Chapter Twenty-Four: The Last Road
"Not all things fought for are worth
"Not a very private place for a murder."
Makuto did not move; the samurai had come to the village surrounding Kosaten Shiro looking for a warm meal. Now, as he stood in the road, surrounded by the hustle of the thriving trade, the bushi stood face to face with the object of his quest.
Koshin smiled; he too had come in from the hills for a warm cup of tea. The ronin's kimono was stained and muddy from travel, and his right arm remained tucked deeply inside the man's shirt. Nothing in his stance spoke of weakness, "I must admit, I did not expect you to find me here."
Makuto sneered, keeping his voice as level as possible, "You're a hard man to catch, criminal."
The ronin laughed slightly, his left hand running through his loose hair, "You buy assassins, ambush me after a duel, and I am the criminal? Isaido's death weighs heavily on my heart; do not confuse my compassion with weakness."
The Lion said nothing, glancing around the churning road. Four Daidoji soldiers stood in the road, guarding the entrance to a nobleman's house, and another two Crane riders were stopped just down the street. The Tsuruchi were out asking questions again; if he fought now, he would fight alone.
"So be it," the Lion said, seizing hold of his saya and taking a ready stance.
Koshin did not move; his grey eyes held the katana tightly, never moving as he spoke. "I am tired, Makuto-san tired of this chase. Tired of sparing lives. Nitachi pushed my swordsmanship; you will push my swordsmanship. If you want to die," he muttered darkly, removing his right hand to hold his sheath, "then I have no choice. Kakita Koshin. Kakita Kenjutsu. Mirumoto Ryu."
Makuto snarled; it wold be a one strike duel the Daidoji would not allow another. "So be it. Matsu Ryu, Ikoma Makuto."
In the days since Kakita, the style of iaijutsu had progressed, being elevated even to an art form by the Kakita School. Unlike its predecessor, kenjutsu, iaijutsu did not rely on an aggressive nature: it required a calm and ready soul.
Now, as the two stood, seemingly motionless, each mind was focusing on one cut. The only cut that would matter the cut that would separate life and death.
The Matsu Ryu has no discipline of iaijutsu; Makuto must have trained in it following what he saw from Isaido's duel. Koshin's mind was apart from himself now, watching as the Lion prepared his blade. Will he draw to the left, or the right? He seems more focused on my actions
One attack. Both minds were ready, prepared for death.
"Sure enough, the ronin is in the city," Oramono said as he sipped from his sake. The Wasp's thin lips curled into a smile. "It's unfortunate than Makuto did not feel the need to accompany us into the city."
Beside him, his brother Kentetsu laughed, running a finger along his thick sideburns. "For a man of such bravery and honor, he seems reluctant to enter anyplace where magistrates dwell."
Inokichi ran a head through his thinning hair, silencing his students with an angry eye. The old sensei glanced down the street, his eyes passing simply over peasant and samurai alike, "You are mistaken, Oramono-san. Our employer did come into the city; you should pay more attention to the people who travel the main roads."
"He is here, sensei?" Kentetsu glanced along the street in disbelief, "Then where?"
The old man shrugged, turning back to refill his cup. "Makuto is a samurai; who knows what he hoped to find here. If what you have heard is true, Oramono-san, then we have another problem."
The bowman nodded, "Indeed, sensei. If the ronin should kill Makuto "
" Then we will never learn where our money lays." Finished his brother with a sour laugh.
Rising from his seat, the old Tsuruchi slung his bow under his arm. "Spread out; search the main streets first. Report to me if you find either the ronin or our employer. Do not involve yourself personally; fire off a singing bolt if time is short."
Both men bowed, rushing into the street on separate sides. Inokichi sat back, rubbing his weathered hands along aching temples. There was an irony about attempting to stop a duel the Wasp were being paid handsomely to arrange an irony that was not lost on the old man.
The laughter echoed through the streets beyond the Shiro, sending shivers down more than one spine.
"You may find it hard to understand, ronin," the Lion muttered, his right foot sliding forward ever so slightly, "but I do not hold hatred for you for my master's death. You were warriors, and were engaged in an honorable duel."
Do not let him distract you, Koshin told himself, wanting as the Ikoma readjusted his saya. Focus only on his actions. Focus only on the truth.
Makuto continued talking, his voice cold and strangely calm, "However, I cannot forgive the method in which you won! To force an honorable man to face defeat and not death "
"'Force?'" Koshin stepped forward, causing the Ikoma to backpedal further into the street. "A true warrior does not need to be forced; he risks his life freely and openly, if the sacrifice will achieve enlightenment or spare the lives of those who deserve his aid! If you still cannot understand "
"Shut up!" Makuto shouted, drawing the notice of several passer-byes. "I don't want words!"
The ronin's eyes blazed, "It is not my actions which have dishonored your master. It is your cowardly tricks, your betrayal of both his duel and your honor that is what has destroyed your worth! That is why I have withheld this for so long " The ronin's voice lowered, becoming almost mournful.
Taking hold of his hilt, Makuto attacked straight on, striking overhead, taking advantage of his great speed and size. His blade bit Koshin's rusted sword, chipping away several pieces to reveal the fineness within. Each piece fell into the soft earth, disappearing with the wash of fresh dust as each of the two warriors tested the strength of the other.
"Why do you still resist?" roared Makuto, attacking again amidst citizen's screams. "Have you forgotten how to fight, or are simply out of tricks?"
Koshin leapt backwards, holding his blade off to one side. His voice was calm, ignorant of the opened wounds fresh motion had caused. "Because you cannot atone in death."
"I will not be mocked I will not be so denied!"
The Lion attacked again, this time striking low, close to the ground. Koshin parried, but the Lion's blade rose as an evening star, and the ronin was forced to retreat again. As Makuto advanced, Koshin watched his stances, and realized that he did not use the Matsu style at all.
He's studied the Kakita techniques, Koshin thought with another close blow, this one opening the first layer of skin on his slender throat. He knows the moves in detail! But, without a second sword, the Mirumoto techniques
"That's enough!" The woman's voice was strong and poised, freezing both men with its fury. Makuto turned, his sword still high overhead. The Daidoji stepped forward, flanked by four of her fellow bushi. Each one wore battle armor, and carried their daisho and yari too. "There will be no duel here; the Crane will not allow it."
Koshin bowed to the Daidoji girl, grimacing in pain as he sheathed his blade. His voice lowered, the ronin turned to face Makuto, "One more chance to atone. T-there is a temple, two days towards Otosan Uchi. Come there if you still wish your f-fight."
Glancing back at the Daidoji, Makuto sneered. "And then you will be mine."
But the ronin had turned away already, moving into the crowd that parted around him like morning mist. "Perhaps," his voice said softly. "But I hope that we will not meet again."
Only once both swordsmen had left the open road did the Daidoji wave her men away. Stepping forward gingerly, the bushi knelt in the road, her gloved hand touching two fingers to the drops of blackened blood. The line followed the first man out, beyond the town.
The Daidoji had seen many wounds before; she knew when a man was going to die.
That evening, the Wasp returned to the encampment in his hills. As they approached, the group became aware of a heavy rasping, like the sound of steel and stone.
Stepping into the clearing first, Inokichi was met with Makuto's dead eyes. The Lion held his katana high, testing its arc and edge with the wind. As the two men came and warmed themselves against the darkening wind, he sheathed the family weapon, a snarl again on his face.
"He was there," the bushi said with a sneer.
"I know," Inokichi responded. "Oramono follows him even now."
The Lion nodded, "He is wounded badly. Our arrangement has changed."
The Tsuruchi arched a slender eyebrow, his left hand resting on his yumi. "What do you mean, Makuto-san?" Behind the sensei, his pupil also prepared an arrow, the fire reflecting from his narrowed eyes. "I don't think that I understand."
Smiling with a newfound savagery, the Lion tucked away his blade. "Any more wounds, even a superficial shot, and his death may come too quick. Do not sting him, Tsuruchi only I will decide when he will die." The Ikoma rose from the fireside, removing a fold of scrolls to read.
"You are a dangerous man, Makuto-san," said the old sensei with a cruel gaze.
Somewhere, Koshin was resting, his hands futilely fighting to hold sealed broken wounds. His pain, his suffering; those were the things that brought warmth beyond the fire's light. Makuto would atone for the sins he had committed
But he would do so on his own terms.