Chapter Twenty-Three: A Wasp's Sting
"Deadly ground is where only the quick survive. When on
deadly ground, fight."
- Sun Tao
The teashop was like a thousand other; set along side a bridge, it was a lonely little house, open to travelers as they passed along their way. In front, it had two benches, shaded and clean. Inside, there were three tables, each clean and well tended. The owner's two daughters bustled about with cleaning and tea pouring, while in the back their parents cooked rice and other fast meals for those that could pay.
Koshin groaned as he sat down; the wounds of a Kaiu sword were not like other blades. Beneath his new kimono of deep green, the wounds still ached and bled.
"Samurai-sama?" the girl was nicely dressed, leaning over to check on Koshin. He straightened immediately, smiling at her as he rubbed his fingertips together to remove the blood from his hand.
"Just some barley tea…and a warabi sweet cake," he said, maintaining his little grin. The girl bowed slightly to him, then vanished into the kitchen, her long braid bobbing as she moved. Once she was gone, Koshin leaned slowly back and lied down on the empty bench.
It had been over a week, and already Makuto was close. Koshin wasn't quite sure what his plans were…he just knew better than to fight them now.
He wasn't afraid of fighting and dying…after all, what samurai would he be if he were? Even so, Koshin had never been the type of man to allow himself to be taken out by one overzealous bushi, just because his pride had talked him in to fighting with a wounded shoulder and an opened side.
"Damn Kaiu blades," he muttered idly, shifting to his side to avoid the afternoon sun.
The girl's voice responded, "Sir?"
Snapping up despite the pain, Koshin opened his eyes just in time to avoid slamming his face into his own cup of tea. The girl fumbled, but the bushi's hands snapped out, catching the drink with ease. "Sorry about that, miss," he said with a weak smile.
Once she was gone, Koshin ran his hand through his hair with a groan. After the battle, his ability to sense chi had been so heightened…some after effect of Satsukiru's strength, or maybe even a new level of ability. Now, however, he had let a little girl sneak up on him…and with assassins somewhere down the road, nonetheless.
"Idiot," he chided himself as he sipped his tea.
The scrape of a sandal interrupted the ronin's self-deprecation. Koshin turned his head slightly, making certain to keep it out of the light of the sun. The man was dressed in a kimono and green vest, and he wore a basket hat to shield his face from the light. The man hesitated for a moment, then took a seat on the next bench with a thump.
His voice was not young, not old, but like Koshin himself; timeless, like the heavens and the Void, "You are the ronin who is known as Ni-ken no Tsuru, am I right?" The man wore no weapon or armor, yet his confidence was one of a man who was fearless even without steel.
"Some call me that," Koshin said with a smile. "And you must be the first assassin."
There was a smile underneath that woven hat; it was pressed onto the words as they came. "I am Tsuruchi Nitachi, student of Master Inokichi of the Tsuruchi Ryu." The Wasp made no motion, and kept his hands pressed firmly onto his folded knees. It was hardly the appearance of a man who was ready to fight or to die.
Koshin let his hand drift slightly from his sword. "What do you want from me, Tsuruchi-san? It's obvious that you haven't chosen this place for your employer's revenge."
Nitachi stood slowly, his thin form turning neatly as he did, "Traitor's Grove, one hour down this road. Consider it a matter of honor." With that, the Wasp strode calmly into the northern hills, leaving a confused ronin staring after his disappearing form.
They are baiting you, one of the spirits in his mind said.
Makuto would want his head; this trap was meant to wound and weaken the swordsman; even Koshin knew that. With their arrows and maybe even poison, the hunters would have him at their mercy, especially in the snarl of dishonored relics that hung in the Scorpion grove.
"Thank you, little one," the swordsman said, finishing his tea. After paying his bill, the samurai started north along the road.
The life of a bushi was not weigh in years and hours, like other men; it was counted in the blood of the men who sought to end it. Koshin knew better than to think that he could avoid fate so simply. He could only meet it, without fear, and bend its hand. And where it would not bend…he would break it.
"I am glad to see that you had the courage to come, Koshin-san," the Wasp commented idly from his place against the tree. With summer late, the trees were parched and groaned, and from the recesses of the grove came a tinkling sound, the echo of a hundred damned souls.
The Wasp remained hidden beneath his basket hat, and Koshin simply stared into the slotted eyes. His eyes moved left, then right, silently searching the uneasy darkness.
Nitachi laughed at his intentions, his voice still calm and cold. "My comrades do not know I am here." The hat fell to the ground, revealing the tall, thin face, its edges ringed with closely cropped hair. His eyes were fiery, "I am here under my own judgment."
Koshin nodded wordlessly, removing his sheathed blade from his obi, wrapped its cord tightly around his right hand. This man radiated death; Koshin could feel that now.
The Wasp removed his slung yumi, calmly notching an arrow against the dark wood. Shadows hung over the grove, their darkness seeming to seep into his words, "No matter what our master believes, I know a dangerous man when I see him. You are such a man, and I will not waste my friends' blood on taking you alive."
"And what of Makuto?" Koshin asked, keeping his weapon calmly at his side. The Tsuruchi style is one favoring open areas; how could he apply it to a dense area like the Traitor's Grove? "What will he think of your choice?"
Nitachi's face wrinkled into a frown. "I had no choice. That will have to be enough for him to hear."
Koshin attacked. The sword sang from its sheath, cutting the silence of the trees. Nitachi reacted slowly, almost surprised by the move. The sword rang hard against the Tsuruchi's bow, and Koshin staggered backwards as sparks leapt from the strike.
An iron-shod bow…how can he use such a weapon? Nitachi advanced on Koshin's heels, driving him backwards as a new arrow appeared in his second hand. The swordsman reversed his motion, staggering the Wasp, hoping to spoil his deadly aim.
The hunter's thin legs tensed, locking the motion, and too late the ronin saw the truth of the "arrow;" a small uchi-ne the bushi thrust through his right shoulder just above the bone. Koshin cried out as Tsuruchi drove him up and backwards, slamming the swordsman into one of the trees, his javelin driven through flesh and pinning his enemy to the wooden tower that seemed to keen in pain.
Nitachi leapt backwards with a laugh, tossing away his cracked bow. "You thought that I was a real Tsuruchi, didn't one?" Koshin stared at the man as he drew out a wakizashi with a laugh. "I was trained by Master Disaru in the Daidoji Ryu. I have studied your moves, Crane."
Slowly and calmly, as a man might remove a garden weed, Koshin plucked the uchi-ne from his body. Nitachi reached back and withdrew a kodachi from his obi, taking a low, extended stance. The ronin palmed the small head of the bloodied weapon, a small smile creeping over his face.
"To be accepted into the Daidoji School, you must be quite skilled with that sword."
The Wasp nodded, "Soon you will see."
Koshin smiled again.
The hunter stepped back a half motion, an uncertainty appearing where there had been none before. "What are you doing, ronin?" Shifting his form again, the Wasp took a high, defensive position, his free hand tensed and extended. "Your tricks are at an end."
The samurai nodded slightly, turning himself to extend his right side. He said nothing, merely whirling the uchi-ne to drive his blackened blood from the blade, coating the thick grass of the grove with the midnight liquid.
Nitachi lunged, thrusting his sword with both hands. Koshin receded, turning his shoulder and throwing the uchi-ne in a motion that was lazy, almost careless. The javelin flew, but the Tsuruchi sprang into the air, leaving the weapon to lodge with a dull thud into the nearest tree.
Like an acrobat, Nitachi twisted, aiming his sword down to where his enemy would be.
It was then that Koshin sprung, like a startled cat, straight into the air. The cut echoed through the stillness, echoing strangely through the remnants of the fallen. Masks and shattered blades tinkled in the sudden wind, shaking the dying leaves of the late summer to the shaded ground.
"The Kakita s-style…t-the Rising Wheel C-cut…" Nitachi's body shivered where he has landed, his blood trickling down both arms and flowing onto his bare blade. "A t-true m-master…"
Koshin turned, his kimono torn open by the Tsuruchi cut. A half a breath, and he would have died. It had been luck…nothing more. The samurai bowed his head for a moment, giving some small honor to the fallen and then he was gone.
Inokichi crouched low, his callused hand running over the sun-baked clay. To the tracker, the ground told a story, as plain and easy as if it were written by an Imperial scribe. Two men had entered the Scorpion grove.
Only one had returned.
Inside the darkened glade, only Makuto walked with impunity, unafraid of the jangling ruins. The Lion knelt beside Nitachi's cloven form, examining the Wasp's corpse without fear or distaste. He turned to face the Tsuruchi slowly, "The Kakita style Wheel Cut. Few men can perform it while leaping."
The old man snorted, "Oramono will attend to Nitachi's pyre. The ronin is moving northeast, into the mountains. We will pursue."
Makuto smiled broadly, wiping his hand clean with a disdainful motion. "I think I like you better now, Inokichi. Finally, we understand one another."
"It was a duel," the old one said quietly, turning away from the Lion in disgust. "Nitachi keeps his honor."
The fallen hero cast his eyes towards the northern mountains. The Wasp had fought well, with skill and conviction…even so, he had not been prepared for the ronin. Makuto should have trusted his instincts, the moment that he and Koshin first met eyes.
"Some mistakes can never be mended," the big man muttered to the
The Search Begins…