Chapter Twenty-Eight: One Strike
"Wars are won in the will."
Koshin was less the five days from his homeland when he first noticed. It was nothing at first; a few stray riders, passing him on the road. If they rode Unicorn mounts, the samurai did not care at first…the season of war was beginning again, after all too short a winter.
Three hours later, however, when the fourth one passed the bushi, delivering that same searching gaze, Koshin realized that this was no mere coincidence. The riders were sizing his stance and bearing as they passed, snatching up details even as they watched him to leap aside to the edge of the road.
It was a cunning ploy, though what kind of interest four ronin riders would have in him was truly beyond the samurai. Even dressed in his new kimono and hakama, Koshin was sure that he did not seem rich; bandits would do better to seek out easier prey.
Unless they were extremely capable bandits, and if they were, they would already have been conscripted into the armies of a clan.
"The older I get, the more things I seem annoyed with," Koshin muttered idly, adding secrets to the list as he topped the rise small hill.
Waiting in the wide, empty plain that opened into the lands of the Lion waited four mounted warriors, long spears gripped in callused hands. They bore themselves as bushi toward him, starting their mighty steeds slowly, then steadily raising their gait.
Spears lowered, as Koshin rushed the hill's bottom. Waiting there stood a small tree, still barren from the remnants of the failing winter. It was there, under the eves, that he must meet the horsemen.
It was there that he slid, his sandals throwing up dampened ground, a moment before the thundering wave reached the edge of the plain.
That the riders were samurai became apparent immediately; the first rider bent low with tucked lance in the Unicorn style, forcing Koshin to turn or die. As he twisted, the bushi drew, whirling and striking the lance halfway through. As the edge fell, the bushi's free hand snatched it from the air.
As the second rider bore down upon him, the samurai jumped high, dodging the thrust as it tore open the ground. Koshin threw the broken lance fiercely, striking his opponent high. It was a glancing blow, deflected by some hidden armor, but the rider turned his steed sharply, buying the ronin a half second to breathe.
The other riders passed their companion widely, wheeling their mounts and speaking to the wounded man in hushed tones. For his part, Koshin lowered his blade, drawing Ukigumo with his free hand, "I would suggest that you keep riding off. I have no interest in baring your blood."
None of the men spoke, their faces shrouded by the shadows of their swathes. For a moment, the four delayed, and then they were upon him again, this time surrounding on three sides, their heavy spears poised for attack at any moment.
"Consider this a challenge of your skill," one man said, his accent muffled behind heavy cloth.
Koshin leveled his gaze at the speaker, his senses tingling as he felt the charged chi in the air. One rider tensed, another was calm…none of them thought much of seeing him die. "You seem to have a harsh way of challenging skill."
The man nodded, "It is necessary to our lord's cause."
The ronin smiled.
Shinjo Shirema looked up from the ground in stark amazement, the cloth that had hidden his face parted evenly along his long nose. Above him, the ronin stood quietly, one blade resting lazily against the Unicorn's throat, and the other extended just below his cousin's chest. The other two men lay in crumpled heaps, thrown from their horses with suddenness that Shirema could still scarcely believe.
"Have I passed your test, Shinjo?" the ronin tapped Shirema's mon, emblazoned upon the mail that had until a moment ago been hidden with winter robes.
The man swallowed, feeling his skin part just from the moment against the blade. "In part."
Koshin nodded once, removing both swords with another flick of the wrist, "Good." With that, the ronin turned, continuing off to the west, stopping only once to bow and apologize to Mizuchi for striking him with the broken yari. "Perhaps next time I will do better. Farewell."
"Wait! You must wait!" Shirema cried out, rushing after the samurai's receding form with a tight hold upon his daisho. "Hold fast, Koshin the Swordmaster! I am Shinjo Shirema, have sought you out for a challenge of swords!"
At the sound of a bared sword, the ronin froze, his loose hair catching in the cold wind, his back still facing the breathless samurai. Grey eyes slid over Shirema slowly, "You could not defeat me with four men and horses…what do you hope to accomplish?"
Shirema gritted his teeth, his thick jaw working itself heavily, "I will not be embarrassed by you!"
"You aren't really angry," Koshin said, still not turning his head. "What are you doing?"
The Unicorn sheathed his sword, taking a side stance with a ready gaze. "Fight me! Despite my poor showing, I am most skilled at iaijutsu…a fact that you will become acquainted with soon. I have been trained by Lord Banriki himself…face me!"
At last, Koshin turned. "First blood?"
"Death," Shirema said, his face cool and composed. "I must avenge my honor."
The ronin nodded sadly, "These three will be your witnesses, then? I have your word that they will not seek to avenge this." His hand swept wide, revealing the other three Unicorn that had drawn forward to watch.
The bushi did not move his eyes. "They will not interfere. This is a fair duel; I will harbor no hate."
Koshin met the stare evenly. "Begin."
Shirema nodded, and immediately drew.
Koshin's left blade met his halfway, locking the steel against its own saya, while the right blade crossed Shirema's chest. That unnatural speed, as amazing as ever, opened the Unicorn's armor with a lazy grace, and Koshin lowered his left sword immediately, striking his opponent with the handle so hard that the collarbone broke.
"I failed to kill you," he said as Shirema's blade clattered to the ground, watching as the Shinjo stumbled and fell. "There is no winner, and therefore I lose. Farewell."
Again he turned, but this time it was the baring of a wakizashi that caused the bushi to freeze. Turning, Koshin saw that Shirema remained where he had fallen, his second blade bared as he readied himself to die.
"I know when I am defeated," the Unicorn said tensely, preparing himself for the strike, "and I will die for that failure now as is proper. Please, Koshin-dono…as the victor, make the cut."
The last rider came upon them suddenly, his great steed drawing labored breaths from its long drive. As Shirema's eyes fluttered open from his meditation, and his cousin laid his writing instruments before the Unicorn. Koshin watched from his place amidst the shadows as the man dismounted and spoke hurried words to the others, making certain not to interrupt his kinsmen's letters.
Koshin recognized the man from his station, but said nothing. The young face of Shinjo Abaya was pinched into the same scowl as always, and the symbol of the Emerald Magistrates shone brightly on his shoulder. Koshin met the bushi's gaze evenly, wondering at what this told of things to come.
"I am ready," Shirema called out suddenly, waiting for Koshin to take his place at his side. The blade he had taken from Kenshuko's house was a simple one, but its edge was sharp and keen; perfect for the stroke.
Looking up with calm eyes, Shirema paid no notice to the newcomer. "There will be no need for words. My cuts will serve my family."
One cut, long and low along the belly. Abaya did not move, did not watch; his eyes were only for Koshin's sword.
Another cut, this one partly hampered by the shattered collarbone. Shirema remained silent, his breath shocky and labored, and while his cousins gritted their teeth in silence, Abaya watched the blade.
The last cut slid deep and wide, and Shirema lowered his head. The Kakita's sword flashed in the sun, striking the head at a well-trained angle, severing life without dishonor's cry. Shuddering once, the body collapsed, with one of the Unicorn crying out in pain even as Abaya stepped forward.
Kneeling by the body, the Shinjo looked over the head with a small smile. Rising, the magistrate turned to face Shirema's cousins. "Find some eta to give him final honors, as well as a priest if one is near. He has served our lord well."
"All this," Koshin said darkly, "just to test my stroke."
"It was necessary." Abaya nodded evenly, no remorse showing on that youthful face, "Any fool can strike through wood, even well tended yari blend. Only a master can open live flesh so easily, and I needed to be certain that it was your thrust that ended Horii's life. Death means nothing to a samurai; Shirema did only what was required of him."
The ronin nodded, "Am I to be arrested?"
The young man laughed out loud, drawing baleful gazes from the dead man's friends. "I have not chased you on business of the Emerald Champion, ronin. At the moment I serve Lord Shinjo Banriki, master of the fields of Kurayami Mura."
"I have come to buy for your services, on behalf of my clan."
Koshin blinked in amazement, another glance drifting to where Shimera lay. To another ronin, this offer might mean the gift of fealty, a chance to belong to something more than one man. As it was, he just bowed, "Tell your lord that I cannot; that I have a duty all my own."
Abaya moved swiftly, cutting off any chance of Koshin's escape, "I have heard about your quest, Koshin-dono. You seek to test your skills against the finest masters. Have you ever heard of a type of fighting called knife thrusting?"
Koshin nodded, "I have heard that no one in the Empire has mastered it; it is a gaijin skill from the people beyond Sorrow's Path."
The magistrate smiled, "Not entirely true." Abaya mounted up onto his tired horse, calling for his attendant to bring forward another Unicorn steed. "Come and teach my kin the ways of the sword for two weeks, and I will show you a master the likes of which you have never seen."
Standing alone for a moment, Koshin considered the west, and the Shinjo's
silent corpse. Already the chill air was frosting it over, a lingering reminder
that winter was not yet dead. "I will teach them what I can, Abaya…I owe