Riko was lying on her futon when Natsuko walked into her and her husband’s room. She tried to rise as her daughter entered and winced, the sheets sliding enough to reveal the bandages on her thighs. The village healer said she’d been lucky—Ice Heart’s brutal attack had missed anything vital. Recovery would be slow, but he believed she’d be able to walk once she’d healed.
“What did your father say?” Riko asked. “Did he manage to convince the samurai to help?”
Natsuko eased her mother down. “He did,” she replied, pursing her lips. Hayato had remained obstinate the entire time; whatever had persuaded him to rescue Hideaki, it wasn’t her father. “But I’m going with him.”
Riko’s eyes shot open, a new pain coloring her face. “What? Why?”
“He needs a guide, and I’m the only one who can go with him.” Natsuko gritted her teeth as her mother struggled against her. “It’s the only way, Mother!”
“I can’t lose you!” Riko cried. “Hideaki is already gone—”
“And I’m going to bring him back!” Natsuko wiped the tears forming in her eyes and stood up. “I’m going to bring him back and come home.”
“I can, and I have to. Family never abandons family—that’s what you and Father taught me, and I’m not going to forget that now.”
Riko gripped her sheets with trembling hands. “The samurai— Is he strong?”
“I don’t know,” Natsuko said. “But even if he was the weakest warrior in the world, I’d still try to get Hideaki back.”
“I know.” Riko bit her lip. “Has he demanded anything in return?”
Natsuko nodded. “He hasn’t said what he wants, though.”
“If he didn’t demand anything as soon as he accepted, it means he has faith in his strength.”
Or he’s an arrogant fool.
Natsuko nodded again. “He’ll defeat Ice Heart, and I’ll bring Hideaki back.”
“I’ll pray for you,” Riko said. “But there’s something else I can do.” She pointed to a floorboard near the corner. “Lift it and take what’s inside.”
Natsuko did as her mother asked. Beneath the board was a small box, which she opened. Inside was a sheathed blade, longer than a dagger but still much shorter than a katana. “What is this?”
“One of the samurai who came to our village six years ago dropped it while he was drunk,” Riko replied. “I’ve kept it ever since, only taking it out so the blacksmith can keep it maintained.”
“Thank you,” Natsuko said. She unsheathed the short sword and held it in front of her. Although it lacked ornamentation, it seemed like a good blade, light and without a trace of rust. “I hope I won’t need to use it against Ice Heart.”
“That’s not why I’m giving it to you.”
Natsuko looked to her mother. “What?”
“If things look bad for you and the samurai, don’t hesitate to kill him,” Riko said. “Say that he forced you to help him. Ice Heart may show you mercy.”
If there was ever any mercy in her heart, it’s as frozen as the ice.
“I will, Mother.”
“And don’t hesitate to use it on him if he kills her. Samurai are among the worst of men—if he shows a vile heart, you’ll be doing the world a favor by ridding it of him.”
Natsuko nodded even as nausea filled her. She knew that there were those in the world who had no right to live in it, but killing another person was something she’d never contemplated. And Hayato didn’t seem like someone who deserved to die, at least at first glance. He was blunt, but she’d agreed with some of the things he said, and he hadn’t taken advantage of her when she offered herself to him.
“But above all, stay safe,” Riko said, her eyes softening. “I don’t know how I’ll manage losing one of you; I know
that losing both of you will be the death of me.”
Natsuko tucked the sword into her sash before moving to her mother and embracing her. “You’ll see Hideaki and me again soon, I promise.”
* * * *
Hayato stood in the guest room of Masumi’s home. His kimono hung down around his heavy pleated trousers, the clothes rough but far warmer than his own worn items. New garments weren’t something he’d expected to have when the day started, but they were a welcome addition to his meager collection, especially with the village in the grip of winter.
Thinking of the cold made him sigh and remember the promise he’d made earlier. Finding a boy in the midst of the cold was dangerous; promising to retrieve him from the grasp of a witch like Ice Heart was suicidal. All the food and clothes in the world wouldn’t do him any good if he was dead.
Why did I say I’d help?
His eyes wandered to his swords in the corner of the room. He scoffed at the remnants of the memories they conjured, boyish concepts of honor and bravery that had filled his youth. The hold those foolish ideals had once held over him had died in battle like his comrades, and like them, they’d never return.
It wasn’t for the village, either. They had scorned him since the day he’d arrived in their backwater. Although he didn’t blame them for hating a samurai, there was no reason to help those who felt only disgust toward him.
Hayato closed his eyes. Except her.
The peasant girl, Natsuko, hadn’t looked at him with any hint of hatred or derision. She was the first person in a very long time who had seen him as a person, someone worth knowing and asking for help. When begged for his aid with her suicidal task, it had been difficult to resist, but it wasn’t due to her childish fumbling with her clothes—it was the earnestness that she spoke with, the strength in her voice that had moved him.
He let out a bitter chuckle. Am I so pathetic that I long for a single girl’s adoration?
The creak of the floorboards outside of the room alerted him to another’s presence. “It’s rude to stare,” Hayato said, opening his eyes but not turning around.
“It’s worse to be kept waiting,” Natsuko said, exhaling a sharp breath.
“Then I suppose we’re both at fault.”
He pulled his kimono up and turned around, giving Natsuko a glance of his equally scarred chest as he finished dressing. Her form was full enough to notice even bundled up in her winter clothes, an impressive feat for a peasant girl. But he’d never make the mistake of thinking her soft; beneath her alluring figure was a hard young woman, no sign of hesitation or passiveness on her face or in her eyes.
“You’re ready?” he asked.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Hayato pressed his lips into a thin line. At least she’s got her head on straight.
“Not a bad attitude to have.” His eyes dropped to the short sword at her waist. “Where’d you get that?”
“My mother,” Natsuko said, dropping a hand to the hilt as he continued to gaze on her. “It might come in handy.”
He strode toward her and grasped the hilt, the brief contact of their fingers sending a shock through his body. “It’s dangerous. A sword isn’t a toy; you could hurt yourself.”
Natsuko tightened her grip. “I’m not stupid.”
“You’re not a warrior, either. Ever swung a sword before?”
“It can’t be that hard if thousands of samurai do it,” Natsuko said. Her face scrunched up as soon as the words left her mouth, but Hayato’s laughing bark replaced the irritation with incredulity. “You find that funny?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked.
“I insulted you and your kind. Other samurai would use their rights to demand I apologize, or punish me.”
Hayato walked over to the corner and picked up his swords. “Did I look like a samurai when you first saw me? Answer honestly—I won’t hurt you for telling the truth.”
“No,” Natsuko said. “I’ve seen beggars who looked better.”
“How about now?”
Natsuko tilted her head. “Better. But you look more like a peasant than a warrior without the swords.”
“Fair enough.” He tucked the swords into his sash and smoothed his kimono. “It’s fitting that I look like one, fed and clothed by them. And there are worse things to look like.”
Natsuko blinked. “You’re still not offended?”
“Peasants support our country. There’s no shame for those above them to look similar.”
“You’re an odd samurai.”
“Maybe I’m not a samurai,” Hayato said. “Maybe I killed one and took his swords.”
“If you could kill one, then you can still help me kill Ice Heart.”
“Maybe.” The sound of the home’s door opening cut off Natsuko before she could speak. “That’s probably your father.”
He left the room, wondering what sort of impression he’d made on Natsuko and hoping she hadn’t lost respect for him.