TWELVE YEARS AGO
“Akiyama was a samurai house for a very long time,” my father explained as he carefully sharpened his sword, grinding it slowly on a small whetstone he had placed on the floor. “From the first days of the Edo period until the Meiji Restoration. Can you say that?”
“Edo and Meiji Restoration,” I repeated dutifully, a little annoyed. I was almost seven years old, I could pronounce his weird words just fine.
The wet grinding continued. “Do you remember how the house fell?”
I struggled to remember. “When the…Togu…Tokugawa sho…sho…”
“When the Tokugawa Shogunate fell, we fell with them.” He had said something about…oh, right. “Kensei Akiyama fought to keep both houses alive, but in the end, only ours remained.”
“That’s right. And how did the Tokugawa fall?”
“In the 18th century—”
“No, it was the 18th!” I insisted. “It was 1868, I remember!”
“And that’s the 19th century,” he said gently, as he continued to slide his sword against the stone. “The first century was 00.”
What? That didn’t make…did it make sense? I didn’t think so, but it was hard to…tell. I wasn’t good with math.
“What happened in 1868, Red?” my father prompted, as he finished sharpening his sword and pulled out a soft towel to clean it off.
“Um, they…” it took a minute, but I found my words. “An alliance of…d…d…daimyo and Emperor Meiji overthrew Tokugawa and restored the emperor to the throne.”
“Uh-hm. Who did they overthrow?”
I frowned. “The…Tokugawa Shogunate.”
He smiled down at me. “No, who.”
Oh, who! “Yoshinobu Tokugawa, fifteenth Shogun of Tokugawa.”
“And what was the war called?”
“The War of the Year of the Dragon.”
My father finished cleaning his sword, sheathed it, and then gently bopped me on the head with it. “In Japanese, please.”
I rubbed my head. It hadn’t hurt, not really, but still. “The Boshin War.”
He patted my head, grinning. “Very good.”
I moved his hand away. “Why do I have to learn all this? What does it matter?”
“If you know how our house fell, you’ll be able to prevent it from happening again,” he insisted.
“But we’re still…fallen.”
“For the time being. Now, why did the daimyo unite against Yoshinobu Tokugawa?”
I groaned. He wouldn’t be asking such a hard question if I hadn’t talked back.
“Um…because Yoshi was mean?”
My father smiled a little. “Red…”
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I knew this one. He had drilled it into my head enough that I should be able to read it back without trying. But I couldn’t just…
I cracked open my eye. “…taxes?”
Another smile. “Partly. What else?”
“Uh, um…the…” I gained confidence as I spoke. “The arrival of foreign powers on Japanese soil for the first time.”
“Not quite the first,” he admonished. “And which foreign powers?”
I blinked. “Um…all of them? They weren’t very nice.”
He bopped me on the head. “Not every country sent ships to Japan, Red.”
Okay, there was… “America, and…” I bit my tongue. “…Germany?”
“America, France, and Great Britain.” He stood, moving away from the whetstone. “I think that’s enough history for now. How about sharpening?”
I nodded eagerly. I was good at sharpening things. Much better than memorizing stupid history facts.
My father pulled one of his wakizashi out of the sword rack. “Here. Try with this one.”
I took the short sword from him carefully, mindful of the edge like he had taught me. I slowly slid it over the whetstone in slow, even motions.
“No, you’re not putting enough pressure on it. It will take forever that way.”
“But if I push too hard, it will break.”
He smiled and ruffled my hair. “Then don’t push too hard. Just a little bit.”
“Akio, what the hell are you doing!?”
At my mother’s voice, my dad jumped. “Musashi’s broken sword, Yasu, you scared me.”
She sighed. “Would you please stop mimicking Maria and Victor?”
“Mimicking them how?”
“I mean that weird…curse thing they do.”
“Theirs isn’t the same.”
“You know what I mean. Not normal.”
I tugged on his shirt. “Daddy, who’s Maria?”
He blinked down at me. “Oh, you still haven’t met them?” He glanced at mother—glowering at us—and smiled down at me. “I’m afraid your mother doesn’t like them very much.”
“Akio,” she managed through clenched teeth. “Your friends’ speech habits aren’t the point here. Why are you having her play with knives again?”
He looked hurt. “It’s not a knife, it’s a wakizashi. It’s the traditional companion sword to the katana—”
“I don’t care what it’s called! Can you not see why I wouldn’t want our daughter learning how to…what are you even doing?”
“We’re sharpening it!” I chirped happily.
My mother gave me a long look before turning back to dad. “Little girls shouldn’t be learning things like this.”
Dad looked pained. “Yasu…please, she’s an Akiyama, she needs to—”
“Don’t you dare,” she spat. “We only have one daughter left, I’m not letting losing her too.”
Dad recoiled as if he’d been slapped. “You can’t—you can’t still be blaming me for—”
Mother stomped forward angrily, getting right up in his face. I think both of the adults had forgotten I was even there. “Yes, I can! Shiro died trying to impress you—”
He looked bewildered. “She jumped into a burning building, trying to save people! That is a good, and honorable death that we should be proud—”
“And Midori got killed for starting a fight with those…vampires!”
Now my dad was starting to get angry too. “She was defending her children, and she died defending them. How can you blame me, or her, for something like that!?”
“And Murasaki died eleven days ago. You couldn’t even wait two weeks to start brainwashing our last daughter again!?”
“Murasaki died in childbirth! How in Musashi’s name can you blame that on me?”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“That’s always what you mean!”
I scooted back away from them slowly so that they wouldn’t notice. They had fought every once in a while before, but once Shiro died, it had started getting worse.
It used to be no big deal. Midori would pull us all into the kitchen and start making us something or other, and we’d all get distracted long enough for them to finish. But after Shiro, Midori started getting involved, taking mother’s side and leaving me and Murasaki alone. Neither of us could cook to save our lives, so we had always ended up just sitting on our hands, trying not to listen.
Then Midori had died, and for a few months the entire apartment was dead silent. Our parents barely even looked at each other, leaving me to help Murasaki and her swelling belly waddle around.
“How many people have you killed for Butler?” My mother demanded. “Do you even know?”
“What does it matter?” Dad snapped back.
“That question says it all, really.”
Dad had left his sword, Karasu the Raven, next to the whetstone we had been using before my mother found us. I snatched it up and ran to the bedroom I had shared with my sisters.
The sword was the only thing that hadn’t changed.
Behind the Scenes (scene 179)
Not completely comfortable with this one, but I think it works.