Chapter Twenty-Nine: Lessons
"While you rest, your enemy practices."
- Kakita Toshimoko
Without doubt, the great training fields of the Unicorn were unlike anything Koshin had ever seen. Open to the warm spring air, the land was spread wide before him, and bristling with samurai training in the arts of war. As Abaya had said, the Shinjo bushi seemed to be more unskilled at kenjutsu than most samurai; their time was more devoted to the yari and the bow.
"Lord Banriki will not return from the Lion Courts for three more days," Abaya said over his shoulder, ordering for the senior instructors to call the first of the huge kenjutsu classes to order, "I would use that time wisely."
Looking strangely blue in a sea of deep purple kimono and armor, the ronin just responded with an even nod, "I take it that you will not be attending, Abaya-sama."
The magistrate shot a sideways glance. "My time is better spent elsewhere."
After the magistrate was gone, Koshin turned to observe a hundred Unicorn standing ready in stark silence. Each one held a finely worked bokken, and their faces shimmered with sweat. A few of the senior students shot sour gazes at the newcomer, yet no one uttered so much as a word.
"Who is the most senior instructor here?" he asked the assembled crowd. "Who has trained here the longest?"
A man strode forward, his hakama dusty and worn, and his face at that place where judging age becomes difficult. He bowed slightly, barely more than an incline, "I am Utaku Borudo, sensei-dono. I have trained in kenjutsu for ten years here."
The ronin nodded, "Ten years of training…have you experienced open combat, Borudo-san?"
"My position is as assistant instructor…" the Unicorn began.
"Please demonstrate shomen uchi," Koshin interrupted, moving off to one side of the wide field to watch. When he turned, Borudo was still staring at him angrily, obviously upset at being interrupted.
"Shomen uchi," Koshin repeated tensely, trying to impersonate the voice his own sensei Toshimoko used.
It worked. Borudo jumped to stance, holding the bokken ready and high. All eyes watched the senior student, charging his chi as the wind stirred the plum trees. Koshin concentrated, feeling the ebb and flow as he had against Satsukiru and Makuto.
When the Utaku struck, Koshin already knew the result.
It would be a long three days.
Shinjo Banriki was a tall, powerful man, his legs heavily muscled from years of riding and war. As the Unicorn samurai strode through the halls adjacent to the great training fields, his scarred hands massaged his long, slender beard, cautious eyes flitting back and forth even as he listened to his servant's report.
"His methods are unorthodox and slow-paced," Abaya said quietly, walking as always a little behind the Shinjo sensei, "but the results cannot be denied. Of the men that have received his tutoring, few are those who cannot defeat those that have not been taught."
Banriki paused near a window, glancing out to where the Unicorn samurai chanted as one, their wooden blades working in perfect unison. To one side, the ronin sat alone in the dust, calling a single bushi over as he dismissed another.
"He works with them individually," Banriki said with a heavy voice. "How many in a day?"
"Fifteen a day, my lord."
"He is slow," the Shinjo lord said darkly. "The Khan will not be pleased."
Abaya bowed his head. "I apologize for this, my lord. The ronin was my idea; I assumed wrongly, that since he was a superior swordsman, that he would be able to instruct as you desired…"
Banriki met the smaller man's gaze, a smile creeping over his face. "Perhaps you were more correct than either of us realized, Abaya-san. Return Borudo to his post among the regulars…take the ronin to train the senior officers."
"My lord?" Abaya looked confused. "Allow a ronin to teach swordsmanship to our generals? They will protest the insult! To say nothing of the Battle Maidens…" The magistrate knew a great deal of the fiery women and their independent nature; those that served Banriki would balk at being forced to listen to a homeless man.
All those thoughts were driven back, however, the moment Banriki drew himself to full, "To Jigoku with protests and the Battle Maidens. I serve the Khan. The Khan wishes for our forces to be prepared as soon as possible…if they think that they can train themselves better than he can do, only then will I change my mind."
Thus was Koshin taken from the wolf's den, and hurled into the Festering Pit.
From the moment that he arrived, they were set against him.
It was not the Unicorn's fault; pride was a part of the samurai spirit, engrained upon them by a thousand years of tradition and honor. They resented him, resented his challenge to their former teachers, and resented the lessons that he was brought to teach.
The most defiant taught the first lesson. Shinjo Hirakin was a seasoned warrior; in his thirty years he had fought on the Crab's great wall, and served the Empire as a servant to a powerful magistrate. When Koshin stepped forward to demonstrate new defensive stances, Hirakin crept behind the sensei, nodding his head as the demonstration began.
Koshin sensed the attack, but he only tensed himself. The bokken cracked hard against the bushi's shoulder, which yielded with the attack in a gentle roll.
As the ronin met his attacker, the Shinjo bowed, his long dark hair hiding his smile, "I am sorry, Koshin-sensei; I thought that this defense has a weakness against many foes. You were about to bring that up, of course…I am sorry."
The silence was daunting.
Koshin knew that he was being tested right now; he eyes of inquisitive Shinjo and agitated Utaku hung all about him. To oppose with too much force would show brashness; to respond with too little was to show weakness.
"If you plan on attacking an opponent from behind like that," the samurai said darkly, "then I think you'll need to train your cut…for that, I suggest a Scorpion."
If the silence had been deafening a moment earlier, now it was a shrieking storm. Hirakin's face had gone from pink to red instantly, his hand squeezing the bokken tightly. The man's clean face began to bead with agitated sweat, his knowledge and his honor warring against one another.
"Forgive me, sensei," he said with a slight bow at last. "My actions were uncalled for."
Koshin hit him as he bowed. A light rap, just along the forehead, but it was enough to spoil the Shinjo's balance, sending him crashing to the dusty ground. Several of the other Unicorn cried "fuseikoui!" but the bushi just walked to stand before Hirakin's cringing form.
"Lesson one was yours, Hirakin-san," Koshin snapped, feeling the ache growing on his shoulder, "and it is that you must make the first cut against your enemy. The second lesson is mine," the ronin tucked his bokken over one shoulder, his grey eyes burning with insult, "never lower your eyes."
So it was that it was war between them. While over the next two weeks of training, the other bushi came to accept the strange ronin, Hirakin was always probing, searching for that weakness.
For his part, Koshin ignored him; indeed, he had not thought about the attack since the first day. He was pleased; the Unicorn learned well, and Abaya told him that Banriki was most pleased with the results. Many of these Unicorn were magistrates, defenders of the Empire…in was indeed an honor to teach them the sword's way.
The lessons continued for a third week, when most of the samurai were dismissed to their duty. While Abaya arranged for his meeting with the knife warrior, the bushi found himself alone again, and fell to training at the edge of a wide, lazy stream beyond the fields.
Though he supposed it was a brief instant, as far as life was concerned, Koshin was glad to be free of the teaching. The Unicorn were not his students; their mannerisms and stances had been engrained upon them by others, and the ronin could only apply the slightest of changes to what the samurai knew. If he was to have a true student, then it would need to be one unshaped. Someone pure.
He was deep in concentration when the laughter of women woke the samurai from his practice, balanced on one leg as three weary Battle Maidens rode by.
"They think that you are dancing," Abaya said happily as he too came up the road. The three Utaku bowed their heads with still-showing smiles, chatting amongst themselves as they spurred their huge horses back to the training fields.
"I was," Koshin said simply, striding through the tall Iuchi Plain grasses up to where the bushi sat in waiting. "What of this master?"
Abaya smiled, "You are impatient to fight. I had heard that about you. Nitanki Masanko said as much."
The ronin said nothing to that, simply climbing clumsily up to the top of his horse. "How can a man so balanced on his feet be so inept with a steed?" the magistrate asked softly, his voice so low that most would not have heard.
Koshin shot a sour gaze towards his companion, "I leave the horsemanship to the cavalry, Abaya-sama. I have served in the Kakita army, on the Kaiu Wall, and with the Mirumoto armies. Hardly the places for much horsemanship."
Abaya smiled again. "I suppose so."
"So," Koshin asked, "was your lord satisfied with my performance?"
"Not as satisfied as the Maidens were," the Unicorn bushi said jokingly. A sharp stare ended the magistrate's fun, "You can ask him yourself, Koshin-dono…he will be attending your exhibition match a week from now."
"Exhibition?" Koshin repeated, feeling his stomach sink.
The Shinjo nodded, barely hiding his smile, "Of course…it isn't often
we can observe masters."
One More Challenge…