The voice echoes against bamboo walls, audible over the roar of the waterfall that ends just inside their border, at the edge of a thriving forest. Tall stalks of bright green encircle Eiji as he enters deeper into the closest copse, mid-day sun dimmed to stray slivers by the tight canopy. He walks briskly, with purpose, each footfall sure and certain, but almost silent, never heavy. Eiji’s broad shoulders slump, feet stop in place, not for fear of being lost, but of an emotional weariness he can’t shake. He takes one last step forward, branch almost catching on his loose ponytail as he slips under it, and stands erect, scanning the forest with jade eyes.
“Kiori! Come here, now!”
The voice is high-pitched, though masculine. That of a child, petulant with that sense of entitlement reserved for fledgling, would be princes. Eiji’s head jerks to the side and he shifts, grabs a stalk of bamboo in one hand and prepares his other, straightened into a ridge, brings it down in a motion both sharp and smooth at once. From above, he hears a quick yelp, the gasp of the stalk as it gives way, creaks and bends and a dark mass falls from above, limbs flailing about until it lands in his arms.
Eiji sets his younger brother down and takes his hand, notes how the boy’s other immediately starts pulling at the neck of his dogi. He stifles a chuckle and drags him out of the dark, back into the day and the sun that so suddenly assaults their eyes. They adjust, resting on the village below, a stairway down the ridge that leads behind the waterfall, coils back in on itself and extends into a straight path out into the main square. Stone streets clatter beneath wooden geta to a staccato rhythm. Eiji’s bare feet roll over it while Kiori’s pound it awkwardly, a constant and blatant thumping in the older boy’s ears. He winces and shakes his head, gives a light tug on his brother’s arm to bring him around as they take a corner and come upon the dojo, not so large to be monolithic, but imposing despite its simple construction and welcoming doorway.
“Chichi-san! Soko ni iru ka?”
“Eiji? Ee, koko da yo. Agatte kudasai.”
They do as directed, wiping their feet on a cloth by the door and stepping onto the raised tatami floor. A rice-paper door off to the left slides open and an older man, eyes the same jade as those of both boys, steps calmly out into the dojo proper. He is not especially tall, his stature neither diminutive nor expansive, but he exudes a certain pressure by his very presence, a force of will that strikes even Eiji with a certain awe. Kiori picks at his ear with his little finger and flicks a ball of earwax aside.
“I see you found him.”
Eiji nods, excuses himself and walks off, leaving Kiori alone with their father. The child looks up at the man and squints, screws up his mouth, then turns around and starts to walk away.
He stops, legs involuntarily frozen, shaking and coursing with pins and needles when he tries to move them. It comes upon him so suddenly that he doesn’t even have time to think about it, but his body already knows, tremors rattling his teeth as the water pools in the corners of his tiny eyes. He wipes at them, but can’t stop them from running, turns back around to face his father. The older man sighs, scratches at his short hair—scattered strands of silver marking his age—and kneels, puts a hand on his youngest son’s shoulder.
“Kiori, please don’t be afraid.”
The boy sniffs, wipes at his nose with his sleeve.
“We’re just going to talk. Nothing scary, I promise. Okay?”