The Accidental Killing and Other Stories

by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)
illustrated by beili

illustrated by beili

I

When it was ascertained by the Deputy’s men that the dead man on the hillside was a wanted criminal, Hitoshi the papermaker’s apprentice was declared a hero.

Shuzo, whose life Hitoshi had saved, just wanted to know where he had learnt to fight like that.

But first, Shuzo had a performance to give.

“Will you tell this story when you go back to Edo?” asked the village headman’s youngest son, ignoring the way his older brother shushed him.

“Perhaps I will,” said Shuzo, smiling down at him. The boy had been fascinated by Shuzo ever since the first evening that the villagers had gathered at the grounds of the temple to hear Shuzo perform rakugo. A bit too fascinated, perhaps; enough that his father had sent the boy’s brother along as well now, to prevent his son from being whisked away by this unsavoury entertainer.

“‘The Accidental Killing’ has quite a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

Shuzo had already told this story four separate times, twice as testimony to the village headman and the family group leaders, and twice more to the Deputy’s men when they had arrived. Now he was about to perform a version of it – heavily embellished – for the village at large, who wanted to know exactly how heroic Hitoshi had been.

The temple was a poorer stage than the yose theatres Shuzo was used to, and his own voice sounded thin and brittle in the cold winter air. But Shuzo’s talent was in the warmth of his words and the persuasiveness of his presence, in the way he pulled his audience in from his first salutation. For that short period of time, Shuzo was no longer a battered traveller, but Hayaseya Taiheiraku, the rakugo storyteller from Edo, weaving worlds with his words.

“In Edo the yose theatres are full of promising storytellers, each one desiring nothing greater than to make a name for himself. This is the story of one such storyteller, who left the city in search for more stories and found himself at the centre of one. For as he travelled along a smaller road off the Kiso Kaido he found himself waylaid by the most nefarious of bandits…”

He turned just fractionally to the left and became the storyteller, adopting a more desperate, glib tone. “Most certainly you would benefit from choosing a more affluent target, for I am merely a lowly storyteller, with not a penny to my name.”

With a slight shift to his right, Shuzo was suddenly the bandit, rough in speech and ferocious in expression. “And you would benefit from shutting your mouth! I’ll take everything you have.”

With each line Shuzo uttered, the audience was drawn further into his tale. As he mimed each worthless possession that the storyteller presented to the bandit, using only his fan and towel as props, he was acutely aware of every reaction in the audience. He peered into the crowd and could tell from their expressions which of the villagers were already standing on the narrow hillside path with the storyteller and the bandit, laughing at the storyteller’s antics while fearing for his life.

“All right,” snapped Shuzo, “I’ll take your broken cup as well.”

“May it cut you as you drink your tea,” murmured the storyteller.

“What was that?”

“Oh, may it delight you as your drink your tea, I said.” Shuzo bobbed his head in a nervous cower, spreading his hands. “But surely you would not begrudge me my fan and my towel, for they are my livelihood.”

He drew out his fan like a blade and brandished it. “Be quiet or I’ll take your tongue.”

“Oh, no, no, no, I shall be as quiet as a mouse, good sir, deathly quiet! Though perhaps that wasn’t the best choice of expression –”

“Shut up!”

The villagers exploded with laughter.

“Just one more thing, and I’ll be silent as the grave, good sir.” Shuzo raised his hand and pointed into the distance. “There is a man coming down the path just yonder, that stout fellow–”

“Good. I shall rob him as well.”

“Oh, no, no, I wouldn’t if I were you, good sir. I hear the men of these mountain villages are as strong as oxen, with feet as nimble as goats’, and each of them brave as a boar.”

Shuzo paused as the villagers cheered.

“That is no matter to me,” said Shuzo, drawing himself up proudly. “Do they not call me the fiercest of tigers, the most ferocious of men?”

“We’ve only just met so I really wouldn’t know,” Shuzo muttered. “But, good sir – even a great tiger such as yourself would find success more easily with some sort of a plan. And I happen to have one.”

“Oh, do you now?”

“Yes, yes I do. The cleverest of plans. This is what I propose,” Shuzo paused to wipe his brow with his towel. “I propose… that we move to the side of the road and let him pass.”

“WHAT?”

“You see, good sir, the men of these villages are not only strong, and nimble, and brave,” said Shuzo. “They are also penniless. Look – all he is carrying is a bunch of sticks!”

At this point, his audience burst into laughter again, because it was clear to them that the sticks were harvested kozo branches for making paper.

“That is indeed strange,” said Shuzo as the bandit.

“I hear the men of these mountains are so poor that they would eat the bark of twigs for their evening meal,” said Shuzo, to more laughter from his audience, “but so brave that they would risk their lives if they saw a traveller being threatened at knifepoint.”

“Hear, hear!” cried a man in the audience.

“So you’re saying I should wait for him to pass, and then continue robbing you?”

“That is exactly what you should do,” replied Shuzo. “Come, come, stow your blade. Let us look merry and frolicsome, like we are friends.”

Shuzo put his fan into his belt, and then pulled his face into a grimace that the bandit clearly thought was a friendly smile. This sent the villagers into further fits of laughter.

“Greetings, young sir,” called Shuzo as the storyteller.

Shuzo was not a large man, but he squared his shoulders and drew himself up to give the impression of one, taking on the impassive expression that the villagers would surely recognise as Hitoshi’s. In the slow, considered tone and dialect of the region, he said, “Ah, hello.”

“How pleasant to see you on this untroubled afternoon,” Shuzo continued as the storyteller, his voice forced and bright, “as we traverse these paths unmolested by bandits or robbers.”

Shuzo nodded absently and got a huge laugh from the audience when he imitated Hitoshi’s slow blink. “Oh, yes. It is a good day.”

“It is an excellent day!” Shuzo cried, with just a little too much enthusiasm. “For none of us have been threatened at knifepoint, or forced to part with our worldly belongings.”

Shuzo as the bandit, still wearing that dreadful grimace, interjected: “Or forced to depart from our worldly existence.”

Shuzo let out a burst of laughter that was approaching hysterical. “My companion is in possession of such a sharp wit! I fear I shall cut myself upon it.”

“Shut up,” said Shuzo as the bandit. “Tell me, traveller, what is it that you carry?”

“This is our harvest for the winter,” replied Shuzo as Hitoshi.

“Oh,” said Shuzo in the bandit’s voice, before placing his hand beside his mouth to say in an aside, “so he is going to have that for dinner.”

“Verily, good sir.”

“We harvest them once the leaves begin to fall from the plants,” Shuzo as Hitoshi continued. “That’s when we know that winter is upon us. This year’s harvest should make a good batch.”

“A good batch of gruel, he means!” hissed Shuzo.

Shuzo mimed setting down his heavy burden. “Would you like to inspect one of them?” he asked, bending as he mimed removing his rolled-up towel from an invisible bunch of sticks. In a trice, however, he had dropped the towel. “Oh no!” he exclaimed, tapping his fan rhythmically against the ground to simulate the clack-clack of the sticks scattering.

“Your dinner!” Shuzo exclaimed in the bandit’s gruff tones, bending to help pick up the sticks before they rolled away.

“Oh, no, this isn’t my dinner,” said Shuzo as Hitoshi, laughing handsomely. “It’s the best quality kozo, for making paper.”

“So are you penniless or not?” roared Shuzo. “I won’t be taken for a fool!”

Shuzo scratched his head. “I suppose I have enough to get by…”

“And you do not eat the bark of twigs for dinner?”

“Of course not!”

“Excellent! Now give me your money if you value your life!” Shuzo pulled out his fan, which was once again the bandit’s knife.

The next moment he was Hitoshi again, leaning away from the blade, thoroughly confused. “But are you not travellers –”

“Of course not!” Shuzo replied, with a menacing smile. “Now. I’ll take everything you have.” He leaned forward with a little bob to indicate that he was taking a step.

“Watch out for the sticks –” Shuzo-as-Hitoshi began in a loud voice, but it was too late. With a cry he reached forward as if to catch the bandit, but his hands grasped on the air in front of him and he peered down the hill in shock and dismay.

“And there he goes,” said Shuzo as the storyteller, shading his eyes as he gazed down the steep slope, indicating every additional tumble the bandit took with a dip of his head. He winced, and sighed. “Taking my best cup along with him.”

“Good heavens! Was that a robber?” asked Shuzo as Hitoshi.

“That he was.”

“Do you reckon he is dead?”

“As a doornail,” said Shuzo. “You, my friend, are a very lucky man. And I, a luckier man for meeting you.”

He turned to face the audience, and bowed low.

While the path from the temple was not the steepest Shuzo had encountered in his travels, the combination of his bad leg and the biting cold meant that he made slow progress.

Hitoshi’s master, the old man Genjiro, had been so impressed by Shuzo’s first performance at the village that he had invited Shuzo to rest at his lodgings.

“The winters here are cold,” old Genjiro had told Shuzo. “I see no point in my apprentice saving your life if only for you to lose it freezing in the temple.”

What old Genjiro had failed to mention was that he lived halfway up the mountain.

By the time Shuzo arrived at the path leading to the steep-roofed farmhouse, a deep ache had settled in his knee, causing him to wince with every other step.

The house was dark, but Shuzo could just glimpse the faint light emanating from the smaller shed beside it. His pace quickened as he hobbled towards the shed’s entrance.

Hitoshi was still at work, just as Shuzo expected. The nature of papermaking – as far as Shuzo had observed – was that at any time, day or night, at least one member of the household had to be carrying out some task. On his first day, Shuzo had watched the farmhouse fill with various relatives and villagers enlisted to help with the stripping of the bark from the kozo branches and the picking out of impurities from the cooked fibres.

Tonight like the night before, Hitoshi was beating the kozo pulp in preparation for old Genjiro, who would rise before dawn to begin forming the sheets of paper.

“You’ve returned,” said Hitoshi, before Shuzo had even uttered a word. He must have heard Shuzo coming down the dirt path, even over the steady sound of the oak stick hitting the kozo fibre.

Hitoshi was not as broad and stout as many of the village men typically were, but he was still sturdily built. He moved with an economical grace that Shuzo, as a performer, envied. There was a pleasing symmetry to his features as well, Shuzo had noted; Hitoshi had a face that grew more handsome because of the kindness of his expression. If not for Hitoshi’s lack of prospects – he was, ultimately, still an outsider despite working for old Genjiro – Shuzo was certain that many of the village girls would be clamouring to be his wife.

“You missed my account of your heroics,” Shuzo told Hitoshi.

He heard rather than saw Hitoshi’s discomfort as the oak stick landed just a little too gently on Hitoshi’s next stroke, giving a half-hearted squelch.

“Rest assured,” Shuzo continued, “I left the audience with only good things to say about you.”

Hitoshi frowned and set down the stick. “Perhaps it would be better if you did not… embellish the story quite so much.”

“Ah,” said Shuzo, “but embellishment is practically second nature to me. After all, the grander the story, the more coins I earn for the night.” He patted the pouch containing the tips he had collected. “And tonight, it seems, I told a grand story indeed. If only you had been there to hear it.”

“Yes,” said Hitoshi dryly, “if only.”

“Or perhaps you could tell me something about that day on the hill,” said Shuzo, with a sly smile. “Give me a bit more detail with which I could season my next rendition of ‘The Accidental Killing’.”

“You’re mocking me,” said Hitoshi. Shuzo had only known the man for a little more than a week, but he was fast becoming acquainted with the full array of Hitoshi’s various scowls.

“Far from it,” Shuzo replied. He spread his hands wide, giving Hitoshi his most charming smile. “I am simply a curious mind wishing to know more about the man who saved my life.”

“Well,” said Hitoshi, folding in the edges of the kozo fibre so that they were tucked in neatly, “there’s nothing to know.” He picked up the oak stick again and resumed beating the pulp. “I don’t suppose you’ll give up asking anytime soon?”

“I am nothing if not persistent,” said Shuzo. “It is my best and worst quality, my shisho used to say.” He paused, cocking his head to one side. “Or perhaps it was my second best.”

“Second best?”

“Well,” Shuzo told him with an entirely straight face, “I am, after all, almost pointlessly good-looking.”

Hitoshi barked a laugh, and it was perhaps almost as wonderful as hearing the villagers’ applause from earlier that evening.

“Well,” said Hitoshi, giving Shuzo a considering look. “I’d say you’re pleasant enough.”

“Pleasant enough?” Shuzo repeated with exaggerated incredulity. “Pleasant enough? Why, everyone I’ve met has said that I should have become a kabuki actor instead.”

“So why didn’t you?” asked Hitoshi.

“I liked the sound of my own voice too much,” said Shuzo. “Besides, why be one actor in a group when I could play every character? But enough about myself – you must have been taught jujutsu from a young age.”

“Well, I –” Hitoshi began. He paused, then smiled. “Excellent try.”

“Admit it,” said Shuzo, “I almost had you there.”

“Almost,” Hitoshi agreed. He set the wooden stick down and gathered the pulp together, placing it in a bucket for old Genjiro later on. “But I’m afraid you’re going to have to try a little harder than that.”

“Oh believe me, I will,” Shuzo replied. “But perhaps, right now, you would like to hear some other story?”

Hitoshi’s face brightened. “If you are not too weary –”

“Says the man forgoing sleep to beat a lump of pulp,” said Shuzo. He cast around and settled, with some effort, on the roughly-woven mat just across from Hitoshi. “Ah, I’ve thought of a good one. It’s called ‘Cherry Blossom Viewing of the Row House Tenants’. This one’s a funny one.”

“Go on,” said Hitoshi, his hands stilling as he looked expectantly at Shuzo.

Placing his fan horizontally before him and flipping his sleeves out of the way, Shuzo began.

“In Edo, a landlord was dismayed to hear that his row house had begun to be known as the ‘penniless tenement’, and sought to devise a way to improve its reputation…”

In his waking hours, Shuzo dealt in wit and flattery, in tall tales and half-lies. It made sense then, that his dreams were woven from truth:

He was going to die.

Lying in the dirt and the snow, with the bandit’s knife pressed to his throat, Shuzo could only curse his own foolish tongue. Slick talk and persuasion would not work on a man like this, a man who had scoffed at the few coins Shuzo possessed, eyes cold as he turned his blade towards Shuzo.

“Enough of your talk,” said the bandit. “I’m looking for a man named Jin.”

“I am merely passing through,” Shuzo replied. His mouth had gone completely dry. “I don’t know of any such person.”

The bandit’s smile was all the more menacing due to its blandness. “Then I suppose I have no use for you –”

At the sound of oncoming footsteps, however, the bandit stayed his blade.

“Is something the matter?” asked a voice.

“Not at all,” said the bandit, turning his head just a fraction in order to glimpse the newcomer with his peripheral vision. “I was just looking for someone.”

In a trice, the bandit whipped round towards the other man, who only just managed to block the bandit’s knife with the bundle of sticks he was carrying.

The bundle clattered loose, scattering sticks onto the pathway and into the snow.

“The person you’re looking for isn’t here,” said the man. He was still holding on to some of the branches, and when the bandit struck again he used the bunch to parry the blow.

A few of the sticks snapped. The man cast them aside, and caught the next swipe of the bandit’s knife. The bandit grinned. There was a hunger in his eyes now that chilled Shuzo even more than his earlier detachment.

“I know of someone who might be very happy to hear of this,” he said, and thrust his knife towards the man with snake-like speed.

illustrated by beili

The short fraction of a second in which the knife caught on the branches was enough for the man to dislodge the knife from the bandit’s grip, with an abrupt twist of his hands that sent the knife and branches flying. They landed near Shuzo, who flung the blade halfway down the steep hillside.

“How long has it been? Hm?” asked the bandit, and in the time it took for Shuzo to cry out a warning, the bandit was leaping towards the man with a second knife at the ready.

Without even blinking, the man caught the bandit’s hand as it came towards him, stopping the knife just inches from his neck. In the next beat he had twisted the bandit’s arm, forcing him to let go of the knife. The bandit howled in pain, but still managed to deliver a swift kick to the man’s knee, causing him to fall to the ground. Before the bandit could seize up his knife, however, the man had caught the bandit by his leg. The bandit fell with a painful thud, but immediately kicked out with his other foot, causing the man to let go of him. They tussled on the ground, in the sticks and snow and dirt.

During this time, Shuzo attempted to make a run for it, and failed. He had barely begun to scramble to his feet when his wounded leg gave way under him.

The bandit and the man seemed evenly matched, but the bandit was advantaged in his viciousness. Twice, he had flung dirt and snow into the man’s face, and there was a close moment in which he had almost managed to seize up his knife and stab the man. It didn’t help that the man seemed to be trying to restrain rather than attack the bandit. Blood was blooming from the gash on the man’s right shoulder where the bandit had shoved him against the rocks by the side of the path while attempting to push him down the steep hill.

Now that there was no chance of his own escape, Shuzo decided to do the next best thing: call for help.

Shuzo’s cry of, “Help! It’s a robbery!” was so sharp and so sudden that both the bandit and the man paused for a split second.

Then the bandit surged up angrily, clawing at the man’s eyes as he tried to knee the man in the stomach. The man cried out in pain, and, by pure reflex, struck at the bandit.

There was a sick crack as the bandit’s head hit a rock.

The man staggered to his feet as the bandit’s body went limp.

“Is he dead?” asked Shuzo.

The man said nothing, panting raggedly as he stared down at the bandit’s motionless body.

It was beginning to snow.

“Is he dead?” Shuzo asked again. “Tell me, is he –”

He awoke with a start, the last syllables falling from his mouth in a whisper.

The room was still dark, apart from the faint light of the moon streaming in from the window. Across from Shuzo, Hitoshi still slept deeply. If Shuzo had cried out during his dream, Hitoshi must not have heard.

This was Shuzo and Hitoshi’s secret: Shuzo’s story was exactly as he said – a work of fiction.

Yes, it was a fact that the bandit had threatened Shuzo with a blade. It was also a fact that Hitoshi had saved Shuzo’s life.

But everything else in Shuzo’s testimony, from Hitoshi’s stroke of luck dodging the bandit’s blade to the bandit’s tripping on Hitoshi’s scattered belongings during the scuffle and hitting his head on a rock, was a convenient lie.

“You saved my life,” Shuzo had told Hitoshi. “Subjecting you to a trial would be a poor way to repay my debt.”

It was simpler, after all, for everyone to believe that good-natured, reticent Hitoshi had killed the bandit entirely by accident, than for them to take in the truth. And Shuzo, being the only witness apart from Hitoshi himself, had judged it easier to present this version of the events.

But more importantly to Shuzo, there was a story here. There was a story about this man, who called himself Hitoshi but who might have once been Jin. Someone who fought like that, lighting-quick and with such clean strength, was clearly not a simple villager. That much was evident to Shuzo. Something in Hitoshi’s eyes as he faced that bandit had burned like the embers of another life.

It was not in Shuzo’s interests to turn that story over to the authorities.

Shuzo did not typically linger for so long in one place. He would have moved on to Gifu city two nights ago, if not for his leg.

If not for his leg and if not for Hitoshi, perhaps.

While he waited for his leg to heal, Shuzo did not remain idle. Instead, he collected stories.

The villagers who came daily to help with the papermaking had at first been wary of Shuzo, undoubtedly having been warned not to mingle with an entertainer. But scraping bark and picking out dross from the cooked pulp was dull work without conversation, and who better to make conversation with than a professional storyteller?

It was in this way that Shuzo grasped the ins and outs of the village, of the old families’ disapproval of old Genjiro’s taking Hitoshi as an apprentice, even though Hitoshi had proven himself to be kind and loyal these past ten years.

From old Genjiro’s wife, Shuzo heard about how old Genjiro’s nephew, the village headman, had been trying to persuade old Genjiro to adopt one of the village sons.

“He brought that dumpling of a boy along, that time, but we have Hitoshi,” old Genjiro’s wife told Shuzo. “When the time comes he will take over from my husband. That much has been decided. And now that everyone agrees that he is a hero, perhaps we shall find him a wife.”

From old Genjiro himself, Shuzo learnt about papermaking. For example, it was said that no two papermakers sounded the same when forming a sheet. Even between master and apprentice, the subtle rhythms of the charge liquid’s sloshing against the deckle of the mould differed distinctively, up until the final motion of smoothly tossing off the excess liquid into the vat.

“I honestly can’t hear the difference, myself,” said Shuzo, while Hitoshi and old Genjiro pressed a post of newly-made paper between two wooden boards.

“That’s because you spend too much time talking over it,” Hitoshi told Shuzo, blunt but without venom.

Outside, snow was falling again, thick and slow.

Old Genjiro laughed. “Perhaps it would make better sense if you thought of it like telling stories,” he said, while indicating to Hitoshi that the press needed another stone. “Each of us makes the vat speak as we work. My pupil might have learnt to tell the same story as I do, but he will inevitably say it in a different way.”

“You are truly as skilled with words as you are with your paper,” Shuzo told him. “And I hear there is no finer paper than yours in these parts.”

“Enough with your flattery,” said old Genjiro, even though he was clearly pleased. “Let me tell you this: the quality of the paper is determined long before the papermaker even stands before the vat. We are but one small part of a far longer process.”

“Surely you are being too humble, Master Genjiro,” Shuzo replied.

“I have not a humble bone in my body,” old Genjiro cackled. “In fact, I am very proud. I have the finest water in the land and the healthiest fields, and an apprentice to help me bleach kozo bark in the freezing streams so that I don’t have to do so myself. Isn’t that right, Hitoshi?”

Hitoshi nodded, suppressing a smile. Hitoshi might have been old Genjiro’s apprentice for close to ten years now, but Shuzo still saw the way Hitoshi’s eyes shone when old Genjiro praised him or instructed him on some finer point. Shuzo’s own shisho back in Edo was a nasty layabout whose three passions in life were storytelling, carousing, and philandering, but even then Shuzo understood that deep feeling of gratitude.

“That was how I met Hitoshi, in fact,” old Genjiro continued. “It was a strange morning. I was standing by the narrowest part of the stream, plunging kozo bark into the water, when all of a sudden this young man stumbled out from the trees on the opposite bank. He looked bone tired, and lost, and so I called to him, ‘Young man, where are you going?’ He just looked at me, and when I asked him again he said to me, ‘You look like you need a hand with that.’ I told him, ‘Feel free to help out.’ He’s been with me ever since.”

“Where had you come from?” Shuzo asked Hitoshi, who merely raised an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“Ah,” said old Genjiro, “a man is free to keep his secrets. It wasn’t for me to pry.”

“I suppose not,” said Shuzo, shooting Hitoshi a dirty look when old Genjiro turned away.

“Anyone,” said old Genjiro, “good or bad, can make beautiful paper. The water and the kozo fibres do not care what your hands have done in the past, as long as you are honest and respect your craft.”

But the person whose story Shuzo wanted the most remained as reticent as ever. For all the time they spent in close proximity, for all the depth of the secret that lay between them, Hitoshi never said a word to Shuzo about himself if he could help it.

What Shuzo did know about Hitoshi, however, was that he loved listening to Shuzo’s stories. It was a pleasure in itself to see Hitoshi’s face light up when Shuzo began telling one. He was like a boy, in those moments, listening with child-like wonder and laughing at all the good parts, even on second hearing.

“I’ve thought of a deal,” said Shuzo. “In exchange for each of my stories, you’ll tell me one about yourself.”

“I honestly don’t know why you’d propose an arrangement like this,” said Hitoshi. “One of your stories for one of mine?”

“Yes,” said Shuzo. “Exactly.”

“But you’ll get no answers to the questions you’re asking.”

Shuzo waved a dismissive hand. “You won’t even need to go there,” he said. Secretly, however, it was his hope that Hitoshi would, in casting about for stories, draw on the parts of his life that he had thus far kept obscured. Shuzo certainly had enough stories in his repertoire. There were plenty of opportunities.

Hitoshi was giving Shuzo a long, hard stare. “You’re clearly up to something.”

Shuzo returned him a blithe smile. “Nothing of the sort,” he replied. “So are we in agreement?”

“I suppose, so,” said Hitoshi. “But first I have to work.”

Hitoshi had been an arresting sight that day on the hillside, all barely-contained wildness and harsh strength. But Hitoshi at the vat was mesmerising in his own way, knees bent and back curved, moving effortlessly with the bamboo rigging as he scooped the liquid from the vat and rolled it back and forth across the mould, flicking away the excess. After Shuzo’s conversation with old Genjiro, he imagined he could hear the difference in Hitoshi’s vat sounds. While old Genjiro’s seemed almost playful, Hitoshi’s sounds were calmer and more meditative, his rhythms steady where old Genjiro’s were syncopated.

Shuzo watched as Hitoshi opened the deckle and picked up the flexible bamboo mat on which the sheet of paper had formed, lowering it in a rolling motion on top of the post of previously couched sheets. Had it been old Genjiro’s words that had compelled Hitoshi to stay for all these years, regardless of his status in the village? Any man, good or bad, could make beautiful paper. But the question of what Hitoshi might have been – good man or bad – still remained.

“You know, I still don’t know why you would want to hear me tell a story,” said Hitoshi, shaking his head.

“Listen,” said Shuzo. “When I had first arrived in Edo and was still a lowly zenza, I knew a man who had no talent with words. He was one of the second-billing storytellers, but the stories that our shisho taught him fell straight out of his head. Despite that, the audience still flocked to him because he had one crucial thing going for him.”

“And what was that?” asked Hitoshi.

“Persuasion. He told the bare bones of each story but he told them well. It was riveting to watch.”

That man didn’t exist apart from within Shuzo’s imagination, but by this point Shuzo was ready to say anything if it would persuade Hitoshi to divulge something about himself.

“I suppose I could try,” said Hitoshi, ducking his head at Shuzo’s encouraging smile. Now that Hitoshi was out of his depth, the contrast to his usual self was somewhat startling.

In return for the short but humorous ‘Afraid of Manju’, Hitoshi told Shuzo: “Three winters after I started working with Master Genjiro, he said I should try to form a sheet of paper. I was bad at it. He said, ‘Don’t lift the frame with your own brute strength or you’ll kill yourself!’ It took me two more winters to get it right.”

The next evening, for ‘The Haunted Tenement Row House’, Hitoshi said: “Until last summer, we had a dog. It was called Yellow Dog and old Genjiro’s wife loved it. One day it didn’t come home. I found it on the forest pathways. Perhaps it had fought with a boar and lost.”

In exchange for ‘The Jealous Humming Top’: “When I was a boy, there was a cousin who lived with us who always bullied me. I told my brother and he made me challenge my cousin to a duel. I lost.”

“Well,” said Shuzo, trying to sound as neutral as possible, “certainly, that is a story…”

“But?”

“But it’s a bit… brief, wouldn’t you say?”

Hitoshi frowned. “It wasn’t a good memory.”

“You could tell me about your brother,” said Shuzo carefully. Hitoshi had talked about his childhood before, but it was the first time Shuzo had heard him mention a brother.

“Well…” Hitoshi furrowed his brow.

“Or another thing, then,” Shuzo replied, keeping his voice casual. “Half a story won’t be enough for the one I just told you. People pay good money to listen to me, you know.”

“If you want payment –”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” Shuzo told Hitoshi, laughing at the look of chagrin on his face. “Tell me a story. A nice long one, if you would.”

Hitoshi pressed his lips together as he thought. Despite himself, Shuzo found himself suddenly charmed by the slight asymmetry of Hitoshi’s features; the way his left eyebrow darted up just a little higher than his right.

Then Hitoshi took a deep breath, and began.

“There was a boy I knew once,” he said, voice serious, “a merchant’s son who was around my age.” He glanced up at Shuzo, who nodded.

“Go on.”

“He was clever, and loved to show it. My brother thought he was proud, and spoke too much, but I liked the way he talked.” Hitoshi paused. His eyes held a faraway look. Absently, he rubbed his hand against his chin. “We grew close. You could say we became – overly fond.”

Shuzo kept his expression blank. Overly fond. There weren’t that many meanings one could take from that, besides the obvious.

“One night he sneaked out so we could look at the stars, and while his family searched for him my brother and his friends burgled his house. He didn’t understand why I was saying goodbye to him at that time.”

“Did you ever meet again?”

“I thought I saw him once. I was delivering paper for the fair in Mino city,” said Hitoshi. “But many years had passed. I couldn’t know for sure.”

And Hitoshi couldn’t have known, Shuzo supposed, if that boy he once knew would have been glad to see him.

Unbidden, Shuzo’s mind was already racing ahead, filling out the gaps in Hitoshi’s story. Had Hitoshi as a youth already possessed that preternatural calmness in his eyes, or had he been an even wilder version of the man Shuzo had glimpsed that day on the hillside? Had he looked upon the merchant’s clever son with that same enthralled gaze that Shuzo so treasured?

And that night, under the stars, had Hitoshi kissed the merchant’s son with a heavy heart? Had he known that his brother was at that very moment destroying this fragile thing that they shared?

Shuzo looked up to see Hitoshi peering concernedly at him. “Is something the matter?” Hitoshi asked.

With a smile, Shuzo pushed away those curious, clamouring thoughts. “Just as I thought, my friend,” he said instead, clapping Hitoshi on the shoulders. “Persuasion. You have it in spades!”

Hitoshi smiled. The corners of his eyes crinkled, and Shuzo felt his heart clench in his chest.

II

Shuzo was a fool to have thought that the worst of it was over.

Yet, there had been some part of him that had known that this momentary peace wouldn’t have lasted long. And it was this part of him that stirred when he caught sight of the headman’s youngest son running up the hillside, towards where Hitoshi and old Genjiro were laying out drying boards in the cold sunlight.

illustrated by beili

From where Shuzo stood, he could just about make out their expressions as the boy delivered his message. To any other onlooker, Hitoshi’s face remained impassive as always. But Shuzo, who had spent so long watching Hitoshi with a keen eye, caught the startled blink and the brief aversion of his gaze.

“What is it?” called old Genjiro’s wife, coming to the window of the farmhouse.

“It’s about that criminal,” old Genjiro called back. “Now the Magistrate has sent a man round to investigate.”

Kijima Naomasa might have been one of the Magistrate’s yoriki, but for the villagers, who had only just recovered from the visit by the Deputy’s men, his arrival was as good as the Magistrate’s himself.

Certainly, Kijima looked the part of a magistrate. His garments and hair were still impeccably kempt despite his travels, and there was a noble bearing about him that set him apart from the yoriki Shuzo had encountered before in Edo. As he spoke, his mouth and eyes seemed curved in a slight but perpetual smile.

Shuzo knew men like Kijima back in Edo, with faces like a Buddha’s and eyes that watched like a hawk’s. And in roaming the village alone and speaking with the people like this, Kijima was doing exactly what Shuzo had been attempting these past weeks – gleaning some truth about the man he was investigating. The key difference was that Kijima had the full weight of the law behind him.

“I thought the case was declared closed,” said old Genjiro.

“Yes, of course it is,” replied Kijima. “I am here about a slightly different matter. You see, the bandit called Mamushi who died on that hillside was part of a band of robbers that I am investigating. If you would be so kind as to tell me, Master Genjiro – has your village ever been raided?”

“They don’t come up to these parts, those bandits,” said old Genjiro. “The people are too poor and the roads too treacherous.” He barked a laugh. “The one bandit that did ended up taking a tumble.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Kijima, but his gaze was already wandering towards the yard where Hitoshi was inspecting and taking down the sheets of paper. They had been bleached a perfect crisp white in the sunlight. “And what a rather bad fall it was.”

“If it so pleases your lordship,” said Shuzo quickly, “perhaps while the farmers finish their work for the day, your humble servant could show your lordship the location of the robbery.”

“Ah,” said Kijima, “you must be the storyteller from Edo.”

“This is Hayaseya Taiheiraku,” old Genjiro began proudly, “the most –”

“Merely an untalented second-stringer,” Shuzo interrupted, slipping easily into the deferential patter he used when talking with important patrons.

“But your shisho is Hayaseya Enshou, is he not?” asked Kijima. “”When I was in Edo four summers ago, I watched him give a performance.”

“It was indeed our privilege to have had your lordship grace us with your presence,” said Shuzo, bowing deeply even as he mentally kicked himself for being arrogant enough to trade by his master’s name during his travels.

“Listening to one of your master’s stories was like entering a different world.” Kijima’s smile widened, but his voice remained as measured. “His words were so vivid that for that spell I found myself unsure of what was truth, and what was the dream.”

“Your lordship is very kind,” Shuzo murmured, bowing again and giving no trace of the sense of dread that was building in his heart. “Alas, your humble servant possesses nothing of my esteemed master’s skill.”

They spoke about things of little consequence during their journey to the hillside path. Kijima, who confessed to being almost excessively fond of kabuki, was keen to hear of any news from the theatrical world, and Shuzo gave the impression of being delighted to oblige.

But even within this light conversation, Shuzo was deliberately making himself seem just a fraction clumsier with his words, more like a second-stringer who fancied himself talented but whose bombast did not cover his lack of persuasion. And Kijima, through a carefully steered discussion about the difference between the Edo and Kamikata styles, was clearly trying to get from Shuzo more details about his travels thus far.

This would be harder than Shuzo thought. The Deputy’s men had been eager to reach conclusions and claim credit for the capture of a known criminal. Shuzo’s statement had proven to be so clear and so logical that they hadn’t felt the need to question much of it.

Kijima was different. As Shuzo began recounting the events on the hillside, Kijima stopped him on every other fact to ask for clarification. When Shuzo said he was threatened with a knife, Kijima asked how sharp it was. When Shuzo said that the bandit had shoved Hitoshi to the ground, Kijima wanted to know how much force he had used.

“Tell me,” said Kijima to Shuzo, when Shuzo had finally finished his tale, “would you say you believe in heavenly justice?”

They were still standing at the exact spot where the bandit had fallen to his death. As with that day, the sun shone without warmth over the snow-covered landscape, but the body and the bloodied rock that had still been here when the Deputy’s men had come to investigate had long been moved. Now there was nothing but the snow, and Shuzo’s word.

“What does your lordship mean?” asked Shuzo.

Kijima crouched down to brush snow from one of the larger stones by the side of the path. “Two years ago, the bandit named Mamushi was to be put on trial for multiple robberies and the murders of two samurai and a merchant. He escaped before he could be brought before the judicial council, killing four more men during his flight.” Kijima paused, and gestured towards the steep hillside. “And here the gods saw fit to deal him their final judgement.”

Shuzo nodded carefully. “It certainly seems so.”

“And almost entirely by accident, you say,” said Kijima, rising to his feet. “I have read the reports of your account, Hayaseya Taiheraku, and have just heard it from your lips once again. You say you have no talent for storytelling but any magistrate or deputy would be glad to have a witness who gave testimony with such clarity.”

“Your lordship is too kind,” Shuzo murmured.

“There is, however, just one thing.”

“Yes, my lord?” asked Shuzo, keeping his expression neutral. They may have called the bandit Mamushi, but it was Kijima who was the snake, coiling calmly one moment but liable to strike at the next.

“With my own eyes I saw the bandit Mamushi cut down two able-bodied doshin, wielding only a short knife,” said Kijima. “He was sure-footed and wily, and moved so quickly that the first doshin had barely even drawn his sword before he died.”

“Is that so?” asked Shuzo, even as he recalled the speed at which the bandit’s blade and Hitoshi’s sticks had collided.

“And so you must understand my surprise,” Kijima continued, his smile as opaque as ever, “when I heard that this bandit Mamushi had died an accidental death while robbing a traveller and a simple farmer.”

“One would suppose that the gods saw to it that justice was done,” said Shuzo as blandly as he could, even as wild panic clawed in his gut. “And your humble servant is simply grateful that they thought to smile down on me as they did so.”

“Ah,” said Kijima. “You talk of justice. But what poor justice this is, exchanging one life for the eight he had already taken. Had he been brought to trial, on the other hand, the whereabouts of his compatriots could surely have been prised out of him. Wouldn’t you agree that that would be fairer?”

Shuzo returned Kijima’s smile, and shrugged his shoulders. “Who can argue about fairness with the gods?”

“Who indeed,” murmured Kijima.

While he was shuffling his foot through the snow, Kijima had uncovered something. Shuzo watched as he bent to pick it up.

It was a fragment of a kozo branch, barely a hand span long, cut cleanly on one end and fractured at the other.

“I should not have let you lie for me,” said Hitoshi.

“Perhaps not,” Shuzo replied, “but revealing the truth now would be even more dire a crime.”

Hitoshi was forming sheets at the vat again tonight, practicing his skills with the dregs of the latest batch of pulp. Old Genjiro wasted nothing of the harvest, and the leftover fibres, shot with strands of black kozo bark, would make for a striking but delicate tissue paper.

It was clear even to Shuzo’s untrained ear, however, that there was something off about Hitoshi’s rhythm tonight. There was a halting quality to the sounds the vat made as the water splashed off the mould; stuttering and agitated. Hitoshi’s face was obscured from where Shuzo was seated, but the stiff line of his back and the judder of the bamboo rigging above Hitoshi’s head spoke volumes as to how miserable he was.

“If the yoriki calls for you,” said Shuzo in a low tone, “we will go to the spot once again and show him how it happened – where you were and where the bandit was when he fell. And when he speaks to you, you will say the same thing. He will swallow the story, and go.”

“Do lies come to you as easy as breathing?” asked Hitoshi sharply, setting down the wooden mould with a loud clacking sound.

Shuzo jerked back as if Hitoshi had struck him. Certainly, hearing the disgust in Hitoshi’s voice hurt as much.

Hitoshi turned to look at Shuzo, and the anger seemed to drain from him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “After all you’ve done for me –”

“Do you think that if this matter went to trial, the only question they would ask is whether you killed that bandit?” asked Shuzo, his voice fierce enough that it startled even himself.

“I –”

“I don’t know what it is you did or who you were,” said Shuzo, “but for a man who has something to hide, you are frighteningly calm.”

It was perhaps one of the few moments in Shuzo’s life where his words were running ahead of him, tumbling out before he could rein them in and laying bare his intentions.

“My testimony may have been given out of recklessness and convenience but each day I find another reason to maintain it.” Shuzo stepped towards Hitoshi, looking him plainly in the eye and forcing Hitoshi to hold his gaze. “You saved my life. Your master gave me shelter. That makes you a good man in my books, and if a lie is all it would take to keep you free, I would gladly tell it with all the force of my spirit.”

“Shuzo,” said Hitoshi.

They were too close; dizzyingly so. Shuzo found himself suddenly and deeply embarrassed by his outburst.

He turned away from Hitoshi, clenching his hands into fists. It was presumptuous for Shuzo to have put it in those words, to have made the assumption that Hitoshi would rather compound his crime than have his past prised out of him in a trial.

“Thank you,” said Hitoshi, after a long moment.

He was as economical with words as he was with his paper, Shuzo thought.

“And – I’m sorry,” Hitoshi continued. “I shouldn’t have spoken like that to you.”

“No matter,” said Shuzo, folding his arms over his chest. His words had startled even himself. They had revealed a depth of feeling that, up to this point, he had been valiantly trying to ignore. For who was Hitoshi to Shuzo, after all? It had been arrogance that had led Shuzo to give that false testimony in the first place, so confident was he of changing a man’s fate with words and persuasion alone. But now that Shuzo was hoarding both Hitoshi’s secrets and his own unspoken longing, arrogance alone was insufficient. And with Kijima so suspicious, it would take all of Shuzo’s talent to turn his own lie into the truth.

When Shuzo looked around, Hitoshi was tearing into the post of papers he had made so far, wrecking the surface with his hands and tossing the clumps back into the vat.

“What on earth are you doing?” asked Shuzo in dismay.

“A better job,” Hitoshi replied, beating the vat mixture with renewed vigour.

This time, Shuzo watched Hitoshi make a fresh sheet of paper with the eloquent ease that he was accustomed to seeing.

Shuzo watched Hitoshi as he worked, building up a new post of paper, layer by glistening layer. Not for the first time, Shuzo was struck by the sense of Hitoshi penitently, desperately atoning for something through this repetitive act of forming something new, fragile and beautifully strong.

And later, when Hitoshi was finished and Shuzo had helped him put the pressing boards in place, Shuzo asked, “Would you like to hear it? The last story I learned from my shisho before leaving Edo.”

There was nothing to be done, Shuzo supposed, about the way his heart leaped when he saw Hitoshi’s eyes light up.

“This one is called ‘The Three Pledges’. As with all of my shisho‘s favourite stories, it begins with a beautiful courtesan…”

In fiction, Shuzo’s shisho used to say, the accounts of life were brought into balance. The rich and the proud were brought low for the laughing audience; the honest and hardworking received their heart’s desires. Immediately after Hayaseya Enshou had said that, however, he had contradicted himself by telling a story in which nothing of the sort took place.

“You have talent and a way with words,” Hayaseya Enshou had told Shuzo after he had finished the story. “But rakugo is about real life, which is dreadful and stupid and incomprehensible. That is what you need to make sense of.”

But what Hayaseya Enshou had not mentioned was that amidst the disorder of real life were quantities like Hitoshi, whose actions gave him a hero’s stature but whose heart’s desire was to pass his days quietly. And here Shuzo was, made foolish in his affection, twisting real life into fiction for Hitoshi.

That night, Shuzo lay in the darkness peering out at Hitoshi’s sleeping figure, trying to distinguish Hitoshi’s features from the shadows. Here was his nose and the plane of his cheek; there were his lips, slightly parted, and his curled fingers tucked just under his chin. Shuzo took in every detail he could make out, listening to the steady sounds of Hitoshi’s breathing.

Shuzo opened his eyes to cold grey light streaming in through the papered window. With a groan, he sat up.

Hitoshi was gone.

Outside, old Genjiro’s wife was brushing the sheets Hitoshi had formed the night before onto drying boards, which old Genjiro was carrying out into the yard.

“Ah,” said old Genjiro, when he caught sight of Shuzo. “You’re awake.”

“Master Genjiro,” said Shuzo.

“If you’re looking for Hitoshi, the yoriki came earlier this morning and asked to speak to him,” said old Genjiro. “They left for the hillside path, I should think.”

Shuzo turned, and began to run.

Logically, logically, there was no reason for the feeling of dread that had overcome Shuzo. There was no doubt that Hitoshi could keep up his end of the story, the way he had done so with the village headman or the Deputy’s men. But this time it was Kijima that Hitoshi was speaking to; Kijima, who knew so much and revealed so little. Even Shuzo, who bandied words for a living, had found himself struggling to keep pace with the man. How then could Hitoshi, who laid out his stories straight as an arrow, hope to hold his own against Kijima?

Perhaps Hitoshi’s reticence would help him, Shuzo thought. Perhaps his brevity and silence would work better against Kijima than Shuzo’s efforts at circumlocution. Kijima had no evidence whatsoever, and as long as Hitoshi and Shuzo’s accounts remained consistent…

Shuzo’s leg, which had gotten dramatically better since those first few days, was starting to hurt again, pain jolting from his knee each time his foot impacted the ground. He continued to run – down the path leading from old Genjiro’s, and cutting through someone’s kozo grove in order to reach the main mountain path. The wind whipped against his face, and several times he stumbled on his own sandals in the snow. Each breath grew increasingly difficult to take. His knee was burning. Still Shuzo ran, until he reached the stretch of path that curved round the hillside, where Hitoshi and Kijima were standing.

“Good heavens,” Kijima exclaimed when he saw Shuzo. “Surely you did not run here?”

“Please forgive your humble servant’s tardiness,” gasped Shuzo, clutching his side as he stumbled towards them.

“That is very kind of you, but you need not have worried,” Kijima told Shuzo. “Hitoshi here has been exceedingly helpful.”

“Anything to be of use,” said Hitoshi, with a bow of his head. Shuzo glanced over and caught sight of how Hitoshi’s hands were clenched into fists by his side.

“In fact,” said Kijima, “we were just talking about how steep the pathways around here can get. These are hard routes to travel, around the mountains.”

“I didn’t think your lordship would be familiar the mountain paths,” said Hitoshi, while Shuzo continued to catch his breath.

“Well,” said Kijima, “where my quarry goes, I follow. Had you heard of the Gifu band of robbers before this, I wonder?”

“I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t,” Hitoshi replied, in the cautious tone that Shuzo was familiar with from his own attempts at weaselling information from Hitoshi.

Kijima gave a polite laugh. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “Although I was relieved to hear that your village has never suffered an attack from them. What good fortune!”

As he spoke, Kijima had not taken his eyes of Hitoshi even once. It was unnerving for Shuzo to watch. Hitoshi, however, seemed entirely unfazed as he continued to hold Kijima’s gaze.

“What good fortune indeed,” said Shuzo, keeping his voice bright. “Perhaps old Genjiro was right about the paths’ being too treacherous.”

“I have been pursuing these outlaws for years and am all too familiar with that they are capable of,” Kijima continued, as if he hadn’t heard a word of what Shuzo had said. “Each one of them lightning fast and ruthless, and skilled in all manner of combat.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Hitoshi.

“Burning and looting villages, cheating farmers and merchants, robbing travellers of their possessions and leaving them to die,” said Kijima, gazing out at the hillside. “Too long have I followed their trail of harm and destruction, learning of their ghastly legends from the survivors they leave behind.” He was no longer smiling when he turned to look at Hitoshi again. “Perhaps their names might even have reached these parts. Rikiei the Ravenous. Umanosuke the Strong. The Serpent Mamushi.”

Hitoshi shook his head.

“Or their leader,” said Kijima, peering meaningfully at Hitoshi as he enunciated the name: “Tora the Cruel.”

“There are tigers in these mountains,” Hitoshi replied, “but we have not heard of this man.”

“Well, then,” said Kijima. “Truly, you are blessed. Even Mamushi could not overcome these mountain paths, or your stout heart.”

“And now your lordship has one less bandit to worry about,” Shuzo interjected.

“And what an ignominious death he died,” said Kijima. “But I do not pity him. Remorse was not in the vocabulary of a man like Mamushi.” He seemed, with each word, to draw closer to Hitoshi, and a strange fierceness seemed to come over him. “I caught sight of Mamushi’s face, years ago, as he cut down four of my men. It was clear to me. He delighted in it.”

Hitoshi didn’t blink. “Is that so.”

“Yes, and so you must understand,” said Kijima, soft and slow, “that there is nothing I desire more than to see men like Mamushi, men like Tora the cruel, brought to justice under the law.”

For several tense moments Kijima and Hitoshi continued to stare each other down. Kijima was smiling again, but the steel behind it was plain for all to see. Hitoshi, on the other hand, appeared entirely composed, but for the hard look in his eyes. Shuzo knew that look. He remembered it from their encounter with Mamushi. Hitoshi was primed for a fight.

“Oh,” cried Shuzo, disrupting the silence. “It moves your humble servant so to see that your lordship is such a true friend of justice. Devoting your life to it! There is nothing nobler.”

Kijima turned to Shuzo, and in an instant he had slipped back on his benevolent smile, the one that had so charmed the other villagers into telling Kijima everything he wanted to know.

As Kijima looked away, Hitoshi crossed his arms over his chest and let out a breath. He looked honestly shaken.

“I can almost see it in my mind’s eye,” Shuzo began, trying to say anything to keep Kijima from engaging Hitoshi again, “this play unfolding, and your noble spirit at the very centre of it.”

Kijima laughed. “Unfortunately, this wearying pursuit isn’t exactly the stuff of stories and dramas.”

“Quite the contrary,” Shuzo told Kijima. “If I, your humble servant, possessed any sort of skill, your lordship’s name would surely be renowned throughout Edo, Kyoto and Osaka.”

“You think too highly of me,” Kijima replied. “But if any student of Hayaseya Enshou were to give a performance, I would dearly like to see it. Many in the village have mentioned to me your riveting tale of Hitoshi’s heroic rescue. I cannot help but be curious.”

It was phrased like a request. But the manner in which Kijima put this to Shuzo was no less than a command.

“Well,” said Shuzo, beaming widely even as his heart sank. “That can easily be arranged. Your humble servant may be a talentless fool, but if it pleases your lordship to enjoy a little bit of Edo out here in the country, I would be happy to oblige.”

“I look forward to seeing your performance,” Kijima replied.

“Is there anything else your humble servants may assist your lordship with?” asked Shuzo, bowing deeply.

“I did have one last question,” Kijima began, stepping towards the edge of the path, closer to the side than was probably prudent.

As he did so, he seemed to somehow lose his balance.

Before Shuzo could even call out, Kijima was falling, his arms flailing wildly as he slipped and stumbled down the steep slope.

But Hitoshi was there in a trice, reaching out and grabbing Kijima by the arm. The momentum of Kijima’s fall pulled Hitoshi to the ground with a thud, but Hitoshi’s grip on Kijima’s arm prevented him from tumbling any further.

“Your lordship!” Shuzo shouted.

“Shuzo, grab my legs,” said Hitoshi, reaching out his other hand to get a proper hold of Kijima, whose feet were scrabbling in the snow as he struggled to push himself back up. With some effort, Hitoshi began to haul Kijima up by the arms, grunting with exertion as he dragged Kijima back onto the path.

“Is your lordship quite all right?” asked Shuzo, as Kijima and Hitoshi lay on the ground, breathing heavily.

Unsteadily, Kijima rose to his feet, dusting off his clothing. “Thank you for saving my life,” he told Hitoshi. “Truly, I thank you.”

Even as Kijima said this, however, Shuzo caught the calculating look in Kijima’s eyes as he regarded Hitoshi. For a man as careful with his footsteps as Kijima, the fact that he had slipped was completely unexpected. But accidents did happen, of course, and really, was Kijima the sort of man who would gamble his life in order to test another man’s strength and reflexes?

Shuzo thought back to what Kijima had said before and realised, with a sick jolt, that Kijima was exactly that sort of man.

“How careless of me,” said Kijima. “Perhaps I should be retiring for the day.”

“Would your lordship require –”

“No, no,” said Kijima, shaking his head. His smile was just a little too satisfied for Shuzo’s liking. “I think I will manage perfectly fine.”

After Kijima had helped Hitoshi to his feet, he paused, with his hand still on Hitoshi’s arm. “There is one more name that reached my ears. The youngest of the Gifu band of robbers, Tora the Cruel’s brother.”

Even Shuzo from where he was standing, heard the sound of Hitoshi’s breath catching in his throat.

“The Blade, Jin,” said Kijima. “That’s what they used to call him.”

And without another word, Kijima turned and began to limp back down the hillside path.

When Kijima had well and truly gone, Shuzo turned and swore a string of dirty words. He glanced over at Hitoshi, who seemed too stunned to move or even speak.

“This is bad,” said Shuzo. “I’m sorry, I should have – I don’t know. It’s bad.”

Hitoshi was still staring far out into the distance, towards where the path curved and vanished.

“Hitoshi?”

Hitoshi closed his eyes, and let out a long breath.

“Well,” he said at length. “At least your leg’s better.”

There was a spot higher up in the mountain where the stream grew narrow, and the trees and ground alike were covered with a blanket of glimmering snow. This was where Hitoshi brought Shuzo.

“You might actually have to carry me back down,” Shuzo told Hitoshi when they finally arrived. He sank down onto a flat-looking rock and rubbed his knee worriedly. “I can’t believe I agreed to this.”

“I come here at the beginning of each winter to help Master Genjiro bleach kozo bark in the stream,” said Hitoshi.

“Wait,” said Shuzo, looking up sharply. “Was it here that you –?”

Hitoshi nodded. “He was standing right where I am standing now, and I must have been somewhere over there.” He pointed off towards the part of the bank where the trees grew denser. “I was wounded when I met him; he didn’t mention that when he told you about it.”

“What happened?”

“The simplest way to put it is that my brother and I had… fought. And I had run away.”

Given Hitoshi’s talent for understatement, Shuzo could just about guess what had happened.

“It was after we had made off with that merchant’s property,” said Hitoshi.

“The one whose son you were close with?”

“Yes. Well.” Hitoshi brushed snow off the rock beside Shuzo’s, and sat down. “Back then it was merely a handful of us, banding together to get by. Umanosuke was just a thug. Rikiei was formerly a monk. Mamushi and my brother were disgraced samurai, on the run for a crime they had committed.”

“Your brother, Tora?”

“He left his name behind when he fled our family home,” said Hitoshi. “I was just a boy of seven or eight at the time, but I begged to go with him.”

“And he took you along.”

Hitoshi nodded. “They taught me everything I know.”

“But you left.”

“My brother and Mamushi were strong and clever. More outlaws joined us as our infamy grew. With more mouths to feed, we were forced to become bolder,” said Hitoshi. “My brother turned cruel.” Hitoshi paused, and when he spoke again his voice was hard and flat, like he was forcing himself to say the words. “I lied, about the merchant’s son. About seeing him again. My brother left him to die.”

Shuzo’s hand flew up to cover his mouth. “No.”

Hitoshi blinked, and turned his face away. “I had seen my brother do many evil things before – helped him, even. But that was the first time I had ever hated him.” When Hitoshi looked at Shuzo again, he was smiling bitterly. “That night, I challenged him to a fight. He laughed in my face. We crossed blades four times and on the fifth, he drew blood. Mamushi told him to finish me off. Instead, my brother told me to leave and never return. So I ran.”

“Did your brother give chase?”

Hitoshi shook his head. “Maybe he thought I would come back. After all, I risked getting caught if I ventured along the main roads. I thought I would die. So when I met Master Genjiro…” Hitoshi looked down for a moment, rubbing his thumb absently against the edge of the rock he was sitting on. “He saved my life. He took me in and taught me his craft.”

“Does he know?” asked Shuzo. “About your past?”

“He has never asked,” said Hitoshi. “But there was plenty he could have inferred from my manner and my name. And yet he and his wife have shielded me from questions all these years.” Hitoshi folded his arms over his chest, and sighed. From his face it seemed like he was wearing the weight of ten years of guilt. “I have taken advantage of their kindness. Kijima was right. A man like me does not deserve this freedom.”

“Don’t say that –”

“I was wrong to have let you lie for me,” said Hitoshi. “I should have turned myself in.”

“Are you a fool?” asked Shuzo. “Even a child can see the difference between a man like you and the men that Kijima pursues. Mamushi delighted in killing, but you turned your back on all of that, ten years ago. ”

“You can make your distinction with your pretty words,” said Hitoshi. “I know what I have done –”

“The distinction is everything,” Shuzo snapped. “Can’t you see? These words – they’re everything, because they light the truth. I may lie about some things but in this respect I am absolutely clear. I have seen both your kindness and your bravery first-hand. I have heard many a tale of some good turn or other that you did for the other villagers.”

“You saw me kill a man.”

“Yes, you killed a man,” said Shuzo, “but it was in defence of yourself, and in defence of me. All these things point to the fact that you are a good man. I have no way of knowing if your brother ever feels remorse over the death of that merchant’s son. But what I do know is that you have been atoning for it ever since.”

Hitoshi rose to his feet. “You know nothing about me,” he said, eyes flashing.

“Perhaps that was a presumption on my part, yes,” Shuzo replied, ignoring the jolt of pain in his knee as he stood up. “Perhaps everything I have assumed about you is wrong. But until any evidence of that comes before me, I choose to trust what I see and what I believe. And defend you, if I must, and as best I can, against Kijima.”

Hitoshi scoffed. “Why? That is the one thing I don’t understand. Why do you do this?”

“Because Kijima is wrong,” said Shuzo, unable to keep the tremor from his voice. “Because I cannot stand to see a reformed man face execution for crimes he has already paid for.”

Because there was nothing he wanted more than Hitoshi.

“Because,” Shuzo continued savagely, “you are terrible with words and if you ever went before the Magistrate you would surely make a mess of things.”

“I wouldn’t –”

“You would,” Shuzo told Hitoshi, the words falling out of his mouth before he could stop them “You would say exactly the wrong things, and they would take your head, and then where would that leave me?”

And perhaps Shuzo had let too much emotion slip through in his voice, because Hitoshi glanced up sharply at his question. Hitoshi was gazing at Shuzo with an expression that he could not quite decipher. It seemed like comprehension. Or wonder, even.

“Or Master Genjiro,” Shuzo added quickly. “Where would that leave him?” But Hitoshi was still giving Shuzo that look.

“Would you really let an old man stand out here in the cold with plunging his arms into freezing streams?” Shuzo demanded.

“You,” Hitoshi finally said, shaking his head, “are impossible to argue with.”

“And you are as stubborn as an ox,” Shuzo retorted heatedly. “I regret ever meeting you.”

For a moment Hitoshi looked taken aback. And then he smiled, half in exasperation and half in fondness. “Liar.”

“I don’t lie, I embellish,” said Shuzo. “And you have brought me nothing but trouble. Case in point – my leg is killing me. What are you going to do about that?”

He expected Hitoshi to make some kind of remark about Shuzo whingeing too much, but instead Hitoshi merely took a step closer and offered Shuzo his arm.

“Come on, then,” said Hitoshi. “Unless you want to freeze out here.”

“Whose idea was it to come up here, anyway?” Shuzo replied, bracing his arm around Hitoshi’s shoulders.

“Stop grumbling or I’ll leave you here,” said Hitoshi, even as he tugged Shuzo closer to make sure that more of his weight was supported.

“I will make it a point to grumble all the way down this mountain,” Shuzo replied firmly.

“Not unless you want to tumble down the mountain.”

“Oh, and he’s into wordplay now, is he?”

It appeared that Kijima’s attendance of Shuzo’s performance was validation enough for the rest of the villagers. Almost everyone, from the village headman to old Genjiro and his wife, had gathered at the temple grounds tonight.

Seated at the front, beside the headman and a few of the other family group leaders, was Kijima. He nodded at Shuzo, still wearing that inscrutable smile. Standing somewhere near the back, on the other hand, was Hitoshi. He was saying something to old Genjiro’s grand-nephew, but his eyes were fixed on Shuzo.

Nerves had never bothered Shuzo in his life. The words of the stories came to him like breathing, and sitting before an audience of any size gave him an unspeakable thrill. Tonight however, that thrill was laced with dread. Tonight, it was not enough for Shuzo to get by with broad strokes and charm. Shuzo wasn’t performing for tips or laughs. Tonight, Shuzo was performing for Hitoshi’s life.

Shuzo let none of this enter his mind as he settled on the cushion to the sounds of his audience’s applause. Instead, he fell back to the familiar motions of setting his fan down in front of him and adjusting his sleeves, looking out at the audience before him. As with every performance he gave, he paused to let the words of the story swirl in his mind, feeling the pulse of it within him, the specific rhythms, their crests and falls.

He bowed deeply, and began.

“I hear that in Mino prefecture the mountain tengu will be placated by an offering of kuhin-mochi. During my travels, I came across a woodcutter who was putting out some of those rice cakes before he started the day. ‘Would you perchance have any to spare for this weary traveller?’ I asked. ‘This is for the tengu,’ the woodcutter told me, ‘dare you steal from them?’ ‘The tengu won’t notice,’ I replied, ‘they’re always losing things!’

“In Edo we don’t hear much about tengu, but everyone knows the stories of tengu losing their magic fans, or being tricked into giving up their magic gourds. The story I’m about to tell, on the other hand, is the tale of the tengu‘s magic cloak…”

Shuzo turned to his left, holding up his fan to his eye and peering out into the distance. In the bright, clear voice of a young child he exclaimed, “Wow, look at that! Wow! I’ve never seen that before!”

Shifting to his right and drawing up his shoulders into a hunch, Shuzo drew his hand along and outwards from his nose to indicate the tengu‘s long nose. The voice he used was that of an old man’s, but made strange by a wild harshness when he enunciated certain words. “Child! What are you looking at? Isn’t that just a piece of bamboo?”

Shuzo the child raised the fan to his eye again. “I can see Osaka city! They are having a festival today and everybody is dancing! Look at the colours and the banners!”

“What magic is this?” Shuzo the tengu demanded. “How is it that you can see Osaka city?”

“This is no ordinary piece of bamboo,” said Shuzo scornfully. “My grandfather gave it to me. It’s enchanted!”

“Prove it by letting me take a look.”

Shuzo clutched the fan to his chest, looking wary. “I can’t let just anyone use this.” Holding his fan up to his eye again, he gave a delighted laugh. “Oh, it’s a yose theatre in Edo! I may not be able to hear the storyteller but the audience is laughing uproariously!”

There was a murmur of laughter from the audience at the self-reference.

Shuzo as the tengu scrunched his face up in frustration. “All right, all right,” he said. “How about a trade?”

“My mother said that this was priceless.”

“But I’ll give you something even better.” His voice was now a slick whine. “Hmm?” He held out his towel by the corners. “How about this nice straw cloak of mine?”

Shuzo as the child pinched his nose. “That smells!”

“Ah-ha,” said Shuzo. “This cloak may smell, but it is the secret to my invisibility. I will give it to you if you let me have your enchanted bamboo.”

“Hmm.” Shuzo made a great show of thinking about this. “All right,” he said finally. “I guess you can have it.” He held out the fan for a moment, and then jerked it back. “But give me the cloak, first.”

“Oh, all right,” said Shuzo as the tengu, holding out his towel with both hands and setting it down on the ground. The next moment, he had seized up the fan. “What will I see?” he exclaimed excitedly. “Edo? Kyoto?” He held it up to his eye. There was a pause. “Eh?” He lowered the fan, and rubbed his eyes before trying again. “Why can’t I see anything?” He examined the fan in disbelief. “I can’t believe it! I’ve been tricked!”

Shuzo turned to address the audience directly. “And so, as the story goes, the child, now invisible, went back to his village and went about tricking people and stealing food. This continued for a week, while the rest of the villagers grew increasingly vexed.” Shuzo paused, and leaned forward towards the audience. “But there is one thing different about this particular story. You see, the tengu had put a powerful enchantment on the magic straw cloak. And when the boy grew tired of his mischief, he discovered that he couldn’t take it off.”

The villagers, who were familiar with the tale up to this point, looked intrigued at this development. The headman’s little boy nudged his brother and seemed to be asking if the story did indeed go like that.

“No matter how much he tried, the cloak stuck firmly to him.” Shuzo continued. “When he tried returning to the spot where he had met the tengu, the tengu was nowhere to be found. And so the fruit of the boy’s childish trickery now turned into his curse, for until he could find the tengu again, he was to remain invisible.

“Now, at first the boy was angry and afraid, because he had no home to return to, and nobody could see him. When he did try to reveal himself, people ran in fear from the disembodied voice that spoke to them. To protect himself and to survive, the boy used the invisibility that his straw cloak gave him to steal from people. The boy’s heart grew hard. Since he was barely a person, he thought, what was one more crime to him? His legend grew in the villages and towns he haunted, as a malevolent presence that could sometimes be identified by a particular smell and the sound of footsteps.

“Years passed. The tengu, who had hidden itself from the boy partly out of its own shame at being fooled, finally decided to seek out the boy again. The invisible boy, who had now become an invisible man, was not difficult to follow, for his legend was so great. Wherever the tengu went, however, all it found were the tales left behind, but not the boy himself. Nobody, it seemed, had been troubled by the malevolent presence for the past ten years. And then, the tengu came across a temple, where he found a solitary monk sweeping the floor…”

“Lo! Is this a tengu I see before me?” asked Shuzo in the monk’s gravelly voice.

“Your eyes do not deceive you,” replied Shuzo as the tengu. “I have come in search of an item that was once taken from me, and to visit punishment upon its thief.”

Using his fan, Shuzo mimed that he was leaning against his broom. “Sadly I have not heard of any such item that might belong to a great tengu, nor seen any thieves.”

“Well,” said Shuzo, “you wouldn’t have seen the thief, because the item is cursed to stick to him and he has become invisible.”

“Oh,” said Shuzo as the monk, sounding slightly faint. “What a dreadful punishment.”

“Punishment?” Shuzo repeated. “No, that was the gift. The punishment I will visit on this thief will be far greater, for I have travelled far and wide and heard of the terrible things he has done using this power.” He paused. “But now the trail has gone cold, for the tales of this man’s infamy have dwindled.”

Shuzo leaned his head to one side and scratched his chin. “Come to think of it, the people around these parts have often spoken of a benevolent spirit that comes to their aid. Broken sandals and mats get repaired overnight, and the sick and needy find medicines and food placed at their doorsteps. Once, a child who fell into the river was hauled to safety by unseen hands. What if all this was the work of your invisible thief? Perhaps he has decided to walk a different path.”

“Monk, you are naïve,” Shuzo replied, in the tengu‘s voice. “None of this changes what the thief has already done. The hurt he has inflicted must be visited equally upon him.”

“I suppose,” said Shuzo, giving a deferential bow. “But – and I beg your pardon for asking this, great tengu – how might this equal punishment be measured out? And if it were indeed equal, would the hurts he has visited upon others in the past be healed?”

Some of the villagers in the audience were murmuring approvingly, nodding at the monk’s words.

“No,” said Shuzo as the tengu. “But an example would still be made of him so that others would fear to walk the same paths.”

“Perhaps,” Shuzo replied. “Although I worry about the number of people who might see this example, given that this thief is, after all, invisible.” He paused as the audience laughed. “And, great tengu, would you not say that a reformed thief committed to doing good would be far better than one that was dead?”

“Monk,” Shuzo snapped. “You ask too many questions!”

“You have my apologies, great tengu,” said Shuzo, bowing deeply once again. And then, after a pause, he looked up. “Was is it not punishment enough that he was cut off from the world and rendered no better than a ghost?”

The audience laughed as Shuzo clutched his head and groaned in frustration. “Enough!”

“Oh, but I am merely curious to know what your answers to my questions are,” Shuzo continued. “For if a person’s actions may allow a glimpse into their heart, and if this benevolent spirit is indeed the thief you are looking for, then would it not be most in keeping with cosmic harmony that he continues as he is, atoning for what he has done in the past?”

“You have made me thoroughly vexed!” cried Shuzo as the tengu. “And yet there is sense to your questions that are not questions.” He held out his fan. “Take this. It is an eyepiece through which a person’s heart can truly be seen. Perhaps if you encounter this benevolent spirit you speak of, the truth will be revealed.”

Shuzo turned to address the audience once again. “So the tengu left, half moved and half vexed by the monk’s contrary questions, and the monk went to the hut in the forest where it was said that the benevolent spirit resided.”

Shuzo turned to his left and became the monk once again, peering cautiously ahead of him. “It is me, oh spirit!” He paused. “Perhaps the spirit is resting,” he said in an aside to himself. “If this eyepiece will indeed allow me to see the truth of its heart, now is the best time to glimpse it. I shall go to the window.”

Cautiously, he raised his fan to his eye, and jerked backwards at what he saw. “Good heavens! I see not a spirit, but a man!”

“You can see me?” asked Shuzo in a hoarse whisper, pulling off the towel from around his shoulders and gazing at the fabric in his hands with a look of wonder on his face.

“Of course I can see you!” exclaimed Shuzo as the monk.

“Thank you!” cried Shuzo. “Thank you for lifting my curse!”

Shuzo waved the fan excitedly. “It wasn’t me! It was this eyepiece! It is indeed enchanted!”

“No. It was your words and your spirit that brought me back to this world. For that thing you call an eyepiece is exactly what it looks like,” said Shuzo. “An ordinary piece of bamboo.”

Shuzo turned to face the audience, and bowed deeply.

The applause sounded slightly uncertain but no less enthusiastic, with a number of the elders nodding in approval. Kijima too, was clapping. The smile on his face was as inscrutable as ever.

“That,” said Hitoshi, “was not a funny story at all.”

Hitoshi had clearly meant that in jest, but there was a curious look on his face as he said this. Shuzo, who fancied himself an expert at Hitoshi’s various expressions, found it disconcerting that he couldn’t quite decipher this one. Faint surprise perhaps, like Hitoshi had just caught sight of some aspect of Shuzo that had previously been hidden to him. And yet there was something like sadness in Hitoshi’s eyes as he smiled.

“Call it my little experiment in a different style,” Shuzo replied. “Though from now on I think I might just stick with the funny ones, if I can help it.”

It was considered a warm night, but by Shuzo’s standards it was still disagreeably cold. He shivered as they walked along the deserted mountain path up to old Genjiro’s, their faces illuminated only by the light of Hitoshi’s lamp. Around them, the forest seemed to move and sigh and settle in the darkness.

“When you go back to Edo,” said Hitoshi, “I suppose you’ll have plenty of stories to tell.”

“Of course,” Shuzo replied. “That was why I set out for the country in the first place.” He paused, giving Hitoshi a sidelong look. “Is this your way of asking if you’ll be in my stories as well?”

Hitoshi laughed. “Perhaps.”

“Well, the answer is yes, if you’ll let me,” said Shuzo.

“I don’t mind,” said Hitoshi. “It’ll be something for you to take along when you leave.”

“Have you been thinking about that?” asked Shuzo, glancing over at Hitoshi with some concern. “I wouldn’t like to have outstayed my welcome.”

“You outstayed your welcome three weeks ago, I would say,” Hitoshi replied dryly, smirking at the baleful look Shuzo gave him. He reached out as if to clap Shuzo on the shoulder, but seemed to think better of it. “But at the same time… now that your leg’s better, there’s nothing really keeping you, is there?”

That’s where you’re wrong, Shuzo wanted to tell Hitoshi. He had every reason to stay. But before Shuzo could even attempt to formulate a way to say this, Hitoshi spoke again.

“I talked to Kijima.”

Shuzo stopped dead on his tracks. “When?”

“This morning,” Hitoshi replied. “While you were preparing your story. I went out to speak to him.” The lamp swayed as he turned to face Shuzo, throwing out strange shadows on Hitoshi’s face.

His next words made Shuzo’s blood run cold.

“Shuzo, I’m turning myself in tomorrow.”

“No,” said Shuzo. “No.”

“I’m turning myself in, and taking Kijima and his men to apprehend my brother,” Hitoshi told Shuzo. “I thought about this, and –”

“No, you clearly didn’t,” said Shuzo heatedly. “If you had actually given this any thought, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Shuzo’s hands were shaking. He clenched them into fists. “No. We’ve already had this conversation, up by the stream, and you said – you said…”

Shuzo realised with a jolt that Hitoshi had said nothing to suggest that he had decided not to turn himself in.

“I didn’t say anything then,” Hitoshi told Shuzo, “because one more word from you on that matter would have shaken my resolve.” He took a deep breath. “I thought about what you said about me being a good man. If my heart has truly changed, if my feet now truly walk on the right path… Wouldn’t turning myself in and bringing the others to justice be the right thing to do?”

“Did you rehearse that?” asked Shuzo in a bitter voice.

“I am not talented with words like you,” said Hitoshi. “And so I am thankful for all you have done for me. But the only way I can repay you is to prove your arguments right by my own actions. If I were truly changed, I would not hide from the law like this.”

“Then don’t be a good man.” A deep ache was unfurling in Shuzo’s chest as he spoke. “For your sake and mine. Repay me by staying. I don’t care about my words, whether they are proven true or false –”

“I care,” said Hitoshi. “I want – no, I need your words to be true. Don’t you understand?”

Perhaps it was the lamplight and the shadows, but as Hitoshi said this he seemed to become somehow diminished. His face was for the first time, entirely open to Shuzo, who saw plainly exactly how afraid Hitoshi was.

In seeing Hitoshi like this, it finally became clear to Shuzo. His words were important to Hitoshi because Shuzo had been the first person to declare that Hitoshi was a good man, even after hearing the full extent of Hitoshi’s past crimes. Outwardly, Hitoshi had scoffed. But had he in fact hoarded each word Shuzo had uttered, wanting desperately for Shuzo to be speaking the truth? Now that Kijima knew for sure who Hitoshi was, the only option – if Hitoshi were to stay – would be for him to run away and live as an outlaw once again.

Knowing this, could Shuzo ask Hitoshi to stay in good conscience?

“For a bandit’s crimes, they will take you to Edo, to go before the judicial council,” said Shuzo wearily, thinking back to what little knowledge he had picked up from entertaining important patrons. “There is very little that will persuade the bakufu from lessening your sentence. Kijima, even if he chooses to help you, will be unable to accomplish much.”

Shuzo looked directly at Hitoshi, who met his gaze with some trepidation. “If you are extremely fortunate, you might get exile and hard labour,” Shuzo told him. “If not, you face execution.”

Hitoshi’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “I suppose,” he began hoarsely. “I suppose, then, that this is goodbye.”

The ache in Shuzo’s chest had now intensified into a pressure at his throat, rendering him unable to speak or even breathe. His hands and feet were going numb. This must be it, he thought. The feeling of wanting to die.

“Well, it’s not goodbye now,” said Shuzo sharply, because that was the only way he could force the words out of himself, keeping his eyes fixed where the lamplight cast shadows on the ground. “Though knowing you, you’ll probably spend the rest of the night making your last post of paper or something –”

“Shuzo,” Hitoshi said.

At some point between Hitoshi’s goodbye and this moment, Hitoshi had closed the distance between the two of them. When Shuzo glanced up from the ground, Hitoshi was standing one step too far into his space. This close, Shuzo had to tilt his head up just a little to meet Hitoshi’s eyes, and while he was still grappling with this situation, Hitoshi leaned in and pressed his lips to Shuzo’s.

It was only for the briefest of moments; Hitoshi was stepping back even before Shuzo had properly registered that this had happened. Shuzo could feel his eyes going impossibly wide as he stared at Hitoshi in disbelief.

“I’m sorry,” Hitoshi hurried to say, “that must have been a shock –”

“Yes,” said Shuzo slowly, “yes it was.” He caught sight of the mortified look on Hitoshi’s face and began to grin. “But it was a shock of the most excellent sort. Like finding money on the ground. Or that there’s one more manju on the plate, or…” He was starting to babble, but that was wholly justified because Hitoshi had just – he had just – “Did you really just…?”

“Yes,” said Hitoshi, looking at Shuzo uncertainly. “I’m sorry, I should have –”

“Do you think we could do that again?” asked Shuzo. “Preferably for longer, and –”

And then Shuzo wasn’t speaking because Hitoshi was kissing him again, grabbing a fistful of Shuzo’s sleeve with his free hand in order to tug him closer. They kissed feverishly, clinging to each other with hands and lips and tongues.

“Why didn’t you say?” asked Hitoshi when they broke apart. It was a wonder he was still holding onto the lantern and that nothing had caught fire.

“Why didn’t you?” Shuzo demanded, breathless with – relief, perhaps. And joy, and desire. “You inscrutable bastard.”

“I thought you knew,” said Hitoshi.

“Well, now I do,” Shuzo replied.

“And it’s too late.”

Shuzo pulled Hitoshi towards him, so close that their breath mingled and he could feel the flutter of Hitoshi’s eyelashes near his skin. “It’s not.” And then, even though it was killing Shuzo to do so, he curved his lips into a smile. “Let’s make the most of this, shall we?”

There were to be no more confessions that night, or talk of the next day. Shuzo kept his mind fixed firmly on the present, on what he had before him. On Hitoshi in the darkness, no longer across the room from Shuzo but right beside him, their limbs tangled in the shadows, warm skin against Shuzo’s.

“Do you mean,” Hitoshi said, gasping slightly as Shuzo took his cock into his mouth, “you’ve been carrying that with you the whole time?”

Shuzo looked up at Hitoshi through his eyelashes, smiling a little around the head of Hitoshi’s cock as he wrapped his hand around the shaft and began to jerk Hitoshi off. “It was a farewell gift from a friend,” Shuzo said when he pulled away, holding out the small paper envelope of powdered nerigi root with his free hand. “For emergencies, he said.”

Hitoshi inspected the Yotsumeya label on the envelope. “What sort of friend gives this as a parting present?”

“Jealous?” asked Shuzo, giving Hitoshi no opportunity to answer as he slid his mouth back over as much of Hitoshi’s cock as he could take.

Hitoshi groaned, his head falling back onto the futon with a thump. “Not in the least,” he choked out.

“Liar,” Shuzo attempted to reply, more hum than actual word. He was rewarded by a second delicious groan from Hitoshi.

It was not long before Hitoshi was sitting up on one elbow, reaching out with his other hand to guide Shuzo off of his cock.

“Close?” asked Shuzo, leaning up to press kisses to Hitoshi’s jaw and neck. Shuzo had spent so long studying the line of Hitoshi’s shoulders as he worked that it was particularly wondrous that he could now curl an arm around it, to feel its broadness and the way Hitoshi’s muscles moved under his skin.

“You have a talented mouth,” Hitoshi replied, taking Shuzo’s neglected cock in hand and sliding his fingers around it.

“A compliment? From you?” Shuzo asked in mock surprise. He ran his tongue wickedly along the shell of Hitoshi’s ear, enjoying Hitoshi’s slight shudder at that. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

illustrated by beili

Hitoshi’s hand stilled. “What do I need to do to get you to shut up?” He smiled as he asked this, sliding his free hand along the side of Shuzo’s face.

“Hmm, how about you find out?” asked Shuzo, leaning into Hitoshi’s touch. Before Hitoshi could answer, he had sucked two of Hitoshi’s fingers into his mouth.

He watched Hitoshi watch him fascinatedly as he licked around Hitoshi’s fingers, and when they were adequately wet, Shuzo drew his mouth away.

“Let me,” said Hitoshi, reaching for the envelope.

Shuzo flopped down onto his back, watching as Hitoshi reconstituted the negiri root paste with the saliva on his fingers. “Well someone’s experienced.”

“You still haven’t told me who this friend of yours is,” Hitoshi retorted, smoothing a hand along Shuzo’s inner thigh and coaxing Shuzo’s legs further apart. He reached down to trace a finger over Shuzo’s entrance.

This back-and-forth continued even as Hitoshi continued to prepare Shuzo, slowly inserting first one and then two fingers, sliding them languidly in and out of Shuzo like they had all the time in the world.

They didn’t. They had tonight, and if Shuzo didn’t keep this knowledge at bay with words and pleasure, he knew he would fall to pieces. So he gasped and shuddered and kept on replying, all the way until the point where Hitoshi’s fingers brushed up against that particular spot inside of him.

Shuzo slapped a hand over his mouth as he cried out.

“Cat got your tongue?” Hitoshi asked, leaning down to take Shuzo’s cock into his mouth as he brushed his finger over that spot again.

Shuzo threw his head back and groaned deep in his throat, toes curling as his hips juddered up in pleasure. He opened his mouth to say something, but words had fled him and all that came out was the harsh sound of his own breathing.

“All right,” he finally managed. “Now.”

Hitoshi gave one final lick to Shuzo’s cock before straightening up. He shifted closer to Shuzo, who lifted his right leg to rest on Hitoshi’s shoulder. With one hand stroking along the side of Shuzo’s knee, Hitoshi guided his cock to nudge against Shuzo’s entrance.

“Come on, then,” Shuzo gritted out, and then Hitoshi was pushing slowly into him.

Shuzo had thought about this, about Hitoshi filling him like this, but he couldn’t have imagined the reality of it: the silent O of Hitoshi’s mouth as the rest of his cock slid completely into Shuzo, the dizzying feeling of Hitoshi’s eyes on him, the particular rhythm of Hitoshi’s hand as he fisted Shuzo’s cock.

When Hitoshi kissed Shuzo again it was different from the kisses that had come before. This was harder and more demanding, and stirred something inside Shuzo that made him return the kiss with twice the desperation. He moaned as Hitoshi sucked on his tongue, and as his fingers continued to stroke firmly on his cock. And when Hitoshi brushed his thumb over the tip, Shuzo groaned, hips jerking, and responded by nipping Hitoshi on his bottom lip.

“I was under the impression,” Shuzo breathed, “that you were trying to shut me up. And yet –”

Shuzo’s words dropped off into a groan as Hitoshi slid out slowly and thrust back in.

“Sorry,” said Hitoshi, pulling out again and driving back in. “You were saying…?”

Shuzo opened his mouth to reply but all he could do was gasp. Hitoshi was fucking him in earnest now, in a steady rhythm that reminded Shuzo of Hitoshi at the vat, deliberate and effortless at the same time. Except that Hitoshi would probably never stand at a vat again.

The thought came to Shuzo so quick and insidious that he wasn’t prepared for the painful surge in his chest, so strong that he couldn’t breathe.

“Shuzo?” asked Hitoshi, his hips stilling.

Shuzo reached up to curl his arms around Hitoshi’s neck, pulling him down for a kiss. “Harder,” he mumbled against Hitoshi’s lips. “Come on,” he hissed desperately, “do it harder –”

Hitoshi was straightened up. He guided Shuzo’s legs off of his shoulders and held them apart with his hands. The change in angle caused Hitoshi’s cock to slip even deeper into Shuzo at the next thrust. Shuzo had to press his hand back over his mouth to muffle his groan of pleasure.

Shuzo lost himself in it, in the feeling of being filled. In Hitoshi, whose eyes were burning like that day on the hillside, his fingers around Shuzo’s ankles gripping hard enough to hurt. Because right now, at this very moment, all of this was Shuzo’s – Hitoshi’s lips and limbs and shuddering breaths, the lines and planes of this face that Shuzo had gazed upon for weeks, wanting and waiting.

Then Hitoshi was letting go of one of Shuzo’s ankles so he could reach down to stroke Shuzo off in time with his thrusts, and Shuzo could no longer hold back the sounds he was making, moaning into the back of his hand. It was too much for Shuzo. Pleasure and grief wound inexorably within him as Hitoshi nudged him closer to the brink with every thrust. And then Hitoshi shifted just a fraction, changing the angle such that his cock rubbed against that spot deep within Shuzo.

Shuzo came with a loud cry; back arching impossibly, clenching hard around Hitoshi, his breaths coming in harsh sobs.

Hitoshi continued fucking Shuzo through his orgasm. When Shuzo finally opened his eyes again he saw Hitoshi watching him, wonderment and hunger and want written clear on his face.

Wordlessly, Shuzo motioned for Hitoshi to lie on his back, pulling himself off of Hitoshi for the few moments it took for him to crawl on top of Hitoshi. Before Hitoshi could reach over to steady Shuzo, Shuzo sank down on Hitoshi’s cock.

Hitoshi’s groan was gorgeous, wrenched straight from deep in his chest. Shuzo grinned, and began to ride him, hard and fast enough that Shuzo’s thighs could already feel the strain. Hitoshi breathed Shuzo’s name in a fevered litany, his eyes sliding shut as Shuzo continued at this steady pace. When Shuzo’s legs began to shake, he braced his hands against Hitoshi’s shoulders, leaning down to crush his lips against Hitoshi’s. And into that kiss Shuzo poured everything he wanted to say but couldn’t; the longing and desire and overwhelming joy that was matched only by his grief.

When Hitoshi came, Shuzo swallowed every single sound.

The sun rose too soon the next morning, sullen and remote. Hitoshi was already dressed when Shuzo awoke.

It startled Shuzo how the knowledge of an impending loss could colour things so differently. Hitoshi seemed somehow more distant to Shuzo, even as everything about him still remained achingly familiar.

“And where will you take Kijima?” asked Shuzo. Of all questions, this was the only one he could bring himself to ask.

“There is a cave far up in the mountains which was my brother’s stronghold,” Hitoshi replied. “I will bring Kijima and his men there. When we spoke, he assured me that they would be skilled swordsmen. I told him I did not care.”

Hitoshi saw himself as a dead man, Shuzo realised. Already-left.

But he wasn’t. Not quite yet. Not while Shuzo still had him.

“There is still a little time,” said Shuzo, smiling at Hitoshi even though his heart felt fit to burst with sorrow. “How about one last story?”

Hitoshi nodded, his eyes bright.

And so Shuzo sat down before Hitoshi, setting his fan and towel down as he always did, refusing to let his heavy heart get in the way of the story he was about to tell.

“This one is called ‘The Cat’s Plate’. In Edo there lived an antique shop owner who scoured the city for valuable old items, buying them at low prices from their unsuspecting owners…”

III

“And so here I am again,” said Shuzo. “Just when you thought you were rid of me.”

The audience laughed.

“My esteemed shisho, whom you all know and love, took me aside the other day and said to me: ‘Taiheraku.'”

Shuzo was interrupted by another burst of laughter from the audience, who had clearly been anticipating Shuzo’s spot-on impersonation of Hayaseya Enshou. “‘Taiheiraku,” Shuzo continued in his master’s distinctive, inebriated growl, “‘I sent you away because I wanted you to improve your craft.'” Shuzo paused to mime tossing back another cup of sake, wiping his mouth before he continued. “‘But now all your stories are far too long, and your feet stink.'”

“They do!” shouted someone in the audience.

“‘What would you like me to do about it?’ I asked him, and he said, ‘You can get me another drink!‘”

“That’s Hayaseya Enshou for you!” another person shouted through the ensuing peals of laughter.

Shuzo had always succeeded in charming the audience with his irreverent sending-up of familiar figures and his quick and humorous stories. Now that his audience was warmed up, however, he was about to try something rather different.

“Speaking of long stories, did I mention that at several points during my travels I wasn’t sure if I would ever return to Edo?” Shuzo nodded. “Yes, shocking. I know, but that is what happens when one seeks out adventure. The story I am about to tell you, on the other hand, is about a man named Jin who wanted the exact opposite – a quiet life.

“You see, Jin had left his life as a bandit behind ten years ago and settled down to live as a good man,” said Shuzo. “But his past caught up with him, as is its wont, and he decided that the right thing for him to do was to turn himself in to the authorities.” Shuzo paused. “But Jin also had a friend, who had lied for him previously in order to keep him from getting caught. And so Jin made a deal with the yoriki who had come to arrest him: he would lead the yoriki to where the rest of the bandits were. In exchange, the friend who had given false testimony would not be harmed.

“Of course, Jin said nothing of this exchange to his friend. But in ensuring his friend’s security, Jin had in fact agreed to betray his own brother Tora, who was the fearsome leader of the bandits. And so they travelled until they arrived at the entrance to Tora’s stronghold, deep within the mountains…”

Shifting to his left and squaring his shoulders, Shuzo became Jin. “Has your lordship thought of a plan to apprehend the bandits?”

Shuzo turned to his right, adopting a samurai’s noble bearing as he spoke as the yoriki. “Of course,” he said. “We will charge straight in.”

Some of the audience chuckled.

“That is a brave plan, of course,” said Shuzo, “but my brother Tora is a fearsome warrior who taught me everything I know. Whatever attack you attempt he will surely anticipate, and return twofold.”

“All right,” said Shuzo, in the yoriki‘s clipped tones. “You will charge straight in.”

More laughter from the audience.

illustrated by beili

“All right,” said Shuzo cautiously, bobbing motion his shoulders to indicate that he was walking. From his belt he withdrew his fan, holding it as a blade before him. “I have neither seen nor heard from my brother since we parted ways ten years ago. Although I may never forgive him for killing the person I loved, I do not wish to be the one to cut him down.” He paused, and looked down at his fan. “I know what I must do. I must steel myself to die.” Shuzo stowed the fan away.

He turned again, and this time when he spoke his voice was a feeble rasp. “Who goes there?”

“I mean you no harm,” Shuzo called out.

“I know that voice,” said Shuzo weakly. “It has been many winters since I last heard it, but I could recognise it anywhere.” He held out one trembling hand. “Jin, is that you?”

“My ears and eyes must be playing tricks on me,” said Shuzo, “for this is not the brother I remember. The Tora who drove me away stood a head taller than me. He was strong and fast, and cut an imposing figure.” He looked out into the audience. “This man, on the other hand, is frail, and wracked with disease. Look how dreadful these sores are!”

“Jin. It is I, Tora. One look into my face and you will know.”

Shuzo leaned forward, and then let out a shout. “Brother! Only your eyes have not changed. I remember them well – sharp and cunning one moment, yet kind the next.” He paused, looking around helplessly. “What has happened to you? Why are you alone?”

“Once this disease had robbed me of my strength, Mamushi, the snake that I had called a friend, took the others and left,” said Shuzo as Tora. “All I can do now is await my death, and curse the names of the men I had once regarded as my comrades.”

A hush had fallen over the audience. From their faces it was clear that each and every one of them had been entirely drawn in, listening with rapt attention as Shuzo’s tale unfolded.

“Forgive me, brother, for I was the first to leave,” said Shuzo as Jin.

“No,” said Shuzo. “In truth, my heart felt lighter when you ran away. For it was never your choice to walk this path. I watched you once as you worked for the farmer that took you in, and thanked the cruel gods that you had the strength to leave your brother behind.”

Brother,” said Shuzo, his voice cracking with emotion.

“But why have you come back?”

“He has come back because he was bringing us to you,” said Shuzo in the yoriki‘s voice. “Your brother has turned himself in.”

“No,” Shuzo said, as Tora. “It has been ten years since he left us. He has done nothing wrong.”

“He has fled from justice – that is what he has done,” said Shuzo as the yoriki, and now he was Kijima, down to that opaque smile. “But now he is atoning for it. Perhaps you should follow suit, Tora the cruel.”

Shuzo laughed derisively. “It is too late for me.” He gestured towards his body. “The gods have already handed down their judgement. It is a sad day for you, yoriki, for you have found the den and yet caught nothing but a dying man.” He paused. “But since you travelled all the way here, I shall give you a gift. I shall tell you the location of the new stronghold.”

“You would do this?” asked Shuzo as the yoriki. “Betray the rest?”

“Not for justice,” Shuzo replied with a cruel smile. “But revenge. And in exchange, you will give my brother his freedom.”

“Very well,” said Shuzo as the yoriki. “I agree. Jin will go free – but not because of any deal I have made with you.”

“What?” whispered someone in the audience, only to be shushed immediately.

“When I was investigating Jin back in the village,” Shuzo continued, “a friend of Jin’s presented an argument about justice that I could not ignore. All throughout my journey here, I have been considering his words in my mind. Back in the village, Jin saved not only the life of his friend but also that of an enemy – myself. And now, faced with the brother he has never forgiven, he chose to stay his hand instead of making an easy kill.” Shuzo paused, looking out into the audience. “If Jin is not a good man, I do not know who is.”

“Hear, hear,” shouted an old man.

“I must thank my friend,” Shuzo said in Jin’s voice. “For his words have truly saved me.”

“No,” replied Shuzo as Tora. “It was not your friend that saved you, nor I, nor the mercy of this yoriki. Brother, I tell you – it was your good heart.”

Shuzo turned to face the audience and bowed, to thunderous applause.

“It’s true,” said Hayaseya Enshou later, as they sat in the dressing room warming themselves by the hearth. “Your feet do stink, and your stories are just as bad. I never expected you to branch out into sentimental discourses. It’s dismal. Not a punchline in sight.”

His shisho‘s words were harsh, but the fact that he had even mentioned Shuzo’s performance was significant enough. Hayaseya Enshou never commented on a performance he didn’t like.

“But nonetheless, it was a moving tale, handsomely told,” said Enshou.

Shuzo bowed deeply. “You are too kind, shisho.”

“You bet I am,” Enshou growled. “Letting you make fun of me out there like that.”

“But shisho,” Shuzo replied, “from where I am sitting, your laugh is always the loudest.”

Enshou slapped the table and grinned at Shuzo, shark-like. “That it is,” he roared. “Now pour me a drink, smelly feet.”

“Of course,” said Shuzo, reaching for the sake bottle.

“Those papers you brought back was of excellent quality,” said Enshou, while Shuzo poured. “Even Master Sanyutei was impressed. How much did it cost you?”

Shuzo’s hands stilled. “They were given to me by the person who made them.”

“Well,” said Enshou. “You must have been very charming indeed. That is some damn fine paper.”

“Everything I know, I learnt from you,” Shuzo replied smoothly.

“And there you go again,” said Enshou. “So tell me,” he continued, sweeping up his cup of sake and bringing it to his mouth. “This story of yours that you picked up from the countryside and prettied up for an audience. How does it really end?”

Shuzo’s tale was, for the most part, true. Hitoshi and Kijima had found Tora near death and quite willing to exact revenge on his disloyal comrades by divulging their locations. Kijima, moved by Hitoshi’s good character and Shuzo’s words, had let Hitoshi go free.

And this is what happened after that:

Seven days after he had gone, Hitoshi came back.

It was Shuzo who saw him first, coming up the hillside like a man who didn’t have a care in the world. For several long moments Shuzo found himself unable to speak or move. All he could do was stand there with a piece of paper hanging limply from his hands, gaping as Hitoshi continued along the pathway. Perhaps Shuzo was hallucinating. Perhaps the mountain air had addled his mind instead of clearing it. Perhaps –

Hitoshi lifted his gaze and their eyes met.

“What on earth are you doing here?” Shuzo demanded.

“I’m back,” said Hitoshi.

“I can see that,” Shuzo replied. “But how?”

“Well,” said Hitoshi. “It’s a bit of a long story.”

“Ah,” Shuzo said, a smile creeping onto his face, “but those are the best kind.”

 

Author’s Notes

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/249682.html)

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