by Jutsuka (述歌)
Ietaka’s legs hurt. At least he could still feel them and had not lost one, or worse: both. He had seen how Ootani lost his feet, two clean cuts directly under the kneecaps. That had only been a minor quarrel in Nagoya, and out of petty revenge had ended in Ootani’s death. This, now, was a war.
Ietaka tried to move his left hand, but it was bound somehow, pressed against his ribcage. His right hand was free, and carefully he moved it to touch his hips, his stomach, his chest, heaving from the slight exhaustion. Everything was still there. Ietaka breathed a sigh of relief and finally opened his eyes.
Crisp colours welcomed him and Ietaka shut his eyes again. He was lying on his back, a light sheet carelessly thrown over his body. He couldn’t feel his armor, but still wore the Kimono. Carefully he raised himself up on his good arm, but wasn’t able to hold this position. Ietaka tumbled sideward off the mat he had been lying on, and fell face first into the wet grass.
“I wouldn’t stand up,” a man’s voice said. Ietaka turned bis head, groaning at the effort. He spat out, then moved to sit up again. “You should lie down again,” said the man. Ietaka could see him now, a simple farmer probably, with a red, sunburned face and unimpressive, bloodied clothing. But he had a sword, holding it in his lap. Ietaka didn’t.
“Where are my swords?” Ietaka asked. The man shrugged. Ietaka bit his lip and could instantly feel blood trickle down his chin, but it helped him to ignore the pain as he slowly moved in a crouch. “I demand to know where my swords are,” he repeated.
The man shrugged again. “Over there,” he finally answered and pointed to the rack at the far left side. Katanas and wakizashis lay next to each other, some in their sheaths, some bare. Ietaka was struck by how many there were, but then he looked over his shoulder at the mass of unconscious men that filled the makeshift tent, and rather wondered how many of them would ever use their swords again.
He stumbled forward, almost fell down, gripping at some hold that wasn’t there. The man made no move to help. After two steps, Ietaka sank down again. His side burned with every move, his vision swam — his body was too weak from lying down however-long.
“You were shot, straight through your armor, I think,” the man said. “It will take time.”
Ietaka didn’t look at him, but clawed at the grass. “I don’t have time! I have to get back to the war–”
Ietaka stopped and could only blink. “How long was I asleep?” he asked and felt foolish and young again as he settled into a more comfortable position. He missed the mat.
“Two days, more or less. The victory… two days ago.” Ietaka slowly nodded. “It’s morning,” the man provided.
Ietaka looked down at his bandaged arm. His side was coloured deep-red. The blood had already dried. “Thank you,” he said, but the man had lost interest in him and was rather watching another wounded man wake up.
Ietaka looked back at his mat only a few steps away and considered crawling there, but a samurai didn’t crawl. Instead, Ietaka concentrated on breathing. He could almost feel Shibue’s hand on top of his head. He needed to stand up, to get his swords, go out of this tent and see if Shibue was even alive. For a second, there was something akin to fear in Ietaka’s heart — but Shibue was close to forty years, he wouldn’t die so easily. A sudden touch on his shoulder startled Ietaka.
“Asano? Asano Ietaka?” a deep voice asked. Ietaka nodded and turned his head. He had to look up, and the hand on his shoulder lingered uncomfortably long. “Finally you are awake! I came to talk to you.” The man was close to Shibue’s age, if not older, and had scars in his face. He smiled but had bright, haunting eyes that had seen too many deaths.
“You found me,” Ietaka said and shrugged off the hand. The man’s expression didn’t waver and he gripped Ietaka’s arm to pull him up. Ietaka went with it, but he wouldn’t win a struggle, not in this condition. His legs still shivered.
“I have a message for you. From Ujinori.”
Ietaka sucked in his breath. “So he’s alive,” he said and smiled to himself. “Where is he?”
The man held a single strip of paper out and Ietaka grabbed it, ripping it almost in half. He could feel the man’s eyes on him. Shibue was always one for proper looking; not like Ietaka now, with his Kimono bloodied and ripped in some places and his hair more undone than braided back. Ietaka opened the paper and read. Then he read it again. Only six clean lines in that familiar handwriting. “…’thank you for letting me teach’…” Ietaka repeated , and again, and again, lips finally only moving, without proper words. Then he let his hand sink down.
Ietaka blinked. Shibue had left.
The man shifted his grip, making Ietaka aware of him again. “You want to come to my tent? Clean up, eat a bit?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” Ietaka said sharply.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Ujinori told us to provide any help you might need. He even left some money–”
“No,” Ietaka repeated. “Thank you. I shall get going.” The grip on his arm tightened.
“I cannot let the student of my good friend–” Ietaka let the paper fall and grabbed the man’s arm with his good hand.
“I’m no longer a student, but a man; I have been for almost a month,” Ietaka said in a hard tone. “I don’t need your ‘guidance’.” The man ripped his hand away, then pulled Ietaka close with his other hand at the hem of Ietaka’s kimono.
“So soon after the war many warriors from both sides are still roaming about. You should be careful with whom you stand,” the man spat. Ietaka stared right back.
“Take your hands off me,” Ietaka growled.
The man stared for a second, then took his hands away. “See how far you will come like this,” he said, then turned around and left.
Ietaka felt his vision swim, black spots dancing in front of his eyes. When Ietaka could see again the dizziness had almost passed, and he was still standing. But the man from before had left the other patient and was watching him. “Lie back down,” the doctor said.
Ietaka frowned, then looked at his feet. Shibue’s message lay there, slightly soaked. Ietaka stepped on it, grounding it into the grass. “No, I need to go, now,” he said.
The doctor shook his head. “You almost died just two days ago,” he said.
Ietaka didn’t say anything, but dragged himself over to the swords. There were two rows, the long katanas and the small wakizashis. Ietaka scanned over the neat rows. His swords had been gifts from Shibue, as well as the sheaths. He had never used any others. Ietaka finally found his wakizashi, almost hidden in a fold of the blankets the swords were lying on. But his katana was nowhere to be seen. Ietaka looked down at his bound arm. It wasn’t as if he could use it anyway. He grabbed the wakizashi and turned. The doctor stared at it.
“You can’t leave, you’re too weak…,” he said and shook his head.
Ietaka grinded his teeth. He could still see Shibue’s words of the message: “Rest. Look for Arai, they will have a place and work for you, until it’s safe to leave. Try Toki then, or Yokkaichi, but you cannot follow me. It was a mistake to force you to go to Sekigahara. You are your own man now.”
“I can,” Ietaka spat, “and I will.” The doctor didn’t say anything anymore as Ietaka limped out of the tent.
It was indeed morning, the very first rays of sunlight not even fully touching the camp. It was by now considerably smaller than it had been during the war. Ietaka didn’t have to go far to find a makeshift-stable, filled with horses. Even after these few steps he felt ready to lie down again, but he could still go another step if he just thought about Shibue. Ietaka approched the man who was scrubbing one of the horses down.
“I need a horse,” Ietaka said. The man looked over his shoulder at Ietaka, then shrugged.
“For what?” he asked and continued scrubbing.
“I need to follow my teacher.”
The man looked up, then called out: “Yoshino!”
Another man, Yoshino probably, came around. He looked Ietaka over, then said: “You are looking for your horse?” Ietaka wanted to nod, but his horse was probably dead. If it hadn’t died being shot, someone hopefully had had mercy and killed it.
“I need one, yes.”
Yoshino exchanged a glance with the other man. “You lost yours?” Ietaka nodded. “I need it to follow my teacher…”
“You look too old for having a teacher,” the other man cut in.
“He…” Ietaka stumbled over the words. Shibue had been his teacher, for more than seven years. Had taught him the way of the samurai, which books to read, which people to know, how to fight. But out of all those years, all those memories, the one Ietaka still could feel was the one with Shibue’s hands on Ietaka’s face, bloodied, and leaving imprints over his eyes. Over Shibue’s shoulder he could see Ootani’s slumped body, minus the feet, and next to him the recently slain bodies of Ootani’s murderers. Shibue had done a clean job of it — also with Ootani himself, his hands still twisted around the wakizashi with which he had cut his stomach open. Ietaka could see how Shibue’s katana had cut through Ootani’s neck, and still the head held, as if Ootani was alive. Ietaka shook his head, bile rising in his throat from the memories.
“No, he isn’t my teacher anymore.”
Yoshino smirked. “Your lover, then?” Ietaka blushed.
“Look, I just really need a horse to follow my… my former teacher.”
Yoshino smirked some more. “Well, for a bit of money I’m sure we could make an arrangement. After all, all of them,” he pointed at the tents, “are going to need horses sooner or later.” Ietaka made a fist with his good hand. Shibue had had their money and had left it with those… soldiers.
Ietaka stared at the horses. “No, thank you,” he said sharply, then turned away angrily. He couldn’t even steal one, not with himself being crippled like this. Ietaka looked around. Then down at himself. He could go back to the tent, he could follow Shibue’s directions. But those had gotten him here in the first place and Ietaka wanted… Ietaka just wanted… for Shibue to be here and for them still being teacher and student, not like this, separated and miserable.
Ietaka looked at the trees around the camp, at the hill softly falling downward and down at the battlefield. Then he turned around and started walking. He could walk fast, and had to stop every few steps simply to catch his breath. He had no money, no coat, nothing to hold off sun or rain. He didn’t even now if he could fight, but he would find Shibue and he would talk to him.
By the eleventh tree Ietaka had to rest at, he had pretty much decided that this was the worst idea ever. His lungs burned as if he had never gone further than two steps outside his house. His wound had reopened and it pulled with every step, squeezing fresh blood all over again. He contemplated going back, but this would mean to go up on the hill. Ietaka pressed his forehead against the tree’s trunk and felt the shivers in his whole body. He simply stood there for a moment, then a horse’s muzzle touched his cheek.
Ietaka blinked, then looked up at the color of the horse, moving from brown to a light tan, and the small flecks of white at it’s forehead. Ietaka grinned. He knew that horse. “Taniguchi!” he said. He carefully turned and stroked the horse. “It’s great to see y–” Ietaka froze as the man looking down from the horse’s back was definetely not Taniguchi.
“Sorry,” Ietaka stuttered and moved back from the horse. “I mistook you for someone else…”
“I realized,” the man said. His voice was deep and rough and Ietaka could hear a bit of a foreign tint. “You think you recognize this horse?”
Ietaka frowned, then nodded. “I just thought… it looked like Taniguchi’s.” The man just stared at him and Ietaka stared right back, then realized how rude he was being and looked away. The man’s broad hands were covered with blood and dirt. A warrior then.
“Shouldn’t you be resting?” the man said, glancing down at Ietaka’s red-stained side.
Ietaka shrugged. “I need to get going.”
“By foot?” the man said with a smirk.
“By any means available,” Ietaka agreed, raising his chin.
“And where is it you are going to go to?”
“Just… near Takamatsu.”
The man looked over his shoulder. Ietaka followed his gaze. The man had a second horse, whose reins were bound to the first horse’s saddle. “Hop on,” the man said.
“Oh,” Ietaka said and raised his good hand. “I didn’t mean…”
But the man was already untying the reins and threw them at Ietaka. “But I do,” the man said. “Come on, I don’t have all day.” He glanced over the trees and bushes in the direction of the camp.
Ietaka grabbed the reins and pulled himself on the horse, wincing and almost falling down again, as the wound at his side throbbed painfully. When he looked up, finally seated, the man was looking at him. “I’m heading towards Nagasaki.” Ietaka nodded, then let his horse just follow the other.
“I didn’t catch your name,” Ietaka said. “I’m Asano.”
The man only glanced back at him, carefully leading his horse around the bushes and little slopes in the forest. “You may call me Kagemone.” Ietaka remained quiet and the man — Kagemone — didn’t seem to want further conversation. He hadn’t offered a last name — if Kagemone was even his real name. Ietaka shivered slightly. But at least they were going in Shibue’s direction and he didn’t have to walk.
Ietaka slouched down in the saddle, tired. He looked back, but Kagemone didn’t seem to want to wait or even go back for clothing or food. Ietaka thought he should have taken the man Shibue gave the message to up on his offer, but now it was too late. He was stuck. They arrived at the bottom of the hill, and Kagemone turned westward as Ietaka realised he didn’t even have a map with him. Shibue had gotten them to Sekigahara and Ietaka had thought they would leave together as well.
The horses trotted slowly and Kagemone apparently saw no reason to change their pace, but instead constantly looked around, one hand at the hilt of the katana at his hip.
“What are we looking for?” Ietaka asked.
Kagemone didn’t look at him. “There are many soldiers still around, I would prefer to keep the horses,” Kagemone hissed after a second, letting Ietaka’s horse come closer to his. But the only thing Ietaka saw was a squirrel, bouncing up from the ground and leaping high in the air. He followed its jump and startled at Kagemone’s hand on his chest bringing him to a stop.
“Be quiet,” Kagemone said, then slid off his horse.
Ietaka nodded, then blinked. He behaved as if he was traveling with Shibue, not some strange man, not older than himself. Ietaka got off his horse as well, more falling than sliding down. He had to lean against the horse for a moment, simply catching his breath. Then he pushed himself away and stumbled in the direction Kagemone had gone. He almost landed in a bush, and thorns scratched at this hands. Ietaka was thankful for his hand, still bound to his midsection, as a constant pressure on his wound. He stumbled again, but this time, it was just Kagemone pushing him around against a tree. “Quiet!” hissed Kagemone.
He held Ietaka by his shoulders, almost painfully. Ietaka held his breath as Kagemone leaned forward while gripping Ietaka’s chin. “Over there,” Kagemone whispered.
Ietake saw three average looking houses. “What’s with them?”
“Look,” Kagemone said again.
Ietaka watched as a woman stepped out of the house, clutching a child to her upper body. She seemed to talk, looking back over her shoulder every time. Three men followed, then a fourth. Ietaka watched, as the woman led them to the side of the house. “What are they–”
“What do you think?” Kagemone replied.
Ietaka pressed his lips together. “We need to help.”
“We are not going to,” Kagemone said, his voice still calm.
Ietaka looked back at him and so close could see the stubble in his face and feel the breath on his face. “Then why did you want to see this?”
Kagemone frowned. “Just to confirm something.”
As Ietaka opened his mouth to protest, Kagemone pressed his hand over it. “Just wait,” he said. Ietaka tried to bite Kagemone’s hand, but couldn’t even open his jaw. Ietaka turned back to the scene, and saw two of the men drawing their katanas. The woman had pushed her child behind herself. Ietaka shuddered as he now saw the emblem on their chests. Those were the men he had just fought with, side by side. Ietaka struggled against Kagemone’s hold.
“He has to be– ah, there,” Kagemone said. Ietaka saw a man come out of the second house, pausing at the scene. The woman moved some steps away. Abruptly, Kagemone let Ietaka go. “Come on,” he said.
Ietaka stared at him. “Do you have no honor?” he asked. “We have to go over and–!”
“That’s Miyamoto Musashi. You don’t want to cross swords with him, believe me,” Kagemone said with a laugh. “Now, hurry up or you can really walk the way.”
Ietaka looked back at the houses and saw three bodies lying there, of three men. He breathed out, then moved to get back to Kagemone. “This Musashi?” Ietaka asked as he stepped up to his horse. “Is he a good samurai?”
Kagemone shook his head, then led his horse to the road again. “The best, probably.”
Ietaka got on his horse as well. “How do you know of him?”
“I just met him before.” Ietaka wanted to ask where, but Kagemone spurred his horse. Ietaka looked at Kagemone’s back and remembered that he was not Shibue. So Ietaka remained quiet.
With Shibue, everything had always been simple, up until Ootani came along. Ietaka looked over at Kagemone. This man was no teacher, barely a samurai. But still, something about Kagemone reminded Ietaka of Shibue. Maybe because he couldn’t see someone like Kagemone dying. Maybe because Kagemone threw a glance behind him, once in a while, and slowed his horse, if necessary. Ietaka made sure to keep up, but his wound throbbed and his hands shook.
Ietaka felt… young again. The memories of his parents were blurred, and the first picture of his childhood was Shibue leaning over him, hands on his shoulders. Ietaka had been shaking then with boundless energy at the prospect of training to become a samurai.
Shibue’s hands were the only thing keeping him in place. Still now Ietaka felt Shibue’s breath on his face, Shibue’s eyes looking directly into his. “I was looking for someone I could teach in the way of the Samurai,” Shibue said. He leaned forward. His lips pressed against Ietaka’s and as Ietaka opened his mouth to protest, Shibue’s tongue probed inside. Licking Ietaka’s teeth, his tongue. Ietaka shuddered and Shibue drew away. Ietaka’s lips felt slimy.
“Ew,” Ietaka said and rubbed his arm over his lips.
“By time you will learn to appreciate this,” Shibue laughed. Ietaka frowned. “You still have some years,” Shibue assured him.
“I’m already eleven,” Ietaka said.
“And you have seen the world, hm?”
Ietaka nodded. “I have seen… some cities.”
Shibue smirked. “Then you will be surprised–,” he said. He then leaned forward again. Ietaka felt more confident now, of what was coming, and openend his mouth slightly as Shibue touched his shoulders and said:
He felt groggy, just waking from sleep and the only thing he felt was the numbness of his limbs and the stabs of pain at his side. It wasn’t Shibue, but Kagemone who held his shoulders. “You fell asleep,” Kagemone said, an irritated expression on his face. Ietaka wanted to say something, but his mouth was sticky and he only managed only a toneless mumble.
“It’s time to rest, I think,” Kagemone muttered. He stepped back from Ietaka’s horse. Ietaka made a grab for him, but missed and almost fell of the horse. Ietaka heard Kagemone sigh as he gripped the reins of Ietaka’s horse. “Come down.” Ietaka tried to swing his leg over the horse, but ended up just sliding down, where Kagemone caught him with a surprised yell.
When Ietaka opened his eyes again, it was dusk, and he himself leaned against a tree, half sitting, half lying down. A few feet away a small fire was crackling and the smell of roasting meat made Ietaka’s stomach growl. He hadn’t felt any hunger yesterday. Ietaka tried to move forward, but winced at the pain.
“Don’t move,” Kagemone said from behind him and Ietaka froze, half kneeling, half lying down still. “You are soaked.” Kagemone stepped in front of him. Ietaka looked down at himself. “In blood,” Kagemone clarified. Ietaka nodded mutely and glanced past Kagemone at the fire. “Show me,” Kagemone demanded.
“There’s nothing to show,” Ietaka answered. Kagemone stared at him, then leaned back, exposing his legs and muscled stomach to Ietaka, He grabbed the meat with his bare hand off the stick over the fire, then offered it to Ietaka. Ietaka waited a moment, the hot meat in his hands, then he bit into it. It wasn’t as good as the meat Shibue would have packed, but it was food and Ietaka wasn’t about to complain.
It was then, with juices running down Ietaka’s chin, that Kagemone tipped his head up and pulled Ietaka’s Kimono down, until his stomach was exposed. Ietaka swallowed. Then coughed. “What–”
“Let me see,” Kagemone muttered, only the top of his head visible to Ietaka, as Kagemone pulled the bandages off. Ietaka winced, but Kagemone made it quick. He prodded and pulled, and Ietaka had a hard time concentrating not on the queasy feeling of sticky, half-dried blood as Kagemone washed his wound. Ietaka stuffed the last bit of meat in his mouth, feeling sick and rather like throwing it all up.
“Thank you,” he said, when Kagemone leaned back.
Kagemone looked at him. His hair was plastered to his forehead. “You can still die,” he said in a tight voice. Ietaka shrugged. Kagemone’s eyes were slits, as he asked, his hand touching the new bandage over Ietaka’s side, “Where are you going?”
Ietaka shrugged again. “My… teacher, my former teacher left me at Sekigahara. I still need an explanation.” He was tired, too tired to think of a better sounding reason.
“Following a man who left you… how noble,” Kagemone said.
Ietaka frowned. “He was my teacher.”
“Doesn’t sound like a good teacher to me.”
Ietaka snorted. “You don’t understand the Samurai, at all, do you?” he asked and immediately regretted it.
But Kagemone just laughed loudly. “I don’t understand this country!”
Ietaka couldn’t help but smile, and it felt nice to have someone smile back at him.
Kagemone pulled Ietaka’s Kimono up, then grabbed Ietaka’s hand. “Come on,” Kagemone said and helped Ietaka to move a few steps, closer to the fire and to the tent Kagemone had built — just some blankets thrown over each other, with one over some branches to give them cover. Ietaka sank down and breathed a sigh of relief.
The bed wasn’t wide and Ietaka was used to sharing the covers with Shibue — and almost Ootani. Kagemone threw some more sticks into the fire, then crouched down to get into the bed. He had to climb over Ietaka, his knee hitting Ietaka’s inner tights, a sweaty hand making Ietaka’s kimono stick to his shoulder. Ietaka held his breath, until Kagemone finally had settled, not quite pressed against Ietaka, but enough to feel the heat of another body. Ietaka cleared his throat. “You– you are not Japanese?” Kagemone smirked. If Ietaka moved his head just so, he would feel Kagemone’s chin against his cheek. But he didn’t, only threw a short glance over before looking out into the night.
“My father is a Chinese merchant,” Kagemone said. “I’m going to Nagasaki and set over again.”
Ietaka smiled. “I have never been outside Japan,” he admitted.
Even if he hadn’t looked, he would have caught the shift in Kagemone’s eyes as they lit up. “Oh, you have never seen–”
Kagemone talked and talked, until Ietaka dozed off.
Kagemone carefully stroked Ietaka’s hair, once, twice, then pulled his hand away. Ietaka rather wished he hadn’t. But sleeping tucked together, simply because they only had one set of bedding, he almost felt better than he had with Shibue these last weeks.
“I’m not a good Samurai,” Ietaka whispered into the night.
He started, as Kagemone spoke, softly:”What makes you think that?”
“That my teacher left me.” That he found more comfort in another man’s touch than in the touch of the man he wanted to be with all his previous life. “My… a friend committed seppuku, and I realized I wouldn’t be able to.” Ietaka’s mouth was dry.
Kagemone watched him silently, then gripped Ietaka’s chin with his fingers, almost touching the lips with his thumb. “I always thought being a samurai was more about fighting for people, managing the lands well, helping your shogun, not about killing yourself.”
Ietaka licked his lips, and tasted just a flicker of the dirt and salty sweat on Kagemone’s finger. “You aren’t a samurai?” he asked.
Kagemone took his hand away. “I fight,” he said curtly. “As do you, Asano.” Kagemone rolled over.
Ietaka pressed his lips together. “Call me Ietaka,” he whispered, but Kagemone gave no reply.
This night, Ietaka didn’t dream of Shibue, but of a great wall in the middle of an ancient kingdom, with streets of silk leading westwards.
Ietaka woke and felt Kagemone’s cock against his legs, pushing them apart while spooning behind him. For a second, he pressed back, and Kagemone’s half hard cock rubbed the cotton of the Kimono against the skin behind Ietaka’s balls. Ietaka started and pushed himself up, shifting away and ripping the cover off.
Ietaka just lay there for a moment, then he moved to stand up and winced. He looked down at Kagemone, who now was covered by the fallen cover, only a few strands of his hair sticking out and bit back a smile. Instead, Ietaka looked around. The meat yesterday had been fresh, probably a rabbit Kagemone had managed to catch. Ietaka wouldn’t have had such luck.
He slowly walked over to Kagemone’s head and pulled the cover down. “Kagemone?” Ietaka nudged Kagemone, until he opened his eyes. “Kagemone? Do you still have food?”
“There should be some fruit left somewhere in the saddlebags,” Kagemone grumbled, his eyes dark and watching Ietaka’s half open Kimono.
“Thanks,” Ietaka said. Kagemone held his hand up, as if he wanted to grab Ietaka and pull him down– but just brushed his hair from his forehead.
Ietaka stood up and carefully moved over to the horses. Kagemone had pulled their saddles off for the night, and Ietaka kneeled down to roam through the bags. There were fruits, bundled tightly in cloth, but as he pulled them out, a piece of paper fell into the grass. Ietaka frowned, then put the fruits down. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder, but Kagemone hadn’t left their bed yet. So Ietaka picked up the letter. And read. His heart hammered through his body as he frantically grabbed the bags and pulled another bundle of letters out of them. Ietaka stared at the letter, and picked up another. And another. So this had been Taniguchi’s horse.
Ietaka hadn’t cried when Ootani had betrayed them for the promise of a fortune. He hadn’t cried when Shibue had left him. He hadn’t cried when his parents were hanged for fraud. Ietaka didn’t cry, but act, for he was a Samurai.
Ietaka pulled his wakizashi free. He couldn’t get a proper grip as his hand was sweaty, but it should do. He didn’t have his katana, of course, but Kagemone was probably not prepared. Ietaka slowly walked closer, and Kagemone didn’t even watch him until Ietaka stood directly in front of him.
“For Taniguchi,” Ietaka said, then raised the wakizashi and brought it down to Kagemone’s chest. He was quick, but not enough so.
“What the–” Kagemone rolled to the side and kicked out, his hands searching for his weapons. He wouldn’t get to them.
“You killed him!” Ietaka spat and charged again. But his footing wasn’t stable, and Ietaka slipped on the blankets. A misstep brought him too close to Kagemone and before he could correct the mistake, Kagemons was on him, grabbing for the wakizashi. Ietaka struggled. Kagemone kicked at his hand, but Ietaka just twisted, almost switching them around had it not been for Kagemone’s knee pressing into his wounded side. Ietaka cried out and felt the wakizashi slip out of his hand.
“No!” he cried and felt the grass slip beneath his fingers, but no wakizashi. Kagemone leaned back, enough leverage for Ietaka to push free, and grab–
Ietaka felt the katana pressing against his neck — he felt like Ootani, just waiting for the last slash to end the pain. “Not a movement,” Kagemone hissed.
“Do it,” Ietaka said. Kagemone stared down at him. “Do it!” Ietaka screamed. Give me my honor back.
Kagemone stared at him a moment longer, then shook his head. “The winner is right, isn’t that the way of the world?” Kagemone asked.
Ietaka showed his teeth. “Taniguchi had a family,” he said in a cool voice.
Kagemone shrugged. “As if you haven’t killed fathers and brothers and sons the last days, and before.” He snorted.
“And any of my friends would avenge my death,” Ietaka growled.
Kagemone narrowed his eyes, then ground his hips down once. “I didn’t kill him; or rather, I don’t know and probably never will,” he said in a slow, dark tone. “I stole the horses.”
Ietaka shook his head. “Why? Certainly someone–”
“Asano,” Kagemone said. “I wasn’t one of Tokugawa’s allies.”
Ietaka stared at him, then pressed his lips together and didn’t say anything anymore. Kagemone stood up, and looked down, while Ietaka felt like a stranded turtle. Kagemone glanced at the wakizashi, then at Ietaka again, but he didn’t pick it up, just turned away, his shoulders bent down. “Pack your things, if we get going now we should arrive at Kagawa tomorrow.”
They rode in silence, Kagemone leading the way, and Ietaka letting his horse follow. Kagemone didn’t look back even once, and Ietaka curled in the saddle, as a light rain began to fall.
Ootani was the first and the last. Falling in love with him had been wrong, as Ietaka already loved Shibue and hadn’t even wanted someone else. With Ootani’s death, Ietaka became a man, but he still didn’t feel like one. Not then, grieving Ootani, not in the war, slaying Samurai he previously fought side by side with, not now, drenched to the bone, two days away from death, riding a stolen horse. Ietaka had long closed his eyes, not wanting to imagine what Shibue would say.
Kagemone suddenly pulled his horse to a stop. Ietaka jerked awake, out of his half-sleep. He almost wanted to ask, but then he heard the music. He could see Kagemone frown, but Ietaka rode his horse around Kagemone’s and followed the path, which led to a small village. Ietaka heard Kagemone behind him, as both of them stared down at the lights and flags dancing in the wind. The village was celebrating. Truly celebrating Tokugawa’s victory — and the soldiers that had come home. Ietaka watched the men, some of them fully bandaged, some missing hands or other limbs.
The shadows were hiding them and Ietaka was thankful. Kagemone had been right: He had killed too many and maybe even crippled some of the men down there. Ietaka breathed in and out, then he said, quietly: “I’m sorry”.
Kagemone caught his eyes, then nodded. “Let’s get going,” he said.
They rode around the village, staying behind the trees. It wasn’t hard to stay hidden, as the light didn’t reach far and their horses were dark. They had almost arrived at the other side of the village and the road, when a group of men surprised Ietaka. Swords slightly drawn, three man, faces hidden almost completely behind masks, were crouching behind the bushes. Those were robbers! Ietaka slowed down his horse even before Kagemone raised his hand.
“We have to warn–,” Ietaka whispered, but Kagemone cut him off. “Wait here,” he said, jumped off his horse. He led the reins fall and Ietaka grabbed at them, almost falling out of the saddle. Ietaka cursed, then carefully leaned forward again. The horse raised its head and Ietaka managed to get a hold on them. He breathed a sign of relief, then looked up.
“Didn’t even give a proper fight,” Kagemone muttered as he reemerged from the trees, his katana drawn. Ietaka couldn’t help but snort.
“Did you kill them?” he asked. Kagemone shook his head.
“As I said, they ran like rabbits! I just got this.” Kagemone held out a bottle.
“Sake?” Ietaka asked. Kagemone nodded. He still hadn’t put the katana away. “Put the sword away,” Ietaka said.
Kagemone blinked. “Why?”
Ietaka heaved himself out of the saddle. “You wanted a fight, right? Come on!”
Kagemone shook his head. “You can’t even stand straight.”
“I don’t need to, do I?” Ietaka shot back.
Kagemone raised an eyebrow, then stretched his arm out and dropped the katana. Ietaka smirked, and sauntered nearer. Kagemone held his hands out, so he wasn’t prepared for Ietaka to drop down and kick at Kagemone’s legs. Kagemone let himself fall, rolling around and rising again, to block Ietaka’s next hit. He grabbed Ietaka’s hand, in a tight grip, and stared for a second. Ietaka leaned backwards, but Kagemone slammed him into the ground. Ietaka goaned, grabbed for Kagemone’s neck — but he couldn’t reach it before Kagemone had caught both his arms.
“I win,” Kagemone hissed, breath hot against Ietaka’s face.
Ietaka just smirked. “You wish!” He crossed his arms, then pulled. Kagemone yelped and let go, and Ietaka bent his legs and pushed Kagemone up. But instead of rolling away, Kagemone just let himself drop again, crushing both Ietaka’s arms and his own legs.
For a moment they lay there, tangled and breathing hard, then Kagemone rolled off with a groan. Ietaka’s arms burned, but not the burn of the sickness, of being tired the whole time these last days — but rather the pleasant burn of a nice exercise. He felt Kagemone next to him, arms almost touching. Ietaka laughed. He heard the joyful music from the village and stars had become visible with the appearing moon.
Something hit his chest and Ietaka grabbed the sloshing bottle. Kagemone raised himself up on his arm, towering over Ietaka. “Drink,” he said. His eyes followed the sake, as Ietaka twisted the bottle open, then drank, and swallowed. Ietaka passed the bottle to Kagemone, who licked the spilled drops away, then took a long gulp. Ietaka watched his eyes, as they briefly closed, maybe to remember the taste or the moment, later.
“Tastes good, doesn’t it?” Ietaka whispered. Kagemone’s eyes drifted from Ietaka’s eyes to his lips and he leaned forward.
“Yeah,” Kagemone answered and kissed Ietaka: slowly licking Ietaka’s lips, until they felt puffy and Ietaka had the urge to giggle. Then Kagemone bit Ietaka, lightly, until Ietaka parted his lips, and Kagemone sucked at Ietaka’s tongue. Ietaka made a face and pushed Kagemone away. But Kagemone already pulled Ietaka’s kimono open and moved to Ietaka’s neck. His hands stretched over Ietaka’s hips, moving them so that he could grind — a sharp, quick tilt of his hips. Ietaka goaned. He felt Kagemone rubbing his cock against the crook of his leg and squeezed his legs together, trapping Kagemone between them. Ietaka smirked, and Kagemone laughed against his collarbone, then moved down, leaving a trail of wet, warmed skin.
“Come on!” Ietaka all but growled. He threw his head back as Kagemone pressed his mouth against the bandage over the wound. At the same time he grabbed Ietaka’s cock and while fondling the balls with the other hand simply stroked it. Ietaka snarled, pushing at Kagemone’s head, but when he opened his eyes Kagemone was face to face with him. Ietaka bucked his hips up and let go of the grass to rip at Kagemone’s armor. It wasn’t that of a traditionally dressed samurai, more leather, and Ietaka searched for the buckle which might open the thing.
“How–,” he said, growing frustrated.
Kagemone rolled his eyes and leaned down to lick Ietaka’s ear and to say: “Just under the ribs.” Ietaka turned his head just a bit, so that Kagemone’s next push knocked his nose against Ietaka’s head. Kagemone grunted. “Just open it!”
Ietaka slid his hands down to Kagemone’s sides, and indeed there were buckles to pull and the armor fell open slightly — enough for Ietaka to slide a hand along Kagemone’s stomach.
“Gri–nd,” Kagemone grunted again, his breath erratic, and Ietaka snorted, then put his hand on the small of Kagemone’s back, opened his legs a little wider and just let Kagemone grind down.
Ietaka came first, letting himself fall back. Kagemone’s face was twisted in pleasure and, probably, the pain his armor was causing. Ietaka sneaked his hand down and pulled Kagemone’s cock free, and grinned, as he got his hand away, covered with semen. Kagemone rolled away, then sat up. Ietaka made a grab for the sake, and drank some, then Kagemone was back, carrying their bedding. He let it fall down next to them. Ietaka just rolled himself on it. Kagemone smiled.
“Samurai’s stamina? Lies, all lies.” For this, Ietaka kicked him, and Kagemone, rather than catching himself, fell down next to him and was already snuggling close a moment later. Ietaka yawned. Hopefully it wouldn’t rain, as Kagemone had forgotten their cover and they were now sleeping under the open sky. Ietaka slowly fell asleep.
“You — come — with…?” Ietaka could more feel than hear Kagemone’s faint whisper on his skin. His head felt too full, too soft to think. So he just mumbled something, just for Kagemone to be quiet, yes, just so he could sleep. Ietaka’s mind drifted off to slumber.
Ietaka woke up, reached around at the warm body behind him, drawing Kagemone in, kissing, licking. Then he closed his eyes when Kagemone drifted back to sleep. Ietaka hurt a bit, but it wasn’t much — and nothing he hadn’t experienced before. Kagemone wasn’t Shibue. Kagemone he could leave.
They rode in silence, each one caught in their own thoughts, until Ietaka stopped his horse after.
“We are here,” Ietaka said. He looked westwards, and behind the trees he could see the village, and beyond that there was Shibue’s home, which had once also been Ietaka’s.
“You could come with me,” Kagemone said with a tight voice.
Ietaka shook his head. “I need to see him.” He got off his horse and passed the reins to Kagemone.
“You’re your own man.”
“But I will always be his student.” Ietaka pressed his hands against his face, then said: “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Kagemone asked, his voice cold and his gaze hard. Ietaka hung his head down. “I thought so,” Kagemone said. “Goodbye then.” Ietaka opened his mouth, but what could he truly say? He limped into the west, not looking after Kagemone galloping away.
“You came back,” Shibue said as Ietaka arrived at his door and Ietaka could see his eyes shifting to Ietaka’s bandaged side.
“Of course I did.”
Shibue shook his head. “Why, Ietaka?” He went inside and Ietaka followed him. But he didn’t answer until they sat down at the table with a half-filled tea cup standing on Shibue’s side.
“I wanted to ask you one question,” Ietaka said with a small voice and looked down on the wooden floor, and his own callused hands on his thighs. “What did I do wrong?”
Shibue smiled a bit. “Nothing,” he said softly.
“But nothing didn’t make you leave me!” Ietaka cried.
“I didn’t teach you only to be a samurai, but to be a man as well,” Shibue said, not looking at Ietaka but rather down in his tea cup. “And to be a man means to do what you personally think is right. That’s why I fought with Tokugawa, and that’s why I taught you and why I left you in Sekigahara.”
“But I wanted to be with you, like before, to… to fight together, to care for the house, to look after your family…”
Shibue smiled sadly. “And you think that’s what you really want? To wait here until I die and you are stuck with my children?”
Ietaka pressed his lips together, then bowed his head. “I would be honored.”
“And I would be honored to have taught such a fine man who goes out into the world, learns to fight and… who comes back with stories he then can tell to my grave.”
Ietaka snorted. “You speak like you want me to become some kind of… ronin.” Shibue laughed softly. He was so different like this, not pressed in armor, not always aware of the world around him, just a man in his home.
“I just want you to find your own place.,” he said. “Japan is changing, with Tokugawa’s victory more than ever. You haven’t been happy to be a samurai after Ootani’s death, I saw, and I fear, Tokugawa as the new Shogun will make it worse…” Ietaka nodded, like he always did, when Shibue told him about the politics and the future and present, and the world.
But this time, an image came to Ietaka’s mind. An image of a great wall, ten thousand ri long; of ships with gigantic sails setting west; of wide tundras stretching past imagination.
Ietaka held his breath. Then he stood up.
“Can I borrow a horse?” Shibue smiled again, but not like an old man, but rather like Shibue the Samurai, the one who taught Ietaka what he wanted to be like.
“I won’t get it back, will I?” Shibue asked. Ietaka shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You probably won’t.” Shibue rolled his eyes.
“Then go. Take the black mare, she hasn’t run for quite a while.” Ietaka nodded, and turned away. Then he looked back.
“Thank you,” he said, “that you were my teacher for so long.”
“I never will stop,” Shibue answered and bowed slightly. Ietaka did as well. He left.
The horse was easy enough to find and indeed proved fast enough. He reached Kyushu by the beginnings of dusk and had to slow down for the road was harder to see by now with the sky reaching a deep blue. Fireflies flittered through the air between the trees and bushes, and Ietaka almost missed the man hiding behind the oak with his horse. Ietaka slowed down, then moved his horse around.
“I can see you,” he said and heard Kagemone sigh. “You are hard to follow,” Ietaka said, leading his horse next to Kagemone, as Kagemone got on the road again.
“And you are hard to get rid of,” Kagemone said, voice tired and gruffy.
Ietaka smiled, a little private smile. “As if you wanted to.”
He rode closer, so that their legs almost touched. Kagemone looked at him strangely, then shook his head. Ietaka simply grabbed his neck and pulled Kagemone over, almost throwing both of them off their horses. Faces inches apart, Kagemone couldn’t continue to frown.
“Look, Asa– Ietaka–”
Ietaka kissed him, only a short, hard peck on the lips, and let Kagemone go.
“How far?” Ietaka asked, grinning. Kagemone just stared at him, then laughed, which Ietaka almost missed over the clacker of the horses’ hooves, as it was a soft laugh.
“No more than an hour,” Kagemone said finally, voice thick with something. Ietaka smiled and looked to the horizon, where, somewhere behind the trees and the shores and the sea, a new life was waiting.