Beginning

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I've spent some time wondering what kind of background could have produced a man like Seijuro Hiko, with his mix of compassion and arrogance and his almost pathological need to hide his softer feelings. This is what came to me. I didn't like it much, and you might not either. It's very dark. But it came to me all at once and wouldn't go away, so I figure it might be a truth. Please be aware that there is violence (not too graphic) and bad language in this story.

~ : ~ : ~

The day started out like any other day. His mother sent him to wake Chieko, and Chieko got angry at being awakened and hit him, but not very hard. Over their rice and weak tea, his father detailed the work for the day. Chieko would be raking the paddy, and he was to go along with her to help in whatever way he could. This was both good and bad news. Bad, because Chieko would most likely tell him to do something, but not explain how, then hit him if he didn't guess it right. Good, because last year when the raking was done, he'd been kept at home with his mother and helped clean house, and he'd been on his knees scrubbing the entire morning. With Chieko, at least he was ignored most of the time and left alone with his imagination.

In his imagination, he was not five years old, and not the son of a farmer. He was fourteen and tall and strong (why not? he was already tall for his age, everyone said so), and he was a samurai. He translated the descriptive name of Niitsu (given to the family by the villagers because his father had come from that far away place) into a family name, his samurai name. Carrying a piece of bamboo to represent a sword, he would wait until Chieko wasn't looking, then leap and thrust, fighting battles in his mind, earning fame in ways that were vague but always exciting and dangerous. Nobody knew about this. He might only be five, but he could keep secrets, especially when telling them would earn laughter from his sister, pity from his mother, and contempt from his father. Hideaki was a scrupulously fair man – unlike his wife, he never took the part of one child over the other – but he was also a hard and practical man. He would say that Kakunoshin was dreaming, and what use were dreams? Then he'd send him out to weed the vegetables or wash clothes.

On this day, Kakunoshin earned Chieko's approval by using the bamboo stick to kill beetles that scuttled out from under her raking. It was a test of his skill, and fun as well. In his mind, each beetle was an enemy that he vanquished, and Chieko hated them so much, she left him alone to do it and even smiled at him once.

They stopped briefly only for Chieko to share rice cakes and water with him at midday, then went back to work. Their mother came out shortly after, bringing a hat for Chieko and scolding her for not already having one on. She was very concerned with Chieko's skin, but while Kakunoshin had heard both women described as being beautiful, they were his mother and sister, no more, no less, and the idea of being worried about whether Chieko's skin turned brown seemed a bit silly to him.

When the sun had sunk toward the horizon and Chieko could no longer see well enough to do her job properly, she dragged him by his collar out of the irrigation ditch, where he'd been pretending to fight a river battle, and yelled at him for getting wet. "Mother will blame me and I'll get in trouble because you're stupid," she said, cuffing him.

A typical day, up to that point. Their mother did get angry with Chieko ("You're supposed to be watching him! What if he'd drowned? We need a boy here!"), but Hideaki, coming in for his evening meal, told her to leave Chieko alone. "He's too active. She can't watch him and work, both. Besides, there's no harm in a little wetting, not for him. He's the healthiest thing on this place. I'm going outside to wash up. Just change his clothes, Kumi."

He went through the door, and that was the last time Kakunoshin ever saw his father.

His mother was helping him into dry clothes when they heard the men's voices outside, talking to his father. They were hard, tough voices, and their laughter was cruel. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but he could tell they worried his mother, because she stopped fussing over him and sat with her head turned toward the front of the house, listening. The men laughed again, and his mother suddenly said, "Chieko. Take Kakunoshin and hide. Hide somewhere you can't be found, and don't come out again until I call you. Do what I say!" she snapped when Chieko just gaped at her. Then she rose and headed for the door.

Chieko abruptly panicked. Kakunoshin was still trying to get into his sleeves when she grabbed him up and ran with him, and when he protested, she clamped a hand over his mouth so hard that he could barely breathe. She ran for the back door, but stopped with a jerk when she saw a stranger in the yard, a big man who was casually pulling their vegetables from the ground and stuffing them into a sack. Chieko doubled back into their parents' room and looked frantically around. At the same time, he heard his father give a loud, wordless shout. Chieko opened the wooden crate which held their father's clothes, stuffed Kakunoshin into it, and shut the lid. While he was still trying to untangle himself from his sleeves, he heard her climb on top of the box and knew what she was doing. She was climbing into the rafters under the roof. He'd seen her do it before in her own room, to hide things. Now he supposed she was going to hide herself.

He heard his mother scream, a sound of both fear and rage, cut off abruptly. After that, he heard the strange men all around the house, talking, laughing. Then they were in the house, their feet heavy on the floors, nothing like his father's light step. He heard when they found Chieko and heard her screaming as they dragged her outside. She screamed for a long time, and putting his fingers in his ears didn't blunt the sound. Then it stopped, very suddenly, as his mother's scream had stopped. He crouched there in the darkness, smelling his father in the clothes underneath him, shivering with fear and anger, debating whether to stay hidden or come out and fight the men.

Then the decision was made for him. The lid flew open, and an unkept, dirty man with a round face looked in at him. "Hey! Look at this! There's another one!"

"Another girl?" asked a second man in the room, one with an oily, snakelike voice.

"No, this one's a boy. Just a kid."

"Well, we don't need him, then."

"Right." The lid came down again, and this time he heard the pin drop into place, locking the crate.

A third man spoke, this one with a gravelly voice, as if his throat hurt. "Find anything?"

"No, sir," said the dirty man respectfully.

"What's in the crate?"

"Just some clothes and a kid."

"A kid?"

"Yeah. He's locked in. I figured we'd just leave him there."

The snakelike man sniggered. "You really are bad, you know that? You're just going to leave that kid in there to burn alive?"

"Sure, why not?"

Burn? He didn't want to burn alive. With a sudden surge of energy, he began trying to break out of the crate, screaming curses at them.

"Damn. Good set of lungs on him," the snakelike one said.

The gravelly-voiced one said, "Just get the torches and lets get going."

Kakunoshin screeched even louder and attacked the box with more determination.

"How old is he, anyway?" the gravelly one asked.

"Not old enough to be any use to us," the dirty one said. "Six or seven, maybe."

"Open it up and let me see him."

The lid came up and rough hands dragged him out into the light. He was facing a man about as old as his father, wearing partial armor and a katana, with long dark hair and flat, expressionless black eyes. "How old are you, kid?"

"Five."

"He's lying," said the dirty man, who was holding him.

Kakunoshin bit his hand, hard, then made a break for it. He was stopped by the katana, which came singing from the scabbard and sliced down in front of him, so closely that he felt the breeze of its passing on his face. He froze. "Wise choice," said the swordsman. "I could have cut you in half, you know. So, answer me truthfully. How old are you?"

"Five!"

The katana swung slowly up to tap him under the chin, forcing him to lift his face and look into the swordsman's face. The swordsman said to the other two, "What do you think? He looks like a pretty kid to me."

"Yeah, sure," said Snakeman, who was skinny enough to suit his voice, "but what use do we have for a pretty kid? Put him back in the box."

"We have no use for a pretty kid, but I'm thinking about Akahana."

"What about her?"

"She wants to be a mother. And she just lost that baby she was going to have, so she's moping. Getting a kid might cheer her up."

Both of the other men laughed. "She won't want this little viper," said Dirtyman, who was still nursing his bitten hand.

Snakeman said, "Come on, Boss. Kids aren't like zori, when you lose one, you just get another."

The swordsman shrugged. "It's worth a try. He's young, and he's cute. If he doesn't cheer her up, we can always sell him."

"He'll tell everyone what happened here."

"We'll cut his tongue out first. You have any other problems with my decision?"

"No, Boss."

The swordsman looked down at Kakunoshin. "I'm going to walk out of here now, and you walk at my heels. If you stay at my heels, you are safe. If you stray, my men will kill you. Understand?"

He understood. He'd never seen anything die except fish and insects, but he still understood. He knew, now, that his parents and sister were killed. Otherwise this man wouldn't think he could just take him away like this. He was so terrified, he wasn't sure he could walk. But somehow he managed to stiffen his legs and trot behind the man.

They passed out of the house through the front, and passed his family. His mother and father were so covered with blood that he only knew them from their clothing, and his sister looked like a pile of rags, not human at all. He didn't have any thoughts of anger or vengeance. He was too devastated. His whole world had just been crushed like a bird's egg.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Akahana was beautiful, and Kakunoshin, bathed and presented to her, tried his best to give her a properly respectful bow and make her like him as he'd been commanded. But she didn't take to him. In fact, she barely even looked at him. Instead, she narrowed her eyes at the swordsman, whose name, Kakunoshin had learned, was Juro. Nor were her words promising. "You must be mad," she said, enunciating every word.

"You wanted a kid," he protested.

"I wanted our child! You idiot! You stupid savage! You have no heart! Do you think you can just go buy a child like a piece of jewelry, and mend my sorrow that way?"

"What's the matter with him? He's cute. And he's got courage."

She made a noise that was somewhere between a crow's call and the screech of a scalded cat. "I don't care if he's cute! Ah! You beast, you monster, you cloth puppet walking around like a man! You don't care about me. You think only of yourself. Make her happy, you think. Give her a gem, give her a boy. Then she'll be sweet again. I'll never be sweet to you again! I hate you! Go away!" She punctuated this last sentence by throwing a dish at them. Juro moved slightly, and it missed him and shattered on the wall behind them. "You're a brute! An unthinking brute!" Another dish flew at them and was also dodged. Now the crazy woman had a dish in each hand. "You have no sense, no sensitivity, no soul!" The dishes came flying. Juro calmly dodged them, and Kakunoshin did his best to just stand there and look equally impassive. Akahana grabbed some bowls and threw those, too. "You don't care about me! You only care about one thing. It doesn't matter to you that my woman's heart is broken. You wouldn't even notice if I cried myself to death!" A vase and a cup came sailing their way. The floor behind him was almost covered with broken pottery. "You'd just get some other woman and give her a baby!"

"If I didn't care about you, I wouldn't have brought you this kid."

There came that screech again. "Idiot! Moron! Buffoon! If your katana broke, would you love me for bringing you an axe? And somebody else's axe, at that!"

"So you don't want this kid?"

"NO!"

"All right. We're going to cut out his tongue and sell him, then."

Kakunoshin gave her a desperate look.

"I don't give a shit," she snarled, not even glancing at him.

"All right," he said, and turned away, grabbing Kakunoshin by his collar as he turned.

"Wait!" Akahana shrieked.

Kakunoshin wished fervently for two things, one that she had changed her mind, and the second that she would stop shouting like that.

Juro looked back over his shoulder. "What?"

"Are you really going to do that? Cut out his tongue and sell him?"

"What else am I supposed to do with him?"

"I don't know! You brought him here! But you can't do that!"

He sighed. "All right, whatever you want. I'll just kill him."

She burst into a startling bout of hysterical tears. "You are heartless! Now this boy's death will be on my head!"

"Don't be silly. He would be dead now anyway, if I hadn't thought you'd like him."

"Juro, if you kill that boy, or cut out his tongue, or anything else like that, I'll never let you in my door again."

"Well, what the fuck am I supposed to do with him, then?" Juro demanded. It was the first time Kakunoshin had ever heard emotion in his voice, and it was sheer exasperation.

"I don't know! You started this! But don't you dare hurt him."

"All right, I won't."

"Or let those idiot followers of yours hurt him."

"What do you care?" he said, exasperated again.

"I have a conscience! Oh, go away! Now I have a headache. I feel sick. I'm not recovered yet, and here you are, persecuting me. Go away!"

To Kakunoshin's relief, this time they did leave. On the other side of the door, he looked up at Juro, puzzled.

"Wonder why I put up with her?" he said.

Kakunoshin nodded.

"I'll explain it when you're a little older. How old are you, anyway?"

He sighed. How many times did he have to say it? "Five."

"We've never had anyone in the group younger than six. When will you be six?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know when your birthday is?"

"No."

"Didn't your mother ever give you a gift on your birthday?"

"Last year, she did."

"When was it, then?"

"I don't know."

"If I thought you were messing with me…"

"I'm not!"

"What time of year was it?"

That, at least, he could answer. "Almost winter."

"Before the snow, or after?"

"Just before."

"All right, this is the deal. I'm not going to kill you unless you try to run away. But you can't be a member of my group until you prove yourself. You can stay with us. In fact, if you try to leave, I'll send some of my guys after you, and when they find you, they'll do a lot worse things to you than burning you alive, and then they'll kill you. Got that? If you stay with us, you'll be safe. But that's all I'm promising. I'm not feeding you, I'm not clothing you. Everything you get, you'll have to steal or beg. If you make it through the winter without dying, then with the first thaw, you'll be a member of the group and get everything the guys get."

"Will I get a sword?"

"You'll get a knife."

"I want a sword."

Juro stared at him a moment. "When you're big enough, maybe I will give you one."

"What's big enough?"

"Up to here on me," Juro said, indicating somewhere around his collarbone. "But I wouldn't worry about that until you get through the winter."

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By the time the first thaw arrived, Kakunoshin had not only survived, but he had grown taller and stronger.

At first he thought he would die. He wasn't any good at stealing or lying, and he lived on scraps from the bandits' table, growing ever thinner and weaker. The first person he stole from was Shun, the round-faced dirty man who liked to burn things. He didn't like Shun, which made it possible not only to steal from him, but to lie about it as well. That success, and the first full meal he'd had in over a month, made him diligently apply his mind to the task of successful theft. He moved from stealing from the other bandits to stealing from almost anyone, and by the autumn, he was so good at it that he could walk right into a house and take food from the table without ever being suspected.

Simple survival dominated his thoughts throughout the three seasons. Juro's protection extended over him, but some of the bandits, especially Shun, watched for any opportunity to hurt him anyway, so he spent much of his time dogging Juro's footsteps. He'd always been good at hiding his feelings, but among these men, he had more to hide, and he emulated Juro's expressionless, inscrutable attitude until the men stopped picking on him and started laughing at him and calling him Little Juro – although not when Juro was actually around. Another thing Kakunoshin quickly learned was that Juro was respected because he was so merciless. He himself had gotten all the mercy he was going to get from the bandit leader, and had he not learned to survive among them, Juro would have let him starve to death without blinking. He dealt out justice among his men according to his own lights, and that justice was swift and final. And he had even less mercy on the innocent people they robbed, usually travelers or families in remote farms such as his own. By the time the thaw came and Kakunoshin was inducted into the bandit group, he'd seen so many people die that, in instinctive self-defense of his sanity, he convinced himself that it didn't matter, that all lives were short and ended painfully, and that his own life was the most important one.

He asked Juro once why they robbed and killed other people. He did this in the winter, when the snow kept them dormant for a while and Juro was bored, and he picked a time when Juro had just come back from seeing Akahana, the only time that the Boss could be said to be in a good mood. By the age of six, he'd already learned to read others well, even men as close as Juro. On this occasion, knowing he had a question Juro would consider impertinent, he also brought sake, and when Juro shared it with him, he knew it would be a good time to ask.

Juro gave him that flat black stare, then said, "We rob because we need food, and sake, and money for other things. We kill so there are no witnesses to tell the authorities who we are, which way we went, and what our number is. But I don't think that's what you're really asking, is it?"

He shook his head. A minimum of words was also a good thing with Juro.

"You've been out in the world a little, Kakunoshin. And you've got eyes in your head. Ever seen what happens to a moth that can't fly and falls upon the ground? Ants come and eat it alive. A rat that's stupid enough to come out into the open, a dog gets it. Everything kills something weaker than they are, in order to live. Farmers and merchants, they are weak, and the best they can do is kill fish. We, however, are strong. We kill men. I can kill almost any single man, because I am stronger. As a group, we can kill anyone we choose except those daimyo who travel with armies at their backs. Why do we kill? We do it because we can. Is that clear?"

It was.

While he was still waiting out the winter, he got a first-hand experience with the idea of the domination of the strong. One of the men brought in another boy, his nephew. Takuji was seven, but thinner and not much taller than Kakunoshin. He was also mean. The men picked on him, as they had on Kakunoshin until they tired of it, and Takuji in turn transferred his anger onto Kakunoshin. Then a third boy joined them, Yakumo, even older, and while he didn't abuse Kakunoshin for no reason, he joined forces with Takuji against the younger boy. Kakunoshin learned to avoid them whenever possible. But when the spring thaw came and he was given a knife as promised, and Juro took a few days to teach him to use it, he was an excellent student. Every bit of knowledge Juro let drop, he hoarded. If Juro knew why, he didn't say, he simply went on impassively showing Kakunoshin how to efficiently kill and effectively defend himself with a knife.

When the lessons were done, Kakunoshin met Takuji and Yakumo together and beat them both. He didn't kill them, for he wasn't sure what Juro would say to that – he'd seen Juro slice off Shun's left hand once for killing another bandit before Juro could judge their argument himself – but he maimed both and put Takuji out of action for over a month.

He was very proud of himself. This life had been given to him through no choice of his own, but if he had to live it, he would not be one of the weak.


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