Chapter Three: Balance
"You cannot balance the elements while you are without
- The Tao of Shinsei
Sitting in the shade of one of the nearby village trees, the young Akodo's eyes were closed, his short black hair bound up in a samurai topknot. As morning's light grew brighter in the eastern sky, the young man remained motionless, his dark eyes not wavering even as the sunlight seared his eyes.
"Isaido-sama, Iasaido-sama!" The voice was gruff and heavy, perfect matches to the samurai coming charging up the hillside from the village below.
Rising easily with a hand upon his katana, the boy smirked. "I am right here, Makuto-san." As he spoke, the Ikoma leapt in surprise, seeing the young man standing before him, only a few feet away.
"How did you do that?" The yojimbo asked, obviously not pleased at having been so easily surprised by his young ward.
Isaido smiled a still-childlike smile. "It was nothing more than staying still. Meditation and simple patience, Makuto."
The bigger man just nodded; though born an Ikoma, the older samurai was a Matsu in both training and temperament. He had little use for meditation, despite the uses that the child prodigy had found for such skills. "We should go soon; your father will be angry if you do not return to the castle today."
The young Akodo nodded, "They will need me soon." War was on the horizon; Isaiso had known it months ago, and the young man still knew it now.
As the two Lion began their journey back to the Akodo's home, their thoughts drifted. Makuto was thinking of the threatening wars to come; his clan had been offended and weakened many times during the Spirit Wars, and by his standards the time had come for justice to be served.
It was surprising, then, when Isaiso said brightly, "Makuto-san, what do you know of the stories of a ronin near Kaikon Village?"
Blinking, the yojimbo shrugged, making sure to keep riding as he talked, "All that I know is what the magistrate reported, and the rumors, of course. The peasants are mostly dullards, young master…quick to blow such things far from the truth."
"I heard that he defeated the bandit-leader Utomaru in single combat."
Nodding, the Ikoma kept riding, his eyes drifting from one traveler to another as they passed through busy fields. "That I could believe, young master, but the rumors say that he defeated ten men as well. Such a thing…"
"Would be most impressive." Isaiso smiled slightly, knowing that Makuto hated it when the Akodo started discussions of dueling. After all, it seemed to him a prideful manner of fighting; suited for Crane or a Dragon perhaps, but a Lion had a more important kind of war to fight.
"I was going to say, 'is impossible,' young sir."
"I know," Isaiso replied.
"Still," the young man whispered with a smile as they moved further to the northern border, "he must be quite a samurai, to have done such a deed."
Today, it was just too hot.
Koshin sat in the shadow of an abandoned hut, his kasa pulled low and his swords resting over his right shoulder. Sweat beaded over his arms and face, a lingering reminder of the day's work. Despite his body's exhaustion, the swordsman's spirit was edgy and agitated.
Rising with a groan, Koshin drew his swords again, starting to work through his forms for perhaps the hundredth time in the last four hours. As he moved, the former Crane thought back to the last few days. He was stronger now, of course, and surer of himself.
But he was still not ready, for the duel, or the darkness beyond.
The next challenge, his mind howled, seek out the next challenge. It was like something hot inside the samurai, burning him, driving him to take any step, just to sate the urge. It was at that moment, as he struck for the tenth straight time, that the samurai's ears caught the distant sound of a horse's hooves on the packed earth.
The two riders were Lion; one wore the armor, complete with mane despite the heavy heat, and the other, little more than a boy in his fine gold kimono. As they came forward, the wanderer's first thought was to let them pass through without seeing him, but so strong was the desire to fight that instead Koshin returned to his waiting place.
"If they want to test themselves, I am ready."
Now, it was only partly a lie.
When the two finally came within range, Koshin took the opportunity to observe the two more closely. The older man was large and strong, but seemed uncomfortable from his square jaw to his twitching fingers. His hand drifted to touch his katana, but he did not attempt to draw.
The young man had a fair face, and his hand hung to his side, calm but poised. His face was without even a hint of hair, and there was a calm dignity in those eyes.
For a moment, Koshin thought to see them ride along, ignoring him as was proper for men of the Seven Clans. Then, the young man said something about allowing the horses to rest, the heat being as bad as it was. Though the older man grumbled, he two dismounted and tended to their shaggy mounts, and after a moment the young man spoke to Koshin.
"What is your name, ronin?"
"I am called Koshin, Akodo-sama." At least he remembered the manners taught to him; forgetting that he was now a ronin, little better than a peasant, would most likely have been disastrous before the Lion.
Smiling a broad grin, the young man nodded, sipping from the nearby spring. "And have you ever been to Kaikon Village, to the north of this road?" The question was baited with something, to be certain, but Koshin made no attempt to find his words a clever disguise.
"I have indeed, only recently." He watched the slender young samurai quietly, his hands just slightly quivering on the edge of the swords. "I think that perhaps you have heard of me, then."
Turning to the other man, the samurai said, "I thought that it was so, Makuto-san. Now is our chance to test the stories of those 'dullards.'"
Koshin simply stood quiet, his gaze alternating between the bigger man and the slender young boy. Though the one called Makuto seemed more dangerous, it was the young samurai that seemed to Koshin to have the quieter soul. He would be the true warrior.
"I am looking for a challenge," Koshin heard himself say, even before he could stop the words in his throat.
For a moment, the armored man bristled with readiness, and the wanderer hesitated on the edge of grabbing the sakaba. Only the younger man remained silent, his eyes watching quietly the grey depths of Koshin's own eyes.
"What terms, ronin?"
Sitting in the shade of the small hut, Akodo Isaiso was silent, testing the weight and balance of the sakaba sword that the ronin had loaned to him. At length, the young man stood, brandishing the weapon in the Akodo style that the former Crane had come to know well, "It has fine balance."
Koshin only nodded, "It was made for a fine purpose, and holds something of that in its soul, I believe."
Standing up and drying his hands of his hakima, the Lion nodded. Taking a glance over towards Makuto, the young Akodo smiled slightly. "It has been a long time since I have fought against someone of your reputation, bandit-killer."
"In all respect," the ronin said as he raised his sword, "the bandit did not die."
Isaiso nodded slightly as he stepped forward, his young voice suddenly deeper and sterner, as he intoned the formal words. "I am Akodo Isaiso, son of Akodo Yaisho. I accept your challenge."
"I am Koshin, and I am grateful for your honor." Taking hold of his kasa, the Crane let the battered hat float slowly to the ground, taking hold of his weapon in hands still too tense, too unready for the battle to come.
Holding his sword high in both hands, the young master's face was quiet, the rage of the Lion shining brightly beneath his stormy eyes. Stepping forward in a stance that was wider than most, he waited, no doubt hoping that his opponent would give himself away.
His own sword held low behind him in both hands, Koshin stepped forward quickly. There was no strike; this was only a test, to see if the Akodo was truly at peace.
But Isaiso's eyes fluttered, and Koshin attacked.
Parrying high, the Akodo swung hard to the right, his blunted blade whizzing past Koshin as he twisted away from the strike. Isaiso lunged with a ringing shout, the hefty blade descending with a shudder. Stepping aside, the fallen swordmaster swung hard his blade; the attack was nothing more than a feint, a hope to drive the aggressive Lion backwards.
Instead, the sakaba connected with Isaido's head, throwing the Akodo to the ground with a brutal grace. It was only then, as the young master fell like a wounded bird, that Koshin's eyes widened, and that he first saw the truth.
The stance, too wide, if only by a breath…
The hesitation, so easily drawn from behind those smoldering eyes…
Crashing to the earth in a cloak of scattered dust and torn earth, Isaiso cried out once as he struck. Koshin rushed towards him, but the Ikoma threw the ronin back, bending low and cursing as he looked over the long wound already formed onto the young Akodo's temple.
For the next moment, there was only silence.
"He will live," the monk said as he rose from the floor of the simple hut, "but he will need time."
Koshin thanked the holy man, then saw him on his way back to the nearby village where they had found him. Makuto simply grunted, his small, dour eyes still not leaving the sallow face of his still-unconscious ward. It was only when the monk was gone that the Ikoma rose, turning to face the ronin as Koshin returned to the simple room.
"If I were you, ronin," the words was spat like venom from the Lion's tongue, "I would not come again to these lands, or be here when the moon rises. My lord requires my watch, so I must leave you to your cursed fate."
Pale eyes shining, Koshin nodded. The monk had been polite, spoken of the best possibility for the young samurai. Koshin had seen wounds for much of his life, however, and knew that Isaiso might well not last the night, if the Fortunes forsook him now. The damage was severe, and there was little more that could be done for him.
His survival rested on luck alone.
Koshin had overestimated the young man's skills; seen a master where he should have seen merely a gifted student. Though he was still weak and unsteady, Isaiso had not yet been able to stand against even the shadow of the ni-ken no tsuru; he had simply been outdone.
He had been outdone, and Koshin had not known.
Many men would have haled such a victory, but the lonely samurai knew better. To mistake the samurai for a true challenge had been a failing in his judgement, a horrible one that might cost the young bushi his life. There was no honor in such a fight.
"Which road leads quickest to the Scorpion lands?"
Makuto's face was shrouded with anger, "Where the road divides, go the western way."
Retying his kasa with a heavy heart, the ronin tucked his swords away. The Scorpion duelists were masters of deception, of hiding the truth until the moment after the strike. If Koshin had ever a hope of recovering that which he had lost in sight, it was in defeating them. "Tell Isaiso that I am grateful for what he did."
The Ikoma shuddered, and for a second he seemed ready to raise his sword. "What did he do, samurai? Show you how much a young man has left to learn?"
"No," Koshin whispered. "He reminded me of the
price of my pride."
The Scorpion Beckon…