by Daidoji Gisei
The katana’s name was Faithful Guardian, and it had been forged at the order of a Kakita lord to honor one of his retainers, a Daidoji yojimbo who had single-handedly rescued the lord’s youngest daughter from an ogre outlaw. The yojimbo (who was also given the daughter) had passed it on to his grandson, who had passed it to his grandson, and so it had passed down though time, with each new holder swearing to uphold its proud legacy of valor and devotion.
Gisei had known the story of the Faithful Guardian long before she had ever met the boy who would eventually carry it, and when she did meet him it had impressed her greatly to realize that her beloved stories had effects that spread until they touched even her ordinary life. The boy had been amused by her reaction. To him it was his family’s ancestral blade, a treasure that would automatically become his once he completed his gempukku.
Gisei unwrapped the kimono bundled around the katana and spread it out on the floor of the room. Slowly she drew the blade out of its saya and laid it down, allowing the moonlight to play among the inazuma and the horai in the grain of the steel. It was easily the most beautiful katana she had ever seen. Every detail spoke of the skill and devotion that had gone into its making, from the subtle shaping of the chori at the tip to the delicate pine boughs on the tsuba.
Getting the katana had been frighteningly easy. Gisei had waited until the local magistrate had shown up to investigate the report that a gang of bandits had been wiped out in a fight at the inn, and then gone to him with her story. After her battle, she had told him, she had noticed that the bandit leader was carrying the daisho that had been looted from the body of her friend Daidoji Mifune, who had died fighting against the Lion forces at Shiro no Yogin. Could the magistrate arrange to have it returned to his family?
The magistrate had studied her for a moment, his pale Doji eyes revealing nothing of his thoughts. Then he had walked over to where the leader’s body lay and studied it. Gisei had held her breath in dread, wondering what sort of story was unfolding in the magistrate’s mind. It didn’t take a Kituski to notice the bone-white scars on the forearms, or that unlike the rest of the bandits the leader had died in a duel and not in a melee. Finally the magistrate had looked up and met her eyes, a painfully gentle look of sympathy on his face. Of course the daisho needed to be returned, he had explained, but he had very few men in his command. Since she knew the family, could he entrust its return to her? And so Faithful Guardian had passed into her hands.
She had taken the katana out to look at it every night since receiving it
from the magistrate, and every night she had gone through the same cycle of
argument. Tomorrow the road divided, and she would take either the road that ran
Daidoji, and from there back to her home, or the one that led to the home of Mifune’s family. Tonight she would have to make up her mind.
Gisei reached out and touched the brilliant blue silk wrapping the hilt. She wanted the katana. She wanted it more than she had ever wanted any man. She wanted it more than she had wanted to graduate from the Daidoji school. She wanted it more, even, than her childhood dream of becoming a storyteller and spinning tales at her lord’s Winter Court. She wanted it that badly. And it could be hers, if she wanted.
No one knew she had the katana except for the magistrate, who had clearly written off the affair as a private matter of the Daidoji. No inquiries would come from that quarter. Mifune’s family would know that Faithful Guardian was missing, but were unlikely to do anything about it. As painful as its loss was, being publicly linked with a bandit would be worse. All she needed to do to possess the katana’s beauty was break her word to the magistrate and take it home. It would be easy, really. Such an act would dishonor her greatly, but no one but her would ever know of it.
Gisei sat back and wondered how much her honor was really worth. Mifune had accused her of running away from a battle. She was fairly sure that wasn’t true, for then how could she have been found bearing the daishos of her dead comrades? But she might have done something worse. Given the nature of the Shadowlands, she might have done much, much worse. And since this was so, why worry about her honor at all? Why not take the sword? There were no doubts in its beauty, no uncertainty in its smooth, razor-edged curve.
It had been a mistake to look at the katana at all, Gisei decided. To draw someone else’s sword dishonored both the sword and the samurai, but she had maneuvered herself into it with the argument that thanks to Mifune, Faithful Guardian was beyond being harmed by such a small thing. And as for herself—no one would know, and what no one knew couldn’t harm her.
Except, Gisei thought, she knew. She knew that she was capable of doing a dishonorable thing to gratify her desires, and she was knew there was a way to possess a katana she desired with all her heart. Her decision to look had been an easy one, and it had led directly to this second, much more difficult, decision. If she decided to take Faithful Guardian, where would that decision lead her?
But the katana would be hers. The thought would not go away.
Gisei sat for a long time, contemplating honor and perfection and the katana
of a yojimbo who had cared only for those things. Eventually the sky went from
black to gray to pearl and finally to the rosy gold that heralded Lord Sun’s
arrival, and still she sat in thought. Finally she stirred and returned the
katana to its saya, then rewrapped the kimono around it. Then she gathered the
rest of her things and left the inn.
* * * * *
Daidoji Azami unwrapped the kimono bundled around the katana and spread it out on the floor of the room. She studied it for a moment without speaking, a slight pursing of her lips the only sign she recognized it at all. Finally she spoke. “So, he is dead,” she said quietly.
“Hai, Azami-gozen,” Gisei said.
“Do you know how he died?”
Gisei’s brain froze. She had rehearsed this conversation a hundred times in her mind, but none of the delicate, tactful phrases she had thought of would come out. “Azami-gozen, I killed him.”
Azami looked at her with faint surprise. “You were the girl who hid in the library instead of attending her lessons, were you not?”
“Azami-gozen,” Gisei said with cool dignity, “I was not hiding.” It had only happened once, and it had been accident.
The older woman made no reply. Slowly she reached out and picked up a section of the kimono, examining the slash that ran through the front of the garment. “It must have surprised him to realize you had killed him,” she said quietly. “All things came so easily to him…he never understood the mastery that comes through effort, or the honor that comes through hard choices.” Azami fell silent again.
Gisei felt her face burn with shame. “Azami-gozen,” she said hesitantly, “there are many who fail at those choices.”
“A samurai who has committed his heart to honor will recognize those failures, and strive to root them out. For small failings, there is meditation, study of the arts, or accomplishing heroic deeds. For souls blackened by greater sins, purity is found only in death.” Azami reached out and smoothly drew Faithful Guardian from its saya. She placed it tip-down in front of her and then, wrapping both hands around the hilt, leaned on it. The blade bowed for a moment and held, the slender steel fighting the will of the woman who held it. And then it snapped with a flat, metallic crack.
Gisei found herself staring in horror at the shards, hands pressed against her mouth to keep herself from crying out. Slowly she pried her hands away and looked up at the other woman.
“I thank you for returning my family’s honor,” Azami said.
* * * * *
At the edge of a grassy meadow an old and twisted tree kept watch over the road. Gisei sat down underneath it, put her head in her hands, and wept.