The Boy from the War’, Perrin Lu

Illustrations © 2019 Cécile Matthey

 [ Meditating, © 2019 Cécile Matthey ] After the war was over, Kuroba Ren went home.

In the unsettled space between battle and peace, there was no one to notice one more boy passing through Jinra’s west gate, sword hanging from his hip. The roads around the city were crowded with carts and horses and travellers too poor to afford either, merchants and labourers and spies, and he was not the only former soldier to have discarded his uniform to join the throng.

Days slipped past on the dusty roads, until he reached the Tamagawa and followed the river south. In Okada, one of the larger river towns, he stopped at a small stall, where an old, toothless woman stroked a cat, unconcerned with her lack of customers.

“A gift for your sister? It’s a pretty pattern, just right for summer,” she said, when he touched a robe in blue and green cotton, considering the quality of the fabric.

He looked at her and gave her a small smile. “You could say that,” he said.

It was not expensive and he did not stop to haggle for as long as he could have.

There was no reason for haste, but something drove him onwards at a steady march. Three more days of walking, past green fields the war had not come far enough to destroy, passed hot and slow and interminable. When at last, the road wound into forest, where the air hung still and silent beneath the cedars, the boy’s feet faltered.

He stepped into the cool shade of the trees and drew a steadying breath. Almost there now. Then he stepped into the shadows, and kept walking.

Hours later, a young woman stepped out of the trees, where road met river and arched into a low wooden bridge, and stopped.

Furakawa lay on the other side, the rows of houses with their slate-tiled roofs as familiar as a dream. For a long time, she stood in the forest’s shadow, simply watching. Then she let out a breath too soft to be a sigh and kept walking.

The day was easing into late afternoon, the time when the town was at its quietest. A small temple stood on the far side of town, with a cemetery behind it, and it was there, among the neat gravestones, that she found the long road’s end.

The grave was not as overgrown as she’d expected; the monks must have done what they could, even for those with no family left in the town to care for them. On her knees, she cleared the thin straggle of weeds. When the work was done, she sat back on her heels and tilted her head back to the sky above, then looked back down at the grave.

In the end, all she said was, “Mother, I’m back.”

Kuroba Yuu, three years dead and buried, could not reply. Unspoken, in the silence between them, lay two unmarked graves in the faraway east, for a father and brother gone to war and never returned. Three years ago, when she’d made her last offerings, she had not believed she would live to come back.

And yet here she was, there and back again.

Her only offering was a handful of yellow chrysanthemums she’d bought from a flower-seller in the town square while he sat dozing, coins left in payment beside him. Bowing her head, she offered a wordless prayer, then got back on her feet. Leaving the weeds behind the temple to be burnt, habit led her out of the gates and turned her down a path she knew too well before she came to a stop.

“Stupid,” she murmured to herself. With no male family left in the town, there had been no one to claim house or land. What did she think she was going to find if she went back to the home she grew up in? With the war, the landlord might not have found new tenants yet, but she could hardly return as if there was something—someone—waiting for her there.

So what was she going to do with herself?

“Shiro! Come back here!”

She jumped at the shout and the question slipped from her grasp. A boy who couldn’t have been older than six was sprinting down the road, yukata muddied and one sandal clutched in hand, evidently escaping retribution of some sort. He tried to duck around her but some instinct made her catch his collar as he went past. By the time his pursuer came into sight, she had his head locked in the crook of her right arm.

“Shiro, you little—! Oh, thank you so much for—” The woman paused and looked surprised. “Shu—Shuuran?”

It was only a name. It wasn’t like she’d ever forgotten it.

Her tongue searched what felt like a stranger’s memories. “Mizuki?”

The other woman’s smile was startled but no less bright for it. “Shuuran! It really is you! It’s been so long, you look so different I almost… When did you come back?”

The boy under her arm gave a desperate wriggle in the face of this unlooked-for distraction—and Mizuki snapped around to frown at him.

“You!” she marched over and took him by the arm while he sulked. “So you thought you could run away?” She looked at the younger woman. “Thank you for catching this rascal for me, I’ve been chasing him all over town. Come for dinner, tell me your news. Are you alone? How long are you staying—”

“I didn’t have any plans,” she admitted, and found herself drawn into Mizuki’s invitation before she could find a reason to decline.

She trailed mother and son through the town as the other woman continued the scolding Shiro had failed to flee. Mizuki had always been a smiling girl, pretty and plump; but now, her face thinner, lines worn into the corners of her eyes, she had aged in a way that Shuuran didn’t remember. The war had left its marks on everyone.

And what had Mizuki seen? She had barely recognised her. Shuuran was uncomfortably aware of her too-short hair, the awkward length of her too-new yukata, the fact that she should not have travelled to Furakawa alone; but if her friend saw and wondered—and she must have—she did not ask.

Mizuki made her way to a small restaurant and Shuuran knew it the same way she still recognised much of the town, worn down but surviving. Ducking under the faded blue door divider with the Senjuu family name painted on it, the mingled smells of miso and garlic struck her and she was suddenly hungrier than she could remember feeling in days.

“Sit down,” Mizuki called as she chivvied Shiro and his dirty feet towards the back.

Shuuran looked around her. Through the open door, the deepening evening was a retreating square of light in the dim interior, just enough illumination to suggest that nothing had changed: the tatami getting scratchy at the edges, the ukiyo-e print on the opposite wall of the same demurely smiling geisha, the menu written on the wood pegs at the back the same list of dishes.

“What do you want?” Mizuki asked when she came back out. “The grilled mackerel as usual?”

She turned to her, surprised. “You still remember that?”

Mizuki gave her a wry look. “When you only ever order one thing, it’s hard to forget. Touya used to threaten to change your order and make you try something new, you know.”

“Fine, I’ll order something different today,” she said, laughing. “Where’s Touya? Is he in the kitchen?”

Mizuki’s expression stiffened and something in Shuuran’s gut clenched.

“There was a bad fever in the town last year and Touya came down with it,” Mizuki said, her voice quiet. “We did what we could, but there wasn’t enough medicine for everyone, and he couldn’t fight it in the end. We buried him last spring.”

“Are you all right?”

Mizuki looked over at where Shuuran watched her, uncertain. “Don’t worry about me. I still have Shiro, and the restaurant isn’t doing too badly.”

When Shuuran didn’t answer, she gave her a small smile. “You still haven’t told me your order, you know.”

By the time the first customers for the evening appeared, Shuuran had finished her early dinner. Stepping through the curtained door into the kitchen beyond, she found Shiro fanning the fire under one of the stoves while Mizuki gutted fish, and a young man she didn’t recognise sliced onions with more enthusiasm than ability.

“You have customers!” she called.

Mizuki looked up. “Already? Ah, give me a moment, tell them I’ll be right out.” She wiped the back of her hand on her brow and left a gory streak of red across it. “Oh, and the lanterns! How could I—”

“I already lit them,” Shuuran told her and tapped a finger on her own forehead. Mizuki scrubbed her face with the corner of her sleeve. “They told me what they wanted, so you don’t have to hurry,” she added.


“I was lighting the lanterns, so they must have thought I work here,” she said. “You’re all busy, why don’t I help take orders? I should be able to do that without too much trouble.”

“Oh no, we can’t, that’s just—”

Shuuran rattled off the order before she could finish, then added, “Someone just came in,” and ducked back out. She had no real idea how well the Senjuu was doing, but it seemed busy enough to her, and there were enough customers that Mizuki never found the breath to finish her protests. Shuuran took orders and payment and served and avoided disaster, so when Mizuki finally came out to the front, the last customers for the night, five farmers from a nearby village, were noisily enjoying a round of sake.

“I didn’t ask you to come so you could take over my restaurant,” she said, trying to sound accusing but smiling with the words.

“Then you should be careful who you ask to dinner in future,” Shuuran said.

Mizuki set a tray with a pot of hot tea down on the table between them and sank down with a sigh. “Thank you so much for the help,” she said. “Daichi’s a hard worker but he hasn’t been here long, and he can’t manage the whole kitchen by himself. I was thinking of hiring someone to help, but I wasn’t sure if it’d cost too much or—” She stopped herself, her lips thinning and then easing so quickly, Shuuran could not be sure if she’d imagined it. “I’m babbling, I must be more tired than I thought. I just wanted to say thanks, you really saved us tonight.”

“It’s no trouble,” Shuuran said. “It’s not like I had anything else to do, and I’m glad to be useful.”

Pouring the tea, Mizuki offered her a cup and she reached for it, tired enough to forget that she had tied her too-long sleeves back to free up her arms. When the other woman’s eyes widened, she jerked back, but it was too late to hide the pink and white scar that covered her left hand, mirroring itself on the other side of her palm.

“Your hand! What happened?”

“It’s—it was an accident. It’s fine now. It’s not as bad as it looks,” she said, fingers curling into the ridge of scar tissue across her palm.

Mizuki looked at her, half curious, mostly… mostly just worried. “Can I look?”

Shuuran made herself unclench her fist and offered her hand again, turning it over so Mizuki could see the way the scar ran through it. “It was a long time ago,” she said. “Really, it’s nothing.”

The other woman frowned. Her eyes flickered to Shuuran’s face, and then she released her. “Does it hurt?” she asked.

“No. It healed well,” she said. She’d been surprised at how quickly it closed, snapped bones and all, but she hadn’t been stupid enough to question Doctor Kirihara. It was only a sword wound, clean, he’d said, not like there’d been poison or worse. She had too good an idea of what worse could mean to ask for details.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make a fuss.”

Shuuran sipped the tea and shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

Awkward silence settled between them, until Mizuki got up to usher out the last customers for the night.

“Stay with us tonight,” she said to Shuuran. “We have plenty of room, and I can hardly send you somewhere else after all the help you’ve been.”

The question of lodging for the night had slipped her mind; she’d been careless. “Thank you, then,” she said.

Later, the washing and sweeping up done, Mizuki took her up to their rooms above the restaurant and spread a futon in a small room at the back for her.

Hours later—or had it only been moments? Shuuran sat up, reached for a sword that wasn’t there and opened her eyes to the unfamiliar darkness, every muscle rigid, every sense strained. In the confines of the room, her searching arm struck the wall and she sucked a ragged breath through her teeth; swallowing, hard, she watched the unmoving shadows, until her half-woken mind remembered where she was and she sagged in relief. She leaned against the wall, cheek pressed to the paper.

Peace and quiet all around, and a safe roof over her head. Sleep should have been simple but old habits and nightmares did not rest for the single night they were unnecessary. Wide awake now, her mind could no longer avoid the question it had eluded earlier. Her mother’s grave had drawn her back to Furakawa, but now that she was here, what was she going to do with herself?

The air was heavy with heat, and eventually she threw the thin cotton blanket off, and went to the window. She climbed up on the sill, caught the edge of the gutter and, using the rain pipe, pulled herself up on the roof with a grunt. War had taught her very little about grace, but after three years climbing every roof in Jinra, elegance of movement mattered far less than a strong grip and scraped elbows.

Even on the roof, the windless heat was little better. The roof tiles dug into her spine when she lay back, hands clasped behind her head.

She supposed it would make the most sense for her to go to Moriwaka and look for her uncles—they had never had much use for the sword, Father used to say, so it was likely they hadn’t gone to war like their youngest brother. When was the last she’d heard news of them? Certainly more than three years. The closest family she had left, and yet they might as well have been strangers, and she no better to them. What use would they have for a niece, except to try and find her a husband?

She raised her left hand and looked at the scar. And what use would they have for an unmarriageable niece?

She could find work, she thought, but where and how? A servant in some rich merchant’s household? She was strong enough, at least, and she could do most household chores.

Shuuran closed her eyes. Would this be easier if she was really Kuroba Ren?

When the sound came, she had fallen into the fitful half-dreaming place that was almost easier than real sleep. In the stillness of the night, every noise lingered, and she realised it was the murmur of voices, coming from the other side of the building. It was a strange time for someone to be out, and when the voices did not pass, she made her way quietly over the roof to overlook the street.

Three men were standing by the entrance below, speaking in low voices. She frowned. What were they doing? But if she called out—people would wonder what she was doing on the roof just as much as they’d wonder what these men wanted.

Then she realised that the wavering light she’d taken for a torch or lantern was an open flame eating its way up a wall and froze.

The restaurant was on fire.

The three men retreated to a safe distance, the third man saying something and his two companions laughing, as if they stood watching some street performance. Watching them, Shuuran’s grip on the edge of the roof clenched.

Leaning back so the men couldn’t see her from below, she took a deep breath.

“Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!

Her voice cracked with the second shout and she coughed, but when she looked, the men were already fleeing down the street. Scrambling back over the roof, she swung herself through the window. She ran out of the room just as Mizuki’s door shot open. Her eyes were wild and bewildered, and she started to see Shuuran already up. “Shuuran! The restaurant—”

“I heard!” she snapped and ran down, Mizuki and Shiro close behind her. Already, smoke hung in the air and Mizuki pushed Shiro towards the kitchen and shouted at him to get out. Shuuran ran to the front, where flames were licking at the door, encroaching on the floorboards. Shuuran dragged the door open and saw that outside, fire had crept up into the eaves overhanging the entrance. She swore.

“Shuuran! Get back, it’s too dangerous—” Mizuki said, then grunted and threw a bucket of water on the flames.

The fire spat thick smoke in protest. Shuuran choked, her eyes tearing with ash, and ran, half-blind, to the kitchen to snatch a wood basin and fill it from the water jar. She passed Mizuki stumbling with the weight of the bucket, and hurled it on the flames, then caught Mizuki’s bucket and threw that too. She left the lighter basin to Mizuki and they ran for the kitchen again. When they returned with more water, they heard raised voices gathering on the street outside, the crash of water from Mizuki’s neighbours.

They emptied the water jar and Shiro was filling buckets from the rain barrel when a woman outside cried, “The fire’s out!” and a ragged chorus of cheers followed. Mizuki staggered and went to her knees, and Shuuran nearly dropped the slopping basin gripped in her arms. Setting it down with suddenly shaky hands, she pushed sooty hair out of her face.

As the smoke cleared, Mizuki called out, “Is everyone all right?”

“We’re fine! You’re the ones we’re worried about!” a man shouted back in answer. “How about you and Shiro? Are you hurt?”

“We’re fine!” she said, even as Shiro, ignoring her orders, came in from the safety of the back alley. She hugged him with a laugh of relief that was nearly a sob.

Shuuran slumped against the wall and closed her eyes with a sigh. Her arms ached and now that she’d stopped to pay attention, so did her back, and her legs, and her skin felt sore and itchy.

They caught the fire early, she thought; it wasn’t like she hadn’t faced worse before. Far worse. She just—hadn’t expected to find danger here, was all. Three years of war had rewritten her memories of home into a haven, the petty crimes and quarrels conveniently discarded and forgotten.

She opened her eyes. Mizuki had picked her way through the charred remains of the entrance and was surveying the damage. The neighbours who had turned out to stop the fire were milling about, discussing how it could have started, and previous catastrophes.

“At least it’s not as bad as that fire at Mayama’s two years ago, that took three houses before they stopped it. If it hadn’t started raining they would have lost the whole street,” an old woman said to her husband, poking her head in through the door.

Her husband nodded and added, “She should go to Muwa, he does good work for reasonable prices, not like that—”

They stopped, surprised, when they saw Shuuran sitting in the dark, and she got back to her feet with haste.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know Mizuki had visitors—” the old woman trailed off, then squinted. “Hm? Aren’t you Yuu’s daughter?”

Now it was Shuuran’s turn for surprise, and looking at their faces in the scattered lantern light falling through the door, she ventured, “Ibara-jiisan? Eri-baasan?”

The old couple had been running the biggest vegetable stall in the market for as long as anyone could remember, while their children and grandchildren proliferated around them like weeds. Eri-baasan’s gossip was legendary and her memory even more so.

The old woman nodded and said, “Yes, yes, what was it—oh, Shuuran! I haven’t seen you in so long, not since your mother died. Have you been staying with Mizuki the whole time? We never saw you!”

“I went to my uncle in Moriwaka. I just came back for a visit, and Mizuki offered me a place to stay for the night…”

Eri-baasan looked her her with curious eyes that had not lost their spark for the wrinkles around them, and Shuuran fought the urge to flinch, as if the old woman could pry everything out of her with a stare. She wouldn’t have put it past her to try.

Her husband just said, as placid as if they weren’t having this conversation in the middle of the night in the aftermath of a fire, “Too bad something like this had to happen on your first night back. Hope it hasn’t scared you off, eh?”

“No, we stopped the fire before it got too bad. It was just… bad luck, I suppose.”

The old man shook his head. “It’s not like she needs the trouble,” he said. “But it’s a good thing she caught it so fast. Guess you could say that was lucky, at least! I swear my wife nearly jumped out of the window when we heard the shouting.”

Shuuran looked outside. She recognised some, if not all, of the neighbours standing there. None of them, so far as she could tell, were the three men she had glimpsed standing by the Senjuu watching the fire.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Very lucky.”

 [ Burning, © 2019 Cécile Matthey ] Night turned to dawn turned to morning.

Shuuran declined to retreat to the town’s only inn and Mizuki was too harried to argue the matter, so it was Shuuran who took Shiro off to the bathhouse and delivered her squirming charge to the owner. Later, clean and scrubbed herself, she delivered him damp and considerably quieter back to the Senjuu, too tired to keep up the fight.

The carpenters had already arrived, and Mizuki was deep in conversation with them, frowning as she twisted her sooty sleeves in her hands.

“Three days? You’re sure it can’t be done any faster, Muwa?” Shuuran heard her say as they came in through the kitchen, and Shiro made for the stairs, yawning.

“That’s the best we can do,” Muwa said. “You’re lucky, you know, if Sanada hadn’t changed his mind about his plans, we wouldn’t have the extra wood, and you’d have to wait an extra week until we got a new supply in.”

“A week! If we lost that much business we might as well move out and live on the street,” Mizuki said. “And it’s right at the entrance too, so unless people come in through the kitchen we can’t keep things running while you fix it, can we?”

“If your customers don’t mind getting a hammer dropped on their heads, they can try,” Muwa said with an expression of exaggerated doubt. “Ah, don’t worry so much, three days will be over before you know it! Take a rest, it must be tiring running the busiest place in town.”

Mizuki shook her head and teased, “Is that how you drum up business? With flattery? Do your best then, and if there’s any way you could finish the work any sooner…”

“You know we’ll do it if there was a way. Jun’ll move mountains for a pretty lady if she asked him. We’ll see, huh?”

After Muwa headed back to his own shop to fetch the supplies and tools he’d need, Shuuran said, “Shiro’s gone upstairs, probably to sleep.”

Mizuki looked relieved. “Really? He must be exhausted, he never goes to bed without me chasing him.”

“You should get cleaned up. I’ll help watch over the place,” Shuuran said.

“I will, just give me a moment… Thank you so much for the help. I’m so sorry, if you’d just gone to the inn, you wouldn’t be involved in this mess.”

“It’s not like the fire was your fault. At least I can say it was an interesting night,” Shuuran said with wry humour. She touched the charred wood of the door frame. “How will you lock up at night?”

Mizuki sighed. “It’s not like we have a lot to steal. But Muwa said he’d get one of his boys to stay over here until they’ve finished the work. It was very kind of him, he really didn’t have to.”

“That’s good,” she murmured. Not enough to be reassuring, but better than nothing. She hoped whoever Muwa sent would be more intimidating than the man himself.

Mizuki left for the bathhouse, and Shuuran sat by the entrance—given the way it gaped into the street, it wasn’t much of a door right now. It was close to mid-morning, and the sun was high, the sky clear and cloudless. A dry summer so far, she thought, and wondered if the rice fields would be all right.

A few people stopped to exclaim at the damage or ask after Mizuki and Shiro, and Shuuran tried to answer as well as she could; the ironmonger’s wife, Aoba, from across the street, came with a pot of simmered chicken for Mizuki. Returning from the kitchen, Shuuran found her standing in the entrance, hands on hips, as if she could bar it with her small frame. Two men were standing outside, and Shuuran came to an abrupt stop.

“Mizuki is fine,” Aoba was saying in firm tones. “I’ll let her know you stopped by when she returns, but I don’t know when that will be.”

The man standing before her was middle-aged, tall and burly with what Shuuran thought looked like more fat than muscle, and despite Aoba’s assurances, showed no inclination to leave. He glanced past and saw Shuuran standing inside.

“Oi, who’s that?” he asked with a jerk of his chin. When Shuuran stepped forward and he got a better look at her, he looked her over and said, “Haven’t seen you around before.”

“My name is Kuroba. I’m just a friend of Mizuki’s,” Shuuran said, non-committal.

Having decided that she possessed neither threat nor interest, the man’s gaze had already fallen elsewhere. If not for the two women standing in the way, Shuuran suspected he would have invited himself inside despite Mizuki’s absence.

His companion, younger, lankier and already showing signs of inebriation, was examining the damage with undue interest.

“Doesn’t look that bad at all,” he said. “Thought it’d be way worse, yah, what a—”

A heavy hand settled on the back of his neck with a thump and he yelped.

“Looks like it was a close shave, eh?” the man said. “Lucky for her. Pity it got the door like that though, looks like she’s going to have some trouble keeping the trash out.”

With a final, unpleasant smile, he left, the younger man gripped by the scruff of his neck.

Aoba breathed an audible sigh of relief. “He’s one to talk about trash,” she muttered.

“Who are they?” Shuuran asked, still staring after their backs as they wove through the street traffic.

“That nasty piece of work is Gohei and the drunkard with him is Nobuo. Came to gloat at Mizuki’s trouble, by the looks of it.”

“What does he want with her?”

“Gohei’s a troublemaker and he’s been getting worse since he lost his own shop and his wife got sick of him and went home to her parents’ village. And as for what he’s after…” Aoba gave Shuuran an uneasy glance, then leaned in. “Don’t tell Mizuki I told you, but I heard he tried to get her to marry him in the spring, and she gave him a piece of her mind. Not that I blame her.”

“And he’s been making trouble ever since?” Shuuran said.

Aoba frowned. “Well, I don’t know. Mizuki’s had some problems here and there, but nothing too serious until this fire. It’s hard enough for her to keep things running, but wolves like Gohei see a hardworking woman like Mizuki without a man to protect her, and they smell meat. We’d all be better off without him, but he’s too clever to get caught by the council elders.”

Shuuran made a face. “The elders?” she said. “They’re useless.”

“Exactly,” Aoba nodded with emphatic agreement. “Oh, Mizuki! You’re back!”

She was, looking much better for her visit to the bathhouse, but when she thanked Aoba for the food, the other woman spoke quietly in her ear, and she paled again.

Shuuran watching the street, pretended not to notice. She should tell Mizuki, she thought. But even if she’d seen Gohei and his friends start the fire, what could they do? Arson was a serious offence, but the Furakawa town council were weak and easily bought off. It would take time and money Mizuki couldn’t spare to bring them to justice, and the odds they would find some way to escape or retaliate were all too high.

Could Kuroba Ren could have protected Mizuki where Shuuran could not? she wondered abruptly. Gohei had dismissed her the moment he saw her; at the very least, he would have taken a man, and a former soldier at that, seriously. But Mizuki could not have asked Kuroba Ren to stay without a second thought for town gossip, and Ren could not have stopped the fire if he was staying in an inn across town. Neither Ren nor Shuuran, it seemed, were quite the friend she needed here.

Her lips pressed thin. In the end, silence was an old, hard habit to break, as if telling one thing would necessitate telling another, and another again, three years of secrecy spilling into the hard glare of day. And even in her own mind, Shuuran could not always explain why she had to gone to Jinra, let alone make any one else understand what had driven her there.

There had to be other ways of dealing with Gohei, she thought.

The second night, she sat against the wall and waited for Mizuki to fall asleep. It took longer than Shuuran had hoped; last night must still be weighing on her. Pausing outside the door to Mizuki and Shiro’s shared room, she listened to the quiet within, then went down the stairs.

Down in the front room, Muwa’s oldest son was snoring loudly from where he lay sprawled on his futon. Not the best deterrent to trouble. Shuuran watched him for a moment, then huffed a sigh and let herself out by the back door.

Walking between shadows and moonlight, a cat watched her pass, eyes gleaming; rats skittered and dug their way through the day’s trash; a broken blind somewhere rattled to itself. Once upon a time, even walking alone through the dreaming town like this would have been an adventure, but after the raucous streets of Jinra, Furukawa’s sleep held no nightmares.

She left the town and crossed the bridge to enter the forest. She hadn’t expected to return in the dark, and even with the lantern, she walked past her marking twice before finding the overgrown trail through the trees that led off the road to a small clearing around a fallen tree. Reaching among the creepers that tangled themselves around the dead wood, her fingers scrabbled through the dirt before she found what she had come for and pulled it out, covered in dead leaves and vines.

As she’d hoped, neither sword nor bundle had been touched; what traffic that passed through the forest rarely ventured off the road and the town children’s territories lay elsewhere. Slinging both over her shoulder, she made her way back, only stopping when she reached the bridge. The old wooden boards shifted under her feet; maybe next year the town could finally spare the money to repair it before a spring flood washed it away.

She looked down at the whispering water below. Mist had drifted down the river banks, gauzing over the river so it showed no reflection. The night around her was a held breath, her sword and men’s clothes a weight on her back. They, and the scars, were all that remained of Kuroba Ren.

Shrugging the sword from her shoulder, she drew the blade. In the darkness, the steel was too old and worn to gleam but the edge was still sharp and that was the only thing that mattered. Sliding it back into its sheath, she held it over the water, like an offering to some unseen spirit.

The river waited.

Her fingers clenched tight around the scabbard. In the end, she drew back. Sword still in hand, she resumed the walk back to Mizuki’s. When she let herself back in, latched the door behind her and climbed the stairs, the house was as still as she had left it, and she let out a breath.

Up in her room, she hid sword and bundle behind a chest of bedding. Come morning she would roll it up in her futon and trust that Mizuki was too polite to pry. Lying back, she stared at the shadows on the ceiling, hand curling into the imagined grip of the sword across the room. Could you be haunted by your own ghost?

And on that thought, she fell asleep.

Three days later, Mizuki hung a new door divider, dark blue cotton painted with white fish, over the entrance while Shuuran nudged the last table into place.

“Just in time for lunch,” she said and surveyed the restaurant, clean and waiting, with relief. The repairs had been endured in a haze of chaos and sawdust but Muwa and his brother had done what they could to clean up after themselves and the place was nearly as good as new. Certainly no worse for wear, to Shuuran’s uncritical eye.

“You needn’t have worried,” she said, and Mizuki laughed a little.

“I know, I worry about everything. But if I don’t, who will?”

The question was lightly asked but her smile was tired, her eyes distant. Touya never worried, Shuuran remembered; or if he had, he shrugged it off with a laugh so quickly she’d never been able to tell. With him beside her, Mizuki had worried less, smiled easier, trusted in a world that felt like a kinder place, because he seemed to make it so.

“I’ll just check on the kitchen—” she said, to leave Mizuki to her thoughts.

“Ah—Shuuran, wait,” Mizuki said. “I’m sorry, it’s been so busy and I really didn’t mean to make you stay so long. Thank you so much for your help.”

“It’s nothing—”

Mizuki looked at her, expression briefly unreadable, then seemed to steel herself. “Shuuran, does… does your uncle’s family treat you well? Are you happy with them?” she asked. Her hands tugged at her sleeves and then fell to her sides. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to,” she added. “I just want you to know that you’ll always be welcome here, you can stay as long as you need.”

Shuuran stared at her, genuinely startled. She opened her mouth, then shut it for lack of an answer.

“No—they treated me very well. I never had problems with them,” she said, abruptly guilty over what felt like unintended malingering.

After the first exclamations of surprise at her return, no one in town had pressed too hard about what had brought her back. Shuuran had evaded their few questions as politely as she could, and if anything, they seemed to think she’d returned to help Mizuki with the Senjuu place. Mizuki herself had been too busy to question her, or so she’d thought.

But Mizuki’s suspicions were all too natural under the circumstances—after all, how else would anyone explain her sudden return, changed appearance or wary reticence about the family she was supposed to have spent three years with?

“You really don’t have to worry, they never hurt me,” she said again, and this at least had the conviction of honesty. “It’s just… I suppose I missed Furakawa. And then everyone said the war was over, and it was safer to travel now, so I set out as soon as I could, even though I knew it was still dangerous. It was foolish, I know.”

Mizuki studied her and Shuuran had to fight the urge to look away.

“I’m sorry for worrying you,” she began, and Mizuki shook her head.

“Oh, don’t, I was just—worrying as usual. I let myself think too much,” she said and tried to smile, looking embarrassed. “I’m so glad—”

Shuuran looked away and found herself staring at the tatami. “Thank you,” she said, the words so low Mizuki could not have heard them. “Thank you,” she repeated with more force, and looked at her. “For worrying.”

Mizuki’s smile steadied. A loud rap on the door made them look around, and Daichi came in. “Maybe the fire was a good thing,” he told her. “The place looks way nicer than everyone else on the street now.”

Mizuki made a face at him. “So you won’t mind if I take the cost for the repairs out of your pay?”

“Hey hey, I was just joking!”

By dinnertime, business had resumed with enthusiasm. If Mizuki still worried about the customers she’d lost during the restaurant’s temporary closing, it seemed like half the town were descending on her to make up for it. When the last customers finally left, Shuuran felt like she had just fought a small but very long drawn war. How had Mizuki managed before? She must have been running herself ragged. Ignoring the tables still waiting to be cleared, she sat and looked up at the ceiling, which was at least clean and empty.

“Shiro? Shiro! Where are you?” Mizuki leaned out of the kitchen to ask “Shuuran, have you seen him?”

She turned. “No, wasn’t he upstairs? I thought you sent him to bed.”

“I did, but I just went up and he’s gone! He must have slipped out somehow and we didn’t see him. That little rascal, what does he think he’s doing? It’s so late, he can’t just run around the town—”

Shuuran climbed to her feet, frowning. “That’s strange. Maybe he went to look for a friend?”

Mizuki’s hands wrung her sleeves and she turned one way, then the other, while she thought, face tense with worry. “Maybe—I hope so, I’ll ask Hina’s family if they’ve seen him, or maybe he’s with Natsu— If he’s not with them they might know where he went…”

“He’s probably with his friends, but Daichi and I can look around the area and see if we can find him,” Shuuran said.

“Oh, but it’s so late, it’s not safe for you to be wandering around and everyone’s so tired…”

Shuuran touched her shoulder. “Mizuki! Finding Shiro is more important. I’ll tell Daichi and we’ll come back as soon as we can.”

Mizuki gave her a terse nod and then was through the door with a clatter of sandals. Daichi tried to protest Shuuran searching the streets alone, but she glared at him until he gave up the argument and they divided their routes north and south of the restaurant.

The streets were not yet deserted and Shuuran stopped what passers-by she could, but no one had seen any sign of Shiro. Lantern in hand she made her way down one street, then another, peering into unlikely corners in some vague hope she would find him hiding somewhere. Her shouts drew no answer.

Too soon she found herself at the edge of town, close enough to hear the river, and she stopped, frustrated. She should turn back, she thought; Mizuki might have found him already. If he was still missing, she’d come and search the river path, and the forest if need be, though what Shiro could have been thinking to wander out this late—

A man’s shout tore the air, followed by children’s shrieks, high and shrill.

Shuuran turned and ran. A child’s furious howl drew her through a narrow alley to her right, lantern waving so wildly she nearly threw it aside in her haste. From the other end of the alley came the sound of quick feet and then two children, a boy and a girl who couldn’t have been much older than Shiro, ran past, fleeing some unseen terror.

She burst from the alley and turned the way they’d just come.

“Shiro!” She stopped, startled. Four men stood outside the town inn. This would have been nothing remarkable but that they appeared to be dripping wet and the tallest of them was holding a six year old boy by the arm while he kicked and yelled.

They turned at her shout and Shuuran bit back an oath. Gohei peered at her for a moment and then said, “Oh, Mizuki’s friend, huh? Bit late for a woman to be running around herself like this, don’t you think?”

“Let him go,” she said, the words flat.

“Yeah? You want to know what the little brat and his friends did? Threw a bucket full of fish guts and piss on us, that’s what!” another of the men spoke up, and she recognised the nasal tones of the other man, Nobuo. The other two, she didn’t recognise.

Her lips pressed thin, and she slid a glance at Shiro, who was scowling at the world in general and his captors in particular. There were four of them and only one of her; she had no weapon and they had Shiro surrounded. One might even argue they had the right of the matter, given what Shiro and his friends had done.

“He was just playing a childish prank,” she said. “I’m sorry he’s caused you so much trouble, but his mother is very worried about him, so if you would let him go…”

Gohei shook Shiro and he winced. “Poor woman just doesn’t know what to do with him, does she?” he said with mocking sympathy. “She’s too soft for it. Boys need a man’s hand to keep them in check, and now his father’s gone…”

Shiro tried to bite the hand gripping him. “Don’t talk about my father!” he yelled.

“Shiro!” Shuuran said and closed the distance between them. Now that she was nearly standing in their midst, her nose could tell all too well that Nobuo had not been lying. It might have even been funny, if Shiro hadn’t gotten himself caught doing it. “You should apologise,” she said.

The boy scowled at her. “I won’t!” he snapped.

“Do you want them to drag you home and make more trouble for your mother?” she said, voice low. It wasn’t her place to lecture him and he was so angry she could not tell if he’d listen to reason. But Gohei wasn’t going to just let him go, short of Shuuran extricating him by force she did not have right now. “She’ll have to apologise in your place. Don’t make her worry even more,” she added in quieter tones.

Shiro’s shoulders stiffened but he did not speak. Shuuran was beginning to wonder if she would have to let the men drag him home after all, when he bit his lip and mumbled, “Sorry.”

Gohei scratched an ear with his little finger and said, “Ha? What’s that? Sounded like a flea just tried to say something.”

Shiro’s fists clenched and Shuuran bit back a curse. “I’m sorry we threw the bucket of fish guts at you! It’s nothing to do with my mom so stop trying to blame her!” he burst out in a rush. “Now let me go!”

He flailed and Gohei let him go so suddenly he crashed into Shuuran, who steadied him, then bowed quickly.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sure he really is sorry. Now if you don’t mind, we must get back before Mizuki worries even more.”

She ignored Gohei’s sneer and took Shiro by the hand. No one tried to stop them as she marched him down the street, and she did not dignify them by looking over her shoulder. They were halfway back to the Senjuu when Shiro tightened his grip on her hand. “Are you going to tell my mom?” he asked.

“Even if I don’t, she’ll find out when Gohei tells her,” Shuuran said.

“She’s not going to talk to him,” Shiro muttered. “He made her cry, she said he didn’t but I saw. I think he tried to hit her.”

Shuuran curled her free hand into a fist and counted to ten, then released it. She said, “If I don’t tell your mother, will you promise not to play any more pranks on Gohei? He’s not a good man. You and your friends will get hurt.”

“He’s a coward! I’m not scared of him!”

Shuuran stopped. Then she knelt down to look him in the eye. “Shiro. Look at me. Gohei is a coward, but he and his friends are bigger than you and your friends. And because they’re cowards, they’re not afraid to use that to hurt you. So in a way, they’re scarier than brave people. People are funny like that.”

Shiro eyed her with wary consideration. “It’s not fair,” he said. “If I was bigger I could trash him and then he wouldn’t dare. Like when my dad was around.”

“When you grow up, you’ll be bigger,” Shuuran said. “And then you can make sure no one makes your mother cry again. But until then, you shouldn’t pick fights with people like that. If you get hurt, your mother will cry too, you know.”

After a long moment, he gave her a reluctant nod. “I promise,” he said.

Shuuran got back to her feet and dusted her knees. “Good.”

“It’s still not fair,” he said, sliding his hand back into hers. “Mom always says the guhin in the forest will take me away and eat me if I’m bad. But it can’t be true because then they should eat people like Gohei first.”

“Ah,” Shuuran said. “Maybe they think he won’t taste good, so they won’t eat him. Children are much tastier.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I think they’re just lazy,” he said.

When they got back, Mizuki was standing in the door, scanning the street. At the sight of them, she ran to catch Shiro up in her arms, ignoring his protests.

“Shiro! Where did you go? How could you do that?! I was so worried, I thought you ran away or someone took you! Don’t you—”

Watching them, Shuuran blew her lantern out. Looking back down the street, she thought of four men who were most likely washing themselves off in the chilly river just then. But even if the guhin of the forest were watching, they had their own interests when it came to choosing their victims, more than anything so convenient as human good or evil.

But perhaps demons might have their uses nonetheless.

The sky was moonless and clouded, the river fogged in heavy mist. The night was so dark that two men walking down the river path could have passed each other in the sooty blackness and never known it, so long as their feet were quiet and sure.

Fortunately for the watcher by the river, standing in the deeper shadow of a tree, the men she waited for were neither so silent nor so sure of their way.

Somewhere up ahead came the first signs: the scrape and thump of stumbling feet, a man’s drunken curse. As the footsteps drew closer, the watcher straightened and stepped onto the river path.

The worst moment of any fight was always the knife’s edge before it began—the still, terrible point where time slowed to a crawl and you could still think, fear, dream uselessly of reprieve. She closed her fingers on the hilt of her sword, her hesitance a prayer to a nameless god, then released it and began walking. Better not to think at all, before fear turned into panic and hope choked you up, slowed you down.

The men did not see her until she was nearly on them. They numbered three tonight; Gohei, Nobuo and the third man whose name she still didn’t know, with a single lantern between them to light their way. It swung unsteadily as they came to a stop and blinked with bleary, bloodshot eyes.

“What the—”

In answer, Shuuran drew her sword. The men gaped and staggered back, confused and swearing, but their fear came too little, too late. She turned to Nobuo, who stood closest to the river’s edge, and slammed the flat of her sword across his stomach. He doubled over, gasping, and she drove her shoulder into his chest, hard enough to throw him off his feet, arms flailing, until he crashed into the river below with a shrill shout.

She turned to the other two men as they stood stunned and staring. The third, unnamed man whispered, “T-tengu?”

Behind the mask, she smiled, if only to herself. When she stalked towards them, Gohei’s friend yelled and hurled his lantern at her. She sidestepped it and it landed on the path beside her and caught fire, flames licking the white paper.

She prodded the burning heap with the tip of her blade and looked at the men.

“More fires?” she said, the tone mocking, voice pitched low enough to be difficult to recognise.

Gohei’s eyes widened and the unnamed man looked at him, backing away on unsteady legs. “I—I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “It wasn’t my idea!”

He made the mistake of turning to flee, but Shuuran was ready and faster. She knocked his shaking legs out from under him with her scabbard and sent him flat on the ground. Pinning him down with a foot between his shoulder blades, she knelt and said, “And a lousy liar too. If you’re too much of a coward to face your crimes, you should make better friends.”

Blood ran down his cheek where the edge of her blade pressed against it and he whimpered.

Something moved in the corner of her eye, too clumsy for stealth, and she hit the ground just as Gohei roared and hurled himself at them. She scrambled to her feet while he whipped around, the still prone form of his whimpering friend between them. In the sputtering light of the burning lantern, Gohei’s eyes were wild, his teeth bared.

She watched him, wary. Even for a soldier, single-handedly taking on three men, however drunk, was a gamble. With his two friends removed, the odds of the fight were evened, but Gohei, by her guess, had always seemed the most dangerous of the trio and anger and fear could do a great deal to sober a man’s mind.

So much easier to kill him than to let him live, a voice in her mind murmured.

He came at her, fists swinging, and she dodged. The world had narrowed to this circle of flickering light, already dying in a patch of smoking grass. She swung at him and he ducked, faster than she had expected, but not fast enough, in the end, against an armed enemy. A trained one. She opened a cut on his cheek, sliced once, twice, three times at his hands and arms; small, niggling wounds that drove him back and enraged him.

Then he made a wild lunge at her and his fist grazed the mask, enough to knock it askew. She clenched her teeth against an exclamation and slashed wildly, forcing him to leap back with an oath. She had pushed him nearly to the river; was it close enough? It would have to be, she decided, and drove her scabbard into his stomach, point first. He doubled over a choked howl and she kicked him, hard.

He caught her foot as he fell and she landed flat on the ground with a hiss of pain. She kicked again and he finally tumbled down the steep bank, her sandal clutched in his stubborn grip.

Shuuran drew a noisy breath, then pushed herself back to her feet and touched her mask. She had widened the eyeholes to make sure she could see, but Gohei’s fist had knocked it askew and left her nearly blind. Tugging the mask back into place she felt the thin clay crack. Picking up her sword, she looked around. From the sound of things, Nobuo had dragged himself out of the river somewhere further downstream, where he was now attempting to rescue Gohei. Their other friend seemed to have fled the scene.

She found the river path more by instinct than by sight, and went back the way the men had come. She did not stop until she had reached the bridge, where she paused to set her sword down and finally strip the cheap tengu’s mask she had bought from one of the shops in town. Wincing, she rubbed at her bruised cheek with the back of her hand.

Standing on the bridge, where a week ago she had held her sword over its waters, she looked at the mask in the moonlight. It stared back, all ugly nose and red and black paint. Who would have thought, after everything in Jinra, the blood and monsters and death, that she would return here and find herself playing the part of a demon herself? It was as if a watching god was playing an elaborate prank on her right then, even as she played one on Gohei.

She did not realise she had begun to smile until she began to laugh, a quiet, startling sound that the river seemed to throw back at her. She laughed until she wheezed and had to sit down, feet hanging over the water, one sandaled and one bare, and lean her head against the rail. It felt like an age before the laugh laughed itself out of her and she could draw a deep, shaky breath.

Tilting her head back, she looked up at the night sky, then back at the mask she was still clutching. With one final smile for its mocking face, she released it to the water below.

Would the men consider their trouncing from a tengu reason enough to behave themselves? Gohei had been stupid enough to try and stand his ground. He might have learnt a valuable lesson. Or maybe he would learn no lesson at all—only tomorrow would tell.

What would she do then? She didn’t know.

Maybe it was naive to believe that they could be driven off without bloodshed. The war was over but what did that really mean? She was no longer a soldier under orders to kill; was that why she hesitated to do worse to them? But no matter the orders, the hand on the sword had always been her own. She could not call herself the better person in the end.

Sword in hand, she walked back into the sleeping town.

When Shuuran returned from the market, she found Mizuki sitting in the back door, washing the last of the dishes from the lunch crowd.

“I got the tofu you asked for but Miho-baasan said she was all out of ginger. Do you want me to go ask around?” she said.

Mizuki looked up. “Ah, no, it’s fine! I think we still have enough for dinner, I just thought it’d be good to get some more just in case.”

Setting the bucket of tofu on top of the big black water jar by the door, Shuuran glanced around the kitchen. “Anything you need help with?”

She flapped a dripping hand over her shoulder. “I’m almost done, it’s nothing.”

Daichi had returned home to run some errands and Shiro had run off with his friends. The mid-afternoon air was warm and still and the restaurant was quiet, the only real noise the splashing of water and clinking of pottery in the old wooden basin, accompanied by Mizuki’s tuneless hum. Shuuran sat down beside her.

“I hear that Gohei left town. Miho-baasan said she heard he was going to look for work with a cousin in the next village. Did you know?”

Mizuki’s hands stilled. “Aoba told me something like that this morning,” she said. “But he’s left before, he could come back.”

She hadn’t heard about that part; something to watch for then. “Still seemed like good news to me,” she said.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mizuki try to smile but grimace instead. “It is,” she admitted and stared at her linked hands while they dripped suds into the basin. “How did you know?”

Shuuran examined the back alley wall with studied disinterest. “I heard he was making trouble around town. Also, Shiro hates him.”

Mizuki’s pained expression turned into a snort of laughter. “Some days I’m not sure Shiro likes anyone at all,” she told her. She sighed and added, wistful, “I suppose in a town the size of Furakawa, everyone was bound to know eventually.”

“You could have told me, you know,” Shuuran said and then paused. “I might not have been able to help,” she said, “but…”

“But you might have helped Shiro throw fish guts at them?” Mizuki said.

She blinked, then bit back a smile. Badly. “I might have been a little tempted.”

Mizuki shook her head but Shuuran could tell she was giggling. She went back to rinsing the dishes, piling them into a stack on the floor between them as she dried them.

“I was thinking of staying,” Shuuran said. “Here, in Furakawa. If it’s not too much trouble.”

Mizuki dried the last dish and set it down. Picking up the basin, she tipped the filthy, greasy water into the gutter, then shook her head at her again. “Silly girl,” she told her. “Of course it’s no trouble.”

After the war was over, Kuroba Shuuran came home.

© 2019 Perrin Lu

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