Masura Kazamune rode untouched through the packed but silent street. The fingers of his right hand brushed against the scabbard of his sheathed sword, his left hand adjusting the position of two large sacks tied to his horse’s saddle. A soft drip accompanied the beast’s nimble steps. The bottoms of both bags were stained a dark red.
He ignored every stare, jaw set, focused instead upon the padding of his stallion’s hooves upon the parched earth. It seemed as if every man, woman, and child in that nameless backwater town had gathered to watch his return. Faces lined the building walls, the doorways, even peeked through the open windows. But none dared speak. Not in the presence of a man such as him.
His destination was a large structure at the end of the wide dirt street. The thatch on its sloped roof was new. Lean wooden columns supported the austere frame, built upon a foundation of assembled stones rather than stout stilts like the other nearby dwellings.
Masura squared his shoulders. In the old days, he had accompanied Lord Akano through many towns similar to this one, though the reception then had been far different. Inquisitive faces would’ve peered at him as now, but the women would’ve clasped their hands in gratitude, the children cheering, the men giving low bows. Lord Akano would’ve waved back, dismounted and walked among the gathered crowd on foot. A sign of deep respect for the peasantry. The lifeblood of the Hiratan Empire.
An aging male servant in a loose brown robe greeted Masura at the sliding entrance door of the elder’s residence. The old man didn’t bow, though he kept his eyes downcast while taking the reins of Masura’s black Kiyoso stallion. Masura ascended the shallow steps, a soaked cloth bag in each hand. A second male servant wearing an identical robe beckoned him forward.
Two figures waited for him at the far edge of the audience room. Horio Tamekage stood erect, feet shoulder-width apart, his receding hair tied in traditional topknot fashion. But Masura gave the man only a furtive glance, his gaze lingering instead upon the kneeling woman beside him. Suroda Tamekage was far older, her posture stooped, strands of long white hair pinned back around her shoulders. Unusual for a woman out here in the Marchlands to retain the role of elder rather than passing it onto a son, though such practices were becoming increasingly common throughout the Eight Provinces. No doubt a result of the Luminous Throne’s influence?and that of Hirata’s new Emperor.
Another twelve men stood along the walls in their black and gray robes. Daylight streamed through the windows to reflect off a dozen hands gripping the hilts of their sheathed single-edged swords. None of the scabbards or hilts bore the mark of the yejin, unlike Masura’s own sekari steel blade. The tart scent of bowstring oil was rampant. They likely had archers hidden behind the one-way partition at the back of the room.
Masura’s mouth twitched, though he stopped it from becoming a full-fledged frown. He gave a slight bow. “I dispatched the brigands, as requested.”
He tossed the two cloth bags onto the floor before either of the Tamekages could reply. The sacks rolled forward with a soft squish and left a pair of red smears along the wooden planks.
Horio Tamekage used a foot to prod the nearest sack. Strands of close-cropped black hair protruded through the open top, still attached to their scalps.
“Where are the rest?” Horio wiped the bottom of his blood-stained boot across the floor.
“They couldn’t be salvaged.” Masura had tried being careful this time, but when it came to properly cutting off a criminal’s head or staying alive?priority went to the latter.
“You had explicit instructions.” Horio kicked the sacks aside. A nearby servant was quick to gather them up. “Bring back every one of those brigands’ heads, or don’t bother returning at all.”
“Too many to carry.” Masura shrugged. “There were twenty of them.”
Eyes widened at that. Horio’s and those of the guards. Only Suroda Tamekage’s expression remained unreadable.
“Liar.” Horio jabbed a finger in Masura’s face. “No lone stray could take down twenty armed criminals. Not honorably.” Several nearby guards nodded. “Tell me, did you resort to using a coward’s poisons? Or perhaps you slit a few of those men’s throats while they were sleeping?”
Masura neither moved nor blinked. Horio wasn’t entirely wrong in his assessment. Masura had caught the brigands by surprise. Most had been too busy with other less honorable pursuits to even notice him. Captured farm girls for their pleasure, along with an open cask of distilled liquor seized during one of their recent raids.
Criminals and their victims?more casualties of the droughts ravaging Hirata’s rice crop in the Glimmering Terraces to the north, now well into its fifth year. Destitute men could be led to commit all sorts of heinous acts.
“Nothing to say in your defense?” Horio paced back and forth before Masura. He tapped his thumb against the hilt of his blade. “You present yourself with only six of these supposed twenty, and with no further evidence the other brigands are dead. How do we know you didn’t just raid a farmer’s field upon our lands and cut off the heads of six random peasants?”
Masura inhaled a breath, but not too deep. The wound at his side, hidden beneath the folds of his blue robe, still throbbed. The brigands’ leader had been neither drinking nor whoring, and had proved a worthy opponent, more skilled than his nineteen subordinates put together. Another yejin turned stray, just like Masura. Bandaging the wound from that man’s marked blade had been a hasty thing. It would need proper treatment and suturing to prevent infection, and soon.
“Ride into the hills and take a look for yourself. I’ll even draw you a map.” Masura kept his gaze level. He wouldn’t lower his eyes or bow to anyone who dared call him a liar. “And if you’re still unsure, question the husbands, parents, and siblings of the women I freed from the brigands’ bondage.”
All but one, anyway, whom two of the criminals had gutted during the chaos in a failed attempt to bargain for their lives. The other women had fled once they realized who Masura was. None had even bothered to thank him.
Horio’s mouth snapped shut, instead matching Masura’s glare. The man’s grip tightened on his sword hilt.
“It is of little concern to us.” Suroda Tamekage’s voice was quiet and frail, yet it cut through the ensuing silence. “We will pay you what you’re owed.”
She signaled behind her. A young female servant approached, head bowed, and knelt in front of Masura. The girl held out a leather coin pouch.
Masura seized the offering with one hand and counted the hollow-centered silver discs in the other. With each metallic clink, more whispers and mutters flared from every corner of the residence. The guards, the servants, the archers lurking behind the rear partition, even the elder and her son. Convention dictated Masura should wait until the meeting was concluded before verifying his payment. A gesture of respect and trust to the other party, though he had long since dispensed with such pointless courtesies.
Lord Akano certainly wouldn’t have approved. It was easy to picture his master’s heavy-lined face giving him a stern frown, seated in the manor study by lamplight, calligraphy brush frozen between fingers and paper. Lord Akano’s desk would’ve been piled high with letters to his many contacts throughout the empire?correspondence to secure labor agreements for desperate Hiratans eager for work.
But the dead couldn’t protest.
“This is only a third of what we agreed upon.” Masura tossed the pouch back at the Tamekages’ feet.
Horio sprang forward. “Be grateful we’re even giving you that, you oath breaking?”
“Enough.” Suroda raised a hand, and Horio fell silent. Her dark eyes settled on Masura. “What we’re offering is more than generous, considering you only brought us six heads. Do you think you deserve more, based on our prior agreement?”
The guards reached for their weapons?thumbs’ lengths of sharpened steel now visible. Masura’s gaze remained fixed upon the partition behind the Tamekages. The archers likely had their bows drawn, aimed at his heart and head.
He grasped the hilt of his own sword. Deflecting arrows was no small feat at such close range, even with the ethereal nimbleness of his sekari steel blade. But it could be done, as could taking on a room of twenty odd men, if necessary. It seemed to be his lucky sign.
He’d fought that same number when pursuing his master’s murderers. Twenty assassins from House Narisane led by the High Lord’s third son, dissatisfied with so many of those lucrative labor contracts given to Lord Akano in his father’s stead. Each of the twenty had fallen to a single swing from Masura’s sword?a wildfire tale that had spread throughout Hirata to become legend.
As had the rumor of Masura’s refusal to die after Lord Akano had been avenged, as yejin tradition demanded. A life of disgrace chosen over an honorable death. The life of an outcast. A stray.
Masura tensed, a sneer splitting his facade. These Tamekages had called him a coward and a liar. With their deaths?he would simply be defending whatever shreds of honor he still had left.
He exhaled his held breath. And be branded a murderer, hunted down like a common criminal. Like the assassins who’d killed Lord Akano. Like the brigands he himself had executed. And like their leader, the former yejin he’d dueled and defeated.
Masura released the grip on his sword. There had been far too much death in these hills already. Lord Akano would’ve been aghast if he knew his old gift was being used for such a purpose, especially if he was watching from the Other world. The last thing Masura needed right now was another name added to an ever-growing list. Masura the Quick. Masura the Oath Breaker. Masura the Stray.
Masura the Butcher.
“Well?” Horio said. “What’re you still standing there for? Take your payment and go?or you won’t be leaving at all.”
Masura gritted his teeth. Horio wasn’t the first to utter such a threat to him, nor would this elder’s overgrown whelp be the last. But he hadn’t come all the way out to this backwater town to answer their pleas for help, only to cause trouble after.
Time to move on.
It took Masura considerable effort not to press his hand to the crude bandage beneath his robe. Probably better to enlist the services of a healer elsewhere, though the next nearest town was more than a full day’s ride.
“I thank you for your generosity.” He left the coins on the floor and turned, perhaps a little too quick. Careless of him. He might take a blade in the back for his trouble, just like Lord Akano had. Horio Tamekage would be more than capable of giving that order, even if he wasn’t the type to swing the sword himself.
Masura breathed easier once his boots touched the compact earth outside the elder’s residence. That same elderly servant waited alongside his Kiyoso stallion. Masura mounted up and rode at a trot down the main street.
The crowd still lingered, pulling back at his approach. Women clutched children to their chests, men shook their heads, youngsters spat at his feet. Masura straightened himself in the saddle, one hand on the reins, the other hanging loose at his side, as far away from the hilt of his sword as possible. It wouldn’t do to show fear among the peasant folk. Not under the terms of this continued existence.
If he’d had his way, he would’ve killed himself upon avenging his master’s death. A short blade to the gut, in typical yejin fashion, to join Lord Akano’s remaining retainers in their sojourn to the Other world. But it hadn’t been up to him. All of Hirata didn’t understand, would never understand.
He was no coward.
A silent messenger had delivered a sealed letter the day after Lord Akano’s murder. Masura had memorized its contents, the characters scrawled in his master’s elegant but unmistakable hand.
The fact you are reading this means I have met my end in a most unexpected way. I bear no ill feelings against whichever house was responsible. Seek vengeance if you must, but I do not wish you to follow me into the Other world. Not yet. Thus, my final order to you:
Should the droughts continue, you and your talents will be of far more use to the troubled people of Hirata, even broken and reviled as you will be. Pledge loyalty to no house. Speak of this to no one. Protect those who cannot do so themselves for as long as you are able.
Your services will always be needed.
Masura had burned the rest, kept only a small crinkled fragment tucked deep within the sleeve of his robe. It bore but a single smudged character.
The thatched roofs of that nameless town faded from the horizon into memory. He would be visiting many more like it in the days to come.