This story from Isabel Yap comes with a trigger warning, as well it should. It is a vivid story set in the midst of many kinds of trauma. It simultaneously is as cold as the winter in which it is set and burns with a yearning as hot as the blood that is spilled.
The first few days, she does not run out of questions. She never helps with your tasks, but often comes along. When you ask her why, she replies, “I’m bored.” But no sex before dinner, or so the unspoken rule goes. She keeps up with her practice, and plays splendidly every night, so they let her do as she pleases. In many ways this matches the idleness of Yoshiwara before evening. But there are no warm baths and no parades here, no other girls for her to pinch or tease. She sits and watches you, tossing and catching her bachi or plucking her shamisen, while you walk through the forest gathering wood, or beat the soldiers’ bedsheets out in the snow, or polish their guns and swords.
The soldiers scout for the enemy, await orders from the military, loudly argue about whether to trust the French. You know that the purpose of your unit is to be light, quick, trained with foreign weapons. Eight in a unit, stealth and speed as shields. You have seen the men do their work. You have tried to do the same.
But you are clumsy with the sword, and although you are now a decent shot, holding a gun still makes you anxious. You might fire more accurately if they did not snicker every time you tried. A year ago, Kazushige was appointed your trainer by Taichou—they didn’t expect you to become one of them, but an extra set of hands and eyes was welcome.
Kazushige is one of the few who has never touched you. He still laughs at your mistakes and hesitation, still hits if you do something wrong, but when he moves your arms to position the rifle, he never grips you too hard. Sometimes you even think you like him.
The idea of liking anything is strange. Unreal. You remember Tamakoto; you remember Kaoru. As memories held apart to be revered, wondered at, they make sense; anything closer and your mind shuts off. The oiran’s shamisen makes an awful twang, and you return to the task at hand: checking that the traps set to capture wolves are still in place.
“No wolves are going to come, anyway,” the oiran says.
“How do you know?”
“Because of the oni,” she answers.
It is well known that the women of the floating world delight in storytelling. They spend years honing this skill.
“Like in the rumors? Those are lies.”
“No, they’re not,” she says. “I’ve seen one.” You glance at her, but she doesn’t meet your eyes. She strikes her shamisen, then grins so that you know she is teasing. “It frightened the hell out of me.”
You keep your mouth closed, though really you are thinking: you frighten me, and I don’t know why. Then you realize: it’s because I want to protect you, and I don’t think I can.
The trap is empty, as it has been the last several days.
“The wolves aren’t coming,” she repeats.
Someone shouts for you to start getting dinner ready. As the two of you trudge back through the snow, you think: the wolves aren’t coming; they’re already here.
Also, if you like the story, consider doing as Yap asks and funding the Uncanny Magazine Kickstarter. As she notes, the publication of this story was possible because Uncanny reached all their stretch goals for their first year. They have only a few more days to reach the same level for their second year. If you want an additional incentive, I am offering two backer rewards.