Evelyn sighed. Once again, cabbage and rice for supper. And not particularly good cabbage either, she sourly assayed the limp leaves, the best she could get for the little money that she had. The few coins her foster father, Umeki Hiroshi, managed to collect from his students did not go far at the market. It did not help matters that Hiroshi would often neglect to ask for payment or give his earnings away to anyone he felt needed it more. While the good Muddha taught generosity was a virtue to be much practiced, Evelyn considered as she pumped water into a pan to cook the rice, she wished her dear ‘uncle’ would also remember they needed to eat too.
But times were hard for everyone, Evelyn reminded herself as she trimmed and chopped the cabbage. With the emperor enchanted into a cursed sleep, the Law of MooShu suffered. Bandits roamed freely, horse barbarians invaded from their far-off lands, fields and villages were burned. The local constable did his best, but resources and pay for his men had dropped, and he struggled to do more with less, an impossible task. Food became scarcer even as the governor increased taxes to supposedly combat the menace of bandits and invaders, though rumor had it that only the wealth of the governor and his cronies benefited. The Muddha was right. Most people were suffering worse than Evelyn and her foster father, and it was only right to share what little they had.
At least they had enough to eat, even if their meals were far from the best quality. Fortunately Master Umeki’s students typically felt honor-bound to pay their teacher as best as they could afford. Umeki Hiroshi’s master had died, and he had declined to take service with another, becoming ronin, a masterless samoorai. However, becoming ronin had not changed his ethics one bit, continuing to believe that behaving with honor was at least as important as skill with weapons, and passing that understanding onto his students. Evelyn knew this well. She had been her foster father’s student ever since she was a little girl -- ever since that awful day when her parents were murdered by the Armada.
Evelyn shook her head to clear it. This was not the time to think about such things, she inwardly scolded herself. She had to pay attention to her cooking. It would be a bad thing if she ruined their dinner by burning the garlic she had just added to the bit of hot oil in the pan.
The cabbage, flavored with garlic and a little hot pepper, cooked to perfection. Evelyn wished they could have afforded some ginger too, but she prided herself on doing well with what they had. She stepped out of the tiny kitchen, bearing two steaming bowls.
“Uncle? Dinner is ready.” She laid the bowls and chopsticks at the low table and knelt on her cushion.
As she expected, Uncle Hiroshi appeared from behind the screens where he had been spending a precious moment meditating before the home shrine. His kind, weathered face softened with affection as he gazed on his foster child. The ronin had large, scarred hands and powerful hoofed feet which nevertheless were all grace as he too knelt at the table and took his set of chopsticks.
“My dear child, you should not have gone to market and made dinner too,” he opened gently. “I had few students today. I should have at least done some of it.”
“But then we might not have eaten until full dark,” Evelyn teased, and they both laughed, knowing his imperfect grasp of passing time.
“I fear you work too much,” Hiroshi continued. “You should have some time for …well, what ever it is a young girl does.”
“I wouldn’t know what that is either,” Evelyn joked. “There are no other human girls around.” She paused a moment. This was the perfect opportunity to suggest her idea. “Actually, Uncle, there is something I want to do. I think it is time I sought work of my own.”
Umeki Hiroshi looked surprised but not displeased. “You have something in mind?” It was not truly a question: he knew her well.
Evelyn drew a deep breath. “Yes. I met a Marleybonean, a Master Samuel Tanner, who is a business guest of the sculptor Hsien Po. He is an officer aboard the merchant marine, 'The Lively Venture', and he is willing to take me on as a midshipman. I can leave with him once his business is concluded, if you give me permission.”
Hiroshi looked grave. “You are still very young. Besides, how do we know this Samuel Tanner is to be trusted? He is a foreigner, and who knows if he is honorable or not?”
“My parents were foreigners to you, yet you served with them,” Evelyn pointed out, although in a gentler tone. Both of them were scarred by the memory of her parents’ deaths. The Armada had raided her parents’ little island house where the family was enjoying a rare holiday. Hiroshi had been visiting at the time and managed to get their small child out of the house even while under fire. He had saved her life: the Armada did not spare children. Still, she knew that Hiroshi grieved that he had not been able to save his captain and her first mate.
“I told Master Tanner that you would want to interview him before I could go, and he agreed. He is willing to come as soon as you have time for him. Furthermore, if you agree to let me take service aboard The Lively Venture, he will give you my first six months pay!” Evelyn beamed triumphantly. “I know you could use it.”
Hiroshi frowned. “It sounds like he is buying you, not hiring your services.”
Evelyn shook her head. “He says that I can learn what I need to of sailing aboard ship, but he really wants to hire me because of my fighting skills. Master Tanner says the skies have become more dangerous of late, with more pirates and incursions into neutral and even Marleybonean territory by the Armada. He thinks I am really good. I told him I learned from a master,” Evelyn finished with an proud, affectionate smile for her foster father.
“And so you have,” Hiroshi replied sternly. “But it was not for the sake of flinging you into danger.”
“Honor is to hold life lightly and goodness tightly,” Evelyn quoted in retort.
“Let’s see how easily you say that when -you- have a child,” he grumbled, but after a moment flung up his hands in defeat. “Oh, very well, I will at least talk to him. And then, we will see.” He took another helping of the stir-fried cabbage with his chopsticks.
Evelyn beamed, and took another wad of rice on her chopsticks from the shared bowl. “With that money you can hire Lao Lao to be your housekeeper.”
Hiroshi raised an eyebrow at her as he chewed a morsel of rice himself. “It’s not enough that you organize your own life without my assistance but you want to organize mine too? Thank you, but I can cook and clean for myself.”
“You will eat more regularly if you hire someone to cook for you,” Evelyn replied practically. They both knew this to be true, so no argument was raised. “Besides, I worry about Lao Lao. She has become awfully thin, and I don’t think it is safe for her all alone in her hut at the edge of town.”
“You know, I remember her when she was still handsome and called by her given name, Michiko, ‘beautiful wisdom’. But that was a long time ago. Now everyone just calls her ‘old one’.” He sighed. “I’m not so young myself anymore, either.”
“I remember her old, but plump and merry. She used to feed me honey cakes and tell me stories. But she can’t afford the ingredients for honey cakes anymore.” She looked meaningfully at her foster father. “I don’t think she can much afford her daily rice either.”
Hiroshi rolled his eyes, but smiled. “All right, you win. If I decide that this Marleybonean is a decent sort, you may go with him. I will hire Lao Lao, and she can live here. I could look after her then without her thinking I am just being charitable. She is becoming rather frail, though she still manages to hear everything that goes on. How she does it, only the kami know.”
Evelyn grinned. The old ladies of the town had a formidable network of gossip. If the governor planted peonies in his private garden, they would somehow know not only that, but also how many and what variety was planted.
A quiet knock at the door interrupted their dinner. Hiroshi opened the door and to his surprise found Lao Lao there.
Evelyn jumped to her feet. “Lao-san!” She rose to embrace her old friend, concerned to see how Lao Lao’s tattered, heavily patched kimono hung on her once plump frame. “Please, join us for dinner.” She was privately glad they had not yet finished their humble meal, and there would be at least some for Lao Lao.
“Thank you, Evelyn-chan, dear heart, but that is not why I am here.” She gently extricated herself from the girl’s embrace, and gazed earnestly at Umeki Hiroshi. “Sensei Umeki, I have news. The provincial governor has ordered that the teaching of weapon skills shall cease. All dojos now must bear his personal seal to re-open and teach again.”
Hiroshi passed his large capable hand over his face in a weary gesture. They all knew that obtaining a ‘personal seal’ would require money, money Hiroshi did not have, and likely also require a pledge to the governor that might offend Hiroshi’s principles. But he simply thanked her for the news and pressed her to join them for dinner, an invitation Lao Lao refused. The elderly cow woman wanted to be home before nightfall, and it would be dark soon.
But dinner was barely over and night had not yet fully fallen when came another knock at the door. This time it was a young samoorai. Both Hiroshi and Evelyn knew him. He was Inosawa Akio, one of the constable’s men, and a former student of Umeki Hiroshi. But given Lao Lao’s news, Hiroshi did not invite him in, and Evelyn warily retreated to the shadows of the room.
“Sensei,” the samoorai bowed respectfully, but he was stiff and ill at ease. “Sensei, I… I regret to inform you that you must give up all your weapons. They will be held at the armory for safekeeping until… until you obtain the governor’s license to open again.” He shifted with embarrassment, knowing full well such a license was unlikely to appear.
Hiroshi looked like he wanted to protest, but after a moment, bowed in polite submission. “Very well, I will bring you the weapons I use for teaching. I do expect a detailed receipt, however.”
The samoorai gave an awkward cough. “Sensei, I mean no disrespect. But I am ordered to bring all your weapons, including your own katana.” He flushed unhappily at his own words.
Umeki Hiroshi was known for his calm temper. But now fire blazed in his dark eyes and his usually gentle face took on harsh lines. “You would take my own sword, that I used in honorable service to my master before his death. The sword which I have used in honorable fashion ever since. The sword that belonged to my father and his father before him. Whose orders are these!” he thundered.
The youth looked purely miserable, but he stood his ground. “The constable gave me the orders, Umeki-san, but the orders come from the governor himself.”
“You must understand that I can not comply with such an order,” Hiroshi retorted angrily. “I would be betraying my own honor by giving up my sword.”
“Sensei, please!” Akio’s voice cracked with emotion. “My master, the constable, protested. He said the demands were unreasonable. The governor’s envoy insisted. He told my master he would be removed from office, perhaps face execution for treason, if he did not do as he was told. My master is a good man. If he is taken away, not only would I grieve for him, but I fear he would be replaced by one who was not good.”
‘Replaced by one who would do what the governor wished, whether just or not‘, were the unspoken words. Evelyn, however, was hearing the heated conversation from across the small house. She had quickly realized what the samoorai would demand, and quietly slipped through the shadows to the small alcove that held the family shrine. Above a simple table on which lay a tray of incense were two precious things. The first was a scroll of a poem done in beautiful calligraphy, the work of a master. The second was Umeki Hiroshi’s katana.
Quietly, very quietly, Evelyn took down the katana in its sheath. Stealthily, but with as much quickness as she dared, she slipped to the corner where she slept. With shaking fingers she quietly, very quietly, unrolled her futon sleeping mat and laid it on top of the sword. Then she lay on top of the futon as if sleeping, covered herself with a blanket, and waited.
Inosawa Akio had finally convinced Hiroshi to surrender his precious sword. With evident reluctance, he led the young samoorai to the family shrine.
“It is not here,” Evelyn heard her foster father exclaim in surprise.
“You have taken it away!” Akio exclaimed angrily.
“No, not I. This is where it always rests, so I can look upon it and remember my family honor,” Hiroshi replied sternly. “Someone must have stolen it.” Evelyn could detect the merest thread of relief in his words, but she doubted the samoorai could.
“I must search the house,” Akio retorted.
“You may do so with my blessing,” came the curt reply. “You will find little enough to search.”
Evelyn heard them beginning to move through the house for a search, and was seized with panic. What a stupid place to hide something, under the bed! It would be the first place anybody looked! Why had she not thought to sneak out to the garden, or hide inside the gate of a friend’s house? The hilt of the katana bit into her back like a guilty conscience. She could not go anywhere now. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
All too soon they came to her sleeping corner. Evelyn did the only thing she could think of: shut her eyes, and pretend to be asleep.
“My foster daughter is ill,” Hiroshi explained coldly. It was the first time Evelyn had ever heard her foster father lie.
“Ah, I am sorry… sorry to hear it,” Akio stumbled over his words. “Please tell Evelyn-san when she wakes that I hope she is well soon.” There was a plea for forgiveness in those words, and he walked away.
Evelyn felt almost faint with relief. She lay very still as Akio searched the rest of the house and outside, and came in again. “I will take the other weapons, Sensei, ” Akio informed the ronin. He wrote for a few moments. “Here is a receipt. The report will state that your other weapon is missing, presumed stolen. I am sure there will be a watch put out for it,” he warned. Hiroshi bowed stiffly and Akio left.
A long moment was spent in waiting to see if the young samoorai would return, the lump of the sword under Evelyn becoming more and more uncomfortable. Finally Hiroshi sighed, locked the door, and came to kneel beside Evelyn’s futon. “This was your doing, I suppose?“ he murmured softly. Evelyn nodded, and rolled off the bed to pluck the katana out from underneath.
“Well done, my clever girl.” He cradled the sword lovingly for a moment in his cupped hands, then handed it formally to Evelyn.
“This was my father’s, and his father’s before him. I have no son, but the Muddah was kind even in the midst of sorrow and gave you into my care. You have been as a daughter to me, and the best of students also. This is yours now.”
Evelyn kept her hands back, though they itched to take the blade offered. “Uncle, I can’t!”
Hiroshi smiled gently. “You heard Inosawa Akio. This sword will be looked for. If I keep it, it will be discovered, and I will be arrested. Worse, I will be shamed for being caught in a lie. But if this Master Tanner is worthy of service, you and the sword will go with him. I fear the dangers you may face upon the winds. But it seems that our beloved MooShu is no safer than the unknown.”
“I had planned to give this to you one day when you were older. Tested. But fate has decreed otherwise.” Smiling encouragingly, he laid the katana on the floor, and placed her hands upon it. “Wear it with honor, Evelyn-chan, my dear one.”
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