(Kelly was written Kelly Blanchard. Takashi was written by Nat Andrews.)
The meeting place he had chosen was a run-down inn of the kind that he usually frequented. It had everything you needed. Drinks, food…service provided by young women in faded kimono who at least remembered to smile when they came to your room. He had hired a small room overlooking the canal. Cushions on the floor; two cups and a flask of sake for them to share.
Takashi rose as his visitor arrived, and bowed from the waist before gesturing to the cushion opposite. “I understand you wanted to meet me,” he said, and the words were formal, polite—at odds with his rough appearance.
It was hard to tell his age. He was probably in his forties, but there wasn’t a streak of grey in his long hair. And his skin was more worn from the elements than it was aged. There was nothing outstanding about his appearance. He was neither particularly handsome nor particularly ugly, but he wore faded clothes and left his beard unshaven, aspects of his appearance that betrayed his vagabond nature. Still, he poured wine for his guest and sat again only when they sat.
Kelly sat on the cushions on the floor, taking in her surroundings and this individual. Oh, her interviews always took her to unique places, and this was no different. “Thank you for meeting with me. How do you fare today?”
“Well enough,” he said, taking a sip of his wine and then waiting to see if she would do the same. “Ah, I heard you wanted to meet with me, so how can I help you?” He was curious about this visitor.
Kelly took a sip of her wine to be courteous, but then she set down the glass and focused on Takashi. “I’m here to learn as much about you as possible, and yes, that may be as scary as it sounds.” She smiled at him, fairly certain that she didn’t frighten him at all. However, she pressed on with her first question, “I understand that your parents died when you were a child? What were the circumstances surrounding that?”
Takashi put his head on one side, lips curling into a half smile as he tried to decide if she was serious. It quickly became a frown as she completed the question. “My parents? Why do you need to know about them?” He took another contemplative sip of wine. “If I knew the circumstances, that would be something. Unfortunately, I don’t. They were put to death. I know that, but I don’t know the details of their crime. I was a child at the time. So if you’re trying to ply me for information, sorry, but you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Kelly had to smile at this because prying was her business, but she showed her respect with a nod before meeting his gaze once more. “I ask questions. That is what I do. I tend to start from the beginning, and *that* was the beginning of what made you into the man you are before me.” She gestured toward him. “And that is why I ask. Have you ever tried to learn the details of their deaths now that you are older though?”
Takashi hoped she could not see how her question affected him. It was probably the first time anyone had asked him that so directly.
“Mainly I’ve just been trying to survive. I’ve thought about it a few times, I admit, but to find answers…well, I’d have to go back to my home province. And who’s to say I wouldn’t be arrested the moment I crossed the checkpoint? There’s no reason to think my family have been pardoned.” He frowned deeply. “You understand, don’t you? I’d have been executed for their crime of I hadn’t left. The blame doesn’t end with the father. It’s passed down to the son.”
“What was their crime though? Do you even know if they committed a crime? What if it were simple greed or envy the lord had toward your parents?” Kelly lifted her brows. “I’m not saying you wouldn’t be killed even if it was that, but still…aren’t you ever curious?” She tilted her head to a side
“Curious?” He narrowed her eyes at her. He could sense no ulterior motive for her questions. She didn’t seem to be trying to trick him. At the same time, she seemed a little innocent when it came to the law around here. “Of course I’m curious, but where does one start? I can’t stride back into my own province and demand answers.” He coughed out a laugh and downed the rest of his cup of wine. “You’re definitely not from around here.”
Kelly had to smile widely. “So it’s been said of me.” She nodded. “Very well though, let’s move on from that topic, shall we? Tell me, how did you end up as the man before me?” She raised her brows as she sat back, observing him.
Well, she was quite something, he thought, mirroring her gesture by raising his eyebrows too. He gave her a dry smile.
“This man, hm? I learnt how to survive. That’s what I did. You ask whether
I was curious about my parents, but who has time for curiosity when there’s no food to eat? I did what I had to.”
“And what you’ve had to do to survive was kill people.” Kelly locked eyes with him. That wasn’t a question. “Tell me this though, if you could have done anything with your life, what would it have? What would you have done?”
He grew serious at her words, narrowing his eyes once more. Again, he could sense no malice from her. Merely curiosity. He expected judgement but she seemed…less perturbed than he thought she would be. “That’s right,” he admitted. “I’ve killed a lot of people. I’m good at it.” He sighed, glancing away towards the open screens and the canal before he continued: “You ask some funny questions. If I could have done ‘anything’ then right now I’d be back in my home province, serving my lord and following in my father’s footsteps. That’s how things were meant to turn out. That’s what my life should have been.”
“And what was it your father did?” Kelly leaned forward as she asked this. So what if she asked strange questions? That was her job. She’d ask questions no one thought to ask. The answers always proved interesting.
“He served in our lord’s household. Sometimes he travelled with his entourage to Edo and on those occasions, he was away for whole summers at a time. He was an adviser to our lord; he helped him make decisions concerning the governance of his domain.” He hesitated. “It was a position of some prominence.”
“I see.” Then Kelly paused as she considered Takashi. “And I’m sorry for your loss. Surviving on your own must not have been easy.” She shook her head. “Now, who is Suraki?”
Takashi blinked and then chuckled. She really did want to know everything. And his expression softened as he said, “Ah, well, Suraki was an old friend of mine.”
“Was he the one who trained you into a samurai? Or was that someone else?” She tilted her head to a side.
This time, he almost grinned. “You don’t get ‘trained into a samurai’, young lady. You’re born a samurai. And, as for Suraki, he taught me a lot. Training with a blade. He made me the swordsman I am today if that’s what you mean.”
Well, that was something she hadn’t known, but it was good to learn, so Kelly bowed her head acknowledging this. “He made you the swordsman you are today, and you use those skills to kill people just to survive, yet you seem ashamed of your ability to kill. Something doesn’t add up.” She shook her head. “Do you regret being a samurai?”
“A samurai is one born into service,” he said, opening up a little as he explained to her. “See, I was born a samurai, but the moment I fled following my parents’ death, I lost that status. What I am now is…not samurai.” He sighed. “To kill for money is…unpleasant. It’s a path that I took out of necessity, but one I pursued because I had a certain” – and at this he looked uncomfortable – “skill? So, to answer your question, I am not ashamed of having been born a samurai and nor am I ashamed that I am capable of killing. I am ashamed” – and he flinched as he heard his own stark admission – “I am ashamed because I kill only to live. I kill innocent people, and there’s no dignity in that.”
“Can you change it though? Yes, that’s what you’re used to, and that is what you are good at, but if you chose, couldn’t you do something else?” Kelly was almost certain he would laugh at her question, but she didn’t care. She asked it nonetheless and watched him with curiosity.
“Another woman told me that once,” he said, somewhat perplexed that fate might keep sending him women with strange ideas. “I’ve always wondered what else I should be. I’ve no particular skills. I’m not a merchant or a diplomat.” He smiled and shrugged a little sadly. “I’m a soldier, a military man, and yes, a killer, but that’s all I’ve ever been.”
“Is that woman Mei by any chance?” Kelly lifted her brows.
His eyes widened a little. “You know her?”
Kelly tried not to laugh, but she smiled. “I’ve heard of her, and I’ve heard she’s affected you in some way. Care to expound on that?” She tilted her head to a side as her smile lingered.
And at this he did smile, and then he laughed, throwing his head back. “Affected me? Affected me? I imagine she told you that herself, didn’t she?” He chuckled. “She’s a strange woman. She cuts right down to the heart of you; that’s the thing. And sometimes…sometimes I think maybe I loved her, but then I think ‘love’? What is that? I barely knew her!”
“What is love indeed,” Kelly mused with a nod then took another sip of her wine finally. “So, tell me of her? How did you meet her?”
“I met her in the province of Akayama,” he said, opting to answer the easy question instead of the one about love. “I’d been ordered to execute the lord of the estate there and everyone in his household, and I was relatively thorough—apart from her. She was the only one that talked back. She made a deal. She’d betray her lord and would hand him over to me if I spared her life.”
Well, this was interesting. “And then what happened to her?”
Takashi’s tight lipped smile was at odds with his reply. “She lied to me. Betrayed me. And forced me to walk into a trap that nearly cost me my life.”
Kelly nodded when she heard this. “I’m assuming she’s still alive because you assume she talked with me–which she didn’t, by the way. However, this means you didn’t kill her, and obviously you survived the trap.” She met his gaze. “Why didn’t you kill her for betraying you?”
Takashi considered this at length and answered quietly. “Because I admired her.” His good humour seemed to have passed and there was something like regret in his eyes.
Kelly saw that, and she wanted to capture it, so she spoke softly. “You cared for her, didn’t you? And it hurt you that she betrayed you.”
“No, I admired her because she betrayed me,” he said with a shrug and looked down at his empty cup.
“You admired her because she betrayed you? And not because she talked back at you?” Kelly lifted her brows. She suspected his admiration of Mei began when she talked back, but only solidified after the betrayal. “So what happened to her?”
“I hope she’s happy with the man she loves,” he said, trying to take a sip of wine before he realised it was long gone. He set the cup down, glared at it, and then turned his frustration briefly on the strange girl in front of him. “Are you going to pour me more wine or do I have to wait until you’ve finished your own?” he demanded, perhaps in an attempt to change the subject.
Kelly arched a brow at his sudden rudeness. “Forgive me that I’m unfamiliar with your customs, but by all means, you may have more wine. I likely won’t finish this because I am not here to drink.” But she decided to return to the questions. “You mentioned love earlier—that you don’t understand. What do you think love is?”
Takashi waited to see if she would pour the wine, but when she didn’t, he decided to pour his own. She didn’t seem bothered and he made a mental note to keep pouring his own wine if she continued to keep asking difficult questions. The next question made him think he was due at least a dozen more cups. He barked out a dry laugh. “You’re definitely asking the wrong person! It’s all soft eyes and sweet words and being willing to die for one another, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so.” Kelly shook her head. “Love…it isn’t an easy thing. It’s more…” She thought about it. “Loyalty to someone, commitment, patience—even when that person is the most irritating person in the world. It’s much more as well, but love is far from simply and sweet and all things nice. But you were right about the willingness to die for that person.” She leaned forward, locking eyes with him. “Is there someone you love?”
Takashi was quite surprised that she offered her own definition. She had a point, he supposed, but he didn’t feel he had much experience in the area and being lectured in it by a woman felt a little awkward. “Well, Mei was definitely one of the most irritating people I’ve ever met,” he admitted. “There’s no one I love though. Sorry to disappoint. It strikes me that the kind of love you describe, if it got in the way of things…it could be dangerously distracting.”
“Love is distracting, but, if it’s the right person, then it is also…very focusing. I mean, the individual helps you focus on what you must.” Kelly shrugged. “I’m no expert of love,but you seem very…dismissive of the thought of love. Is that because you don’t feel that you deserve to be loved?”
Takashi shifted awkwardly. There should be laws against women asking such questions, he thought. “I’d feel sorry for anyone who fell in love with me,” he said with a dismissive laugh, but he didn’t meet her eye. He was thinking about the people he had come close to loving.
She leaned forward, never taking her eyes off him. “That doesn’t answer my question. Do you feel undeserving of love?”
In response to her directness, he gave an ugly scowl.”Well, answer me this – who do you think is really deserving of what you’re describing? “Loyalty, commitment” —he spat the words – “And having someone die for you? Are you worthy of that?”
She considered his question for a long moment and then had to shrug a little. “In reality, none of us are deserving of such happiness, but you in particular seem very adamant that love is not for you. Is that because you lost your parents at such a young age? Is it because you have been forced to kill in order to live? Why is it that you shun the thought of maybe finding someone one day?” Her eyes never wavered from his.
“Maybe it’s all of those things,” he said, meeting her eyes. “Like you say though – none of us deserve it. So perhaps falling in love is little more than an illusion, a lie that we tell ourselves to feel worthy. Maybe I like to keep my head clear of such things.”
“Perhaps.” Kelly nodded, but she glanced outside to the fading sun on the horizon and knew her time here was almost up. However, she glanced back at Taskhi with another question, “Are you happy, content with who you are? And be honest.”
He sat back, willing to give this question a little more consideration. “Not really, no. I just don’t see another way right now, so I do what I can. I always have. That’s all you can ask of anyone, isn’t it? What about you? Are you always happy?”
She smiled as she rose to her feet. “Not always happy. I have my days when I’m in a dark place, but usually, yes, I am content with my lot in life and I make the most of it because it allows me to meet very interesting people like you.” She bowed her head to him before straightening. “Now though, I must leave. I believe I’ve pestered you enough with endless questions, but then you for your patience, and I do hope you find some kind of peace and contentment in life. Otherwise, your life will be full of shadows and doubts, and that’s no way to live the only life you have.”
Takashi was torn between a polite farewell and turning his back on her like a sulking child, but the latter would only show that she had got to him, so, after a brief hesitation, he rose and bowed – not too low. “Your company has been—insightful,” he said carefully. “And I hope that your journey from this place tonight is a safe one. Go carefully, my Lady.”
“You as well.” And with another nod, Kelly left the room, leaving Takashi alone with his thoughts.
Nat Andrews’ book The Thief of Red Mountain’ is available on Amazon. Her other book ‘The Land of Cold Embers’ is due to be release later this year. Be sure to follow her on social media for more updates!