Ikoma peered out through a rifle slit, squinting at bright sunshine. Beyond sprawled the busy depot of Masaki Station, at which the Kotetsujo had arrived within the last hour. Local steamsmiths bustled about, and a steady trickle of passengers emerged from the inspection box attached to the train, ready to enjoy a day of supply-shopping and seeing the sights of the town.
With a sigh the Kabaneri clasped his hand over his left bicep, and a pair of faint but unmistakable crescent-shaped imprints hidden beneath his sleeve.
On the previous afternoon, hoping to give their friends something extra for trade at the station, he had suggested that he and Mumei could leave the train and forage for mushrooms in the woods alongside the tracks. At the time there was no presence of Kabane in the area, and he was confident their ability to sense the monsters would allow ample time for a retreat. However, with the pickings good, they were enticed to let their guard down. They had strayed just a little too far into the trees… and then a pack of Kabane had closed in from the other side of the tracks, coming between the Kabaneri and the Kotetsujo before the two could reach safety. They had to fight their way through, and in the process Mumei exhausted her strength, forcing Ikoma to shield her for the last several yards of their dash. All things considered, he was lucky to have suffered only a single bite; but under the circumstances, even his immunity to the Kabane virus couldn’t prevent this bite from costing him.
“There you are!” shrilled a brightly-dressed Kajika, popping through the hatch with Takumi close behind her. “Are you ready to go?”
“…Sorry.” With a wan smile, Ikoma shook his head. “When I was getting dressed, I saw that the bite mark from yesterday is still showing. If I tried to pass the inspection with that, it would cause a panic.” He shrugged ruefully. “And I doubt it’ll be completely faded by the time we leave tomorrow morning, either. I’m afraid I’ll just have to stay on the train this time.”
Predictably, Kajika’s face fell. “Oh no!”
“Aww man, that sucks,” Takumi agreed mournfully.
The Kabaneri hurried to reassure them both, raising his hands. “It’s okay! After all, one station looks pretty much the same as any other, and it’s not like I could eat the local food anyway. It just means I’ll have some quiet time to work on new designs while everybody’s out…” He turned to his bunk, tugging at a paper amidst the pile heaped on the end of it—and inadvertently causing an avalanche, as roughed-out schematics and scrawled metallurgical notes slipped free and scattered onto the deck.
Blushing a pale pink that was intense by Kabaneri standards, Ikoma knelt to gather up the mess, and was quickly aided by the two humans.
As he collected the escaped papers, he noticed just how much he had covered each one with his scribblings, both front and back. With the Kotetsujo’s limited resources, the inventor found blank paper to be one of the most valuable commodities he could get his hands on, and he made the most of every inch of it.
He only had a few scraps of unused paper left now. If he’d been able to venture into town, that was a shortage he would have looked to rectify, but…
Next time. For now, he wasn’t going to infringe on his friends’ much-anticipated day out by asking them to run any errands for him. He could stretch what he had left until they reached another station.
Takumi straightened, turning over the last of the notes to Ikoma. “You sure you don’t want me to stay and help?”
“No, I’m fine.” Ikoma showed his fellow steamsmiths another deliberate smile. “You both need to get out there and make sure we have all the supplies we need. Okay?”
The two still looked unconvinced, but they reluctantly agreed, and took their leave of him.
After watching them go, Ikoma heaved a deep sigh, and reached for one of his last blank pieces of paper.
“Poor Ikoma,” lamented Kajika in the late afternoon, as she and Takumi were strolling through the town—now with her orphans in tow, minus only baby Ninosuke. “It’s not fair that he can’t come out and see the station too!”
“Yeah, I know.” In hours of trailing after the girl as she haggled over goods, Takumi had looked more hangdog than usual: his posture a dejected slouch, his mouth sagging in a glum frown. “I wish we could try smuggling him off the train when it gets dark… but the bushi here look way too jumpy. Ikoma’d never take the risk of getting us all run out of here, anyway.”
The news that Ikoma was confined to the train had disappointed the children too. While the chance to run around on solid, open ground was still a refreshing change for them, their play lacked some of the bounce and sparkle it would have if the entire mood of the outing had not been dampened.
“Could we get a present for Ikoma to cheer him up?” mused little Kotaro at Kajika’s side.
Both steamsmiths halted in their tracks, exchanging wide-eyed looks that quickly blossomed into smiles.
“That’s a great idea!” Takumi enthused, reaching out to tousle the boy’s wild mop of brown hair. “After all, the whole reason Ikoma’s stuck on the train now is ’cause he went picking those mushrooms for us to trade. Spending a little of that extra money on a treat for him is the least we can do.”
“What could we get for him, though?” Kajika pondered.
“Dunno. If he was normal, I’d say something good to eat, but he obviously can’t have that. And even though he’d be happy to get a new tool or something for working on weapons, that seems kinda… impersonal.”
There was a brief silence. Takumi frowned and hummed thoughtfully, looking around them at the market stalls that lined either side of the street; and suddenly his eyes lit up.
“Oh, yeah… That’s perfect!” Eagerly he trotted over to one of the stalls, pointing to the item that had caught his eye. “How much for that one?”
The merchant told him—and his smile promptly faded. He glanced over his shoulder with halfhearted hope as Kajika came up behind him. “Uh. That’s a little much. Do we have enough left?”
Grimacing, the girl shifted from one foot to the other. “Just barely. But we still haven’t gotten the sweets I promised the children, and…”
She trailed off upon feeling a tug at her sleeve, and turned to see the eldest boy Ichinoshin beside her, gazing up with large and beseeching eyes.
“If it means we can get a present for Ikoma, then I don’t need any sweets. …Please?”
As agreements of “Yeah!” and “Me too!” erupted from Kotaro and Sayo, Kajika felt her eyes well up.
“Okay!” she exclaimed with a glow of joy, and counted out the money to the merchant. He smiled and offered his thanks as he turned over the purchased item to Takumi.
“Well, where to now that we’re broke?” the big steamsmith queried cheerfully, hugging the gift against his chest.
Kajika grinned as she eyed the object in Takumi’s arms. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s go back to that public garden we passed earlier. …I think I know how we can make Ikoma’s present even more special.”
The day spent cooped up aboard the Kotetsujo was not as productive as Ikoma might have hoped. Although he attempted to focus on his work, a bored and restless annoyance nagged at him; try as he might, he couldn’t completely shut out the disappointment of being unable to join his friends in town. After the sun had set outside, he finally gave up the effort, and gloomily turned his attention to a supper that was no consolation.
Anyway, you got some time off the train yesterday, he reminded himself, gazing down morosely at the bamboo tube in his hand. …Even though that’s exactly why you’re stuck here now.
Just as he was gulping down the last drops of his blood ration, the ringing vibration of small running feet announced the return of the orphans. He quickly shoved the tube beneath the blanket on his bunk, and turned to face the kids as they happily stampeded into the train car. “Ikoma!”
“Hi guys!” he welcomed them, putting on a smile as he crouched to let small bodies cluster around him. “Did you have fun in town?”
“Yeah, we sure did!”
“Masaki Station is nice!”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Ikoma looked up at Kajika and Takumi, who had followed the children into the car. “How did the resupplying go? Could you find everything we needed?”
“Pretty much.” Kajika’s grin was uncharacteristically impish. “And I drove a hard bargain for those mushrooms you and Mumei picked, too.”
The Kabaneri winced, resisting an urge to rub the bite mark that was still faintly visible on his skin. “Good.”
If the girl’s grin was impish, Takumi’s was positively devious. “In fact, ’cause Kajika makes such good deals, we had a little left over at the end of the day to get you something too.” He reached beneath his kimono to withdraw a broad rectangular shape, which he thrust into the hands of his startled best friend. “Whadaya think?”
Blinking, Ikoma stared down at the object he found himself holding. It was… a book?—except that there was no title written on its cover. In bemusement he opened it, flipping through the first several pages.
They were entirely blank. The book was a notebook: a very fine one bound in a red cloth cover, with pages much smoother and whiter than any cheap sheaf of paper he would have chosen for himself. It was not an inexpensive gift, he realized with a sudden squeeze of his heart.
“This morning I noticed you didn’t have much paper left.” Takumi’s smile grew a shade softer, albeit still mildly teasing, as he turned to wink conspiratorially at the orphans. “We couldn’t just leave the smartest guy on the train with nothing to put down all his bright ideas on, could we?”
“No!” the children chorused, as Kajika put a hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.
Swallowing hard, Ikoma clutched the notebook reverently against his chest. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you so much, guys.”
“Of course, Ikoma…” And suddenly the renewed gleam of mischief in Kajika’s eyes was enough to outdo even Takumi. “I just hope you don’t mind that it isn’t completely unused.”
“Hmm?” Ikoma looked curiously at the notebook, running his fingers along its edges, and felt a small gap where something was tucked inside. Opening it to that spot, he found a ginkgo leaf bookmarking the last page—which wasn’t blank at all.
The page was crowded with a dozen little drawings, made by several hands with varying levels of skill. Childlike renderings of flowers, birds, a beetle. A shaggy dog carrying a stick in its mouth. A market stall with dolls and other toys on its shelves. A more detailed and refined sketch of two children playing with a ball, which must have been Kajika’s doing; a plump cat napping on a windowsill, drawn in what Ikoma recognized at once to be Takumi’s wry style.
His breath caught, and his fingers hovered over the small portraits of station life, almost but not quite touching.
“I asked the children to draw things they’d seen in the town today.” Kajika’s voice was full of her smile, soft and warm. “So at least that way, you’d get to see it through their eyes.”
Ikoma’s own eyes brimmed behind his glasses. At last his fingertips brushed ever so gently across the page, and he raised his head to smile up at his friends.
2019 Jordanna Morgan