Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan

By Kaminaga Manabu

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 2 Chapter 1

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 2 Chapter 1

VOLUME 2 – THE WAY OF THE DEMON SWORD
the way of the crossroads killer ()

-

prologue

-

It was a dark night –

Thick clouds covered the moon. Without the light of the lanterns, it would have been impossible to see one’s feet.

Hagiwara Iori was rushing home, as if she were running from the darkness.

‘You act so tough, but you’re still afraid of the roads at night?’

Her brother, Shintarou, made fun of her as he walked beside her with a lantern.

'I am not afraid,’ Iori said indignantly, which made Shintarou’s face light up with a bright smile that did not match the darkness around them.

'You couldn’t even go to the toilet by yourself before. You’d always cry about how you were afraid of ghosts.’

Though that was true, that was when Iori had been a young child.

'I’m not a child any longer.’

'Ah, true. The truly frightening ones aren’t ghosts but humans,’ said Shintarou meaningfully.

Iori agreed with that. Now that the black ships[1] had come to Uraga, there was much fuss about expelling the barbarians.

That wasn’t all. Iori had heard that there was a crossroads killer[2] – somebody testing their new swords on passersby – on the road by the Tama river that they were walking now.

'We must not let our guards down.’

'You’re right. However, if we’re up against a human being, there’s nothing to worry about if you’re here, Iori,’ said Shintarou with a shrug.

'Please protect your own body yourself. I will have my hands full just trying to run away in this outfit.’

It was true that Iori practised the sword, but currently, she was in a woman’s kimono and had no weapon on her. It was impossible for her to move freely.

Furthermore, with Shintarou being the eldest son of a samurai family, saying that he would get his younger sister to protect him wasn’t a joke anybody could laugh at.

'Come to mention it…’

Shintarou stopped mid-sentence and halted.

'Is something the matter?’ Iori asked.

Shintarou looked around, as if he had noticed something.

'I thought I heard somebody’s voice just now…’ muttered Shintarou.

'Somebody’s voice?’

Iori tried to listen harder.

All she heard was silence. No voice reached her ears. Just as she was about to tell Shintarou that perhaps he was mistaken, a shriek – 'Gyaa!’ – reverberated in her ears.

Iori and Shintarou looked at each other.

That shriek was no laughing matter. Iori and Shintarou nodded at each other and then ran towards the source of the shriek.

They reached a house at a crosswords and stopped without thinking –

There was a man lying face-up in training clothing there.

'Did something happen? Please stay with us!’

Iori rushed over to the man’s side.

There was a wide cut on his left shoulder and a frightening amount of blood was gushing out, forming black pools on the ground.

His face was pale and his lips were turning purple. However, he was still breathing.

Iori took out a hand towel and tried to block the man’s injury, but the blood wouldn’t stop.

'A crossro… kill…’

The man said that in a hoarse voice and groaned. Then, he stopped moving.

In the commotion, a young man and woman stuck their heads out from the door of the house.

'What happened?’ the man asked.

He had a rugged body and a height that made you look up at him, but his way of speaking was restless.

'A man appears to have been attacked…’ said Shintarou.

'Could it be…’ murmured the woman.

She had a smooth oval face and almond eyes – a beautiful woman.

The woman took a step forward to look at the man’s face. Then, the blood left her face.

'Brother!’ the woman screamed. She pushed Iori away and clung to the man on the ground.

It seemed that the man who had been attacked was the woman’s older brother.

'Brother… Why did this…’

The woman buried her face in the man’s chest and cried with heaving shoulders.

All Iori and Shintarou could do was stare silently. The man who had spoken to them first was muttering something to himself while looking down.

Iori was just about to ask what he was saying when a man who looked like a samurai ran up to them.

'Oume-san!’

The man called out to the woman.

'Tsujioka-sama. My brother…’ said the woman in a faint voice, lifting her head slightly.

Then, the face of the man named Tsujioka turned red. He looked angry. Then, he turned that angry gaze towards Iori and Shintarou.

'We heard a scream. When we ran over here, he was already…’ said Shintarou.

Tsujioka’s gaze dropped to the floor.

'Bastard… This is the work of the crossroads killer!’ shouted Tsujioka. He ground his back teeth together.

As the woman’s sobs echoed through the night, Iori felt a gaze prickling her back, so she turned around.

There was a man standing there –

He was an old man, probably fifty or so.

He wore a mouse-coloured kimono and his loose hair fell on his shoulders.

He was terribly thin and wrinkled all over, and so pale that it was hard to think him alive. It was as if he were a corpse that had crawled out of a grave.

Despite that, his sunken eyes were bloodshot and filled with a killing intent.

– Could this man be the crossroads killer?

When that thought crossed Iori’s mind, a cold shudder ran through her body and she couldn’t move.

Even if she fought him, she had no way of winning. Though there was no reason to it, her heart knew. That was how strange the air about the man was.

– He’s going to kill me.

The moment Iori thought that, somebody hit her on the shoulder. It was Shintarou.

'What is it?’

'The crossroads killer is there…’

Though she pointed, the man who had been there just earlier was gone, as if he had melted in the night.

– What on earth is happening?

Iori could do nothing but stare.

-

1

-

'Iori-san, did you see a ghost?’ Yasohachi asked after hearing Iori’s story. Iori was sitting opposite him.

They were inside the slanted building of an abandoned shrine.

The suffocating humidity and dim interior may have made the story even more frightening.

'It’s likely – ’

Iori shut her eyes. Her small fists were clenched tightly on her lap.

It was Iori, who studied the sword and hated to lose. She was probably angry at herself for being unable to anything.

It was mysterious how even that part of Iori seemed lovely.

'In short, a ghost committed the random killing.’

'That’s what I think.’

Iori nodded.

If that were true, it was a terrifying story, but there was something Yasohachi didn’t understand.

'Do ghosts kill people randomly?’

Yasohachi spoke to the man leaning against the wall.

He was the exorcist who was living here without permission.

His hair was untied and unkempt, and he wore a white kimono casually with just a red kimono sash. His skin was even paler than the kimono. He looked like he had just come out of a ghost painting by Maruyama Oukyo.

What stood out more than anything else were his eyes.

The man’s eyes were a deep, vivid red. The colour of blood.

His name was Ukikumo.

It wasn’t his real name. Since he wouldn’t tell Yasohachi no matter how he asked, Yasohachi just called him that.

He had met Ukikumo through a certain case and had, ever since then, experienced many different paranormal events at his side.

He had also met Iori through a paranormal event. Otherwise, the son of a dry-goods dealer would never have been able to meet with Iori, the daughter of a samurai family.

Though Yasohachi waited for an answer, Ukikumo said nothing.

'Um… do ghosts kill people randomly?’ Yasohachi asked again, which made Ukikumo sigh dramatically.

'Like I know,’ Ukikumo replied brusquely in a low voice.

'Please don’t say something like that so irresponsibly,’ complained Yasohachi.

Ukikumo clucked his tongue at him. 'What’s irresponsible about it? Who’s the one who just barged into somebody else’s place and started telling ghost stories?’

Ukikumo’s red eyes glared at him.

Yasohachi gulped under the weight of that gaze, but he couldn’t back down here.

'Ukikumo-san, you’re an exorcist. This makes this a conversation about work.’

'Are you an idiot?’ Ukikumo said mockingly. He poured some rice wine from his gourd into the cup he had with him and gulped it down.

'What’s idiotic about this? I’m speaking honestly.’

'What’s honest about it? It’s not work if there’s no money involved.’

It was just as Ukikumo said.

Furthermore, Ukikumo was a miser. He wasn’t the sort of man who would help somebody out of the good of his heart.

'But…’

'Whether a man or a ghost did it, random killings should be left to the town magistrate’s office.’ Ukikumo interrupted Yasohachi.

'That may be the case, but innocent people are being murdered. I can’t leave this alone.’

Ukikumo placed his gourd on the ground in irritation.

'Like I care.’

'If it is the work of a ghost, there will be another victim. Don’t you want to do something about this?’

'I don’t.’

Ukikumo yawned and then lay on the floor with his arm as a pillow. He closed his eyes.

It looked like he planned on going to sleep.

If Ukikumo was acting like this, he probably wouldn’t do anything else. That was the sort of man Ukikumo was.

'Um…’

Iori was the one who spoke.

'If it’s money, I will prepare it.’

'Oh?’ Ukikumo opened his eyes.

'Why would you pay, Iori-san?’

Yasohachi cocked his head.

'Actually, there’s more to the story – ’

'There’s more?’

Yasohachi’s heart beat rapidly.

'Yes. I would think it fine to just leave it to the magistrate if it were just a random killing. The man who appeared like a ghost might have just been a trick of the eye – ’

Iori looked at Ukikumo. Ukikumo had got up and was scratching his head. Perhaps his interest had been piqued.

After Iori saw that, she continued.

'The night after I saw the random killing, I couldn’t fall asleep. Though I had my eyes closed, I did not feel drowsy. Then – ’

Iori’s clear intonation sounded strangely frightening.

Yasohachi gulped and cleared his throat to wait for the next words.

'I felt somebody’s presence. When I opened my eyes, I saw a dark shadow through the screen.’

'A shadow?’ asked Yasohachi in a shaking voice.

'Yes. The shadow advanced through the corridor. I wasn’t sure who could be walking about at that hour so I rose and went out into the corridor myself.’

While Yasohachi felt a shiver upon hearing Iori’s story, Ukikumo let out a bored yawn and poured some more rice wine into his cup.

'Was somebody there?’ Yasohachi urged Iori to continue.

'It was a samurai in a grey kimono.’

'Do you mean – ’

Yasohachi half-got up from his seat. Iori nodded.

'It was probably the killer I saw that night.’

'What!?’

'Just as I was about to chase after him, the man went into my brother’s room. I slid open the screen to my brother’s room to see what was going on.’

After saying that much, Iori bit her lower lip and looked down.

Yasohachi’s anxiety swelled up as he looked at her slightly pale face. Yasohachi’s fists were sweaty as he urged Iori to continue.

'That man had a knife in his hand and was looking down at my sleeping brother.’

'Wha – ’

'I tried to hit the man to save my brother, but before I could, the man disappeared.’

'That’s horrifying,’ said Yasohachi with a sigh.

Ukikumo just snorted like he thought something funny and gulped down his cup.

'You were probably half-asleep. Just leave it,’ said Ukikumo, wiping the corner of his mouth with his kimono.

Iori shook her head.

'I wouldn’t worry about it if it were just that once, but this has continued,’ said Iori in a lowered voice.

'It’s continued? That would give one the shivers,’ said Yasohachi.

Iori nodded.

'Don’t make such a fuss just because a ghost is wandering your home,’ Ukikumo spat out.

'Just because – anyone would be surprised if a ghost was wandering their home,’ objected Yasohachi.

Ukikumo made a click with his tongue.

'Idiot.’

'Why do you say that?’

'You guys just can’t see them. Ghosts are everywhere.’

Ukikumo’s words echoed sadly in Yasohachi’s heart.

Unlike Yasohachi and Iori, Ukikumo could always see ghosts. It was probably natural to him for ghosts to wander a home.

Since Ukikumo acted so reserved, Yasohachi sometimes forgot, but Ukikumo had seen things like that his whole life.

Perhaps he always drank rice wine to distract himself.

'I’m sorry,’ said Yasohachi, which made Ukikumo look annoyed.

'That part of you really annoys me, Hachi.’

'Why? I just…’

'Just stop it. More importantly, the story isn’t over, right?’ said Ukikumo, pouring himself more rice wine. Iori nodded.

'That’s right. Ever since then, my brother has been acting slightly strange.’

'Strange in what way?’ asked Yasohachi.

Iori took a deep breath. 'He’s fine in the day, but when night comes, he sometimes disappears from his room.’

'Maybe he just left for an errand?’

'I thought so too and asked my brother, but he said he hadn’t gone anywhere.’

'That’s odd.’

'Yes. Strangest of all is that he leaves the room with his sword.’

'His sword?’

'Yes. My brother disappeared from his room last night as well. I couldn’t find him no matter how I looked.’

'So how is Shintarou-san?’

'He returns come morning… but last night, it seems there was another random killing.’

Yasohachi understood Iori’s concern now.

Iori seemed to be worried that her brother Shintarou may have been possessed by a ghost and had committed the random killing.

'Please save my brother! I beg you!’

Iori placed both hands on the floor and bowed her head, her forehead touching the ground –

The daughter of a samurai was begging them, mere townspeople. It was clear how anxious she was about her older brother.

It hurt to look at her.

Iori probably didn’t want to believe that her brother had randomly killed a passerby, but she couldn’t help but worry that it was the case. That was how people were.

'Iori-san, please raise your head,’ said Yasohachi, but Iori made no movement. 'It isn’t clear whether Shintarou-san actually did kill somebody or not.’

'But…’ replied Iori in a trembling voice.

'Please relax. Ukikumo-san will do something about it.’

After Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo just clucked his tongue very audibly.

-

2

-

'Honestly. Getting me involved in something so troublesome,’ muttered Ukikumo as he walked beside Yasohachi.

He had his red eyes covered with a red cloth and was walking with a metal cane to act blind.

Yasohachi thought Ukikumo’s eyes beautiful, but Ukikumo felt the world didn’t see them in the same way.

He hated the looks of fear and disgust, so he hid his eyes with a red cloth, but he had eyes drawn on the cloth in ink.

Yasohachi felt that was even more unpleasant, but Ukikumo didn’t seem to care.

Perhaps this was just a difference in perspective.

'Don’t say that. Please help Iori-san.’

Yasohachi looked at Iori, who was walking a few steps ahead of him.

Though she always did have a small frame, she looked even smaller today.

'You’ll regret it afterwards if you get involved with the daughter of a samurai family,’ Ukikumo said threateningly.

'What do you mean by that?’

'You’ve fallen for her, right?’

'She isn’t the sort of person that a townsperson like me can fall for,’ said Yasohachi with a sigh.

Iori was the daughter of a samurai family. That was such a different background than Yasohachi’s dry-goods upbringing that it would be impossible to think of love.

'I said this before, right? Background doesn’t matter once you get in bed. You’re just a man and a woman.’

Ukikumo’s lips turned up in a lewd smile.

Ukikumo was a pervert. He was probably thinking of something lecherous.

'I can’t believe you’re saying that after you just said I’d regret getting involved with the daughter of a samurai family.’

'It’s just as I said, isn’t it?’ said Ukikumo with a snort.

'More importantly, what do you think of this case?’ asked Yasohachi. This has been at the top of his mind.

Was it possible that Shintarou was possessed by a ghost and killing passersby, just as Iori feared?

'There’s no point thinking about things now. I have to see for myself first.’

Perhaps it was just as Ukikumo said.

Nothing would change if they thought about things while understanding nothing. It was possible that Iori had just been half-asleep.

'You’re right.’

'If you’re in such a rush now, you’ll embarrass yourself when you finally do get her into bed,’ said Ukikumo with another smirk.

'Why do you always talk about things like that?’

'Why? Obviously because it’s enjoyable. You have to think about how she’d look baring herself in front of you too, don’t you?’

'Of course I don’t!’

'Is something the matter?’

Iori turned around. Yasohachi had spoken louder than he intended.

'N-no… It’s nothing.’

All Yasohachi could do was try to cover it up with a wry smile.

He felt like his face was on fire. How much had she heard – Yasohachi was concerned, but there was no way for him to ask.

Ukikumo stifled his laughter.

It annoyed Yasohachi, but if he retorted, Ukikumo would only return with double the repartee. Yasohachi sighed and swallowed his words.

He decided to ignore Ukikumo if he spoke again. Yasohachi walked behind Iori.

They went through the Hagiwara household gate and went to Shintarou’s room.

'Excuse us, brother,’ said Iori, and she slid the door open.

Shintarou was reading inside. He slowly lifted his head.

'Yasohachi-san and Ukikumo-san. Thank you for your help the other day – ’

Shintarou looked at them with his usual smile.

From what Iori said, Yasohachi had imagined that Shintarou would be lying on the ground with a ghost possessing him, so it was rather anticlimactic.

However, now that Yasohachi thought about what Iori said again, he recalled that she had mentioned how Shintarou was normal in the daytime.

'Thank you for coming all this way. I told Iori that I was fine, but she just wouldn’t accept that.’

'No, please don’t worry about it,’ said Yasohachi with a stiff smile.

Shintarou was so indifferent that Yasohachi wasn’t sure how to react.

Shintarou urged Yasohachi in. Yasohachi sat down with a straight spine. Iori sat in the same manner.

Ukikumo just sat with one knee up while leaning against the wall. He immediately took his gourd and poured himself some rice wine.

Yasohachi was so exasperated that he had no words.

Though Shintarou and Iori would allow it, if Ukikumo had acted this way in front of another samurai family, it wouldn’t have been strange if he were killed right there.

'What do you think? Am I possessed?’ asked Shintarou once they had all settled down.

He spoke so cheerfully that it was like he wasn’t talking about himself.

Yasohachi looked at Ukikumo.

Ukikumo scratched his chin. There was a difficult expression on his face.

'Um… You don’t look possessed to me at all…’ said Yasohachi, when Ukikumo said nothing.

When Yasohachi’s older sister Osayo had been possessed, she had not been as normal as Shintarou was now.

She hadn’t eaten. She would say things that made no sense. Though she was Osayo, she wasn’t – that was how it felt.

'That’s what I think as well. That this may just be Iori’s mistake – ’

Though Shintarou agreed, Iori didn’t seem to agree with it.

'Brother, I’m sure I saw what I did, and you don’t remember where you go at night, do you?’ pressed Iori.

Shintarou groaned. 'It’s true that I don’t remember, but did I really leave the estate?’

'You did. You suddenly disappeared from your room.’

'But we don’t know if that’s the work of a ghost.’

Nothing would be solved with Iori and Shintarou just talking like this. Yasohachi looked at Ukikumo again.

'What do you think? Is Shintarou-san possessed?’

'From what I see now, he doesn’t look it,’ said Ukikumo with a little sigh.

'Thank goodness,’ said Yasohachi in relief.

'Iori was mistaken then.’ Shintarou smiled, but Iori still looked unsatisfied.

'But…’

Ukikumo interrupted her.

'It’s too early to say that.’

'Eh?’

'Now – that’s what I said,’ said Ukikumo curtly.

'Do ghost possessions come and go?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo crossed his arms and nodded.

'Sometimes. Anyway, it’s too early to say anything. I’ll keep watch until night.’

Yasohachi could agree with that. He wouldn’t be able to sleep if they left the situation like this. Putting Shintarou aside, Iori wouldn’t be able to accept that.

'Thank you.’ Iori bowed her head politely.

'And I want to hear about the first killing in more detail – ’

Ukikumo turned his head to Shintarou.

The eyes drawn on his cloth seemed to glint.

'I don’t mind. I’ll tell you anything I can,’ replied Shintarou with a smile before starting to explain the situation and about the man who had been killed in more detail.

Iori and Shintarou had been returning from an errand for Shounosuke, the current master of the Hagiwara family.

The man who had been killed was Taniya Samon, an assistant instructor of Shingai-ryu swordsmanship. He had been killed just in front of the dojo.

Samon’s sister, Oume, and a private pupil of Shingai-ryu, Yamaguchi, had been the ones who came out of the dojo. The man who came afterwards was a pupil called Tsujioka.

Perhaps somebody had been waiting for Samon to return.

There was a large injury on the left shoulder, so it seemed he had been slashed diagonally from there.

Samon didn’t appear to have drawn his sword. Either it was a surprise attack or he hadn’t had the time to.

Shintarou explained clearly while adding his own thoughts. It made it extremely easy for Yasohachi to picture even though he hadn’t been there himself.

Ukikumo listened to Shintarou without saying anything, which was rare for him.

Since he was so silent, it made Yasohachi think that he might have even fallen asleep since his eyes were hidden by the cloth.

'Then what happened to Tsujioka after that?’ asked Ukikumo when Shintarou stopped.

'I don’t know the details, but I heard a man was killed,’ Iori said in a heavy tone.

It made sense for her to sound that way. If what Iori suspected was true, the one who had killed him might have been Shintarou.

She probably didn’t want to acknowledge that.

'Was the person who was killed a samurai?’

Ukikumo turned the eyes on the cloth towards Iori.

'No, it seems he was not a samurai but a townsperson.’

'Hm. This might be more trouble than I thought,’ muttered Ukikumo, putting a hand on his pointed chin.

Yasohachi didn’t know what could be troublesome about it, but he felt like something terrible was going to happen.

-

3

-


'Beautiful – ’

Yasohachi spoke without thinking when he saw Iori brandishing a wooden sword in the garden.

Her silent handling of the wooden sword was swift, strong and elegant.

Though she was beautiful in a kimono as well, hakama suited Iori better.

The brilliance of her simple attire was not just from outward charm – it revealed the beauty within her as well.

'You’re definitely in love with her,’ said Ukikumo, who was swirling rice wine in his cup as he sat leaning against the wall.

'No I’m not,’ said Yasohachi, his face as red as fire.

'Then what are you doing?’

'I just… The moon. I just thought that the moon is beautiful.’

'The moon isn’t even out.’

Ukikumo snorted scornfully and gulped down his rice wine.

Yasohachi looked up. Just as Ukikumo said, the thick clouds hid any sign of the moon.

He felt terribly embarrassed, but it would be even more embarrassing if he acted flustered now.

'I was imagining the moon behind the clouds.’

'Don’t quibble – ’ said Ukikumo as he poured more rice wine from his gourd.

He really drank a lot. He had been drinking this whole time, but his face was not the slightest bit red, and he didn’t seem drunk at all, which was one of Ukikumo’s amazing qualities.

'More importantly, why would anybody just kill passerby?’ asked Yasohachi, interrupting the conversation.

A crossroads killing was committed at night and at random. However, Yasohachi had no idea why anybody would do that.

'There are usually two reasons for a crossroads killing,’ murmured Ukikumo.

'Two?’

'The first is as a test.’

'For a sword?’

'What else?’

'That’s true…’

'Even a great sword is wasted if it is not used. The sharper a sword, the more one wants to test it.’

'Wouldn’t a straw post be enough?’

Yasohachi had heard of people testing swords on straw wrapped around bamboo.

'They probably aren’t satisfied unless they get a taste of the real thing, so they kill people instead.’

'That’s…’

That was too outrageous.

It wasn’t like murder was acceptable if there was a reason, but it was just too much to take a life just to test a blade.

'The other is for amusement. Though some people do it for money –

'How could anyone kill somebody for amusement!? Why would anybody do that?’ shouted Yasohachi, leaning forward.

Ukikumo looked obviously displeased. He poured himself more rice wine and gulped it down.

'No point talking to me about it.’

'But…’

'Whether it’s to test a sword or for amusement, to a samurai, a townsperson’s life is as insignificant as a bug’s,’ said Ukikumo bitterly.

Come to think of it, Ukikumo had mentioned before that he hated samurai. Yasohachi felt like he had just caught a glimpse of part of the reason.

'But that isn’t the case for all samurai.’

Iori and Shintarou didn’t think of them as insects.

'I know that. But townspeople never commit crossroads killings. There’s a reason for that – ’

Though Yasohachi didn’t want to admit it, it was just as Ukikumo said.

Not all samurai were bad, but crossroads killings were the realm of the samurai. Townspeople would never kill samurai.

'Can’t we just live peacefully?’

'It’s because the world is peaceful.’

'Eh?’

'Crossroads killers are rampant because we aren’t at war.’

'What do you mean?’

'If there were a war, nobody would need to test their blades. They could amuse themselves in battle.’

Perhaps Ukikumo’s perspective was valid.

'Is that another truth?’

'Well, it is how it is. In any case, whether at peace or at war, it’s always the people who are sacrificed.’

'Is that why you hate samurai…’ said Yasohachi, but Ukikumo stopped him.

The atmosphere about Ukikumo had changed. There was tension in the air.

'What’s wrong?’

'I sense something bad.’

'Eh?’

'It might have got in already,’ said Ukikumo in irritation. He took his cane and stood up.

Iori ran over. She seemed to have noticed that something had changed as well.

'Did something happen?’

Ukikumo ignored Iori’s question and went to Shintarou’s room. He slid the door open in one motion.

The room was empty –

'When did he…’ said Iori in shock.

Yasohachi couldn’t believe it either. They had been watching Shintarou’s room. He would have had to open the door and walk through the corridor to leave.

Despite that, Shintarou had disappeared.

'Is there a secret passageway out of this room?’ asked Ukikumo.

Iori seemed to recall something. 'Ah!’

'What do you mean by secret passageway?’

'Samurai estates have several secret passageways in case of emergencies.’

Ukikumo pulled down the cloth covering his eyes and looked around the room. Finally, he seemed to sense something and opened the door to the closet.

At first, it looked like a regular closet, but in the corner, a tatami-sized space was actually a hidden door.

'I should have realised when you told me he disappeared from his room…’

Now that Ukikumo mentioned it, Iori had said that Shintarou went missing from his room.

Yasohachi had thought it was just a metaphor, but it seemed that hadn’t been the case.

'I will go look for him!’

Iori’s face was pale as she ran out of the room.

Yasohachi went after her.

Though they flew out of the gate, they stopped there.

He looked around, but Shintarou was nowhere to be seen. They had no idea where he had gone, so they had no way to look for him.

Just as Yasohachi was at a loss, a shriek – 'Guwaahh!’ – echoed through the street.

Yasohachi and Iori exchanged a glance and then ran towards the source of the voice.

Iori was faster than expected. Even though Yasohachi had started running first, Iori surpassed him in no time. Yasohachi had his hands full just trying to keep up with her.

They turned a couple of corners and had reached Yotsuya-ookido when Iori suddenly stopped.

Yasohachi panted as he looked up. He saw two people at the end of the street.

One had an oval face and a huge frame. It was Yamaguchi, the private pupil of Shingai-ryu.

Whether surprised or frightened, his eyes were wide and his mouth was gaping.

The other was a man in an undershirt wielding a sword –

'Brother!’ screamed Iori.

The man holding the sword slowly turned towards them. At the same time, the clouds covering the moon parted.

The reddish moonlight undoubtedly shone down on Shintarou –

He was clearly strange His eyes were bloodshot and his lips were twisted in anger.

'Brother… is that you?’ asked Iori in a trembling voice, like she couldn’t believe her eyes.

'Aagh…’

Shintarou groaned and raised his sword towards Iori.

– He can’t mean to kill Iori!?

Iori held up a wooden sword, but her hands were shaking. It probably wasn’t from fear. She was shaken by Shintarou’s strange behaviour.

Even Iori had no way of winning like this.

'Brother… please return to your senses,’ begged Iori with tears in her eyes, but her words didn’t seem to reach Shintarou’s ears. Shintarou waved his sword.

– Iori’s going to be killed if this continues.

'Please lend that to me.’

Yasohachi took the wooden sword from Iori and faced Shintarou with it. That said, Yasohachi had no training. He was in a terrible position.

Shintarou’s bloodshot eyes moved from Iori to Yasohachi.

Though Yasohachi had managed to get Shintarou to look away from Iori, he didn’t know what to do now. While he was thinking about this, Shintarou came rushing at him.

– He’s going to kill me!

The moment that thought crossed Yasohachi’s mind, a dark shadow quickly pushed Shintarou away.

Shintarou fell to the ground, dropped his sword and stopped moving.

'Don’t just jump in without thinking, you idiot.’

It was Ukikumo.

He glared at Yasohachi with two red eyes.

It seemed Ukikumo had saved him. Yasohachi had been so intent on saving Iori, but perhaps, just as Ukikumo had said, he had been reckless.

'Why… did this…’

Iori was in shock. Her knees buckled underneath her and she sat down.

Yasohachi didn’t know what to say to her. All he could do was look at Iori, who had crumpled to the ground –

-

4

-

'This is terrible – ’

Yasohachi looked down at Shintarou, who was sleeping in a futon.

Shintarou had collapsed, so they had taken him to the familiar clinic of Koishikawa Souten.

Koishikawa was examining Shintarou now. He was still in his undershirt since they had awoken him in the middle of the night.

'I think he’s just unconscious,’ said Koishikawa with a sigh after finishing his examination.

'Thank goodness…’ said Yasohachi in relief, but Iori, sitting at Shintarou’s side, still had a hard look on her face.

Even if Shintarou was fine physically, the incident hadn’t been solved.

'Please let him sleep like this for today. He will probably wake up as normal tomorrow,’ said Koishikawa as he stood up. Just as he did so, the door opened and Ukikumo peered in.

'Eek!’

Koishikawa’s face twitched.

Yasohachi understood how Koishikawa felt. The case which had acquainted Koishikawa with Yasohachi and Iori had not been a pleasant one.

Ukikumo had grasped one of his weaknesses then.

'Oi, quack doctor.’

Ukikumo put a hand on Koishikawa’s shoulder.

'Y-yes…’

He was so frightened it hurt to look at him.

'You didn’t give him any strange medicine, right?’

Under Ukikumo’s red-eyed glare, Koishikawa looked like he was going to cry.

Though it was incredibly mean-spirited to bring up that case now, it was partly Koishikawa’s fault for doing what he did, so Yasohachi couldn’t say anything.

'O-of course not… I haven’t done anything…’

Koishikawa shook his head furiously.

'Really? All of the crossroads killings so far have been close to your clinic. Don’t you think that’s strange?’

'Eh? I-I don’t know anything.’

Though it was probably because he was afraid of Ukikumo, the haltering nature of his speech made it seem like he was hiding something.

Iori was watching them with a suspicious expression on her face.

'Ukikumo-san, you should let him off,’ interrupted Yasohachi. He couldn’t help it when he saw how pitiful Koishikawa looked.

'Well, a coward like you wouldn’t have anything to do with crossroads killings.’

Ukikumo let go of Koishikawa, who ran out of the room.

'Did something happen?’ asked Iori, who seemed suspicious of Koishikawa’s flustered state.

Many things had happened, but they couldn’t discuss it. Especially not to Iori and Shintarou. Yasohachi would rather sew his mouth shut than speak.

What Koishikawa had done closely involved Iori and Shintarou.

’M-more importantly, what is going to happen to Shintarou-san?’

Yasohachi forcibly changed the topic.

Ukikumo had his cane on his shoulder as he sat down and sighed.

'From what I see, he isn’t possessed by a ghost – ’

'Then is that the end of it?’

'Idiot!’

Ukikumo poked him with his cane.

'Ouch!’

'He wasn’t possessed in the daytime today either. He was possessed at night.’

'Oh, I see…’

Now that Ukikumo mentioned it, that was right. They didn’t know when Shintarou might be possessed again.

'Why is my brother possessed? And why would he commit…’

Iori looked at Ukikumo pleadingly.

She was frantic in trying to save her brother. Yasohachi wanted to help her, but he could do nothing.

If only he could see ghosts like Ukikumo – the thought came to him, but he didn’t say it.

Ukikumo, who could see ghosts, had lived his life having to bear that weight. Saying that thought would be like denying everything Ukikumo had experienced.

'That’s the problem.’

Ukikumo put his cane on the floor and poured rice wine from his gourd into his cup.

Normally, he would gulp it down, but he just looked at his cup like he was thinking.

After a while, Ukikumo murmured, 'There’s something strange about this case.’

'Something strange?’

'I don’t understand the goal of the crossroads killings.’

'Is there a goal?’

'Of course.’

'But you said that crossroads killing were for testing a new blade or for amusement – ’

'Idiot. Both of those are goals, aren’t they?’

Now that Ukikumo mentioned it.

Even if they were selfish actions, from the view of the person committing the crossroads killings, that was the goal.

'Then is the goal not amusement this time?’

For somebody who had died and become a ghost, it was pointless to test a new sword. That would make the goal amusement.

After Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo made a click with his tongue in irritation.

'You don’t understand anything.’

'Why do you say that?’

'Ghosts are the spirits of people who are already dead.’

'Yes.’

Yasohachi had heard this explanation from Ukikumo countless times before. That was why he had said what he had.

'What amusement would a dead person get from killing somebody alive?’

'Maybe they hate the living because they’re dead?’ suggested Yasohachi.

Ukikumo smiled bitterly. 'If that were the case, we wouldn’t be able to stop the crossroads killing.’

'Ah!’

It was just as Ukikumo said.

Ukikumo’s method of exorcising spirits was different from the usual.

He didn’t chant sutras to expel spirits. He found the reason they were wandering and eradicated that reason so that the spirits would leave.

If the spirit committing crossroads killings was wandering because he hated everyone who was alive, Ukikumo would be unable to do anything.

'Could it not be to test their skill?’ said Iori in a heavy voice.

'What do you mean?’

'Though this is just a feeling, I think that ghost was a killed swordsman while alive. Perhaps he wants to keep testing his skill even after his death.’

'I see – ’

Yasohachi nodded in admiration. It was very like the daughter of a samurai family to think that way.

The first man murdered was Samon, an assistant instructor of Shingai-ryu. He probably was fairly skilled himself.

Though Yasohachi didn’t understand himself, if one were seeking to improve one’s skill, it would make sense to duel with a man like that.

'That’s possible, but something seems odd.’

Ukikumo narrowed his red eyes.

'What is it?’

Yasohachi didn’t know what was odd about it. Ukikumo gulped down his rice wine, sighed and then said, 'The man who was about to be killed by Shintarou earlier.’

'Ah,’ said Iori. It seemed she understood.

'That man is Yamaguchi, a private pupil of Shingai-ryu at the dojo of Taniya Samon-sama, the man who was killed first.’

Yasohachi clapped his hands together after hearing Iori’s explanation.

'It’s hard to think of it as a coincidence if they’re both from the same dojo.’

'That’s what bothers me. There might be a reason that these are the people being killed.’

Ukikumo smiled.

To Yasohachi, the smile looked terribly obscene –

-

5

-

'This is really terrible,’ said Yasohachi as he walked the sunlit road.

'That’s why I said I didn’t want to do this,’ said Ukikumo beside him with a click of his tongue.

He had his eyes covered with the usual red cloth and was using a cane to pretend to be blind.

Though Ukikumo said things like that, he always stuck his neck in because he couldn’t leave things along. That was one of his good points.

Of course, Yasohachi would never say that. If he did, Ukikumo would just go home in a perverse fit. That was how Ukikumo was.

'Will Shintarou-san be all right?’ asked Yasohachi. This had been bothering him.

Shintarou had woken up at Koishikawa Clinic this morning. They had asked him a number of things, but he had no memory of what had happened at all.

He had never been in terribly good health, so it had been assumed to be exhaustion.

'He should be fine. Told him to hole up in the storeroom,’ said Ukikumo with a snort.

'Holing up in a storeroom isn’t really fine, is it?’

'Idiot. If we let him loose, he might actually kill somebody this time,’ said Ukikumo in a lower voice.

He was right. They had managed to fix the situation last night, but that might not be the case next time. Somebody had been killed the night before that.

They would probably have to keep him in until they expelled the spirit of the crossroads killer.

'So where are we going?’

Yasohachi was following Ukikumo, but he hadn’t been told where they were going.

'You’ll find out when we get there,’ Ukikumo said curtly. He walked forward briskly.

When Ukikumo was like this, there was no point asking him anything. Yasohachi knew that from experience.

He silently followed Ukikumo.

They stopped when they reached an old dojo at a crossroads. Yasohachi knew what Ukikumo’s intentions were now.

He caught sight of a sign that read Shingai-ryu.

A large-framed man came out of the dojo. It was Yamaguchi – the man who had almost been killed last night.

'Hey, you – ’

Ukikumo called out to Yamaguchi.

'W-what is it?’ said the man in a weak voice that did not match his body.

'I want to ask you about the crossroads killing.’

The moment Ukikumo said that, Yamaguchi’s face grew pale. Perhaps he was recalling the events of last night.

'I-I know nothing.’

Yamaguchi tried to go back inside the dojo, but Ukikumo didn’t let him.

He blocked Yamaguchi off with his cane and glared at him with the eyes drawn on his blindfold. Even though they were just drawn on, there was an intimidating air to them. It was mysterious.

Yamaguchi gulped.

'Don’t play the fool. I can tell you know something.’

Ukikumo brought his face close to Yamaguchi’s ear.

'I-I really don’t know…’

'If you wish to discuss that, I will talk – ’

It was a woman’s voice.

Yasohachi looked and saw a woman standing there. She was elegant and beautiful with almond eyes.

'Who are you?’ asked Ukikumo.

'My name is Ume,’ said the woman.

From what Iori said, she was the younger sister of Samon, who had been killed by the crossroads killer. She was more beautiful than the story had suggested.

Oume led them into a room in the dojo.

Though Yasohachi had thought a dojo would be livelier, it was quiet and dark.

What is it you want to ask?’ said Oume politely.

Now that Yasohachi looked at her again, Oume looked pale and terribly tired. Her older brother had just died. It made sense.

'I said earlier. The crossroads killing,’ replied Ukikumo. He sat cross-legged and had his arms crossed.

'There is nothing I can say. I rushed out after hearing the commotion, but my brother was already…’

Oume shook her head and wiped tears from the corner of her eye with a finger.

It made Yasohachi think of Iori, who acted strong but was frantic inside. Iori was probably keeping her worries to herself too.

'Your brother, Samon. Anybody hold any grudges against him?’ Ukikumo asked mercilessly.

'What do you mean by that?’

'Exactly what I said. Did anybody hate him or alienate him?’

'Wasn’t this a random killing?’

'Maybe, but maybe not – I can’t say it’s a coincidence when two people from the same dojo were targeted.’

'Two people?’

Oume cocked her head to the side.

'You haven’t heard?’

'What are you talking about?’

At first Yasohachi thought that Oume might have been playing dumb, but it seemed she really didn’t know anything.

Why hadn’t Yamaguchi talked to Oume about last night? It probably wasn’t just that he hadn’t had the chance.

'If you haven’t heard, that’s fine.’

Yasohachi thought that Ukikumo would have pressed further, but he backed down easily.

'Is that fine?’ Yasohachi asked Ukikumo quietly, but Ukikumo didn’t respond. He put his pointed chin in his hand and smiled meaningfully.

What on earth is he thinking – Yasohachi didn’t understand Ukikumo at all.

'In any case, my brother wasn’t the sort of person somebody would hate. He has been looking after this dojo – after Shingai-ryu – ever since my father collapsed due to sickness a year ago.’

After saying that, Oume sniffled.

It probably wasn’t just Samon who had suffered. Oume must have gone through a lot herself, but she didn’t show any of it.

'You say he’s been looking after this dojo, but it doesn’t look that lively…’ said Ukikumo as he looked around the room.

It was extremely rude. Yasohachi wanted to say something, but Oume spoke before he could.

'It is as you say. We have had a sudden decrease in students since my father’s death.’

Oume clenched her fists tightly atop her lap.

'Looks that way,’ said Ukikumo, looking around the silent room.

'Shingai-ryu is a swordsmanship style created by my father in his own blood. For that to die out in just one generation… it is painful to think of.’

'You don’t practise it yourself?’

Ukikumo mimed a practice swing.

Oume laughed and shook her head.

'I’m a woman.’

Yasohachi felt something wrong with those words.

In the past, he might not have thought anything, but he couldn’t accept that now after having met Iori.

'There are some women who practise the sword as well.’

He couldn’t help but speak.

Oume’s face twisted. Her expression showed not sadness or pain but anger.

'That is just quibbling. Who on earth would attend a dojo with a woman as an instructor?’

Oume’s voice was harder than it had been before.

'That’s…’

Yasohachi was at a loss for words.

Practising the sword alone as Iori did and teaching at a dojo were different.

Just as Oume said, it was unlikely that anybody would attend a dojo that had a female instructor.

'What is going to happen to this dojo?’ said Ukikumo, changing the topic. Oume’s expression seemed to turn even harder.

'Though it hasn’t been decided yet, but it may be necessary to close it down.’

'That’s…’

Yasohachi couldn’t help but speak, feeling the weight of the crossroads killer’s actions.

'Perhaps it might have been necessary even if my brother were still alive…’

Just as Oume finished speaking, the door opened and a man came in.

He had a sword at his waist and wore the clothes of a samurai. He was probably in his mid-twenties. His eyes were incredibly sharp.

'Who could you be? What are you doing here?’ the man said in a sharp voice.

'Declare yourself before asking the same of others. Are you an idiot?’

Ukikumo wasn’t shaken by the man’s appearance at all. He glared at him with the eyes drawn on his blindfold.

For a moment, the man’s expression stiffened, perhaps shocked by Ukikumo’s strange appearance, but he immediately caught himself.

'I am a pupil of Shingai-ryu. My name is Tsujioka, and I am the retainer of the Endou family.’

When Tsujioka gave his name, Ukikumo smiled mockingly.

'Is something funny?’

'You were acting so arrogant that I thought you were from some big samurai family, but it’s just a puny family, and you’re only the retainer at that.’

'You bastard!’

Tsujioka placed his hand on the handle of his sword.

'Draw your sword if you can. I came here on behalf of the Aoyama family. If you kill me, you won’t get away with it.’

Ukikumo stood up and drew closer to Tsujioka.

The thing about the Aoyama family was a complete lie, but it seemed to work on Tsujioka. He just said, 'Urgh,’ and stopped speaking after that.

Though he was arrogant towards those below him, upon hearing the name of a stronger samurai family, he grew quiet.

There were many men like Tsujioka among the samurai.

'Sorry for bothering – ’

Ukikumo said just that and left.

Yasohachi didn’t want to be left behind in this suffocating atmosphere. He ran after Ukikumo.

'I will take vengeance – ’

Just as Yasohachi was about to leave, Tsujioka spat that out.

'Eh?’

'I will take vengeance against the man who killed Samon-dono. You do not need to do anything.’

Yasohachi had nothing to say in response to Tsujioka’s killing intent, so he left the room silently –

'That ended up feeling a bit strange,’ murmured Yasohachi upon leaving the dojo. Ukikumo, who had been waiting outside, snorted in laughter.

'How troublesome,’ Ukikumo said with a sigh. He used his cane and pretended to be a blind man walking.

'Do you think that Samon-san angered somebody and was killed for that?’ asked Yasohachi as he ran after Ukikumo.

'That’s what I thought at first… but I don’t think it’s a grudge.’

'Then Samon-san was just killed randomly.’

'You really are an idiot.’

Ukikumo pulled the cloth covering his eyes up and glared at Yasohachi with just his left eye.

When that red eye looked at him, it felt like he was being sucked in. It was strange.

'What’s idiotic about what I said?’

'Idiots are idiots.’

'I won’t understand unless you tell me properly.’

'More importantly, I have a request.’

'A request?’

Yasohachi cocked his head to the side. Ukikumo smiled. He seemed amused.

-

6

-

After Yasohachi bed Ukikumo farewell, he returned to his home temporarily and brought his art supplies to the Hagiwara household –

He went to the same room he had the night before and sat opposite Iori.

'How has Shintarou-san been since?’ Yasohachi asked before bringing up the topic at hand.

'There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with his body, but it seems he doesn’t know what is happening to him…’

'What is he doing now?’

Yasohachi regretted his question the moment he asked it. Iori looked down sadly.

'He is in the storeroom by himself. It is locked from outside, so I don’t think he will be leaving.’

Even if there was no helping it, Iori had to feel bad about locking her brother Shintarou in the storeroom.

Yasohachi had had to shut his older sister Osayo in when she was possessed too, so he understood Iori’s feelings painfully well.

When Yasohachi mentioned this, Iori shook her head slightly.

'My brother cheerfully said that he’d be able to focus on his reading. Of course, he was trying to appease me.’

Iori seemed pained as she averted her gaze.

'It’s fine. Things will work out. Let us do what we can.’

Though Yasohachi knew they were just platitudes, they were all he could say now.

Iori seemed to know that as well, so she said firmly, 'Yes, let’s do that.’

'Actually, Ukikumo-san requested something of me.’

'A request?’

'Yes. He asked me to draw the ghost’s portrait from your description, Iori-san.’

Yasohachi had only seen Shintarou possessed, so he had no way of drawing the ghost without Iori’s help.

Though Ukikumo could see ghosts too, he had left, saying he had better things to do.

Yasohachi felt like Ukikumo had been trying to help Yasohachi out in his own way, but it wasn’t the time to say anything about that.

'I see. I’m not confident, but I will do my best for my brother.’

Yasohachi was relieved by Iori’s immediate response. 'I’ll get ready then.’ He spread out his art supplies and prepared to paint.

Yasohachi was anxious himself since it was his first time doing something like this, but dwelling on that now would do nothing.

'Let us begin – ’

Once Yasohachi had finished his preparations, he looked at Iori once more.

'He was very thin. It was as if he was just skin and bones.’

It was probably the first time Iori had had a portrait drawn of someone based on her description. Her tone seemed rather anxious.

'Thin – ’

Yasohachi used a brush to draw the outline of a face based on Iori’s words. He exaggerated it too much and made him look like a cucumber.

'He wasn’t that thin,’ said Iori with a small smile.

It might have been the first time Yasohachi had seen her smile since the incident. If Iori would smile even for a moment, Yasohachi felt happy he had made a mistake.

'Of course.’

'Though he was thin, his face was not long.’

When Yasohachi heard the word thing, he thought long as well, but it seemed that wasn’t the case. He wanted something else to work from.

'Did he have any special characteristics?’

'Hm… He had a slightly square jaw.’

'Square…’

'Yes. Though he was thin, he was… He was angular.’

– I see.

The explanation just now helped Yasohachi imagine the man. Yasohachi used his brush on a new piece of paper.

'Like this?’

'Just as expected from you. That was how he looked.’

Iori’s eyes were sparkling.

Though Yasohachi felt elated by the praise, he kept himself calm. He couldn’t get ahead of himself.

'How about his nose?’

'It was pointy like a beak.’

'Did it stick out? Or was it more… droopy?’ asked Yasohachi while demonstrating with his hand.

'It was droopy.’

'I see…’

Yasohachi drew a couple of noses on a different piece of paper.

'This one is close,’ said Iori while pointing at one of them.

'This one then.’

'Yes. But the nostrils were a bit smaller…’

After Yasohachi drew the same nose with smaller nostrils, Iori exclaimed, 'That’s it!’

'What about his eyes?’ Yasohachi asked.

Iori held her breath. Her face went pale.

'They were bloodshot, but… There was something very frightening about them…’

Iori’s words suddenly became vague, so Yasohachi’s hands stopped, unable to draw.

'Frightening?’

'Yes. When I faced those eyes, I was frozen. I felt that I would be unable to win if I drew my sword.’

Iori’s well-formed eyebrows furrowed.

Yasohachi couldn’t believe it. Though Iori was a woman, she was very skilled with the sword. He had seen her defeat a samurai before.

That was why Yasohachi couldn’t believe it.

'Even you couldn’t beat him, Iori-san?’

'No, I couldn’t. I probably wouldn’t have been a match at all – ’

'Is that something you can tell before you cross swords?’

'In swordsmanship, it is important to be able to tell an opponent’s skill,’ said Iori, her jaw set.

If Iori was saying this so firmly, it probably was the case.

'He was that skilled then… which means that he might have been well-known while he was alive,’ said Yasohachi.

Iori nodded. 'A well-known samurai or an initiate of some style of swordsmanship.’

There was something that bothered Yasohachi about Iori’s words.

'I see…’

'But why would somebody so skilled commit a crossroads killing…’ said Iori, sounding pained.

'I don’t know. However, swordsmanship is the skill of killing, isn’t it?’

Yasohachi’s careless words made Iori’s expression freeze over.

Iori practised swordsmanship as well. Yasohachi had just called swordsmanship the skill of killing in front of her.

He had done it now – but it was too late.

An awkward silence continued.

'It is true that swordsmanship is a skill used to kill people,’ said Iori.

'Eh?’

'But it is also a skill used to keep people alive.’

'To keep people alive?’

'Sorry, I can’t explain properly now, but I don’t want you to think that everyone practising swordsmanship does so in order to improve their skill in killing.’

Iori’s words echoed in Yasohachi’s heart.

Yasohachi, who didn’t practise the sword, couldn’t just understand, but he knew that Iori, sitting in front of him, was not the sort of person who would kill someone because she wanted to.

'I apologise.’

Yasohachi bowed his head deeply.

'Why do you apologise?’

'I said something careless without knowing anything.’

'It’s fine. No matter what is said, it is true that there is somebody going around killing at random. Furthermore, one’s skill with the sword does not have anything to do with one’s character.’

'A skilled swordsman may not be a person with a strong sense of justice – is that what you mean to say?’

'Yes. That is another factor of swordsmanship – ’

It had become a deep conversation at some point. If this continued, they would never finish the portrait.

Iori seemed to realise that as well, as she smiled self-deprecatingly. 'Sorry for speaking of something so tedious. Let us swiftly finish this portrait.’

'Yes, let’s.’

Yasohachi nodded and began to paint once more.

At first, it had been difficult, but Yasohachi, the painter, and Iori, the explainer, grew accustomed to their roles as time passed and they managed to finish the portrait speedily.

It was imprudent of Yasohachi, but it had been truly fun for him to speak with Iori like this and paint.

If only it weren’t such an incident – the thought crossed Yasohachi’s mind, but if there hadn’t been an incident, he wouldn’t even have been able to speak to Iori like this.

That was what it meant to have a difference in class.

When Yasohachi thought that, he felt rather sad –

'Just as I expected, Yasohachi-san! The portrait looks just like him!’

When Yasohachi showed Iori the finished painting, Iori exclaimed in surprise. It was such extreme praise that Yasohachi felt embarrassed.

However, in contrast to that emotion, the finished painting was ghastly.

He looked like a thin dead man. Well, he was a ghost, so he was dead, but the eeriness wasn’t just from that.

It was probably the wide fishlike eyes that made Yasohachi feel that way.

Though he couldn’t express it well, Yasohachi felt something like thirst from those eyes –

-

7

-

'Yasohachi-san – ’

Yasohachi had brought the portrait he had finished with Iori to Marukuma when somebody called out to him.

He saw a man peer out from behind Marukuma’s curtain.

It was a man he knew.

'Hijikata-san.’

Hijikata was a medicine merchant who frequented Yasohachi’s father’s dry-goods store. He had introduced Ukikumo to Yasohachi when his older sister Osayo had been possessed by a ghost.

'Hello.’

Hijikata bowed with a friendly smile on his face.

He was tall with refined features. Though Hijikata was friendly, there was something mysterious about him.

He had a gentle smile, but his eyes always let out a sharp light.

This feeling had only strengthened ever since Yasohachi saw Hijikata easily defeat a sword-wielding wandering samurai.

'You are the daughter of the Hagiwara household. I’ve heard rumours for some time.’

Hijikata bowed politely towards Iori.

'You recognise me?’ said Iori with surprise and confusion.

'Yes. You have practised at the Shieikan[3] dojo in Ichigaya, have you not?’

'Yes.’

'I’m acquainted with Kondou,’ said Hijikata with a smile.

Yasohachi was surprised once again by how wide Hijikata’s social circle was.

'Is that so…’

'Kondou said that you had good muscles. That you might be a good match for Okita if you kept practising – ’

'Not at all. I could never be a match for Okita-san.’

When Iori looked down, Hijikata smiled, seeming amused.

'You’re an honest person.’

'Eh?’

'That’s what Kondou said. You are honestly practising the sword. You have no shady intentions, like desire for glory or the urge to defeat somebody.’

'I think that is what it means to practise the sword,’ replied Iori.

Hijikata narrowed his eyes, like he was looking at something in the distance.

'Everyone is that way at first, but in the end, their desire grows. They compare themselves to others. They want to test their skill. That is why crossroads killings are rampant. It is incredibly difficult to keep that pure beginner’s heart – ’

It was rare for Hijikata to speak so much. As such, those words sank deep in Yasohachi’s heart.

Iori opened her mouth to say something, but in the end, no words came out.

'Ah, I almost forgot.’

Hijikata had started to walk away, but he stopped soon afterwards.

'Forgot?’

'I was waiting for you, Yasohachi-san.’

'For me?’

'Yes. That man asked you to draw a portrait, did he not?’

'Ah, yes.’

Just as Hijikata said, he had been asked to draw the same portrait twice.

'Please show me.’

– Ah, so that’s why.

Hijikata was a merchant, so he knew many things and many people.

Ukikumo had used Hijikata often for information regarding cases. He probably intended to do the same this time.

'This is the portrait.’

Yasohachi gave one of the portraits to Hijikata.

'Oh, you are as talented as the rumours say,’ said Hijikata as he stared at the portrait.

It made Yasohachi feel embarrassed when Hijikata looked at the portrait so intently.

'Um…’

Yasohachi spoke up, but the door to the second floor of Marukuma opened and interrupted him. Ukikumo poked his head out, with a red cloth covering his eyes.

'What are you waiting around for? Get up here already – ’

'I’ll be there soon,’ said Yasohachi, slightly annoyed.

Hijikata laughed.

'Hasty as always. I will take my leave then – ah, yes. Please tell him that the man in the portrait is just as I imagined.’

After saying that, Hijikata walked away so quickly it was as if he had run.

Yasohachi and Iori went past Marukuma’s curtain and into the shop –

'Oh, Hachi. It’s been a while.’

The owner of Marukuma, Kumakichi, called out to him. Just as his name suggested, he was as large as a bear with grizzly hair, but he was a friendly and gentle person despite his appearance.

Yasohachi had known him since he was a child. Ukikumo liked the second floor of Marukuma, so it had become their regular spot for discussing cases.

'Iori-chan, you’re here too?’ Kumakichi said cheerfully.

Though Yasohachi wasn’t sure what to think of the owner of a drinking establishment calling the daughter of a samurai family in such a familiar way, Kumakichi was the sort of person you would allow that with.

'Hello,’ Iori said politely as she bowed her head.

'Ukikumo’s been waiting.’

Kumakichi pointed upstairs and then left after a customer called for him.

Yasohachi and Iori went up the stairs and opened the door to the room upstairs. Ukikumo was leaning against the wall as usual while sipping a cup of rice wine.

'You look carefree,’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo replied with a click of his tongue. 'Carefree? I’ve been busy in my own way,’ Ukikumo grumbled. He took the cloth off his eyes.

'It doesn’t look that way to me…’

'I got Toshizou to look into things for me.’

Doesn’t that mean you weren’t doing anything – though Yasohachi thought that, he stopped himself from saying it.

He could tell that he would just get an evasive reply.

'Hijikata-san said that the person in the picture was just as he imagined.’

After Yasohachi gave Hijikata’s message, Ukikumo murmured, 'So that really is the case.’ He smirked.

From that expression, it looked like he already knew who the ghost was.

'Please tell me – who is the ghost possessing my brother?’

Iori leant forward.

Ukikumo smiled bitterly as he said the name.

'Taniya Mataemon – ’

'Taniya – could it be…?’

'Yes. The father of the man who was first killed, Taniya Samon, and the man who began Shingai-ryu.’

Ukikumo nodded in satisfaction upon hearing Yasohachi’s words.

If what Ukikumo said was true, it was a real state of affairs.

If the man who killed Samon was Taniya Mataemon’s ghost, that would mean he had killed his son.

'Then this isn’t just a crossroads killing.’

Ukikumo smiled at Yasohachi’s words.

'I knew that from the beginning.’

There was power in Ukikumo’s eyes as he smiled mockingly.

Yasohachi wanted to say something, but it was true that Ukikumo had said from the beginning that this wasn’t just a crossroads killing.

'But… why did he kill his own son?’

'I don’t understand either.’

Iori expressed her agreement in response to Yasohachi’s question.

'Wouldn’t be having this much trouble if I knew,’ Ukikumo said carelessly. He gulped down the rice wine in his cup.

'Yes, but don’t you have any clues?’

If they had no leads to solve the case, Yasohachi didn’t know what they could do next.

Shintarou couldn’t stay inside the storeroom forever.

'Well, it isn’t as if I don’t have any.’

Ukikumo put his pointed chin in his hands.

'What is it?’

'Please tell us.’

Yasohachi and Iori both leaned forward.

Ukikumo sighed, seeming annoyed, but he began to speak.

'According to what Toshizou found out, the Shingai-ryu Taniya family had a pretty big debt.’

'Debt – ’

Yasohachi and Iori looked at each other.

'That daughter so that people stopped coming to the dojo after her father Taniya Mataemon died, but that wasn’t the truth.’

'It wasn’t?’

'The man named Taniya Mataemon had studied the sword earnestly. He just wanted to grow more skilful – he had never had any intention of teaching anyone.’

'Is that so?’

'Yeah. In the past, direct retainers of the shogun asked him to teach them, but he refused all of them.’

'Why?’

If he became an instructor, he would have been paid well. He would have become more famous too, and people would naturally come to his dojo.

'There are a lot of problems that come with that.’

'What problems?’

'You should ask the lady there about there.’

Ukikumo looked at Iori.

Though Iori looked surprised, she nodded and said, 'If one becomes an instructor, one would be paid well, but it would be necessary to go to practices and participate in banquets – one’s duties would increase dramatically.’

'Is that so…’

'Instructors must not just be skilled with the sword – they must be skilled with getting on in the world as well.’

It seemed it wasn’t fine just to wave a sword about. Just as Ukikumo said, a lot of problems came with it.

'Taniya Mataemon devoted himself to the sword. It seems he didn’t even teach his own son Samon properly.’

Come to think of it, Oume had said that even if her brother were alive, they might not have been able to continue with the dojo. Perhaps this was what she meant.

'So the dojo was just a dojo in name and was just Taniya Mataemon’s practise area?’ asked Iori.

Ukikumo nodded. 'And he had borrowed money from a rather troublesome place too.’

'But how is that related to the current case?’

Yasohachi didn’t understand.

'He borrowed money from Echizenya.’

'From Echizenya, of all places…’

Yasohachi knew of Echizenya too.

Echizenya was a loan shark in Ichigaya. The interest was higher than other places and collections were strict too. Echizenya was a loan shark so bad that you were as good as gone if you went there.

However, Echizenya still did well because there was no other place to borrow money from.

There were many places for honest loans, but there were requirements. In contrast, Echizenya lent out money with no requirements at all.

Those in trouble had no choice but to use Echizenya.

'It seemed Echizenya was threatening him into surrendering the dojo.’

'So Echizenya killed Samon-san for the loan?’ said Yasohachi.

'Idiot,’ Ukikumo said immediately. 'Wait until I’m finished. There was somebody who was killed after Samon, right?’

Iori nodded. 'Yes.’

She was referring to the man who had been killed the night before Iori came to consult them.

'That man was named Sakuzou and was an errand boy for Echizenya.’

'I feel even more confused now,’ Yasohachi said honestly.

It was too much for just a coincidence, but he didn’t know what it was supposed to mean.

'Excuse me – what should we do next?’ asked Iori with a frightened expression on her face.

Ukikumo raised his left eyebrow. His red eyes narrowed.

'Wait for the right time – ’

'Eh?’

'Did you not hear me? I’m saying, go home and sleep.’

That was just too irresponsible.

They couldn’t just leave the situation like this. They didn’t know when the next victim would appear.

Yasohachi was worried about Shintarou too.

Yasohachi expressed his thoughts, which made Ukikumo once more say, 'Idiot.’

'What is idiotic about this?’

'I didn’t say we’d do nothing.’

'But…’

'This case is really troublesome. We’ll need some tricks to expel the spirit.’

'Tricks?’

What did he mean by tricks – Yasohachi asked, but Ukikumo told him nothing.

-

8

-

The next day, Yasohachi went to the Shingai-ryu dojo again –

This time he was with Iori.

Oume wasn’t alone either – she was with the private pupil Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi was so silent that Yasohachi thought he might be mute. He kept looking down, which felt strange with his large frame.

'Thank you for your help the other day.’

'No, we weren’t able to do anything – ’

Iori looked away and clenched her fists tightly.

'What brings you here today?’

Oume’s almond eyes narrowed slightly.

There seemed to be suspicion in her eyes, but it made sense for her to feel that way.

Her older brother Samon had been killed, and people who weren’t from the magistrate’s office were sniffing about the incident.

Yasohachi was grateful that she would even talk to them.

'Actually, this crossroads killing may have been the work of a ghost,’ Yasohachi said seriously.

Yasohachi hadn’t come here because he wanted to. Ukikumo had told him exactly what to do, including what to say.

'A ghost?’

Oume’s eyes were wide in surprise.

'Yes, but that isn’t to say that a ghost actually committed the murder. The ghost possessed somebody and used that person to do it.’

After Yasohachi said that, Oume just sighed. It didn’t seem like she was satisfied with Yasohachi’s answer.

Yamaguchi, whose head was still lowered, looked up at Yasohachi.

'You might find it impossible to believe, but it is true. Proof of that is that the ghost possessed another person afterwards and tried to kill somebody else.’

'The ghost possessed another person?’ Oume cocked her head, looking like she still didn’t believe him.

Iori looked straight at Oume and said, 'My older brother.’

There was something like resolution in that voice.

'Your older brother?’

Iori’s earnestness made Oume’s face turn hard.

'Yes. My brother was possessed by a ghost and tried to kill somebody.’

Oume seemed unsure of what to say. She just murmured, 'I see…’

'Though he is fine in the day time, he becomes possessed at night and leaves the household. At this rate, he might actually kill somebody.’

Iori shook her head.

'Did you come here just to say that?’ Yamaguchi said in a weak and high-pitched voice that didn’t match his height.

Yamaguchi’s dark and wavering gaze made Yasohachi falter for a moment, but he had to keep going. The real topic was coming up.

Yasohachi cleared his voice. Then, he quietly said, 'Actually, that ghost – is Taniya Mataemon-san.’

Oume’s gaze was vacant, like she didn’t understand, but then her face twitched.

'That’s… It’s impossible.’

Her breath was a bit unsteady as she shook her head.

'I understand why you wouldn’t want to believe it, but this is the truth.’

'Then you are saying that my father killed my brother, Samon, and is killing other people too,’ said Oume in agitation.

Yasohachi understood how Oume felt. Nobody would want to believe that a parent would kill their child, but that was the only possibility.

'That is what I’m saying.’

'What are you earth are you saying? It’s true that my father and brother did not get along, but to kill him…’

'How did they not get along?’

'Please leave.’

Oume interrupted Yasohachi’s question.

'But…’

'I will not forgive you if you insult the dead any further. Please leave.’

All the blood seemed to have gone to Oume’s head. There was no saving the situation.

Though Yasohachi had said what he had, he felt that there was no helping Oume’s anger. Yasohachi bowed his head and left with Iori.

'Why did Ukikumo-san make you say such things?’ asked Iori after they stepped out.

Yasohachi didn’t understand either. It was obvious that words like that would anger whoever heard them, but –

'Ukikumo-san does not do things without reason. He must have some sort of goal.’

Yasohachi had been involved in many spiritual phenomena with Ukikumo.

Ukikumo’s way of exorcism was very different from others. He didn’t chant sutras or use talismans.

He found the reason a spirit was wandering and removed that reason to exorcise a spirit.

Things that didn’t seem to make sense at first fell into place at the end. Yasohachi felt like that would be the case this time as well.

'Perhaps…’ said Iori with a nod. Then, somebody called out to them.

'Hello?’ It was a unique voice, so Yasohachi knew who it was before even turning around.

'What is it?’

Yasohachi stopped in his tracks and Yamaguchi walked up to them.

'IS it true that Mataemon-sama’s ghost is wandering?’

Though Yamaguchi had his head turned down as usual, his gaze was unusually sharp.

'Yes.’

'Do you have proof?’

That was hard for Yasohachi to answer.

'I don’t know the details myself… but a well-known exorcise said that.’

'That exorcist is the one with the eyes on his red blindfold then.’

'Yes.’

'I see…’ muttered Yamaguchi. Then, he turned on his heels and left.

'That person…’ murmured Iori as she watched Yamaguchi leave.

Yasohachi waited for her to finish the sentence, but Iori said nothing else. She just stood there, silent.

-

9

-

'What’s the plan?’ Yasohachi asked Ukikumo, who was sitting next to him.

They were at a soba shop near Iori’s estate. Night had fallen and few people were about.

'Eat soba, of course,’ Ukikumo said matter-of-factly.

Yasohachi felt like he’d heard that line before. Ukikumo had to be doing this on purpose.

'That’s not what I mean. I’m saying if it’s OK that you’re just happily eating soba.’

'Don’t be so strict. Let me eat soba, at least,’ said Ukikumo, sounding annoyed. Then, he started slurping up the soba in front of him.

Though Yasohachi was exasperated, the bowl in front of him enticed him into joining Ukikumo.

'It’s about time – ’

After Ukikumo finished the soba, he murmured that and put the bowl down. He started walking towards the Hagiwara estate.

– He just does whatever he wants.

Yasohachi hurriedly bolted down his soba, thanked the owner and ran after Ukikumo.

He caught up to Ukikumo at the Hagiwara’s gate.

'Y'know…’

Yasohachi began to speak just as Iori burst out of the estate.

Her face was pale and there were tears in her eyes.

'Iori-san, what’s the matter?’

'My brother! He’s not in the storeroom!’

Iori’s voice was close to a scream.

'What do you mean, he’s not in the storeroom?’

Yasohachi sounded as panicked as Iori.

'When I brought a tray of food to the storeroom, the door was unlocked. I looked inside, but my brother was already…’

Iori stopped talking.

The storeroom had been locked from outside. How on earth did he get out? Yasohachi didn’t know, but it wasn’t the time to worry about that.

At this rate, Shintarou might kill somebody.

'Ukikumo-san! Let’s go look for him immediately!’

In complete contrast to Yasohachi’s urgency, Ukikumo just yawned.

'Don’t make so much noise.’

'But…’

'Shintarou’s right there.’

Ukikumo pointed at the end of the street.

His finger pointed at a man in an undershirt dragging a sword behind him.

'Brother1’

Iori was about to run over, but Ukikumo stopped her.

'The trick is still in preparation.’

'What do you mean?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo pulled the red cloth covering his eyes and smiled.

It was obvious he was planning something that was no good.

Yasohachi wanted to ask what it was, but before he could, Ukikumo muttered, 'Here – ’

– What was here?’

Yasohachi followed Ukikumo’s gaze. A man in samurai attire had come out from the shadow of the willow trees.

There was a cloth covering his mouth and nose so they couldn’t see his face.

The man had a hand on the sword at his waist and carefully followed Shintarou.

'Who’s that?’

'A mouse that has fallen into a trap – ’

Ukikumo responded to Yasohachi’s question and started following the two men after a pause.

– What on earth is he trying to do?

Yasohachi didn’t understand. He and Iori exchanged a glance.

Iori seemed resolved. She nodded and then went after Ukikumo. Yasohachi had to do the same.

Soon, Shintarou reached the Shingai-ryu dojo. He stopped.

'Finally – ’ muttered Ukikumo. He stopped as well.

Yasohachi and Iori also stopped. What on earth are you trying to do – Yasohachi wanted to ask, but then the man behind Shintarou unsheathed his sword. The blade glittered in the moonlight.

'Ah!’

Yasohachi was about to yell, but Ukikumo covered his mouth. Iori had tried to run up, but Ukikumo stopped her too.

Meanwhile, the man with the unsheathed sword attacked Shintarou from behind.

– He’s going to be killed.

The moment Yasohachi thought that, Shintarou moved so quickly it was impossible to see him and evaded the man’s attack.

The man lost his balance after his swing.

Shintarou didn’t let the chance escape. He wielded his own sword.

'Toshi! Don’t kill him!’ shouted Ukikumo.

In response, Shintarou stopped for a moment, but then he brought his blade down.

There was the sound of metal hitting metal. The sword of the man who had his face covered split in two.

It seemed the back of the blade had been hit.

The man with the broken sword tried to crawl away.

Shintarou didn’t let him. He grabbed the man by the collar and thrust him to the ground.

'Is this all right?’ said Shintarou, turning their way. No, it wasn’t Shintarou.

'Hijikata-san – ’

'Yup. That’s idiot Toshizou,’ said Ukikumo with a sigh. Then, he walked up to Hijikata.

Yasohachi and Iori exchanged a glance before following Ukikumo.

It was obvious up close that the man was Hijikata Toshizou, the medicine merchant. The man collapsed at his feet seemed afraid.

'What on earth is happening?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo’s smile was almost lewd. 'It’s simple. I asked Toshi to pretend to be Shintarou inside the storeroom.’

'Pretend to be? Then where is the real Shintarou?’

'Somewhere else,’ Ukikumo said matter-of-factly, but Yasohachi didn’t understand.

'Why did you do this?’

'You’ll understand when you see his face – ’

Ukikumo pulled off the cloth covering the man’s face.

The man covered his face with his hands, but it was too late. He was Tsujioka, the pupil from Shingai-ryu.

Tsujioka had thought probably attacked Hijikata thinking he was Shintarou, but Yasohachi still didn’t understand.

'Why was Tsujioka-san trying to kill Shintarou?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo smirked.

'We’re going to have him answer that now, in detail.’

After Ukikumo said that, Tsujioka tried to crawl away, but Ukikumo stopped him.

He stepped on Tsujioka’s back and looked down at him scornfully.

'Don’t think you can escape. You’ve still got something to tell us.’

The smile on Ukikumo’s lips seemed bewitching to Yasohachi.

-

10

-

Ukikumo and Hijikata bound Tsujioka and dragged him into the Shingai-ryu dojo.

Yasohachi was confused, but he followed them with Iori.

Ukikumo kicked Tsujioka down to the wooden floor of the training room and sat down.

'Is it all right for us to just come in without permission?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo snorted. 'Just come in without permission? We’ve been watched the whole time.’

After Ukikumo said that, the door opened to reveal Oume and Yamaguchi with candles.

Yasohachi looked at Iori unconsciously.

'What on earth do you require at this time of night?’ Oume asked in a refined voice.

'The guy who killed your brother, Samon – thought I’d let you know.’

Ukikumo turned the eyes on his blindfold towards Oume and Yamaguchi.

'Could it be that my brother was killed by Tsujioka-sama?’ asked Oume in shock.

'N-no! I would never do that! Please believe me!’ shouted Tsujioka. He had lost his composure.

'Shut up a bit.’

Ukikumo poked Tsujioka’s stomach with his cane.

Tsujioka let out a groan after the hit and curled up on the ground.

'Isn’t that a bit violent?’

Oume’s reproach meant nothing to Ukikumo, who just poured some rice wine into his cup.

'I need to make something clear before I say who killed Samon,’ said Ukikumo after gulping down his cup.

'What is it?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo smirked. 'Taniya Mataemon, the teacher of Shingai-ryu, is said to have died of an illness, but that isn’t the truth.’

'It isn’t?’

Oume’s brows furrowed.

'It’s not. Taniya Mataemon was poisoned – ’

Ukikumo’s words brought an air of tension to the room.

Oume was so surprised that she just said 'Poison?’ in a hoarse voice and staggered back.

'Yes.’

'How do you know?’

'The doctor who looked at Mataemon’s body, Koishikawa, said that. There was no proof, but from the way he died, it could be poison.’

'Please don’t make false accusations. Why would my father be poisoned?’ asked Oume.

Ukikumo stood up slowly. 'Samon had a loan from Echizenya.’

'My brother was in debt?’

'Yup. Spent all his money on women in the red light district.’

'Eh?’

'Samon was under pressure to return the loan. He asked for money from Mataemon, but Mataemon refused and said he would disown him. Then…’

'Please wait! Are you saying that my brother poisoned my father?’ said Oume in a shrill voice.

Yasohachi understood why she would feel that way. Nobody would want to think that a child would kill their parent.

'Not exactly…’ Ukikumo murmured. He put his chin in his hand.

'No?’

Oume was completely confused.

Yasohachi felt confused too. He had his hands full trying to understand the situation.

'Samon didn’t do it by himself. Somebody suggested it to him. Right, Tsujioka?’

Ukikumo’s cloth eyes looked at Tsujioka on the floor.

'W-what are you saying… I didn’t do…’ said Tsujioka, sounding pained.

'It’s already been investigated. No point playing dumb. You borrowed money from Echizenya too, right?’ pressed Ukikumo.

Tsujioka let out an 'eek’.

'Samon and Tsujioka met in the red light district. Both of them had their hands tied with their debts. That’s when they plotted to kill Mataemon.’

'Why would they do that?’ asked Yasohachi without thinking.

Poisoning Mataemon wouldn’t solve their debt. Ukikumo seemed to have guessed what Yasohachi was thinking and snorted.

'If Mataemon died, the dojo – the land and Shingai-ryu – would all become Samon’s.’

'Ah!’

Now that Ukikumo mentioned it, that was exactly right.

'In short, my brother conspired with this person and killed my father for money – is that what you want to say?’

Oume’s tone was terribly hard.

'Yeah. Another man helped too. The errand boy from Echizenya. They were planning on selling everything at a good time after Mataemon died.’

'Lies! Those are all lies!’ screamed Tsujioka with a frantic expression on his face.

'Shut up!’ yelled Ukikumo.

'You shut up!’

'Don’t struggle now. I said this was already investigated, didn’t I?’

'Eh?’

'You know the medicine vendor named Miyoshi, right?’

Hijikata, who had been silent until now, sidled right up to Tsujioka.

'I-I don’t…’

'There’s no point playing the fool. I heard it from Miyoshi himself. He said that he sold a poison with the root of aconite,’ Hijikata murmured into Tsujioka’s ear.

'I don’t know anything! I don’t know anything! I don’t know anything!’ shouted Tsujioka, shaking his head.

'Give it up already!’

Ukikumo slammed his cane against the floor. He undid the red cloth covering his eyes and glared at Tsujioka with his deep red eyes.

'W-what!? What’s with your eyes!? Y-y-you monster!’ shrieked Tsujioka.

Ukikumo smiled at him scornfully, grabbed his topknot, and pulled his face close.

'Shut up. These eyes aren’t just red. They can see into the deepest parts of a man’s heart. There’s no point trying to run.’

The thing about seeing into men’s hearts was a lie. Ukikumo could only see ghosts. However, Tsujioka had no way of knowing that. He was at a loss for words under Ukikumo’s pressure.

'I see. Tsujioka-san attacked Shintarou-san because he thought his evil deeds would come to light,’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo responded, 'That’s it.’

Tsujioka had probably been hiding in the dojo somewhere and listening to their conversation.

Mataemon had realised that he wasn’t sick but poisoned. Tsujioka wouldn’t have been able to relax knowing that his ghost was wandering.

The ghost might reveal that Tsujioka had poisoned him.

Afraid of that, he tried to kill Shintarou, who was possessed by Mataemon’s ghost.

'Now, let’s get back to the story – ’

Ukikumo thrust Tsujioka away and turned his red eyes towards Oume and Yamaguchi.

'Samon had planned to sell this dojo, but he was killed before he could. Who killed him then?’

Ukikumo slammed his cane against the floor.

Even Yasohachi understood what had happened now.

'Tsujioka-san killed Samon-san, thinking he could keep all the money to himself.’

No, not just Samon. There was another conspirator – he killed Sakuzou from Echizenya too.

'Idiot.’

Ukikumo put a stop to Yasohachi’s thoughts.

'What’s idiotic about that?’

'You’ve left out the most important point.’

'The most important point?’

'Shintarou’s possessed by Mataemon.’

Come to think of it.

Why was Mataemon’s ghost still wandering after death? That wasn’t all. He had wandered the streets at night with a sword and turned his sword on Yamaguchi too.

'Why is Mataemon-san’s ghost wondering?’

'You can ask him yourself – ’

Ukikumo tapped the ground twice with his cane. At that sign, the door slid open. Shintarou stood there.

His expression was empty – it felt like his heart wasn’t there.

Koishikawa the doctor stood beside Shintarou.

Ukikumo had said Shintarou was elsewhere. It seemed that place was Koishikawa’s clinic.

'Brother!’

Iori called out, but there was no response.

'Is he still possessed by Mataemon-san’s ghost?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo nodded. 'This man – Shintarou – has Mataemon’s ghost inside him. He was wandering the streets at night and trying to do something. You should know what that was, right?’

Ukikumo looked at Yamaguchi.

'What on earth are you talking about?’ said Yamaguchi in a shrill voice.

'Shintarou – no, Mataemon’s ghost – didn’t he say something when he showed up in front of you?’

'No… Nothing…’

Yamaguchi shook his head.

'I see. Looks like Mataemon asked the wrong guy,’ said Ukikumo with a bitter smile.

'Please wait a moment. What on earth are you talking about?’

Yasohachi spoke up, unable to hold it in.

Shintarou, possessed by Mataemon’s ghost – hadn’t he tried to kill Yamaguchi? That was why they had suspected that Shintarou was committing crossroads killings under possession.

After Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo snorted. 'No. Mataemon didn’t kill Samon or Sakuzou. A living person did. Mataemon was trying to stop that.’

'Trying to stop that?’

'Yup. That was why he was wandering the night streets with a sword. Think back. Mataemon didn’t try to kill Yamaguchi then, right?’

At Ukikumo’s words, Yasohachi thought back on the event.

Mataemon had brought his sword down then.

They had just been so sure that Shintarou was killing while possessed by a ghost that they had ended up thinking the wrong thing.

However, Yasohachi was still confused.

'Who on earth was Mataemon-san trying to protect?’

'You don’t know?’ asked Ukikumo.

'I don’t know,’ said Yasohachi, but he really did.

There was only one person it could be in this situation. That was why Mataemon had asked Yamaguchi.

'The person who killed Samon and Sakuzou was you – Oume.’

Ukikumo declared the name.

Iori gulped. Tsujioka looked shocked by the name as well.

Yamaguchi bit his lower lip and looked down, which seemed to shrink his whole body.

Then, Oume – just after lifting her head to give Ukikumo a hateful glare, she ran out the door of the training room.

'Ah!’

Yasohachi thought Ukikumo would run after her, but he just waited with his cane on his shoulder.

'I’ll never hand this over – ’

Oume came back in with a growl.

She had a sword in her hand.

Oume held her sword up with the posture of a master. It wasn’t something you could learn in one or two days. It was beautiful posture built up from continuous practice.

'What on earth…’ said Yasohachi, feeling the weight of the pressure emanating from Oume.

'Oume-san wanted to protect this dojo and Shingai-ryu, which her father had created with his sweat and blood – ’

Ukikumo’s words made Yasohachi’s chest feel tight.

Yasohachi didn’t understand swordsmanship at all, but he understood how Oume felt.

Oume had seen her father create Shingai-ryu firsthand.

She had probably practised swordsmanship herself to chase after that back. That had been Oume’s way of life.

It must have been more important to Oume than anything else.

But then somebody had stolen that away for greed. Even if that was her brother, related by blood, Oume hadn’t been able to forgive him.

'I – will be your opponent.’

Iori said that and walked in front of Oume with her wooden sword.’

'Iori, you can’t.’

'Please step aside. I will accept Oume-san’s feelings.’

Iori held up her sword as well and faced Oume.

The air about them was heavy. Yasohachi couldn’t approach, but if this continued, Iori could be killed.

'Iori-san…’

Yasohachi tried to step between them, but Ukikumo thrust him away.

'Let her do it.’

'But…’

Yasohachi’s voice was interrupted by a yell of 'Yah!’.

Oume had brought her sword down with incredibly force.

Yasohachi thought Iori would draw back, but she took a big step forward instead and thrust at Oume’s throat.

Though it was just by a slight difference, Iori’s thrust was faster.

Oume fell down to the floor, sword still in hand. She stopped moving.

Yasohachi could only watch in shock.

'Mataemon. Is this enough?’ murmured Ukikumo after a silence.

As if to respond to that, Shintarou lost consciousness and collapsed to the floor.

'Brother!’

Iori ran to her brother immediately.

'It’s fine. Mataemon’s gone,’ Ukikumo murmured.

'Is it over now?’

Ukikumo didn’t respond to Yasohachi. He walked over to Oume.

'You’re listening, right? This is a message from your father, Mataemon – ’

Oume had a hand on her neck as she stood up unsteadily.

She held her sword up again and tried to slice at Ukikumo, but Ukikumo didn’t pay that any attention. He brought his face close to Oume’s ear.

'I poured my blood and tears into refining the art of the sword, but because of that, I sacrificed you and your brother.’

'Wha – ’

'Even though you were what was truly important to me, I had forgotten.’

’…’

'Sorry – ’

The sword fell from Oume’s hand –

Oume collapsed to the floor and started sobbing like a newborn.

Yasohachi could only watch her silently.

-

epilogue

-

'Thank goodness,’ said Yasohachi.

Iori had come to tell him that Shintarou had regained consciousness.

They were at the shrine where Ukikumo lived –

'Yes. It is all thanks to you two.’

Iori bowed her head formally.

'No, no. I didn’t do anything.’

'You really didn’t. You’re no better than dead weight,’ Ukikumo mocked.

Ukikumo sat with his back against the wall and was staring at the rice wine in his cup emotionlessly.

'I don’t deny that. It’s the truth,’ Yasohachi said firmly.

'Don’t go putting on airs,’ said Ukikumo with a frown.

'That isn’t true. Yasohachi-san, you drew the portrait,’ said Iori while shaking her head.

It was true that he had drawn Mataemon’s portrait, but he didn’t think it had been that useful.

'Er… There is one thing I would like to ask.’

At that point, Iori looked at Ukikumo.

However, Ukikumo didn’t response. He just stared at his rice wine vacantly. Yasohachi spoke in his stead. 7What is it?’

'What will happen to Oume-san and Shingai-ryu?’ said Iori, looking worried.

'Oume – execution, probably,’ Ukikumo said quietly.

Yasohachi had known it, but hearing it aloud made his heart feel heavy.

It looked like Iori felt the same way. Her fists were clenched tightly on her lap, and she was biting her lip.

'Then the dojo and Shingai-ryu will both come to an end,’ said Yasohachi.

Oume had killed Samon and Sakuzou to protect Shingai-ryu and the dojo, but as a result, Shingai-ryu would end. That said, even if Oume had done nothing, Shingai-ryu would still have come to that fate.

In any case, it was somewhat sad that Shingai-ryu would be over.

'The dojo is finished, but – Mataemon’s swordsmanship will probably keep living on,’ said Ukikumo.

'What do you mean?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo kept his eyes on his cup as he smiled.

'Mataemon, possessing Shintarou, went to meet Yamaguchi – why do you think he did that?’

Yasohachi’s question was responded to with another question.

Ukikumo had said the answer before.

'He asked him to stop Oume-san, didn’t he?’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo laughed. 'That’s one reason.’

'Was there another?’

'Mataemon left it to him.’

'By it, do you mean Shingai-ryu?’

'The name doesn’t matter. Mataemon hadn’t been able to achieve the goal he wanted, but he chose Yamaguchi, thinking that he would be able to.’

Though Yasohachi understood what Ukikumo meant, it didn’t fit right to him. There was a simple reason.

'Yamaguchi-san didn’t look that strong to me.’

'You never look at anything at all, do you?’

Ukikumo’s red eyes glared at Yasohachi.

Even if Ukikumo looked at him that way, Yasohachi didn’t understand what he didn’t understand.

'Yamaguchi looks like that, but he’s strong. His name will probably get around,’ Ukikumo said confidently.

Iori nodded in agreement.

Yasohachi thought about Yamaguchi again. Though he had a big frame, he didn’t seem like anything special.

– Is he really that strong?

No matter how Yasohachi thought, he couldn’t come up with an answer.

'Hachi. Didn’t paint anything this time?’ asked Ukikumo after finishing his cup.

'Ah, actually, I have something I painted last night.’

Yasohachi took out the painting he had brought and unrolled it on the floor. Iori and Ukikumo leant forward to look.

Mataemon was painted there. He had a gentle smile, instead of the thirsty eyes from the portrait.

'If Mataemon-dono had been about to smile like he is in your painting, maybe nobody would have died,’ Iori murmured.

'That is what it means to choose a path,’ said Ukikumo.

Maybe that was true. Mataemon had chosen the path of the sword and poured his blood into it, only to forget what was truly important.

If he had been able to think of his children first and foremost, just as he had said in his last words, maybe he would not have met such an unfortunate end.

However, that could be the case with anything, not just the sword.

Was Yasohachi himself sacrificing those around him while aiming to be a painter? What as the point of trying so hard to achieve a goal?

Various questions flooded Yasohachi’s heart, but all he could do was accept them, unable to come up with an answer.

-

[1] The black ships in question refer to ships that came from foreign countries after Japan ended its isolation.

[2] Literally tsujigiri (辻斬り) this refers to the act (or the person who does the act) of testing a new sword on a human opponent.

[3] The Shinsengumi trained here in the Tennenrishin-ryu style.