Tamara Sheehan, Stormy Bamboo
The horse was tall, a semi-mechanical chestnut mare with thick legs and a barrel-shaped coal-chamber, ridden by a woman dressed in an indigo travelling habit and a conical hat.
After that first glance,, because a man in his position was either cautious or dead, Hikage studiously ignored the horse’s marvellous clockwork parts, and its unusual rider. He preferred to travel alone.
“Excuse me, samurai?” said the woman on the horse. “Samurai?”
She used polite words but had a belligerent Doshu accent that Hikage didn’t like much. He pretended not to hear in the hope that she might think him deaf or simple and ride on by. Instead she slowed her horse to match his pace.
“Samurai,” she said again, and then, “Hey, ronin,” like it was a slur.
Hikage gave in. He looked up at the rider.
“Excuse me? Was there something you wanted?”
“I want to hire you.”
“Come with me to Rikku. I’ll pay you three ryo, half now and half when we arrive, as long as we arrive safely.”
Hikage looked up at her. Between the brim of her conical hat and her high collar, he could make out a small, pointed chin, a narrow nose and the downward turn of her thinnish lips. When he shook his head, those lips turned down even more.
“Sorry. I’m going to the hot spring at Harukami,” he said.
“I didn’t ask where you were going, I offered you a job. I need a bodyguard and you,” Iyuko gestured at him with one gloved hand, “you look like you need more than just a bath in a hot spring to get yourself sorted out.”
Hikage looked back at the road in order to navigate an icy puddle without soaking his sandals. “Look,” he said, “I’m going to the hot springs, not Rikku, so I’m no help to you. You’ll have to find someone else.”
She exhaled through her teeth at him. “Four ryo.”
“I said I’m not going your way.”
“I haven’t got any more money,” she said. “I really haven’t.” Her voice rose and echoed through the shedding birch trees. “Four is all I can pay you and I need a bodyguard.” She waited, silent a moment. “What are you going to the hot springs for anyway?” she asked. “Do you even have the money for it? There’s a charge to go into the waters you know.”
“Yes, I know.” He walked. Iyuko kept pace. Finally, Hikage looked back at her. “Listen, you offered and I said no. You’ll have to find someone else.”
She laughed suddenly. “Oh, trust me, you’re not my first choice. The thing is there’s no time to hire anyone else.” She pulled back on the reins hard enough that the horse’s head jerked up. She jumped down from the saddle. “Please,” she said and teetered on the edge of a bow.
Hikage stopped walking and turned to her. The breeze, sweet with the scent of tree sap and snow, lifted the long sleeves of her habit and Hikage caught a glimpse of the flesh between fabric and glove. She was scarred, from the heel of her hand up to where the caramel coloured skin disappeared into clothing. The ugly latticework of shiny pink and raised white skin startled him. Hikage’s eyes flicked to the little knife bound under Iyuko’s left arm.
“You’re a magician,” he said.
“Yes.” She frowned at him. “And?”
He laughed. “Well, why would you need help from me?”
Tamara Sheehan is the Aurora Award nominated author of The Tenth Man, The Mediocre Assassin's Handbook and Stormy Bamboo. Her newest book, Assassins of Muromachi Street is forthcoming from Prizm Young Adult in winter 2009.
When not writing (or reading), Tamara studies martial arts (including karate and kobudo), edits stuff, blogs, bakes cookies, and drinks a lot of coffee.
Copyright © 2009 by Tamara Sheehan