2-4 The quiet rain drenched the hills and fields on that windless night. The rain falling on the northern territories of Kou Province reached the mountainous border region it shared with Bun Province and strengthened to a gale, then retreated again to a mild shower as it descended into the foothills.
Approaching the center of Bun Province, it was more of a drizzle. There the foliage was changing color with the seasons. The heavy dew collected on the leaves and branches before cascading to the ground, where drops of water drummed against the earthen roof of the den.
In the darkness of the den, a human silhouette stretched out close to the floor. A muffled voice mingled with the sound of the rain.
“—we fought there—”
The murky interior was illuminated by a single dim light that appeared on the verge of winking out.
“—and died there—”
The shadow barely stirred in the darkness. A resonating voice spilled from his mouth. The boy paused and glanced at the bed. As he was wont to do, the man lying there opened his eyes and gazed at the empty blackness. The boy returned his attention to the task at hand. Pressing the blade of a small knife against the whetstone, he added his voice in unison.
“Perished like dogs at the side of the road and ended up food for the crows.”
Despite the gloom and doom in the words, the song had a lively tune. The man entrusted to his care sang it so often that he’d memorized it by now. Seemingly startled by the unexpected duet, the man roused himself on the bed. Interrupting himself with smothered laughter, he continued with the verse.
Please tell the crows on our behalf
To spare a moment before gobbling us down
And shed a tear like they truly care
Weathered and worn and without even a grave
How in the world might our rotten meat
Flee from the tip of your pointed beaks?
It was an old comical folksong, said to have originated with sankyaku from Kunlun, and now a bar song favored by soldiers. At the end of a party, full of liquor and great good cheer, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, they’d join in the choruses together at the top of their lungs.
As the song said, the morrow might well find their corpses strewn across the countryside. So they laughed to scorn at the fate they had chosen for themselves, from which there was little chance of salvation. The man on the bed taught him as much.
The boy sprinkled water on the whetstone. Singing to himself, he continued to sharpen the blade.
The river burbles past black thickets on the shore
Brave knights sallied forth to slay and be slain
Leaving behind their riderless mounts
Who wander about loudly neighing and braying
The town was home to a number of washed up soldiers who sang with gusto whenever they got together to carouse, though actual singing seemed less a priority than raising a ruckus. Drinking to get drunk, the right melody was whatever came out of their mouths, as one soldier put it. As a result, none of them could be counted on to carry the tune.
Having been passed down in such a manner, the tune differed slightly from singer to singer. Lying on the bed, the boy’s master imbued his version with a bright and pretty melody, a bit on the proper side for darkly comical ditty. More likely that, over a long time and countless repetitions, the master had corrected it to his liking.
These thoughts on his mind as he sharpened the blade, the boy’s hand slipped. The steel bit into the stone. The scraping sound caught his master’s attention.
“What happened there? You didn’t hurt yourself?”
The boy glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. He leaned back and held the blade up to the lamplight for a closer look. A chip marred the edge he’d taken such pains to hone.
“I messed up again.”
“Let me see,” said the master, a smile in his warm voice.
The boy approached the bed and held out the knife to the man lying there. The master caught a cold at the end of summer and been laid up ever since. He took the knife with a hand that now appeared a bit gaunt.
“It is chipped. You ground the edge too thin.”
“Without a thin edge, it won’t cut.”
“Blame that on poor ore,” the master said with a grin and a small cough.
“Are you all right? A drink of water?”
“I’m fine,” the master said with a smile. “Make the edge a bit thicker.”
The boy took the knife and returned to the whetstone.
So you’ll plunder yourselves a fortune
Why the south? What about the north?
Please don’t pillage the crops there
What would you have left to eat then?
How can we become loyal subjects then?
They are such fine subjects, you say
Really, why don’t you think more of them?
He heard soft laughter from the bed. Perhaps the master was thinking of the day when he too sang the song shaking with mirth. He’d been at death’s door when he was first confined to bed, his condition dire enough to raise the worries of everyone around him. But since yesterday, his fever had gone down and his complexion had improved.
The boy felt a sense of relief for the first time in a long time.
The master was carried to this village six years ago, his body covered with wounds. The boy was a little child at the time. By now he’d grown old enough to sharpen knives. He hoped it wouldn’t be long before he could wield a sword like an adult.
Four years ago, a youma attacked his father, his sole surviving relative. The master saved him, though his father later succumbed to his wounds. Ever since then, the master had kept the boy around and taken good care of him. Treats him like a son, the villagers said. Except the boy didn’t want to be his son. He’d made himself the master’s retainer, serving under his command.
He’d become a fierce warrior one day and fight alongside him to save the people of the kingdom from their oppressors.
Outside the window, the furtive sound of rain stole through the room on a draft of air, accompanied by the boisterous drone of insects, singing a eulogy for the last days of their short lives before winter set in.
Rather like the boisterous songs sung by soldiers marching off to war, the boy couldn’t help thinking.
The day dawns
Full of life they set off for war
The night falls
And none of them have returned