Rin crept back through Sano’s house, looking for a place to hide. The men would check all the bedrooms. The office also was too likely a place they’d go. She clutched her knife for courage. She didn’t know why they were here, but she did not think it was wise to let them find her.
In the hall near the kitchen was a thick wooden door with a heavy iron handle. Rin twisted until she heard a click, and pushed the door open.
Inside was a little stair, leading down below the level of the house, underground. From in here, she could not hear the men’s voices anymore, and she hoped it was because they were far away, that they had found somewhere else in the house to be occupied. She could close the door behind her, and stay in here, hidden. But it was dark, and she did not know what kind of room this was, or what shared it with her, and unable to abide it, she left the door cracked so she could see.
The room was long in front of her, with many shelves, all carefully packed full with belongings—tall vases, painted pots, white busts, glazed figures. On a table in front of the shelves were more items, similar, laid out in a block, removed from the ranks or not yet joined. Rin did not understand the number, how each one could somehow be different. How one person could have so many.
There was a plain wooden crate filled over the top with documents, folios. Rin touched the things reverently, lightly brushing a dried-up wreath of flowers, a bundle of letters, and a decorative red-gold box, which she opened to find little images. Portraits of women.
No—the same woman.
From her mouth fell a phrase Sano had always used when entering the house they shared together, one that until now she had never understood the need for:
“Forgive me for intruding,” she said, aloud.
And, startled by her own voice, she dropped her knife somewhere behind, heard it clatter and skid away under the shelves.
Rin froze. In the doorway, shadowed by a lamp that he carried, a tall, pale man stood watching her with wary eyes. He was young, or at least, younger than Sano. He wore a paper mask over his mouth.
“Goro,” he said behind the mask. “Come here.”
The other one, Goro, came up behind and stood on his toes to peer over his friend’s shoulder. He was young also, but his face seemed older, with dark, bushy eyebrows and a thin, immovable smile. “A little girl,” he said, pushing past his friend to enter the room. He walked past Rin as well, straight to the table, where he picked up its artifacts, turning each one over, searching for marks of authenticity. “She’s done our work for us, Shiro. We should be embarrassed.”
The tall one, Shiro, sighed. He squatted down in front of Rin, his light shining into her face so she had to squint. Every word rattled the thick paper of the mask. “We’re here on behalf of a client,” he said. “We are looking for someone.”
Rin looked him in his watery eyes as long as she could stand, then turned her attention behind her, where the other one was rifling through the pictures in the red-gold box. She made a noise of protest.
Shiro clasped her by both shoulders and spoke emphatically, slowly. “If you know where to find the master of the house, an older man, forty or so, family name of Sano, you are obligated to tell us. His parents sent us to get him. Sa-no.”
Rin clenched her fist and remembered her knife wasn’t in it. She did not want to say anything and, afraid now that she would, clamped her lips between her teeth.
“Go search for him,” said Goro. “He’s not here, but I can tell you won’t stop fretting till you’ve done your duty.”
“I’m not fretting,” Shiro argued. “I mean, he’d have come out, do you think? Isn’t this his kid?”
“No,” said Goro. “She’s island people. Probably worked for him.”
“I just thought, maybe,” Shiro trailed off. “He’s been here a long time.” And he left the room as instructed.
Rin was scared of letting the man roam Sano’s house unobserved, but she was more scared of letting this one find the knife. She did not know why he would want it, but she felt his reasons would be different from hers, and less right. She edged closer to him, trying to sneak past.
Goro put out his fist to block her. From it hung a porcelain-faced doll dressed in embroidered silk, and he dangled it idly, waiting for her to take it, giving her no choice but. When she did:
“You are remarkable, to have survived this long.” His smile was wide, and his eyes twinkled in wonderment.
Rin did not like the face of the doll, but her fingers liked the feel of its dress. She twisted the hem in her hand.
“If you took something from the people whose house this is,” said Goro, “if you did something to them even—it’s fine. We will not tell. You can come with us to the mainland. We have food on our boat. We can get you work. Money. Can’t promise it’ll be as good as working for this guy, but we know people who pay. Or: Take some of the old man’s stuff with us, don’t tell anyone what you saw, and sell it—buy any life you want. I’ll give you your pick of what you can carry.”
Rin looked up at him, gauging sincerity. His eyes were smart like Sano’s. They weren’t anything else.
She did not have much chance of lasting here, she realized with sudden clarity. Not when winter arrived. Not without anyone to help plant, or forage, or hunt. Not if the fish and the animals didn’t return. She was hungry, and growing hungrier, and though Sano had thrown his allegiance to their home and their meager garden and to the miracles of earth and sea, to the promise of eventual regeneration, he had never stopped pinning his hopes on the mainland, on rescue, and Rin understood now that it was her only hope as well. This man knew as much when he saw her, and he knew what he was offering.
Goro saw she was considering. He smiled with too many teeth. “Sure, little one. Of course we’ll help. There is a lot we can do for you. As soon as you tell us one thing: Yes or no.” He squatted beside her and put his hand flat on top of her head. “Is he alive?” He nodded her head for her, yes. “Not alive?” He shook her head, no.
The doll cracked hard against the floor. Rin slapped at the man’s hands.
“Easy, easy,” he said, trying not to laugh.
Rin glared death at him, and around the room, which was suddenly spinning. She got down on hands and knees, fighting the rush of blood to her head, fingernails scraping the floor for her knife.
The other one’s voice came from down the hall. “I don’t like this, Goro.”
“Then hurry up,” Goro called.
“In a bed, there’s. She’s dead. I don’t know what—they didn’t bury her.” Shiro’s voice grew more and more panicked. “Long dead. Why wouldn’t they bury her?”
“Is there blood?”
“I didn’t look!”
There was a moment where Goro stood silent, and the hall stood silent, and Rin’s fingernails scraped against the floor. And then the answer:
“Some. A few streaks, on the floor.”
And Rin found the handle of her knife. She rose, advancing dizzily toward Goro and toward the doorway, fist clenched and blade held center, ready, before her chest.
“Ah. The little one has a knife.” He backed toward the door, hands up in surrender, though his lips still smiled. “That solves that.”
Now Shiro joined him at the door. “There’s no way something bad didn’t happen if he left the wife here like that. We have to go.” He noticed Rin at the center of the room, advancing still, slowly, eyes focused on him, or on his partner, or on both of them, or through them, beyond. “Why’d you let her get a knife?” he cried.
“She’s a kid,” Goro scoffed.
“She’s a criminal,” said Shiro. “If she’s killed at least one of them, what do you imagine stops her from killing us?”
They kept shouting. Rin had a vision: Sano had knelt till exhaustion at his wife’s bedside; had, weak with mourning, clung to the handle of this knife, just as she now did; had let the blade drink his blood as offering, had made supplication at the foot of his wife’s bed, had, without ritual, without knowledge, still prayed for magic. This was a knife that remembered the wish he’d made. With this knife, she would fulfill it.
Here in her hands, the best knife left in the world.
Rin walked forward, knife pointed, the tall one’s terror forcing the short one backward despite his protests. She kept walking until they all three cleared the doorway.
“You can’t possibly be scared of a child. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Rin shut the storage room door behind her, latched it back, locking Sano’s treasures inside. She eased down to the ground in front of the door, blocking the room with her body. She held the knife out before her, ready, should they try to advance.
The two men stood in front of her, flustered. They couldn’t agree on what to do. Rin watched them argue, body alert but mind exhausted, her consciousness fading in and out.
“So we just come back in a day or two,” said Goro, “When she’s starved or moved along, like stray dogs do.”
“Brother,” barked the taller, Shiro, “whatever things of his you were hoping to take, they are not worth even a scratch from that death-defiled knife to me.”
They would leave. Rin thought it over and over in her head. She would make them leave. She was protecting Sano’s house, so long as she held fast.
“You have always believed in nonsense,” snarled Goro. “You think she’s some kind of spirit.”
Rin was a spirit, pinned to earth only by hunger and desire. She wielded the power of a spirit for as long as she held the knife.
A little more talk, some glowering, and the men left.
Rin planted herself in front of the door a full day in case they came back. They did not return. She left her post only once, close to the end, when it felt as if she might not move ever again if she did not get her legs working, if she did not put fresh air to work in her lungs. She stalked through the house, coming to a stop not far, in the big central room with all the mats. The short one had appeased himself by stealing the scroll and little jar from their perch, and Rin felt a twinge of anger at their absence. The difference was small, but the room without them did not look the same.
Outside, the little wind picked up; the outer wall rattled. Rin walked alongside it, slipped her fingers into a notch. Here, as in the rest of the house, she could make the walls move for her, and Rin opened them all, screens and shutters both, till the morning view spread before her: the wet green and gray stonework of the front garden where she had come in, a porch wrapping around where one could sit, or pace, or air laundry, or greet guests coming up the path. She stepped backward into the center of the room, the green shining beautiful, bright, within the frame. She was not sure if she was doing something Sano had done. But it was enough to do it herself.
When she took her leave, she closed up his doors and walls for him, every one.