At dinner, I sat next to Suzu. The dinner hall was full of lively apprentices, none of whom seemed tired from their previous training. This was probably part of the training too. Master Kaemon sat at the front of the room, Miss Kameko at the back. During the meal, the master uttered not a word, and neither did Miss Kameko. The others appeared to be already accustomed to this phenomenon, and so I didn’t ask about it either.
“How old are you, Jiro?” Suzu asked.
“Oh, you’re older than me by a year!” For reasons unknown to me, Suzu’s eyes gleamed at my answer. “The master is only twenty-three.”
“Ehhh?!” I couldn’t help but feel slightly shocked. Master Kaemon didn’t seem anywhere near his early twenties. In fact, I thought he must have been in his thirties, at least. Out of shame or other causes, I felt my ears heat up.
Suzu laughed. “I know, right? I was shocked too, the first time I found out!”
Dinner time passed by merrily. After that, Miss Kameko told me where I would sleep—in a room coupled with Suzu. Suzu was genuinely happy about that, and so was I. “I slept alone up till now,” the sixteen-year-old told me. “It’s nice to have company, and you seem like a nice guy too!” Later, Suzu told me that having two boys share the same room was a traditional practice, for the purpose of the two looking after each other in case something happened.
“How long have you been here?” I asked him in the dark, facing the wall in my futon. As the lights were put out as soon as it was time for sleep, we had to feel our way around the room—well, I had to, since it was already a familiar place for Suzu. My eyes adjusted to the darkness only two minutes later.
“A year, I think,” he answered. “I was the newest before you came. Everyone was so nice, though. The only scary people are Master Kaemon himself and Miss Kameko, haha!”
Starting from early morning the next day, Master Kaemon trained me personally, in attempt to help me catch up with the other boys as soon as possible. Did Suzu receive intensive training too, a year ago? I kept a mental note to ask him later. At one point, the master led me to a place where there were many wooden logs gathered in one bundle.
“I’m going to roll these toward you, and you will run to me on them,” he announced.
My mouth hung open for a second, certain that I would most definitely lose my balance as soon as the second log came rolling towards me. “Yes, Master Kaemon.” Nonetheless, I would try. If I didn’t comply, I would only be a troublesome burden to the Haki clan.
When the wooden logs came rolling, as expected, I slipped from the second log. I yelped before falling, then watched in wide-eyed shock as the logs continued rolling down towards me. I raised an arm to block them, but before the next log even touched my arm, I was yanked away from the bundle of wood. I raised my head to see Master Kaemon looking at me with an uncertain glare, as if he was trying to judge whether or not to simply give up on me.
“Master, um…” I paused, caught between the options of saying “thank you”, “I’m sorry”, and “how were you able to appear so fast?” While hesitating, I didn’t notice that I had already been staring at him for long moments, and that he had been staring right back, waiting.
At last, Master Kaemon tore his gaze from me. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said, letting go of my arm. “Gather the logs. Let’s try again.”