The stranger in the corner had been watching Hachi for several hours now. Every time he turned his back, he could feel his eyes boring into him. He couldn’t see the man’s face beneath the cowl, but perhaps he didn’t need to. Hachi was familiar with the type of wretches who stumbled into this ill-reputed establishment.
Deep in the shadows of Ishibei-koji Alley, a path of pulsating, red lanterns lured the most unfortunate denizens to its threshold. It was disguised as a sake shop, but it operated as a gambling den for criminal patrons. Only the most desperate and deplorable knew the way, and Hachi was surrounded by at least three dozen of them now.
To his left and his right, gamblers were sitting on sake barrels or tatami mats while they indulged in meager pleasures. With a drink in one hand and dice in the other, they numbed themselves into believing they were owed a temporary scrap of happiness. Hachi knew the process better than any of these so-called degenerates. Nevertheless, it felt like a lifetime ago since he drowned his sorrows in the equivalent of poison.
The sake was past its prime and smelled like a wet hound, but beneath its tongue-curling taste, it offered him a glimmer of solace. Wiping the spittle from his chin, he pushed his cup in the direction of his host. Again. Again. And again. Toxin was the only remedy for escaping his blood-soaked past.
He glanced over his shoulder and, just as he thought, the hooded figure was still observing him. He was dressed in monks’ robes and sitting on a barrel in the corner of the den. He was content to be without a single vice, as if he was above their hedonist rituals. Hachi wondered if he was an outcast or one of the plague’s many disfigured victims. Maybe there was something more sinister lurking under those soiled rags.
Hachi lifted the cup to his lips as he pretended not to notice him. He was aware of the rumors about Taira spies and sympathizers roaming the city. Supposedly, they were eliminating Minamoto soldiers in their homes and taking their loved ones hostage. He would make a tempting target for elite assassins--and probably the least experienced and the most reckless. After all, he was well-known on and off the battlefield for his prowess.
He took comfort in the fact that most of these patrons ignored him. They were content to wager their month’s earnings on a game of sugoroku or gnaw at cooked meat on skewers.
As he drank his warmed sake, he caught the conversation of the peasants seated behind him. He listened as dice exchanged hands and their voices lowered to whispers.
“Did you hear about the cache of weapons in the Lower Wards? They say it was smuggled in through the Kamo River.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve said all night. It’s probably just Izumi spreading his stories again.”
“Not true. I was there when a group of imperial guards showed up outside Takada’s storehouse. When they emerged, they were hauling out enough blades and bows for a small uprising.”
“Takada… There was always something off about that one. Just a few days ago, I found him skulking outside my house in the dead of night, frightened out of his wits. He was ranting about samurai who could walk through walls.”
“Sounds like a guilty conscience to me. He knew the imperial guards would be coming for him. They’ll find his corpse curled up in the alleys like the dirty earth spider he is.”
Hachi was so engrossed in their tale that he didn’t notice a hunched figure settle down next to him. Finally, he glanced to the side, saw the hooded stranger, and dropped his cup. It clattered noisily across the top of a barrel as he lunged forward to save it.
The man from the corner was sitting next to him. Voiceless, faceless, and unmoving. He was a silhouette of cloth, one who blended in seamlessly with the other patrons. If this was an elaborately laid trap, Hachi knew his life was nearing its end. With as little movement as possible, he reached for the dagger concealed at his waist. The din of gambling patrons faded from his ears. He could barely smell the pungent aroma of sake swirling around him. He was focused on nothing else except the distance between him and the stranger.
As soon as his fingers brushed against the knife, a voice met his ears.
“Strange times, is it not?”
Hachi was too startled to reply. He was prepared for a wet stab in the ribs or a bottle smashed over his skull but certainly not a question. When he didn’t reply, the man of rags let out a raspy laugh. He leaned close enough that Hachi could smell the foulness on his breath, like the inside of an incense pot.
“What brings you here? Are you trying to escape your wife? Or children perhaps?”
Hachi muttered something under his breath, most likely a slew of curses. An astute man would realize that Hachi was actually reciting a prayer. He was praying to any gods who would listen, asking to be left alone, or, better yet, alive.
The stranger released sharp hisses of laughter between his teeth as he pulled away. “No, you strike me as the lonely type. After all, why else would you be here?”
“I came here to drink in peace,” Hachi grumbled.
“There’s no shame in admitting when you’re alone. After all, that’s how we enter this world and that’s how we leave it.”
In the awkward silence that followed, the stranger grumbled and twisted away.
Hachi hoped that was the end of their morbid conversation. He required a few more hours of this sake and he could curl up in the corner and forget about the world outside. He needed one dreamless night. Just one night without visions of Toshiro’s war-torn body. As the cup of sake began to shake in his unsteady hand, the stranger’s voice echoed in his ear again.
“Isn’t anyone looking for you?” Hachi’s knuckles whitened around the handle of his dagger. “Isn’t there someone out there who needs you?”
“No one needs me.”
“Spoken like a true outcast. Everyone has someone, even the least of us… especially the least of us.”
Hachi grunted in vague disagreement. Nothing would have made him happier than drinking his misery in solitude.
“What is your name?” the stranger rasped.
A mocking smile curled Hachi’s lips. “Let’s not pretend. You know who I am, otherwise, you wouldn’t have approached me.”
“Ha, true enough. You have a certain reputation for this sort of thing.” The cloaked man rapped his knuckles against the barrel he was sitting on.
“Better a drink than a sword in my hand. At least that way, I can’t hurt anyone.”
“Why not a drink and a sword? That sounds like the Hachi I’ve heard of.” The stranger’s laughter reverberated over the dice rolling across the floor and the cups clinking together. Instead of replying to his taunt, Hachi reflected on a life stitched together from one too many battles. He reveled in the thrill of swords clashing and blood flowing down his face, but did he ever once pause to ask what he was fighting for?
Thirty-three duels. Fourteen battlefields. Hundreds of lives irreparably changed. Was this worth celebrating or was it worth mourning?
“I’m not that kind of man anymore,” Hachi said. “At least, I don’t want to be. I can’t allow myself to hurt anyone else. Especially not the people closest to me.”
“Perhaps there is no sparing our loved ones.”
Hachi pondered his words, wondering if there was a confession hidden somewhere in them.
“Who have you hurt?”
Cold silence greeted him. Beneath his cowl, the stranger seemed to stare into the distance, perhaps revisiting a sordid past of his own.
Hachi released a sigh that had been gathering in his chest. “I’ve wronged many people. More than I can ever count. I used to wonder why I survived when so many others died. I always thought the gods were protecting me. Now I wonder if they wanted me to suffer.”
“Perhaps they did,” the stranger said, surprising him. “Maybe they abandoned you. They moved on to less damaged souls worth saving… or maybe there is a more cunning force at work here. Perhaps you wanted yourself to suffer.”
Hachi didn’t know which one held a grain of truth. He could accept being forsaken by the gods, but he was terrified by the idea that he might hate himself. Could it be possible that he hated himself all this time for Toshiro’s death? Did the act of seeing Old Man Buranchi thrust these ugly emotions to the surface?
“You said something earlier that piqued my interest. You claim that you’re not that kind of man anymore. Tell me something. Who are you now?”
“It’s not a question of who I am. It’s a matter of who I want to be,” Hachi replied.
“And who would that be? A man who drinks less than three jugs of piss water sake?”
Hachi laughed in spite of himself. He relaxed his grip on the knife, no longer afraid of the stranger.
“I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t run away from his mistakes. Someone who doesn’t mask his pain under laughter. I don’t want to be known as a criminal in forty-two provinces. Just this once, I’d like to be known for something good I’ve done. But my demons keep getting in the way.”
A throaty voice rose from behind the stranger’s cowl, a primordial and earthy sound like embers popping in a fire.
“No one ever truly knows the demons we keep.”
Hachi pondered those words as he stared into the bottom of his empty cup.
“What do you do with those demons?” he asked softly. The hairs on his arms stood up straight as the stranger’s voice crackled with a sudden fierce energy.
“You wrestle back your control from them. Even if you have to tear it out of their greedy, screaming jaws. You never give in. You never relent. You take back your soul and who you always were.”
The man of rags chuckled.
“Something more. I can’t tell you what that is because it’s different for every person. Only you know the truth in your heart. May you find the man you truly wish to be.”
Hachi lowered his head, and before he knew it, he was closing his eyes to keep his tears from escaping. He knew the kind of man he wanted to be. He wished to be the kind who wasn’t losing himself in a bottle. Someone who wasn’t wracked with guilt and disappointing the people who mattered the most to him.
“These demons define us,” the hooded figure said, interrupting his thoughts. “To suggest anything else is a lie. However, I believe we are also defined by the friends we keep. And despite your claims, I don’t think you’re truly alone. I’m sure there is someone out there who needs you. Perhaps someone who is hurting just as much as you.”
Hachi thought of Mikoto and Tomoe, mostly the expressions on their faces when he fled. He could see how much they wanted to help him, but he stubbornly refused. Tears rushed to his eyes as he thought about Shindara most of all. Somewhere in the midst of this rotting city, he was haunted by the massacre of Namida. He carried the souls of every man, woman, and child who perished, much like wounds that would never completely heal. Yet, the biggest scar of all was the Obsidian Blade.
Shindara would have one less friend by his side for every day that Hachi remained hidden. He was too terrified to leave, and for that, he was disgusted with himself. Hachi tried to repress the sorrow, but one of his tears cut a glistening trail down his cheek.
“The beauty of the ones we love is that they always give us a second chance,” the stranger continued. “True friends always do.”
Hachi nodded as he fidgeted with the cup in his hands. He could finally admit to himself that he wanted to see his companions. For the first time in days, he felt strong enough to venture into Heian-kyo. Perhaps the worst of his troubles had passed.
Before he could smile at his good fortune, a shadow passed over him. He looked up as the den owner deposited another cup of sake in front of him. Hachi pondered the drink within his reach, trying to decide whether he should abandon temptation or indulge in his self-pity.
One more time.
His hand seemed to move of its own accord. Hachi sucked in a ragged breath as he reached for the drink. He closed his eyes and imagined the bittersweet oblivion waiting for him at the bottom of this cup. He began to lift it to his face, and as soon as the pottery touched his lips, something cried out inside him. Maybe it was a silent scream that no one else could hear except for him. It was begging him to stop. In that moment of weakness, he realized he was better than the demons in his heart.
A fond smile found its way to Hachi’s face. He was so much more than a warrior, and he realized what he needed to do next. It took a complete stranger for him to understand, but he would never be lost as long as he was true to himself.
On impulse, Hachi spun toward his new companion.
“This one’s for you, my friend—”
He faced the stranger with a grateful smile and a drink offered in his hand. To his surprise, there was no one there to accept his cup or his thanks. The man who was once sitting next to him was gone.