Chapter Fifteen: Duty to the Clan
"Learn from the past
or it will
become your future."
The roads that led through the center of Mura Sabishii was crowded; from noblemen to peddlers, all men of money came to the large port city, just to the south of the World Spine Mountains. This day in particular, the city was brimming with activity, as another force of Crane soldiers filled the land to capacity; it was all Koshin could do not to fall over one of the samurai as he moved.
Seems strange, Koshin thought as he looked from side to side, all these samurai, moving south with the Emperor dead, I would have thought that the Crane would have turned more attention to the courts These armies they make no sense.
He was still considering the situation when the shouting began. At first, Koshin just ignored it as part of the throng, but soon it became apparent who was shouting, and to whom.
Nikkan's voice rang out clear as day, even with a hundred people surrounding him, "Hey, ronin with two swords! Hey you, long hair!"
The monk was riding a shaggy pony, and was dressed in fine gold robes with dragons on either arm. Nikkan's face wrinkled in amusement at Koshin's surprise, as the Daidoji escorting the Dragon cleared an area in the street for the retired sensei.
"What are you doing here, Nikkan?" Koshin was indeed quite confused; he had been gone a long time now; it seemed impossible that the man had followed him so far afield.
Smirking slightly, the monk clambered down from his perch, rubbing his aching knee as he often did. Bowing low, the Dragon spoke cordially, "I suppose that I am here on a mission of the clan, Koshin-san. But since you are here, I suppose that you should at least sit a while and talk with me. I am eager to here what you have learned."
It took only a moment for the Daidoji to arrange seats in a nobleman's quiet garden, the high walls separating the two men from the outside world, and a group of four men guarding each of the area's two doors. Nikkan stretched, his old bones cracking as he did, and then took a seat on the soft grass, motioning for Koshin to sit as well.
"'A mission for the clan?'" Koshin asked, preferring to lean against a cherry tree, "You told me that you were retired."
Nikkan just nodded, "I believed so also, my friend but circumstance dictates destiny from time to time."
Koshin nodded back, "I have heard that the Phoenix and the Dragon may be at war soon."
"Enough of those things for now," Nikkan said, waving his hand in the air as if to drive away dark thoughts. "Are you finished with this foolishness yet? Have you recovered your skills, or have you decided to follow a truer path?"
The ronin shrugged, looking up in idle thought. "Pieces of it have returned, I suppose. But it isn't a foolish quest, Nikkan. I've learned a great deal more than just swordsmanship."
"I know that well," the monk said, bowing in thanks to a cup of sake brought by a servant. "Lady Kaori sends to you her warmest wishes."
Taking his own with a small nod, Koshin did not sip the beverage; he hated sake, preferring tea. "There's still something missing, though "
Nikkan laughed softly, sipping at his sake as he watched a few blossoms shake free of the tree. None of the delicate petals touched the former swordmaster; even they knew to avoid his inner rage. "Perhaps you are not fighting with proper purpose. A sword alone accomplishes nothing."
"What I need is a challenge, not a lecture on bushido."
The monk made an indignant face, but remained silent. Koshin leaned back, his eyes closing again, "I am sorry, my friend. It is just that it is all so damn frustrating not about myself. I've come to accept those weaknesses for the moment. It's these young bushi nowadays."
"You sound like an old man," Nikkan piped with a grin.
"I am, if you will recall," Koshin responded, his youthful face a crooked smile. "But these bushi; they're all kata and challenges; no spirit, no real applications. I saw it in Otosan Uchi and Kyuden Yoritomo, and it's probably much the same everywhere else. They just don't know what real fighting is, but they're aching to use those blades."
Nikkan just nodded, "It has been years since the Spirit War, Koshin. Years of relative peace and contentment, something you and I never had. Those that are coming into power have little knowledge of war, let alone a great deal of first-hand experience. It does not seem so bad."
But the ronin disagreed. "That is why there is war coming, though. People have forgotten the horrors of the past; Toturi was one of the last ones that remembered, and now he is gone too. All of the masters that I've faced so far have been nearly my own age. The younger samurai could use a little bit of pain in their lives, to hone their honor and skill I'm not hoping for war, but then again, we samurai are warriors, after all."
"I cannot show them how to understand the blade," Nikkan said, rising from his place and adjusting his daisho, "but I believe that I can help you, my friend."
"I am not going to a monastery," Koshin said evenly.
The little monk rolled his eyes, "I know better than to think that you would be reasonable. No, Koshin, I mean that I will help you to find your goal. The difficulty of being a ronin is that of having no purpose beyond yourself."
Koshin nodded slightly, "I cannot return to the Crane, Nikkan. They all would not understand."
"Leave that to me," Nikkan responded with a smirk as the two walked back out into the street, "Perhaps there is a way for you to both hone your skill and serve your family with proper honor."
His hands were rough, rubbed and cut from hours of practice. Such delicate things they were capable of, yet from their look the things were harsh and old. In the darkness of the night, Koshin's fingers slid gingerly over the ancient sword blade, his rice paper rubbing against the rust coating, flaking the weakest pieces away.
Hours of concentration continued the same motions, time and again, but it would never be enough. Already Koshin could see that to restore the sword would require more skill than his own; though the blade was undamaged, it would take a master to properly unveil the katana.
The most the ronin could do was to rub clean the better pieces, revealing steel that shone like a polished mirror in the candlelight.
At last Koshin could do not more, and he set the strange blade aside, wondering once more who had forged the blade, and for whom. The temper line and set were well forged and delicate, yet the symbol of the maker was still coated with a rusty layer.
Whoever had owned the blade, he had possessed a powerful weapon.
"What are you planning to do, Nikkan?" Koshin's eyes were on the ceiling of his room. A lord of the city, Doji Gensui, owned the house; it had been a simple thing for the esteemed Kitsuki sensei to arrange for a friend to stay as well. Koshin had forgotten how soft the blankets of a Crane house were.
It reminded him of home.
Perhaps he was too obsessed with death and destruction, Koshin thought to himself as the crickets filled the night air. He did not believe that the path of Enlightenment was separate from the Way of the Sword; but lately Koshin felt that he was failing at both roads.
His victories were not hollow, but they were not enlightening either. He was groping in the darkness
With a smile, Koshin realized that he always had been. Groping in the darkness, searching for something within that had been his life for years. It was strange that he had never considered it before, but the truth was that he was as whole now as he had ever been.
The simple matter was that Koshin was never satisfied with what he was, not so long as he could imagine what he could be.
"I will not be flawed, Nikkan," he whispered to the shadows. "Not even for enlightenment."
When the Dragon came calling the next morning, he found that Koshin had already risen and bathed. The samurai was quietly waiting in his small room, his eyes closed and his mind feigning peace and contentment. As the monk slid the door shut softly, Koshin smiled, opening one grey eye to look at his friend, "Good morning."
Nikkan bowed with a smile, "Good morning to you as well. You should be dressed more properly, Koshin. You have an important meeting today." With that, the monk tossed down a rolled kimono and fresh sandals. Koshin eyed the items for a moment, then stripped to his hakama and began dawning the clean new garments.
After all, the Mirumoto was seldom wrong, and Nikkan knew him well enough not to lead Koshin too far astray.
"Why white?" Koshin asked, rubbing the slender sleeve of his new kimono, noticing that it bore the images of waves, almost like a temper line. "This will stain too easily."
The Dragon nodded, "It symbolizes your death, I suppose. The death of your old life, at least until you are willing to face it. People have been mourning it for a long time; you should do the same."
Slipping on the long, hanging vest over the kimono, Koshin smirked. The vest was a pale blue color, and not too much different from the one that he had liked years ago. "And the vest, Nikkan? What does this symbolize?"
"The fact," he said evenly, "that you will always be a Crane."
Koshin said nothing more, finishing his dressing in silence. Once he was done, the two walked out into the gardens of the small palace, the ronin's hair for once bound up into a high topknot, though his pate had not been shaved, and so a few rebellious strands hung free.
As they neared there destination, a delegation of Crane dressed in the finest robes, Koshin moved a little closer to his friend, his voice little more than a whisper so near to the waiting guests and dignitaries.
"If you do not believe in this quest, Nikkan, then why are you helping me?"
The monk smiled, "Because you believe in it, my friend.
That is all that matters."
A Second Chance