I wake expecting to see dark grungy walls, covered in old, peeling plaster and dark seeping stains. I wake expecting to feel the hard cobblestones and scratchy blankets of my prison. I wake expecting to hear the chittering of rats scattered but not quite frightened away by my wakefulness. Instead I awaken to silence. It’s almost as frightening. The darkness is warm, it creeps across the walls and the floorboards, seeking to leave through the small gaps in the sliding door, but a soft light seeps out, keeping it at bay. I keep very, very still, as if by my movement the illusion would be shattered and I would be back in that room, battered bruised, broken. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, a single window, with shutters thrown open, gives me a view of the spiky tops of trees, beyond them, but not too far, a dark shape towers over them, a single light flickers at the highest floor. I lie there, eyes fixed on that single shimmering light, I lose track of time and soon fall asleep again, the illusion unscathed.
I am awoken by the sound of someone moving about, a pot clangs loudly and a woman curses, then moves away, hopefully taking the offending pot with her. I snuggle down into the warm covers, pulling them close to my body, they are warm and soft. Sunlight streams in through the window covering the floor in scattered shadows, someone had come in and closed the window while I slept, I wondered if they too had stood watching that small flickering light.
I poked my head out from under the covers and noticed that the door was slightly ajar, and a tray of food, rice, miso soup and grilled fish, had been left at the entrance, it was still steaming and smelt delicious. I held back though, free food did not exist and I wanted to know the price of it before diving into a meal I sorely needed. Soft footsteps approached and I stiffened, pulling the covers even closer and sitting up. The women who comes through the door is strikingly beautiful; black hair spilled about her shoulders, sharp cheekbones made her features seem sharp, though there was a softness to her face that spoke of gentleness, her lips were full and her narrow eyes spoke to her Japanese ancestry, her bright yellow eyes, flecked with pieces of gold, spoke to something else. I had never seen eyes like that on a human being. No. That wasn’t true, I had seen eyes like that before. But that women’s hair had been white and her smile cruel. As she came into the room, I revised my opinion, she was clearly not Japanese, Japanese women were small and petit, this women was tall and curvy, despite the looseness of her kimono, and it was quite obvious. The kimono itself was white with a red fox, rampant, on the front.
She stopped, sensing my observation of her, I shrank away, expecting a rebuke, but she only smiled. She knelt down, her fingers brushing my chin, they were soft and cool, and she turned my head to face her and looked into my eyes.
“What did you see?”
The question was simple enough, but seemed laden with meaning I did not grasp, I hesitated, and my voice caught in my throat, a vision of a cruel, ugly face gripping my chin swam before my eyes. I threw myself away as hard, gnarled hands groped at me tearing away my clothes. I curled up in a ball, hugging my head to my chest, screaming. Soft hands encircled me, as I was pulled into her arms. She held me, rocking me until the nightmare ended and the cruel face left.
“I’m sorry” she whispered, “I should not have pushed you. I’m sorry.”
She gently pushed me away and looked into my face.
“Do want to eat?”
I nodded, and desperately rubbed at my eyes and face, raw from crying. She led me over to the tray and offered me the rice.
I nodded, not yet ready to speak. She piled fish on top of the rice and stabbed chopsticks into the dish and handed it to me. Hunger overtook me and I grabbed the bowl and began to wolf down the meal, I grabbed the bowl of miso soup and glugged down the broth before return to my rice and fish. The woman chuckled, it was a rich, warm sound, and I looked up suddenly aware of how I was behaving. Sheepishly I made to put the bowl down but she shook her head smiling.
“Don’t be ashamed, I reckon this is the best meal you’ve had in…..”
She trailed off and something dark flitted across her face, she shook herself and it passed as quickly as it came.
“Anyway, eat, there’s more in the kitchen when you’re done here.”
“You’re going out?”
“Well”, she smiled, a bright, beautiful smile, “not quite.”
She got up and brushed off her kimono.
“I’ll be back soon, don’t worry, no-one will disturb you here.”
She left, leaving the sliding door open. It was a clear invitation.
I was finally lured out by my grumbling stomach, despite the feast I had just had. I walked carefully out the room, into what seemed to be antechamber, a large sliding door, made of the same bamboo and white paper as the one in my room was to my right. To my left and ahead of me were long corridors with more, smaller, doors. Many windows looked outside, though they were too high for me to see out. Small drawers with flower stands and piles of books were scattered among the hallways and antechamber. Unlit lanterns hung from the beams of the high ceiling.
The smell of food drew me to one of the doors, I pushed it open and was greeted by the wonderful smell of omelettes, grilled fish and red bean dumplings. A small stove, smoked away happily, giving off a delicious heat in the crisp morning. Hunched up next to the small fire, I happily munched away at the food, a little more slowly this time. The flames warmed my hands and face and I hunched there contentedly for a long while. When the woman returned I barely heard her come in so wrapped up was in watching the flames, I think she stood in the entrance watching me for a long while, for, when I finally noticed her and looked up she was standing there with a strange, slightly vacant look on her face. I stood and she quickly returned to herself and smiled at me.
“I see you liked the food.”
I nodded, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, because she laughed and walked in, depositing a small wooden box on the counter where the food had once been. She walked to me, putting her arms around my shoulders and directing me out of the kitchen and towards another door, this one had a brass handle on the edge, a fox with a dragon, curled up and held in its mouth.
“Come, we must give some proper clothes and introduce you to everyone.”
“Everyone?” I said hesitantly.
“Why yes, the children.”
As If that settled my question she knelt down and opened the door. I noticed the way she held the handle was peculiar, she held it gently, as if it might break in her hands if she was too rough with it, she paused, it was only a second, but it spoke of something, I couldn’t quite place it, but it was almost sad. Quickly she got up and led me in, kneeling down and closing the door behind us.
The room was a bedroom, two futons were laid out in the middle of the room, close, almost touching. A small stand stood by each side, the one on the left was stacked high with books, and the other was laid out with candles and old flowers. A large wardrobe dominated the right side of the room, foxes carved into the wood. The woman got up and went to the wardrobe, opening it she began to rustle through the clothes.
Saemon woke with Ryujin already awake. He stood on the balcony eyes cast over the tops of the pines. His hands clenched and unclenched the wooden balcony and smoke rose slightly from where they rested. Saemon groaned and pushed himself up on to his elbows.
“How long have you been up?”
“I watched you go to sleep then arose and have been here since.”
Saemon pushed himself up to his feet, bouncing up lightly on the balls of his feet. He stretched and yawned. The morning air was crisp and cut through the lingering warmth of his bed.
“How long until the morning lessons?”
“You’ve probably got an hour or so before Shinji wakes them.”
“I’ll shower and dress then, meet in the dojo. We’ll spar for them.”
Ryujin nodded but did not reply. Saemon sighed and made his way to the shower. The water was cold, it always was up here. Saemon didn’t mind, the cold woke him up and cleared his head. Running his hands through his hair he let the stream crash into his face. For a moment the world was cut away.
“You ever going to get those removed?”
Saemon was broken out his revere by Ryujin’s voice in his head. He turned to see him standing in the door to the bathroom leaning against the doorframe, looking pointedly at the irezumi that covered Saemon’s legs, arms to the wrists, back and stomach. Dragons, falcons and samurai whirled and swept across his body. Greens and blues, black and red and yellow forming a kaleidoscope of dulled colour. Saemon killed the water and grabbed a towel, wrapping himself up, he walked past Ryujin into the bedroom and began to dress.
“Short answer. No.”
Ryujin followed into the bedroom and positioned himself at the balcony again.
“A Chinese man with Japanese tattoos. You strike quiet the multi-layered figure. Or just confused.”
Saemon sighed as he pulled on a crimson shirt. He divested himself of the towel and finished dressing. He slipped his feet into leather shoes and shrugged on a black jacket.
“If you have a point, get to it.”
“What do you tell her?”
“I should think that you would have to do the explaining. She’s not my daughter.”
“I had hoped…”
“I will not be your surrogate Ryujin.”
“What if Rin takes to her?”
“She takes to all the children here.”
“None of them have been through what Toyo has.”
“Well then she can be the mommy and you can be the daddy and live together happily in that fucking house.”
“Your point? No, you were just trying to shift the responsibility on to me and if it brought me and Rin together again…well all the better. Me and Rin…we’re…too far away, and I’d appreciate it if you kept your scaly snout out of our business.”
Saemon grabbed his fedora from where it sat on a coat hook.
“You’d think a dragon god would have more balls.”
He left the room leaving Ryujin feeling like he’d just been punched in the stomach. He spun on his heel and punched the balcony railing as hard as his frail human frame would let him. Why were humans so fucking complicated?
The air smelt of pine and smoke. Shinji breathed deep and stretched. For a moment his body stretched out, further than a humans would, his arms and legs cracking and popping. Then it was over and his body settled back into its regular form. His ears pricked as he picked up the muffled grumbles and groans of waking children as they shifted from deep dreams and long slumber. Shinji grinned as he stepped into his small hut next to the gate and picked up a large brass gong and hammer.
Saemon heard the gong crash and the startled cries of rudely awoken children as he made his way down the garden path. As he emerged from the pine thicket he saw Shinji hollering and banging away at the gong as children scampered and rushed from room to room, quickly pulling on clothes and grabbing long bamboo sticks. Somehow they managed to form a semblance of a line by the time Saemon made it to Shinji’s side. The air was still cold and the children stood shivering slightly in the open air. Saemon made a mental note to pick up some cold weather clothes if he went down into the city today. He unbuttoned his jacket, shrugging it off and passing it to Shinji, rolled up his sleeves and began walking along the line.
“Who are we?”
“The Forgotten, the leftovers of a cruel world.”
“What do we do?”
“We prepare, we train, we hide. We do not interfere.”
“What will we become?”
“The inheritors of all that is left behind.”
The words had the ring of much use. Even so as the words rang out over the compound the children woke up a little, their faces brightening and clearing. The sleepiness falling to eagerness.
“Good. Today is the Day of the Monkey, your schedule for the day’s lessons is up on the board. For now assemble in the dojo. Ryujin and I will demonstrate a few techniques for you.”
Cries of joy and excitement rang through the courtyard but were quickly stifled as Saemon raised a hand.
“This is not just for your entertainment. I expect you all to take notes. Next week I will expect demonstrations of the same techniques from all of you.”
One of the children, messy black hair hiding his eyes, groaned, rubbing his skinny arms.
“Yes Kai, even from you.”
Saemon stopped his pacing and swept his eyes over the unruly bunch.
“Today is special and I expect every one of you to be on your best behaviour. We have a new arrival.”
A murmur rippled through the children. A new arrival? Who?
“Her name is Toyotama. None of you is pry into her circumstances unless the information is offered freely. It is likely that she will shy away from socialising. I expect everyone to make her feel welcome. That is all. Dismissed.”
The children spit away, forming groups of 3-4 and making their way to the dojo. They were all taking amongst themselves. Who was the new arrival? What was she like? What was she? Another Neko? A Kit? Maybe even an Oni. Laughter rippled through the groups as the children disappeared into the thicket.
Saemon turned back to Shinji.
“Keep an eye on them.”
“You should go see them. Make sure Rin hasn’t killed her with too much food.”
A small smile flickered over Saemon’s face. He turned to the small gate that led to the bridge connecting Rin’s house to the compound.
“It’s your house too you know.”
“Doesn’t feel like it anymore.”
Sighing Saemon made his way to the gate, dreading what awaited him beyond that little, red bridge.
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