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The Ronin

Her sandals were worn and the straps barely attached to the wood. Her clothes needed cleaning, with scrapes and tears almost taking attention away from how the dyes faded, the sleeves were halfway to falling off, and some of the patches were themselves in need of patching. A wide-brimmed straw hat that saw better days kept the glare out of her eyes. Another listless wanderer along the roads of Izumo.

The glare of the sun bore down on her. A dry breeze caused some dirt to stir along the road. Not that it was much of a road. The new queen and her plans to build better roads across Izumo hadn’t reached too far yet, new as she was to her authority. Most of the land still used the beaten-down, foot-worn trails that counted as roads to get around. The ronin wondered how many millions of steps were needed to pack and pound the earth beneath her feet into something resembling a proper road.

She found a quiet spot near a wide stream and an old bridge to sit, using a nearby tree for shade. She took out an onigiri from her sleeve, wiped off the road-dust on it, and started eating. It wasn’t much and it was the last of her meager supplies, but a new village meant new opportunities to earn some coin and resupply until she found her way to the next one.

She watched a group of men gathered around a particularly tall one with a bald head and a thick, barbaric beard. They all carried long wooden sticks, the kind that was heavy and hard, useful as an impromptu weapon. She saw the sword that hung from the leader’s waist. She couldn’t see any indication of clan affiliation on any of their pristine white clothes, and she guessed they were local thugs.

A couple of them glanced at her, some sneered, but none approached. Someone else caught their attention, a young woman with a wooden staff that stood in their way.

Dark brown hair tied back into a ponytail with a bit of string. Black attire with white trims. Shorter than any of the thugs, and smaller by far. There were leather bracers on her forearms, of the sort that were used by students in training. No sandals, but instead what looked like the boots of a foot soldier. Neither of those fit quite right; like they were made for someone with a decade of years on the girl and a bit more muscle.

The staff was lowered as a challenge. Not one of the thugs, then. Someone they crossed, most likely. The stance was a good one, but the young woman wasn’t steady. Her arms and legs had a nervous trembling that spoke of inexperience.

The thugs came at her with wooden sticks that they wielded like swords. Her staff thwacked at their wrists or arms to disarm them before hitting them on the head or throat to take them down. A few she hit low instead, swept off their feet. Kozuen-ryu. A common enough fighting school in that part of Izumo, and one with a fine tradition. The wandered nodded in appreciation.

But she found flaws. The staff fighter tended to overextend. Not by much, but enough that the staff wasn’t pulled back quickly enough to be used in defense if a counterattack happened. She lacked the strength needed to generate enough force with her blows but didn’t compensate for it. Her guard was easy to exploit if someone spotted the gaps and weaknesses. All flaws were obvious to someone who knew what they were doing.

The young woman wore her way down about half the thugs when the tallest one stepped forward. She noticed the smaller fighter tense and take a slow, careful step backward. Nervous, then. With good reason, since her head only reached his stomach.

The way that tall man walked suggested he didn’t care or was confident in his victory. He drew the sword slowly, almost like he relished the way sliding the steel out of the sheath and the frown and gritting of teeth from his much smaller opponent.

To the young woman’s credit, she didn’t flinch.

The ronin sighed and stood up. She’d seen the scene before. She watched another young woman of a similar age, with a similar build, in a similar situation. She took another bite of her onigiri and clenched her fists.

She remembered.

On one autumn day five years before, the sun was hidden behind clouds and a rain shower caused the streets to become near-empty. On a bridge over a deep, fast-moving stream, were two groups.

On one side was a group of thugs, dressed in attire that marked them out as students of one of the many competing ryu of the city. All were armed with wakizashi. There was a leader, tall and muscular, with a bald head and a long beard of bright red hair to match the ferocity of his eyes. He carried a long and heavy no-dachi draped over his shoulders.

On the other end of the bridge were two young women, one with green eyes and the other wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. Both were dressed like students of a different ryu. The green-eyed woman drew a wakizashi in one hand and a sai in the other. The woman with the hat shook her head and drew her tanto. In the close quarters of the bridge, the shorter blades were better choices in a fight than full-length swords.

Blood spilled. Bodies cut open. Limbs slashed. Throats severed.

Men died.

The women were wounded, with small scratches and shallow cuts. Nothing compared to the gore and death they dealt to the thugs that came after them.

Until the tall man waded into the fray. His sword hammered down on them, and the young woman with only one sword had been reckless. Hadn’t been watching anyone but herself. A heavy, long steel blade cut into flesh, cleaved through it with contemptuous ease. But it was an unwieldy thing and the bridge was narrow. No room to move, no room to withdraw.

A severed head with a bright red beard fell into the water. In the rain, one young woman knelt beside the slashed body of her friend, cradled it in her arms, and screamed.

By the time the ronin got close enough to be noticed, the young woman was forced to back away. The tall brute slashed her staff in two and took his time in moving closer. He had the advantage, the reach, the strength. He even had numbers still, since none of his thugs were dead, though perhaps some of them were at the threshold from how blue their skin turned.

“Excuse me,” she called out.

The thugs didn’t pay attention to her.

“The hard way, then.”

A bend. A twist. A shoulder pulled out of its socket. A cry of pain.

They all turned to look, some of them confused at the sight of her as she kicked the man away without letting the arm go. There wasn’t any hope of popping that shoulder back in place.

“You know, it’s rude to ignore someone calling for your attention,” she said as another came at her. A bone snapped like a twig. “But I suppose you wouldn’t know that.” She cracked the man’s finger before kicking him away too. “Seeing as how you’re assaulting a young lady who isn’t even armed.”

More thugs. She dealt with them, saw their peers wince at the sound of joints being dislocated or bones cracking. It wasn’t that much effort for her, not with the right leverage. And none of them moved like they were even halfway competent in a fight, armed or not. A sword was faster, but she’d given up on those after that night on the bridge. She’d given up on almost all the trappings of her past, save for the simple lethality of her bare hands.

The young woman wasn’t the same. There wasn’t that same strength, that same presence. Their experiences were no doubt different, raised as one was in a time of strife and the other a child born in a time of peace. Different weapons. There was a sort of stubbornness in those eyes that was all too familiar, that fierce desire to be respected and a willingness to fight if it came to that. The kami were either merciful or cruel; the ronin couldn’t decide.

And then the tall man came at her. Fast for his size, and his sword cut a piece of her hat away. One green eye glowered at him from under it. She dodged the next one while examining her damaged hat.

“That was my only hat!” she complained as he roared and tried to cut her in half. “You’d better have some coin on you so I can get a replacement!”

His response was another wild attack. She leaped out of the way.

“You’re not very good at this, are you?” she asked from the railing of the bridge.

He slashed at her but got the blade stuck in the wood when she dodged. “I’ll have you know I am a warrior of the Toguchi clan!” he bellowed.

Green-eyes laughed and ducked under the blade as he swung it out of the wood. “The Toguchi are dead, sir. Slaughtered by the Osaki, their retainers scattered.”

The tall man just roared. His next attack broke a plank on the bridge.

“You really shouldn’t go around damaging bridges like that.”

He charged past her and towards the young woman, who’d kept herself busy beating the dazed or dizzy thugs over the head with what remained of her staff. He grabbed her from behind and menaced her throat with naked steel.

Green-eyes sighed. “Really? This is how you’re going to move?”

“Who in the name of Zoryu are you? And why are you interfering with my business?”

She shrugged. “I’m just a wanderer with a weakness for pretty faces,” she said as she put her hat back on. “Though up close, she’s not quite as pretty as I thought she’d be.”

“Why you-”

The young woman stomped on the tall man’s foot and elbowed him in the side. His arms loosened their grip. When he tried to grab her again, she hopped and used the top of her head to slam into his lower jaw and send him back. And then she stomped over to the green-eyed wanderer with the look of someone scorned and insulted.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the help, and I’m not ashamed to admit I needed it, but there’s no need to be insulting!”

“Miss. One moment, please.”

The ronin moved the lady aside.

One step forward. One kick where it counted. As the tall man dropped the sword to clutch at the afflicted area, she caught it. The next moment, she thrust the sword into the back of his neck. The other thugs scattered. The ones that were able to move, at any rate.

Two young women alive after a fight on a bridge. “Ah, such an unfamiliar scene.”

“Are you going to apologize for insulting me or not?”

“I won’t apologize for the truth.”

There was a growl as the other woman yanked the sword out of the body. “Fine. You helped me get my grandfather’s sword back, so I’ll forgive that one outburst.” A cloth was produced to wipe the blood from it. “My name’s Kimiko, by the way. Hara Kimiko.”

“What did he want with your grandfather’s sword?”

“My grandfather served with the Toguchi, too. But he left the clan before the New Lion led it to ruin fighting the Osaki,” she answered. She kicked the dead man’s arm. “He said he was fighting to bring the clan back, to reunite the surviving retainers to take revenge.”

Green-eyes laughed. How absurd.

“What about you?” she asked. “You don’t move like a common wanderer, and you’re certainly close enough to being a crone to have lived through the rough times.”

“I call you ugly, and you call me old?”

The young woman puffed her chest out. “Makes us even, I’d say.”

Green-eyes laughed. And then her stomach growled.

The young woman walked away. When she reached the end of the bridge, she glanced back with a smile. “Come on. I know a place that serves some great sticky cakes. My treat.”

“You’re a generous lady, Hara Kimiko-san.” She looked up at the sound of thunder. “Sounds like it’s gonna rain.”

“All the more reason for you to come with me. Wouldn’t want to let my rescuer get soaked out in the rain and die of a cold.”

“No, no it wouldn’t.”

No, Hara Kimiko wasn’t the same girl. She was louder. Less skilled. Plainer. Not as strong. Much better at keeping up with banter. There were signs of a much more volatile temper. But she felt at ease around the younger woman, and she was eager to find out just what that meant and what it could lead to.

As she moved to walk in step with Kimiko, it started to rain.

If you liked this story, consider buying the book! Paper Crane Memories is 17 stories (including this one) set in a Japan-inspired fantasy setting called Izumo, and is available right now.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Fantasy, Fiction