Chapter Sixteen: Yojimbo
"In serving others, we become truly
Kakita Kenshuko was a young bushi, somewhere past her twentieth year, though her pale Crane face made her look much younger. Koshin guessed from her stiff, school stance that she had never seen any real combat, but from the way that she wore her katana, it was clear that she knew well its general uses, particularly in the school of iaijutsu. Not that such a revelation was difficult to make, given her schooling and clan.
With her hair pulled back in a loose braid, the young woman was very pretty, but Koshin kept his head low before the samurai-ko, as Nikkan walked up to her and bowed quite low.
"I heard that you had returned for a visit, sensei," her voice was strong and bright, speaking to the old monk as if she had known him all her life. "The Crane are glad to have you back in our homes."
Nikkan smiled, sending a ripple of wrinkles across his face. "Child, you grow more beautiful each time we meet. It is good to be back here, though I miss my wife dearly, and the Emperor's roads are rough these days on my old bones."
Kenshuko nodded, finally noticing where the ronin waited, "Who is this, sensei?"
"Lord Kurohito has told me that you are to travel south, to the lands of the Yasuki? It is a dangerous mission, to stand against the likes of the Hida and Hiruma warriors..." Nikkan was watching her, Koshin saw, gauging expression and mannerism even as he spoke. For all his openness, the Dragon was a shrewd magistrate, and seldom missed anything.
The samurai-ko nodded, "If the Crab do not submit to the Imperial Laws, then it is our duty to claim the Yasuki lands as our lord wishes."
Hence the armies, Koshin thought with a sad face.
Nikkan just nodded without expression or move, though Koshin could imagine that he too knew that would only lead to a long, pointless war, exhausting the very resources that both clans wished to claim. "Then you will need a yojimbo, Kenshuko-san! And not a mere yojimbo, but a man of great skill and some cunning."
Her voice was reluctant. "Sensei, I am a bushi. I have no need of a yojimbo "
Waving his hand, Nikkan's face grew a tight grin, "Your aunt would never forgive me if I did not see to your protection myself, Kenshuko. Humor an old man, and allow my gift to protect you. Ease my thoughts, if you will. Besides, you are a magistrate now, Kenshuko-san it would be improper to be without a good doshin."
"Hai, sensei. What is his name?" Kenshuko asked, looking again down at the downcast face of a faintly smirking Koshin.
For a second, nothing more, Nikkan hesitated. Then the Dragon smiled sharply, "Call him Futai, for determination is all that drives him. He is something of a simple man, but I think you will see that it is this that makes him so skilled."
Kenshuko nodded slowly, knowing the name to be an obvious alias, but not wanting to push her old tutor. "Come, Futai-san. It is nearly time to go."
The words came sowly, like speaking through water. Koshin heard his voice, but it was almost a dream, "I will gather my things, Kenshuko-sama. Give me a moment."
Nikkan smiled as Koshin left, then said his goodbye to Kenshuko, "Let me speak with Futai a moment before he returns, student he is an odd man, and is likely a bit flustered by the duties before him. Competent, even highly skilled, but still flustered."
"I am not flustered," Koshin sneered as he gathered his few belongings, along with a set of blade-cleaning items from the palace swordsmith. "I am upset!"
Nikkan just tagged along, his robes almost dragging on the ground as he moved. "O? I thought that you would be pleased. You are again serving you clan. Surely an honorable cause will bring you closer to enlightenment than damaging ruffians on the street." He stepped backwards with a smile as Koshin thrust the old kasa back into his hands, immediately placing the item back on his bald head.
"Being a doshin is not what I had in mind, Nikkan. Laws and strictures what does that have with swordsmanship? Following common criminals is for bounty hunters, and writing script is not my strength!"
The Dragon smiled innocently at his friend. "And I suppose that you do not approve of my choice of master, either."
"Do you remember everything that I told you about the younger bushi, Nikkan? That girl has most of it, all in her eyes. She's too thin to have much real stamina or muscle, and I can't imagine that she has seen anything of combat beyond the dojo floor. I have better things to do than to baby-sit a child."
Again, Nikkan nodded, though this time his face was sour. "Kenshuko is a wonderful child, despite her inexperience maybe because of it. I am very fond of her, Koshin you might become fond of her also, if you would give the girl a chance. Besides, she is a magistrate assigned to an area about to fall into war; hardly the place for a lone girl that has never experienced 'true combat.' You'll surely get a chance to test the blades of the Crab, unless the Miya can find some common ground soon."
Feeling his face burning with embarrassment, Koshin just bowed slightly. "I'll do it, Nikkan but not for the Crab swords. For the girl's sake."
"Why?" he asked, a curious smirk on his face.
Koshin smiled sourly, throwing his small pack over his shoulder as he turned towards the palace gates. "Because you believe in her, my friend. That is all that matters."
"I can't believe I fell for that," he muttered as he walked into the light. "A Crane, fooled by the words of a Dragon " The ronin tried to ignore Nikkan's gentle laughter, but somehow his friend's plan still tensed his shoulders quite a bit.
The monk smiled as the ronin met the Crane in the street, bowing low to her and then vanishing quickly into the street. Indeed, even Nikkan found the idea of Koshin watching over the sensei's old student a strange one.
Fitting, but strange nonetheless.
"I hope that my sensei explained to you that this will be more than a doshin, Futai-san. He sometimes neglects to mention things," Kenshuko's voice was clear and easy to catch even amidst the chaos of the street, as the samurai-ko mounted her pony. "How are you with those blades?"
From his place beside the horse, Koshin just looked back at the girl, testing her gaze with his dull, grey eyes. After a moment, the Crane turned both horse and head away from the ronin, starting down the street at a calm pace.
"It will take more than a harsh gaze to turn away the Crab, Crane-sama. I hope that you understand that." Koshin had to hurry to keep his pace with the horse; his scuffed sandals moved gracefully over the busy street, dodging past other travelers in a constant attempt to keep gait with the thin girl. By the time they left the city, Koshin was hot and sour-tempered, not to mention glad to leave the crowds behind them.
After a few moments, the samurai-ko turned to look at her yojimbo. "Have you ever been to war, Futai?"
"Hai," Koshin responded idly, more interested in the cool sea air than his new duty.
"I have heard that wave men fight for any cause, so long as the pay is good. Would you fight for the Crab, if they paid you more?" There was something behind the words, some snare that Koshin barely noticed, as he walked along. The ronin smiled, wishing that he still had a battered old hat to keep the sun away.
After a moment, he answered her, keeping his voice low enough to seem submissive. "I am not fighting for money, Kenshuko-sama. My blades have higher aspirations. Besides, ronin are still samurai; my oath is to serve the Crane."
She just nodded, no doubt wondering how he could keep such a pace with the horse without breathing hard. After another brief silence, the girl smiled, an eager feeling that could hardly be concealed, "Strangely enough, I envy you, ronin."
"Why is that, lady?"
Her eyes were vast and distant, the samurai spoke, the voice little more than a whisper. "You have experienced your true self. Master Nikkan once told me, 'In the duel, you see yourself as you truly are.' It is something I hope to experience myself."
Koshin nodded, wishing that he still had his hair free to hide the smile on his face. Leave it to Nikkan to snatc the only bit of enlightenment the swordsman had ever known.
"I suppose that it is a stupid thing to wish for," Kenshuko laughed, "especially in the company of one that has experienced war. Real war is a horrible thing, I'm sure, but for a samurai one that has never tested herself "
But the ronin just nodded, "We are not so different, Kenshuko-sama. We would both rather live one moment of fullness than a hundred years of empty life. That is the way of the Crane." The words were so familiar to him; Koshin did not know whether to pity the Kakita or to tell her to enjoy the journey that she was about to begin.
"You understand our ways well," the samurai-ko remarked from her steed. Koshin could see a thought cross her mind for the first time; one that knew that this 'ronin' had once been a man of her own clan. "How long have you been without a lord, Futai?"
Koshin smiled, "Thirty years."
Kenshuko shook her head. "A long time. Our lifetime."
The ronin nodded at the truth in her words. "I do not live with regrets."
Rising before them, the vast, open estates of the Yasuki family seemed peaceful at first. Koshin could see from the hill; the open plains, the distant towers of Black Crane Palace. The roads were empty, the gates to the merchant family's home sealed. Everything was silent to the south, and Koshin could already sense the impending sense of death.
Kenshuko looked over the empty land for a moment, taking in the ground for a moment. Koshin had no doubt that the samurai-ko had strict orders on what to do next: every Crane "magistrate" coming to Yasuki lands would no doubt do the same.
These samurai were not here merely to see to the Imperial Laws; they had come to enforce an edict. By the blade, if necessary.
"Futai-san?" Kenshuko's voice was harsh this morning; it mingled with the morning mist and bit at Koshin's nervous soul.
In the last few days Koshin had learned what it took to serve under Kakita Kenshuko, and kept his voice silent, knowing that the order would come without prompting. After a moment, his patience proved true, as the samurai-ko touched her ancient blade with a worried gaze on her face.
Somewhere in the distance, beyond the mists and the walls of the Yasuki Palace, Koshin could hear the drums of the Crab booming with the dawn of the sun, beckoning for the Crane to test their courage on the fields of war.
Fields that would burn and be sown with blood, destroyed by
the very people that hoped to claim them for their own. Koshin
figured that Nikkan would have found the whole thing slightly
amusing, but the ronin did not see the joke
The War Begins.