The Lantern Inn

The streets were quiet. He made his way along, at a brisk pace, eyes to the ground. The mud path made treacherous after the day’s downpour, illuminated inadequately by moonlight and the flickering glow from inside a house here and there. He was weary after the day’s challenges but determined to gain a suitable seat. Fighting sapped a man’s strength at the best of times. A combination of a prolonged campaign, awful weather and then today the loss of his Gunso to an enemy arrow left him tired indeed. Damn them, he thought of the Shiho, his awareness of the ways of war and politics doing nothing to dampen his anger at the loss of Simato, or was it shimato, he struggled to remember. His third sergeant in only two cycles. He strode on unable to rid himself of his dark thoughts.

Rounding the last of the houses, he stood momentarily drinking in the sight of the Lantern inn, revelling in its beacon like status in such a small hamlet. Row upon row of splendid lanterns, shining out into the dark sky, hydrangea climbed and entwined themselves around the wooden frame of the inn’s balcony. Light of the lanterns fell upon the creamy white flowers, igniting them like fiery droplets in the night, a bastion in the inky blackness. Intoxicated by this welcome attack on his senses, he felt his spirits rise anew. The open front of the inn provided him a good view of its current patrons. Good he thought, he had beaten the crowds and could almost certainly rely on a desirable spot. A crack of thunder, off in the distance, snapped him out of his reverie and he resumed his approach.

*****

The inn keep made final preparations for a busy night. He instructed the serving girls to keep the drinks flowing, war made men thirsty. He looked up from his chores and out expectantly into the night. A man made his way towards the inn. Quick steps taking him up and into the inn before the keeper could react. Aargh, he’s filthy, not tonight, perhaps any other, but no, not tonight, decided the keep rapidly. Sighing to himself, purposefully he made his way to intercept the beggar.  By the gods, he stinks, thought the inn keeper as he got nearer. This will never do, he thought as he struggled to maintain an amicable smile.

 “Not tonight, good man, here have a Sake and be off with you” he declared politely yet firmly as he gestured for a drink.

 Shou Yang was as always the first to react, already bringing the clay pot and a cup in anticipation, if only they were all as astute. The keep graced her with a smile, noting that even she wrinkled her pretty little nose at the smell of the man. He took the pot and bade her to leave. As he raised it to pour, the beggar spoke for the first time, “will you not take a drink with me?” There was an unmistakable challenging tone to the beggar’s voice.

 On any other given night he would have kicked the man out into the mud. Tonight though he wanted no scene, no problems before the night had even started. He filled a cup and handed it to his soon to be ex guest. As he grabbed another cup, the beggar’s other hand shot out from his kimono and held him by the wrist. The strength of the grip held him fast and shocked him into nearly dropping his pot full of Sake. They stood looking into one another’s eyes, each man gauging what he found there.

The beggar broke the stand-off before it drew any unwanted attention.

 “I will be staying for the evening, I would like a quiet spot over there and I only want to be served by that girl,” he stated in a low, commanding tone nodding at a table in the corner and Shou Yang in turn. Something in the man’s tone, the conviction that what he said would happen gave the keep pause.

“But I’m not a charity, I am expecting members of both the Ito and Takashi clan’s forces tonight, you must have seen them camped, I have no space for you,” pleaded the keep, less certain now.

“I can pay, why you only have to look in your own cup good sir” replied the man. The keep lowered his eyes to his cup, there in the clay tumbler sat a gold moon, he tilted the cup to check the value, a full moon! The keeps eyes a little wider now, “what trickery is this, do you presume to mock me?” He asked.

“No trickery good man,” replied the man. He was interrupted by the raucous noise of a couple of ashigaru approaching the inn. More hastily now he continued “That coin and another at evening’s close to keep it company, for only a table and an evening’s drinks, here I’ll lead the way,” with that he pushed on past the keep and towards the back of the inn. The decisiveness of the man, put down any objections the keep may have had, as well as the gold, full moon glinting up at him. He settled the man. Then he scuttled into the back to test his gold with a bite of his teeth and get a full breath of fresh air. The stench of the man!  Oh but the gold, he reasoned, it may turn out to be a better night than I expected as long as that smell doesn’t empty the inn.

*****

He was seated in time to watch the first soldiers arrive. From the back of the inn he had a good view of the all the new arrivals. The thunder that had announced his arrival had been the signal of another sustained downpour. The inn slowly filled, as the keep had anticipated. The smell emanating from him kept his table empty as planned, the rain had also helped, men crowding the tables closest to the glowing braziers.

Today, he reflected the Ito and Takashi soldiers had fought alongside each other on the field of battle, each soldier relying on the other to get through another fight. You wouldn’t have guessed it tonight though. The men of both clans pretty much splitting the inn in two. Latecomers sat in mixed groups on the inn’s middle tables. Uneasy allies. Two such members of the Ito clan now made haste up the stairs and out of the infernal rain. One small, one big, no, wait… one is of a normal size, the other is a bear of a man, thank heavens the Ito sided with the Takashi clan and not the Shiho! He thought.

As the night wore on drink started to get the better of the men, a bothersome little captain from the Ito clan was particularly drunk. He sat like a pompous little general flinging barbed comments across the inn in the direction of the Takashi men. He could see the Takashi ashigaru tense each time he stated his absurdities.

 “The Takashi should be supporting the Ito.”

 “Hiro is no leader, I was in battle when the green boy was sucking at his mother’s teat.”

He wondered whether it was Takashi discipline or the fear of being flogged for attacking someone of senior rank that maintained the peace. The air took on a dangerous note as a man finally took umbridge at one comment too many “I suggest you take your comments to Hiro san himself, san”

“How dare you…” He staggered up out of his chair and walked to the man, as he approached the young soldier’s comrades tugged at his elbow, whispering for him to stand down. He refused, too proud or drunk to see reason, inflamed by the insults.

All chairs were flung back as both clans created semi circles around the men.

Shou Yang, sidled up to the beggar at the table, “do something I beg of you, the keep is greedy but he is a good man and keeps his hands to himself, he can ill afford what is brewing here” She whispered. The man’s eyes twinkled in the candlelight with surprise, “shhh,” he said, finger to his lips “watch,” he pointed.

As the circle had formed the Takashi Ashigaru had realised his error, even if the pug faced, little bastard captain was in the wrong it would still be his back greeting the whip in the morning. He sighed “I apologise for my insolence san,” he said bowing low.

“Too late for apologies,” slurred the captain as he struck the man in the face, a weak blow but the man went down nonetheless to placate his attacker. The soldiers were too well trained to start a full scale brawl with allies. Anyhow they had seen much worse abuses of status in their life. The Takashi men shook their heads at the young soldier’s naivety. The Ito men embarrassed by their captain, were returning to their seats. What happened next, nobody could have predicted. His alcohol driven anger not diminished he reached for his Katana, the whisper of steel being drawn mingled with the gasped breaths of the onlookers that hadn’t turned away. The blade paused momentarily, bathed in the orange glow of the brazier, followed by a flurry of action.

Next to Shou Yang, the beggar had lost his cool, leaping gracefully to his feet.

At the same time the big man’s hand shot out and grabbed the captain’s wrist from behind. The captain was surprised briefly, hissing in his fury, he tried to punch his captor in the face with his free hand. The bear easily swatted the blow away before landing a neat blow on the little man’s chin. As the captain dropped like a sack of rice, the bear hauled him up into his arms.

The beggar man stood amazed, he watched as the bear, tenderly now, held the little man in his arms, much like a father carrying his son to bed.

The room stilled and fell silent at the sight, “the captain will be going to get some sleep now, he has a long day ahead of him and will no doubt have a sore head in the morning” said the bear in a low rumbling tone. The type of voice men listen to, thought the beggar as he sat back in his seat.

And then he was gone into the rainy night. A couple of Ito soldiers began “Hanso, Hanso, Hanso” the rest of the inn took up their chant, Takashi and locals alike. As the chant died down, the atmosphere returned to normal, a pleasant evening of toasting the courage of the living and the honor of the day’s dead.

The beggar gestured Shou Yang over and slipped a half silver moon towards her, “I’ll be leaving now, a discreet exit would be preferable.” She scooped up the coin, “follow me sir.”

*****

Hiro’s first job of the day was to deal with the complaint of the Ito captain. A shrew of a man, Yudai had presented himself and promptly stood lying through his yellowing teeth. Hiro had listened to the man’s list of untruths about his evening in the Lantern inn, one would have thought he was a hero to hear him tell it. Hiro would take in the report of the Ashigaru in question and deal with it he assured Yuudai, dismissing him brusquely before he damaged Takashi, Ito relations by revealing the man’s dishonor.

Hanso stood before the camp commander’s tent. The gall of the little man, I stopped him from cold blooded murder and he still wants me flogged, he thought as he watched him pompously emerge from within.

Since Hiro was at present sergeantless, he supposed he should order the man in himself. The morning was crisp and cold, after the rains last night the sky was a clear, bright blue, the ground a brown, muddy mess, churned by the feet of many soldiers. Hiro retreated back into his tent, head pounding from the night before. He was seated again by the time the man entered the tent, having to bow his head to clear the awning, he noted. Hiro sat silently while the man called Hanso stood before him. He eventually asked “do you know why you have been summoned here Hanso, san?”

“Sir, yes sir,” replied Hanso.

“Enlighten me,” prompted Hiro.

“I struck a commanding officer, sir.”

No gripes. No whining about this not being fair, the man is a rock, thought Hiro, “do you have anything to add?” He asked.

“No Sir.”

Hiro sat back in his chair, “I admire your honesty Hanso san but I must tell you, your captain is requesting that you are not just flogged but dismissed as well,” this had an impact, the big man’s shoulders dropped, deflated.

“Sir I have served the Ito faithfully for…” Hanso was saying, Hiro cut him short raising his hand and commanding silence.

Hiro continued, “furthermore I will accept only half of his request.”

A look of relief washed across Hanso’s features, “thank you sir, a whipping I can take, I could not bear to leave the army.”

Hiro nodded, “you are mistaken, Hanso, I am accepting the request to dismiss you from the Ito forces, the flogging I decline,” Hanso stood looking mystified. “Hanso I would like you to join the Takashi clan’s force, I want you by my side in battle, together we could sweep the Shiho from our shores, will you serve me as loyally as you served the Ito?”

“Yes sir” answered Hanso. A man of few words this, a man after my own heart thought Hiro, happy with how the morning had turned out.

“Good, let all those that oppose the Takashi clan tremble before the dragon and the bear, and Hanso san, you can consider yourself Gunso, as of this moment.”

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