The girl's voice jars the warrior out of his stupor. He does not recall how long he has been sitting in the half-dark chamber, staring into the remains of the fire in the centre of the room. He recognises the girl by her voice, but even if he didn't, he would recognise her by the wrong honorific. A bit too irreverent, not respectful enough. If he were to discipline her for this insult, nobody could object. Then again, nobody can object to anything he does. After all, he is part of the army that conquered this village.
Everybody hates him. But their good manners still make them treat him like a dignitary. No, not their good manners. Their fear. Except for the girl. She is all of eight years old, and the only member of the household that has taken him in who openly shows her dislike. The others cower and bow in fear, even though it was their idea to offer their bed chamber to a warrior from the invading army, in the hopes of preferential treatment. And it is true, those families who put up soldiers have a better chance of surviving the winter.
As long as their guests behave themselves.
He realises she is waiting for his permission to enter. He grunts. The door slides open. She is kneeling outside, a tray in front of her, with covered bowls of soup and rice.
"いらん。出ていけ" he barks at her. She does not flinch at his gruff dismissal, like she did yesterday. Instead, she shuffles forward, pushing the tray of food until it sits next to him on the tatami mats. He ignores it.
Staring into the embers of the fire, images from the last weeks flash unbidden before his eyes. Images of gore and blood, of death, of bodies lying by the wayside. Crows picking at still warm corpses.
Listlessly, he removes the cover from the bowl of soup. A small cloud of steam wafts up. It smells of miso and seaweed. The aroma should make him salivate, but the taste in his mouth is of ashes and death. There was a time when he could enjoy food. There is a tingling pain in his nose as tears start to gather in the corners of his eyes.
Her reappearance jerks him out of his thoughts. He did not notice her leave, but now she's kneeling outside the room again. As their eyes meet, she drops her eyes, and bites her lower lip. What a sorry sight he must present. Welcoming the distraction from his thoughts, he watches her as she scrapes the ashes out of the fireplace and replenishes the coals. Then she sees the uneaten food, and wrinkles her nose.
"いらんって言っただろう。出ていけこんヤロー！", he barks, irritated.
Taking the tray, she leaves, shuffling backwards on her knees and closing the sliding door behind her. He hears her stand up, then a window being opened. The sound of soup being poured on the ground outside.
So they do not even want his leftovers. Maybe they are too afraid. He does not care. He has not seen any of the residents of this house after they offered him this little chamber. Except for the girl.
His thoughts drift to images of other little girls. Crying. Dying. Dead. To atrocities he has seen. Atrocities he has committed. His gaze falls on a bit of coal that has dropped out of the fire. Without thinking, he puts his bare foot on it.
Immediately, a sharp burning pain shoots up from the sole of his foot, up his calf. He does not move his leg. The pain is all he feels. The images are gone. The ember of coal fades beneath his foot. A smell of scorched flesh wafts up to his nose. The pain fades.
More images. This time of a burnt village, of smouldering corpses. The same roast pork smell. He is caught in his living nightmares. This time, he does not attempt to hold back the tears. He does not know how to escape this living hell.
Some time later, the girl reappears. Her eyes widen at the sight of his injured foot, and she scurries out of the room, to reappear minutes later with a bowl of warm water and a washcloth. To his amazement, she kneels down and starts washing his burn wound. He is too weary to stop her.
His question goes unanswered. He wants an explanation, a reason for her behaviour. Instead, she looks away and shakes her head slightly. She continues to clean his wound. Her touch is soothing, a long-missed bit of human contact. He leans back and allows himself to relax. We she is finished, she takes the dirty rag and the bowl outside, but leaves the door open. Soon, she reappears with another tray of food, which she puts down next to him.
He is not even annoyed by the slightly too impolite address any more. He just shakes his head, then moves to turn his body away from her.
This is not polite at all. Instead, it is what a mother would say to an annoying child. The rudeness surprises and angers him. His head snaps around and his eyes lock on hers. She meets his gaze, her lower lip trembling. Her eyes start to fill with tears, but she still does not look away.
A little more polite, but far short of what would be used for an honoured guest. This is how you would talk to an acquaintance. To a friend.
He picks up the bowl of soup.
She nods at his thanks, and looks down again, the short moment of connection gone. Her hands are trembling. He must have scared her.
He takes the lid off the soup, and takes a sip. Like the noon meal, it is a miso broth with seaweed and cubes of tofu floating in it. As soon as the first gulp hits his stomach, he notices how ravenous he is. He devours the soup and rice. He doesn't even notice the bitter aftertaste until he is finished.
She is still kneeling next to him, head bowed down. A tear drops from her face and lands in front of her on the rough wooden floor boards.
It's not a question. He already knows what she has done. He can already feel his fingertips start to tingle and go numb. He thinks he recognises the type of poison. From what he has heard, his death will be relatively painless.
His sword is lying next to him. It has been lying next to him the entire time. He knows he has enough time left to take his revenge on this family. But what would he gain from that? Maybe it is for the best. This way he can rest, finally. No more nightmares. No more unbidden images in his mind. This girl. He first met her two days ago. She decided to take revenge for her townspeople, but instead she gave him a way out of the trap his life has become.
He realises with a jolt that her family will be punished if his commander were to find out he has been poisoned. They will make an example of them, to deter the rest of the town from rising up against the occupying forces. He realises he does not want that to happen.
He picks up the sword and holds it out to the girl. She flinches, then looks at him, puzzled. He shoves it towards her, and she hesitantly takes it.
He props himself up to a kneeling position. When he draws his knife and holds it before his stomach, she realises what he is about to do. This way, they will not be persecuted. He will have died by his own hand, and her ending his suffering will be an honourable thing. An act of mercy. In a way, that is what has already happened. He looks at her.
He hopes she knows what she has to do. His sword is very sharp, so he thinks she can manage to sever his head, as soon as he has committed seppuku. As she starts to draw his sword from the scabbard, he braces himself to make his last act an act of compassion.