Chapter Thirty: Honor's Price
"Lords who are loved can fail, and…a lord who
disappoints his people, will earn nothing but hatred."
- from Tangen's "Lies"
It was past midnight when the messenger came for Kenshuko; he was not a man that she recognized, but the seal that he carried could not be denied. "Master Toshiki wishes a private meeting with you," the Daidoji muttered in the dark, "It is a matter of honor."
And so the samurai-ko dressed quickly, wrapping herself in a thick kimono against the chill of the night. In silence, the two made their way along empty roads into a small heimen dwelling along the side of the road. Kenshuko shot the courier a dark glance, her hand drifting closer to her Kakita sword.
"Master Toshiki is inside," the Daidoji said, seeing her doubt. "I will bring him."
The bushi did not return from the house, but inside a light sprang up brightly, and a slender silhouette appeared. Toshiki's voice was calm and composed, despite the bitter spring cold. "I apologize for this meeting, Kenshuko-san, but it is most troubling news."
The samurai-ko bowed, entering the small hut to sit with sword on one side, "Is there something wrong, Toshiki-sama?" The artisan's face was more heavily lined that normal, and there was a nervous worry that crept over his face.
"I wish to speak to you about your father," the Kakita began, smoothing his hair with one hand as he drew out several folded pieces of paper, "and the man you call 'Futai.'"
Koshin was deep in the Void when he sensed it; it was a more pronounced sensation that he had known before. Like a second light, gently applied, another spirit crept close to his own; a soul without malice, yet filled with the breath of challenge.
"Have you eaten rice today, houbai-san?"
As his senses reentered the waking world, the samurai became aware that the person behind him had stopped cold. "I am not impressed easily," a woman's voice said, her accent deeply muddled, "but few people could have detected my approach with such ease."
Rising smoothly, the bushi turned to face his visitor, his tall form barely matching the high grasses of the vast Unicorn plains.
The girl was unlike anyone Koshin had met before; her eyes were large and rounded, a brilliant emerald green. Unlike most women, the Unicorn wore her hair clipped short, and she stood as tall as the swordsman himself. She was quite beautiful, despite the oddity of her appearance.
"I am Tesukiko of the Moto," she said, making some motion towards a bow.
"Koshin," he replied, giving her muscled forearms a glance. "So, you are the master of the knife style."
Tesukiko smiled, those large eyes focusing directly on Koshin's own eyes, "You know me? I doubt that was a guess, ronin, given your reputation."
"It was not," Koshin answered, extending one finger towards the Moto girl's belt. "But I have never seen a weapon like that," he said, pointing to the massive, curved knife tucked into her obi, "and I make it a point to know such things. Besides, no one gains muscles like those on your arms, except with long hours of training with a heavy blade"
"Abaya-sama said that you were an interesting man," Tesukiko responded, her eyes still locked in combat with his own. "I see that you have wisdom; do you have strength, Koshin?"
The bushi remained where he had risen, his hands calmly hanging at his sides. "I have enough."
Drawing out the blade without facing it, Tesukiko held the heavy, curved dagger so that it shined like the sun. "This weapon is forged of sacred steel; a gift to my family from a lord in another land. It's style is superior to your Rokugani fighting," she said calmly, without the arrogance of a boast, "no man has yet to defeat me."
Koshin did not draw. "My swords speak of their own worth."
"Strange," Tesukiko answered with a smirk, lowering the blade in one hand and sliding her right foot forward, "They have been so quiet so far."
The bushi nodded, not turning his eyes as he took a side stance, neither sword drawn. Both fighters remained silent for a moment, the wind toying with the loose strands of their hair. Koshin smiled slightly as his muscles tensed, feeling the chi in the air.
Tesukiko's scream of attack was piercing, deafening her opponent as she turned the distance to nothing. Koshin withdrew, but the thrust of her attack paralleled his motion, and she matched him, speed and power, until he was forced to draw. Ukigumo rang loudly against the flat of the Sultan's blade.
"Even your speed cannot compensate," the Moto said calmly, continuing her thrusts. "Your weapon is long, overly extended…it cannot match this blade."
Koshin fell backwards, his second blade flicking out, knocking her weapon away. He modified his defense, stepping out to one side, then the other, but Tesukiko modified her attacks as well, hard thrusts giving way to weak, allowing long secondary slashes from the weighted blade.
The seventh strike came, but this time, Ukigumo met dhul fiqar steel, sliding along its edge as Koshin's body advanced and turned. His second sword rose sharply at the end, but the Moto moved even faster, swinging her blade hard and striking the samurai with the butt of the weapon.
Koshin stumbled, and was on the defense again.
Tesukiko was too fast; she could match him in speed and power, and her weapon seemed to supply the needed advantage to win. Again and again, the bushi was forced backwards into the high grass, and again and again he forced his way back into the fray.
"You're persistent," the Unicorn said sharply, attacking high and wide. Koshin parried without answer, his katana sliding forward, thrusting along the very cut of her blade.
It was a move Tesukiko had not expected.
"Damn it, that stings! Damn all Kakita steel to Jigoku!"
"Your mistake was locking blades so often," Koshin said, idly dabbing the slender nick along the girl's neck with a wet cloth as he ignored her dishonorable outburst. "You supplied me with the needed guide to attack. This may leave a scar."
Tesukiko laughed, "I'm no flower, Koshin; one scar doesn't mean much to me. You won't trick me again." She was upset with the defeat; that much was obvious…and yet the woman submitted to the ronin as he cleaned the slender wound. "I will not forget that move."
"I am sure that I will not be so fortunate next time," he said simply.
"I admire men of strength," the Unicorn girl said, her voice taking on a husky quality that nearly made Koshin jump in surprise. Her hand crept slowly along Koshin's arm, stopping to brush lightly the rough edges of his face. "Abaya-sama did warn me about you…I should have listened to him."
For a moment, Koshin was frozen, his grey eyes upon her green. Those eyes, which had seen such horror, stared deeply into Tesukiko, who was likewise frozen, form and soul. Then, a single icy pinprick bit the Moto's hand, and she recoiled, seeing the ronin's tears clearly before he turned away. "Forgive me, Tesukiko-san," he said, his voice hoarse. "I cannot…"
She set him aflame with dead passions; feelings Koshin had thought dead long ago...
The Unicorn rose, reaching out and brushing against the bushi's hand, "Abaya told me of Lady Masanko; of your oath you told." She gripped his hand, tighter now. "I understand your pain; I have known it myself."
His heart ached even as body yearned, "Then you know that I cannot do this. My heart is not free."
Slowly, as if he dragged the world behind him, Koshin started to walk away. Tesukiko followed him for several minutes, upon which they drew upon the edge of the patrolled fields. She moved to stand before the ronin, a look of darkness veiling those shining eyes, "There is no place in this world for a man bound to the dead, Koshin. Your woman is dead; leave her be and live."
"If you truly understood me," he said, equally darkly as pain gave way to hate, "then you would know I never abandon those I love."
"There is a difference between what you say and what you do." Tesukiko pulled the collar of her rough kimono closer to her neck, "If you do not want me, that does not bother me…but someone who's spirit lies trapped in the past has no chance of ever becoming a master."
The ronin shook his head, "I have her love, and my honor. That is life enough in any world." With that, Koshin stepped past the Moto warrior, striding calmly, painfully back into the world of the fight.
"What will you do, Kenshuko-san?" Toshiki's eyes watched the samurai-ko tensely, staring at her back from the moment she had turned away.
Her voice was pained, "He…he is my father…"
The artisan nodded, his powerful voice drawing the bushi's red-rimmed eyes, "He is, or was, once. Your father has returned, but in doing so upon his own terms, he has forsaken everything that your family holds dear. Kakita Koshin has placed his own honor above loyalty and service to his clan…you know that to be true."
Kenshuko bowed her head, "Toshiki-sama, I beg you to advise me…"
"Of course," the artisan said, his voice weighed with emotion. "Of course."
When Kenshuko left the hovel a few minutes later, her eyes were burned with tears, but no sadness covered those delicate features. She rode back to her family's temple with clearest purpose, the blade at her side ready to serve.
Toshiki watched the samurai-ko vanish into the darkness, a smile creeping over his face. A moment later, the artisan was gone, a faceless shadow standing in his place.
"There is weakness in everything you are."
Two days later, Kakita Kenshuko departed the lands of the Crane Clan to search for her father, her eyes as cold as death. Though both Lady Kaori and her brother wrote letters to dissuade her, the missives never found Taehime’s daughter, their messengers dead and gone.
Thus began the second revenge.
"I owe you a great deal for your hospitality," the ronin said with a small bow. Abaya nodded slightly, his clean young face more than a little confused.
"You are free to go as you wish," the magistrate said, "but you have not yet collected your prize."
Koshin turned his head, "I have spoken with Tesukiko-dono in private; I have been given my lesson and my match. She wishes to have a free path; I am sure that my withdrawal will serve her better than any technique that I might display in a second match."
Abaya again seemed confused. "She will be embarrassed. Her honor stands at stake."
"She approached Lord Banriki late last evening in order to change the
circumstances of the challenge." Abaya stared at the ronin for a moment,
obviously surprised that he had not already known, "To change from an
exhibition to a matter of honor…and to turn the challenge from one strike to
The Rules Change…