The Inn of Lost Time
Will you promise to sleep if I tell you a story?” said the father. He pretended to put on a stern expression.
“Yes! Yes!” the three little boys chanted in unison. It sounded like a nightly routine.
The two guests smiled as they listened to the exchange. They were wandering ronin, or unemployed samurai, and they enjoyed watching this cozy family scene.
The father gave the guests a helpless look. “What can I do? I have to tell them a story, or these little rascals will give us no peace.” Clearing his throat, he turned to the boys. “All right. The story tonight is about Urashima Taro.”
Instantly the three boys became still. Sitting with their legs tucked under them, the three little boys, aged five, four, and three, looked like a descending row of stone statuettes. Matsuzo, the younger of the two ronin, was reminded of the wayside half-body statues of Jizo, the God of Travelers and Protector of Children.
Behind the boys the farmer’s wife took up a pair of iron chopsticks and stirred the ashes of the fire in the charcoal
brazier. A momentary glow brightened the room. The lean faces of the two ronin, lit by the fire, suddenly looked fierce and hungry.
The farmer knew that the two ronin were supposed to use their arms in defense of the weak. But in these troubled times, with the country torn apart by civil wars, the samurai didn’t always live up to their honorable code.
Then the fire died down again and the subdued red light softened the features of the two ronin. The farmer relaxed and began his story.
The tale of Urashima Taro is familiar to every Japanese. No doubt the three little boys had heard their father tell it before—and more than once. But they listened with rapt attention.
Urashima Taro, a fisherman, rescued a turtle from some boys who were battering it with stones. The grateful turtle rewarded Taro by carrying him on his back to the bottom of the sea, where he lived happily with the Princess of the Undersea. But Taro soon became homesick for his native village and asked to go back on land. The princess gave him a box to take with him but warned him not to peek inside.
When Taro went back to his village, he found the place quite changed. In his home he found his parents gone, and living there was another old couple. He was stunned to learn that the aged husband was his own son, whom he had last seen as a baby! Taro thought he had spent only a pleasant week or two undersea with the princess. On land, seventy-two years had passed! His parents and most of his old friends had long since died.
Desolate, Taro decided to open the box given him by the princess. As soon as he looked inside, he changed in an instant from a young man to a decrepit old man of more than ninety.
At the end of the story the boys were close to tears. Even Matsuzo found himself deeply touched. He wondered why the farmer had told his sons such a poignant bedtime story. Wouldn’t they worry all evening instead of going to sleep?
But the boys recovered quickly. They were soon laughing and jostling each other, and they made no objections when their mother shooed them toward bed. Standing in order of age, they bowed politely to the guests and then lay down on the mattresses spread out for them on the floor. Within minutes the sound of their regular breathing told the guests that they were asleep.
Zenta, the older of the two ronin, sighed as he glanced at the peaceful young faces. “I wish I could fall asleep so quickly. The story of Urashima Taro is one of the saddest that I know among our folk tales.”
The farmer looked proudly at his sleeping sons. “They’re stout lads. Nothing bothers them much.”
The farmer’s wife poured tea for the guests and apologized. “I’m sorry this is only poor tea made from coarse leaves.”
Zenta hastened to reassure her. “It’s warm and heartening on a chilly autumn evening.”
“You know what I think is the saddest part of the Urashima Taro story?” said Matsuzo, picking up his cup and sipping the tea. “It’s that Taro lost not only his family and friends but a big piece of his life as well. He had lost the most precious thing of all: time.”
The farmer nodded agreement. “I wouldn’t sell even one year of my life for money. As for losing seventy-two years, no amount of gold will make up for that!”
Zenta put his cup down on the floor and looked curiously at the farmer. “It’s interesting that you should say that. I had an opportunity once to observe exactly how much gold a person was willing to pay for some lost years of his life.” He smiled grimly. “In this case the man went as far as one gold piece for each year he lost.”
That’s bizarre!” said Matsuzo. “You never told me about it.”
“It happened long before I met you,” said Zenta. He drank some tea and smiled ruefully. “Besides, I’m not particularly proud of the part I played in that strange affair.”
“Let’s hear the story!” urged Matsuzo. “You’ve made us all curious.”
The farmer waited expectantly. His wife sat down quietly behind her husband and folded her hands. Her eyes looked intently at Zenta.
“Very well, then,” said Zenta. “Actually, my story bears some resemblance to that of Urashima Taro. . . .”
It happened about seven years ago, when I was a green, inexperienced youngster not quite eighteen years old. But I had had a good training in arms, and I was able to get a job as a bodyguard for a wealthy merchant from Sakai.
As you know, wealthy merchants are relatively new in our country. Traditionally the rich have been noblemen, landowners, and warlords with thousands of followers. Merchants, regarded as parasites in our society, are a despised class. But our civil wars have made people unusually mobile and stimulated trade between various parts of the country. The merchants have taken advantage of this to conduct business on a scale our fathers could not imagine. Some of them have become more wealthy than a warlord with thousands of samurai under his command.
The man I was escorting, Tokubei, was one of this new breed of wealthy merchants. He was trading not only with outlying provinces but even with the Portuguese from across the sea. On this particular journey he was not carrying much gold with him. If he had, I’m sure he would have hired an older and more experienced bodyguard. But if the need should arise, he could always write a message to his clerks at home and have money forwarded to him. It’s important to remember this.
The second day of our journey was a particularly grueling one, with several steep hills to climb. As the day was drawing to its close, we began to consider where we should spend the night. I knew that within an hour’s walking was a hot-spring resort known to have several attractive inns.
But Tokubei, my employer, said he was already very tired and wanted to stop. He had heard of the resort and knew the inns there were expensive. Wealthy as he was, he did not want to spend more money than he had to.
While we stood talking, a smell reached our noses, a wonderful smell of freshly cooked rice. Suddenly I felt ravenous. From the way Tokubei swallowed, I knew he was feeling just as hungry.
We looked around eagerly, but the area was forested and we could not see very far in any direction. The tantalizing smell seemed to grow and I could feel the saliva filling my mouth.
“There’s an inn around here somewhere,” muttered Tokubei. “I’m sure of it.”
We followed our noses. We had to leave the well-traveled highway and take a narrow, winding footpath. But the mouth-watering smell of the rice and the vision of fluffy, freshly aired cotton quilts drew us on.
The sun was just beginning to set. We passed a bamboo grove, and in the low evening light the thin leaves turned into little golden knives. I saw a gilded clump of bamboo shoots. The sight made me think of the delicious dish they would make when boiled in soy sauce.
We hurried forward. To our delight we soon came to a clearing with a thatched house standing in the middle. The fragrant smell of rice was now so strong that we were certain a meal was being prepared inside.
Standing in front of the house was a pretty girl beaming at us with a welcoming smile. “Please honor us with your presence,” she said, beckoning.
There was something a little unusual about one of her hands, but, being hungry and eager to enter the house, I did not stop to observe closely.
You will say, of course, that it was my duty as a bodyguard to be suspicious and to look out for danger. Youth and inexperience should not have prevented me from wondering why an inn should be found hidden away from the highway. As it was, my stomach growled, and I didn’t even hesitate but followed Tokubei to the house.
Before stepping up to enter, we were given basins of water to wash our feet. As the girl handed us towels for drying, I saw what was unusual about her left hand: She had six fingers.
Tokubei had noticed it as well. When the girl turned away to empty the basins, he nudged me. “Did you see her left hand? She had——” He broke off in confusion as the girl turned around, but she didn’t seem to have heard.
The inn was peaceful and quiet, and we soon discovered the reason why. We were the only guests. Again, I should have been suspicious. I told you that I’m not proud of the part I played.
Tokubei turned to me and grinned. “It seems that there are no other guests. We should be able to get extra service for the same amount of money.”
The girl led us to a spacious room which was like the principal chamber of a private residence. Cushions were set out for us on the floor and we began to shed our traveling gear to make ourselves comfortable.
The door opened and a grizzled-haired man entered. Despite his vigorous-looking face his back was a little bent, and I guessed his age to be about fifty. After bowing and greeting us, he apologized in advance for the service. “We have not always been innkeepers here,” he said, “and you may find the accommodations lacking. Our good intentions must make up for our inexperience. However, to compensate for our inadequacies, we will charge a lower fee than that of an inn with an established reputation.”
Tokubei nodded graciously, highly pleased by the words of our host, and the evening began well. It continued well when the girl came back with some flasks of wine, cups, and dishes of salty snacks.
While the girl served the wine, the host looked with interest at my swords. From the few remarks he made, I gathered that he was a former samurai, forced by circumstances to turn his house into an inn.
Having become a bodyguard to a tight-fisted merchant, I was in no position to feel superior to a ronin-turned-innkeeper. Socially, therefore, we were more or less equal.
We exchanged polite remarks with our host while we drank and tasted the salty snacks. I looked around at the pleasant room. It showed excellent taste, and I especially admired a vase standing in the alcove.
My host caught my eyes on it. “We still have a few good things that we didn’t have to sell,” he said. His voice held a trace of bitterness.
“Please look at the panels of these doors. They were painted by a fine artist.”
Tokubei and I looked at the pair of sliding doors. Each panel contained a landscape painting, the right panel depicting a winter scene and the left one the same scene in late summer. Our host’s words were no idle boast. The pictures were indeed beautiful.
Tokubei rose and approached the screens for a closer look. When he sat down again, his eyes were calculating. No doubt he was trying to estimate what price the paintings would fetch.
After my third drink I began to feel very tired. Perhaps it was the result of drinking on an empty stomach. I was glad when the girl brought in two dinner trays and a lacquered container of rice. Uncovering the rice container, she began filling our bowls.
Again I noticed her strange left hand with its six fingers. Any other girl would have tried to keep that hand hidden, but this girl made no effort to do so. If anything, she seemed to use that hand more than her other one when she served us. The extra little finger always stuck out from the hand, as if inviting comment.
The hand fascinated me so much that I kept my eyes on it and soon forgot to eat. After a while the hand looked blurry. And then everything else began to look blurry. The last thing I remembered was the sight of Tokubei shaking his head, as if trying to clear it.
When I opened my eyes again, I knew that time had passed, but not how much time. My next thought was that it was cold. It was not only extremely cold but damp.
I rolled over and sat up. I reached immediately for my swords and found them safe on the ground beside me. On the ground? What was I doing on the ground? My last memory was of staying at an inn with a merchant called Tokubei.
The thought of Tokubei put me into a panic. I was his bodyguard, and instead of watching over him, I had fallen asleep and had awakened in a strange place.
I looked around frantically and saw that he was lying on the ground not far from where I was. Had he been killed?
I got up shakily, and when I stood up, my head was swimming. But my sense of urgency gave some strength to my legs. I stumbled over to my employer and to my great relief found him breathing—breathing heavily, in fact.
When I shook his shoulder, he grunted and finally opened his eyes. “Where am I?” he asked thickly.
It was a reasonable question. I looked around and saw that we had been lying in a bamboo grove. By the light I guessed that it was early morning, and the reason I felt cold and damp was that my clothes were wet with dew.
“It’s cold!” said Tokubei, shivering and climbing unsteadily to his feet. He looked around slowly, and his eyes became wide with disbelief.
“What happened? I thought we were staying at an inn!”
His words came as a relief. One of the possibilities I had considered was that I had gone mad and that the whole episode with the inn was something I had imagined. Now I knew that Tokubei had the same memory of the inn. I had not imagined it.
But why were we out here on the cold ground, instead of on comfortable mattresses in the inn?
“They must have drugged us and robbed us,” said Tokubei. He turned and looked at me furiously. “A fine bodyguard you are!”
There was nothing I could say to that. But at least we were both alive and unharmed. “Did they take all your money?” I asked.
Tokubei had already taken his wallet out of his sash and was peering inside. “That’s funny! My money is still here!”
This was certainly unexpected. What did the innkeeper and his strange daughter intend to do by drugging us and moving us outside?
At least things were not as bad as we had feared. We had not lost anything except a comfortable night’s sleep, although from the heaviness in my head I had certainly slept deeply enough—and long enough too. Exactly how much time had elapsed since we drank wine with our host?
All we had to do now was find the highway again and continue our journey. Tokubei suddenly chuckled. “I didn’t even have to pay for our night’s lodging!”
As we walked from the bamboo grove, I saw the familiar clump of bamboo shoots, and we found ourselves standing in the same clearing again. Before our eyes was the thatched house. Only it was somehow different. Perhaps things looked different in the daylight than at dusk.
But the difference was more than a change of light. As we approached the house slowly, like sleepwalkers, we saw that the thatching was much darker. On the previous evening the thatching had looked fresh and new. Now it was dark with age. Daylight should make things appear brighter, not darker. The plastering of the walls also looked more dingy.
Tokubei and I stopped to look at each other before we went closer. He was pale, and I knew that I looked no less frightened. Something was terribly wrong. I loosened my sword in its scabbard.
We finally gathered the courage to go up to the house. Since Tokubei seemed unable to find his voice, I spoke out. “Is anyone there?”
After a moment we heard shuffling footsteps and the front door slid open. The face of an old woman appeared. “Yes?” she inquired. Her voice was creaky with age.
What set my heart pounding with panic, however, was not her voice. It was the sight of her left hand holding on to the frame of the door.
The hand was wrinkled and crooked with the arthritis of old age—and it had six fingers.
I heard a gasp beside me and knew that Tokubei had noticed the hand as well.
The door opened wider and a man appeared beside the old woman. At first I thought it was our host of the previous night. But this man was much younger, although the resemblance was strong. He carried himself straighter and his hair was black, while the innkeeper had been grizzled and slightly bent with age.
“Please excuse my mother,” said the man. “Her hearing is not good. Can we help you in some way?”
Tokubei finally found his voice. “Isn’t this the inn where we stayed last night?”
The man stared. “Inn? We are not innkeepers here!”
“Yes, you are!” insisted Tokubei. “Your daughter invited us in and served us with wine. You must have put something in the wine!”
The man frowned. “You are serious? Are you sure you didn’t drink too much at your inn and wander off?”
“No, I didn’t drink too much!” said Tokubei, almost shouting. “I hardly drank at all! Your daughter, the one with six fingers on her hand, started to pour me a second cup of wine . . .” His voice trailed off, and he stared again at the left hand of the old woman.
“I don’t have a daughter,” said the man slowly. “My mother here is the one who has six fingers on her left hand, although I hardly think it polite of you to mention it.”
“I’m getting dizzy,” muttered Tokubei, and began to totter.
“I think you’d better come in and rest a bit,” the man said to him gruffly. He glanced at me. “Perhaps you wish to join your friend. You don’t share his delusion about the inn, I hope?”
“I wouldn’t presume to contradict my elders,” I said carefully. Since both Tokubei and the owner of the house were my elders, I wasn’t committing myself. In truth, I didn’t know what to believe, but I did want a look at the inside of the house.
The inside was almost the same as it was before but the differences were there when I looked closely. We entered the same room with the alcove and the pair of painted doors. The vase I had admired was no longer there, but the doors showed the same landscapes painted by a master. I peered closely at the pictures and saw that the colors looked faded. What was more, the left panel, the one depicting a winter scene, had a long tear in one corner. It had been painstakingly mended, but the damage was impossible to hide completely.
Tokubei saw what I was staring at and he became even paler. At this stage we had both considered the possibility that a hoax of some sort had been played on us. The torn screen convinced Tokubei that our host had not played a joke: The owner of a valuable painting would never vandalize it for a trivial reason.
As for me, I was far more disturbed by the sight of the sixth finger on the old woman’s hand. Could the young girl have disguised herself as an old crone? She could put rice powder in her hair to whiten it, but she could not transform her pretty straight fingers into old fingers twisted with arthritis. The woman here with us now was genuinely old, at least fifty years older than the girl.
It was this same old woman who finally gave us our greatest shock. “It’s interesting that you should mention an inn, gentlemen,” she croaked. “My father used to operate an inn. After he died, my husband and I turned this back into a private residence. We didn’t need the income, you see.”
“Your . . . your . . . f-father?” stammered Tokubei.
“Yes,” replied the old woman. “He was a ronin, forced to go into inn keeping when he lost his position. But he never liked the work. Besides, our inn had begun to acquire an unfortunate reputation. Some of our guests disappeared, you see.”
Even before she finished speaking, a horrible suspicion had begun to dawn on me. Her father had been an innkeeper, she said, her father who used to be a ronin. The man who had been our host was a ronin-turned-innkeeper. Could this mean that this old woman was actually the same person as the young girl we had seen?
I sat stunned while I tried to absorb the implications. What had happened to us? Was it possible that Tokubei and I had slept while this young girl grew into a mature woman, got married, and bore a son, a son who was now an adult? If that was the case, then we had slept for fifty years!
The old woman’s next words confirmed my fears. “I recognize you now! You are two of the lost guests from our inn! The other lost ones I don’t remember so well, but I remember you because your disappearance made me so sad. Such a handsome youth, I thought; what a pity that he should have gone the way of the others!”
A high wail came from Tokubei, who began to keen and rock himself back and forth. “I’ve lost fifty years! Fifty years of my life went by while I slept at this accursed inn!”
The inn was indeed accursed. Was the fate of the other guests similar to ours? “Did anyone else return as we did, fifty years later?” I asked.
The old woman looked uncertain and turned to her son. He frowned thoughtfully. “From time to time wild-looking people have come to us with stories similar to yours. Some of them went mad with the shock.”
Tokubei wailed again. “I’ve lost my business! I’ve lost my wife, my young and beautiful wife! We had been married only a couple of months!”
A gruesome chuckle came from the old woman. “You may not have lost your wife. It’s just that she’s become an old hag like me!”
That did not console Tokubei, whose keening became louder. Although my relationship with my employer had not been characterized by much respect on either side, I did begin to feel very sorry for him. He was right: He had lost his world.
As for me, the loss was less traumatic. I had left home under extremely painful circumstances and had spent the next three years wandering. I had no friends and no one I could call a relation. The only thing I had was my duty to my employer. Somehow, someway, I had to help him.
“Did no one find an explanation for these disappearances?” I asked. “Perhaps if we knew the reason why, we might find some way to reverse the process.”
The old woman began to nod eagerly. “The priestess! Tell them about the shrine priestess!”
“Well,” said the man, “I’m not sure if it would work in your case. . . .”
“What? What would work?” demanded Tokubei. His eyes were feverish.
“There was a case of one returning guest who consulted the priestess at our local shrine,” said the man. “She went into a trance and revealed that there was an evil spirit dwelling in the bamboo grove here. This spirit would put unwary travelers into a long, unnatural sleep. They would wake up twenty, thirty, or even fifty years later.”
“Yes, but you said something worked in his case,” said Tokubei.
The man seemed reluctant to go on. “I don’t like to see you cheated, so I’m not sure I should be telling you this.”
“Tell me! Tell me!” demanded Tokubei. The host’s reluctance only made him more impatient.
“The priestess promised to make a spell that would undo the work of the evil spirit,” said the man. “But she demanded a large sum of money, for she said that she had to burn some very rare and costly incense before she could begin the spell.”
At the mention of money Tokubei sat back. The hectic flush died down on his face and his eyes narrowed. “How much money?” he asked.
The host shook his head. “In my opinion the priestess is a fraud and makes outrageous claims about her powers. We try to have as little to do with her as possible.”
“Yes, but did her spell work?” asked Tokubei. “If it worked, she’s no fraud!”
“At least the stranger disappeared again,” cackled the old woman. “Maybe he went back to his own time. Maybe he walked into a river.”
Tokubei’s eyes narrowed further. “How much money did the priestess demand?” he asked again.
“I think it was one gold piece for every year lost,” said the host. He hurriedly added, “Mind you, I still wouldn’t trust the priestess.”
“Then it would cost me fifty gold pieces to get back to my own time,” muttered Tokubei. He looked up. “I don’t carry that much money with me.”
“No, you don’t,” agreed the host.
Something alerted me about the way he said that. It was as if the host knew already that Tokubei did not carry much money on him.
Meanwhile Tokubei sighed. He had come to a decision. “I do have the means to obtain more money, however. I can send a message to my chief clerk and he will remit the money when he sees my seal.”
“Your chief clerk may be dead by now,” I reminded him.
“You’re right!” moaned Tokubei. “My business will be under a new management and nobody will even remember my name!”
“And your wife will have remarried,” said the old woman, with one of her chuckles. I found it hard to believe that the gentle young girl who had served us wine could turn into this dreadful harridan.
“Sending the message may be a waste of time,” agreed the host.
“What waste of time!” cried Tokubei. “Why shouldn’t I waste time? I’ve wasted fifty years already! Anyway, I’ve made up my mind. I’m sending that message.”
“I still think you shouldn’t trust the priestess,” said the host.
That only made Tokubei all the more determined to send for the money. However, he was not quite resigned to the amount. “Fifty gold pieces is a large sum. Surely the priestess can buy incense for less than that amount?”
“Why don’t you try giving her thirty gold pieces?” cackled the old woman. “Then the priestess will send you back thirty years, and your wife will only be middle-aged.”
While Tokubei was still arguing with himself about the exact sum to send for, I decided to have a look at the bamboo grove. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced, rising and picking up my sword from the floor beside me.
The host turned sharply to look at me. For an instant a faint, rueful smile appeared on his lips. Then he looked away.
Outside, I went straight to the clump of shoots in the bamboo grove. On the previous night—or what I perceived as the previous night—I had noticed that clump of bamboo shoots particularly, because I had been so hungry that I pictured them being cut up and boiled.
The clump of bamboo shoots was still in the same place. That in itself proved nothing, since bamboo could spring up anywhere, including the place where a clump had existed fifty years earlier. But what settled the matter in my mind was that the clump looked almost exactly the way it did when I had seen it before, except that every shoot was about an inch taller. That was a reasonable amount for bamboo shoots to grow overnight.
Overnight. Tokubei and I had slept on the ground here overnight. We had not slept here for a period of fifty years.
Once I knew that, I was able to see another inconsistency: the door panels with the painted landscapes. The painting with the winter scene had been on the right last night and it was on the left this morning. It wasn’t simply a case of the panels changing places, because the depressions in the panel for the handholds had been reversed. In other words, what I saw just now was not a pair of paintings faded and torn by age. They were an entirely different pair of paintings.
But how did the pretty young girl change into an old woman? The answer was that if the screens could be different ones, so could the women. I had seen one woman, a young girl, last night. This morning I saw a different woman, an old hag.
The darkening of the thatched roof? Simply blow ashes over the roof. The grizzled-haired host of last night could be the same man who claimed to be his grandson today. It would be a simple matter for a young man to put gray in his hair and assume a stoop.
And the purpose of the hoax? To make Tokubei send for fifty pieces of gold, of course. It was clever of the man to accuse the shrine priestess of fraud and pretend reluctance to let Tokubei send his message.
I couldn’t even feel angry toward the man and his daughter—or mother, sister, wife, whatever. He could have killed me and taken my swords, which he clearly admired. Perhaps he was really a ronin and felt sympathetic toward another one.
When I returned to the house, Tokubei was looking resigned. “I’ve decided to send for the whole fifty gold pieces.” He sighed.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “In fact, we should be leaving as soon as possible. We shouldn’t even stop here for a drink, especially not of wine.”
Tokubei stared. “What do you mean? If I go back home, I’ll find everything changed!”
“Nothing will be changed,” I told him. “Your wife will be as young and beautiful as ever.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Fifty years . . .”
“It’s a joke,” I said. “The people here have a peculiar sense of humor, and they’ve played a joke on us.”
Tokubei’s mouth hung open. Finally he closed it with a snap. He stared at the host, and his face became first red and then purple.
“You—you were trying to swindle me!” He turned furiously to me. “And you let them do this!”
“I’m not letting them,” I pointed out. “That’s why we’re leaving right now.”
“Are you going to let them get away with this?” demanded Tokubei. “They might try to swindle someone else!”
“They only went to this much trouble when they heard of the arrival of a fine fat fish like you,” I said. I looked deliberately at the host. “I’m sure they won’t be tempted to try the same trick again.”
“And that’s the end of your story?” asked Matsuzo. “You and Tokubei just went away? How did you know the so-called innkeeper wouldn’t try the trick on some other luckless traveler?”
Zenta shook his head. “I didn’t know. I merely guessed that once the trick was exposed, they wouldn’t take the chance of trying it again. Of course I thought about revisiting the place to check if the people there were leading an honest life.”
Why didn’t you?” asked Matsuzo. “Maybe we could go together. You’ve made me curious about that family now.”
“Then you can satisfy your curiosity,” said Zenta, smiling. He held his cup out for more tea, and the farmer’s wife came forward to pour.
Only now she used both hands to hold the pot, and for the first time Matsuzo saw her left hand. He gasped. The hand had six fingers.
“Who was the old woman?” Zenta asked the farmer’s wife.
“She was my grandmother,” she replied. “Having six fingers is something that runs in my family.”
At last Matsuzo found his voice. “You mean this is the very house you visited? This is the inn where time was lost?”
“Where we thought we lost fifty years,” said Zenta. “Perhaps I should have warned you first. But I was almost certain that we’d be safe this time. And I see that I was right.”
He turned to the woman again. “You and your husband are farmers now, aren’t you? What happened to the man who was the host?”
“He’s dead,” she said quietly. “He was my brother, and he was telling you the truth when he said that he was a ronin. Two years ago he found work with another warlord, but he was killed in battle only a month later.”
Matsuzo was peering at the pair of sliding doors, which he hadn’t noticed before. “I see that you’ve put up the faded set of paintings. The winter scene is on the left side.”
The woman nodded. “We sold the newer pair of doors. My husband said that we’re farmers now and that people in our position don’t need valuable paintings. We used the money to buy some new farm implements.”
She took up the teapot again. “Would you like another cup of tea?” she asked Matsuzo.
Staring at her left hand, Matsuzo had a sudden qualm. “I—I don’t think I want any more.”
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