have the sharp tip. It had little gaps along the edge to take some flesh when pulled. At least it doesn’t look poisoned.
When the pot was exhaling steam, Ei put out the fire and took a clean cloth. After dipping it in the hot water, she cleaned the wound. Then, under Tadayoshi’s scowl, the girl took a bit of the crushed herbs with her finger and covered the place where the shuriken had hit.
“Do you really have to put bandages for a scratch like this?” Tadayoshi asked, not hiding his disgust for the paste on his arm.
“Not really. But since you’re like a kid who keeps scratching his scabs, I have to,” she answered and proceeded to wrap his arm.
After everything was done, Ei used the warm water to clean the pot. Then she stored all the materials in the bag. I’ll have to clean those cloths later, she thought, remembering how bad everything smelled when she forgot.
Ei hugged her legs once again and waited her master say something. But all Tadayoshi did was ran his fingers on the shuriken, touching the sharp edge. The disciple knew her master was thinking about his past, and perhaps reliving the memories. Despite the curiosity eating her, she kept quiet.
It’s not just curiosity, she thought after a while. He’s my master. I must know everything about him. It’s a disciple duty. But all I know is that Yasuhiro-sama picked up Tadayoshi when he was a kid in the middle of a road.
Tadayoshi broke the silence after a long time. His expression was hard to read, but he stared the shuriken with his eyes unfocused. Ei never liked the fact that her master could read her mind so well. But in moments like this, where it was hard to find words, she secretly thanked for that ability of his.
“We’ve known each other ever since master found and brought me to his home… Kenshin is…” He closed his eyes when his voice failed. “He was really attached to me. Partially because there were no kids around his age, even though he’s a few years younger than me, I think. But it didn’t help that the twins were really close. Those days were… fun…”
Tadayoshi showed a tiny smile. Even though there was the pain of loss in that expression, it made Ei relief. She was used to her master laughing and smiling, especially at her. It was weird seeing him like that.
So Kenshin is a bit like me, she thought, glancing at her master through the corner of her eyes. He looked up to Tadayoshi… but now he thinks master betrayed Yasuhiro-sama. Someone whom he considered a brother killed his father… Betrayal was the source of that hate that even scared her.
Now it makes sense the look he gave me when I called Tadayoshi master, she thought, shivering with the memory. That boy samurai couldn’t believe the man he denied the name dared to pass down his father’s style. It wasn’t about me. I’m still no one. Right now, all I am is Tadayoshi’s disciple…
“And the ninja?” Ei asked suddenly. As a swordswoman, she was still feeling a mix of relief and anger for being completely ignored. He would’ve killed me before I could even realize what had happened.
“That idiot…” Tadayoshi let out a huge sigh and then threw the shuriken through the window. “I’ll let he introduce himself.”
“Who are you calling idiot?” a cold and low voice spoke.
Ei widened her eyes when she felt a shiver coursing through her body. Suddenly it seemed as if they were surrounded by many people with an insane blood thirst. The same killing intent from the forest, she thought, cold sweat running down her neck.
She quickly turned towards the window, but her hand looked for her sword. All she found was the bag and pushed it desperately. But it wouldn’t have made any difference. Before she realized, the ninja was already inside the house, resting against the opposite wall.
Ei froze. How did he go inside without master noticing? One of the things she trained the most was how to feel the presence of others. But now the ninja was this close, and she hadn’t felt anything.
She glanced at Tadayoshi. It always impressed her how her master could feel if there was anyone near them. Even when he was sleeping. The moment he felt someone or some animal nearby, he woke with his sword in hand. Despite her ability was nowhere near close to his, she wasn’t surprised by people at least. But now, even her master had no reaction.
Her breathing became short and shallow. It was painful to breathe. Her mind tried to think of something, but it refused to work. She didn’t want to take her eyes off her enemy, but she had to. No matter the situation, she needed her sword. Even if it made no difference against an enemy like that ninja, without her sword, she felt naked.
Through the corner of her eye, she finally found Asahi. It was near Tadayoshi, on the other side of the room, outside her reach. Shit, the girl thought, looking for her master’s weapon. His sword was out of her reach as well.
“You’re already dead,” the ninja said, pointing at Tadayoshi arm with the shuriken, his killing intent growing.
Ei stopped breathing. Despite barely talking above a whisper, the girl felt the weight of his words like a grip around her throat.
“Hey, Masa. It’s been a while,” Tadayoshi said, unfazed by the ninja’s word. He looked at his bandages and placed a hand over it, smiling. “I let you hit me. Or Ken… young master would’ve found out.”
“Always making excuses. You haven’t changed.” Despite using the same voice, Ei could tell the ninja was smiling underneath the cloth. He put the shuriken inside his clothes and sighed. “Unfortunately, you still overestimate young master’s intelligence. There’s no way he’d ever notice something like this.”
“He might never have realized you revealed your presence for an instant in the forest before attacking. But even he would’ve suspected if you didn’t hit me. You’re the one who’s underestimating Ken… the young master.”
A strange silence settled inside the house. What’s happening…? We’re not… in danger…? It was hard for Ei to believe they were safe. But their conversation feels like two friends catching up after a long time without seeing each other.
Even so, the swordswoman wanted, needed her sword. Ei tried to slowly push herself towards Asahi, praying the ninja would still ignore her. But the moment she moved, he turned his head towards her, his eyes looking at her directly.
Ei froze under that stare. Those eyes seemed like Tadayoshi’s, looking deep into her very soul. But unlike her master’s, they were colder, almost empty.
“You said you’d never have a disciple,” the ninja said after a while, turning his attention back to Tadayoshi.
Ei thought his mouth contorted into what it seemed like smile under the bandana. A different one from before. A mocking one. That is just like Tadayoshi too, she thought.
“Well… Let’s just say I found something interesting in my way,” Tadayoshi said, smiling as he looked at his disciple. “Ei, you don’t need to worry. If he were here to kill us, he could’ve done it already. So, why you are here?”
“The idiot couple believes there’s something in this mountain. It might be nothing, but they said they’d send a priest to investigate…”
The ninja grew quiet, but even Ei could tell he was hesitating to say the rest. He stared at the swordsman in silence and Tadayoshi held the look.
Ei looked between them, feeling the air grow colder. The friendship mood between them was completely gone. The girl was afraid to breathe too loud and break the silence.
“They suspect it might be the one you’re looking for,” the ninja said at last. Then he was gone before Tadayoshi could even react.
Ei turned to her master. She was too curious about the conversation she understood nothing, but kept quiet.
Tadayoshi wasn’t paying attention to her. He had his head down, his eyes unfocused and his hand inside his clothes, touching the scar on his belly.
It wasn’t the first time Ei saw him like this. Whenever they heard a strange rumor, her master got like this. Things like weird night attacks in villages. Places where people disappeared out of nowhere. Villagers suddenly started acting strangely.
Ei now was sure it had something to do with Yasuhiro-sama. If that ninja came all the way to say this, it has to be. Perhaps even has something to do with the night when Yasuhiro-sama died, she thought.
Now Ei couldn’t blame Tadayoshi’s obsession with those strange rumors. Unfortunately, most time it was bandits spreading false rumors to drive away the competition or to attract the attention of some noble looking to make a name for himself without taking part in the ever-going war.
One of the few times that didn’t turn out to be bandits, it was just the rumors being exaggerated. Once they ended up in a village because the new chief was acting weird and he might be possessed. In the end, he was telling puns and wanted to popularize it, but traveling merchants thought it was too weird.
But for some reason, seeing Tadayoshi acting like always made Ei smile. It’s like that time, she thought, remembering. Come to think of it, it was the first time I saw master acting like this. A few weeks after the Obon, they heard the weird rumors for the first time. She could never forget how weird it was to see him serious outside a battle or from a conversation involving Yasuhiro-sama.
After spending a long time lost in a forest again, they looked for any place with a roof to rest. To their bad luck, something Tadayoshi liked to say a lot, the only village near was one her master didn’t want to get any closer. Something about bad memories there. Now Ei had a strong suspected it was about the time he had to run away naked. She never confirmed, however.
But they went anyway. When they got there, it was almost sunset. The walk had left them exhausted, and all Ei could think was to eat something and rest. But to her bad luck, they ended up listening to the villagers’ conversation.
They were debating on how to deal with the recent thief group around the area. Because of them, the merchants refused to go near the village. Some said to ask the Lord for help. Others said it would be useless and they should risk hiring a ronin.
Tadayoshi wasn’t interested in that all but when the villagers started discussing the bandits, he became interested. They were known in the area, but they were weak and hardly made any real trouble. But suddenly they became a lot stronger.
Despite her protests, her master dragged the girl to fight the bandits that same night. At least it was easy to find them, she remembered. They attacked the roads and in the first one they tried, the bandits came to them.
Tadayoshi was so disappointed he might have left the bandits unharmed if they hadn’t attacked The reason behind their sudden change was a deserted soldier from the local noble. He became their leader and under his training and tactics, the bandit group became more dangerous. They were still weak to Tadayoshi’s level, but the lord was too busy and the bandits managed to act freely.
Ei doubted her master remembered the incident at all. But she would never forget. To her, it was special; it was her first time she fought for real, the first time she risked her life, the first time she killed someone with her own skill.
“We’re going to the top,” Tadayoshi said suddenly, bringing her mind back to the mountain. The way he spoke left no room for Ei to change his mind.
The disciple, already expecting something like this from her master, quickly went to wash the pot and the cloths. Knowing Tadayoshi’s hurry, she closed her eyes and dipped everything in the water, including her hands. She cleaned as quickly as she could. To her surprise, the swordsman waited by her side, with the bag open for her to toss the stuff inside.
As they went to the forest once again, he didn’t look at her. Her master only had eyes to the mountaintop.
Ei did the same. She saw the top covered with snow surrounded by clouds, the trees and the rocks covered with white. Despite the beautiful sight, all she felt was the bad feeling she had. But even so, she kept quiet.
“There.” Tadayoshi pointed to somewhere in the mountain.
Ei looked in that direction, but saw nothing different. It was the mountain just like the rest.
“Everything looks the same,” she said without thinking, putting her hands under her armpits to warm up.
“Your eyes are bad. Look closely.” She did as told, but still saw nothing much. “There’s a gap in the trees around that area. It must the stream. The village must be around it.”
She stared at him in disbelief, but Tadayoshi was already going. Ei still looked for the so call gap he said. It’s best to stay close to the river, she thought, but didn’t say. The disciple already knew what she would hear. That it was a waste of time, that it would be faster to go in straight line.
Ei sighed and went after her master.