“Yes?” Yoshio turned over to see the back of Amaya’s head as she stared toward the door, dimply lit with the approaching dawn. He saw her side go up and down as she took a deep breath.
“I do not…” She trailed off.
Yoshio sat up and touched her shoulder. “What is it?”
“I am having doubts,” she said. She turned on her back to look at Yoshio. “I do not want you to fight Ryunosuke.”
“I must,” Yoshio said. “It is not just a matter of bushido now. It is about your honor, your family’s honor and-”
“It’s about revenge, Yoshi,” Amaya said. “Once I thought that I would trade anything to see Masaki fall, but now, I am not willing to make that trade.”
“There is nothing to trade,” Yoshio said. “Either I am victorious, and you have what you want, or I am not, and you have nothing.”
“Perhaps trade is the wrong word. Risk.” Amaya glanced back toward the frosted windows. “What once seemed precious to me has lost its luster, and I do not want to gamble what I have.”
“Has it always been about revenge?”
Yoshio nodded in the dark. “Then I will see it done, my lady. I will take Ryunosuke’s head and redeem your honor in one stroke.”
“If you are permitted to live that long,” Amaya said. “Risk envelopes us at all sides. What I wish most – now – is to be away from here.”
“That did not work out so well for Hayato,” Yoshio said.
“You are better than him. Stronger. Faster.”
“Then we should wait for the duel, where I may face Ryunosuke on terms that, if not fair, are at least known ahead of time.”
Amaya pushed herself closer to Yoshio. “I’m sorry, Yoshi.”
“Don’t be,” Yoshio said. “Karma brings us where we are meant to be in the future, even if we do not understand the present. Whether we leave tonight or we stay and see through your plans, Ryunosuke and I will cross swords.”
The forge was hot. Beads of sweat rolled off of Sengo’s forehead as he reached into the burning coals and withdrew with his tongs an unshapely lump. He placed the ugly hunk of metal, which glowed red in the sunny day, on the anvil.
“Go,” he said hoarsely.
Yoshio let the hammer drop onto the clump. Then again. As he could see small flattened spaces of the lump spread out, he began to add force to his strokes. The steel began to ring as it flattened out. Slowly, the orange and red gave way to mottled grey.
“This will form the edge of the sword,” Sengo said, picking up another hammer and working the edges of the steel lump between Yoshio’s strokes. “This is the best steel from that batch. As we work it, it will become purer still.” He grabbed the thongs and put the lump back in the forge. Yoshio stood up and went over to the bellows and began pumping. Sengo buried the steel in the bright coals, turning it over a few times.
“How much will we have to do this?” Yoshio asked.
“We have not yet done the simple forge weld on the raw tamahagane,” Sengo said. “Once we have all the steel together, the real work will begin. The steel must be folded many times to make it resilient and harmonious. I hope your arms are up to the challenge.”
“If they are not, they will grow stronger,” Yoshio said.
“That’s the spirit,” Sengo said. “Let me help you.” He went over to another set of bellows on the small arrangement of bricks that made up his simple, long forge and began pumping. Sparks flew out of the opening. After a few minutes of slow, steady pumping, Sengo moved back around to the front of the forge. He flipped over the lump that was still buried in the coals. He nodded to Yoshio as he pulled the steel out.
“Time to add a bit more,” Sengo said. He placed another two bits of the steel on the red-hot lump and began hitting them with the hammer. Sparks flew, and bits of slag broke off the outside of the lump, falling to black cinders on the bare ground below. Yoshio joined in as they alternated hard strokes with the hammer.
“Am I doing this right?” Yoshio said.
“At this point, it is hard to do it wrong,” Sengo said. “Get it hot, hit it with a hammer. Though this is undoubtedly the foundation of a sword-edge, and therefore the most important step, the real challenges will come later.”
Yoshio stood on the white sands of the sanctum. He slid his sword back into its saya. Normally, he would not have violated the sacred place of the kami by practicing his art, but Emi had permitted it, saying the spirits would be appeased by a standard purification ritual afterward.
“Put it in a different place,” Yoshio said. “I will not know where my opponent will be standing.” He turned east and let his eyes adjust. The setting sun was just about to push below the hills and trees that blocked the shrine from a view of Sakai harbor and Osaka bay.
“It is done,” Amaya said.
Yoshi turned around and squinted in the light. In front of him, a blur of images wavered, placed into uncertain darkness by the blinding angle of the sun. Yoshio stepped forward and let loose his sword in a lightning-fast draw cut. He felt resistance as the blade sheared through the tatami, but he felt too much feedback when he reached the bamboo-shoot core of the practice prop.
Yoshio reached up with his left hand and shielded his eyes. He grumbled. The cut, while precisely in the middle of the rolled rice shoots vertically, was too shallow, and he had succeeded in cutting only the front of the tatami. The bamboo shoot at the center of the target was gouged, but intact.
“You still hit the target,” Amaya said, standing back, her hand resting on her own katana. “Even a shallow cut can kill in the right place.”
“Yes, I know,” Yoshio said, “but it was not the cut I intended to make. I cannot trust victory to chance. I must be certain before I step into the dueling ring.”
Amaya stepped forward and drew her sword into a sideways cut, which severed the tatami mat effortlessly where Yoshio’s cut had been. The top half of the target held still for a moment, then Amaya cut through it again using an overhand stroke. As the top of the target fell toward the earth, she struck it once more, cutting it into several wispy pieces of straw that scattered on the sand. She smiled and put her sword back into its scabbard.
“Impressive,” Yoshio said, raising his eyebrows. “More so that I know you can do that to a man.”
“Thank you,” Amaya said.
“However, that was my last practice mat.”
Amaya looked west at the sun that was peeking through the top branches of the trees. “And the sun is no longer in your eyes.”
Yoshio grumbled. “Yes.”
“Then it looks as though you will have to give it a rest for the day, and go have some dinner.”
“There are many more things that can be practiced still,” Yoshio said.
Amaya chuckled softly. “My dear Yoshi, ever focused on the task and not the living that surrounds it.”
“I have been told that before,” Yoshio said, “and not just by you. If I am not focused, I will be dead.”
Amaya walked past him, toward the steps. “If you die, you will regret not pausing to enjoy the taste of a well-cooked meal.”
“Food is fuel for life,” Yoshio said. “It is not life itself.”
Amaya stopped on the steps and looked back to him. “But it is part of life. I will help you roll more rice stalks for tomorrow’s practice later. Now, come up to the house and dine with me.”
“Tell me, Emi,” Sengo said between mouthfuls. “Why are you an attendant at this shrine when you do not believe the kami exist?” Yoshio glanced to Amaya, who cast her eyes back, sending Yoshio the familiar message of be quiet.
Emi looked up from her plate. Her eyes were wide. “That’s a nonsense question. Of course the kami exist.”
“I know they exist,” Sengo said. “At least, I know that some of them exist. However, you do not.” Emi chewed her food silently. Sengo went on. “Or you would be cleansing the sanctum right now. Which makes me wonder how you got here, and so young. Certainly you could still be married off, and enjoy a similar or better life of comfort than you have working around here.”
“Hmn. Are you proposing to me, Muramasa?” Emi said, her wide eyes looked at him with hostility.
Sengo laughed. “Perhaps I am. You make excellent rice balls, and I am always hungry, which is a trait I think we might have in common, but somehow I don’t think you’d enjoy much an old man like me as husband.”
Emi narrowed her eyes and pulled the folds of her kimono up higher. “You wouldn’t know what to do with me.”
“Yes, I most certainly would,” Sengo said with a smile. “But I digress. How did you end up here?” Sengo looked at Yoshio. “I’m surprised this little mystery hasn’t piqued your compulsion to know everything about everyone.”
Yoshio shook his head, trying to hide a smile. “I try to stay mad at you, Sengo, especially when you insult everyone at the table-”
“I didn’t insult your wife,” Sengo said. “Or, whatever.”
“But your lack of manners is now comical to me,” Yoshio went on. “You are the only man I have met who could walk up to a man, call him a fat, bloated fish with breath to match, and the man would still be unsure of whether he liked you or not.”
“I’m making you a sword, remember?” Sengo said. “I’d have to like you at least a little.”
Amaya looked at Emi. “He really is like this all the time, I must apologize, for he will not.”
“Not that I should,” Sengo said. “I just want to know a thing or two about my host. Especially if I intend to fulfill her wishes and marry her.” He winked at Emi.
She scoffed at him. “Not if you were the emperor and we were the last people on Earth.”
“That’s a pretty strong statement,” Sengo said. “You don’t really know me either. I could be the emperor. Also, if we were the last people on Earth you might have to put your feelings aside for the good of the race. Our kids, though,” Sengo rolled his shoulders as if shuddering, then laughed.
“Lay off the girl, Sengo,” Yoshio said, leaning forward. Sengo shrugged and shoveled some more rice into his mouth.
“Just so you know,” Emi said, dropping her chopsticks and pointing at Sengo, “I believe that kami are real. I know they are real, I just… don’t know about the ones at the shrine.”
“How is that?” Sengo said.
“I’ve… well, I’ve talked to one before,” Emi said.
Sengo smiled. “Ha! You’ve made yourself much more interesting, I dare say. Not that you weren’t already interesting. Where did you meet your kami?”
“You believe me?”
“Of course I do,” Sengo said.
“Well, she – it – lived in the river, down by where…” Emi looked at Amaya. Amaya nodded. “Anyway, I used to talk to it as a child, and it eventually talked back. My parents didn’t believe me, which is funny, because they were Shinto attendants. I thought they talked to kami all the time.”
“I’m sure they thought that their young daughter was imagining things, as many children do,” Yoshio said.
“Or perhaps they were jealous,” Sengo said, leaning over. He stared at Emi and scooped a clump of rice into his mouth. “Like you said, the kami here never, ever talk.”
“They forbid me to go to the river,” Emi said.
“But you disobeyed,” Sengo said.
“Yes,” Emi said. “But not enough. I could not go there for a long time once, when my parents sent me to my mother’s family for a time. To…” Emi looked down at her food.
“Be taught a trade?” Sengo said.
“Find a husband.”
“And when you came back the kami could no longer be found,” Sengo said.
Emi cocked her head to the side. “How do you know so much?”
“Yoshi here is a master of deduction,” Sengo said throwing his thumb toward Yoshio. “Me? I’m a master of guessing. Part of that mastery is knowing that people forget all the incorrect guesses.”
Emi gave Sengo a curious look. Sengo smiled back.
“The world is full of kami, of all different sorts. Most of the time we aren’t aware of them. This is because they are in many everyday things and events. Earthquakes – that’s an easy one to blame on spirits, but they are also in rain, and snow.” Sengo looked at Yoshio. “In fire and steel. The kami that care about us – people I mean – are pretty rare. Water kami, like the rain and the river, simply are. They move and flow through the world so much they scarcely have time to notice us. Frankly, to the spirits of nature, men are a bit inconsequential, though sometimes we can be found to be interesting. That interest can be dangerous.”
“You have experience with one,” Emi said.
Sengo nodded. “See? You’re a good guesser too. A fire kami. The kami you have enshrined here, well, they are enshrined many places. They’re probably a bit too busy to stop by for a ritual, if they even exist. I wouldn’t believe very strongly in them either, if I were you,” Sengo turned his head laughed. “I’m sorry to have teased you. Like Yoshio said, I have terrible manners. Luckily, I have deep pockets, so most people forgive me.”
Yoshio and Amaya sat on the floor facing each other. The door beside them was open to the night. They carefully tied the long sheets of rice reeds together, with Amaya holding the roll around a bamboo shoot and Yoshio wrapping twine tightly around it in several places. Two more tatami sat in a trough of water just past the eave of the attendance house.
“I heard some rumors while I was in town buying the reeds and today’s fish,” Amaya said.
“Of what sort?” Yoshio said. He tied a tight knot in the mat.
“A rumor from a travelling merchant, told to another merchant, of a train of nobleman moving across the country from Kyoto, for the summer festivals. The merchant was optimistic.”
“Yet you are not.”
“They are earlier than expected, which means we will have to meet with them outside of our own convenience.”
Yoshio looked at Amaya. “Your face says more.”
“True,” Amaya said. “He said he met a man who sold goods to an assemblage of men at arms, east of Kyoto.”
“Interesting. An army, perhaps. The shogun is already on his way, is he not?”
“Yes, as far as I know, unless you are thinking it might be an attempt to usurp him.”
“That is what I am thinking. He may turn back to defend Kyoto. If the Hosokawa are again trying to install a puppet, giving them access to the emperor would be unwise.”
“Ashikaga Yoshitane is a clever man. It is probably well-within his plans. In fact, I am sure of it. My father reported to him of Hosokawa’s search for allies, even though he pays token homage to the shogunate.”
“Yoshitane has been forced to abdicate before,” Yoshio said. “Perhaps it is the Hosokawa house again.”
“Which is why he will be vigilant for it,” Amaya said. “Our plans should hold, I think, but I thought you should know.”
Yoshio paused a moment. “Who else is the shogun travelling with?”
“The merchant did not say. More noblemen. That could mean daimyo, or just his retainers. Why?”
“If your father or Furukawa is among them, I will have a great deal of explaining to do.”
Amaya smiled at Yoshio. “So shall we both.”
 A rolled mat of rice straw, sometimes with a core of bamboo, that can be used to practice cuts or test the edge of a sword in lieu of a living target.