“He came soon after you left,” Shiori explained to Masato as they rode home the next day .
“Once I’d told him where you’d gone, we took one of the carts delivering fireworks for the festival and followed your path.” Then she covered her mouth and laughed. “I thought Jiro-san was crazy to take the cart, but perhaps he had planned this all along. You can never tell with that man.”
Masato nodded, still in wonder at the re-appearance of his teacher. What she said was right- his master so was full of tricks, who knew what he was capable of? He had escaped the Kurokawa at the temple, after all!
The Inuyama samurai had slowed once they’d returned to their own land, waiting to see if any survivors caught up with them. As it turned out, Jiro’s distraction had allowed more than a few men to escape the Kurokawa-backed trap, and by the end of the second day the party of fourteen had grown into one of nearly fifty. Of those fifty, many were hurt, but they were still luckier than the other half of the men- gone into Sugura lands, never to return.
Among the survivors had been Inuyama no Tetsuya, whose group had been one of the last to rejoin the survivors.
The normally handsome samurai was a mess of dirt and blood, and not riding his own horse, but he was still alive, and after seeing his elder brother, came to personally thank Masato’s master for the distraction. Jiro had put it off as Shiori’s idea, which was at least partially true, and Tetsuya had promised to come repay her for the fireworks and assistance later.
It was on the second night since the escape, when Masato was sitting on a log eating barbecued meat, that Jiro finally came to him.
Masato had just started to tuck into the food after the long day’s ride when nimble fingers suddenly reached over and plucked the fox spoon from his hand.
“And, where did this come from?” Jiro asked, examining the spoon as he sat down next to his apprentice.
Masato smiled proudly. “A girl gave it to me, master.”
Jiro almost immediately popped the cover off, revealing the hidden knife. “You sure she liked you, lad?” He held up the blade to study it in the firelight.
Masato nodded. “Uh-huh. I’m going to see her again someday to thank her for it.”
His master slipped the cover back on and handed it to Masato. “Just make sure you’re careful, lad. A girl who has this kind of trick around will have a few others as well.”
“I will, master.” Said Masato, not really understanding.
After a brief pause, Jiro said- “I should punish you, you took the young lord into the middle of an enemy trap. If anything had happened, it would have caused a great crisis in the clan.”
Masato wanted to protest, but instead he just hung his head and waited for the inevitable.
“However, if our lord sees fit to leave you be, I won’t press the issue.” Jiro continued. “I’ve wasted enough time on you already, and I don’t know how many years I’ll have left.” Then he smiled and rubbed his shoulder. “Not many if I continue to take such foolish risks.”
Masato waited a moment, and then, deciding the time was right, asked- “Sensei? Why are you still alive?”
His master laughed. “Want to get rid of me that badly, eh lad?”
“Oh!” Said Masato, realizing what he’d just asked. “No! I don’t mean I want you to go, I just…”
“…Want to know how I escaped the temple when the bridge was cut?”
Masato nodded that he did.
“Well lad, if you’re expecting something like a demon showed up, or I rode a cloud to safety, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you.” His master answered with a wry smile. “The truth is, I used the bridge just like you.”
“But!” Masato said, surprised. “The bridge was cut!”
“No,” Jiro answered. “One end of the bridge was cut, I just happened to also be holding onto it when I cut it. I figured there was no escape, so I took a chance and held on tight. As it turned out, the bridge swung out after it went over the falls and hung down from the first landing. All I needed to do was climb up it to the top and I could cross the rest like you did.”
“Oh!” Said Masato, bobbing his head in understanding. “That’s why Shiori said you came just after we left.”
“With the meeting coming so soon, I needed to warn our lord, and I knew she’d know where to find him. I just didn’t expect you to do the same, lad.”
“Yes…Sensei…” Masato said, slightly embarrassed at the reminder.
“Well,” said the master, after a moment of gazing at the camp. “I did tell you she was the right person to see in times of trouble, so I guess I have to take some of the blame for that.” Then he hit Masato on the shoulder and stood. “Eat up, lad. Tomorrow we ride for home, and I doubt we’ll be there long.”
“Sensei?” Masato asked.
“The Kurokawa know we prepare for war, lad.” Jiro said gravely. “The Sugura are also against us now, and have sided with our enemies. Whichever we fight, there are dangerous days ahead for the Inuyama clan. Our lord will need everyone able, even boys and old men.”
“Yes, sensei.” Masato said firmly. “I’ll be ready.”
Jiro looked at him, his stern expression softening. “After today, lad. I believe you are. I believe you are.”
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