The Swordmaster
Chapter Seventeen: Chugo

"A samurai is immensely loyal to those in his care. To those he is responsible for, he remains fiercely true."
- From Akodo's Bushido

Gone…nothing but shadows, blackness and dust.

It is all gone now, Makuto told himself as he watched the little fire wither and flicker against the cool night air. As the Ikoma pulled his clothes closer around himself, his eyes drifted over to where Isaido lay sleeping; beside him were the two omoidasu, their eyes red rimmed with tears that neither of the warriors were permitted to cry.

Thus was the line of Akodo Isaido ended.

Since his fateful duel with the ronin months ago, Isaido had lived, but he had not thrived. Sickly and weak, the young man's hands shook, and his voice was often shaken. With his son in such weakness, Lord Yaisho had been quickly unbalanced; one brash word against a visiting Mirumoto, and the lord was dead, unable to be saved from his own arrogance.

Isaido had seen no choice but to retire, lest he allow his own weaknesses to affect his clan. And so, the lands of Isaido were returned to the Lion, his katana returned to the family that he loved. Now, there was only the last pilgrimage, back to the Hall of Ancestors, where his life could begin anew.

And what of his servant? Makuto had not become ronin with the rest; he followed his young master these many days, until now the pair was within a day's ride of the great Hall. Makuto knew that he could not follow his young master into the next life; even a fallen samurai had a duty to his lord, one that would not be dissuaded by pretty words.

Rising from his place by the fire, the Ikoma moved slowly to his lone horse, checking the heavily laden packs on the beast for the hundredth time. So engrossed in his work was he, that the Ikoma did not hear the soft footsteps on the grass, until the young man spoke.

"Still awake, Makuto-san? You should sleep now, and be at peace."

Turning to face Isaido, Makuto found that he could not bear to look upon his master. The boy's face was pale and thin, and his simple monk robes held no place for a katana to rest with honor. Bowing slightly, the Ikoma spoke, letting the fire hide his eyes, "You are the one that should be sleeping, young master. You are still so weak…"

Isaido nodded, "I am ready to awake now, Makuto…the time for weakness and sleep are through."

The Ikoma stared for a second at the former Akodo, his small eyes filled with some great uncertainty. Isaido moved to sit quietly beside the fire, the two bards still silent in the darkness beyond.

"Come and sit with me, Makuto-san, one last time."

Seating himself on the far side of the fire, Makuto laid his family katana in the soft grass, imagining that it might never do such an honored duty ever again.

Isaido was looking at the stars as he spoke, his large eyes seeming much duller than they once were. "And where will you go now, Makuto? Will you join me in this new challenge, or will you return to the life of the samurai?"

"I would follow you, Isaido-sama," Makuto said, his voice trembling as he hid his eyes. "But I cannot. I will have one last duty to perform for my lord, before I can be at peace with myself."

The young man looked deeply into Makuto, his heart heavy for the suffering his own failure had brought. "Now is the time to pass beyond your old ways, Makuto. You have served me as long as you could have, with a true heart. There is nothing more."

But Makuto rose, his hand gripping the sheath of his blade tightly. "There are still things that I can do, must do, before my duty is done."

Isaido's mouth opened to speak, but at that moment the Ikoma's eyes grew hard and fiery, and the young man's voice died as the samurai freed his blade.

Lunging past the fire, the katana slashed into the first of the omoidasu, a thin, gentle girl whose eyes bulged as the sword sliced her through. Moving quickly, Makuto struck to his right, but the second bard was quicker, the sword biting through his right leg as the desperate man leapt away.

As he fell, crying out in pain, the man's hand snatched the air, finding purchase on the bag that hung from Makuto's weary horse. The fabric tore as the big samurai drove his blade through the wounded man's heart, spilling out fine golden koku across the blooded plain. The metal rung against one another like funeral bells, tolling the death to the darkness beyond.

Turning from the twitching bard, Makuto was faced with Isaido, his face filled with grief. The young man held no weapon; he had merely risen, his frail body shaking slightly in the cold. As the blood of the omoidasu mingled with the gleaming gold, the Lion wiped his sword, his face now calm and cold as he approached the young man.

"Why have you done this, Makuto?" There was no fear in Isaido's voice, no worry or thought of whether to flee or die. He was a fine samurai. "Money?"

Makuto shook his head, "The money I took from your father's coffers, Master Isaido-sama. Four hundred koku, to the number. But you have known me all your life, Isaido-sama…and you know that this means nothing to me."

Looking at the dead girl, Isaido's eyes were harsh and unforgiving. "Then why?"

"My two duties, my lord." Makuto looked at the blade, making certain that it was cleansed of every drop of his own family's blood. Whirling the katana smoothly, the Ikoma lunged, his voice nothing more than a whisper as he cut his unmoving master down. "This is the first."

So did Akodo Isaido die…and not as a monk, trapped in a world of riddles and rhymes. He fell as a proud samurai, to a samurai blade. Kneeling to draw closed those dark, wonderful eyes, Makuto could not help but feel pride. He had sent his master home, with honor.

Now, there was only one more service to take, before the honored servant could himself return to the side of his young lord. Isaido's honor had been cleansed…

…Now he would be avenged.


Sitting in the darkness of the small, abandoned temple, the four men were as silent as a graveyard. Each one was thin, but strong, and wore simple green clothes that bore the symbol of the Wasp. Beside each man lay a bow and ready quiver; the group had come to parley, but here they almost expected a war.

One man, his face long and worn with time, raised his head after many moments. "A man," he muttered softly, ending all sound from the others as his fingers reached out to touch his finely carved bow. "Alone."

Another man, younger and wearing a sword at his side, nodded. "As was promised."

One by one, the Wasp emerged from the ruins, their weapons still ready, just to their sides with arrows prepared. Down the ruined cobblestone, a lantern bobbed ever closer, the ghostly image of a man at last emerging from the darkness.

"Ikoma Makuto?"

Regarding the bowmen for a moment, the big samurai nodded, his short, new beard covering much of his tough face. The Lion bowed, but only slightly; these men had been summoned not for pleasantries, but to discuss revenge and war. "I am Makuto."

"We have taken a great risk in coming here," the eldest of the bounty hunters said, his voice showing the distaste that he held for the Lion. "I hope that this will be worth our time, Ikoma."

"Four hundred koku…"

Each man's voice froze, as Makuto threw the heavy bag to the ground. It clanked and clattered against the broken steps, the ringing of gold upon gold, and it made the men lick their lips in hunger, even though not one piece had slipped from the silk wrapping. The eldest looked towards the bearded samurai, whirling his yumi neatly as he spoke.

"You are a foolish man, Makuto-san. What is to stop us, from killing you and taking the gold back to our lord? No one would know to look here; you Lion are too stupid to even know where these peasants come to pray."

But Makuto only frowned. "You are all samurai, Wasp…being bounty hunters changes nothing. Your honor will hold your greed, I know."

"He may be stupid," said one of the younger men, "but he understands our ways."

The eldest nodded his weary-looking head. "I am Tsuruchi Inokichi. Tell us your tale."

Makuto smiled at the older Wasp, walking forward slowly to retrieve his bag. "My lord Isaido is dead; that has made me ronin, and I have his death to avenge. Yet the man responsible for his death is a warrior too skilled for me…alone."

"His name and his location is all that we need," Inokichi replied angrily. "It is of no concern to us why he has become a criminal."

The Ikoma smirked, "I have heard that about you. That I why I called."

"If this is a blood feud, then it can only be finished by a loyal servant of Isaido's house." The younger Wasp was watching Makuto with disdain, yet his voice held tightly; trained, no doubt, from his days as a yojimbo for the Crane.

"I will kill the man named Koshin, who has been recently appointed doshin to a Kakita magistrate. Your duties," Makuto said, eyeing each man to judge his speed and conviction, "are merely to assist me in finding the man, and in bringing him to the ground. Four hundred koku should pay nicely for a few of your arrows and your time, Wasp."

Inokichi hesitated, but only for a moment. War was coming from all sides, and the lord of Kyuden Ashinagabachi would need every piece of gold, and soon. The death of one man, guilty or not, meant little next to the survival of his clan.

What was one man's honor, compared to the life of his clan?

"We will make the journey with you, Makuto-san. When your path of blood ends, only then will my men touch the gold." The bounty hunters moved to gather their meager belongings, ready to begin the long journey to the lands of the Crane.

The Ikoma smiled fiercely, for his revenge had finally begun.

Threads are Drawn…