Chapter Eighteen: Agehanasu
"Only victory can bring you to the
The heimen's house was small and worn, hardly standing straight after the harsh summer heat and the heavy storms from the sea. Standing on the edge of the tiny farming village, it was just like a thousand other hovels, to one side of a worn, muddy road.
Outside the hut, Hida Yusen leaned heavily on his weary ono, the sharp axe-head catching the light dully. The midday heat hung around the big man, from his thin black beard to his worn, scarred zori. The Crab hated the heat, hated the village that he was magistrate to but most recently, he hated the Crane.
Beside the Crab sat a basket, the source of his present rage. Inside were seven heads, proof that his enemies, the enemies of his clan, were near. Yusen considered the tuft of white hair for a moment, then spat at it again; whatever the shugenja had been doing in Gaijori Mura, she would not accomplish her goal.
Nor would the peasant family who betrayed the Crab do so again.
Yusen hated that; a magistrate knows the people of his village, learns to love them, whether they are nobleman or merely farmers in a squalid little hole in the Empire. Still, the law was the law.
Running a scarred hand through his mangy hair, Yusen rose from his place, shouldering his dark, shining axe and looking down the road to the east. The Crab smirked, licking his thin lips in anticipation, "Still there, still there."
For the last three nights, the magistrate had watched the samurai-ko and her yojimbo. Yusen had heard that the Crane were beginning their expansions; they came with their pretty papers and empty words, and killed any Crab who would not leave their district and return west, to the Yasuki Estates or into the sea. Yusen had already decided to remain; Gaijori Mura was all the Hida now knew.
But they did not come forward.
"Fear," Yusen said to himself, half believing it. His sudden word spooked one of the nearby peasants, but the big samurai just smirked, striking the man lightly across the back, "Worried that the Crane will take your rice, Tetsuo?"
The thin peasant smiled weakly, looking down at the heavy ono as he spoke, "N-not with you here, Yusen-sama. We are not afraid of the Crane." With that, the little man hurried back to the fields, his brow covered with the sweat of the day.
"Too damn hot," Yusen said loudly to himself, sinking down to sit beside the village's only inn. As the innkeeper's daughter poured him sake, the big man's dark eyes remained on the eastern trail.
Today, he would send a message.
The swords made no sound in the air; they merely twisted and spun, each ending at a beginning. Kenshuko sat silently along the side of the road, watching Futai as he trained beyond the copse of trees. The ronin worked his blades for hours each day; where her boredom continued; he was constantly at work, constantly seeking to improve upon his skill.
Truly dedicated, Kenshuko thought, but still a very boring man.
Turning her thoughts to the mission, the Crane rose, walking over to the edge of the trees. Down the road, just beyond her vision, was the small town of Gaijori, nestled between two low, grassy hills. It stood on a byway between the southern armies and the Ysauki Estates; one more step towards victory.
"Wait three days," her lords had counseled. "Give the Crab time to withdraw if he wishes."
Three days later, the magistrate remained. Kenshuko looked forward; it was almost noon. The samurai-ko ran a nervous hand through her long, black hair. She had given the Crab as much time as she could; the girl knew that she should be admiring his fortitude, rather than concerning herself with what was to come. It was all a samurai could ask for, after all, to die for what was right.
Coming softly through the trees, Futai was damp with sweat. As the ronin washed his face with fresh water from the stream, his eyes too drifted down the road. "Kenshuko-sama, someone is coming this way."
Reaching down to her Kakita-forged sword, the samurai-ko met her yojimbo's pale grey eyes. The ronin was tucking his blades into his obi, a strange look of hunger beating just beneath those unnatural, shimmering orbs. Rising to look down the road, she smirked.
"A peasant, Futai-san." Kenshuko still kept her hand on her blade, her voice not betraying her. "There is nothing to fear here."
The other samurai just frowned, neither changing his stance nor lowering his eyes.
When the man finally arrived at the two warriors, he bowed low. Wearing the faded, wrinkled kimono of a farmer, the man's thin face was heavily lined and stained with mud, and on his shoulders he carried a large basket. Setting the pack on the ground, the man stepped away fearfully, his teeth chattering as he spoke.
"Yusen-sama he says "
"Blood," Futai said to Kenshuko, cutting the peasant's stammering off. "I know the scent."
Before the startled man could mouth another word, Kenshuko felt her hand flying down, throwing open the top to the basket-pack. As she did, the stench of dead flesh rushed up to greet her, causing her to gag, filling her mouth with the searing sweetness of bile. Kenshuko stepped away, her shoulders shaking, but never did her eyes leave the basket's insides.
"T-the head of your spy, and t-that of those that served h-her " The peasant was near tears now, watching Kenshuko's scarlet silk katana, as if waiting for the Crane to draw. After a moment of silence, her voice returned to her, and Kenshuko called back her words as well.
"Go home," the Crane told the man. "Tell Hida Yusen that I come for his life at dusk."
Once the man was gone, Kenshuko returned to her seat, gripping her sword and testing her draw. Somewhere beneath her, nearer the road, Futai's voice came to her, "You intend to go alone ?"
"Asahina O-Yuki was no spy," Kenshuko responded, pointing to the basket that her yojimbo was already tending to. "I knew her, long ago. She came to this village, like she had a hundred times, to check the heimen and even the eta for disease and for that, she had to die."
Futai's voice was softer now. "Such is the bitterness of war."
Dusk came, and with it came the chirping of crickets and the buzz of night flies. Yusen considered it ironic that nature cared so little for what was about to come; it turned a blind eye to such things as duty and honor. Now, as he sat upon a stone near the edge of planted rice fields, the Crab wondered where his opponents were; Crane were nothing, if not prompt.
"Hida Yusen?" The girl's voice came from across the watered field, and Yusen strained his eyes to see. The Crane's face was pale and beautiful, almost like a geisha the Hida had known years ago. Dressed in pale blue and white, she seemed too clean for the dirty fields; at her side was a large sword, looking ready for the battle to come.
Rising with a groan, the samurai hefted his ono, preferring it to his family blade for the battle to come. "I am Hida Yusen, Guardian of Gaijori Mura. I expected two opponents," he said, casting a mocking glance over his shoulder toward the shadows beyond.
Kenshuko felt her anger, just beneath her chest, like a Dragon seeking its freedom. "I am Kakita Kenshuko."
"I wondered what kind of assassin the Crane would send," Yusen said with a snarl. "No more spies; no more empty words. If you want this land, you must take it." Starting out into the water, the Hida held his weapon ready, stopping once he had reached the center of the field.
"Asahina O-Yuki was no spy," Kenshuko said as she stepped into the water. "You murdered a woman who would have tended your own wounds before hers. She was a healer, and you killed her."
Yusen shook his head sadly, "If she was so, then I am ashamed still, this ono is named Agehanasu it is its destiny, you see ? And now, with you here with me in the muck and the mud, Crane, there is nothing you can do to dodge its cut."
Holding her sword tightly in its saya, Kenshuko felt the beads of sweat on her face. "You said there would be no more words."
Whipping Agehanasu over his head in a modified high position, the Hida lunged, his feet moving little, holding to the firmness of the sodden earth. As Yusen attacked, Kenshuko felt the violence that lived in his weapon, and in that moment, she knew fear. She felt all the fear and hatred that dark metal now cradled; knew the pain that the Asahina had known the last moment of her life.
The Kakita sword flashed, a flare of light against Hitomi's pale radiance. The blade met the axe, turning its deadly cut, if only a little. Agehanasu tore into Kenshuko's thigh, slicing easily through her pale flesh, causing the samurai-ko to stumble backwards, almost falling in the mud. Yusen raised his axe, now wet with dark essence, his face scarred with shame.
"We Crab so seldom see innocence, Crane. How was I to know?"
Kenshuko nodded, raising her katana in a ready chudan, holding it tightly in both hands, "There is still time to atone."
Whirling the bloody axe, the Hida laughed coarsely, his face a mixture of anger and pain. "There is nothing for me; I serve a greater cause. One cut, one life is always a price that I will pay for the Crab! Nothing will change that!" Kenshuko watched as hatred and honor warred with itself, and she held her hand, knowing that her enemy deserved a chance to make this choice.
Then, with a swiftness that surprised even the Kakita, Yusen decided. Agehanasu whipped through the empty space between them, and again the Crane's sword smashed at it in the air. Black blood splattered across the field, sending ripples through the moonlit pool. The severed hand of Hida Yusen fell on the edge of the rice paddy road, and the dying man stumbled backwards, his chest sliced halfway through.
Why she went to him, Kenshuko could not say. The ugly, dark spirited man seemed softer now, his fading eyes now open more so than before. Looking to one side, the Crab saw his mighty battle axe lying in the dirt, and his face was filled with a smile.
"Will you do t-two duties, for a dying man?"
Kenshuko remained silent, waiting for him to find the words. When Yusen did, his voice was softer, a whisper that she fought to catch, "Take my sword to my cousin, who can be found within the walls of the Yasuki Palace. Tell him that I died in honorable combat a-and "
Behind the two, Futai's soft steps came, but Kensuko ignored them, her blue-grey eyes staring deeply into Yusen, as he looked to where his severed right hand still gripped the bloody Agehanasu, " a-and that w-weapon. Throw it into t-the sea "
"S-set me f-free of it "
Once they had burned the body of Hida Yusen, and spoken with the village headman, Kenshuko lay on a small cot in the magistrate's house, her leg aching from where the axe had bit. The door opened and Futai entered, holding Agehanasu like a poison and the Crab's katana like a sacred text.
"A Kaiu battle sword," the ronin said, showing her the fine craftsmanship of the dead man's blade. "Even given the terrain, I wonder why he chose to use the ono in your duel." It was curious to see how the ronin gripped the weapon; he held it as if it were a delicate flower, not a hardy piece of flesh cutting steel.
Kenshuko rolled away from Futai, looking into the darkness that lurked in the corner of the little room, "He did not choose it, Futai-san it chose him. Throw it away. Take the blade to his family in Yasuki Yashiki; tell them that he died an honorable man."
"Hai, Kenshuko-sama," the ronin said, and then he was gone.
That was the destiny of the Crab; they were not born to
violence and death
it was the constant war, unchanging and
unforgiving, that had shaped and drawn Yusen to the killing
blade. Kenshuko said one whispered prayer, not for the life lost,
but for the life that had never been, could never be, for the
promises of duty and honor.
The Time is Now