Cry Me a River
"Where is he? It isn't like Jin to just disappear like this." Fuu shaded her eyes against the morning sun and looked out over the dazzling mud flats of the Yodo River estuary, which were dotted with the bent backs of mussel pickers. "And we don't have enough money to stay here another night. We'll have to go somewhere else." Behind her, her traveling partner Mugen looked up from what he was doing, which was placing obstacles in the path of a line of ants that snaked across the floor of the room.
"What, and leave this palace?" He smashed his hand down on the ants and watched the line erupt in chaos. "You're breakin' my heart."
"It's not a joke. I'm sick of sleeping in abandoned buildings, and I'm worried about Jin." She gave the mussel pickers a last look, then turned away from the inn's balcony railing with a sigh. Mugen stood up, brushed the crushed ants off his palm, stretched, yawned, and headed for the door.
"I'll go find 'im, then," he said carelessly.
"No you won't." Mugen paused with his hand on the door frame. "I'll look for Jin. I need you to find work." Mugen turned and fixed Fuu with a disgusted look. "Please," she said. "I've been looking for two days, and there just aren't any jobs for women here. Not respectable ones, anyway." Mugen continued to stand in the doorway looking surly for a moment, then turned on his heel and slammed off into the hall without saying a word. Only time would tell if her plea had made any impression on him, and in the meantime there were more pressing matters to deal with.
Osaka was a busy city, full of places for people to vanish from and short on information about where to find them. Fuu, however, was an optimist, sunny and outgoing by nature; unlike the crude Mugen or reserved Jin she had no trouble striking up conversations with strangers, or getting them to talk to her in turn. From the teahouse waitress across the street from the inn she learned that a tall, polite samurai with glasses had talked the proprietor into letting him have a meal on credit three mornings ago. No, they hadn't seen him since--did he owe her money, too?--and Fuu left feeling more uneasy than when she'd come in. Jin was scrupulous about paying his debts. That he hadn't returned was worrisome. The owner of the steamed mussel stand didn't remember anyone like Jin, but a portly customer with an umbrella recalled giving such a person a broadsheet with the day's news when he'd finished with it. When? Oh, about three mornings ago, he thought, down by the West Bridge. Fuu hurrried there, but to her dismay the trail quickly went cold. Nobody remembered seeing Jin, and Fuu was about to give up and leave when an elderly woman selling mussel baskets touched her on the arm.
"Did you say you were looking for a young man, Miss?" she asked.
"Yes. Tall, with long hair, and..."
The hand on her arm tightened, cutting her off. "Was he wearing an indigo kimono?" the old woman asked.
"Yes! Have you seen him?" She looked eagerly into the old woman's face, and the basket seller let her hand fall from Fuu's arm.
"I don't mean to alarm you, Miss," the old woman said, hesitantly. "It's probably only a coincidence. Indigo is such a common color, you know. But there was a body pulled out of the river very early this morning. It's possible it could be...from the description you gave..."
Fuu went cold. "Where did they take it?" she asked. "Will they let me see it?"
"Of course. When there's an unidentified body, anyone who's missing someone can go and look at it. They keep them there." The basket seller pointed to a squat, dingy-looking building sitting off by itself a couple of blocks from the bridge. "That's the police headquarters in front. You'll need to ask permission from someone inside, and then they'll take you to the other building. At least, that's what I did when they found my son dead."
"Oh. I'm so sorry," Fuu said distractedly.
"Don't be. Go and see if it's your friend up there. I'll pray for you that it's not." The old woman gave Fuu's arm a gentle pat, then a push. Fuu grabbed up the hem of her kimono and took off up the hill at a run.
The morgue was dim and dirty; the only light was what managed to filter through the three small, barred windows set up under the ceiling. The foundations were sunk deeply into the ground to keep the room cool, which gave the building its odd, squat appearance. The windows were covered with gauze to keep the flies out, but there were flies inside anyway, and more came in with Fuu and the morgue attendant. The place stank of death--a nauseating slaughterhouse stench compounded with a slimy river-reek from the newest corpse. The attendant, a member of the class designated to deal with filth and death, seemed immune to the odor, but Fuu covered her nose and mouth with her hand. Looking around, she could see five inert shapes lying on tables, four bundled in straw mats and one covered with a cloth.
"Ya wanna see the body first, or his effects?" The morgue attendant sounded bored, as if he did this often, which he probably did. "He ain't real fresh, and he ain't in good shape. Been dead a couple'a days--that's how long it takes 'em to bloat and float this time a' year--and he got caught up in the millrace, besides the sword cuts."
Sword cuts? Fuu's knees suddenly felt weak. She took her hand away from her mouth. "Let me see his clothes," she said faintly. The attendant brought out a small bundle wrapped in muslin, which he placed on top of the body and untied. From this he removed a white under-kimono, stained and ripped, and a scrap of indigo-blue sleeve from an outer kimono. Fuu took this and examined it, but aside from a sliver of white that might have been a diamond shape or might have been part of something else, there was no way to tell if it was Jin's. The under-kimono was hopelessly generic, the kind of garment every man owned.
"Is this all?" she asked. None of it identified Jin, but none of it eliminated him, either.
"Like I say, he came out of the millrace. Most of what he was wearing got sucked off 'im."
"Then let me..." Fuu paused and swallowed, "let me see the body." The attendant removed the bundle of clothes and swept the cover off the corpse, releasing a fresh wave of river-smell and corruption. Fuu's gorge rose, but she made herself look at the body anyway.
The corpse's face was covered by another, smaller cloth, but the rest of it lay exposed, white and bloated. The first thing Fuu's eyes fixed on was the wound that had killed this man, a single, lethal sword-stroke that had sheared through his chest, severing ribs, breastbone, lungs and heart almost all the way back to the spine. Fuu's stomach heaved, and the attendant, expert at reading the signs of nausea, shoved a stoneware basin into her arms. When the spell passed Fuu shakily put the basin aside.
"Ugly, ain't it?" The morgue attendant seemed to take sadistic pleasure in Fuu's reaction. "And there's two more killed just like that." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the straw-bundled corpses behind him. "Samurai, both of 'em, and prob'ly that one, too. Usually means there's a duelist in town." Of course, Fuu thought faintly. Swordsmen always seemed to find each other, and when they did... She glanced at the wound again and shuddered.
"Could I see his face, please?" she whispered. For the first time, the attendant hesitated.
"There, uh, ain't no face, Miss," he said, but he pulled the cloth off anyway. He had not exaggerated. Something, most likely a sword-stroke, had sliced off a portion of the dead man's forehead and completely sheared away his nose, lips and chin. The exposed teeth had been battered to rubble, and scavengers had gotten the eyes; river mud filled the empty sockets, the gaping mouth, and the holes that had once been nostrils. Fuu closed her eyes and turned away. The day was warming up, and the smell in the room was becoming unbearable. She groped her way to the door and stepped outside, gulping the fresh air. After a minute the morgue attendant stuck his head out.
"You gonna claim this guy, or what?" he asked.
"I don't know," Fuu said helplessly. Part of her was still sick with horror, but another part, she realized with surprise, was angry. Angry at men's endless desire to fight each other, angry that their blood-lust forced her--and thousands of women like her--to deal with the disgusting, messy aftermath. And angry at Jin, or whoever it was lying on that table, for not dying more presentably and preserving more of his identity.
"Those other two men, the ones killed like this one--" she asked, as a thought suddenly occurred to her. "How did you know they were samurai?"
"They didn't come from the river. Still had all their stuff on 'em. Well, the one they took out from behind the whorehouse upriver got plundered a little, but the guy from the field east of town still had his travel papers. So they say," the attendant added with a shifty grin, as if to convince Fuu that he never went through the corpses' belongings.
Lucky them, Fuu thought. She was the one left with the naked, faceless thing on the slab. She sighed and went back inside. The corpse still lay uncovered, and she resignedly steeled herself to examine it closely and thoroughly. She started with the hands, but there was no way now of telling if those swollen mitts were Jin's fine, long-fingered hands, and the lean arms were unmarked and featureless. The distended belly made it hard to see how slender the man had been, but the shallow, clean-edged cuts on his left shoulder and across the killing wound on his chest showed that he had fought back against his assailant. His hair lay loose on the table, and she could see that it was long and worn naturally, not shaved at the crown like most samurai. But how long was Jin's hair? She had never seen it down; was it longer than the hair she saw here? Did he have that crescent-shaped scar over the bones of his right shoulder? Or those long-healed reminders of a dog bite above his right knee? Fuu pulled at her lip in frustration. She'd been with Jin almost constantly for the better part of two months, looked at him almost every day, and yet she knew so little about him. All the things that could identify this corpse as Jin were distorted or destroyed; all the things that could identify Jin as this corpse, he had never shown her. For now she was forced to admit defeat, but all was not yet lost. Someone, somewhere in Osaka, had turned this living man into a dead one, and in that killer's memory lay the answers to Fuu's questions. It was probably asking for trouble, but she needed to find him. And the best man for the job of finding trouble, as Fuu knew all too well, was Mugen.
Mugen, for a wonder, had found a job. Actually, he could hardly avoid it. The late-summer rice crop was under harvest, and the yield was heavy. The granaries were running full tilt; able-bodied men were all but being dragged off the street by recruiters to help with the hulling, winnowing, weighing and bagging. It took Fuu many hours and many tries, but she finally found the place where Mugen was working, and was brought in through the front gates to the courtyard and into a scene of utter chaos.
Fuu had never seen rice processed before. The courtyard was full of men, dust and noise. A sea of brown backs heaved and twisted as rice was tossed, pitchforked, hulled, bagged and loaded onto carts. The clerk who had brought her through went over to the yard boss and spoke into his ear; a second later the boss bawled out in a booming voice, "Who's called Mugen here? Anybody called Mugen?"
For an instant the yard came to a standstill. Then one of the dusty figures shoveling rice into sacks put down his spade and walked over, and the rest resumed their work. Like all the other workers, Mugen had a piece of cloth tied over his nose and mouth, and his hair and every bit of sweaty exposed skin were covered in rice hulls. He yanked the cloth off and spat.
"You find Jin?" he asked.
"I don't know," said Fuu. "Look, I need you to find somebody for me. A duelist. He kills with a cut through the heart. There's a body in the city morgue, and I don't know..."
"Body? Jin's dead?" Mugen's eyes bugged.
"I told you, I don't..."
"That bastard sumbitch better not be dead!" Mugen whirled and took off running, pausing at the granary gates to grab his sword and clothes and jump into his shoes. "I'll kill him with my bare hands!" he shouted nonsensically. "That fucking heart-slasher, too!"
"Mugen! Mugen! If you find him, don't fight him! I need... Get back here!" Fuu scurried to the gates and waved frantically, but it was no use. Mugen's scrambling figure thundered off down the street, red kimono streaming out behind him like the tail of a comet, turned a corner and was gone. Fuu stared after him for a minute, then sat down beside the granary gate and composed herself to think. Mugen never listened. If he found the duelist he would fight him, without ever thinking to ask questions first. That left her with no choice--she had to find the man before Mugen did. But how? She had to think, and she pulled her kimono tight around her and screwed up her face with the effort. What did she know? she asked herself. That the bodies in the morgue that shared a killer had all come from somewhere to the east. That the killer did not make a practice of throwing his victims into the river; he left them where they fell. That the easiest way to fall into a river--into the middle of a river, where the current could catch you--was from a bridge, and if there was a West Bridge in a town where the main river flowed from east to west, then there was probably an East Bridge, too. It stood to reason, then, that the killer frequented the East Bridge, and perhaps if she was lucky Fuu could find him there. But only if Mugen, who could cover more ground more quickly than she and bully information out of people more effectively, didn't get there first. The afternoon was already growing old, and she stood up and started walking eastward with a shiver of apprehension.
Mugen's way of searching was typical of everything he did--fast, loud, and violent. Working on the theory that everybody had to eat, he spent the afternoon barging into various eateries, announcing himself as the baddest badass on the Eight Islands and challenging the heart-carving muhfuh to come out and face him. For most of that time the only enlightenment he received was the stars and flashing lights he saw when he burst into a yakuza hangout and got an instant bloody nose. Eventually, however, his digging turned up a nugget of useful information, and he turned his steps toward the Yodo River with vengeance running hot in his veins.
Fuu's method also bore fruit. There was indeed an East Bridge, and Fuu reached it just as the last golden fingers of sunlight began to fade into the haze of approaching dusk. It was a lonely place, on the fringes of the city and obviously much older than the West Bridge, a span on what had recently been a country road. An ugly little suburb, half legitimate businesses and half vice district, was springing up on the north bank around the foot of the bridge, but when Fuu crossed to the south side she found little more than an inn overhanging the river, a straggling line of tea-shops and food stands, and a small roadside shrine with a couple of low benches where travelers could rest and meditate. A man sat on one of these benches, a samurai by the two swords in his sash and a ronin by the wicker pilgrim's hat on the bench beside him. He was somewhere on the far side of middle age, with scraggly gray hair twisted up in a careless knot and skewered in place with what looked like a chopstick. His plain brown checked kimono was sun-faded to rusty orange on the back and shoulders, the hems of his striped hakama trousers were frayed, and though he wore tabi socks like any gentleman they were worn through at the toes. His face had a melancholy cast, but when he glanced up at Fuu she caught an unexpected twinkle in his eyes and an odd, humorous turn to his mouth. What struck her most about him, however, was his air of absolute self-possession. He sat on his bench as if it were a throne, straight-backed and alert, his knobby hands lying relaxed in his lap. He reminded her of Jin, in a way, but without the austere remoteness of her traveling partner. Fuu scrutinized him for a moment, wondering if he could be the killer she was seeking, but there was no aura of menace about this man. In fact, there was something inviting about him, and she sat down on the bench across from him without a second thought.
"Waiting for someone, young lady?" The old ronin's voice was rich and deep, with the same sad-humorous tone as his face.
"Yes," she said.
"So am I." He paused a moment. "Is it prying to ask who you're waiting for?"
Fuu hesitated, then said, truthfully, "I'm not sure."
The ronin laughed. "What a coincidence. Neither am I."
"Then how will you know when he comes?" Fuu asked.
"I could ask you the same question," he said. "Perhaps you were waiting for me." He sat there, smiling his odd one-sided smile. "The tea-houses are about to close," he said after a minute. "Would you like some tea?" Fuu opened her mouth to tell him she had no money, but he waved his hands to silence her. "No, let me, please," he said. "It's been ages since I bought tea for a lady." Fuu thanked him when he returned, and as they sat sipping she watched lights wink on along the riverbank and across the mud flats off to the west.
"Mussel pickers," the ronin said, nodding toward the lights. "They camp on the mussel beds to keep poachers away. It's a short season--a rich bed can make them a lot of money. You wouldn't think it's a dangerous job, but people are killed every year, especially if there are ronin out on the flats." He sighed and his face turned pensive and sad again. "Do you think much about karma, young lady?" he asked after a short silence. "No, of course not," he answered himself, seeing the perplexed look on Fuu's face. "You're much too young; the burden is still too slight. And perhaps you're one of those blessed souls who will never feel it at all. You have an air of lightness about you, you know, like a feather perfectly balanced between two opposing winds." Fuu smiled; she didn't know about the air of lightness part, but the ronin's comment about the feather was a perfect description of her relationship with Mugen and Jin.
"Are you a seer?" she asked. She had heard about people who could see into the hearts and souls of others, but she'd never actually met one.
"Me? Oh, no. It's enough of an ordeal coping with the living, without dealing with the spirits of the dead as well." There was another long but not uncomfortable pause. The ronin stared out over the river, and Fuu studied the ronin's face. He had never been a handsome man, she decided, and everything about him now looked run-down and careworn, but she found him fascinating. She smiled again, then realized with a shock that the ronin was very quietly crying. She jumped up, clutching her tea bowl.
"Is something wrong?" she asked anxiously. The ronin bowed his head.
"So sorry. It's become a bit of a habit with me lately, I'm afraid. Too much time to think, you know, and too many things to think about. It's the curse of being philosophical." He wiped his eyes on his faded sleeve and sighed.
"Is being philosophical so sad?" asked Fuu.
"I suppose it depends on your philosophy," he answered. "Some say, for example, that when you take a man's life, you take on his burden of sin as well, but if you are killed in turn by a man whose spirit is without blemish of guilt, all sins are absolved, both yours and those you have acquired from others."
"Do you believe that?"
"Oh, yes!" A note of eagerness crept into the ronin's rich voice. "But there are so few pure souls in this world, and the burden of sin is so very, very great." For a moment Fuu was afraid the ronin was crying again, but then he looked up and hitched on his crooked smile. "I'm talking complete rubbish, aren't I? And in the presence of such a lightsome spirit, yet. Forgive me."
"Oh, no, I think you're very interesting."
"The kindest way of telling me I'm babbling." His smile widened, which took the sting out of the words. "Nobody seems to be coming," he added gently. "Are you sure you're waiting in the right place?"
"Well...no," Fuu conceded.
"It's getting dark," said the ronin.
"Yes. I should go. Thank you again for the tea." She placed the tea bowl on the bench and started to leave, then turned back. "Are you coming, too?" she asked. In truth, she was reluctant to part ways with the ronin. Like the missing Jin he seemed to be a man who thought a great deal, but unlike Jin he gave voice to those thoughts. Fuu wanted to hear more, and she hoped he would walk with her, even if it was only a short way.
"No, I think I'll wait awhile longer. I'd hate to disappoint the person I'm waiting for."
"You think he'll come, then?"
The ronin turned around on his bench and looked at the eastern horizon, where a fat bulge of gibbous moon was just rising over the river. "There's something lucky in the air tonight, don't you think?" he asked slowly. "A night of fortunate meetings, and maybe," he turned his twinkling gaze on Fuu, "reunions as well. Yes, I think the man I'm waiting for will come tonight. And so, perhaps, will yours." Fuu bowed to him and set off, then looked back as she crossed the bridge. She had hoped for a last glimpse of him, but before she even crested the arch of the bridge the ronin's nondescript figure had faded indistinguishably into the gloom.
"They call him the Weeping Warrior. Nobody knows his real name, but he breaks down crying before and after every fight. They say he's killed five hundred men, all with the same stroke, right through the heart. You want to make it five hundred and one, go up to the East Bridge." These were the words that sent Mugen up the riverbank in the twilight, but so far he'd been disappointed. There was nothing doing on the south bank, unless you wanted to watch the moon rise to the accompaniment of off-key singing and badly-tuned samisen, so he crossed over to the north side and had a look around. Nothing much here, either; just an old guy sitting on a bench. Mugen gave him a careless glance, then did a double-take and froze.
The old guy on the bench was crying.
Mugen felt a crawl of excitement in his gut. He reached back and touched the hilt of his sword, then sauntered over to the old ronin's bench.
"Waitin' for somebody?" he asked. The ronin mopped his eyes on his sleeve and looked up.
"Yes. Are you the man I'm waiting for?" he replied.
"Guess that depends." Mugen and the ronin eyed each other for a moment, and then the ronin stood up with a sigh and drew his sword. Mugen did likewise, and for a long moment they faced each other, each waiting for the other to make a move, the ronin patient and motionless, Mugen itching and jittering. "Screw this," he muttered suddenly, and charged, swinging his sword in a wide, wheeling arc that threw the old ronin's return blow back in his face, then swept up behind Mugen as he passed to parry the strike that would have laid a slower man's back open. Mugen pulled up and wheeled, ready to strike again, but the old ronin wasn't pursuing him. He stood with his head bowed, sword held out stiffly in front of him with both hands.
"You've killed before," the ronin said.
"Yeah." Mugen didn't see what this had to do with anything. His blood was up; he wanted to fight, not talk.
"Does it ever bother you, that you've taken a life?"
"Huh? Should it?"
"Do you ever think about the men you've killed?"
Mugen lowered his sword a fraction. "Think about 'em? Hell, I don't even remember 'em."
The ronin made a strange, dry noise, and his shoulders shook. He looked up; the moonlight glimmered on the tracks of tears on his face, but also on the gleam of his smile.
"I knew this night felt lucky," he said, sobering. "Ignorance is a form of purity, I suppose. It seems you are the man I was waiting for, after all." He looked Mugen up and down. No, this knobby-kneed ragamuffin with hair like an overgrown dandelion was not what he'd expected, but he had learned early that fortune's messengers often came in strange disguises. He straightened his back, and his face hardened. "Shall we bring this shadow play to an end, then?" he asked, raising his sword.
"Damn straight," Mugen answered.
There was no waiting this time. They both moved at the same instant, the old ronin scything his sword in a belly-cut, Mugen launching himself into the air to avoid it, lashing out with his steel-soled geta, then letting his falling momentum lend force to the blow as he swung his blade downward at the ronin's shoulders. Both strikes missed, but Mugen recovered faster. He drove his feet into the ground, twisting and lunging at the same time, teeth bared with the effort, his sword flashing in a criss-cross as he knocked aside the ronin's defensive parry, then slashed his right shoulder. The ronin grunted as he unleashed a powerful backhand cut, but Mugen dropped to his knees and easily dodged it. A wicked return stroke, however, forced him to fall onto his back; he spun and kicked, buying himself a little time and space, then sprang up and ran to the bridge, where he leaped lightly onto the railing and whirled to meet the ronin's attack.
The attack, however, didn't come. The old ronin stopped at the foot of the bridge, where he stood wheezing and holding his right side.
"Strenuous exercise seems to take it out of me lately," he said apologetically. "Getting old, I suppose. But don't worry--I'll finish killing you in a minute."
"Fat chance." Mugen squatted down on the railing like a spindly gargoyle. "By the way," he said, something occurring to him in the lull, "d'you remember the last guy you killed?"
"My five hundredth duel," the ronin said fondly. "Of course I remember."
"Tall guy, blue kimono, glasses?"
The ronin frowned. "Tall, yes. Blue kimono, I think so. But I don't remember glasses."
"Huh." Jin had never let on that there was anything wrong with his eyesight, but Mugen had never seen him fight without his glasses. "Number Five Hundred have white diamonds on his kimono?"
"No, it was three crescent moons in a pinwheel pattern. That I do remember, because I know the family crest."
Mugen stood up. "Well shit, then," he said. "I'm fighting the wrong guy."
"Perhaps, but we're still going to finish this," said the ronin.
"You wanna die that badly, old man?" Mugen asked. In answer, the ronin slashed at Mugen's ankles, forcing him to hop and dance halfway across the bridge railing before he could parry and jump down. The second his feet touched the planks he charged, smashing his body into the ronin's and pinning him against the railing. For a long minute they simply wrestled, their long swords useless in such close quarters. Then the ronin twisted away. Mugen let him go, then lunged, driving his sword blindly upward and into the ronin's body, letting the ronin's pivot drag his arm with the sword handle and wrap it tightly around his ribcage. Then he reached around with the other arm and took a two-handed grip, shoving the blade higher and deeper. The back edge of the ronin's sword point raked across his back, gouging a furrow in Mugen's skin, but he was pressed too tightly against his opponent's body for the ronin to reach him easily. He felt the blade turn on his back; despite his own distress, the ronin knew what was wrong, and was trying to fix it. The next blow would be a stab or a slice, and with a final wrench Mugen pulled his sword free and leaped back.
If he expected the ronin to fall he was disappointed. There was no gush of blood, no visible wound. Wherever the sword had penetrated, it wasn't immediately fatal. The ronin whirled and looked at Mugen, panting; then, with a final burst of furious energy, he lunged and struck.
This was the blow that had killed five hundred men. Even Mugen wasn't fast enough to avoid it; as blind reflex carried him backward over the bridge railing he felt a searing pain across his chest, as though someone had touched him with a hot iron. Then he was in the water, sword still in hand, flailing as the current smashed him into a bridge piling, sucked him loose, and carried him toward another. He grabbed the piling and clung to it, gasping, hardly noticing that he was cutting his bare legs on the mussel shells attached to the wood. For a long, terrible minute he waited to feel the cold river water pouring into his open chest, the death-throes of his severed heart. When none of this happened he felt around inside his tunic, discovered a flesh wound, matter-of-factly sheathed his sword, felt around for the river bottom and waded back to shore.
The ronin wasn't there to meet him. Nor was he on the bridge. Puzzled, Mugen looked around, hand on his sword hilt.
"Hey!" It was as much a question as a hail, and it was answered with a slight, dry cough from the bench near the shrine. Mugen followed the sound and found the ronin, almost invisible in the gloom, sitting where he had first met him.
"Hey," Mugen said, more softly. The ronin didn't answer, and Mugen prodded him cautiously with the tip of his sword. The ronin's head fell forward, and his body slowly keeled over to one side and collapsed onto the bench. A dark puddle formed on the stone, then overflowed onto the ground. Mugen sheathed his sword and poked him again, this time with a finger, but he didn't need to feel for a pulse to know that the ronin was dead. Mugen stood and looked at him for a moment, fingering the slash in his tunic and the cut across his chest; then he leaned forward and turned the ronin's body on its back. Dark blood covered the side of his face and oozed sluggishly from the corner of his mouth, but it didn't hide the fact that, in the instant of death, the old ronin was smiling.
Like any experienced wanderers of uncertain financial means, Mugen, Jin and Fuu never entered a strange city without a contingency plan. In this case, the plan was an abandoned fisherman's hut on the banks of the estuary. Fuu could see the mud flats through the holes in the wall and stars through gaps in the thatch, but at least it was four walls and a roof, and with no money and no sign of either Jin or Mugen it was the best she was likely to get. She fell asleep quickly; a bit later she awoke to the sound of snores and found that Mugen had come in and was sprawled asleep in a corner. She drifted off again, but hours later she swam back to consciousness, this time with an odd, eerie feeling. The moon was fully up, big and bright, shining through the empty hole that had been a window, and standing in the shaft of moonlight was a ghost.
It was Jin, but not Jin as Fuu remembered him. This Jin was dressed in white; the moonlight surrounded his white clothes and skin with a brilliant aura, and a muddy river-smell filled the hut. For a moment Fuu stared at him in horror, then she jumped up and backed away with piercing scream.
"Ghost!" she shrieked. "There's a ghost!" Behind her, Mugen shot into the air and drew his sword in one single, wild motion; even asleep, his reflexes were flawless. Jin's ghost's mouth fell open in shock, and for a moment they all stared blankly at each other. Then Fuu raised her nose and sniffed. The ghost of a drowned man might smell like the river he drowned in, but it didn't usually reek of sweat and shellfish. Nor did it have any reason to carry a straw hat, or its swords bundled up in its outer kimono, or have its hands swathed in dirty bandages.
"Jin?" Fuu asked cautiously.
"Why are you calling me a ghost?" he asked back. Fuu stared at him for another few moments, then sprang forward and slapped him on the arm.
"You jerk! I thought you were dead!" She swung again, this time catching him on the ribs; behind her, Mugen snickered. "Why didn't you tell us where you were! Jerk! And don't you ever die like that, you hear?" she added, shaking her finger in Jin's face. "I had to look at that awful thing, and I couldn't tell who it was, and I was so scared it was you, and I'm never...doing...that...again!" She flounced off to her corner, steaming. Jin looked at Mugen, mystified, but Mugen only shrugged.
"I was picking mussels," Jin said, after a pause to collect himself. "I found a good bed. It took longer to harvest than I thought it would, and I couldn't leave it because of the poachers. I wasn't able to send word to you." He bowed his head and sighed. There was more, of course; much more, but he wasn't in the mood to explain it. He had been on the mud flats for four days. He had been evicted from his first mussel bed by a gang of peasants led by a woman who outweighed him by fully a hundred pounds and who threatened to sit on him if he didn't leave. He had spent three nights squatting on a wet pile of reeds, guarding his good bed against interlopers; he had shredded his fingers on mussel shells and lacerated his feet defending his claim against another ronin. He had subsisted on raw mussels during the entire harvest, and if he ever saw, smelled or tasted another mollusk in his lifetime it would be too soon. He was exhausted, filthy, hungry, thirsty, sore and sunburned. His body, his nerves, and his self-respect were in tatters, and now he returned to his companions, flush with cash and expecting a good reception, only to be screamed at, struck, and accused of being dead. If he hadn't been too tired to walk another step he might have turned around and left; but as fortune would have it, it was indeed a lucky night for both meetings and reunions. Instead of storming off, Jin folded his legs and sank to the floor.
Fuu stared at him in wonder. All those muddy, bare-legged figures wading the flats, all alike in their under-kimonos and straw hats--she could have looked right at Jin fifty times during the last three days and not realized what she was seeing. In fact, she probably had. One of the lanterns she'd seen from the bridge was surely his. He'd been there all along, perfectly safe and earning money. And the first thing she'd done when he returned was slap him. Her face burned with shame.
"Why," he asked, in a soft, reasonable voice, "would you assume I was dead?"
"We thought the crying samurai guy had gotten you," said Mugen. He was still grinning, partly because he enjoyed seeing Jin getting cussed by Fuu and partly, though he would never have admitted it, because he was glad to see Jin, period.
"What crying guy?" Jin's head snapped up. "Do you mean the Weeping Warrior? Is he here?"
"Did you see him?" added Fuu.
"Yeah, I saw him. Strange old guy," said Mugen. Fuu blinked. The man at the shrine--he'd said it was a lucky night for meetings. Apparently is was luckier than she realized. She'd met the man she was looking for, after all--and she hadn't known it. She started to say this, but Jin's voice stopped her.
"You killed him, didn't you?" Jin sounded resigned and a little sorrowful. The cut across Mugen's chest was sure evidence of a fight, and against a tough opponent. He himself had never drawn blood on his companion. "I suppose you never thought to ask him why he wept, did you?"
"Ah, who cares?" said Mugen.
"I would have liked to have known," said Jin. "He's someone I wanted to meet someday. I've heard he was very wise." He and Mugen eyed each other resentfully, and Fuu suddenly realized that, for all the ways they resembled each other, there was one chasm between them that could never be bridged: Jin would always wonder the why of everything; Mugen would never care.
"You would have liked him, Jin," Fuu said softly. Jin and Mugen both looked at her. "I talked to him. I didn't know who he was. He was very nice; he bought me tea, and he talked about such strange things. It was like he could see into people's hearts."
"Before or after he sliced them in half?" Mugen asked savagely. Fuu looked down. It was hard to reconcile the gentle philosopher at the shrine with the killer whose violent handiwork she had viewed at the morgue. That one mind and one pair of hands could be capable of such utter opposites of behavior disturbed her, as did the fact that she both mourned the old ronin's death and rejoiced in it. Why did everything have to be so complicated, anyway?
"I know why he cried," she said, glancing at Jin. "Do you want me to tell you?"
"Thank you. Maybe tomorrow," he said. "I'm tired." He turned his bandaged hands palms-up and stared at them, and then his shoulders sagged. "I didn't realize it would be so hard," he added, in a tone as close to defeat as Fuu had ever heard from him. "Yet people live like that. Why..." He never finished the thought, and after a moment he lay down, curled up and closed his eyes. Fuu settled herself again, but Mugen remained standing. His memory was playing tricks on him tonight; instead of wiping itself blank, it kept dredging up the face of the dead ronin.
"Hey, Jin," he said. The dark lump on the floor stirred.
"Wanna know something funny?"
"That crying guy--he didn't cry when he died. He died smiling. Is that weird, or what?"
There was no answer, and after a minute Mugen lay back down, but he didn't sleep, even after the regular breathing of his two companions told him they were deep in slumber. The lucky-meeting moon was too bright, and there was a feeling in the air as if some spirit--not Jin in his undershirt but a true supernatural presence--was flitting like a moth in the moonbeams, a spirit as light as the summer air. Once Mugen even thought he felt something brush his face and speak to him, and he drew his sword and sat up with a growl, but there was nothing there. The moth had flown, and toward morning, when the moon had set, Mugen finally slept, and the tide came in at last and washed his conscience clean.