Edo, Japan Isamu, hailed as the veteran of 500 fires, has spent 17 years as a machibikeshi, protecting the delicate paper-walled homes of Edo during windy monsoon season. Ryo, the water dragon etched on his skin, has been a source of comfort throughout this time—and an object of longing. The chief of the brigade wants the aging Isamu to retire, but Isamu fears that if he does, the great dragon will no longer be interested in protecting him.
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“To Isamu-san, the hero of five hundred fires!”
Isamu accepted the toast, forcing his grimace to become a grin. He swallowed hot sake and slammed his cup down on the table. He felt the liquor more than he wanted to, burning his insides like licking flames. He thought of Ryo wrapped around his body, and wished for a rush of cool scales.
Unsteadily, he made his way to his feet. “It’s time to toast another man, no? To our brave leader, Masaru-san, who will lead this brigade to victory and reward again this monsoon season!”
The men drank and shouted, but their voices took on a surly tone. Firefighting had always been lucrative work, but the shogunate had been complaining lately about the number and frequency of the fires, and the expense of paying and keeping the men. They’d accused some of the hikeshi of arson and extortion, dragging them through the streets in their hanten before executing them.
Isamu sighed. Maybe later, when Masaru suggested that he retire, he would accept this time. The other man was talking again. Isamu focused his eyes and tried to pay attention.
“Every year, we firefighters get to see the colors of the autumn leaves come out year-round, and we don’t have to leave the city to do it!” Isamu laughed politely at Masaru’s tired joke. “Perhaps we would have had more glory battling one of the Great Fires, but even in these lesser times, we’ve seen our share.”
“Especially now!” someone shouted, and Isamu drank to it. There had been so much arson lately. So many times, a fire wasn’t an accident anymore. He remembered stopping a woman running from a conflagration with a bundle of spent firecrackers in her hands. “I wanted to see what would happen,” she had said. Isamu had simply let go of her, too disgusted to know what else to do.
“How many fires has it been, Isamu-san?”
He realized that Masaru was repeating the question. Isamu teetered, the drink making his balance elusive. “It has truly been five hundred,” he said. “Since I’ve been alive, there are more each year.”
“That water dragon of yours has served you well.” Envious eyes turned towards Isamu. Other firefighters had full body tattoos, but none could match the artistry and color with which Ryo had been rendered.
“I am not worthy of Ryo’s service,” Isamu broke in. “It is I who serve him, in whatever way he might wish. Any way. He is as real as the artist could make him, and yet not real enough. I long for just one touch.” The room got quieter. The stares changed. He was too drunk.