Chapter 1, Part 3

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Time In Remission (cont)

Izumi put more wood on the fire, breaking the sticks and piling them neatly on top of the burning coals. Then she put more water in the cast iron kettle that hung on a hooked stick over the fire pit.

“Perhaps you will tell me how you came to be wounded.”

Pulling up her sleeve, Izumi ran her hand along a scar that crossed the top of her right forearm, holding it out for Tomoe to see. “I am no stranger to fighting, as you can see.”

Tomoe looked across at the string of circles and lines that arced across Izumi’s arm and saw the slight bend in the bone beneath them. “Chain mail?”

Izumi nodded. “The sleeve stopped the cut, but he was a big man and the sword drove the links through the brocade and into my arm. The break did not heal as well as I would have liked, but I still have the use of my arm.”

“You were not alone, then.”

“No. My father’s retainers were with me,” Izumi said, then smiled when she saw the question in Tomoe’s eyes. “My father has not been well for some years now and my brother is dead. There has been no one else to lead them.”

“They followed a woman?”

Izumi smiled. It was a common question.

“My father and brother had left some months before, taking most of the family retainers off to fight in Kyoto. They left only a few to guard the estate – mostly older ones, who had seen their share of battles.

“It was, really, only a matter of time before the local brigands decided that the estates around Kyoto were ripe for picking, what with everyone choosing sides and sending their best retainers off to fight. I remember the day they came. I stood on the veranda and watched as the first smoke from the farmer’s cottages rose above the fields and the retainers began running around saddling horses.

“I did not know it at the time, but they had been given their orders: if the estate was attacked, they were to get me out and leave the farmers to fend for themselves as best they could. I thought they were getting ready to fight.

“Chise came and told me she had my riding clothes laid out for me and, for a moment, I thought they meant for me to go with them. But then Jiro came to say my horse was saddled, and Saburo was right behind him saying we must hurry and get away before the bandits reached the main house.”

“It was the first time I had seen people afraid for their lives and I was as scared as any of them. Then I noticed that they were all looking at me! I began to realize that they may not have expected me to fight, but they did expect me to order the retainers to defend them.”

Tomoe looked up from her tea. She found it hard to imagine Izumi as a frightened young girl. It seemed so at odds with the calm, purposeful woman before her.

Izumi saw the disbelief in Tomoe’s eyes. “You’ve never been afraid?”

Tomoe flinched. “Not until Fushimi,” she said, and a flush of embarrassment crossed her face. She watched Izumi’s eyes for signs of disapproval that never showed.

“I am not sure I will ever know where the courage came from.” Izumi continued without acknowledging she’d seen anything. “Of course the retainers had always deferred to me as my father’s daughter, but I knew that if I tried to give Saburo orders, he would ignore them completely. Instead I went inside and changed.”

Izumi laughed. “You should have seen their faces when I came out with my sleeves tied back and carrying my naginata. How they kept from laughing, I do not know. Oh, I know how to use it well enough, my father made sure I was taught, but I am sure they thought I was just putting on a airs. Still, my family is Bushi, after all, and sometimes that means putting on a show, so they stood beside my horse with sober faces and held my weapon while I mounted.”

Tomoe imagined her getting on the horse with shaking hands and weak knees. She’d known that fear and uncertainty. Fushimi had taught her how small and frail a single human can be and it had showed when she stumbled getting to her feet.

“Was it a show?” She asked.

“I suppose.” Izumi said after a moment. “I had no real plan beyond trying to shame them into fighting.”

Tomoe nodded. She’d done it often enough herself, gotten others to stand their ground by standing hers, but she’d never had to choke down her own fear first and she wondered which of them was the braver.

“As we passed the gate, I turned my horse down the road that wound its way through the fields. I could see the dust from the brigands horses drawing closer. Saburo rode up and tried to grab the reins of my horse, but I slapped at his hand with the flat of my blade and told him we should stand and fight.

“I will not bother to tell you how Saburo and I argued – I suspect you know how it went. In the end I was just so angry at him that I kicked my horse and galloped down the road with Saburo at my heels. Oh, the things he screamed at me. I can still make him blush with the merest hint of what he yelled at me during that wild charge.

“There weren’t very many bandits and I galloped through them so fast I didn’t even get the chance to swing at any of them. By the time I turned around Saburo was in the middle of them, his sword flashing in the sunlight, and the others had followed us down the road. A few of the brigands got away, but most were killed and everyone thought the two of us were heroes.”

Izumi stopped and looked at Tomoe. She and Saburo had kept this a secret between them for so long that it felt odd to tell the story to anyone else. A kind of pleasant betrayal. The legend had become more important than the truth, because it made so much of what she’d done after possible, and yet it felt good to let go of it after all these years, even if just to this stranger.

“We became good friends over the years, Saburo and I. It was Saburo that had the armor my brother had outgrown remade to fit me. Though, the truth be told, I doubt he would ever have let me near another battle if he’d had a choice.

“More tea?”