Chapter Twelve: The Mantis Isles
"Honor lives not in the blade, but in the man that bears
It had been several days at sea, from the ports of Otosan Uchi to the island home of the Mantis Clan. As Koshin stepped off the merchant ship, the samurai felt his legs shiver for a moment, adjusting in a second from the constant rocking of the sea. All around him, the traders and magistrates bustled about the ships of the eighth Great Clan, paying little notice to one more ronin in their midst.
Taking a look around the strange buildings of the Yoritomo, Koshin started towards the kyuden sitting high above the sea on impossibly high walls of stone. The ronin had never had the opportunity to test the style of the family, and with the possibility of more trouble from Shinjo Abaya, he had decided it was best to move along.
Besides, Otosan Uchi had been filled with dread anticipation, and Koshin had experienced enough war to last more than a lifetime.
More than anything else, Koshin realized, he was tired, already so weary from his journey across the Empire. It had been weeks since his fight with Horii, and without combat there was only a profound emptiness that came with the passing of time.
Time that allowed Koshin to remember Taehime, his sisters, and the friends that he had lost. Regret in the present had been a simple thing to overcome; regret of the past was a constant struggle.
For the moment, however, the former Crane wished nothing more than to find a worthy challenger in the home of the Mantis, and lose himself in the fight to be what he had been.
The road that led to the castle was steep and well maintained; at every instance there was another Mantis bushi watching the ronin as he wound his way higher up the steady slope. At first, Koshin was only one of a hundred or more wandering travelers and dignitaries, but soon he was alone, standing before the heavy gates of the Mantis palace, small and insignificant against the towering walls of stone.
Standing before the sealed doors were six men dressed in the fine armor of the Mantis, their matched kama thrust through their obi. Each one wore the mark of one of the elite house guard, and behind every mempo was a pair of suspicious eyes.
"What business do you have here, ronin? Lord Aramasu has enough men at his command," snapped one of the samurai, obviously annoyed by the mere presence of the wave man.
Koshin smiled sharply, "I am searching for perfection of the blade, and hope to see some of the Mantis techniques in a test of skill."
The Mantis samurai just laughed. "Now is not the time for a musha shugyo, fool. The Empire is at war with itself, and we have no time to teach you how to fight."
"Maybe I will show you instead," Koshin said tightly, his hand resting on one of his blades.
"Is that a challenge, ronin?"
"I will see the Yoritomo technique," Koshin said. "Whether you or your lord demonstrates it, that is no difference to me…" He could feel himself getting angry now, like a hot air buffeting the Void.
There was a flicker of chi, like a needle's prick, just before it came.
Seizing hold of his kama suddenly, the Mantis moved forward. Even as his hand moved, however, Koshin's sakaba snapped from its place, smashing the metal gauntlet and slamming into the hand beneath it. The samurai cried out in pain and surprise, and his companions reacted quickly, their weapons almost leaping into every available hand.
Standing ringed with sudden foes, Koshin maintained his stance, staring at the first man as he cradled his broken hand, "I am only a wandering samurai, but I still have my honor. If you still think that you can teach me something, then reach for your weapon again."
The Mantis held his hand wisely, looking from one companion to another.
"I have come this far to test the strength of my techniques, and hopefully to learn something new," Koshin continued, trying not to think about the blades that now encircled him, "the Mantis have the reputation of skilled warriors. I hoped that they would aid me in my quest."
The swordsman was happy to see that his skills had not fully deteriorated, since his days in the courts of the Emperor years ago.
Slowly, the Mantis blades were lowered, though beneath their masks Koshin could not read their faces. He could, however, sense their chi, however faintly, as it slackened and slowed with each passing moment. The danger was over.
"Sensei Yorishi has been the head of the school for years," the injured man said, "but he retired two years ago, ronin. Since then Lord Aramasu has had no time to examine the junior teachers for advancement…so you have come a great distance for nothing."
Koshin stood quietly for a moment. "Does Yorishi-dono still practice the arts?"
The man laughed once, "He does, though you'll require more than a fast draw to finish with him. If you wish to visit with Sensei Yorishi, ronin, then you can find him meditating on the east side of the island, in the fishing village north of the bay."
"My thanks," Koshin said with a bow, turning away from the samurai and heading back down the hill, towards the main road that would lead him east across the large isle. Behind him, the Mantis watched the ronin from their positions, wondering what purpose he truly served here, in such a dark hour.
The road that led down to the tiny fishing village was rough, bordered on either side by large silk farms and shadowed by the great sleeping volcanoes of the Mantis isle. Koshin watched the farmers as they worked, delicately collecting the harvest of their worms, preparing the first piece of what were to become fine robes for the Imperial Court.
Even here, it seemed, there was a palpable air of dread; something just beneath the surface, which refused to be defined.
Coming into the small, dirty village at last, the ronin did not see anything that resembled the dwelling of a samurai. The peasant huts were simple and temporary; perfectly made for life in such a fierce place as the Isles of Silk and Spice. From the simple fishing ports to the roadside peddlers, the swordsman was lost, and wishing he had asked the samurai where the former sensei lived.
A few simple questions, however, and Koshin's question was quickly answered: it seemed that everyone in the village knew of Yoritomo Yorishi, and the samurai was told that the old sensei maintained a small house on the cliffs above the town. Another short walk though the thick forests of the island, and Koshin found himself at last upon a well-worn trail through the thick bamboo, his feet scuffing the stone gently as he moved.
Yorishi's home was simple, yet well tended; its front door was clean and open to the warm air, sheltered from the cliff face by a final patch of trees. Somewhere within the house, Koshin heard singing; a loud, poorly trained voice, crooning the words to an old sailor's song.
"Yoritomo Yorishi?" Koshin called, standing well beyond the house as he did. Almost immediately the singing stopped, and moments later the frame of a large man appeared in the doorway.
The man's voice was rough, like the sound of stone against stone, "Who are you, samurai? You are too old to be a messenger from Lord Aramasu, and too young to be a trainee in need of guidance."
"My name is Koshin," he said, not too loudly. "I was told that you are a master of the Yoritomo bushi school, and that I might be able to test my skills against your own."
Taking a step from his door, Koshin finally saw Yorishi in the light of day. The man's form was tall and broad, his face barely lined with the wrinkles of age. He dressed in the simple robes of a monk, but from his stance and the kama now in his hand, it was a simple thing to see that he had not yet succeeded in forgetting his warrior days.
The big man's face was well fed and his beard was short and black, while a simple headband held back what remained of his short, thinning hair. He smiled fiercely as he spoke up, his voice now almost like the sea against the cliffs below, "A ronin challenger…this is a surprise to me. I thought that no one would speak my name enough to bring a samurai here to fight."
"Your students remember," Koshin answered, bowing as he did. "They told me where I could find you."
"Then come and sit with me," Yorishi said brightly, "and we will talk of warrior things."
Koshin nodded, figuring that Yorishi was perhaps fifty, not quite as old as the samurai was, but close enough to have an understanding talk. It would be a fine thing, he suddenly realized, to simply sit and talk of normal things. "I am honored, Yorishi-dono."
Though he lived alone, Yorishi had his food cooked and brought to him by the wives in the village; the food was warm and well-tended, and Koshin ate heartily as he sat with the old Mantis and looked out over the cliff, towards the sea.
As they talked, Koshin considered how little the two had in common; yet, as the evening continued, the swordsman found that he liked the sensei quite a bit. Yorishi was an old warrior, hardened by war and mercenary work, yet, like Koshin, he had learned though great difficulty how to bridle that inner rage.
Finally, as the moon was rising, the Mantis led Koshin to the largest room in his modest house, opening the door to reveal a small, well kept dojo within.
Stepping inside, Koshin marveled at the weapons that hung from every rack and corner. They were strange weapons, from simple bo staffs to strange chains and flails and even a rare Yabanjin sword, each one perfectly cleaned and oiled, resting calmly in their proper place.
"It is incredible, Yorishi-sama," Koshin said with a smile. He could feel the air growing denser, as the two fighting spirits rose at the thought of war.
Suddenly, Koshin realized the oddness of Yorishi's dojo, turning to the man with a questioning stare, "No katana; not one in all the dojo. These are all weapons used by sohei and peasants…where do you keep your blade, Yorishi-sama?"
The Mantis chuckled slightly, walking over and lifting a light pair of nunchuku from the wall, "The katana is a fine enough weapon," he said, whirling the weapon impressively as he spoke, "but too simple, too basic to hold my interest. I require flexibility; the freedom to develop new skills…"
"But what about your ancestors? Surely you still have your katana?"
"Yes," Yorishi said with a small smile. "I have not touched the weapon in years; if my ancestors want it, it will be waiting for them to clean the blade."
Koshin shook his head. "You should show more respect towards such an honored weapon."
But the big man simply ceased his motions with the peasant item, "There is no honor in that blade, or any other, for that matter. Swords are not great, and neither are names. I would think that a ronin like you would know that a man's title or blade has no bearing on his true worth."
"You are right," Koshin said with some shame. "It is just that I have great respect for such blades."
Yorishi nodded, "Then here is your lesson, ronin. Learn to respect the wielder so much, and you will never dishonor yourself again." The words were tight, and they cut Koshin, but the ronin accepted the chiding gracefully, raising his eyes at length to meet the old man's steel gaze.
"Any more lessons tonight, Master Yorishi?" Koshin asked softly, his eyes drifting to the weapons shining on the walls. He felt uncomfortable now, with the eyes of the older man upon him. It was a feeling that Koshin could neither shake nor control.
"Not tonight, ronin." Yorishi turned away, his eyes finally
releasing their strange hold on the samurai. "You have learned enough for