by John Gerard Fagan
Yukimitsu sat cross-legged by an unlit fire. The room was still except for a slither of light inching under the door. Tea bubbled somewhere out in the dark; the smell made his throat run and jutted him out of his dream-like daze. He coughed and his breath smoked. Longed for the days before he served at Court. Longed to hear her voice in the now silent rice fields.
The door slid wide open, drowning the floor with colour not seen in four days. He shielded his eyes as the young lookout told him news with a face drained. His last surviving brother had been attacked by the rebellious barons on a delivery to the monastery in Mount Hiei. Yukimitsu held a long blink and nodded. Pink-ribbon scars were itching under his chin. Wounds on his back still to heal. He slid a yellowed letter from under the tatami and read with deepening breaths. He pushed himself to his feet and coughed. The cold. The silence.
The general was blending perfume, and the fumes of incense filled the moonlit courtyard. With the scent of the past lingering on his hunting-cloak, he packed his bow, abandoned his post, and rode into Goshu.
He hurried through the destitute landscape of a country flirting with starvation. Ruined shrines. Flowering trees lay dead on the roads. He cut into the burned fields and along the mountain trails that were laden with ice that was once snow. Whispers of a long-lost childhood were in the breeze.
A rebel boy appeared at the mountain barrier in the dawn’s early light. He was watering a pony and playing a Chinese flute. Yukimitsu crouched and stared. A stroke of luck he was needing. The child was no more than 10 years old. Alone. Bones jutted out beneath pale skin. Unarmed. He crept upon him, drawing out a knife.
“Don’t move, or it’s your life.”
The music stopped and the boy nodded. He allowed his thin wrists to be shackled without a struggle. Yukimitsu hoped he could use him as a trade for Jin. Hoped the rebels still valued the old customs.
At nightfall he made camp under the shelter of a fallen oak tree.
“Hungry?” he asked the boy, taking out a bag of dried rice and salted plums. The boy answered with silence. “Suit yourself.”
Yukimitsu warmed the rice over the fire as the boy sat unmoved, arms over his knees.
“Where are you from?”
“Yaizu,” the boy whispered.
Yukimitsu nodded. “A long way from home.”
The boy shrugged. “I follow my father. And we support the one true emperor.”
Yukimitsu laughed and coughed. Nothing further was said. When the boy slept, he placed the remainder of the food and the last of his water beside his head. In the morning it was gone.
Under the light of a pink sky, they made their way up the mountain and into the thick bamboo in front of the monastery. The corpses of the monks were scrawled across the stone garden. All clothing ripped from them. Mouths open as if in a scream.
“What are you going to do?” the boy whispered.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“If you let me go, I won’t yell. You could get away.”
“You’ll yell all right.”
The boy fell silent. Yukimitsu drew his bow and scanned the area. A swarm of rebels. He counted at least twelve outside, and one had Jin’s coat on. His throat tightened and breaths became deeper. Clenching his jaw, he untied the boy’s wrists.
“Take my horse and leave this province. Go home to your mother. This war isn’t yours, child.”
The boy stared. “You going to kill them?”
“What if my father is one of them. You kill him, too?”
“You see what they’ve done to those holy men? Likely they’ve done the same to my brother, and he’s younger than you. If your father is in that monastery, I will show him the same mercy.”
“You could leave too and no one else gets killed.”
“Today, perhaps. But do you think the killing stops at this mountain?” The boy closed both eyes and shook his head. “Go home while you still have one.”
As soon as he disappeared from sight, Yukimitsu hurried out of the bamboo and into the clearing. In less than ten heartbeats, he collapsed with pain dancing in his spine. The boy walked over and pulled out the arrow.
“You should have left,” the boy said.
He aimed once more and there was nothing but a welcomed darkness.
John Gerard Fagan is a writer and assistant professor from Scotland, currently working in Tokyo, Japan. @JohnGerardFagan