Ryuzo knew something had gone wrong when Mongol outriders caught up with him on his way to Castle Shimura and ordered him back to Fort Koyasan, but he hadn’t expected this.
Jin stared at Ryuzo with a faint frown, visibly confused. He’d been stripped of his armour and tied to a post, but didn’t look injured. Other than the still-seeping wound in his hair from the blow that had knocked him out.
“Jin?” Ryuzo said again for the fourth time. “You don’t know who I am?”
“I’ve already said so,” Jin said, a look of annoyance crossing his face despite being unarmed, tied up, and surrounded by tense people bristling with weapons. Only Jin. “You feel familiar to me, but. I don’t remember.”
Ryuzo looked helplessly at the Khan. “Daiki must have hit him harder than I thought.”
“He isn’t acting?” Khotun Khan wore a strange expression on his forbidding face, somewhere between suspicion and disappointment. He spoke Japanese with a pronounced accent and looked like a walking mountain in his armour. Still, life as a reluctant part of Khotun’s retinue had taught Ryuzo quickly that Khotun was likely one of the most intelligent people Ryuzo had ever met. Pity he’d decided to bend all his gifts toward the destruction of almost everything Ryuzo had known.
“Jin doesn’t act,” Ryuzo said, frowning at Jin. “He’s incapable of lying. It’s why we used to get into so much trouble as children. All that anyone ever had to do was ask Jin what happened and it’d just… come out of his mouth.”
“As children?” Jin echoed, studying Ryuzo more closely. “Are we friends?”
Khotun Khan looked away with a scowl, surveying the watching Mongol troops and Straw Hats. He made a curt gesture at Ryuzo, walking them away from where Jin was bound and into the main keep, lowering his voice. “You’ve told me that he’s not the same man you knew before.”
“It’s only been three years,” Ryuzo said. Seeing Jin look so bewildered pulled at the guilt that already ate at him, a bitter weight that sat as bile at the back of his throat. “The war’s changed him, but not that much.” War had worsened the ruthlessness in Jin, a ruthlessness that had always been there.
“I’ve seen men suffer head injuries and get up again, only to die suddenly hours or days after. I’ve seen people who’ve had their wits affected, who had to relearn how to speak, how to walk. A man losing his memory isn’t unbelievable. But him?” Khotun gestured over at Jin. “If it isn’t an act? This is disappointing.”
Having seen what Khotun’s disappointment often meant, Ryuzo said, “Let me handle it.” As the Khan frowned, Ryuzo tried to sound casual. “I’ll be careful, and it may work better for your purposes. You couldn’t convince Lord Shimura to work with you. Jin would’ve been the same—had he still known who he was.”
“He might recover at any moment.”
“If he does, I’d be the first one he’d try to kill. That should buy you some time,” Ryuzo said with a dry laugh.
Khotun stared at him—humour didn’t tend to translate well. Thankfully, before Ryuzo had to explain, Khotun said, “See that I am not disappointed again. The trap awaiting Lord Shimura at his castle can be sprung without you. Take the Ghost and your ronin to Fort Kaminodake and hold it on my behalf while I take my muster north.”
“As you wish,” Ryuzo said, trying to hide his relief. He hadn’t been much inclined to have to sit through a siege in Castle Shimura, traps or not. Fort Kaminodake was brutally cold during this time of year, but they’d be able to get supplies in from the north. Hopefully. Ryuzo had enough of watching everyone starve.
Khotun noticed—little escaped him. His lip curled into an ugly smile, baring his teeth. “If he does recover and escape? Ensure that you die preventing the attempt. Or my disappointment will increase.” He turned on his heel and left, never one for extended verbal threats. Ryuzo exhaled slowly, rubbing his face as the Khan mounted up with his personal guard and thundered off.
“Now what?” Daiki asked from the doorway.
“We’re off to Fort Kaminodake,” Ryuzo said.
“I meant the Ghost.” Daiki looked uneasily over his shoulder. “If we kill him, we should cut his head off just to make sure.”
“He’s just a man. Put his things into his saddlebags. He’s coming with us.”
“Is that wise?” Daiki asked, his lips settling into a thin line. “He killed Kojiro. Killed—”
“I know what he’s done,” Ryuzo cut in, “and I know why he did it. The choices I’ve made got us here, and I’m going to make one more. Whether it’s good or bad… we’ll see.”
Daiki shook his head. “I’ll follow you, but I’m not sure about the others. Better you kill him and tell the Khan he tried to escape.”
The easiest way out, and yet. Even before, when he’d knocked Jin out, Ryuzo couldn’t kill him. Easier as that would’ve been for everyone. He hadn’t even been able to stay and watch whatever the Khan had in mind for Jin. “Enough. Pack up. We’re leaving.”
“Why don’t the others like me?” Jin asked as they leant against the safety rail of the bridge on the way to the fort’s keep. Snow powdered the fort’s sloping rooftops and its sleeping trees, covering the land in a pristine veil that wedded it to a semblance of peace. Ryuzo knew better than that. The Mongols had enslaved the villages further to the north. They’d left the ones closer to Fort Kaminodake mostly untouched, but that hadn’t been out of any particular regard for Ryuzo. The Khan was brewing something at Port Izumi.
Distracted, Ryuzo said, “Why do you keep asking that question?”
“It’s the first time I’ve asked.”
“That you remember,” Ryuzo said, watching his breaths steam out as little puffs. “You were like that as a boy too. ‘Ryuzo, why don’t the other children like me?’”
Jin’s open face scrunched up the way it did whenever he was trying to remember. “I don’t recall that,” he said apologetically.
“I’ll tell you the same thing now as I did then. The harder you try to get people to like you, the less it’s going to work. They think you want something out of them. Look at cats. They make everyone come to them on their terms, and it works.”
“Not everyone likes cats the way you do,” Jin said, and hesitated, blinking. “I knew that. All of a sudden.”
“That’s good,” Ryuzo said, trying not to tense up. Jin sometimes had little flashes of memories, always of things from their childhood. Still, each time, Ryuzo braced for it to knock something loose.
“Maybe it’s because you’re a lot like a cat yourself,” Jin said, oblivious.
“Ungrateful?” Ryuzo said, unable to help himself.
“People are more like cats than dogs. Our loyalties aren’t ironclad, and we have a large number of boundaries. People who don’t like cats possibly just don’t like rejection.”
“That’s one way to look at it.” Ryuzo chuckled.
“How did I get you to like me?” Jin asked, grinning and carefree, the way he’d been when they’d been much younger. Before Lord Shimura had begun seriously grooming Jin to become his successor. Long before the duel. It ached to see it, and yet… Ryuzo had missed that too.
His disorientation prompted him to use the same joke he’d made years ago, when Jin had asked the same question, in almost the same context. “You’re not that bad looking, and I’m a shallow person.”
Jin stared at him in surprise, then looked away with a little flush. “You’re more handsome than I am,” he murmured.
Ryuzo glanced at him. “You’re supposed to say that I’m not a shallow person.”
“Well. That too. I just.” Jin took in a slow breath. “Ryuzo, some of the flashes of memory that I get? I can’t tell whether they’re real.”
“Like what?” Ryuzo asked, wary.
“I think I… did I duel you in a pool? Full of floating lanterns?” Jin asked, frowning down at the bridge. “That felt so dream-like. It made no sense, too. Why would we be fighting in a pool? Why not on dry land like normal people? That can’t have been comfortable.”
“It was suitably dramatic at the time,” Ryuzo said.
“Did I win?”
Ryuzo huffed. “You always win.”
“Is that why everyone is like this? Why I haven’t been allowed to bear weapons? I’m not one of you, am I? Not one of the Straw Hat ronin. I’m something else. Maybe a rival?”
“You could say that,” Ryuzo said. It would’ve been easy to lie, but even Jin’s trusting nature had its limits. Daiki and the others all understandably treated Jin like a bomb set to go off at any second. There was no pretending that Jin was one of them when he clearly wasn’t.
“There are other things,” Jin said to himself, looking over at the snowy landscape. “Following foxes and golden birds to hidden places. Carpets of purple flowers that led to private shrines. A tengu and an ill-fated bow.”
“Those don’t sound real.” Huh. Who knew that Jin—sober, serious Jin—had such weirdly poetic dreams.
“A beach full of the dead. The sand turning black from blood.”
Ryuzo shivered. “That one happened. I was there too. I’m surprised we both made it out.”
“Who were we facing?”
Jin frowned at him. “Like Khotun Khan? The same people we’re working for now?”
We? Ryuzo made a dismissive gesture. “Ronin are mercenaries. We work for the highest bidder. As it so happens, since most of the samurai died on that beach, Khotun Khan was the only bidder.”
“That’s…” Jin trailed off, exhaling. “Who did we work for? On the beach?”
“The Straw Hats had a contract with Lord Watanabe, which we fulfilled in good faith until the point of his death. After that, loyalty seemed rather academic.” Toeing around the truth was easier than lying to Jin’s face.
“I must have been working for someone else,” Jin guessed. “It’s likely why I was tied to that post when I came to. Why I’m not allowed weapons in the fort, but also why the Khan didn’t have me killed on the spot. He wants me to work for him.”
Jin was getting closer to the truth. “Khotun Khan’s cousin, Kublai, is the ruler of an empire. He’s here to annex Japan, not raze it. They want to punish Shikken Hōjō Tokimune for refusing to pay them a tribute.” Ryuzo had gathered that much when he’d talked to Khotun.
“Is that fair?”
“Nothing in the world is fair,” Ryuzo said with a harsh laugh. “The strong prey on the weak. For a long time, the samurai were strong, and they fed off the work of everyone else beneath them. Peasants and merchants and the like. Ronin. Now something stronger has come across the sea to feed on them. It is how it is. It is how it’d always be. Changing the system would require people to collectively develop far more compassion than they’re capable of.”
“It isn’t fair.” Jin rubbed his hands together, huffing on them in the cold. “Your place in life is decided by sheer luck. Whether you get born into a good family. Whether you can wield a sword.”
“You don’t need to tell me that.”
Jin fell quiet for a while, until the cold began to eat through Ryuzo’s clothes. As he was about to suggest retiring somewhere warmer, Jin said very softly, “There’s one more thing that I’m not sure of. Whether it’s real.”
“Did we use to go to onsens together? With sake and dango. Sometimes with ohagi or botamochi.”
“You did have a bit of a sweet tooth even as you grew older,” Ryuzo said, chuckling. “Maa, now you’ve done it. I haven’t had ohagi for so long… I don’t even like the stuff, and you’ve made me miss it.”
“So the onsen is a real memory,” Jin said, reddening. “Is the rest real as well? The two of us. Together.”
“Together what?” Ryuzo asked. Jin glanced around. When he couldn’t spot any of the other Straw Hats, he shifted closer, until their sleeves were touching, until Ryuzo could feel the heat from Jin’s body, nearly pressed close as Jin leaned in. Ryuzo tensed. “Jin?”
“After we kiss over sake and dango in the onsen,” Jin whispered nervously, “do we… together on the grass—”
“What?” Ryuzo gawked at Jin.
Jin stared back at him, uncertain. “We don’t?”
“I… Jin…” Ryuzo let out a shaky laugh. “How often do you have ‘memories’ like that?”
Jin turned away, his shoulders hunching. “They aren’t real?”
The right thing to do would be to laugh it off. Yet Ryuzo couldn’t say that he’d never thought down these lines himself. Not with Jin as such a big part of his life for so long. As Ryuzo grew silent, Jin looked back up again at him, hopeful, waiting. Making up his mind, Ryuzo tipped Jin’s chin over with his fingertips, bending closer. “Do you want them to be?” he asked.
Asking this felt like teetering out further over a precipice already marked by uneven boundaries, like moving so much further past the point of no return that he couldn’t even see how he’d come so far. Yet as Jin shivered and closed his eyes and parted his lips, Ryuzo took the step anyway. The driving cold eased away around them as they kissed, as Ryuzo drew Jin against him, stealing more from Jin than Jin would’ve ever been willing to give him had he known.
Jin made a tiny sound and pressed closer, stroking Ryuzo’s cheeks with his thumbs, and in that perfect, ruinous moment Ryuzo thought—why not? Why shouldn’t he be able to take this from Jin, when he’d already taken everything else? Why shouldn’t he be able to enjoy the way Jin breathed his name between them, the way Jin looked up at him with a shy tenderness that Ryuzo hadn’t thought Jin capable of? Why shouldn’t he be able to pierce the wrongness of all that they were now with a little stolen sweetness? They kissed, until with a voice as shaken as he felt, Ryuzo whispered, “Let’s move inside.”
Clan Oda began to send sorties against the fort. Jin joined the archers on the watchtowers, taking down soldiers with deadly economy. He’d always been a terrifyingly good shot, nearly as terrifying as he was as a swordsman. During one furious skirmish where the samurai forces broke through the front gate, Jin was there by Ryuzo’s side as the Straw Hats fought them back, near-indistinguishable from the other ronin in his dark kimono and hakama, reinforced from armour that Kojiro had once worn. Dressed like Kojiro, yet better than Kojiro ever had been, a true kensei astride the battlefield. The assault broke over the sharp edge of Jin’s sword; the Oda forces were pushed into a rout. As the Straw Hats celebrated their victory and repaired the gate, Daiki even ventured to share some sake with Jin.
Khotun Khan visited days after news of the attack reached Port Izumi, meeting Jin and Ryuzo in the keep. He studied Jin for a long time before turning to Ryuzo. “A hooded eagle is still an eagle,” he said.
“Do you train your eagles by pulling out their claws and breaking their wings?” Ryuzo retorted.
“No.” Khotun eyed Jin again. “Tell me, what will the samurai do once they inevitably take back Castle Shimura?”
“They’ll bring the full brunt of their forces on Fort Kaminodake, in the hope of retaking the pass,” Jin said without hesitation. “If they’re clever about it, they’d wait for the spring. Given they’ve already tried attacking the fort, I think they won’t be.”
“What are your plans for holding the fort against the shōgunate army?” Khotun asked Ryuzo while looking at Jin.
“It’s turning into a bitter winter. They can’t hope to feed their army for long, not in the snow. Their supply lines will stretch to breaking point, becoming easy prey. Should they suffer enough losses, they will turn on themselves. The shōgun is a powerful man who has a low tolerance for failure, and every samurai is a lord only on his sufferance.” Jin frowned, shaking his head. “Or so I think. I can’t always be sure if what I think to be true is true.”
“It is,” Khotun said. The faintest hint of a hard smile played at his mouth. “Interesting. Ryuzo, I didn’t think that your friend was this much of a strategist.”
“You mean, after everything he’s done single-handedly to date?” Ryuzo said.
Irony didn’t tend to translate well, either. “Yes,” Khotun said, “for a wounded, cornered animal is a dangerous one, and is often underestimated. A trained eagle, though, that I could use. I am not like my cousin. I appreciate talent, in whatever form it comes in, and I would rather not destroy the lands I conquer unless pushed. Continue to impress me, and I may leave both of you in charge of Tsushima while I stage my strike on the mainland.”
“Shouldn’t you leave one of your generals?” Jin asked, as surprised as Ryuzo. “Why would you trust us?”
Khotun laughed harshly. “I see what you mean when you said he’s an honest man,” he told Ryuzo. “Jin, I also appreciate honesty, so I will be honest with you. While I will leave a general behind in Tsushima, and some of my forces, it would be inefficient for an outsider to have to manage all of Tsushima. My generals are warlords, not bureaucrats. What is the point of deliberately mismanaging a fertile land like Tsushima? My cousin wants tributes, not ashes.”
“We’ll try,” Ryuzo said, wary of Jin saying something else that might spoil the Khan’s good mood.
“See that you do,” Khotun said, with another long, hard look at Jin. “Remember this. When we fly an eagle, it’s always with the expectation that someday, they might decide not to return. That is fine by me, for an eagle is an eagle, not a dog. Should that same eagle begin poaching from my flock, however? Even were it raised by my hand, I will shoot it out of the sky.”
“Do I know you?” Jin asked, watching the archers warily. They were dressed as hunters, taking their cue from the woman.
“How could you say that? After all that I’ve done for you? I—” The woman paused, staring at Ryuzo again suspiciously. “What did you do to Jin?”
“Who are you?” Ryuzo countered.
“Yuna. Jin’s friend. Unlike you, you traitorous snake. Jin told me about you. The childhood friend he thought he could count on, only for you to stab us all in the back and run off to serve the Khan.” Yuna spat to a side. “Jin, come here. Things aren’t going well over at Castle Shimura, but your uncle’s still alive. He could do with your help.”
“You.” Jin frowned to himself. “Weren’t you… you were leaving. There was a ship.”
“Yes, well. After you disappeared and were presumed dead, Taka refused to leave. Wanted to help fight the Khan.” Yuna scowled. “I’ve talked him into working for your uncle as a blacksmith, but he made me help as a scout.”
“Jin,” Ryuzo said, getting ready to kick his horse into a gallop. “We should go.”
“My uncle?” Jin murmured, sounding lost.
“You’re Sakai Jin, the daimyo lord of Omi village,” Yuna said, glaring at Ryuzo. “Lord Shimura is your uncle. You’re also the Ghost.”
“The Ghost of Tsushima?” Jin said, astonished. He’d have heard Daiki and the others discussing it. “Me? A scourge?”
“Hardly a scourge. Jin, come here,” Yuna said.
Jin looked helplessly between Yuna and Ryuzo. “Ryuzo, is what she says true?”
“What do you want to be true?” Ryuzo asked. He whirled his horse around and nudged it into a run before Jin could answer, gritting his teeth as disappointment burned through him, ducking low as an arrow whistled past. Yuna yelled something behind them, then called for Jin to wait. Ryuzo turned. Jin was right behind him, angling to put himself and his horse between Ryuzo and the archers. They rode in silence back to the fort. Jin stayed quiet as Ryuzo warned Daiki about Yuna and the others, following meekly as Ryuzo walked them both to the keep.
Only when they were alone in the room they now shared did Jin say in a subdued voice, “I think I’m beginning to understand what happened to me.”
“Oh?” Ryuzo tried not to think about how quickly he knew Jin could draw the katana at his hip.
“I had an accident in Fort Koyasan that caused me to lose my memory. That’s what you said.” Jin stared steadily at Ryuzo. “That’s not true, is it? The duel with the lanterns… we’re more than rivals. I think I attacked you in the fort and suffered a head injury.”
“You were going to attack me, but one of my men snuck up behind you and hit you on the head,” Ryuzo said.
Jin frowned at him. “What? That’s dishonourable of you.”
“I’m not interested in fighting battles that I know I can’t win. Not anymore.”
“Why am I still here, then? Why didn’t you just kill me?”
“I’ve never been able to kill you,” Ryuzo said with a dry laugh. “Never been able even to want to.”
“I felt that in the memory in the pool. I could tell that you didn’t even want to be there. I. Ryuzo, why did you betray me?”
“I told you. Khotun Khan became the highest bidder for my services, and I’m a mercenary.” Ryuzo gestured at Jin’s sheathed katana. “Why aren’t you trying to kill me?”
“You asked me what I wanted to be true.” Jin exhaled unsteadily. “Most of the happier memories I can recall, they’re all of you. The ones that are true and the ones that aren’t. These past few weeks with you, I think… Even knowing what I do now? I’d have them again if I could. Being around you is like finally being able to live.”
Ryuzo gawked at him. “Jin…”
“We were always friends, at least, weren’t we? Even during… even now. You didn’t want to kill me.”
“I didn’t,” Ryuzo said, his lip curling. “You, I don’t know. You’ve always been more ruthless than I.”
“I don’t want to hurt you. If I ever have, I didn’t mean to. That much can be true, can’t it?”
“I believe so,” Ryuzo said, more gently. “Jin, what are you trying to say?”
“I don’t know,” Jin said, looking as lost as he did on the day he forgot everything that he was. Ryuzo found himself walking over and drawing Jin into his arms, stroking Jin’s hair and the back of his throat as Jin muffled a shaky sound in Ryuzo’s shoulder.
“Frankly, I thought you’d leave with Yuna,” Ryuzo said.
“I don’t know her.”
“You do. A little bit, anyway.”
“I mean, I don’t—” Jin leaned up, kissing Ryuzo hard on the mouth. Surprised, Ryuzo stumbled back. They fetched up against the wall, Jin kissing Ryuzo desperately, hands clenched tightly in Ryuzo’s clothes. He compressed broken gasps against Ryuzo’s lips, brittle sounds that drew ragged at the edges, dry sobs that shook louder as Ryuzo held him close. “I wish I could remember everything,” Jin said as they kissed, “but I also wish that I wouldn’t.”
“That’s fair,” Ryuzo murmured, rubbing slow circles up Jin’s back. He had his own regrets. That he’d never even guessed Jin felt this way, growing up. That maybe, given time and a little more faith, perhaps Ryuzo could’ve chosen the harder path, the one that was right for his conscience rather than for his men.
Jin sank onto his knees, pulling urgently at Ryuzo’s clothes and glaring up at him when Ryuzo tried to tug him back up. Ryuzo gave in. By way of apologies, this was hardly difficult to make. He pressed the back of his head against the wall with a hiss once Jin got his hand on Ryuzo’s cock, tugging, too dry until Jin drank him in, sloppy and desperate. He groaned as Ryuzo pulled Jin’s hair free of the knot on his head, tangling fingers into loose handfuls and pulling. Jin closed his eyes, his fingertips digging into Ryuzo’s thighs as Ryuzo rocked into his mouth, keeping it slow and deep despite Jin’s urgent, muffled moans.
As always, Jin settled down and followed Ryuzo’s lead, relaxing his throat to take Ryuzo deeper. “Jin,” Ryuzo whispered. Apologies shrivelled on the tip of his tongue, along with his regrets, seared away in the damnable wet heat of Jin’s throat, in how much Ryuzo wanted this too. “Jin,” he panted, the only thing he could say now and nowhere near anything enough. “Jin.” With a harsh grunt, Ryuzo held Jin still, hips jerking as he pumped into Jin’s mouth and watched him choke and swallow. Jin tried to pull away as Ryuzo softened but went still as Ryuzo’s hands stayed where they were in his hair. Ryuzo breathed slowly, trying to memorise the moment. Pulling away, he went down on a knee, reaching for Jin, only for Jin to flush and shake his head. Ryuzo ignored him, reaching under his clothes and letting out an incredulous noise as he found Jin’s fundoshi wet.
“Ryuzo, I—” Jin groaned as Ryuzo shoved him onto his back on the tatami, kissing him roughly, angling to share the bitter taste of himself on Jin’s tongue, licking into him until even that was another memory.
“Close the gate behind me, then,” Jin said.
“I’ll face him,” Ryuzo said. Outside, Lord Shimura waited grimly, alone but for Yuna and Ishikawa-sensei behind him.
“What are you afraid of?” Jin said, his smile wan as he touched Ryuzo’s cheek. “That he’d kill me?”
“Not really,” Ryuzo said. He’d seen Jin duel Lord Shimura before. Even three years ago, they’d already been a close match. Now, Jin was far better than he had ever been.
“That you’d lose me?” Jin asked more softly.
“I lost you a long time ago.” The time they had now was an aberration, one that Ryuzo didn’t expect to last. “I’m afraid that you’d make a mistake. One that you would never have otherwise made.”
“Even now, you still care.” Jin dropped his hand. “Open the gate,” Jin told Daiki, who grumbled and obeyed. Ryuzo walked out behind Jin, keeping an eye on Ishikawa as they crossed the bridge to where Lord Shimura was waiting in his red and black clan armour. He knew of the old archer’s reputation.
Jin glanced curiously at Ishikawa, his face holding no recognition. When he looked at Lord Shimura, his expression tightened, creasing into a frown. Ishikawa turned to Yuna. “I thought your story was hard to believe. So it’s true.”
Yuna rolled her eyes. “Funny how you people who knew Jin all his life would rather think that he died or turned traitor than lost his memory.”
“The things we want to believe don’t always turn out to be true. Besides, it doesn’t matter now,” Lord Shimura said. He dismounted, walking forward, his eyes fixed on Jin. “Jin.”
“I know you,” Jin said, staring at Lord Shimura. “I hit you in the eye once? With a bokken. There was a butterfly involved, I think. I didn’t mean to.”
The rage and tension in Lord Shimura’s face eased into grief. “Yes. You gave me a black eye. Your father laughed so hard; he had to have a drink to calm down.”
“My father,” Jin repeated. “Does he still live? Or my mother?”
“No. They passed when you were young. You lived with me instead. As my ward, my most-trusted samurai, as the man I hoped would become my successor.” Lord Shimura glared at Ryuzo. “Had I known that this would come to pass, I would have driven Ryuzo from the castle long ago. He was always the least worthy of your friends.”
Jin’s disoriented expression hardened. “Leave Ryuzo out of this.”
“After all that he’s taken from you? No. He will face justice. As must you. No matter how it came about, the shōgun will not tolerate treason.” Lord Shimura drew his katana slowly from its sheath. “I’m sorry it has come to this. More sorry than you can know.”
Jin didn’t move. “There was a tree with red leaves by a river.”
“Our old duelling ground, yes,” Lord Shimura said.
“You trained me.”
“To my pride and my regret.”
“I don’t want to fight you,” Jin said, his frown deepening.
“This is the last thing that I can do for your honour,” Lord Shimura said, sounding tired even as he said it. “Draw your sword.”
“Jin,” Ryuzo said. He grabbed Jin’s arm as Jin put a hand on his sheath. “Don’t do this.”
“He’s your enemy, isn’t he?” Jin murmured.
“Mine. Not yours.”
Jin shook Ryuzo off, stepping forward. Ryuzo clenched his hands tightly as Jin and Lord Shimura began to circle each other, mirroring each other’s stances and footwork. The old and the new. They fought in the Shimura style, all surging, dancing strikes, beautiful and deadly. Jin kept frowning to himself, missing chances, making mistakes. He took a blow to the arm that cut a long gash over his clothes. Yuna gasped. Ishikawa stayed unmoved. Ryuzo’s hand clenched over his scabbard as he gritted his teeth.
“There was an assassin. And a boar,” Jin said, as the latest clash left him a little bloodier. “The first time I killed a man. You were there.”
“Yes,” Lord Shimura said. His face twisted, and he came at Jin again with a series of overhead blows that Jin barely wove away from in time.
With each bout, something shook loose. “The first time I drank sake, it was under a sakura tree—a hanami. I choked because it burned my throat. You laughed. You were there.”
“You were too young for sake, but wanted to try some. Yes,” Lord Shimura said. He lunged at Jin, quick as an arrow. Jin deflected the blow at the last moment but stepped free instead of following up with a swipe.
“I tried to make a lantern for a festival,” Jin said, backing out of range. “But it caught fire and burned a number of the others. You told everyone it was an accident even though I said it was my fault. You were there.”
Lord Shimura laughed, a terrible sound of tender sorrow. “You didn’t intend to destroy the other lanterns. Yes.”
“The day I finally managed to beat you in a duel, you threw a celebration and challenged Lord Watanabe to a drinking match. You were there,” Jin said, deflecting another lunge, dodging free.
“One of the proudest days of my life. Yes.” Lord Shimura’s grip shook, but only briefly.
“I remember,” Jin whispered, shaking his head. “You wanted me to be your son. You’ve always been there.”
“To my honour and my regret. Yes,” Lord Shimura said. He came at Jin again in a sweeping, dancing strike. Jin deflected each one, then abruptly stamped down on the blade, pinning it to the ground as he levelled the tip of his katana at Lord Shimura’s throat. Lord Shimura froze. “An unorthodox move,” he said, sounding grudgingly impressed.
“You’ve lost,” Jin said quietly. “Leave.”
Lord Shimura let go of his blade. “I’ve lost,” he said evenly, “so grant me a warrior’s death.”
“Jin,” Yuna said worriedly, only for Ishikawa to shush her. She ignored him. “Jin!”
Jin’s hand tightened over his katana. He sheathed it, reaching for his tanto—and paused as Ryuzo closed his fingers over Jin’s wrist. “Jin,” Ryuzo said. Lord Shimura glared at Ryuzo, but said nothing. “Listen to me. You’ll regret this forever.”
“It’ll be one regret of many,” Jin said, gently pushing him back. Jin’s hand squeezed over the hilt of the tanto, then eased down to the scabbard, pulling it free of his obi. He tossed it down on the dirt beside Lord Shimura’s katana. “I don’t remember all of it, but I remember enough. I have no honour. But I won’t kill my family.” He stepped back, bowing deeply as Lord Shimura let out a stifled, strangled sound. Turning, avoiding his uncle’s eyes, Jin walked back toward the fort.
Ryuzo caught up with Jin at the bridge to the keep. “They’ve left,” Ryuzo said, approaching cautiously. “Took your tanto.” Jin made no indication that he’d heard, though he relaxed a little as Ryuzo leant against the rail beside him. “I’m sorry,” Ryuzo told him, taking in a slow breath.
“Are you?” Jin asked. He pillowed his cheek against Ryuzo’s shoulder, his gaze fixed on the driving snow, the chill sinking through them to their bones.