Part I: Dawn
This is a story that begins with a tragedy.
Sasuke was young, brash, and promising. He had taken on the harsh life of the itinerant musician, away from parents well worth running away from. What he lacked in practice and technique he more than made up in heart, and the folks at the inns and taverns where he plied his trade understood that well enough to keep him sleeping in warm places with a full stomach.
He had been grateful to find a companion to take his show one step further. It was an agreeable arrangement. Someone to travel safely with, to let me dance, my better art. A new life meant new ways of doing things, teamwork could well be one of them.
We had taken refuge in an abandoned shrine, unknowingly but less than a mile from the nearest town. Barely standing, no longer a barrier against rain or wind, barely enough to stop forest animals. It was also, I learnt soon after, a staging place for the local bandits.
Bandits are rarely accused of being morning people, yet a few were making their way to the abandoned shrine at the point of dawn. They must have had plans to spend the day there, resting off their hangovers and picking up on merchants traveling the nearby road. They found themselves face to face with a young musician and a blind dancer and new, lurid plans were made on the fly.
The encounter couldn’t end well. Hungover as they were, the bandits had the bravado of numbers and the morals of impunity. Sasuke had the misplaced courage of a young man with a head full of stories of noble heroes protecting helpless damsels. Few words were exchanged before blades were drawn. The bandits wasted no time in skewering Sasuke.
He died as the bandits fell around him, unable to understand what went on as his vision faded out. “You die a hero, Sasuke” were the last words he heard. A new story needn’t be a happy one, I hoped those words would give the young man a kinder departure.
Part II: Morning
The first warmth of the Sun. Shaken but couldn’t afford to stay around that scene. Had to make my way onwards. Soon back on the road, wide and flat if fraying, a testament to past times of commerce and a poorer present. Only a few minutes after that I arrived to town.
It was early, an hour were a town would wake and noisily go about preparing the long day and yet it only spoke in whispers. Children, dogs, roosters, farmers preparing for a long day of work. All muted. Even the smells were. An empty stomach and a new town, I’ll usually make my way to the best ryokan in town by smell alone. It took an effort this time. Walking forward, seeking hints of where to go, realized this was a one ryokan town. A bit of a disappointment. On their way there were two aged men, discussing matters they could not affect.
The ryokan, like the town, was afraid to raise its voice. Why was immediately obvious. Those voices coming from the back room, loud and demanding. I had heard them before many many times. Those at the lowest places would always seek someone worse off, that minute relief from their sad lot in life. I was often assumed to be that person. For a while, I had been. Not an hour before those same voices were taunting Sasuke and myself. Those were silenced now, these were to be borne for now.
Noticing the local ronin thugs was a good reminder that the morning hunger would had to wait for more important matters. As briefly as Sasuke and I had known each other, it fell to myself to make sure that his remains would see a better fate than being left to rot under the sun. And there was still a trade to ply, meals to earn, and a desire to seek a warmer, safer place to rest the next night. The ryokan owners, an elderly couple, were accommodating, glad to find in promised stories and song a respite from their predicament even as the ronin made it a constant preoccupation. They promised to keep my things safe, I set out to inform the authorities and find a priest to give Sasuke rest.
Both were found at once. A tiny outpost of the regional clan, barracks for half a dozen warriors at most. None of the activity one would expect from such a place. A pair standing by, unsure of how to proceed, whatever it was they wanted from the local authorities. A horse on the ground, breathing heavily. Ridden hard, barely made it through. The clan’s messengers were relaying urgent news. Those were never good news.
Pleasantries exchanged with the pair of confused travelers. Strange accents, none I had heard before. Tall, both of them, one more than the other. The shorter one presented himself as a monk, a seeker of enlightenment, precisely what Sasuke needed. The one good coincidence of the day. The other one was curt but respectful. A small girl was with them, making herself hard to notice. There was only one soldier within the station, if not manning it. Anyone could tell from the loud snoring coming from within.
The soldier was woken up kindly, the better to avoid startling him. Needn’t have worried, the pair who were following did so by their mere presence. He nearly panicked on seeing them “foreign devils!” he called them. That explained the accent. Some kind words would hopefully calm him down enough to have a conversation. “There is no need to worry, he’s a gentleman devil” I said to the soldier, aiming to let a bit of humor prod his courage. That turn of phrase ended up sticking. The way he behaved from there on, it’s either prescient or he ran with the joke. Everyone else, I don’t know if they got it.
Still, we managed to find out what we could. He was truly exhausted, confirmed he had rode here overnight. The information about the bandits he was glad to write down but he made it clear that nothing would be done about it as long as the clan had its eyes elsewhere. The town would remain the playground of a gang of ronin.
Part III: Midday
The pair of foreigners presented themselves. Alan the monk, Tomas the… Gentleman Devil. Amal, their charge. Tomas was acting as her adopted father, a hopeful hint of what may lay beneath his brash demeanor. They were not very familiar with the local customs and were well aware that they were scaring everyone out. Still, they needed lunch, and a room for the night, and new clothes for Amal. They seemed very worried that her outfit made her stand out, and it did feel a fabric unlike anything commonly worn around these parts, a tighter fit than anything we’d find comfortable. Why they thought such an urgent problem that the girl would stand up when the two of them were causing general panic by their mere presence it’s hard to tell. Throughout the day no one made a fuss of Amal, yet the reaction to her guardians…
They politely requested that I help them make all those arrangements. Desperate times indeed if they’re asking to be guided by the blind. Go ahead and laugh, I too find it funny. They were interesting company and besides helping the monk navigate the scared townsfolk in exchange of his help with Sasuke was a fair deal. First thing to do was to secure them a room to rest the night, and there was only one place for that around…
The ryokan owners had more pressing issues than foreigners. A devils who pays for food and drink and behaves can still be a welcome guest. The ronin thugs who were still around, more drunk than before, were another matter. I, for one, had no desire for more violence that day. Tomas, on the other hand, was soon filled with righteousness worthy of a guardian demon. It was then that “Gentleman Devil” became a fitting epithet. Not that he was very gentlemanly about it, but he wouldn’t suffer fools like those. As for the devil part… he was soon floating a foot above ground, a visage most terrible no doubt. How he did it, where he learnt… he hasn’t told.
What little courage those five drunk ronin may have found in their numbers evaporated faster than spilled sake. They ran in any direction that would take them far from the Devil, leaving even their swords behind. Rusted blades, wouldn’t cut pickles clean. It takes little to threaten those who wouldn’t dare make their lives through violence.
We all knew that wouldn’t be the end of them. They lived by the fear they instilled, if word ran out that half of them ran away from a stranger with a funny face shouting at them their racket would be done and good. Yet there was nothing we could do about it right there and then. We did not know where the gang’s hideout was, they could be anywhere spending the day anyway. Meanwhile there were other businesses to attend. Amal was fit with the clothes worthy the cute girl that she is. She stayed at the ryokan getting to know the other kids there. We left town to the scene of that morning’s carnage, the dead deserved respect.
Part IV: Afternoon
We arrived to find the corpses cleaned up. We would all rather not get too furious about that now… the looters will be accounted for that, in this life or the next. Alan, a better man than most, insisted on giving them all, not just Sasuke, the proper send up. But not before Tomas brought more devilry to commit. Intoning harsh, indecipherable incantations, he summoned the soul of one of the departed ronin and subjected him to a harsh interrogation. Alan, who had been acting so far as a friend of Tomas since long ago, seemed incredibly surprised about this, as if he had never known of his friend’s ability to do that.
From that we got an idea of the location of the ronin’s hideout and an audience. The townsfolk, walking back from the fields, were more attracted by the show than repelled by the dead. The dead had been laid to rest and it was time to rest the day’s sadness.
Part V: Evening
The evening was the strangest part of a strange day. Because it was so… normal. Many of the locals came by to rest their day, have a drink, talk about matters small and large. A blind woman sat on a corner, playing the shamisen and telling stories. Many paid attention to them. The foreigners started apart, then grew closer with drinks and song and the stories of the day spreading through the halls. The young Amal played and listened and generally enjoyed herself until, exhausted, she went to rest the night. The ryokan owner’s granddaughter asked the awkward questions, but did so with the wisdom of youth.
The missed opportunity to have a bath did grate. The night wouldn’t prove so peaceful…