It took a few days to get home – a few night stops at villages that recognized the Juuyuushi symbol or my clan mon, villages that were unfailingly allied with the cause. By the time I was back in Okutama, I needed a long soak in the hot springs and nobody to drop on me with questions about Harry McArthur’s death. Typically, I got to do neither, with the town magistrate requesting my immediate presence in his chambers.
“Okita Kanon, why was I reached with news that McArthur’s apartment was caught in a violent explosion, and that you somehow survived the ordeal? Do you have no honour to die with your friend?”
I grit my teeth together. This pompous bastard was tiring from the moment he opened his mouth, but to suggest something like that in his second sentence was infuriating. Riled up, I slammed my hands down on the table. “This insistence you have with acting like we’re still living in the old ways is pathetic, Magistrate. We don’t have the manpower to sacrifice ourselves in battle, and I’m the last of my bloodline. You can’t afford to lose me.”
A smirk spread across his fat face. “Oh? But we can afford to lose one of our best healers because you weren’t willing to take care of a few loose ends?” He flicked a paper fan open and started wafting it towards himself. “You are becoming more arrogant in your advancing years. Maybe you should just quit and become a housewife already.”
Resorting to petty insults was his trademark; he knew I could kill him, but wouldn’t. I’d be exiled, and the plan would be a lot harder to execute on my own, especially with my nine other comrades hunting me. “Just direct me to whoever has the next mission.”
“That would be me.”
I turned to find a young man, short but toned, with a shock of light brown hair. It reminded me of why brown was literally ‘tea-coloured’ in Japanese, because the way it sat on his head was like someone had dumped a cup of the stuff over him.
“Mochizuki,” I said with a stern tone. “Thanks for doing nothing in our last mission.”
He laughed, in a way that sounded hearty but forced. “You fail to realise the art of the ninja is sometimes simply to observe and reconnoitre.” Mochizuki walked towards me and pushed me back against the desk, trapping me with both of his arms. His face, his shochu-smelling breath were too close. “Kanon, the blade should weigh heavily on the soul. But yet it seems not to affect you.”
I hit him with a palm strike to the solar plexus and then followed up with a right hook to the face. He staggered backwards, clutching his cheekbone. Probably broken. “I’ll repent for my sins when this country is ours again. Until then, I’ll kill as many damn people as it takes.” I drew the dagger strapped to my belt, the blade a foot long and single edged. “I’ll start with you if needs be.”
The coward backed away, pressed himself up against the wall. He was as much warrior as I was a god. With a slight laugh, I nicked his flesh with the dagger and then sheathed it. The mistake I made was turning away from him. What happened next spread out across time like honey on bread. I heard the slight click of his sword being unsheathed, and propelled myself away while projecting a false image of myself – the blade swung low and upwards, decapitating the false self and just catching my real cheek. The hot flush of blood seared across my skin, and as I hit the floor, everything came back into focus.
“You bastard! You could have killed me!” I screamed, launching myself towards him. I took hold of his sword arm and hit it hard with my palm, rage surging. I felt the bone crack underneath and swung back around with a kick, launching him through the screen wall and into the next room, where one of the Magistrate’s courtesans was enjoying tea. Mochizuki’s shoulders caught the table and flipped the hot kettle’s contents over himself, along with the dango the courtesan had set out neatly on a plate.
“Okita, wait… I was just…”
My right fist hit him so hard my entire body shuddered as he tried to get up, the thin metal of my gauntlets probably the only thing that stopped me from breaking my hand against his cheekbone. I grabbed him by the collar, pulled his bloody face to within inches of mine. “You’re a disgrace. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right here, you pathetic worm!”
He pointed back through the hole to where our fight had started. “Anayama. She… I… we… just please. Don’t put her through that.”
I turned around to see the youngest member of our little group. Kiriko Anayama was little more than sixteen, a prodigy with some of the rarest dimensional magic in existence but woeful in stature and clumsy by nature. I grit my teeth and relinquished my grip on Mochizuki’s collar. Anayama was smitten with him, and she hated me. Nothing worthy of fear, but she refused to speak to me directly, even when it really counted. “He’s all yours, Anayama.”
She walked past me as though I didn’t exist, and started tending to Mochizuki’s wounds. As she dabbed at his bloody nose with a handkerchief, she shot me a glance of pure vitriol. That was my cue to leave, clearly. I disappeared from the Court of the Magistrate and headed up to the onsen, hoping that I could maybe relax a little, and find somewhere to deal with the wound on my face.