Chapter Eleven: The Student of Water
"All is war."
The darkness was just settling onto the city as Tanoshi came to the open gate of Lord Horii's house, a simple rain cloak over his fine kimono and hakama. The ronin had risen high among the ranks of the military, and as a hatamoto he had both the rank and the assets to afford a fine house boarding Otosan Uchi's mighty temples.
Not that any of that will spare him his kharma, Tanoshi told himself with a vicious grin.
Walking to the door where the large bell hung by the door, the Nitanki heir gave a single pull, sending a heavy peal of sound through the house beyond. The noise and whir of the city seemed to die at the sound of the bell, and a moment later the inner doors opened, revealing the man that Tanoshi had come so far to destroy.
Horii was not a young man; his hair was cropped short, and had turned to gray long ago. That slender face was the same as in Tanoshi's memory, complete with empty, almost lifeless eyes. The man's thin lips worked into a smile, and his gold kimono caught the gentle breeze as he bowed to his visitor, "Tanoshi of Nitanki, I am honored…"
"The time for talk is over, Horii, you bastard!" Tanoshi gripped his father's sword tightly, tearing the rain cloak away and tossing it into the street.
The old man's face sprung wrinkles from his sudden frown, "I see that your father neglected to teach you much of manners." Drawing out his matched steel fans, the samurai started down his steps, watching Tanoshi with an irritated eye.
The Nitanki laughed harshly, stepping back to give himself room in the empty street, "It's not my manners that are going to be tested, old man. Your yojimbo is not here to stab me in the back, like he did my father."
"You give your father too much credit," Horii said idly.
With the flick of his hands, the tessen unfurled, their steel edges suddenly shining like blades in the light of the moon. Raising his weapons into the light, Horii smirked, "This is where you draw your sword, little samurai."
The sword flashed.
His sandals scraped against the stone of the street, but already Koshin was wary. The stench of blood was suddenly heavy in the air, and further down was the soft chuckling of a man that Koshin had never heard before. The Kakita's foot scraped suddenly hard as he moved, and the laughter stopped suddenly, leaving a new sound in its wake.
Tanoshi's breath was rapid and shallow when Koshin found him in the street, a pool of blood flowing from where his right hand had once been. The severed appendage lay in the street further down the road, the Nitanki katana shimmering dully in the light of the night sky.
"Damn you, you stupid boy," Koshin cursed, tearing his kimono off to wrap the seeping wound as best he could. Tanoshi lay quiet, stunned but not dead, and as the ronin bound his wound with the rest of his silk shirt, the laughter began again.
Looking up the steps of the house, Koshin saw a thin, faintly muscled man. He was old, with a clean face and short hair that seemed out of place with his splendid kimono. Tucked in his obi was a fine sword, and in each hand was a finely polished tessen, each one dripping with Tanoshi's blood. The man's face was harsh and taut, stretching into a smile as he came down from his place at the top of the stairs.
"I heard that Nitanki had hired a ronin to do their dirty work," the old man said, looking over Koshin tawny form, considering the tattoo of the Crane for a moment as the man turned to face him, "but I didn't expect a real swordsman like you. It was fortunate I took precautions."
Drawing his swords, Koshin sneered. "You are a smart one…Lord Horii, I take it? I'll give you that much, though. Trusting that Tanoshi's behavior would bring him to your first…that took a lot of smarts and discipline. I only wish I hadn't just figured it out…"
Horii laughed, "You give me too much credit. It's just like battle, goes back hundreds of years to Akodo and Tangen. Patience is an important virtue for men like us, especially when it is your opponent's weakness."
"Maybe," the ronin said, spinning his sakaba, "But now we'll see how your other talents fare against a real swordsman."
But Horii only laughed, sealing his tessen shut with a wet snapping sound, instantly expelling all blood from the blades. Turning away to head up the steps again, the man looked down at Koshin, "No reason for us to go and kill one another now. My feud with the Nitanki is finished. If you're worried about money, we can attend to that."
Koshin started up the steps, shaking his head slowly as he moved. "Masters like you, who would maim someone who couldn't have scratched you if he tried…a samurai's supposed to have compassion, not just strength. I didn't agree to help the Nitanki family for the money, you know…but even if I did, a samurai's word can't be turned aside by gold."
"Really?" Horii asked mockingly, turning to face the samurai where he stood a few steps below.
"I had to know what kind of person you were, and I'm almost glad that you're the kind of man that the Nitanki said you were. It's a matter of righteousness, or at least something like it. People like you, without compassion…I guess I'm learning something here after all…"
Stepping back down to the empty street where Tanoshi's blood mingled with the beginning of a slight rain, Horii watched the ronin, all mirth gone from his face, "What's that, ronin?"
"I'll figure it out," Koshin said with a smile.
Casting an idle glance down the step towards the prone form of Tanoshi, Horii smiled again, "Talk about compassion, ronin…you seem a lot more interested in killing me than in saving the little boy."
Koshin took a step backwards, considering the tessen master's words. "Maybe you're right, Horii-sama…but there's no point to taking this boy back now. You're still alive, so he will come looking for you again. You're both too proud. I think I see now that this can never end, until one of you is dead."
"Seems to be the way of things, sadly." Horii said with a shrug.
"So what do you say we finish this quickly, old one? I need to save that boy's life, but I wouldn't think that I'm doing any good unless you die." Koshin felt the anger welling up inside of him now, and fought to hold his blades dutifully to his side.
Horii shrugged his thin shoulders, "I suppose that I should admire a man that holds to his principles so highly."
Koshin said nothing, silently raising his blades.
The kick was sudden, Horii's leg snaking out and smashing Koshin's chest. The samurai went backwards with a grunt, striking the steps hard twice before rolling to the ground in the street. His back aching from the impact, Koshin felt the shadow against the moon, before he saw Horii's leap. The bladed fans whirled shut with a snap, and the old man crashed down, both weapons extended.
Move, his mind shrieked. Move, move, move!
Pitching aside with sheer instinct, Koshin leapt backwards, a second ahead of the thrust of both tessen into the ground. Stepping backwards, the samurai realized suddenly that his swords had been lost in the impact. Horii was laughing, snapping open his killing blades, "Seems like you're just like the boy, ronin. All talk and posturing, and then you go and put yourself in such a position!"
Striking high, Horii sliced open the ronin's bare chest, earning a splatter of warm blood across his taut face. The second tessen descended a second later, but Koshin's arm reacted, turning away the strike even as he twisted with the arm, throwing his enemy to the ground.
As Horii struck with a wet thud, Koshin lunged for the nearest of the fallen blades. The warrior would not be stunned for long; even now the man was up and on the attack. There was only a second to act.
Only one moment of truth.
Throwing himself backwards with the force of the second man striking him, Koshin felt his air flow slacken as Horii pressed his left forearm across the ronin's throat. Raising high his second blade, the tessen master started his laugh, only to have the words stifled as blood flowed through his lungs.
"What the…no technique…like that in the Mirumoto Ryo…" Horii said with a choke, stumbling backwards and off of Koshin's blade with a wet sound, which the ronin held extended with both hands. The sword he had snatched, Tanoshi's sword, dripped black along its whole length, its brightness extinguished in an instant. "How…"
"Fading thrust," the samurai said softly. Watching as the tessen master slumped in pain against the nearby wall, Koshin pulled himself to his feet, wiping the blood from the fine blade, "I understand now, Horii-sama…just now, I understood what you meant by it being war."
Looking up suddenly, the wounded warrior frowned. "W-what are you talking about?"
"Taking advantage of other people's weaknesses," Koshin said, whirling Tanoshi's blade to place it behind his back. "Your manipulation of Tanoshi, you luring me up the stairs. All it took was to give you what you wanted…a chance to finish me off."
A smile crossed the older man's face, "F-funny…that s-someone l-like you…would understand…"
Walking over to recover his lost sakaba, the bushi nodded. Moving over to where Tanoshi lay, Koshin felt the warm wetness on his chest, and the sudden ache that filled his back. The rush of combat was gone now, leaving the lingering reminders of how close Horii had come to succeeding. Turning back for a moment to where the other man lay, Koshin raised his katana.
"Final mercy, Horii? The death of a warrior?"
The older samurai glanced up from where he had slumped against the wall with those calm eyes, his final smile accompanied by a labored nod…
"Your feud is finished," Koshin said wearily from his place by the main doors of the Nitanki house, though nothing beyond his voice betrayed any weakness. "Explaining the matter to the magistrates remains for you."
Masanko nodded, her eyes still drifting to the room where her brother lay sleeping. The woman rubbed her slender hand over her other arm, "Is this what life is like for you, ronin? Forever watching people tear their lives apart for meaningless victories?"
The samurai shook his head. "'No man may sleep while the killer of his father walks the earth.'"
"Nitanki owes you much, Koshin-dono," the girl whispered, again moving closer to Koshin than the swordsman would have liked. This time, however, his grey eyes remained on her own black pools, holding till that moment when Masanko blinked and turned away.
Koshin's face was somber, "If Nitanki loves me, Masanko-sama, then it must let me go. The paths that I must walk, I must walk alone. Besides, you are soon to be married."
The girl's long hair swished as she moved, looking again, unafraid, into his calm, yet thunderous eyes. "But not yet," she whispered to the ronin. "I am still free."
Smiling sadly, Koshin reached up, running a hand through her long, straight hair, for a moment releasing his hatred, becoming more akin to a man than he had been in many years. "But I am not. I made a promise to a lady, one with strength and wisdom and beauty, like you… It was a long time ago, Masanko…but I cannot break it now. It is a part of my soul."
The girl's heart sunk, defeated at last. Masanko stepped backwards from the ronin, her long hair slipping easily out from his fingers, returning that callused touch to the world of the sword and blood. "I wish that you would reconsider, but I cannot make you stay. You are a strange man, Koshin-dono…the woman who owns your heart must be very blessed."
Seeing the darkness in his eyes, the Nitanki started slightly, but Koshin only lifted his kasa from where it had lain, "I was the fortunate one, lady…all my life, though I never knew it then. I brought her life nothing but pain."
The girl stepped away silently, watching Koshin as he walked from her home, his simple clothes catching in the sudden wind. As the samurai vanished into Otosan Uchi's sea of nobility and commoners, Masanko realized that he had taken no money, and even the shirt they had given the man had been destroyed to save Tanoshi's life.
A final bow, and a whisper was all she could leave for him, "Thank you,
The Path Continues...